August 17, 2007

Mad Men V

Being thick as a post, I had to see the show twice before I got it. Why was Don Draper so determined not to be recognized as someone called Dick, by his own half-brother Adam? Had he committed some terrible crime? I was thinking à la 2007. Watching the show a second time - bless you, AMC, for re-running these fascinating episodes the moment they're over - I got it. What's Don Draper's horrible secret, the one that inspires him to pay his half-brother 1960$5000 cash American to make him "go away"?

It's in the names. The half-brother is Adam. The step-mother is Abigail. The uncle is Max/Mac. These are the people that Dick, a/k/a "Don Draper," walked away from over ten years ago, when Adam was an eight year-old boy. Adam and Abigail are popular names today, and they were popular with English (but only English) protestants into the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. In Mid-Century USA, however, they were common only to -


Don Draper is Jewish. That's why nothing about his past is on display. That's why he can't have Seth as a half-brother. Is Matthew Wiener going to take the Sopranos formula and use it to etch the far subtler drama of bourgeois American anti-Semitism?

Jon Hamm's most amazing face - and he turned in many during this episode - is in response to Adam's pathetic question, "Did you ever miss me?" Don is paralyzed by the horror of having driven such "missing" from his mind with an iron discipline, until the Hallmark answer, "Of course I did," presents itself to his adman's brain. Don usually knows what he's supposed to say right away. The surprise of Adam, a brother whom one ends up (after the second episode, anyway) thinking that he loved, slows him down.

I may, of course, be wrong as Worcester about all of this. But when I shared my theory with Kathleen, she jumped on it. I'm suddenly wishing that I knew a few chat rooms.

August 03, 2007

Mad Men III

Any doubts that I might have had about the excellence of Mad Men - is it genius or is it just stylishly cool - were put to rest during a part of the long birthday party sequence that took up the final third of the episode. Betty has asked Don to pick up the cake, but also to film the party, something that it seems he forgets to do without prodding. Getting the cake turns out to be a very big deal, but before Don leaves, he gets out his camera and takes some - what? - 16 millimeter? Super Eight? - footage of the kids running around. It is silent, of course, as home movies inevitably were in 1960. But here's the payoff. The music playing in the background is "Voi che sapete," certainly the best-known aria from Mozart's  The Marriage of Figaro. It's so well known, in fact, that most people won't hear it. But it reflects Don's innocence about love. Like Cherubino (who sings the aria) he doesn't know what it is. By the time you hear the aria, Don is filming adults. First, he captures two people who are playing a sex game that's frankly acknowledged by the woman - much to the man's discomfort. Then he pans to a married couple still very much in love; their unguarded kiss is a gift. And then we see Don, the master of every situation but this. He still doesn't know what love is. Che cosa è amor.

Watching Mad Men has been a touchy experience. As it happens, I'm a half-generation away from Don and his children. My parents were ten years older (or more) than he is and I am ten years older than they. Our experience of the upheaval of the Sixties was different. But Don Draper is certainly more of a younger father than an older brother. There are moments in this show when I feel that I am invading the parental sanctum. As it happens, Jon Hamm is something like a year older than my daughter. But when I see him with his hair slicked down, and his five-o'clock shadow (which is how I'm sure he got the part - although he's great), and his wonderfully guarded impatience with everything, I see someone's dad, and I don't want to piss him off.

What an amazing show.

July 25, 2007


So, did anyone see Damages last night? It's the new legodrama on FX that stars Glenn Close. Isn't it the most amazing piece of crap?

To be sure, Glenn Close is magnificent in the role of Patty Hewes, the formidable plaintiffs' attorney who will do anything to bring her lawsuits to victory. When she's onscreen, it doesn't matter that the show is rubbish. Ms Close long ago perfected a Wicked Queen persona that is compulsively watchable. But when she's not onscreen...

For example, when Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) sonorously informs Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) that the contract that she's about to sign (but won't) guarantees her employment for five years - or maybe it wasn't Mr Bosco but another actor in the scene - you gag. The law firm that hires associates on five-year contracts has yet to be invented. Associates are employees-at-will who can be fired without notice. (Partners are only somewhat harder to get rid of.) The scene, though brief, is utter confection, a tepid reheating of stock material. This is law as people who have never dealt with law firms envision it.

Damages isn't about law, though. It's about the price women pay for pursuing worldly - as opposed to maternal - ambition. Damages' price is preposterously exaggerated. Patty Hewes, although brilliant and glamorous, is obviously a vampire as well, and she will sooner or later sink her canines into Ellen's neck. Isn't that why the opening scene shows Ellen fleeing from an apartment, covered in blood? And then catatonically slumped in an interrogation room? Excelling in the footsteps of Patty Hewes will strip you of your humanity. Damages stokes the ancient resentment of powerful women that attributes to them crimes that even Attila the Hun would balk at.

Leaving for the office this morning, Kathleen told me that she might be out of touch this afternoon, meeting with her five personal shoppers at Bergdorf and waiting for Barbara Walters to show up in her dressing room. Seriously, though, she is going to ask her paralegal if she has ever seen an attorney standing in his office in boxer shorts. Kathleen certainly hasn't.

The difference in dramatic quality between Damages and Mad Men is huge. By the end of the summer, will friendships and marriages have foundered because of divided loyalties? Kathleen and I are safe, at any rate. She may never see Mad Men (although she'd like to - but she's so busy with those personal shoppers), but we're united in our scorn for Damages.

July 20, 2007

Mad Men

If you're a regular reader, you know that I never watch television. And that's true. Except tonight. Tonight, I am watching Mad Men. I am watching the re-run of the first episode. Jon Hamm is frighteningly good as a thirty-something account executive on the make. His character, Don Draper, is brilliant at advertising because he's open to despair.

But the real treat is the total holiday from political correctness. Have you ever seen so many smokers? And when was the last time anybody talked to a secretary, even nicely, as Don and his associates do? I was twelve in 1960. More to the point, I had my first summer job on Wall Street four years later, when everybody looked pretty much the same as they do in Mad Men. I am so not nostalgic! The glory of the show is that it's safely imprisoned at AMC. It's not real anymore!

By the way, whaddya think about Michael Vick?

June 19, 2007

Poiret at the Met


If you happen to find yourself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art between now and 5 August, make sure that you don't miss the Poiret show. It's on exhibit in what I believe is the only special-exhibitions space on the first floor. It's tucked in between the Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries and the Petrie Sculpture Court.

This is not just another fashion show. First of all, the costumes are in magnificent condition. It's hard to believe that clothes made nearly a century ago have held up so well. But what's more important is the nature of the couture. Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was a draughtsman, but he could not sew. Perhaps for this reason, his designs are structurally quite simple - simple, that is, in the way that it takes great genius to arrive at. There may be a riot of detailed embroidery, lace, or cutwork, but the shape of his gowns and coats is elemental. Much of it looks strangely up-to-date.

And then there are the colors. Poiret's saturated colors, often presented in remarkably edgy contrasts, simply have to be seen. (This is especially true of linings. The coat above is lined in an arresting turquoise satin.) The bold luxe of Poiret's work is probably easier for the average man to like than is usually the case at the Costume Institute.

The show offers two hypnotic graphics, presented on scrims mounted in front of mannequins. In each case, the construction of the dress or coat in question is shown in fluid animation. In the first of these, a long oblong of cloth is folded and puckered and turned inside-out until, without cutting of any kind, a coat suddenly emerges, as bewilderingly as any rabbit out of a top hat.

June 09, 2007

The Exquisite Wit of Preston Sturges


The following exchange always stops me cold, coming as it does atop the sizzlingly funny Cinderella spoof in which Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) plays shoe clerk to Eve Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck. Then the two of them rejoin Eve's father (Charles Coburn).

Col Harrington: Ah, there you are. Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.

Eve: I'm lucky to have this on. Mr Pike has been up a river for a year.

Then the Colonel has the nerve to apologize for his daughter's ribaldry.

May 15, 2007

Blackbird, at MTC's Stage I

For quite a while, I'd been looking forward to Blackbird, with Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels. Our MTC subscription seats us toward the end of each run, which is fine with me, because I believe that actors, if they do anything, simply get better over the course of a run. And I don't mind waiting. But I do feel a tad silly being the last person on the block to write things up.

Blackbird, at MTC's Stage I.

April 17, 2007

Our Leading Lady, at MTC's Stage II

At MTC the other night, a cell phone went off in the first act. The ringtone was strange, feathery and ephemeral rather than percussive. The thing was, nobody moved. Everybody in our part of the audience looked at everybody else; the play sailed on; eventually the ringing stopped. It was horrible.

At the interval we were all subjected to the firmest inquisition that the management would dare inflict upon patrons. Nobody fessed up. I was terrified that we'd be asked to produce our phones. Mine was on. I usually don't turn it off, because I can silence it before it rings, thanks to preliminary vibrations. (I used to wonder rhetorically who on earth would be calling me, but wrong numbers are not confined to land-lines.)

It's against the law to allow an electronic device to disturb a play or a concert.

Our Leading Lady.

April 12, 2007

Le diable noir

I don't mean to make a habit of posting links to YouTube, but this short film by Georges Méliès is a treat.

(Thanks to Digsummer.)

March 13, 2007

Brian Friel's Translations, at MTC

Brian Friel's Translations - I'd rather forget it than write it up. It bored me deeply, as do most plays - and novels and movies and whatnot - set in Ireland's past. "Let it go!" I want to shout. It's a horrible past, okay! The Irish are always beautiful dreamers; the British, monsters of arrogance.

Conundrums abound, but they're not interesting conundrums. They're like the thing stuck between your teeth that you can't keep your tongue from palpating. And they swamp the very possibility of drama, because everything is utterly foregone.

February 22, 2007


Anyone in search of that good, old-fashioned French-movie atmosphere ought to make a point of seeing Gabrielle, a film made two years ago by Patrice Chéreau. Based on Joseph Conrad's story, "The Return" (which I've now got to dig up), the film concerns the end of a marriage. A woman leaves her husband for a man whom she loves, but turns around on her way and comes back, not because she has changed her mind about her lover, but because she fears that, after years of stunted life with her husband, she won't be able to love him back. The husband, meanwhile, comes home early from work and reads the now-unnecessary note. He goes through every range of reaction, from rage to tears to bland acceptance.

The story has been given hieratic treatment. Jean (Pascal Greggory) staggers through his huge town house (part of the Gare de l'Est?) while Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) floats in resigned desperation. There are the couple's worldly guests and there is also a flock of housemaids and kitchenmaids. Yvonne (Claudia Coli) is a sort of head housemaid (although she's a young woman) with whom Gabrielle has obscure conversations. Every now and then, an immense title card is superimposed on the action, announcing a dramatic statement ("Restez!"). Fabio Vacchi's portentous score promises melodramatic developments that tend not to materialize. This would be annoying if it were not for the hypnotism practiced by the filmmaker and his cast.

Gabrielle is not a long movie, but uninitiated American viewers probably won't make it through - so you'll have that satisfaction.

February 17, 2007

Three Coins in the Fountain

Now I can't recall where I read it. Somebody remarked that a movie that had come up in conversation was his mother's favorite film - along with Three Coins in the Fountain. I really couldn't remember a thing about the movie, but I knew that I'd seen it, a million years ago. Not when it was new, certainly - I wasn't really going to grown-up movies in 1954. (Yes, I know; it's hard to believe. A couple of years later, though, I'd stay in my seat after the kiddie matinee and watch the first ten minutes of High Society. That was how long it took my mother to hiss her way down the aisle and extract me.)

February 08, 2007

Mr Deity

Yesterday, Joe posted a link to the Mr Deity videos at YouTube. Brian Keith Dalton's hugely funny shorts, which the Mr Deity site tells us are sketches for a half-hour comedy show, seem on the face of it to poke fun at Judeo-Christian beliefs. But that's not how I see it. I turn the telescope around and peer through the other end. What if Creation were the undertaking of some American corporation?

What if "God" were played by a dithering project manager, so beset by delusions of grandeur that the idea of accountability never crossed his mind? What if the Holy Spirit - "Larry" here - were the impatient, stressed-out, but ultimately sycophantic deputy actually responsible for making things happen? What if "Jesus" were an aimiable, team-playing lug who looked great with football greasepaint under his eyes? And what if Satan - "Lucy" - were the hysterical female executive, butting her head against the glass ceiling?

Now, go watch the clips again.

All four actors are superb, but there's something about Mr Dalton's high-pitched wheeze that's truly divine.

February 06, 2007

Vestal McIntyre at KGB Bar

It seems that I'm no longer on the mailing list. For several years, I would receive sporadic postcards inviting me to readings at the KGB Bar, on East 4th Street. I never went. It was too far away, on several dimensions. But when I heard that Vestal McIntyre would be reading there last week, I screwed up my resolve actually went, despite the frigid weather.

Continue reading "Vestal McIntyre at KGB Bar" »

January 30, 2007

Nancy Staub Laughlin


On a recent Saturday, Kathleen and I descended into Chelsea, to attend an the opening of a show at the Noho Gallery. The artist whose work is on exhibit there is Nancy Staub Laughlin, the sister of one of Kathleen's most ancient friends (and a friend in her own right). We have owned two of Nancy's pastels for almost twenty years, and it has been great fun to follow her career. We were very taken with her new work at the Noho, and if money (but mostly wall space) were no object, we know which picture we'd be bringing home.

An even more ancient friend of Kathleen's was there, as expected, and he and Kathleen soon fell into a good gossip. I didn't even try to listen, but I watched for cues to laugh or nod. That's what you do when you're standing in a noisy room and you're almost a foot taller than your interlocutors. This time, though, Kathleen took notice. "You can't hear a thing we're saying, can you?" she asked me. I could hear that.

January 23, 2007

Out & About: Rupert Everett in Union Square


Last Wednesday, I tootled down to Union Square to attend a book event at Barnes & Noble. A very sophisticated and lighthearted book event: Michael Musto, the Voice columnist, interviewed Rupert Everett, author of Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography (Warner Books). According to IMDb, Mr Everett will turn forty-eight in May, which makes the writing of an autobiography seem a tad premature, but what's in a name? A book by Rupert Everett would be just as funny by any other. The paragraph that you are reading was massively stalled by a premature opening of the book, which is not what I am here to talk about.

The performance space, so to speak, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble is capacious, but it's also the venue of choice for the most popular events, or so it seems to me. I had no idea what kind of a crowd to expect, so I left the house at ten to six and reached the fourth floor of the branch half an hour later. There were still plenty of seats, but because of my size I am miserable in anything but an aisle seat toward the rear, preferably blocking no one's view. Happily, there was one. Since I was alone, I had to sit in it for forty minutes, which was something of a drag, but I'd brought along The New Yorker and the London Review of Books. A minute passed. And then another minute. By ten to seven, every seat was taken. Very shortly after seven, there was a sort of commotion on the other side of the room as Mr Musto and Mr Everett approached. The latter was all but poleaxed by a gaggle of photographers. I had never seen such a shoot before, and it seemed very silly. It was for that reason that I somewhat priggishly declined to take a snapshot of the event with my cellphone.

I had heard about Mr Musto, but never seen or heard him before; my, what an insolent and impudent piece of work he is! Which is another way of saying that he's a brazen old queen. Mr Everett is a gay guy, not a queen, and a stylistic dissonance was soon humming from the dais. (Mr Musto actually promoted his own forthcoming book, La Dolce Musto, which certainly made me squirm.) There were plenty of laughs, but the mood of the evening relaxed considerably when the discussion was opened to questions from the audience.

Rupert Everett is a past-master at playing blithely irresponsible rakes and cads on screen; in life, he's clever but thoughtful. Asked about his response to 9/11 by someone who apparently knew that he was in Manhattan that morning, Mr Everett remarked on the strange passivity of people in the street, "before the wailing." At first, before the enormity of the incident could hit home, the sight of the towers in flames really just seemed to be another computer-generated image, another special effect. This made him think about the terrible desensitization that has been wrought by "life in a media age," as another questioner put it. "We're all too entertained," Mr Everett said, and, speaking as an entertainer, he wanted to find ways of restoring the vitality of experience. For a moment, he sounded as though he were contemplating another career entirely, but any fears of that were wonderfully dashed by his announcement that "at the end of next year" (next season? 2008?), he's going to play Henry Higgins in a West End production of Pygmalion that, if successful, may come to New York. If I were Michael Musto, I would regale you with the excited response to this news of my plumbing.

The evening was a lot of fun, and it dislodged me from the blue doldrums that had kept me in bed for too much of the morning. I came right home and, knowing that Kathleen would be at the financial printer until close to midnight, I calmly set about making a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara while watching Deceived By Flight. I'm watching all the Inspector Morse episodes, in alphabetical order. It is very much the thing for this time of year.

January 19, 2007

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit


I stood in front of the painting until I was afraid that I would either weep or get down on my knees. Never has a painting reached out and caressed my heart as this one did. I had always loved the image, but, seen on the canvas, over seven feet square,* John Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) has the mysterious power exerted by great religious paintings upon pious Christians and venerators of Renaissance painting. It is my Mona Lisa, my top-of-the-heap picture. And I saw it this afternoon for perhaps the last time. When Americans in Paris, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, closes at the end of the month, it will go back to Boston.

Sargent's composition is extremely eccentric, and the setting extraordinarily spacious. There is a lot of empty room on view. That, oddly, is what gives the picture its vigor. It conveys the sense of walking in on children at play. The third daughter, standing to the left, might very well have been discovered on the right a few minutes ago. The oldest girl, leaning against the great vase, will probably sit down in a moment and try to pretend that she is a grown-up lady. The baby is too young to be expected to stand for guests.

Where are we? Old masters posed their figures against fanciful obscurities that were not intended to represent real-world interiors. Here, we can tell that we are in an actual apartment. The glass over the mantelpiece shows us the windows in the adjoining room. And yet the absence of tables and chairs makes it impossible to say how the space is used by the family when the girls are not playing.  The broad carpet and the imposing porcelains, in conjunction with the fact that there's nowhere to sit, suggest the occasional arrangement of palatial chambers; if chairs are wanted, lackeys will bring them. But for all the backward glancing toward Velásquez, the painting may appeal to us now more than ever because a century of abstraction has made us comfortable with large volumes that lack "pictorial" significance. We're unlikely, for this reason, to be irritated by the warped red screen.

Sargent's way with textiles is always a surprise. From a distance, the brushwork seems orderly enough, but, up close, it becomes riotous and haphazard. (The same thing is true of many of Fragonard's pictures.) Stand near the canvas, and the pinafores are shown to be anything but white. The baby girl's smock breaks down into abstract squiggles, something that beautifully offsets the careful modeling of her face.

And it is her face, I concluded today, that is the center of the picture. It is the part of the painting that draws and holds our attention with strange but pleasurable insistence. Eventually, we may come to feel that Sargent has replaced innocence of a child with something like unearthly wisdom. The older sisters are being polite. They know that they're being looked at, and their expressions are guarded when not simply averted. Only the baby really sees us. It may be mere curiosity; she may simply want to know what we think of her dolly.

Finally, there is what we know about the lives that awaited the daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Just as religious paintings illustrate scenes and events with which the viewer is expected to be familiar, depending for their expressive power upon the viewer's pre-existing associations, so the enchantment that hovers over these girls deepens when we reflect that not one of them would ever marry.

*The painting is a quarter of an inch wider than it is tall.

January 16, 2007

Out & About: At the Blue Note

On Saturday night, Kathleen and I went down to the Blue Note, on West Third Street, to hear The Crusaders. Kathleen was already a big fan of The Crusaders when I met her nearly thirty years ago, and she was eager to catch them in their first appearance at the club since 1986. She made reservations for the second set, which was scheduled to begin at ten-thirty but which, in the event, started much closer to eleven. By then, we were wedged into tight seats in the corner nearest the bar. We'd thought that getting to the club at 9:30 or so would net us a good spot in the first-come-first-served line that's the unavoidable downside of an outing to the Blue Note. The sidewalk is less than capacious, and the weather is usually unpleasant. It wasn't too bad on Saturday night, but we arrived at 9:40, and were well back in the last quarter, perhaps the last fifth, of the line. (We had never been to the Blue Note on a Saturday before.) Hence the lousy seats. We both ended up standing alongside our chairs.

Only two of the original Crusaders are still in the band, pianist Joe Sample and sax player Wilton Felder. Nils Lundgren has come on board to play the trombone, along with drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nicklas Sample (the pianist's son). So far, so good. These capable musicians were all very evidently on the same page. The surprise was the appearance of Ray Parker, Jr, on the guitar.

Some other time, I'll tell you why I think that "Jack and Jill" is the greatest pop song of the Seventies. It initially appeared on Raydio, Mr Parker's first album, along with the amazingly transgressive "Let's Go All The Way" (every teenaged girl's father's worst nightmare). A very gifted blues guitarist, Mr Parker wasn't an obvious fit, and he didn't get to do much, either. I wondered, in fact, if this might be the Ray Parker, Jr Rehabilitation Tour, with the musician being grateful just for the chance to appear on stage. He wasn't given a solo until the penultimate number, "X Marks The Spot," and by then I was pretty impatient to hear him let it rip. Let it rip he did, however, and for the first time that evening I found that I had simply fallen into the music.

The houseful of serious Crusaders fans got what it came for, an hour or so of bluesy jazz that pulled off the neat trick of being brightly assertive and laid-back at the same time. Wilt Felder and Nils Lundgren turned in a series of bravura solos that drew enthusiastic applause, while Joe Sample attacked his keyboards with untiring vigor. I think I might have had a better time without the distraction of waiting to hear Ray Parker, Jr.

I know that I'd have had a better time, as would almost everyone in our quarter of the room, without the distraction of a couple of dateless young women, one of them a willowy blonde, who lost interest in the music early and required a massive hushing from the surrounding tables to remember where they were. I wish I could say that such bad behavior at the Blue Note came as a surprise.

January 13, 2007

Bob le flambeur


This afternoon, I watched Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 marvel, starring Roger Duchesne. More varied in tone that Touchez pas au grisbi, a film that Jacques Becker made the year before with Jean Gabin, it is equally saturated by the taciturn, American swagger of its leading men - both of whom drive big American cars. Bob is so American-accented, in fact, that it's difficult to believe that Humphrey Bogart wouldn't have remade it had he a few years longer.

I wonder if an American who hadn't seen very much French cinema would see what I'm talking about. In France, "taciturn" means three or four words for every one that an American gangster would utter. And everyone is very well turned out. In his first scenes, Bob is heading home after a night gambling, and he looks pretty rumpled, but from then on he's always sharp. His hair is perfectly combed, his ties are beautifully knotted, and he glows with well-being even when his fortunes take a turn for the worse. Most of his colleagues, such as his partner, Roger (André Garet), and his friend le commissaire Ledru (Guy Decomble) are scruffier, in a Gallic way, but they're never grubby or oafish. Nobody is overweight.

Then there is the pace of the film, which betrays a tie with the silents that Hollywood had put completely behind it twenty years early. The pacing is slightly too fast; dialogue is exchanged with the brio of a tennis match, even when it is not at all witty. It's as though the characters don't stop to think what they say. The soundtrack is also, from an American standpoint, nothing less than bizarre, shifting schizophrenically between the tinkling gaiety of Montmartre's boîtes to portentousness worthy of Bernard Herrmann, and with a dispatch that, for anyone not actually watching, sounds deranged. It took the French cinema longer to abandon the old idea that every movie ought to have something for everyone.

But it is pretty easy to see the American dreams that this film must have hinted at to French audiences. Bob is free with his money, but quietly, always for generous and never for ostentatious purposes. He cares very much - more than he ought to, perhaps - for his protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), and for Anne (Isabelle Corey), the streetwalker whom he takes under his wing but releases without protest when Paulo takes an interest in her. In a very American way, Bob is too disciplined and mature to get mixed up with women in any complicated way, and one suspects that, if he did have a girlfriend, it would one along the lines of Max's well turned-out American in Grisbi.

The climax of the film is not what you're led to expect. In a touch that might have inspired Ronald Neame's wonderful Gambit (1966; inexcusably out of print), the big heist that Bob has planned is presented "as he expected it to go" - in other words, without a hitch. This scene is not labored, however, and it turns out to be a rehearsal of nothing. Instead of the heist, we have Bob at the Deauville tables, raking in winnings and still more winnings - on this fatal night, his luck has changed. The inconstant mood of the film gives no real assurance as to what sort of ending to expect (id est, dead or alive), and I don't want to spoil the movie even if I can't imagine why anyone would be reading this without having seen. I'll just say that the last three lines are increasingly droll, and the last one downright clever, a genuine touché!

I put off watching Bob le flambeur for years, thinking that it must be just another gangster movie with a bloodbath at the end. But it's not. It's a fascinating appropriation of American possibilities by French manners.

December 20, 2006

Dyspeptic Mr Isherwood

Am I the only reader puzzled by Charles Isherwood's dyspeptic take on The Little Dog Laughed and Regrets Only?* Of Julie White's Hollywood agent in Little Dog, he writes,

At the performance I recently attended, virtually every one of those [homophobic] lines got a laugh. As they were meant to. For the character’s noxious vocabulary isn’t meant to mark her as a bigot. The epithets, generally employed in acerbic monologues addressed to the audience, are meant to establish her as a funny gal, if maybe a little soulless. It seems for most people they do.

"Funny gal"? I don't think so. "Shameless" would be more like it. The audience laughs because Diane's promiscuous insults reflect impatience, not malice. They're funny pretty much in the same way that Archie Bunker's insults were funny. They tell us that Diane's bloodstream runs with iced vodka.

Is Mr Isherwood unacquainted with the glee of slipping perfectly horrid remarks into everyday conversation? With the right friend, of course.

As for Regrets Only, Mr Isherwood is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I've promised not to discuss the plot of that show here, but I can say that "clever antigay jokes" appear to be the last thing on Paul Rudnick's mind. I should have said that the play demonstrates the importance, to everyday life in affluent Manhattan in any case, of hairdressers and florists, many or most of whom just happen to be gay. Does Mr Isherwood think that it's shameful to be a hairdresser? That hairdressers per se reflect badly on gay men? The longer I look at his essay, the more that seems to be the case.

In the film Flannel Pajamas, the mother-in-law says to the husband, "I want you to know that I believe every negative stereotype about the Jewish people." This zinger comes out of the blue, and I was not the only person in the theatre who laughed, even though there was nothing funny about the context. What an outrageous thing to say! And how gratuitous! The humor runs very deep: the Jewish husband has been very naive about the consequences of marrying a Catholic girl, and this is his wake-up call. (He sleeps through it.)

