Gennady Gladkov, whose works provided the soundtrack to a variety of movies, series, and animated works, died in Moscow last month at the age of 88. Among the many projects scored by the Russian composer was the 1978 film An Ordinary Miracle, directed by Mark Zakharov and based on the 1954 play by Evgeny Schwartz. A compelling allegory on the nature of creativity and its relationship to human connection, the Mosfilm movie is also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of human relating. At a time when division between people feels so sharp, its examination of connection, as much as power, offer powerful food for thought.
Gladkov’s unique melding of pop-Baroque-romantic sounds underscores the work’s meta-theatricalism, but in no way does that lessen its impact or dilute the sincerity 0f its core. The use of the Bear archetype, with its pungent Jungian and mythological ties, brought to mind obvious opera (Siegfried) and theatre (The Winter’s Tale) references but also examples from popular culture. “Wake Up Call“, an episode from the third season of American television series Northern Exposure (aired on CBS in 1992), written by John Falsey, Joshua Brand, and Diane Frolov. The episode depicts Alaska-based pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) meeting a mysterious man in the woods (Andreas Wisniewski) near the start of spring. The man is gentle, handsome, handy; he catches fish with his bare hands. Is he Prince Charming come to life? Maggie accepts his invitation to visit his abode, a decorated cave, complete with candles and dinnerware. Spring begins to blossom; Maggie’s new flame vanishes, or rather, doesn’t, or rather… because he’s a bear, probably, though he could also be imagined; the writers quite intelligently don’t answer this conundrum. Rather than framing the premise in a patronizing manner (“Poor woman, she’s so desperate for a man she fantasizes about a wild animal…”) Maggie, and by extension the audience, is left to make individual conclusions. Such anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily cutesy or whimsical either; that categorizing crumbles against the very real framework of death (Maggie’s past romantic partners have all died tragically). The bear-man could be a coping mechanism, or he could indeed be real, or he could have a connection with First Nations mythologies (also suggested) – he could be everything, or something, or nothing. Again, viewers are trusted to decide: maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe imagination is every bit as powerful as reality.
This is the idea which largely powers An Ordinary Miracle. The act of imagining things and people into a real, lived plane of existence is symbolized by a young man, simply called the Bear (Aleksandr Abdulov) who, created and controlled by his writer-creator (Oleg Yankovsky), was turned into a human, and will revert to his original state upon kissing the one person he truly loves, the Princess (Yevgeniya Simonova). The narrative includes some very pointed critiques of power and the ways in which it is wielded (no small thing in Soviet culture) while simultaneously teasing out the ways in which power, love, responsibility, expectation, and free will intersect. Within its premise is the possibility of violence toward female partners and the beast’s eventual demise. Men as “wild beasts” is hardly a new idea, and as such the responsibility of “taming” is assumed to be the responsibility of female partners, again following cliched notions of gender and heteronormative romance. Such clichés are upended, as Maggie’s “Bear” is already pretty domesticated himself (he makes her dinner in his fancy cave) and the Bear in Zakharov’s film seems too gentle and wide-eyed to ever want to inflict harm on his beloved. (Corrupt politicians are a whole other story.) The Princess certainly acts the part of caretaker, even as she dons men’s clothes to disguise herself and engineer an escape, at one point wielding a sword and even deceiving her beloved.
Miracle brought to mind other cinema works with pseudo-anthropomorphic elements, including the 1987 film Moonstruck. Lorna Castorini (Cher) is asked by her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Vincent Gardenia) to facilitate a truce with his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who cut his hand in an accident years before and has sworn off love as a result. Following their introduction in the sweaty basement of his bakery (trial by fire indeed) the one-handed “beast” sits with Loretta in his pin-tidy apartment and begrudgingly admits he enjoys the steak she made him before sharing details of his almost-marriage. “That woman didn’t leave you okay,” Lorna observes pointedly, “you can’t see what you are, and I see everything. You’re a wolf (… ) You’re scared to death of what the wolf will do if you make that mistake again.” Ronny angrily retorts that on the day of his intended marriage, Johnny “made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand; he could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head!” Later on, as the two walk home after a poignant night at the opera, he tells Loretta, “You call me a wolf, you run to the wolf in me – that don’t make you no lamb. You’re gonna marry my brother; why you wanna sell your life short?”
