Friday, October 8, 2010

"We are here to serve": Mario Camus's LOS SANTOS INOCENTES

For whatever reason, I have always found it difficult to fathom that a civilized European nation lived under a dictator until 1978. My friend Raúl Ansola tells me that the flourishing of Spanish art in the 1980s is a direct result of the democracy that emerged after Franco’s death in 1978, and that Spanish films benefited from the loosening of the state censorship under Franco’s regime. You can feel a kind of sigh, a loosening of the belt, in Mario Camus’s Los Santos Inocentes (1984), from the 1982 novel by Miguel Delibes. While the subject matter is relentlessly grim, there is a sense that the filmmakers were relieved to be able to show things as they really were—nothing is sugar-coated, nothing is evaded. The family at the heart of Los Santos Inocentes suffers, and the viewer suffers along with them, and yet it is as though the very act of speaking, of saying the truth, is redemptive enough to make the pain worthwhile.

The film concerns Paco (the excellent Alfredo Landa) and his wife Régula (the equally brilliant Terele Pávez), who work on the estate of a rich Extremaduran family headed by the odious but occasionally charming Iván (Juan Diego). They have three children, the handsome Quirce (Juan Sachez), the quiet but fiercely observant Nieves (Belén Ballesteros), and a severely mentally and physically handicapped younger daughter, called only “Tiny Girl” (Susana Sánchez). Joining the group is Régula’s mentally slow brother Azarías, played with heartbreaking simplicity and sweetness by Francisco Rabal. The brilliantly structured narrative gives four of these family members—Quirce, Nieves, Paco and Azarías—a piece of the story, a section from what is essentially their point of view, and it details the slow and painful decline of this very dignified family as they struggle to make the most of what life has thrown at them. Paco is slavishly devoted to the horrid Iván, despite the fact that he is treated by his master as little more than a dog; at one point, in his attempt to aid his master with his birding, he gets down on all fours and sniffs the ground, claiming to be able to detect the scent of a shot and wounded partridge—apparently it works, for said partridge is soon retrieved. Régula, when in the presence of her masters, almost always says some variation of “We are here to serve,” and her deference and quiet calm are almost uncanny—nothing seems able to break this woman’s stoic reserve. Their children Quirce and Nieves leave home over the course of the story, but both are so quiet, so uncommunicative that one wonders just how much growing up in such an environment has damaged them for life—they might physically get away from the scene of the crime, but the psychological damage has been done. Azarías has a gift and facility with birds, and over the course of the film raises a young bird from infancy and trains it to respond to his calls. He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the family, for he tends to rub his hands in his own urine when he pees outdoors (he claims that it keeps his hands from getting chapped), and he shits on the lawn of the estate, until Paco decides to start taking him out on horseback at night so that he can take care of this business in the dark and under the cover of trees. That said, the family also staunchly defends him, especially the often-exasperated Régula, who nevertheless looks at him with deep and abiding love.

The family in the manor house is interesting, for they are not portrayed in the manner I was expecting. Iván has moments, as I said above, of considerable charm. But ultimately his selfishness and brutishness outweigh any kind of sympathy I had for him. This is the kind of man who is so concerned with his own performance at hunting that he requires Paco, in a horribly painful series of scenes, to act as his second with a severely broken leg. And yet, he can look with concern at Paco, whom he has known all his life, after all. Played with more consistent coarseness are Don Pedro (Agustín González) and his slutty, lazy wife Purita (Ágata Lys), who is having an affair with Iván. Visiting the house for a First Communion is the Señora Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), who looks like an old, bleached-blond Anaïs Nin and who is so imperious that she terrified me on sight. She doles out cash to the servants, who stand timidly in line and pay her compliments; while she says some nice things to Régula, I was waiting for her to do something vicious. She never quite does, but her presence left me very uneasy; one can only guess what the servants thought while she was around. In one horrible moment, the servants all stand under the Señora’s balcony and call out compliments, while she stands, Evita-like, looking down at them.

The most striking thing about Los Santos Inocentes is the calm manner in which Paco and his family seem to accept their fate. There is no breast-beating, no hand-wringing, no late-night, candlelit conversations about how much they wish things were different. These are people who are surviving, striving to get through with as much grace and dignity as possible. They don’t seem to have any concept of yearning for something more. Perhaps they’ve realized they’re just never going to get it, so why hope? Early in the film they move from a small, dilapidated shack to a slightly larger dilapidated shack. It’s heartbreaking to see Quirce and Nieves so mesmerized by a single, functional lightbulb—they turn it on and off, entranced. This is a film with a striking soundtrack: the music, by Antón García Abril, is stunning, alternating between a frenetic drumbeat to end each character’s section and an incredibly sad violin piece; the soundtrack is often pierced by loud sounds—the pitiful screaming of “Tiny Girl,” Azarías’s joyful shouts of “Hey!” to owls he sees in the trees. Visually, the film takes place mostly outdoors, with a bleak but often beautiful landscape to counter and sometimes augment the actions of the characters. The acting is simply stunning—there’s not a bad performance in the piece, and Landa and Rabal shared the top acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot, but suffice it to say that there are several moments of gut-wrenching sadness—images of some of these characters’ faces will be with me for a very long time.

