Thursday, June 27, 2019

Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in Transit (2018).

The German Fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don't have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the U.S. doesn't want you), but with no flights, you'll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

Or is it? One of the stand-out aspects of Transit (2018), written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on the French Resistance-era novel by Anna Seghers, is the ambiguity of time. There are security camera footage and modern-day police gear, but no lighters or televisions; people write letters instead of email, with not a computer or smartphone in sight, and yet petroleum products are ubiquitous. The editing (by Bettina Böhler) and cinematography (by Hans Fromm) has the languor of a historical drama, but the lens and lighting mostly evoke the mood of a psychological thriller. Which brings up some questions: why is protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) on the lam? How is he connected to Paul (Sebastian Hülk) and Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), who may or may not be part of a resistance movement (which may or may not exist)? And who is the narrator (Matthias Brandt), who's ostensibly telling the story as Georg has related it to him, but whose voice-over sometimes isn't reflected in the on-screen action? On top of all these is the biggest question: will Georg make it out alive?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Glitter Bomb: Rocketman

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.

The Elton John of the 1970s was a rock phenomenon that dominated airwaves and album sales unlike any other act of the time. His songs were a potent mix of gospel, country, and blues, and his ballads could have an almost ineffable beauty. John’s piano playing could be rumbling and syncopated as in “Take Me to the Pilot” (from the 1970 Elton John album, his debut in the States), or cascading and driving as in “Grey Seal” (from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) or the opening of his cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” On John’s early albums, producer Gus Dudgeon provided a sound both spare and elegiac, fronting the star’s keyboard playing and employing a judicious use of strings that often soared but (almost) never cloyed. John’s songs and outrageous onstage presence, heightened by over-the-top costumes, equal parts camp and drag, connected with the audience, and Bernie Taupin’s maddeningly opaque lyrics caused the teenagers of several nations to spend hours puzzling over them while the records played on their turntables. (John’s songwriting was never as good when he tried any other partner.) Elton John the rock star could make a huge crowd boogie with abandon.

When John retired from touring for two years in 1977, he also ceased using Dudgeon as producer, and he never again achieved the artistic excellence of those wild years. Record sales ebbed as well. He made headlines in 1980 by performing in the Soviet Union, and I saw him in the same year at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre, a relatively intimate venue, accompanied only by himself and percussionist Ray Cooper. (It was my very first rock concert.) John continued to release albums after ’77, but at a much slower pace, and nothing really caught fire, until 1983, when a brand-new medium, the music video, and a softer, easy-listening sound made John a star again, starting with “I’m Still Standing,” from the album Too Low for Zero. (It’s rather astonishing how good John was pre-1977, and how bad most of his music has been since then.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rutherford and Son: Imitation Ibsen

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son at London's National Theatre.. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Roger Allam delivers a flawless performance as the icy, single-minded North Country industrialist John Rutherford Sr. in the National Theatre production of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son. Allam is an actor’s actor. I saw him last season as quite a different sort of rich man, the warm, voluble John Christie, the founder of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, in David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, and the two characters are so utterly unalike you can scarcely believe they’re created by the same man. The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Jane Fonda as the prostitute Bree Daniel in Klute that when she walks toward the camera it’s Bree and not Fonda you see coming toward you, and that’s the way I felt about Allam in Rutherford and Son: he’s sealed himself inside the character, and the completeness of the portrait is mesmerizing, in the way that a great Rembrandt or Monet portrait is.