Saturday, February 25, 2012

Catching Up on Best Picture: The Battle of the Myths

The Best Pictures Oscar contest: a horse race with no transparent handicapping. But this year the specter of Joseph Campbell will be in the Kodak auditorium because three films have unusually intersecting mythologies.

Myth #1: American View of the Mystique of Paris

From the first whiny notes of the soundtrack over the sickly yellow lit scenes of tourist Paris, I knew Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was no Manhattan. That was a film that beautifully captured the living reality of New York (for some) with the dream mythscape that lies beneath it and pokes through occasionally for everyone in different ways.

I watched MIP twice, again believing that my lyric mojo was on the fritz, because I wasn’t charmed. I don’t find Owen Wilson compelling, his engagement to Rachel McAdams made no sense on any level and they had no chemistry at all. I agree with one of the NYTimes viewer comments: “Felt like it was written by an earnest 10th grader.”

And I had an evening of much head bobbing to the tweets of the esteemed James Wolcott. I happened to see his tweets while he was watching Midnight, and I wish I had captured them because every one of them was dead on, particularly about the music. There are many Sidney Bechet recordings that show off the depth and richness of his clarinet playing, but "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" is set in the high, tinny range and sounds “cheap,” not luscious. Stephane Wrembel’s guitar theme "Bistro Fada" became annoying as it came back endlessly. (And I thought it had a Spanish-inflected sound, which felt off for such a Francophile film.)

The 1920s gang in the film were okay, but not used well enough. On paper, it is the English majors fantasy to have been with the Lost Generation in Paris. So I think the biggest disappointment was that there was so much potential for the music, and script, and visuals for this idea, and none of it came together for me. But I’m in the minority with that opinion: many people were swept away by Woody’s myth of the City of Lights.

Myth #2: French View of the Mystique of Hollywood’s Beginnings

Michel Hazanavicius’s The Aritist was a more enjoyable film for me. It takes a little time to settle into its faux silent era pacing, both the movie scenes within the movie and the “story” itself. Many did not like Bérénice Bejo exaggerated Peppy Miller, saying her only acting was wide and wider eyes, but I enjoyed the stylized tone. I have not seen the great silents, I only saw my first Buster Keaton at Film Forum this year, The Filmmaker. If felt like an entirely different product than a sound movie. There is a more profound different between the silent era and “talking pictures” than just the addition of sound.

David Denby has a wonderful piece about this in The New Yorker that is somewhat summarized as

"In 'The Artist,'  Bérénice Bejo’s character is a swell girl, full of bounce, and compassionate and loyal, too, but Bejo lacks the impress of temperament—as does Jean Dujardin—that made the old stars so memorable."

And because they don’t have the “temperament,” the innate skill needed to act without sound, there is a flatness to The Artist, a sense that it is paper thin, unlike the endless depth to the images of Garbo, Barrymore, and Negri.

This fact of life, that actors in 2012 cannot know what it is to act silent, does not detract from the overall story. The myth is how swell things were back when the industry was emerging, and the struggle of the life of the artist (as opposed to just an actor).

I saw an experimental silent short this year, with none other than Dominic West trying his hand at being a silent actor in Andrew Legge’s The Lactating Automaton. It tells the tale of an inventor who builds a mechanical wet nurse for his baby daughter after his wife dies. It’s an odd piece, not because of the automaton, but because its tone shifts oddly between sweet and creepy.

And that brings us to Hugo.

Myth #3: American View of the Mystique of French Film Pioneers

Best Picture and multiple other category nominee Hugo from Martin Scorsese includes pieces of Myths 1 & 2: the story is set in Paris; it's somewhere in the 1920s like The Artist, the earliest in 1923 since we see Harold Lloyd's Safety Last; and it’s based on the children’s story The Invention of Hugo Caret, by Brian Selznick, who is film royalty: his grandfather was the cousin of the great David O. Selzick, who produced best picture winners Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Put an orphan who lives in a train station together with an automaton that was created by one of the actual pioneers of film and you are firing on several mythological points, which Scorsese has the strength of vision to bring off.

It becomes an unabashed valentine to the real pioneers of early narrative film, tangentially the Lumiere brothers, specifically George Melies. Melies entered a generation of non film scholars in 1969 when the existing footage of his Trip to the Moon was played endlessly as part of the ramp up coverage to the moon landing.

Hugo achieves the mythological beauty of Paris that Woody was striving for, and captures the highs and lows of the life of the artist a la Hazanavicius. Beyond that, it’s also an infomercial on the need to preserve the physical celluloid of the world’s collective film history.