Again, there’s something affirming in all of the sadness in Los Santos Inocentes—affirmation that a time would come when these stories could be told, affirmation that bad people do in fact often get what’s coming to them, affirmation that despite everything, at the end, Paco and Régula are still standing, and still have each other, after losing so much else.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Trollope is not Proust": Alan Bennett's THE UNCOMMON READER

When one of her ill-tempered corgis runs up the steps of a bookmobile parked outside the kitchen entrace to Buckingham Palace, the Queen is obliged to follow it. Once inside, she meets Mr. Hutchings, who runs the mobile library, and Norman Seakins, a browsing kitchen employee. Her Majesty feels that she ought to borrow a book for the sake of decorum, and she chooses a volume by Ivy Compton-Burnett; opening it, she finds that it has not been checked out since 1989. "She's not a popular author, ma'am." "Why, I wonder? I made her a dame."

So begins Alan Bennett's utterly delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, and so begins the Queen's literary adventures. Aided and abetted by the dutiful Norman, who is promoted by the Queen to the role of personal assistant and literary confidante and whose gayness seems not to bother Her Majesty in the slightest (though she shies away from some of his very gay literary recommendations, like Denton Welch or Christopher Isherwood, the latter because she has "no time for all the meditation"), the Queen finds that more and more of her time is occupied by reading. She takes to keeping a book open on her lap during royal carriage rides, waving out the window while really looking at her book; when she leaves an Anita Brookner novel in the carriage while opening Parliament, it is removed by security and exploded lest it be some kind of "device" -- the Queen's response? "That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination." She tries to interest anyone and everyone in her reading: her husband, the family, the prime minister (who isn't even aware that Iran was once Persia), and Sir Kevin Scatchard, her bitchy New Zealander private secretary. No one is interested, and what's worse, they all seem to regard her reading as unseemly, even improper. Along the way are delicious jokes about nearly every English literary figure from Austen to Woolf. But, more seriously, reading allows the Queen for the first time in her life to escape her own circumstances and to level the playing field -- she has been separated by her role from the common people (the title of the novella an obvious play on the term "common reader," used by, among others, Ben Johnson and Virginia Woolf to indicate the non-academic reader, the reader who reads for his or her own pleasure and entertainment) and now, for the first time, is able to understand, through her encounters with characters, what other people are like. Such is the power of books.

Alan Bennet, author of -- among many other works -- the Tony-winning The History Boys and The Madness of King George, has written a delightfully witty and often vicious literary satire, one which holds up the British public to an astonishing amount of ridicule but which leaves its heroine, Her Majesty herself, virtually unscathed. The book was published in 2007 after first appearing in the London Review of Books, and one would assume that it rode the crest of revitalized popularity of the monarch. Indeed, I kept thinking as I read of Helen Mirren's performance in Stephen Frears's 2006 film The Queen (Mirren also having appeared, incidentally, in the film version of The Madness of King George), and of the human figure presented there. The Uncommon Reader actually makes me want to read a biography of the Queen, though the Queen herself in these pages deems such biographies "tedious in the extreme." Here, the Queen is plucky, funny, sharp, and surprising, particularly in the book's final moments. I don't want to say anything else about the plot, for I don't want to rob anyone of the book's many pleasures. Suffice it to say that Bennett's work is often laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time offering a subtle examination of what intense reading can do for a person, both positively and negatively. "Reading was not doing," the Queen thinks to herself, "that had always been the trouble. And old though she was, she was still a doer."

But again, the primary delights are the withering one-liners, most of which are enjoyed -- as with most British humor -- in context. Read the book at once, so that you can experience 120 pages of exchanges such as this one: When the Queen mentions at a formal tea to a roomful of past and present advisors that had she asked Macmillan's cabinet how many of them had read Proust, most would've raised their hands, whereas here, no hands are raised. A former foreign secretary pipes in: "I've read Trollope."

"'One is glad to hear it,' said the Queen. 'But Trollope is not Proust.' The home secretary, who had read neither, nodded sagely."

Friday, February 12, 2010

"If I could learn to twang like a rubberband": Kate Bush's THE LINE, THE CROSS & THE CURVE

The story goes that when Kate Bush finished her 1993 album The Red Shoes (loosely based on the 1948 film of the same name by director Michael Powell), she decided to forego the planned-for tour in support of the album and direct a short film instead, starring herself. She corresponded with Powell to discuss her ideas about the project; she met the director shortly before he died. It's much too harsh to say, as some critics have suggested, that she should have gone on tour. The Line, the Cross & the Curve is a mess, but it's a rather interesting mess.

