Sunday, September 30, 2007

La nostalgie de Paris

I'm really missing Paris this weekend. After being on the Vassar campus almost continuously for a month, I want nothing more than to wander up and down Paris's streets. I have also been eating a good deal of French-ish food lately--I taught myself to make clafoutis, and sold crêpes for the French Club--which doesn't help. Proustian sense-memories and all that. But really, what brought on this nostalgia is my downloading Wes Anderson's short film Hotel Chevalier free from iTunes last night.

The movie features Jason Schwartzman as a guy moping around a Paris hotel room, and Natalie Portman as his ex-girlfriend who comes to pay him a visit. As a narrative, it's not much: we get hints about why they broke up and what has happened to them since, but a lot of stuff is left open-ended.

But you don't watch a Wes Anderson film for its plot, necessarily; more for its aesthetics. And this one doesn't disappoint. Of course, it is shot in a super-wide aspect ratio, the art direction features vivid colors and weird objects, every frame is meticulously arranged. Much of it is underscored with a great ballad called "Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?", which has quirky lyrics and a kind of melancholy, yearning feeling. Schwartzman and Portman (try saying that five times fast... or better yet, "Schwartzman and Portman in Portland") capture this same melancholy in their acting. So already, the movie is enough to put you in a sweetly wistful mood.

But I think it has a special poignancy for me. This shot of Natalie Portman in the hotel room:



brings back so many memories. When I lived in Paris I had a balcony off my room, with doors just like these: made of glass and swinging out, with a rotating knob-handle in the middle. I have never seen these kind of doors anywhere but Paris--perhaps they are the original "French doors"? Also, my room in Paris had a warm red-and-yellow color scheme, just like this hotel room.

At the end of the movie, Schwartzman asks Portman "You wanna see my view of Paris?" and they go out through the glass doors onto the balcony.


They stand for a moment, looking out, then go back inside. Then the camera pans to the left to show you what they were looking at, and you expect one of those really stereotypical Parisian landscapes: glowing lights, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame... But instead, you see this:

It's the building across the street! And when you think about it, that's so true: at least 95% of the windows in Paris don't have a stereotypical view, but instead just face out upon other buildings. And yet it has its own beauty and grandeur--this kind of architecture is just lovely--and it reminds me so much of the view I had for four months earlier this year.

Damn it, Wes Anderson. Just when I was getting sick of your quirk and twee-ness, you have to go and break my heart. And before that, you directed a television commercial that never fails to make me smile:



because it's such a great homage to Day for Night, one of my all-time favorite movies (I love Truffaut!). Oh well, Wes. I can't stay mad at you for long.

All images are screen-captures from Hotel Chevalier--I just figured out how to make them on my computer!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Life into art: Sophie Scholl


Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) stands up for her beliefs. Photo from worldfilm.about.com

Last night I watched the movie Sophie Scholl - The Final Days and was very impressed. (Is it just me, or is German cinema really excellent these days? Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin, Run Lola Run--all highly recommended.) Not only does its story of a courageous 21-year-old girl standing up to the Nazi regime force you to consider what you might have done in Sophie's place, but it is also interesting from a writing/filmmaking perspective.

I wrote a review already, but still have more to say. On the IMDB I use a more formal, impersonal tone, describe the plot, etc. Here I can forgo plot summary and discuss stuff that IMDB users would find weird or irrelevant, like the finer points of dramatic structure.

Sophie Scholl is told strictly from its heroine's perspective: we are always in the same room as Sophie and we never know more than she does. But a lesser film would've cut between the separate interrogations of Sophie and her brother Hans, who was arrested at the same time. Because the movie shows us only Sophie's POV, we get trapped alongside her in a state of suspense. As she invents an alibi, we wonder not only if her interrogator will believe her and what kind of questions he'll ask, but also what'll happen if her alibi doesn't square with Hans's. Naturally, Sophie is wondering the same things.

Few other movies hew so closely to their protagonists; the only genre I can think of where this frequently occurs is the private-eye mystery, e.g. Chinatown. That movie would not work if we knew more than Jake Gittes--if we knew everyone's true motives before he did. And Sophie Scholl - The Final Days wouldn't work if we knew, say, what case the Nazis had against Sophie before she knew it. Besides, who wants to see another movie that cuts away from the heroine to show evil Nazis searching her apartment and cackling as they find incriminating evidence? Not me!

I've seen Sophie Scholl - The Final Days called a "biopic," but it's not, not in my book. "Biopics" cover biographies--a big portion of someone's life--but, as its title suggests, Sophie Scholl takes place over just 6 days. If it's a biopic, then every movie based on an actual person's life is a biopic, and is that really the case? I'm not always fond of cradle-to-grave biopics, but often enjoy movies that cover a few days or weeks. I call this my Law of Timespans: "A movie that takes place over a short time is more likely to be good than a movie that takes place over a long time."

Maybe I feel this way because I come from theatre, a more limited medium than film (compared to a movie, a play must have fewer sets, fewer characters, lesser special effects, nothing "on location"...). And the excitement of theatre comes in finding clever ways to overcome these constraints. So I admire filmmakers who impose constraints on their movies, rather than "taking the easy way out" and making epic films that sprawl all over the place.

