Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brothers in Black Suits: Hamlet and Thom Pain

The last two plays I saw were both one-man shows, and both more interesting examples of the genre than the typical "let me impersonate [insert name of dead celebrity] for two hours" thing. Also, I'm used to seeing one-man shows performed by older actors, probably due to an unspoken assumption that young actors lack the technique and/or the box-office draw to sustain a one-man show, but both these shows were performed by young, boyish-looking men, and both amply proved that they can play in the big leagues.

First, as I alluded to a couple of posts back, I went to see a one-man French adaptation of Hamlet, which sounds like it could be the punchline to a bad joke, but which I actually quite enjoyed. The full title of this show was Hamlet: la fin d'une enfance, meaning Hamlet: the end of a childhood, and the premise of it was that a modern-day young boy, whose mother has recently remarried, refuses to meet his new stepfather and instead locks himself in his room, acting out the story of Hamlet with his toys and bedroom furnishings. The adaptation thus tightly focused on the archetypal family drama of Hamlet's story--lots of prominence given to the scenes with Gertrude and Claudius and the ghost, and a major reduction in Polonius' and Laertes' stage time.

I once took a playwriting workshop with Glen Berger, who said that he tries to reduce every play he writes to a one-word gerund, in order to clarify its subject/theme. He also suggested doing this with other writers' plays. "I've even figured out the one-word gerund for Hamlet," he told us. "Acting." (How marvelously clever and smooth!)

And Hamlet: la fin d'une enfance really made that one-word gerund explicit. Thomas Marceul suggested all of the play's characters using a minimum of props and costume changes. It was pretty stylized: Ophelia was a coyly fluttering fan, Laertes an aggressive red glove, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Lord of the Rings action figures (which is a bit too glamorous for poor R & G, I'm afraid). The best moment came at the very end. Marceul had played the whole show wearing black pants and shirt, which you took to be his "normal" clothes. But when Hamlet died, Marceul peeled off the black shirt, and you realized that this had been just another costume, that Hamlet is just a role, no more "real" than any of the others.

If the one-word, two-meanings gerund of Hamlet is "acting," then the one-word two-meanings gerund of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) is probably "trying." "I am trying. I am a trying man," says Thom at one point. Like Hamlet, he appears before us in a suit of solemn black to grapple with the big questions, including la fin de l'enfance. ("When did your childhood end?" Thom asks the audience.) His hour-long monologue, delivered right up in the audience's faces (sit in the front row...if you can handle it), is one of sardonic petulance, with occasional flashes of the rubbed-raw nerve endings hidden underneath the mask of cynicism.

Better writers than I have tried, and failed, to describe Thom Pain--seriously, I have never read a review of this show that accurately conveys its essence--so I shall not over-dissect it. (Nor does it even really feel right to put it in a box, somehow.) But while the first thing you notice is probably Thom's abrasiveness, it really is a very compassionate play, dealing with subjects like the end of innocence and the loss of love--subjects that for hundreds of years have inspired both sentimental garbage and the most profound expressions of our humanity. Indeed, the play confronts what just might be the biggest question of all, and one I have been pondering recently: none of us ever asked to be born, yet we find ourselves on this earth in a human body, and so, what now...?

I saw Thom Pain in an excellent production at the Cutting Ball Theater, made extra special by the fact that I went to college with Jon Bock, the actor who plays Thom. (He was a year ahead of me.) Jon has a bit of a slippery quality about him, even in real life--it's hard to know what he really thinks of you--which is perfect for Thom Pain. I don't know how he does it every night--to go out and stand in that harsh light and relentlessly harangue the audience for an hour and make them feel guilty if they ever start acting bored or breaking their eye contact with him. I spoke to Jon after the show and said "You're the only thing to look at onstage, so by the end of it, every audience member has got your face memorized--that's gotta feel strange." "Yeah," said Jon, "but you have to realize, I've been looking at all of you for an hour--I try to make eye contact with everyone in the audience at least once--so I've got your faces memorized too."

So, even though Thom Pain is probably judging you with a sneer when he looks you in the eye, at least he's looking at you--and that should make you feel less alone. He's trying; so are we all.

If you're in S.F. I urge you to go see Thom Pain, which has just been extended through mid-April--and I'm not just saying that because I know the actor. Really, I don't think my natural taste in theater even lies with minimalist philosophical monologues--so if I'm telling you to go see one of those, you know it must be something special!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Sonnambula" in HD: Perchè non posso odiarti

Saturday morning I went to see one of the Met's Live in HD cinema transmissions for the first time. The opera was La Sonnambula--no surprise that it would be the one to get me out of bed early on a weekend, since you know how I adore Natalie Dessay and how much I loved Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights. I had conflicted feelings, then, when I learned that this production got booed at its Met premiere. On one hand, I was excited I'd get to judge a controversial production for myself. Booing is so rare these days, and this Sonnambula didn't even have any outwardly scandalous trappings like nudity, debauchery or bloodshed! On the other hand, if I didn't like the production, I'd have to reevaluate my attitudes toward Dessay and Zimmerman. And while it's not a bad thing to learn that your favorite artists are only human and can make mistakes, it's never a fun lesson to learn, either.

