Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Interview (Columbia Pictures, LStar Capital, Point Grey Pictures, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Interview is the project that started out as just another raunchy modern comedy from the team of James Franco and Seth Rogen, directed by Rogen and his filmmaking partner Evan Goldberg from a story they worked up with Dan Sterling, though Sterling gets sole credit for the actual script. As all the world knows by now, the film casts Franco as Dave Skylark, host of an Entertainment Tonight-style bottom-feeding show whose specialty is getting celebrities to reveal unexpected truths about themselves, especially about their sexual practices — in a rather odd opening scene he interviews Eminem (playing himself) and gets Eminem to reveal that the only reason he recorded those anti-Gay raps was because he’s actually Gay. Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, Dave’s long-suffering producer who wishes he were on 60 Minutes doing serious news reporting instead of hosting long debates on whether Matthew McConaughey sleeps with goats and the shape of Miley Cyrus’s vagina. Early on in the movie they discover that, though North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un hates America and teaches his people to wish for our utter destruction (the opening is a screamingly funny scene of a North Korean girl singing a bloodthirsty song about this — some of the words, in Korean but helpfully given subtitles, are, “Die America, die. Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy. May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are foooorced to watch!”), he’s a big fan of U.S. television in general and two shows — The Big Bang Theory and Dave’s show, Skylark Tonite, in particular. This gives Dave and Aaron the idea to get news cred for their program by asking Kim Jong Un for an interview — at a time when Kim has not only developed a nuclear arsenal but is threatening to launch it and obliterate the west coast of the U.S. Aaron figures out that since North Korea participates in the Olympics there must be some sort of contact between the famously isolated regime and the outside world, he traces it, and within a week Kim’s publicity person, Sook (Diana Bang), has called him back announcing a rendezvous point in China, where — in the middle of nowhere, and leaving Aaron no way to get home — she gets off a helicopter and tells him that Kim will be available for a one-hour interview as long as he and Dave agree to ask only questions that will be pre-scripted in advance from her office. They agree — Aaron says that’s a violation of news protocol but Dave couldn’t care less; he wants the “get” for his low-rated show — and then they’re contacted by the CIA in the person of agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and Botwin (Reese Alexander), who want to recruit — more like order — Dave to “take him out” when they meet Kim for the interview. “For drinks?” asks Aaron. “Take out … like to dinner?” asks Dave.

It suddenly dawns on our two comic naïfs that what the CIA agents really want them to do is use their access to Kim to kill him, and they have an elaborate device for them to do so: a skin patch containing ricin which they are to apply to Kim as he shakes hands with them. (One contributor posted to the “Goofs” section that this is factually inaccurate — according to the Wikipedia page on ricin, it’s poisonous only if “inhaled, injected or ingested” — though I suspect writers Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling deliberately used a murder method that would be ineffective to avoid presenting what the old Production Code called “imitable details of crime” — i.e., they wanted a murder technique you could not try at home.) The CIA outfits Dave with a carrying bag in which they conceal the ricin patch, but Dave decides the bag is unstylish and instead insists on carrying his own and hiding the ricin in chewing gum — whereupon it’s discovered instantly and one of Kim’s security guards chews the gum. The CIA then decides to take two additional patches and ship them to Dave and Aaron via drone — Aaron has to go outside and pick up the projectile containing them, where he’s attacked by a Siberian tiger and saved only when the projectile takes out the tiger, then there’s a long and not especially funny scene in which to hide the projectile from the Korean security guards who are coming to arrest him, Aaron has to shove it up his ass (an all too typical scene in what passes for movie “comedy” these days). Meanwhile, in one of the film’s most genuinely funny sequences, Kim launches an all-out charm offensive on Dave, taking him to fancy meals, shooting hoops with him (reflecting the original inspiration of the story in former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea to meet the real Kim Jong Un) and showing him a fully-stocked grocery store with a fat kid standing outside to refute the accusation that Kim is starving his people and spending all the government’s money on nuclear weapons. Only when Dave discovers that the grocery store is literally a Potemkin village — all the food in it, including the grapefruit, is fake, replicas made of cement — and he stumbles into a meeting in which Kim goes crazy and announces his intention to nuke half the world just to prove what a great man he is, he’s on board for the assassination plot again; and Sook, apparently a faithful servant of the regime, turns out to be a revolutionary waiting for the chance to get rid of Kim, though she warns Dave that if he kills Kim they’ll just replace him with someone as bad or worse and what he has to do is get Kim to break down on the air so it will embarrass the regime and it will lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the North Korean people.

Needless to say, part of the embarrassment process will be the revelation that Kim Jong Un shits and pisses like any normal person — part of the North Korean propaganda creating his personality cult has been to say that he expends so much energy working tirelessly on behalf of the people that he doesn’t have to excrete in the normal human (or animal) fashion — and there’s a big action climax which involves Aaron getting his fingers bitten off by one of Kim’s security people in the most blatantly fake-looking gross-out comedy scene since the duel with the Green Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Interview got wretched reviews when it was finally issued — after a comedy of errors in which Kim Jong Un, showing himself to be almost as much of an asshole in real life as he’s portrayed in the film, denounced the release of the movie as “an act of war” by the U.S. (and presumably Japan, home base of Columbia’s parent company, Sony) on his country, and a group calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony’s computer system, stealing complete computer files of five finished films (including the Black remake of Annie) and a lot of embarrassing e-mails in which Columbia executives said, among other things, that they thought President Obama’s taste in movies ran exclusively to ones about Black people and George Clooney had lost his touch with popular taste by making The Monuments Men (which accounts for all those Horn Blows at Midnight-style self-deprecating jokes Clooney made about his film on the Golden Globe Awards). Though the North Korean government denied it, the FBI became convinced that they were behind the Sony hack (this has been questioned by some people who’ve investigated the “Guardians of Peace”’s public statements and suggested that the mistakes in their English are characteristic of people whose native language is Russian, not Korean), and in addition there were threats to attack any theatres that dared show The Interview. So some of America’s biggest theatre chains refused to run the film, Columbia pulled it from release, illegal Internet pirates said they had obtained the film and would put it out if Columbia didn’t, President Obama and others weighed in and attacked Columbia for cowardice in the face of terrorist threats, calling on the studio to support freedom of expression by releasing the movie — which they eventually did, first online and then in whatever theatres would agree to run it. (In San Diego the only place it showed publicly was the Media Arts Center in North Park.)

When The Interview finally came out the critics mostly trashed it — unfairly, I think; it’s hardly in the same league as the classic political satires to which it was inevitably compared (the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — the last also a Columbia movie) but it’s reasonably entertaining within the limits of the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg school of comedy. Some of it is genuinely witty and a few bits — particularly Randall Park’s performance as Kim Jong Un, which got singled out by most reviewers as the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary film — even approach pathos. If The Interview has a flaw, it’s in the clash between its ambitions towards political satire and Rogen’s and Goldberg’s knowledge that what their audience wants is raunchy, titillating sex- and drug-soaked humor. Originally Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling were going to take the usual cop-out and make the setting a totally fictional country — which, as I told Charles after we watched it, would have made it more like the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies than the models that inevitably got cited — but then they made the fateful decision to use the real names of North Korea (actually its own name for itself is “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or “DPRK” for short) and Kim Jong Un. This undoubtedly got the film more public attention than it would have received otherwise — if it had been about a fictional country and dictator it probably would have come and went, reaching the audience Franco and Rogen have built up in their previous films together in the genre but not much beyond that — but it also built up a lot of audience expectations critics gleefully tore down. Indeed, probably the best comment was made by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as hosts of the Golden Globes; in their introduction they said that by making the film an international cause celêbre in human rights and freedom, “they forced us all to pretend that we really wanted to see it.” For all its raunchiness and frank unbelievability, The Interview is actually a fun film — though I think I liked Pineapple Express, the only previous Franco-Rogen film I’ve seen, better because it was just a stoner comedy (the title referred to an especially potent strain of marijuana supposedly developed by the U.S. government in the 1930’s as a possible bioweapon) without the satirical pretensions of The Interview. I could probably go on yes-butting The Interview all day, but for all its weaknesses it’s still good clean dirty fun, hardly a deathless classic but still entertaining to watch.

Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Annual Academy Awards (ABC-TV, February 22, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 87th annual Academy Awards telecast, a rather dispiriting spectacle — it was compact and well organized, lasting just three hours and 40 minutes (almost an hour shorter than the Grammy Awards), but it wasn’t terribly interesting, though having surprisingly little skin in the game (I don’t think I’ve seen any of the eight films that were nominated for Best Picture) I may simply not have cared that much if one intellectually pretentious movie with a single-word seven-letter title beginning with “B” beat out another intellectually pretentious movie with a single-word seven-letter title beginning with “B” for Best Picture. The two movies in question were Birdman and Boyhood, and Birdman (saddled with the ridiculous subtitle Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) won. It’s the story of an actor who once was a major movie star playing a superhero — cast with Michael Keaton, an actor who was once a major movie star playing a superhero (Batman in Tim Burton’s two films involving the character) — who’s attempting a comeback on the Broadway stage and whose divo hissy-fits are getting in the way. I hadn’t realized it until last night that it’s really a remake of the John Barrymore plot thread of Dinner at Eight (1933)! Charles, who came home from work after the whole thing was over, said he’d seen Boyhood on his most recent trip to the Bay Area to see his family; Boyhood got Brownie points for the sheer audacity of its concept (a boy matures from 5 to 17 and director Richard Linklater actually filmed the movie in bits and pieces over 12 years so that instead of casting the boy with multiple actors he could use the same one, Einar Coltrane, as he naturally aged — there’ve been precedents, including Michael Apted’s Up documentaries and the cycle of five films François Truffaut made with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud over the years, starting with The 400 Blows, that had Léaud play the same character as he aged from troubled adolescent to middle-aged man). Boyhood’s only win was Patricia Arquette for Best Supporting Actress (playing Einar Coltrane’s mom) and the only win for Selma, which eked out a Best Picture nomination though its Black woman director was shut out of that category, was Best Song (John Legend and rapper Common for “Glory” — they took the songwriting credit under their real names, John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn.

Birdman won four awards, including three of the big ones — Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who joked during his acceptance speech that he’s the second Mexican director to win in a row) and Best Original Screenplay as well as Best Cinematography — while the other major winners were The Grand Budapest Hotel and, of all things, Whiplash, which is basically the boot-camp scenes of Full Metal Jacket transferred to the world of music education, with the sadistic teacher browbeating his charges into either better performances or nervous breakdowns. In some respects the production numbers were stronger than the awards portions of the show — Lady Gaga once again showed off her chops as a standards singer with a medley of songs from The Sound of Music (she’s more suited to the urbanity of the Rodgers and Hart songs than the sentimentality of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ones, but she still did quite well) that introduced a surprisingly well-preserved Julie Andrews as one of the presenters. Host Neil Patrick Harris did a leaden opening number, yet another tribute in song to the movie industry, with a pretend heckler from the audience; he also told some pretty lame jokes about the male participants’ bodies (I expect him any day now to come out with an ad in which he says, “I’m not Gay; I just play one on awards shows!”) but he was a decent, inoffensive host. Indeed, “inoffensive” was probably the word that would best describe last night’s show — no wardrobe malfunctions, no bizarre production numbers like that one they did one year in which Rob Lowe looked like he was about to lead a gang-rape of Snow White — though there was a lot of political and social commentary, not only from people you’d expect it (like Laura Poitras, director of the Best Feature Documentary winner CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden) but people you wouldn’t (like Patricia Arquette). Best Actress went to Julianne Moore for playing an Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice — a movie that won nothing else — and Best Actor went to Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (so the guy who played the straight British scientist beat out Benedict Cumberbatch, the guy who played the Gay British scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game). One can readily imagine the knives coming out on talk radio and Fox News about “liberal Hollywood” at its most self-congratulatory — and the show did put an awful lot of people of color on stage to make up for how few of them the Academy actually nominated for awards!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Maria Callas: Life and Art (Picture Music International/ITV, 1987; EMI, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The films Charles and I watched last night were part of an EMI Records package (back when EMI still existed as a separate company before the relentless forces of corporate consolidation ended up absorbing it, with the Universal Music Group purchasing Capitol and EMI’s other popular labels while the classical catalog ended up at Warners Music Group — with the bizarre result that the back catalog of EMI’s classical division is now being reissued under something called “Warner Classical,” ironic because in its heyday, when it was still associated with the movie studio that shares its name, Warner Bros. was notorious as the one major record company that hardly bothered with classical music!) released in 1999 called Callas: Life and Art, containing two CD’s of opera excerpts abstracted from Maria Callas’ EMI studio recordings (some of them recorded as excerpts, some “clipped” from complete-opera recordings) and a DVD containing a documentary, also called Maria Callas: Life and Art, along with what was billed as “excerpts” from a concert she gave in Hamburg, Germany on March 16, 1962 but which seems to be the entire telecast. I had a previous version of this I’d video-recorded off what is now the Arts & Entertainment network, and the only selection missing here that was on my earlier copy is the orchestra (the North German Radio) under conductor Georges Prêtre playing the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. To my mind, the very best posthumous documentary on Callas was the first one, shown on PBS in 1978 (just a year after her death in late 1977 — a perilous time for celebrity legends; Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley also died in the last half of 1977) and featuring some of the same people interviewed in this one (notably director Franco Zeffirelli) but offered more (and longer) clips of Callas actually performing. Written and directed by Alan Lewens and Alistair Mitchell for ITV Channel 4 (Great Britain’s commercial channel, though even here the commercials appear only between the shows, not during them), and narrated by Rosalie Crutchley, Callas: Life and Art tells a fascinating story and gets most of it right, though it has some of the faults that rankle me in music documentaries and biographies generally: the showing of actual performances only in brief, out-of-context clips and what I call “first-itis,” the tendency of biographers in any medium to say the person they’re biographing was the first to do something when in fact plenty of people were doing it before them.

In this case the bit of “first-itis” that particularly rankled me was the assertion that Maria Callas was the first opera singer who bothered to act, who made communicating the drama of opera as important a part of her overall approach as singing the notes of the music. Utter nonsense! First of all, there was Giuditta Pasta, whose heyday was the 1830’s, and while we have little or no idea what she actually sounded like I’ve always thought she probably sounded very much like Callas, partly because the reviews of Pasta that do survive describe both strengths and weaknesses similar to those of Callas (her strongest suit, according to contemporary critics like Stendahl and Chorley, was her vivid acting and ability to communicate the drama of an opera; her biggest weakness was her wobbly high notes) and partly because three of Callas’s biggest successes were in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma, all operas written for Pasta. And though Pasta antedated the existence of audio recording by several decades, we do have singers who were acclaimed as great singing actresses in their day — Geraldine Farrar, Mary Garden, Rosa Ponselle — who did record; though we only have excerpts by which to judge Farrar and Garden, Ponselle left behind two complete performances on Metropolitan Opera broadcast recordings (both operas Callas also recorded, Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen), and her Traviata is a vividly dramatized interpretation that yields little or nothing to Callas for dramatic impact and subtlety. Indeed, there are striking parallels between Ponselle and Callas; both had relatively short professional careers (Ponselle’s big years were 1918 to 1937, Callas’s 1947 to 1965), both were particularly famous for singing Bellini’s Norma, both were coached in that role (and others) by the same person — Italian conductor Tullio Serafin (who controversially regarded Ponselle as the better of the two; in a late-in-life interview he said that of the singers he’d worked with there were three he called “miracles” — Ponselle, Enrico Caruso and baritone Titta Ruffo — and he relegated Callas to the catch-all category as one of “several wonderful singers” he’d also worked with), and both spent their last years living as recluses, keeping up their vocal exercises and maintaining dreams of a comeback (indeed, both tried comebacks — Ponselle in 1954 in a series of recordings made in her home and Callas in 1973-74 with an international tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano — and both used only piano accompaniment, not full orchestra, in these attempts).