In fact, Sophie Scholl - The Final Days could easily be adapted for the stage. It has a small cast and the narrative advances more by dialogue than by images. The interrogation scenes, some of the longest conversations I have ever seen onscreen, form the heart of the movie. The filmmakers say they're strictly historically accurate, based on the actual transcripts of Scholl's interrogation and trial.

But these conversations are so strong, dramatically speaking, that I wonder if they were slightly altered. I do not mean to impugn the overall accuracy of the movie--I just find it hard to believe the screenwriter didn't edit and reshape the raw material. The playwright in me wants to know what he did, and how he did it!

For instance, Sophie's trial contains a thrilling example of the "Rule of Three." There are three defendants: Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, and the order in which they are questioned goes from weakest to strongest, from Christoph's pleas for mercy, to Hans's rational argument, to Sophie's deep fortitude. Because this structure builds to a natural climax, it is the strongest way to arrange the material. The defendants' closing statements bear this out. First, Christoph begs the court to spare his life for the sake of his three young children. Hans concurs, asking the court to punish him and Sophie but to spare Christoph. Then it is Sophie's turn. She looks at her accusers and says, with calm integrity, "Soon you will be standing where we stand now."

Wow.

It's a great scene, and a great line, and I am awed by Sophie Scholl's bravery and strength. But the Rule of Three structuring works so well that I wonder if it really happened exactly like that. What if, say, Christoph was the last to make his statement? Would the filmmakers have retained an anticlimactic structure for the sake of historical accuracy...or would they have changed it to make for better drama? And which is the right choice?

P.S.: I just realized that the defendants were probably questioned in that order in real life, too, because it's alphabetical: Probst, H. Scholl, S. Scholl. Still, isn't it a lucky chance that the alphabetical order is also the most dramatically interesting one?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Odysseus in the Cafeteria

Photo from t-shirtexpressions.com, where you can buy your very own Ithaca is Gorges shirt!

My musings on The Odyssey below reminded me of my musings the last time I read it, 3 years ago. I was a freshman here at Vassar and full of wild dreams for the years to come. As I sat in the cafeteria reading The Odyssey, I saw a guy walk by wearing an "Ithaca is Gorges" T-shirt. I thought that if someone ever did an irreverent modern-day retelling of The Odyssey, it would be hilarious for Odysseus (and the rest of the Ithacans?) to wear that as a costume.

Then it struck me that the cafeteria was a veritable Aegean sea of tables... I could stage a site-specific Odyssey right there, with the support of my wonderful new university!

This never came to pass--I got involved with writing other scripts, didn't really feel like writing a funny-but-not-stupid adaptation of The Odyssey--but I recently dug up the notes I had written about this idea. Here they are, in all their overenthusiastic freshman glory:
Each table represents a different island that Odysseus visits. The audience sits at the tables and is called upon to play the denizens of the various islands, in a kind of audience-participation Greek chorus. (The major characters would be actors— everyone else would just play along.) Every time Odysseus gets driven off course, it is represented by an actor in “wind” or “sea” or “Poseidon” costume running over and pushing him to a different island. The trick would be to make the show not merely funny (the Ithaca shirt, the rather low production values) and bring back some of the magic of Greek theater. I SO want to do this! I feel SO inspired! The Odyssey is haunting me as it has haunted people for thousands of years! Yahoo!
Some of my other ideas included:
  • Calypso music for Calypso
  • The lotus-eaters represented as a bunch of contemporary stoners
  • Physical representations of "rosy-fingered Dawn" and "wine-dark sea"
  • Nausicaa as a source of comedy: a beautiful girl who loves to do laundry. She could sing “I love to go a-laundering…”
  • A bunch of tables at one end of the cafeteria pushed together to represent Ithaca, the most important island. Other islands could be large or small, as the story demands.
  • The "Wandering Rocks" represented by stagehands pushing tables around. Whirlpool Charybdis as a swirl of cloth.
  • Minimal props: e.g. Odysseus should just mime the climactic shooting of the arrow through the axe-handles
  • Lots of breaking of the fourth wall: a narrator who helps move the story along. But I've always hated narrators who are called simply "Narrator..." "Homer" is too obvious. A god--Athena?--as narrator? Leopold Bloom? Ulysses Everett McGill?
  • References to other adapters of The Odyssey--James Joyce, the Coen Brothers (see item above). By the way, I remember going back to my room that night and telling my roommate about my ideas and both of us apologizing for never having read James Joyce's Ulysses. That's the kind of girls we were--seventeen, eighteen years old and feeling inadequate because we hadn't read Ulysses yet. I still haven't. But it was the inaugural entry on my "To Be Read" list--which now stretches three pages long.

The Man of Many Wiles


Vase painting depicting Odysseus killing the suitors. Photo from mlahanas.de

I wanted to take a real old-school liberal-artsy class before leaving Vassar, so I registered for English 320, "The Heroic Tradition." The professor calls us Mr. and Ms. (and this makes me sit up straighter, take more notice) and is fond of saying things like "Remember that scene in The Faerie Queene where..." or "Remember the wonderful first sonnet of Astrophel and Stella," ignoring the fact that none of us have read these works. Our reading this semester will remedy some of the gaps in our knowledge: it includes The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and other canonical texts.