The film opens with Bush in a studio, rehearsing a deliciously daft dance routine with dancer Stewart Arnold to the strains of "Rubberband Girl," the first track off The Red Shoes. With Arnold glued to her back, flawlessly copying her every move, Bush twists and contorts her body like the eponymous rubberband, but the number, which proceeds to involve a yo-yo and a straitjacket (rather fitting for the artist once dubbed "the madwoman of pop music"), is weirdly interrupted by a gigantic runaway fan which crashes into the studio, scattering the dancers and musicians. Soon after, the power fails, the other performers go home, and Bush is left to sing "And So is Love," while an injured black bird careens about the room before dying at the song's close. A witchy woman appears -- played by Miranda Richardson, looking rather like a drag queen -- through the dancer's mirror and cons Bush into donning a pair of diabolical red shoes which take possession of Bush as the title track plays. The film's title comes from the lyrics to "The Red Shoes": "And this curve is your smile / And this cross is your heart / And this line is your path." Bush loses all three of these things and must reclaim them, following Richardson through the mirror into a campy and surreal fantasy world. She consults a healer in the song "Lily," who tells her what she must do to reclaim her life. The film's loveliest piece of music, the sublime "Moments of Pleasure," features Bush spinning through the air, listing her loved ones who have passed on. She manages to reclaim her path and her heart, but has to chase the increasingly demented Richardson for her smile, winding up dancing in mounds of fruit and swirling her head nauseatingly in the song "Eat the Music." Needless to say, she wins out over the evil Richardson, and, like Alice, winds up on the proper side of the mirror.

To call The Line, the Cross & the Curve uneven is generous. But it's not fair to dismiss the film entirely, as Bush herself has done. She's called the work "a load of bollocks" and has expressed disappointment in letting an actress of Richardson's caliber down, saying that she was only satisfied with four minutes out of the film's 45-minute running time. But for every campy moment -- Bush writhing around on another woman's legs which are meant to be her own, the heavy-handedness of the bird's death, the presence of Lindsay Kemp, Bush's own dance instructor, in the role of a creepy Twin Peaksish "man from another place" -- there are instances of beauty: Bush's long hair blowing in "Moments of Pleasure," her red-shoed feet dancing on a rippling sea of cloth and glitter. What's best about the film is the music itself. While not matching the brilliance of Bush's masterpiece, 1985's Hounds of Love, The Red Shoes is a solid and terrific album, and Bush's voice is strong and mature, while sometimes retaining the girlishness of her earliest work like 1978's "Wuthering Heights." The problem is that the songs don't form much of a coherent narrative. "Rubberband Girl," for all its catchiness and the fun of the choreography, doesn't have much of anything to do with the "plot" of the film; none of the other songs add up to much of a story, either. A much more suitable film project for Bush, to my mind, would have been the song sequence that makes up the second half of Hounds of Love. Called The Ninth Wave (from a line in Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur"), the sequence describes a woman's drowning death at sea and her subsequent ruminations on her life, her past, and the loved ones who must go on without her. Obtuse as The Ninth Wave often is (though filled with some truly gorgeous music), it is much more narratively coherent than anything Bush is doing in The Line, the Cross & the Curve.

I wish in many ways that Bush would have gone all out, and camped up the project even further. She seems oddly muted next to Richardson, who, fresh off of her bitchy performance in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), chews the scenery and retains her Crying Game Irish accent, inexplicably. The goofily wide-eyed Bush of her early videos like "Wuthering Heights," "Babooshka," "Army Dreamers," "Sat in Your Lap" and others would have been most welcome here; perhaps Bush felt that she needed to be "serious" when working with a "real" actress. I would've preferred the loopy Bush, for it would have balanced the piece out. Bush herself is quite capable of chewing the scenery -- nay, eating the scenery -- and here the scenery literally deserves to be eaten.

Bush soon dropped out of sight after the critical and commercial failure of The Line, the Cross & the Curve (though the album The Red Shoes did rather well); she did not return with another album until 2005's Aerial. I applaud Bush for making the film, for while it's not a success, it allowed her to expand as an artist, and I don't believe in telling artists not to follow their creative itches, however misguided they may eventually appear. The film is long out of print; I found a used VHS copy on eBay. I believe it can be found in its entirety on YouTube, divided into segments. I attach the link for the first segment, "Rubberband Girl," below. It's all worth a glance primarily for die-hard Bush fans only, of which I am one. Everyone else will most likely be bewildered by it. The best choice is probably to buy The Red Shoes album, listen to it, and conjure up your own images to accompany the music.

