Archive for the Theatre Category

Send in the Clans

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Or, 2,000 McManiacs.

It was inevitable that, on my journey through Vincente Minnelli’s cinema — which is extremely rich and there’s more of it than you think — I would have to face BRIGADOON, a movie which seems to give Scots some trouble. In the same way as you’re unlikely to find anyone in Ireland with uncomplicated admiration for THE QUIET MAN. I guess that film is MORE embarrassing because Ford claimed Irishness, yet produced a gruesome slice of what is known as paddywhackery. The tartan tat of BRIGADOON is entirely the work of outsiders — Lerner & Lowe don’t sound too Scottish, neither does Minnelli, and it’s amusing to go through the cast list and check off the birthplaces of the actors. Elaine Stewart and Hugh Laing SOUND Scottish, but they’re from New Jersey and Barbados respectively. Other “highlanders” hail from Lancashire, Wales and Northern Ireland — it’s like they wanted a sampling of every distinctive accent they could find without ever touching upon the authentic.

Quite sensible, perhaps — anything authentic in this studio confection could prove fatal. Cyd Charisse sets the style, adopting a weird vowel (not necessarily the RIGHT weird vowel, but an alternative from her usual pronunciation) roughly every third word. It’s hilarious for five minutes, then we got used to it. I imagine it’s pretty amusing to most Brits, less obvious to Americans. Australians, Kiwis and Canadians probably see through it.

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(Cultural appropriation is GOOD, as a rule, and I feel flattered that Broadway and Hollywood found Scotland worthy of ingesting. It’s even more flattering in something like BRAVE where they made sure to get the accents right — or, if not right, at least Scottish [there are a score of distinct regional variations within this one tiny country]. BRAVE is pure BRIGADOON, but get the right voices and nobody here is embarrassed — I saw the film introduced by Alex Salmond.)

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What has to be admitted is the grandeur of the fakery — not the vocal stuff, but the scenery and photography. Every exterior is backed with heather-covered miniature hills. I prayed for Cyd, just once, to take the wrong turning and run up the mountain path so that the forced perspective would make a giantess of her within steps, before she smacked into the louring sky. It’s all really impressive, false in just the right way — except the two wide shots of the village, which for some reason look cheap and crappy. You’d think they’d be really important shots to get right, but because they don’t feature actors and dancing they seem to have been handed to the trainee.

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Shot in Anscocolor! I thought that was only used as a cheap alternative to Technicolor, but I think Minnelli must have liked the earth tones. It has a rich but sort of muted quality compared to most MGM musicals, and is probably the best preserved-example of the short-lived process.

The whole premise makes precious little sense — and the idea of the minister praying his village into a time-warp brings the church into it in a way that feels unnecessary. There ARE Scottish myths about lost time and waking up a hundred years later, but they’re decidedly not Christian — they concern the fairy folk, and have a lot in common with the “lost time” reported by UFO abductees.

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Subtextually, the story deals with a man petrified of marriage who is offered a magical alternative (not involving priests) in a subculture off the map — I can sort of see how Minnelli might have been intrigued. As with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE there could be a gay subtext here. (At the Freed Unit? Surely not!)

What stops the film consistently reaching the heights of the best of Minnelli (or Lerner & Lowe) is the religiose solemnity permeating the Highland scenes — that’s why the most impressive stuff breaks free of this. When Hugh Laing, who hates everybody in his village, entirely justifiably seeing it as a hellish prison (all that weaving!) seeks to leave, thereby bringing out a local apocalypse, things get really exciting. It’s hard not to sympathise with the man hunted by a Frankensteinian mob with flaming firebrands. It also calls to mind similar torchlight parades in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and TEA AND SYMPATHY. Minnelli’s idyllic little communities sometimes have something scary lurking underneath.

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Van Johnson: “I just shot a guy, and now I seem to have GUNS ON MY MIND.”

And then the best stuff of all is New York, envisioned as an overcrowded inferno (OK, maybe not a concept requiring vast resources of imagination), the background gabble turned up to 11 to the point where you really start to get a headache trying to hear the foreground dialogue. Minnelli became a huge success due to his ability to deliver musical uplift with high style and inhuman cinematic elegance, but his left-handed technique, which would have doomed him to minor cult status if it were all he had, is a mastery of acute discomfort, putting the audience through several different kinds of ringer, pulling in several different directions at once, (See THE LONG, LONG TRAILER if you don’t believe me!) This extra string to his bow makes me admire him even more, if that were possible.

In the ruins of Berlin

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 11, 2016 by dcairns

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TAKING SIDES (2001) seemed like it would be an interesting thing — scripted by Ronald Harwood (THE DRESSER, THE PIANIST) from his play, directed by Istvan Szabo, and starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård, based on a fascinating historical situation: the “denazification” by American investigators of acclaimed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

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And indeed, the film is pretty compelling, even if it never quite finds a style. Aided by the great production designer Ken Adam, Szabo stages some truly impressive large-scale exteriors, opening out the play with repurposed spaces (a market under a bridge, a library in a former synagogue). But this leaves the bulk of the drama — everything from the original text, in fact — to be staged in a single interior, and it has to be as cinematically interesting and finally more climactic.

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Adam does something quite odd with this set. It’s very grand, but the view out the window is a b&w photograph.

In the useful making-of doc, we get to see this view in more detail, and it’s actually a very impressive cyclorama. But still, b&w. There’s one brief scene where the window view is overexposed, and it looks convincing. And at night, with snowfall, it looks convincing. But for most of the movie it just sits there, a stylised element in theatrical adaptation that’s trying to be realistic. Adam was a genius, so I’m sure he had a plan here. Something didn’t quite come together, maybe?

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Keitel is a bit too shouty for my taste — but in the excellent interview book Ronald Harwood’s Adaptations, the author is able to justify this choice: “…the American occupation forces were deeply, deeply aggressive towards the Germans. They were shown the Nazi archive films, they had seen the evidence of the concentration camps, and they were angry.” Still, he feels rather broadly written and played, whereas the more contained Skarsgård is really excellent, embodying the mysterious star power Furtwangler was said to possess.

There are two things in the interview I wish Harwood had managed to work into his screenplay, actually.

  1. There are many stories, he tells us, of Furtwangler walking into rehearsals where someone else is conducting, and the orchestra would just start to play better, due to his very presence.
  2. Though Furtwangler played for Hitler’s birthday and just before the Nuremberg rallies, he also protected Jewish musicians. But what Harwood says in the book that isn’t in the film is that he only protected the best musicians. Like he saw the Holocaust as an opportunity to winnow down the field. I mean, Oskar Schindler didn’t just rescue the most skilled machinists, did he?

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The book could do with more rigorous proofing (there’s stuff like “Carol Reid”) but it’s a small-press product and what counts is the illuminating content — it’s an encounter with a master craftsman and it makes me want to check out THE DRESSER (both versions) and THE PIANIST and OLIVER TWIST again.

You can check out Furtwangler’s talents  right here ~

Suffering from gas

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , on July 6, 2016 by dcairns

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A laid-back Walbrook in the original film of GASLIGHT. Chiseled here.

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