Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (1974)

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter (1974).

Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (Il portiere di note, 1974) is probably the most twisted film I've seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do with the viewer’s identification with the protagonist. From an artistic perspective, it's a pity the film doesn't follow through.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Song and Dance, Part II: Fosse/Verdon

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.

Sam Rockwell’s portrait of Bob Fosse – the legendary director-choreographer whose body finally succumbed to drugs, alcohol, nicotine and workaholism at the age of sixty, in 1987 – in the eight-part F/X miniseries Fosse/Verdon is one of those rare dramatic reincarnations of a celebrity that you feel, as you watch, you will retain forever in your mind alongside the work of the real one. (Some other examples: Judy Davis as Judy Garland and Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers, both also in TV dramatizations, and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in the 2017 movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.) I saw Rockwell was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000 in the supporting role of the desk clerk in a production of Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, which is set in the lobby of a low-rent residential New York hotel. The director, Joe Mantello, staged a pre-show during which some of the members of the ensemble wandered on and improvised behavior that sketched in their characters before we heard any of the dialogue Wilson had scripted for them. I can’t remember what any of the other actors did because Rockwell made his simple tasks so interesting – so detailed and so quirky – that my companion and I kept our eyes on him the whole time. And nearly twenty years later, his performance, in the margins of the show, is the only one I still recall. I had already started spotting him in movies like Galaxy Quest and Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he exhibited the same distinctive combination of focus, precision and humor, all guided by an unpredictable perspective, as if his character occupied some space in the world that no one else had ever noticed before. Both those movies came out in 1999; Rockwell has played dozens of roles since, many of them in bad or forgettable movies, and I haven’t always liked him. (I hated his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it would be unfair to pin the blame on Rockwell, since nothing in that repellent movie made an iota of sense.) But I think his gifts are both outsize and off-kilter, and when he’s good he can be sensational. He was the best thing about Vice, for instance, drawing on impressive resources for satirical impersonation to play George Bush Jr. But what he does as Bob Fosse goes way beyond impersonation, though he gets down the man’s slouching grace and his sexy slightness and the way the cigarette tucked insouciantly in the corner of his mouth completed him as definitively as it completed Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Rockwell gets inside Fosse – his compulsions about work and sex, his ambition and unsatisfiable perfectionism, his cynicism about show business and about his own talents, the erotic charm that was generated as much by his world-weariness as by his persistence and the appeal of being around his genius.