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.