Monday, April 16, 2018

A QUIET PLACE: SOUNDING THE SILENCE



Directed by John Krasinski and starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski.
(Spoiler Alert)

A QUIET PLACE keeps us on tiptoe, listening. Listening. . . for what???

Outside the guarded perimeter of the Abbot Iowa farm house lurk Monstrous Presences. They prowl unseen through the meadow grasses. But we hear their chattering jaws and gnashing teeth. Although these Creatures are blind, the slightest sound from humans brings them instantly to the scene, where they savagely devour their prey. Any sound is fatal. And when the youngest Abbot child accidentally triggers the tinny sound of a toy, they are on him in an instant. And he is gone, without a trace.

Who these Creatures are and how they came here is unknown. Only a handful of newspaper clippings tacked onto the Abbot’s basement bulletin board hint at some sort of invasion that has left the world hostage to sound—any sound, natural or human. Cities and towns, ordinarily a cacophony of sounds, have gone silent. Only the quieter countryside offers refuge. And here are the Abbots, marooned and embattled within their guarded perimeter. Their only advantage is that they can see and the murdering Creatures cannot. So, quietly, voicelessly, the Abbots go about their days and nights, under siege, ever on guard against making the slightest sound. Down in the farm’s basement, Father taps out radio signals in a futile attempt to reach the outside world. He keeps a cache of noisy fireworks out in the field in case their noise is needed to distract the Creatures away from the farm. And a perimeter of lights are color coded—green for safety, red for danger.

Despite the deadly menace of these creatures—soon revealed to be hideous, scaly, arachnoid-like creatures—the focus of the film holds the Abbots in a tight and loving embrace. It is their story, after all. The young children are smart and protective of each other. And when Mom and Dad find a precious moment to embrace in a quiet dance, the moment is a brave defiance of love against encroaching evil. They are survivors. Ironically, however, the love that binds the family together ultimately brings about its own dangers. It is love that impels the father to issue suicidal screams to attract the Creatures away from his young son. The loving embrace of the mother for her newborn baby threatens to attract the Creatures prowling about the farm’s basement. Indeed, the birthing sequence must be counted among the most harrowing moments in this or any film.

It is left to the eldest daughter, whose deafness has taught them to communicate by sign language, to discover a way to ward off the creatures. The high-pitched shriek of her ear-piece shatters the Creatures’ highly-developed, sensitive ear drums, allowing Mom time enough to level a fatal shotgun blast. Until the next invasion. In the film’s final moments, she cocks the rifle and waits.

What makes A QUIET PLACE so effective is a soundtrack that insists on suppressing all sounds. And in doing, it enhances the smallest sounds. Too many standard-issue horror films do the opposite: They pump up the volume. They don’t frighten, they only deafen. There have been a few blessed exceptions: Preceding A QUIET PLACE a few years ago was a film called Don’t Breathe, a symphony of soundless horror. It was about three thieves who were held hostage in a darkened house owned by a murderous blind man whose preternatural aural faculties alerted him to their slightest noise. Much of the action held everyone frozen in position, silently poised a few scant feet from one another, the slightest sound both a protection and a danger to predator and victim alike. Let the Right One In and The Eyes of My Mother are two more recent films that deployed silence to provoke our ghastliest nightmares.

Now, A Quiet Place makes us listen. I must admit, however, that there is one drawback to all this: In the theater, we’re more aware of the popcorn munchers and paper-bag rattlers than ever. And those sounds can be like thunder.

This is the debut dramatic film from director John Krasinski, who also appears in the cast opposite his wife in real life, Emily Blunt.

Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL


Presentation given by John C. Tibbetts
at the Kansas City Lyric Opera Guild
Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL (“Beaumarchais, l’insolent”).

Produced by Charles Gassot; directed by Edouard Molinaro; screenplay by Edouard Molinaro and Jean-Claude Brisville (adapted from an unpublished play by Sacha Guitry). 1996; color; 101 minutes. Distributor: New Yorker Films.