We're halfway through The Aeneid right now--this is the first time I've read it, as opposed to The Odyssey, which I've read 2.5 times. I read the whole thing freshman year of high school, then the central books (5-12, Odysseus' journeys) freshman year of college for a class called "Wandering in Literature."

It feels good to do this, to revisit a fundamental text. It feels right. (Though I wonder why no one assigns The Iliad.) Each time I notice new and different elements--and isn't that how you distinguish great literature from the merely good? This semester, I was reading The Odyssey at the same time I had to read Mason Weems' The Life of Washington for my history class--this is the hagiography of George Washington that contains the original version of the cherry-tree story. I was very amused to discover that Weems steals elements of The Odyssey and uses them to underline Washington's heroism. He claims that Washington's father had a big gun that only he and his son could lift--obviously recalling Odysseus' bow that only he can string. There are even epic similes (the only time I have ever seen these in a prose narrative) comparing Washington to a lion, the same simile often used for Odysseus.

Of course, Weems' biography takes place in a clearly ordered moral universe where Washington is a great, pious, noble man who "could not tell a lie." Whereas the moral universe of The Odyssey is completely chaotic--it has very little internal logic, and I find that fascinating. The men who killed Agamemnon by ambushing him are denounced as cowards, but Odysseus ambushes and kills people at least twice: from the Trojan horse, and when he returns to Ithaka. Odysseus is a deceiver, boastful, always needing to assert his identity and get to his home. Due to his complexity, I find him much more interesting than I do Aeneas, at least so far.

I have also learned that there are myriad ways to study something like The Odyssey, even in the context of a class called "The Heroic Tradition." For instance, last year I took a class on fairy tales with a Jungian prof. Her version of a "Heroic Tradition" course would probably involve much work on archetypes and Joseph Campbell mythography. Campbell would surely have a lot to say about the section where Odysseus travels to Hades, as a reflection of "the hero's journey to the underworld and return with newfound knowledge." Conversely, my current prof said that the Hades scene is the one section of The Odyssey we are allowed to skip.

Instead, this year, we perform close readings that examine word choice (especially etymology), patterns of images, the characters' attitudes toward heroism and the author's attitude toward his characters, and any passages that seem especially thorny. Naturally, we focus a lot on the Homeric similes--I've done that before with Homer, but not to the extent of noticing how weird some of them are. There's a passage where Odysseus, weeping as he hears a bard recount the story of his victory over Troy, is compared to a defeated Trojan woman weeping over the death of her husband, presumably killed by Odysseus' band of Greeks... Just another example of that moral confusion that complicates The Odyssey.

Each of my 3 times reading The Odyssey, I have had to buy a new edition/translation. In high school we used Allen Mandelbaum's version. All I remember about this one was that Telemachus kept telling the suitors "Stop your brouhaha," which struck me a ludicrous word choice. Also it was a cheap mass-market paperback that was hard to hold. I did have to memorize the first 15 lines of this translation, which are full of interesting sonorities, alliterations, half-rhymes ("Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles / the man who wandered many paths of exile / after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel"). But I don't believe Mandelbaum is able to keep this up through all 24 books.

I got rid of the Mandelbaum version after getting Robert Fagles' translation three years ago. It is an attractive deckle-edged edition and Fagles is really trendy in academia--I read so many of his translations that year and thought they were all pretty good. This year, I read the Richmond Lattimore version (a nice trade paperback with good margins) and enjoyed it very much. Though the translation is from the '60s, it doesn't seem too dated or colloquial, and strikes me as being very faithful to the original Greek--for instance, using just as much repetition as Homer did, rather than trying to vary things for a modern reader. Twice over the course of two pages, Lattimore's version introduces Athene's speech with the lines: "Then in turn the gray-eyed goddess Athene answered him." Fagles tries to jazz this up by having the first instance read "And sparkling-eyed Athena drove the matter home," and the second, "Athena, her eyes flashing bright, exulted." Maybe this makes things more lively for a casual reader, but when you have to examine the text as closely as my prof demands--and, I would argue, The Odyssey gains so much by close examination--Lattimore's seems like the best choice.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tess Slesinger's "The Unpossessed"

An unexpected, but fortuitous, discovery for me as I research the 1930s was the novel The Unpossessed, by Tess Slesinger (get it on sale at Powell's or the NYRB site). Slesinger was born in 1905, went to Swarthmore and the Columbia School of Journalism, became a "New York Intellectual," wrote this one novel, went to Hollywood and worked on screenplays including The Good Earth and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and died of cancer at the age of 39.

The back-cover blurb says: "The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts.... Cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after." After reading it, I can tell you it's definitely more "cutting" than "comic": Slesinger wickedly satirizes her characters and their world. She knew the left-wing intellectual scene very well--she was friends with Lionel Trilling, among others--but she doesn't stint at describing its blind spots, its hypocrisies, its flaws. I admire how she observes and analyzes and thinks critically, instead of apologizing for herself and her circle.

