31 August 2010

Haiku 2010/243

the dogs stop barking
cars sit still under street lamps
finally: silence

30 August 2010

Haiku 2010/242

brushing away webs
careless of their fragile homes
my spider tenants

28 August 2010

Haiku 2010/240

drifting like the clouds
light glimmers and vanishes
close your eyes slowly

27 August 2010

Haiku 2010/239

banal clouds, tired trees,
that bird pecking so sadly

26 August 2010

25 August 2010

Haiku 2010/237

tarnished silver moon
smeared with brown smoke lying low
in a sleepless sky

24 August 2010

back to school!

Earlier today Amazon's front page listed the five best-sellers in drama:

1) Hamlet (New Folger Library)
2) The Crucible
3) Three Theban Plays
4) A Raisin in the Sun
5) The Oresteia

If that doesn't scream "high school English class" I don't know what does, except maybe a novel list that includes To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The House on Mango Street (none of which I've read, by the way).

I wonder how many high school readers of the Theban plays will get past Oedipus the King ("So, class -- why didn't Oedipus realize how old his wife is? Anyone? Maybe she's a MILF?") and Antigone ("So, class, Antigone: bold seeker of justice, or just kind of a pain in the ass?") to read Oedipus at Colonnus in between. . . .

Haiku 2010/236

sweat glides down my chest
I kick off the blankets for
the blanketing heat

23 August 2010

Haiku 2010/235

picking up a leaf
drifting dead on the driveway:
velvet underneath

22 August 2010

Thompson/Cmiel/Carter: Sexton/Rukeyser/Bishop

Last night I went to the Hot Air Music Festival's Musical Textual at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring Anne, a performance piece by Wolfgang Thompson using the poetry of Anne Sexton; Murmur, Matthew Cmiel’s setting for vocal quartet and hand-percussion of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser; and A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Elliot Carter’s setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Anne was performed by Ella Barros and Wolfgang Thompson, and is in three parts. She is dressed all in black and lying on the floor. She loudly chants Sexton’s words (in the first part, from a series of poems about Jesus). Thompson, who sometimes grunts or yells but is wordless throughout, performed a series of movements while she recites: he jumps over her supine body, he slaps the floor with his hands, he scuttles over her in a sexual position. In the second part, they are sitting at a table, with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, but this section doesn’t use the Jesus poems. In the third section, using poems from The Death Notebooks, Barros is again lying on the floor, with her arms wrapped straight-jacket style in her black top. Again, Thompson performs the repertory of gestures, with looks of concern or anguish.

Kind of to my surprise, I enjoyed the piece, despite several issues. First, the textual part of the evening: it seems they had problems printing the program (though I did manage to find a stray piece of paper that gives the names of most soloists, but otherwise I’m relying on my memory of Cmiel’s announcements from the stage) so I don’t know if they had planned to reprint the texts, but only stray lines and snatches of text were intelligible. I could go either way on printing or projecting the texts, by the way; on the one hand, you want people to pay attention to the performance, not keep their eyes glued to the word-book; on the other, it’s difficult to make out sometimes obscure or knotty verse when it’s shouted from an acoustically unpromising position, and if the meaning of the words is important to you, you might want to help people out a bit.

And the words themselves . . . despite the weird surreal appeal of many of the lines, maybe it’s just as well to experience the piece through sound rather than sense. When Sexton (and Plath & Co.) started publishing, the voice of an openly angry woman was a shock in lyric poetry (please note I am specifying lyric rather than dramatic or epic poetry). A generation later, it’s a cliché, and there comes a cultural point after the initial eruption when suddenly it all just seems incredibly narcissistic and overdone – we all know what sound and fury signify. This might just be me – I find I follow the same pattern with people expressing strong (and ultimately simple) opinions: after initial fascination, I begin to know already what they’re going to say, and finally find it unsatisfying and sort of boring; irony and nuance last longer than rage.

Maybe it’s an effect of growing older: life fills you with anger? Take a number and get back in line, sweetie. But it may have to do with the passing of time in a larger sense: in one of Woolf’s essays, she mentions how we – she – would come across a Victorian sentiment (in her case, I believe it was a letter from George Eliot correcting a conversational slip from the day before: she had meant to refer to Marivaux to prove whatever point she was discussing) and would “burst out laughing” at the earnestness, the ponderousness, the sheer previous-generationness, of the remark. This morning I picked up The Death Notebooks, which I hadn’t looked at in years, and faced with pages of bald blatant rage, what can you do but smile and shrug and reflect that it probably wasn’t a picnic living with her either?

