Friday, March 9, 2012

For the Sheer Pleasure of the Text: Criterion's DVD Release of Vanya on 42nd Street

One way of describing Louis Malle's extraordinary Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which Criterion has just released on regular and Blu-ray DVD in a sparkling newly remastered print, is to say that it depicts theater director Andre Gregory's workshop of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But it is neither a documentary nor is it filmed theater. It's not even in the traditional sense of the word a movie. Vanya on 42nd Street is more like an inspired laboratory where a number of actors plus their director delve into the play by peeling away all of its acclaim, its reputation and various interpretations, plus its legendary hold on modern theater, in order to get to the very root of its tragic realism, to reveal what it is that makes this seminal work last. As if he were setting out to rediscover an old forgotten language, Andre Gregory takes his cast through Vanya for the sheer pleasure of the text; to find out just what this text reveals to the actors about the characters they inhabit. "What Chekhov is about fundamentally is the nature of the quality of [the] passing [of] your life, of what it feels like to be here as we travel across the ocean of life," is how Gregory explains the making of Vanya in the DVD's documentary Like Life. If so, he started with the right play where its tone and substance, the very essence of contemplation, illuminates its plot.

The story of its creation is unheard of and fascinating. For over three years beginning in 1989, Gregory, along with Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, Phoebe Brand and George Gaynes, met voluntarily in a series of performance workshops in the abandoned Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City. Since there was never any intention of mounting a production of the play, they felt no need to perform in costume. Instead they wore their street clothes and used modern props while subtly slipping into character, into a time and place that seems far from the stage itself. Given that the actors were also free from the demands of developing a commercial work, they could immerse themselves completely and fearlessly into David Mamet's marvelous American adaptation of Vanya to enter a place of the imagination. And this is where Louis Malle's film comes in.

Louis Malle with the cast of Vanya

By the end of the rehearsal process, Gregory invited friends to come and see the workshop in progress where it could change any day depending on the mood of the actors, the reading of a line, or a gesture that added new meaning to the scene. In 1993, when they finally took up residence in the dilapidated New Amsterdam theater (where the Ziegfeld Follies once thrilled crowds much earlier in the century), Gregory asked Malle if he'd like to film this evolving experiment. Malle agreed by attempting to capture the alchemy achieved when a dramatic work, carrying with it the illusion of time, place and character, can create a new kind of realism. Vanya on 42nd Street takes us to a place beyond genre where viewers (like the performers) can fall under the spell of the material and forget that they are watching modern actors pretending they're living on a Russian estate. The genius of Malle's work here is simply how he shifts us in and out of the period of the play. We become continually aware of the process of how great theater transports us beyond time into the realm of pure experience. Malle and Gregory give us more than a filmed record of Chekhov's great work, Vanya on 42nd Street is instead perfumed in the essence of Chekhov. His play now invokes the ghosts of times and hopes passed. In a collapsing theater, with its glory days long behind it, the spirit of Chekhov becomes recognized as a vital and fundamental link in the continuum of modern American acting and drama.

Vanya on 42nd Street is set on a rural estate when an elderly Professor (George Gaynes) and his beautiful younger second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore), visit Uncle Vanya (Wallace Shawn), the brother of the Professor’s late first wife. Vanya has been thanklessly managing the estate while the Professor enjoys his life in the city. Also visiting is Astrov (Larry Pine), the local doctor, an ecologist who is also an alcoholic. He is the object of the affections of Sonya (Brooke Smith), the Professor’s daughter by his first wife, who has toiled with Vanya to keep the estate going. Crisis erupts when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate with the goal of investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and Yelena. While that is essentially the plot, what lurks underneath it are the unrequited desires of those involved. Yelena arouses the affections of Dr. Astrov who has all but ignored Sonya’s pining for him. Vanya meanwhile comes to confront his own ennui of having spent his life – that is, ruining his life – for the sake of the Professor whose personal success he despises.Vanya is basically about how human weakness undoes our fundamental longings. 

But Malle begins the film before the production begins, as the actors, director and guests arrive for the performance. Although this gives us the illusion of a documentary, as Critics at Large reviewer Steve Vineberg points out in his fine essay included in the DVD booklet, the guests are played by actors portraying who we believe to be real people. Vineberg also cleverly points out that, if we watch the film again, we can see each of the actors already providing hints of the characters they play while we watch them arriving through the city streets to the theater. All of this might suggest a funhouse conceit except that this strategy sets us up for the magical transformation of the actors into their roles. Wallace Shawn may have expressed initial reluctance at playing Uncle Vanya, but he’s ideally cast in the part. His Vanya is trapped by the smallness of his life, his sense of duty that choked off his possibilities in life. Shawn shows us the teeming rage that can be bottled up in such a diminutive figure. Julianne Moore is a ravishing Yelena who seems both aware and self-conscious of the impact she has on the men around her (and the admiring Sonya). Brooke Smith meanwhile painfully uncovers Sonya’s shy demeanor, a self-deprecation that borders on masochism. Larry Pine’s Dr. Astrov is an idealist who is no longer sure he can invest faith in those ideals anymore and medicates his wounds with vodka. The supporting characters of the nanny (Phobe Brand), Vanya’s mother (Lynn Cohen) and the affable Waffles (Jerry Mayer) are also beautifully sketched parts. The casting of Phoebe Brand, in fact, ties the movie to Chekhov’s progeny, the Group Theatre of the Thirties, where his disciple Stanislavski inspired the American Method in what Vineberg calls “the Stanislavskian ideal, accomplished when actors draw on their own experience to furnish the emotional core of their characters.” 

Director Louis Malle
The obvious influence on Vanya on 42nd Street might be Malle’s earlier film, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which Louis Malle created out of a scripted dinner conversation about theatre and philosophy between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. But Malle had also been shifting in and out of film genres for most of his career. Emerging in the Sixties during the French New Wave, Louis Malle often blended documentary realism into gripping dramas such as Lacombe Lucien (1974) about a boy with no moral compass who becomes a Nazi collaborator. He made documentaries as well such as the astonishing series Phantom India (1969) and shifted into American filmmaking while working beautifully with playwright John Guare on the quirky Atlantic City (1981). Malle could be wildly experimental (Zazie dans le Metro) or a jazzy sensualist (Murmur of the Heart) which is perhaps why he’s rarely been a critic’s darling. Malle never had a recognizable technique that linked him from film to film. He allowed technique to be dictated by the material rather than the other way around. This intuitive style of working may well be why he was such an ideal director to work on Vanya

As it turned out, Vanya on 42nd Street was also sadly Louis Malle’s last movie. He was to die of cancer soon after it was released. But like John Huston’s memorable finale of James Joyce’s The Dead (1987), you can feel Malle providing a summing up of life here, taking stock of its costs and what you leave behind. Out of Chekhov, Louis Malle creates in Vanya a spirit of place, one inhabited by characters whose unrequited hopes continue to reverberate, haunting the material, just waiting for another chance to let the play get inside their souls. 

***The DVD includes both the film and the documentary Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street. The booklet includes both Critics at Large contributor Steve Vineberg's essay and a 1994 on-the-set report by film critic Amy Taubin.   

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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