To his The Marriage of Figaro (1784) Beaumarchais appended the subtitle, “A Mad Day.” The play’s conflation into twenty-four hours of the multifarious intrigues, deceptions, and loves of Figaro, Count Almaviva, and Cherubin was no less a “mad” enterprise than the attempts by Edouard Molinaro’s historical film, Beaumarchais the Scoundrel to encompass within two hours a decade in the life of Beaumarchais himself.

The action begins in 1773—a time of “high ideas and low subjects,” as an opening title declares. Louis XVI is waiting in the wings to succeed his father. Art and politics are in ferment. France is “dangerously behind the times.” It is up to figures like Voltaire and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais “to set the clocks right.”

Well, Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was indeed the son of a clockmaker. But his timing was nothing less than erratic. As the ensuing first fifteen minutes of the film admirably demonstrates, this gentle playwright, philanderer, intriguer, revolutionary, and swordsman led a hectic and complicated life: In a flurry of brief episodes he’s instructing the actors rehearsing his Barber of Seville in the art of naturalistic performance; dashing off a pamphlet to his enemy, Goezman; fighting a duel with a man he’s cuckolded, the Duke de Chaulnes; and cooling his heels in jail on charges of sedition. And so it goes. Beaumarchais accepts it all with perfect equanimity. “I write better in prison,” he says, settling down in his cell to write a new draft of Barber.

And that’s only the beginning! As Beaumarchais connives, flatters, and protests his way through the theaters and courts of Louis XV and XVI, running through litigious intrigues as frequently as he went through wives (and spending almost as much time in jail as out), he seizes opportunities for adventure as a French spy in London and a gun runner to the American revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, his plays help foment a revolution in drama, too. At first, he thinks his Barber is too timid a critique of the monarchy and that perhaps Voltaire was right when he quipped, “Beaumarchais will never be another Moliere because he values his life too much.” Reluctantly, our hero determines to bring back the character of the wily servant, Figaro, in a tougher play. The Marriage of Figaro is an astringent political satire that creates considerable sensation and notoriety. Figaro’s rebellion against his master may be compared, according to the filmmakers—albeit rather simplistically—to Beaumarchais’ own challenge to traditional stagecraft as well as to the institution of the aristocracy. Ironically, in the midst of thunderous audience applause at the play’s premiere, Beaumarchais is sent back to prison. But when the King relents and offers his release, Beaumarchais bargains that he’ll leave his cell only if the King and his attendants attend his play’s next performance.

As improbable, even bewildering as most of it may seem to the uninitiated viewer (who may be tempted to dismiss it as pure Hollywood-style fabrication), the movie does a remarkable job in touching the requisite historical bases. Granted, at best, this densely-packed film can only suggest the complexity of the noisy polemics and endless intrigues, political and artistic, that always surrounded Beaumarchais. Yet, several extended scenes nicely convey Beaumarchais’ windy, legal battles with his bete noire, Goezman; the complex motivations behind his American endeavors (perhaps stimulated as much by a passion for political intrigue and business opportunities as a genuine regard for the American cause); and his ambivalent attitudes toward the aristocracy (wittily conveyed in a number of staged excerpts from Barber and Figaro).

The crazy-quilt episodic narrative structure betrays the scattered nature of its source materials, fragments of Sacha Guitry’s unpublished play; but it is, nonetheless, a beautifully mounted and compelling historical drama with an outstanding French cast. Fabrice Luchini’s Beaumarchais, particularly, is a wryly genial and charming rascal whose rather bland round face is punctuated with sharply peaked brows and dancing eyes.

Even if Beaumarchais was probably not quite the impassioned revolutionary advocating the overthrow of the monarchy and its institutions that the film ultimately suggests—the concluding title declaims, “The great men of this world applauded Figaro, without realizing they were also applauding the birth of the French Revolution”—there was nonetheless enough historical smoke in the factual record to justify and fuel this cinematic fire. (Wisely, the film concludes at this point, omitting the sad ironies of Beaumarchais’ later years, when the Revolution resulted in the destruction of his fine home, a narrow brush with the guillotine, and years in exile as an emigre.)

