Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: latest Woody Allen film

There was a time when Woody Allen mattered. When one of his new movie came out, you had to see it on the first day (for fear that everyone would spoil the jokes for you), and preferably you had to see it on the Upper East Side (like at the Beekman Theater) where it didn't matter that you had to wait on line for hours. His movies spoke to audiences with a high-brow comic clarity that was unique in cinema. We understood his language and he defenitely spoke ours. His likes and dislikes were pretty much ours as well, and the relationship between artist and audience which began in the late 1970s, survived almost intact until Shadows and Fog (1992), to my mind, the film that detached him from his audience. His greatness is that he keeps on making films, although his audience of disciples seems to be shrinking.

In his latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he essentially explores the impossibility of living "a trois,"
as he traces the triangles and quadrangles of the geometry of love. He travels to the lovely city of Barcelona, which his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe has lit with lovely golden sunset colors, in order to narrate the story of how two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) meet Juan Antonio, a Spaniard artist and bon-vivant (Javier Bardem), and how their lives are forever changed when Juan Antonio's former wife (Penélope Cruz) arrives on the scene. Surrounded by all the modernista Antoní Gaudí architecture Allen seems to be an ageless tourist with a passion for life and an uncanny eye for beauty, whether that be the neo-barroque curves of Catalan arquitecture or the heavenly bodies of the three main female stars.

For all its charming qualities, the film feels at times like a beta version of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim -- arguably the director's greatest, and most romantic film. Allen is no stranger to postmodernism, and has always been ready to pay homage to the giants on whose shoulders he likes to stand: Federico Fellini, once in a while, and more often, Ingmar Bergman. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he yearns to channel the spirit of the French New Wave complete with scenes of couples bike riding in a pastoral countryside, and a narrator who tells us more often than not what we already know or what we could have figured out for ourselves. But the spirit of Truffaut's film is ellusive and hard to capture. Truffaut's work is essentially grand and tragic, and in this film Allen is unable or unwilling to escape his comic background. This makes Allen's film feel inferior and light by comparison, and the end result is a bittersweet movie which aims high but falls short of the mark it might have intended.

The cast is just right, though, and whatever enjoyment you can get out of this film is attributed to their performances. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are perfectly cast as the Barcelonian artist couple. It is great to see Bardem playing a likeable character once again after his Academy Award performance in No Country for Old Men. Likewise, Penélope Cruz is perfect in the part of the "other woman." The Spanish banter between them when they fight (which sounded improvised) was delicious, although it would have been more believable had they been able to do it in Catalan.

Scarlet Johannson is now enthroned as Woody Allen's muse (rivalring Leonardo Di Caprio for Martin Scorsese) with a total of three films for the director. As the outright winner of the judgement of Woody, the golden apple that this goddess received is her ticket to join the list of Lasser, Keaton, and Farrow. As of yet, of course, there are no believable romantic rumors between director and star, and I hope that it continues this way. Better a Svengali-Trilby relationship for this Hollywood couple than to see Woody Allen displayed on the pages of the New York Post all over again.

I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but because of its imperefections I did not love it. One thing's for sure: the film's images continue to linger in my mind, and something tells me that they might be deepening with time.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

HAIR in Central Park

The Public Theater is ending its summer Shakespare in the Park season at the Delacorte Theater with an awesome production of one of their own creations: 1967's Hair. Billed as the "American Tribal Love Rock Musical," Hair was the first show mounted by producer Joseph Papp after he bought the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and converted it into The Public Theater. In 1968, the musical moved to Broadway (featuring such unknowns at the time as Ben Vereen, Melba Moore, and Diane Keaton), where it played a smash run of 1, 750 performances, was a critical and popular hit, and forever changed the landscape of the American musical.

Hair is a landmark work. When you consider some of the other offerings of the Great White Way at that time: Fiddler on the Roof, George M, and Zorba, the tribe of hippies that landed at the Biltmore Theatre must have looked to the average theater-goer of that time like an invasion from another planet. But make no mistake about it, Hair accomplished many things that no other musical had even attempted. It was one of the first to use rock as the musical idiom of choice, it featured a racially integrated cast, it called for young people to use drugs, rebel against society and adopt as a lifestyle all aspects of the sexual and drug revolution that characterize the 1960's.

This musical is the spiritual granddaddy of many successful shows that could not have been created had Hair not paved the way for them. A Chorus Line (a show that also began its life at the Public), Rent, and Spring Awakening are three works that come to mind immediately.

This production at the Delacorte is Hair's first major New York production since its initial run. This revival shares a powerful link with the original production. Not only is it a Public Theater production, but the work's inherent anti-war message speaks very clearly to us in our post 9/11 world.

Removed from its time, but with a clear voice for a new generation, the show might look a bit too manicured and polished for my taste. I remember the 1960's as a bit more gritty. Still, the young cast is a joy to see, and the energy level is so high that their enthusiasm becomes infectious. All the old songs are there: the great classics like "Aquarius" and "Good Morning, Starshine," as well as the sillier ones like "Frank Mills," which I have always argued is the most curious song ever written for a Broadway musical.

