Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Master Class: Lumet’s "Network"

Thirty-five years ago, a controversial film captured the zeitgeist. It was a heavily dialogue-driven indictment of a powerful new medium that was influencing people’s views of the world. It also had the word “network” in the title although, unlike The Social Network, it was about television. Directed by the late Sidney Lumet and written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, Network is one of the seminal films of the 1970s. It has been selected by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", in addition to being named one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films of all time. 

Network is about a fictional fourth-place television network called UBS that has been lagging far behind the major “big three” networks. Fox had not yet come into being at that time, but its antics and shocking, controversial choice of programs before it became household-friendly with American Idol and Glee closely echoed the fictional stunts on Network. One wonders if Rupert Murdoch intended this to happen or if it were merely delicious coincidence.

The "mad prophet of the airwaves"
The three central figures in Network include its news anchor, the aging and recently fired Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in an Oscar-winning performance of a lifetime), ambitious and ruthless UBS executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, also in an Oscar-winning turn) and the former news division head Max Schumacher (William Holden). Howard suffers a vivid mental breakdown including a pronouncement that he will kill himself on the air, and another featuring a rant so monumental that it became a catchphrase when UBS rehires him and re-jigs its news hour around him. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that Howard is clearly mad and claims to be guided by what he believes to be the voice of God. No matter: he’s simply branded as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, and he’s a hit!

Diana, who is described as being “raised on Bugs Bunny”, pursues Max, the film’s conscience, and woos him away even though he has a wife and grown daughter. She’s so focused on business that while they make love, she is still busy talking about her business plan: the world’s first “homosexual soap opera, "The Dykes”.

Network is also noted for Beatrice Straight’s performance as Max’s scorned wife, on note as the shortest Oscar-winning role in history. It lasts barely six minutes in its entirety, most of which is contained in this one scene, but every last second of it remains overwhelmingly powerful.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sarah Brightman Lost Her Heart to a Starship Trooper

Sometimes, the line between kitsch and camp is blurred.

In 1978, a very young Sarah Brightman, then still in her teens, was chosen to sing with the British dance troupe Hot Gossip. Together, they created a disco single intended to make the latter a legitimate musical act. Hot Gossip is known to nostalgic Brits as being one of the first successful ventures for late 80s pop sensation Sinetta, AKA Simon Cowell’s girlfriend before he became famous. The resulting single, light years (pun intended) away from Brightman’s future classical music output and stint as the original Christine in Phantom of the Opera, was “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper”.

The single is a frothy disco track that opens with a rather cheeky sample of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. It then spins a tale of intergalactic love / booty call between a supple young woman and the unseen “Captain Strange”, presumably a cross between Captain Kirk, Han Solo and / or Luke Skywalker. Given that the single was released in 1978, it is no coincidence that this was thematically produced to cash in on the Star Wars craze. For the purposes of this article only, I will refer to the speaker as “Lana”.

Having been lustily rejected (in both senses of the word) by Darth Vader and Flash Gordon, Lana is for some reason aching for a moment of intense passion with the Captain before Starfleet Command finds out where they are and, one presumes, summons them back to work. This is all set to a series of danceable bleeps and bloops and then-fashionable “futuristic” laser keyboard emissions. “Starship Trooper” contains much innuendo, a sample of which is contained here:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sound Advice: Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol”

Warning: This blog post may contain images and sounds that will cause you or parts of yourself to boogie at your desk. Please refrain from doing so, unless everyone else around you is free to join you in wild, abandoned glee.

Sometimes, pure genius doesn’t have to be deep or profound. Sometimes, genius can manifest itself in nothing more than words and sounds that mean nothing at all.

In the early 1970s, politically charged Italian singer-songwriter Adriano Celentano, having written some scathing and incendiary pop music, decided that he needed to loosen up, or at least for four minutes. The result is his hit single “Prisencolinensinainciusol”.

What does the title mean? Why, nothing, of course.

