Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thanks, for the Dialogue: 30 Rock Leaves the Stage

30 Rock leaves the TV landscape tonight, after seven seasons of 22 weekly minutes of madcap, frivolous gaiety. It was bubbly entertainment at the end of the pedestrian workday. It had a touch of the Hope/Crosby Road movie effervescence, where slightly drawn characters are given huge resonance by the dialogue: snappy, smart, and beautifully effortless. The relaxed, natural, unselfconscious delivery of very informed lines is what drew me in week after week.

"Save it for your iVillage blog, Lemon"

I admire Tina Fey greatly.  She created a perfect male/female relationship. Follow me. She created a show universe where true north is the debonair, morally problematic,  corporate businessman, Jack Donaghy. Since he's her creation, she's like an on air ventriloquist, pulling Donaghy's strings. And she wrote the plot points so that this worldly, rich Jack continually questions, and then always avers, that the most fulfilling part of his life is: his mentor relationship with Liz Lemon ! Sweet. She gets to be the center of attention for an interesting if flawed man, with none of the muss or fuss. Yes, I want to go there.

Alec Baldwin of course is no Jerry Mahoney dummy. He was the perfect person/actor to bring Tina's creation to life. He has the soul of a romantic, complete with the "cynical and drunk and screaming at someone in some dark cafe" side. But when he sparkles, it is heady.

That verve is captured in the opening credits, where a change in Baldwin's credit just a few episodes in to the first season shows him and the show xeroing in on his elan.

Here is his image at the very beginning of the series, not yet the Donaghy we love

That changed to him doing a quick, rakish, Errol Flynn-like turnaround. And there's the madcap.

There are so many Baldwin standouts: The tour de force of Jack's therapy for Tracy, playing  his father, mother, her new man, and a neighbor; The Generalissimo: "We laugh alike, we think a like, at times we even drink alike, you could lose your mind." Another tour de force in 100 episode: hallucinating from a faulty gas line, Jack sees an alternate version of himself-- "Sideways Jack"-- plus himself in high school, and himself older. Another ep where he negotiates with himself, when Liz can't keep up.

And, the short-lived mayoral candidate in The Tuxedo Begins, where he channels his own movie hero, The Shadow, staring down Liz's Joker.

Will I'm typing this, "Standard & Practices" from season 7 is on:

I've already detained Brock and Ava under the Patriot Act. People have forgotten about that. Any white man can arrest anyone.

Kato, don't attack me tonight 

I once took a log with googly-eyes to a father-son picnic.

School guy: How are you related to Miss Hooper?
Jack: I'm her nemesis

"TGS Hates Women"
There is much more to those 22 minutes than Donaghy witticisms. The plots weave in and out of race questions, gender roles and sexual identity, mother/son issues, aging, the plight of idiots, and my favorite, misogyny! Who better than Tina Fey to throw some wisdom and the funny at TGS being called out as misogynist by the blog Joan of Snark. Besides the constant underlying issue of the lack of women in the writer's room---something Fey thwarted as she rose to head writer at SNL---it was ripped from RL blog headlines in the dust up between Jezebel and the Daily Show, when the former accused the later of rampant sexism.

Lemon doesn't try to argue against or defend the system, but as creator of the show she hires another woman writer, Abby Flynn (Cristin Milioti) who turns out to use her baby-girl sexy provocation to manipulate the guys on the staff.  One of my all-time favorite images is Lemon having it out with her, in Riverside Park, in front of the state of Eleanor Roosevelt (slightly seen here over Liz's shoulder). Just perfect. It's also the episode that introduces Kaylie Hooper as Jack's 14-year-old competition to become CEO of Kabletown, after her grandfather. She also manipulates men, not with sexy baby voice, but with the same "Art of the Samurai" techniques of getting the advantage on your opponent that Jack uses. This is what makes 30 Rock a great series.

Good Night, Sweet Princess (and we dont' mean no Shakespeare)
I'm glad Liz got the wedding that only she would want. How fortuitous that Princess Leia's toga garb was white. And that she is on the road to motherhood with age approporiate children. I don't know how it will all wrap up.

I am intrigued by why Willy Wonka means so much to either Tina Fey or Robert Carlock.  Fans were tickled when this line from season one

"In five years we'll either all be working for Kenneth or we'll all be dead by his hand" 

came true in the penultimate episode.

But, I just ran across "Alexis Goodlooking and the Case of the Missing Whisky":

Kenneth: Maybe you're worried that I will climb up and take your job and throw you out.

