Millman’s Shakesblog

Whither Shakesblog?

So, I asked the question – should I continue to split my culture and politics writing or should I merge them – on my main blog, and the answer was pretty unequivocal: merge them. People who are reading me there want to be able to read everything in one place.

Now I’m asking here: is there some value to having a break-out of culture coverage? A dedicated home for theatre blogging? What?

If the consensus between the TAC folks and my reader is to discontinue the separation, then most likely I’ll stop posting to Shakesblog, though the blog will still exist as an archive. I’ll remain absolutely committed to expanding the arts and culture coverage here at TAC, though, so if you don’t think the separation makes sense but you think there’s some other way of highlighting that kind of coverage that would be helpful, throw the ideas my way.

In the meantime, I’m going to experiment with merging and see how the stats change (or don’t). My latest review, of Daisy Foote’s Him, was just posted to the main blog. Enjoy!

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Cue The Bleats

Job1_HunterCanning-copy-1024x682

I’ve been enjoying Rod Dreher’s – and Alan Jacobs’s – posts on the Odyssey as well, and their most recent ones helped bring into focus for me what I found so disappointing about the show I saw last night – a production of Job, a new play by Thomas Bradshaw, at the Flea Theatre downtown.

My abiding affection – and awe – for the Book of Job is not news to regular readers of mine. So I went into the play with a mix of excitement and trepidation – eager to see this beloved book brought to life, anxious that the adaptor’s take would do violence to the work. Unfortunately, my anxieties were well-founded.

The play begins with the sound of bleating sheep. Job, played by the mellifluously deep-voiced Sean McIntyre, passing judgment on malefactors, as would be his right and duty as a patriarch of the ancient Near East. A poor thief is pardoned because of his need, and given ample food for his family – then warned not to sin again, lest his hands be cut off. A mourning woman who has rejected her dead husband’s brother’s suit of marriage because she is still grieving is welcomed into the house – she defies custom for a noble reason, and so is not punished. A rapist (Bradley Anderson) who attempts to pin the blame on Job’s own son, Joshua (Jaspal Binning), is sentenced to death by stoning, the wronged girl’s father granted the honor of casting the first stone. Through all this, Job is sober, serious, eager to be merciful but unflinching in his doom when mercy would add to injustice; his sons, wife, daughter, and the rest of his household are deeply respectful of his judgment.

From here, we move to heaven, for the famous bet. In this cosmology, God (the impish Ugo Chukwu) and Satan (Stephen Stout, a dead ringer in looks and affect for Bill Hader) are brothers – affectionate in their sibling rivalry – and God has two sons, Jesus (a charmingly vain Grant Harrison) and, of all beings, Dionysus (a dim-witted Eric Folks), whose rivalry is less affectionate, but that’s just because they need another couple of thousand more years to grow up. The contrast between the playfulness, and the lack of concern with justice, evident in heaven, and Job’s deeply serious attitude toward life, is striking and intentional.

The bet is made. Satan goes down to earth to take away God’s favor from Job. And here’s where the first big divergence from the text takes place. Because, in the biblical text, catastrophe comes on Job from outside – his flocks are wiped out by fire or marauders, his house knocked down by a great wind, crushing his family, and so forth. But in this play, the horror comes from within. Satan, staring mildly at Joshua, watches him turn from an obedient son to a man possessed by a drunken lust for his own sister, who he proceeds to murder, and then rape (both about as graphically as possible). He’s caught in the act by his brother, Matthew, who, in turn, takes his vengeance by shoving a broken staff up his brother’s anus – “how do you like it?” – and slitting his brother’s throat, then running off into the fields to take his own life. Thus does Job lose his family.

His wife, unable to accept that Job considers God just, concluding that Job must be a moral idiot to think his kids deserved to die this way, spits in his face and leaves him. Left alone, Job is prey for the men on whom he perpetrated his justice in his earlier life. A thief whom Job once punished by cutting off his hand returns, with his son, to gouge out Job’s eyes and castrate him (again, graphically), finally shoving him to the ground and taking his chair and staff.

This divergence is more than trivial. The author’s intention, I suspect, was to make the horror more visceral – infuse what he saw as an overly-decorous biblical text with the rawness of Greek tragedy, an unquenchable human thirst for incest and murder. Or perhaps he feared that a modern audience couldn’t imagine blaming God for a fire or an earthquake – we know that natural evil is, you know, natural. I also suspect Bradshaw wanted to complicate the idea of justice itself, to suggest – by means of the men who take revenge on Job – that what looks like justice to the powerful looks more like oppression to the powerless.

But the changes suggest, very strongly, that Job is, indeed, at fault for his terrible condition. His wealth, his sight, his manhood are taken not by strangers but by men who think he wronged them. His children are destroyed not by strangers but by each other – and where does Joshua’s terrible impulse come from? Satan? Well, that raises other rather large theological problems, doesn’t it? And if from himself, then what does that say about the health of Job’s house, if he was completely unaware of what terrible evil was growing inside his son?

It is precisely because the biblical Job’s afflictions so plainly come from God that he can plausibly ask, why me? But how could anyone, faced with such horrors sprung from himself, not blame himself first? Job’s laments – which are taken from the biblical text – are movingly cried by Mr. McIntyre, but the story by then has ceased to make psychological sense.

In the biblical text, Job’s comforters tell him to search himself for his sin, and he retorts that he can find none, which shocks them – and convinces them that this very arrogance is his sin. In the play, Job’s comforters are more bored with his whining than shocked at his “blasphemy” (of course, Job never does blaspheme – he never calls God unjust, merely demanding an explanation that he can understand of how such treatment is just).

And God feels much the same. Up in heaven, Satan (who has dropped out of the biblical text by this point) readily admits he lost the bet, and God, praising him for being big enough to admit it, demands no payment. The whole thing has very much the whiff of the bet between the Dukes. And then God puts on an intentionally silly black robe and white mask, and descends to speak to Job out of the whirlwind. The speech is also taken from the biblical text, with particular emphasis on the sheer preponderance of God’s power to humble anyone. (This God spends negligible time on the extensive passages rhapsodizing His creation.)

In any event, Job repents, and, God gives him everything back, including his sight and his manhood (no such miracles take place in the biblical text), and we see Job newly enthroned in wealth and righteousness. Except for the righteousness part. This post-theophany Job has an eye for comely ladies, and fairly delights in dealing out punishments to malefactors, shrugging, “it’s God’s will” before chopping off the hands of the very thief had earlier pardoned.

