Saturday, October 5, 2019

JOKER


Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Gotham City has a sound. It’s the grind of several double-bass instruments flailing away in the basement of their registers. And Gotham City has a laugh, a high, maniacal laugh emitted from the throat of a psychopathic killer named Arthur Fleck. In case his name is not familiar, try... Joker.

And Gotham City has a theme. It’s a street sermon delivered with a sledge hammer about the ills of our cities and our citizens—that we are all mad; and that we are all jokers. In case that’s not abundantly clear by the end of the film, we have this amazing scene where the city erupts in flame and riot, and the streets are clogged with jokers, every one of them wearing clown masks. And one of them levels a pistol and shoots the city’s mayor and his wife at point-blank range.

And here’s the irony—we don’t know who that killer is. Is he the Joker? He could be any one of all the jokers (lower case) in the world. To compound the irony, the real Joker makes his escape by clapping on a clown mask over his own hideously clownish face makeup. Double jeopardy.

I think this movie is already in trouble. At least that was the muttered verdict overheard from departing viewers. That grind and that laugh is just too much. Joaquin Phoenix, who is already something of a “joker” in his predilection for bizarre roles, pulls out all the stops, relentlessly laughing until he chokes, tugging up the corners of his mouth at every opportunity, and dancing and capering down streets abd alleyways.

Must we have backstories for all our super heroes and villains? Must we explain away Joker’s sublime villainy with lurid tales of child abuse, a medical condition that produces uncontrolled laughter (it’s called “pseudobulbar”), and so much psychobabble? He emerges before us as just another sick dude. But one with a red nose and green hair.

At least some viewers will have fun registering all the references the movie makes to other movies likewise famous for their bleak, nihilistic tone—like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole on a theater marquee and references to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. And all the while, when we’re not listening to the grinding away on those double-bass instruments, we’re hearing soundtrack songs like “That’s Life” and “Smile” (written by another clown, Charlie Chaplin).

And so, at the end, we leave Bruce Wayne, a victim of Joker, standing alone, his slain parents dead at his feet. He now will join the Joker as just another traumatized child with a flair for costumes.

Prologue: A psychiatrist sits opposite a manacled Joker, now incarcerated in the Arkham Asylum. “Tell me a joke,” she mutters. Joker looks up, then whispers, “You won’t get it.”

Will you?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

JUDY



Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, and scripted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow.

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

Recent kudos to Renée Zellweger are well deserved for her astonishing turn as Judy Garland in this harrowing portrait of Garland’s last months during the weeks she spent touring the London theaters shortly before her death.

While paying due diligence to the standard bio-pic formula that requires flashbacks—Judy on the Wizard of Oz set, Judy cowering under the menace of nasty old Louis B. Mayer, Judy wilting under the indifference of her frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney, etc.—the film concentrates on the last, drug-filled weeks when Judy was presiding over the wreckage of her life and career. And I need to say at the outset that I did not watch JUDY as a portrait of Miss Garland. To the contrary, I bypassed the obligatory biographical details and watched it as a portrait of a person burning herself out. That’s drama enough, without worrying about whether or not Renée Zellweger resembles Judy (sort of) or if her voice matches hers (which it doesn’t). No, the more we concentrate on that, the greater the distance we feel from the character.

In other words, freed of that sort of baggage, I found myself wary and nervous in the onscreen presence of this person who only incidentally is calling herself “Judy Garland.” I found myself watching all those tell-tale tics, twitches, and lapses that betray a person losing control. All of us have found ourselves in close quarters with people like this, and we know there is never a moment when we can predict anything or feel comfortable in their presence. To stay with the entertainment industry, for the moment, I myself have spent many occasions in Hollywood with the National Film Society when we catered to the whims of movie stars and hangers-on like this during awards ceremonies and dinner tributes. The hours I spent in the company of Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino, for instance, bless them!, were not ones spent basking in the glory of their stardom but ones staring into the unstable abyss of defeat and regret.

Credit Zellweger here. This collection of faltering mannerisms could easily have descended into the grotesque satire that Bette Davis gave us in her impersonation of the mad old Mrs. Skeffington in that Hollywood classic. Zellweger, who is, by the way, one of my favorite actresses (check out her early film, The Whole Wide World) has wrought a miracle here—a portrait neither comic nor grotesque; rather, one that enlists our empathy. And one that burrows inside us to evoke our sympathy and wonderment at the extremities of which we ourselves are capable as we flail about, desperately holding off the inevitable darkness.

Recall the wonderful poem by Stevie, who observes a person far out on a lake—
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”

IS HE WAVING AT ME, OR IS HE DROWNING?


Saturday, September 21, 2019

AD ASTRA



Written and directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and music by Max Richter.

