Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Potentially World-Destroying Virus: World on Fire

Zofia Wichlacz in World on Fire.

This review contains spoilers.

Watching the sprawling, emotionally gripping seven-part drama World on Fire on PBS Masterpiece Theatre has increased my frustration with those (mostly) policy-makers who draw analogies between the COVID-19 virus and World War Two. Boris Johnson has fantasized that he is the second coming of Churchill and Trump absurdly sees himself as a wartime president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a position that pundit Max Boot hilariously debunks in an acerbic column. In a more serious vein, an historian who has written a book about the politics of mourning wonders why Trump would urge the citizenry to see themselves as “warriors” and return to work even if it means sacrificing themselves, when there has not been even a hint about top-down national (as opposed to personal) mourning, given that, as of this writing, over one-hundred-thousand Americans have succumbed to this virus.

What World on Fire does is to put in perspective how our current crisis, even with an invisible enemy, pales in comparison (provided robust testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and personal hygiene protocols remain in place) with a more lethal form of pestilence, World War Two. I say this with the caveat that the first season takes us only to the fall of France and the epic rescue of British troops from Dunkirk during the spring of 1940. Whereas most war dramas focus on leadership (Darkest Hour about Churchill), a specific episode (Dunkirk) or the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), Fire offers a larger canvas including Manchester, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. Writer Peter Bowker, reflecting a modern sensibility, explores subjects that are usually passed over or given short shrift through the interlocking stories of ordinary people, their fears, the decisions they make and how the war changes them. What is noticeably missing are the usual nationalistic tropes – the flag waving, the inspirational speeches, the spotlight on masculine prowess – as the characters are primarily driven by personal motives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

The reason you can keep looking at productions of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – is that there’s so much there. A good director and a good cast illumine corners of the text that you haven’t paid attention to before, or shine an unfamiliar light on one of more of the characters, or put the parts of the play together a little differently from their predecessors. I had that experience recently with two little-known Chekhov movies from the seventies. One I was returning to: Laurence Olivier’s 1970 Three Sisters, which transcribed his stage production for the National Theatre. It’s modest – like the movies he starred in of Uncle Vanya in 1963 and Othello in 1965 (both directed for the screen by Stuart Burge), it feels, with the exception of a couple of self-consciously cinematic sequences, like a filmed play. It was released in England, but on this side of the ocean audiences only got to see it as part of an experiment in stage-to-screen translations called American Film Theatre, which visited only large cities for two-day engagements. The other I encountered for the first time: the 1977 adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) by the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio, which never opened in North America at all. Like Three Sisters, it’s available on DVD, but only from Europe. Both movies, I think, are wonderful. In this piece I want to talk about Three Sisters; I’ll deal with The Seagull next week.