Anyway, this documentary about Callas told some of the familiar stories and put some interesting “spins” on them, though this one didn’t demonstrate (as the 1978 PBS film did) just what was so remarkable about the incident that first catapulted Callas to stardom. In 1949 she was hired to sing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Venice opera, with Serafin conducting, and the other opera being given in Venice was Bellini’s I Puritani, a coloratura display piece usually cast with light, leggiero sopranos. One day, while she was sitting at the piano rehearsing Walküre, Callas got bored with all that Wagner and picked up the score of Puritani, sight-reading one of its arias. Serafin’s wife overheard her just as she was finishing a phone call with her husband, who told her that Margherita Carosio, the soprano who was supposed to sing the lead in Puritani, had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to perform. Mrs. Serafin told Callas to sing the Puritani aria for her husband, who in the meantime had been calling all around Italy looking for a replacement soprano for Puritani, without success. Serafin heard Callas sing Puritani and told her flat-out, “You are going to sing Puritani in a week. I will arrange for you to have time to study.” Callas, as she recalled it later, was flabbergasted — “I can’t!” she said. “I have three more Walküres!”— but decided that if someone of Serafin’s experience thought she could go in one week from the big, heavy declamation of Wagner to the light, flexible singing needed for Bellini, she’d take on the challenge. When she opened in Puritani she created a sensation, and though it would take her a few more years before she got invited to sing at the world’s top opera houses (La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London, the Met in New York), the Venice Puritani was what established Callas as more than just another young soprano, a remarkable talent who could bring the dramatic fire needed to sing Wagner to operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini that had long been regarded as showcases for light-voiced singers, and reach dramatic heights even in operas like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Il Trovatore with legendarily silly plots. (Callas herself admitted to her record producer, Walter Legge, that part of the challenge in being an operatic actress was that “some of the texts we have to sing are not distinctive poetry.”)

The film tells the familiar story of how Callas cracked through the wall that after World War II dropped between the world of classical music and the broader popular culture, though not always in ways that helped her; Callas became tabloid fodder, at first from her feuds with opera-house managers like Antonio Giringhelli at La Scala and Rudolph Bing at the Met, and then when she met Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and, though both of them were married to others, the two began an intense affair that … well, other sources differ but this film definitely and emphatically blames Onassis for ruining Callas’s career. That’s an arguable case but a bit of an oversimplification; even before Onassis Callas had found herself drawn to the world of high society, especially after she went on a 16-month diet (inspired, according to Arianna Huffington’s biography, by the example of Audrey Hepburn, the woman Callas thought was the epitome of glamour and whom she wanted to look like) that turned her from a typically overweight soprano to an internationally acclaimed beauty. (Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who worked with her on both ends of her diet, said when he first saw the “slim” Callas he didn’t recognize her.) She had met the society hostess Elsa Maxwell and was bewitched by the world Maxwell offered her, especially after the sheltered existence she’d let up until then when she did almost nothing that wasn’t related to opera — even her husband, Gian Battista Meneghini, an Italian businessman who had made his money building a chain of car dealerships, was more a professional partner than a personal one. Indeed, Meneghini took over her management (and, as Walter Legge noted in his memoir, since he was still legally married to her when she died he continued to manage her estate!), which as this film pointed out meant that she didn’t get the leg up that professional managers of classical artists could give up-and-comers — you book 10 of my lesser-known talents or you don’t get my established star — but it also meant that she wasn’t indebted to an agent pulling that sort of thing on her behalf. Callas made it on her own and never let anybody forget it. Filmmakers Lewens and Mitchell make their distaste for Onassis evident in just about every frame devoted to him; indeed, though they don’t claim he whipped her or tied her up or did any out-and-out S/M trips on her, their depiction of the Onassis-Callas relationship sounds an awful lot like Fifty Shades of Grey: a mega-rich man subjugates a woman and turns her essentially into his slave. Then, at least in the real-life version, he throws her over and ends up with a woman who could give him even more glamour points: Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated President of the United States. What the film didn’t mention is that as the marriage of Onassis and Jackie soured, he re-established contact with Callas and essentially used her as a telephonic sounding board for all his discontents with Jackie. One example: “She spends all this money — my money — on fancy clothes, but when does she ever wear them? All I ever see her in is jeans!”

One thing I hadn’t known about Callas before is that some of the most embarrassing news stories about her was faked; on January 1, 1958 she was supposed to give a gala performance of Norma at the Rome opera house, a huge state occasion which the president of Italy was scheduled to attend. During the last rehearsals Callas realized she was coming down with an illness, and it was going to be unlikely she was going to be able to make it through the New Year’s performance, but she gamely went on anyway, only to throw in the towel (so to speak) at the end of the first scene of Act I. The surviving broadcast includes a lot of commentary from Italian announcers as to whether or not she would return and finish the opera, and in the end she didn’t, the rest of the performance was canceled (there had been no understudy to “cover” her, though eventually soprano Anita Cerquetti was called in to finish the rest of the scheduled run — and the Rome Opera sued Callas both for the money and prestige they’d lost from her cancellation and the cost of bringing Cerquetti in to replace her — Callas eventually won the case, but not until 1965) and the tabloids reported it as “Another Callas Walkout!” This film showed a quite snippy British newsreel about the event, claiming that if you wanted to make sure to see Callas you have to get yourself invited to one of her rehearsals, since at least those she showed up for — and the makers of the newsreel presented a clip of Callas, with a full orchestra behind her and two professional microphones in front of the stage, singing Norma in Rome. They said it was a rehearsal for the 1958 performance Callas had (allegedly) walked out on, but it wasn’t: it was a telecast of a concert performance of Norma Callas had given in Rome three years earlier. The fact that a British newsreel company would deliberately fake a story just to make Maria Callas look bad and contribute to the “dragon lady” reputation she’d already picked up from the tabloids was shocking even by today’s standards of “news” manipulation.