And my verdict? Well, I don't see a point in seething with outrage over this production, but that's not to say that it works. There were some inspired moments, and the performers were committed and engaging; but there were also many dull, muddled, or over-done passages. I appreciate the risk that Zimmerman took, but it needed more rigorous thought behind it. Perhaps Dessay is partly to blame for this--according to The New Yorker, Zimmerman had been planning a much more conventional staging until Dessay challenged her to come up with something more creative. All the same, Zimmerman has been working with this concept for over a year, and it's still muddled, so... Too bad it had to be such a high-profile failure, but at Mary Zimmerman's level it's impossible to fail quietly.

La Sonnambula, composed by Bellini in 1831, tells the simple tale of young Amina, who, unbeknownst to everyone in her village, is a sleepwalker. The night before her wedding to a man named Elvino, she sleepwalks into the room of a visiting Count, and when she is discovered, her reputation is ruined. But by the end of Act II, all is set to rights again. Obviously this plot lacks a certain pizzazz, so Zimmerman's production added a postmodern layer on top of it. Rather than taking place in 19th-century Switzerland, it took place in a contemporary NYC rehearsal space where a company of singers, rehearsing Sonnambula, find their relationships mirroring those of the characters they play.

The concept worked best in the first scene, which is exactly where it's most needed. I think the worst thing about the Sonnambula libretto, even more than the thinness of the plot, is how long said plot takes to get going. (Which I realize is a very "Terrible food! And such small portions!" kind of complaint, but oh well.) For the first half hour, Sonnambula is one big lovefest: the villagers love Amina, Amina and Elvino love each other, the Count loves the beautiful countryside. Only when the Count flirts with Amina and Elvino gets jealous does the situation become infused with human drama.

But Zimmerman's concept, and the audience's curiosity about how she'd make it work, lent surprise and interest to these early scenes. She evokes the rehearsal environment with vivid specificity. I loved seeing this production in HD because of the amazingly detailed set--it looks exactly like a lived-in, slightly shabby rehearsal space, with chipped paint on the walls and used paper cups scattered carelessly on a table--but it is a stage set that must be struck after every performance! The characters also become more interesting. Dessay gets to sing Amina's first aria in the persona of an opera diva trying on costumes and shoes, which caters to her comedy skills and love of complex characters. And it makes Amina charming in a 21st-century way rather than a 19th-century one. Furthermore, in the first scene, the line between rehearsal and real life is always very clear. First, the opera company's Diva and Leading Man rehearse the scene of Amina and Elvino's betrothal; then the rehearsal pauses and the Leading Man proposes to the Diva in real life. It's logical and it works.

But after this scene, things get muddled. Who is the Count's counterpart in the modern-day story, and why does he need to bunk down on an old cot in the rehearsal room? And when Amina sleepwalks onto his cot and we're supposed to think that it is the Diva sleepwalking (i.e. it is not merely a rehearsal), why is she wearing an old-fashioned white nightgown such as no 21st-century woman would choose to wear? Why does the chorus sometimes behave like modern-day individuals, and sometimes like a traditional 19th-century opera chorus? (At the top of Act II, as Elvino sings an anguished aria, the chorus behind him performs lyrical gestures. It's a moving moment, as though the whole world is feeling Elvino's grief, but it doesn't mesh with how the chorus was set up to behave in Act I.) Indeed, for much of Act II, Zimmerman seems to be out of ideas. The contrast between rehearsal and real life disappears, and apart from the modern clothes and scenery, the production becomes very traditional.

The biggest problem, though, is the extreme disarray of the finales of both acts. Even though I just accused Zimmerman of lacking ideas, that means she sometimes lets well enough alone--giving Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay the spotlight for their big solos, rather than doing anything directorial to interfere with the singers. However, in the finales, there is too much going on, too many ideas, and it's distracting. In the Act I finale, the chorus gets so upset at the Diva and the Leading Man's breakup that they trash the rehearsal room, flinging papers and costumes about. In the middle of it all, Flórez and Dessay stand on a spinning bed, straining to be seen and heard above the din. The Act II finale puts everyone in "traditional" Sonnambula costumes (Swiss dirndls, funny little vests) for a big choral song-and-dance. But it's so busy and hectic that it does not grant the emotional release that the end of the opera demands. You can admire Dessay's technical skill in singing "Ah, non giunge" while hopping around and being hoisted into the air, but you can't feel Amina's joy.

It's the singers who made it possible for me to enjoy the broadcast, and who provide a justification for producing this opera. Juan Diego Flórez is indisputably a great talent, but he has a very particular kind of voice that is not suited to a huge variety of roles. So despite the flaws of La Sonnambula, it makes sense for him to perform it, because Elvino has some terrific stuff to sing, and the role covers an especially wide range of emotions. He performed his two Act II arias splendidly, including a blistering "Perche non posso odiarti," in which his character bitterly rejects Amina. (Listen to it here.)