Given all that, the piece lasted too long (about 40 minutes). Between each of its three sections, the stage went dark and the valiant stagehands came to rearrange and clean up. But the three sections were not different enough from each other for the pause to do anything but break the mood and momentum. Continuous action would have helped, and so would shortening the piece by ten or fifteen minutes generally: what we essentially have here is a woman bellowing at a man for 40 minutes. After a while, especially if he’s not responding, the situation starts to look comic in a James Thurber way. It’s no knock on the piece to say the part that affected me the most was seeing that beautiful loaf of bread ripped up and thrown about in the second part. Maybe I was just hungry. But kudos to Ella Barros for stamina; I kept thinking, like Demetrius in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Well roared, lion!”

Barros and Thompson came out smiling for their bows, and that was a side of a woman’s personality we hadn’t had a glimmer of during the performance. I found the piece a hoot – not in the sense that I was mocking what they did, but in that it put a smile on my face, which is probably not what they intended, but there it is. There was a lot of great energy and dedication between the two that carried the piece through. By the way, this is the sort of thing I usually see in seedy black-box theaters in the crackhead districts; what a pleasure to see it in the SF Conservatory’s small but elegant and comfortable recital room. And while I'm at it thanks also for the sensible 7:30 start time.

After intermission, Cmiel came out to introduce his Rukeyser piece, Murmur. I’ve already noted that she is responsible for two of the silliest lines of poetry I’ve ever read, and also for some of the weakest stretches of Dr Atomic’s weak libretto, but Cmiel found a poem that made me think I should give her another chance. (Though, again, it’s a little difficult to follow the through-line of a poem in a musical setting unless it’s a soloist, and even then sometimes. . . .) He told us that the form of the piece, which he’s been working on for a few years and will be continuing to work on, was inspired by David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion (which I’ve only heard on recordings), which also uses a vocal quartet with hand-held percussion. This piece uses mostly finger-cymbals which start the piece and sound periodically throughout, their fading vibrations lending a ceremonial sense of order to the music. The four vocalists (three women and one man; they are listed on the sheet only as the Hot Air Vocal Ensemble) trade off the main lines – the lyrics – while the others chant varying murmurs. I did hear the influence of the Little Match Girl Passion, but the piece stands on its own, with a lovely upward lilt on the final word, “soul.” And it was very effectively placed on the program in its almost meditative way between the rage of Anne and Carter’s song cycle.

It’s odd to go to a concert where a Carter song cycle is the best known piece, but that’s why I chose to go to this performance rather than the Merola finale. Carter has easily the best poet of the three; Elizabeth Bishop’s work not only doesn’t seem dated, it seems richer with each year and each re-reading. Unfortunately this wonderful piece brought out the bad behavior in the audience; one oaf actually took a flash photograph as the music started, and there was much whispering, some of it occasioned by Thompson's staging. Another unfortunate thing is that staging, by its nature, limits the way the audience is going to experience the words and the music, which is a shame given how much richer Bishop's poems are than the others on the program. A semi-crazed homeless-type woman (Trish DeBaun) comes in and does – well, nothing much – she walks up and down with her suitcase, then goes on stage, pretends to sleep during Insomnia, wanders around looking distraught or happy, and generally behaving like half the street-people I see in San Francisco, though at least they're not interrupting me when I'm trying to concentrate on Elliott Carter.

During the first two songs she was doing all this in the aisle, and since I was in the front row with my back to her, I assumed that someone in the audience was just moving seats or something annoying like that. Then I thought she simply was an actual street person who had somehow gotten past security and wandered in. There were whispers in the crowd about her antics. What I’m getting at here is that the staging not only didn’t add to the performance, it detracted.

I’m all in favor of innovative approaches to familiar material (I haven’t posted on it yet, but I loved the Beckett/Schubert evening I went to in New York last winter, and when Nathan Gunn and his wife did their conceptual monastic-life recital, it was only poverty that kept me from flying out to see it), but given the rarity of Carter performances, I really would have preferred just to hear the music, thank you, especially since this was a very fine performance. Cmiel conducted a group listed only as the Hot Air Chamber Players (I’m assuming they, and the vocal quartet, were conservatory students), who were excellent in what I’m sure is very challenging music to play, and soprano Shawnette Sulker was just lovely, with a strong and limpid voice used expressively to convey the nuances of the poems. Cmiel prefaced the Carter by talking about his love for the piece and Carter in general, and it was nice to hear tribute paid to one of the great American composers – if you only attended performances at Davies Symphony Hall, you wouldn’t even know Carter existed, much less is still composing wonderful music past the age of 100. Cmiel also noted that one of his professors of conducting once told him that if he ever had a chance to conduct Carter, he was required to take it, which amused me.

