Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review - Waltz with Bashir

My last movie review of the season:

Waltz with Bashir
, the new Israeli film about the 1982 war in Lebannon, belongs to a relatively rare genre: the animated documentary. It claims to be the first in the genre, and it may be the only full length example, although there have been some notable predecessors, including Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning short film Ryan, a touching portrait of animator Ryan Larkin, and the recent documentary film Chicago 10, a partially animated account of the protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Folman uses the technique well, bringing to life the dreams and memories of his fellow soldiers, as told in recorded interviews. The film is a despairing account of very young men lost in the wilderness of battle, depicted in stark colors.

The focus event is a massacre in which thousands of Palestinians in West Beirut were murdered by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces, following the assassination of Bachir Gemayal, a Christian elected to be the next Lebanese President. Folman has lost his own memories of the massacre, and he is dependent on his fellows to answer the question: was he complicit? The implied question beyond that, of course, is whether Israel was complicit in an event that had disturbing parallels to the mass killings of the Holocaust.

By animating his documentary, Folman makes the soldiers’ memories both vivid and yet in some ways unreliable – we see the artifice, and that extra level of distance lets us wonder what is a real memory and what is a manufactured memory made to fill a hole created by trauma and guilt. Like many modern documentarians, Folman gives us truth shaded by fiction. Are these the actual soldiers whose voices we hear? In most cases yes, but a quick look at the credits reveals that actors were also used to create the voices for the more reluctant participants.
Does this make the truths of the film less valid? Perhaps, if the main purpose of the film had been to be an investigative report into the causes of the massacre. But Folman’s main story is his own, and whether we are seeing pure facts or those facts are shaded by fiction, the inner truth of a man struggling to reconcile himself with his past is the undeniable heart of this very personal film.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thank you, Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter died yesterday.  He has been sick for a while, so it's not a shock, but it does make me sad to hear that perhaps the greatest living playwright has passed away.  The other contender, for me, is Tom Stoppard - or I guess the crown holder by default, now.

I never met Pinter in person, though I came close this September - he was supposed to attend the premiere of Havel's new play, Leaving, but he didn't make it.  I suspected it might be my only remaining chance to meet him.

Of course, if I met him, it's very possible I wouldn't have liked him much.  I have seen him interviewed many times, and unlike some of my other favorite playwrights (Ionesco, Stoppard, Havel), he always seemed to me to be, well, a bit of a bastard.  Of course, I'm judging from afar, based on watching and reading interviews.  But that was my strong impression.

His politics seemed simplistic.  I'm definitely left leaning, but the knee jerk anti-Americanism and his caustic dismissal of all opposing opinions seemed offensive to me in its lack of self-critical thought.  The great strength of his plays is the ambiguity that existed is all moments.  The great weakness in his personality seemed to be his impatience with any ambiguity about his own opinions.

Yet his plays were amazing.  His ability to fill his plays with a sense of hidden mystery that was always compelling, when well done, was transformative.  Every word seemed to be fraught with meaning.  And talking about the way that he transformed the pause has become cliche.

So does it matter whether he was a bastard or whether his politics were simplistic?  I'm not sure.  I just as strongly want to direct his work.  But I would not be as interested in producing a festival of it.  I am interested in playwrights whose personal essays are as compelling to me, in content, as their plays.

But in the end, if I never met him, how do I really know what he was like?  At a party yesterday evening, a woman was talking about a well known actor and how much of a bastard everyone said he was.

No, another woman at the party replied.  I've met him.  I was friends with him for years.  And he's a very kind man.

What I do know that his plays have enriched my life and my writing.  My play Strangers has a definite debt to him, though (I certainly hope) it is no imitation.  And I still remember the first time I saw a production of one of his plays onstage. It was The Birthday Party, produced by the Independent Theater Company (now defunct), at the House of Candles (now a Lower East Side bar).  The actors were very age inappropriate.  Some of them were very talented.  Some...were not.

But the director, or the company as a whole, understood the style.  And it was one of the most exciting plays I had seen.

Thank you, Independent Theater Company, wherever you are.  Thank you Harold Pinter.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa Claus vs. Judah Maccabee

I am taking a break from the serious business of theater to tackle an even more serious business that occupies all minds as we approach the day when Christmas and Hanukkah both fall.  Who would win, in a fight between Santa Claus and Judah Maccabee?

An article in Slate addressed the question of which Christmas specials were best for Jewish children.  The decision (the Grinch and Charlie Brown)  is something I can't help but agree with.  But she never addressed the core issue her child asked: who would win?

SC obviously has the weight on JM, but JM has the youth and the soldier's training.  Years of fighting the Seleucids can't help but leave JM in fighting trim.

But Santa has a backup band of vicious reindeers, not to mention a whole army of elves at his beck and call.  Once again, JM would be fighting against the odds while a bloated general called the shots for his massive army.

