Friday, July 03, 2020

Hamilton on Disney+

Is this the right time to show Hamilton on the new streaming service, Disney+? Months ago, maybe even weeks ago it would have been the perfect addition to a Fourth of July weekend. But after the George Floyd murder and the countless demonstrations that the country has endured, is a musical about a founding father whose views on slavery were, at best, troublesome the politically correct entertainment that Disney was hoping for?

On the one hand, it is glorious that the show was captured live on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre before the original cast disbanded. Generations to come will have a chance to debate this hip-hop recreation of Alexander Hamilton's life as they watch a pristine 4K capture, showing up close the performances of the show's composer lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, but of the many actors who started out as virtual unknown and became stars during the initial run of the play: Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette, and Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza Schuyler.

After a statue of George Washington was pulled down in Portland, Oregon by angry protesters, having the first president of the United States dramatized and fictionalized in the musical will not please everybody. Of course, the role is played by Christopher Jackson, an actor who considers himself African-American. Although I'm sure he is proud of his work, and his association with Miranda (they go way back to Miranda's first show In the Heights), I wonder what his feelings are about playing a slave owner in this new normal society?

The racial terrain of the United States is more troubled than ever. Trump will be at the Mount Rushmore monument for a Fourth of July fireworks show this weekend. Will the monument be the cause of controversy as the president of the United States stands under the visage of those former presidents whose statues have come down recently?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

New Woody Allen movie at San Sebastian Film Fest

Rifkin's Festival is Woody Allen's new film, and it will premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Since Spain has been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve and lower it, the festival is set to go in September. According to Yahoo News, the film was "shot last summer in and around the northern seaside resort itself, the story centers on an American couple who come to its international film festival and are swept up by the fantasy of cinema and the charm and beauty of Spain." The movie stars Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, and American Gina Gershon.

Woody Allen was greeted with protests last year when he was shooting the film. As Yahoo News reports "The screening will be a significant moment for Allen who's seen his career stalled as a result of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which revived decades-old allegations he sexually abused his adopted seven-year-old daughter in the early 1990s."

He has denied all claims which were first leveled by his then-partner Mia Farrow. Mr. Allen was cleared of the charges following a series of
investigations.

Yahoo News goes on to report that "the sexual harassment firestorm has fueled a growing backlash against him and last year his most recent romantic comedy A Rainy Day in New York ended up being released in various European and Latin American countries rather than in the US."

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Ian Holm: Dead at 88

Sir Ian Holm, one of the great British actors of stage and screen, died yesterday at the age of 88. That memorable, even disgusting picture above is from one of Sir Ian's greatest successes: Ridley Scott's magnificent sci-fi shocker Alien, in which he plays the mischievous, scheming android Ash, who ends up in pieces towards the end of the film. But he also had the ability to play less showy roles and still leave a memorable mark on the screen. I'm thinking about his incredible performance as Sam Mussabini, the track coach who trains Ben Cross, in 1981's Chariots of Fire. It was a subtle, beautiful performance that won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor.

In 1985 he graced the screen with what is perhaps his most complex character in Mike Newell's neo-noir Dance With a Stranger. Sir Ian nearly stole the picture as a humiliated gentleman caller, emasculated by Miranda Richardson's Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

Sir Ian's recent performances included Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, and Martha Fiennes's Chromophobia, in which he had a comic sex scene with Penélope Cruz.

In today's obituary Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that "there was always a cool, rational, weighted intelligence in Ian Holm. On screen, he was never exactly a heart-on-sleeve performer; he did not need or even appear to want the audience’s sympathies. Holm could be a mandarin and almost priestly presence, but always with a pressure cooker of emotion inside. He brought a commanding strength and a stillness to his work, a less-is-more economy that gave him what few theatrical knights have had since Olivier: equal success on stage and screen. He was a character actor with star quality."

Thursday, June 18, 2020

No Wagner at the Green Hill

The year 2020 will be remembered not only because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the  Bayreuth Festival to close its doors for the first time since World War II, but, as of this writing, this is the first time that a Wagner has not been at the helm of the yearly Richard Wagner celebration. In early April, the management of the festival announced that Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, was suffering from a "long-term illness" which has forced her to leave her position as artistic director of the festival.