Writer John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, The Bride and the Wolf, had floated around for years before director Norman Jewison took it on. The idea of men as essentially beasts is, as noted earlier, not new; the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood has existed at least since the 17th century, although earlier versions exist in classical Greece and Rome, as well as East Asia, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Its various adaptations into music, TV, animation, games, a musical, and indeed pornography underline the story’s enduring appeal. There is something of the mythology at work in An Ordinary Miracle and Moonstruck, and Northern Exposure too– but something beyond it: gentle if insistent; hopeful if sad; fantastical if recognizably human. The works are less concerned with the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and more concerned with the real challenges of relating – less about ‘taming’ than acknowledging the perceived importance of conformity within socio-cultural ties. The beasts here are not obvious, and they are not clichés, or even archetypes; they are human. Bear is delicate, thoughtful, scared; Ronny is a plain-spoken, music-loving neat-freak; Maggie is insecure and nursing a broken heart; Loretta is skittish and fearful, as much a creation of her Italian upbringing as The Bear is of The Wizard. Aware of with their own feelings and controlled by perceived limitations and heavy expectations within their respective words, they remain, for a time, locked in patterns of behaviour and reaction – until granted permission (of sorts) to exercise a self-determination that leads to a risky if richer path. Each film uses the form of the fairytale to disrupt expectations around that form, and that includes the respective happy endings, which would not have occurred without discord, loss, heated exchanges and grim silences. Robbing such tales of their uncomfortable moments robs them of their emotional weight.
In exercising imagination thusly we have to ask that the exercise includes such difficulties, because life often presents them unbidden. Horror, as it turns out, comes in many forms. The Wizard says to the Bear, “Men of wisdom rise to the sky and plunge into hell out of love for the truth; what have you done out of love for a woman?” to which the Bear responds (to Gladkov’s keen scoring), “I gave her up.” “Once in your lifetime there comes a day when the impossible is possible,” The Wizard says, admonishing no one but himself. “You missed your chance. I won’t help you anymore.” Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times(Shambhala, 2002) that “(o)nly when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” An Ordinary Miracle might have easily not had any miracle at all, ordinary or otherwise, without the counterpoint of tragedy – vulnerability, loss, risk, the possibility of change itself – ever-ready and perched at the door. There may or may not a rougher nature to bears, wolves, and brides, but it’s up to us as audiences (readers, viewers; humans) to decide on the danger they present, and to engage, to show up, and share that ” wild” side ourselves – to dare to fall in the snow, to be shot, to die, to live; to look at the moon, to climb in bed with the beast. Vulnerability is an inherent part of creativity. The Wizard stands alone amidst fire at the close of An Ordinary Miracle for a reason; he knows they are explosive partners.
Standing outside of Schwartz’s narrative, Gladkov’s music is a genuine “miracle” within Miracle. Touchingly sentimental one moment, cutting and dark the next, his style is a roadmap of character, emotion, memory, magic. A light in deepest darkness, Gladkov was an outstanding talent and will be missed. As the dark cold of winter cocoons much of the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend a pot of hot brandied tea, a viewing, and quiet moments away from the chatter of technology. Spring, when it does come, may look very different; until then, we can imagine.
More than any other, Sundays have always been reading days. As a child I would spread newspapers over the few stairs which led to the bedrooms in the tiny split-level where I grew up. The family cat would often come and plonk herself down in the very middle of those papers, glaring expectantly with her saucer-eyes, and I would gently scoop her up. Poogie (that was her actual name) would settle in the crook of my arm, happily purring, before I would be allowed to continue my study – of the arts section, yes, but the business, life, politics, and sports ones too.
Reading about a variety of topics is good; being curious about a variety of things is very good. Such curiosity is something I try to continually impress upon students, with varying degrees of success. “When preparing for an interview,” I found myself saying recently, “don’t just study the person; read absolutely everything you can about the whole world around them.” I could practically hear their groans. “Yes it’s work,” I continued, “but it’s also logic. And reading – learning – is good!” In retrospect I certainly sounded very PollyAnna Prissy, but the despair over unconscious predilection to remain in tidy boxes grows daily. There’s a big reason I love radio and cable television: the element of the random, and its related exercise of curiosity, is inescapable.