The program repeats tonight (Sunday, August 22), at 7:30, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street in the Civic Center area. Tickets are $15 at the door, which is an incredible bargain. I’d go again if I lived closer.

Haiku 2010/234

little coin-shaped leaves
flash green and gold in the breeze
then flutter away

21 August 2010

Haiku 2010/233

if I left the house
would I perhaps see more than
empty skies and dust

20 August 2010

Haiku 2010/232

homeless man sleeping
on the sidewalk, sleeping like
the child he once was

19 August 2010

Haiku 2010/231

(for JM, a grammar school classmate whose recent death I just heard about)

perhaps later years
offered you kindness we didn't
in those vanished days

18 August 2010

Haiku 2010/230

spiky black forest
of curving chair legs and arms
empty and waiting

17 August 2010

Haiku 2010/229

dove-gray train station
walls stained with vomit, again
it's the old story

16 August 2010

Haiku 2010/228

even gray summers
have earned at least one serving
of watermelon

15 August 2010

Haiku 2010/227

words again failed me
and so I just thought of you,
though how could you know

14 August 2010


Last night Old First Concerts presented EUOUAE, a new medieval vocal group headed by Steven Sven Olbash. They performed the Messe de Tournai, the oldest surviving polyphonic mass (that was enough to sell me on going, seriously), along with Gregorian chants for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, and closing with a Salve Regina by Jacob Obrecht. The feast of the Assumption is tomorrow, August 15 (incidentally, that’s the date when Lolita finally escapes Humbert Humbert, and I’ve always wondered if Nabokov chose the date deliberately because of the feast, so suitably ironic in several ways). Thanks to Sid Chen for mentioning the performance on Facebook, which is possibly the first time I've ever found Facebook useful for anything.

The mystery remains as to how the name is supposed to be pronounced. I’ll spare you the postgraduate work in medieval musicology, or the trip to Wikipedia, and report that it is the standard medieval shorthand for “saeculorum, amen,” which is part of the phrase meaning “forever and ever, amen” that concludes the doxology that concludes the chants. I thought there might be some standard pronunciation familiar to medievalists, but apparently there isn’t, since Olbash confessed he wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. There’s a higher marketing wisdom here – there’s been a lot of discussion about the name, its source, meaning, and pronunciation, that probably helped spread the word about the concert, since the church was quite full (though I’m not sure how crowded these Friday night concerts usually are). Sure, it’s embarrassing to buy a ticket if you don’t know how to pronounce it, but that’s why there are on-line ticket sales. It is a word (a real word – I’m told you can use it in Scrabble) that telegraphs a sound and style; so it expresses many things that cannot really be expressed without many many other words, which is true actually of so many words, and not just those about music.

Perhaps they will have to come up with some sort of pronunciation, because I really hope they continue to perform. What a wonderful end to a less than wonderful day. First I’m going to complain, though, because that is what I do. Olbash spoke to the audience at some length twice during the performance, completely breaking the mood. Since there was a Q&A afterwards, I think commentary could have been saved until then. I ended up not staying for that, because of time, which was too bad, because I think he probably had lots of interesting points about how the music was performed. But during the performance you’re really there for why the music is still performed, not how; you're there for the sonic thing in itself. But then I generally see no point in comments from the stage.

It was a shame to break the mood because medieval music establishes such a strange spell, so evocative of its time and yet so modern-sounding, so timeless in its sense of ethereal eternity. The voices of the group blended very nicely, with enough individual tang so that it didn’t all sound indistinguishably chantish. I’m not really in a position to comment on the musicology involved, but I’ll just note that the interspersed Gregorian chants contrasted nicely with the polyphonic sections of the Mass, and the concluding Salve Regina ended everything on a fantastic note (or notes, I should say).

I wonder how this sounded to medieval ears, who only heard music when someone occasionally made it; coming into the lacy stone of a cathedral under sunlight fragmented and colored by stained-glass windows, or lit only by flickering candles, with the voices blending among the vaults, it all must have seemed heady in a way that it can’t in our amplified overlit world, where instead it sounds oddly serene. The man next to me naturally was playing with his program the entire length of the concert, and I realized he was part of the authenticity of the experience, like some snuffling old monk who resists, through intention or indifference, the sensuous salvation of the human voice.