Since 2008, Ms. Wagner has been at the helm of the festival her great-grandfather founded – initially with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier as co-director, and since 2015 she has bared that responsibility alone.

Over the years, It has also become very noticeable that Ms. Wagner has gained a considerable amount of weight -- never a good thing. The pressures of the job, no doubt, as well as the natural aging process have surely been responsible for this. It could be, perhaps, that her illness, whatever that is, has something to do with it. Reports from Bayreuth assure the public that Ms. Wagner's illness is not related to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Castorf Ring is on YouTube

Perhaps no production of The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth has caused so much controversy in the last two decades as Frank Castorf's staging of Richard Wagner's tetralogy. Before he came to the Green Hill to stage Wagner's epic work, Castorf was well-known in Germany for his avant-garde productions at Berlin's second largest state-owned theater, the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Katharina Wagner knew exactly what she was getting when she hired him. His production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Volksbühne, for example, used only one opera singer (the rest were vocally untrained actors) and the opera narrative was often interrupted by readings of texts by Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer who managed to escape Nazi Germany, and who later committed suicide by hanging himself in a New York City hotel room in 1939. As a result of this production, Castorf's contract at Bayreuth included a clause forbidding him to tamper with Wagner's original words or music.


But that did not stop Mr. Castorf to change just about everything else in the four part music drama. Das Rheingold took place in the USA along Route 66 at a cheap motel. Die Walküre's drama was moved to the oil fields of Azerbaijan, while Siegfried took place under a fictitious Mount Rushmore that replaced the American presidents with famous communist leaders, and Götterdämmerung featured Berlin's Alexanderplatz with its famous World Clock filled, not with tourists, but hungry crocodiles.



What did it all mean? I saw the production in 2017 on my second trip to Bayreuth. By this time the knowledgeable Bayreuth audience knew what to expect. Gone were the boos of opening night that erupted most violently during the premiere of Siegfried. Audiences were not ready for the title character to kill Fafner with a very loud machine gun, and they were not ready to see a nest of reptiles invade Berlin trying desperately to eat the Forest Bird (who is not even supposed to be in the third act!). In 2017 the boos were gone, and so was Castorf who did not take a vow during any of the four evening that I attended.

What Castorf did was to take Wagner's music and adapted it to his own strange story. He even added a mute character throughout the four nights who resembled Squiggy, the funny character played by David Lander in the ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley.


Just to prove that I'm not making any of this up, you can see the whole bloody thing for yourself. The production has appeared on YouTube, and if you are interested in Wagner (which is why you are here!), and especially if modern opera stagings are your cup of tea, take a look at the embedded Youtube links I have provided.


I suggest you go to it right away. These videos tend to disappear overnight rather fast because, perhaps, they should have never been uploaded in the first place. But such is the nature of the Internet.  Enjoy this production, if such a thing is possible. Oh, and by the way, if you close your eyes you will hear some marvelous singing in all the operas. And maybe this is the best way to "enjoy" Castorf's Ring.

Does anybody know if there are plans to release this Ring on DVD/BluRay?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Not Diverse Enough

I'm not a very avid or faithful TV watcher. I never saw Friends, but I hear today that its creator, Marta Kauffman is apologizing for her show because it was not diverse enough. This is what she said at the virtual ATX TV Festival:

"I wish I knew then what I know today." Sorry, I just wish I knew then what I know now. I would've made very different decisions. I mean we've always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn't do enough and now all I can think about is what can I do?"

Can't do much about her old show, I'm afraid. She created a show that was part of her reality at that time, for the then reality of the country. Diversity, for better or worse, might not have been a driving force towards the success of the series given her target audience. Like I stated earlier, I never saw the show, but the cast picture above surely tells me that it was a show created by and for a certain young, white audience. So, I'm not really sure why Ms. Kauffman is apologizing now, other than to be topical, and to show that she really cares about the current cause.

Given the new normal, in the near future we might just hear "mea culpas" from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Although, somehow, I just can't see Larry apologizing.

