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Archive for the ‘CLASSICAL DRAMA’ Category

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 

Dallas Buyers Club

14 Dec

Dallas Buyers Club – directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Docudrama . A rogue cowboy discovers he has a fatal disease and ventures to defy law and save fellow sufferers. 116 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Some actors are despicable: Jack Palance, Shelly Winters, Miriam Hopkins, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Jessica Lange, Christian Bale. Humorless bullies all.

Matthew McConaughey stands tall in this category. There is no actor whose appearance in a film I more wish to avoid. A slivery egomania rules in him with imperious ease.  A smug cologne, unquestioned and rank, the attar of this assurance wafts about him.

He is dreadful looking, with fatal dimples, tiny teeth, and the most beautiful and seductive male speaking voice since Charles Boyer. He is worse than a rogue; he is a bounder. To be in his screen presence is to break out in a rash. He threatens to make one believe in evil.

He is one of those persons who stumble into acting and make a great success. This so rarely happens, it becomes legend, so we think if it can happen to Gary Cooper, it may happen to anyone. But legends are never common.

And what is not common about Matthew McConaughey is that, apparently and even so, he has discovered the craft of acting for himself. That is not an easy thing for a big star to do. Robert Mitchum never did it, nor did Gary Cooper.

But McConaughey is a person of enormous intelligence. Or maybe it would be better to call it smartness. After all, he’s a Texan. And in Texas intelligence means horse-sense. And horse-sense means a practical grasp of life as it is actually lived. What does an actor of his cheap effect do once his romantic appeal gets stale?

Mud was an example of this actor taking on the task of dropping out of the category of leading man and entering into the category of character lead. Going somewhere beneath or other-than his masher forte, he entered us into an arena of acting into which one never in a million years expected him to venture. What a revelation!

Of course, this switch may have happened more slowly with him: one sees but the sudden result: films take years to generate: his change may have been long pondered: this may have happened less suddenly in films of his I have not seen.

In the present film we see a character bodied forth who also took long planning, since the actor had to emaciate himself by 47 pounds or a quarter of his body weight to play it. He plays a hero, but is never noble, always the ornery cuss. Miss him play it in peril of the cultivation of your soul.

In the past, McConaughey has been the tray of despicableness on which the part was presented to us. In Dallas Buyers Club he takes that tray of despicableness in both his conscious hands and presents it and all that is on it to us as an offering of human truth.

It is wonderful to see an actor discover the great and dangerous craft of acting.

 

Kagemusha — The Shadow Warrior

16 Mar

Kagemusha – directed by Akira Kurosawa. 16th Century Japanese Warlords find themselves deceived by the greatest of them being replaced by a hobo impostor. 180 minutes Color 1980.

★★★★★

Of course it could be said that it is too long, for the same reason that any film is too long, because the last part of it is full of detail which by now we, as the audience, telling the tale as we go, alongside Kurosawa, take as understood.

And, it could be said that the film was never meant to be viewed on a home screen but on a huge wide movie theatre screen, where I first saw it. What this means is that the power of the great troop and battle scenes is lost because they were designed as spectacle.

Of course that is not to say that the rest of the film is not spectacle. For it is. The interiors are all staged as spectacle, even when there is only one person present, even those scenes close-to, although Kirosawa here is not involved in close-ups, but in groups, or in a single player playing out his role full body. The staging of every scene is highly theatrical, perfectly organized, with nothing left to chance for our mistrust to fix upon.

And then there is the playing, which is Japanese in its style, not Noh, of which we are given a stunning sample, but cinema-Noh, which means a minimum of movement combined with the greatest intensity of content. The Noh actor, virtually static on stage, uses his voice for this; his craft is the craft of intonation. But in a movie, the actors must do most of it with their bodies and in such a way as that each movement will tell the tale required to be told, and no more. Unlike stage Noh, where the words themselves have a studied constant operatic force, in the film the actor speaks more physically than verbally. So, the movie is told as a feat of physical narration. An actor executes the necessary telling movement and immediately shuts down, and the story is told.

This is good for a fairy tale, which is what this is.

Once upon a time, there was a family, a great warrior grandfather and his devoted twin brother, the two sons of the warrior, and his four year old grandson. The most feared warrior in all Japan is this warrior, and his purpose is to protect his clan.

He is ruthless and valuable, and to protect his own life, his twin brother has played his double. However, the brother finds this role vexatious to his spirit and one day shows his brother a bum who looks like them both. An impostor is needed to give the head-brother the mysterious power of ubiquity, but this man is a wandering thief, a low-life, a vulgar ne’er do well. The two brothers train this thief to become the second impostor, a shadow warrior, which is what the title means. Or does it?

