Archive for March, 2012

Cogito: John Branch

March 27, 2012


Mad Men: Still Smokin’?

Did people really smoke that much? This was one of my first two responses when I sat down to watch Mad Men from the beginning on DVD two years ago: it could’ve been called That Cigarette-Smoking Show. In much of America, the slate has now been wiped so clean—a process begun by the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, dealt with in Season Four of Mad Men—that it’s hard to believe the clouds we used to live and work in. But it’s true: in 1965, after that unsettling report, 23 percent of American adults smoked a pack or more a day. (It had fallen to 7 percent in 2007.)

If you’ve seen AMC’s show, you know what clouds I’m talking about. If you haven’t, try dropping in on an episode. It may seem uneventful, which is because everything connects—much of the meaning derives from implications for a larger picture. But you’ll know right away that you’ve landed sometime else: clothing and hairstyles and décor and cars, the easier pace of work, the chattering of typewriters, drinking out of the office and in, the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village, limited jobs for women, a derisive attitude toward Jews, freedom marches in the South, the invisibility of most ethnic immigrants, the visible decline of faith, the near-total absence of abortion, the presence of Playboy Clubs, the arrival of copying machines…

The history is always there, and it’s potent even though it isn’t always rendered as drama. The lure of the past and the look of the show have proven influential in ways large and small. Mad Men’s opening-title graphic design has created echoes, for instance in a book ad I saw just a day ago. At least one entire series, Pan Am, was launched to provide another fantastic voyage back in time; it could never light up the same first response in me, though, because its network, ABC, banned all foreground smoking.

The historical notes in Mad Men, however they’re sounded, make it easy for baby boomers to connect with the show. For me, that happened early in the first season, prompting my other initial response. The central character’s wife, Betty Draper (played by January Jones), spends much of her time at home in a comfortable suburb. “Can you imagine worrying about money at this point in our lives?” asks a friend and neighbor of Betty’s, regarding a divorcee with two kids who’s moving in. The single woman isn’t given the warmest welcome.

That troubled me about my mother’s fate all over again. After my parents divorced, later in the 60s, she found herself living in a conventional, lily-white, and rather well-to-do neighborhood (because her parents lived there), faced with working and raising children on her own. Among her friends and the families I met—in an enclave within Dallas, Texas, of more than 20,000 people—only one other woman was in her position. How my mother was greeted I don’t know, but she must’ve been conscious of her difference from her neighbors.

That business and the scenes of a family breakup that came later amount to only a few resonant moments in the show’s cavalcade. A few seasons back, Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott raised an objection to one particular historical aspect of Mad Men: that it shows “zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years.” The show’s setting has since advanced a few years, but Wolcott’s point is still germane—you might expect a little more joy along the way. After much head scratching, I’ve concluded that our notions of history are too reductive. Girdles weren’t abandoned upon JFK’s inauguration, as an occasional disrobing on the show lets us see. Not everybody hummed Camelot tunes as they created the future. These characters don’t know they’re living in what we think of as “the 60s.”

Besides, Mad Men’s dramas are as often personal as social. The characters often think they know who they are and often discover their self is as unstable as J. Alfred Prufrock’s, though without the hesitation. They sense what the existentialists proposed, that existence comes first and having an essence isn’t guaranteed but has to be accomplished. Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery), the show’s silver fox, wants out of his marriage; when he gets that, he wants into another; at intervals throughout, he also wants Joan (Christina Hendricks), the Monroe-esque bombshell of the office. Betty Draper looks like the perfect housewife (as enacted by Jones, she resembles Grace Kelly), but something about her is usually locked up; it gets loose in Season One, leading to a spree with a pellet gun. She connects better with children (except for her own), including a strangely grown-up neighborhood boy, and she later breaks free of Don, who’s a problem all right—he’s just not her problem.