(The upper photo of the Virgin and Child is from The Cloisters, and the lower is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Haiku 2010/226

nightly fog creeps in
drifting eclipsing presence
gladly unearthly

13 August 2010

Haiku 2010/225

sun on the sidewalk
talk, traffic, buses, birdsong
music in my mind

12 August 2010

Haiku 2010/224

late light shining low
and the door opens on home,
quiet and empty

11 August 2010

Haiku 2010/223

gray mists swirl outside
but the day is still about
fluorescent lighting

10 August 2010

Haiku 2010/222

unripe on the vine
tomatoes hang pink and green
while days grow shorter

09 August 2010

What Becomes a Legend Most, part 2

Yesterday I saw Berkeley Opera's final performance of The Legend of the Ring, their revival of David Seaman’s abbreviated adaptation of Der Ring des Nibelungen. On the whole I enjoyed it, particularly the singing, and the abridgement is quite skillfully done. I can see why a small but very adventurous company like Berkeley Opera would enjoy adding the Ring to their series of operatic adaptations, and it’s great for the singers to get a chance at these roles in a small house, but honestly I’m a bit uncertain who the intended audience is.

At nearly four hours, it’s much too long for most children, and it was left in German (with English surtitles), and while four hours of German opera may be less daunting than the sixteen or so of the full cycle, I pretty much believe that anyone who is interested in the Ring Cycle should just jump into the deep end of the pool – I’m not saying you should get tickets to Bayreuth without hearing a note, but CDs of the operas are as the sands on the shore, and every few months it seems there’s a new staging available on DVD, and the number of books on Wagner is by no means decreasing (my usual recommendation for anyone interested in embarking on the Ring is a combo platter of Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite, for a social and economic interpretation, and M. Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Round, for a more psychological approach, or you could even hunt down a copy of the graphic novel), and individual operas, particularly Die Walkure, are staged on their own fairly often, and why wouldn’t you pick one of those more obvious starting places, one that gives you a better sense of what Wagner is about?

This adaptation reminded me of seeing a great novel (particularly something long and Victorian) made into a movie – much of the texture and oddity and the little moments of characterization that made the novel great and worth the time are pared away in the interests of moving the plot from point A to point B. Many of the missing moments here – Erda’s shocking and abrupt entrance to warn Wotan to surrender the Ring, the Rhine Daughters’ cry from the watery depths as the gods ascend to Valhalla, the Wanderer’s game of riddles with Mime – are not only there to make philosophical or psychological points: they’re also stunning, exciting moments of pure theater. The adaptation unrolls the plotline smoothly from beginning to end, but who goes to the Ring Cycle for the plot?

And Wagner wasn’t really interested in the story for its own sake. And he wasn’t interested in people who weren’t willing to commit themselves to his vision. Music Director Jonathan Khuner wrote in the programbook that the Ring “does scare away the faint-hearted.” But it’s supposed to. Like the fire around Brunnhilde’s rock, the Ring’s reputation – for length, among other things – ensures an audience of heroes. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining “hero” as “someone who can spare a week and several thousand dollars to sit in a theater”). You either have the experience of the Ring that Wagner intended, or you don’t. Training versions really don't convey what it's like being immersed in that experience.

Here’s one thing you miss: the sense of Time. Not just the sense of having gone through something that is distinctly an event, but the wonderful way in which, as the story moves forward, the stories we are told also move backwards, so that as we near the destruction of Valhalla, we see the Norns and hear about the World Ash Tree at the beginning of creation. Nature in general gets short shrift here, which further reduces the richness of this universe and its meanings. Erda is gone, and Spring barely glances in the window of Hunding’s hut (let alone throws open the door), and there are no forest murmurs and no Rhine journey. Maybe that was why the portrayal of the Forest Bird as a silly woman chatting on a cell phone annoyed me; it was one of the few chances to add in the natural world, and I didn't want it played for cheap laughs (and if they were going to go there, wouldn’t a bird be tweeting anyway?).

I was considering the Forest Bird and her cell phone the major directorial miscalculation until Gunther showed up – hunched over, blinking, afraid to touch a weapon – played, in fact, the way Mime is usually played. This is just wrong. Gunther is a king and a warrior, and his music tells you that – yet he still falls short of the hero Siegfried. That’s the point. You don’t get that if you play him as an obvious coward. And if he were the nebbish portrayed here, it’s unlikely that Siegfried would have heard the fame of “Gibich’s stalwart son” up and down the Rhine, or would want to be his bloodbrother.