Now, it's difficult for me to complain about Natalie Dessay, but I don't think the role of Amina is made-to-measure for her. If I had to name the one thing I love best about Natalie, it is her intensity, which comes across when she is interviewed and in her signature roles. But the role of Amina is the opposite of intense--the whole point of the opera is that she's a sweet, dreamy girl who's asleep during two of her big scenes! This is not to fault what Dessay actually did in this more toned-down mode, however. And after her lovely and delicate "Ah non credea mirarti" (she's so petite--where does she get the lung capacity for those long phrases?!) the camera zoomed in on her face and revealed a genuine tear-stain beneath one of her eyes.

More important, she and Flórez are really adorable together. Perhaps they're not quite as cute in Sonnambula as in La Fille du Régiment, and perhaps when they sing in harmony his voice is a size larger than hers. But they have real chemistry in their love duets, and sing with passion and commitment. It was fun to see them laughing and joking together, too, when Deborah Voight interviewed them following Act I.

I enjoyed the acting of Jennifer Black as Lisa, who secretly loves Elvino. Black's redheaded good looks showed up well in HD, and her facial expressions told you everything you needed to know about this frustrated young woman, who, although she is our heroine's rival, isn't a traditional villainness. (This production gave Lisa a nice moment of redemption when she saved the sleepwalking Amina from falling off a ledge.) I just don't think that Lisa's Act II aria suited Black's voice very well; she sounds like she'd do better in stuff that requires less coloratura.

Dessay has suggested that Sonnambula is a silly story, offending some opera-goers in the process. There's a reactionary element at work here, people who claim that modern audiences have become too cynical and nasty to accept Bellini's pastoral romance, and that audiences in the olden days knew "better." Well, perhaps I am a cynic, because whenever I hear people talking like this I suspect them of romanticizing the past--and in this case I have proof! I stumbled upon a New York Times review of Sonnambula from 1916 that states "Of course no listener of today finds either Amina or Elvino a figure of any interest whatever. La Sonnambula is one of the most faded operas of the Italian list, and the doings of all its personages...are of the most conventional operatic sort." So much for the good old days!

Anyway, it's not outrageous to say that Sonnambula lacks a really intriguing libretto; surely Dessay is not the only opera singer who thinks this. Furthermore, many of the singers in this production must realize that Zimmerman's staging is a muddled mixed bag. (Even Dessay, though partly responsible for Zimmerman's concept, sounds guardedly diplomatic when discussing it in The New Yorker: "At the beginning, I felt that the concept didn't carry all the way through--it was just an idea to wrap it in beautiful paper. But after three weeks of rehearsals I think we are going to make it work.") But watching her and Flórez and the others perform, you'd never guess that anyone dislikes this story and/or this production. At the end of Act I, when they're spinning around on that bed, yes, the staging is chaotic and illogical, but Dessay and Flórez sang their hearts out nonetheless, keeping intense eye contact, trusting in each other and in Bellini's music. And I do find that inspiring.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crazy for Kushner

Speaking of Tony Kushner, I have recently been re-discovering my love of his work. I think he is the most quotable current American playwright, the one with the most lines that linger in my head. I've been reading the short plays and the one crazy full-length in the Death & Taxes volume for the last few days, which I just learned gives me a jump on Berkeley Rep's new season--they will begin next fall by producing a bill of Kushner one-acts entitled, cutely, Tiny Kushner. I've been pondering the themes that run through his work, too--how much he writes about death (his first two major plays confront the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis!) and yet I do not consider him morbid. I realized that that's why it's so appropriate that the New York Times Magazine, on three occasions, commissioned him to write a one-act play for their annual "The Lives They Lived" issue. It's not just that he is one of our most talented and acclaimed playwrights. It's that he is one of the best at writing about death and the dead.

Meanwhile, I'm listening to my iPod on Shuffle a lot at work, and songs from Caroline or Change keep popping up. I didn't love the score the first time I heard it (on CD--I've never seen the show), but it's really starting to grow on me. I love the use of the different musical idioms for each character. Part of me wonders if Caroline or Change appeared on Broadway five years too early, whether it wouldn't have done better nowadays. The repeated lyrics about "There ain't no underground in Louisiana / There is only / Underwater" resonate much more post-Katrina. And the two social forces that drive the story are black-white race relations, and poverty/income inequality. When do you think those two issues were more in the forefront of American culture: 2004, when the Dow was sitting pretty at about 10,000 and the (99% white) Republicans controlled the government? Or 2009, when we have a black president, and an economic crisis that has made everyone more conscious of the plight of the poor?

