Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Denise LaSalle: The Other Queen

Faraway places with strange sounding names 
Far away over the sea
Those faraway places . . . are calling, calling to me.
They call me a dreamer, well, maybe I am
But I know that I’m burning to see
Those faraway places with the strange sounding names
Calling, calling to me . . .

– Joan Whitney Kramer

The struggle for the spotlight. It can be a perilous challenge in any business, but it’s especially precarious when there actually is a spotlight, but one mostly flooding a few entertainment titans with glory, while those talents mere inches away from its treacherous grasp are left to fend for themselves as best they can at the edges of that global stage dominated by figures such as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. The Denise LaSalle story, billed as the autobiography of a southern soul superstar, is titled Always the Queen, but it could just as accurately be called Almost the Queen. “Missed it by that much,” as the old Maxwell Smart quip had it.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Traitor: The Best Movie of 2020

Pierfrancesco Favino in The Traitor (Il traditore), directed by Marco Bellocchio. (Photo: Laura Siervi/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Traitor is a lush, big-boned, two-and-a-half-hour Italian Mafia epic, dense with characters, that transpires over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, with flashbacks to 1963 and 1974. It was released on this side of the Atlantic early last year and though it received good reviews, it didn’t make the splash it deserved to make, and by now it’s probably been largely forgotten. At least it opened here; the work of its director, Marco Bellocchio, often doesn’t. Bellocchio has been turning out movies since the mid-sixties, and often they’re astonishing, but outside Italy – or perhaps outside the European arthouse scene – he’s virtually unknown. He established a cerebral, visually daring, highly modernist style with his second and third feature-length pictures, Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), and his wit, his startlingly confident cinematic adventurousness and his left-wing politics begged comparisons with Godard, but he’s never received the recognition he’s earned. I adore those movies and the one that followed them, In the Name of the Father (1971). But after the iconoclastic bravado of those early efforts he didn’t exactly relax into bourgeois complacency; movies like Leap in the Void (1980) and The Eyes, the Mouth (1982) tease the brain and surprise the eye, and the performers – especially Michel Piccoli in the first and Angela Molina in the second – reach for complex emotional states, for effects that, perhaps, no one has caught on camera before. Since he hit his sixties (he turned eighty-one last November) it seems to me that he’s become, if anything, more ambitious and even more of a master. His 2003 Good Morning, Night, a dramatization of the Aldo Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades (which is, for Italians, a historical black mark comparable to the JFK assassination for Americans), told from the point of view of one of the kidnappers, is one of the great political movies, and like Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien, it transpires at the meeting point of history and philosophy. Vincere (2009), which focuses on Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s secret, abandoned wife (a magnificent performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), is as staggering a piece of expressionist filmmaking as anything that came out of Ufa Studios in Berlin in the 1920s.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bad Date: The Prom

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom, now streaming on Netflix.

Early on in The Prom, director Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix movie musical based on the modest Broadway hit, Andrew Rannells, playing a Juilliard-trained actor who bartends between gigs, hears a bunch of kids singing “Day by Day” from Godspell and promptly vomits into a bucket. I had a similar impulse throughout The Prom. It’s cheap, nasty, badly cast, assaultive in its songs, choreography, and camera work, and so awash in sentimentality you could fall into a glycemic coma. In other words, perfect fodder for Ryan Murphy, whose work (Glee, Hollywood, American Horror Story) revels in the mean and the sappy.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Stage to Screen: The Father and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.

Florian Zeller’s play The Father, about an aging man sinking into dementia, opened in Paris in 2012 and premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre, in a Christopher Hampton translation, three years later. I saw it there and was impressed by it, and by Kenneth Cranham in the title role. The play is a tricky piece of work: it’s from the point of view of André, the father, whose daughter Anne is struggling to take care of him as he quarrels with one caregiver after another, so we experience the world as he does, even when he doesn’t recognize her or her husband (thus the actors who play these parts are sometimes replaced by other actors), even when the information she gives him seems contradictory because his memory is fading and time, as he perceives it, sometimes doubles back on itself. Yet the style isn’t expressionistic, as one might predict; it’s theatre of the absurd that presents itself as realism. That is, each scene plays as perfect realism; it’s the juxtaposition of scenes that doesn’t make realist sense. (Guy Hoare’s lighting, the only element of the Tricycle production I didn’t like, kept violating this idea by bridging the scenes with blinding flashes of light.)  Watching the play, which transferred to Broadway the following season with Frank Langella as the father, I thought of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play Wings, which is from the point of view of a woman who has had a stroke, and also of fragments of old Twilight Zone episodes and of Pinter’s plays, especially the early ones. The difference between Zeller’s approach and Pinter’s is that Zeller isn’t reconfiguring banal conversation to reveal the cracks underneath in order to suggest the absurdity of human interaction; the cracks in The Father address a more essential – less manufactured – mystery, that of a consciousness coming apart. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Facing History: The Human Countenance