What are we to make of this?

The obvious message is that God is a tyrant interested only in the scent of sacrifices (Chukwu’s God does a little victory dance every time someone kills a sheep or goat for Him, just as Satan does a little victory dance every time someone kills or otherwise wrongs a man), who crushes Job for questioning him and rewards him when he toadies properly. And Job gets the message, becoming a cruel and capricious tyrant himself in turn.

This isn’t a crazy read of reality. We may, indeed, be governed by a capricious tyrant – who can say? And people – indeed, whole nations – convinced they have been wronged, have set out to emulate those who wronged them, whether it’s their fathers or their social superiors or their historic enemies.

But on the whole it’s a pretty shallow reading of the book. The danger is that what’s intended as a progressive attack on a biblical text Bradshaw sees as advocating a kind of spiritual fascism – by showing just how ugly such a vision is – winds up endorsing that very thing. God is God. If you say, “God is a tyrant only interested in approval and obedience,” then you’re saying that is the essential nature of the universe. And you can’t rebel against reality itself, except the way Job’s wife (in the biblical text, not the play) suggests: curse God and die (that is to say: commit suicide, and leave this evil world behind entirely). If you’re not going to do that, then you might as well internalize the logic of the system, to your own profit.

Which is precisely what Bradshaw’s Job does.

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Music of the Spoken Word

I just got back from experiencing Elevator Repair Service’s Shuffle at the Brooklyn Public Library (part of the Brooklyn Beats festival), and all I can say is: boy, I wish Alan Jacobs had been there with me. Either he’d have loved it or he’d have explained to me why I should hate it.

I had seen one ERS production before, their tour-de-force show, GATZ, an eight-hour (including a dinner break) marathon “reading” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What was most powerful about that show, beyond the power of the book itself, was the way in which it enacted not so much the book itself as the significance of the experience of reading, and reading a book far from our own experience.

To digress for a moment (since I never reviewed GATZ), that show was set in a grubby basement office of some low-rent business, where male and female office grunts go about their dreary daily lives. This particular morning, the computers aren’t working, and so one employee decides, rather than simply wait for the opportunity to work, he’ll start reading The Great Gatsby, which happens to be in his filofax. Only, he reads it out loud. And, bit by bit, the rest of the cast gets drawn into the action, taking on one part after another in the drama.

The thing is, they don’t exactly wind up playing these parts, because they remain themselves – grubby office workers. And the correspondences between their “office” personalities and their “Gatsby” personalities are complex. Tom, for example, is played not by a to-the-manner-born pompous rich guy – there is none such in this underground outfit – but by a blue-collar type. And yet, the identification sticks – we feel this guy thinks he understands Tom, thinks Tom is his kind of guy – a man of sense and a man of hungers – a real man, like himself. Gatsby is played by a tall, huge-headed fellow who, for the first chunk of the book, seems simply annoyed that the rest of the office is caught up in this Gatsby nonsense, and then suddenly, at the right moment, he enters into the fantasy, and when he finally reveals who he is -

“This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there—-” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.” For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

“I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.

- it’s a real coup de theatre. Of course he’s Gatsby. Of course there’s a whole other dimension to this physically imposing and kind of scary fellow who keeps himself aloof from the rest of the office. He’s got a whole new universe a-borning under that dome of a head of his. He’s Gatsby!

This dynamic powers the show, which was, for me anyway, not so much about the book as about why we read a book like that, how we, who are so little like the East and West Egg sets on the surface, internalize these characters and make them into ourselves (rather as Gatsby remade himself). You could play the same game with Madame Bovary or Don Quixote or Pride or any other book that speaks deeply to us even across an apparently unbridgeable gap in terms of social context.

Well, they did, but the two books they picked were The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury. I haven’t seen those two ERS shows, but they – with GATZ – form the essential precursors to Shuffle. Because what they’ve done with Shuffle is take these three  prior shows and hand them over to William S. Burroughs to have a go with his scissors, and then attempt to “stage” the results.

I mean that pretty literally. They’ve chopped up these three novels, put the various lines – dialogue, description, whatever – into a computer program which spits them out in a not-exactly-random-but-not-exactly-sensible order, assigning them fairly randomly to different actors, who then run around the library clutching books with embedded smart phones, attempting to “act” these bits of prose as soon as the computer spits them out to them – playing them to each other, to the audience, to the books in the library; whatever’s to hand.

Some of the results were quite poetic. There were a series of catechistic bits – repeated “whys” answered with “because” phrases, repeated “whos” answered with a variety of names – that were reminiscent of the catechistic chapter late in Ulysses. Sometimes an actor would just wander off, describing a woman, or a man, from a collection of descriptions culled from dozens of characters across the three books – calling out different members of the audience around to fit (sensibly or ironically). Other bits were dramatic. Sometimes two actors would turn their apparently nonsensical dialogue into a fierce argument, or an entire group would erupt in mutual frustration. Or, sometimes, what you got was pure comic nonsense, as when the computer sped up the “dialogue” between two women at a laptop who frantically grabbed one book after another to signify “reading” their line, making it completely impossible to actually hear anything, or do anything but giggle at the Lucille Ball-esque absurdity of this mode of “acting.”

But that last was not the dominant mode of the evening; most of the time, you could hear the lines, and there was a real attempt to “play” them, somehow. The effect was radically different from GATZ, because there was no sense, any longer, that we were dealing with distinct characters. Rather, all that was left was the cadence of language, radically divorced from its original context, and what kind of mood that language could produce, all by itself, in the actor and in the audience. And, strangely, it continued to work, in a fashion. It worked best when I recognized it – which, having seen GATZ within the last few months, I was much better able to do with the Fitzgerald than with the Faulkner or the Hemmingway. (That is to say: I could often – though not always – tell who the author of a particular line was, but with the Fitzgerald I frequently had some idea where in the book the line was from, and the original context, which was not the case with the others.) When the line was familiar, I had the sensation you get when you make or get a literary reference – the distinct pleasure of repurposing language and thereby making yourself the author of the Quixote. When I didn’t recognize any context, I was left only with the music of the language which harmonized surprisingly well between these quite different authors.