And surely don't expect an apology from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos... you don't want to get whacked do you? I'm currently discovering this HBO series (like I stated before I am not an avid or faithful friend of TV) and in one of the episodes of the second season two armed African-American criminals steal a car, and force a mafioso and his family (and their pet dog) out of the vehicle. The wiseguy reacts by exploding with the line "Fucking N*****s!"

Would that line have made it past the writer's room these days?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Gone with the Wind is pulled out of HBO Max

Gone With the Wind, the 1939 multiple Oscar-winning film that many critics view as one of the greatest ever made in the history of American cinema, has been pulled from HBO Max, the new streaming service owned by WarnerMedia.  The film is based on the sole novel by Southern writer Margaret Mitchell whose sprawling Pulitzer Prize winner shows an idealization of the antebellum South, implying an approval of slavery, and presents the Civil War as the result of Northern aggression. Further, in the second part of the film (the movie clocks in at 238 minutes) the years of Reconstruction show how these ex-confederates still yearn for the past, while at the same time going to any extent to recreate their lost world, even if it means taking advantage of the newly-freed African-Americans.

So as not to be accused of blind censorship, HBO Max has decided that the film will be suppressed temporarily -- perhaps until things cool down on the streets of America and the world -- and promises that the film will come back with, to quote an HBO spokesperson, "a discussion of its historical context." What does this mean? Does it mean that if you want to stream the film you have to sit through a preamble round table of experts (that you will be unable to fast forward!) who will explore how the movie is a prime example of America's 1930's racist past? Perhaps something similar to what was done when Warner Brothers released their Looney Tunes cartoon collection on DVD/BluRay with a short introduction by Whoopi Goldberg reminding us that these cartoons are a product of a racist time in our country.

Is it fair to censor a film whose screenplay was worked on by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenwriter Ben Hecht and Sidney Howard, who ultimately received the screen credit (and a posthumous Best Adaptation Oscar) for his work? Whatever the film's faults it is a work of art which should never be censored, as many different examples of artistic expression were suppressed and burned during Germany's National Socialism days.

And let's not forget that before there was GWTW, there was The Birth of a Nation, the incendiary 1915 silent movie from film pioneer D.W. Griffith. Based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, whose title was The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film has been controversial from its first showing. On the one hand, it is famous for legitimizing the new art of motion pictures, and giving cinema its grammar, and on the other hand for showing the Klan as the savior of the new South. Any discussion of GWTW must begin with Birth. Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (who distributed GWTW) paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show Birth of a Nation in New England. Mayer made millions. When making GWTW, producer David O Selznick made sure that the more incendiary aspects of the novel would not be adapted to the screen. Gone was the "N" word, and there was no mention of the Klan anywhere. In the great scene when Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is wounded and Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye) loses his life it's as a result of a raid on a black shanty-town whose members had attacked Scarlet O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) a few days before. I am sure that the raiders wore the white hoods and sheets during that mission, but producer Selznick made sure that they had disrobed before returning to their women folk.

Seems a shame to suppress a film which tried really hard in its day to show compassion for the African American experience. Seems also a shame that modern audiences will not be able to enjoy the performance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win the Academy Award.

While writing this piece, a friend sent me the following information from deadline.com:

"While HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind –temporarily — from its streaming offering on Tuesday, Amazon has reaped the rewards of the controversy that ensued. The 1939 classic shot to the top of Amazon’s movies and TV bestseller list overnight and on Wednesday occupied the number 1 slot, the number 8 slot and the number 9 slot. It did so in different iterations: DVD, Blu-ray and the 70th Anniversary Edition.
With the exception of what seem to be single copies being offered — and immediately snapped up — on the site, Victor Fleming’s Civil War-era film has sold out in every format. One Blu-ray copy was being offered for $334.01."

I fear the knee-jerk reactions that we have seen played out around the country since the awful death of George Floyd. The same impulsive force that has caused HBO Max to ban the film. I fear that the pendulum swinging so violently to the left will have a direct impact on the possibility of a change of government in the upcoming presidential election in November. How does the old saying go...?

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."