The Unpossessed does not have a strong narrative; it's more a collection of portraits of representative 1930s types. (Oh yeah-- Slesinger subtitled it A Novel of the Thirties. She knew she was capturing the Zeitgeist.) The central characters are three men born circa 1900 who decide to found a left-wing magazine: Jeffrey, a Don Juan of a novelist (his surefire way to seduce women is to say "I am something of a lone wolf"); Miles, a tough-minded New Englander whose puritanical upbringing still shows in him; and Bruno, a Jewish- American professor, outwardly congenial but inwardly self-loathing. Then there are the women: Jeffrey's oblivious, placid wife Norah; Miles' wife Margaret, more intelligent than Norah but with the same deep need to care for her husband; and Bruno's cousin Elizabeth, living in the fast lane and also loathing herself for it. Then there are the rich people who get a vicarious thrill from supporting left-wing causes, and the (Columbia?) university students flaming with radical passion... Part III of the novel brings everyone together for a huge party to raise funds for the new magazine. Slesinger is at her most satirical here: the rich people discuss horses and have no idea what cause they are supporting; the intellectuals snipe and backbite among themselves; romantic complications ensue for all.

Slesinger writes a dense, descriptive prose that commands your full attention. Sometimes she'll simply observe and record her characters: the dialogue scenes always have multiple conversations weaving in and out. Other times, she's more introspective, getting inside the characters' heads. I loved her chapters about Elizabeth, written in an almost musical stream-of-consciousness:
Steward a drink for the lady--the lady is lost, the lady has boarded the fast express, all aboard ladies and gay modern gents, try an art colony first, all aboard, no stops no halts no brooding there, all aboard the twentieth century unlimited, hell-bent for nowhere, the only nonstop through express, try and get off it kid once you're on board, no peace for the young, no rest for the restless, the rollicking jittery cocktail expresss, nothing can matter so wear down, you nerves, no brakes, no goal, no love, on we go glittering jittering twittering, try and get off it kid once you're on board, it'll rattle you shatter you, if you jump out you're lost, stick with it girl, where's all your masculine guts? (115)
This passage also gets at what surprised me the most about The Unpossessed: its modernity. We're often taught that women weren't "liberated" until the 1960s, and didn't regret or question the idea of free love for another few decades, but Elizabeth is a free-loving woman realizing that her jazzy modern ideals only lead to empty hedonism. Margaret also considers herself economically and sexually liberated, though wonders what she has really gained: "O Economic- Independence Votes-For-Women Sex-Equality! you've relieved us of our screens and our embroidery hoops, our babies and our vertigo; and given us--a cigarette, a pencil in our hair" (82). The Unpossessed is also the oldest book I can remember reading that has an explicitly gay character in it: 20-year-old Emmett Middleton, who has a crush on Bruno. Bruno is thus caught in a quasi-love-triangle with his female cousin and his male student: would you expect that from something published in 1934? And the book's concluding sense of futility--that the world will go on, in all its awfulness, as the intellectuals talk themselves into a state of paralysis--is also very, very modern.

I enjoyed this foray into the 1934 leftist-intellectual mindset and am going to continue in this era for a bit longer: my next read is Vassar girl Mary McCarthy's The Group!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sunday in Manhattan

Sunday. My first NYC day in nine months, and the first stirrings of fall weather in the air. I got out out my black leather blazer that made me feel so Manhattan-chic when I wore it to the city during high school.

Of course there's always something to do in New York--both what you plan and what you just stumble upon. Last time I was in the city, last December, I had a really great stumble-upon moment, which I'll blog about sometime. But this Sunday was pretty good, too. First, near Grand Central Station, the Mexican Day Parade was going on. Crowds of people dressed in red, white, and green--some from head to toe. Sombreros and banderas on sale in front of the Public Library. Since I was near the start of the parade route, things were very chaotic, so didn't stay long.

One of my favorite parts of city is "Library Way," the bronze plaques with quotes about books, libraries, learning, set in the sidewalk on 41st Street, leading up to the Public Library. One of them is by Tom Stoppard:

and I always pause a bit reverentially before it. (Go here and scroll down for a link to all the plaques. Beautiful stuff.)

When I got to Times Square, everything north of 42nd Street was blocked off. There seemed to be a crowd, and big echoing loudspeakers... "It's Broadway on Broadway" said a policewoman to a group of curious passerby.

Now, I faithfully check playbill.com, but it had slipped my attention that there would be this huge Broadway-promoting concert the day I was in the city. I set out to find the way into the barricaded area. Had to walk over to 8th Avenue, and then up to 46th or 47th... and as I entered that massive crowd in Times Square, I couldn't even see the stage, but I heard the singing, a huge brassy chorus of "New York, New York," and the confetti machines perched atop billboards and buildings were going like mad, and the semi-autumnal sunlight hit me in the eyes, and... New York, I'm back! I wanted to shout.

This was the final number of the concert (which explains the big chorus and the confetti) so soon I was filing out of Times Square again, snapping photos with my camera, the confetti drifting down only to get swept up... When I returned to Times Square about 4 hours later, there was no trace of it.