Shuffle is more of a stunt than an enduring work of art, but it’s a cool stunt, that hopefully will lead to further, more serious experiments. Because we need such experiments. This theatre company is well named, because our elevators – what bring us up, through text and live performance and the interaction between the two – are in need of repair. And anything that startles us into a recognition of how inevitably penetrated we are by language – and how pleasurable is that recognition when the language is good – brings us up, if just to a slightly higher floor.

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Master and Commander on the Far Side of the Galaxy

The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company

I still can’t make up my mind what to think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, which I saw last night. Not that I’m not sure it was a great film – I know what I think of it. I’m just not sure what I think about it.

First things first: yes, I saw it in 70mm. Film snobs everywhere are arguing about whether this choice was brilliant or pointless, but from my perspective the significance of the choice was simply that it made it possible for the film to be really big. And there’s something about monumentality in and of itself. Vir Heroicus Sublimis really doesn’t look like much at all, unless you’re up close and personal. See? So, similarly, a close-up of Joaquin Phoenix’s curled lip is one thing, but when his face is the size of Jefferson’s on Mount Rushmore, a curl of the lip feels like it heralds the collapse of civilization.

On the other hand, precisely because of the impact of sheer scale, I’m second-guessing my initial awed reaction. How much of that was a reaction to the movie as a movie, as opposed to the experience of it as an overwhelming fact?

On yet a third hand, maybe experiencing an overwhelming fact has the right to be, you know, overwhelming. And this movie is chock full of overwhelming experience, overwhelming images and overwhelming performances.

But let me backtrack a bit. What is this movie about?

Well, that’s a good question. Ostensibly, it’s about a kind of therapy cult loosely modeled on the early years of Scientology. A man, Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), suffering from shell-shock layered on top of a more deeply disordered personality, bounces from one job to another amid the abundance of late-40s America. Fleeing his latest disastrous human encounter, he stows away on board a ship in San Francisco where a party is going on, only to discover, the next morning, that the ship is skippered by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher” and, incidentally, the founder of a novel form of therapy, known as “The Cause” (the movie’s counterpart to Dianetics). Dodd takes an instant shine to Freddy, and so begins Freddy’s journey into the inner circle of the cult, and into a movingly affectionate relationship with Dodd.

But Anderson doesn’t really have any interest in cults, what leads someone to found one, or join one, and has even less interest in Scientology specifically. You would expect that a movie about a cult would show the titular Master to have a profound psychological hold on his followers, but this is not the case in “The Master.” Virtually every member of the cult, from the socialite who lends Dodd the boat, to another socialite from Philadelphia who is puzzled by changes introduced in “book two” of Dodd’s works, to Dodd’s son, who believes his father is making everything up, to another follower who declares that “book two” stinks, and should have been a pamphlet – virtually everybody involved in “The Cause” seems to be perfectly lucid and, moreover, perfectly willing to be critical of Dodd, at least out of his earshot. Not very cult-like.

Moreover, the principal character of the movie is so deeply strange, so “aberrated” in Dodd’s words, that we think, at first, what we’re going to see is one man’s search for a cure for his intolerable condition. This could certainly make for an interesting movie. Quell is an alcoholic, like his father. His mother’s a schizophrenic. He’s addicted to “potions” made from antifreeze and photographic chemicals and God-knows what else (Dodd’s initial bond with Quell is based on enthusiasm for those potions). He’s disturbed sexually, seeing genitalia in a series of Rorschach blots, confessing to Dodd that he had sexual intercourse repeatedly with his aunt, having simulated intercourse with a sand woman he creates at the beach and (in one of the most striking visual sequences of the film), stripping the clothes from all the women at a party in his mind’s eye, turning the scene into a kind of cocktail party sur l’herbe. And yet he’s plainly terrified of actual sexual encounter. So he’s got “issues,” as they say, and this could be a movie about how he overcomes them.

But, of course, Anderson doesn’t believe for an instant that a crackpot system like “The Cause” could possibly provide such a cure. And the various forms of “processing” that Dodd puts Quell through don’t obviously improve his condition at all. So . . . what then?

The movie came together, for me, in a scene, somewhere in the middle, when Dodd and Quell are placed in adjoining cells in a Philadelphia jail, Dodd for embezzling funds from a rich socialite’s charity, Quell for scuffling with the cops when they came to arrest Dodd. The screen is split down the middle by the bars between their respective cells. Hoffman stands on his side, his hand resting with an almost Mannerist delicacy, observing as Phoenix erupts in furious rage, smashing his head and shoulders on the underside of the upper bunk, pulverizing the latrine with blows from his foot, shredding his shirt and the legs of his pants and writhing like a panther in a straight jacket.

And then Dodd says something like, “this fear of being confined has been with you for millions of years; it was implanted in you by an invading force” – and Quell interrupts, cursing, accusing Dodd of making it all up, and the two men commence cursing at each other. Quell throws in Dodd’s face that his son has no respect for him; Dodd retorts that nobody likes Quell, nobody at all, “except me. I’m the only one who likes you.” And, though he goes on to say, “and I’m done with you,” they both begin to calm down, and the next time we see them together, free, they are rolling on the lawn, laughing in each other’s arms, like father and son.

That bond between surrogate fathers and sons has been Anderson’s principal emotional interest since “Boogie Nights,” and the shared loneliness of these two men is the powerful core of the film. And this film would have been a strong one if it was just about that bond, and how it warps their relationships with everybody else. That’s the movie that Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife, Peggy, is in. She is powerfully jealous of Quell and her husband’s love for him, which is obviously deeper than his love for her, and his need for him, which is a warmer thing. Peggy is the kind of strong woman they say is behind every great man, who believes in her husband more than he does and hates his enemies more than he does, but Adams gives us a very clear idea of just what a horrible job that is to have in a marriage, and just how ugly is Dodd’s need for her, a need for her to be exactly this ugly person that he can then dismiss as too extreme, not enlightened as he is. Right after the nude party of Quell’s fantasy (and, by the way, Adams’s facial expression in that one scene deserves an Oscar all of its own), Adams gets a scene alone with Hoffman, at the sink in their bathroom, when she shows him just who is the real “Master” here, in the most fundamental and brutal way a woman can, but the move smacks of desperation, not a certainty of her position.