Celentano stated that after writing densely, thematically-packed music, he wanted to produce something playful. "Prisencolinensinainciusol" is his brainchid. The lyrics are an approximation of what English may sound like to non-Anglophone ears. When presenting the song on Italian national television, Celentano stated that he wrote the song to show how people in modern times cannot communicate effectively with one another. (He succeeds.) The above-noted clip is amalgamated and edited from two separate TV appearances of the song. Here they are:

What makes these four minutes such an absolute joy to behold is the audacious way in which Celentano delightfully, deliberately creates joyful nonsense for the sheer hell of it. His Wikipedia page indicates that two of his biggest influences are none other than Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis. Given the way he contorts his face and swivels his hips in the clip, his performance has clearly been informed by both icons.

The performance itself is genius. It is choreographed nonsense combining a perfectly synched dance troupe strutting in supreme precision. There may only be a dozen dancers in the clip, but the use of the mirrors magnifies the experience and by extension the complete and total silliness of it all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Road Show: Les Misérables

“You only get one cry in life, you’ve chosen well!” – Rip Torn to Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, upon giving his character a promotion.
Original Broadway poster

Far too many people cry at too much trash disguised as “art”. The Blogger knows people who cry at Twilight, Britney Spears concerts and Jackie Collins novels. Too bad these people have such terrible taste. The Blogger has been known to cry at only one book, film and play in his life. These are, respectively, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, and the musical of Les Misérables, or “Les Mis”, as he and millions of others affectionately call it.

Dubbed “the world’s favourite musical”, Les Mis was first performed in France in 1980 and premiered in London’s West End in 1985. The original French score was performed by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with an English language libretto produced by Herbert Kretzmer. Twenty-six years after its debut, the musical has yet to close and still plays eight performances a week. Such a feat for a long-running show is completely unheard of. The Broadway production, despite some initially mixed critical response, cleared the board at the 1987 Tony Awards and played for sixteen years in New York, with a successful revival less than three years after its closing. The libretto has been translated into 21 languages and performed over the last quarter-century in 38 countries, including Germany, South Korea, Chile, Japan, Argentina, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Mexico, Hungary, Poland and Spain.

Colm Wilkinson, the original
Jean Valjean
Les Mis is no small production. The score demands two dozen major and featured parts. It has been greatly reduced from the original 1,400 page novel by Victor Hugo and yet performances may still run close to three hours. Set over several decades in post-revolutionary France, the main narrative thread concentrates on Jean Valjean, a man who served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. This role is one of the most challenging in Broadway history and requires an operatic vocal mastery (it is often played by trained tenors). Upon release, Valjean is hounded by police inspector Javert, a man so relentless in pursuing Valjean over the decades that he’s essentially the world’s most inexhaustible parole officer. Valjean becomes a successful businessman who adopts Cosette, the impoverished daughter of the fragile prostitute Fantine. Fantine’s character is best known for singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, a now-iconic Broadway standard known popularly as Susan Boyle’s audition song for X Factor. Cosette was plucked from the brothel-owning Thenadier family, whose daughter Eponine grows up to fall in love with Marius, Cosette’s beloved. Marius’s school chums are at the forefront of the Paris Uprising of 1832, an insurrection at which thousands of rebellious, ill-equipped universe students who never held a gun in their lives were massacred. Through all this, fortunes are made and lost, the population starves and die, characters somehow survive and carry on through their hard lives together.

Lea Salonga as Fantine in the 2006 Broadway revival
Unlike most musicals, there are no dance numbers here. The musical has proven to be a draw for top musical talent over the decades, as roles have been performed by revered Broadway stars such as Colm Wilkinson, Patti LuPone, Alfie Boe and Lea Salonga. Other stars who have taken roles in various productions throughout the years and in the world include Matt Lucas, Deborah (formerly Debbie) Gibson, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Ruthie Henshall, Nick Jonas and Lea Michele. I personally know several people who each own several cast recordings produced over the last two and a half decades. In a British nationwide poll, the listeners of BBC Radio Two chose Les Mis as “The Nation’s Most Popular Musical”.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Party Girl: Rihanna’s LOUD Tour

I used to worry about Rihanna. The assault and battery charges against her now infamous ex Chris Brown, and the resulting public scandal arising from the photographs of the then-bruised and battered Rihanna, were so shocking that one wondered what effect that might have had on her music. Was one of the most promising superstars of pop music about to go into hiding?

