Archive for Stephen Sondheim

The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

Into The Psyche.

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Dante: The Divine Comedy –  ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.’ – Inferno Canto 1: 1-60. The Dark Wood and the Hill.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
You are not alone
No one is alone

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Fiona here.

I was not expecting to become a sobbing mess during Into The Woods.

Truth be told, I am in a very delicate place. The blasted landscape of Grief. My brother died under traumatic circumstances this year and my response was to go into ‘coping/organisational’ mode, then numbness then dissociation. Something had to give eventually and after many months the reality of the situation started to seep into my bones and finally my brain, where it’s presently wreaking havoc in the a form of a PTSD like condition.

Into The Woods is a clever confabulation of classic fairy tales, which hearkens back to their dark origins. The end of the film is a virtual holocaust, with many characters dead and others bereaved.

Fairy tales, the old-fashioned kind, are very potent. They represent the shadowiest recesses of the human mind. Our hopes. Our fears. Everything that makes us human, including unimaginable pain.

Just watching this film version of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s remarkable piece, pierced my very thin defenses and touched the rawest nerves in my being. At this moment, that is perhaps a very easy thing to do. Films can be cathartic and healing in an odd way. Through this film I was able to release some of the pain I’d been holding onto for decades (losing both parents very young), along with my present pain. The old and the present pains are of course connected.

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Here’s a temporary thesis – Good Fairy Tales are about teaching us to deal with loss and impermanence. Bad Fairy Tales are saccharine things full of lies that merely distract and teach us nothing. The Fairy or Folk Tale is of course, closely aligned to dark fantasy writing and horror fiction/movies. Horror is primarily a young person’s genre as the undeniable truth that we will all die has not yet fully penetrated the developing mind. Fairy Tales are created for even younger minds. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial Of Death (1973), he outlined the thesis that the human personality is formed around the process of denying death so that we can continue to function. The downside is that this belief obscures self-knowledge and is responsible for much of the evil in the world.

43 years later, The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski actually verified this theory using psychological testing (over many, many years). They called it terror management theory.

Let’s go back to my Good/Bad Fairy Tale hypothesis. I think we can now see that MOST Fairy Tales and horror movies, although they include the idea of mortality, also deny it by having characters rise from the dead. How about Snow White and Michael Myers? In fact very few horror movies and film/theatre adaptations of fairy tales deal with bereavement, ageing and death in any meaningful way, apart from possibly Don’t Look Now and Into The Woods, which both riff on Little Red Riding Hood.

TMT combines existential philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and proposes that the avoidance of the idea of death has far-reaching consequences into how we manage our personal lives, our society and more disturbingly, our politics. In fact it penetrates to the very heart of humanity. It has existed since we became self-aware and has molded how we have conducted ourselves through history. It probably led to the invention of spirituality, religion – and art, and has helped us build the world we now inhabit. A sometimes beautiful but mainly monstrous, warring planet overwhelmed  with an obsession with fame, social injustice and unimaginable cruelty towards our fellow kind.

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It’s not all negative however, despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted. We have ART; the desire to represent the world around us and the feelings it provokes. Hense story telling. It’s unclear whether spirituality encouraged story telling or vice versa. At any rate we NEED story telling, much like terror management theory, to navigate our lives. Stories can act as guides. Unfortunately our own lives do not have clear cut beginnings, middles and ends. The narrative can be cut off by sudden death. Most people do not like ambiguous endings. They need resolution. Usually a happy one. Very young minds are very similar to older minds in this regard. What the best Fairy Tales and Into The Woods provides is something different. ‘Good’ wins over ‘evil’, then everything falls apart and becomes as chaotic as the real world itself. Characters have to make tough decisions that don’t chime with their original desires. (‘I wish. I want’) They then have to adapt to an imperfect world. I think this is a good message for children. A good message for all of us.

Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn

 

Clues/Things I Read Off the Screen in The Last of Sheila

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by dcairns

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Whodunnits tend to be more like parlour games than dramas — the intellectual exercise MUST triumph over the demands of character insight, emotional investment, moral message or thematic exploration. The best mysteries often embrace this and make a virtue of it, as in Mankiewicz’s THE HONEY POT and THE LAST OF SHEILA, brilliantly scripted by Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim (!) and very decently directed by Harold Ross (I mainly dislike his Neil Simon things but admired PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — would sooner watch the movie than the respected TV series original because, well, I’m shallow and I like glitz).

Lots of funny lines — a trenchant Hollywood satire is the nominal underlying purpose but the writers love bitchery too much to truly condemn the coldbloodedness they portray. The biggest laugh for Fiona was a shot of James Coburn, being winched from his yacht to his launch, grinning madly as he descends out of frame, like a radiant ivory sunset.

The cast is incredible, but if I was drawn in by the prospect of Mason and Coburn, paired in a more gentile setting than the later CROSS OF IRON, I stayed for Dyan Cannon, who gets most of the best lines but imbues even the nastiest of them with a knowing/innocent naughtiness that animates the character in a whole new way, impossible to imagine from the lines on the page (impossible for me: not for Dyan, apparently). So what if her backstory as a McCarthy-era snitch implies that she must have been working as a Hollywood secretary aged three? She gets a brilliant hysteria scene too — Cannon has a gift for that — she used to do it on chat shows too.

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There’s a central conceit that I guessed at once, because I do tend to take note of the things a whodunnit DOESN’T show — if there’s no corpse, the victim is still alive, for instance. Arguably Ross played a little too fair in his staging rather than covering things up perfectly. But I didn’t guess the killer OR half of the twists, so I was still satisfactorily bamboozled, which is what I pays my money for with this kind of thing. If I guess it — as I do when Peter Ackroyd or Michael Dibdin attempt big twists — I feel smug but basically disappointed.

A vicious yet deeply civilised entertainment. There: my first blurb!

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