But the movie as a whole is not, ultimately, about a relationship triangle, which is why the prison scene, in which Adams is absent, struck me so forcefully. What struck me, suddenly, was a reading of these two men as two sides of a disordered being, the same being.

Dodd’s mantra is that it is “not only possible, it is easy to eliminate all negative emotions.” We are not animals – we are spirit beings, inhabiting these mortal vessels for a short time. Quell, on the other hand, is a “poor animal,” as Dodd calls him, repeatedly. It’s not just that Quell doesn’t have any control over his emotions, or his sexual urges, or his very body; he shows no signs of having an interiority, a mind, at all. A soul he has, plainly; he feels a great deal, and deeply when he does. But he has no intentions, no real awareness of what he is doing even as he does it. From Dodd’s perspective, Quell is Caliban to his Prospero.

Quell’s “abberation” is obvious, to himself as well as to Dodd, but the nature of Dodd’s aberration only became clear to me in that prison scene. Dodd, precisely because he has lost touch with what Quell is so closely – too closely – connected to, his own embodiedness, has convinced himself that he is truly unconfined, the king of infinite space. And, as such, he cannot abide the existence of other minds, because they remind him of the confinement (what he asserts Quell is so afraid of) of his his own.

Dodd needs Quell, misses him when he is gone, cannot let go of him even though he is an obvious danger to “The Cause.” There’s a marvelous family dinner scene where wife, daughter and son-in-law all call for Quell to be banished, insinuating that he’s working for “some other agency,” accusing him of their own lusts, and pointing out, correctly, his penchant for violence, and asking whether, perhaps, he isn’t beyond help. But of course he’s beyond help. Dodd loves him because he is his missing piece, and because he is the only being, because he is mindless, who will never be a threat to him. And yet, if he cannot be Quell’s master, he will, he promises, be his mortal enemy in the next life, and show him no mercy.

The movie is set in 1950, at a moment of exceptional disconnect between mind and body in American culture, when mechanistic models of the mind became popular and “well-adjusted” was the way we described the mentally healthy. Anderson is saying something about that disconnect, about the madness and tyranny of the disembodied mind, and the loneliness of the body that cannot know itself. If I’m right that Quell and Dodd are, like Jekyll and Hyde, different sides of the same cultural personality, then the whole point of bringing Scientology into it isn’t to explain cults but to expose the cult-like nature of our own efforts at self-mastery, at least in our own crazy culture.

The movie ends, surprisingly, on a gentle note. This Prospero, unlike Shakespeare’s, does not drown his book, but publishes a sequel (bizarrely dug up in the Arizona desert). And this Caliban doesn’t curse his master for learning him his language, but puts that language to good use – the only use this or that Caliban really cares for: getting laid. The movie ends with Quell picking up a girl at a pub in England, and turning one of Dodd’s “processing” scripts – “you must answer these questions immediately, without blinking” – into a kind of teasing while they are having sex. Something has finally been mastered, but whether it is Dodd or Quell, or the language of self-mastery itself, I couldn’t say.

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All In The Family: A Movie List For Eve Tushnet

Eve Tushnet asks an interesting question:

I can think of several relatively recent really good movies which explore the suffering and shattering of identity caused by divorce (The Squid and the Whale) or adultery (Eyes Wide ShutThe Secret Lives of Dentists). But even in these movies, if I’m remembering them correctly, the couple or at best the nuclear family exists in a world of its own. That’s not a criticism–the claustrophobic or fever-dream nature of all three of those movies is part of their impact. But the role of friends and the broader society in creating and sustaining a marriage isn’t really portrayed. I’d be interested if any of you all can recommend recent, not-awful movies in which that role is explored. It doesn’t have to be an entirely positive view of society’s involvement in marriage–I think A Separation would count–just a view in which it’s not taken for granted that families or individuals are isolated in their time of crisis.

This is something I mentioned in my discussion of Sarah Polley’s film, “Take This Waltz.” It’s notable in that film that the Michelle Williams character – who leaves her husband – has no “people” of her own, while her husband, the Seth Rogan character, is surrounded by family and friends. Indeed, so far as we can tell, the Williams charter’s only friend is the Rogan character’s sister. In my view, this choice was dramatically necessary, because if the Williams character had told anyone that she was leaving her husband for a rickshaw driver, they would have tied her to a chair to stop her. But it did make for a suggestive contrast, the fact that the one who has no “people” flees the only “people” she has – her husband.

Anyway, it’s a good question, and I wonder whether movies aren’t the ideal medium for exploring this territory. Most movies are single-protagonist quest narratives of one sort or another. Not all, but most. And narratives like that don’t lend themselves to exploring the network of society’s fibers. A movie is more likely to pit a protagonist against society. There’s also the question of time scale. Most movies play out over a relatively short span of time. (Though, obviously, there are exceptions.) Exploring how a network of friends and family support – or pull apart – a marriage sounds like it would require a longer span to do right.

The first recent work of art that came to my mind that directly addresses Tushnet’s question is Donald Margulies’s excellent play, Dinner With Friends. It was made into a movie for television, but I haven’t seen it, and I hear it isn’t very good. But the play is a marvelous and complex exploration of the interaction between friendship and marriage.

A recent movie that comes to mind is Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” though I don’t know that that movie is about how the penumbra of friends and family affect this marriage so much as how this marriage manages largely to avoid being affected by the emotional storms that rage in that penumbra. That’s its weakness as a film – it comes off as smug, because a happy family surrounded by unhappy people inevitably comes off as smug. But it definitely is a “family and community” film.

In a very different way, The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” is also about a marriage embedded in a community. I paired it with “Tree of Life” because of the Job connection (got to get back to that pairing thing, by the way), but I could also have paired it with “The Godfather, Part II” for the family-community thing. The movie is a satire, but among the things its satirizing is precisely what Tushnet is interested in exploring.

The Last Station” is supposedly about Tolstoy, man and phenomenon, but his ideas are treated so superficially by the movie that what it winds up being is a portrait of a marriage more than anything else. And the tensions that tear it apart have everything to do with the conflict between the husband’s extra-familial identity and his role within the family. The Tolstoyan “community” isn’t exactly what Tushnet is talking about, but I still think it squeezes in.