No, thankfully, Rihanna released her fourth studio album, Rated R, a mere nine months after the ugly events of that fateful evening. The music plumbed heretofore unexamined grief, betrayal, anger and defiance. The sinister first single “Russian Roulette” became an international smash and one of the most frightening, in terms of verisimilitude, pop singles of all time. It was and is also a sonic masterpiece. The other singles on the album tell the rest of the tale: “Stupid in Love”, “Hard” and “Cold Case Love”, and added to her nearly endless coterie of smash hits.

The concert tour that accompanied the disc, the Last Girl on Earth Tour, was perhaps one of the darkest-themed shows in recent pop music history. The Blogger was surprised to see such a disturbing spectacle and although impressed with the show, wasn’t sure if it was OK to really dance and let loose the way he does at other shows. Rihanna sported a severe Mohawk and sauntered angrily atop a pink tank. She was depicted on video screens as being a desexualized, militant alien figure, come to do battle with unseen evil forces. Rihanna displayed a new vocal prowess, a deep, sobering, defiant growl that showed the world she may have been knocked down literally, but not for the count. Never count out Rihanna. Given that she used to sing about giddy love on such hits as “Umbrella” and “Don’t Stop the Music”, Rihanna’s musical odyssey exploring abusive emotional love spoke of trauma that inadvertently contributed to her musical growth.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Dream of Dada: Surrealism at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Since May 26, the Vancouver Art Gallery has been showcasing a phenomenal new exhibition for the summer of 2011. This is easily the most exciting collection assembled by VAG since their seminal 2004 Andy Warhol exhibit. Entitled The Colour of My Dreams, this year’s exhibition is a stunning collection of Surrealist art.

For the uninitiated, Surrealism was an aesthetic and philosophical movement that arose in 1920s Paris. French writer André Breton was heavily influenced by the Dadaist belief that excessive rational thought and capitalist bourgeois values had given rise to the First World War. After serving as a military doctor during WWI, Breton and like-minded artists produced writings that, although initially thought as gibberish and nonsense, were actually open-ended and open to interpretation. These were collections of essays published together with like-minded artists in the radical artist journal LitteratureThe idea was to create a movement of associated art that rejected what came before it. Breton and his contemporaries called their work “anti-art”.

Use of free association, non-linear thoughts and unusual presentation of ideas was vital to the Surrealist artistic and philosophical conceits. Surrealist art maintained that this presentation of art, heavily reliant on symbolism, imagery and presented in a manner that at first defies logic, is paramount to the aesthetic. The effect is dreamlike, and as such it has its own logic and purpose, one outside of rational thought but open to interpretation. It is no coincidence that Sigmund Freud’s writings, dismissed as obscene just a decade earlier, and the unconscious reflected heavily in the Surrealist movement. It is with these visual arts and writings where much of the Modern Art movement first came to major public attention. Art was, at this point, no longer just pretty pictures and portraits. It is therefore fitting that the exhibition is entitled The Colour of My Dreams.

They’re all here on glorious display, and the list of artists whose works are presented is dizzying: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró, amongst others. Edith Rimmington’s famed The Oneiroscopist, a dazzling Mother Whistler interpretation with a monstrous creature dressed in scuba gear, is the appropriate choice for the exhibit’s publicity materials. Why? Because “oneiroscopist” means “one who interprets dreams”, of course.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Modern Film Classics: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

So much can happen in the blink of an eye. But what can you actually do with it?

If you’re Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby, you dictate the contents of your life story. 
In December 1995, Jean-Do was the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine. He was not a nice man. Fabulously well-connected, he had a wife he treated poorly and regularly humiliated by his affairs with models, children he ignored, and a mistress he actually loathed and suffered. Jean-Do was successful but wretched. One fine day, he was felled by a debilitating stroke and lost complete control over his entire body, becoming a human vegetable with the extremely rare condition of “locked-in syndrome”. He could not speak, feed or relieve himself, or move, but he could take in his entire surroundings and he could do just one thing … blink his left eyelid. The best analogy was that of a diver, locked in an old-fashioned diving-bell suit, unable to communicate to home base, breathing, but doing nothing else while caged in that physical constraint.