Which Is the Defining Myth for 2012?
These films are up against The Help, a period piece that has it’s own myths about the civil rights movement and its legacy; Moneyball and The Descendants, which from one perspective can be both be boiled down to the myth of the exquisitely handsome man who is unable to relate to women; The Tree of Life, which is a creation myth straight out; War Horse, which I haven't seen but I did see the play in London and New York, and WW1 created the myth of Lost Generation; and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I haven’t seen, but it’s about 9/11, enough said.

I picked The Artist in the office pool.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Accidental Pilgrim: Thoughts for Ash Wednesday During Oscars Week

Thinking about The Tree of Life and The Way reminded me that I stumbled very unintentionally upon two pilgrimage sites when I was traveling for other purposes. I thought of myself as an Accidental Pilgrim, a twist on The Accidental Tourist, the novel by Anne Tyler and movie staring William Hurt from the 1980s. I read the book, and have vague memories of appreciating its depth.

Then it just so happened that the movie was on Ovation last night just as I was writing about this. What are the odds!? It was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1988: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan), Best Original Score (John Williams), and Geena Davis, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance. “Best pictures” were a very different breed back then. It seems very slow and leaden in 2012.

Perhaps some day I’ll make a movie about the Accidental Pilgrim.

Studying Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the closest many Americans get to medieval pilgrim sites, without a concerted effort.

Which is why I was so surprised when I found myself at two centuries-old places that millions had considered holy and sought out at great cost of time and energy to visit, looking for something: healing, grace, hope.

France: Rocamadour

In 1998 I was on a Butterfield and Robinson bike trip of the Dordogne, France’s most interesting and beautiful region, and much less traveled than Bordeaux and Provence. The last leg was a ride from the bastide de Domme to the Chateau del la Treyne, a 14th century castle perched on the cliff overlooking the Dordogne River surrounded by endless sunflower fields. The next day was a circle ride, out and back from the Chateau. The destination was Rocamadour.

I didn’t read anything about it; this trip was about bicycling, not about thinking or having to read up on anything. As we cycled up one long, steep hill, a wildly imposing city complex of abbeys, churches, and town buildings carved into cliffs  slowly came into view. The guide told us that this was a very popular 12th century pilgrimage site for pilgrims on their way to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or Jerusalem, known for its healing powers.

We entered the city and parked the bikes to look around.

I was completely startled when I saw a small sign pointing to Chapelle Notre Dame. At the time I was singing in the Notre Dame church in New York, near Columbia University, where I was learning polyphony under the patience of David Schofield.

The first difficult, modern motet I learned a few years earlier with David was Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire. We did it as a trio, with me as alto, and the soprano Barbara Geach (whose story I think I will one day tell). What I hadn’t noticed on my copy of the music, and only learned after I was back home, was that this Litany was to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour! And now here I was, in that chapel.

How strange.

AND, I later learned that Poulenc had had a “reversion” experience in this chapel, rediscovering a deep belief in Catholicism. He had made the pilgrimage to Rocamadour in 1936, distressed by the death of another young composer and looking for solace, which he found. After his visit he began writing exceptional liturgical music until he died.

What a surprise to stumble on this holy place with all these connections to my life, even though I didn’t connect all the dots at the time. And I did find healing on that trip from a crushing heartache (no, not The Talented Mr. Ripley, this was years before that). At the time I assumed it was the strenuous exercise, exorcizing the disappointment, and seeing the elan of the French in the Dordogne. We ate lunch in a small restaurant in a tiny village, where a group of factory workers were eating.  A sit-down lunch, with some wine, talking and laughing. Most urban Americans I know eat at their desks. I was re-energized by seeing that much LIFE in such an easy, natural expression.

And yet.  Maybe the chapel had something to do with it. Our Lady is very powerful . . . .

Spain: Santiago de Compostelo

My second unplanned pilgrimage site was Santiago de Compostela. I was on a tour to northern Spain and Portugal with Davidson Singers in 2002. I signed up because we were going to sing at the Bibao Guggenheim, but singing in Compostela was also on our itinerary, not in the cathedral, but in a cultural center.

The cathedral is impressive. I watched as various groups of young pilgrims finished the Camino, walking or bicycling to the front of the Cathedral to have their group picture taken. I didn’t see anyone on a donkey, the third legitimate mode of travel to be considered a pilgrim. But again,  here I was a tourist at a pilgrimage site.