How about “Rachel Getting Married“? A movie that depicts a whole series of successfully healing marriages that nonetheless cannot heal the original nuclear family – indeed, that pull that family ever further apart, and away from the trauma that original broke it. A lot of people didn’t like this film, but I thought it was very powerful – and part of what made it powerful is that “family” is on both sides of the equation. It’s what provides comfort and solace to Rachel’s sister, mother and father. But what they are getting comfort and solace from is the pain that Rachel caused them – and she is also, inescapably, part of the family, even though the proliferation of families contributes to her progressive isolation.

Then there’s that book that begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s not out yet, so I don’t know whether the new movie version is any good. (The casting and director leave me skeptical.) But it certainly fits Tushnet’s bill.

And of course there’s the screenplay I’m currently marketing. Know any producers, Eve?

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Shakespeare or Batman?

Anyone who reads this blog, and hasn’t seen this quiz, well, now you have.

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A Timeless Triptych: Harrison, TX

In college, I harbored ambitions to be a playwright, and took a variety of courses to that end. (On the side of course. I majored in something I thought was more practical. History. “Practical” wasn’t a word I entirely understood.) One of those courses was called, “Dramatic Texts and Versions of the Theatre.”

The catalog title was tantalizing. Would we be going on a roller coaster ride through the Theater of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, the Theatre of the Oppressed, and so forth? Or would we do a multicultural version of a theatrical Grand Tour, taking in Noh and Ta’zieh, along with the Western tradition from Aeschylus to Punch and Judy.

Instead, we read nine plays by Horton Foote.

I was bored out of my mind. Which just goes to show what an obnoxious little twerp I was.

Foote’s writing is frequently described as decorous, and indeed he depicts a society in which decorum is a prime value. But this is not, I think, what makes Foote or his characters distinctive. What distinguishes them is not their decorum, but their directness. These are characters – over and over again – who actually, in spite of or perhaps because of the conversational strictures of their world, say what they actually feel.

Horton Foote’s theatre might well be described as Theatre of the Direct, and as misdirection and its unraveling is the readiest way to apply a restless intelligence, one thing bright young snots like I was can’t appreciate is simplicity and directness. But grew into that appreciation with time. Foote is the anti-Mament, whose work appears to be blunt on the surface, filled with foul-mouthed in-your-face confrontation, but is all about misdirection and self-delusion, speech designed to hide its true aims from the hearer, even from the speaker, sometimes even from the writer of the speech.

That simple directness is a characteristic of all of Foote’s work, and it is a primary reason to seek him out. And those who would do so can find three short works of his on stage for one more week,  at 59E59, a cycle of one-act plays all set in the town that gives the production its name, Harrison, TX.

The three plays are not linked, except by the town in which they take place. The first is a light comedy of manners, set in 1928. Dolores (Hallie Foote, the author’s daughter) is at her wits end trying to set her antisocial niece, Sarah Nancy (Andrea Lynn Green) up with a boy. Any boy. She has arranged a blind date (Blind Date is the title of the piece) between Sarah Nancy and a young man, Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), the son of a childhood friend and a perfectly suitable match – he used to play football, he sells insurance, he can recite the names of all the books of the bible in under a minute. Sarah Nancy, needless to say, won’t play along, and much of the comedy comes from Dolores’s increasingly desperate interventions to save the hopeless date.

The play is slight, but what it’s about, it seemed to me, is the evolving relations between the sexes. Sarah Nancy isn’t shy and damaged like Laura in The Glass Menagerie. She’s just sullen and blunt. Dolores stands for graciousness, a particularly female virtue in this play, as her husband, Robert (Devon Abner), prefers to be honest, even to bluntness. If he’s hungry, he says so. If he thinks somebody can’t sing, he says so. He’s polite enough not to say it flat out to a stranger’s face, but he isn’t going to fault Sarah Nancy for doing so, for telling the simple truth. Sarah Nancy is going to have to figure out how to get on in the world without telling gracious white lies all the time – she’ll have to learn to hold her tongue, at a minimum, which she does by the end of the play – but we get the sense that she, rather than Dolores, is more typical of the future aborning, for better or worse.

The second play, far more sharply dramatic, revolves around a complacent manager of a cotton mill, C. W. Rowe (Jeremy Bobb). A man has come to see him, a man who has come before, many times, and Rowe is sick of it. He tells his bookkeeper, Pinkey (Mr. Abner again) to get rid of him, and gives him five dollars to make him go away. In the course of conversation, it comes out that Pinkey is in debt, which Rowe can’t fathom, and he proceeds to lecture Pinkey on thrift and proper husbandry, a lecture to which Pinkey submits meekly.

But the man in the vestibule won’t go away, and Rowe finally lets him in. It’s a former employee, McHenry (Alexander Cendese), who lost an arm working Rowe’s machinery, who’s come for his arm back – and when Rowe won’t give it to him, he pulls a gun on him. Rowe offers him more money, a new job, anything, but McHenry, like Inigo Montoye, wants something he can never have back – in his case, his arm. (The play is called, The One-Armed Man.) And nothing McHenry can say, not even his half-remembered prayers, can save him.

Listening to Rowe, I felt like I was still in Tampa at the Republican National Convention. But this isn’t a Clifford Odets play. The point isn’t that Rowe is a bad guy, who treated McHenry unjustly. The point is that you can be completely direct, completely clear, and there are some things you just can’t get, and can’t reconcile yourself to not getting.

That theme carries over into the last, most complex play of the evening, The Midnight Caller. The setting is a boarding house for spinsters, one, Alma Jean (Mary Bacon) self-satisfiedly so, another, Miss Rowena (Jayne Houdyshell), unhappily resigned to being so, and the last, “Cutie” (Ms. Lynn Green again) quietly desperate not to remain so. They form the chorus, by turns catty, consolatory and covetous, to the drama initiated by the arrival of two new boarders: Mr. Ralph Johnston (Mr. Bobb again), a divorcee from out of town, and Helen Crews (Jenny Dare Paulin), a woman with a “history” as they say, who’s fled her mother’s house after a final row.

Needless to say, Helen and Mr. Johnston wind up an item. But Helen’s past hasn’t gone away. Her old beau, Harvey Weems (Mr. Cendese again), can’t accept that she’s given him up (because of his mother’s opposition, and because he returned to the bottle), and he comes around, every night around midnight, to wail Helen’s name. Harvey’s finally locked up for his own good (he tries to hang himself when he finally gets that Helen has moved on), and Helen and Mr. Johnston leave for Houston to be married, but even this doesn’t silence his voice, which can be heard, faintly, all the way from the town jail as the play closes.