Most important, the character at the center of the show is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who’s always wary about something and still has something to be wary about. Everyone who watches the show (but almost none of its characters) knows what that is. With Don at its heart, Mad Men is bound to have a case of nerves. As much as anything else, that explains why it persistently dramatizes anxiety more than optimism.

Matthew Weiner’s magic-carpet ride frequently lets us ponder a big irony: We know where history is going, and a lot of the Mad Men aren’t going with it. Though Don’s an innovative ad guy, practically an artist, he’s no revolutionary. Early on, he dismisses the first of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s rule-breaking Volkswagen Beetle ads. No doubt he isn’t alone in that, in terms of his historical analogues; Don’s office partners aren’t alone in drinking at work and at lunch or in hitting up the “girls” at the office; their wives aren’t alone in being left alone at home. The 60s didn’t transform everything instantly. And this is how the people of Mad Men are true to their time. Except for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), no one on the show is in the vanguard or the dernier-garde; they’re somewhere in the middle.

The show abounds in reminders of what would be swept away. The descendants of Peggy, a woman who sets out from the typing pool to pioneer a better job for herself, now people the offices of the land, despite not yet quite ruling many of them. Most of the others, as they lived then, and most of their attitudes, are gone. Mad Men shows a lost world.

But for one fact, a late-night writer, drink in hand, who’s considering the passing of times past might be excused for thinking of this memorial, possibly too bright for the chiaroscuro subject at hand: “Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.” That one fact? Their period has departed, but their show is back, now in its fifth season.

The gleaming cocktail glasses are set out on a side table. The unkind light of change shines outside. Shadowy passages and dark recesses lurk within the characters, yet to be plumbed…

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Cooper’s London

March 26, 2012

A Not-So-Civil War

by Mel Cooper

Though he first published The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in 1961, Hugh Thomas has been expanding and updating his monumental study, with various revisions and versions, regularly since then. I re-read the book recently, inspired to do so because Thomas is now writing the third volume of his trilogy covering the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire and its aftermath. (See my post and interview of September 13, 2011.)

In the interview, Thomas told me how took on the Spanish Civil War almost accidentally. In the book, his masterpiece, he deals with the intense feelings and controversies that caused the war and played out not just in that era, but for decades―not only within Spain, but around the world. The Spanish Civil War is still with us today in various ways; and I certainly recommend visiting the municipal archives dedicated to its history in Salamanca. 

Thomas’s view is clearly that the war was a fulcrum upon which revolved the various political ideologies and fanaticisms of the era: democracy, republicanism, fascism, communism and even religion, with a powerful and objective coverage of the complex role of the Spanish Catholic church, in the news again recently for revelations about how it sold children to families it deemed more worthy than the ones that actually gave them birth.

The Spanish Civil War (nearly 1000 pages of text) is gripping from end to end and, as Cyril Connolly said in his review of the original edition, “Almost no aspect of the Civil War, however painful or unpopular, escapes him in this splendid book.” A scrupulous, detailed and completely compelling study, thought-provoking and still relevant today, I recommend strongly that anyone interested in this era in Europe in general, and in Spain in particular, should read the most current edition they can get their hands on. It’s about the fight for the soul of the Spanish nation, the foundations of the fight that led to World War II, and the spirit of the era. They still haunt us.

The Mexican Suitcase

by Apollo’s Girl

Yes, they do. While the rest of the world seems to have forgotten most of the details of the Spanish Civil War as it recedes into history, pretty much obscured by the Holocaust and its aftermath, for the Spanish themselves it remains very much alive–much in the way our own Civil War still claims so many followers at home. There is a singular bitterness and afterlife to civil war among its survivors that resists erasure. How complicated the Spanish Civil War was! Not only pitting the many warring factions among the Spaniards against each other, but also drawing volunteer battalions from other countries, idealists who took up the Republican cause.