Other than those unfortunate decisions, the staging (by Mark Streshinsky) ranged from effective to outstanding, particularly in the use of shadow (to the left and right of the open center stage were screens, on which location shots could be projected, or which could be backlit to show the action in striking silhouette). There was one directorial innovation I loved (or, as the old man behind me exclaimed loudly, “They changed it!”): at the end, when Brunnhilde has lit the funeral pyre, Loge the fire god returns, retrieves the Ring from Brunnhilde, and hands it back to the Rhine Daughters as the waters rise. One kisses him in thanks, and even though his “gosh, she kissed me!” expression was a little cartoony, the exchange nicely captured the theme of love and power as Loge fulfills his promise to the water sprites. It would have been even better if the adaptation had made more of a point at the beginning that Loge had made this promise, but still it was very nicely done.

The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Khuner, was a little ragged, particularly in the brass, and underpowered; there are moments (particularly, I noticed, when Siegmund is involved) when the music should swell and spill ecstatically, and that just wasn’t happening. The singers, each playing multiple roles, were the real prize and purpose of the afternoon. Of the women, Christine Springer (Wellgunde and Brunnhilde) and Valentina Osinski (Flosshilde and Fricka) were both solid, though Osinski’s voice has sort of a metallic edge, but my favorite was Marie Plette (Woglinde, Freia, Sieglinde, the Forest Bird, and Gutrune) whose strong and free voice was beautiful in a different way in each role.

Stephen Rumph, a singer new to me though not to Berkeley Opera audiences, brought a crisp stage presence and a clear bright voice to Loge and Mime (it was nice to hear Mime sung instead of snarled), and I hope to hear him again. Bojan Knezevic (Alberich and Fasolt), Dean Peterson (Fafner, Hunding, and Hagen), and Jay Hunter Morris (Froh, Siegmund, Siegfried) were all excellent in their varied roles, but Richard Paul Fink (Wotan and Gunter) was the dominant voice among the men, as a Wotan should be. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t care for the characterization of Gunter, though he sang it well, but it was as the half-blind god that he really came through: Fink is fairly short, but solid enough to be physically imposing, and he brought both power and nuance to the role – I’d like to hear him in it when he gets a chance to deliver the Walkure Act 2 monologue, and the complete farewell to Brunnhilde.

Berkeley Opera’s new theater is a vast improvement over the Julia Morgan, even though it’s clearly not designed for an elderly audience: there’s no center aisle in the auditorium, and the narrow aisles get clogged very easily with the slow-moving. It’s certainly an easy walk from the El Cerrito BART station, once you figure out which direction you’re going in (I had to ask seven people before one of them knew where Ashbury Avenue was; of course there was no attendant at the station I could ask). Since they, after renaming themselves in true Wagnerian style – they are now the Berkeley West Edge Opera – have an exciting season coming up,* it’s good to know where they are.

Perhaps I would have been a little less impatient with certain aspects of the show, which on the whole I enjoyed, if the seat to my right hadn’t been occupied by one of those squat old women about half my size who hog the armrest. The minute the music started her mouth flew open and every breath came out with a weird whistling snort that might have indicated sleep except her eyes, Hagen-like, seemed open. The snoring, if that’s what it was, was broken during the second half when she very loudly chewed the cookie she wasn’t supposed to bring into the auditorium. And yet none of that was as irritating as the old man's occasional comments. Snoring I can understand, but there's no excuse for talking in a theater.

* Their new season isn't on their website yet, but according to brochures available at the show, they are performing Handel's Xerxes, conducted by Alan Curtis, on November 13, 19, and 21; an adaptation of Carmen called The Carmen Fixation with Buffy Baggott on March 5, 9, 11, and 13 2011; and a new opera by Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody, Caliban Dreams, with John Duykers, on July 30 and August 5 and 7 2011.

Haiku 2010/221

lie by the river
your tears flow with the waters
sweet, sad and gentle

08 August 2010

Haiku 2010/220

rainless weeks roll by
brown grass bends before the wind
baring the dry earth

07 August 2010

2 from the 30s

I recently saw two films from the 1930s, one of which I had wanted to see for a long time and the other of which I had never heard of until recently.