* "Anti-Gay Slurs: The Latest in Hilarity," in The New York Times, 17 December 2006.

December 19, 2006

Regrets Only, at MTC's Stage I

Last week was a busy one, with two concerts and a play. The concerts were both very satisfying, but the play was such an outstanding delight that I shall try to tell you something about it now. I don't want to give away the plot, because a great part of the fun is anticipating, if only by minutes, the direction in which it goes. And I shall try not to re-tell any of the fifteen or so drop-dead jokes.

If I did tell one of the drop-dead jokes, you might not find it all that terribly funny - or, in the case of the Donna Karan joke, you might not get it all. But the New York audience at MTC's Stage I the other night didn't miss a thing. Expectations were high - Christine Baranski and George Grizzard in a Paul Rudnick play!!!! - but they were met and then surpassed. It was obvious from the start that the show was going to be funny, possibly very funny. What was not so obvious was the show's very satisfying ending. So often, comedies turn into overtired three year-olds as the finish approaches: they don't want to end, but they can't quite keep going, either. So they fuss, and when the curtain comes down the audience is simply grateful. Not so at the end of Regrets Only. The play's final moments are just poignant and sweet enough to give a dash of Der Rosenkavalier. Just a dash.

For years if not forever, Paul Rudnick's humor has operated on the assumption that gay men and women - but mostly gay men - already control the world. It is a brave, whistling-in-the-dark way of dealing with a society afflicted by patches of stolid homophobia in which gay men are occasionally beaten to death. In Regrets Only, the playwright lets his postulate off the leash and permits it to rule, if not the world, then the second act of his play. This duplex fantasy, playing on the surface but also shoring up the foundations, is the perfect catalyst for transforming pointless, empty lives into magical ones. 

Continue reading about Regrets Only at Portico.

December 01, 2006



This evening's home movie (last evening's, actually) was Shopgirl. Although it's late and I'm lazy, the reason I don't pull down the books to get at the novel - it's triple shelved, way at the back - is because I'm still under the movie's spell, and the movie and scholarship even of this slightest kind are grossly incompatible. But! They changed the ending, no? As I recall, Mirabelle ended up with Ray Porter, not with Jeremy Whatsis. I remember feeling sorry for the kid, because the older man's advantages were so out of proportion. Shopgirl the book is one of the very first that I wrote up for Portico (way back in 2000!), but, typically - and I'm proud of this - it's useless in the Cliff Notes department. Tomorrow I'll excavate. At least I know it's there.

It's a beautiful movie, with a truly magical score by Barrington Pheloung. Beyond that, it had an extraordinary charge for me. I had expected to identify with Steve Martin's character - even though I'd stayed away from the film precisely because I think it's kind of creepy to write a bestseller and then star in the movie adaptation. But I didn't identify with Steve Martin at all (much as I'd love to be mindlessly rich). Instead, I wanted to throw him out of the house, because when Claire Danes wasn't busy looking like my first wife (especially when she wore eyeglasses in her pickup truck and tried to see where she was going), she was doing a fine job of acting pretty much exactly like my daughter. This conjunction of influences (mother/daughter) has never occurred before, and I'm more than a little shaken. But I like Claire Danes a lot more than I used to do.

For a very moving account of Shopgirl, don't miss MS Smith's essay at CultureSpace.

November 30, 2006



Anyone curious to see Daniel Craig in action, without supporting the military-indoBroccoli complex, ought to run out and rent Archangel, Jon Jones's film of Robert Harris's 1998 novel of the same name. (I read it.) The BBC production only rarely betrays its origins in television, and the length - just under two hours - also suggests a feature film's crispness. The production is, overall, dandy.

Archangel is about (did I say that?) the possibility that Stalin fathered a carefully-bred child child, a son who was quietly nurtured in the rough countryside outside the eponymous Arctic port that, contrary to the film's say-so, was not built by Peter the Great (Elizabethan merchants did business there). Daniel Craig plays Kelso, an American historian who finds himself drawn into a carefully woven plot that will rely on his credibility as a Westerner to burnish the Stalin legend. Perhaps because he has the sense to figure this out pretty quickly, he keeps his life; a suave Russian intelligence chief (Alexei Diakov) and a bruyant American cable reporter (Gabriel Macht) are not so lucky. Yekaterina Rednikova plays the smart girl who helps Kelso out, and she's terrific, one part Rachel McAdams, one part Sally Field, and one part gifted Russian actress whose English it is a pleasure to hear. Archangel is the best English-language Russian noir since Gorky Park, and it's almost as good, which is saying a lot.

November 28, 2006

The American Pilot, at MTC's Stage II

The American Pilot, David Greig's new play, is a remarkable piece of work, and MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow has done a bang-up job of directing it. I don't think I'd seen any of the cast members before, and most of them had not appeared on Broadway, but they were all super, and I expect to see more of them. As I say perhaps too often, one of the pleasures of frequenting the New York theatre is the chance to see actors routinely tackle wildly different roles, something not quite a handful of Hollywood actors are allowed to do.

The story is simple. An American Pilot (Aaron Staton) crashes his plane in a remote Eurasian village that is under the control of a guerilla opposition. The government...

Continue reading about The American Pilot aux Champignons at Portico.

November 21, 2006

Losing Louie, at MTC

Losing Louie, the comedy by Simon Mendes da Costa that's about to close at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was a strange show, in that I laughed all the way through it and then felt like an idiot. The moment the curtain came down, I felt that I'd been made to sit through a something dredged from the Seventies. There were plenty of good lines, but in the context of the completed performance they withered with age. Why the play's problems didn't obtrude until it was over remains a mystery to me.

As long as Matthew Arkin and Mark Linn-Baker were emoting on stage, I could buy their angry half-brother routine. It was almost cute. When it was over, though, it was suddenly just acting. The actual brothers whom they'd been impersonating didn't seem very real to me, because they were too much the product of Plotting.

The action takes place in a Pound Ridge bedroom, in both the Early Sixties and the present, in a scenes that alternate between the periods. This an interesting device, because not only does it double the narrative and, with that, the climax, but it offers the opportunity to wash the later action in irony. By revealing, in the denouement of the earlier story, that the relationships between the characters in the later story are not what we or they think it is, the playwright can give his show a neat double take. Mr Mendes da Costa, does not sneak up to us with any surprises, however. Long before Bobbie Ellis (Rebecca Creskoff) leans over the bassinette and coos, "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie," we know that the relationship between the middle aged Tony (Mr Linn- Baker) and Reggie (Mr Arkin) are closer than most adoptive brothers, because they share a father, the late lamented Louie (Scott Cohen). Memo to Mr M de C: Tell us something we didn't see coming before it sailed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!

Continue reading about Losing Louie aux Champignons at Portico.

November 07, 2006

To See Such Sport

The Little Dog Laughed, the new play by Douglas Carter Beane, is one of the best-plotted pieces of theatre that I've enjoyed in a long time. It ends with a fantastic ka-chink that's a surprise only because the solution to the problem ought to have been obvious from the start. Of course, it would never have been obvious to a normal person. Only a barracuda-powered Hollywood agent could work it out.

For that reason, I can't say much about the play itself. It has two modes, questioning and answering. The questioning scenes are the ones in which Julie White, playing the role of Diane, is not on stage. Alex - to my mind the show's lead, magnificently played by Johnny Galecki - is the questioner. A hustler, he is tripped up by a botched encounter with movie star Mitch (Tom Everett Scott), and the question is, what if these two guys really like each other and just want to be together? Alex has a girl friend, Ellen (Ari Graynor), who's ready to upgrade her status to girlfriend when her lover dumps her. It's a case of bad timing, especially because Mitchell is slated to make a big movie about two gay men in love, and it won't help his career if he's actually gay in real life. As Diane, his agent, puts it, if he's straight, then playing a gay man is "noble." If he's gay, it's bragging!

Diane is the answerer. Julie White is almost terrifyingly dynamic onstage. Always alluringly outfitted, she's in motion even when she's sitting still. As quick and cynical as any "industry" personality ever to appear on stage, screen, or television, her Diane is a monster of calculation and bullshit (a lot of the bullshit, in fact, is abbreviated or pantomimed, as if it were a question of Diane's not being able to utter some falsehood or other for the trillionth time). Her handling of Mitchell, especially when he flounders in new-found love, is so deliberate that she's more animal trainer than agent. Let's hope that Ms White gets a Tony for her breathtaking performance - and that all the other playwrights rush to provide her with future vehicles. Not since Angela Lansbury rolled out Mame Dennis has there been an actress so loudly and blindingly that astronomical phenomenon that we call a Star. The woman is a one-man kick line.

Mr Beane allows himself everything, even Diane's announcement that it's time for intermission. Diane actually deconstructs the play's plot at one point, with a funky rule of thumb. In the first act, you put your characters up in a tree. In the second, you throw things at them. In the third act, you bring them down from the tree. And the difficulty with this play, she observes, is that what's being thrown at the characters in The Little Dog Laughed is happiness. Up in the tree, Mitchell and Alex, who have never been honest about their sexuality, discover that their desires might actually lead them to happiness. This is the romantic surprise of the play's "second act" (Little Dog has only two acts, of course.), and Mr Scott and Mr Galecki are very sweet about it.

And then, somebody throws in a baby.

I've read in the Times that The Little Dog Laughed has been tinkered with since its Off-Broadway days. Ms White and Mr Galecki are veterans of the earlier production; Mr Scott and Ms Graynor are new. The production team - Allen Moyer (sets), Jeff Mashie (costumes), Donald Holder (lights), and Lewis Flinn (music) - set the show off wonderfully well. Director Scott Ellis makes sure that his four highly talented actors are always on the same page. (October 2006)

October 31, 2006


As to why we went to see Butley, refresh your memory.

Simon Gray's Butley is a Greek tragedy in every way but the most important one: there is no catharsis. The hero comes to no blinding insight. He does not reach the sudden understanding that he himself is the cause of everything that has gone wrong. And, given Ben Butley's situation, it would wholly bogus if he did.

Butley is no longer a contemporary play. The world has slipped since the early Seventies (the show opened on Broadway for the first time in 1972). It no longer accommodates people like Butley; it institutionalizes them. Today, Butley would be shuffled off to rehab, which, from what I can tell, is a mild form of what the Cultural Revolutionaries in China used to call "re-education." You are taught the new, the correct values. You are assured that, in order to make any headway with your life, you must not only subscribe to but enact these values in your daily life. For better or worse, the expression of existential anomie is no longer tolerated in Western society.

Largely, perhaps, because everyone got tired of the Butleys of the world. Brilliant, bitter, committed to drunken malingering, Butley has nothing to do, really, save wait for death. He fills his hours with repartee, seduction, and evasion. If he can avoid teaching - he has taught at Cambridge, but has slid somewhat to London University - he will. Students are as disagreeable to him as mosquitoes. His love life is a shambles, and soon in ruins; if Butley has learned anything in the course of the play, it's that he doesn't have the energy to try to kindle something new. He is terminally disaffected.

He is also, however, extremely entertaining. Butley is an aggressive troublemaker, gifted with a fluent tongue that's capable of many modes of speech. His head is stuffed with poetry that he can rattle off by the yard. (If you ask me, his misery owes to the fact that, for some reason or other, there came a time when Butley stopped learning new lines.) He is a one-man George-and-Martha, conducting a war of attrition against himself while only appearing to take on the other people in the room. He is dishonest, disloyal, insincere and cruel, but these are not so much character flaws as battle wounds. Butley's downfall, such as it is, comes across as sad as it is inevitable.

Continue reading about Butley at Portico.

October 14, 2006


Scandal and uproar: No Saturday piece! Of course, I've backdated this a bit so that it will fit, but the truth is that I didn't write a thing on 14 October. Truth be known, I usually write everything the day before, painstakingly writing in the past tense. I don't know what happened today. I was just busy.

Happily, the movie that I saw yesterday was Infamous, the new Douglas McGrath movie about Truman Capote. The movie that Waited A Year to run in theatres, so as not to compete with Capote. All I'm going to say is that the two movies are brilliantly complementary, each magnificently better than the other in one way and totally lacking in another. The skinny, at least according to me, is that Capote is about writing, while Infamous is about love. Ordinarily, that would make Capote out to be the loser, but, watching it tonight, I had to hold on to it. Infamous is easy where Capote is analytical. And Capote has the best lines. The one about growing up in the same house and walking out different doors, for one. The line - the last line in the movie - about how "you didn't want to." Infamous has nothing to compare with these.

But Infamous is far better sourced, resting on a good book instead of a bad one, and Toby Jones, I must say, made me feel terribly sorry for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Because, jeeze, after I'd seen Infamous, I thought that PsH was me! So broad and strong. Toby Jones made me think that, if I had tried to impersonate Truman Capote, he'd have made me look like a a bear training at somebody's table. 


October 05, 2006

Mode sombre

It's clear to me, novice though I may be, that the time constraints imposed by Project Runway are truly deforming. They're getting in the way of the information that the show's creative designers have to tell us.

I say this because it was very very clear to me, novice though I may be, that Michael Knight would have recut his dress several times, if need be, to get the open part of his bodice just right. The judges were correct when they said that it was too much - and they were correct not to kick anybody off the show this week. What was wrong with Michael Knight's dress was time. He hadn't had the time to do the sort of fitting and recutting that his concept really required, and that is part of most bold designing. Michael was concentrating, as one might expect, on the weaving at the waist of his dress. He didn't realize that his dress had a hole instead of a cutout until it was too late.

So I hope that Project Runway will become more intelligent about stopwatches. In the real world. couture is very much not about deadlines, much as the show might wish to convey that idea. There are deadlines, to be sure, but they're not the deadlines that Project Runway imposes.

A real designer is not somebody who has to use a certain amount of cloth in twelve hours of cutting and sewing. I understand the commercial/marketing underpinnings of the show, but Project Runway will lose its audience the moment that it's perceived to be a marketing how-to. Sure, the big buyers want clothes fast and cheap. But audiences don't.

As Tim Gunn said this evening, fashion is essentially subjective. Of course it is - and that's one of the hurdles that Project Runway manages to jump from week to week. So let me just say that I really liked Jeffrey Sebelia's dress this week. I didn't understand why the judges disliked it, not at all. I thought he'd done a magnificent little Marie-Antoinette gown (the judges said "milkmaid," not realizing - why? - what a striking move this dress was for Jeffrey), and then photographed his model as Kirsten Dunst. What were the judges thinking? Or not.

And what am I thinking, writing about this show. 

October 03, 2006

Bonjour Tristesse

The MoMA is presenting a series of Otto Preminger films this month, and Ms NOLA asked me if I'd like to accompany her and her parents to an eight-thirty showing of Bonjour Tristesse yesterday evening. As Kathleen would be working late, I thought I might at least spend a bit more time with M & Mme NOLA. I didn't know what to expect of the movie. I'd never seen it, and only fell into talking about it in conjunction with recent discussions, here and there, of Jean Seberg. I had never stopped to think about the oddity of a Hollywood adaptation of a sensational French novel. In 1958, I might have been old enough (just) to have seen Vertigo, but Bonjour Tristesse would have been quite beyond the pale for a ten year-old. Since then, Preminger's reputation has never amounted to the sum of his parts, largely, I think, because he's the very opposite of Hitchcock, a dabbler in every genre. People who like Anatomy of a Murder will probably loathe Forever Amber. I certainly don't remember any Preminger festivals from college days, for what that's worth, which isn't much. And then there's the ambiguity of Laura. It's clearly a top-fifty film, sometimes a top-ten, but there's no denying that it dabbles in glamorous trashiness. It's very highly distilled pulp. So I haven't made a point of seeing movies just because Otto Preminger produced and directed them.

What a revelation, to see Bonjour Tristesse at a time when I've been reviewing the films that were very serious when I was young. The Antonionis, the Godards. The movies that I didn't really understand - even though I certainly felt their anti-bourgeois sting. Movies such as L'Eclisse didn't prompt disgust with the affluent classes; they merely reminded me that I belonged to one and would always belong. In many ways, Bonjour Tristesse is the ancestor of such films, and how telling that it's an "American" picture produced by a Viennese!

As film writer Foster Hirsch, who introduced the movie last night, pointed out, Preminger was the first filmmaker to present the inanity of unanchored life. He put together a dazzling show that American critics didn't like at all and that French critics were mad about. If the argument that Preminger inspired the Nouvelle Vague hasn't been made, then it's time that someone made it. Rather than analyse the film - a rather premature undertaking, since I've only seen Bonjour Tristesse once - I'll just offer a list of details that interested me. If you don't know the picture, I hope that they'll pique your curiosity.

  • The car in the water at the end. I'd like Antonioni to deny that this is the source of a similarly-toned episode in L'Eclisse.
  • The housemaid who, while all the fashionable guests are helping themselves to coupes of champagne, drains, as surreptitiously as possible, a tumbler of booze, off to the left. It's sort of like one of Hitchcock's appearances in his own movies, but also quite different. The help have no respect for their masters. Which is another way of saying that they are characters, too, not "housemaids."
  • Martita Hunt, ferocious in green taffeta at the craps table. (Craps has just been introduced on the Côte d'Azur.) I first saw Hunt in The Brides of Dracula, something I wasn't supposed to see at the time, and I've never gotten over her performance as Dracula's mom.
  • Mylène Demongeot's preposterous ribbon-basket hat. Very Fellini. The women's clothes, by the way, are incredibly beautiful, Givenchy and Hermès. You could watch Bonjour Tristesse for the couture alone.
  • Deborah Kerr. Never has she looked quite so sleek and sophisticated - and yet she plays (as usual) the character who stands for "the good life," in the moral sense. (She actually labors, at fashion design.) It's almost impossible to cope with the fact that in her very next performance she would be the beaten-down daughter of Gladys Cooper, in Separate Tables. On my first trip to London, in 1977, I saw Ms Kerr, who was born in 1921, play Candida in the West End. It was a stretch, but it held.
  • The gist of the story of Bonjour Tristesse is that Cécile, a rich girl of seventeen who, in Henry James's view at least, has been exposed to adult misbehavior far too early in life. resents the steadying but restrictive influence that a prospective stepmother (her own late mother's best friend) is going to have on the companionate life that she and her father have been quite inappropriately enjoying. (She calls him by his first name and kisses him, if briskly, on the mouth.) She comes up with an opera buffa plan to break off the impending nuptials, and there is a great deal of youthful plotting and scampering about. The rub of the story is that the child has no idea how very unfunny the consequences of her ruse will be. That giggling can lead to tragedy is something that the Nouvelle Vague auteurs would treat more starkly, more absurdly. But - and, again, Antonioni comes to mind, as well as Fellini - their films are certainly marked by unconsciously inappropriate laughter. Monica Vitti certainly knew how to transpose teenaged naughtiness into adult registers.
  • The alternation between the black-and-white of the framing scenes, set in Paris, and the glorious color of the Côte d'Azur.
  • I'll come back to that, but let's note that this movie was shot entirely on location in France. The actors may have been Anglophone. But as a Viennese, Preminger demonstrably knew how to coax his cast into speaking English as if it were speaking French. There is an insistence on the word "brilliant" - fun experiences are always "brilliant" - that points to a lot of génial in Françoise Sagan's novel.
  • The Paris, black-and-white scenes are solemn and insouciant at the same time. That's to say that the buildings are solemn and the people are insouciant. While the Mediterranean scenes are backflashes in which the story unfolds, the black-and-white scenes constitute a period of less than twenty-four hours. They are increasingly conducted in voice-over, as the girl, now about a year older, looks back on the previous summer and refers to the "invisible wall of memories" that stands between her and all genuine feeling. Preminger dances on the cusp between the European idea that memories can be crippling and the American idea that you can do things that are so bad that you never feel right ever again. How strange that these are two different ideas!
  • David Niven is quietly amazing as Cécile's father. He does the usual "tennis, anyone?" thing with consummate leggerezza while reflecting the dark awareness that he is not leading his life correctly. He and Jean Seberg are very handsome people whose lives are very, well, fucked up.
  • There is a scene in which Cécile and the boy next door, Philippe, are about to succumb to passion-on-the-tiles. This is a pivotal scene in the plot, because Anne (Deborah Kerr, as the stepmother-to-be) walks in on the action and decides that the two kids can't see each other anymore. What you see when you hear Anne's admonition is a pair of a pair of legs, one white and smooth, the other lean and hairy. The sheer hairiness of Philippe's legs recalled, for me, Picasso's slightly pornographic Suite Vollard, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don't think that I have ever seen a more sudden telegraphing of "where this is going." Philippe is a young law student, but, from the thighs down he's a satyr.

And the satyr was there last night, too: Geoffrey Horne, the actor who plays Philippe. He sat in the row in front of us, along with Preminger's widow, Hope, who at the time that Bonjour Tristesse was made was only Hope Bryce, the costume coordinator. After the showing, they both spoke, and Mr Horne inspired a lot of thought about the passage of time. We'd seen him, at twenty-five, playing a virile but soulful (and somewhat naive) twenty-five year-old. Last night, he was seventy-three: hale and hearty, but definitely not "the boy in the Speedo" whom Mr Hirsch introduced. Mr Horne did say how grateful he was that Bonjour Tristesse was as old as it was, because "nowadays, we'd have been naked, and what an embarrassment that would be!" Everyone laughed. But of course it wouldn't be embarrassment. It would just be a more mercilessly chiseled loss.

September 23, 2006

Friday Ramble: Keeping Mum and the Met

Arriving at the Beekman with time to spare, I discovered that I didn't have my wallet. I was fairly certain that I'd left it at home. I'd been very upset about something on my way out, and I'd evaded the usual protocols that assure that I go out into the big city well equipped. If I didn't carry my Metrocard separately, I lamented, then this wouldn't have happened. As usual, I had no small change or money of any kind in my pockets. So I walked across 67th Street to First Avenue, caught a bus, got off at 86th Street, returned to the apartment, found my wallet right where it ought to be (when I'm at home, that is), went back downstairs and caught a taxi at the bottom of the driveway. There were a few bottlenecks on Second Avenue, but I got into the Beekman thirty-five minutes after I'd made my unpleasant discovery. I did not disabuse the guy in the booth who sold me a seniors ticket.

So it will be a little while before I find out how much of Niall Johnson's Keeping Mum I missed.

Continue reading about my Friday ramble at Portico.

September 15, 2006

Scrolls, Photographs, and Lots of Post-Impressionism

Having spent the week so far reading and writing, and having absolutely nothing to write about but books and more books, I felt restless this morning. Despite the light but persistent rain, I decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum. I'm crazy about the cafeteria in the basement; the cheeseburgers are awful in just the right way, and the fries and onions aren't bad, either. It is high school, but without adolescents. I went and returned in taxis. 

The museum was fairly busy. I hadn't been alone in it lately, and wandering about among old favorites without having to think was a pleasure, albeit one that I wouldn't want to repeat very often. Alone, I can stand in front of the vitrines just to the north of the grand staircase, upstairs, and gaze to my heart's content. The pieces of porcelain there arrayed are very pretty, but what makes them interesting is their globalism. The painting on a Japanese plate mimics a Chinese bowl, as does, in another instance, a Meissen saucer. Then there's the Chinese stuff that's made to look Western. Plates were the T-shirts of the eighteenth century, with everyone vying to have the right one from right source, thus encouraging knock-offs. No automation, no phones, no Internet, no container shipping - just human nature doing its thing.

Continue reading about my Met ramble at Portico.

August 21, 2006

The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone is an extraordinarily vibrant solution to the problem of what to do with Broadway's troupes of highly talented musical comedians in an unstylish age. Resuscitating the old chestnuts, as both Girl Crazy and Crazy For You showed, doesn't really work: the old shows - every musical by Cole Porter written before 1948's Kiss Me, Kate, for example - are dramatically lame. Truth to tell, the audiences of the Twenties and Thirties demanded much less of musical comedy than we do. So where are today's vehicles for divas as endowed as, say, Sutton Foster?

Thoroughly Modern Millie - the last show that we saw at the Marquis, and the last time that we saw Ms Foster - was a merely adequate solution. The songs were thoroughly forgettable, and it was hardly more possible to care about the cardboard characters, exhumed as they were from shows that David Merrick wouldn't have considered backing. The show got by on youthful cheek and charm. It ran much longer than I thought it would. Harriet Harris was great in the Bea Lillie role, especially when she wore that outfit in a huge red dragon print (she did, didn't she?). Otherwise...

I expected The Drowsy Chaperone to be much the same. But people talked about it with a different kind of enthusiasm. They hadn't just enjoyed the show, they'd liked it. Eventually, I decided that we had to see it, and I'm glad that we did, because it is a very special, and deeply moving, musical. Perhaps the most moving musical ever.

Once upon a time, gay men had to behave just like straight men. This was tough, needless to say, and it naturally created an underground world, one in which ...

Continue reading about The Drowsy Chaperone at Portico.

August 12, 2006

Broadway Off


My tale today of adventure and caprice in Times Square may have one or two boring parts. I seem always to be more interested in the boring parts.

However! Kathleen and I -

No, now I remember. I was going to begin this piece with "When has a prediction about my immediate future ever played through?" I'm always wrong, or proved wrong. If I say that I'm going to do X, you may be sure that Y and Z are more like it. If only we knew.

We were going to meet at the Marquis Theatre for a performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. And we did, only not inside the theatre. By the time we met -

The ticket taker looked askance at me. "Have you already been in?" she asked. I didn't find the question important, although it was. You see, they don't tear off theatre tickets any more. They scan them. I walked into the Marquis and, oh dear, noticed that a woman was sitting in Kathleen's seat.

Ushers were summoned - very nicely. Ticket stubs were examined - with Japanese politeness. Good thing, too: for our tickets are for next Friday.

I was covered in embarrassment. The woman whom I'd asked for proof (that she wasn't sitting in Kathleen's seat) couldn't have been nicer. My new worry was that Kathleen and I had somehow mixed up the dates. That we ought to be in our seats for History Boys instead. Plus, I had to find Kathleen before she, too...

We found one another. I explained the situation. Kathleen was certain that we weren't supposed to be seeing History Boys this evening, and I believed her. We could just go home.

But I said no - we were in the theatre district, it was still ten to eight, and we might find something that would be good to see. Let's just go out into the street, I said. You can do this in New York, I said. Kathleen, who knows only too well that you can do this in New York, was too bewildered by my new spontaneity to object.

I peered down 45th Street. A Chorus Line  - no thanks, even if that's the show that gave me the name that I pasted on Kathleen in the first week of law school - Morales - because she grew up on the north side of 96th Street, a joke that absolutely nobody else in our class got. But "Morales" is a lot easier even for Anglos to say than "Moriarty."

