Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Lesson in Tedium: The Kindergarten Teacher

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher.

Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher is an atypical Israeli film, reminding one more of the lugubrious films of the late filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) and Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist) than of the fine and realistic cinema (Walk on Water, Broken Wings, Yossi) one is used to seeing from that country. It’s a heavy-handed drama that purports to be more than it actually is, one that's sorely taxing to sit through.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Neglected Gem #81: Starting Out in the Evening (2007)

Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening (2007).

Brian Morton’s novels – The Dylanist, Starting Out in the Evening, A Window Across the River, Breakable You, and his most recent, Florence Gordon – are small-scale and elliptical but they pierce you to the heart. There isn’t a character or an episode in any of them that doesn’t feel completely imagined, as if he were writing only about people he’s met and situations he’s experienced at first hand or observed acutely and then felt his way through, so the voice is always utterly fresh. The only one I found unsatisfying was the third, Window Across the River, because it had the impression of incompleteness – notes for a novel. But I thought that perhaps he hadn’t added the parts he wasn’t absolutely sure of, and he refused to phony up an ending. Morton doesn’t stint on emotion: you always get the sense that you’re encountering the characters naked. His novels remind me of some of the movies from the early seventies I love, allusive, personal movies like Loving, Blume in Love, Thieves Like Us and The Last Picture Show and the best parts of Up the Sandbox and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which capture experiences no one seems to have dramatized before or at least not quite in that way.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Off the Shelf: Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy (1991)

Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).

"Brian De Palma walked right off a cliff when he made his version of the Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker when the movie opened during the Christmas season of 1990. "It's ingenious; there's clever thinking behind it. And it's a a sci-fi version of a loud, over-bright screwball comedy." In The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood, a fascinating and painfully comic account of the unmaking of a highly controversial book, Julie Salamon (a novelist who was once the film critic for the Wall Street Journal) traces those futile steps that led right up to the edge of that deadly cliff. With a perception that's both poignant and prescient, Salamon gives us a searing portrait of Hollywood studio bungling in the early Nineties. The Devil's Candy is about the desperate actions of Warner Brothers who were hungry for a huge hit – the devil's candy of the title. They took a scabrous best seller with politically volatile material, miscast it, and then hired Brian De Palma, a director known for his own satiric volatility, and essentially asked him to make a feel-good film out of a story about political greed and racism in the Eighties. The movie was both a critical and commercial disaster. Salamon, with a judicious wit, unravels bit-by-bit the cruel process of the whole debacle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Long Night's Journey into Day: Williamstown Theatre Festival's A Moon for the Misbegotten

(left to right) Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald and Will Swenson. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

A three-hour drive through the backwoods of Massachusetts in order to sit through an equally long Eugene O’Neill play gives you a lot of time to contemplate the anxiety-inducing question of whether the production will be any good. Fortunately, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s A Moon for the Misbegotten features a central performance that just about makes the trip worth it. Moon has become such a fixture in the canon of Great American Plays that it’s easy to forget just how odd it is. O’Neill’s drama, which tells the story of James Tyrone and his final encounter with poor farmer’s daughter Josie Hogan, begins in a semi-comic vein, with stage-Irish horseplay and a flirtation between Tyrone and Josie. There are also elements of rent-day melodrama, with looming questions over who will end up with the farm on which the Hogans live and which Tyrone owns.

Then, as night falls, the play takes a decided turn, leading up to an immensely touching scene in the titular moonlight on the steps of the Hogan farmhouse. The comedy dissipates entirely, and O’Neill’s true intent becomes clear: it’s a dramatic re-imagining of his real-life brother James O’Neill, Jr.’s final days, one in which the playwright gets to write both his brother’s confession of his awful behavior before and after their mother’s death as well as an absolution for these sins. It’s a weird sort of anti-tragedy: at the end of the play, Tyrone exits towards his death, but we’ve come to understand that this is a mercy, and that, thanks to Josie, he’s achieved a modicum of peace. The play ultimately comes to transcend its Realist trappings and approaches closer to Symbolism, with the religiously-charged image of Tyrone lying in Josie’s arms like a modern Pieta. The action, confined to one location and a twenty-four hour time span, begins with the end of one day and the sun’s rising on another, which parallels the shifts in tone throughout the play. Call it Long Night’s Journey Into Day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Parental Discretion Iz Advised: Straight Outta Compton

Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr. in Straight Outta Compton.