A speech therapist designed a method of communicating with Jean-Do. She developed a chart displaying all of the letters in their order of frequency of use, and not alphabetically. Using this chart, Jean-Do could “spell out words”. All he had to do was to blink at the letter he wanted when it was presented, the therapist or attending nurse would stop, and they start at the beginning of the chart again until he got to the next letter. With this unorthodox methodology, Jean-Do “spelled” out commands and his wishes and “dictated” stories and memories into what became his autobiography, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. The slim memoir was an instant best-seller and adapted into Julian Schnabel’s award-winning French-language film in 2007.

Schnabel’s project, like its source material, had a difficult birth. Schnabel spoke little to no French when he first embarked on production but insisted on filming the entire film in its original language (which he had to learn). To further maintain verisimilitude, Schnabel shot it in the very same hospital where Jean-Do was treated before the latter’s death in 1997. The film was shot almost entirely from Jean-Do’s point of view and the camerawork was difficult and often laborious. Much of the screenplay had to be written outside of its original source material to incorporate additional biographical details that didn’t appear in the original memoir. 

Nevertheless, although the film was not a major box office success, it received very high reviews and such accolades as BAFTA, Golden Globe and Cesar Awards, Best Director honours at the Cannes Film Festival, and four Academy Award nominations. It is consistently ranked amongst the top 250 highest-rated films on the Internet Movie Database.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dream Mash-up: Glee and Björk

Dear producers of Glee:

You have so far given us the Madonna special, built an episode of self-empowerment around Lady Gaga, and gave us a quietly powerful interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s seminal Rumors album. You are clearly into doing themed episodes and next season you may be looking to do more. I know you’re on summer hiatus, which is precisely why this is the perfect time for me to write this to you, so that you can have time to create the plotline and clear the rights.

My humble suggestion to you is to structure your next themed episode entirely around the music of … BJÖRK.

Yes, Björk.

Think about it. Her music, being so over-the-top and unusual, requiring such complex and unorthodox instrumentation as vocal beat-boxing, Inuit throat-singing, drum machines, triangles and full-scale orchestras, are ripe for choral treatment. It would be the ultimate challenge for your show!

Yes, I know you and she tried negotiating rights for a song of hers to be used in the past but it didn’t work. But still, why not entice the pop iconoclast with an entire episode around her music??? And I LOVE that you tried.

The visceral, violent imagery in Björk’s music is perfectly suited to the uncontrollable emotional diarrhea of the characters. The music is so far removed from conventional musical arrangement and experimental that it would certainly make for some of the most innovative music you’ll have ever produced thus far. Plus, think of just how confused Middle America would be by having you dedicate an entire episode around such an unusual concept, but it would also help them expand their musical repertoire.

Just think of it as Tina and Mike having a weird dream about her when they went out for dim sum and ate too much chicken feet, watched a marathon of Ms. Swan clips from Mad TV, and fell asleep. They wake up, tell everyone about their “weird dreams”, and voila! Mr. Schue gives them all copies of her collected works that he had in high school (which his shrewish ex-wife won’t let him play or listen to, natch) and chooses them all to pick one. Or it’ll just be a bizarro episode like that one black-and-white Felicity episode from 1999.

Here are some brilliant suggestions for each character to sing, and the signature line from each song that would be truest to each character’s essence.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: The Tree of Life

The Blogger had a near-religious experience this morning. He attended an advanced screening of Terrence Malick’s long-awaited new film, The Tree of Life. Shrouded and filmed in secrecy, very little of the film’s story has been given away during filming and even the reviews from Cannes, mostly glowing and a few dissenting, were cryptic in their relations of details.