Ashes to Ashes
I don’t know that I will ever decide to make a journey as a pilgrim. The idea of a holy place doesn’t have that much meaning for me. Every place there is life there is holiness, and we are on the Camino every day.

I like to think that there may have been some accidental grace at work in my accidental pilgrimages, and that is sometimes the best kind.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oscars Catch-Up: The Tree of Life via The Way

I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, nominated for Best Picture, a few months ago, and I wasn’t pulled in. I thought maybe my lyric mojo was on the fritz, so I took the “opportunity” of 2 weeks of resting with the flu to watch it on pay-per-view.

I had noticed that the Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen film The Way about walking the Camino de Compostela was also available, and with a lot of empty hours before me, I decided to make these a living room double feature. That turned out to be beautifully satisfying: the two films are excellent companion explorations on loss and grief, fathers and sons, and the meaning of it ALL. Beyond that there is the extra cosmic connection that Martin Sheen starred in Terrence Malick’s first feature, Badlands.

The Way is a quiet film based on the primal trope of “the road.” What stands out immediately is the Martin Sheen charisma, so I wasn’t surprised that Neil Genzlinger opens his New York Times review with “One thing you quickly realize when you sit down to watch “The Way”: Martin Sheen is a very compelling actor.” He plays Tom Avery, a California eye doctor whose only son dies while he’s traveling the world, specifically the day after he sets off to walk the Way of St. James, a medieval pilgrimage route through northern Spain. Tom goes to reclaim his body, and then decides to walk the Camino with his son’s ashes to fulfill his son’s desire.

When Tom starts out he is not very open to the experience, nor to the people he meets along the way. He haphazardly starts to walk, yes like Dorothy, with 3 people: a Dutchman, a Canadian women, and an Irishmen.

The film is not a documentary, but it was filmed in France and Spain and has beautiful cinematography of some of the actual route that completely centers the film.

What Is Santiago de Compostela, You Might Ask?

It is the shrine to one of the 12 Apostles, St. James, son of Zebedee. History confirms that a James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (son of King Herod) in A.D. 44. So, what is the shrine doing in Spain, you might ask? Tradition says that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain, then returned to Jerusalem. When Herod killed him, his body was miraculously transported (the Church uses the verb “translated” some say “flown by angels”) in a rudderless boat that landed in Iria Flavia, and then was brought to what became Compostella. “James” in western Iberia became "Iago,” from Hebrew Ya'akov, which when prefixed with "Sant" became "Santiago.”

There have been “serious questions” raised whether the remains of St. James actually ever made the journey, by any fashion, from Judea to Spain: it’s in the realm of Catholic tradition, not belief. But since people thought they were there, and wanted to honor the relics of one of the 12, Compostela became one of the most important of the medieval pilgrimage shrines, with documented visitors dating from 9th century, earliest pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees in 10th century, and by the 12 century, it was an organized industry that was the beginnings of tourism. So sure, economics had something to do with it, as it does with all of humanity’s microcosm.

The growth of the tourist business was a factor in Compostela's rise, but you can’t force someone to go on a pilgrimage, there has to be some power that draws people in. And that power---of religious experience, of personal discovery, of physical achievement, of individual storytelling as a way to make sense of what happens to you in life----is earnestly but sweetly captured by The Way in its script and its spirit as we watch Tom come to terms with his grief and his relationship with his only son. Estevez is not a strong director and that detracts from the whole, but not from the story.

The Tree of Life

From a film where all is laid bare and defined in specifics to a film of vibrant mysteries. The Tree of Life is big think, grand gestures, a cinematic yearning for a deep connection to the cosmos, to LIFE and its MEANING.

Malick’s film feels labored to me, even as parts of it are masterful. I did not find an artistic transcendence in the cosmic abstract/metaphoric creation/earth extinction/ dinosaurs intercut with the ordinary. I didn’t like the whispered narration (some say prayers), nor the ambiguity of it all. Where is the story set? How did the son die? When the father lost his job, where did he land? (That second house of glass is wildly sophisticated and expensive looking.) What is anybody’s name? The family name O’Brien only shows up at the end in the credits. They go to church, which given their surname is probably Catholic (certainly not Baptist, given the stain glass window and vested priest), an interesting detail given the spiritual longing and personal nature of the film,

Nature or Grace?
The film opens with hushed narration from the mother that includes:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”

“Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

Malick’s dichotomy is played out in the mother, who is kind, and the father, who is harsh and bullies his children, but the terms “grace” and “nature” seem odd and arbitrary words to dub these character types. It also seems a forced conceit that you have to choose. Most people are fluidly both.