Many feature films have explored the subject, from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Secrets of the Beehive, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Devil’s Backbone. But what has has really haunted me ever since I saw it last year at Docufest is a wonderful documentary made by Trisha Ziff: The Mexican Suitcase. It’s deep, rich, and constructed like a first-rate thriller that follows all the threads of the story through the maze of history without dropping any of them. film site

The Mexican Suitcase features powerful photographs by Robert Capa, his wife, and his collaborator that have become familiar icons; you will recognize the images at once. But, without the efforts of those who spirited the negative-filled suitcases (there were actually three of them) out of Spain at the time, and Trisha Ziff, who tracked them to Mexico City more than half a century later and spent years piecing together her film based on those images (adding other personal photographs, interviews, and archival footage), they would have been lost in the murky post-Civil War Spanish landscape. The film also gives credit to Capa’s wife Gerda Taro (who was killed in Spain) and his assistant, David Seymour, without whom the negatives would have been doomed.

This film is only just beginning to get the attention it deserves. How good is it? You can take my word for it, or the word of other reviewers, the_mexican_suitcase_review, or go with the numbers; its IMDb rating is currently 9.3. And if it isn’t yet playing in a theater near you, you can find out much more at the International Center for Photography in New York, where most of the negatives and prints are stored. ICP archives

Apollo’s Girl

March 20, 2012

Moving On: William Christie Takes the
18th-century Wheel  at Yale in New York

Back in the days when William Christie spent most of his time in France, weaving the gossamer textures of his 17th-century opera productions with les Arts Florissants, he seemed content to reveal the glories of that underexposed repertoire abroad, with forays to BAM only now and then. He acquired French nationality, and became a Commandeur dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur and an Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. There were occasional rumors of a fearsome temperament backstage, but always offset by the truly Olympian quality of his performances. Essentially, they were perfect.

But things change. Recently Mr. Christie has been spending more time at home, conducting locally, and giving master classes in early music. He made his Met debut with Cosi fan Tutte in 2010, and led the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island there earlier this season. Having audited one of his master classes, I am pleased to report that he bestowed not one criticism on his excellent graduate students and spent his time onstage listening, and actually beaming (he had been working with them for a week beforehand, and no criticism was needed). And having seen The Enchanted Island (cf. post of January 23), it’s clear that Christie’s time travel to more recent centuries is effortless, and no less Olympian. Perhaps he has mellowed (except in his pursuit of perfection).

Maintaining its tradition of imaginative programming, Yale in New York tapped Christie (a one-time Yale student) to lead an all-Handel evening at Zankel Hall, featuring the 1737 Anthem for the Funeral of Queen Caroline, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn. Handel had been close to the enlightened queen for decades, and his elegy expresses what sounds like genuine sorrow. (Its first choral theme was later used by Mozart in his own Requiem mass.) To close the concert, in a sort of reverse royal bookend, Christie chose Handel’s Coronation Anthem III, The King Shall Rejoice—written for the Coronation of George II and Queen Caroline ten years earlier. No one can match Handel when it comes to a joyful noise, and the Anthem’s concluding Alleluia points firmly to the Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus of 1742. The audience didn’t rise to its feet, but cheered happily when Christie offered an encore.

Perhaps most of Christie’s fearsomeness remains in the past, but his technique retains the imperative “look at me!” to his forces, and look at him they do; every eye of every music-maker locked on him from first note to last. And with good reason: The Philharmonia of Yale and the Yale Choral Artists were ravishing, producing quicksilver shifts in tempo and volume in a performance both dramatic and refined, at a level seldom heard in this repertoire. Even more impressive: the quartet of soloists who sang without the chorus in some sections, faced away from Christie; yet so confident had they become that there were no slips. And according to what I’ve been told, there were no monitors, either! It was a case of sidelong glances from the singers, and from conductor as well. And it gave new meaning to the phrase “watching his back” which, if you were a member of the quartet, was clearly as eloquent as the rest of the man.