The Tree of Life centres on a childhood, a family, a specific time and place. There is a disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt, in unquestionably his most vanity-free and accomplished performance), who is continually frustrated by life and tries to warn his children of the evils in the world, without fostering premature bitterness in them. Despite the fact that he is no superman, he can see the beauty of life in such things as his faith and classical music. This is a film where the sounds of Berlioz and Toscanini caress the aural senses. The mother (embodied by a masterful Jessica Chastain) exudes forgiveness and compassion, but doesn’t indulge her brood. There is no conventional “plot”, as everything is told in a non-linear fashion. Where Pitt’s performance is filled with words, hers is full of feeling, as Chastain interprets the role like a silent-film actress. Sean Penn plays the now-aging middle child, who is our narrative guide and tie to the present. There are no heroes or villains here, only some damaged, everyday people.

The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job. Malick structures his film like a symphony, with several movements, and each “section” identified not by title cards but by visual cues, all part of a larger thematic work. The family sustains a devastating loss at the beginning of the film, and shows how the memory of that pain has never fully gone away, echoing across the decades. At one point, in a telephone conversation with his elderly father, the son says “no, I haven’t forgotten. I think of him every day.” There has never been a release of the paralyzing grief and shattering pain that has mortally wounded each and every family member. 

Malick juxtaposes the human suffering with images from nature and geography. There is a long section taking us through a long series of natural phenomenon that is achingly beautiful to behold, and even goes as far back as the age of the dinosaurs (the visual effects here are magnificent). Although it may sound absurd on paper, Malick intends us to understand the scope of the family’s grief against the grander scale of the cosmos. He also throws the film’s Biblical overtones into sharp relief, with both Creationist and Evolutionist theories sharing the same film. Yes, there’s also a gargantuan tree, one that anchors the film thematically and visually. Perhaps no other film in the last decade has dared to set human suffering against the cosmos, with the exception of Darren Aronofsky’s underrated masterpiece The Fountain. You could show this drama in 3-D Imax and it would look just as spectacular as Avatar or the next Pirates sequel.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sound Advice: Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love

Not since the Manic Street Preachers announced that their 1998 album This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours would be inspired by the Spanish Civil War has a concept album taken on such an unorthodox subject. The announcement in 2006 that Talking Heads’ David Byrne would collaborate with Norman Cook (AKA Fatboy Slim) on an experimental rock/dance musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos was met with raised eyebrows. After all, would a rock album featuring an all-guest vocalist album made up of mostly Brits, based on the life of a notorious political dictator’s flamboyant wife, living in a former Spanish colony,  work? 

[Cue to the Blogger’s iPod shuffling to Evita. You win, Steve Jobs.]

The Blogger was born and raised in the Philippines, during the latter years of the Marcos regime. Even at a young age, the Blogger received an extremely colourful political education and witnessed the populist “People Power” uprising following the 1986 elections that swept Corazon Aquino to power and drove the Marcos family out of the country. Through it all, no matter how complicated the machinations of power worked feverishly to create history, just about everyone did focus on the colourful First Lady Imelda Marcos, her flamboyant life, outrageous manner, and of course her infamous shoe collection. (The Blogger still gets teased for this every single time he goes shoe shopping. Every time.)

The shoe closet. "Only" 1,060 of them.
Imelda, with her inappropriate predilection for luxury goods when her country was awash in poverty, was so flamboyant that she came to be known simply by only her first name. It signifies her iconic stature, regardless of whether one reveres or ridicules her, that she would need just her first name to let everyone know exactly who she is. Her love of shoes (which no one has ever referred to as a fetish, ever wonder why?) is not just the stuff of legend, but also common knowledge. There is a quote in the shoe department of a local department that has this on the wall:

I did not have 3,000 pairs of shoes. I only had 1,060.” – Imelda Marcos

So much is encapsulated in that one quote. There’s even more in some of her other quotes, showing perhaps just how out of touch with her people she was (and if she wasn't, how she grew to that state):

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The German Opera Project: Wagner's Ring in San Francisco

Achtung, Ring nuts!

It would be remiss of the Blogger not to advise all of you who have been following my self-directed German Opera Project, which you can read here and here, that the San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s giant economy sized magnum opus Der Ring das Nibelungen has commenced performances very recently.

