Thursday, February 25, 2010

Get Along, Little Doge

I have been complaining about the simplicity of the plot-line in Crazyheart. Last night I attended a performance that redressed the balance. I saw Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in HD at the REGAL MULTIPLEX in Brooklyn Center along with twenty or thirty other opera enthusiasts. I’d seen it before, I have it on tape. Yet one gets lost in the plot and begins to groove on the gravelly voices, including that of Placido Domingo, in a baritone role. Here’s the story:

Set in fourteenth-century Genoa, Simone Boccanegra begins with Paolo and Pietro, leaders of the popular (plebeian) party, conspiring to gain power over the aristocracy by supporting the former pirate Simon Boccanegra in the upcoming election for Doge. Boccanegra agrees to run, hoping that if he becomes Doge he’ll be able to marry Maria, with whom he has fathered a child. Maria is being sequestered by her father, the patrician Fiesco, and having grown sickly within the confines of the family castle, on the night of the election, she dies. Fiesco and Boccanegra meet and Boccanegra tries to make peace with his haughty potential father-in-law. Fiesco demands that he first be given custody of his grandchild, and Boccanegra explains that she has disappeared. Boccanegra then enters the palace and discovers Maria’s body just as the crowd outside is proclaiming him Doge.

(So much for the prologue, set at night in an alleyway in Genoa and involving confrontations between four characters, not one of them of a higher voice than baritone. And yet some people find the opera dark!)

In act 1, twenty-five years have passed. Boccanegra, true to his populist roots, has exiled many aristocrats and confiscated their property. Fiesco now lives in exile outside Genoa in the Grimaldi Palace under the assumed name of “Andrea” with his daughter Amelia. In fact, the real Amelia is dead, and the current Amelia is an orphan who was recruited to protect the Grimaldi property from confiscation. This Amelia loves Gabriele Adorno, who is plotting with Fiesco to overthrow the Doge. As every opera-goer would immediately discern, even if they hadn’t read the program, Amelia is in reality Maria Boccanegra, the daughter of Simon Boccanegra and Maria, and thus not Fiesco’s fake daughter but his real granddaughter.

As the first act opens, Amelia sings a sweet aria as she waits for Gabriele in the garden of the Grimaldi Palace, “Come in quest’ora bruna,” and we are thankful to finally hear a female voice and a genuine melody. Gabriele arrives, only to learn from Amelia that the Doge wants her to marry his courtier Paolo (who, you may recall, had gotten the Doge-ship for him in the first place, a quarter-century earlier.) Boccanegra arrives to inform Amelia that he has pardoned her brothers. (Such a nice guy!) Impressed by his generosity, Amelia tells the Doge that she loves Gabriele and exposes her lowly origins. Boccanegra, stunned by certain details in her recollection, shows her the locket with an image of the dead Maria. It matches Amelia’s locket exactly! (Lockets were important in the days before Facebook.) Boccanegra realizes that Amelia is his long-lost daughter, and they embrace (“Figlia! a tal nome io palpito”). He decides to scrap her marriage with Paolo, and Paolo, rebuffed and insulted, decides to kidnap Amelia.

Scene 2. During a council meeting in the Doge’s Palace, angry shouts are heard from the street and Gabriele rushes in; he has killed a man who was attempting to abduct Amelia, and accuses Boccanegra of plotting the crime. Amelia thwarts Gabriele’s attempt to assassinate the Doge, and he becomes suspicious that she is Boccanegra’s mistress. Amelia describes her abduction and hints at Paolo’s complicity, and Boccanegra forces Paolo to curse the man responsible for it. Terrified, Paolo nevertheless is forced to curse himself.

ACT II. In the Doge’s chambers at night, Paolo pours poison into Boccanegra’s water pitcher (“Me stesso, ho maledetto!”). He summons Gabriele and Fiesco from their prison cells and tries to convince them to assassinate the Doge (just in case the poison doesn’t work), goading Gabriele with unfounded insinuations about the Doge’s relationship with Amelia. Paolo leaves, Amelia arrives; before she can explain her relationship to the Doge, Boccanegra is heard approaching. Gabriele escapes through the window and Amelia asks the Doge to pardon him; Boccanegra agrees (Such a nice guy!) on the condition that Gabriele leave the conspirators. Left alone, he drinks the poisoned water and soon falls into a troubled sleep. Gabriele reappears from the garden and is about to stab the sleeping Doge (though not without a few operatic pangs of conscience) when Amelia rushes in to stop him. The Doge awakens and informs Gabriele that he is not Amelia’s lover, but her father. He forgives the repentant Gabriele (Such a nice guy!) while Amelia prays to her mother in heaven. Gabriele agrees to fight alongside Boccanegra against a mob that has gathered outside and the Doge, seeing that Gabriele, too, is a pretty nice guy, offers him Amelia’s hand in marriage.

