Saturday, August 3, 2013

McGehee and Siegel

What Maisie Knew

The response – quite reasonable, I thought – from a friend who hadn’t read Henry James’s What Maisie Knew to the recent movie version was “Shouldn’t those parents have been thrown in jail for child abuse?” Apart from the usual difficulty in adapting James to the screen (or the stage) – that almost none of his novels is inherently dramatic – this particular one, which he wrote in 1897, poses special problems because of the way our culture now perceives the role of parents in the lives of their children. The novel’s narrative trick is that it’s entirely in the point of view of the little girl, Maisie (she’s ten when the book begins, about thirteen when it ends), whose parents, who are splitting up, use her as a pawn to wound and manipulate each other. But the novel is a high comedy, and its central joke (if you want to call it a joke) is that precocious Maisie knows a great deal more than one might imagine – and, of course, acquires more knowledge as the story goes on. She’s the protagonist, and her qualities of character – as well as insight and an astonishing gift for assimilating information in a game in which the rules seem constantly to be shifting, these include boundless optimism, patience, elegance of expression and a deep capacity for love – make her a true heroine. James is less concerned with what is done to her than with how she handles her situation.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Disenchantment: Two Shakespeare Plays at Stratford

Daniel Briere (Romeo) and Sara Topham (Juliet) at the 2013 Stratford Theatre Festival (All Photos by David Hou)

There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet is so popular with teenaged audiences. And with theatre companies hoping to attract teenaged audiences, of course. To begin with, the plot is relatively straightforward, for Shakespeare, anyway; the action is frequent and noisy, and it’s all about young love – tragic, heart-breaking, parentally disapproved-of young love.

In the Stratford Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, British director Tim Carroll has given us a forthright production. This quality is partly a function of his theory of “original concept” Shakespeare, plays done as closely as possible to the way they would have been produced in the Bard’s era: with declaimed texts, plain sets, Renaissance-style costumes and a fair bit of interaction between the cast and the audience. The audience also shares the lighting with the actors, apparently to give the effect of an afternoon performance at the open-air Globe theatre. (Though original practices – in Stratford’s case, at least – do not include boy actors playing the women’s roles and standing room only for the audiences. And there is electrical lighting; you don’t want to go overboard with this stuff.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Neglected Gem #43: The Tall Guy (1989)

Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy (1989)

Mel Smith, who died a couple of weeks ago, was one of those living legends of British comedy who never managed to crack the American market. (He was a youngish legend, felled by a heart attack at just 60 years old.) Smith became a TV star as part of the cast of Not the Nine O’Clock News, an early-‘80s sketch comedy series that also launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones. Its humor was assumed to be too British and topical to export; instead, there was an Americanized HBO version, Not Necessarily the News, which is best remembered as the testing ground for Rich Hall’s “Sniglets”. His long-running series with Griff Rhys Jones, Alas Smith and Jones, was broadcast on A&E for a few years, but Smith and Jones’ attempt to take their act to the movies, the 1985 sci-fi comedy Morons from Outer Space, was a washout.

In 1989, Smith began directing movies himself, with The Tall Guy, a romantic comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson. On the basis of The Tall Guy, George Lucas hired Smith to direct the expensive, sprawling period comedy Radioland Murders, one of those highly touted Lucas dream projects (such as Howard the Duck and Willow) that make it seem impossible that this guy ever had a commercially viable idea in his life, and that pretty much finished Smith in Hollywood. He did have a hit in 1997 with a big-screen spinoff of Rowan Atkinson’s TV character Mr. Bean, but that was a watered-down version of a pre-sold property, and anyway, Mr. Bean is a mostly-mute sweetums played by a comedian who was meant to always be mean-spirited, talkative, hyper-articulate, and snarling (as in the Blackadder shows).

Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, in Alas Smith and Jones
Though it both pains and confuses me to say it, George Lucas did have one good idea in his life: Smith should have been besieged with offers from people who’d seen The Tall Guy. (It may be remembered that the best idea Lucas ever had that was related to the Star Wars franchise was to hire Irvin Kershner to direct one of them.) The fact that Smith was apparently never besieged with offers to direct big movies may, in fact, be directly connected to the fact that not too many people ever saw The Tall Guy. After the shoot wrapped, it took a few years before the movie was released in England, and then another year for it to come to the U.S. When it opened here in the fall of 1990, it had the aura of a neglected movie that had just missed the bullet of a direct-to-video release, and many of the reviews reflected that. It was the first produced feature film screenplay by Richard Curtis, and it has a mixture of cornball innocence reflected in the kind of goofy touches (such as a montage of all the characters celebrating the hero and heroine’s coming together by singing along to Madness’ “It Must Be Love”) that only a beginner would include in a movie that’s made all the more disarming with its sophisticated, satirical take on its theatrical milieu, which is that of a couple of world-weary insiders. (I seem to remember Gary Giddins, who reviewed it in the Village Voice, dismissively brushing it away with the observation that there were silly clips from the movie running alongside the closing credits.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Challenging Attraction: Terrence Blanchard's Magnetic

The Terence Blanchard Quintet

Terence Blanchard is a musician who never lets the grass grow under his feet. As a skilled trumpeter and composer on one of the most profoundly difficult instruments in jazz, Blanchard continues to play with a consistent sense of abandon balanced by a love for melody. No less can be said about his new album, Magnetic (Blue Note).