Sometimes I remember that Angels in America takes place a year or two before I was born, and I think "All right, it's a portrait of the world you were born into, with all of its problems and injustices. And you will have to change this world for the better." Similarly, Caroline or Change takes place around Kennedy's assassination, that is, two years after Barack Obama was born--and to produce it in 2009 would show how things have gotten better in his lifetime, but also how relevant its themes still are...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Inspiration's Promise, Fulfilled

I enjoy reading old interviews with my favorite artists while experiencing the benefits of living in the future: they don't know what will happen to them in years to come, but I do. My favorite thing is when they mention some project that is no more than a glimmer in their eye at the time the interview was conducted--a project that had a distinct possibility of never being realized at all--and yet I know that they did write that play or make that film, and furthermore, that it is brilliant. I collect these stories, because they inspire me, give me hope and make me happy--"dreams can come true" and all that. Here are examples from some of my own favorite artists.
  • During the marathon interview sessions that became the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut, the two filmmakers discuss how strange movie soundstages can look to an outsider, what with all the behind-the-scenes tricks that don't show up in the finished film. At this point Truffaut confesses, "It's often occurred to me that one might make a first-rate comedy on the making of a movie." The Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews were published in 1967. Six years later, Truffaut released Day for Night, which is a first-rate comedy on the making of a movie--one of those films that always makes me happy.
  • I once read a profile of Tom Stoppard from the late 1980s that mentioned that he was halfway through reading James Gleick's nonfiction book Chaos. The interviewer asked Stoppard whether this subject might find its way into his next play, and the playwright responded noncommittally. But in 1993, Arcadia premiered, a play inspired by chaos theory (plus a whole lot of other stuff)--and a work of freakin' genius!
  • In the introduction to his collection of plays Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia & Other Plays, published in 2000, Tony Kushner wrote "Though I have been handsomely remunerated for my movie and TV writing, I am bitterly disappointed, as none of my work for Hollywood has achieved what I'd hoped for it, which is to provide its author a pretext to meet Meryl Streep." As we all know, three years after that, not only had Kushner met Streep, but she was starring in the epic miniseries adaptation of Angels in America!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Pronounced Like "Omelette"

Tonight and tomorrow night, the Lycée Français in San Francisco is hosting a young French actor, Thomas Marceul, performing a one-man French-language adaptation of Hamlet. I recently became friends with a woman who teaches at the Lycée and, knowing that I love theater, she invited me to see the show with her.

I was very excited, because I've always wondered how Shakespeare sounds when translated into French. (When I met my French host parents and told them I was a drama major, they immediately started chattering about a production of Hamlet that they had just seen. I was very confused at first, because in French "Hamlet" sounds like "Omelette" and I didn't know why they were getting so worked up over glorified scrambled eggs.) When French people translate Shakespeare, do they use archaic or obscure French words to approximate the difficulty that Shakespeare's language holds for English speakers? Do they make any attempt to reproduce iambic pentameter? Will the richness of the language still come through? Will Shakespeare still be, you know, Shakespeare?

My French friend says that English is difficult for her not because of pronunciation or grammar, but because of the sheer size of the vocabulary. English words tend to have lots of synonyms, or almost-synonyms, and for a non-native speaker it is difficult to grasp all of the nuances. French is a much more compact language by comparison. Racine's total vocabulary in his eleven tragedies amounts to only about 3262 words, and his play Phedre uses only 1642 distinct words (source). Meanwhile, at a conservative estimate, Shakespeare's vocabulary contained around 17,700 words (source). Thus, almost by default, a French version of Shakespeare must be less rich than the original.

Yet Shakespeare can be terrifically compact when he needs to, using puns and plays on words that are difficult to reproduce in a foreign language. Think of Othello's "Put out the light, and then put out the light." I once saw a French translation of this line that went ""Eteignons cette lumière, pour ensuite éteindre celle de sa vie." Though both the English and the French lines are 10 words long, the French has more syllables and sounds wordier. Furthermore, it over-explains the metaphor that Shakespeare is using, robbing the line of its poetry. In French, Othello literally says "Let's extinguish this light, so as then to extinguish the light of her life"; in English that's subtextual.

The Hamlet adaptation tonight began with a translation of the "To be or not to be" speech ("Être ou ne pas être"), and I listened to it with a double conscience, hearing the French words but constantly comparing them to my memory of the English original. I quickly learned that tonight's translation did not use old-fashioned French words when Shakespeare uses old-fashioned English ones. It was elegant, but in a clean 20th-century French way rather than an ornate 17th-century English way. For instance, the translation of Hamlet's "'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished" was "C'est un dénouement qu'on voudrait avec ardeur"--"It's an ending that one would want ardently." French people don't talk like this in their day-to-day life; but it's still closer to the way they talk than Shakespeare is to the way that modern Americans and Britons talk.

The basic principle of this translation seemed to be to keep Shakespeare's most striking images and formulations, but pare down the language that surrounded them. The line "...to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" became "de courir si vite aux draps incestueux"--"to run so quickly to incestuous sheets." The translator realized that the phrase "incestuous sheets" is fresh and specific and memorable--but because this sense of the verb "to post" has become archaic in English, it's fine to simplify things by using the common French verb "courir," etc.

There were some instances of punning meanings getting lost or becoming too literal, as in the Othello example: it's impossible to translate, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," so Hamlet said "A little more than a nephew, and less than a son." But just a few lines later, the French gave a new poetry to Claudius's speech about "You must know, your father lost a father." In French, "lost father" is "père perdu," which has a nice ring to it.