The one I’d wanted to see for a long time was the famous 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt (or Professor Max Reinhardt, as the accompanying period newsreels ostentatiously refer to him), with the assistance of William Dieterle, and based on Reinhardt’s Hollywood Bowl production. That must have been a wild evening; wild enough, at least, to convince Warner Bros. to film it. The DVD extras included several contemporaneous shorts about the production which tread the usual line between a slightly abashed self-consciousness from the American movie stars that they're tackling the mighty Shakespeare (but gosh, that Bill Shakespeare sure wrote some swell comedy parts that still bring down the house!) and a certain smirky feeling that, after all, it is the American movie stars that the public really wants, no matter what the highbrows think. There’s a weird and amusing musical short film in the extras called Shake Mr Shakespeare in which various Shakespearean characters step out of the books and into Hollywood, where Romeo and Juliet break up over who gets star billing, and they take turns singing pop numbers about what they’d be like in Hollywood (including a really unfortunate but I have to say, "transgressively" hilarious, moment in which Othello gets some Al Jolson-type treatment).

But it’s not as if they left a whole lot of Shakespeare on screen anyway – the characters kept starting speeches and then we'd be on to something else when I thought they were just beginning. Hippolyta (Verree Teasdale) in particular suffers from this treatment; her character arc turns into a close-up grimace at the beginning and a close-up smile at the end and not much in between. Like his future wife, Theseus (Ian Hunter) is also a bit part here, and both speak what lines they have with an old-fashioned stage manner that is both charming and slightly comical to us.

Any possible dirty jokes are removed with American (or is it German?) efficiency and thoroughness, so that during the interlude of Pyramus and Thisbe the lovers kiss “the wall” and not “the wall’s hole.” The interlude falls a bit flat; it would have been more entertaining and in keeping with the play if they had parodied earlier movie styles (Pyramus as Valentino or Thisbe as Theda Bara, maybe), the way Britten parodied the recently revived bel canto operas in his setting of the play. People (including, apparently, Professor Reinhardt) sometimes think the interlude is just crude knockabout, but like all parodies it actually requires a subtle and sophisticated knowledge of artistic conventions and cliches, and just how much is too much.

The Hollywood stars – the ones whose names you’d still recognize, mostly – are fine; meaning their more natural screen style is closer to our current style. Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, in one of her first film roles, is already an astonishingly ripe beauty, and she works well with the slightly fey musical comedy buoyancy of her Lysander, Dick Powell. Jimmy Cagney is fine as Bottom, but honestly I’ve always found the character over-rated and sort of annoying. And speaking of annoying, Mickey Rooney is Puck.

Well – annoying isn’t quite the right word. He’s very effective at what he’s supposed to be doing, which is to be a screechy, uncanny, troublesome sprite. He has little horns, and is probably more naked than you really want Mickey Rooney to be (someone on Netflix worried that all that childish nudity among the fairies would lead to this movie being banned, which is a good example of decent impulses tipping over into insane prurience and depravity). There are interestingly dark undertones to the fairy world, though they don’t go as far as the S/M scenes I’ve witnessed in some more modern stage productions. Oberon and his followers are batlike, distinguishing them from Titania’s gauzier crew. There is an actual little Indian prince, beturbaned and jeweled, for Oberon to take from his queen for whatever purpose, and he gets a surprising amount of screen time, but since Titania loses her speech about his mother, a votaress of her order in the spiced Indian air, most of his emotional impact is gone.

He sure does look fancy in his little ornate jacket, though. The movie’s main strength is its visuals. It’s rare for me to wish a black and white movie were in color, but it’s too bad this one was made before color films became the norm. Theseus’s court inhabits elegant sets and travels in fantastically ornate chariots; all sorts of camera tricks in the woods create a haunting effect, beautiful and slightly creepy in the way of German romanticism.

Mendelssohn’s incidental music is used, as arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (and the dances are by Bronislava Nijinska – clearly, care was taken). Korngold shows up briefly in one of the features, playing piano and marking his score, which is the sort of archival footage I love, though it would have been even better if they had actually allowed him to speak, possibly about the music, and maybe not spent quite so much time with Joe E. Brown talking about Bill Shakespeare’s comedy bits. They hired fancy, but they knew fancy doesn’t bring in the fans, at least in the short term.