So until I get the newsletter I alluded to in my previous post up and running, these updates, of things read, watched, listened to, pondered over, will (I hope) continue. Right now these pursuits feel logical, stimulating, important, pleasurable, challenging – sometimes at once.
In light of this week’s terrible news about the end of the historic BBC Singers, bass Brindley Sherratt has written a thoughtful piece (published in The Guardian) reflecting on his time with the group. His words offer a vivid portrait of the realities of young operatic careers and highlight the varied repertoire of the group throughout its history. “In one week,” he writes, “we would sing a couple of hymns for Radio 4’s Daily Service (live, early and terrifying), rehearse and record the most complex score of Luciano Berio or Ligeti and then bang out There is Nothin’ like a Dame on Friday Night Is Music Night.” His writing highlights the importance of there existing good opportunities for young singers while giving lie to the idea that such groups aren’t populist in their appeal and therefore deserve no public funding. This is a depressingly common current of thought in much of North America (sigh). The axing of the BBC Singers makes one wonder if the broadcaster is aiming at a more NA-style (i.e. highly corporate, ROI-driven) system with relation to their classical groups and output. The direct experience of singers like Sherratt should be considered here, along with good models of arts education, funding for which has been woefully dwindling for decades.
Speaking of experience, I finally watched The Big Lebowski, on March 6th – the day of its original release in 1998 and the related “Day Of The Dude” created to recognize the slouchy central character played by Jeff Bridges. Birthed at a time when the (Western) optimism of the early 90s had been turned inside out (the death of Princess Diana, the scandals of the Clinton presidency, the rampant corruption within the former Eastern bloc) and the digital world still in infancy, it’s a very surreal ride into not-unfamiliar terrain. It is tough to say whether or not filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could have seen Zerograd, a 1988 film by Karen Shakhnazarov (which details the visit of an engineer to a small town), or Mark Zakharov’s equally-surreal To Kill A Dragon (based on the play of Evgeny Schwartz about a man who sets out to kill a dictator), which is also from 1988 (a pivotal moment in Eastern European history) – but they share many elements, from their portrayals of social collapse and untrustworthy leadership, to a pervasive atmosphere of dread, not to mention central male figures who suddenly faced with responsibilities they don’t want. Also, it’s worth noting the Day Of The Dude falls directly after the death-day of Stalin (and composer Sergei Prokofiev), March 5th. (Add to this: the Dude’s favorite cocktail.) However unintentionally, Lebowski, Zerograd, and Dragon make for a thoughtful cinematic trinity in 2023.
Keeping in the film zone, the annual Academy Awards are tonight, and for the first time they feature a best animated feature category. Among the nominees is The Sea Beast by Chris Williams, who worked on number of famed animated films (Mulan and Frozen among them) pre-Beast. Voice work was done via Zoom amidst the worst of pandemic lockdowns, with its cast (Jared Harris, Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) scattered across the globe. Along with touching voice performances, I enjoyed the film’s the subtext, which smacks at a common (if tiresome) element within current cultural discourse, that of “wokeism”‘s supposed cultural ruinousness. The Sea Beast, superficially a scary-monsters-of-the-deep tale, works in large part because of the ways it integrates diversity into a satisfying thematic whole. Its main female character, Maisie, is a Black British orphan; the crew of the ship she stows away on features diverse and gender-fluid members; the story (by Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin) uses various elements to convey the idea that historical narratives which elevate and glorify mindless violence are… well, bullshit. The fact this work comes from an outlet (Netflix) and a larger digital culture (streaming) that of course elevates such elements for profit gives the film a currency I’m not sure was intended, and yet.