Overall, the Callas phenomenon remains an enigma — how this woman could have risen to the heights of operatic success, then more or less abandoned it all for a jet-set lifestyle and ended so sadly, and also how Callas changed the standards of opera singing for both better and worse (better in the sense that she taught the next generations of singers that it was important to act in opera and not just sing; worse in the sense that because she could get away with technical limitations, overall standards of technique declined as later singers used Callas as an example to get away with downright sloppiness — even Walter Legge said he felt Callas’s example would harm future singers because they would “try to imitate not her virtues but some of those things that she did deliberately and could only do because of her intelligence and because she knew the dramatic purpose”) — though watching both the documentary and the concert that was packaged as a bonus item, a telecast from Hamburg on March 16, 1962 (during a three-year period in her career, 1961-1964, in which she gave up either performing or recording complete operas and only did concerts and recital albums), it’s astonishing how clean Callas’s singing is from a technical standpoint. Yes, there are a few of the notoriously wobbly high notes that even Legge, who signed her to a major-label record contract and was enormously influential in building her career, ridiculed (“Can you, dear reader, swear that you have never winced at or flinched from some of her high notes, those that were more like pitched screams than musical sounds?”), but they are awfully rare, and though there are those opera fans who believe that if Callas had wanted to she could have salvaged her career by retraining as a mezzo-soprano (the way Astrid Varnay did) and singing in the lower register of her voice that was still beautiful even when her top got chancy and shrill, I suspect that Lewens and Mitchell (and Arianna Huffington) are right that it was Callas’s will to live and pursue a career, not the actual physical voice, that failed her in the end. One of the interviewees in the documentary discusses visiting Callas in her later days, as she played tapes of her old performances over and over (significantly, she was far more interested in the live broadcasts than in her studio recordings, apparently agreeing with her most devoted fans that it was the live recordings that captured her at her absolute best), and inevitably being reminded of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard obsessively looking at her old movies as part of her own campaign to live in the past.

The Hamburg concert shown here (rather sloppily; there were no subtitles to indicate what she was singing about and not even chyrons to tell you what arias she was singing) shows that, even this late in her career, Callas was a fully accomplished and technically excellent singer (it’s interesting that the last selection on the program is “O don fatal” from Verdi’s Don Carlos, one of those so-called “Falcón” roles — after a 19th century French singer for whom a lot of them were composed — that lies on the cusp between soprano and mezzo and was therefore more comfortable territory for the Callas voice in 1962 than the upper reaches of the soprano repertory) and those wince-inducing high notes were few and far between. What’s also interesting about this, and all other Callas concert films that exists, is that — unlike a lot of other singers — she did not let the fact that she was singing in concert absolve her of the responsibility to act. Here she’s dejected in her opening aria, “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Massenet’s El Cid (interestingly she’s playing the role of Chiméne that was portrayed by Sophia Loren in the movie El Cid with Charlton Heston), flirtatious and charming in the “Habañera” and “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s Carmen, ardent and hopeful as the “good girl” Elvira in “Ernani, involami” (“Ernani, flee with me”) from Verdi’s Ernani, and world-weary in “O don fatal” (and after watching the documentary one can’t help but wonder if Callas especially identified with the Princess Eboli, who in this aria laments the “fatal gift” of beauty that has distorted the way the world sees her). All in all, this rather pretentious package (two CD’s and a DVD packaged in a small book) nonetheless gives a good glimpse of Maria Callas the artist as well as Maria Callas the celebrity — and one suspects the artist will survive and her work will continue to enthrall and move people long after the sordid details of her personal life and her relations with her bosses and her colleagues have been forgotten.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Witness for the Prosecution (Edward Small Productions/United Artists, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie I’d recorded earlier in the day from TCM, Witness for the Prosecution, which was based on a play by Agatha Christie that in turn was adapted from a short story she wrote back in 1925 called “Traitor Hands. It was published that year in a magazine called Flynn’s Weekly and then in 1933 appeared in book form in the United Kingdom as part of a collection called The Hound of Death, though it wasn’t printed in the U.S. until 1948, when it acquired the title The Witness for the Prosecution and was published in a collection called The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. In 1949 it was adapted by Christie into a play for early television, and in 1953 she rewrote that version as a stage play which was adapted into a film by producers Edward Small and Arthur Hornblow in 1957. The film starred Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, and was directed by Billy Wilder — a formidable assemblage of talents indeed — from a script by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz based on an “adaptation” of Christie’s play by one Lawrence B. Marcus. When it was released in 1957 Christie proclaimed it the only movie based on any of her writings that she had actually liked (though shortly before her death she said she’d liked the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express as well) and Tyrone Power said it was one of only three films he’d made of which he was truly proud. (He didn’t mention the other two, but one was almost certainly the 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley, a superb movie he’d fought to make.) Marlene Dietrich said Wilder — with whom she’d already worked (though less successfully) in the 1948 film A Foreign Affair — was one of the three best directors she’d ever worked with, along with Josef von Sternberg and (surprisingly, given how little they did together — just a joint acting scene in the 1944 film Follow the Boys and her small character appearance in Touch of Evil) Orson Welles.

The plot deals with aging British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) — based, Bette Davis said in her autobiography, on the attorney who represented Warner Bros. in the lawsuit filed against her in England in 1936 to keep her from breaking her Warners contract by working in Europe — who as the film begins has just been released from hospital after a heart attack and is suffering under the ministrations of Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife), who’s determined to keep him on a strict diet and away from brandy, cigars and anything else that might further foreshorten his life. She’s also determined to keep him from taking on any high-profile criminal cases and wants him to continue his career doing simple, easy, lucrative legal tasks — the sorts of things that in the British legal system are generally the duties of a lower-level sort of attorney called a solicitor, who basically does corporate and business law while the higher-level attorney, a barrister, is the one who actually represents people at trial. (Interestingly, Mexican law makes a similar distinction between a licenciado, a business lawyer, and an abogado, a courtroom lawyer.) But Robarts gets a referral from Mayhew (Henry Daniell), a solicitor, a murder case involving World War II vet Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) — in the original 1925 story he was presumably a Great War vet (“The Great War” was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II) — who while stationed in Hamburg as part of the Allied occupation force in Germany after the war met and married Christine Helm (Marlene Dietrich), an entertainer in what was left of the city’s cabaret scene. Only the marriage wasn’t legal because Christine already had a husband she’d wed in 1942, who was stuck in the Russian occupation zone (what eventually became East Germany), and she made a fraudulent marriage to Leonard to get herself out of Germany and keep from being forced to rejoin her husband in the Russian zone.

The person Leonard Vole is accused of murdering is Emily French (Norma Varden — she’s dead at the start of the story but she’s seen in flashbacks, one of which contains a Wilderesque “in” joke — they run into each other at a movie theatre that’s showing a cheap Western about Jesse James; in 1939 Power had starred as Jesse James in a major prestige picture at 20th Century-Fox about the legendary outlaw), a well-to-do widow whom Leonard was hoping would back him in one of his inventions. She’s particularly impressed — and her housekeeper, Janet MacKenzie (Una O’Connor, reunited with Elsa Lanchester from the cast of The Bride of Frankenstein), is equally put off — by a bizarre contraption that’s supposed to be a new kind of egg beater that not only beats the eggs but separates the whites from the yolks. At first Sir Wilfrid is going to be a good little boy and refer Leonard’s case to fellow barrister Brogan-Moore (John Williams doing the same sort of drollery he pulled in Dial “M” for Murder and The Solid Gold Cadillac), but in the end — especially after giving Leonard his famous “monocle test” (he shines reflected sunlight from his monocle into Leonard’s eyes and determines, based on Leonard’s reaction, that he’s telling the truth) — he takes the case himself with Brogan-Moore sitting second chair. When Sir Wilfrid meets Christine he’s taken aback by her coolness and her seeming willingness to put the noose around her husband’s neck, since she not only comes into his office cool as the proverbial cucumber in the best imperturbable manner von Sternberg taught Dietrich, The case against Leonard looks solid — he had a shaky alibi to begin with (reliant on Christine’s testimony, which she’s already told Sir Wilfrid was merely what Leonard told her to say), he came home from discovering Mrs. French’s dead body with bloodstains on his coat sleeve, and he has 80,000 pounds’ worth of motive — the legacy Mrs. French had just left him in her recently changed will, which disinherited her housekeeper and therefore gave her just one more reason to hate Leonard. The trial looks to be going wretchedly for Leonard when Sir Wilfrid gets a phone call from a Cockney woman offering to sell him evidence that will discredit Christine, who had appeared as the prosecution’s star witness (unprotected by marital privilege since her marriage to Leonard was bigamous and therefore illegal), a series of letters between her and a lover named Max. Sir Wilfrid meets the mystery woman at a train station — and we can tell, even though we’re supposed to believe he can’t, that she’s Christine in disguise (and Dietrich’s Cockney is absolutely convincing); the letters discredit Christine’s testimony and Leonard is acquitted, but then there’s a typical Christie-ian surprise ending that was supposed to be such a jolt that over the closing credit there’s a voiceover telling the audience not to reveal it to their friends.