I was reminded of the 1936 As You Like It, which also features music extensively, so extensively that they had to make room for it by removing all the jokes. The original score is by William Walton, so you can decide if it was worth the exchange; I was happy to hear it (after all, I've heard all the jokes in As You Like It). And once again anything resembling a dirty joke is gone, with the exception of one I suspect they just didn’t get (Touchstone’s “He that sweetest rose will find / must find Love’s prick and Rosalind”). This is most likely the closest I will ever come to a production in which Touchstone actually wears motley and a fool’s cap and carries a bauble. If you like contemplating relics of vanished theatrical eras, this has its appeal, kind of like seeing the Marx Brothers in the film version of their stage hit The Cocoanuts (yes, they spell it that way) or Laurence Olivier in his film Oedipus Rex (with those very theatrical rolled r’s and the oh-so-daring-for-midcentury use of masks – African-style masks).

Speaking of Olivier, he is Orlando, making this the first of his Shakespeare films, though he didn’t direct it. May I just say that I’ve never really gotten the Olivier thing? I suspect you had to see him on stage, or see him before you had heard over and over that he was The Greatest Actor in the World. His Rosalind is Elisabeth Bergner, constantly smiling and with a slight but noticeable (and not unappealing) accent. Her one-note portrayal wears out long before the role does. If you ever wondered what it would be like if Bjork played Rosalind, here’s a chance to see something close.

(I've also seen Branagh’s As You Like It, which is oddly set in Japan – not among the Japanese, which would be fine, but among an English colony in late nineteenth century Japan, one that has adopted all of the more elegantly photogenic customs of the country. But how can Rosalind and her father be exiled from their homeland and find new life in the forest when they’re already far from home? None of them belong there, so how can any of them possibly be the rightful ruler? And this isn’t some ironic take on colonization, an interpretation the play doesn’t support anyway. It's just a weird, though undoubtedly decorative, misfire. I don’t understand why Branagh does stuff like this – like filming every last word of Hamlet, even the little jokes about theatrical fads of the day, because he’s being authentic and faithful to the play, and then setting the whole thing in the nineteenth century, which is completely out of the blue. Maybe he just likes the uniforms.)

The other film was one I’d never heard of until Criterion released it several weeks ago: Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow (though it could just as easily have carried the title of his other film that year: The Awful Truth). I hate to say I can’t believe I’d never heard of this movie, because that implies that if it’s any good, I would of course have heard of it, but . . . I can’t believe I’d never heard of this movie! It has an irony, emotional honesty, and sadness you seldom get in American movies. My curiosity was piqued when I read it influenced Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which is one of my favorite movies. The stories are similar: elderly parents are unable to carry on in their old home, and their unenthusiastic children, who have moved on in life, try to deal with the situation.

The movie opens on the parents’ snug, picture-perfect little Connecticut cottage, which has just been repossessed by the bank. The father (Victor Moore), an accountant, has been sick and unemployed for several years, though he and his wife (Beulah Bondi) feel (with varying degrees of conviction and self-delusion) that he’s bound to get a job soon, despite his age and the economic devastation of the Great Depression. They’ve worked all their lives, but have perhaps been improvident, or unfortunate, or unable to put aside anything substantial while raising their five children (it’s pointed out in one of the extra features that this was before such controversial measures as Social Security or unemployment insurance were passed by the Roosevelt administration, providing at least a fragile safety net for Americans, which the Republican party and their stooges have spent my entire adult life trying to destroy).

Four of the children arrive at the cottage (the fifth is a daughter who lives across the country in California) to be told the parents are now homeless. One thing I love about this movie is how much is suggested and left for our interpretation: one of the sons, who comes in singing “Mother” (“M is for the many . . . .”) immediately gets drinks for everyone, and makes funny but pointed jibes about the other siblings. It’s never suggested that he should take the parents in; clearly something about his situation (alcoholism? short-term jobs and poverty?) renders him marginal enough so that no one even bothers to suggest it.

The parents must go to different homes. The father goes with one reluctant daughter, and the mother goes to live in New York City with the oldest son, his wife, and their daughter, who’s in her late teens/early twenties. The son is employed, but his wife has to help make ends meet by teaching bridge, which the mother persists in thinking of as “playing” bridge. One thing that makes these scenes so wonderful is the way your sympathies shift among all the parties; in particular there’s a bridge lesson during which a creaking rocking chair sums up all the difficulties of the situation, and there's a phone call from Mother to Father (sick in his sour daughter’s stingy household) that is beautifully shot: first we see her filling the screen, with the bridge students behind her; she’s talking too loudly on the phone, as older people did, and the students, all middle-aged, well-off men and women in evening clothes, are initially disturbed by the noise, until (as the camera shifts so that we see them in the foreground, and her back to them and us) silent sympathy with the old woman’s forced separation from her husband brings a short-lived air of tender sadness and sympathy to the room. But then the film moves on, and there’s also comedy in the old people’s somewhat heedless inability to adapt to their new worlds.