AD ASTRA recalls Judith Merrill’s classic definition of science fiction as “whirling wheels and soft footfalls of thought.” Here, the wheels—all the hardware of rockets and space stations and whiz-bang gadgetry—and the thought—a man’s search for identity—all work together in a film that will disappoint the fanboys of Star Wars but delight enthusiasts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Let me explain. Astronaut Roy McBride is on a mission to locate his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing while on a 30-year exploration of life in the galaxy. There is some evidence that dear old Dad might be still alive; that he may have gone insane; and that he may be unleashing Zeus-like power surges that are threatening the very existence of the solar system. Call him “Mr. Kurtz.” And so, like Conrad’s Marlow, Roy provides some interior narration threading through the movie.

Roy spends most of the film adrift in the spaceways, lost in the limbo of his consciousness, and uncertain in the ambivalence of his feelings for the father that deserted the family thirty years ago.

And we viewers find ourselves likewise treading water in a movie whose narrative drive is as slow as Roy’s heartbeat and as (seemingly) random as the course of events. This is not a bad thing. Rather, the aleatory music of Max Richter and the amazing visuals by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema sustain our attention. And yes, critics are already all over Brad Pitt’s blue eyes commanding the screen. (No kidding!)

Consider AD ASTRA a cosmic expansion of another crazily-ambitious film by James Gray, the estimable Lost City of Z several years ago. It too involved a father and son’s journey into the “heart of darkness” of the Amazonian jungles. AD ASTRA may look up to the heavens rather than down into the forest primeval, but the search for identity has the same compass heading—True North.



Sunday, September 15, 2019

OFFICIAL SECRETS: NOT A BANG BUT A WHISPER



OFFICIAL SECRETS, written and directed by Gavin Hood, starring Keira Knightly as Katherine Gun, Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson

OFFICIAL SECRETS is my favorite movie of the year, so far. Although it begins and ends not with a bang but a whisper, the concussion, while quiet, is deafening.

Here is a model of sturdy, no-nonsense storytelling. It’s quiet, but relentless. Its script brooks no distractions and allows us no relief. The casting is superb, from top to bottom.

It recounts the true story of Katherine Gun (Keira Knightly), a British whistleblower who leaked information about an illegal NSA attempt to extort the UN Security Council into supporting America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. We know that her efforts and those of others to prevent the invasion failed. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war were slain. And the reputations of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and General Colin Powell were irreparably damaged.

So much is history. OFFICIAL SECRETS teases with what we know, what we think we know, and what we have forgotten.

Meanwhile, Gun, a translator for British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), is having a hard time. Her initial actions were patriotic attempts to forestall the invasion, but quickly she’s in over her head: Her violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Act draws the unwelcome attention of Scotland Yard and British and American security forces, damages her marriage to a Turkish Muslim, and promises a prison sentence for treason. The firm of lawyers she turns to, including Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), offers little hope, beyond a “guilty” plea and a diminished sentence. The crux of her salvation lies in how the Iraq War is to be judged and defined—Is it legal or is it illegal? And is the document that has crossed her desk an authentic NSA document or a British hoax? The answer to all of this, more precisely, resides in the spelling of one of the words in the memo: The word “favorable” appears in the NSA document; but in its re-release to the public the word is spelled “FAVOURABLE.” So what, you say? The parsing of this spelling riddle will literally spell Gun’s innocence or guilt.

This nicety of British and American spelling is perhaps my favorite part of the film. It’s a tiny scene, barely whispered, and you have to watch closely lest you miss it. Upon such details can hang the fate of nations—and that of a lowly civil servant.

OFFICIAL SECRETS joins the honorable list of recent films—THE POST, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, CONCUSSION—that remind us how important newspaper investigative journalism continues to be. In this case, the venerable British newspaper, The Observer, leaps into the fray. As print disappears into the cybersphere in our post-9/11 era, and as readers prefer the computer screen to folded newsprint, we wonder how many stories like this fall between the cracks.

OFFICIAL SECRETS speaks softly, but its message is loud and clear.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

IT CHAPTER TWO



SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN ENDING

I’m riffing on Pirandello’s famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, because this sequel to the first half of Stephen King’s 1986 door-stopper of a novel, IT, is searching not so much for an “author” but for an ENDING. In the opening minutes of the movie, director Peter Bogdanovich puts in a cameo appearance and says it all: “All stories need an ending.”

I appreciate Bogdanovich’s urgency. And you will, too, because it’s not long into the movie before you’ll be saying the same thing.

The children of the first film are back, 27 years later—a standup comic, a writer, an interior decorator, a limousine owner, an abused wife, a local historian—now returned to the little town of Derry, Maine, the scene of their childhood terrors. They are called back to confront once again Pennywise the Clown, and all the carnivalesque horrors that follow in his train. Each of these kids has borne into adulthood the literal scars of the traumas of his and her youth. Once members of a self-proclaimed Losers Club, they are still struggling to overcome fears and traumas of guilt, sex, inadequacy, cowardice, etc. In other words, they’ve had a tough time, like most of the rest of us, just trying to navigate adolescence. Chief among these traumas is an incident that triggered the whole thing in the first place, as recounted in the first film—a boy’s guilt over the neglect of his younger brother that led to the little boy’s drowning. Until they can confront and exorcise those terrors the clown known as Pennywise will keep rampaging up and down Derry and, in the process, grow bigger and bigger, like some ghastly Thanksgiving Parade blimp. It’s up to the children—now adults—to literally burst that bubble.