“There are quantities of human beings, but there are even more faces, for each person has several.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Everybody has one – or even several, according to the poet Rilke. But how often do we actually contemplate not only the handsomeness or beauty of a face, but just what having a face at all means in the first place, and how a face communicates something about us to others long before we even open our mouths? Naturally every culture has differing definitions for what makes an agreeable face stylistically, but all cultures can tell an angry face from a happy one, a serene and comfortable face from one that connotes rage or fear. A face is the most central equipment for expressing feelings and character we have access to, one usually accepted as a means of signifying intelligence and power as well as an unavoidable “window into the soul.”

In the marvelous book The Face: Our Human Story, primarily an art book from Thames and Hudson and the British Museum following a landmark exhibition of facial representations, Debra Mancoff shows us how the changing face of our face is actually also the human story writ large, not with words but with emotional expressions we all apply by using exactly the same identical ingredients: two eyes, a nose, two ears, a mouth, and the landscape in which they are all situated. As the book illustrates, with captivating illustrations and sculptures from every culture and through every historical epoch, our face is totally central to our cultural identity, which can vary drastically, but also simply to our shared human identity, which never does or can.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Sadness and Joy: A Christmas Carol

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol, available for streaming until January 3. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

There have been dozens and dozens of straight dramatizations of Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale “A Christmas Carol” – on stage, on film, on radio and television, even more if we include novelties like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and the 2017 parody A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong by the English company Mischief Theatre. Scrooged, the updated 1988 version, written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and directed by Richard Donner, with Bill Murray as the avaricious president of a TV network, is a special case: an imaginative retelling of the story that captures its spirit with astonishing precision, just as Glazer’s contemporary take on Great Expectations did a decade later. It is, I think, sublime – and the best thing Murray has ever done.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Mank: No High Comedy

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank. The film is now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” advanced the idea that Herman J. Mankiewicz had written the screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he shared screen credit – and a screenwriting Oscar – with the film’s director, Orson Welles. By the time she wrote the piece (which was published in The New Yorker in 1971 and later released in The Citizen Kane Book, side by side with the shooting script), Welles was in the habit of appearing on TV talk shows and protesting that he was the real author of the script – that all Mankiewicz had come up with was the “Rosebud” mystery, which Welles claimed he’d never cared much for anyway. But though “Raising Kane” infuriated Welles enthusiasts who wanted to believe he was the hero of the project, especially those who subscribed to the auteur theory of film criticism that rejects the notion that movies are a collaborative art form, Kael didn’t write it simply out of a desire to correct the misperception about the importance of Mankiewicz’s role in the making of the movie – and she certainly didn’t write it, as the filmmaker and Welles idolater Peter Bogdanovich and other have insisted for years, to denigrate Welles. (Anyone who thinks so ought to check out her review of his 1967 Falstaff, a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight, in her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) The essay, an astonishingly perceptive and densely detailed piece of film scholarship and film criticism, argues that Citizen Kane is the most enjoyable of all great American movies because of the collaboration of two sensational artists, an iconoclastic prodigy making his first picture and a witty veteran who were both liberated by the subject matter to do glittering, audacious work. (Welles was twenty-five, Mankiewicz forty-three.) Welles, who came from New York theatre and radio and didn’t know the rules for making a Hollywood movie, went right ahead and broke them gleefully, and with the help of another pro, the extraordinary cinematographer Gregg Toland, he came up with fresh, innovative ways of using the camera. Mankiewicz, one of the many gifted east-coast playwrights and fiction writers the studios imported when sound came in, wrote a script that, Kael argues, is the culmination of the era, roughly the first decade of talking pictures, when the funny, clever contributions of Mank’s circle -- which included many of the most brilliant New York transplants, like George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur -- flavored movies in every genre but especially those that were tailored specifically for the talkies, like the newspaper picture. (One of the first newspaper pictures adapted Hecht and MacArthur's fabulous hard-boiled stage comedy The Front Page.) That’s what Kane is, and its subject, the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, is transparently William Randolph Hearst, who began an empire by popularizing journalistic writing. Kane is a film à clef that everyone in America could unlock from the opening sequence, set on a Gothic southern-Californian estate called Xanadu that anybody who read the papers could identify as Hearst’s San Simeon. What made the movie even more daring was that, while Kane dies in the opening moments of the movie, Hearst was still very much alive.