I continued on down 42nd Street to Playwrights Horizons--a nice, new theater building, with hanging banners printed with quotes from plays they have produced, which, again, just thrill my heart. I had to stop myself from snapping photos of everything (I got into that habit in Paris).

At the play I was sitting next to some girls my age or a little younger...college freshmen or sophomores, I'd guess. Those of you who are sick of Hollywood actors with no stage experience getting cast in the lead roles of Broadway shows, I have to tell you it's not going to change anytime soon, not when it leads to scenes like this one:

GIRL 1: (Reading her playbill, sees the Roundabout's ad for Pygmalion starring Claire Danes) Look, Claire Danes is gonna be on Broadway!
GIRL 2: Ooh, when?
GIRL 1: "Previews start September 21." That's soon!
GIRL 2: I love Claire Danes!
GIRL 1: Me, too! We should get tickets.
GIRL 2: Pygmalion...is that like Pygmalion and Galatea, the myth?
GIRL 1: I don't know.
GIRL 2: We should totally go!
GIRL 1: Totally!

I wanted to lean over and say "It's Shaw's play that got adapted into My Fair Lady," but refrained. Hey, at least these girls are getting excited about theatre, and Pygmalion's a good play to know, regardless of who's cast in it.

On my train back to Poughkeepsie I absolutely loved the way the conductor talked--with a West Indian accent, old-fashioned words and phrases, and an old-fashioned sort of concern for his passengers and human decency. Saying things like "I do beseech you, do not leave your belongings on the seat next to you" and "Please do not annoy your fellow passengers, everyone has the right to a pleasant trip," and "Let us all be on the good side of courtesy, folks!"

It's nice to hear that message, since even though I love New York, it can be a tough place. I honed some of my big-city survival skills living in Paris for 4 months this year, but it's still nothing like New York. In Paris, I feel, you can afford to be leisurely--there is always time for an espresso or a crepe, and if you don't like the looks of one café there's another on the next corner. But in New York, if you don't want to eat in Times Square because it's too crowded, you go two blocks over and you're in Hell's Kitchen and there's nowhere good to grab food before your matinée. Or, you arrive at Grand Central Station at 6:45 to find your train leaves at 7:10 and you need to eat something and the restaurants in the basement are already closing down for the night. In New York you cannot afford to be aimless or indecisive, or else the city will defeat you. So, despite my love for it, I don't know if I could live there. And yet I don't know of any other place in the world that has so much wonderment packed into so small an area.

Our iPods, Ourselves

I am sitting here with a smile on my face, the proud owner of a new silver 80 GB iPod. And guess what I had engraved on the back?

"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."**

After all, you wouldn't expect me to engrave anything as simple as my name and phone number, would you? Seems to me that my whole generation prefers the quirky and personalized (Youtube, an obscure song, a funny quote) to the blandly utilitarian (contact info). We've all got our personas to keep up--and our iPods are a big part of that.

**From Noel Coward's Private Lives, dontcha know.

Monday, September 17, 2007

100 Saints You Should Know

Yesterday, as planned, I saw the matinee of 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons. (By the way, can anyone explain why this show is still "in previews"? It will play more preview performances than post-opening performances!) The first of the 6 shows I'll see there this year, it was generally solid, even if I hope some of the other plays will be even better.

Author Kate Fodor describes her play as the story of one person losing faith while another gains it. The former is Father Matthew, a youngish priest who has just left his church under cloudy circumstances. The latter is Theresa, a single mom who cleans the rectory. The other characters are Abby, Theresa's rebellious 16-year-old daughter (Abby and Theresa could be described as "the anti-Gilmore Girls"); Colleen, Matthew's Irish-immigrant mother; and Garrett, a troubled teenager who delivers groceries to Colleen.

Perhaps because Theresa is played by the cast's most recognizable name (West Wing star Janel Moloney), the press materials describe her as the lead. But I found myself much more interested in Father Matthew's journey. Theresa has the happy task of coming to terms with her life and experiencing spiritual growth, while Matthew is conflicted about his identity and feels like he has no one to turn to--not even his mother, not even God. Moloney does fine in her part, but I was really impressed with Jeremy Shamos as Father Matthew. The role is difficult--requiring a big soliloquy, a moment of connecting with another human being for the first time in years, many scenes of smiling a tight smile to hide his inner turmoil--and he really does a great job. Of course, in some of his scenes he is aided by veteran actress Lois Smith as Colleen, a sweet old Irishwoman and passive-aggressive monster of a mother.

Zoe Kazan does a good job as angsty Abby, in her last scene going to that deep place of adolescent self-loathing (we've all been there, but not eight times a week onstage). Still, I also agree with what the late-teenage girls next to me were saying: though Kazan was good, her role, as written, reinforces the stereotype that all teenagers are like this. Garrett is also stereotyped, especially as played by Will Rogers, who relies on too many external tricks (jittery movements, making his voice crack, etc.) to convey that he is socially awkward.