That’s the story’s ending, and it is one devoutly to be desired. It’s been a long search. It’s taken three hours and a multiple number of false endings to do the trick. Including a whole lot of dime-store philosophizing about having the courage to grow up and believe in yourself and all that sort of thing. Meanwhile, comic-book creatures straight out of Creepshow keep jumping out of closets, falling from the ceilings, erupting from the floors. Decapitated heads sprout spider’s legs, tongues shoot out of yawning mouths, and razor teeth chomp and chew everything in sight.

It helps to have seen IT, Chapter One, since the story splits the characters into their incarnations as kids and adults—threading their pasts and their presents throughout the narrative. There’s so much noise and strife in the process. Good heavens, growing up is apparently such an awful business. Watching it through is such an awful business.

I’ve held back on the most awful monster of all, by the way. And that is the weird, gaunt shopkeeper who puts in an appearance halfway through. He is a perfect Horror to behold. And “It’s” name is Stephen King.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE



Directed by Avi Belkin.

As someone who has spent the greater part of his professional career interviewing people, I watched MIKE WALLACE IS HERE wishing I could interview the director. And I would do it with questions delivered with some of the hard-charging style that was Wallace’s trademark.

For example—

Why spend the first half of the documentary on some kind of hyper-drive? The movie breaks out of the gate with shock cuts and breathless pacing, allowing no time for viewer reflection and processing.

Second, why cut short so many of Wallace’s interviews, allowing us no sense of the give-and-take of his repartee?

Third, why are most of the famous faces in front of Wallace’s microphone not identified? Younger viewers who don’t stay for the final credits will be baffled.

Fourth, why repeat to the point of tedium the use of split screens and transition devices like television static and color bars? Enough is enough. We get it. It’s about television.

Meanwhile, we race through the requisite Greatest Hits of his career as a pitchman (lots of cigarette commercials), as host of the ground-breaking radio program, Night Beat, his work for CBS (especially 60 Minutes), the controversies surrounding his controversies with the cigarette industry, Watergate, and Vietnam. As Wallace enters his 70s and 80s, his energy scarcely flags, as his drive for professionalism gives way to a desperate need to stave off mortality. The documentary is at its best here, although, as I’ve noted, it’s hectic pace tends to derail its impact.

Aside from a few skirmishes with his private life—his regrets about fatherhood, grief at the death of his son, Peter, the grinding depression that led to a surprising revelation about a suicide attempt—the film emerges as just one more procession of Big Names, from Malcolm X to Bette Davis, from Barbra Streisand to General Westmoreland, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Thomas Hart Benton. It’s mix-master blend of the pop and the profound effectively defines the decades of his best work.

In sum, we learn little about Wallace’s technique, how he worked, how he prepared for interviews. There is one tiny, startling moment, when it’s revealed that during some occasions his questions were prepared in advance for him by somebody else. Really? Tell me more.

There are only a few moments at the end where we feel the pangs of loss of someone like Wallace, who died in his 90s in 2012. Should not a documentary about an investigative reporter wear its own heart on its sleeve? Warts and all, we need someone like him now, more than ever. Beyond his quirks and ego, his was a fearless spirit that should not be allowed to be squashed by the deafening noise of the Trump Era. Indeed, the Donald is seen briefly in an interview from the early 90s, and we can only regret that he did not make good on his promise not to enter politics.

Finally, younger viewers may be startled at all the smoking going on throughout the film. Everybody smokes. All the time. Cigarettes dangle from stained fingers. The entire film is seen through the haze of cigarettes. Hey, it was the 1950s and 1960s. As Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it was.”

Sunday, September 1, 2019

PEANUT BUTTER FALCON


CRAZY QUILT

Starring Shia LeBoeuf as Tyler, Zack Gottshagen as Zack, and Dakota Johnson as Eleanor. Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.

Young Zack, a downs syndrome youth, calls himself “Peanut Butter Falcon.” That’s his wrestling moniker and his tribute to his favorite wrestler, “Saltwater Redneck.” And to honor the sobriquet, he smears peanut butter all over his face. There. Let’s get the title out of the way.

My sainted Aunt used to keep fabulous quilts carefully tucked away in an old trunk; and when she would take them out, I was in awe of their crazy patterns, varieties of fabric, and reckless matches of color. PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is like one of those quilts. But when you air it out on the movie screen, you find the stitching is sloppy and the fabrics torn.

And so we have a crazy-quilt story about a thief (Shia LeBoeuf) on the lam from a couple of thugs, a runaway downs child (Zack Gottshagen) escaped from a nursing home, and the boy’s caregiver (Dakota Johnson) anxious to bring him back. And of course, they all end up on a raft floating downriver.

Mix and match these story elements as best it can, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON succeeds best when it’s just content to just let things meander along, like that aimless river. But when the whimsy and caprice abruptly grounds characters and events in coarse-grained reality, the tissue of the story comes apart. There are lapses in continuity and abrupt lurches in tone from comedy to brutal violence (and back again). For example, when the boy meets his idol, the wrestler Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he transforms into Peanut Butter Falcon, dons costume and swagger—and nearly gets his brains beaten out. But this is a cartoon, after all, and nobody gets hurt. Instead, he rears up heroically and throws his opponent out of the ring. Some fun.

