Archive for the Theatre Category

Composing and Arranging

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by dcairns

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I showed my students a scene from AMADEUS the other week. Happily, they seemed to enjoy it, but I think I screwed up — I don’t think I pointed out the best thing about it, as a piece of screenwriting.

The scene is the first meeting between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Mozart and the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones) plus his various musical flunkies. What I want to say is that the scene beautifully supplies each character with a distinct attitude.

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The Emperor is an idiot, but a happy one because he doesn’t know it, and he has a whole palace of underlings dedicated to seeing that he never finds out. His good-natured imbecility is a joy to behold. Director Milos Forman originally planned to use Brits in the roles of those in the court, and Americans for the Salzburg interlopers like Hulce/Mozart, but he abandoned this promising scheme in favour of simply casting the best actors he could get, and never regretted it. Jones is superb, and his loss to cinema, owing to his unpleasant offscreen activities, is a huge shame.

The Emperor must be kept happy, which gives the scene a good chunk of its dynamic — a clear goal for all the surrounding characters is to make him happy, or to make sure anyway that THEY’RE not the cause of him being unhappy. The vicious rivalry among them means that they wouldn’t mind him being discomfited a bit as long as THEY couldn’t be blamed.

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Salieri, the court composer is the film’s most fascinating character. The real Salieri was essentially forgotten when Anthony Peter Shaffer’s play came out, followed by the film. And then you got a lot of commentary about how Salieri wasn’t mediocre at all, but a very talented guy. but that’s the point, isn’t it? Compared to genius, talent looks and feels mediocre. Salieri has the truly dynamic role in this scene, his sincere admiration for Mozart’s talent rapidly curdling, his intentions turning to the malign — how can I do this guy some harm? His whole stance in the movie is to be outraged that God has given a sublime musical skill to a gibbering ape while HE, Salieri the virtuous, can only pen forgettable trifles. Of course, it’s obvious that Salieri is not an inherently good man at all, but he’s nevertheless largely correct — genius is not dispensed in a fair fashion (otherwise everyone would have a share).

But the other underlings all have their own distinct attitudes. The rotund Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines, to the right of Salieri) seems a jolly old duffer, but he’s possessed of a jocular malignity — nothing pleases him more than seeing his rivals squirm, so this whole scene is hugely amusing to him; Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) is a chilly authoritarian, viewing Mozart as if her eyeglasses were a microscope affording a too-detailed view of a particularly unpleasant paramecium — when has asks if Mozart has shown him his libretto and Mozart cheerfully says No, but he’ll be sure to, the Count’s reply, “I think you’d better,” comes with a steely glint and a tiny smile more menacing than any frown — it doesn’t even need a closeup to strike home ~

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There are a couple of other characters here who get lines — Baron Von Swieten (Jonathan Moore) seems uniquely fair and decent throughout, and in objecting to the racy content of  The Abduction from the Seraglio he may well be trying to protect Herr Mozart, while another functionary, a guy with clown hair who spends most of the scene eclipsed by Jones, and who doesn’t rate an introduction to Mozart, seems perpetually peeved, maybe because he didn’t rate an introduction to Mozart or maybe because he’s eclipsed by Jones. Sorry, fella, without the introduction I can’t find out who’s playing you.

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Into this muso-political vespiary is thrust Mozart, who unsettles everyone with his oafish lack of correct court decorum — only Swieten seems willing to overlook this on the basis that the young man evidently means no offense. The Emperor exercises noblesse oblige like it was going out of style, and the other snakes move in for the kill, sensing easy prey.

The fact that the character who leaves the scene wounded is Salieri is not due to any guile on Mozart’s part — it’s his insensitivity to others and his casual acceptance of his own megatalent that allows him to crush Salieri so thoroughly.

Oh, I remember why I forgot to point out the dynamic range of attitudes in this scene — I was concentrating on subtext, because all the backstabbing and angling for promotion occurs via a discussion of opera. a subject that only really concerns one character — Mozart.

It’s no surprise that this film won the Oscar, of course, because like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, it’s as much about Hollywood as it is about its ostensible historic locale. There are geniuses, there are talents, there are mediocrities, there are snakes, and there are those with power, who lack the perspicacity to tell one species of underling from another. Everyone is at the mercy of powerful fools.

Milos Forman notes that the Count’s later line, “Too many notes,” has haunted him, being unfailingly uttered by screenwriters at the end of exhaustive story conferences. Of course it would be!

Ed Sullivan’s Travels

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by dcairns

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I don’t know if George Sidney needs to be elevated up a few notches among the cognoscenti, but he definitely deserves to be better known in general. his problem may be that his good bits — brazen, stunning musical cinema — are often contained in the same flawed films as his bad bits, but his good bits are transcendent.

Andrew Sarris lobs more backhanded compliments at Sidney in The American Cinema than you can shake Ann-Margret at, from the heading “lightly likable” to the specific putdowns (“has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” and “There is a point at which brassiness, vulgarity, and downright badness become virtues”) which are very funny, but don’t do justice to the creativity and dynamism Sidney brings to his work.

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BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), adapted from a Broadway show and reaching the screen rather too late to be topical about Elvis entering the army (five years previously), isn’t particularly clued up about the rock ‘n’ roll it attempts to satirize, but its gigantic parodies of pop culture still left us gaping at the screen like the first night audience of Springtime for Hitler.