I peered further, and found true gold. "Let's go see Avenue Q!" I cried. "What's Avenue Q?" shouted Kathleen back. She still insists that she knew nothing about the show prior to seeing it.

We paid a lot for our last-minute seats. They were on the aisle, and in the same row as our Drowsy Chaperone tickets.

Which must mean something. We loved Avenue Q. I wept through the whole thing.

"You're not like this," said Kathleen, referring to my having insisted on seeing the show (any show) and then buying the tickets

"Now I am," I replied.

July 21, 2006

Critics and Mass Audiences

In the Times on Tuesday, film critic A O Scott ventured a defense of his profession, in the teeth of the massive popularity of a movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, that he and his colleagues have, shall we say, not praised.

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long.

Having seen this movie's predecessor, I'm certain that Mr Scott's evaluation of the sequel is dead-on. But I thought that, if he wouldn't turn the question on the moviegoing public, I would. Why do masses of people enjoy movies that critics find at least "frequently tedious"? Why doesn't everybody find such movies tedious? Boring is boring, no?

No. Not at all. What could be more boring than a performance of Parsifal for someone hitherto unexposed to opera? To Wagner? To Parsifal itself, for heaven's sake? This is one kind of "boring." It's the "nothing's happening" objection of people who don't know, bless their souls, what kind of "happening" to expect. As a rule, intelligent people can be taught what to look for, and the odds are that, if they're at all musical, they'll respond with enthusiasm and train themselves to pay attention to the details. This is the kind of "boring," then, that is dissipated by education. It is what keeps the arts and ideas alive.

Education, clearly, has nothing to do with savoring the pleasures of Dead Man's Chest, such as they are. Johnny Depp's burlesque in the leading role is undoubtedly delightful, and its contrast probably makes Orlando Bloom's leaden performance unintentionally funny. But what about the "frequently tedious" bits? Is there something that the critics are missing, something that they ought to learn, the better to appreciate the film? Hardly. Their "boring" stems from knowing exactly where to look but not finding anything there. Is the audience finding something interesting somewhere else? No: the audience is not paying attention.

Critics are people who are paid to pay attention. All the time, to every detail. The audience is under no such obligation. For the audience, "it's only a movie." There's no law against letting your mind wander - if you're young, you'll be having a lot of trouble preventing it from wandering. If the movie ceases momentarily to merit your attention, that's no biggie. When it's time to pay attention again, the movie will let you know.

And there are levels of attentiveness. Critics are expected to pay full attention. Ordinary viewers can pay just enough attention to keep track of the story. For regular people, for the mass audience that flocks to pay to see the film, a motion picture is not an artistic unit, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, composed of coherent parts. No. A movie is a series of moments, some of them okay, some of them really exciting, some of them funny, and so forth. When the series itself is interesting, as happens in great popular entertainment, then many people, not just critics, will come away with the sense of a powerful whole, but that experience is not really necessary to the enjoyment of a movie. (This would explain the popularity of kung-fu movies, which are comprised almost exclusively of climaxes.) The enjoyment of a movie requires little more than a darkened auditorium, a moderately comfortable seat, a synchronized audience on the noise front, and working eyes and ears. That's it.

A problem in all the arts, but one that is most acute in the movies, is that first-class work can have a mass appeal, even though relatively few are equipped to analyze its greatness. This is an inconvenient truth, because a great deal of first-class work will never have a mass appeal, while a great deal of utter junk will. The respective circles of "critics" and "mass audiences" do not broadly overlap, but if they didn't overlap at all, there would be no quarreling about boobs and elitists.

Oh, I almost forgot. There is one thing that is very hard, possibly impossible, to learn, and that is how to overlook, temporarily, what you've learned. Once you've been schooled to give something your full attention, trying not do to so triggers alarms of guilt and irritation. That's why it's dangerous to learn about art and ideas. You might be compelled to live among people who have no time for either.

July 17, 2006

Catherine Deneuve

Yesterday afternoon, I watched Nearest to Heaven (Au plus près du paradis), a Tonie Marshall film starring Catherine Deneuve. And William Hurt. I'll have to see it again before I can talk about it with you, but in talking about it with Kathleen afterward I hit on something about Ms Deneuve. The point may be a well-known cliché to people who talk about the movies, so pardon me if I repeat - but do tell me!

And what I'm going to "repeat," if it has been said before, is that Catherine Deneuve has entirely renovated the template of the role of the female star. She has done it the hard way. No one can doubt that in Repulsion and Belle de Jour she played "objects of the male gaze," and did so very well. But she grew up, and so did the filmmakers. At the moment, I'm ignorant enough to say that it was in The Last Metro that she played both a great "desirable" beauty and a person in her own right. Nowadays, of course, she plays only the person in her own right, a person who happens, amazingly, to be more beautiful than her younger self - probably because she's not acting. (Of course she's acting! How could I be so impertinent?) Nowadays, the directors line up to make a film starring Catherine Deneuve, as the fragile but commonsensical beauty she is, a woman whose hands, even, do not betray her sixty-plus years. (All right, she was 59 when she made Nearest to Heaven - opposite an actor two years [really almost three] younger than I am, not five years older.) And they keep making great movies.

Witness Place Vendôme, already eight years old. "Juste un camembert," she says. The movie is about her, not about you. Not about what you want. Not about what you want out of her. It cuts you off on the beach.

It cuts me off.

July 13, 2006

Up at the Villa: Book into Film



Up at the Villa, Philip Haas's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name, is one of my favorite movies. Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies all turn in fantastic performances, and the décor is opulent. So, when the novel fell into my hands, I was avid to read it. Imagine my surprise.

In the movie, the Fascists are intensifying their control of daily life. Foreign residents are required to register with the people on a weekly basis. Against this background, Mary Panton, the heroine, is in something of a pickle when a young man shoots himself in her bedroom - and uses a handgun given to her by the man who wants to marry her. Rowley Flint, a dissolute but wealthy American, comes to her rescue, and helps her to dispose of the body.

The body is discovered, along with Rowley's gun, which he substituted for Sir Edgar's. Two days later, he is detained by the police, with Sir Edgar's weapon on his person. This means that Sir Edgar will be in the soup when he returns from Cannes - all guns must be registered! Mary remembers what the Princess San Ferdinando, a wealthy American widow, told her about Beppino Leopardi, the chief Fascist in Florence and a man who has leered in Mary's direction. I won't spoil it here, but Mary undertakes a somewhat elaborate and very daring ruse, and pulls it off. She gets Rowley out of jail and Sir Edgar's gun.

But as Sir Edgar is about to be Governor of Bengal, Mary sees that she can't be Caesar's wife; eventually, the story of the boy in the bedroom will get out. So she lets Sir Edgar off, even though this leaves her with no marital prospects (Rowley is married) and no money.

In the book, Rowley is English and unmarried, so Mary agrees to marry him. Also, and by the way, nothing that occurred in the second paragraph of my synopsis occurs in the book. No Fascists, no gun problems, no elaborate ruse. I might add that the elaborate ruse is the heart of the movie, and a real caper. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise to find it missing from the book. Screenwriter Belinda Haas evidently made it all up.

Nonetheless, the novella succeeds, because it does what movies usually don't: it takes us into Mary's mind. Nor does the book outwear its welcome. A reprint using old plates, with acres of white on every page and not too many words, the Vintage edition currently for sale is a very quick read. For anyone half as interested as I am in the transformation of books into movies, Up at the Villa provides a wonderful pair of experiences. I would recommend reading the story, first serialized in Redbook, of all places, in the spring of 1940, first. I wish I could have done it that way.

July 11, 2006

My Emerson List

Now that I've finally seen every movie on Jim Emerson's list of 102 films that everyone ought to see, here is my version, with eight substitutions. They are:

The Awful Truth, for Bambi
Evil Under the Sun, for Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Get Shorty, for The Searchers
The Palm Beach Story, for Days of Heaven
¶ The Philadelphia Story
, for The Wild Bunch
Shall We Dance, for Modern Times
Unforgiven, for Dirty Harry
¶ What's Up, Doc?
, for Bringing Up Baby

See the complete list at Portico.

Bambi, The Searchers, Days of Heaven, and The Wild Bunch were dropped to make room for four important comedies; as noted earlier, comedy is seriously underrepresented on the original list; The Awful Truth, Get Shorty, The Palm Beach Story, and The Philadelphia Story are in this sense not substitutions. With Katharine Hepburn on the revised list (and in a much stronger picture), however, I can comfortably exchange the delightful Bringing Up Baby for its even more delightful remake, What's Up, Doc? "There's a person named Eunice?"

Shall We Dance is a state-of-the-art movie that, to my mind, shows Charlie Chaplin's dismal attempt to recreate a silent film the year before for the anachronism that it is. Evil Under the Sun is a much more amusing English movie than the ham-fisted Monty Python and the Holy Grail - I don't believe that Monty Python works at feature length. Finally, Unforgiven is a more grown-up picture than Dirty Harry in every way. Dirty Harry has not aged well - except for folks who are avid listeners of red-state talk radio.

Why eight? I might have changed as many as twelve titles - a baker's ten percent. But the point is not to proselytize my taste. The point is to strengthen the list by adding as many urgent titles as I can think of and then to subtract as many of the less successful pictures as it takes to make room for them. There are still a lot of movies on the list that I would not put there. But I'm glad that I worked through the dozen-odd films that I hadn't seen before. I didn't care for most of them - in fact, I liked only one, The Best Years of Our Lives. But I know more about the movies than I used to. Aguirre, the Wrath of God shows how a director can suggest an overwhelming menace of doom without actually filming much violence. The Big Red One is a solid "man's movie" with sharp edges. The General is funny and engrossing at the same time - Buster Keaton really was sui generis. (What an acrobat!) It's also full of what must have been spectacular tracking shots.

Of course, I'm already tempted to make room for Murder on the Orient Express.

June 30, 2006

Almost There

With Schindler's List, I have seen every movie on Mr Emerson's little list save one: W C Fields's 1934 vehicle, It's a Gift. Until just this minute, I was under the impression that It's a Gift wasn't available at the Video Room, but before committing to that here, I thought I'd ask the manager himself, and, sure enough, they've got it. But what I have to say doesn't require me to have seen It's a Gift. I know that I'll find it amusing; I'd have seen it long ago if it hadn't been for a clerk's mistake. What I want to share is the satisfaction of no longer having to watch a lot of uncongenial films. 

When Schindler's List came out, in 1993, I made a decision not to see it - never to see it. This wasn't a vow, but just a decision, which is why I never gave any thought to skipping it. But I put off seeing it until the end. My decision was based on a conclusion that I'd made after seeing Jurassic Park: a joyous filmmaker when he's having fun, Steven Spielberg becomes a manipulative bore when he's dealing with serious material. He does not trust his audiences to think for themselves, but instead wallows in vulgar grandstanding. (And vulgar people eat it up.) However beautifully made, his films are crass. They make you flinch.

As Schindler's List was ending (the parade of "Schindler Jews" and their children was borderline tacky; having identified a few of the people whose characters figured in Thomas Keneally's novelization, he ought to have identified them all - better not to have started), I saw at once that one of the changes that I am going to make to the list (remember, I have five) will be to substitute Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982) for Schindler's List. The earlier movie is incomparably more powerful. It features one of Meryl Streep's indelible roles - I can't think of a more outstanding performance - and the adaptation of William Styron's novel is one of the most beautifully faithful that I know of. Because the extensive concentration camp scenes focus exclusively on Sophie's concern for her missing child (you still don't know what her choice was), and also because so many scenes take place in the commandant's house, where Sophie is a house slave, the footage is not painful to watch. You open up, beginning to believe that nothing truly bad is going to happen to Sophie - nothing in the way of extermination, that is. It isn't until much later that we flash back to the terrible moment of the choice, which is presented completely out of sequence order. It is the climax of the film, and it packs a terrible wallop. A happy ending to Sophie's story has tugged at our optimism (although Ms Streep's undertones constantly signal otherwise), only to be crushed by a big surprise that fits like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. There is not an ounce of sentimentality in the production.

Indeed, thinking about the two films at the same time makes Schindler's List seem very sentimental indeed, but I'm not going to explore the comparison. Mr Spielberg, unfortunately, did not disappoint, and even though I was greatly moved by the story as it unfolded, I was left with the familiar feeling of having been used. I am not sympathetic to Steven Spielberg's cinematic enterprise (the Indiana Jones films excepted), and that's really all that anybody ought to hear me say. I found myself similarly unsympathetic to The Searchers, Intolerance, Modern Times, Do the Right Thing, Dirty Harry, and Easy Rider, so I won't be writing about them, either - except to explain why certain other films deserve to take their place on the list. There are plenty of other films on the list that I saw long ago and don't care to revisit - Fight Club, It's a Wonderful Life, Once Upon a Time in the West - and a few that I have recently revisited without much pleasure, such as Lawrence of Arabia  and Gone With the Wind. I've no interest in trying to persuade anyone that these are not good movies.

(Although I can't resist saying that, to me, the first half of Gone With the Wind is a screwball comedy very incongruously stuck in a blood-soaked epic, while the second half is just awful. Give me Carol Burnett's Went With the Wind any day.)

Did someone say "screwball comedy" in parenthesis? The most curious fact about the list is its implication of Mr Emerson's very unsophisticated sense of humor. I count exactly three screwballs on the list, and one of them, Some Like It Hot is very uncharacteristic of the genre in important ways. (Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise is very Viennese, but it's no screwball.) Movies such as The Graduate, Singin' in the Rain and Annie Hall are often billed as comedies, but not by me. But even if we include these, the number of comedies on the list does not exceed ten. Only ten percent of the greatest movies are comedies? I don't think so. And where's musical comedy, as in Top Hat? Although I'm not going to put them on this list, The Sting, The Producers (original version), It Happened One Night, Get Shorty, and Born Yesterday all belong on any "hundred greatest" list. So do Peter Sellers, Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Alec Guinness and Wendy Hiller, just to name a few of the great British comedians overlooked by Mr Emerson. (Guinness's Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't begin to count.)

The delivery guy just showed up with It's a Gift. Back to work.

June 23, 2006


Thomas Meglioranza has been writing for a while about his arduous preparation for the role of Prior Walter, in Peter Eötvös's operatic adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The work, mounted by the Boston Modern Orchestra and Opera Boston, received its American premiere last Friday. The critics came on Saturday night (I'm told), and they seem to have liked the work. They are quite unanimous about Tom: everybody liked his performance very much. It was from the reviews, and not from the baritone, that I gathered that his role was something like the lead. Congratulations, Mr Meglioranza!

I had not thought of writing about the event, however, because I didn't see it myself. I have never seen the play, and I have no idea what Mr Eötvös's music sounds like. But as a fan of Tom's I was eager to read the reviews, and one of them, which appears on the writer's Web log in advance of publication in MusicalAmerica, set me on a line of thought that at first seems quite depressing. The blog in question is Steve Smith's Night After Night.

Scrolling down through Mr Smith's recent entries, I was of course aware that I was visiting a journalist's site. It is in the nature of journalism to track the new, and I'm not surprised that, when Mr Smith lists the classical music that he's listening to, the recordings are all new, or, at least, out-of-the-way. Music critics don't have to go back; fresh performances are always welling up about them. What did strike me as incongruous, however, was the jumble of genres. For someone of my age, there is something decidedly transgressive about talking about both Jordi Savall and Ornette Coleman with much the same kind of admiration. What I realized, finally, was that the transgressiveness has entirely disappeared.

Steve Smith's wide-ranging taste is beginning to look like a certain kind of norm for listeners half my age. It's a much bolder taste, but it's also, I think, somewhat less reflective. It mirrors the voracious appetite for any food but mom's that seems to be required of today's hip New Yorkers. Sometimes I don't quite believe that the enthusiasm is real - it can't be! - but then I recollect what a very different musical world today's thirtysomethings grew up in. First, music became less political after 1970 - does anyone remember Ellen Willis proclaiming the "death of rock"? - and correspondingly less grimly embraced. Second, recordings poured in from everywhere to the racks of Tower Records. (I suspect that computerized inventories made the swelling possible.) When I was young, there was always a handful of guys who admired Beethoven's Late Quartets and Miles Davis equally, but, for the most part, they were showoffs of understatement. Genres were ghettos; they had a lot to do with what sort of friends one made.

Of course, I've also become an old person who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with lots of new names. And knowing that I will never have an iPod is sobering. I can't imagine listening to music anywhere but in my rooms. Yet no one was a more passionate user of the Walkman when it first appeared. In other words, I haven't got anything against iPods. I just wouldn't use one now. I hate to say it, but it's something that I've outgrown, like the taste for swimming.

I prefer, that is, to think of it as a matter of outgrowing - as opposed to senescing. I'm no longer driven to listen to recordings all day long, partly because all this Daily Blague-related reading and writing requires my undivided attention, but partly too because my head is already stuffed with wisps of lovely music. They're muffled and unobtrusive, but very pleasant nevertheless. Sometimes, I have to play recordings just to impose some law and order.

I ought to get out more. Last spring, Ms NOLA made a compilation for me that, when I got round to listening to it, I was tempted to turn off in the middle of every cut. But I hung on, and was wowed at the end, by what turned out to be the first two cuts of Rufus Wainwright's Want One. I got the album pronto, but not before being lured into buying Want Two by the promise of an enclosed DVD - in which Mr Wainwright sings most of Want One's songs at the Fillmore. The first song on the DVD, however, is not one of Rufus's. He never says whose it is, and I always wonder what different things the members of the audience made of it. I knew just what to make of it: the marvel of Rufus Wainwright's turning Absence, by Hector Berlioz (from Les nuits d'été) into a contemporary torch song.

Welcome to the present.

June 13, 2006

Knocking 'em off, cont'd

Working through Mr Emerson's little list, I've seen Easy Rider, Modern Times, and The Big Red One. At no time did I wonder how I had missed these films. Two were very uncongenial, while the third, Modern Times, was ultimately inconsequential.

Watching Easy Rider was like doing homework - until the very end, when the gratuitous shootings made me angry. Of course, it stoked a lot of memories, all of them tinged with disappointment. In the Sixties, I was as convinced as any bright young student that our parents were soulless hypocrites, but the counterculture was either feckless or strident. I thought that older Americans had lost touch with significance - I still do - and my response was to think more seriously and comprehensively than they seemed inclined to do in their suburban dens. The Maoist option - throwing culture out the window and "starting fresh" - was the last thing I was inclined to exercise. And then there was the matter of tribalism, which divided relatively uneducated people into hostile clans. Easy Rider distills the wasteful distractions of its time into a nasty cocktail that reminded me of being uncomfortable and friendless.

The Big Red One, in contrast, roused no personal recollections, because I never served in the military, and I don't remember World War II. I spent the entire film waiting for one of the five gallant soldiers to be shot and killed. If I'd known that this wasn't going to happen, I'd have been a bit more relaxed, but, even so, I don't know what to make of a war picture such as this. As a platform for showcasing attractive American manhood, it comes close to glamorizing warfare for the opportunities it offers to bring out the best in people. As a war story, however, it brings home the sheer slog of battle: one damned thing after another. I watched; it's over; The End. 

Modern Times is a very curious picture: made in 1936, it remains effectively a silent movie despite  its sound track. Aside from singing a naughty song in gibberish, Charlie Chaplin doesn't make a sound. I felt that I was watching him impersonate himself, as if the Little Tramp were a routine, an amalgam of tics and glances, the point of which was to make some sort of fun. But of what? The romance with Paulette Goddard's "gamin" is utterly stillborn, broken by the attempt to simulate Twenties simplicities with Thirties production values. Some of the bits, particularly at the start, are very funny, but the insistent accompaniment of "Smile" takes Modern Times on a turn for the gloomy.

The more I savor the list overall, the more obviously it appears to be the work of an earnest man. Where's Top Hat? Where's Laurel and Hardy? (Music Box is a Sisyphean tour de force of comic agony.) Where's Douglas Sirk, or Separate Tables. (Where's Pygmalion, for the matter of that?) Here's another substitution I'm almost certain to make: What's Up, Doc? for Bringing Up Baby. Madeline Kahn's Eunice is surely one of the 102 most memorable performances in film.

Next: The Searchers and The Best Years of Our Lives. Meanwhile, I sinking into utter decadence, watching videos by daylight! 

June 09, 2006

Knocking 'em off

About Mr Emerson's little list...

I posted the list as-is. I will post my version of the list, with five substitutions, presently, at Portico. For the time being, I'm knocking off the films that I've never seen. I believe that there are thirteen; you can easily find out by opening the permalink for the list and asking your browser to find "(N)" until you've counted through all of them. Not surprisingly, the ones that I've never seen are among the most aggressively macho.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, I watched Dirty Harry, and I can tell you right now that I am going to knock it off the list, possibly for Unforgiven, which would preserve a slot for Clint Eastwood, and possibly for The Conversation, for San Francisco and shady dealings. The Conversation was made three years after Dirty Harry, and they share a similar look and feel. What they don't share, happily, is Dirty Harry's cast, which, aside from Mr Eastwood himself, is pretty uninspiring. Andrew Robinson's Scorpio - the bad guy - is totally over the top, and not in a good way, but at least he's acting, which nobody else seems to be inspired to do. John Vernon's mayor is almost embarrassing; perhaps it's his representation of an elected official that has pushed so many voters toward the red. The movie needs whatever it was that Criterion did to The Third Man, in order to make the many night-time scenes legible on TV.

The worst thing about Dirty Harry is that it's so politically tendentious. Its crux is the exclusionary rule, which bans evidence obtained without a warrant from use in court, and which is also a useful shibboleth for distinguishing people who understand rule of law from those who don't. Its zero-tolerance approach to police error (cutting corners or acting hastily) makes moralizers very unhappy, but it serves as a vital curb to the tolerance of armed expediency. Yeah, we all want to see the bad guy suffer. But we have to check that impulse when we join civil society.

The only thing that could make Dirty Harry worse would be to replace Clint Eastwood with Charles Bronson.

Also, I have no active plans to collect these lists. Make your own and tag some friends with the meme. As long as the keyword is somewhere on the page, someone will eventually have a field day compiling them. That someone won't be me.

June 07, 2006

Mr Emerson's Little List

On 20 March, film critic Jim Emerson posted a list of 102 "essential films" at Jason Kottke picked it up a bit later, and marked the films that he had seen with an asterisk. I started thinking.

Mr Emerson's list is a strong one. It would be impossible to generate a list that no one would quarrel with, but this one comes close. It's a great place to begin.

To begin what? A sifting experiment conducted on the Internet. If enough people contribute, we might end up with a master list of ten or twenty movies, or more, or less - who knows? - by compiling the films that everybody agrees on.

Here's how it works (say I):

You get to make five changes to the list. You may not remove a film that you haven't seen. When you post your version of the list, insert the text "Emersons102MoviesYouMustSee" in the <meta> tag. In that way, it will be easy to return all the lists with a search engine.

After the jump, you'll find Mr Emerson's list. I've annotated each entry with (V), for "viewed," (P), for "owned," and (N) for "not viewed." I kept the V's and the P's separated in order to facilitate quick searches of the list.

Continue reading "Mr Emerson's Little List" »

May 30, 2006

Based on a Totally True Story, at MTC's Stage II

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Based on a Totally True Story is a delightful comedy that skips along like a stone on the surface of a lake, only without sinking. The material, introduced in a rush, seems very unpromising in summary: two boys meet cute and move in together, but trouble starts when an unproduced play written by one of the duo is optioned by Hollywood. The playwright all but locks himself in his room, rewriting his script according to the producer's endless (and belittling) changes. The other boy quite naturally comes to feel uncared for. Even if I haven't actually seen a play with this plot, I've seen plenty like it. But the rushed introduction is a key to the play's success. By speeding up the action with standup comedy and playing it for laughs, Mr Aguirre-Sacasa makes his story new and interesting.

Continue reading about Based on a Totally True Story at Portico.

May 29, 2006

Julia Lambert in and out of the Theatre


Few if any movies have besotted me quite so thoroughly as Being Julia. I didn't see the film when it was in the theatres, but came across it on HBO during a very idle moment. I watched it again and then bought it. And then the DVD spent a week in the kitchen TV. When the movie ended, I would often as not start it over again. I couldn't get enough of Annette Bening's scenery-chewing performance. Never has anyone seemed more alive on film than she does in the role of leading London actress Julia Lambert.

It was inevitable, therefore, that I would read the novel from which it's adapted, provided that I could ...

Continue reading about Theatre and Being Julia at Portico.

May 23, 2006

Shining City

Ben Brantley's rapturous review in the Times led me to expect a somewhat more interesting play than Shining City turned out to be. Then again, I didn't much care for The Weir, Conor McPherson's last play on Broadway. It wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't sufficiently gripping, and - and - it addressed a peculiarly Irish pathology: the isolation into which so many intelligent people seem to tumble. Sometimes I think that this comes of trying to speak English with a Celtic soul. A little of it goes a long way with me.

Of course, there was great acting to hold my attention. Brían F O'Byrne knocked me dead for the third time in a row. (See Frozen, Doubt.) This time, he played Ian, a former priest who has studied to be a psychotherapist and has just set up shop. Mr O'Byrne has a remarkable gift for portraying men under attack, from within or without. His Ian displayed the full range of responses, from empty bonhomie to vacant sulking. The high point of the performance came when he struggled with Ian's wallet and paid a prostitute: Mr O'Byrne's hands shook with shame, lust, and dread all at once. He was equally, if less dramatically, impressive when Ian refused to engage with Neasa, the mother of his baby. A compleat guy, Ian has worked out his own solution to a problem and therefore regards Neasa's demand that he reconsider it a waste of time. The difference in temperatures between Neasa's harangue and Ian's sullen staring at the floor was chilling.

Continue reading about Shining City at Portico.

April 29, 2006

Friends With Money

This space is usually occupied by my feelings about the movie that I saw yesterday. Unhappily, my mind is so limited that I can no longer recall the important matter that I was going to raise, forgotten while I talked about (or so I thought) the movies.

I go to the first showing of something every Friday, and then I come home to clean the apartment. Why these occupations should fit so well together is beyond me. Seeing a movie a week is such a break with my past that my past no longer recognizes me. It's as though I were the son of a Lubavitcher rabbi who has taken up charcuterie.

I went to see Friends With Money, an existential film about four women in Los Angeles. The lack of plot is not annoying, and the thwarting of expectations is almost amusing. One example will suffice: Aaron (Simon McBurney) is thought to be gay by his wife's friend Christine, and indeed he has a lovely lunch with another man, also named Aaron, whose name I can't seem to drag out of IMDb. Aaron's wife, Jane (Frances McDormand) stomps through the movie in a more or less unbroken hissy fit - could she be "upset" that her husband is gay? (And why would that make her refuse to wash her hair?) The question is never answered. At least Aaron and Jane are still married at the end of the movie. Oops, sorry. 