Witness for the Prosecution isn’t a great piece of storytelling — though at least the characters have a little depth and are not just Christie’s usual stick figures — but what makes this a great movie is Wilder’s direction (though the film is based on a stage play and most of it takes place on just one set, the courtroom in London’s Old Bailey where the case is being tried) and the bravura performances of his three leads. Laughton is, well, Laughton — in his memoir Hollywood Garson Kanin said Laughton (whom he directed in the film They Knew What They Wanted) was the sort of person who is difficult not because he particularly relishes being difficult but because he knows being difficult will make him the center of attention. Sir Wilfrid is the sort of character who also fits that description — whether badgering his nurse or his witnesses (especially the horribly hostile Christine and Janet), the super-lawyer seems more interested in making a great impression in court and getting everyone to Notice him than in winning his case. Tyrone Power, in his last completed film — the next year he started Solomon and Sheba, also with Edward Small producing, and shot about three-fifths of it before dying of a heart attack (Yul Brynner replaced him — and had to cover his famous bald pate with a wig so they could still use the long-shots of Power) — looks seedy and middle-aged, but he turns the loss of his good looks and his rather shaky acting skills to his advantage; even his occasional overacting works as the reaction of a highly theatrical con artist to being suspected, rightly or wrongly, of a horrible crime. And then there is Dietrich — what can we say? It’s a film redolent of her past — the cabaret she performs in during the flashback sequence is called Der Blaue something-or-other (I couldn’t make it out) and her song, “I May Never Go Home Anymore” (music by Ralph Arthur Roberts, lyrics by Jack Brooks), is essentially “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” meets “The Laziest Gal in Town” — and she’s superb as the morally ambiguous woman who hides whatever it is she’s actually feeling under that dark, impassive mask and matter-of-fact personal style. Though it’s not as good a movie as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard or Ace in the Hole (none of Wilder’s post-Ace in the Hole movies are; he never really recovered from the box-office failure of Ace and his subsequent decision to leaven his cynicism with comedy), it’s still a finely honed film with three great actors, a story that for all its faults at least provides them a sturdy framework, and a director who knows how to make even as ridiculously theatrical a property as this come alive and “live” on screen. I did wonder, however, why Turner Classic Movies, usually very good about letterboxing, showed this in a pan-and-scan print that all too often left people with only slices of their faces on either end of the screen!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live: Premiere Episode (NBC-TV, October 11, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a show I’d recorded off NBC the night before: a rebroadcast of the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, aired on NBC October 11, 1975. There’s been a big to-do about the 40th anniversary of this long-running program — it’s become a weird sort of national institution even though I’ve believed it should long since have been put out of its misery — and before re-running the first episode NBC did a 2 ½-hour commemorative special that I turned on briefly, saw a bit of a lame parody of record ads on late-night TV (a homely singing duo hawking their “romantic” album and singing excerpts of the songs, all of which had incredibly lame sexual references — one of the annoying things about the current Saturday Night Live is how many sketches they do in which they take a dirty joke that isn’t particularly funny to begin with and run it into the ground until it becomes really offensive), then turned it off in disgust. I was curious about the first episode because I didn’t watch it when it was new — I watched a bit of it, but for some reason I’d been under the impression that it was going to be a music show with a few comedy sketches in between the musical acts, when in fact it was the other way around. I was interested because one of the musical guests was Janis Ian, then riding high on her big hit “At 17,” and the same night PBS had shown a special pairing Ian with the pioneering jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears. I liked the idea of being able to see Janis Ian twice on different networks on the same night, but that’s not how things turned out; when I switched from PBS to NBC all I saw were a bunch of people I’d never heard of doing comedy, and whether it was any good or not I didn’t care because I wanted to hear more Janis Ian!

As things turned out, the host of the first Saturday Night Live was George Carlin — then the show was simply called Saturday Night to avoid confusion with the much-ballyhooed ABC series Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which featured a troupe of sketch comedians called the “Prime Time Players” — a name the Saturday Night people, mainly producer Lorne Michaels, decided to parody by calling his comedians the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” That’s the name that’s stuck, though in the opening of the first episode announcer Don Pardo garbled it as “The Not For Ready Prime Time Players” and at the end they were called the “Not Really Ready for Prime Time Players.” This first Saturday Night Live was aired just under a decade after the death of Lenny Bruce, and it was clear from the choice of George Carlin as the first host that initially Lorne Michaels and his writers (many of them veterans of the Harvard Lampoon and others who also acted on the show) were going for the quirky mix of situational humor, raunchy but still tasteful farce, and both political and cultural comment that Bruce had pioneered in the stand-up world and of which Carlin had been his principal heir. The differences in format between this and later Saturday Night Live shows include the heavy featuring of the MC — Carlin has virtually half the screen time and his routines include some of his greatest hits (baseball vs. football, the oxymoronic nature of  “jumbo shrimp,” his reflections on the non-perfect nature of God — “Just look at his creation” — and some stream-of-consciousness ramblings ending with the rhetorical question, “Have I told these jokes already?”) — as well as the appearance of two musical acts, Janis Ian and Billy Preston, doing two songs each.

Ian does “At 17” midway through the program and an even more reflective song, “In the Winter” (playing piano instead of guitar), at the end. At the time Ian was in the middle of a comeback after a flash-in-the-pan success, “Society’s Child” (in which she portrayed a woman being dumped on for dating a Black guy), in 1966; she’d been signed by Columbia and “At 17” became an enormous hit despite — or maybe because of — its sometimes cryptic lyrics. She’d make a few more albums for Columbia but never again reach that kind of chart success, and eventually they’d drop her, she’d continue making occasional records on her own and playing whatever gigs she could get, and finally in 1993 she came out as a Lesbian on the release of her first independent album, Breaking Silence, and married her longtime partner Pearl Snyder in 2003 in Canada. (That certainly put a new spin on the tag line of her famous song, “At 17 I learned the truth.”) Billy Preston was at, or possibly slightly on the downgrade from, the career peak that had begun with his signing to Apple Records in 1969, his guest appearance on keyboards on the Beatles’ “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single, and his own mega-hit “That’s the Way God Planned It.” On this show he did what was probably his second most famous song, “Nothing from Nothing” — which, as Charles noted, was also basically a gospel song presented in a secular context (as Ray Charles had done before Preston and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had done before either of them!) — and a new song called “Fancy Pants” that also sneaked in a God reference or two. What was really amazing from the Zeitgeist point of view was that in a line from “Nothing from Nothing” Preston proudly proclaims, “I’m a soldier in the War on Poverty” — the very idea of a war on poverty is so dated these days, when all Republicans care about is the rich and all Democrats care about, even rhetorically, is preserving what’s left of “the middle class”; neither big party gives a damn about the people below that! Afterwards Preston had some of the usual music-star troubles — alcohol, drugs, health problems therefrom and legal charges, including one that he sexually assaulted a teenage Mexican boy (so both the musical guests on the first Saturday Night Live had same-sex attractions!) — and he was in and out of rehab, had a kidney transplant and finally died in 2006. As heard here, Preston’s music is essentially the last gasp of funky soul before, as I put it in connection with Willie Hutch’s soundtrack to the 1974 Blaxploitation film Foxy Brown, Black music “sank first into the swamp of disco and then into the cesspool of rap.”