Scheduled to run from May 29 to July 3, director Francesca Zambello’s staging of the lengthy opera will be presented in three cycles that will allow opera fans to see the Ring in the intended chronological order. These cycles will play from June 14 to 19, June 21 to 26, and June 28 to July 3. The production, said to cost $4.6 million, will play a full length of 17 hours per cycle. The early reviews have been nothing short of phenomenal, and without the nasty backlash that accompanied the troubled LA Opera production that lost millions last year.

Off to play tennis with F. Scott Fitgerald.
Following in the grand tradition of modernist readings of the play, this new production is visually styled to capture the looks of the twentieth century. The look can best be described as a cross of the Titanic and The Great Gatsby. In other words, nary a Viking helmet or a spear will be seen, although it will be less visually experimental than the LA Opera’s Cirque du Soleil-go-on-an-acid-trip milieu. The gods in Valhalla are dressed as if they are out to go for tennis with F. Scott Fitzgerald himself.

Rough day at the office.
The look is heavily industrial and has a heavy Art Deco slant, but as the chronology unfolds, the looks evolve as well. The giants are dressed like construction workers dangling on a scaffold over Manhattan. Brunnhilde (played by Nina Stemme, the famed Swedish soprano who has drawn raves for her performances) appears in full business gear when not dressed in her Aviator-inspired armour, and would have undoubtedly rocked a board meeting or two. The result would have made Alexander McQueen proud and would look only mildly out of place on Project Runway (although one has yet to see Heidi Klum embrace her Teutonic roots on the show by appearing in full Viking gear). Much has been made of Chereau’s centennial Bayreuth production as a critique on modern capitalism 30 years ago. The implications are considerably more explicit here, as the art direction strongly recalls the Eurythmics’ seminal “Sweet Dreams” video, with a touch of Ayn Rand’s living room for good measure. 

This is not to say that the production is catered only to dedicated Wagnerites and opera fans. The SF Opera has launched a number of initiatives in order to make the Ring Cycle more accessible to the public, including a public symposium, online interviews and previews, and even an online learning course. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Caged Bird Sings: Alicia Keys’s Songs in A Minor

As I had said before in my piece on Adele, sometimes all you need is a piano and a voice.

Alicia Keys remains one of the greatest musical artists of the last decade, and it has indeed been ten years since June 5, 2001, when her landmark debut album Songs in A Minor was released to substantive critical acclaim and massive commercial success. 

The musical landscape in 2001 marked the zenith of the bubblegum pop movement, where artists like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync regularly dropped albums that shifted a million copies in a week and sold out arenas. Since then, BSB have formed with their forerunner band NKOTB to form a nostalgic supergroup tour but have had limited success. Justin Timberlake is rapidly distancing himself from his musical past to pursue acting. And Spears is like a sad blow-up doll, mouthing words passionlessly. All sold well but so did Keys, who was one of the biggest-selling artists of that era and has since released three more albums, each one a multi-platinum best-seller. She writes for other established artists and has street cred despite her classical breeding. Sometimes, good taste and good sense truly prevails, in spectacular style.

Everyone recalls the first time they heard Alicia Keys on the radio. It was that pure, clear, soulful voice that pierced through the silence as she sung the opening lines to her first smash, “Fallin’”, a cappella. The reaction was absolutely immediate as everyone asked, “Who was that???” It was the simple clarity of her voice that first grabbed our attention. No one has forgotten that voice ever since.

Friday, June 3, 2011

When Marty Met Edie: The Age of Innocence (A Modern Film Classic)

In 1993, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, famed for his violent crime dramas and character studies such as Raging Bull, GoodFellas and Cape Fear, did the unthinkable: he released a PG-rated costume drama where no blood is spilled and no obscenities are uttered. Based on Edith Wharton’s landmark work of American literature, and still one of the single greatest novels in history, The Age of Innocence was a dissection of old New York society in the 1870s. Having been introduced to Scorsese via his controversial maelstrom The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, the Blogger was as surprised as many in the industry that Scorsese would have chosen a seemingly genteel period piece, with plenty of corsets but nary a pistol in sight. 