My playwriting teacher, evaluating student work, is fond of saying "I like it, but I think it needs a twist to it." And that's how I feel about 100 Saints You Should Know--I like it, but it needs a twist. (Though there's a surprising plot development in Act 2, it seems to come out of nowhere, rather than feeling organic to the play.) Usually when my prof says this, I think "Easier said than done"--even if you can tell that your play lacks something, a good twist is hard to find. But in the case of 100 Saints, I can see an obvious place for a twist, and in fact it surprised me that this didn't happen.

OK. Eventually we learn that Father Matthew is disgraced because someone at the rectory found homoerotic nude photos (by artist George Platt Lynes) in his desk. But wouldn't it make the play stronger and more concise if it was Theresa who found the photos? There's every reason she could, since she's the cleaning lady. A friend of mine pointed out, though, that if Theresa found the photos, she probably wouldn't report them to anybody, so Matthew's secret would be safe. Point taken: the play still requires an offstage character to report Matthew. Still, if Theresa had seen the photos and not told anyone, that would mean she carried a guilty secret, too, just like the priest. Theresa, who idealizes Matthew, would see with her own eyes that he is just a man, and fallible. Which is much more powerful than having him simply tell her about the photos, as he does in Act 2. Honestly, during that scene, after Matthew confesses his disgrace, I expected Theresa to confess that she knew all along. And that would nicely complicate things.

I can even see this twist as a way to fix the laughable opening scene, which runs about 2 minutes and is all stilted exposition. Theresa is cleaning a toilet in the rectory, Matthew enters, she introduces herself, they briefly chat, end of scene. Very little conflict or drama--and everything we learn gets reiterated in the next scene, when Theresa tells Abby about her job. But what if, instead of cleaning a toilet, Theresa was cleaning the desk, and the play opened with her discovering the nude photos, and then Father Matthew walked in, and she chatted with him in a seemingly lighthearted way, but underneath there would be so much subtext and tension? That would surely hook the audience!

Ah, well. I'm not trying to rewrite Kate Fodor's play for her; maybe she wanted to avoid that kind of "hidden guilty secrets" playwriting. But it can work very well, if done right.

I also want to talk about the ending with people who've seen the play. I think it's meant to be quietly hopeful, but I see it as a lot more ambiguous than that, even depressing. Colleen asks her son to help her pray, and though reluctant at first, he does. It seems we're supposed to think, "Ah yes, there is still hope, Matthew still has some faith, the world is not bleak." But, on the other hand, isn't Matthew just acting like the dutiful son again--the son who went to Harvard, who became a priest, who eats food he doesn't really want, all because his mother asked it of him? If Father Matthew ends up returning to the church, denying his need to love and be loved by another human being, isn't that a tragedy? His journey isn't resolved in the same way Theresa's is, which annoyed me since I found him more compelling.

Photo of Janel Moloney and Jeremy Shamos by Joan Marcus (broadwayworld.com)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Theatre on the Horizon

On Sunday I'm going to go down to NYC and see 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons. I don't want to sound like a shill for this company, but I got really excited when I saw their season announcement. Their fantastic student-subscriber deal ($10 per show...seriously, the train ride costs 2.5 times more than the show does!) is just the icing on the cake. See, Playwrights Horizons is devoting its season to young "emerging" writers and getting a lot of great press for it (see this Village Voice article). The plays are:
  • 100 Saints You Should Know by Kate Fodor
  • A Feminine Ending by Sarah Treem
  • Doris to Darlene by Jordan Harrison
  • Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl
  • The Drunken City by Adam Bock
  • Saved by Michael Friedman (music), John Dempsey and Rinne Groff (book and lyrics)
Not household names yet, but definitely rising stars--and they deserve it! I have actually been fortunate enough to meet four of the authors: Sarah Treem, Jordan Harrison, and Adam Bock when they had plays workshopped at Portland Center Stage, and Sarah Ruhl after I won a playwriting contest. Jordan is a terrific guy and the subject of Doris to Darlene sounds so intriguing--Wagner and girl groups! I've enjoyed Sarah R.'s writing ever since my freshman roommate was in a student production of Melancholy Play three years ago, and look how her star has skyrocketed since then! Mary-Louise Parker just got announced as the lead, and I've never seen her onstage, so am excited about that as well. Sarah T.'s Feminine Ending was already a crowd pleaser as a JAW staged reading so I am looking forward to seeing a full production. And I love Adam's intricately patterned dialogue and the description of his new play as "wildly theatrical."

I'm not sure what I think about yet another musical adapted from a movie (even if Saved was a quirky indie comedy), but I LOVE Rinne Groff's play The Ruby Sunrise, so that gives me a better feeling. I actually know the least about Kate Fodor (100 Saints is only her second play, it seems) but have heard good things about the play in previews. Looking forward to it, and to my first NYC day in 9 months--it's been too long!

addendum: One last thing I really admire about this season: the equal number of male and female writers! How often does that happen?