Friday, January 8, 2010

"My name is Ángela. They're going to kill me." Alejandro Amenábar's TESIS

On this snowy evening I decided to watch the second of three DVDs sent to me for Christmas by my friend Raúl Ansola: Alejandro Amenábar's 1996 Tesis (Thesis). It was emphatically the wrong film to watch with the lights off.

Tesis opens with Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student in Madrid, beginning to research her thesis on violence in film. She asks her portly thesis advisor, Dr. Figueroa (Miguel Picazo), if he can access the university archives to obtain for her extremely graphic footage that had been deemed too strong for public consumption so that she might discuss it in her work. Figueroa seems puzzled by her request, the implication being that it's odd for such an attractive young woman to be so interested in seeing violent death on film. But the viewer knows better: the opening scene of the film is of Ángela on a subway train that has been suddenly stopped at a platform due to a suicide: a man has thrown himself from the platform into the path of the oncoming train and has been cut in half. Metro employees guide the passengers out of the car, admonishing them not to look at the corpse, not to be morbid. Nearly all the passengers look away, some even shielding their gaze with newspapers, but Ángela breaks free of the queue and and cranes her neck for a look. A guard stops her, and both she and the viewer are deprived of a glimpse. It's a smart move on Amenábar's part, and is one of the keys to his thoughtful presentation of such sordid material.

Ángela makes the acquaintance of one of her classmates, Chema (the excellent Fele Martínez), a long-haired, bespectacled loner who wears horror-movie t-shirts and has, even at the remove of film, somewhat suspect personal hygiene. He lives in a spectacularly squalid dump of an apartment, to which he takes Ángela to show her his collection of films showing dismemberments, executions, shootings, beatings, etc. Ángela professes to be horrified and disgusted, but she can't help looking at the screen nonetheless.

Her professor finds a particular tape in the grimy bowels of a sub-basement at the university, puts it up, alone, in a small screening room, and promptly dies, presumably from an asthma attack induced from what he saw on the screen: when Ángela finds his body, his inhaler is lying at his feet. She removes the tape from the player and takes it home with her, telling no one about either the tape or her discovery of the corpse. At home—and her home is always brightly lit and sunny, in contrast to the bleak darkness and drab colors of the rest of the film’s locations—she waits for her family to go out and pops the tape into the player. As the color bars fill the screen, she chooses to lower the picture's contrast until the screen is black, leaving the volume up. What she hears is chilling: the sounds of a woman screaming, begging for her life. She dubs this audio onto a cassette, and listens to it obsessively through headphones, never looking at the images. This clear-cut decision—to look or not to look—is again one of the centerpieces of the film. It is not until she reluctantly shows the tape to Chema that she discovers what it depicts: it shows the torture, shooting, and dismemberment of Vanessa, a former student at the university who disappeared two years earlier. Amenábar gives Tesis's viewers short clips of the carnage: Vanessa being beaten, the sound of the gunshot brutally cutting short her screams, and quick takes of saws running through her torso, ripping out her intestines. The footage, even in such short bursts, is horrific, but what's telling is that like Ángela, who covers her face but peers through her fingers, we can't quite look away, either. Chema's flat is full of horror-movie posters and mock tombstones, and while he's odd, he at least seems to know who he is. Ángela sleeps under a poster of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, and she too is on a journey of self-discovery: at the outset, she has no idea who she is.

Chema and Ángela begin to investigate who might be responsible for Vanessa's death. Horizontal lines in the footage indicate to the brainy Chema that a certain type of camera must have been used, which leads them to Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), a sexy but deeply creepy student who was a friend of Vanessa's and who takes an intense liking to Ángela, worming his way into her life and her family's affections. The second half of Tesis is a fairly standard thriller: Who is responsible for not only Vanessa's death, but the deaths of dozens of other young women, all documented in snuff films? Is it the smarmy Bosco, about whom Ángela has kinky dreams of in which he buries his face between her legs, but not before holding a knife to her throat and drawing blood? Or is it the quirky but kind of charming Chema, who is grungy and suspect and who constantly mutters "Joder" under his breath? Or is it Castro (Xavier Elorriaga), the professor who has replaced Figueroa as Ángela's thesis advisor? I'll say nothing else about the plot, for the last hour of the film is full of nail-biting twists and turns. But in some ways the first half is actually a bit more scary, because it is there that we see Ángela wrestling with the film's central question: To look or not to look? Why are we so obsessed with images of violent death? Why, to step back further, do we like films like Tesis, which deal with such dark subject matter? I'm not sure that Tesis satisfactorily answers these questions. Throughout the film, I actually kept longing for some slightly more incisive commentary on the public's obsession with violence. (In some ways, it's interesting that this film is European: Europe is much more restrained in its depiction of violence, while giving free reign to sexuality on screen; Americans, by contrasts, show gory violence of all kinds and yet flinch when it comes to sex.) I began to think that Amenábar was not going to follow through with some of the issues raised by his premise, but then, in the last five minutes, set in a hospital and which I will not describe, he delivers a vicious and bitterly ironic comment on why we need to see violence on film. It's a supremely clever finale, and is the final flourish that the film needs, for it had turned, in the second half, into fairly obvious horror material, complete with horror-movie music and figures lurking in the shadows. The last five minutes elevate it to something much more.