To the best of my knowledge, I was the only man who showed up to see Friends With Money. Ladies, save the husband, at least until video. Unless he's a cosmopolitan like me who finds deft social comment truly piquant.

It's ungallant of me not to say that Jennifer Aniston is a great comédienne. Really not, when you look closely, another pretty face. Another intelligent face.

April 25, 2006

Faith Healer at the Booth Theatre

Twenty-seven springs ago, in April 1979, Brian Friel's Faith Healer was given twenty performances before closing. The formidable José Quintero directed, and James Mason starred, with Clarissa Kaye and Donal Donnelly. But the play bombed. Writing in the April 16 issue of The New Yorker, Brendan Gill praised the production but complained that it was miked. His review gives little hint, however, as to the unpopularity of the play. Perhaps it is suggested in his first sentence:

People who complain of the scarcity in contemporary theatre of plays that are well written and well made had reason to be grateful last week for the arrival, at the Longacre, of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

We have come a long way since 1979, to a livable truce between two Broadway camps, and serious theatre is no longer the preserve of Off-Broadway. Top-billed stars can apparently revive anything. Julia Roberts is the strange cause of a revival of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, which I remember finding not particularly interesting at MTC almost ten years ago - notwithstanding the presence of Patricia Clarkson and the convincingly wet rainfall. Ralph Fiennes has done the same for Faith Healer, with Star Wars veteran Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine) to help out; for those impervious to Hollywood marquees, Cherry Jones will be an appetizing lure. It's hard to believe that, this time, Faith Healer won't be a success.

Continue reading about Faith Healer at Portico.

April 20, 2006

"After the Deluge" at the Met

The latest thing in museum exhibitions is the show assembled by a living artist, either from his or her own work, from the museum's collection, or both. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has launched its first such show, giving Kara Walker carte blanche to fill one of the rooms on the out-of-the-way mezzanine at the rear of the building. Although she began devising the show about a year ago, her focus was galvanized by the ruin of New Orleans in August. "After the Deluge" is a haunting exhibition of formidable documentary power. Everything in the show is supercharged by its context.

Kara Walker's art is based on the cut-paper silhouette, and I have long wanted to see it in person. The silhouette was a precursor of the snapshot, but there was nothing candid about it. Subjects sat or stood in profile. They held themselves erect and still. Ms Walker keeps the profile but loses the stillness. Some of her figures are grotesques, such as the creature with alligator's body and the black child's head. Bizarre sexual contacts that seem far beyond pornography are not uncommon, and dismemberment (particularly of woman's legs) figures in not a few of Ms Walker's cut-outs. What makes all of this both palatable and even more surprising is the sweetness of Ms Walker's line. (Many of her shapes are quite large, and her outlines are so firmly fluid that I wonder how she cuts them.) The black figures are usually caricatures, "pickaninnies," and the overall impact of her work highlights the erasure of personal identity and distinction that racism effects.

This is art that teeters on the edge of oratory. It is too complex, too visually absorbing to fall into sheer reference. It is not about the evils of slavery, but about the terrible mess that slavery (and racism) creates - a mess that, as the aftermath of Katrina makes quite clear, hasn't been cleaned up. If I am still shocked at the nakedness of the racist contempt at work in New Orleans, I am completely unpersuaded that it is "really" an economic discrimination. The whites of Louisiana are letting us all know that they look down on black skin and black folkways; that they want to put the minus back in minority. Kara Walker's work expresses the "murk," as she puts it, that receding floodwaters, whether of Katrina or of segregation, have exposed.

Ms Walker has chosen works that either intensify the murk by broadening the referents - to encompass Noah's Flood, for example - or make it stink by denying it. Among the latter are small oils by William P Chappell, scenes of New York life in 1810 painted in the 1870s, as if recalling a bucolic ante-bellum fantasy. The more powerful statements underline Ms Walker's cut-outs. There are two very strong Homers, The Gulf Stream (1899), which is very well-known, and Dancing for the Carnival (1877), which is not. Both portray blacks as "other" in ways other than dark skin. Christ's Descent into Hell, a mid-sixteenth century painting in the school of Hieronymus Bosch, takes on a fresh shade of nightmare from the surrounding work.

Just beyond "After the Deluge," the museum has mounted a fifteen-panel Walker from its own collection, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Here, Ms Walker has enlarged lithographs from Civil-War issues of the famous magazine that show various battle scenes in the leaden, almost ceremonious style characteristic of popular illustration of the time. Atop these, she has superimposed various cut-outs, several with further cut-outs within them. These latter are negatives of a sort, allowing the lithographs to show through. The strange child cut out from the center of a larger cut-out itself appears in a separate panel. In my favorite, "Buzzard's Roost Pass," cannons boom and shells explode over a lake. Atop this scene, Ms Walker has superimposed the gigantic (in scale) head of a laughing black face, its neck ripped away from a body that is unseen but for two tossed breasts, and, outside the frame of the original lithograph, an extended arm. Two further cut-outs taken from the face mirror the starbursts of the exploding shells. The contrast of starch and snazz takes irony to an almost mystical level. 

A word of caution: the Kara Walker book on sale at the museums various points of sale is not a catalogue of "After the Deluge," but the catalogue of an earlier Walker show elsewhere.

April 17, 2006

John Patrick Shanley's Defiance, at MTC

Not having seen Defiance twice, I am very unsure of the contribution of sheer surprise to its huge power. Is it merely enormous, this contribution, or essential, something that will keep the play from having a similar magical punch the second time that one sees it. Surprise is in any case so surprising an element of Defiance that I find that I am unable to write about the play without referring to it. Having done that much, I might as well put up spoiler alerts and go ahead with writing about what I saw, instead of coyly contriving to sing the praises of something I don't identify.

I have therefore decided to write for readers who have already seen Defiance. I may have already said too much! If you haven't seen the play but plan to do so soon, try to forget this short paragraph, and come back afterward.


With Defiance, John Patrick Shanley has made his last play, the celebrated Doubt, into the first work in a cycle of highly dramatic meditations on authority. Like Doubt, Defiance is short, consisting of one long act broken into several scenes. It is equally successful at leaving the audience with a powerful conundrum about right and wrong, and about the balance, if any, that can be struck between them. Its construction, however, is not at all the same. In Doubt, the problem dawns not long after the show begins, and one marvels at Mr Shanley's ability to move his cloud of uncertainty at a steady but cumulative pace. That same skill, one can see after the fact, is put to use in Defiance to a very different end - the misdirection of the audience's expectations - so that, when the bombshell comes, well after the half-way point as the stopwatch flies, it is a real bombshell. Even the crusty New York audience at Stage I last night was audibly shocked. After which there was just enough moral argument to infect us with the urgency of matters that we were witnessing. Then we were out in the street, talking about it.

Until PFC Evan Davis steps into Captain Lee King's office, we don't know quite where Defiance is going, but that's all right, because the show holds our interest with very strong characters, and in fact we would rather postpone the moment when the play hunkers down to a confrontation about Black Power, Viet Nam, or some other issue of national concern. Set at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune in 1971, Defiance promises, or threatens, to tread some very familiar territory. We have Lt Col Littlefield, a propulsive Commanding Officer; Captain King, a tightly-sealed administrative officer with two tours of Viet Nam behind him; and Chaplain White, the newly-arrived chaplain, on his first post. Littlefield's wife, Margaret, is a very lively character, wonderfully enacted by Margaret Colin, but in terms of the action, her function is closer to that of a Greek chorus, which suits the period and moral climate of Defiance.

Continue reading about Defiance at Portico.

April 08, 2006

News Flash

Did anybody know about this? Judi to play Enid!

April 06, 2006



Saboteur (1942) has never figured among Alfred Hitchcock's most beloved movies, and there are good reasons for that. If I have a weak spot for it, though, there are several explanations. There's Bob Cummings, who was a brilliant TV star in the Fifties. Here, he reminds me of my late Uncle John. There's Priscilla Lane, with whom John's parents were photographed on a studio tour not long after Saboteur was made. Mostly, though, there's the preview of North By Northwest. Anybody who loves that movie ought to know Saboteur just to see the seeds that would flower in greatness. Like North By Northwest, Saboteur is even more obsessed by monuments and great public buildings than the ordinary Hitchcock film. It also involves international espionage. And it hinges on an innocent man's cross-country attempt to clear his name. The most striking difference between the two movies is that it's the bad guy who's hanging by his fingernails at the end.

Actually, Saboteur is a party tape. Who can make the most connections between the two films? It's not as though North By Northwest has the more prestigious monuments, either. Saboteur boasts the Hoover Dam, Radio City, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the smashingly iconic Statue of Liberty - a gift, it is noted, from the French.

The Cold War - it was cold. Who could work up a lot of hatred for James Mason's Vandamm? He was just a bad guy. The bad guys in Saboteur are far more toxic. They hate America. They despise it even as they want to rule it. Sound familiar? Here's the exchange between the Wrong Man (Barry Kane) and the Bad Guy (Otto Kruger) in the last of the film's discursive scenes. Even James Stewart couldn't have made it more patriotic.

Barry Kane: Why is it that you sneer every time you refer to this country? You've done pretty well here. I don't get it.

Charles Tobin: No, you wouldn't. You're one of the ardent believers. The good American. There are millions like you. People who plod along without asking questions. I hate to use the word "stupid," but it seems to be the only one that applies. The "great masses." The "moron millions." Well, there are a few of us who are unwilling to just troop along. A few of us who are clever enough to see that there's much more to be done than just live small, complacent lives. A few of us in America who desire a more profitable type of government. When you think about it, Mr Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done.

Barry Kane: Yeah, they get things done. They bomb cities, sink ships, torture and murder so you and your friends can eat off of gold plate. It's a great philosophy.

Charles Tobin: I neither indent to be bombed nor sunk, Mr Kane. That's why I'm leaving now. And if things don't go right for you, if, uh, we should win, then I'll come back. Perhaps I can get what I want then. Power. Yes. I want that as much you want your comfort or your job or - that girl. We all have different tastes, as you can see. Only, I'm willing to back my tastes with the necessary force.

Barry Kane: You certainly make it sound smooth and easy. Well, that's a trick. I know the results of that power you believe in. It killed my friend and is killing thousands like him. That's what you're aiming at, but it doesn't bother you - I can see that. Because you really hate all people. Let me tell you something. The last four or five days, I've learned a lot. I've met guys like you, and I've met others. People that are helpful and eager to do the right thing. People that get a kick out of helping each other fight the bad guys. Love and hate. The world's choosing up sides. I know who I'm with. There are a lot of people on my side. Millions of us in every country. And we're not soft. We're plenty strong, And we'll fight standing up on our two feet and we'll win: remember that, Mr Tobin. We'll win no matter what you guys do. We'll win if takes from now until the cows come home.

Charles Tobin: Mr Kane, I think we've discussed the rights of man sufficiently.

There are days when I believe that William F Buckley should be dragged out à la lanterne while he's still alive, just to make clear the utter blackness of his sin against the republic of which he professes, quite without justice, to be so proud. He was never at any time very different from Charles Tobin, except in staying in situ, to oversee the plot that eventually made anybody who sounds like Barry Kane seem to be a radical leftist. Mr Buckley, father of modern conservatism, also hates the plodding millions. His message was always Charles Tobin's.

In any case, rent the movie. Put up with its starch. You will never forget the ending.

March 31, 2006

On Seeing Capote on DVD


Last night, I watched Capote for the second time. I had thought a lot about the picture since first seeing it at the beginning of October. I went along with what seems to be the conventional view: Truman Capote kept killer Perry Smith alive only long enough to get his story about murdering the Clutter family, and then couldn't wait for Smith to be hanged so that he could finish In Cold Blood. Awareness of this exploitation undermined Capote afterward, and wrecked the rest of his life.

What I saw last night doesn't really alter that summary, but it adds an explanation of Capote's motivation: Why was he so taken by Perry Smith? At first uninterested in the killers - or even in their apprehension - Capote did a volte-face when he recognized a kindred spirit in Smith. This is easily confused with an erotic attachment, but I think that, in Smith, Capote encountered a sort of brother. Whatever fraternal feelings this recognition may have aroused would have been distinctly secondary, however, to the fascinating possibility that Smith might show him something about himself. That's why he had to get Smith's story. That's what led to his exploitation of the condemned man.

It's this same fascination that leads some adopted people to unearth their birth families. I am not in principle opposed to finding out, and although I have elected against it myself I have left open room for my daughter to do whatever can be done to supply her with medical information that might be useful (her health is perfect at the moment). What I've noticed, however, is that when the excitement of discovering blood relatives fades, genuine affection doesn't necessarily follow.

Capote puts it beautifully. As she's leaving his place in Spain, Capote tells Harper Lee that it's as though he and Perry Smith grew up in the same house. Then one day Perry went out by the back door, while he, Truman, went out by the front door. Such "brothers" would share a dark bond - why the different doors - but could one count on love?

Something else occurred to me. If the movie is to be believed, In Cold Blood is grotesquely mistitled. Finally giving Truman what he wants, Perry claims to have slashed Herbert Clutter's throat almost unconsciously, overwhelmed by the difference between himself and this "nice gentle man." That crime committed, he yielded to a second violent urge to finish off the rest of the family. There wasn't anything cold-blooded about the killings.

But then, by the time he heard Smith's story, Capote was already married to his title.

March 24, 2006

The Corrie Affair

When Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer two years ago, I shrugged. It was awful, but Corrie was a troublemaker. I don't like troublemakers. Don't try telling me that troublemaking is effective. Patriots on the right can wail that it was lack of support at home that cost us the Vietnam War, but this is nonsense. The war ended when it became clear that it could never be won. Now we're on a similar trajectory in Iraq, only, this time, opponents of the war are careful to honor soldiers, not revile them. To people in power, demonstrators are unarmed terrorists - and all the more contemptible for that.

I say this knowing that the struggle for equal civil rights for all Americans required a lot of troublemaking. Trying to figure out how to respect people who fight for a good cause with my bone-deep, profoundly bourgeois dislike of disorder keeps me busy. 

I make an exception, very characteristic, for troublemakers who are very amusing, but I don't believe that there was anything amusing about the idealistic twenty-three year-old Washingtonian who suffered such a horrific death. Whether I'd change my mind about Rachel Corrie is pretty much a matter of how I felt about My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Like most people, I didn't even know that a production had been slotted, if not scheduled, until the day its cancellation was announced. It was dreadfully discomfiting news, because it seemed that unnamed "Jewish interests" were pushing for censorship. Perhaps the play ought to have opened somewhere else in the United States. When I was growing up, they used to say that there were more Jews in the Metropolitan Area than there were in Israel. Is that still true? I somehow think not. But anti-Semitic folks can expect to be made very uncomfortable in the Big Apple.

And, as Bernard-Henri Lévy asserted at the end of January, anti-Semitism = anti-Zionism. By a quick equation, Rachel Corrie = terrorist supporter. In "Why These Tickets Are Too Hot For New York," Philip Weiss's clear-eyed account of the very much ongoing Corrie affair, in the current (April 3) edition of The Nation, playwright Tony Kushner explains his own reluctance to step forward in to denounce the New York Theatre Workshop's self-censorship, attributing it to fatigue. In part, he has just been through a similar brouhaha about Munich, which he co-wrote. But the longer perspective is daunting.

There is a very, very highly organized attack machinery that will come after you if you express any kind of dissent about Israel's policies, and it's a very unpleasant experience to be in the cross hairs. These aren't hayseed from Kansas screaming about gays burning in hell; they're newspaper columnists who are taken seriously. ... [They leave challengers] overwhelmed and in despair - you feel like you should just say nothing.

When Tony Kushner is too worn out by wingnuts to speak out, I conclude that my canary is about to give up the ghost, and that I'm in trouble.

Regardless of what I feel about Rachel Corrie, a play that memorializes her words - drawn from her diaries, the show professes her to be its playwright - should be mounted without hindrance. At a minimum, the NYTW's director, James Nicola, owes us a list of the names that brought pressure upon him not to open My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

Readers of Mr Weiss's story will discover that there is a constellation of New York theatre blogs. Oui bien sûr! The impatient can start reading Parabasis, Superfluities, and Playgoer right now.

March 23, 2006


Yesterday, I was exhausted. I could not really get up, and didn't make the bed until after dark. The dishwasher remained full of Monday night's dishes. I got dressed several hours after I cleaned up. I kept falling asleep over All Souls Day, the mighty Cees Nooteboom's novel, and it certainly wasn't the writer's fault. I re-read an unwittingly alarming piece in Foreign Affairs; I'll be sharing my thoughts about that presently. And then I watched Kinsey. I expected it to be distracting, and it was.

My first thought, after rewinding the disc to prove that, yes, that was Lynn Redgrave playing the "Final Interview Subject," was that I wish that everybody felt the way I do about other people's actual sex lives. I don't want to hear about them. That's my sex hang-up. If everybody shared it, then nobody would care much what other people did (and they'd know better not to entertain comparative guesswork), and, in that case, Kinsey's research would never have been necessary. Nobody would make anyone else's life a hell by proscribing certain acts. Aside from protecting everyone from any involuntary sexual encounters, society would simply not recognize sex. This would greatly improve flirting.

Sex for me becomes plumbing when I am not personally involved, and hearing about other people's plumbing alienates me from myself. We all work more or less the same, it's true, but unfortunately our nervous systems don't recognize this fact.

I suppose I'd better note that none of the foregoing means that I'm against sex education! On the contrary. Perhaps everybody ought to flip through the Kama Sutra and The Joy of Gay Sex. Nor am I against sex writing that's really well-written, where the artistry interposes a screen of discretion.

In any case, Kinsey made me squirm, because it was constantly running along the knife's edge of dissociating love from sex. Lots of people can keep the two distinct, but lots of people can't, and almost everyone around Kinsey seems to have discovered that the ability to do so can vanish in an instant, leaving dreadful hurt. The performances were as marvelous as everyone said when the movie came out, and the film was beautifully shot. But there was one expectation that Kinsey turned into a conclusion: I wouldn't want to watch it with anyone else in the room.

March 17, 2006

Rabbit Hole

Going to the theatre fairly often eventually teaches you, inter alia, to infer from the folding of a small child's clothes, when there are no children in the cast, that the character folding the clothes is experiencing a terrible grief. And so it turns out in Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's new play at the Manhattran Theatre Club. This is a third of the playwright's works that I have seen at MTC, each one in a larger theatre. There was the nightmarish farce (or perhaps it was a farcical nightmare), Fuddy Meers, at Stage II, the bad-surburb bleakness of Kimberley Akimbo at Stage I, and now, at the Biltmore, Mr Lindsay-Abaire's best work to date. Unlike the other two, it is completely naturalistic.

When I was in school, there were comedies and there were tragedies. There were funny plays and sad plays. Now, as if the "richest man in Vienna" were running things, plays handle very sad material with a lot of laughter. Think, for example, of Reckless, at MTC a little over a year ago. It begins with a wife's being rushed out of the house by her repentant husband so that she won't be home when the hit man arrives. He hired the hitman, and now it's too late to cancel. The whole scene was played an at antic speed that drew helpless laughter.

The humor in Rabbit Hole is strictly verbal, but its purpose is the same: laughing softens up the audience, makes it glad to be there. This makes the hard work much easier for everybody. Who wants to sit through a play about grieving parents? Who wants to read The Year of Magical Thinking? The success of works that make you laugh so you won't mind crying is probably a telling timestamp of our moment in history. The curious thing is that, while I remember laughing heartily, I don't remember what was so funny. It certainly wasn't the situations.

It's often said that the loss of an only child will drive a couple apart, and, in Rabbit Hole, Mr Lindsay-Abaire dramatizes one explanation of the phenomenon. The play begins...

Continue reading about Rabbit Hole at Portico.

March 16, 2006

The Pyx

In the old days, you'd go to a movie, and maybe you'd be really captivated. But you'd leave the theatre with one thing only: a determination to remember what you'd seen. You didn't have the time or the money to go back and see the film again (or maybe even the opportunity). You couldn't say, "Gee, I can't wait till that comes out on tape/DVD." The movie was history. If it was a great movie, you might catch it at a university film series - if you paid attention to film society calendars.

(Conversely, if you traveled in different crowds, you got to see Help! and Star Wars seven times at least.)

In the early Seventies, I saw a movie that stuck with me forever. I would talk about it often; I remembered how it was put together and what made it different. I know that I knew this because I've just seen it again, and I was flabbergasted, watching it, by how much I'd held on to. When movies began appearing on tape about ten years later, I looked for it all the time. Then I gave up, or at least checked it out only once in a while. The other day, I don't know why, I did an IMDb search, discovered that the movie was out on DVD - and very cheap! - and bought it pronto. As I say, I really remembered it well. You had to, in those days.

Now, everybody's going to howl at my demotic taste. So I'm going to use the title of the film that I saw back in 1974: The Pyx. Do you know what a pyx is? I certainly didn't, but after the movie, I never forgot it, either. Whether or not you know what a pyx is, though, you'll agree with me that The Pyx is a much better title than The Hooker Cult Murders. How can I be writing about The Hooker Cult Murders at the magisterially respectable Daily Blague? I feel that I owe an apology to every woman who frequents the site. Can we go with The Pyx?

The movie does not merit extensive comment. It's simply not complicated enough. But its memorable angles have aged well to make it watchable despite a ghastly transfer to DVD. ('Bootleg' would be more like it.) The narrative strategy is, so far as I know, unique. Everything starts with a woman falling from a penthouse terrace to the ground. Then, in well-judged autonomous chunks, the film proceeds to alternate the course of the investigation into her death with the course of her actions the days before. Christopher Plummer is the lead detective, and if he's not as hateful as he is in Dolores Claiborne, he's well on the way, and a big slob to boot. Karen Black is the unfortunate faller. The supporting cast, when you can see it in the staticky print, is magnificent. A minor character - a driver for the bad guys - gives an object lesson in "the male gaze."

Production values are just as awful as you'd expect them to be in a 1973 release by a low-budget Canadian enterprise. A lot of people will hate the settings of scripture that Ms Black wrote and sung, but they have the virtue of being very, very period. So is the cinematography. As a film, The Pyx is worse than TV was at the time. Except for everything in it. While the film's in print, rent it at least!

February 18, 2006


Permit me to recommend Firewall, the new Harrison Ford film. I did not expect to like it very much; I was drawn primarily by the interest of seeing what Virginia Madsen would do (more on that in a moment). But director Richard Loncraine surprised me. Working with a Joe Forte story that shuns plot-padding red herrings as nimbly as it does the predictable setback of action-stopping police custody, Mr Loncraine quickly aroused my concern for Jack and Beth Stanfield. I was sitting on the edge of my seat more or less throughout the film. Although there is nothing surprising about Mr Forte's brew of heist and hostages, Firewall treats the Stanfields and their two children as real people.

Jack Banfield is the security chief of a large bank that has just been swallowed by an even bigger outlet. Unhappy with the new team, he is ready to consider an offer presented by Bill Cox - and terrified to discover that the offer has been timed to coincide with the capture of his family by Cox's team of hackers and tough guys. The deal that Cox really wants Jack to work on is the robbery of Jack's bank. Except that it is not really a deal; Jack realizes early on that Cox intends to leave a lot of dead bodies behind when he gets his money. Firewall does not reverse the tradition of Harrison Ford's film endings, but it keeps you wondering.

Amazingly, Mr Ford is a believable Jack. There are critics who feel that the actor never does his best work in a suit, but Firewall may be an exception. (To tell the truth, I think he's pretty great in Working Girl.) During the first half of the film, when is Jack is tethered by microphones and cameras to Cox's surveillance system, Mr Ford looks uncomfortable, not to say constipated, and every hour of his sixty-four years. Once Cox has his money, however, the years fall away, and Mr Ford is rejuvenated by the challenge of foiling his adversary. He faked his way around the hard- and software with totally convincing aplomb.

As I say, I went to see Virginia Madsen. Until Sideways, Ms Madsen seemed to have had a career that went nowhere from her somewhat brainless turn as Princess Irulan in David Lynch's Dune, swishing about in bogus ball-gowns and delivering sententious voice-overs. (A look at IMDb demonstrates, however, that the actress has been very busy.) In Alexander Payne's movie, she displayed a quick-witted earthiness that I found really endearing, and the same quality is on display in Firewall. There's no question that her Beth is Jack's equal; she carries off the additional role of being an architect capable of designing the showplace in which much of Firewall takes place. And she has chemistry with Harrison Ford. "I don't deserve you," says Jack at the beginning. "No, you don't," Beth with a loving smile, and you sense both that this is true and that Beth is perfectly happy about it.

That Paul Bettany makes a dashing villain ought to surprise nobody. Looking more like Tab Hunter than ever, he is a joy to detest, and when he gets his comeuppance the blow is highly satisfying. My only complaint is that the film ended too soon thereafter. There ought to have been a nice, rehabilitative scene with his trusty secretary, Janet (played by 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub).

For what it purports to deliver, Firewall is super-duper entertainment. Don't let the critics misguide you.

February 10, 2006

Love Story?

In the not-too-distant future, Brokeback Mountain is going to be released on DVD, and it will probably win some Oscars, too. There will be a lot of talk about why this movie is such a big deal. As Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his essay on the reception of Brokeback Mountain (NYRB, LIII.3), much of this talk will be anxiously wrong-headed. The next time you catch someone in the act of assuring others that Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two lovers who just happen to be men, cough discreetly. Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two lovers who have been brought up to hate their love and to hate themselves for loving as they do. It is a story of the closet: of denial and repression and strangled family life. It's not the love-story part of Brokeback Mountain that makes for great film, but the long aftermath of furtive coupling and feigned romance. Mr Mendelsohn concludes:

The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they're not really homosexual - that they're more like the heart of America than like "gay people" - you're pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed.

In short, the "universal love story" approach simply doesn't hold up. Maybe it's useful as a permission for otherwise homo-averse people to see the movie. Certainly the film has done almost everything to shield tender sensibilities from direct contact with actual true love between two men, and perhaps we're still at the stage where it would have been foolhardy rather than courageous to cast openly gay actors. Having seen the movie, however, viewers ought to find the "beautiful love story" thumbnail empty and unfeeling.