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Art of the Good Bad Review

Reading A.O. Scott's review of Shoot 'Em Up today reminded me why I read reviews of patently awful movies in the first place: sometimes, a reviewer, out of the generosity of his heart and the nimbleness of his mind, will eviscerate a bad movie in such a way that the review becomes more entertaining and thoughtful than the movie ever was. Here is how Scott begins:
“So what do you think of the Second Amendment now?” This is one of many thought-provoking questions asked, between barrages of gunfire, in the course of "Shoot 'Em Up." I won’t answer the question here — I get enough angry e-mail, thanks — but I’m happy to affirm my general devotion to the whole Bill of Rights, in particular the First Amendment, which protects Michael Davis’s right to make this movie, New Line Cinema’s right to market it and, best of all, my right to tell you what a worthless piece of garbage it is. (I interrupt this burst of patriotism to note that “Shoot ’Em Up” was filmed in Toronto.)
This is an example of what I call a Good Bad Review, and I have a minor hobby of collecting them. Other favorites are A.O. Scott's review of A Walk To Remember :
I wish I could say that the experience left me a better person, or that, in the favored idiom of studio publicity copy, it ''changed my life forever,'' but by the end I was tempted to go off in search of some industrial scaffolding and a shallow river of my own.
and Anthony Lane's review of The Da Vinci Code.
There is also Silas (Paul Bettany), a cowled albino monk whose hobbies include self-flagellation, multiple homicide, and irregular Latin verbs. He works for Opus Dei, the Catholic organization so intensely secretive that its American headquarters are tucked away in a seventeen-story building on Lexington Avenue. Silas answers to Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), who in turn answers to his cell phone, his Creator, and not much else. Between them, they track Langdon and Sophie to England, where a new villain, hitherto suspected by nobody except the audience, is prevented from shooting his quarry because, unusual for London, there is a gaggle of nuns in the way—God’s Work if ever I saw it, although I wouldn’t say so to a member of Opus Dei.
All these reviews are good for multiple laughs, a sense of righteous anger that terrible movies continue to get made, and a reassurance that we cynical folks are not alone in our scorn for the ludicrous and trite. And these movies may be horrible, yet they inspire critics to some of their best prose and most acute observations--so at least some good has come of their suffering. It's enough to warm your cold, black, judgmental heart.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The curtain falls: Pavarotti


Pavarotti as Nemorino. Image: The New York Times

You may think it's odd when I tell you that Luciano Pavarotti was one of the first celebrities I learned to recognize as a little girl, but you probably didn't grow up with a half-Italian mother who listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts every wintertime Saturday. My mom, like her ancestors before her, is an opera fan. (My grandmother was even named after a famous mezzo.) She's not super-cultivated or super-refined--not the kind of fan who owns scores of CDs and debates various singers' merits at the dinner table--but she likes the great melodies, the great voices, the composers like Mozart, Bizet, and the Italians (Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini...). And for people like my mom, Pavarotti was ideal.

This was in the early 1990s--the era of the Three Tenors, when Pavarotti was the world's most famous and beloved opera singer. Our small but growing CD collection had at least eight discs of solo Pavarotti arias, as well as some of his "My Favorite Opera" compilations. And when my mother discovered (probably to her surprise) that her little girl didn't find this kind of music too complex or loud or strange, but really actually LIKED it, we became opera fans together. She'd get picture books from the library that narrated famous opera plots, and tell me the opera trivia she knew: "The tenor is always the good guy, except in Rigoletto."

We would tape the "Live from the Met" TV specials and I would watch them over and over. Mom would always point out Pavarotti (the star attraction) and his trademark handkerchief to me. At the age of 5, I became obsessed with The Elixir of Love starring Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle. I watched it so much I can still hum some of the music--granted, it is a wildly catchy opera.

(Tangent: Kathleen Battle was my introduction to the idea of the "diva". After the stories surfaced about her getting dismissed from the Met for "unprofessional behavior," I couldn't believe that the pretty lady from The Elixir of Love was throwing tantrums and abusing the people who worked with her. Though come to think of it, her character in Elixir was quite a scornful, proud woman herself!)

I even remember Mom, in the kitchen, showing me how to make salad dressing and pointing out the label on the balsamic vinegar: "It comes from Modena--that's where Pavarotti was born!"

And yet--and this is what makes the news of Pavarotti's death today so odd for me--because he was one of the first celebrities I learned to recognize, he also played a part in my understanding of mortality. I think it was because of the disconnect between his voice and his appearance. Here he had this stunning, ringing, powerful, young man's voice encased in a rotund late-middle-aged body that sweated profusely under the spotlights. I don't think I even noticed the dyed beard and eyebrows at the time, but I could sense that he did not have too many more years of performing ahead of him. (This, despite his ebullient personality and my own tender age.) Young children assume that everything is permanent. But watching the aging Pavarotti on television, I realized that that's not so. That there'd come a day (today) when this singer, whom I loved, would no longer be alive.

Ma la voce è immortale.

Pavarotti is still preserved forever young on all the recordings he made. I still recognize his voice more instantaneously than that of any other opera singer, and I still get chills when I listen to "Nessun dorma"--so I try not to do it too much, because I don't ever want to lose that feeling that comes when hearing sublime music sung by a sublime talent.

Bravo, Pavarotti!

UPDATE 9/9: This article from
The Observer says a lot of what I was trying to say there about the mortal flesh and the immortal voice...or soul? Check it out, it's good.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Even in 1934...