Amenábar has gone on to do more polished films since: Abre los ojos (1997), The Others (2001), probably the best ghost story on film in the last twenty years, and the recent Agora (2009). But Tesis, made for almost no money, is slick and stylish and one hell of a debut, and as Amenábar is young (only 37), one can only imagine what he'll get up to next. His leads in Tesis are excellent. Ana Torrent, who from certain angles looks like a young Enya, plays her role with remarkable restraint. It would have been easy to sink into screaming-bimbo territory, but she does so only once, when some lights go out, but it's okay—I practically screamed, myself. Fele Martínez is marvelous as Chema, the kind of character about whom you keep saying to yourself, "I hope he's not the killer, I hope he's not the killer." Eduardo Noriega is almost too sexy as Bosco, and this of course makes the viewer trust him even less.
Ultimately, while Tesis doesn't really answer the questions that it poses, you realize that just posing the questions is what matters. Ángela's abandoned thesis isn't even necessary—by film’s end, she has become that thesis herself.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Real women on the verge: Pedro Almodóvar’s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER

I recently received an early Christmas present from my friend Raúl Ansola in Spain: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, which I somehow missed on its original release in 1999. (I blame graduate school for this lapse. Up until that point, I’d seen all of Almodóvar’s films, usually in the theatre with my friend Kevin. Graduate school, which I began just as All About My Mother was released, interfered with all movie-going.) The film is a revelation, and a landmark in Almodóvar’s career—a moving, beautiful, and utterly believable meditation on loss from a man whose name is usually not associated with believability.

All About My Mother tells the story of Manuela (the fabulous Cecilia Roth), a nurse who lives in Madrid with her teenaged son Esteban (Eloy Azorín), who wants to be a writer. She’s the kind of mother who encourages her son’s talents by buying him a copy of Truman Capote’s Music for Chamelons and then reading aloud from it to him on request, while secretly harboring concerns over his choice of career. This nurturing streak in her character extends to her professional life—she works to convince grieving loved ones to donate the deceased’s organs for transplantation (a plot line that is apparently lifted from an earlier Almodóvar film, The Flower of My Secret [1995], featuring Marisa Paredes, who also stars here). She takes Esteban to see a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire for his birthday, and when he chases a cab containing the production’s Blanche, the actress Huma Rojo (Paredes), for an autograph, he is struck by a car and killed. And so begins Manuela’s painfully slow process of healing, which takes her from Madrid back to Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father, a transvestite she’d left eighteen years earlier; on the day of his death, Esteban had written in his journal that his only real wish was to know something about his father, whom he’d never met. Along Manuela’s way, she becomes a sort of den mother to a decidedly motley crew of characters: Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a pregnant nun; Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute; Huma, the actress now also in Barcelona with the run of Streetcar and who is somehow vaguely responsible for Esteban’s death; Huma’s drug-addled lesbian lover Nina (Candela Peña), the production’s Stella.

What’s astonishing about All About My Mother is the number of levels on which it works. It has plenty of the goofy touches that are part of any Almodóvar film—outlandish characters, tacky, garish sets, ridiculous costumes, campy, sexual dialogue. But this time—probably for the first time—Almodóvar works with a surprising gravity and emotional depth. I kept thinking that I would soon be laughing, but apart from three or four lines of dialogue, I never did. There’s real pain in this film, and it’s carried largely on the able shoulders of the superb Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth, whose face is often etched in anguish and yet who carries herself with such incredible dignity and grace that you fall in love with her instantly. (This is the second performance of Roth’s that I’ve seen—the first was in 1997’s Martín (hache), another gift from Señor Ansola. Muchas gracias, mi querido!) Streetcar is a somewhat obvious choice for the play in which Huma and Nina perform, for women on the verge of a nervous breakdown is not only the title of one of Almodóvar’s most famous films, but such women are his stock in trade. His films are populated by people on the verge of cracking up—mentally, physically, spiritually, sexually. But in those early films there was never any sense of the stakes—they were always such broad farces that you knew it was never really anything to worry about. This is not to suggest any displeasure on my part with Almodóvar’s early works, which are deliriously funny, gorgeously campy, and often involved Antonio Banderas naked and with his legs up in the air. But here, you get the sense that Almodóvar has finally made a movie entirely for grown-ups—there is nothing cheap or low in All About My Mother, and the fact that it never devolves into the soap opera it might have become is what makes it such a delight. He proves here that he can keep his freaks, his clowns, his outrageous scenarios and his implausible coincidences and be serious and moving at the same time. It’s like watching someone on a tightrope: you’re convinced he’s going to fall, but hoping that he won’t. Almodóvar stays high in the air all the while, and all we can do is applaud.