Sea tales must have been in my algorithm because a Youtube suggestion for a documentary about the Mariana Trench popped up recently. This wonderful David Attenborough-hosted NHK work documents the efforts of various researchers to reach the very bottom of the earth; yes it’s exciting and informative at once, but it’s also, in this case, incredibly atmospheric. Watching it is akin to watching an edge-of-your-seat thriller; will they or won’t they see a sign of life? Will the equipment break? Will they see a… sea monster? An intense claustrophobia pervades many of the scenes, not only those captured (incredibly) in the trench itself but within the little floating rooms filled with anxious-looking researchers. I literally jumped off the sofa when one of the specially-built machines (made to withstand the immense oceanic pressure) hit the bottom with a loud THONK; I sighed heavily at the capture of a Mariana snail fish (yes it’s important for study, but my God, it’s so cute and graceful as it swims! Just look at it!). Another big part of my childhood, aside from reading Sunday papers, involved watching an assortment of nature documentaries, and this was a lovely reminder if also an incredible update on my nostalgia, blending cinematic sense with dramatic tension, and science folded within – in other words, one of the best things.
Another best thing is learning about forgotten (ignored, under-represented) writers. The philosophy of John Locke is well-known; that of Damaris Masham, less so. Yet the two are inextricably linked, as Regan Penaluna so ably shows in her moving Aeon essay published earlier this month. Shining a light on a late 17th century figure who explored women’s lives and experiences through two sole books, Penaluna also shares her own history with a contemporary (if unnamed) Locke-like figure who provided similar encouragement, someone “to whom I frequently looked for validation.” This is a common experience for women who enter largely male-dominated fields, and it’s refreshing to see a philosopher mixing the epic and intimate in ways Masham herself did in her writing. As well as examining ideas surrounding the nature and exercise of power and intimacy, Penaluna takes issue with Masham’s insistence on “women’s superior capacity for care”, noting how such a position “further entrenches patriarchal views”. This portion of the essay brought to mind a popularly-held view that “mothers understand the giving of life and if they ran the world we wouldn’t have so many wars” (a handy derivative of “if women ran the world we would have peace”) – there is a world of history, past and present, repudiating such (frankly narrow and rather sexist) views; viciousness – and nurturing – are not confined to any capacity for reproduction, individually or as a whole. Masham’s view, that “with the right conditions, women could make significant contributions to philosophy, on a par with men”, has real-life (if perhaps uncomfortable, for some) corollaries. Also, it must be said: the intertwined lives of Locke and Masham is the stuff of plays or movies – one or both should really exist. Were either to be realized one might anticipate more body than body-of-work depictions, a pity given the breadth of Masham’s ideas and work, only reprinted in (gasp!) 2005, and alas, no longer in print.
Masham might find more than a bit of interest in the words and music of Marko Halanevych, a member of the Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” band DakhaBrakha: “Art is not outside of politics; it is a factor within politics itself.” Halanevych distills the complex if innately linked relationships between art, history, and politics in a way that points up the connection with power and historically-received narratives; there is no hint of music being somehow magically “above” the fray of war but a key component within it. Culture is a longtime tool used in the wielding authority, particularly via the subtle, soft power methods used before the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and compromise in Putin’s Russia” (Granta, 2020) by Joshua Yaffa, is a useful reference for Halanevych’s responses, and more broadly, to DakhaBrakha’s artistic output, including their 2017 live-performance soundtrack to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksander Dovzehnko’s at-the-time controversial 1930 film Earth. Perceived within a larger framework of cultural history, one is struck by the continuing influences of the prisposoblenets Yaffa highlights, and a Soviet nostalgia (referenced so memorably in Zerograd), and the various ways each continue to shape current creative responses to the tragedy in Ukraine.
Notions of choice and circumstance do a strange, uncomfortable dance throughout Yaffa’s book – but such dances are, in 2023, coming to be the norm, and perhaps it’s wise to simply accept the discomfort. Hopefully such dances don’t signal the end of cultural appetite, discovery, and curiosity, but some kind of new beginning.
Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.
The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states” […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.
The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.
Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.
Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”
Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will. “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”
This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyonewill cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.
But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”
Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.
Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
This morning I sat in my light-strewn living room, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, impatiently waiting for the espresso to gurgle itself to sharp, acid life, when I learned of the passing of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Known for his roles as the angel Damiel in Das Himmel uber Berlin and Hitler in Downfall, Ganz was active mainly in Europe, and was known for stage, screen, and symphonic appearances. He was friends with Claudio Abbado, and among many readings, offered the work of German poet Hölderlin at a tribute concert to the late conductor in 2014. I recall seeing Ganz’s name through the years listed in various orchestral program guides in Germany and thinking how special it would be to see him perform live. Alas.