At this point, we’re not sure of the patterns of this crazy quilt. We can like it for a lot of reasons, particularly for the fine-tuned performances by LeBoeuf and Gottshagen and the wonderfully textured sense of the rural North Carolina scene. But we come away with a vague sense of unease. We realize the movie tends to exploit Zack’s condition as a downs syndrome child—his slow speech and blunt manner, for example—more for the sake of comedic effects than the poignant and sober reality of his vulnerability in a dangerous and confusing world.

Friday, August 16, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD


SPOILER ALERT!

By now we must know that the new Tarantino film concludes by side-stepping the Manson-Tate murders and locating the crimes elsewhere. In other words, there is no Manson-Tate slaughter at all! We should be accustomed by now to the way Hollywood cherry-picks history, but this recent example is particularly startling. Its effrontery in altering history is rivaled, in my opinion, by the amazing conclusion to a mid-50s movie, QUANTRILL AND HIS RAIDERS: In this version of the Lawrence Raid, Quantrill and a few raiders are turned away at the city border and Quantrill is shot and killed by the citizenry.

In other words, there was no Quantrill/Lawrence Massacre at all!

Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it?

I recall the advisories of cultural historians Hayden White and Niall Ferguson who propose that alterations in the historical time line should bear a certain responsibility. In other words, are the alterations executed in the realm of PROBABILITY? COULD they have happened that way? We could argue whether or not Tarantino obeys that injunction.

But this is Tarantino's thing, isn't it? When we see Hitler killed in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, we know what he's up to.

I guess we have to respect these alternative histories... but it’s just a pity that films like these aren't accompanied by "teaching moments," that is, a sober examination of the whys and wherefores of these alterations. And excellent teaching moments they can be--the same holds true for Hollywood's alterations of the texts of stories and novels-- but, alas, are seldom observed. But that's a matter primarily for the classroom, right?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK


Directed by Andre Ovredal to a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro. Based on the books by Alvin Schwartz.

Starring Zoe Colletti as Stella and Michael Garza as Ramone.

“The book reads you.”

In today’s parlance, this movie issues several “trigger warnings”—that is, don’t anger your local scarecrow; inspect your next bowl of soup for a dismembered big toe; and be careful what scary stories you read in the dark—they may appear on screen at your local theater.

That’s what happens in this exemplary collection of local legends, twice-told tales, and campfire frights. They've come to the screen. Based on stories by Alvin Schwartz whose publication in the 1990s occasioned trigger warnings of their own to cautious parents and young readers, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers plenty of shocks and gross-outs. It’s just in time for a new generation of young adults (it’s rated PG-13) who’ve grown up on Stranger Things.

They understand. Just like readers in the ‘90s understood.

At the heart of the stories, both on stage and screen is a book. You don’t read the book, it reads you. Thus, five teenagers in the sleepy little town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania find themselves in possession of a book that “reads’ their respective traumas and produces them, “writ large,” tailor-made, as it were, to their real life. Stella, who is a young storyteller, finds this book during a raid she and her friends make on a local haunted house. Local legend has it that a wealthy family of industrialists named Bellows once lived there; and that they kept secluded from public view their disturbed and abused daughter, Sara, who eventually hung herself. After the family mysteriously disappeared, the house has been left to wrack and ruin. But Stella may yet walk there...

The book in Stella’s hand contains hand-written stories by Sara Bellows. They are written by a very angry young lady who is raging against her fate. The ink is fresh. That’s because Sara is writing scary stories even now, long after her death. The words crawl across the pages, line by line, even as they watch. And each of the stories is targeted to destroy Stella and her companions.

And so, heigh-ho, off we go, on with these deadly, twisty tales, as Sara and her friends try to find the secret behind Sara Bellows and her book before they all meet nasty ends. The stories nicely balance a delicious campfire thrill with a more substantial, gruesome impact. The monsters are very cool, especially the vengeful scarecrow and a decidedly creepy character called “the dangling man,” who assembles his body parts into a hideous parody of the human form. It’s pretty strong stuff; and I suspect some younger viewers prepared to laugh at the gross-out moments might find the laughter catching in their throats. The stories are writing them, too.

I see the intrusion of a Vietnam-era background—the movie is set in 1968 and one of the kids is dodging the draft—as ultimately irrelevant, unless you accept the fact that newsreel footage of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon present horrors of their own that are quite in keeping with the rest of the movie. Moreover, the addition of a backstory about the coverup of the poisoning of Mill Valley’s water supply may unnecessarily complicate the hard-wiring of the plot.