The performances could not be bettered. It has only been in the last year or so that I’ve warmed to Penélope Cruz. I’ve tended to hate her English-language performances, largely because she’s been in such terrible films, such as the awful Vanilla Sky (the lame remake of the much-better Spanish-language Abre los ojos, in which Cruz also appeared), and the tedious All the Pretty Horses (a bad film based on a bad novel). But it was Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona that changed my mind about her, and in Mother she manages to be both earthy and otherworldly (her own mother calls her an “alien”) as the nun who is not quite what she appears to be. Antonia San Juan, who looks rather like a tired Wendy Carlos and who is herself transsexual, is the film’s comic center, and her openness and honesty should feel like a cliché (the hooker with the heart of gold) but doesn’t, thanks in large part to San Juan’s oddly expressive face and superb timing. Marisa Paredes brings an exhausted grandeur to the role of Huma Rojo, the aging actress whose name means Smoke and who got hooked on cigarettes at age eighteen to be more like her idol, Bette Davis. The film’s parallels to both Streetcar and All About Eve (which Manuela and Esteban watch together on the day before he dies) are obvious and yet aren’t belabored either, another instance in which Almodóvar might’ve gone for the shtick but instead went for the pathos. The film is ultimately about the ways in which we grieve, and it is to Almodóvar’s credit that he neither rushes Manuela’s grief nor belittles it. She can still break down in sobs at the end of the film—having a surrogate family does not erase the pain over the one she’s lost. It is this painful honesty, happily coexisting with the freakish and the outlandish that are Almodóvar’s forte, that makes All About My Mother the deliciously adult work that it is. It has whetted my appetite for Almodóvar’s more recent work, like Volver. Yes, Raúl: that is a hint, my friend.

P.S. Those of you who can read Spanish should check out Raúl Ansola’s new novel, Illius, just published in Spain. My own copy is winging its way across the Atlantic, as I write this.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nobody's on nobody's side: CHESS IN CONCERT

Chess seems to be the musical that will not die. With lyrics by Tim Rice (of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar fame) and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the male components of the 70s Swedish pop quartet ABBA), Chess first saw the light of day in 1984 as a concept album—the format that worked so well for Rice’s collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber—with Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Barbara Dickson, and Dennis Quilley in the leads. It spawned two huge hit singles—“One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well”—and seemed poised to conquer the stage, first in London and then in New York. No matter that the plot was kind of thin and the characters uninvolving—ABBA had composed it, Rice had written the lyrics, and it seemed no dumber an idea for a musical than, say, the life of an Argentinian dictator’s trampy wife or the jellicle cats of T. S. Eliot.

But the show’s stage prospects seemed doomed from the start. The original London director, Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame, withdrew from the project before its opening due to health problems; these were later revealed to be the result of AIDS, which killed him in 1987. His place was taken by Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Misérables, and scores of Shakespeare productions at the RSC), and, according to Tim Rice’s liner notes for the DVD release of Chess in Concert, his and Bennett’s styles merged uneasily on the stage of the Prince Edward Theatre. Nevertheless, this production was a modest success, and a tweaked production, under Nunn’s direction, opened in New York shortly thereafter, to disastrous reviews. (Frank Rich scathingly remarked of the show’s political metaphors: “War is hell, and, for […] this audience, Chess sometimes comes remarkably close.”) There were other small productions over the years, with songs added and then taken away, the ending rewritten endlessly. The score is still loved by many, and retains quite a bit of nostalgia for 80s kids like myself, who fondly remember Murray Head in the video for “One Night in Bangkok,” croaking out lyrics such as, “Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist whose every move’s among the purest.” Now, Chess has resurfaced in a concert version at the Royal Albert Hall (which seems to be the venue for such things, since the amazing Les Misérables in Concert fourteen years ago), with an all-star cast. Before the show begins, Tim Rice steps out on stage and says that after twenty-five years and as many revisions, he and his musical collaborators may have finally gotten it right.


Chess in Concert bears some resemblance to Chess on the original concept album. It is 1979, in Merano, Italy, which is hosting the World Chess Championship. The reigning champion is the cocky American Frederick Trumper (Adam Pascal), who has an unfortunate, McEnroe-like habit of saying rude and inappropriate things to the press. His companion, second, dogsbody and lover is the Hungarian-born Florence Vassy (Idina Menzel), who has vivid and unpleasant memories of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956. Trumper’s challenger is the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Josh Groban), a man with issues of his own to work out, namely his insecurity over his performance and the demands of his Russian handlers who feel that a Russian victory will send a powerful message to the world at large about the power of the Soviet Union. (As though the world at large gives a shit about chess.) Through a fairly convoluted (and implausible) series of events, Florence dumps Trumper (or is dumped by him—it’s not entirely clear which) and, in part due to the machinations of the skuzzy Russian Molokov (David Bedella) and the skuzzy American DeCourcy (Clarke Peters) winds up shagging Anatoly and derailing much of her own life in the process—not to mention merrily jettisoning any political convictions she may have harbored. Anatoly defects, Baryshnikov-like, and in Act Two, set the following year at the chess championship in Bangkok, the plot turns on whether or not he will willfully blow the match in order to secure the release of his suddenly on-the-scene wife Svetlana (Kerry Ellis) and the possible release of Florence’s presumed-dead father.