Does it not perhaps mean, when he dies, the warrior whom the peasant impersonates? Is he not the ghost warrior? Is not the person imitated the ghost?

As I sit here writing this, I do not know whether all three parts are played by the same actor. It would seem impossible, since the cantankerous and flaky thief and the warrior are so different in temperament, for the warrior brother is a mountain of immovable resolve, cunning, and wisdom. Nonetheless, this what the thief eventually becomes. How is it possible?

Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that sometimes I like the history of movies and actors, but that I am not interested in theoretical or hypothetical or philosophical or sociological matters as regards movies and the entertainment of acting. But if I were, I might say that this film would be Kurosawa’s tribute, on the grandest possible scale, to the genius of acting and its craft.

For here we have an histrionic and cinematic masterwork about creating an histrionic and cinematic masterwork. It is the backstage story of all time.

Everything about the movie is stupendous. The costumes are stupendous, the battle arrays are stupendous, the volume of extras is stupendous. This is in order to stupefy us. And if we are in our right minds, we will be so, for the long, tense layout of each scene is of a pace important to impress. We must be silent, we must be respectful, we must bow down before this narrative style or the story will not register in us. We must wait out the tension in the room. That is our job. That is our story-telling. Around a campfire, the counselor begins a ghost story. We  allow ourselves to be riveted. There is no human alternative.

What is the moral of this story?

The moral arises in us as we watch, for it is the same that arises in the bum learning to becoming a shadow warrior – devotion to the master’s mastery, one-and-the-same thing, the master and the mastery – devotion to the warrior-master, which the shadow-warrior learns, and by an inevitable osmosis becomes; devotion to the mastery of the master, and devotion to being told the telling itself. All: one and the same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

One-and-the-same thing.

 

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring

28 Sep

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring – Directed by Ki-duk Kim. Drama. 95 minutes Color 2004.

* * * * *

Under the vigilant eyes of Old Monk (Yeong-su Oh), Child Monk (Jong-ho Kim) learns a hard lesson about the nature of sorrow when his childish games turn cruel in a story that’s divided into five segments, with each season representing a stage in a man’s life. This exquisitely filmed drama is entirely set on and around a tree-lined lake, where a tiny Buddhist monastery floats on a raft amidst a breathtaking landscape. What a lovely piece. It does a body good to see a story told in this manner. And it did my body good too. For it commands attention at the same time as it embodies peace, stillness, and the range of human truth that therein prevails. Treat yourself. Watch it.

With: Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim, Young-min Kim, Jae-kyeong Seo, Yeo-jin Ha, Jong-ho Kim, Jung-young Kim, Dae-han Ji, Min Choi, Ji-a Park, Min-Young Song

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Amistad

27 Feb

Amistad — Directed by Steven Spielberg — High Tragedy. Men on a slave ship revolt, are captured, and brought to trial in 1838. 2 hours 15 minutes Color 1997.

* * * * *

High tragedy, yes, that rare thing in movies, as a great and noble king in exile is brought to the point of death by his captors and rescued by a deus ex macchina in the form of another great and noble king. I have not seen all of Spielberg’s films, but this is the finest I have seen. It is perfectly cast, produced, written, and performed. It is narrated by the director unexceptionably save for the coda of the destruction of the slave fortress in Sierra Leone, which should interlace the main tale itself as a counter-chorus, and not come wagging its tail at us in the end, but then, all Spielberg’s finales are false. The music by John Williams is not as vulgar as that which wrecks The Color Purple, but its Orff-like choruses and excessive swells almost overset the craft a number of times. The great Pete Postlethwaite as the opposing lawyer is concise, real, and fair. As the President, Nigel Hawthorne gives us a man helpless before his own real ignorance. Morgan Freeman stands in reserve as a force of Negro abolition almost out of touch with his original slave past. Matthew McConaughey brings a, perhaps, natural crassness to the part of the young lawyer who takes on the case and he is very convincing as a man whose limited vision and slightly cockeyed rashness moves the case forward. Anthony Hopkins, in his best screen performance, dodders and pots as John Quincy Adams, the old former President, who finally raises the Supreme Court to liberate the Negros and return them to Africa. But the film depends entirely for its power, its movement, and its authenticity on Djimon Hounsou, the leader of the Negros, their particular king. A man of great stature and bearing, he performs with an emotional immediacy and truth and rashness of being that causes him to stand for everything — and not just to stand for  — but to be it in our hearts and souls as we watch — everything that the film means to say. Which is to present under attack the essence of freedom itself in a human being, as though that freedom had never been born or seen before. Anyone who has ever been oppressed, has ever oppressed, or wishes to oppress, wants to see this film, because this actor reveals to us that freedom is inherent in us, not bestowed, not legalized, not purchased, and that its abrogation and annulment by anyone or any agency or any thing is an agony titanic. If this makes the film a civics lesson, so be it, for it is a record of the Exemplary in our American ancestry and in the ancestry of the world, and we benefit and are enlarged by such examples. I am moved by Djimon Hounsou’s soul, and I recommend that you place yourself before it. This is a film which proves what film at its best can do. Give it to yourself somehow.