This last play is set in 1952, a quarter century later than the first two plays, though written a quarter century earlier (it was written only a few years after the setting, while the first two one-acts were written in the 1980s). And it feels like a younger man’s play, less-focused and with more business. But because of its placement in this production, it reads as a depiction of how the society depicted in the first two acts has evolved. The settled world of arranged dates with gentleman callers and an unshatterable workplace hierarchy has become more fluid. But men still will ask for, cry for, demand at the point of death the thing they’ve lost, and still don’t get it.

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Giants In The Park: The Delacorte Theatre Production of Into the Woods

I run hot and cold on Sondheim. His wit, both lyrically and musically, exceeds pretty much any practitioner of his art living. But his pretty much bottomless misanthropy makes it very difficult for him to tell effective stories. He does best, in my view, when his material forces him onto a clear narrative track. Thus my two favorites among his musicals are Sweeney Todd, where he found a story that suited his comprehensively bitter view of human nature, and A Little Night Music, where Bergman’s sunniest film forced him into a lighter mode.

Into The Woods, I’ve always felt, is an egregious example of the frequent Sondheim problem of a story that falls apart into general bickering followed by therapy. In other hands, the premise – a bunch of fairy-tale characters, having reached their ever-afters, discover that ever-after isn’t all that, and have to find their own way to true happiness – could work charmingly well, and in other hands it did. But in Sondheim’s hands, what you get is a charming setup that does a very good job of simply telling four fairy tales – “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” – intertwined with a story about a Baker and his Wife who want a child and can’t have one unless they placate the witch who has put a curse on them. And then, in the second half, the widow of the giant Jack killed comes down, like Grendel’s mother, seeking revenge for the death of her husband, and begins squashing people, and the surviving characters cry and point fingers at each other and wonder whether their narratives have any purpose anymore for an hour, before deciding that, yes, they’ll kill the giant and then, well, figure out what the remaining purpose of their narrative is. Basically, the second half of the show is a single joke: what if a bunch of fairy tale characters started acting like characters out of Company? This, great drama does not make.

The current production at the Delacorte – running for a few more days – deals with this problem by making the fairy tale characters relatively “real” from the beginning rather than stock archetypes. This is partly done through costuming – Red Riding Hood wears a red bike helmet, for example – and partly through characterization. These sometimes go in conflicting directions. The Baker, for example (Denis O’Hare, whose performance I found perplexingly inert) seems to take all the fairy tale stuff going on around him as patently absurd – “oh, look – a cow as white as milk” he says with mock-incredulity on meeting Jack, while the Witch is portrayed with fury and pain (and great vocal power) by Donna Murphy. Though their approaches don’t mesh well, they are both trying, I believe, to invest their characters with reality, to make sure they were, from the beginning, more than mere fairy tale characters.

This pays dividends in the first half, but it creates problems in the second, as the single joke of the show no longer works, and so we have nothing to distract us from the characters’ dithering. The transformation of the Giant’s Wife (voiced juicily by Glenn Close) into a physical presence on stage – a quite terrifying giant puppet reminiscent of the mother from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – has a powerful initial emotional impact, but this is undermined by the jokey quality of her dialogue. And it actually makes the dithering even more absurd. We see the giant. She sees them. What’s all the business about giving her another character about?

The other major alteration of this production was a significant improvement, but one with real costs in terms of continuity. A frame story is established in which a Boy (Jack Broderick the night I saw it) has run away from home after a fight with his (single) father. He holes up in the woods and, to amuse himself, begins telling himself fairy tales, using toys as props. The Boy thus becomes the Narrator of the story. This conceit pays off massively at the end, as the boy reappears at the end of the play, and is found by his father – who turns out to be the Baker, a single and very anxious father ever since his Wife was squashed by the Giant’s Wife. Their reunion, which plays out under “Children Will Listen” in the Act II Finale, brought tears to my eyes.

But it doesn’t make much sense, continuity-wise, as the Narrator was fed to the Giant’s Wife earlier in Act II, and killed.

Of course, if the whole thing – or, rather, all of Act II is a dream of the Boy, then continuity doesn’t matter. Indeed, if it’s all his dream, then the Giant’s Wife becomes the return of the dead mother, a terrifying female death. Which is pretty cool. But when you dream your own death, you usually wake up, and anyway why is the kid dreaming all of these grownups whining about their problems?

I suggested to my companion at the show that a better solution would have been for the Giant’s Wife to eat the Boy, and for him to emerge from her belly when she is killed. Then the adults wandering about aimlessly become a consequence of his death – the loss of their future – and the death of the Giant’s Wife is plainly about killing the ghost of his own mother, and thereby returning to life. But I still don’t think it would exactly work – the fact is, the second half of the show just doesn’t work that well for me.

There were things I enjoyed, though. The kids’ playground set – particularly the creation of the beanstalk from green childrens’ umbrellas. Sarah Stiles’ delightful characterization as Little Red Ridinghood, and Chip Zien’s as the Mysterious Man. The weakest links in the production performance-wise were, unfortunately, Gideon Glick’s vocally inadequate Jack and both the Baker and his wife (Amy Adams), who had little chemistry and didn’t seem integrated generally into the rest of the production.

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Which Is To Be Master

This is probably getting too inside-baseball about a theatre festival that most readers aren’t going to attend, but bear with me (and perhaps if you read enough of my stuff, you’ll feel like you did attend). Kelly Nestruck has a piece in Toronto’s Globe and Mail about the transition between the McAnuff and Cimolino administrations that’s worth reading, but I wanted to focus on one paragraph that frames the debate between a supposedly inventive re-interpreter of Shakespeare (McAnuff) and a supposed traditionalist (Cimolino):

[T]he debate over McAnuff’s merits as a classical director is a flashpoint in a larger artistic argument that has been raging in the Anglosphere since the actor-manager model of putting on plays disappeared after the Second World War: Who is more important to the vision of a production – the director or the playwright? Should theatre’s primary allegiance lie with authors or, as in the film world, auteurs?

I want to resist this framing. The master is neither the word nor the image, neither the intentions of the playwright nor the innovations of the director. The master is the story, understood as the revelation of character through action, and everything else – both words and images – must serve that.