The direction and shock cuts deliver what young audiences come for. And the name of Guillermo del Toro serves as another lure to get them into the theaters. But viewers of a certain age—that’s me—may come away with how neatly the movie taps into those “phobic pressure points” that Stephen King writes about in his classic Danse Macabre (still one of the best overviews of horror we have). The mantra that “Books read us,” fits right in. That “danse” in search of our phobias is precisely the way words on the printed page and images on the movie screen seek us out—find us—and have their way with us.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PAVAROTTI



THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW ARTICLE WITH LUCIANO PAVAROTTI BY JOHN C. TIBBETTS WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN “THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR” ON 5 May 1989. I RECALL THESE EVENTS NOW UPON RECENTLY VIEWING THE NEW RON HOWARD DOCUMENTARY.

MY 1989 INTERVIEW FOLLOWS BELOW IN ITS ENTIRETY.


I suppose not many folks can say they spent a half hour alone with opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti in the backseat of a limousine...

Let me explain:

OPERA superstar Luciano Pavarotti has received many extravagant titles over the years, from ”The King of the High C's'' to “Grandissimo Pavarotti.'' But perhaps none is as close to his heart as the simple appellation, “Doc.'' “Doctor Pavarotti'' is the way he is known to the citizens of the town of Liberty, Mo., just a half hour's drive from Kansas City.

Mr. Pavarotti has just arrived at the Kansas City airport in preparation for a solo concert recital next Tuesday under the auspices of Richard Harriman and William Jewell College.

It is a warm spring evening, but he has the familiar red silk scarf wrapped about his neck. He is trimmer than I expected. We exchange hurried greetings and move to his curbside limousine for a prearranged interview.

Once inside, the flashing cameras and the noises are shut out. Luciano settles back into the deep cushions with a sigh. He is tired. The evening before, he had just finished preparing Verdi's “Luisa Miller'' with the prizewinners of the latest Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia. Ahead in coming weeks are performances at the Metropolitan Opera and a European tour.

“Yes,'' he continues, “I just finished `Elixir of Love,' and there is a recording of `Trovatore' ahead, and then the tour - but after that I go to my beach house at Pesaro [on the Adriatic coast] for the rest of the summer....''

He pauses a moment, checking the slim, leatherbound notebook he carries in the inside pocket of his jacket. The solo recital Tuesday is the only such concert he will give all season. Indeed, the recital will mark the fifth time since 1973 that he has come here under the auspices of the William Jewell College Fine Arts Series. He is looking forward to seeing many old friends.

“I think this recital is very important to everybody,'' he explains, “since the first time I made my first recital was exactly in this place.''

His face is etched in silver outlines by the lights outside the car window. The voice that can fill auditoriums the size of Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden is hushed in this tiny cell of silence.

“That recital gave to my performing a different dimension,'' he says. “I was able, through this first concert and the others that follow it, to reach people who were not the usual people for the world of the opera. Some go only to see opera; others only to the recitals. Now I find both. Yes, it all start here from the Liberty, Mo., concert.''


It had been a chilly February night when Pavarotti first came here to perform sixteen years ago. At that time he was known in the music world solely as an opera performer.

The young man, born in Modena in northern Italy, had given up careers as an elementary school teacher and nighttime insurance salesman to pursue singing. He moved quickly from his opera debut near his home town in 1961 in “La Boheme'' to a debut four years later at La Scala in Milan (again in “La Boheme'') and then his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972 as Tonio in Donizetti's “La Fille du Regiment.''

In the audience at that Metropolitan debut was Richard Harriman, an English professor from William Jewell College, and supervisor of the college's concert series. Professor Harriman decided he would try to get this young singer to appear at the college in a recital.

When he contacted Pavarotti's press representative, Herbert Breslin, he was told the singer did not do recitals, but possibly they could kick around the idea. “So we talked further,'' Harriman recalls. “It developed that Mr. Pavarotti had considered a solo recital debut, but it would cost me $6,000. Now in those days, that was the fee given to the highest-paid tenor in the world, Richard Tucker. `Nobody's ever heard of your singer,' I said. After a pause, his voice came back to me: `They will!'''

Soon the arrangements were made, but when Pavarotti arrived the night before the recital he was unsure that he would be well enough to go on. The next day, however, he felt better. “I got the call from Mr. Breslin that all was well,'' says Harriman. “We made the drive into Kansas City, where Mr. Pavarotti was staying at the Muehleback Hotel. He warmed up on the piano in the Presidential Suite, which once belonged to President Harry S. Truman. We bundled him up and got him back to campus, and the rest is history.''

What Pavarotti remembers about the concert was his nervousness about appearing on stage alone. “I was very nervous where I'm going to put these hands,'' he says. “So I decided to stuff my hand with a handkerchief, and during the performance my hand began to move normally. From that day I considered it a very good-luck concert for me, because it began something very new for me.''


In a later conversation with me, his accompanist, John Wustman, talked about the concerts here. Pavarotti “was so used to the opera stage, and he felt naked,'' Mr. Wustman said. “There was no prop, no glass, none of the things you might have in `Rigoletto' or any other opera. I think he felt he needed something, and this [handkerchief] idea came to him. It has been his trademark ever since, the world over.''

