Monday, November 7, 2011

Steps and Limits

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

I saw the famous musical A Chorus Line for the first time when it came here as part of last year’s Mirvish season. It was a proficient enough production, but left me rather cold; even more than with many touring productions, it seemed like a hologram of something stuck in a very different time, attitude and place. Of course I knew the climax would be the iconic “One” (one singular sensation, every little breath she takes…) but I was surprised how flat its impact was. The show is built around auditioning performers, who spill out their vulnerabilities and desires and fears as they try to establish themselves for the director, and I suppose it’s an irony that their pay-off is to become participants in a musical machine that disregards individuality for the sake of immaculate synchronity. Maybe it’s me, but I actually found it a bit depressing.

Every Little Step

Whenever I go to musical theatre, I’m always stunned at the technical skill and control of the performers, and it often crosses my mind how little separates the stars from the utility players. The new documentary Every Little Step reminds us how theatrical glory intertwines with tragedy; for every big break, there are a hundred thwarted dreams, and at least a few agonizingly near misses. The film documents the casting process for the 2006 Broadway Chorus Line revival (which spawned the recent touring production), from the initial open calls (attracting more than 3,000 people), whittled down over more than a year into ever-smaller groups and finally, for some roles, to one-on-one showdowns. It interweaves this with a potted history of the original production, including audio recordings of the original nightlong talk session during which creator Michael Bennett and a group of friends spawned the original concept.

If you have any taste at all for the genre, then Every Little Step is surefire entertainment – with such rich material it couldn’t be otherwise. The directors make pretty good choices overall, but you almost regret it couldn’t have been a multi-part TV series; so many alternative avenues necessarily go unexplored. Still, we should have such problems with every movie. I also found myself reflecting again on how little this kind of Broadway production, with its immense infrastructure and overhead, has in common with the immediacy of small-scale theatre; A Chorus Line may have been born in the everyday dreams and struggles of people low on the ladder, but on this scale (and absent any kind of rethinking for a new generation), what was once truthful within it now becomes the same kind of saccharine as a so-called reality show.

Afterwards, I googled some of the performers highlighted in the film. For all the painstaking selection process, many of them received rather underwhelming reviews, and I’m not sure any of them necessarily went on yet to bigger and better things. The world of Every Little Step might be a more brutal risk-reward arena than any stock market – huge risk, huge reward (viscerally at least), and then when the gig ends, essentially back to zero.

The Limits Of Control

It’s easy to maintain an image of Jim Jarmusch as the coolest enigma among directors, as a less preoccupied David Lynch maybe, but is he more than that? I think he might be, but I need to revisit the earlier films, and I never get round to it. Maybe that makes me a Jarmuschian character. His oeuvre has much deadpan contemplation, multicultural connection, mysterious interplay, hints of the beyond. They are unquestionably intelligent – the western Dead Man, perhaps his best film, might be one of the most fascinating deconstructions of American myths ever made – but it often feels Jarmusch is placing a brake on himself, as if it’s just not worth engaging us past a certain point. If only by implication anyway, his films suggest an extreme malaise in the governing pace and engorged complexity of mainstream culture.

His new film The Limits Of Control follows a contract killer on assignment in Spain, passing from one contact to the next, doing a lot of waiting and watching. The film hasn’t gone down very well with most reviewers, being generally regarded as a succession of pretty pictures and contrived scenes (actors like Tilda Swinton and John Hurt pop up briefly, delivering a few cryptic lines on the abstract nature of reality or suchlike before moving on), building up to nothing much. It’s easy to understand this view, and the film does have a rather academic air about it. Still, in the end it’s possible to see it as one of Jarmusch’s most direct expressions yet of his underlying worldview. That is, the killer’s quest is very symbolic of a challenge to latter-day American imperialism, as if representing a coalition of perceived opposing values (philosophy, contemplation, aesthetic appreciation, uncomplicated eroticism) asserting itself against Bush-era stridency and poison. The use of near magic at the end seems to suggest the untapped, liberating possibility within us, if we just change the conversation.

I have to admit that the above version of it, as it constructed itself in my mind afterwards, is a little more satisfying than the actual viewing experience. But it’s the measure of a major filmmaker that you’re willing to take this more as your limitation than his. I must definitely schedule that personal Jarmusch retrospective, but maybe I’ll just sit in the sun and think a while first, and order an espresso.

Goodbye Solo

In Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, the Senegalese Solo, now driving a cab in North Carolina, is offered $1,000 by William, an aging local guy, to drive him to a nearby windy peak in two weeks’ time, presumably so he can jump off it. This concept is too far outside Solo’s worldview – he tries to befriend William, to learn his troubles, certain he can persuade him out of it. This basic plot is obviously contrived, but the film’s value is in what it adds to the growing body of American cinema on the immigrant experience. Solo’s resourceful optimism guarantees him a foothold on the ladder (there’s a sad contrast with another, much more bewildered-seeming immigrant who cleans at William’s motel), but for now at least may also form his ceiling; at an interview for a flight attendant position, having to deal with the suits behind the desk, he seems lightweight, whereas William’s sadness, isolation, and piled-up skeletons are inherent to his authenticity. But it’s a changing world, with ever-reinforcing and multiplying diversity now occupying the bloodstream even of the red states – for example, Solo is married a Mexican woman - and the movie shows something of the quasi-shadow economy’s complex contours. At the end, Goodbye Solo is more optimistic than not, but leaves no doubt about how much remains to be processed, negotiated and fought over before the current creeping revolution attains its promise.

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