This brings The Family Stone to mind. I've seen it again, and liked it even more - and decided for certain that the dinner-table scene will prove to be an important one for people to talk about. As Kathleen said afterward, of course Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) is right to say that no parent would wish a child to shoulder the burdens imposed on homosexuality in today's society (lightened though these may have been). But she is an ass not to recognize that the Stone family has created a world in which those burdens simply don't exist. It is not hard to imagine that sensitive parents would bend over backward to accommodate the needs of a deaf child, but it's not necessary to ask why it is that Sybil and Kelly Stone have flushed away any and every trace of reproach or disregard for the sexual preference of their son, Thad (Ty Giordano). (Kathleen didn't even recognize that Thad and Patrick (Brian White) were lovers until well into the action.) All we need to know - and what we take away from the dinner table - is that we're striving for a world in which Meredith's position really is nonsensical. A world in which Ennis Del Mar would grow up unashamed to love another boy. The more indignantly the high priests point to their sacred texts in support of their anathemas and abominations, the more clearly we see that their world makes no sense.

January 28, 2006

The Matador

Is it me, or is it the neighborhood? Possibly it's Hollywood's aversion to the Bush Administration, which as several critics have noted has begun to show up in movies that were greenlighted after the 2004 election. In any case, there always seems to be a movie in the neighborhood that's worth seeing. This was not always the case. In fact, it was almost always not the case. The screens were reserved for films directed at teens and children. Dumb cop sequels. High concept trash. Now, even a movie as formulaic as The Last Holiday is a delight.

The Matador, which I saw yesterday, spends its entire run playing with formulas and derailing expectations. I'm not sure that I can say more about it than that, because this is definitely one film not to "spoil." It is a fun movie that likes to fool around with gasoline; the urge to urge businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) to steer clear of assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is constant, and never more pressing than when Julian dances with Bean, Danny's wife (Hope Davis), in the Wrights' living room. In this parody of a thriller, Mr Brosnan, always sleek and debonair in said thrillers, leaves his customary mien farther behind than George Clooney, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? got from his. In fact, the man is repellent - but amusingly so. Mr Kinnear takes "sidekick" to new levels, so that it does not seem quite fair to think of him as a supporting actor. Ms Davis is a bit loopier than usual - just a bit, but the only thing straight about her is her blond hair. Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker do their usual good work in smaller roles.

Director Richard Shepard has injected a juicy tic into The Matador: every time the action changes location (something that happens fairly often), the name of the city in question is spelled out in huge blue letters that cover the entire screen, a truly preposterous (and hilarious) send-up of the thriller genre's penchant for datelines.

Don't see The Matador if you're in a meat-and-potatoes mood. Mission Impossible III is coming up.

January 27, 2006

Un amour de film

Last night, TV5Monde (the Francophone cable station) broadcast Un Amour de Swann, the 1984 Volker Schlöndorff adaptation of the novella-within-the-novel by Marcel Proust, starring Jeremy Irons as a dubbed Charles Swann. I hate dubbing, and the voice chosen for Swann en français was nowhere near Mr Irons's baritone, but it was clear that the actor knew his lines, even if he couldn't say them. Once I realized that the movie could have been called Deux Jours de Swann, I was completely won over. The first day occurs in the 1880s, when Charles Swann is besotted with the courtesan Odette de Crécy. It takes up most of the footage. The second is an elegiac retrospective set on the eve of World War I, when Charles is dying.

Can you make movies out of A la recherche du temps perdu? Out of even a part of it? Raoul Ruiz made a gallant stab in 1999's Le temps retrouvé. Everybody who was anybody in French film, at least on the distaff side, was lined up to play one part or another, and by adapting the conceit that a drowning - here, dying - man sees his whole life passing before him, the project ended up being amazingly comprehensive for a movie that lasts only two and a half hours. Un amour de Swann is an entirely different animal, and in its way it's devilishly untrue to "the Marcel of the author." When it was over, I was positively attacked by the idea that the characters had escaped from Proust's novel and gone out for a night on their own; in a way, I don't think that the author would have disapproved. Schlöndorff gives us Odette, Charles, Charlus, Oriane de Guermantes, and Mme de Verdurin as they were, before Proust got hold of them and wrote them down in his book.

The broadcast was, inadvertently, saturated in a very Proustian passage of time. Jeremy Irons, Fanny Ardant - so young. Alain Delon (as Charlus) still young-ish. What a novel Proust would have written about film, and its preservation of the young, firm faces that we used to have. Un amour de Swann, despite every obstacle, is a success.

January 26, 2006

Coming Attractions


Do you know this secretary? More to come.

January 23, 2006

Dyer's Photography


Here is the ending of Geoff Dyer's introduction to The Ongoing Moment:

Dorothea Lange said that "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." I might not be a photographer but I now see the kind of photographs I might have taken if I were one.

What are we to make of this amateur's production? It is clearly an exponent of what Barry Gewen called "the belletrist option" of art criticism, which 

allowed for the exercise of personal style, the careful inspection and precise expression of one's own reactions, and it found adherents among poet-critics like John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, and individualistic, iconoclastic intellects like Susan Sontag.

In The Ongoing Moment, Mr Dyer writes about photography, for the most part American photography as practiced by a handful of masters. It is not a book for beginners; it assumes not only some knowledge of the history of American photography - the famous photographers and what sort of pictures they have taken - but also access to the many photographs that Mr Dyer talks about but does not reproduce. It is certainly not a picture book; the black-and-white reproductions are quite small and just as matte as the text. There are section breaks, but no chapters - no formal organization of any kind. I was reminded of the French phrase, de fil en aiguille, which is best translated, "from one thing to another." The "things" are photographic subjects, the subjects that have caught Mr Dyer's eye. Sometimes these subjects are real objects, such as hands or barbershops. Sometimes they're much more conceptual, such as seeing the world in black-and-white but photographing it in color, or variations on that theme. Sometimes it is the relationship between the photographer and his subject, a matter that's illustrated by nude photographs taken by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. Always playing somewhere in the background is some idea or other of "America."

Photography presents three unique aesthetic challenges - challenges that don't arise in other, older art forms. First...

Continue reading about The Ongoing Moment at Portico.

January 21, 2006

The Last Holiday

It's still something of a surprise to me that I went to see The Last Holiday this afternoon. Qua hip-hop diva, Queen Latifah is not a draw, and while she has always seemed accomplished in the few movies that I've seen her in, I shouldn't have thought that I'd go to see something that for all intents and purposes is a vehicle for her good spirits. But I did go, and those spirits are very good indeed.

Every movie leaves its own aftertaste. Leaving the dark theatre for the humdrum banality of a movie lobby and a too-bright street (or sometimes one that's incredibly gloomy), I am usually overwhelmed by a particular emotional reaction. (Sometimes, as after The Family Stone, this feeling took a while to condense.) Last week, after Match Point, I felt very dark and fearful; I felt as if I'd done something awful and was about to get caught. Walking out of The Last Holiday, the emotion was quite simple. I felt the remorse of the chastened, and I wanted to be a better person.

The Last Holiday remakes a 1950 J B Priestley screenplay of the same name that starred Alec Guinness in the Queen Latifah role (I've put this on my to-rent list). Georgia is a young and reserved New Orleans woman who sells cookware in a department store while pursuing culinary ambitions at home. When she slips and falls at work, a CAT scan is prescribed. The scan reveals that Georgia is suffering the final stages of an obscure disease -although she feels just fine. Assured that she has mere weeks to live, she decides to try to realize a few of the dreams in her scrap book of "possibilities." Cashing in her IRA and some bonds that her mother left her, Georgia flies off to Carlsbad - Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia - a wedding cake of a spa in the mountains. Here she bumps into some people from home - she knows them, but they don't know her. The outcome is perfectly obvious within ten or fifteen minutes of the opening credits. While the plot unfolds on cue, Georgia opens up and lives for the first time in her life. She treats herself liberally, and is only just beginning to tire of luxury when the plot conveniently takes her to the next level. This opening-up to life is the whole point of the movie, and it would be insufferable if Queen Latifah, lit from within, didn't so powerfully demonstrate her character's consciousness of a conversation with God. Beginning with "why me?", this conversation ends with what can only be called the most pious of winks. It's as though Georgia decided to spend her last days on earth on a fabulous package weekend with the Almighty as her escort. When she accumulates a fortune by placing the same bet betting three times in a row at roulette, Georgia does indeed appear to have some extraordinary assistance.

Director Wayne Wang shows his trust in his star by keeping the other actors out of the her way until it's time for Georgia to change their lives with a smile and a few wise words. Hotel chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) is won over immediately; Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), the heroine's erstwhile boss and a corrupt, overcompetitive businessman, is her last beneficiary. Queen Latifah's Georgia confronts the high life with precisely the correct balance of abashed surprise and shrewd assessment; she's not a slow learner. She is always a lady; for a good while at the hotel, she's the only lady. The screenplay gives her two episodes of wild physical abandon, once on a snowboard (hilarious) and once beneath a parachute (terrifying), but her exuberance is never crass. Meanwhile, she is never the cocky, full-of-herself person that the plot might easily have elicited. Even when eating cucumber slices that she has just peeled from her eyes, Georgia seems to be in some sort of prayerful converse.

After talking Matthew off the ledge of the Hotel Pupp, it's time to go home in earnest, with Mr Right on one arm and the news of her misdiagnosis on the other. Mr Right is played by LL Cool J. If this gentleman was ever (or is still) an habitué of the bling monde, no trace of it shows in his collected, grown-up Sean. Who knew that little Alia, of Dune, would grow up to be Alicia Witt, the new Julianne Moore? Ms Witt handles her character's transformation from scheming bitch to grateful friend with intelligent tact, never asking the audience to like her too much too soon. Giancarlo Esposito, who just turned in a powerful performance in Derailed, plays a US Senator here with dash and soul. There are lots of fine things in the small touches - Jane Adams, Jascha Washington, Julia LaShae, Ranjit Chowdhry and Susan Kellerman are just a few of the fine supporting actors. Ellen Savaria was arresting in a very small, one-line part; I liked the look of her. M Depardieu is such a pro that he repeatedly gave the impression of having worked with Queen Latifah in many previous films.

The Last Holiday is a Class A treat. Despite its picture-perfect ending (which Mr Wang has the wit to muss with a funny touch), it's not a "feel good" movie - it's not easy. Google's Movie Showtimes bills it as a "Drama/Comedy/Action/Adventure" feature, but, if you ask me, it's a movie of faith.

January 14, 2006

Match Point

Woody Allen has made several fine pictures that aren't at all funny. Interiors, Stardust Memories, and Another Woman are beautiful, romantic films with few laughs or none. Significantly, Mr Allen does not appear in two of them, and that is also the case in his latest film, Match Point. Unlike the other movies that I've singled out, however, Match Point is thoroughly gripping. Mr Allen has never made a film quite like it.

In Match Point, Woody Allen takes the story line from Crimes and Misdemeanors that featured Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston and moves it to London. The central characters have become a generation younger; they're starting out in life. And whereas the romance in Crimes and Misdemeanors is presented in a handful of flashbacks, Match Point follows the illicit relationship from its beginning to its end. Finally, the all-but-omnipotent Judah Rosenthal has been transformed into the foundling Chris Wilton, a young man of few personal resources. All of these changes make Match Point more conventional that Woody Allen's tend to be, but they also make it more sympathetic.

Something else is new: Woody Allen has never made a film that isolated its hero from his surroundings - if only morally - as Match Point cuts off Chris Wilton. Given his handiness with a shotgun, we may prefer to think of Chris as an anti-hero, but, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors, we are on this guy's side whether we want to be or not. We watch him twist and writhe, we sense the despair that attends his ruthlessness, and the cynicism that takes its place. We're helplessly complicit in his wrongdoing, and we're as desperate to save his hide as he is. That's because Match Point is about the very pretty face of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an Irishman in his late twenties who, not surprisingly, has played Elvis Presley in a miniseries. His face sells us Chris Wilton's crises without giving us time to consider the offer. It also assures us of something that I hope is not true of its owner, which is that Chris Wilton is weak.

The trailer for Match Point was so high-strung and suspenseful that I wondered if the actual film would be "a Woody Allen movie," and here I've enumerated so many deviations from standard that you may be wondering the same thing. I haven't yet made up my mind; I'll have to see it again a few times. Match Point is, visually, very beautiful; following the characters around the nicer parts of London, the camera likes what it sees. Beyond that, however, I can't yet tell whether Mr Allen's budget of tics has been wiped from the final product, or whether it has been transformed into an invisible iron grasp of filmmaking. Match Point may not be a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, but it's as sure and serious as anything made by The Master.

January 10, 2006


That was Leon Wieseltier's advice to a young man who asked how to begin a career in writing about the arts. The question was actually directed at Jed Perl, art critic at The New Republic (where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor), the evening's featured speaker, and Mr Perl had replied with sensible advice about persistence and finding one's own voice. But Mr Wieseltier thought it important to add an up-to-date caveat, which caused a ripple of laughter from the audience and a smile from me. I knew exactly what he meant. I may even know better than he does how important it is not to "settle" for writing any old thing for the Web if you seek to make writing your career. I would intend, of course, to be the exception to his rule, if I were not - like the parents in Radio Days - "already ruined."

I should note that Mr Wieseltier was moderating the event, which took place at the 92nd Street Y - the only real New York address that sounds taken from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Mr Perl's remarks, à propos of his latest book, New Art City, startled two thoughts into life. The first concerns the evaluation of art. How do you know that what you like is any good? Ultimately, you never do, and while we're on the topic, just who are "you"? If you like something now, and you think it's good, what about ten years from now, when you can see why you thought it was good, and might still even admire it, but, in the end, you somehow see through it? This is only one reason why, ultimately, you can't know whether what you like is any good.

But we try. Mr Perl remarked in passing that things change in an artist's life during the course of making a work of art. If we can extrapolate from the experience of novelists, who write about this phenomenon often enough, one of the things that surely happens during the process is an alteration, however slight, of the artist's means or goals. A true work of art teaches its maker something, and does so in the making, not just afterward, when the artist is merely another spectator. How can we tell? I think that we can detect the absence of an alteration, the lack of a lesson. Because the change in plans disturbs the work of art in a way that disturbs us.

This is hugely tentative. We're not always ready to be disturbed. Encounters with art are always enormously intimate, frighteningly chancy. The click is at least partly erotic. As we get older, however - and by this I mean no more than that we see more and ever more art, at however slow a pace - we build up experience as spectators. (If we start out in possession of such experience, then we ought to have been making art ourselves.)

In short: when a work of art strikes you as pat, as executed according to plan, then it's not any good, no matter how alluring, as art. In the old days, they used to call what I'm talking about "struggle," but we don't want to go back to those burly times.

The other idea that Mr Perl sparked is the observation that the people who complain most about "elitism" in the arts are either elite themselves or elite wannabes. Mr Perl did not say this. But he did say that he thinks that there's nothing elitist about having the opportunity to enjoy the rare treasures of, say, the Morgan Library. The wonder of democracy (by which I think Mr Perl means a society without recognized classes) is that such experiences are open to everybody, thanks to our great museums. It was his feeling that he had to defend this wonder from the charge of elitism that woke me up. I realized that one part of the anti-elitist camp is made up of slackers like George W Bush, born to the elite but too arrogant and too lazy in every way to do the homework that makes privilege bearable; while the other part is made of very smart people with no personal connections or advantages who are too bitter and too lazy to do the homework that usually propels hard workers into "the elite." (If there's a third constituency, let me know.) Each of these types is easy enough to spot, and if you want to be courageous you can always be bold about identifying them, to their faces if possible.

Talking about this as we walked down Lexington Avenue afterward, Ms NOLA and I agreed that Mr Perl was not quite right in claiming that the museums are open to all. They're not. Nor are such events as the discussion that we had just attended. Thinking of the young man's question about how to start out, I said that it was a shame that we leave the real education of artists to chance - and to a young person's ability to put up with gruesome privations. There ought to be programs, I said... and pretty soon I was spinning yet another Big Idea. This one is a master's program that (a) lodges candidates in safe and not grossly inconvenient housing while (b) supplying an open-sesame to all or most "cultural" events in New York City and (c) requiring periodic reports and a final thesis. Some of the candidates will be artists, some prospective journalists, and a few will simply be "old souls." C'mon, someone out there must know the odd millionaire.

January 07, 2006

The Other Side, at MTC

Ariel Dorfman's The Other Side is a short, neat, and ultimately unsatisfying experiment in mid-century absurdism. I hope that Charles Isherwood will forgive my quoting his pert autopsy.

In "The Other Side," Mr. Dorfman has set out to denounce the cruelty of global feuds fired by nationalism and ethnic prejudice.

But he has expressed this unexceptionable sentiment in the form of a ponderous comedy-drama that could itself be accused of a human-rights violation, albeit a minor one: the wholesale waste of two first-rate actors.

Rosemary Harris is Broadway's grande dame. She is our Helen Hayes, our Lynn Fontanne. At a minimum! John Cullum, who debuted on Broadway in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever - Lord, I saw him in that! - is a consummate man of the theatre. One would have hoped that Mr Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden a few years back identified him a playwright of conscience, would have given these fine actors a drama of searing political difficulty. Instead, we have a watered-down Ionesco....

Continue reading about The Other Side at Portico.

December 31, 2005

The Family Stone

When you see the print ad for Thomas Bezucha's The Family Stone, with its seven principals, after seeing the movie, you might want to suggest a rethink. Actors Tyrone Giordano and Brian White may not be as famous as any of the movie stars in the ad, but their contribution to the film is enormous. (So is that of Elizabeth Reaser.) I haven't read every review of this movie, but I don't recall reading in any of them that, of the five Stone children, one is both deaf and gay, and that his lover is black. The detail might strike you as decorative or trendy, but in fact the relationship occasions the story's moment of disaster, after which all the pretences set up in the earlier part of the film are shaken to pieces and the ground is cleared for a better ending than might have been imagined. This occurs at the dinner table - the only such scene in this Christmas-family-reunion movie. Thad (Mr Giordano) and Patrick (Mr White) are hoping to adopt a baby boy. Meredith Barton (Sarah Jessica Parker) - at this moment apparently destined to be Thad's sister-in-law - proceeds from wondering if the men are afraid of transmitting their sexual orientation to asserting, even more boorishly, that no parent could ever want a child to grow up homosexual.

Like Diane Keaton's Sybil (Thad's mother), you want to kill her, if only for her tactlessness. It must be conceded that Meredith has a point. Until very recently, it is unlikely that there were many parents who were happy that their children were homosexual. They might be happy that their children had found happiness with a good partner, but what loving parent could be happy about the burdens and disadvantages that society heaps upon its misfits. The Family Stone, if nothing else, stands for the proposition that homosexuals are not misfits - period - and this is where Mr Giordano and Mr White work their magic. Their characters are so obviously not misfits. Patrick is a black man in a white home, and Thad speaks with the alien accent and intonation of the deaf, but both belong to the Family Stone as much as anyone does, to the point of not being particularly special. (A fine touch in this film is the apparent artlessness with which family members sign while they talk.) Amy (Rachel McAdams), the "mean" Stone, took "years," according to Thad, to accept Patrick, but the fact is that she has accepted him; that's over and done with.

When the movie was over, I was running over, but I had nothing to say, even to myself, about what the movie was like. It took a while to return to normal, and, when I did, I saw that The Family Stone has captured the spirit of crisis and misadventure that afflicts every family when a prospective addition is introduced during the holidays. The film is funny and tart, and it is certainly recognizable as a romantic comedy from Hollywood. But the actors who play the eight Stones, the two Bartons, and the lovelorn ex all work hard and successfully to spike the proceedings with that special terror that we experience whenever our intimate lives are ruffled. The actors look no more and no less like each other than actors usually do, but the illusion of a genuine Family Stone is very convincing. I felt like the one who heard all about it later.

December 29, 2005

A Night Out

Kathleen couldn't find her cell phone, so we decided that trying to meet on the Upper West Side without a restaurant in mind was a bad idea. It would be better if she came home after the doctor's appointment and we went to dinner from there. She walked in just as I was buckling my belt; I had finished writing just in time. We still didn't have a restaurant, but I remembered that the last time that we went to the Blue Note, we had dinner at Ennio and Michael, an Italian restaurant in LaGuardia Place, right around the corner from the jazz club. Not only did they take my reservation for a table in half an hour, but we were actually there in half an hour. Sometimes the FDR is the only way to go, even if you do have to drive all the way across Manhattan at its widest to get to Greenwich Village.

At a quarter past nine, we were in line outside the Blue Note, not far from the head. We were even closer after a woman from the club culled people who didn't have reservations. It wasn't very cold, and the rain that was already falling in New Jersey hadn't reached Manhattan (it would arrive much later, long after we were tucked in), so we had no complaints. "Oh, that's where the IFC is," I said, noting the marquee across Sixth Avenue, and wondering if you can still change at 51st Street for a train that will take you to West Fourth. 

At about ten, they let us in, and, not surprisingly, we got ringside seats. Boy, the place looked scrubbed. Kathleen attributed the clean feel to the same factor that had struck her at the Village Vanguard: no smoke. But it seemed like more than that to me. I'd have said that the entire place had been refurbished after the Mayor's smoking ban. True, it had been a while since our last visit. But I think that the Japanese who run the place (don't they?) have simply cleaned it up. There was a Japanese couple seated next to us. The gentleman was very tired, and actually rested his head on the table from time to time before the set began. But for the most part the room really did look and - more important - sound like a night club. But for the attire, the place sparkled. The Blue Note sparkling? It used to be so ... college.

We were there to hear Cassandra Wilson, who's singing at the Blue Note through New Year's Eve. Kathleen and I were slow to warm to the charms of this great blues singer; it took "The Weight," on Belly of the Sun, to win us over, but won over we were, Kathleen especially. Ms Wilson uses her bottomlessly dusky voice to deconstruct her material; she can make a standard sound completely unfamiliar, singing it as if it were jazz recitative. The effect is earthily meditative: if Ms Wilson were a Wagnerian, she'd be a great Erda. As it is, she reminds me of a completely unleashed Carmen McRae. The more I talk about Cassandra Wilson, the higher the contradictions and paradoxes are going to pile up, so I'd better move on to her great backup, which has a Latin tightness even when the rhythms are pure Delta. It is also colorful, especially since Gregoire Maret added his harmonica to the blend. Bass player Reginald Veal, percussionist (!) Jeffrey Haynes, and guitarists Brandon Ross and Marvin Sewell made a fine blues band. Here's the Muddy Waters number, "Honey Bee," that opened the set.

December 23, 2005

Art and Criticism

On the Sunday before last, I promised that I would get round to Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," which appeared in the Book Review for December 11. Mr Gewen mentions eight books in the course of his piece, but it is not a review so much as a consideration of the current state of art criticism. Art critics, after all, are the people who tell us about the art world, distinguishing, in the process, the good from the bad, the worthy from the meretricious. What most critics have not been distinguishing, for the past half century, however, is art from non-art. We have been living in an anything-goes art world, largely because critics have resisted the urge to reject, to exclude offerings from the rubric of art.

There are conservatives, of course; Hilton Kramer, founder and still editor of The New Criterion, is an unhesitating debunker of much of what passes for art these days. But as Mr Gewen points out, there are limits to what we can expect of a critic who proclaimed, in 1980, that Juan Miró was the greatest living artist. More typical of modern criticism is the moonlighting philosopher, Arthur C Danto, of The Nation. Mr Danto finds room for almost anything in his big tent, and he writes (as I know from reading him) with an almost amused pleasure about his encounters. His actual philosophy of art is rather more difficult to grasp, which is perhaps as it should be. The question that I came away from Mr Gewen's overview was this: why have theories in the first place?

Continue reading about Art and Criticism at Portico.

December 22, 2005


Syriana is that rarest of films, the highly-intelligent thriller. Based on Robert Baer's See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, Syriana does a fine job of laying out the global web of big oil. It is fresh and current. As all such stories must, if they're to be at all true-to-life, Syriana ends on a cynical note; it is in no powerful person's interest to alter current arrangements here or in the Middle East. (It is certainly turning out not to have been in our interest to topple Saddam Hussein.) The acting is uniformly excellent and the writing is first-rate. But what's most commanding about Syriana is its dry, quiet beauty. Violence is often seen but not heard, and the score, by Alexandre Desplat (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, the soon-to-open Casanova) is cool and discreet. I don't mean to suggest that Syriana is calm itself; it's anything but. I was truly terrified on at least four occasions - rightly so, in the event. This is not a film to set up a scare and then let you off with a "boo."

There are three stories in Syriana, and they take most of the film to converge, and to reveal themselves as facets of the same story all along. George Clooney is a CIA field man who masquerades as an arms dealer; he becomes concerned when a client in Tehran trots off with only one of two devices; the other seems to slip into Arab hands. Matt Damon is a derivatives trader, based in Switzerland, who makes use of an unfortunate event to establish lucrative contacts with the enlightened heir-apparent to an emirate. Jeffrey Wright is a rising Washington attorney who learns how to play rough without betraying his lessons. All three men swim in extremely dangerous waters - I don't think I've ever worried so much on behalf of a screen lawyer as I did for Mr Wright - and they all learn that any frontal attempt to straighten out the oil mess will only make things much worse. 

I hope that young people will talk about the issues behind this ripping story, and that the dwindling state of oil reserves will register upon the consciousness of coming generations. Competition with China for energy resources is a recurring theme of Syriana, and it probably won't be long before the Chinese turn out to handle the Middle East much better than we'll ever do, so long as we are identified as an active player in Israeli affairs. It was true when I was in my twenties, but sadly it's just as true for those who are in their twenties today: listening to your parents about energy is foolish; they don't get it because they don't want to get it. Young people need to get it before they become overworked, tired, and comfortable.

It is clear to me that humanity's only happy future will require the mastery of stewardship. I cannot imagine how this will happen or what the world will look like when it does, but I foresee plenty of bumps. The main thing, now, is to think about it. I hope that everyone will bear in mind Benjamin Franklin's extremely irreligious advice: God helps those who helps themselves. That's certainly how the earth's material future is going to unroll.

December 19, 2005

Brokeback Mountain II

On Friday, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain came to the nabes, so I ran around the corner to see the first showing. I wanted to get the experience of seeing the movie for the first time behind me as quickly as possible. As it happens, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have adapted E Annie Proulx's story of the same name so faithfully that, if you know what Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal look like on screen, then the movie does little more than fill in the color - so far as seeing it the first time goes.

When I saw how faithful Brokeback Mountain is to "Brokeback Mountain," I stopped paying attention to what was going to happen next, and a second story emerged. ...

Continue reading about Brokeback Mountain at Portico.