The last part of the film is the final day the two old people spend together, before the sick father goes to the warmer weather of his daughter's home in California. She only has room for one more, so the mother is going to the old people’s home that had earlier horrified her. As in Murnau’s Sunrise, the city becomes sort of a fairyland for a couple in love, only this time the couple is old, and about to part for what they know is the last time. They go to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon, decades earlier, and the manager hears that they honeymooned there and treats them to dinner. Then they get a final dance (with the bandleader changing the tune so it's something they can dance to) before rushing to the train station (skipping the planned final dinner with their children) where they will say their final goodbye. It's one of the movie's ironies that the big city here has the same function as the forest of Arden, or the Athenian wood: it's the place where the wanderers are freed and find their truest life. Only here, it's not a place of darkness. In all honesty, I felt this part of the movie went on a little too long, partly because it was difficult for me to believe in such an unbroken day of kindness given to the obscure and poor, and partly because its sweet quality of a dream fulfilled means there’s less of the ambiguity, and the Chaplinesque fluidity between comedy and pathos, that is so impressive in the earlier scenes.

Though there are some moments that bring you back to their situation: as they pass a haberdashery with a “Man Wanted” sign in the window, the father goes inside, pretending he needs something; he comes out a moment later, empty-handed, and though it’s not spelled out he clearly went in, ever hopeful, to ask about another job he’s too old and sick to get. After seeing in the earlier scenes how difficult the old people could be, it’s slightly disappointing that they’re smoothed out a bit in these later scenes, but maybe that’s the point: we’re seeing them in the later sequence not as their children would see them, but as strangers would, and it can be so much easier to be kind to passing strangers. Criterion refers to this film as "among American cinema's purest tearjearkers" but I strongly disagree. Yes, it's a tearjerker story, but the way it's told has too much comedy and irony undercutting the purity of the tearjerking. If it's all about getting cheap tears, they would have made it a simpler story, and this isn’t really a story about good people and bad people (though it does wish we were all better people).

Haiku 2010/219

Bluebird, don't you miss
the elegant feather found
by the orange tree?

06 August 2010

Haiku 2010/218

two dead leaves scuttle
across the empty granite
of the lobby floor

05 August 2010

a picture is worth a thousand words

Or, why I am reluctant to sit in the balcony for the opera. My thousand (plus) words can be found here. The curtain makes the stage look much larger than it actually is.

Haiku 2010/217

(for Der Ring des Nibelungen)

I think of Erda:
All that is shall pass away:
My eyes fill with tears

04 August 2010

Haiku 2010/216

crows caw, blocks away
farther out, trains whistle by
the rest is silence

03 August 2010

August Addendum

This is what I get for thinking I could knock off two months at once! Here’s some extra stuff for August:

As noted earlier, Festival Opera in Walnut Creek is presenting Lucia di Lammermoor on August 7, 10, 13, and 15 (matinee), with an excellent cast: Angela Cadelago, Thomas Glenn, Brian Leerhuber, and Kirk Eichelberger. The Walnut Creek audiences can be badly behaved, but it’s sometimes worth it to hear exciting voices in a nice smaller house, as opposed to the bellowing in a barn these favorite operas usually receive.

This one is already underway: Cal Shakes (in Orinda, but accessible by shuttle from BART, though I must admit I’ve never tried it myself) is presenting the very talented Rick Miller in his hilarious MacHomer, in which he acts out Macbeth using the voices of various Simpsons characters. I saw this in Berkeley last time it came around and recommend it highly, and not just for laughs – honestly, this was a better version of Macbeth than the touring production I saw in Boston years ago with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson. (I know!)

Shotgun Players presents Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests, starting this Friday, August 6.

And thanks to Lisa for mentioning the following, which I would have missed otherwise: The Hot Air Music Festival presents Elliott Carter’s A Mirror on Which to Dwell and new pieces by Wolfgang Thompson and Matthew Cmiel on August 21 and 22 (7:30 both days), at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. You can buy tickets and read more details at Brown Paper Tickets.

Haiku 2010/215

some days the sun shines
and it burns through your eyeballs
turning light to dark

02 August 2010

Haiku 2010/214

scurry to your shell
for safety in roiling seas,
little hermit crab