What Scorsese saw in Wharton’s seminal work was apparent to those familiar with the original novel. The old way of doing battle in polite, moneyed society was not through duels and fisticuffs, but through the most powerful weapon of all: words. Wharton’s chronicle of a love triangle and its shattering effect on one man’s happiness, due to social constraint and circumstance, critiqued the old New York society in which she grew up with a knife’s edge. This was a place where the weapon of choice was good old-fashioned gossip. War was waged in salons, country homes, ballrooms and studies. It’s no wonder Scorsese was drawn to the project, because the battlefield was fraught with completely invisible landmines.

Day-Lewis and Ryder, as
Newland Archer and May Welland
The triangle consists of well-to-do Manhattan lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis in the film). He is engaged to the prim and proper, but never distant, May Welland (Winona Ryder). Their forthcoming marriage would align two of New York’s most powerful and respected families. In other words, it was not so much a wedding as a power-brokered M&A. Into this world comes May’s black sheep cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an unconventional sort who wore black satin to her coming-out ball, married Polish nobility, and has returned to America to flee her flailing marriage. Humiliated and going through the painful motions of divorce, she is welcomed back to the fold and into society, but beneath everyone’s veneer lurks something more sinister. Countess Olenska is the subject of endless gossip and the speculation surrounding the true circumstances of her marriage’s collapse becomes the talk of the town. Newland, like a lawyer, welcomes challenges to conformity and explores them, and becomes irresistibly drawn to her. He handles her divorce proceedings while keeping his own feelings barely constrained. Rather alarmingly but discreetly, he crosses several professional boundaries by declaring his love for the Countess and she confesses to the same. The seemingly innocent May might have noticed all this going on and, if she suspects anything, she doesn’t let on easily. Wharton intended the title of her novel to be ironic, as there is nothing innocent about the comings and goings of this precariously balanced world in that day and age.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Road Show: Wicked in Vancouver & Western Canada

Update: ticket information for Wicked in Calgary and Edmonton is now available. The show stops in Calgary from June 29 to July 17, and in Edmonton from July 20 to August 7.

The Blogger never fell in love with The Wizard of Oz. I’m not certain if it was the product of my immigrant upbringing, a complete lack of interest in the film as a child, or a total unawareness of what it means to so many others that allowed it to pass me by. I didn’t even see the actual film until after I turned 30, although by the time I saw it, so many people had told me what happens in it years before that I knew the entire story before viewing it and felt that I had already seen it.

Strangely enough, my trip to Oz was presaged by a reading of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a revisionist novel from the same source material. Turning the story on its head, the novel charts the Wicked Witch of the West’s history, including her tortured birth and her time at Shiz University, where she meets Glinda the Good Witch (then named Galinda) and they become unlikely friends. Also, Maguire gives her the name Elphaba. It turns out that the Wizard was not so wonderful. Enchanted, anthropomorphized animals integrated into society and, like humans, held down jobs and were highly educated.

The Wizard, in a form of ethnic cleansing, instigates a systemic eradication of these magical creatures and gives them lobotomies, thus robbing them of their faculties and higher functions. Elphaba, as a fierce defender of these creatures, watched helplessly as her favourite professor, an enchanted creature, was reduced to a shadow of his former self under the Wizard’s rule of law. Elphaba declared war on the Wizard and was thus named the Wicked Witch of the West, since she was only wicked to the Wizard and the citizens of Oz who fall under his rule. (Her sister was the Wicked Witch of the East, hardly a fair assessment given that she was herself confined to a wheelchair and seemed to be “wicked” purely by political affiliation and genealogy. Named Nessarose, she is a powerful politician in the novel and the musical.)

If The Wizard of Oz were a historical chronicle of the wars in that place and time, then it was a history written by the winners: the Wizard, the Munchkins, and the unwitting Dorothy, an opportunist who only used the Wizard to return to a barren hinterland. Wicked is a witty, sinister novel that tweaks with our notions of good and evil by asking critically, what is “good”? Does “evil” exist? Is either of these simply a moral or a philosophical concept signifying social values, or is there anything intrinsic in either? Do they only have value in relation to one another and, when you remove that contrast, is there nothing left but a series of categorical imperatives? How do you assign value to a life?  Maguire’s text gives dignity to Elphaba’s story.