All well and good, and it has the ingredients for a fairly solid drama. That is, it would, if we remotely understood or cared about the characters and their motivations. The female characters come off slightly better than the men: Florence and Svetlana get the show’s most ABBA-esque numbers—“Heaven Help My Heart,” “Someone Else’s Story” and “I Know Him So Well.” “Heaven” is Florence’s attempt to explain to herself and the audience why she’s screwing the enemy, and though the song is gorgeous, she doesn’t come up with an answer, and neither does the audience. Far more effective are Svetlana’s numbers. This character exists solely to complicate the plot, and we never quite believe that she and Anatoly are remotely a couple, or ever were. But “I Know Him So Well” is a stunning ballad, with the two women singing, almost in sympathy, about the man they’re both in love with but realize they must let go of. It’s too bad that none of the other songs in the show really get to this kind of depth of characterization.

Many feel that all characters in musicals are ciphers. I disagree, but it’s certainly true of the men in Chess. Trumper is nothing but a brash American stereotype—it’s almost as though he could have been written by the smarmy Soviet Molokov in the show, so clearly does he conform to Eastern European stereotypes of the Ugly American. There is an attempt to soften him with the number “Pity the Child,” but it’s too little, too late—the song’s placement in the show comes long after we’ve given up trying to like him, and he soon disappears from the proceedings almost altogether. Anatoly’s struggles again seem stereotyped—the idea of what someone on this side of the Iron Curtain thinks must be going on in the head of someone on the other side—and though he gets some of the score’s most stirring songs, he’s ultimately rather flat. It is yet another truism of musical theatre that two characters can sing a love duet and by the end of it, we know that they are in love and always will be. Such an attempt is made with the Florence and Anatoly duet “You and I,” but it again falls rather flat—it’s too rapid, and it sinks under the dead weight of all of the heavy-handed political muddle that has preceded it.

None of the other male characters in the show fare particularly well. Molokov and DeCourcy are cartoon villains, while Marti Pellow’s The Arbiter has nothing to do but sing overlong numbers about how he watches the game, calls the shots, and no one should screw with him. Cabaret’s Emcee (who The Arbiter resembles solely in his slight narrator-position in the show) is a one-note character as well—but what a note! The Arbiter could have been something equally fearsome, but he sounds instead like a windbag, and we can’t wait until his song ends so that we can get back to the uninvolving love story.

This all sounds as though I hated Chess in Concert. Far from it—I actually found myself loving it, but with all of the above reservations at the front of my mind as I watched. My enjoyment was largely due to the superb orchestra and the stellar cast. Josh Groban sings the Act One closer, “Anthem,” probably better than it’s ever been sung before, and he uses his perennial earnestness to excellent effect throughout, filling in some of the holes in Anatoly’s character left by the writers. Adam Pascal (who I saw in Rent over a decade ago) is also in fine voice, playing up the sleaziness of Trumper without camping it up. The lovely Kerry Ellis makes an excellent Svetlana, and David Bedella has a wonderful voice and delivers the delightfully nasty “The Soviet Machine.” The biggest surprise is Idina Menzel as Florence. I’d seen Menzel in Rent as well, and met her at the York Street Tavern in Cincinnati years ago when she was promoting her first solo album. I’d long been a fan of her voice, but wasn’t sure that she could fill the pumps of Elaine Paige. To my astonishment, she might actually be a little better. Her Florence is still a mess—and I still don’t believe that the woman who pines for her lost childhood and her missing father would willingly spread her legs for a Russian, even if he does look and sound like Josh Groban—but she’s a hot mess, and, like Groban, Menzel fills in some of the gaps in her character with her deliciously naughty smile, the slightly kooky twinkle in her eye, and her rattle-the-rafters voice. She sings the hell out of “Nobody’s Side,” and even though “Heaven Help My Heart” answers no questions, Menzel’s face and delivery let the audience know that maybe that’s okay—she’s a mess, but at least she knows it.

