Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sweet Jane

Yesterday, me pal Nathaniel got to wax idolatrous about his own cine-heroine, Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned 47. Today, it's my turn to genuflect, since my favorite director in all the world also has a birthday. Jane Campion turns 51 today, and let's hope she's got 51 more left in her. Few directors have seen their public perception go up and down the way Jane has. Her Cannes history is a good index of this: from the first woman to win a Palme d'Or in the Short Film category (1986) to having her debut feature booed for long minutes at the same festival (1989), and then becoming the first woman to win a Palme d'Or in the main race (1993) before falling off the Cannes radar completely for her subsequent features. That's pretty much been the fate of her post-Piano movies across the world market, but it ain't fair, man. Campion's an artist the way Buñuel was—and bully for her, since she often lists him as her favorite auteur. Her sensibility doesn't really change, even as audiences blow wildly hot and cold about it.

Now, I'm gonna tell you how to celebrate this auspicious day, especially if you're all, "Yeah, I've seen The Piano." For my buck, that's the greatest movie ever, so watch it again, people. That cream never spoils, and I should know, having seen it 34 times.

Most likely, though, you haven't seen her short films, but you should. Peel (the Cannes prizewinner) and Passionless Moments, the two shorter shorts, are especially delicious: laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly poignant, and full of that askew visual sense that makes all of Campion's longer flicks so memorable. Act quick and get that out-of-print copy that some fool is selling on Amazon.

As I blogged when Stuart Dryburgh turned 53, The Portrait of a Lady is one of the great, unsung movies of the last 10 years, with Nicole Kidman's best pre-'01 performance (and maybe her best performance, period). The score by Wojciech Kilar is also pantheon material.

Finally, don't be scared of In the Cut, which died in a handful of theaters in 2003, but features some typically brilliant Campion cinematography (c/o Chicago and Collateral D.P. Dion Beebe), another rousing score, more absurdist throw-ins, and a powerfully reckless erotic charge.

If you want to read about some Jane, Virginia Wright Wexman edited a diverting anthology of interviews that reach all the way through the Portrait era. (Meryl Streep, with whom Jane is pictured here, was one of her two original choices to play Merle in that movie. The other anointee who turned her down was Susan Sarandon. Susan said no to make Dead Man Walking, but I dunno why Mary Louise Streep couldn't get with such a terrific part. No prob, though, since Barbara Hershey rocked the joint and enjoyed a long-overdue Oscar nod and some critics awards.)

But back to Campion literature. Dana Polan has a book-length study of Jane's films which I actually haven't read. Maybe tonight is the right moment to shake up the white-chocolate martini, fill up the tub, and see what Dana's got to say. I'm sure y'all will be celebrating Jane's genius in your own ways. If I had my druthers, I'd be tapping out that screenplay I've been working on for years that I'd love Jane to direct, but that's gonna have to be her 52nd birthday present or her 53rd. (Trust me, her present this year is not to have to read my wack, scribbled notes and outlines.)

Still, Jane is the only person I've never actually met whom I thank in my dissertation Acknowledgments, because her films and her sensibility, and The Piano in particular, basically changed the entire direction of my inner life and all of my personal goals when I was a wee 16-year-old. If I ever meet this woman, I hope it's not too public, 'cause that junk is gonna get embarrassing really fast. Just knowing she's somewhere out there, hopefully working on some new gem, is rewarding enough in the meantime. Happy birthday, Baby Jane, and praise be to you!

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Pox on All Your Houses

The best reason I can think of not to have blogged in three weeks is that I have been busy battling the vengeful, predatory haints that have been haunting my house. Dude, I almost died. Repeatedly.

Okay, for the time being, I suppose, this is technically a lie, but given that every other house around is being racked by angry spirits, I wonder how much time I've really got left in this department. Three movies this weekend, three venues, three seriously deranged abodes. No masterpieces, but no disasters, either.

The weakest of the three is easily the American remake of The Grudge, which I rented on DVD as preparation for the other two. The film makes do with the pleasing reticence and formal simplicity of mdoern Japanese horror, but the basic logic of the thing is pretty screwy (esp. once the haunting spirits start popping up all over Tokyo), and it's a shame that—calm down, Buffy fans—Sarah Michelle Gellar is such a stinkeroo actress on the big screen. If some spirit would haunt the space between Gellar's ears, at least in this movie, we might have more to say. Otherwise, the film settles in right at the midpoint of its genre, reliably unsettling but fatally cheeseball at the same time. Screamed Out Loud: Only twice, though I had some butterflies at other times.

Newly arrived on DVD is the easily superior Korean thriller A Tale of Two Sisters, which I was lucky enough to catch in a second-run 'plex. This time, the angry house is a seaside cottage, but it turns out that a country house can be just as pissed as its urban and suburban relatives. The best part of the compulsively watchable Two Sisters is its superlative sense of visual restraint. Director Kim Ji-woon and cinematographer have flawless instincts about how much to show and how much to reveal of their fearsome baddies, and yet some of the scariest shots don't have anything scary in them. Check out that backward-tracking handheld shot that lurches and pauses at odd, indifferently framed intervals—it'll take a second before you realize this is the creeeeeepy POV of someone dragging a dead body. If the screenplay for Two Sisters were as disciplined as the images, we'd really have something here, but the film's undoing is its Swimming Pool-level addiction to gratuitous layers of mystery and audience-baiting alternate realities, none of which explain nearly as much as they could, or even should. Still, when I walked out of the film and overheard a fellow patron sigh, "That sure is a fucked-up way to die," I knew exactly what she meant. Screamed Out Loud: About 7 times, twice with some vertical leap from the seat.