You'll notice that my examples are taken from the first part of the show--that's because I eventually settled down and just started enjoying the French as opposed to trying constantly to compare it to the English. I will say, though, that seeing Shakespeare spoken in a more updated and vigorous idiom made it easier for me to appreciate the structure of his work, and his skill as a play-wright as opposed to his skill as a dramatic poet. Not that I am advocating that Shakespeare productions in English start simplifying his language and saying "to run so quickly" instead of "to post with such dexterity," but I was certainly not offended by it in French.

This post is getting long and I still haven't discussed other aspects of the performance--its acting, directing, adaptation--I hope to blog about that later...

Photo: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet--she's probably the most famous French person ever to have taken on the role.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Wintersyana

Thanks to my new housemate I feel like I have really been getting a crash-course in Indian culture lately! (Just created an "India" tag for the blog.) This weekend, she has a friend visiting from New York, who is studying at Parsons School of Design and knows Nina Paley, the woman behind the animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. According to her, this is a must-see!

Sita Sings the Blues (a film championed by Roger Ebert, among others) is based on the Ramayana: Sita, the wife of King Rama, is a classic example in literature of the abandoned and rejected wife. Nina Paley uses Sita's story, as well as old jazz songs, to explore her own feelings after her husband rejected her.

Because I was not familiar with the Ramayana story, my friend told it to me, focusing on the parts that involve Sita:

Queen Sita is kidnapped by a demon and her husband, King Rama, undertakes an elaborate quest to rescue her. Once he has rescued her, though, he is haunted by the thought that the monster must have violated her, or that she otherwise has not remained faithful to him. Sita swears, several times, that she is chaste. She even undergoes a trial by fire in order to prove it: the gods rescue her from the flames because she is telling the truth. Nevertheless, people in the kingdom start to gossip about Sita, which infuriates Rama and stirs up his doubts again. Despite the fact that she is pregnant, he exiles her from the kingdom. Sita takes refuge in an ashram and gives birth to twin boys, raising them to adulthood with the help of a wise guru. Many years later, Rama's army invades the region where the ashram is, but is defeated by a force led by his two sons. Rama realizes that these must be no ordinary boys--they must be of royal blood. Thus he meets his sons for the first time and is reunited with Sita. Still, he continues to have doubts about Sita's chastity, the boys' parentage, etc. Frustrated by her husband's lack of faith in her virtue, Sita cries, "If I have always answered my husband's questions truthfully, then may the earth swallow me up!" The earth swallows her up and she is never heard from again.

When I heard this, I immediately thought, "This has the most fascinating parallels with The Winter's Tale!" To wit:
  • A jealous husband who will not listen to reason...
  • ...falsely and repeatedly accuses his wife of infidelity...
  • ...his cruelty not mitigated by the fact that she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy...
  • ...nor the fact that the gods themselves swear to her virtue.
  • The child/children are brought up in a distant land, in a pastoral setting, without meeting their father the King...
  • ...though they have an innate nobility that sets them apart and eventually brings them to their father's attention...
  • ...which also leads to their father being reunited with his long-suffering and virtuous wife.
I'm not sure what I should think about the different ways these tales end, though. My friend explained to me that for Hindus, Sita's being swallowed by the earth isn't suicide, exactly--it is more a reunion with the earth goddess, her energy being absorbed back into the earth. And there is something to admire about a woman who refuses to take her husband back if he is still just as jealous as he was when he exiled her in the first place. Still, to me it does seem like a kind of suicide, or defeat, or giving up. Meanwhile, The Winter's Tale has a much more hopeful and happy ending: Leontes realizes his mistakes and is given a second chance; Hermione forgives him. But it can't have been fun for Hermione to spend sixteen years in hiding, out of sight of everyone, in the hopes that her husband might one day forgive her. And, while the humanist in me appreciates the message that people can change, that Leontes can become a better man; the feminist in me wonders if it's a good idea to give women hope that their cruel and abusive husbands will eventually change, since so many of them never do.

Because of copyright/distribution issues Sita Sings the Blues is available as an open-source movie to watch online. I hope to find the time to do so soon!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some Enchanted Yves

Last weekend I finally made my way to the De Young Museum to see their massive Yves Saint Laurent exhibition--its only stop in the United States.

The exhibit covers nearly all of Saint Laurent's "greatest hits": the innovative looks that revolutionized the fashion world before becoming integral parts of the modern woman's wardrobe (pantsuits, trapeze dresses), as well as the gorgeous and fanciful collections, drawing inspiration from the most diverse sources, that fashionistas still talk about today (Mondrian dress, Ballets Russes collection). Many of the outfits were included in the huge retrospective fashion show that Saint Laurent staged upon his retirement in 2002, and a video of this show played in one of the galleries. This gives a chance to see the clothes in motion, the one thing that the exhibition could not otherwise permit. For instance, in the video, you can see Carla Bruni (already carrying herself like she's the most important woman in France) modeling a dramatic cape of marigold taffeta. But the cape is not included in the exhibition, because its allure is all in its float and billow.