The film stars Dick Van Dyke (his first movie), Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, with Paul Lynde as secret weapon. Jesse Pearson plays Conrad Birdie, the Elvisalike, with roughly the same appeal Alberto Sordi brought to THE WHITE SHEIK — hard to spoof sex appeal when you’re mainly repulsive, but credit is deserved for courage and shamelessness.

First jaw-dropper: Pearson causes all the girls in a small Ohio town to faint, and Sidney cranes up a mile high, blasphemously parodying the giant pull-back of Confederate wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Second jaw-dropper: Lynde, who overplays like a starving actor seeing scenery for the first time in a year, is transfixed by the thought of appearing on television with Ed Sullivan (“My favourite human!”) and has a Grouchoesque Strange Interlude, wandering into the foreground and provoking a ripple-dissolve by sheer overintensity, leading to a musical dream sequence in which he and his family, attired as a heavenly choir, sing “Ed Sullivan” ad nauseam and Lynde’s face becomes progressively more purple, like Luca Brasi getting strangled in THE GODFATHER.

Third jaw-dropper: when Lynde refuses to let his daughter kiss the rock star, Mrs. Lynde worries about the kid losing face. “If he stays here, that won’t be all she -” begins Lynde, before choking off in an excess of emotion. The censorship of the word “loses” actually makes this mildly smutty joke seem about six times more obscene.

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Fourth jaw-dropper: Janet Leigh, frustrated by her mother-obsessed fiancé’s failure to propose, crashes a meeting of some random fraternal society (dressed like The Sons of the Desert) and basically rapes most of them under a table. Or so it would seem: hard to know how else we’re meant to interpret it, as one shriner after another is yanked out of frame below the furniture as if beset by Bruce the Shark.

I think Van Dyke basically inventing super-powered Benzedrine and giving it to a tortoise who then jet-propels from the room probably counts too.

Elsewhere, there are less startling pleasures: “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do” are the most recognizable numbers. Maureen Stapleton plays Dick’s domineering mom, improbably enough — she was exactly his age, joining a select club with Jesse Royce Landis, whose character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST must have given birth to Cary Grant just as she was leaving the womb herself, like a kind of Russian doll, or a variant on that cartoon of three fish swallowing one another.

Sidney loses out on the chance to be a less sexist Frank Tashlin by staging a long, not-too-funny sequence where the conductor of the Russian ballet is slipped a capsule of Van Dyke’s speed, and proceeds to lead the production at 400% velocity. The anti-Americanism is funny, but this stuff is neither a sufficiently robust response to Kruschev, nor a questioning of the Cold War. It just dilutes the acerbic gusto (that word again) of the rest — but the prolonged, Hitchcockian build-up to the slapstick IS pretty funny, so outrageously does Sidney extend the wait.

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Oh, and there’s Ed Sullivan himself, who always looked to me like a version of Richard Nixon with third-degree burns, and it turns out the low-resolution TV picture was flattering him.

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Janet Leigh reprises her bra routine from PSYCHO, and Ann-Margret is alternately cute and terrifying (when her lips retract, yikes!), ending the picture by rattling her tits right at the camera. I think female viewers, or gay male viewers (at a musical?? surely not!) are slightly short-changed in the pulchritude department, since DVD is one of those hetero actors who projects no particular sexuality — he’s straight without ever seeming to want to do anything about it. I guess that’s a useful quality, since he has to be able to share screen time with “teenage” Ann-Margret without looking like he’s going to rip his shirt off and run amongst her.

The Sunday Intertitle: What an odd thing to say

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by dcairns

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“I’m not doing this anymore! Running around at 200kmph! It’s modern cannibalism!”

A strange intertitle from the pen of a strange woman, Thea Von Harbou. Due to a job I’ve got on, I found myself watching both SPIONE and both parts of DR. MABUSE: DER SPIELER this week, which is quite a lot of espionage to consume at one sitting. But highly enjoyable, as most binges are.

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The above statement is made here, in the cosy flat of two disgruntled henchmen. I could imagine that being a great premise for a sitcom, except that Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter already nailed that concept. And who IS sending Ben and Gus those baffling orders for scampi &c? Surely it’s the doctor himself, who starts off flesh-and-blood in this film, becomes more of a psychic influence in TESTAMENT, and is a mere principle by the time of 1,000 EYES. By the time he seeps into Pinter he’s a Godot-like abstraction, probably not even a conscious presence…

Post-binge, I found I slightly preferred SPIONE, since by that point Lang’s insert shots have moved on to a new realm of gleaming fetishism, but MABUSE sets out the plan for so much later Lang, it’s like watching the birth of a monster. Horrible yet awe-inspiring. FANTOMAS and his many imitators may have set the pattern, but to the master-criminal scheme is added something fresh, via Norbert Jacques’ novel: while Fantomas worked mostly alone with the occasional foxy accomplice or hired-for-the-occasion goon squad, Mabuse is the leader of a criminal empire, or, as he later calls it, a state within a state. All the Hitler comparisons stem from that one adjustment.

It makes Mabuse both more like a real-world crime boss, and yet also more fantastical, since he seems able to accomplish anything. He has tentacles everywhere, like a naughty Hokusai octopus. One thing I was watching for was some good police interrogation scenes, but the recurring theme of MABUSE is that any time the police clap a perp in irons, Mabuse has the guy offed before he can squawk.

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Here’s a Mabuseian insert shot — not quite up to the standard of SPIONE, but very nice.