What is certain is that to watch Christie from the audience is to attend a master class in conducting. His movements are muscular and graceful, but unfussy and extremely precise. Like all great musicians, his focus is absolute; and every cue for every change in texture and dynamics is exactly where, and when, it needs to be. It’s all part of the landscape of perfection he so comfortably inhabits. Should Mr. Christie opt to continue moving up through the centuries, it will be interesting to see what he makes of later music…

Meantime, you can still enjoy the final concert in this season’s series at Zankel Hall: On Sunday April 1st at 7:30, Yale in New York will explore the low notes of high art in De Profundis: The Deep End.

It’s a terrific program that mixes the familiar and the obscure. Where else will you be able to savor Schütz’s piece for four sackbuts and bass voice, or Penderecki’s Capriccio for solo tuba? And there’s much, much more, plus an all-star cast of Yalies past, present, and faculty, with surprise guests. Just bear in mind that it’s April Fool’s Day and be ready for whatever comes. Read all about it at yale in new york

Apollo’s Girl

March 7, 2012

Rendez-Vous With French Cinema

They are back from the dead! Once again, the French, who bankrolled our revolution before their own got under way, who invented la grand cuisine before we invented cholesterol, and who refreshed us with the New Wave, have – after some years of really tepid fare – risen anew.

Of course, dissatisfaction with Rendez-Vous‘ programming has been expressed in certain quarters: “too feel-good,” “too historical,” “too old-fashioned.” If, by that, the writer thinks it’s not relevant in 2012 – well, think again. It’s not the story that counts, or when it takes place, but how it’s told and what it’s saying; these stories are relevant, based on real events, and told very well indeed. Yes, with some sentiment, with some costumes, with – can it be true? – ideas, and some narrative to hang on to. Let us give thanks.

In fact, this year’s selections – in costume or no – are still carrying the flag for revolution: And they focus either on little-known aspects of well-known history (Smugglers’ Songs; Farewell My Queen; Free Men); and/or on the divide between the haves and have-nots (A Painting; Untouchables). So sample Rendeez-Vous’ pleasures and see what the right stuff looks like here and now. (March 1 – 11): rendezvous schedule

Smugglers’ Songs (Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche)
The context is France in the years before the revolution, after the death-by-torture of Louis Mandrin, an outlaw and folk hero. He, and his spirit, survive in the band of brothers who protest the country’s infamous tax laws which have cruelly burdened the poor. (I said it was relevant, didn’t I?) Their modus operandi is to steal goods from the rich, and set up markets in rural villages where they resell them, untaxed, to the villagers and give away songs– which they have written and had printed—in Mandrin’s honor. Smugglers’ Songs is described as “a film by Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche,” and so it is. Ameur-Zaimeche is a tall, robust man with a compelling presence who has written, directed, produced, and starred in the movie—his fourth. His ideas, and the energy of the film’s collaborative and semi-improvised scenes (beautifully filmed) make this a fascinating experience. And, as an adventure in pure cinematic texture, there is an interlude in a print shop, where the songs are set in type, pressed, hung on a line to dry, and bound by hand reminiscent of the interior of the mill in The Mill and the Cross, and no less powerful.

Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
A sumptuous behind-the-scenes glimpse of Marie Antoinette and her court on the eve of the revolution. Told from the point of view of her reader (a reserved, but totally enthralled Léa Seydoux) who observes, and forgives, her queen’s every whim. Though occasionally teetering on the brink of soft-core cinema, the film is saved from it by the wholly contemporary photographic, lighting, and editing techniques Jacquot employs to paint his picture. The incredible extravagance and caprice of the royal playground at Versailles are revealed in swift fragments, rather than in the customary tableaux vivants. Coupled with strong performances, especially from Diane Kruger, as Marie Antoinette, they remind us that the queen’s self-indulgence was partially the result of her unhappy, arranged marriage into a foreign dynasty when she was only 15; lonely, far from home, she became the pampered object of envy and scorn, unable to comprehend the consequences of her irresponsibility.