Most of the mannequins in the De Young exhibition were not displayed behind glass, which really enabled you to get up close and examine the clothing's details. For instance, on the cotton blouse that's part of the original 1966 Le Smoking, there's the most perfect little ruffle--probably half an inch wide--encircling the cuffs. I doubt I'd have noticed it if I'd merely seen the suit in photographs.

The only dresses displayed behind glass were the ones inspired by flora and fauna, probably because their chiffon petals or feather trim are too delicate to be out in the open. This part of the exhibit, however, included perhaps my favorite dress of all: a green couture ballgown, very simple in silhouette, but embroidered all over with chiffon leaves and silk-ribbon flowers and stones and beads--an artificial garden more beautiful than a live one. This is the only picture of it I could find online, but the photo obviously does NOT do it justice. (It's the one on the right.)

The exhibit contained several outfits that I recognized from other sources. After Saint Laurent's death last summer, this photo of him with friends Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise was widely reproduced. Betty's lace-up safari tunic was on view at the De Young, though shown with trousers and a chain-link belt rather than as a micro-minidress.

You can also see Catherine Deneuve's deliciously prim little black dress with contrast collar and cuffs from Belle de Jour--I mean the actual one made to order for her.

The exhibit was organized thematically rather than chronologically. For instance, you could see a range of dresses spanning thirty or forty years that all highlighted Saint Laurent's skill at graphic black-and-white looks:

...or the way he played with transparency, nudity and sexuality:

I think of these dresses as fanciful creative expressions, but they still provoked a lot of raised eyebrows from the museumgoers, especially little kids and their mothers. It can absolutely blow a child's mind to realize that not all people are ashamed of "private parts" the way Mommy and Daddy have taught you to be ashamed. (I remember having my own mind blown at the age of five or so, when at the Portland Art Museum I saw an exhibit about Andrew Wyeth and his nude model, Helga.)

For more photos, see the style.com slideshow I linked to above and this fabsugar.com slideshow. I wish I could reproduce all of the images here but this post is getting long enough as it is! I still haven't touched on the fact that Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to do "retro" (1940s collection from 1971), or one of the first designers to use black models and do an African-themed collection (including a dress with cone-shaped breasts, long before Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna), or the many times in his career that he made clothes in homage to his favorite painters and writers. I always find it touching when one great artist pays tribute to another, acknowledging the universality of art, even though they live in different times and work in different media. (Beaded jackets in tribute to Van Gogh, below.)

Both Van Gogh and Saint Laurent at some times embodied the stereotype of the "tortured artist," and I wish that the exhibit had revealed something more about Yves Saint Laurent as a man. Because the clothes are grouped thematically, they give the impression that Saint Laurent was a remarkably consistent artist--if he ever had a fallow period, the layout of this exhibition conceals it. Nor are there any references to the toll that being an artist took on Saint Laurent--his struggles with depression and drugs. Yes, he was a boy-genius, a fashion superhero; but superheroes only become interesting when you know about their kryptonite.

I also wish that the exhibit had included more context for the clothes: seeing an extremely 1960s hippie ballgown with a patchwork calico skirt as part of a display on Saint Laurent's use of color is perhaps less valuable than it would be to know what he thought about hippies, how he saw his work as a reflection of his era, etc. Also, because fashion is a commercial art, did Saint Laurent ever have to bow to commercial pressures, or could he always remain true to himself because everyone regarded him as a fashion genius?

But what does "true to himself" mean, anyway? Where, in all this infinite variety, is the true Yves? How can the man who said his favorite color was black, who is known for the austere Le Smoking, also be the man who put together some of the brightest and most riotous color combinations of any 20th-century fashion designer? How, in the short span of a few years (the late 1960s), can a man go from designing Le Smoking, to raffia African dresses, to Deneuve's haute-bourgeoisie Belle de Jour clothes, to the aforementioned hippie ballgown? How would it feel to be universally acknowledged as the last-ever of the great couturiers--the end of an era? The exhibit offers no answers.

Still, it is a beautiful, beautiful thing to regard. In Montreal it was entitled "LOVE" but it seems to have dropped that title when it came to S.F. Perhaps Americans would find it corny, even in this city of hippies and flower children. Still, it feels appropriate. Saint Laurent was clearly a romantic, self-described as "hypersensitive" and keenly attuned to aesthetic nuances. His clothes bespeak a love of strong, powerful, sexy women; as Judith Thurman wrote,
No one has been so religiously gallant toward women or resistant to the temptation of modern fashion to make clothes as difficult, ironic, contemptuous, or ugly as modern art. Saint Laurent takes it upon himself to anticipate every potential humiliation in the bulge of a seam, the pucker of a pleat, the mockery of a bow. His cutting and drapery are a lover’s discourse with the female body.
Which chimes with Saint Laurent's own famous quote, included at the beginning of this exhibition:
The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves. But for those who haven't had the fortune of finding this happiness, I am there.
Though the exhibit may not tell as much as I would have liked about Yves Saint Laurent the man, it gives an indelible impression of what it means to be a Yves Saint Laurent woman. Wearing clothes that both protect her and make her feel strong, she is elegant, cultured, confident, and proud to be female. This is a vision that transcends notions of fashion and social class. When you go to this exhibit, you can forget that we're in a recession, forget that the Van Gogh jackets cost half a million francs each and that that style of beaded jacket is typically very old-ladyish. You can only admire and aspire.