December 15, 2005

Memling's Portraits

The other night, Kathleen and I met at Shakespeare & Co's Hunter College branch. She was coming uptown, I down. We cut through the icy winds over to Fifth Avenue and the Frick Collection, for a rare Monday-night members' viewing of the current special exhibition, Memling's Portraits.

Hans Memling is one of the very greatest fifteenth-century Netherlandish painters, in company with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin. He died in 1494 at the age of fifty-four, at a moment when Dürer was in his apprenticeship. From the growth on evidence in the exhibition, I think there's no telling how far into the new sensibility Memling would have pushed, but the latest painting in the show reminded me of Holbein. Not that I'm complaining.

The thirty-odd pictures in the show are very choice, and they come from all over the world. The Frick Collection (which owns one of the pictures) is the only American venue for the show - aren't we lucky! To be perfectly vulgar, the show is a cross between the best Met retrospective and a private viewing of the thirty most expensive objects ever sold by Harry Winston. I know that there are still people who feel that what was going on in the Netherlands in the fifteenth century is hopeless primitive when contrasted with contemporary Italian work, and to them I will say that one of the Memlings on view was bought by the Uffizi in the 1830s as an Italian picture.

Sadly, the Frick has put nothing on line, so there's nothing to show or tell, and I haven't yet acquired the catalogue. The pictures hit me strongly in two ways: first, they were so old (and yet in such good shape), and second, everyone was very mortal, even the very well-shaven nabob in the leopard-fur collar who was mistaken for an Italian in the 1830s. Almost all of the faces were cheerful and engaging, but they were all amazingly mortal. Portraits are often designed to survive their sitters, to maintain the illusion that the painted face still corresponds to a living one. That is not true of Memling's portraits. Their mortality is the source of uncanny power.


December 03, 2005

Aeon Flux

Yesterday's movie, seen at the Storage Unit Theatre, was - stirring. Yes, that's the word. But only for the short-term. I'm a little jangly still, but it probably won't last. Going to the storage unit afterward, though, was creepier than usual. It's so hermetic in there that I can imagine that the world outside is just like the one that I saw in the movie.  Which, in the case of Aeon Flux, isn't reassuring.

Most of the raw materials here are familiar. The semi-distant future (four centuries plus), wipeout plague, survivors lodged in earth's only remaining city (which they're forbidden to leave), underground opposition, and lots of special-forces training. What kept me from being bored (when I wasn't quaking) was the intelligent way in which the background was revealed; the raw materials have all been given twists.

And Aeon Flux is very stylish. The nightmare of corporations running the future is never overt (as it is in, say, Rollerball), but it is suggested at every turn by architecture that suggests the very latest in top-notch office parks. There are no rough edges in Bregna (as the city is called, poetically but somewhat forgettably), and there are plenty of flowering gardens. Some of these, at least the ones surrounding the citadel, are lethal.

We are introduced to Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) right away. She is a "Monican" - hope I've got that right - or member of the not-so-loyal opposition. Hearing her opening narrative, which is also made up of raw materials, we might lazily assume that there's trouble in paradise simply because that's the way human beings are: after too many years of peace, they itch for trouble. So far as I know, this theory has never yet been tested, but here we have just one of many movie tropes derived from the Augustinian view of things. But that's not, in fact, why Bregnan society seems to be breaking down. There's a better reason.

When we learn that the ruler of Bregna is Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csakos), the doctor who came up with a last-ditch cure four hundred years earlier, we begin wondering what's going on. (Doctors in charge? There are more than a few half-conscious echoes of Zardoz here, although, stylish as it is, Aeon Flux is not as stylish as that John Boorman fable.) As it turns out... I have omitted a raw material from my list. (It is a five-letter word that rhymes with the kind of world that we live in.) Suffice it to say that Aeon's open-shut mission to liberate Bregna runs into a serious snag early on, and this is where director Karyn Kusama's direction and Phil Hay's and Matt Manfredi's script part company with cliché. True, they never wander out of sight of it, but they keep things nicely mixed-up. And they've got something altogether new: the Relical, ostensibly a monument to all the human life that has been lost but actually much much more. Looking like something between an amoeba and a gently floating beret, and bearing a festoon of trailing streamers, the Relical flies over Bregna every day, collecting information. (Now that I think of it, the Relical is another half-conscious echo of Zardoz.) When Aeon Flux leapt from a spire to grab one of the Relical's streamers, I almost lost my popcorn. It appears that Ms Theron studied trampoline with a trainer from the Cirque de Soleil. 

Will I get in trouble if I suggest that Ms Kusama makes Aeon Flux surprisingly interesting? It could have been a very bad picture, long on looks and devoid of anything else but violence. It would be silly to suggest that only a female director would know how to infuse the villain, Oren Goodchild, with more than a few dashes of Richard III, but one is sorely taxed to think of an actual male director who would have done so. Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Oren, seems bound for typecasting as a fine-featured bad-guy, and I hope that he will manage to steer clear. Sophie Okonedo and Caroline Chikezie do fine jobs as tough gals, while Pete Postlethwaite and Frances McDormand do the same as fantasy creatures.

On the whole, I would say that the trailer for Aeon Flux is not misleading, except insofar as it might tempt you in to thinking that the film is much better.

November 30, 2005

Absurd Person Singular

We saw a marvelous show last week, on the night before Thanksgiving - that's why I haven't got to it sooner. It was Alan Ayckbourn's umpteenth play, Absurd Person Singluar. This was the sixth or seventh Ayckbourn that we've seen; it was by far the best. And for once, I have to begin by praising the director, John Tillinger.

Alan Ayckbourn is a master farceur. He knows more about doorways that the god Janus. He moves his characters - and their stories - with the precision of a clockmaker. He has a fantastic natural sense of humor. The problem comes in when he tries to be serious, to make a point. He does make a point in Absurd Person Singular: it is the point of the title. We're all absurd when all we think about is ourselves, as the six people in this play do. (The humor of "Absurd" is that, while it rhymes with "third," it refers to the first.) This is not a show that even an Olivier could muddle through without strong direction; the roles require exact synchronization. Mr Tillinger has directed lots of plays at MTC, including several by Mr Ayckbourn, but never has his choreography worked to such magnificent extent - a fact that I attribute to Mr Ayckbourn's staying out of the way. John Lee Beatty's amusing sets, Jane Greenwood's spot-on outfits, and Brian MacDevitt's superb lighting showed off the play's full comic potential.

The construction of Absurd Person Singular is elegance itself...

Continue reading about Absurd Person Singular at Portico.

November 14, 2005


Jarhead surprised me by not being harder to take than it was. The one really painful scene came early on. Marines, still at Camp Pendleton, are watching Apocalypse Now. On the screen within the screen, Lt Col Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) directs an aerial attack on a coastal Vietnamese village, to a sound track of "The Ride of the Valkyries." The Marines in the theatre cannot contain their excitement; they bounce like kernels of popping corn. They're gung ho, rooting for the thoroughly undermatched American forces as if unaware that their team will ultimately lose the game. The irony of this momentary cluelessness and the tragedy of their predictable but lamentable enthusiasm for colorful carnage combine to make a bitter pill. It is a scene from Lord of the Flies, but one instigated by adults. The Marine Command must presumably be aware of the young men's inappropriate excitement. Excuse me; it's not inappropriate on the eve of engagement. Is it.

The rest of the film poses the question, Is what I'm seeing necessary? Do you have to push men this hard in order to make effective soldiers out of them? (Remember that the team of snipers featured in this drama are elite shooters, as far from Army "specialists" as you can go, at least on the ground.) It is not my place to answer, but I suggest that the price is too high. Jarhead suggests that the men killed in action - and none are, here - might be the lucky ones. Their survivors may go on drawing breath, but only at the edge of an excruciating and dismal nightmare. A nervous system stretched past maximum for months at a time will never relax to a healthy calm.

As such, Jarhead takes issue with the current manner of training and maintaining crack troops. (It's important to remember that the snipers in this drama are elite shooters, not "specialists.") The film itself is not gung ho. There is no climax to redeem the months of grueling boredom. On the contrary, there is only the anticlimax of not being allowed, ultimately - very ultimately - to take out an Iraqi target.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the star of Jarhead, but the film works best when his character, Swofford, is interacting with his partner, Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard. While the guileless Swofford has nothing to hide, Troy is a locked trunk of secrets, and Mr Sarsgaard could have stolen the picture if director Sam Mendes hadn't resolutely featured Mr Gyllenhal. It would be silly to see anything homoerotic in the relation between the two soldiers, but it might be argued that Jarhead illumines depths of non-carnal male intimacy, which, much line sonar, functions as a series of answered challenges. 

Comparisons to Three Kings, the other movie about Desert Storm, are unavoidable. What the two movies share is a complete lack of nobility. Ideals that were still available to the Greatest Generation were finished off, it would seem, in Vietnam.

What do I think about Jarhead? I don't know. But I want to see it again. Not tomorrow, but soon.

November 07, 2005

In Her Shoes

Kathleen's review of In Her Shoes: "About ten times better than I thought it would be." Seriously, it's a good movie. In an honest world, Cameron Diaz would get third billing, after Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine. Without those two actresses, her part of the movie would be an insufferable variation on the "spoiled babe grows up" theme. By the time Ms Diaz's Maggie Feller shows a little aptitude for poetry and hard work, your attention has shifted sufficiently to Ms Collette's Rose that you don't mind how easy Maggie's resolution is. Her inspirational scenes with a character known as "The Professor" (Norman Lloyd) were bearable only because I was hoping that Rose and her grandmother, Ella (Ms MacLaine), wouldn't be stuck forever with the care and feeding of a pouty pain in the neck. Coming from a director of Curtis Hanson's capabilities, the dyslexic poetry readings were disappointingly Hollywood.

In a nutshell, In Her Shoes tells the story of sisters who lost their mother to depression in childhood, and, immediately thereafter, their grandmother, who was cut off by a father who disagreed with her about how his wife and her daughter should cope with her disease. Rose, the elder, grows up to be a big-firm associate with no time for love but a killer shoe collection. Maggie, a hopeless narcissist, is scraping bottom when she comes upon birthday cards from her grandmother that had been withheld in her father's desk drawer. (Maggie, needless to say, is rooting for cash.) When an unforgivable betrayal forces Rose to throw Maggie out, Grandma is Maggie's last chance.

Shirley MacLaine made her first movie, Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, fifty years ago, and so deserves a measure of slack, but she doesn't need it here. Her Ella Hirsch is a calm capable realist who guards her feelings but does not repress them. She knows when to give, and, even better, she knows how. When she catches Maggie rifling through her drawers, looking for money, she comes up with an intelligent business proposition. All of this is interesting because Ms MacLaine manages to deliberate right before your eyes, without making faces. She registers the decision to try to help her new-found granddaughter, and not to kick her out as everyone else in Maggie's life inevitably has done. You come to agree with Maggie and Ella alike, that the girls would have been better off had their grandmother fought harder to stay connected. You even share Ella's real, if low-key, grief and guilt. Ella's scenes are all deeply satisfying.

Toni Collette has a funny face. It is not conventionally beautiful, although it can be caught in momentary beauty. Its worst feature is its liveliness: there isn't an expression that Ms Collette won't throw herself into, no matter how goofy. It is great to see this terrific actress convincingly play a very bright woman, a woman who, unlike so many of Ms Collette's other roles, will not be victimized, will not take the blame for other people's shortcomings. It is also great to see Ms Collette in the hitherto unlikely position of sizing up a man whom she has dismissed and deciding that she really likes him after all. Her scenes with a cynical friend (Brooke Adams) also show the blooming of hopefulness.  

Mark Feuerstein is truly appealing in the role of Simon, the dismissed but reconsidered suitor. Like a true leading man, he makes a calm but resolute claim on your attention, and Mr Hanson gives him plenty of opportunity to do so. I look forward to his next film (something called Shut Up and Sing, apparently). Mark Isham's score, as always, is just right.

November 03, 2005

Rufus Wainwright at the Beacon Theatre

Someday, I hope to see Rufus Wainwright give a concert at Carnegie Hall, with no special lighting effects and no amplification, except maybe just for him and the backup vocals. I want to hear what he has put on his CDs, only live.

What I don't want is to hear Rufus when he is singing for the second night in a row. Last night, I heard, he claimed to have a cold. But he was in good voice tonight, except for his top. We're talking opera problems. The boy needs his sleep, just like all the other High Caesars. His singing three encores, the last of which was the hardly undemanding "Beautiful Child," made me almost cross.

Do you think I'm disappointed? Don't be daft. I'm just moving some criticism up front to control the gushing. It was great to hear him run through so many of the songs that I've gotten to know quite well lately. It was great. It was great. It was - I don't know how to write about rock concerts, because the quality of the sound is always so much worse than it is on recordings. When I go to a classical concert, I listen for the things that don't come across on recordings. The moments of excitement that you have to see, feel, breathe. Rock concerts impose huge compromises on the charts and then turn up the amps, drowning out most of the fine lines. At the risk of sounding like Margaret Dumont, I beg Rufus to take his taste for opera more seriously. Keep the amps if he must, but turn them down. "Inner voices"!

So the pleasure of hearing songs that I love sung in the same room by their creator was dampened by the dumbings-down that rock tradition requires. I expected this, however. I haven't forgotten the first big rock concert that I ever went to; it put me off such events for years. (Maria Muldaur in 1974, I think it was. The old Houston Coliseum - is it still there? "Midnight at the Oasis" - obliterated by noise.) I didn't go to this evening's concert to appreciate Mr Wainwright's art. I did want to hear him sing in the same room, yes, but as happens in the vocal world, he was suffering adversities and did not sound his best. Still think I'm disappointed? Only insofar as I didn't hear anything I hadn't heard before. But setting music aside, it was a gripping evening. I got to see Rufus with his public. That's almost a little too exciting.

In interview after interview (not that I'm reading them all under a hair drier), Mr Wainwright claims to be incapable of attaching himself to someone else for the medium-long term. This worries me. He needs a lot of protection, and not the kind that you pay for. He may be our best look at Mozart's life. It's obvious that he was a precocious little musician who learned very early that performance was a safe ticket to approbation, whereas talking - words - could get him into trouble. So, like some other loquacious little boys that I've known, he spoke at the speed of light and tried to fit four paragraphs into one sentence. For all his flamboyance, I think that he is quite shy. But as for tormented childhood, "Dinner at Eight" aside, I think that his - before puberty, that is - must have been full of extraordinary fun. He and his sisters had to have put on great little entertainments. We had one of them tonight. It was a riot. It was a diet. "The Old Whore's Diet" - a song that may take some listeners a while to like, because it's built on the Bolero model. A little bit of material is stretched to its maximum elasticity. In the middle of the recorded song, at the end of Want Two, there's a moody gypsy violin solo. During this solo - did I neglect to say that it was presented as the last number of the concert? (which it was not by any means) - most of the performers, including Mr Wainwright, left the stage. Presently they reappeared in white robes, suitable for Baptism. They arranged themselves in formation and proceeded to imitate (mock) every backup dance group, every black girl group, and every June Taylor Dancer, with their arms. It was very funny, but it was not as campy as some might have thought it; rather, it was the ridicule of children. Rufus got his ensemble to put on a show for the grown-ups, and they complied winningly. At the heart of the luxuriant decadence of Rufus Wainwright, there is a quick little boy who has known how to work a crowd since he was seven, and possibly younger.

And that's very appealing. There is nothing like an old pro who happens to be under thirty-five.

What I took away from this evening's concert was a pleasant sense that Rufus Wainwright, the performer, is still a child prodigy. Rufus Wainwright, the composer, as I already knew - and despite his dishy protestations - is very much a man. It's time for the man to make sure that the child gets his rest.  

PS The last time I went to the Beacon Theatre, it was a dump. That can't have been too long ago - the Bonnie Raitt/Keb' Mo' tour. The place was Dinge City. Mais voilà! The gilt has been regilded, the lobby is grand, the seats have been replaced, and everything has been restored to spiffitude.

PPS Regina Spektor opened the concert. She is an extremely good pianist with a compositional style that it will require further hearings to appraise - typical for me. Don't count on me to spot geniuses! She has a nice voice; its combination of timbres reminded me hugely of Stacy Kent, despite all the differences in material. Ms Spektor's song, "Wallet," is immediately affecting. Ms NOLA was quite taken with her. My response was positive, but taken under advisement.

PPPS Rufus did throw us a nice dog bone: "It's nice to be home."

October 30, 2005

North Country

As faithful readers know, I, who used to be quite firm in his dismissal of the whole going-to-the-movies thing, have buckled and surrendered. In the past five weeks, I have seen: Capote; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; Good Night, and Good Luck; Dreamer; and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That's a lot of great movies.

Kathleen had been complaining for years about my unwillingness to show up at a theatre at an odd time. It wouldn't have been such a problem if the movies were like live entertainment in New York, which, with certain exceptions, always starts at eight o'clock. Now that I had five good films to chatter about, however, I knew that Kathleen would have to be taken to the movies as soon as she spent enough time away from Two Wall.

I wanted her to see two of the movies that I've seen. Capote, especially. It's a movie about writing! (It really is - the first.) And Good Night, and Good Luck. It's a movie about television! (Boo! Hiss!) I was even willing to see In Her Shoes, because I'd heard that one of my favorites, Toni Collette, walks away with the film. (A film that also stars Shirley MacLaine, no less. Poor Cameron! Didn't know what hit her!) But Kathleen wanted to see North Country. I tried to talk her out of this choice in a way that was brilliantly consonant with the movie itself. I put forth a subtle and arresting argument: "I don't want to see that movie. It's grim."

By yesterday, when it was clear that we were going to the movies this weekend come hell or high water, I had awakened to the inner cretinitude of my position. This afternoon, after lunch (chiens chauds - mais à la gourmandise!) I announced the showtimes of North Country, which is playing across the street, indeed, at the same theatre as Friday's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. From being an untutored rube, I have progressed to connoisseurship as regards the career of Michelle Monaghan, who is in both pictures. "I thought you didn't want to see North Country," said the princess of whom I am not worthy. I spared her the conversion experience.

I had "legitimately" been worried that the sexism of North Country would bring Kathleen down. In fact, it put all of her current problems in perspective and made her feel, in every pore, that she is a very lucky Wall Street lawyer who only takes shit from one or two richly-billable certifiables. As you must know, North Country is the new Norma Rae. That movie, starring Sally Field, was about oppressed women workers standing up for themselves. North Country is about women standing up for their right to do men's jobs. I hope that the young women of today will learn from it how unripely recent their opportunities are. (It was great to see Linda Emond, an actor whom we've encountered at MTC, playing the corporate lawyer who tries to talk her client out of being stupid - to no avail.)

While Kathleen was doing fine-to-great, it was I who walked out of the theatre trembling. That collective male power - God, how I fear it. Tall and bright but different, I may never have been in a fight but I know the deadening power of men in a last ditch. Deadening. There's a lovely guy in North Country, a supporting character with the name of Ricky (I think), who would love to stand up for the heroine but just can't, not against the tsunami of patriarchal contempt in which he must accommodate himself. Eventually, he does get to stand up, better late than never. He, in a way, was the hero of the movie for me, because I knew how he suffered. I was very glad that he was not the one to suffer Woody Harrelson's yellow ice/red ice harangue.

I haven't said a word about Charlize Theron - but there's no need. She's better, as always, than you thought she would be. It was fun to hear her on Leonard Lopate the other day, discussing her accent (she never spoke English in her native South Africa, and so had no accent to overcome) and her career as a dancer (try to tell me that she has no regrets about being too big - too tall - for a career in dance). It is always wonderful to see a woman "open" a film. Ms Theron's costars are mighty and puissant - Sissy Spacek and Frances McDormand are the other leading women - but Ms Theron's name also precedes those of Mr Harrelson and Sean Bean, no strangers to top billing. Am I the only person who thinks of Jane Fonda when Ms Theron is doing her thing? I certainly did in the union-hall speech that was happily commandeered by her character's father, played by Richard Jenkins. Mr Jenkins is one of those character actors whom only the attentive know about, no matter how many times they've seen him, because he's never the star. On the shoulders of such toilers Hollywood - and Bois-le-Gaumont - depend.

See the movie just to see Sean Bean and Frances McDormand as a loving married couple. That she carries it off is no surprise. That he does puts him back on my list, which he has been off ever since Stormy Monday.

October 29, 2005


If I were a respected theatre critic, I would just bellow, "Drop everything and order tickets to Souvenir right now. Don't even think of thinking about it. Just do it." And you would do as you were told.

I humbly acknowledge that I must work from a more gently persuasive angle. Let me begin by saying that Souvenir, the new play-with-music by Stephen Temperley that began previews last night at the Lyceum Theatre, may not be to everybody's taste. People who don't find it funny ought to be deported to somewhere else, although I can't think of any part of the globe that deserves such an affliction.

Take one great big helping of the funniest Carol Burnett skit that you can remember (Went With The Wind, perhaps), and another of the best stand-up comedy that you've ever seen, and top it off with the poignance of a good-to-great play starring Cherry Jones, and you'll have Souvenir.

Continue reading about Souvenir at Portico.

The Odd Couple

Ben Brantley's review of The Odd Couple, appearing in today's Times, seems desperate to find negative things to say about the new production that, because the ticket buying public rightly expected Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to do pretty much what they're doing with Neil Simon's famous comedy, has been sold out for ages. Never, perhaps, has a show been more critic-proof. But if Mr Brantley took the opportunity to say some unkind things on the understanding that they couldn't harm, I must say that he miscalculated gravely. Consider the following:

The humor of "The Odd Couple" is rooted in watching ordinary guys, equipped with an extraordinary arsenal of zingers, turn each other into irreconcilable caricatures of themselves, the way people do in bad marriages.

"Ordinary guys"? I don't think so. Oscar Madison is an extraordinary guy. As a sportswriter, he's a professional guy. Guyitude is second nature to him. He leaves messes all over his apartment the way dogs pee on fire hydrants, to prove that he was there. As everyone knows, Felix is of the opposite persuasion: leaving proof of his passing gives the enemy an advantage. Felix cannot cover his tracks quickly enough. He can't do small talk because small talk is necessarily unguarded. He requires a controlled environment. Oscar needs to show that he can survive in any environment. I don't think that either one of them is an ordinary guy - not, at least, for the purposes of this comedy. You could say that The Odd Couple is about Jewish mothers, offstage but waging their warfare through proxies. their sons do indeed seem more than a little bewildered by the turbulence.

I wasn't going to write about The Odd Couple, which is directed by Joe Mantello. I'm not a Neil Simon fan, and I have a limited interest in one-liners other than my own (which I immediately forget - you had to be there). The play was fun, and I'm glad I saw it, and really didn't seem to be much more to say. (I said it Wednesday.) But Mr Brantley's review seems too perverse to let stand unchallenged. The beautiful point of the production is to show that abandonment has hit these guys really hard. United in having wives who can no longer stand them, Oscar and Felix dig in to their respective foibles, and the impatience with one another is really their displaced rage. How could my wife not love me? each asks, only to answer the question with unalloyed and unenlightened male "wisdom," by doing what he did - what in fact irritated his spouse - only, doing it twice as hard.

So Oscar is volcanic, and Felix is - in Mr Brantley's word - "robotic." That's not a bad word to use of a shell-shocked man who clings to sanity in terms of routine. The Odd Couple is a comedy of discomfort, possibly the oldest kind of comedy there is. It is at least as physical a comedy as it is a verbal one. Mr Lane and Mr Broderick have developed a theatrical duo of amazing brio and finesse. They are just a bit funnier together than they are apart. Each can catch the other's leaps. It might be better to consider the high moments of this Odd Couple as a ballet written for two male dancers and laughter.

October 28, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

What a movie! Meta, meta, meta! (Whatever that means.) For all the violence - and the corpses do pile up toward the end - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a funny movie, with lots of LOL moments. It works by spoofing the clichés of detective movies, not at the level of the action so much as in its presentation. Val Kilmer, for example, plays the part of a gay detective straight; gay mannerisms are on a short to nonexistent leash. The spoof is in having cast Val Kilmer in the part to begin with. Having come up with a linebacker-sized gay detective, filmmaker Shane Black keeps the joke fresh by making sure that you never know where he's going to go with it.

Robert Downey, Jr has played more interesting parts - such as Joe Werbsha in Good Night, and Good Luck, which is also in theatres. But Harry Lockhart, like Blake Allen in Two Girls and a Guy, is a role that Mr Downey was born to play. A scamp on the spot, his Harry has eyes that careen more or less constantly in search of emergency exits. He has a good heart, though, and we're root for him all the way. We feel his pain, however, only to an extent, because his predicaments are too funny. And their arrangement, their sequence play with your expectations. Consider the history of one of his fingertips. Not now, but after you've seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Michelle Monaghan has been in a few movies that I've seen, such as The Bourne Supremacy, but I can't say that I've noticed her before. The simplest description would be: the new Sandra Bullock. I could not make up my mind whether her part would have benefited from deeper inflection, greater archness. As it is, she sends up the corn fed all-American girl who goes to Hollywood to be a slut. Well, not really, but close. The spoof is that it hasn't spoiled her.

There are several bold forays into serious drama. They're momentary, but they break the prevailing mood. The miracle is that Mr Black can snap it back on the minute he wants to. There are also quite a few loose ends, but these don't occur to you until after the show is over. I will be interested to see how this movie plays after three or four viewings. But it's great fun the first time around.

Nothing interesting was showing at the Storage Unit Theatre (nothing that I hadn't seen, that is), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was showing across the street. To even things up, I came home for lunch - a bowl of minestrone, and read "The Truman Show," Daniel Mendelsohn's glowing review of Capote, the The New York Review of Books. I hope that you've had a chance to see that by now.

 Can't wait to own it. It's an amusement park ride of the first order. Almost impossible to describe. Very, very meta, but never confusing. Robert Downey Jr was his usual self (his role in Good Night, and Good Luck is a more interesting part, but there's no down side to watching an actor doing what comes naturally.) I never made up my mind about his costars, Val Kilmer as a gay detective, and Michelle Monaghan as the girl from the past. But it really doesn't matter. The ride's too much fun. Despite all the shooting and some moments of real suspense, this is a good-time picture.

October 20, 2005

Orpheus at Carnegie

18 October 2005: The new season began with an elegant program, beautifully executed. The principal works were Mozart's first important piano concerto (Nº 9 in E-Flat, K 271, the "Jeunehomme" - named for blind pianist Barbara Jeunehomme to play on her tour stop in Salzburg) and Beethoven's first important piano concerto (Nº 3 in g, Op 37). Each was preceded by a roughly contemporary overture by a less exalted composer. JC Bach's Sinfonia in B-Flat, Op 18 Nº 2 opened the concert, while the overture to Luigi Cherubini's Faniska followed the intermission. Both "minor" composers were at least popular as Mozart and Beethoven in their day; neither was nearly as demanding.