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Biutiful

14 Feb

Biutiful – directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Drama. A dying blackmarketeer must provide for his children. 148 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

To honor his ancestors before he becomes one, is the basis and main inner action of this man’s story. It is framed by a passing on of ancestral respect, and its main central action is the deed of fatherhood. That deed, or deeds, have family and social repercussions, as he tries to do right by those he has adopted. These include the Chinese laborers smuggled into Spain, as he finds work for them, and the wife of a deported co-worker. In many ways he is a middleman in a variety of areas of life, taking care of his drug-trafficker cohorts and their families, as well as his own wife from whom he has left to protect his children. She is a bipolar prostitute, beautifully played by Maricel Álvarez. The entire film is well cast and beautifully acted. And the director has a passport to levels of society and places of Barcelona which make the film ring true at every point. The world the main character, Uxbal, moves through is lively, debauched and horrifyingly poor and perilous, but the director has written a story on the screen that demonstrates a mentoring instrument in Uxbal, and by token, in us all, that transcends and survives the worst that society can impose, the grimmest flatness, the cheapest thrill, the intrusive world of the vile cell-phone. There are some bafflements present. For instance, there might be asked the question: does the director equate homosexuality with the lowest corruption? Does the decay on the ceiling mean heaven is lost to us all? Does the appearance of someone on that ceiling mean something? Does the caretaker of the children abandon them? These things are unclear, but what is clear is the fathering instinct in Javier Barden, who is very beautiful, of course, and beautiful to watch play this saint in the gutter strive to save his two children after he is gone. Visually the story is alert to the camera, and the camera does its narrative job masterfully. All one needs to see to know that the mother of those two children will never be able to take care of them is a single short profile shot of Maricel Álvarex exhaling a cigarette. It is one of the great moments in all film.

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Another Year

13 Feb

Another Year – Directed by Mike Leigh – Classical Drama. A senior married couple offers hospitality to the needy. 129 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

A perfectly constructed picture, this is a Baucus and Philemon story, of two old farmers who offer hospitality and food to those who are difficult and in difficulty. In the myth, the gods reward such kindness by allowing them eventually to die simultaneously, and in the picture the reward is clearly that the two old ones retain their ability to be kind. The story is anchored in the four seasons, but even more firmly in their seasonal tasks of mucking in the soil of a gardening commons in which they have a plot and in which they raise fine small crops by themselves and for themselves. In this story, they apparently are not peasants, for they have travelled the world, they are well educated, and they both have jobs which benefit society; however the gardening gives them the privilege of peasants which is to meet the deities of their lives. Middle class people usually don’t meet such deities, but here they do. One of those deities is The Temptation To Act Out Of Impatience which the audience may feel the characters ought to feel, for the audience feels it itself, towards their three monstrous guests. The first and most eminent of these is Mary, a flirtatious alcoholic whose realization of the triteness and triviality and exile of her own destiny the movie’s story slowly shows in no uncertain terms. Her story is framed by the dull version of it, in which, at the start of the film, the wonderful Imelda Staunton plays a woman refusing to change her destiny in exactly way the character of Mary refuses at the end. Mary is played with dauntless fury by Lesley Manville, in a remarkable exposure of worldly human error. It is a great performance in a film of the highest level of performance. The balance between Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen is a wonderful piece of writing and acting, the one fitting the other, entirely without sentimentality, and without resembling the other. Any man of the right age who does not offer his hand to Ruth Sheen is an ignorant fool. The other two guests are Broadbent’s catatonic brother, played by David Bradley and his gluttonous friend Ken, played by Peter Wight. The God Of Impatience appears in full and terrifying form in the person of Carl, beautifully played by Martin Savage. It has been said this picture is about the difficulty of growing old. It is nothing of the kind. It is about the choices one makes all along – here demonstrated by a marriage that is created piece by piece before our very eyes.

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