Jack: That's some high level paranoia, like Hitler, and Willy Wonka. If you're thinking that way, I'm already too late.

And Wonka was the touchstone for the entire "A Goon's Deed."  Hmm. I've just started Bossypants, maybe the Rosebud like clue to Wonka will be in there.

Thanks again, Tina, particularly for the whole Matt Damon arc; 100 Part 1 & 2; Leap Day; St. Patrick's Day (why don't more shows do a St. Patrick's Day ep?);  Colleen's funeral; and The Tuxedo Begins. Thursday nights won't be the same without you.

Here's a great highlight reel from Alec Baldwin's website.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Great Scots: Happy Birthday Rabbie Burns

Don't forget,  January 25, is Rabbie Burns’s birthday—St. Andrew's Societies all over the world will be celebrating in spades. Steed and I had a Scottish adventure once—it was a great excuse to see him in a kilt.

I don't know a lot about Robert Burns, but I will ever be grateful to William Strunk, Jr., and E.B.White for literally starting their essential Elements of Style with this:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles's friend
Burns's poems
the witch's malice

It could not be more clear. I don't know why so many people think that Burns's is wrong.

Scots in the Irish House
Coming from an Irish background, some Scottish things did drift in amid the Celts. I discovered Sir Walter Scott as a girl and read through the Waverly novels and the epic poem,  Lady of the Lake, with the odd indirect influence on Schubert's Ellens Dritter Gesang (later adapted to use the full lyrics of the Latin Ave Maria). I liked the McMillian & Wife episodes whenever the Commissioner wore a kilt.

One Scot of childhood in particular was  Sir Harry Lauder. Lauder was one of the most famous musical hall performers of all time, known to Americans of WWII for his years of farewell tours, before his death in 1950. I later learned that some Scots blamed him for the caricature of the canny, cheap Scotsmen in a kilt that they didn’t particularly like.

But Lauder was of his time, and he built a career that brought him to lunches at Buckingham palace and to working with Charlie Chaplain, and Laurel and Hardy in early Hollywood. Not too shabby.

My parents always played his "Wee doch 'n' doris" at all their important parties.

There's a good old Scottish custom, that has stood the test of time,
It's a custon that is carried out in ev'ry land and clime.
Where brother Scots fore-gather, it's aye the usual thing.
When just before they say guid-nicht, they fill their cups and sing-

Just a wee deoch-an-doris, just a wee drap that's a'
Just a wee deoch-an-doris before we gang a-wa'
There's a wee wifie waitin', in a wee but an ben
If you can say, "It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht" ye a'richt ye ken

I carried a warm feeling for Lauder in my heart for many years with little resonance in the world, when one day, about 12 years ago, the great Lou Dorfsman took me to an opening of Al Hirschfeld's photography at the Leica gallery.  Lou and he were old friends.

“Mr. Hirschfeld, what a thrill to meet the man who drew Harry Lauder.”

In fact, I had read that Hirschfeld’s drawing of Lauder was his very first for the NY Times, and it launched his career there.

Hirschfeld looked genuinely surprised to hear Lauder’s name. He looked so intently at me with those clear, blue, blue eyes, that all I could think of to do in response was to start singing a bit of "Doech an Doris. “Oh my goodness—-how old are you?” he smiled, as he pressed my hand very strongly. He said he thought “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’" was the greater song, and we agreed to disagree on that point.

I like to think Sir Harry and Al are performing and sketching, together again.

A GPS-based App for Mr. Burns
This new app is a great way to dip into all of Burns's great poetry lines, organized by topics like Philosphy, Religion, Love, etc.  The best feature is it will tell you how far away you are from the nearest Burns momument. In my case the one in Central Park is 2 miles away, and the next closest is 3,186 miles in Dunoon, Scotland. Good to know.

Download the app here.

And now, a gentle reminder of one of Burns's most famous line, oft misquoted:

"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley"

So true, so true.

(updated from a 2007 post)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Miserables: What Tom Hooper's Victor Hugo Offers Us

The Man stands in a fertile valley with his legs steadfastly planted on the ground. He takes his shoes and socks off and digs his toes into the cool, rich, soil. He surveys his world: his house is sturdy, his crops are good and his family is fed.  He feels a worm ooze across his bare foot and  watches as it burrows into his soil.  A cat silently sneaks up on a robin and in a second the sharpened felines claws have ripped open the tender red breast.  The Man changes his glance, but there is not much to see for immense trees rise up, cutting off his view.  For a moment he glances at the night sky, but sees only an impenetrable darkness. There are some specks in the heavens, but they are so distant they offer him no light or warmth. His gaze returns to his farm, and to his black soil speckled with the warm red blood of the robin.