This is not to say that the Sinfonia was as trivial as I was afraid it might be. "London" Bach, the youngest of Johann Sebastian's two broods, was, even during his father's last years, the most famous Bach in music. Instead of following in JS's footsteps, as his elder brother Karl Philipp Emanuel did - JC aimed at worldly success and achieved it. His operas have disappeared entirely, but their overtures, collected in his declining years as "symphonies" still serve as perfect indicators of the state of music that Mozart grew up with. Orpheus chose what was originally the overture to Bach's setting of Lucio Silla. Lively but focused, the outer movements were rhythmic riffs on attractive but unmemorable motifs. The inner movement sang a lovely song for the oboe, somewhat reminiscent of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The whole work gave the orchestra an enthusiastic warmup.

Written in 1777, the "Jeunehomme" concerto is scored for the standard Salzburg orchestra: two oboes, two French horns, and strings.

Continue reading about this concert at Portico.

October 01, 2005

Capote isn't about In Cold Blood, either

On an impulse, I went to see Capote yesterday. I grabbed a tote bag and the the storage room key, because the theatre where it's showing is right next door, and lugging home a load of junk from the storage room would justify going to the movies in the middle of the day. Then I hopped on a bus, and, one-two-three, I was in my seat.

Five or ten minutes before the movie was finished, the screen went black and the house lights came up. The usual pre-show filler of ads and quizzes began to play. I ran off to the men's room, but when I came back nothing had changed. A few minutes later, a member of the audience nicely bellowed that he'd been unable to find the manager and that the ticket girl was giving refunds. So we all made our way to the lobby, where the ticket girl wasn't doing anything. She was one of those little creatures that completely collapses when asked to take initiative. The wonderful thing about being in New York is that we don't just accept stonewalling. We reply in kind. There were quite a few people in the lobby who seemed determined to occupy it until the management satisfied them in some way or another, and I myself actively discouraged an elderly couple from purchasing advance tickets on a nearby vending machine. I was inclined to stay, partly because I was in no hurry to visit the storage room, but largely because I was curious to see what would happen, which is the same as saying: how this blog entry would come out, for of course I was already sketching it. The moment anything out of the ordinary happens, I judge its blog-worthy properties and either move on or stay focused. This has the curious side-effect of relieving me of my habitual petulant response to frustrations and inconveniences. I'll let the other folks, most of them seniors, do the kvetching for me. It was with the strangest but also the loveliest lightheartedness that I stood in line - or, rather, in the clump of angry moviegoers.

Not that this euphoria would have lasted all day. Happily, the manager appeared on the scene and proposed to resolve the problem. He assured us that, if we went back to the theatre, we would see the rest of the film, and he would give each of us a "pass," a blank ticket to use at any Clearview theatre. Oh, the confusion between a sharp guy with the manner of Samuel T Jackson and a lot of querulous old folks. "What's going on? What did he say? What does the pass entitle us to? Do we go back to the theatre?" The machinery of complaint, having been set in motion, is difficult to halt.

We made our way downstairs to the theatre - this Clearview multiplex has six or eight theatres, two underground - and nothing happened for a bit. The the manager appeared after a while and asked us if we were all in our seats - the stupidest question. We called out yes, anyway. He said that he'd start the film. We applauded. Then we went back to nothing happening.

By now you're thinking that I'm going on about all of this because the film never came back on and I can't write about a movie that I haven't seen all the way through. But it did come back on - that's how I know we were five or ten minutes from the end. But I don't write about movies until they're available to all in DVD form, and I've had a chance to watch them several times. (I wouldn't write about a movie that didn't compel multiple viewings.) But since Capote is on the list of every serious moviegoer I know, I will say that Capote is a great film, one of almost unmatched quiet intensity, and that Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Clifton Collins Jr turn in award-worthy performances. Director Bennett Miller, whose first feature this is, certainly seems to know his onions.

September 24, 2005


Jessie.JPG      Gerard.JPG

Now that I've gone to the trouble of capturing these images, I begin to suspect that you had to be there. Certainly the resemblance between the two film moments is reinforced by vocal expressiveness. At left, Jessie Royce Landis, playing Cary Grant's mother, surrenders to the nonsense of even thinking that anybody would want to kill her son. She's the last in the elevator to laugh, but when she does, it's with an almost Viennese light-headedness that even Gloria Swanson couldn't have pulled off. On the right, Gérard Depardieu pretends to surrender to the nonsense of thinking that he could have been talking pejoratively about a certain sexual preference. In both cases the risible proposition happens to be exactly right, but that's incidental. Once you've seen North by Northwest, M Depardieu's little flutter in Le Placard (The Closet) becomes twice as funny. Of course, the plot of Le Placard will take M Depardieu's character deep into another kind of Viennese light-headedness. Now, back to your fine weekends!

August 29, 2005

Nothing Special


On Friday afternoon, Ms NOLA and I went to the Frick Collection. It was fairly crowded, with lots of visitors listening to those handheld lecture thingies. I'm sure that you can learn a lot from such devices, but I don't think that you can really see anything while you're soaking up the textual details. Looking at pictures is not easy, and I can't do two things at once.

Not that I refrain from pointing out things to my companions. In front of Bellini's Saint Francis in the Desert, I remarked to Ms NOLA that this magnificent picture is caught in the tension between the Netherlandish love of schematic detail, so characteristic of fifteenth-century paintings and illuminations, and the new realism of the High Renaissance. It's an image that refuses to settle down. The chapel in the alcove to the right and the hill town in the distance are buzzing with points of visual interest that have nothing to do with the saint's stigmatization; that they are also symbols simply adds to the potential racket. What keeps the painting from dissolving into an unruly mess is Francis's rapt head and the strangely blue-green rocks behind him.

All I actually said was, "This picture is so caught between the medieval and the Renaissance."

Then we went to drink from the fountain that is Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Oh, that yellow, ermine-trimmed jacket, a magic cape that transports us beyond fashion. I didn't say anything.

I studied The Countess d'Haussonville, as I usually do, wondering about her strange right arm. Sloping shoulders were all the rage when the picture was painted, but that arm appears to project from the countess's ribs.

We missed the collection of French prints from Weimar that was exhibited over the summer. I had wanted to go, but other things got in the way. I'd really like to have seen Boucher's Triton, above. It is so much more powerful than his paintings. I can feel the thrust, the force of the Triton's outstretched left arm.

So we saw nothing special, nothing that isn't on view every day at the Frick. It was perhaps for that reason that Ms NOLA remarked, as we left, that she had forgotten, now that she lived in a city with no shortage of them, how vitally calm museums are.

August 28, 2005

Les enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome


Even though I am wont to carry on about never having allowed television schedules to dictate mine, I found myself very much on hand yesterday afternoon at five o'clock, when Les enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome came on TV5. So, okay, I'm going to trade one kind obnoxiousness for another. I made sure that I was free to watch a scheduled program, just like everybody else in the world, but it was a program in French.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be lost without the subtitles. They flash on sufficiently in advance for me to to expect something like what actually gets said, which is helpful, I suppose. But language is not the draw. Christine Citti is the draw. A young but decidedly ampler Cathérine Deneuve is at once a modern woman and the embodiment of something ancient about the authority of French women. She plays a detective, a captain in the French police, which means that she heads a team. It is a much smaller team than Jane Tennyson's, but she calls the shots. That's the modern-woman part. But she is usually smiling, at least in the shows that I've seen, even when she's nailing a bastard. That's the immemorial part.

The conceit of the show is that the murderers are always "nice" people, never "criminals." For that reason, they are always insisting that they be given special treatment. Captain Rome's way of dealing with this standing on non-existent privilege is perhaps the secret of the show's interest. She is polite but firm, never rude but never deferential. Every now and then she whips out a neat comeback that silences complaint. She also loves difficulty. Her cases seem open-and-shut at first, amenable to the kind of common-sense solution that Inspector Morse's Chief Superintendent Strange always wants Morse to settle for. Captain Rose never settles for it, either. Once her thoroughness and her instinct have identified the killer, there's little that she won't do to trick a confession out of him.

Aside from being deeply charming, Mlle Citti's face is a deftly-wielded tennis racket. She will squint with one eye - I don't think so. She will purse her lips - I'm waiting, and I've got all day. She will smile a little too sweetly - I can do this myself, and I'm going to! While they're nothing silencieuse about her, there is something feline about her inclination to let people reveal themselves. She seems to stay out of the way of her own investigations and watch them work themselves out.

Sadly, I haven't progressed to knowing the names of the other regulars on this show, but they're all very good, and they play off each other well. There is a very salty pathologist, also a woman, who is almost never gentille, but you like her anyway. There's a lieutenant whose looks would seem to have steered him toward romantic leads; he's one of those Adam's-apple acrobats. Come to think of it, Captain Rome's boss is a French translation of Chief Inspector Strange.

What marks the show for me is its equanimity. The suspense is very low, and never anything but cerebral. Such was its allégresse yesterday that, when it was over, I was thirsty for Mozart's genial Clarinet Concerto. Hardly the sort of mood that Law & Order ever put me in.

August 04, 2005

A Second Viewing of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté

On a whim, I went to see De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté this afternoon. It's showing twenty blocks down Second Avenue, so I hopped on a bus. What is all this movie-going about? And when was the last time I saw a film more than once in the theatre? But I wasn't going to the movies; I was going to see this really remarkable film again. I couldn't wait for DVD release.

I could not remember, actually, why I had found De battre so great. I knew that I'd come away thinking that Romain Duris deserves to win a Best Actor Oscar, but that no longer told me much. I headed down Second Avenue on the understanding that I would either see through the movie, and realize that it wasn't so great after all, or know, within minutes, why it was great. And indeed, within minutes, I knew that Romain Duris is why it's great, which doesn't tell you much. Let me see what I can explain, without giving things away. First, however, I ought to say that Jacques Audiard is an extraordinarily gifted director who has, with screenwriter Tonino Benacquisto created one of the most special films of all time. Whether he could have done it without M Duris is altogether moot.

M Duris plays Thomas Seyr, the son of a deceased concert pianist and a shady real-estate finagler. He thinks he's a pretty smart guy, leading a lucratively thuggish life clearing out developable properties by making life unpleasant for their occupants. Unlike Sami (Gilles Cohen) and Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï) his more-or-less partners, Tom is not married, and the film suggests that he has a very active carnal life. He often wears a tie, but his jacket is always leather, which in the occasional business settings gives him the air of someone who just arrived on a scooter. At first, his face is impassive, breaking into occasional scowls and smirks that convey a refusal to take anything or anyone very seriously. Every once in a while, however, the mask slips, and a look of genuine concern or curiosity glimmers briefly. Tom's hands are always busy, always tapping something out. The jagged camerawork of the early nighttime scenes underscores Tom's emergent edginess. We are soon aware that Tom is not content with his life at all. Waiting at a café to meet his father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), Tom taps out such a manic rhythm on the table that he seems set to explode, an impression that's deepened by the fact that we can't hear the music that he's listening to on headsets.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes, Tom is a gamin, a edgy street creature whose appeal depends entirely on the face of Romain Duris, which keeps Tom interesting while we decide whether we like him. Then something happens...

Continue reading about De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté at Portico.

August 02, 2005

The Wedding Crashers

The Wedding Crashers is a hoot. If you can bear the combined cute smart-aleckiness of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and - oh, no! - Will Ferrell, you will not be disappointed by this comedy, which takes many slightly unexpected turns before reaching its romantic finale. And you will probably find that Rachel McAdams has never looked lovelier.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) crash weddings for fun and sex. That is, they crash weddings to pick up girls, but they enjoy themselves hugely at the receptions. The basic idea is to postpone maturity indefinitely, and Jeremy possesses the self-discipline required to make this possible. He gathers up enough information about all the brides and grooms and their families to present himself and John as plausible invitees, no matter what the couple's background might be. The sequence of revels, shouts and seductions that shows John and Jeremy at play is one of the best put-together bits of film that I've ever seen.

John, however, is beginning to feel "not that young." Complaining of sore feet and other ailments, he unsuccessfully tries to beg off accompanying Jeremy to the biggest wedding of the season, that of the Treasury Secretary's daughter. The Treasury Secretary (Christopher Walken, more stunned-seeming than usual) has an unfaithful wife (Jane Seymour), a very strange son (Keir O'Donnell), and three daughters, two of whom, of course, are not getting married just now. These are Claire (Rachel McAdams) and Gloria (Isla Fisher), and they will be united with John and Jeremy. That much is clear before the reception is anywhere near over. But the screenplay (credited to Steve Faber and Bob Fisher) sprinkles plenty of funny complications in our heroes' path. It also confronts them with Claire's ever-nastier boyfriend, Sack (Bradley Cooper), catering to the guilty pleasure of giving us a character to hate. Needless to say, when Claire discovers that John is not who he says he is, she refuses to give him a chance to explain that she has changed him into a man yearning for love.

The Wedding Crashers, directed by David Dobkins, is light on grounding. John and Jeremy are partners who seem to be lawyers and who seem to specialize in mediating marital disputes, but this is never clarified and after the first scene we never see them at work again. In the third act, the heartbroken John appears to take an extended leave of absence, but this is never clarified, either. Pinning down the characters' connection to the real world might have made for a better picture, but it also might have bogged down the romance and taken the sparkle off the many funny details. It is difficult to quibble with such a frankly elating film. Although there are a few moments when the story threatens to take a brooding turn that would kill it comic momentum, Mr Dobkin keeps the proceedings on track, and ends his film on the same gleefully surprising note with which it began - no small trick.

For all the escapism of this movie, there may be a militant honesty about it. Vince Vaughn is a head taller than Owen Wilson, and no attempt is made to disguise it. I was impressed. Guys don't have to be equally tall to be buddies! What a liberation!

¶ Walla-walla bing-bang: What do I discover upon rising from the couch of slumber? What online novelty does Aurora have in her backpack this morning? Well, nothing less than an Iron Blogger review-off! A complete co-inkydink! You will find a few remarks on The Wedding Crashers at I'm pretty sure that I posted first.

July 30, 2005

Not the bad review you'll think this is.


As a treat for her commitment to Team Vacation, I took Kathleen to the movies late yesterday afternoon. I do not, as a rule, go to the movies, partly because I don't like the theatres, partly because showtimes are sporadic, and partly because home video has freed me of the need to sit still for a long period of time. The quasi-religious experience of sitting in a dark room with a crowd of strangers has never had the slightest appeal for me. In addition, movies lack the ingredient that makes concerts and plays so quickening: their subtle interactivity. Any Broadway actor will tell you that the audience is different every night. The same is not, perhaps, true of concert audiences, but there the hum of a pleased audience is the almost audible salute to realized greatness.

But Kathleen wanted to see March of the Penguins, so we went. Now, I was not keen to see a documentary about animals in Antartica, even if its real title was La Marche de l'empereur, but that's what made taking Kathleen to this show a treat. It would not have been a treat to take her to see De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, which I'd really like to see again even before it comes out on DVD. For there to be a treat, I had to have some resistance. But after a week with filing boxes and old letters, I really didn't care what the movie was going to be about, I just needed an escape.

March of the Penguins documents the reproductive cycle of the Emperor penguin. As you have probably heard by now, these birds, flightless in the air but not in water, retreat seventy-odd miles from the waterfront, their only source of food, every winter, to mate and then to incubate and nourish their chicks. It is perhaps the most inconvenient procedure in the world of vertebrates, involving endless trekking, shivering, and, eventually, regurgitating.

The photography is astonishing. It is close and clear, sharp but calm. But the narrative is arresting. Yes: "But." It's no surprise that Disney has co-produced this extraordinarily anthropomorphizing film. The penguins are not made to talk, but that is about the only dishonesty of which March of the Penguins is not guilty. Don't get me wrong - I was completely wrapped up in the harrowing ordeal to which penguins have adapted. But I was led every step of the way by human calculation. The expert score, the authoritative but easily-grasped narration (by Morgan Freeman), the editing - all of these first-rate devices made a tidy eighty-minute package of a process that takes several months of lousy weather and diminished daylight. They missed not the slightest opportunity of making penguins appear to behave as human beings do. There would be nothing wrong with that if it were not for the human propensity to read human feelings into human-like behavior. What the penguins do every winter is remarkable to us only because our developed consciousness renders us incapable of fully imagining what the penguins go through, of how they endure months of extreme discomfort and uncertainty. In fact, the penguins do not go through anything; they just plod from minute to minute, and soon forget almost everything. What makes us different from other forms of life is our extraordinary memory. We can remember a roller-coaster ride taken decades ago. Mastering history enables us to "remember" things that happened long before we were born. We are distinguished from one another by our unique memories, and it is not too much to say that we are really nothing but our memories. (That is the tragedy of degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's.) Without our memories, we might be penguins. But we would not know it.

So movies such as March of the Penguins are unavoidably false. They purport to "introduce" the viewer to bizarre and arduous ways of life that are bizarre and arduous only because that's what they'd be if human beings tried to imitate them. To be faithful to the natural world, one must honor its absolute, repetitive tedium. And one can never be completely faithful, because one can never honor "nature's" obliviousness. When we look at the penguins and see the drama of their winter schedule, we see something that, for them, simply isn't there.

Having said all of this, I'm not sure that I would give March of the Penguins a bad review. It's a sensationally effective movie.

July 01, 2005

After the Night and the Music

Ben Brantley didn't like it, but we thought it was great: Elaine May's After the Night and the Music. So did the rest of the audience, apparently. Perhaps it's generational. The title refers, I think, to the aftermath of the famous song, "You and the Night and the Music." What happens when all the goodies promised by Howard Dietz's lyrics have been worn out, washed out, or smashed up? This is not, perhaps, a show for younger audiences - and, of course, it didn't have one last night. After the Night and the Music is directed by Daniel Sullivan, with sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Michael Krass, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. It's produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre on West 47th Street, the dandiest house on Broadway.

There were moments here and there that I might have snipped, but they never bogged down and were forgotten at once (except for the purpose of writing this page). Great cast, great production, great choreography. (I'll get to that.) To Mr Brantley, After the Night and the Music was no more than an assemblage of skits. While I see his point, I don't take it. Billed as "Three New Plays in Two Acts," After the Night and the Music is actually a one-act play preceded by a curtain raiser, a quartet of interlaced monologues, and an intermission. The curtain raiser might be considered a skit if it were merely funny or satirical, but in fact it's about generosity rewarded.

Continue reading about After the Night and the Music at Portico.

June 24, 2005

Broadway Danny Rose

This morning's croissant is at Good For You.

June 02, 2005



In all probability, I am the only person who didn't know about Primer until yesterday. (Thank you, Jason Kottke.) I don't as a rule write about films that I've only seen a few times and only very recently, but there is so much here to come back to that I want to catch the nimbus of awe that surrounds the experience right now. I watched the film twice yesterday afternoon, the second time listening to the commentary of Shane Carruth, the writer, director, and star, a man whose first film this is. (He edited it, too.) Make that a man with no filmmaking experience of any kind prior to working on this project. It's as though Hitchcock, not Athena, had sprung fully grown from the head of Zeus. Every scene was story-boarded, so that Primer was virtually pre-edited. The almost indigestible aspect of the film is it's cost: $7000. And I do mean film. It was shot in Super16; when it was chosen to show at Sundance, an investor chipped in $25,000 to have it blown up onto thirty-five millimeter film.

Mr Carruth performs all of his jobs capably, sometimes with real inspiration, but as a star he's a star. His face is remarkably interesting: sometimes handsome (once in a while quite handsome), sometimes ordinary, and sometimes a little odd. Its expressions can be heavy and even a little thuggish, or extremely delicate. Mr Carruth is very good at dawning recognition. And he has turned five-o'clock shadow from the look of macho allure so popular lately into a sad intimation of mortality. His co-star, David Sullivan, is a professional actor, and he can do great-actory things; he completely realizes his character's leaden recognition that he has been outfoxed. But Mr Carruth seems lighted from within, not just intellectually, as, say, Jude Law and Ewan McGregor so often do, but anatomically as well.

Primer is "about" time travel, in the way that North By Northwest is about stolen government secrets. It's really about trust, risk, and the pursuit of glory. It is about grown-up kids with no real sense of moral consequences who are bored with their day jobs and itching to make huge fortunes. Of four original partners, two pull apart to develop a smaller, less expensive version of a device that, according to Mr Carruth, actually exists. Don't ask me. Along the way, they discover that their invention has interesting side effects. Great pains are taken to simulate the atmosphere of genuine discovery - the tedium that's occasionally cut by extraordinary elation.

The film needs to be seen twice, partly because it is so complex - trying to find out what the characters are up to distracts somewhat from their project's meaning - and partly because the area of filmmaking for which Mr Carruth was least prepared (by his own admission) was sound. A good deal of the dialogue is looped, and in the interest of verisimilitude the characters often speak over one another. The scientific arcana is not a nuisance, but it's easier to watch the film when you know how relatively unimportant it is. Primer goes right to the brink of mystification, but it doesn't fall in. (Although the details of time-travel are kinky, they're not pressingly important. But there has evidently been a great deal of industrious obsessing about the story "timelines." (I've found one rather elegant-looking solution.)

This has to be the most astonishing debut in the history of cinema. That's what staggers me now. I think that it's a remarkable movie by any standards. We'll see if that impression lasts. 

May 24, 2005


Sometimes Kathleen is so dear!

We are some sort metallic members of the Video Room. Gold, platinum, I don't know. We're not at the top, but we have plenty of perqs. Delivery, mostly. The Video Room happens to be in the neighborhood, but its client base is all over the part of Manhattan that happens to have Central Park in the middle. It says that it has been in business since 1974, which to me is rather like a Christian bookshop that claims to have been a going concern in BC 250. I mean, how many VCRs did you even get to gawk at in 1974? I do wonder. The point is that, although at our level of membership the Audio Room picks up and delivers (big deal, and can you really feel sorry for us when they're three blocks away? No.), Kathleen loves to visit in person and make selections on the basis of DVD jewel boxes. Which she usually peruses. But not the other night. The other night, all it took was "Nicole Kidman" to get Kathleen to rent the picture. She knew that I'm a big fan of Ms K.

So I slid the disc into the machine and waited for the menu, but when I saw that it was Dogville I announced that we'd be going back to the cable movie we'd been giggling over, as a preliminary matter (you put on your pyjamas while I make my martini): April in Paris, with Ray Bolger and Doris Day. Dogville for Kathleen? Are you kidding? I got a wonderfully empty sort of pleasure out of saying "I forbid this!" When I described the picture to Kathleen, she was very grateful. I said that I'd have to watch it first, and then we'd see.

Now, ladies, don't beat me up; I know that I'm sounding paternalistic, but friends will know that I'm not; Kathleen can't watch Mommie Dearest. Not to mention Sophie's Choice. At the eponymous moment of that movie, which we saw across the street at the old Musikverein, Kathleen burst into sobs that continued unabated for the rest of the film and for the entire walk home, which, thankfully, was only a matter of catercorners. And then some. There are movies that make me weep simply because I can imagine how Kathleen would respond to them.

Continue reading "Dogville" »

May 23, 2005

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Until Friday, I had never seen Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (Or rather, as the playbill has it, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Oh that "Who's Afraid...") I've seen the film adaptation, of course; I even own a DVD of it - as of yet unwatched - so I was familiar with the unpleasant story, and that was not a draw. Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin were the draw. There are three great big revivals on Broadway right now - this one and two plays by Tennessee Williams - and when it came time some months ago to decide which one to see I picked this one. Kathleen Turner has made some great movies, but she is a force of nature on stage. Bill Irwin, of course, is our most celebrated mime. Getting older, perhaps, and wishing to stay on stage without attempting increasingly painful acrobatics, Mr Irwin has taken up acting with his voice, and this is his second Albee production on Broadway. (In the first, he succeeded Bill Pullman in The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia.) A lithe man and not a large one, the actor can easily trick you into thinking that his George really is what Martha calls him at the very start - a "cluck." Anyway, that's why we went to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Now, sometimes when you go to the theatre on the strength of such calculations - "X is a great stage actor" in this case; but it could just as easily be any other aspect of a production that drew you, and doubtless there are those who simply don't miss shows with sets by John Lee Beatty, or costumes by Jane Greenwood, or lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (all doing excellent work at the Longacre) - you can be disappointed, but more often, I find, you get exactly what you pay for - in this case, the satisfaction of watching Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin take possession of the stage. And that's all you get. But in this case, there was a lot more on offer. There was, to begin with....

Continue reading about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Portico.

May 18, 2005

Trionfo al Met


Sondra Radvanovsky has had a triumph at the Met. There will be bigger ones, but tonight's was decisive. And it was a warm triumph, because it was also Placido Domingo's umpteenth. It was his idea, after all, to mount a production of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac (1936) at the Met. Mr Domingo was a great Cyrano, and he made the most of the role's lyric possibilities. But Cyrano's centerpiece is a plum soprano role, which sounded as if written for Ms Radvanovsky's voice.

There are longueurs in Cyrano, just as there are in, say Die Frau ohne Schatten. But Alfano more egregiously fails to give any very interesting music to anyone but Cyrano and Roxane. That was my impression, anyway; I really doubt that greater voices could have made more of Le Bret, de Guiche, Christian, or any of the others. Buckles are continually getting swashed in this tale of uncommon wit and valor, and there are military rataplans in the second and third acts that contribute little to the opera's interest. But whenever the play's romantic triangle heats up, Roxane usually does a lot of the singing, and hearing Sondra Radvanovksy remains the happiest experience that I have ever had in an opera house. Period.

I've decided to write this entry without consulting the rave that I wrote last November, after discovering Ms Radvanovsky in I Vespri siciliani. I daresay that I shall repeat myself in characterizing Ms Radvanovsky's voice. It is rich and supple but not overripe. There is no stridency; although I suppose one might detect a very faint spinto quality in her production, it is a smartly tailored spinto, with an unscratched surface. There is complete control and a sense of complete relaxation. Ms Radvanovsky is a svelte woman and very agile on the stage; perhaps this shouldn't count, but it certainly doesn't hurt. I would love her just for her voice. But I would love her more on recordings than in the house. As it is, Ms Radvanovsky has finally given this poor soul a reason to go to the opera. Since it is impossible for me not to find similarities among voices that I like, I must declare a resemblance that I detect between my new favorite and a great mid-century dame whom of course I never heard live: Anita Cerquetti. The difference is that Ms Radvanovsky's voice sounds utterly untroubled. At the bottom, she can sound like Maria Callas, but, again, without the problems. People who don't make fine distinctions will find her (at least) as satisfying as Renata Scotto. I predict a great career for Sondra Radvanovsky at the Metropolitan Opera, even though I know that it's the stupidest thing in the world to make such predictions. Only horses are more unpredictable than opera types. (And by "types" I mean not so much the singers as the impresarios who decide what to perform and when to perform it.) 