Wustman was not Pavarotti's pianist that night. He started accompanying Pavarotti at the singer's third concert here, in 1978. “But it is the fourth time I remember the best,'' said Wustman. “That was in September 1983. We moved the concert from the William Jewell campus in Liberty to nearby Kansas City. That was a special time for Luciano.”

Make that “Doctor'' Pavarotti.

That was the year the singer received an honorary PhD in music from the college. The ceremony was packed with spectators, opera fans, and local and national news media. Pavarotti beamed in his cap and gown as he walked to the podium alongside his sponsor, Professor Harriman.

Now, as the William Jewell Fine Arts Series celebrates the opening of its 25th season, it seems only fitting that Doc Pavarotti return for another benefit.

The singer lifts his shoulders in a quiet shrug when I ask him how he managed to be here. He is not one to dwell on such things. “I fit it in, yes. I am glad to come here again. It is really something to be able to come here and make real a piece of music in this way - when you are alone on the stage with nothing else - nothing, just a fantastic pianist like I have.'' There is a knock at the limousine window. The luggage has arrived and has been stowed in the trunk. Time to leave.

One wonders if the quiet simplicity of this area reminds him of his native village of Modena and the soccer fields of his youth. Or maybe it's just the way folks talk to him here. After all, there are times - even in the life of an opera superstar - when the simple title of “Doc'' is preferable to “Grandissimo.”

Thursday, May 30, 2019

THE CHAPERONE


Directed by Michael Engler and starring Haley Lu Richardson as Louise Brooks and Elizabeth McGovern as Norma. Adapted by Julian Fellowes from the novel by Laura Moriarty.

It tells us a lot about actress Louise Brooks that her sharply acerbic Lulu in Hollywood, published in 1982, three years before her death, contains a chapter entitled, “Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs.” Apparently, even she had difficulty facing up to the scandal-ridden career that had blazed so brightly in the late 1920s and early 1930s, yet faded just as quickly, leaving her in relative obscurity for the last forty years of her life.

In his interview with her, published in the estimable The Parade’s Gone By (1968), historian Kevin Brownlow found in the reclusive Brooks “a woman of immense creative energy, “ a “brilliant writer,” and someone “completely honest about herself” and “not afflicted with morbid nostalgia.” Born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906, she moved with her family to Wichita, from whence she pursued a career in dancing in New York before making her first films in the mid-1920s in Hollywood. Her career really took off in Germany, under the mentorship of the formidable G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, 1928-1929). From then on, her career stumbled; and after making a few B-westerns back in Hollywood, she returned in 1938 to the family home in Wichita where she taught dance while hiding away from Hollywood. Her last years were spent in Rochester, New York, where her Memoirs spurred a new-found fame and cult status.

All of which, ironically, is almost irrelevant to Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel and Julian Fellowes/ Michael Engler’s 2019 film adaptation. Based on a thin layer of historical fact, Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) is the middle-aged Wichita housewife who chaperones lively 15-year old Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) on her trip to New York to audition for the famed dance company of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (“Denishawn”). Once ensconced in their New York walkup, Norma and Louise are a study in contrasts as they pursue diverging paths: Norma, a quiet and slightly tight-laced matron, seeks from an orphanage the truth of her past. Louise, a budding ingenue, sports her signature bobbed hair-do as she marches briskly into the future with the Denishawn Dance Company. Norma finds an unexpected new friend in the handyman of the orphanage. Louise enjoys the attentions of a new boyfriend and, by no means incidentally, curries favor in the eyes of dance master Ted Shawn.

The story concludes in 1922, years before Brooks’s entrance into the movies. Norma returns to Wichita, her new lover in tow, to confront her startled husband. Louise goes on the road with the Denishawn company, new worlds of her own to conquer. Only a brief Epilogue serves up a few glimpses of the later years of both women. Big mistake. This token nod to later history—complete with unconvincing wigs and makeup—should have been omitted entirely and the story of the relationship between the two women, so different in age and temperament, allowed to remain on its own. And yes, a few token images from Pandora’s Box play out against the closing credits. Better to have left them out, too. Without context and limited to a few scant seconds, they fail to convey anything of Brooks’s sensuous allure.

Given the presence of a lively character like Brooks, and compared to the pagan, hedonism she brought to the screen, The Chaperone is a surprisingly mild affair. Excepting a few scenes of a wild party with Louise’s new boyfriend and her revelations to a startled Norma about her not-so-proper lifestyle, there is little else to hint at the spectacular rise and fall to come. Haley Lu Richardson is fetching and conveys at least some of Brooks’s charisma. Her dance scenes, in particular—including a wonderful recreation of one of Denishawn’s signature dance programs—are highlights. But the palm goes to the superb Elizabeth McGovern, who has worked before with scenarist Julian Fellowes and director Engler on the Downtown Abbey series. Her every scene shows textbook restraint and subtle eloquence. A real standout is her brief reunion with her birth mother (Blythe Danner). We sit back, savoring these two pros in action, as they test each other’s mettle, their mutual discovery ending in quiet recriminations and heartbreak. It alone is worth the price of admission. The fine supporting cast includes Campbell Scott as Louise’s father, Miranda Otto as Ruth St. Denis, and, of course, Blythe Danner. I should also mention Geza Rohrig, a handyman at the orphanage, who brings a nicely muted quality to his turn as Norma’s new love.