Free Men (Ismael Ferroukhi)
Set in Vichy France, Free Men (like Nowhere in Africa), is a window into an entirely unfamiliar chapter of World War II. The freshness of its story, and strength of its cast (you will recognize Tahar Rahim from A Prophet of 2009), keeps interest high. There are many surprises, and a deeply satisfying transformation in Rahim’s character that is all the more satisfying for being hard-won. Another big plus: an excellent score, and swatches of Arabic popular music of the period.


The Painting (Jean-François Laguionie/Anik Leray)
This is animation as you’ve seldom seen it: in saturated colors and in an original style that occasionally adds live action to the mix. Its original story (of haves and have-nots) is couched in visual metaphors of finished (Alldunns), partially-finished (Halfies), and sketches (Sketchies), standing in for the social pecking order. For children, because it’s animation? There weren’t many in the audience, but everyone seemed to be having a very good time. The Painting has lessons for us, but they are taught with sure and graceful hands. (the painting)

The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache/Eric Toledano)
The Rendez-Vous opening night selection. Okay. We simply have to face the fact that The Intouchables is a feel-good film. And that it is (so far) the second highest-grossing film in France (it opens here in May). Its two stars (Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy) loft two characters: a rich aristocrat and an irrepressible caregiver who help each other back to lives lived to the hilt. It’s based on a true story and, well, it’s hard to resist its emotional arc. The Weinstein Company is distributing the film, and you know what that means. Think The Artist and you’ll get the idea. In fact, with The Artist as a jumping-off point (see post of February 25), it’s fair to say that France is really in the air. At the Met Museum (where a life-size photograph of the Steins’ collection, and many of its paintings have been gathered for The Steins Collect); at MoMA (where Eugene Atget’s photographs make you long for its fin-de-siecle alleys and parks); and in the concert hall for NYFOS‘ upcoming New York to Paris, Paris to Paradise songfest at Merkin Hall on March 13. Go. See. Hear. And smell les fleurs…

Cogito: John Branch

March 2, 2012

Carrie Me Back (again)!

By John Branch

George Orwell once wrote that revenge is an act we dream of when it isn’t in our power to get it. Sometimes it turns out he’s wrong; sometimes aggrieved people manage to get the means, and then we really have trouble in River City. This applied to Columbine and Virginia Tech as well as to Carrie, first a Stephen King novel, then a film directed by Brian De Palma, and now, for the second time, a stage musical.

It’s good to see the old girl again. Stories like hers continue to resonate, in part because many of us who weren’t among the high school in-crowd will always remember what that was like, and in part because real-world resentments continue to boil over into violence, and not only among young adults. Besides, Carrie is a fun little shocker. Such tales do something for us, whether or not you follow Bruno Bettelheim’s view that they’re useful.

Buzz about the new musical version, being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel has revived an idea I first heard after the Columbine shootings: that the story of Carrie herself illustrates what can happen when you neglect, disdain, or bully the wrong people. It’s more complicated than that.

The story begins when Carrie suffers an embarrassment after gym one day. Her religiously repressive mother hasn’t taught her about menstruation, so when it comes on for the first time, in the shower, Carrie doesn’t know what the blood means. The other girls taunt her for her cluelessness. They’re reproved and punished by Lynn, the gym teacher, and when a girl named Chris refuses to submit, she’s banned from the senior prom.

Unable to do much against Lynn, Chris’s resentment is redirected toward Carrie—psychologists would call it displacement—because Carrie kind of set up the problem, and because, as the show’s tagline puts it, “She’s not like the other girls.” As events proceed toward a stunning conclusion at the prom—already famous to many—Chris openly shows contempt for Carrie and declares her hatred. But that doesn’t matter a lot to Carrie, who’s mostly got other things on her mind: Mom, the prom (once she’s invited), and the awakening of something new in her. (What Carrie does at the end doesn’t seem like payback for being bullied–it’s only a visceral reaction to being attacked.)