The wonderful thing about live theatre is that no production is definitive – as soon as tomorrow, an different approach to a text can give us an entirely new story. And the wonderful thing about the classics is that they are not going anywhere – Shakespeare and Chekhov and Brecht and Ibsen and O’Neill and so forth are strong enough to survive any ill-conceived interpretation. Not in an individual production, necessarily, but to fight another day in the next production. So the “cost” of experiment is borne primarily by the theatrical company itself. And for that reason, I think the right response to the question, “how should Shakespeare (or other classics) be directed?” is Nestruck’s: “lots of different ways.”

The real question is how an individual director should approach a text – how, given where their native strengths lie, they can best tell a story with the play. I’m not always convinced that even the directors themselves always realize where those strengths lie, and I’ll give a couple of examples with respect to the directors that Nestruck is writing about, the outgoing and incoming Artistic Directors at Stratford.

McAnuff is often noted as a director who uses his actors as props, part of a visual scene that he’s constructing. But on the strength of half a dozen Shakespeare productions I’ve seen him direct, I’m not convinced that this is where his strength actually lies. My two favorite classical productions of his tenure, his 2010 As You Like It and his 2011 Twelfth Night, were visually stuffed with a myriad clashing conceits. But that didn’t bother me. First of all, these are comedies, and you can effectively approach a comedy as a grab-bag of comic moments and find visual counterparts to them. I didn’t mind the flying refrigerator in Twelfth Night, and I thought the costumes made perfect sense because the world McAnuff set the play in was, basically, the world of rock, and the costumes looked like nothing so much as the sorts of things the Beatles might have played with wearing in their last couple of years as a band. And, indeed, while many critics noticed McAnuff’s visual tricks, what struck me as much more important was auditory, specifically: the use of music. McAnuff turned Twelfth Night into a rock musical, and, moreover, made music a central metaphor for the zaniness of love that is the play’s center, which is right out of the first speech of the play:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Most important, though, the production made emotional sense. The key decision McAnuff made wasn’t to have a flying refrigerator, but to have Feste be another man (along with Malvolio and Duke Orsino) in love with Olivia. This interpretation significantly shapes the play, recenters it on Olivia (where frequently it focuses on Viola), lends weight to Feste’s songs and illuminates the visual concept as well (since Feste is the spirit of music in this production).

In other words, McAnuff knew what story he wanted to tell, and while not every detail was part of telling that story (I could have done without the tennis court and the golf game), the most important of them were – and that story was strong, specific and compelling.

By contrast, this year’s Henry V is much more visually coherent. And there are some striking moments of pageantry (particularly the march of sails across the channel). But I found myself unmoved by it, because it wasn’t, primarily, telling a human story. I could see what McAnuff was trying to say about the play – that this is a patriotic pageant on the surface, but that under the surface there are compromising details – but first, that’s not a very interesting or original thing to say, and second, it’s not a story. Nestruck talks about quietly effective moments, and there were some – I thought Aaron Krohn made an interesting and persuasive Henry. But I didn’t think the production framed and supported those moments; I thought, too often, that it crushed them, because it wasn’t, fundamentally, telling a story through them.

I had a long conversation with another director about the play, trying to get a handle on my frustration with this production, and he said something very interesting to me. You have to take the chorus literally. What the chorus says is: there is no way we can possibly show you the battle of Agincourt. It’s impossible. So what are we going to do? We’re going to have to ask you to use your own imaginations. When we talk of horses, you, the audience, have to think you see them. That’s really the opposite of McAnuff’s approach to this play, which I think explains a portion of how it went wrong for me.

Now, that approach sounds like it means “just do the text – paint a picture with words.” And yes, painting with words is a lot of what goes on in Henry V (which makes it all the more unfortunate that McAnuff underscores his play so heavily – sometimes you can’t hear the poetry, and always the emotions are flattened by the overt signaling of the underscoring). But it can’t mean just that – it’s not a radio play. So the challenge for a director is to awake that imagination – not to show the audience Agincourt, but to make the audience think it sees it. And that will require visual cues – things actors do, potentially with props, that trigger visual hallucinations on the part of the audience.

Now: Cimolino. Given that present as someone who cares first and foremost about the text, I find it striking that one of my favorite productions that he directed was last year’s Grapes of Wrath, and substantially because of the visual style of that production. (By contrast, the use of music for transitions was at best innocuous and at worst distracting.) The visual style was spare – the backdrop consisted of a wash of sunset color – but that starkness was precisely what made it so effective. The few elements – the jalopy that brings the family from Oklahoma to California, the river they swim in on the way, the downpour in which Rose of Shannon is delivered of her stillborn baby – were all the more electrifying because they stood out against that blank backdrop. It was a phenomenal production, and it was the work of a director who was thinking not, “how can I let the text speak for itself” but “how can I tell this story most effectively.” In this case, that required a certain kind of visual drama.

By contrast, while I liked much about it, I have found myself less enthused by this year’s Cymbeline than many critics have been, substantially because, at the end of the play, I still didn’t know what story Cimolino was trying to tell, what, held this hodge-podge of a play together. That’s not because Cimolino didn’t try to pull it together – he did. Cimolino did not simply let the text speak for itself, because that’s impossible, as impossible as talking about a book reading itself. He did have an interpretation of the play, and that interpretation is expressed most directly in the framing, entirely Cimolino’s addition, of King Cymbeline’s dream. The play begins with Cymbeline in bed, surrounded by the other characters, and he speaks the first line of the play – “You do not meet a man but frowns” – which, in Shakespeare, belongs to a random gentleman (the line is repeated a moment later in its original context), and then cries for his daughter – “Innogen!” – and is whisked off. And then, at the end of the play, after declaring his universal peace, Cymbeline finds himself again center stage, surrounded by the other characters of the drama, all staring at him as he stares around, bewildered.

So, clearly, Cimolino wanted to say that this play “belongs” to the title character, and to recenter the play on him. And that’s an interpretive act – and one accomplished primarily visually (though not expensively). But, unlike with McAnuff’s Twelfth Night, this recentering on Cymbeline was not accomplished by the establishment of a novel emotional relationship between characters. And for that reason, to my mind, it wasn’t really accomplished at all, and no amount of powerful acting by Geraint Wyn Davies – and he delivered plenty of that – could, by itself, bring the story home for me.