His Brother stands precariously upon the summit of the mountain of the valley.  He looks past his feet to the earth below and sees The Man with his toes snuggled in the earth, and that man's house, crops, and trees, and beyond the trees to the next man's house and his crops.  Still The Brother sees further: a battle is skirmishing and a man has just been shot; two young lovers leave a church; a boy reluctantly buries his dog.  Nothing escapes the eyes of The Brother, for the mountain commands a sweeping view of the valley.  But The Brother's eye not only looks past his feet; it regularly ascends to the heavens whence he draws his strength.  The stars shine exuberantly to him, a reminder of his faith in the divine creator that he worships.
          The Man is Emile Zola, and The Brother is Victor Hugo

I felt a serious connection to Victor Hugo in high school. I wrote the above as the lead to a 25-page close reading of the novels Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-three) by Hugo and La Debacle (The Downfall) by Zola to compare the literary philosophies of Romanticism and Naturalism.

My philosophical visualization flashed into my mind as Russell Crowe walked precariously along the very edges of towering buildings in Paris in Tom Hooper's film of the stage Les Miserables. So Hooper felt some of the same vibe from Hugo that I did and visualized it in a similar way.  That was a surprise. The Romanticism vibe informs his big, epic, intense vision for the film, and for my reading of Hugo, his creation is a huge, messy success.

I Missed the Global Phenomenon, til Now
One thing I have in common with Anthony Lane and David Denby is I'm outside the "60 million people in 42 countries" (Guardian article) who have seen the stage version in some form or another. And after getting close to Hugo in Ninety-Three, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I found him too intense to stay near and so I didn't read Les Miserables.

That meant I was completely unspoiled for the the film experience. I really didn't know where the plot was going to go. Instead I entered the Ziegfeld Theatre with Denby's Culture Desk post in The New Yorker on my mind. He hated it with a Mencken passion:

"My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was! What rhythmic inventiveness was! Let us unite to overthrow the banality of these French hacks!” (And the British hacks, too, for that matter.) Alas, the hall is filled with people weeping over Les Mis.”

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, however, is a defenders of these barricades.

"Even as a non-believer in this kind of "sung-through" musical, I was battered into submission by this mesmeric and sometimes compelling film, featuring a performance of dignity and intelligence from Hugh Jackman, and an unexpectedly vulnerable singing turn from that great, big, grumpy old bear, Russell Crowe."

Team Jackman & the Weepers
Hugh Jackman as Valjean is thrilling to watch. He's on the screen 90% of the time, aging 17 years, carrying the character with ease, embodying the very soul of Valjean even through the difficulties.  I'm also a fan of Russell Crowe here. The tessitura of his songs is too high for his voice, but the strain just adds to his characterization. Anne Hathaway is good, but that role has so much melodrama built in, she's doesn't have to stretch much.

Denby, we know,  is equally appalled and surprised that his countryfolk are weeping.

Maybe the tears come because the film is a safe place to see the big themes of life in a bold, messy "easy" way:  justice, injustice, love triangles, the healing of redemption, the power of love, faith, and death. Nothing is nuanced, just big, out-there human condition with simple music. The film is permission to connect with these ever-important questions without having to pay up; it offers a look into the abyss, and then invites you to go home with a catchy tune in your head. Clearly for  many, this is a gift, and the poignancy of having this gift makes adults—carrying serious, adult problems into the movie theater—cry. For others, simply NOT (can you spell G.U.M.P.?)  I was a weeper.

History Smiles: The French & The English
What I also love about the film is its distinct creative journey.

(Bits and pieces from Wiki) It all started when French songwriter Alain Boubil is watching the musical Oliver! in London. So Dickens has a hand in it. He sees how Les Miserables can be a musical. He pitches the idea to French composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg, and they block it out. It becomes a concept album in 1980. That leads to French stage production that year, and then an English language version, with lyrics by Herbert Kretamer and new material by James Fenton that opens in 1985 at the Barbican.

It's the English-language version that ignites pop culture. It's France's history, but it's the English interpretation that touches the deepest chord. The French & the British have been sniping at each other for centuries: culturally, economically, with many, many guns, cannons, and swords.  And yet, Les Miz.