The sketches on this first Saturday Night Live also raise Zeitgeist issues; one in which Chevy Chase introduces an obviously male cast member (complete with neatly trimmed beard) as his “wife” and tells us how committed he is to “her” is still funny but plays very differently in the age of marriage equality! (In 1975 I still hadn’t come to grips with being Gay — that would come two years later when a man made a pass at me in the hallway to the San Francisco State student bookstore and I took his number, spent a sleepless night and realized at about 1 a.m. that I was going to call him — and had I watched this show when it was new I would have been astounded at the idea that it would ever be legal in the U.S. for a man to marry another man, and even more astounded that I would end up marrying a man myself.) So does George Carlin’s rant about the intrusiveness of airport security; you want to take him aside in this post-9/11 age and say, “You think it’s bad now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Some of the sketches and routines (two guest comedians, the legendary Andy Kaufman and the virtually forgotten Valri Bromfield — that’s a woman, and “Valri” is obviously short for “Valerie” — appear, Kaufman lip-synching to the Mighty Mouse theme song and Bromfield doing a not particularly funny domestic routine hundreds of other more recent female comedians, from Elayne Boozler to Tammy Pescatelli, have done better since) seem badly dated and groan-inducing, but there are also some surprisingly subtle bits (like a courtroom scene — featuring later Law and Order: Special Victims Unit star Richard Belzer as one of the jurors — in which a woman testifying against her alleged rapist is so embarrassed at what he said to her that she gets permission to write it down instead of having to repeat it verbally in open court; one would welcome a bit more of that reticence from the SNL writers today!) and pieces that hold up today as well as pieces that don’t.

One of the latter is a really unfunny barbarian bit by Jim Henson’s Muppets (there’s such a legend around Henson these days it’s hard to believe he ever did anything as lame as this!); one of the former is a short film called The Impossible Truth, written and directed by Albert Brooks (yet another SNL vet who went far in mainstream showbiz!) and screamingly funny in a deliberately retro (even then!) way, particularly when a spinning newspaper headline announces that Oregon has just lowered the age of sexual consent to seven and the next thing we see is Chevy Chase chatting up a little girl in a bar. (That, too, is one routine that because of Zeitgeist changes plays a lot differently now than it did then.) The first night Saturday Night Live wasn’t quite yet the well-oiled laugh machine it became at its height in the late 1970’s, before it became so dull (when it wasn’t going out of its way to be offensive) that I remember joking for years, “Nostalgia is being able to remember when Saturday Night Live was still funny and when Michael Jackson was still Black.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, February 14, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD telecast was of a peculiar double-bill of two one-act operas, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (the original Hungarian title, A kékszakállú herceg vára, literally translates as The Blue-Bearded Duke’s Castle, but his title is usually left off when the opera is performed outside of Bartók’s native Hungary). “Nothing says ‘Happy Valentine’s day’ like an opera about a serial killer of women,” Charles joked about the presence of Bluebeard’s Castle on the bill. The idea of presenting these two operas together was that of the director, Mariusz Trelinski, a Polish filmmaker who’s apparently never done an opera before but thought these two would work together because they’re both about romantic obsession — though as the double bill unfolded it was clear that what really linked the pieces is the concept of light, and the symbolic significance of light, even though the two composers and their librettists (Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest for Iolanta and Béla Balázs, who later collaborated on the adaptation of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera for the 1930 G. W. Pabst film, for Bluebeard’s Castle) have diametrically opposed views of the symbolic nature of “light.” The Tchaikovskys present “light” in its usual symbolic meaning of “enlightenment,” of coming to a broader understanding of who and what one is and the actual truth, while Bartók and Balázs have — pardon the pun — a darker view of “light,” as a force that penetrates and reveals truths that would better be left hidden. Based on a Danish play called King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz, Iolanta is a story of a young woman (Anna Netrebko) who was born blind. To keep her from being traumatized by her disability, her father, King René (Ilya Bannik), has locked Iolanta in a room where she’s taken care of by three nurses (whom Trelinski and costume designer Marek Adamski decided to dress like nuns) and where the very concept of sight is kept from her; as far as Iolanta knows, the only function of eyes is to produce tears. René is so determined to maintain Iolanta’s isolation that he’s posted a sign on the door to the cottage where she lives stating that anyone who enters will be executed. Needless to say, someone does crash Iolanta’s cottage — the tenor lead, a French knight named Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala, whom we’ve encountered on previous Met telecasts and the second syllable of whose name is pronounced with an ugly throat-clearing sound it’s hard to square with “-zala”) — who shows up with his friend Robert (Aleksei Markov), who at first seems like the usual tenor’s dumb sidekick but turns out to be considerably more important than that.

Robert sings an aria that seems to have got the biggest applause of any of the principals’ solos in which he says he doesn’t want a girl with an ethereal air about her like Iolanta; he wants someone more down-to-earth and he’s already picked her, Matilda (a character we hear about but never actually see). Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta at first sight and they sing a big duet. Meanwhile, René has brought in a Moroccan doctor, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), who says he has a treatment that stands a chance of giving Iolanta sight — but only if she wants it, meaning that in order for the treatment to work she first must know she’s blind and other people aren’t, the awareness her dad has been keeping her from all these years. In the opening of the telecast Elchin Azizov was introduced as someone who’s sung the title role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (now there’s a Russian opera for you!) and who’s also participated in productions of Wagner’s Ring — it didn’t say what role he’d sung but, based on his performance yesterday, he certainly has the voice for Wotan and, though all the principals in yesterday’s Iolanta were excellent, it’s Azizov from whom I’d really want to hear more. Anyway, Iolanta’s dad René catches her and Vaudémont canoodling and asks Vaudémont if he didn’t see the sign warning that anyone entering Iolanta’s cottage would be put to death. Vaudémont said he did, and René asks him, “But you went in anyway?,” to which I was tempted to joke, “Of course I did! I’m a typical operatic tenor, and we do stupid things like that.” René eventually agrees to spare Vaudémont’s life, but as for marrying Iolanta, René says he can forget that because when she was still a child he promised her to someone else — and Robert (ya remember Robert?) drops the bomb that he’s the someone else Iolanta is promised to but he really doesn’t want to marry her because he’d rather be with Matilda (ya remember Matilda?).

So René agrees to release Robert from his vow to marry Iolanta, leaving her free to marry whomever she wants, and just at this juncture she decides she wants to be able to see after all, so Ibn-Hakia (ya remember Ibn-Hakia?) gives her the treatment, it works, only when Iolanta finally can see she’s momentarily unsure the visible world is all it’s cracked up to be. Nonetheless, she agrees to marry Vaudémont and all ends happily. (It occurred to me that if Verdi had been writing this, he and his librettist would have had René kill Vaudémont and insist that Robert marry Iolanta, whereupon she would have killed herself. Verdi and his usual collaborators weren’t ones to end an opera with a wedding when they could end it with a bloodbath!) Iolanta is an interesting and sometimes moving opera but also a problematic one; one Fanfare reviewer suggested that Tchaikovsky identified with Iolanta because he too felt isolated from the world of normal human relationships — not from being blind but from being Gay — but that really doesn’t come through in the opera. Tchaikovsky actually wrote 11 operas but he’s primarily known to modern-day classical music lovers for the last three symphonies, the 1812 Overture and the big ballets, particularly The Nutcracker. Amazingly, when it premiered in 1890 at the St. Petersburg Opera it was actually presented on a double bill with a complete performance of The Nutcracker — 19th century audiences had a lot more stamina than we do! It occurred to me that before composing Iolanta Tchaikovsky had set an almost identical story in the ballet Sleeping Beauty — and the ballet has considerably more variety and is simply a more compelling piece of music. Iolanta’s big scene at the beginning (with commentary from her nurses) and the love duet with Vaudémont both sound awfully droopy after a while, and suddenly Tchaikovsky will interrupt the love stuff with martial music announcing the involvement of René, Robert and the other characters from the more action-adventure parts of the story, creating a jarring effect.