In looking through various reports (including one from a recent project in which Ganz is bearded, and to my eyes, resembles some kind of magical Teutonic Zeus) I was reminded of my introduction to Ganz’s work as a teenager, which was (as I suspect was true for many artsy, angsty teens growing up in 1980s North America), through Der Himmel über Berlin, known to the English-speaking world asWings of Desire. Wim Wenders’ poetic meditation on history, spirituality, and human vulnerability left an indelible impression, with Ganz’ expressive face and haunting voice creating a spell that never quite lifted. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed about his performance, “Ganz’s face is delicate and boyish, with an ascetic sensitivity. The poetical presence of his beautifully modulated speaking voice is also what makes the role so memorable.” In seeing the movie again last summer, I found myself weeping at the delivery of certain lines, the framing of a certain shot, the look in the eyes of both Damiel and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) in the club where the roars of Nick Cave create a hypnotizing background din. I’ve not been able to watch it since; emotions come brimming to the surface like uncontrollable hot lava, a reaction I could have never anticipated as a wide-eyed, enchanted teen.
Such sensitivity has, I realize, become something of a hallmark, one I’ve grappled with to varying degrees of success. Oftentimes that sensitivity and wonder are tied up together in strange configurations and manifest within the cultural realm. The older I get, the more I am amazed at the mechanisms behind how one offsets the other; the way a singer will lean into a note, the resonance of percussion across the vast expanse of a hall, the wet ambiance of strings — things that I find myself invariably and sometimes wordlessly moved by. Writing about such things is no easy task, and it will surprise no one to learn I have taken a step back from such duties. Enthralled, enraptured, enlightened, enraged… enchanted; all these things, and more, live within and can be icily uncomfortable to narrow into the mean parameters defined by the precise and rather severe geometry of language.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Enchantment was borne in my younger days through the encouragement of figures who would place challenging things in front of me, things (be they movies, books, TV shows, composer works) they had full faith I would somehow understand and appreciate. I was raised in what might be termed a firmly anti-intellectual household, with newspapers being the only regular reading source (and no, not the fancy, so-called “paper of record,” either); attempting to reach beyond that atmosphere, despite my mother’s (primal if passionate) opera love, was not at all encouraged and was, in fact, basis for fierce and unyielding criticism. But discoveries were always possible; one of those things was Wings of Desire, introduced by a piano teacher (now a dear friend); another was Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love, loaned to me by an arts-loving teacher my final year of high school. (Where or how she got hold of an English translation I cannot say; the work only got a proper one a few short years ago.). Her dog-eared copy, with pencil underlinings from her own younger days (I presumed), brought a world of intrigue and yes, enchantment, setting my Faust-loving imagination aflame. “The devil takes many pleasing shapes” is its premise, with a Borgian-style layers-within-layers narrative, an intentional blurring and integration of the surreal, the Gothic, and the fantastical, and free floating questions of the nature of desire, morality, and abundance, reflecting the spirit of the age in which it was written (1772) and offering a timely-timeless devilishly dialectical dance that you can still shake your ass to in 2019.
Alongside updates and tributes to Bruno Ganz on my newsfeed were tidbits about the novel’s operatic translation which recently opened at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, in Moscow. Russian composer Alexander Vustin created the work over several years, finishing it in 1989; the work lay dormant until the theatre decided to feature it to mark their 100th birthday. This work made my list of intriguing things for 2019, and if photos and quick news clips are anything to go on, it’s a production I hope to someday experience live; I remain open to whether the element of enchantment will be as present as it was upon my first reading as a teenager. My acute sensitivities lean in a direction which oppose nostalgia, but embrace reshaping; this quality has inserted itself into areas tangible and not. I have embraced much of what my mother left me as my very own, without (at last) the drama of recrimination or any burden of guilt. It has come as something of a pleasant surprise that the things my mother greatly valued are the things I have allowed myself to reshape and redefine, sometimes with purposeful intent, other times with an unthinking authority that is, I suppose, the natural result of being an only child. Emboldened by a new sort of freedom which arose out of my mother’s passing (a domineering presence rendered into initially shocking absence) meant being allowed to remake her still and finite passions into my wide-ranging passionate pursuits. Inheritance has become a less a winding lane of the past than an avenue for the future.