Then it was time for the upstarts, the Americans to partake. It premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ran until 2003, revived 2006 to 2008, and is set for another Broadway revival 2014.

2012 was the year that an English director made a big Hollywood film, staring a pair of Australians.

All because Victor Hugo was walking the streets of Paris in 1832 and found himself at a barricade for the June Revolution (43 years after "the famous one") and was compelled to spin a tale. I love it.

Back to high school:

The abstract idea of revolution pervades Ninety-three and The Downfall, and both use the metaphor of a gangrene limb of a soldier that must be amputated. For Hugo, Breton devotion to the nobility, which was the very core of their courage and bravery and the source of his tremendous admiration for them, was nonetheless gangrene. For Zola, Maurice ceased to be a believer in Republicanism "considering the remedy not drastic enough. . . . he was a believer in the necessity of Terror as the only means of ridding them of the traitors and imbeciles who were about to slay the country."

Where the romantic succeeded, the naturalist failed; where the romantic became noble and glorified, the naturalist was humiliated; where the naturalist faltered and was uncertain, the romantic remained steadfast. But at the end of both novels, at the death of the old and the birth of the new, the philosophers are united.

For place the mountain between two larger mountains, and it quickly becomes the valley.

The French "Do you hear the people sing" aka "A la volonte du peuple"

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Clocking More Hours: Midnight Strikes

"Naturally everyone wants to see midnight." 

So said Zadie Smith in her NYRB review of Christian Marclay's video installation, The Clock, way back in 2010 when it appeared at galleries in London and New York before going more mainstream at the Lincoln Center Festival this past summer, and now in the collection at The Museum of Modern Art.

And she's right. I did, and so did InReviewOnline editor in chief Kenji Fujishima, who was my clock buddy over the summer for the morning hours (which I wrote about below), when I saw from 8:00 am to noon. He had returned several other times to see more of the 24 hours, but not the all-important midnight. So we went on Friday the 4, the first of the MOMA's overnights, to fill the gap.

Starting at 9:30 pm
An extended sequence from the end of Laura, interspersed between many other clips of course. Every frame sizzles.

Lots and lots of French speaking films, I did not recognize.
Lots of Roger Moore, as Bond and other roles.
John Wayne leading a charge in one in Ford's calvary trilogy.
Columbo "I didn't realize how late it was."
Denzel a couple of times, one was Out of Time of course.
Clark Gable & Norma Shearer in Idiot's Delight (though not the famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" dancing scene).

11:00 pm  Miller's Crossing, Leo O'Bannon listening to Frank Patterson singing Danny Boy

The Run-Up to Midnight
From Smiths review again: “ 'Why does it always happen at midnight?' asks a young man by a fireplace, underneath a carriage clock. 'Because it does!' replies his friend.' "

Interesting that she doesn't identify the film. That happens a lot. Some actors and scene look so familiar, but you can't "name that film."

11:30 Citizen Kane, the puzzle scene at Xanadu with Dorothy Comingore. "Do you know what time it is?" Yes we do.

Several clips of Cary Grant & Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife, from the ending when she's in the attic and they are going to "wait" until Christmas.  (Watched many times as a teenager because Dunne's character is named Ellen :)

Repeated Dial M for Murder clips, both Ray Milland at the club during his alibi and Swann in the hallway with the latchkey

One black & white New Year's scene, men in tuxedos, I didn't recognize the film.

Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number

Repeated Rex Harrison clips from the 1967 Volpone stand-in, The Honey Pot, where 3 women suitors bring him timepieces. Cappucine brings him an hourglass filled with gold specs for sand.

Rex: "Nothing like gold to pass the time. It is even the color of time... Gold. How little most people value time, little people. Like everything else, they will choose what's more, not what's better. Even time, they will pray to live 100, long, miserable years and feel cheated if they had say 50 of the best. Quantity yes, quality no.

"There's good time and bad time, you know, the clocks don't give a damn what time they measure. We do. We special ones. We slow down for the good. We sip it second by second like great wine."

Several versions of The Pit and the Pendulum, a sobering visual take on time cutting into our lives

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, and Joan Crawford, all set to much violin playing.

Smith describes:

"Both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford start building to climaxes of divadom early, at around a quarter to the hour. Jaws going, eyeballs rolling. At ten to midnight Farley Granger looks utterly haunted, though I suppose he always looked that way. At three minutes to midnight people start demanding stays of execution: “I want to speak to the governor!” And the violins start, those rising violins, slashing at their strings, playing on our midnight angst."