When I was young, my brother told me that Judah Maccabee came to every Jewish child's house and put presents under every child's pillow (it wasn't till I was an adult that I realized that putting presents under the pillow was a family tradition, not a universal one).    I envisioned a rather serious looking man, with a much lower budget than Santa was privy to.

Older, I envisioned Judah as a man I would not particularly want to meet on a street corner, a man good at fighting but not much else.  Now, probably thanks to my play (and Peter Brown's portrayal), my image has softened a little, to a reluctant warrior who perseveres.

And Santa may have the better presents and the better press, but I'm sorry, it's Judah Maccabee, hands down.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Can one make money in theater? A call for Hanukkah gelt...

Note: this post has become quite popular, so I wanted to mention that I tackle the questions of making money in theater and the arts much more in depth in my comparison of the salaries of artists vs. non-artists.  Actual statistics from a semi-scientific survey included!  Read it.

I've been so preoccupied with the readings of Rudolf II and Golem Stories (both of which went very well, I think), that there's been no time to blog. I wonder if there will be any time during the International Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. We'll see...

But for the moment, back to Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee, which is still going on. I have a few new photos: one of a scene from the play, one of Evolve Company's shadow puppets (which occur inside the ark you can see in the first photo). The shadow puppets are a peek inside the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The man on the left is the High Priest, wearing the breastplate described in the Old Testament (a little detail that I doubt anyone at the show quite registers, but makes me happy).

One thing writing and directing the play has made me realize is that the story of Hanukkah is really about perseverance. Which I would think would not be a revelation, after all this time, but somehow is. The fun for me was in the rituals, and there was this little story about light lasting for eight days. As a friend wondered the other day - so what? What's so special about extra light? The legend of the light, actually, existed well before the events with the Maccabees, and only later were the two things put together. Why that connection?

The obvious answer, though I'd never stopped to ponder it before, is perseverance. The Maccabees should never have survived their battles, lasted as long as they did, but nonetheless they did. And of course perseverance is a theme in Judaism in general. To keep surviving, despite impossible odds. "To always be on the edge of defeat, yet never to be defeated," as I have Judah Maccabee say.

Watching the shows, I started wondering how growing up with that philosophy might have influenced my going into theater. Because theater is truly a profession with impossible odds. My friend Henry has posed the question of whether it is actually possible to make a living as a director, in today's theater. Maybe. Maybe not. But it's almost impossible. The point was driven home to me the other day when another friend, an actor, turned to me and said, with surprise, "You never expected to make money doing theater, did you? I mean, it's possible, but the likelihood is so small..."

But I did expect it. I have always expected it. Even though I wonder, still, if it's possible. When in college, when people asked me what I would be, I said "A starving artist." It was a joke that was not quite a joke. Yet underneath there was a certainty that no matter how difficult, it was possible to persevere, and overcome those odds. Was that something that came from Jewish culture, from Hanukkah, or just my own hubris?

I ask this at a point when I have become concerned about my own finances and the affect they will have on my career. I need to make more money than I'm making, and yet the career I have thrown in my lot with doesn't necessarily offer much, especially in these times. But what to do if I don't have the finances to sustain what I'm doing? Sadly, running a theater company, writing, directing, etc, is more than a full time job. I am so busy day to day that I barely have time to do what I need. I make some money at it all, but small sums.

I feel simultaneously very optimistic about my projects and very worried about how much longer I will be able to sustain myself financially. Is perseverance enough? How many days can the light stay lit?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Doubt

My latest review for NBR - shorter than usual, this time. Over on Playgoer, Garrett was commenting on how many more negative reviews he was seeing of the movie and specifically the character of Sister Aloysius, although few reviews of the play expressed that opinion. Is it Streep's portrayal? To me, it was sympathetic, or at least ambivalent in its sympathies. My personal theory is that film audiences are much more used to seeing a story about certainties, so that when a story is presented in which who is actually right and wrong remains in doubt, they have to assume a strong opinion one way or the other by the writer/director. Since Meryl Streep's character seems meaner, she must be wrong. Right? Wrong...

Anyway, here's my review:

“Certainty is just an emotion,” as Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reminds Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). And emotions can betray us. In John Patrick Shanley’s movie, Doubt, which he has adapted from his own Broadway play, everything is in doubt, even Hoffman’s statement. Is it a true insight, or a self-serving deflection of Sister Aloysius’ righteous anger?

Shanley deliberately leaves the answer open, as he poses a series of increasingly difficult questions about morality and religion throughout his idea rich film. He is aided on the journey by a trio of outstanding performances. Hoffman and Streep have shown again and again that they are two of the finest actors ever to be filmed. So the surprise here is Amy Adams as Sister Jenny, a young nun. Her intent eyes, filled with expression, peek out from her habit, and those eyes become a stand-in for the audience.