Still, the loss of a precious cache of items which had belonged to her has been hard to overcome, not only for the fact they were pregnant with her long ago and far-away memories, but because they were so wrapped up in mine — new, fresh, raw. Without divulging every painful detail, I will only write: in the morning I moved into my current place of residence, I had a box of jewelry and a satchel of pearls; things were delivered and arranged; once that was finished, I passed out in exhaustion, and realized with horror, shortly thereafter, that the box and satchel were nowhere to be found. What did I do, I keep asking myself, to deserve this? Why wasn’t I smarter? Why did this have to happen? My mother’s understanding of (and approach to) the world was built on merit-based effort and behaviour: be a good person, and good things happen; be the opposite, and you deserve what you get. It’s a notion that has tipped the broader world into extreme chaos, and, within my micro one, radiated burning slabs of blame, shame, and a horrible, near-paralyzing sadness. I have kept this information to myself and shared it with only a few (including yes, proper authorities), but those items, I realize with much pain, are not going to magically appear before me, the way Damiel suddenly manifests before Marion, the way Biondetta appears before Alvaro — no angel, no devil, there is only the wide, yawning chasm of loss.
Hans Brüggemann, Angel Playing the Lute; 1520; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.
The revelation here of my sharp vicissitudes of providence means enduring the inevitable smirks and Schadenfreudeof some. I accept this. Various details of my life are, apparently, points of envy — something I find utterly baffling to comprehend. (I envy the presence of their partners, paramours, children, extended relatives, and wide and active social circles, particularly during the lonely holiday periods, but at regular weekends as well.) I have chosen to reveal this personal history in order to embody a dictum I voiced within the past year, one relating to the importance of embracing vulnerability. There are things to be silent about, and things to shout about, and still yet things that straddle between; the point is acknowledging the tender spot within, where vulnerability meets and makes peace with the existential zero of silence. Pema Chödrön might remind me this is precisely where I need to be, in the middle, fully present. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. The symphony of sighs fades in and out; today it was interrupted by the whispering wonder of enchantment. I’m glad I was sensitive enough to listen. Maybe in the spring it will become a song.
Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)
If you don’t know the name Norman McLaren, you will, and soon, thanks to a new production happening at the National Ballet of Canada. The UK-born, Canada-based animation innovator, who won an Oscar for his 1952 anti-war film Neighbours, was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of film. It has been rightly been noted that McLaren (who passed away in 1987) “extend(ed) the boundaries of creative animation” through his unique and highly experimental approach. His 82 works (along with 52 test films) were added to the UNESCO heritage collection in 2009, and his name is slowly coming to be recognized more widely outside of experimental cinema circles. It’s been keenly observed that “without him, (Canada) would be lighter an Academy Award or two, and likely much more.”
The title of the National Ballet of Canada’s new work, Frame By Frame, set to premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Friday (June 1st), references McLaren’s painstaking method of drawing on film stock, frame by meticulous frame, and of his work with stop-motion animation sequencing. Each animated frame had a slight differentiation (being done by human hands, after all), which resulted in a charmingly wobbly end effect when viewing.