The film intercuts between a middle-aged son at work, an architect, and his thoughts about his time growing up with this mom and dad and his two brothers, one of whom dies. Decades later he is still struggling with his grief.

A prominent element of all the film’s scenes is the music that is the soundtrack to the O’Brien’s lives as well as the film itself.

Music is one of humanity’s most direct connections to the divine. The shimmering pieces of Tavener and Preisner; the sheer brilliance of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier/Toccato & Fugue in D Minor (his masterpieces have been considered “a look at the mind of God” by musicians for centuries); the sweeping symphonic expression of freedom in Smetana’s The Moldau, sections of the Mass by the uber Romantic composer Berlioz, with the holy Agnus Dei saved for the ‘on the beach’ scene: this music throughout touches all souls, those of nature and those of grace. I wonder if Malick sees music this way, as a bridge.

On the Beach, Then on the Road
The middle-aged son works in a cathedral of glass in a major city, not named in the film but called Houston in reviews.

In his elevator ride down Penn has a vision that takes him to a beach with people he’s known, dead people frozen in their younger selves.

It’s the most explicitly religious part of the film, as the mother, in Mother of God blue light, surrounded by some sort of a vision in white, raises her hands to the heavens and says, “I give you my son.” On a practical note, does she mean the son who died, or the middle-aged son who is struggling? Either way it’s a classic Christian trope.

Sean Penn then walks out of his glass elevator, with a smile, and the final image is of a bridge. The implication is that he is back in the stream of life. You might say, back on the road.

So now we are again in Emilio Estevez’ quiet film, The Way. We can yearn for the big think, the big vision. We can struggle with ‘what does it all mean’ and grief can sadden and pull us down. But in truth, what do we have, but to keep moving on each day, whether it’s to work and back again, or on a road that takes us beyond our front door for a while, perhaps with songs that are the soundtrack of our own life on the iPod.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Red & the Green

February and March are the calendar’s red and green months. I don’t mind this annual pop culture color coding. For Valentine’s Day, pop culture literally put it on the map, long before Victorian England and then Hallmark cashed in on it.

Chaucer has the earliest citation, 1382, Parlement of Foules
“For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate”

He may not have been alluding to the Feb. 14 date of the Christian martyr, but his work fueled the idea of love and St. Valentine.

Ophelia had some musings about it around 1600:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

From the Catholic Encyclopedia/Wikipedia: Of the Saint Valentine whose feast is on February 14, nothing is known except his name and that he was buried on the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14.

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493); alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine, the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II for marrying Christian couples when Christianity was illegal. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. Various dates are given for the martyrdom 269, 270, or 273.

Our Happy Endings

Fast forward to February 2012, the ABC show Happy Endings, a sweet, goofy comedy that is Friends 3.0 set in Chicago. In their Valentine’s ep, Alex is the believer, the Linus in the pumpkin patch of hearts. She spouts a whole new mythology for Valintinius Valentine:

“ A 9th century Prussian martyr, ordained at St. Stanislaus church, who roamed the Black Forest looking for his lost love. If you believe in him, he will help you find love, and this year he’s going to help me."

Apart from the hysterical geography lesson, she does have him martyred at the hands of the Romans "They ripped him tip to taint."

At the end of the episode she offers one more piece of Prussian Valentine lore:

Alex: I want to give you all a hug, something the real St. Valentine couldn’t do after the Roman ripped his arms off.
Penny: They were really hard on him, was there anything left?
Alex: Just his heart, which they skewed and put on display in the town center, which is why the heart is the symbol of St. Valentine’s Day!

TV certainly creates its own mythology---like the Friends trope---but I don’t remember “knowledge” so badly misquoted without some other character stepping in to correct or at least question it, outside of Cliff Clavin, of course.

And here’s this blog’s own Happy Ending: learning that whoever St. Valentine was, the Irish have him!

“In 1835 an Irish Carmelite priest, Fr. John Spratt, used his Irish charm to convince then Pope Gregory XVI to dig up St. Valentine’s remains and take them home as a gift to his fellow Irishmen and women.”

So there he lies, in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, in Dublin. The Irish are such crazy romantics at heart. This I know.


(Photos from the Happy Endings St. Valentine's Maxssacre episode. Clever title.)