ACT III. All of Genoa is celebrating Boccanegra’s victory over the rebels. Fiesco, who has been released from prison, encounters Paolo on his way to execution, and Paolo admits that he poisoned the Doge. Boccanegra staggers in, clearly on his last legs, though still capable of singing. Fiesco finally learns from the Doge that Amelia is his granddaughter. The old man weeps and tells Boccanegra that Paolo has poisoned him. Dying, the Doge blesses Amelia and Gabriele, naming Gabriele his successor (“Gran Dio, li benedici”).

Got that?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Few Films

No matter what you may have heard or read about a film, the experience of actually seeing it almost invariably serves up some surprises in the way of complexity, tone, and nuances of plot that make the experience worthwhile. I say almost—but there are exceptions, and I saw one the other day. If you have read a three-sentence synopsis of Crazyheart, you have seen the film. It has no complexity and no surprises. Jeff Bridges lumbers through the film just as we might imagine he would; Maggie Gyllenhaal is full of personality and loveliness, as we have come to expect. The New Mexico scenery is sort-of attractive, the country-western songs are sort-of likable. We’re given no clue as to why the central character, Bad Blake, drinks so much—evidently some things went wrong in his life. Colin Ferrell is badly mis-cast as Blake’s former protégé who is now far more popularity on the country-western circuit.

Don’t get me wrong. Crazyheart is a (mildly) entertaining film, though nothing in it is original or in any way “deep.” It’s less dramatic than The Wrestler but easier to watch, presuming you’d rather see Bridges throw up into garbage cans and toilets than see Mickey Rourke beat people over the head with folding chairs. But it’s basically a horse apiece.

The Last Station explores a similar theme—the career crisis of a talented artist—with considerable greater skill. The individual in question happens to be Leo Tolstoy, who, unlike Bad Blake, was, near the end of his life, perhaps the most famous artist in the world. His problem is to find a little peace on his estate, where he’s surrounded by groupies, followers of his “life” philosophy, and a nagging wife who feels she’s lost the affection of her husband and is also at risk of losing her legal rights to his immensely popular works. We are introduced to the family via the arrival of a new secretary, a naïve but sensitive devotee of Tolstoyism whose adventures at the communal farm nearby also fuel a romantic subplot. The cast includes Christopher Plummer, Helen Murrin, James McEvoy and Paul Giametti, and the production values are high. There seems to be no compelling reason why this particular story needs to be told, but it’s a lot of fun watching it unfold.

Then we have Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, a film shot is sepia tones about a working class Swedish family during the early decades of the twentieth century. The father is a headstrong philanderer and sometime drunk, the mother holds the family together emotionally and keeps herself sane taking pictures with a camera she won with a lottery ticket. The story is narrated by one of the daughters, and it offers an engaging, if slow-moving, recreation of family life in those times of servants and masters, strikes and unemployment, weekly baths in the parlor and horse-drawn carriages. Everlasting Moments lacks the sweep of the films for which Troll is best known—The Emigrants, The New Land, and Hamsun; in fact, he shot it with 16 mm stock, which gives it a closed-in feel. But that suits the largely-domestic character of the story. Watching it is like thumbing through a beautiful Scandinavian family album, but with a lot more action and misery than such collections usually contain.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Shot in a ragged documentary style, The Hurt Locker offers a riveting and distressing look at conditions “on the ground” in post-invasion Iraq, and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. It follows a trio of bomb squad experts as they move from assignment to assignment, both in Bagdad and out in the desert. One is a seasoned veteran, another is a young recruit gripped by thoughts of his own death and counting the days until their rotation is over. The third, played by Jeremy Renner, is a new arrival to the team who combines enormous expertise with an unconventional and often reckless approach to his job that repeatedly places his cohorts at risk.

The film has the obligatory scenes of off-duty bonding, with fist-fights and bourbon, and there are touches of contact with families back home. One extended sequence takes place in the desert, where the trio meet up with another unit and get embroiled in a firefight. But for the most part the focus remains tense, urban, and narrow, and the film eventually flags a little, becoming merely a character study rather than a tightly-knit story of men under duress in the field, as Renner leads his two comrades into escapades of startling and almost unbelievable willfulness.

