Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Fantastuck - updated

Why is it that movies fail at metadrama? To be sure, the medium prevents the immediacy of self-reference of live theater. There is no shared present event when the thing was filmed at a previous time, and when the performance can't change for each audience. Still, it's always been puzzling to me that even when metadramatic plays are put on film, the filmmakers feel compelled to avoid self-reference. Movies maintain the fourth wall in ways live theater does not -- even highly "realistic" plays like those of Ibsen or Chekhov.

Case in point, the 1995 Michael Ritchie film of The Fantasticks, which I just watched on cable. Why would one not open with "Try to Remember," which is the show's invitation into this self-consciously theatrical fable -- not to mention its establishment of El Gallo as the play's stage manager/narrator (a la Our Town)? The song's closing word, "follow," means, "watch what comes next, watch this play." If you save it for the end, as Ritchie does, you lose all the metadrama.

Similarly with Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Why eliminate "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"? Is there some rule they teach you in film school to avoid audience address? Is it somehow regarded as unavoidably comic -- a la Ferris Bueller or Wayne's World?

Not that the Ritchie film is completely lacking in skill. It actually handles the fragile hip sentimentality of the show reasonably well. It doesn't cloy -- but neither does it take flight. It's dutiful, not beautiful.

Is there something about film that prevents it from being about itself? Or, rather, that prevents it from being about us? Does the screen have to be a wormhole to another world? Can it never deliver immediacy and presentness? Does any attempt to do so inevitably feel phony, rather than intense?

I need to watch Purple Rose of Cairo again.

Update: To wit (pun intended), I watched Mike Nichols's embalmed Angels in America, lavishly produced for HBO in 2003, and it doubles down on my point -- film (or television) doesn't know how to do metatheater. In fact, the production is so flaccid that it exposes the limits of Kushner's play. Contra Frank Rich's and John Leonard's claims, it really is dated. The comedy Kushner found in mashing up tragedy, religion, politics and sitcom domesticity in 1993 now feels less bold than cutesy.

Still, the play deserves better than this, better than Nichols, who anesthetizes everything he touches.

Of the over-the-top encomia the HBO production received, the closest to understanding its failure was The New Yorker's review. It sidles up to a metadramtic understanding of theater. Franklin correctly notes the miscasting (Pacino's scenery chewing, Emma Thompson's utter incapacity to be awe-inspiring, Shenkman's lack of a center), the sheer silliness of the play's idea of heaven, its talkiness (without the genuine wit of Shaw or Stoppard). What's a bit surprising, given her main thesis, is that she doesn't mention how utterly Prior's and Harper's direct address to the screen at the end fails. When Kushner's characters spoke directly to the audience in the theater in 1993, it had real urgency and immediacy. The world of New York theater was the epicenter of the population that lived the plague. The tourists in the building were the guests -- the equivalents of Joe's mother who were still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. The play thus had the immediacy of a political meeting and a funeral among endangered citizens (which is why it begins with a funeral). All of that is lost with the passage of time, and the absence of a shared space and event.

In film and on TV, the fourth wall holds firm. Where's a zombie dragon when we need one?

Monday, June 25, 2018


I haven't seen enough of Kenneth Branaugh's films to make sweeping generalizations -- but, on the other hand, this is my blog and nobody can call me to account. So... he's an empty suit. His Hamlet was godawful, Oscar-worthy posturing without an idea in its pretty little head. His Much Ado was almost saved by Emma Thompson (though Keanu Reeves's Don John was a true joke). I didn't see Love's Labour's Lost, and I don't remember his Henry V -- but neither of those plays matter much, so who cared if he was inadequate to them?

On the other hand, I just watched half of his As You Like It, which is a mess. I wouldn't mind that he set it in 19th century Japan if that were even slightly expressive, but it isn't. The whole thing is directed with so little interest that it feels as though every scene we watch was the first and only take -- and without any live--performance energy or discovery. Kevin Kline's Jacques isn't melancholy, he's just bored. The whole thing is unwatchable.