To research my Hallie Flanagan play, I am reading a book called The Unpossessed: A Novel of the 30s, written in 1934 by a young woman named Tess Slesinger. It was a really serendipitous find (on the sale table at Powell's just before I left Portland) because it's about the sort of people Hallie would have known: Greenwich Village leftist intellectuals. I'm not too far into it yet, but I smiled when I saw this passage, as it dovetails with my current thoughts about Eugene O'Neill:

The character Miles Flinders is telling his wife Margaret about his hard childhood among stoic, flinty Yankee farmers. NYC-born Margaret romanticizes this: "You make it [...] as fascinating--both as real and unreal--as O'Neill does in his plays." Miles replies: "O'Neill [...] didn't get my people straight. He made them far too Irish, almost quaint, and too explicit. My Uncle Daniel would have sneered at Beyond the Horizon; even my father would have walked out on it--staggered out, to the nearest saloon." Miles goes on to observe that O'Neill might have identified Freudian-type psychological symptoms in Miles' own family ("pathological," "an incest pattern") but that would "leave the blood out of the picture."

Interesting to see that even in 1934, O'Neill's stage-Irish dialects and explicit, sometimes reductive psychologizing could come in for some criticism!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"Small triangular love stories..."

Here's a pithy quote that reminds me of the kind of theatre I don't want to make: decorous and stagnant and stifling. Is today's lousy American theatre really that different from yesterday's?
"[Broadway in the 1930s] continues to tell in polite whispers its tales of small triangular love stories in small rectangular settings."
--Hallie Flanagan (head of the Federal Theater Project and subject of my new play)

Respecting the Classics?

I've been thinking about classic American drama lately: I'm writing a play set in 1934 and researching the theater of that time, plus Vassar is about to produce The Glass Menagerie, an atypical choice for our drama department. It's always struck me as a little odd how, in my time here, Vassar has produced just about every kind of play except for the American classics (which I'll define as dating from roughly 1920 to 1970). The only other one I recall is Joseph Heller's We Bombed in New Haven, which comes from the tail end of that era (1968--it's an anti-Vietnam play) and isn't exactly a masterpiece. Other than We Bombed... and Glass Menagerie, in my 4 years at Vassar, the drama department has produced/will produce:
  • 2 Chekhov plays (Seagull and Uncle Vanya)
  • 3 Shakespeare plays, plus another Elizabethan play called Gallathea
  • 2 Sondheim musicals (Merrily We Roll Along and Into the Woods)
  • 2 Greek tragedies (Oedipus at Colonus and Suppliant Women)
  • Several post-1970 American and British plays (such as Quills by Doug Wright, Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage, OTMA by Kate Moira Ryan, Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill, Not I by Beckett)
  • Some "reworked classics" (Kushner's adaptation of The Illusion; a professor's adaptation of Pygmalion to modern NYC with an African-American Eliza; Suppliant Women and Not I were actually combined, so perhaps they fit here as well)
  • Various kinds of original work: a two-act play by a senior playwriting major, a collaborative writing/acting/directing project by five seniors, a multimedia-theatre-dance piece about the government's treatment of Native Americans; and this coming spring, a New Plays workshop festival
Doesn't this list seem lacking in plays from between 1920 and 1970, especially American ones? Americans also get short shrift when it comes to 300-level Drama seminar classes: the subjects of these courses are always things like Shakespeare, Beckett, Artaud, Caryl Churchill, "Performativity of Female Authorship"... Granted, that last one covers some American women playwrights, but other than that, our country's theatrical heritage garners surprisingly little attention at Vassar.

The Drama Department's ignoring the classic midcentury American plays is especially strange because the acting style it teaches us (psychological realism, grounded in Stanislavski/"The Method") was invented to deal with just those sorts of plays. Instead, we have to learn one acting style in class, and a whole different style (for Shakespeare, Greek plays, etc.) at rehearsal!

I certainly don't believe that every "classic" play is as good as its reputation suggests (my Eugene O'Neill dissent, anyone?) but part of me also believes that an educational institution, like Vassar, is responsible for familiarizing its students with their cultural heritage, including the classic American playwrights. On the other hand, maybe the responsibility shouldn't be to uphold the "canon" of established playwrights, but to look beyond it instead. Or maybe, because many of us want to be theatre professionals when we leave Vassar, the school's responsibility should be to prepare us for the kind of theatre we will create post-college. And as authors like Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams get produced less frequently by the nation's theatre companies, it's less likely that Vassar graduates will get cast in their plays, and so it makes sense to pay them less attention during college. Perhaps Vassar really ought to focus on the kinds of plays that American theatres produce most regularly now. The Santaland Diaries and Tuesdays with Morrie, anybody?

In all seriousness, there's some great stuff on that list of the top 10 most-produced plays, and as for the stuff that's not so great... well, ultimately, I hope that the responsibility of an educational institution is to send its graduates out into the world armed and ready to make more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. And that means familiarizing us with all different kinds of plays and acting styles, treating none of it too reverentially, allowing us to come to our own informed conclusions about what kind of theatre our society most needs. And sometimes, we need to be reminded where we came from; so in that sense, there will always be a place for the classics.