What becomes very clear in this musical version is that Chris is the real revenger, as she executes an elaborate plot. In fact, a lot of things are developed or played up here that are subtly underplayed or left in suspense in De Palma’s film. Chris is played up as a bad girl a little more strongly than in the film. We see less of her teasing relationship with her boyfriend; instead, she gets a song—“The World According to Chris”—that reveals she’s essentially self-serving. And she’s been cast as a blonde, the only one among the young people. (Carrie’s other antagonist, her mother, is also blonde.)

Chris’s friend Sue is a good girl from the start (sue’s song). In the film, you might wonder whether she’s up to something when she makes her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. The gym teacher suspects she is, and in the film I did too, especially when she suddenly leaves dinner at home with no explanation and sneaks into the gym to watch what happens. As for Sue’s boyfriend, the good-looking athlete Tommy, he’s now also an aspiring writer. Presumably this helps explain what he recites in class: originally a poem that sounded plagiarized, here a song called “Dreamer in Disguise”

Carrie’s developing special ability, telekinesis, is also rebalanced. There are fewer signs that it first appears unwilled. In the film it seems more of an emotional reaction that she learns to guide, a parallel for her developing sexual maturity (also something one reckons with but may not fully control). Here it’s a deliberate act, indicated by a gesture that uncomfortably reminds me of a comic-book superpower or wizard-movie spell. That’s a shame, because the show otherwise tries to honor a tangible high-school reality.

What could be called Carrie 2.0 is true to modern-day teen life only in its fashion, like a Cole Porter song, but that’s something. Carrie 1.0, the original version of the musical, ventured pretty far from solid earth. That show’s director, Terry Hands of the RSC, apparently took the blood and revenge themes as a cue and approached it as what Betty Buckley, who was in the cast, recently termed “Jacobean drama.” Carrie 1.0 had its fans, contrary to what’s now believed, but it was largely viewed as astonishingly bad and became a notorious failure. (It led music-theater specialist Ken Mandelbaum to write a book on Broadway musical flops, which I consulted.)

This time around, the 1.0 team of Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) have joined with new director Stafford Arima to rework the show. It’s been kept down-to-earth, with a pretty spartan look; it takes pains to make the story perfectly clear, which it wasn’t in version 1.0, and feels very earnest, which means not very subtle. It’s got sections of genuine musical power, but the music, mostly pop-style, often feels a little vague, as do the lyrics and choreography. Everything that was ridiculous or outlandish is gone—no more teens-in-cars scene or the “Kill the Pig” number—but the show takes few risks, apart from the very big one of trying anew.

Readers of this blog might appreciate a factoid in Mandelbaum’s book. Years ago, composer Gore and scenarist Cohen (who had written De Palma’s film script) attended a performance of Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera and felt that Alban Berg might, if alive today, take on Carrie as a subject. I’m sure they wouldn’t claim to have done it for him, but still…

If you ask me, a third version of this musical might be the charm. So much clarity and sincerity this time around somewhat depletes the fun. Or else we didn’t need anything else at all after the fine film. But we’re way past that now.

The cast is solidly good, apart from Marin Mazzie, already a Broadway star, who’s tremendous as Carrie’s mother, Margaret. I’d like to have seen what Mandelbaum called Betty Buckley’s “steely voice and chilling intensity” in the part. But Mazzie fits the show’s new conception better in that she’s thoroughly earnest and persuasive. She’s the only performer among the leads who made not the least slip of dynamic control. Apparently the show’s creators have wanted us to genuinely sympathize with Margaret—in the film we mainly just understand her, frightening as she is—and sympathize we do, thanks especially to her songs and Mazzie’s delivery. The strength of her character even says something about Carrie—it’d take some nerve to challenge this woman.

There are problems with the show I haven’t mentioned, such as the oddly harsh framing scenes in which Sue, the only survivor, is interrogated about what happened. But all in all, Carrie 2.0 succeeds at two important things: the prom scene, which comes off smashingly well, and not failing.


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