Magnetic is a testament to Blanchard’s musical past, a rich education into the history of jazz shaped by the foundation of his birth, New Orleans. It continued with time in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as he explored the world of hard bop alongside Donald Harrison, saxophone, whom he later partnered with in the late 1980s. It was an important time for Blanchard as he found his sound and started composing. He later signed a recording contract with Columbia and became the rival stable mate of Wynton Marsalis.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bordering On the Miraculous: Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot

Stephen Ouimette (Didi) and Tom Rooney (Gogo) in Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay entitled Being and Nothingness, an existential exploration of human consciousness that in turn had been heavily influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book, Being in Time. The celebrated French thinker had devoured it while a prisoner of war during 1941 and 1942. Ideas of human existence as a state of free-fall, untethered from God, were clearly a part of the early twentieth century zeitgeist. But giving them vivid expression – and lasting relevance – was Irish-born playwright, Samuel Beckett, whose play Waiting For Godot is being and nothingness made flesh.

Originally written in French as En Attendant Godot (literally, While Waiting for Godot), and given its first performance at a small theatre in Paris in 1953, the play is essentially two acts of interminable waiting for an elusive character named Godot by two clownish tramps named Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). A famous early review described Waiting for Godot as being about “nothing happening, twice.” But as can be seen in the superb production of the play now playing at Canada’s Stratford Festival through to Sept. 20, a lot, in fact, does happen. And happens in a way to make you really think.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Celebrity Lives: Untold Stories and I’ll Eat You Last

In Untold Stories, a pair of reminiscences by Alan Bennett that moved from the National Theatre to the West End in the spring, the actor Alex Jennings does an uncanny job of getting both Bennett’s owlish Oxford don’s look and his distinctive sound, the Yorkshire rhythms and the slightly high, thin tone. The title of the play comes from Bennett’s book of (mostly) autobiographical musings; the latest edition is bulked up to more than 600 pages, almost all of it highly readable. (I admit to skimming the 150 or so pages of diary entries.) Both “Hymn” (directed by Nadia Fall) and “Cocktail Sticks” (directed by Nicholas Hytner) are based on anecdotes in the book, but you have to read around in the volume to find bits and pieces of them, and most of “Cocktail Sticks” was constructed for the theatre. Untold Stories is small-scale – my companion described them aptly as aperitifs – but tremendously winning and affecting. I love Bennett’s style, more descriptive here than in his other work for the theatre, and his tone, which is observant without being detached, allusive but not rambling, emotional without being sentimental. And Jennings (best known on this side of the pond for playing Prince Charles in the movie The Queen) renders that tone with impeccable precision. It’s an impersonation but not merely one: he slips inside Bennett as he burrows into his prose.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Laboratory of the Cutting Room Floor: Anticipating Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait

CBS Records announced this past week the forthcoming August release of Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait (which contains session material from that original 1970 album as well as its follow-up, New Morning). It's hard to know what to expect. As another instalment in their Dylan Bootleg Series, which takes us again into their vaults to experience unreleased material, CBS is calling Another Self Portrait an opportunity to "give fans a chance to reappraise the pivotal recordings that marked Dylan's artistic transformation as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began." But the record they've chosen is probably the most reviled in Dylan's catalogue. It also shows us the pitfalls of selling goods defined by the iconic name of the artist rather than by the quality of the material within.

When he released Self Portrait, Bob Dylan essentially pulled a fast one on his fans. And the critics largely hated it. In Rolling Stone, critic Greil Marcus opened his epic review by asking, "What is this shit?" What was this shit? Besides the sly joke of the album's title (he performs mostly covers rather than original material), Dylan positioned the two-record set as a riposte aimed at those who wished to hold him to the mantle of being a spokesman of his generation. "I wish these people would just forget about me," Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984 looking back at Self Portrait. "I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's get on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't given' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else." But the record was also aiming to achieve something more. It represented a somewhat daring, yet failed, attempt to conceptually put his music in the context of the American songbook of Tin Pan Alley. So besides including live versions of his own "Like a Rolling Stone" and "The Mighty Quinn" (from the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival), he performed Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon", Elmore James's "It Hurts Me Too," plus traditional folk material like "Alberta" and "Little Sadie." Self Portrait doesn't fall apart because the concept is bad. It's that Dylan can't fully commit himself to the concept.