In the final analysis, Beaumarchais is the perfect subject for a vivid, flamboyant pageant—a veritable succession of tableaux vivants—such as this; a movie worthy to stand alongside other outstanding recent French literary and historical films, like Patrice Leconte’s comedy of manners and politics in the court of Louis XVI, Ridicule (1996); Yves Angelo’s adaptation of Balzac’s Napoleonic drama, Colonel Chabert (1994); and Patrice Chereau’s recreation of the Catholic and Protestant disputes in late 17th century France, Queen Margot (1994). Beaumarchais himself paved the way for any dramatic license in which Beaumarchais the Scoundrel may indulge. He knew how to embellish the dry legalities of his numerous Memoires with irony and wit, his spy missions with dubious accounts of action and swordplay, his comic plays with songs and dance. As one character in the film observes of him, “He’s fond of intrigues, as befits a good playwright.” If he is caricatured here a bit, it is only just, for he himself was a master of caricature. “When my subject seizes me,” he wrote regarding his theatrical endeavors, “I call out all my characters and place them in a situation. . . . What they will say, I know not at all; it’s what they will do that concerns me. Then, when they are fully come to life, I write under their rapid dictation.”

One suspects that had he the opportunity, Beaumarchais might have written just such a scenario as we have here in this film.

The concluding scenes contain delicious moments from a stage production of The Marriage of Figaro. Here are lines like this prescription for success in politics:
“Pretending not to know what you do know, and knowing what you don’t.
Pretending not to understand when you do, and having nonexistent secrets.
Trying to appear profound when you’re shallow.
Putting on acts, hiring spies, and firing traitors.
Tampering with seals, intercepting letters.
Justifying your lowly methods with lofty goals.
That’s politics! Upon my life!”

READY PLAYER ONE: BALANCING ACT


Directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline.

After spending almost two and a half hours watching Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE, I am left with the final speech, addressed to us viewers: “SPEND MORE TIME IN REALITY! THE ONLY REALITY IS THE REAL!”

Dutifully, I tore off the 3-D glasses and hurried out of the theater, hungering, even lusting, after “The Real.”

Why, I wondered, as I guided my car into the homecoming traffic, did I spend two-and-a-half hours with this movie’s virtual realities—if its ultimate message demands that I deny them?

But then, as I headed homeward on I-435 at 4:00 in the afternoon, I had cause to revise my thoughts: The traffic was in gridlock. Turning onto the off-ramp into my suburban neighborhood, the fast-food signs accumulated rapidly, shouting their own realities of burgers and fries. I repeated the question in growing exasperation: So THIS is the “Real???” . . . And then at home, as I sat down to the keyboard ready to write about READY PLAYER ONE - I was immediately assaulted by the latest rants from Donald Trump: SO THIS IS THE “REAL”???

Neither the REAL nor its VIRTUAL substitute has any validity unless both are balanced; or, to put it another way, citing St. Augustine, fact and fancy, like our perception of the Godhead, are both ONLY A MATTER OF DEGREE, MORE OR LESS.

What READY PLAYER ONE did for me, in the meantime, was provide a lovely extended sequence when we plunged into a virtual reboot of that 1980 classic, THE SHINING. Now we could prowl the interiors of the Overlook Hotel once again, although now we are participants in the action. And I wondered if I could reboot my own version of READY PLAYER ONE to explore other sites of experience and nostalgia, plunging into the cinematic realities of my own childhood. How I would want to immerse myself into my seven-year old experience with Disney’s PETER PAN; only now I would be in it, soaring over the rooftops and towers of London, and alighting, light as a feather on the clock hands of Big Ben.

READY PLAYER ONE also encourages each of us to reboot our own realities, our own nostalgias. Author Ernest Cline had his nostalgic revisit to the 1980s. I suspect, given his druthers, Spielberg might have preferred his own movie reboot, say, to blast off with the crew of ROCKETSHIP X-M, from his childhood, in 1951, on its way to Mars. My grandfather would have looked further back and to revisit THE GLENN MILLER STORY and sit in on the legendary gig at the Glen Island Casino in 1939. And his father would ride with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as he and the Musketeers rushed to the aid of the French Queen.

And so forth. . .

Maybe, in a way, our own imaginative illusions are necessary to help cushion the shock of the REAL outside the theater— when, albeit reluctantly, we have no choice but to SPEND MORE TIME IN REALITY!