Cimolino, in other words, used a visual to tie together his production and for me – though not for most critics – that didn’t exactly work. But not because it was a visual choice, but because I didn’t know, from the play, what the emotional underpinning of that moment was. If I were advising Cimolino, I’d say he didn’t do enough to establish that meaning, that he needed a more substantial departure, perhaps an entire dumbshow, to fully bring the his interpretation of the text home.

Earlier on, I said the goal of a director should be “telling a story with the play.” I mean that “with” in at least three senses. First, “with” the play rather than “about” the play – a production is not a thesis; it’s an experience, and we shouldn’t be alienated from the material. Second, “with” the play rather than “against” the play – productions that ignore the text, and simply tell the story they want to tell, are usually disasters. But third, “with” the play rather than “of” the play. Because every production is an act of interpretation, and every act of interpretation is also an act of creation. Each production is a unique play, and each must have its own story. The text of the play is material to be used to tell that story. Hopefully, you’ll use that material well rather than poorly, but you have to use it to tell your own version of the story, because that is the only version you can possibly tell.

So the implicit identification of “visual” with “directorial” and “verbal” with “textual” productions is, I think, misconceived. “Visual” doesn’t mean “with big production values” – actors can paint incredible pictures with nothing but their bodies. And a production can consist of nothing more than actors speaking text and still be disastrously out of harmony with that text – far and away the worst production of a Shakespeare play I ever saw was one of these, a Richard Maxwell-directed production of Henry IV part 1. Even with a company of actors who are trained as well as Stratford’s are in speaking the verse, it takes a directorial vision to tell a story with that company.

Cimolino has demonstrated many times that he has that vision. I expect to see that vision on display in next year’s Merchant of Venice and (especially) his Mary Stuart. He shouldn’t sell his own role short by calling for a crabbed traditionalism that, in truth, has never characterized his own productions in past, and that I don’t expect to characterize them in the future.

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The Kids Are All Right

My colleague Rod Dreher is getting cranky:

That was what was so exciting to me as a young writer and filmgoer about reading Kael. You always had the sense that she deeply felt the connections between art and life. The movies weren’t just about the movies, and aesthetics, and entertainment. They were about, well, everything. Kael’s judgment, as James points out, was often flawed, but overall she was so good at what she did that you wanted to read her reviews even of movies you had never seen and probably never would, just to see what she had to say about it.

James is surely correct to say that a Pauline Kael isn’t possible today because movies don’t hold their place at the center of our popular culture that they once did. I rarely go to the movies anymore, and can’t say that I care about them. I can’t think of a single film I’ve seen in the past five years that had the human depth and emotional resonance of the television series “Friday Night Lights.” I find that I don’t even want to go to the movies anymore, because it’s such an effort, and the movies have disappointed me so often that I have ceased to care. It’s like all of Hollywood has become Woody Allen’s career: rolling on, even though there’s no apparent vision, spirit, or point to the work.

Well, I’m not going to defend the big Hollywood studios, which have mostly decided video games are better business than movies. And I’m not going to knock on some of the great television that’s out there. But if what you go to the movies for is “human depth and emotional resonance” than there is no reason for you to stay home.

Indeed, I would argue that there’s a whole generation of rising writer/directors who are particularly attuned to those most central aspects of storytelling. Who are centrally interested in telling stories about people, deep and serious stories. I am acutely interested in seeing the next movie that Derek Cianfrance or Sarah Polley or J. C. Chandor or Jeff Nichols or Sean Durkin make – or, if you want to go with folks who are a bit more seasoned, Noah Baumbach or Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh or Ang Lee or Alexander Payne. These are just people off the top of my head, who have made movies in the last five years that I thought were worth recommending people see. The common thread between them is that they care about getting the interiority of their characters right, and having this interiority drive their stories. Which, for me, is pretty much what narrative art is about.

Are their movies “events” in the way that movies were in the past? No. That’s partly because the place of movies in our culture has changed. The only “event” movies that remain are entirely phony artifacts of marketing. In a very real sense, as the movies have gotten bigger (noisier, more expensive, aimed at a global audience), movies that care about “human depth and emotional resonance” have gotten smaller, more domestic. The moviemakers I have the most respect for these days are trying to make the cinematic equivalent of Joyce’s Dubliners rather than the cinematic equivalent of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but Dumas’s work has unquestionably garnered a larger audience, both in its time and since. I don’t think that’s a knock on Joyce or Dumas, nor is it a knock on either the monumental work of the past or some of the great work being done today in cinema. It is a difference with both economic implications and implications for cultural impact, but it’s not a reason to avoid the movies.

If you’re looking for movies that are “about everything” in an explicit sense, there have been at least two in the last five years that are (in my opinion) emphatically worth giving a place of honor in your cinematic library: “Synecdoche, New York” and “Tree of Life.” (One of Rod’s commenters mentioned the same two films.) But those kinds of movies have always been rare. “The French Connection” wasn’t about “everything.” “Taxi Driver” wasn’t about “everything.” Heck, “Singin’ In The Rain” wasn’t about “everything” – not in that sense.

And one more thing, about movies that are “about movies.” I’m as annoyed as Dreher is about movies that are only about other movies, but not, I suspect, for the same reason. The problem isn’t that this is some kind of self-referential inside game – that’s a game great art frequently plays. Shakespeare’s plays are almost always, on one level, about the theatre itself; great novels from Don Quixote to Ulysses and beyond have frequently been, in part, about the novel itself; and you wouldn’t want to have to count the number of great poems that are at least partly about poetry. But when art is only an inside game, that means it isn’t about anything real, and, specifically, it isn’t about emotional reality. And at that point I lose interest in it. The Coen brothers make movies that are substantially about their cinematic heritage, and when they are at their best or even just very good, their movies beat with a human heart. I don’t really feel that’s the case with the work of, say, Quentin Tarantino, which is why I don’t much care for his work.

“Movies” have changed since Kael’s day, inevitably, and they will continue to change. But the recorded image isn’t going away, and neither is narrative art, and movies (and television) are where these two things come together. So they aren’t going away either. And so those of us who care about either or both of those things shouldn’t give up on them.

(Postscript apropos of the title: I actually thought “The Kids Are All Right” was just okay, but it was good enough for me to care what Lisa Cholodenko gets up to next. But, in a larger sense, it’s a reasonable synecdoche for what movies can, and still do, do well, and that is tell stories about people.)

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