Shanley returned back to the neighborhood of his childhood in order to shoot the film. It is dedicated to the original Sister Jenny (she also served as a consultant to the film), and everything in the film feels authentic. The conflicts posed never condescend to the church, though they do pose tough questions about faith and Catholic practice. It is easy to see Shanley’s affection for the Catholic school that he grew up in even as he challenges it.

As a director, Shanley mostly stands back and lets his actors and his own words take charge. He does find a few visual themes, such as the swirling leaves in autumn which reflect the bits of paper in the wind Father Flynn speaks of in a sermon about gossip. But the visual power of the film is not in its sweep, but in its details. The faces of Streep, Hoffman, and Adams close up add a deeply emotional element to the intellectual brew.

It is a film worth seeing and worth pondering. Having just gone through a political season, during which the candidates were expected to express strong opinions, filled with certainty, it is good to have a movie which reminds us of the pains and the benefits of doubt.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Closing The Ohio Theater

I have been hearing the buzz for a few days that the Ohio Theater may be closing down.  Sadly, it is true.

You can read about it in this Village Voice article

I am stunned and saddened.  I have seen many theater spaces come and go in the city, and each closing is saddening.  But none more so than the Ohio.

Perhaps it is because of my many fond memories there.  I have been seeing shows at the Ohio for years, but I finally got a chance to work there in 2006 during the Havel Festival.  I couldn't have asked for a better experience - not a more enjoyable place to work, not people who were more pleasant to work with.  Robert Lyons (seen above with Havel and me in the theater and below with Havel right outside the theater) of Soho Think Tank not only hosted us but also produced/directed a show in the festival.  In all respects, he and Vanessa Sparling, who also works with Soho Think Tank, made our experience a great one.  I feel only warmth when I think of our five weeks there. 

The last thing I saw there, Chekhov Lizardbrain, was once again a triumph of downtown theater.  The theater was full and Vanessa jokingly told me of people who had offered her hundred dollar bills for a seat.  There were none to be had.

When I entered the theater, I felt a warmth and nostalgia.  God I miss this theater, I thought.  I like other theaters, but this one is special.  I must do something here again soon.

Sadly, it seems as if that might be impossible.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review - Frost/Nixon

My latest review for the National Board of Review. I have a couple more this month:

“Let me tell you how bad things were today,” a horrified James Reston (Sam Rockwell) tells David Frost (Michael Sheen), after the first disastrous day of the Frost/Nixon interviews. “After the taping finished, I overheard two crew members say…they never voted for him when they had the chance. But if he ran for office today, he’d get their support.”

It is a laugh line, but it also has a certain resonance. For Frost/Nixon is a reminder that beyond the legacy of Watergate, Nixon was a man considered brilliant by his peers, with a particular skill in foreign affairs, Vietnam notwithstanding. His brand of Republicanism was from a time when intellectualism was valued in the party. At the time of Nixon’s first post-presidential interview, it was Frost, not Nixon, who was supposed to be the intellectual lightweight.

Of course, Frost is not simply the frivolous playboy he originally appears to be. Nixon (Frank Langella) is looking for a worthy adversary, and he finds it in Frost. And the blow by blow of their on-air bout forms the core of this film’s story.

Ron Howard his directed the film in his usual workmanlike way: Nothing flashy, but with an understanding of the issues underlying the story. He and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, have added documentary style interviews as a stand-in for the narration in the play. The technique is reminiscent of Reds, and though it may not be as powerful here, for the most part it works. The script is smart and perhaps even better suited for screen than for the stage.

But it is the two lead actors, imported from the Broadway production, who give the film its true emotional resonance. They have finely honed their performances and deepen them even further for the movie. Langella uses no more make up to disguise himself than he did on the stage, it appears. And the first glimpse of him is disconcerting—we know Nixon’s face too well to be fooled. But by the time we arrive at the interview, it has become difficult to remember that Nixon didn’t look exactly like Langella. In his face, his gait, his shoulders, and his eyes, Langella has created a facsimile that feels, emotionally, absolutely authentic.

Sheen is able to portray Frost’s significant charisma with ease. It is reminiscent of the ease with which he portrayed Tony Blair’s charisma in The Queen (written by Morgan, as well). Charisma is essential for Frost, because his outward layer of charm covers the madness behind the scenes, allowing him to somehow succeed when by all rights it seems he should fail.

What’s remarkable about the movie is that it finds great sympathy in two iconic figures who seem, at first, to be entirely unsympathetic. Frost is the easier of the two, of course—we want him to win, and we route for him to find a way to finance his interview himself when it becomes clear no network will support it. But ultimately the heart of the story lies with Nixon, whom the movie finds deeply flawed, but just as deeply human.