Hair saves its most powerful moments for the end. The closing moments of this work are some of the most powerful I have seen in quite a while, and this production manages a memorable coup de théâtre with the song "Let the Sunshine In." I dare anyone not to be moved, enthralled, and even angered during the closing bars of this score.

This production is so wonderfully polished, though, that I hope there is a future for it on Broadway. Come award time, I can even see it winning best revival, even though the original production was not even nominated for any Tony award. Will it come to Broadway? Well, let's just say that if there is a Republican win in November, then we really need this production of Hair, with its message of love and peace, to come to Broadway immediately to rescue us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Katharina's Meistersinger: Year Two

This year the Bayreuth Festival took the show on the road to city plazas and home computers near you. During the spring months leading up to the festival, the Bayreuth website was updated to include information in German and English, and in the weeks prior to opening night virtual tickets were sold (at the price of 49 euros) to view a telecast straight from the stage of the Festspielhaus. The result was that thousands were able to experience Katharina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg through their computer in a live video webcast. In addition, a large screen set up outdoors in one of Bayreuth's squares presented the performance to an estimated 35,000 spectators.

This is the second year for this Meistersinger, and those of you who read this column regularly will remember that I blogged extensively about this new production last year, basing my reports on whatever information I could get my hands on: mostly still pictures and various reviews from many periodicals. This year, however, I was able to actually see the work itself (via the webcast) and my conclusion is that this production has to be seen to be believed.

I wish that they would have done a webcast like this for Christoph Schlingensief's infamous production of Parsifal, which lived its short lifespan on the Green Hill amid jeers and loud boos. That certainly was a stage work that demanded to be seen as well as heard, although its enemies will argue that it never should have seen the light of day. Wagner's famous idea of "total art work" demands that the visual element be as important as the music. In this respect, this year's computerized marriage of audio and visuals brings Bayreuth to a larger public in a way that Wagner himself might have approved.

While on the subject of approval: I am not sure that Wagner would approve or even understand what is currently passing as his Meistersinger at Bayreuth these days. If you know the work and have grown up with a traditional staging of it, such as the Otto Schenk staging at the MET, this production contains so many "what the f**k" moments that save for the music it is really impossible to recognize Katharina's production as a Richard Wagner opera.

This staging is so different and shocking that the feeling you get is that you are watching a whole new work. Turn down the sound and you won't recognize what opera you are watching from the staging. There is very little of Die Meistersinger in this Meistersinger. Transposed to modern times, the old singers are now academic gown-wearing teachers in an art school where the pupils wear drab uniforms. Hans Sachs is a chain-smoking, nonconformist writer who likes to walk around in his bare feet, while Walther is a paint-splashing SoHo "Aktionkunstler" who bears more than a slight resemblance to Schlingensief himself.

Given these inherent changes, there is very little in the opera that can be presented in any way resembling the traditional way, and Katharina makes sure that tradition is thrown to the four winds at every turn. In Act II, for instance, sneakers rain down on the performers while Sixtus Beckmesser practices his song with Hans Sachs, and the act ends with an uproarious melee featuring, among many things, half-naked men wearing giant Campbell soup cans on their heads. As if this was not enough, Ms. Wagner leaves the best for last. In Act III, during the introduction of the various guilds, Ms. Wagner stages a sort of dream sequence where big-head caricatures of famous Germans suggestively play with each other while topless show girls attempt to give Hans Sachs a lap dance. During the song contest, Beckmesser sings his half-learned nonsensical tune wearing a Dr. Frankenstein apron while bringing to life a naked man who rises out of a bed of dirt like a newly awakened golem. By the end of the opera Hans Sachs and Walther have both turned into suit-wearing conservative while Beckmesser, wearing a black t-shirt with the English words "Beck in Town," has transformed himself into a radical.

Although everything is pretty imaginative in an absurd kind of way, there is really nothing here that remotely has anything to do with Wagner's original story. The production ends up suffering because it tries to incorporate too much of everything, and nothing of what it puts in was intended to be there in the first place. Katharina's theater is one of provocation making her the absolute center of attention. "Look, everybody," she seems to be saying, "I'm here, I've arrived, daddy is stepping down, and I'm running the show now!" The boos that greeted her curtain call appearance were as loud as those heard when Schlingensief stepped before the curtain after the first performance of his 2004 Parsifal; and like Schlingensief, Katharina Wagner seemed to relish the audience's disapproval of her work. The more they boo the greater the provocation, and therefore the greater the success. The icing on the cake is that everybody got to see it live around the world; and for those who missed it, the DVD comes out just in time for Christmas 2008.

To be totally fair about it, the production is never dull, and when it does come out on home video you might want to pick it up to see what the hullabaloo is all about. It is a wacky look at Wagner's human comedy, and Katharina makes it even more human than we thought possible. It certainly is not one for the ages, but it does introduce the next generation of the Wagner family that will run the festival, and that alone makes it an important piece of history.