Images of lots and lots of clocks striking the hour.

Orson Welles impaled by the avenging angle figure in church clock in The Stranger,

Rhett Butler in London running in to care for a screaming Bonnie Blue, with Big Ben at midnight seen through the window.

I loved seeing Gone with the Wind in a place of honor, and with that, it was time to go.

(Below, my post from the morning hours.)

For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Psalm 90:4 (Attributed to Moses)

I was curious about Christian Marclay's video art piece, The Clock: a 24-hour continuous montage of film clips synched to the actual time that is part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2012.

I went at 7:30 am one morning and got seated as the doors opened to a clip of Big Ben tolling 8:00 a.m. I missed some of the earliest next clips as my eyes adjusted to the darkened room and I found a place among the 20 or so white couches.

I had intended to stay for an hour, when all of a sudden I very reluctantly clocked out at 12:15 pm, just after noon. Going out into the midday sunlight felt like an intrusion to the exquisite world I had so easily spent more than four hours that truly went by in what felt like only a few blinks of the eye.

The piece is mesmerizing. It isn't only the staggering feat of all of the clips it one place. It is the artful way that they give life to the very definition of synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of the snippets.

And some are the very quickest of snippets, I would wager a mere 48 frames.

Marclay brings a filmmaker's sensibility to the piece: the pacing, the soundtrack that bleeds between clips, the actions that speak one to another, sometimes literally. None of this is groundbreaking, but his eye knows how to use the techniques to the max and that's how he sweeps you along.

I loved being in that room. I never felt such a shared feeling of our shared cinema heritage than in that communal experience. What a richness this film history is for those who want to partake. And each clip is a micro-connection to the ideas, characters, plots, themes, music that we create/watch to help us piece together our own lives. Storytelling is one of the most important elements to being human.

8:00 am to 12:15 pm
It takes a little time to get into the rhythm of the ubermovie. You want to remember the clips, but they roll by so quickly it's hard to grab them. Here's what I was able to grab to take with me:

•From 8 to 9 lots of clips of all manner of alarm clocks, people waking up, ablutions, going to work.

•8:45 David Niven as Phileas Fogg wins Around the World in 80 Days. The film will show up 2 more times before I leave.

•Somewhere around 9:17 am. I'm not certain of the film. It may have been About Schmidt. It started with a shot of an older guy lying in bed, in pajamas, then panning over to his TV set, that showed the World Trade Towers. They had both been hit, but were both still standing, which set the time.

•9:20 Deborah Harry & James Woods, Videodrome

Build up to noon/noon: lots of noisy clips and at noon, noon bells ringing. Yes, High Noon; Laura, which popped up 3 times while I was there; Back to the Future; Charles Laughton, Ray Milland The Big Clock; Babe.

2 seconds of Gone with the Wind. I didn't even see the clock, I must have blinked. But it was Scarlett waking up and smiling after the night of Rhett carrying her up the stairs.

2 seconds of Rebecca. Didn't see the clock here either, it's Joan Fontaine in the Monte Carlo hotel with Mrs. Van Hopper, who she will have to leave with. She's stalling for time until Max DeWinter comes to say good bye and she says "I'll check my room to see if I've left anything." That's the snippet.

2 seconds of The Palm Beach Story, Claudette Colbert at the train station, looks up at the clock. She will shortly meet the Ale & Quail Club.

Big Ben makes repeated appearances, most often tolling on the quarter hour, from unknown films. Country churches pop up often.

TV is not overlooked: several clips from Columbo; classic Twilight Zone, "Time Enough at Last," X-Files "Blood" with killer electronic messages (this was the elevator scene);

I wanted to return to see other day parts, but I did not make it back. So I don't know what Marclay's dark night of the soul looks like.

Time Takes Our Breath Away, Minute by Minute
The line of Psalm 90 popped into my head because the hours watching The Clock seemed to go by as minutes. And there is something of omniscience in Marclay's art, that his is able to pull together the very minutes of daily life.

Psalm 90 is about time, and our mortality, with a somewhat pessimistic view of the wrathful Jehovah. Its lines speak beautifully to our need for narrative in our lives, and how we count the days and weeks and years.

"For all our days are passed away in Thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."

The Clock trailer. Which, to my delight, includes The Avengers episode, one of my favorite, called "The Hour That Never Was."