By the way, Louise Brooks wasn’t the only screen entertainer to come from that corner of southeast Kansas—Cherryvale, Parsons, Iola, and Independence—that also produced, respectively, Vivian Vance, ZaSu Pitts, Buster Keaton, and Martin and Osa Johnson. They all were born within the years 1894-1906 and none of them remained for long in their home towns. But they all have been honored ever since with annual celebrations back home. I had the privilege of being involved in all of them as an organizer. And I can attest to the fact that screenings of Brooks’s Beggars of Life and Pandora’s Box still astonished those who attended the Parsons events. Happily, once lost, they are now available in new restorations for today’s home viewing.

Monday, April 8, 2019

WHAT’S IN A NAME?



The only reason I went to see SHAZAM recently was my misguided loyalty to the original Captain Marvel character. Sadly, that concept from the C.C. Beck/ Bill Parker 1939 original has been so mangled and misnamed over the years that the original, disabled newsboy Billy Batson and his super alter-ego, Captain Marvel, seems now lost forever. Instead, we’ve recently had something called CAPTAIN MARVEL, which bore no resemblance to the original but appropriated the name. But wait—(as they say), this super hero was a woman who is never actually named “Captain Marvel,” but who instead has a boss named “Mar-Vell.” Whaaa?

And now in SHAZAM, we have a young boy named Billy Batson, but his super alter-ego has been stripped of the name “Captain Marvel” and instead dubbed “Shazam.” I cry, “Foul!!!!” The inescapable association these days with clunky Gomer Pyle is hard to abandon. Moreover, “Shazam” is not his only name here, but the infinitely better sobriquet, “Captain Sparklefingers,” is applied at times. Somehow, that last seems just fine.

But really, can’t we make up our minds about this particular superhero? The name-game, not to mention the gender issue, has gotten out of whack.

But why do I complain? Am I not the guy who fairly trembled with pleasure upon encountering the many names of J. R. R. Tolkien’s immortal hero from Lord of the Rings—“Aragorn”... sometimes named “Ranger”... sometimes named “Elfstone... sometimes named “Strider.” I mean, how cool was the guy’s full nameAragorn II, Son of Arathorn, Elessar Telcontar! Magisterial, regal, swashbuckling, by turns.

And was not James Fennimore Cooper’s great hero the bearer of many names: “Hawkeye”... “Leatherstocking”... “Long Rifle”... “Pathfinder”? Again, very cool.

So I maybe I should be a little more forgiving about the confusing name-game surrounding the superhero once named, simply, “Captain Marvel.”

As for the movie, SHAZAM, I won’t even try to untangle the writhing tentacles of the plot. Except to note that the appearance here of the muscle-bound “Captain Sparklefingers” uncomfortably resembles a Mad Magazine classic spoof of Superman and Captain Marvel that appeared in the mid-1950s. Those with fond memories of that great satire, drawn by the immortal Wally Wood, will recall that “Superduperman” clashed with “Captain Marbles.” And the image of Captain Marble’s overstuffed muscular upholstery was really funny. But the sight of the bizarrely-padded “Captain Sparklefingers” should have stayed in a comic book. Here, on screen, he is merely ridiculous.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

WELCOME TO MARWEN.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Steve Carell as Hogancamp Leslie Mann as Nicol and Merritt Weaver as Roberta.


I must say at the outset that WELCOME TO MARWEN is one of the bravest movies of the year. I say “brave” because surely Robert Zemeckis could have predicted the critical roasting and the box office disaster it has incurred. But he made it anyway. And he doesn’t flinch from what is, which is, admittedly, pretty creepy material.

Mark Hogancamp has found a way to cope with the trauma of a brutal beating he suffered in a bar. Damaged not only in body but in mind, he spends his time hiding from the world and indulging in building the miniature, table-top world of Marwen, a fictitious town in Belgium during World War II. He’s designated a World War II time frame, he says, because “That’s when we knew who the Good Guys were.” His miniature alter ego is “Captain Hogie,” who engages in ongoing battles with Nazis with the assistance of a group of warrior women.

They are all dolls.

Now what happens in this story is what really happened to the real-life Mark Hogankamp during his struggles with PTSD. And he really did build a miniature town populated by dolls. A documentary was made about his experiences, called Welcome to Marwencol.

Meanwhile, in the Zemeckis movie, Mark is struggling with loneliness. He can only get close to the Marwen world; and even there his inability to connect with people is echoed by his aversion to contact with, yes, dolls. Yes, even in Marwen he has his share of problems. Which is maybe the most interesting thing about this whole fantasy movie. If he can only summon up his courage to go the court proceeding that will put away the thugs who beat him up... Maybe that will bring some healing. Standing in his way, however—if a doll can really said to stand—is his wicked nemesis, a green-haired doll who pulverizes anything or any rival doll who invades his life and might bring healing to his condition.