See The Hurt Locker for the atmosphere. Then, for a deeper and more complex tale of men at war in the Middle East (or anywhere else) see The Messenger.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heady Emotions

I suppose I ought to be doing some work. But it’s a sunny morning and the world is covered with newly fallen snow. It’s four degrees outside, and what’s even better, it’s mid February, which means the winter light is at its best, turning the mounds of snow into glistening chunks of matter like fiery chalk, half peachy white (where the sun hits them) and half moonlight (where they lie in shadow).

I suppose I ought to be doing some work. And in fact, I just now came in from smashing icicles and scraping huge drifts of snow off the eaves, using a bamboo roof-scraper and an aluminum ladder. (To be more precise, I climbed up the ladder and then used the twelve-foot bamboo scraper.) While I was out in the yard I also cut a limb off the pin oak outside the bedroom window. It’s been dead for years, the birds have enjoyed perching on it as they wait their turn at the feeder… but there are plenty of dead branches higher up, and there I was, in the backyard under the tree in the dead of winter, with a ladder. All I had to do was get the saw.

Going out into the backyard in the middle of winter can be a remarkable event. I hadn’t been out there since mid-November. It’s a view I recognize, but had become slightly unused to, and now it has returned to my world-view, like a long-absent friend. It was while I was standing out there that the beauty of the snow (or the sunlight on the snow, or the snow illuminated by the sunlight) really began to hit home.

I ought to get going and do some work. But once I’d put the bamboo roof-scraper, the saw, and the ladder away in the garage, I decided to sit for a minute with a cup of coffee and enjoy the piles of snow on the yew bushes outside the window. I opened the book on the table by my side, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, by Martha Nussbaum, and here’s what I read:

Emotions, I shall argue, involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Well, OK. But I don’t much like the word “neediness.” Perhaps it would have been simpler to say, “Emotions are the juice that binds us to things outside ourselves, and fuels our efforts to bring those things into our lives more fully—important things, and also seemingly unimportant things.”

I love the light on the snow, though it might be gone in a few minutes. I didn’t make it, I don’t control it, but I’ve seen it before, and hope to see it again sometime. It isn't that important, yet I find it difficult to describe adequately the tizzy of pleasure this lustrous white world outside the window drives me to. I want to dive into it, or hum along with it. I'm not sure if such a moment is "salient" to my well-being, but it sure contributes to it.

Now I am really going to settle down and do some work.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who Was Kit Carson?

Among those names that have come down to us from the Wild West—Buffalo Bill, Jim Bridger, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane—Kit Carson gets my vote as the most heroic, unassuming, skilled, lucky, and decent of them all. He lit out from Kentucky at an early age, spent a decade as a mountain man, and became a government guide on the Fremont expeditions that earned that well connected explorer the nickname “The Pathfinder.” He went on to serve as an Indian Agent for the Utes, testified often on behalf of Native Americans at various government hearings—and became a dime-novel hero to boot.
But what about that campaign against the Navahos? Well, you can read the whole story here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Out Damned Spot!

Joe Dowling’s new production of Macbeth at the Guthrie, with its trim yet evocative sets, breakneck pace, talented cast, and avoidance of dramaturgical foofarah, remains riveting from beginning to end. Young Eric Heger’s Macbeth impresses us with his valor, his ambition, and also his conscience in the early going, and Michelle O'Neill as Lady Macbeth is deliciously ruthless in a strangely modern way. (Maybe it’s the shiny red dress.) The fumbling awkwardness leading up to Duncan’s murder (off-stage) is painful to watch … and everything’s downhill from there, of course.

Meanwhile, Bill McCallum plays the loyal sidekick Banquo to perfection; the murder scenes involving children drive you to the point of squeamishness and alarm—which they’re designed to. The tension between a large number of people trying to act normal and a few headstrong individuals following through with the ghastly logic of their ill-fated deviation from the norms of hospitality remains strong almost to the end.

The weakest parts of the play involve the three weird sisters. They don’t jibe well with the mid-twentieth century dress and there’s no bubbling cauldron anywhere in sight. (Or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen Barbara Bryne and Isabel Monk in a few too many productions.)

The usher greats you at the door as you enter with: “The play is 2 hours and 9 minutes long, and there’s no intermission.” In other words, it will be like sitting through a medium-length movie, a little harder to hear, perhaps, but with much richer language.

Home, we pull out the play and begin to reread the lines…