Finally, I hit the mall for the newly revised Amityville Horror, which can hardly be accused of too much narrative tomfoolery. In the sepia-toned prologue, they show you some truly fucked-up local history. Then, the same scenario plays out among a modern family moving into the same house, as though you didn't already know when you bought your ticket. Despite the admirable urge to ground all this horror in the lead character's nerve-wracked conscience (does he like his stepchildren? can he afford this house?), Amityville is really just a scare machine, and an increasingly silly one. Still, say this for a good ol', crass, all-on-the-surface American horror flick, especially after two nights of the more temperate Japanese aesthetic. These images really punched me in my fraidy-cat bone, particularly a sequence when li'l Michael Lutz needs to pee in the middle of the night, plus anything involving the wee sprite who lives in the closet (no, not in that sense). Screamed Out Loud: At least 12 times, and heartily.

Along with my pal Ann, I dashed straight from the 1:10 Amityville to the 3:50 Interpreter, which, as loyal readers know well, basically constitutes a mad-dash straight into the soothing arms of my husband. (I'm getting as lame as Rosie O. in the Tom Cruise days, you guys. At least I know it.) No blurting out my reactions to the Pollack movie yet, though. After three weeks of silence, I better leave myself a little more to say. But, here are some more words by way of coming Blog attractions: Interpreter. Pillowman. Eva Braun. Willy Brandt. 100 Women. Brushes with fame. Truth and reconciliation. Notes from Underground. And sweet, sweet Jane.

Stay tuned, babies.

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Just Playin'

You know y'all aren't going to get rid of me that easily, even after a week of silence. You know, too, that I've been doing more than just sitting around on my tuckus. I was at a bar mitzvah for my cousin Matt when the Pope died, so that was like a whole confluence of religious goings-on—some kind of spiritual sign of something, I'm guessing, but I can't figure quite of what. And I met a real-life cinematographer at the bar mitzvah, who turns out to be a sort of quasi-relation by double-step marriages.

All this traveling also meant that I was on buses from Ithaca to NYC, NYC to DC, DC to VA, and as they say in Middle Earth, there and back again (and again and again). So I finally squeezed in some pleasure-reading time. And this week, with the Pulitzers being announced and John Patrick Shanley's fascinating-looking Doubt copping the prize, plays were definitely the thing in my reading repertoire. Here are some new recommendations:

  • Jean Genet, The Screens: Genet is one of my favorite playwrights, as baffling as his work can be. The Maids and The Blacks are probably my favorites—difficult plays, yes, but they look like Morning's at Seven compared to The Screens. Rendered in an elaborate series of baroque vignettes, The Screens devotes its first 100 pages to a whole cascade of "Arabs" who are basically lowlifes in all of the ways typical of Genet: they are thieves, whores, scandal-mongers, jailbirds, traitors, harpies, predators, conspirators, gossips, and nags. The most sympathetic character is the ugliest woman in the city, who has a grand time being insolent and flippant to everyone who cringes at her. Then, in the second 100 pages, the whole thing explodes into a territorial war between the Arabs and a colonizing French army, such that living and dead characters are at each other's throats, the seven or eight levels of the stage represent multiple planes of heaven, purgatory, and hell (though not in any obvious order), and the seeming infinitude of screens that serve as backdrops, scrims, and hand-drawn canvases throughout the play start getting ripped to shreds. It's a violent, demanding, wholly impolitic play, and it was sometimes a little taxing to read, but as always, I enjoyed being so provoked. The delish cover image on the Grove Press edition (reproduced above) makes me wonder all the more how beautiful and yet how scarifying this thing must be to stage and to see.

  • Ridgely Torrence, Granny Maumee: The fame of this one-act play, a mere third of Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre, is based on the fact that Three Plays marked the first occasion (in 1917) that African-American actors appeared on Broadway in non-musical, non-parodic roles. Granny Maumee is a harsh little play about a blind black woman from the South driven to fury by the fact that her great-grandson is a mulatto. (The companion plays, The Rider of Dreams and Simon the Cyrenian, are a domestic dramedy and a Biblical parable intriguingly inflected with African revolutionary politics.) Interesting more for historical value than aesthetic attainments, Granny Maumee is still a compelling script. This collection is a little hard to find, but you can read a lot about it in this academic account of Torrence's opening night or, if you're really interested, in Ridgely Torrence's papers at Princeton. (Also interesting: this 1935 post-date on the legacy of Torrence's plays, published in the important, early 20th century African-American magazine Opportunity. Torrence, by the way, was white.)

  • Warren Leight, Side Man: Somehow, this play was both the Tony winner for Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1999. (It lost the latter, deservedly, to Margaret Edson's Wit, and was also eclipsed by its stunning co-finalist, Cornelius Eady and Diedre Murray's Running Man.) Side Man isn't bad by any stretch, and the first of its two acts builds to a terrifically tense conclusion. But the second act is only half as long, and pretty banal at that. Unless this script was played by gangbusters, it's hard to see how it improves immensely on every other memory play you've ever seen or read. (Knowing that Christian Slater played nostalgic-savant Clifford on Broadway helps me to understand what he's doing as Tom in the current Glass Menagerie, though I'm still not persuaded by that casting choice.) As a Tony voter that year, I certainly would have sprung instead for Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales or Patrick Marber's recently resuscitated Closer. (I haven't read or seen the fourth nominee from that year, Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West.)

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