Recommended reading: "Swann Song," Judith Thurman's New Yorker article about Yves Saint Laurent and his final couture show, from which the above quote is taken.

Photos of lace-backed gown and Le Smoking from the LA Times.
Photo of Carla Bruni from the BBC.
Photo of green ballgown from Burton Rosenberg on flickr.
Photo of Catroux, Saint Laurent and de la Falaise from moment.blogs.nytimes.com
"Belle de Jour" photo from pequenoscinerastas.files.wordpress.com
Photos of black & white dresses and sexy dresses from fabsugar.com
Photo of Van Gogh jackets from sfluxe.com
Photo of hippie ballgown from poetic_chic on flickr.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Antoinette Doinel, Maxine Tivoli, Josie Gideon

Whenever I get disheartened that everything's been done before and there are no original stories left to tell, I remind myself that I do have one advantage: I am a woman and I want to write about women's experiences. This is not to puff myself up or imply that women are "better" writers than men, merely that historically there have been fewer female artists than male ones, so women writers still have more terrain to explore. Whole sub-genres exist that assume a male point of view, and I'm particularly interested in turning them inside out, seeing how they look from the other side.

The other day I watched Fellini's film Amarcord, which is situated in the (mostly European) tradition of filmmaking where the director looks nostalgically back on his boyhood, the vibrant characters who surounded him, the scrapes he got into with his buddies, the beautiful women he desired. Think of The 400 Blows as a grittier example of this and Cinema Paradiso as the sickeningly sentimental version. I know I'm supposed to be charmed by the boys' exuberance and pranks, and think fondly of my own childhood; but I was a prim young girl who despised rowdy boys, and I still find it hard to relate to these characters. And Fellini never considers what it feels like to be a girl in this provincial town, smiling demurely as the boys hoot and fart and blow raspberries. Are the girls happy? Will they feel nostalgic about their childhood in the same way the boys will? Why are there no Joys of Girlhood films to complement these Joys of Boyhood films? Oh, that's right. Because there have been few, if any, female directors like Fellini and Truffaut, with the clout to get an autobiographical film financed and made.

Or, as I mentioned a few days ago, I probably won't get around to writing the big Benjamin Button/Max Tivoli/Stories of People Aging Backwards post that I had planned. But one thing I do wonder about is why I've never heard of a narrative in which it's a female who ages backwards. Because of that misguided assumption that stories about men are universal while stories about women are niche subjects? However, I think that a gender switch would make the aging-backwards plotline even more powerful, heighten its themes. In our culture, things like aging and sexual attractiveness and the lack of it are more difficult for women than for men.

For instance, in The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Max, aged 17 (and looking 53), loses his virginity to Mrs. Levy, a still-attractive widow in her mid-forties. He's really in love with Mrs. Levy's teenage daughter Alice, so this is all very complicated--and makes for an amusing parody of Lolita. Nonetheless, he doesn't regret his sexual initiation. The "sexy older woman" thing is a standard male fantasy, after all.

Yet it is impossible to imagine this happening the same way if Max were Maxine. A girl of 17 is not likely to wish to be deflowered by a man of 45. Many men, even, have hangups about dating older women, so perhaps Maxine (who looks 53 years old, remember) can get only a man of 55+ years to have sex with her--making it even more uncomfortable for the teenage girl trapped inside the menopausal body. That's another thing: the processes of the female body are more complicated than those of the male. Menstruation, menopause, fertility, pregnancy! And, not to be crass, the physical evidence of virginity loss: when Maxine's first lover realizes he's broken her hymen, he will think she's a freak, a 53-year-old virgin; and this will be agony. Yes, Max's story is cruel, but Maxine's is crueler. There's room for a Lolita parody in this hypothetical novel as well, but it will be more pointed and satirical: toward the end of Maxine's life, she'll look like a nymphet but have the sexual know-how of a woman in late middle age. And she'll learn some hard truths about what makes women desirable to men.

One final narrative that I really want to see in a gender-flipped version is The Artist and His Women. The granddaddy of this genre is probably another Fellini film, . (The Broadway musical adaptation Nine picked up what was inherent in the source material and ran with it: none of the male characters matter except for Guido.) bred other ambitious and personal movies about directors: All That Jazz, Synecdoche New York. Other examples of this genre are the Neil Simon comedy Jake's Women and the stultifying French film Ma vie sexuelle. Even Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing. Creative heroes, all of them surrounded and frustrated by women. Note how the protagonists of these movies/plays, if they have children, always have daughters--never sons.

Now, I admire some of these works very much, but they can also exasperate me. It's easy to criticize them for being self-indulgent. The protagonist is blatantly based on the writer who created him, and shares his creator's neuroses, weaknesses, and bad habits--yet retains an amazing ability to attract beautiful women. (Many times more amazing when it's Philip Seymour Hoffman than when it's Marcello Mastroianni.) Though obviously flawed, the man is treated like a shining sun, with the women merely planets orbiting around him.

