Sunday, January 23, 2022

Inhospitable: Marianne Elliott’s Revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company

Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk in Company. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

There’s something undeniably poignant about seeing a Sondheim musical about New York in New York weeks after his death and mere months after theaters have opened up again. In the new revival of the 1970 Company, the fact the book (originally by George Furth) has been updated (by director Marianne Elliott, working in collaboration with Sondheim) and many of the roles have been gender-swapped raises no alarms with me, mainly because I think the material, despite its acclaim and legendary status, has never worked, so why not mix things up? What are Company’s faults? First, Bobby, the main character, is largely a cipher. He doesn’t even have a profession – all he does is have dinner with friends. Second, the central mystery of Bobby to his friends – why he isn’t married – is no mystery at all. If his friends are examples of what marriage is, it’s an unmitigated disaster that no one in his right mind would undertake. And third, the big moment when one of those friends, the uber-sophisticate Joanne, suggests that he needs someone to take care of him, leading him to ask, “But who will I take care of?,” feels less like an epiphany than a writerly conceit. It also doesn’t seem like the result would be to convince him he’s ready for marriage, especially when there’s no spousal candidate in sight. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Belfast: Memories of an Irish Childhood

Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe in Belfast.

Watching the black-and-white trailers for Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized memoir of growing up Protestant in the titular city at the peak of the Irish Troubles (the film begins in the summer of 1969), I feared that he’d been caught in the trap of turning his childhood into self-conscious neo-realism, like Alfonso Cuarón in the strenuously overrated Roma. I needn’t have worried. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography opens in almost hallucinatory color that reveals Belfast in all its complexity, modernist and glittering as well as enshrining gorgeous old buildings. And when the color morphs into black and white, it’s the bustling, lived-in black and white of the Parma Bertolucci and his photographer, Aldo Scavarda, captured in his the 1964 Before the Revolution or, as a friend observed, the black and white of the pictures Tony Richardson made in the late fifties and early sixties out of the great English New Wave dramas Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (both shot by Oswald Morris) and A Taste of Honey (shot by Walter Lassaly). Belfast isn’t quite up to those movies – or the other movies I thought of while I sat through it, John Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory (based on his memories of a childhood in London during the Second World War) and Jim Sheridan’s 2002 In America (a too-little-known magic-realist marvel about a struggling Irish family living illegally in Hell’s Kitchen). But Belfast is plenty good enough. It’s vibrant and vivifying, and I was carried away by it.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Ballad of Paul and Yoko: Artfully Linked

Yoko Ono; Paul McCartney.


Yoko One, "Death of Samantha," Approximately Infinite Universe, 1973.

The Firemen, Strawberries, Ships, Oceans, Forest, 1993.

To think of Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney in the same sentence, let alone in the same artfully appreciative article, might strike some people as a surprising proposition, and yet as a narrative ballad they share much more in common that you might at first imagine. Not just the fact that they shared an intimate partnership with a famous musician and pop star but also the fact that they have often been collaterally damaged victims of an ongoing mythology about who they actually were and what they actually did. To some extent, this might just be the occupational hazard of any huge cultural icon, but it could also be a revealing indication of how much we all want to believe what we want to believe, despite what the facts and evidence may show us otherwise. Luckily for us however, Peter Jackson’s masterfully edited documentary called Get Back at least contributes somewhat to their rehabilitation at celebrities anonymous.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Lost Daughter, and Notes on Novice Directors

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter.

When first-rate actors turn into directors, one thing you can usually count on is the quality of the performances. Rebecca Hall’s work with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing is so finely tuned and so subtle that it feels almost preconscious, as if Hall kept catching the two women in the moments before their identification with their characters had translated into action. That description makes it sound as if the actresses weren’t actually engaged in the process of acting, because any good teacher will tell you that acting is action, and when actors don’t play an action (otherwise known as an objective) what they generally wind up producing is a wash of generalized emotion. (That’s what’s happened to Kate Winslet’s work over the last ten years.) But Thompson and Negga aren’t generalizing; they’re so deeply engrained in their characters that it’s as if Hall were simply on their wavelength, recording their process – except, of course, there’s nothing simple about pulling that off. I sometimes had that experience watching the actresses in Ingmar Bergman’s movies (including some of the bad movies) – the sense that the relationship between them and the director was as intimate as the one between a great photographer and his or her subject. The comparison seems especially apt in the case of Passing, which has the feel of black-and-white photographs from the twenties and thirties – and that may be the reason the movie makes some viewers impatient or bored. It’s a piece of experimental filmmaking in which the novice director is striving to get on the screen states of being that haven’t been dramatized before. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Nightmare Alley and The Tragedy of Macbeth: Cinematic “Art”

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley.

William Lindsay Gresham’s tough, darkly lyrical 1946 novel Nightmare Alley moves from the carny life to the world of phony spiritualists – scam artists who make a living off the sorrow of rich people trying desperately to contact loved ones on the other side of the grave. (In real life Harry Houdini was one of the more celebrated marks.) Gresham’s anti-hero is Stanton Carlisle, who joins a carnival and partners up with his lover, Zeena, to revive the mentalist act she used to perform with her husband Pete, a hopeless drunk who dies when Stan hands him a flask of wood alcohol. (It’s an accident: both the poison and a flask of potable gin have been stored in the same trunk. But as Gresham writes the incident, it’s one of those sinister acts of wish fulfillment, like Bruno’s murdering Guy’s blackmailing wife in Strangers on a Train.) Stan proves to be so good at the act that he soon outgrows it and takes it on the nightclub circuit, with a younger, prettier girlfriend as his assistant – Molly, whose carny performance used to involve an electric current and an alluring skimpy costume: sex and sci-fi “magic” intertwined. That’s when he crosses paths with a higher type of parasite, a psychoanalyst named Lilith who teams up with him to take advantage of her grieving patients. Stan and Lilith become lovers too, and their main target is a fabulously wealthy man named Ezra Grindle who is suffused with guilt over the fate of the girl he impregnated when he was a young man. Gresham never lets us forget how important a role sex plays in both low and high-class scams. (The Library of America, faithful purveyor of forgotten treasures, republished the book about a quarter of a century ago in a first-rate collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.)