Of Tchaikovsky’s 11 operas only two ever made it within hailing distance of the international repertory, Eugen Onegin (which I regard as a crashing bore, all the more infuriating because the novel by Alexander Pushkin on which it’s based is an absolutely wicked and brilliant piece of social satire that in the hands of someone more cynical and less sentimental than Tchaikovsky — Prokofieff, maybe? — could have been the basis for a great opera) and The Queen of Spades (a nice work, everything Onegin was not, in which Tchaikovsky mostly kept to the hard edges of his source story, also by Pushkin). I’d rate Iolanta on the basis of this one hearing as above Onegin but below Queen of Spades — and the Met contributed its usual (these days) mix of spectacular singing and silly production. Iolanta’s cottage is a room that gets pushed around on the big turntable of the Met’s stage so we either see her or not depending on the demands of the action. The direction is workmanlike but not especially inspired, but the singing was great: Netrebko, singing in her native language and in a role for which her basically lyric soprano is the right sort of voice (as opposed to the Met Lucia di Lammermoor, also co-starring Beczala, in which she was clearly uncomfortable with all that coloratura ornamentation), gets the most out of the music. Beczala copes well enough with a typically undercharacterized tenor-idiot role and the other singers are formidable, especially given the relatively unimaginative music Tchaikovsky gives them to sing. That’s the problem with Iolanta; its music is appropriate for the story and superficially expressive, but there aren’t any really great tunes and it gives the story the right overall emotional climate but doesn’t really stir the heart — and Trelinski’s rather silly production, which he said was based on the look of 1940’s film noir but really wasn’t (about the only concession in that direction was having the characters wear at least vaguely modern dress), balanced on the thin edge of risibility — you wanted to walk into the stage and say, “Iolanta’s not blind — just dizzy from the way you keep turning her house around on that damned turntable!”

Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, February 14, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bluebeard’s Castle was another matter entirely: a great opera (Bartók shows such a mastery of the form it’s amazing this was his only opera!), elegantly and (once you accept the basic assumption at its core) logically plotted, with two great roles for soprano and baritone. This time Trelinski’s direction seemed to come from the horror films of the 1950’s and 1960’s — indeed one could readily imagine the story of Bluebeard’s Castle as a horror film from that period with Vincent Price, an actor able to bridge the gap between courtly and mean as only two of his predecessors (Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) had been, as the menacing but superficially attractive Bluebeard. Indeed, Charles noted the similarity between Bluebeard’s Castle and the best-selling novel (just released as a movie) Fifty Shades of Gray: both are about mysterious super-rich men who have somehow managed to entice young, naïve women to run off with them and become their sex slaves. At the start of Trelinski’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle we see a dark wood and a car pulling up — from the fancy headlights (three on each side) we guess it’s a vehicle from the late 1950’s and the woman who emerges from it, Judith (Nadja Michael), is dressed in a cocktail-party dress with a tight top that shows off her nipples — she looks hard-bitten but not totally dissolute. She announces that she has left her father, mother, brother and fiancé to run off with Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko, who oddly came off as sexier in the tight blue jeans he was wearing for his pre-taped opening interview than in the suit he wears in the opera itself) and live with him in his mysterious dark castle.

The castle consists of a hallway and seven mysterious rooms Bluebeard insists on keeping locked. Of course, Judith — in the tradition of overly curious women that began with Eve and included Elsa in Lohengrindemands that Bluebeard open each of the rooms in succession and basically throw light on his darkest secrets. Room one is an S/M torture dungeon; room two is full of weapons; room three is full of gold and jewels; room four opens a window to Bluebeard’s mines and landed estates, the sources of his wealth; room five turns out to be the entrance to a lovely garden; room six is a pool of tears, and room seven … well, let’s just say that your traditional idea of who Bluebeard was and what he did to the women he enticed into his lair is not quite reflected in this story, based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault (who was essentially interested in collecting French folklore and fashioning it into commercial literature the way the Grimm brothers were doing in Germany and Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark); Bluebeard’s previous wives are still alive but in a zombie-ized state, totally divorced of any will of their own and following his bidding without question, and as the opera (at least in Trelinski’s production) ends with Bluebeard descending into a half-dug grave and embracing a corpse that appears to be Judith once she enters her ultimate role as yet another member of Bluebeard’s zombie harem. This time the music was remarkable, fully characterized and vividly dramatic, and Trelinski’s production matched it ably; though no medium short of actual film could do justice to the scene changes as Bluebeard and Judith make it through the seven rooms and she spots the blood in or on virtually every object that mars its beauty, Trelinski did a damned fine job, creating a surprising number of different visual atmospheres that communicated both the beauty and horror of each room. The singers, too, excelled in music that gave them far more to work with than Tchaikovsky’s amiable meanderings; aided by Bartók’s insightful (though almost continually dissonant) melodic lines and his vivid orchestration, they created two fully fleshed-out characters, at once believable and symbolic.

Interestingly, a decade before Bartók worked on this opera (he began it in 1910 and finished it in 1917), the French composer Paul Dukas did an opera on the same story, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, though his was taken from a Maurice Maeterlinck play based on the Perrault tale, and he and Maeterlinck used the story’s ending — Ariane/Judith tries to get Bluebeard’s other female captives to rebel, and they refuse, telling her they’re perfectly happy where they are — to make an anti-feminist, anti-Leftist point that it’s impossible to “liberate” other people and it’s best just to leave them alone and let them be happy in the ways that suit them. Bartók and Balázs have a considerably darker view of the tale; it’s unclear from their ending whether Bluebeard’s other wives are alive, dead (except in the vividly expressed fantasies of them in Bluebeard’s last aria) or in some state in between, and (fittingly for a libretto writer who was called on to adapt Brecht and had solid Leftist credentials himself) there’s an implicit but unmistakable critique of the rich and how they can literally turn anything, including fellow human beings, into their possessions. A vividly sung, intelligently produced presentation of a far richer, deeper and more interesting work, Bluebeard’s Castle triumphed where Iolanta sort-of did O.K. — Iolanta isn’t a bad opera, but it’s hardly alive to the potential complexities of the story whereas Bluebeard’s Castle seizes them; it’s not surprising that Iolanta is a virtually unknown opera while Bluebeard’s Castle has at least a toehold in the repertory and probably would get performed even more if it weren’t for the twin handicaps of length (about an hour, lengthened here by some sound effects Trelinski added as some of the rooms are opened, which means it has to have a double-bill partner) and language. When it was first done outside Hungary performances were usually in German, and the first U.S. productions were sung in English (I’d like to hear it that way some day!) — indeed, the official score contains the text in Hungarian (which the Met used), German and English, and the English translation was done by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók.