Twenty-five years on, Chess is dated in ways which the writers probably didn’t anticipate. The show’s Cold War ethos now seems rather quaint in our current political climate, and the metaphors of war and chess seem rather forced. Chess was long described as a work-in-progress, and I think it still is one. But Chess in Concert is by far the best version of this show we’ve ever seen, and it sure as hell has never sounded this good. It was recently aired on PBS, and is now available on DVD and CD.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

John Updike died yesterday, at the age of 76. I met him once, in April of 2001, at the University of Cincinnati where I was a Master’s student in the English department. I would have at one point greeted the prospect of meeting a writer of Updike’s caliber with terror, but I was oddly and uncharacteristically calm when we sat for lunch. The previous evening, I’d had my first glimpse of him, when he had given a reading in UC’s packed Zimmer Auditorium. I was astonished by his height—somehow I thought he’d be shorter. Had I been thinking about basketball—and I never think about basketball—and his own fondness for it, I might have been less surprised. What was not surprising was his verbal deftness. Updike spoke in eloquent, fully-formed paragraphs, marred, if that’s the word, only occasionally by the remnant of the stammer he writes about so gorgeously in his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989). For a self-proclaimed country boy from Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the most urbane, most charming, most gracious man I’d ever met. At lunch the following day, he gamely sat at one end of the table with three graduate students, including myself, while the rest of the faculty sat in a sort of exile at the other end. It quickly became clear to me that the two other students in attendance were tongue-tied—there was pitiful silence in our vicinity. Thinking—quite rightly, as it turned out—that this was an encounter that would not be repeated, I launched in. I remember only one question from that lunch: I asked whether or not he felt any qualms, in Rabbit Redux (1970), in attempting to depict a woman’s thoughts as she’s masturbating. Updike inhaled slowly, got a look of mock horror on his face, and said, “Did I actually have Jan masturbate in Rabbit Redux?” When the lunch was over, we crossed campus to the College Conservatory of Music’s auditorium, where Updike was to be interviewed, by way of the football field. I can no longer look at the field without thinking of Updike’s tall and lanky frame in a business suit, striding purposefully across it, continuing to chat about books and films. He needed to use the bathroom before the interview, and we continued talking as we stood side-by-side at the urinals. Given the many accusations of the scatological in Updike’s work, I thought the scene was appropriate. At the end of the day, he shook my hand, pulled me close, and said softly, “You’re a man of letters.” I can think of nothing more dizzying and delighting for a young writer to hear.

In the intervening years, I didn’t keep up with his work quite as I’d used to—my interests shifted from contemporary American literature to British Modernism, which I teach today. But there are few who can match Updike’s prose. He and I are not a match in many ways: he was New England Protestant, tall, athletic, exuberantly heterosexual, happily suburban (the fact that someone would willingly leave New York City is still bewildering to me), rooted in a time and place and tradition, and privileged by that status. And yet he possesses that trait that weds me to certain writers: his own fictional terrain. Doris Lessing is at her best when she deals with Communism and Africa; Virginia Woolf when she memorializes her Victorian past. Updike is most at home in suburban New England, and though he’s ventured off into other areas, he grabs us most when he opens the suburban bedroom door, and writes with grace about what’s going on in there. He is a writer I cannot read without smiling, for his sentences are delicious—you want to spoon them up into your brain.

He probably wrote nothing better than the Rabbit books, about the washed-up high school basketball star Harry Angstrom, who navigates decades of American life and is a sort of working-class stand-in for Updike himself. The ending of Rabbit, Run (1960) is, to my mind, almost unsurpassed in its simplicity and loveliness:

"Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little side-street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."

He was possibly the last of his kind, the true American man of letters. Philip Roth might like to lay claim to the title, but he lacks Updike’s calm, steady productivity. I refuse to buy the claims of racism and sexism in Updike’s work—no, Updike was not always politically correct, but as the film director John Schlesinger once said, political correctness is a very dangerous maxim. Part of the function of art is to offend, is to challenge. And while Updike’s women are not often the independent individuals one might like to see, nor are they the whores depicted by writers like Mailer and Roth. I remember a grad student at the time of Updike’s visit becoming enraged by a scene in which Rabbit urinates on a woman, with her willing participation. “No woman would ever want such a thing!” she shrieked. I replied, “How can you be so sure? It’s naïve to think that just because you don’t want something done to you that other people might not enjoy it.”

Above all, I see Updike as a model of how a writer should conduct his or her life. He was unfailingly generous, gentlemanly, and kind; he was a model of productivity—his three-page-a-day rule should be branded on every writer’s forehead; he knew what he was best at and kept on doing it. That’s perhaps what struck me the most about him. If anyone could have had a monstrous ego, it was John Updike. But he didn’t—at least not in my interactions with him. I met many lesser writers in my years at UC, and many had vile temperaments. Updike distinguished himself with a modesty that was surprising and welcome.

It sounds trite, but I don’t think American literature is the same, after his death. I feel about it the same way T. S. Eliot felt about the death of Virginia Woolf, that “a whole pattern of culture is broken.” May he rest in peace.