The idea that Sir Kenneth played actual Laurence Olivier in a film is some kind of meta-travesty.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The fist meta-presidency

This is right. He creates "crises" to "solve" them. Trump is a political Mobius strip. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but erasure.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The heart of our darkness

Although I mostly have abandoned politics on the blog-- reserving those observations for Facebook -- I want to park this here. Jessica Winter's piece is a particularly acute observation of the misogynist-geopolitical parameters of the Trumpville horror. She captures the sadistic, self-pitying psychopathy of fascism  One longs for the day that we hear, "Mistah Trump, he dead."

Friday, June 15, 2018


In comedy, we know, timing is everything. But in a Trumped-up world, everything is comedy, of the blackest hue (all puns intended)... so it follows that everything one sees is timely. Or so it seems. On the plane over to the Netherlands 11 days ago, I watched The Death of Stalin and The Post, both of which are commentaries on the present moment. The former is a better film, but both wind up resonating with us because we're actually living in fascism redux and Nixon redux.

What's Pixar got on tap?

P.S. Steve Buscemi and Meryl Streep are terrific, respectively -- though Buscemi, my fellow Sloper, is more of a revelation. A hail-fellow buffoon was certainly not type casting, but it didn't end there. He managed to keep Kruschev's character clear and consistent throughout, while undergoing a real arc. Should get an Oscar nod, though he probably won't (as, of course, Streep did).

Saturday, June 2, 2018


Ambivalent. That's the word to describe the achievement of Phyllida Lloyd's all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest.

Most centrally, one is ambivalent about the productions' primary schtick -- that we are watching inmates of a women's prison perform these plays, and that those performances unleash the feelings and capture the fates of these women whose lives, freedom and selfhood are literally cabined, cribbed and confined. For all its forced artificiality, it's an idea with rich expressive possibilities: the intensity of forced confinement channeling the intense immediacy of live theater, both architecturally and emotionally; the opportunity for women doubly controlled -- as women in a misogynistic world, and as prisoners -- to express their buried feelings, hopes, longings and rage with the full-throated abandon allowed to men; the bitter irony of their absolute masters being the ones who both enable and control the women's raw self-performance and self-revelation; and the ways in which this trope lights up themes and energies within each play -- Julius Caesar's contests of machismo; Henry IV's battles between anxious control and anarchic play; The Tempest's dramatization of Prospero's discovery that, for him, there is no escape from imprisonment (the "cell" of this bare island) except death.

Ben Brantley of the Times was taken with each production, and his verdict has proven to be that of the culture at large (vs. the dyspeptic, snide dismissal of the Telegraph critic on the original Caesar).

And yet... the potential of the prison trope remains more affecting in the breach than in the observance. If they really meant it, really wanted us to feel the feelings of these imprisoned women, they had to bring them more to life as actually imagined people. In each play, there is prisoner schtick at the start, prisoner schtick at the end, and one scene of prisoner dramatics (or, rather, metadramatics) interrupting the action in the middle. But the imagining of the women prisoner-actors is sketchy, and the metadrama isn't thought through deeply enough for it to shape their performances in character.

To be sure, pulling off that dance of metadramatic levels would be challenging -- but it's not undoable. Witness Robin Phillips's famous Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1970s at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival.

Having said all that, these Donmar productions are major successes -- despite, rather than because of, their dominant and, on balance, failed frame. They are successful for the most basic of reasons -- the acting is terrific. Harriet Walter is great as Brutus, King Henry and Prospero, but so is everybody else. In particular, Sophie Stanton gives us both a Falstaff and a Caliban to remember, with all the characters' deep reserves of explosive wit, joy and imagination and without any support from the usual costuming of either. Indeed, Henry IV and The Tempest are more moving and satisfying in the end than Julius Caesar, in large measure (pun intended) because of the dynamic the larger-than-life-force Stanton creates with Walter's tight, taut angst.

Films of all three productions are running this weekend at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where all three had their American debuts. I don't know how available the films will be once this brief run is done, but I hope anyone reading this blog gets a chance to see them.