That doll is named “Dejah Thoris.” After recovering from the shock of hearing the name of the John Carter’s Princess appropriated to this demon figures, I settled back and tried to figure out what was going on in this, certainly the oddest—and as I said, the bravest—movie of the year.

Director Zemeckis is obviously attracted, perhaps obsessed with the intersections of Mark’s doll world with Mark’s real world. They shift back and forth, and at times they merge in a seamless union. Which, of course, is Mark’s problem. And Zemeckis’s technical challenge.

Did I mention that Mark is fixated on high-heeled shoes...? Particularly, stiletto heels, which, he admits, were not invented until 1954, years after his imaginary time frame of Marwen.

And director Zemeckis doesn’t back off from this, either, disturbing as it might be to some. I did wince, however, when Zemeckis couldn’t resist inserting some cameo references to his trilogy, Back to the Future, and to the fairy tale of Cinderella (and in the latter, Cinderella’s silver slipper becomes a stiletto heel).

All the time I’m watching, I kept thinking of another documentary about a real-life casualty of life and conflict. That movie came out in 2004 and was called The Realms of the Unreal. It was about another lonely man lost in his fantasy world, named Henry Darger, who populated his one-room Chicago apartment with thousands of pages of typescript and hundreds of drawings chronicling a cosmic battle involving own cadre of battling females, the “Vivian Girls,” and the “Glandeco-Angelinnian” slave rebellion.

Both of these men, Mark Hogankamp and Henry Darger sought and found themselves in their own fantasy worlds. It gave them great consolation and resulted in great cost, both personal and psychological, to them. But to the extent that they wielded powerful imaginations. . . let them be honored for that.

And let there be at least a tip of the hat to Robert Zemeckis, even as his movie goes down in critical and box office flames.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER.

Directed by Sara Colangelo. Starring Maggie Gyllanhaal.


HOMEWORK AFTER HOURS
I must confess a film with a title like THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER might not have attracted me had it not been for the presence of Maggie Gyllanhaal. Since she is known for her brave performances in rather eccentric roles, so I gave this a look.

The rewards, for me at least, were many—not the least of which is her performance of a woman’s descent into madness... Never has a destructive obsession been so quietly, even tenderly observed.

At first, we see Lisa Spinelli as a quiet and caring teacher, patiently teaching her young charges their alphabets, playing them classical music during rest periods, and always attentive to their playground games. One day she overhears young five-year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) reciting words that seem to be some kind of poem. She writes the words down. They are disarming in their unselfconscious simplicity. While Lisa is not a poet herself—her poor attempts in a night class she is taking elicit only polite interest from her teacher—she is sensitive enough to realize she has a young, even precocious talent on her hands.

Lisa decides to recite those lines to her night class. The praise from teacher and students is immediate and enthusiastic. Gratified, she claims them as her own. Eagerly, she waits for the little boy to produce another set of lines. Again, she writes them down, and again she recites them to the applause of her writing class.

She begins taking the little boy out of the classroom at times, into the bathroom, out to the playground, in search of a quiet space where he can tell her more of his poems. She never raises her voice. She is always quiet and tender. But it is obvious she needs something from him. And it is apparent that her mentoring is becoming manipulative. She is, in short, dangerous. She contacts his parents, pressing them to encourage his talent. Too often, she says, the world stamps out such promise. Jimmy is like a young Mozart, who must be allowed to realize his gifts. She is right about that, of course. But she decides she is the one to nurture him. At all costs.

Things are going downhill with Lisa. Soon, she is calling Jimmy at home on the telephone. When her writing teacher finds out she has been passing the boy’s poems off as her own, he throws her out of the class. He attacks her for exploiting and preying off the work of others. The boy’s father grows alarmed and transfers him to another school. At home, Lisa’s family life is unraveling. They care nothing about the arts, she declares; they are only pathetic and common...

Packing her bags one day, she slips out of the house and follows Jimmy to the playground of his new school. Crouching outside the fence, she entices him to leave with her for a trip. Where are they going? He asks. She drives on.

We watch, considerably alarmed, as she takes him swimming into a nearby lake. She hugs him to herself as he bobs up and down in the breakers. She takes him to a hotel. She tells him they will go away together and publish a book of his poems. The boy, who has passively accepted all this, now realizes something is very wrong. He locks her into the bathroom and calls the police. From the other side of the locked door, Lisa is resigned to her defeat. She calmly issues instructions to help him call the police and give them their address. It’s as if she is watching herself doing all this, complicit in it, only mildly alarmed at her own behavior. There are no rants, no attacks. She is just a sad, sad woman, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a hint of a bewildered smile on her lips. Out of her obsession to protect and nurture—all of it supposedly out of her passion for Art—she is destroyed and perhaps so is the boy.

The final scene is devastating. The police arrive. The boy is taken to the car and locked in. From inside, we hear his still, small voice: “I have a poem,” he says. “I have a poem.”

But now there is no one to hear him. No one to listen. His fragile genius will surely wither away in an indifferent world. Lisa has been right all along. But she is lost in the darkness of the final fade-out.