Wednesday, April 1, 2020

False Prophet: Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Cialo), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Rolling Thunder Revue: Showmanship

Joan Baez  and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix.

The Rolling Thunder Revue traveled around the U.S. and Canada in 1975 and 1976 in two long arcs with a brief respite in between. I saw it at the Montreal Forum when I was in my mid-twenties, and it was overwhelming – the musicality and the musical variety, the charisma of the performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the eccentric but undeniable communal spirit. It was different from the other great rock concerts I sat through around the same time (the best were Dylan’s Before the Flood tour with The Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour). It was a nutty collage with a rotating cast; performers would join the principals onstage when the show opened in their neck of the woods and then sometimes they’d extend their stay and travel around with it for a while. (That’s what happened when Joni Mitchell appeared in the concert during the Connecticut piece.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Past and Present Collide in Poetry from the Future: Lorette C. Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine


“I may lie a lot. But never in my lyrics.” – Courtney Love

Imagine receiving a postcard from a friend who claimed to be writing to you from the year 2120, describing their vacation there through a series of artworks to which they were responding with duende. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. The poet Lorca stated, "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm . . . All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." The works of Lorette Luzajic, like those of Lorca himself, are utterly drenched in duende.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Group: Novel into Film

Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook in Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966).

When Sidney Lumet made a movie of Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 1966, it was a major event. The 1963 book, about the intersecting lives of a group of Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 up to the end of the decade, had been a sensational bestseller, partly because of the notorious second chapter, where one of the characters loses her virginity to a married artist. The casting of the eight young women with mostly unknown actresses rather than movie stars was hotly debated; Shirley Knight, twice nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar, was the only one close to being a known quantity. Pauline Kael, two years away from beginning her tenure as The New Yorker’s film critic , wrote a long, fascinating piece about the shooting of the picture for a glossy magazine. (You can read it in her second collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Yet the film never won general approval – or a single Academy Award nomination. It was, perhaps, the wrong time for a movie adaptation of a novel that straddled the line between social commentary and potboiler. The movies that dominated the art houses in 1966 were, aside from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mostly British imports that were less daring – and way less substantial – than they purported to be but that featured the most exciting generation of English actors in movie history. And within a year the old Hollywood had begun to break apart while the new Hollywood was taking over. Next to a picture like Bonnie and Clyde, The Group felt old-fashioned, already a relic from the late big-studio era, and it was quickly forgotten. So was McCarthy herself, not long after. A witty, literate writer who had broken through with the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in 1941 and the novel The Company She Keeps in 1942, who published one of the most devastating of all childhood memoirs, the Dickensian 1972 Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and who was as celebrated for her literary friendships and feuds (generally tinged with politics: though initially a member of the Partisan Review circle, she was, outspokenly, both liberal and anti-Communist), she was a culture hero for young women breaking away from conventional gender roles in the post-war era. But she didn’t class herself as a feminist, and the first wave of official feminists, in the early and mid-seventies, didn’t identify with her.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson in Marguerite and Armand. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
 
Given that dance seasons usually are organized at least a year in advance, the National Ballet of Canada couldn’t have anticipated the uncanny timeliness of a mixed program highlighting the body’s fragility, ephemerality and resilience – themes now resonating with a public spooked by the global spread of the new coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has recently declared a pandemic. A sure case of art imitating life.
None of the three works the company presented two weeks ago at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts simulated a contagion – nothing as obvious or as graphic as that. Featuring the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, a remount of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and the Canadian debut of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, the two-hours-plus evening more explored momentum and transience – metaphors, if you will, for the human condition in the throes of an existential crisis.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Parodies: The Confession of Lily Dare and Little Shop of Horrors

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The last two shows I caught in New York before the theatre went dark were both lighthearted parodies, Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village) and the latest revival of Little Shop of Horrors (at the midtown off-Broadway house the Westside). Busch has chosen an obscure subject for a 2020 audience – the mother-love melodramas that were popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the days just before the Hays (Production) Code went into effect in Hollywood, imposing decades of infantilizing self-censorship on filmmakers. But the matinee audience sitting around me, howling with delight, seemed to get the references. (They must have been devoted TCM viewers.) In Lily Dare, the closest pals and associates of a notorious San Francisco madam, a whore named Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and a gay honky-tonk pianist named Mickey (Kendal Sparks), meet at her grave and recall her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. Busch himself, a drag performer imbued with firecracker wit, hair-trigger timing and devastating charisma, played Lily in flashbacks.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Betraying Jane: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Many people love Jane Austen’s novels for the romance of them, and the romance is very good: unsentimental, clear-eyed, with endings and couplings that seem absolutely right. But it’s her wit that has made her greatest novels classics of English literature, and it’s rather astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize this, including many TV and movie adapters of her work. Andrew Davies, who seems to have made PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre his permanent employer, recently supplied the network with his rendering of Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Unfortunately, it was a melodramatic horror, devoid of humor, let alone wit. A local theatrical musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began with Elizabeth Bennet alone onstage reading out loud Austen’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The actress then looked up at the audience and said, “But I don’t think that’s true,” thus proving the playwright was unfamiliar with wit and irony and Jane Austen in general. Things went downhill from there.

It’s generally agreed that Austen’s two greatest novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so it’s no surprise that each has generated close to a dozen television and movie versions. The 1996 film edition of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, features a very good script and a number of other pleasures, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam are rather uneven in their performances: Paltrow is sometimes stiff and stagey, and Northam’s Knightley is a little too wan and affable. I remember liking a little-seen 1996 TV version, shown on the A&E Network, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong and written by Davies, even though Davies made a great deal of the Gypsies who attack poor Harriet Smith and the turkey thieves who plunder Mrs. Weston’s coops, underscoring issues of class that needed none. And of course, the 1995 teen spoof Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is great fun.