So, I would love to see the inverse: The Artist and Her Men. And this wouldn't be the familiar narrative of the lone trailblazing woman who must contend with a cabal of men who want only to oppress her. No, I'm talking about the female equivalent of Guido Contini: a woman in the prime of life, who's met with some successes, who sometimes exploits the men in her life and is sometimes exploited by them, who scorns monogamy, who has as much ambition and appetite as she does faults and imperfections. Even if this turned out as self-indulgent as the Artist-and-His-Women movies/plays, it would still be valuable: affording new insights, and proving that women can be just as over-reaching as men. Men make movies rooted in their sexual fantasies and personal hang-ups all the time; why shouldn't women do the same?

I would love to write an Artist-and-Her-Men play eventually; though that will probably have to wait till I am about forty years old and have lived through adventures of my own!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Air Beckett

In today's New York Times, Dwight Garner reviews the first volume of Samuel Beckett's collected letters, which, he says, humanize this seemingly inscrutable writer: the young Beckett is "surprisingly affectionate and wholehearted," often depressed but also fired up by literary passions. The letters also reveal odd facts that do not always jibe with our stereotypes of Beckett: at one point, Beckett reveals a wish to be a commercial pilot. In an aside, Garner adds "Imagine what Monty Python could have done with the notion of 'Air Beckett.'"

Well, Monty Python may not have gotten to it, but Ian Frazier did, in a New Yorker humor piece from 1980 titled "LGA-ORD." (It is reprinted in the collection Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker.) An excerpt:
Cruising along nicely now.
Yes cruising along very nicely indeed if I do say so myself.
(Long pause)
Twenty-two thousand feet.
Extinguish the light extinguish the light I have extinguished the No Smoking light so you are free to move about the cabin have a good cry hang yourselves get an erection who knows however we do ask that while you're in your seats you keep your belts lightly fastened in case we encounter any choppy air or the end we've prayed for past time remembering our flying time from New York to Chicago is two hours and fifteen minutes the time of the dark journey of our existence is not revealed, you cry no you pray for a flight attendant you pray for a flight attendant a flight attendant comes now cry with reading material if you care to purchase a cocktail
A cocktail?
Image: First page of Beckett's English translation of Waiting for Godot. Dwight Garner quotes someone as saying that Beckett "had the worst handwriting of any 20th-century author" and having seen a collection of his manuscripts at the Centre Pompidou exhibition 2 years ago, I agree wholeheartedly with that. Nonetheless, the impenetrability of it feels appropriate...perhaps there's some truth to graphology. Image taken from the UTexas website, which owns Beckett's papers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March Updates

**Salman Rushdie has written the piece on Slumdog Millionaire that I longed to read as soon as I saw the movie. He attacks it both from a narrative/literary standpoint and from an Indian/postcolonial standpoint, but always with a good dose of sardonic Rushdie wit:
"It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it's still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead."
The piece discusses a whole lot more than Slumdog Millionaire--its general subject is the art of film (and other) adaptation. A lot to digest, and highly recommended. (Incidentally, this article is just one more proof that The Guardian has the best Books section in the English-speaking world, bar none.)

**Maybe I'm a bit too hard on Slumdog Millionaire, though. My main objection to it is its theme of "destiny"--I believe that characters' free will is the essence of drama, and resorting to destiny as deux ex machina is just lazy and lowbrow. Yet at the same time, I have a pervasive habit of seeking external signs and hints from destiny in my own life. Can something cosmic happen to give me a clue that I'm in the right place at the right time? Is there some deeper meaning behind coincidental encounters? Is this all, somehow, being orchestrated?

**Speaking of adaptation, a month or so ago I planned to do a big ambitious blog post that involved comparing Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button short story, the recent film based on it, and the novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which also uses the conceit of a man who ages backwards. But I haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm to go see the movie, and I wasn't all that jazzed about Max Tivoli when I read it, so it's probably not going to happen. I think perhaps I am just wishing I were back at college--I mean, why else would I get an urge to write a big compare-and-contrast essay?

**I also have, from long ago, the beginnings of a blog post about works of art that use reverse-chronology in general... not just the obvious ones like Memento and Betrayal either...but now we are talking about a huge can of worms.

**It's not the Baptistry Doors, but I'm pretty pleased with how this turned out...

I found colored paper at a crafts store pre-cut to the 12" by 12" size I needed, and the photographs come from a book of platinum prints titled Dana Buckley: Fifty. (I don't know if you can see them that well, but they are all black-and-white images of flowers.) I got the book on sale at Stacey's and, though I am usually against mutilating books, decided that it was worth it in this instance.

**Because I'm the kind of girl who gets upset over the closing of bookstores that I've never even been to, you can imagine how torn up I am that Stacey's Books is going out of business. It became my go-to bookstore when I started working in the financial district...and now it's shutting down after more than eighty years?! I have gotten some very good deals as they clear out their stock, which makes me feel like a war profiteer, but really, what else do you expect me to do?