Here’s a film I never thought I’d see. While seminal rap posse N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes, for the uninitiated, made up of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and others) made their careers – and changed the rap genre from the inside out – by describing the harsh reality of their South Central Los Angeles upbringings, that same shocking honesty wouldn’t seem possible in a film produced by the rappers themselves. Would they really be willing to show the seedier parts of their rise to wealth and cultural significance? Would they be willing to throw it all out there, the way they did with their music, warts and all? Well – sort of. Director F. Gary Gray takes the conventional prestige-type approach to his unconventional, prestige-averse subject, which means we get a depiction of the genesis of g-funk and West Coast gangsta rap that humanizes and softens and even lionizes its contributors, but – and this is no doubt due to the real Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s involvement in producing the film – it also forgets, omits, or otherwise glosses over many of the group’s less flattering pieces of history. It’s a biopic with excellent casting and strongly realized performances that wants less to tell the truth of N.W.A’s challenging story and more to act as a time capsule for posterity: a loving self-written paean to their massive cultural impact and not a cutting exploration of the problems and contradictions that defined their lives and work. But I’ll get into those in a bit.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Divine: Too Much Going On

Fiona Reid in The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: David Cooper)

In 1905, the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt brought a troupe of actors to Québec City to perform three plays in repertory. She was already in her early sixties, but according to the nineteenth-century traditions that still adhered into the early twentieth, great stars were thought of as ageless and inhabited their vehicles for decades. So the idea of “The Divine Sarah,” as she was popularly called, continuing to play ingénue roles like Marguerite in Camille by Dumas or the title role in Scribe and Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur wouldn’t have seemed bizarre to audiences or critics – though realists like Strindberg and Chekhov were breaking ground by challenging this and other implausibilities in a theatre that still clung to the vision of the Romantic age. (Arkadina, the actress in The Sea Gull, is a second-tier diva of the Bernhardt school, and Chekhov has some fun at her expense.) Bernhardt’s visit incited a furor when the archbishop, representing a still feudal and repressive Catholic church, objected strenuously to her appearing on a Québec stage. He would have had many reasons for trying to shut her down: she played male as well as female characters, she didn’t shy away from lurid and controversial subject matter, her offstage lifestyle was unconventional and scandalous, and – not least among the qualities that would have made her an unsavory figure in the eyes of the church – she had been born Jewish, though she’d converted to Catholicism.

This historical incident was the starting point for The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, a new work by the Québecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard that the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake is premiering this season (in a translation by Linda Gaboriau). Bouchard has added several narrative layers. The protagonist isn’t Bernhardt (played by Fiona Reid) but a young seminarian named Michaud (Ben Sanders), the son of a cabinet minister and a devotee of the actress, who is sent to deliver the archbishop’s letter denouncing her but winds up writing a play for her. The hero of his drama – the role she is eager to play – is actually based on his dormitory mate Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Talbot is a working-class boy whose mother (Mary Haney) has, through considerable personal sacrifice, placed in the seminary (where his classmates are all aristocrats like Michaud) because the priesthood is the only route of escape from poverty for a boy from his background. Mrs. Talbot and her twelve-year-old son Leo (Kyle Orzech) slave in a shoe factory in wretched conditions; children like Leo, whose employment is officially illegal, are especially vulnerable. (Two little girls recently died horrible deaths here when their hair caught in the machine.) And there’s even more plot: Talbot’s entry into the seminary follows his severe beating of a priest who was initially his intellectual mentor and then began abusing him when Talbot was twelve. Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), the director of the seminary, offers Talbot a scholarship as well as an education for Leo if he agrees not to make an official complaint about the abuse. Casgrain is also Michaud’s protector: the rules here are strict, but Michaud keeps flouting them, and Casgrain lets him get away with it. (Casgrain sees his younger self in Michaud, though his affection clearly has an un-acted-upon erotic component.) The play also covers Talbot’s coming of age, which includes his sowing his wild oats with an actress in Bernhardt’s company (Darcy Gerhart), with whom he visits an opium den and a gambling house before making love to her.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Racism is Alive in America: Part One

“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.”
― John C. Calhoun, 1848
Some of the names will be familiar, some may not: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott and Freddie Gray. What they all share in common is that they were unarmed black men who were either killed by the police or in the case of Martin, by an armed killer who was acquitted. Compound these individual killings with the June domestic terrorist act in Charleston, S.C., where a young white man motivated by sheer racial hatred executed nine black worshipers in an historic black church. The zealot left behind a manifesto that leaves little doubt that he was inspired by the Web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a prominent white supremacist group that has funded Republican contenders for the Presidency in 2016.

The current incumbent, Barack Obama, has belatedly become emboldened and retrieved his mojo in the twilight of his Presidency, particularly on matters of race. Where once he cautiously deployed the bully pulpit to speak about encouraging personal responsibility, he has now, in columnist Maureen Dowd’s words, “discovered a more gingerly voice.” Consider the following checklist: a searing speech on race relations and his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Charleston eulogy for the pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney. For the first time in American history Obama made a presidential visit to a federal prison to showcase the problem with sentencing policies that have filled the nation’s prisons with nonviolent offenders who are disproportionately African American. There he spoke with felons to say, “There but for the grace of God.” He also told the NAACP that African Americans were “more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained,” and more likely to be arrested. “They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.” But his boldest comments occurred when he chose a podcast with comedian Marc Maron to address race relations. Although he said that they have clearly improved in our lifetime, he made it clear that “we are not cured” of racism “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination cast “a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.” Obama’s impassionate remarks suggest that he is either in tune with the zeitgeist or he has been reading Jim Grimsley's courageous memoir How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books, 2015) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ unflinching treatise Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Although they are strikingly different in tone and style, they complement each other and offer insightful contributions to the conversation about race in America.