The Red Balloon (Films Montsouris, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Red Balloon, a 1956 film made in Paris by Albert Lamorisse, who cast his real-life son Pascal as the human owner of the titular character, a red balloon that is his only friend; it follows him around, tries to accompany him to school, hangs out all night outside his bedroom window so he can fetch it again the next morning, and in general shows capabilities that tread just on the thin edge of believability without stretching into the out-and-out supernatural. Lamorisse père both directed and wrote the film, and he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1956 — the only time that award has been given to a film of less than feature length (34 minutes). The movie premiered in the U.S. as an episode of the General Electric Theatre TV show — albeit in black-and-white — and while the U.S. distributor flooded the American school system with 16 mm prints for audio-visual showings for years I’d only seen it on black-and-white TV and therefore I had to take it on faith that the balloon was red. In some ways it’s two different films depending on whether you see it in black-and-white or color; in black-and-white the atmosphere young Pascal (the character has the real name of Lamorisse fils) is trying to escape — the world of schoolhouses, buses, bakeries and other adult environments hostile to him traipsing around with a balloon as his pet — looks grungier and more oppressive, and in some ways the balloon itself is a more effective symbol of freedom if it’s not this huge neon-red dot maneuvering itself around the frame of the film. (The effects were mostly done with wire work, and an “Goofs” contributor identified at least one sequence where the wire could be seen.)

At the end our little hero is confronted by a gang of bullies who are determined to get at him by destroying the red balloon; one of them takes it out with a well-aimed blow from a slingshot (a surprisingly frightening image for what’s until then been a pretty guileless children’s movie) and its skin starts to curdle, making it resemble a relief globe of the moon (well, if the moon were red, anyway), until either he or another of the bullies — Lamorisse père keeps them powerfully ambiguous instead of allowing them to become distinct characters — denies the poor red balloon a decent death by stomping on it. Then, in Lamorisse’s famous fairy-tale ending, all the balloons in the Ménilmontant district of Paris (where the film takes place) depart their owners and flock en masse to little Pascal, raising him above the city and above the petty hatreds of the kids who bullied him. As a bullied kid myself, I identified with this film big-time, and seeing it now that I’m an old and jaded adult I still identify with it even though it does become a bit too precious, a bit too cute, at times. Certainly Albert Lamorisse and his wife Satine lucked out in the genes department producing their leading man; Pascal is ineffably cute — tow-headed, not too skinny, not too fat, with a guileless look of innocence on his face and a bod (especially as shown off by the grey flannel outfit he wears in the first half) that probably made any NAMBLA members watching this film cream in their pants. It looks different to me now than it did when I was Pascal Lamorisse’s age in the film but it still holds up surprisingly well — and it’s just the right length to sustain interest in its rather slender story (avoiding a mistake Lamorisse père made four years later when he attempted a feature-length sequel, also starring his real-life son).

Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door (Wombat Productions, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running for Charles and I one of those vest-pocket documentaries on movie stars that used to fill out the schedule of the TNT (Turner Network Television) channel back when it was Ted Turner’s basic movie channel — they showed a lot of the same stuff they show now on TCM, only with commercial interruptions (I recorded the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon on VHS, editing out the commercials as I went, and this remained my basic library version of that movie until the far more famous 1941 version came out on DVD and included the two earlier ones as bonus items) — in this case it was Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door, and it focused on how MacMurray had a long career based on his sheer ordinariness: he didn’t “go Hollywood,” he didn’t put on any movie-star airs, he married twice but that was only because his first wife died tragically young (and his second wife, the actress June Haver, was interviewed for this show, along with one of their two adopted daughters), and with two major exceptions all the roles he played were basically decent “guy next door” types with whom the audience could identify. The two exceptions were his two films for director Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity (1943) and The Apartment (1960), both of which he got into virtually by accident. Wilder, interviewed for this program, said he’d had no trouble finding the female lead for Double Indemnity — he wanted Barbara Stanwyck from the get-go and once she read the script she said yes immediately — but a lot of actors turned down the male lead because they didn’t want to play murderers on screen. Wilder finally worked his way down the Hollywood food chain to George Raft, at liberty because Jack Warner had just fired him, only Raft said he’d play the part only if the script were rewritten to make him an undercover FBI agent out to entrap the Stanwyck character in a murder rap.

So in desperation Wilder asked his studio, Paramount, for a list of the actors they had under contract who hadn’t won the right to refuse a role — and when he saw the list he lighted on MacMurray’s name. The more he thought about it, the more Wilder decided that he could tweak MacMurray’s image so he could be believable as a murderer and the audience would be shocked when nice-guy Fred turned out to be a money- and lust-motivated killer. (Wilder also had trouble getting the man he wanted for the second lead, Edward G. Robinson; he sent the script to Robinson’s agent, heard nothing back, and by accident ran into Robinson at a party and told him he wanted him for Double Indemnity but hadn’t heard back from him. This was the first time Robinson himself had ever heard of the project, and when he called his agent the next day the agent said, “We didn’t send you that script because you’d only be billed third in it.” Robinson demanded to see the script, read it overnight, and the next day he called his agent and said, “I don’t care if I’m billed tenth. The next time you get a script that good for me, I want to see it!”) MacMurray also got into The Apartment by accident — the part of the lascivious boss who’s having an adulterous affair with the elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) and treating her so shabbily she attempts suicide had originally been intended for Paul Douglas, but Douglas had a heart attack and died four days before shooting was to start — and with no time to waste Wilder called MacMurray and MacMurray came. (I think he was better in the part than Douglas would have been — Douglas would have just made the character an asshole but MacMurray vividly brought the strain of self-righteousness the part required; here as in Double Indemnity, MacMurray’s years of playing unambiguous good guys added depth as well as surprise to his portrayal of a villain.) The show did a whirlwind tour through MacMurray’s early years, in which he started as a band musician (his dad had tried to teach him violin, but MacMurray — whose original first name, unmentioned here, was “Loren” — was enough of a youth rebel and a jazz-age baby that he preferred to play saxophone, and some of Albert Haim’s WBIX Internet radio shows have featured bands MacMurray was in), got his break on Broadway when he graduated from the pit band of Three’s a Crowd (1930) and Roberta (1933) to the actual stage, then to a Paramount contract where he was mainly a foil for comedy queens like Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard. (MacMurray remembered Lombard as his most creative co-star and said she actually improvised a lot of the dialogue in their films together.)

The show also mentioned MacMurray’s marriages, his drift down the showbiz ladder to Western roles like the silly Quantez for Universal-International, and the revival of his career playing in Walt Disney’s film The Absent-Minded Professor (the narration of this film said that Disney had seen a scientist lecture and was so taken with the real-life professor’s absent-mindedness he decided to make a film based on him — though elsewhere I’ve read that MacMurray’s character in The Absent-Minded Professor was really based on Disney’s own father, inveterate tinkerer and would-be inventor Elias P. Disney) and the TV show My Three Sons. MacMurray’s daughter also told the story of why he backed away from edgy roles like his one in The Apartment; one day he took his daughters to Disneyland and a woman approached him. Thinking she was going to ask for an autograph, MacMurray got ready to sign — only it turned out she was there to chew him out and take a poke at him for the horrible way he’d treated Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. MacMurray got the message never again to take a bad-guy role that would undermine his “guy next door” image! There’s also a fascinating vest-pocket interview with Beverly Garland, who played MacMurray’s wife on the last (of nine) season of My Three Sons, and originally wanted to play her with a certain degree of feistiness and independence the way Mary Tyler Moore was doing on The Dick Van Dyke Show at the time — only after her first day on the job, she was lectured by no fewer than five “suits” at CBS telling her that she needed to be demure, unquestioning, obedient, the loving helpmate of the “togetherness model” books on marriage that were being shoved down women’s throats back then and contributed to what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name” and ultimately the (welcome) rebirth of American feminism.