Next year, I will see the opera again, from a seat in the stalls. I must say that our seats in Row D of the Family Circle were perfectly unobjectionable. Music has never sounded better in seats anywhere else in the house. You can't make out the singers' faces, of course - even the famous nose was not always detectable - and I have certain infra dig issues about sitting in the poulaillier. But the arrangement was perfect for trying out an opera that hasn't gotten very good press this time around. (It was also the perfect introduction to the Met for Ms NOLA. Start at the top, is my advice to opera newcomers. It only gets better.) Now I can splurge on a big seat with complete confidence. By next season, I'll have acquired Roberto Alagna's DVD of the opera, and I'll have more to say about the whole production. Tonight, I just want to hold on to the memory of Sondra Radvanovsky's Roxane.

It was a toss-up, between my companion and me, as to who ran the greater risk of dehydration through tear production. During the third act scene in which Roxane tells Christian that she would love him (on the strength of the letters that, unbeknownst to her, Cyrano has been sending her in his name) even if he lost his good looks - even if he were grotesque. Whether it was the composer or the soprano, I felt so sorry for the wit-challenged Christian that I was shaking with sobs. And the entire final act, from the moment Cyrano worked his rickety way beneath the convent arches, was unbearably moving. And yet I never for a moment felt manipulated. Here's to panache!

There is a certain old friend of mine with whom I shall continue to maintain amicable relations, but with this proviso: we shall never again, not under any circumstances, so much as allude to the existence of opera. His opinion of Cyrano de Bergerac, shared with timely dispatch, was that - is that - the opera is "mierda." This is the final nail, proving that one of us is hearing, if not spelling, "opera" backwards.  

May 09, 2005


Well, and hooray again. There's been a cancellation, and I'm scheduled for a Remicade infusion tomorrow at two. Thank you all for your prayers. We will pause for a moment of green. 


In anticipation of better health, I am inclined to try to behave as if I already had it. There's a small mountain of backlog on a bookshelf next to my desk, and I'm going to work through as much as I can in one big swallow.

Continue reading "Backlog" »

April 05, 2005

Doubtless Bigots

Doubt has won the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright, John Patrick Shanley, says

People who have great certainty can be a force of good, but can also be incredibly destructive.

He is speaking, presumably, of Sister Aloysius, the grade-school principal who engineers the removal from her parish of a popular priest because she is convinced that he is molesting a shy, intelligent boy. Kathleen and I were absolutely captivated by Doubt, and absolutely devoid of the eponymous feeling. We were as sure as Sister Aloysius. Everything about the play, from Father Flynn's dodginess to the boy's mother's pleas to the younger nun's misgivings, convinced us that Sister Aloysius was right. If necessary, she was prepared to be "incredibly destructive."

In light of Mr Shanley's remarks, it's clear that either I'm a bigot or he hasn't written the play that he thought he has. Probably the former, because many people have seen the play and come out wondering. Kathleen and I have wondered if their heads were screwed on properly. We've wondered if only kids who went to Catholic grade schools can really understand nuns like Sister Aloysius, or priests like Father Flynn.

The way other people wondered how anybody, anybody, could admire, or even support, Bill Clinton. The way we wonder how anybody could dream of voting for George W Bush.

Yeah, we're bigots.

April 01, 2005


It's six o'clock on a Friday night, and in an hour or less I shall set forth for Lincoln Center, where I'm to see Handel's Orlando at City Opera. This will be the first time that I have seen any Handel opera twice. I vaguely recall the mid-Seventies production, with Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey, that came to Houston for a spell; I was underwhelmed. Much as I love the contralto/mezzo soprano voice, I don't think that women ought to take the older trouser roles in an age of blossoming countertenors. I know that I'm ready to hear Orfeo sung by David Daniels or Andreas Stoll (although I prefer the French version of Gluck's opera, for tenor). I might be ready to hear a man as Cherubino. Octavian? That would be a stretch, but I'm game.

Winthrop Sargent, who wrote about music in The New Yorker when I was young, made two observations that I recall with complete approbation. First, that Chabrier's Souvenir de Munich is the funniest piece minutes of music ever. That's a pretty rarefied remark, though, since few people have heard the piece, and most of those who know Tristan und Isolde don't like to hear it made fun of. On a more general plane, Sargent opined that the music of J S Bach was about the oldest that modern concertgoers could hear with complete comfort. (Although Telemann and Vivaldi were born slightly earlier, and their music remains equally accessible, Sargent's rule is well-stated.) You can test this for yourself by listening to a few of the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, that Arcangelo Corelli polished to a high lustre that they were published posthumously. It is clear at once that Corelli influenced Handel even more massively than Vivaldi influenced Bach, but Corelli's brief movements, while frequenly lovely, seem undernourished, especially the quick ones. There is something unsatisfying about his penchant for brevity; it may be that he simply didn't know how to stretch his ideas over a five-minute frame, as the masters of the following generation did with such ease. I haven't done any scholarly analysis of Corelli's music; I'm just passing on the persistent finding of my ears.

A similar chasm lies between the operas of Mozart and earlier ones. Handel's opera breathe an atmosphere that is no longer piped into public halls. Here I think the difference is sociological, not musicological. What happened between the half-century between the composers' primes was the emergence of an affluent bourgeoisie. Although Mozart's greatest operas were written in Italian for courtly audiences, he knew how to appeal to the middle class as well - Die Zauberflöte proves that clearly enough - and it may even be said that much of what he learned from writing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, like The Magic Flue a singspiel written as popular theatre, found its way into the sophisticated fabrics of the Da Ponte operas, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. Handel's intended audience was absolutely aristocratic. It had no real sense of humor, because humor involves ridicule and disrespect; aristocracies prefer the burlesque. The operas of Handel's day were sugar-coated morality tales designed to show the nobles in the audience - who might, collectively, be the producers - how they ought to carry themselves; at the same time, they flattered their audience. That audience has passed from the earth forever. We are left with chains of beautiful and even affecting arias that, as operas, are missing something. The attempt to render Handel's operas appealing with sight gags and extraneous effects and rude gestures is misguided, because while it may entertain today's audiences it will never build a public for these works.

I have the odd feeling that I've written up Orlando before even seeing it. 

And how was it?

Continue reading "Orhandelo" »

March 18, 2005

Broadway Bound, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

When the Manhattan Theatre Club gets things right, memorable theatre is the inevitable result. But because I didn't care for The Loman Family Picnic, Donald Margulies's 1989 play, my expectations for Broadway Boy, which augured to mine the same territory, were not high. The identity crises of Brooklyn Jews who have grown up to be successful aliens to home base have if anything been overexposed on Broadway in the past ten or fifteen years. (Why, wasn't there a touch of this in Sight Unseen, the Craig Lucas play that MTC revived last season?) But Mr Margulies has reinvented the genre. His hero, Eric Weiss, isn't having the identity crisis. Everybody else is. The switch makes for a very funny play. Along the way, we watch a horror show, as the full horror of America's reading habits are only slightly exaggerated. To this base, add perfect casting and perfect everything else, and you've got a hit. Ralph Funicello's set, centered on the façade of a city walkup that was almost always in the background, was fluid and minimal but always convincing; I always felt that the spaces were real (as I never quite did while watching Democracy earlier this year, right across the street). Chris Parry's score contributed to a melancholy that you didn't really notice until it was replaced with a Hollywood glare in the penultimate scene. Jess Goldstein's modest, self-effacing costumes were spot on. Michael Roth's music established a somewhat sombre background that was the perfect foil to the play's humor. I kept wondering if the play would follow Doubt to Broadway, but, with a production directed by Daniel Sullivan at MTC's Biltmore Theatre, Broadway Boy is already on Broadway.

Continue reading about Brooklyn Boy at Portico.

March 09, 2005

Diane Arbus at the Met

Ms Nola persuaded me to accompany her, yesterday afternoon, to the "Diane Arbus Revelations" show at the Met. We were already in the building; I'd been tempted by the title, which I'd sort of misread, of the Fra Carnevale show: "From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master." Fillipo Lippi? Piero della Francesca? Wow! I stopped reading there. Fra Carnevale isn't bad, , or even mediocre, but he is not those other two. We got on an elevator and wandered through the old masters, where, happily, my favorite painting the museum, Georges de la Tour's "The Fortune Teller" ("La Sorcière") is once again on view - it must have been loaned to another museum for a show. We saw the newly acquired (for $45 million) Duccio. I was ready to brave the snow and head down to the Frick Collection when Ms Nola reminded me of the Arbus.

Continue reading "Diane Arbus at the Met" »

February 20, 2005


The day began early, but there were dishes to wash up from last night's dinner for five persons in four courses. (Plat principal: two Porterhouse steaks, to celebrate M le Neveu's recent attainments - he has been asked to deliver papers at several prestigious venues. He and the other gentleman at the table savored the bones.) Kathleen had to go in to the office - she lost much of last week to a time-consuming attack of bureaucratic pettifogging. I meant to spend the afternoon reading, but I had an inexplicable panic attack that made it impossible to concentrate on the Treaty of Sèvres. Eventually, I found a Xanax to calm me down, but by then I was watching French movies, Touchez-pas au grisbi and L'auberge espagnole. These pictures have nothing in common, but they've been sitting in my 'get to' pile for too long, because it's been hard to find time for sitting deliberately in front of the screen and reading subtitles. The title of Jacques Becker's 1954 film translates as "Hands off the loot," and the loot in question is two hundred pounds of gold bars, stolen in an unsolved crime by two polished thieves, Max and Riton. Jean Gabin plays Max, an imperturbable man who is determined to retire. That has become a familiar posture in a lot of recent American movies, but this story does not embroil Max in one last heist. Rather, he's got to protect the loot, now that a drug lord knows that he stole it. (Riton, played by René Dary, blabbed about it to impress his faithless girlfriend, Josy, played in turn by the young and slightly unrecognizable Jeanne Moreau. The excitement stems from the steady focus on Max's point of view. We don't see much of the drug lord, and have to piece together his plans right along with Max, as he anticipates every move while trying to keep the hapless Riton out of danger. There is a big scene of fascinating violence near the end, but, aside from an interlude in pajamas, Jean Gabin proceeds through Grisbi in a succession of bespoke suits and opulent neckties, with never a hair out of place. L'auberge espagnole (2002) is a charmer by Cédric Klapisch that does not feature Audrey Tautou, as the DVD box would lead an unsuspecting viewer to believe. The star of Amélie is a cast member, certainly, but she represents the life that Xavier (Romain Duris) leaves behind when he goes to spend a year in Barcelona studying Spanish and economics - and sharing an apartment with six other Europeans, all of them, like him, participants in Erasmus, the intra-EU exchange-student program. (The movie might have been named after the great writer, of whom the narrator never seems to have heard.) The movie depends on the moody authenticity of its young cast (on M Duris in particular), and on the fresh and intriguing use of split screens.... When Kathleen comes home, I'm thinking of making patty melts, which I've just figured out how to do, and then we're going to crawl in with Inspector Morse on the SDP 2700.  

January 18, 2005

Hysterical Blindness


Watching Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending, I'm reminded of Sleeper, one of the films that made Mr Allen famous. Hollywood Ending is basically the same movie. Miles Monroe (Sleeper) is a clerk in a vegetarian deli on the Upper West Side who awakens in the distant future - a future in which Margaret Keane's paintings of exophthalmic children are prized by the cognoscenti. Val Waxman (Hollywood Ending), an impossible movie director (read, vegetarian deli clerk), has been reduced to making bad commercials. He is saved by his ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), who is about to embark on a buff, Hollywood marriage with studio exec Hal (Treat Williams); she uses her position to lobby for a second, or last, chance for Val: "He was born to make this material." Val gets the job, and then repays Ellie, all too characteristically, by going hysterically blind. His little problem has to be concealed from everybody on the set, but most of the best jokes have nothing to do with his incapacity per se; rather, the screenplay is an endless sendup of Hollywood narcissicisms, where matters of no importance figure boldly ("Do you like the beige?") There is really no end of chuckles in Hollywood Ending, and there are two truly great set-pieces. In the first, Val and Ellie have a drink at the Carlyle's Bemelmans bar, right after Val nails the deal. Val alternates between bland business optimism and Medean vindicitiveness, the latter interrupting the former with all the insistence of really hot lava. The second set-piece is Val's interview with Hal at the Plaza; although he has been carefully coached on the stage directions by Ellie, Val can't remember where anything is, and it's a miracle that he doesn't sit down on the floor. Excuse me; he does sit down on the floor. This is the sort of thing that has been funny since movies were invented, and Mr Allen's exhaustive revival of old devices is sly but almost scholarly. The movie that Val is supposed to be making, of course, is a huge mess, but here's my favorite part: France to the rescue. France has all but adopted Val Waxman as a brilliant American auteur, and is only too happy to parlay his latest ouvrage into a three-picture deal. At the end, with all the tear-inducing magistry of a fairy-tale ending, Val and Ellie are driven off to JFK, to take wing to the life in Paris that they'd always dreamed of but for which Val confessed a lack of nerve. No need for nerve now. The wonderful little joke about the French adoring a movie shot by a blind cinema director is too far elegant to be insulting. We'll always have Jerry Lewis.

January 17, 2005


Never mind why (I didn't rent it), but we watched De-Lovely last night, the Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. I still don't know what Kathleen expected, but I was prepared to dislike it as much as Amadeus. Hollywood hasn't done very well by famous composers; the only interesting films with a serious-music edge are melodramas from the Forties like Humoresque and The Great Lie. Cole Porter probably had the most filmable biography of any composer. (Gershwin, as we were reminded in last week's New Yorker, was shunned by everybody for bad behavior until the doctors finally discovered a massive brain tumor a day or so before he died - who wants to sit through that?) His story would be interesting even if he'd never written a single hit. Given this second account of one of the truly fabulous American lives of the Twentieth Century, I've come to believe that it was the greatness of Porter's work that got in the way.

I don't intend to write a little review of the movie, which is, in the end, worth seeing, and which has many good points, not the least of which is Ms Judd's ailing Linda Lee toward the end. What angers me about De-Lovely is its falsification of the Porter marriage. In the movie, Cole Porter is an introspective fun-seeker who likes to go to bed with men, but whose heart belongs to a wonderful woman whose love, in return, allows him a very long leash. Perhaps the real Cole Porter would have been happy with this emotional arrangement, had it been available. But it wasn't. Porter was a gay man living in the beau monde who was lucky enough to find a woman of the world who also wanted to be married in the beau monde. Linda Lee was a friend, perhaps even a very close friend - I don't know - but she did not have any claims on Porter's heart, nor could she solace it. Porter didn't look anything like Kevin Kline (he was far shorter, far plainer, and his voice was totally tenor), and his love-life was the usual upper-crust cliché of brief, impossible romances. These inspired many of his songs, so it would have been edifying to see more of them, but in De-Lovely they're nothing but inconsequential flings, menacing nothing worse than the occasional logistic embarrassment. We're asked to applaud the film's bravery in so much as it acknowledges Porter's carnal circuitry, but we're denied the opportunity to see it in operation.

For a thousand, or perhaps only one or two, good reasons, Hollywood still has trouble with homosexuality, and, yes, it ought to be applauded for trying to cope. There are still millions and millions of Americans who, this year anyway,  are ready to believe that the normalization of "deviancy" is all Kinsey's fault, and to follow "experts" who deploy pseudo-scientific balderdash in the attempt to return to a world that even Norman Rockwell would have found falsely saccharine. That's why I think that the better course would have been simply not to make De-Lovely, to let the story wait for a better future. The high-concept aspects of the movie - great songs sung by hot, current artists, such as Mr and Mrs Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow; the glamorous Gatsby-era sets and costumes - can't save this false-hearted version of an intriguing story; they only make it more meretricious, like brandy on top of bad fish. The screenplay is deeply untrue to Porter and to the sorrows of gay life at a particular moment in the past, but the movie itself is even worse, because it transforms Ashley Judd into a matron who could easily be Margaret Dumont's younger sister, without any redeeming camp effect. The capable cast and crew of De-Lovely have been grossly disserved by a marketable lie. Cole Porter, his music and his reputation will survive. But most gay people will have been moved back a couple of spaces on the board game of life. Perhaps I'm asking too much. Perhaps we ought to welcome the measure of social progress that will tolerate homosexual sex as long as loving wives are willing to do so.

January 03, 2005



Michael Frayn's Democracy is an outstanding play, but whether it is a great one, I can't begin to tell. To be sure, greatness is something that emerges over time, but I can't remember the last instance of a play that seemed so insistently to withhold its own future. Perhaps that's a sure sign that it will turn out to be great; plays that feel great at first encounter are probably too compromised by and with the Zeitgeist. This isn't to say that Democracy has an air of timelessness about it. Quite the contrary. It is very much a backward glance whose retrospective reach is totally distinctive: fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, fifteen years into the European transformations engendered by that fall and fifteen years into an unexpectedly troubled and confused international scene that still hasn't come to terms with the end of the Cold War, we look back on the brief Chancellorship of the man who did more than any other to undermine the Iron Curtain.

To many people today, Willy Brandt is no more than a name. To me, he will always be the Mayor of Berlin. I don't remember anything specific, but he was a dashing and attractive antidote to the colorlessness of the Cold War. To his Chancellorship I paid no attention whatever. I must have parroted AP copy when reading the news at the radio station, but nothing sticks; our own problems (Nixon, Vietnam) and new horizons (China) were more absorbing. In any case, it appears that Willy Brandt was not made of presidential timber, at least in Michael Frayn's portrait. Highly charismatic - he specialized in silent speeches that knocked everybody for a loop - and determined to make his mark on the greatest political problem of his day (the reunification of Germany) - Brandt seems to have had little interest in the undramatic realities of everyday parliamentary democracy. His success was attributable largely to his clean hands - he had fled Germany in 1933, when members of the Social Democratic Party became persona non in Hitlerland. His administration was, in the long view, a success, because the initial treaties of cooperation with the USSR, Poland, and, most of all, the DDR broke the logjam of mutual nonrecognition. But his supporters expected a longer run.

Continue reading about Democracy at Portico

December 29, 2004


Before I had a chance to read Susan Sontag's obituary in the Times, a friend called to say that Jerry Orbach died last night. Both died of cancer (leukemia, prostate), and both were relatively young (71, 69), even though they seemed to have been around forever. I remember reading Sontag's Against Interpretation and wondering if I would grow up to be an intellectual.

Being a clearly labeled species of intellectual, scientists in science fiction films are always liable to crack up or go off the deep end. ... Generally, for a scientific enterprise to be treated entirely sympathetically in these films, it needs the certificate of utility. Science, viewed without ambivalence, means an efficacious response to danger. Disinterested intellectual curiosity rarely appears in any form other than caricature, as a maniacal dementia that cuts one off from normal human relations. But this suspicion is usually directed at the scientist rather than his work. The creative scientist may become a martyr to his own discovery, through an accident or by pushing things too far. But the implication remains that other men, less imaginative - in short, technicians - could have administered the same discovery better and more safely. The most ingrained contemporary mistrust of the intellectual is visited, in these movies, upon the scientist-as-intellectual.

That's from "The Imagination of Disaster," in Against Interpretation (FSG, 1966, 1986). It proved to be a useful warning.

Jerry Orbach will be remembered, I hope, for his many movie roles, among which Gus Levy (The Prince of the City) and Jack Rosenthal (Crimes and Misdemeanors) are particular favorites of mine.

December 16, 2004

Preliminary Notes on John Patrick Shanley's Doubt

1. The prospect of watching a play about a zealous nun hunting down a priest whom she suspects of abusing an eighth-grader was bleak, but our reluctance was overcome by the allure of another prospect, that of seeing Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne. Ms Jones might as well be crowned Queen of Broadway, because everything that she does is astonishing. Mr O'Byrne, lately seen in Frozen, has a way of being terrifying while sitting very still.

2. In the event, Doubt is not about whether the priest has being doing what the nun thinks he's being doing. It is, rather, the confrontation of a strong woman and a weak man. The man's strength is all bluster, a garment bestowed by society generally and by his employer specifically. The woman's weakness is entirely de jure - not an iota of facto. Cherry Jones plays Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx, in the fall of 1964, who has a nose for, and an aversion to, showing off. Ms Jones, wearing no visible makeup, her features obscured by heavy eyeglasses, looks twenty years older than her 48 years. Her lips are often so pursed that they disappear. The stunt of her performance, if it's not improper to speak of stunts, is that the embodiment of Sister Aloysius's dry flatness, while effacing all of Ms Jones's own features, brings to the stage a mightily robust woman whom it is ultimately impossible not to like. Brían F. O'Byrne plays Father Flynn, a popular preacher with a knack for coaching basketball (and suspiciously long fingernails). Watching his air of easy bonhomie curdle in the glare of Sister Aloysius' grim certainty is as unnerving as the actor's awful exchange of stares with Swoozie Kurtz in Frozen.

Continue reading about the MET Orchestra at Portico.

December 07, 2004

Preliminary Notes on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock


1. The what? The who? Yes, "Kockenlocker" is a funnier name. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a funnier movie. But it's not out on DVD yet. Preston Sturges fans take what they can get.

2. That's right, Preston Sturges. Who else would dream up a name like "Harold Diddlebock?" Only a writer/director/producer with backing by Howard Hughes, that's who. Who was going to make him change it? Hughes was probably afraid that Sturges would say, "All right, we'll change it, to Howard Hughes." After all, Sturges was richer. Maybe he wasn't richer, but he had just paid more income tax than anybody else the IRS knew about. (I always think that this claim to fame prefigures Sturges's impecunious end.)

3. Okay, okay. The cornice scene with the lion goes on too long. This was Sturges's besetting sin toward the end of his career. Think of the "Simplicitas" scene in Unfaithfully Yours. All those trashed side chairs! It does go on and on, and even Rex Harrison can't quite make you keep your fingers off the advance button. But if you're one of the faithful, you watch these scenes straight. They're still too long, but you know you've been admitted to the innermost chambers of the mad genius.

4. Preston Sturges's America is peopled mostly by people who hang out in the innermost chambers of mad genius. There is absolutely nothing boring about it. Even poor Harold's sister, the hyperrespectable Flora (played by Margaret Hamilton), is too monstrous to be tiresome. You can tell that she has been waiting for Harold to make a fool out of himself for years so that she could have a field day insulting him. It's only a movie, and that's sad, because Sturges made movies about the United States of Brio.

5. The Palm Beach Story is coming out on DVD early in 2005. That and Unfaithfully Yours are my favorite comedies on earth period end of discussion. If I had them both on DVD today, I probably would have given The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a pass. There is a widespread lack of enthusiasm about The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

6. Which was made in 1947. Everyone in the Preston Sturges rep company appears to be on hand, except for William Demarest. Robert Greig is great as Algernon the coachman, but it's hard not to miss Eric Blore, who, after all, was not a PSRC regular. Franklin Pangborn - Hollywood's first something - is crazy in plaids; Harold Lloyd is even crazier in the plaid suit that Franklin Pangborn makes for him. I would like to wear this plaid suit, at least once. (Steve Martin undoubtedly has.) But I would not wear the ten-gallon hat - even if it only holds two or three gallons.

7. Harold Lloyd is the original Woody Allen, without the neuroses. One of the silent-era greats, he has a fine voice - rather like Henry Fonda's in The Lady Eve - and he is a genuinely funny man to watch. He has great teeth.

8. Best for last. In the film's first (and best) set-piece, Edgar Kennedy plays the bartender-as-artist who is determined that Harold Diddlebock's first drink on this earth will be - a poem, as Jimmy Conlin puts it. What might have been a shopworn scene has all the varnish stripped off: it's as fresh and raw as if it had never even been thought of by anybody else, much less filmed. Everything about it is just different enough to keep you wondering what's next. And laughing your head off at the smart lines.

9. Frances Ramsden, the ingénue. I can't resist the idea that Ramsden is the movie's albatross. She's not bad; she plays the lovely last scene very well indeed. But that the movie's three big guys (Lloyd, Sturges, and Hughes) picked her out of the Hollywood fishbowl suggests a certain - independence of mind. I can hear them talking themselves into believing that they were launching a new star. Ahem. Ramsden had  three movies to her entire career, according to IMDb. Who was she involved with, off camera? She died, at 80, four years ago.

10. Well, rent it already. You won't be sorry.

Continue reading "Preliminary Notes on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" »

November 23, 2004

Lovely Lydia Smith

Amazon has published a top-fifty list for the year, and, scanning it, I found that I had read eight of them and owned two more. That seems about right. Anything greater than 20% would make me a slave to buzz. Looking a little harder, though, I see that two of the books that I've "read" are pictorial - Getmapping's New York City atlas, and the New Yorker cartoon omnibus. This hasn't been a good year, chez moi, for polishing off books.

I haven't said anything about the great Gilbert Stuart show at the Metropolitan Museum, although I've been to it twice. It's great in three different ways. First, by lining up various portraits of Washington that you might be forgiven for having thought of as copies of a single master, the exhibition breaks the iconic impermeability of these images and makes it possible to see them critically - to judge, for example, the different shades of the first President's character that each embodies. (I may be chauvinist, but there's no doubt in my mind that the Met owns the best of the right-facing three-quarter shots.)  Second, the abundance of first-class pictures puts Stuart squarely in league with Sir Joshua Reynolds; he is certainly no American provincial. Perhaps the most awesome is Stuart's 1823-4 portrait of John Adams. Finally, there is the picture of Bostonian Lydia Smith, who was not quite 25 when Stuart painted her in 1808-10. Lydia isn't the most beautiful girl ever to have her portrait painted, but the bright willing hopefulness of her slightly averted gaze has captured my heart, and the painting itself is terrifically fine. This picture, currently in a private collection, is not on-line, so you'll have to get to know Lydia in person, between now and the middle of January. She is a very good reason to visit New York.

The funniest thing at the show - also a Met "treasure" - is the portrait of Matilda de Jaudenes, a Philadelphia girl who got snapped up by a money-grubbing and very minor Spanish grandee. She is presented by the museum as an unwilling sitter, but I have always taken her to be quite pleased with her gaudy, goofy outfit. The doodad atop her head may make her the United States's first fashion victim.