Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stage and Screen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

So I was lucky enough to go to the stage Lord of the Rings recently. I put it that way because it’s a major cultural event and I know lots of people would love to be able to see it. And a feeling of privileged access is at the heart of theatre. If I try to recall my most thrilling artistic experiences, it’s likely that as many come from the theatre as from film – usually on occasions when I was very close to the stage, able to watch every flicker of expression and drop of spit, utterly enveloped in the mix of rampant illusion and overwhelming specificity. Then if I try to recall my worst artistic experiences, a fair number of them involve sitting in not-so-good seats, fighting off sleep as some lumbering, airless spectacle goes through the motions. Don’t get me started again on Cats. 

Lord of the Rings

Once the unenthusiastic reviews came out, and I kept reading about its monster length, I actually started to dread LOTR. As we walked to the theatre our legs must have been resisting us, because the curtain was already up when we arrived – I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Eventually we got to our seats, and by the end of the first act I definitely thought my expectations would be surpassed. A little bit of that mythical silly name mumbo jumbo goes a long way with me, but the play seemed to be moving through it fairly fluently, the first act has a fairly jaunty musical number, and even by the standards of big budget productions, I found myself captivated by the stage craft. Time and again, the setting would utterly transform itself (no wonder they took so many previews to get it all down pat) and I’d think: how the hell did they manage that? I could definitely have used an instant replay. And the first act has a finale with a dragon which, although a little hokey, certainly delivers the big-budget goods.

And that’s as good as it gets. The remaining two acts get weighed down in endless exposition, repetitive action, boring songs (a shame they passed on the challenge of finding a rhyme for Bilbo Baggins), and diminishing variations on what had initially grabbed me. The production has a huge cast, but they’re all swamped – sad to say, Brent Carver is particularly lost under Gandalf’s beard. To the end, Lord of the Rings never quite gives up the ghost (again, where did all those sunflowers at the end come from?), but the immense talent and application seems wasted. For it never comes close to answering this one key question: what the hell was the point?


Well, to make money of course, and to prove it could be done, and because everyone loves a challenge, and maybe it was even someone’s childhood dream, although if so it obviously took Peter Jackson to shake that dream loose. None of which is quite enough. It’s philosophically somewhat interesting too to know that the chicken crossed the road because it was there, but nothing much is gained by observing the journey.

You can’t assess Lord of the Rings, inevitably, without thinking about the reported $26 million budget. The play is much more significant as a capital investment than it is as art, and it’s probably best contemplated in the abstract as a “Quirky way to blow $26 million,” rather than as something consciously aesthetic. If you look on it as a matrix of human and logistical choreography, without worrying about the purpose of all that, it’s perhaps rather wonderful. Some people will be susceptible to that mindset. But the closing shouts of “Bravo” from the man behind me sounded awfully isolated.

A few days later I saw the new film Brick, directed by Rian Johnson. Brick is almost the ultimate example of a film powered by a single inspired idea. It is this: make a classic film noir, with all the hard-bitten dialogue and world-weary attitudes and femmes fatale and complicated plotting – really, the entire package – but set it all among high school kids. And I’m talking about playing it straight – not about a campy Bugsy Malone-type exercise. Brick may actually be the most focused, single-minded example of the genre in recent years.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the protagonist, a senior following the trail of his missing girlfriend, and among other things he takes more beatings than almost anyone I’ve ever seen outside a boxing movie. Also prominent in the scheme is a menacing drug dealer played by Lukas Haas, who runs a local crime ring from his basement, from which he sometimes emerges to be pampered with cereal and juice by his mother. Most of the film’s laughs come from such incongruities with adults, but that doesn’t add up to a large number. And it’s rather miraculous how such an extremely stylized film seems to constitute a valid expression of the turbulent questing adolescent psyche – it never pushes the conceit so far that they don’t all still seem like flailing vulnerable crazy kids. The movie’s sparse, plaintive mood is highly effective in this regard.

For all that I can’t say I really enjoyed watching Brick that much – it’s a bit repetitive, and too abstract to develop much dramatic tension. And I have to come clean – a lot of the time, I just couldn’t follow what was meant to be happening. That’s famously true of The Big Sleep too of course, but that film had a somewhat richer fabric overall (oh, and Bogart and Bacall). But I do admire it, because it has the feeling of a film rooted deep in someone’s psyche, executed with immense fidelity to a vision, and tolerating almost no concessions.

Sophie Scholl: The Last Days

Sophie Scholl was only 21 when she was caught in 1943 distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in a Munich university. She was interrogated, sentenced to death and guillotined. Marc Rothemund’s film about these events (which was nominated for this year’s foreign film Oscar), based on the actual transcripts, is sober and meticulous, sticking very close to the actual events with little sense of the world beyond. Julia Jentsch’s portrayal of Sophie is similarly unshowy, but it’s extremely effective at conveying Sophie’s sheer inability to process this experience – her consistent grace seems like part heroism and part bewilderment, although the film subtly maps her gathering maturity.

The movie has a few conventional ploys, such as her interrogator’s sympathy for her and – seeming most contrived perhaps – the way her defense at her trial seems to provoke a silent awakening among the Nazi functionaries in the audience. That trial by the way is a hysterical sham that may make your blood boil. But overall Rothemund depicts this human tragedy as fully as one would want, constituting an appropriately measured tribute to Sophie without ever coming close to a hagiography. Her story has apparently been filmed a couple of times before, but this may be a necessary project every generation or so.

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