Canadians of a certain generation will remember, with glee, McLaren’s exuberant creations, having been exposed to them regularly in school and on television. They were an inescapable part of growing up in Canada, like somanyanimatedworks that came from the beloved National Film Board (NFB). I loved the wiggly lines (the so-called “boiling” effect in action) and the zealous embrace of surreal imagery that characterized so much of McLaren’s work; it forced you to think and feel at once, a new experience for small children more used to fantastical diversion and reaction-inducing entertainment. The jolly headless hen from “Hen Hop” forever makes me smile, even as it makes me think carefully about what’s on my dinner plate (to say nothing of reminders of the horror-meets-macabre-humor of my mother’s childhood farm stories, which I will leave to reader imagination). McLaren’s works were so unlike the Disney ones I’d see in cinemas as a child, more free and fun and loopy. Many also had strong social messages, like 1952’s “Neighbours“, a nine-minute film that uses pixilation to tell the story of two people who fight over a single flower; it garnered much praise and admiration, from artists like Pablo Picasso as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. He also worked with a host of famous music figures, including Glenn Gould, Ravi Shankar, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Peterson (the latter being featured in Frame By Frame), and his “Pas de Deux“, “Adagio“, and “Narcissus” are among the most beautiful dance films ever made. The animator met his life partner, Guy Glover, at a ballet performance in London, and his fascination with both music and art permeates his creations, whether they are music/dance specific or not. McLaren firmly believed that when it came to film, “how it moved was more important than what moved.”
\Norman McLaren working on “Hen Hop” in 1942. (Photo: BFI)It is understandable, then, that one sees within McLaren the unmistakable qualities which are so suited to a stage transfer of his life and works. Choreographer Guillaume Côté (who is Associate Choreographer at the National Ballet of Canada and a longtime beloved artist there) and celebrated director Robert Lepage drew inspiration from McLaren’s works — their rhythms, their energies, their winking, sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-pensive spirits — in creating Frame By Frame. Along with a host of celebrated theatre productions and work for Cirque du Soleil, Lepage has also leant his talents to classical music arts; his opera productions have been staged at the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Paris, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In creating Frame By Frame, his first work with the National Ballet of Canada, Lepage recently said that “(c)lassical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It’s just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive.”
Robert Lepage and Guillaume Cote in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)
The production is a collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company in Québec City. It is a project several years in the making, and will reportedly make full use of a range of multidisciplinary technologies, including live projections and camera work. The Québecois director has said he wanted to create a “digital homage” to McLaren’s analogue world, and Friday night, audiences will see for themselves the fruits of these labours, with the animator’s work being brought to life in a whole new way.
\Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)National Ballet Second Soloist Jack Bertinshaw will be performing the role of Norman McLaren in Frame By Frame. The Australian-born dancer has been in a range of works for the company since joining in 2011, including a sprightly performance as Uncle Nikolai in seasonal presentations of The Nutcracker, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, Benno in Swan Lake, and the title role in Pinocchio. I was curious to ask him what it was like to work around the level of technology LePage is utilizing, his experience as an Australian in discovering the works of a Canadian icon, and the various joys and challenges of capturing life, art, and animation through movement.
What’s it like to embody a real person? It seems like a rather unique opportunity within the ballet world.
I’ve done quite a bit of reading and obviously Robert and his team have done a lot of extensive research. With each scene we talk through each concept and what their aim is and what it should be acted as, and portrayed as. They wanted to make sure I had enough of myself in it too. While I’m being Norman and staying as true to that as the kind of fun-loving guy he was, he was also around this this close-knit group of friends —we touch on that. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you’re right, most of time it’s a character like the Mad Hatter, you don’t get to go through a life from beginning to end very often. We do things likeNijinsky and it’s a portrayal, but it’s rare. Certainly this sort of a part is new for me.
Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)
Have you ever worked on show with this level of technology?
Not this much. My background is in jazz and tap, I came from one of those schools who’d do their yearly shows that were as high-tech as possible, with cool lighting and such — but not anywhere near this level of high-tech projection. (In Frame by Frame) it comes from everywhere — above, front… I’m holding a camera at one point that works. It’s really amazing.
Does the technology make it easier or harder to perform in?
It depends — if anything, it’s easier and harder. Something Guillaume and I have had to figure out, mostly, is how we can best enhance this technology; we can’t fight against it. We have to be clear on the certain themes we’re dancing as there’s a camera from above on us, and that’s being projected onto the back screen so the audience in general will be looking at the above aspect — we can’t fight against that. It’s been a learning process over three years now, and it’s been really unique. This is the first time for dancers that we’ve been in the process from the get-go, from the round-table of, ‘let’s create a ballet.’ We normally get to the process where the choreography arrives, and they’ve got things in order, with storyline and sets and costumes/designs somewhat figured out. This is the first time where we’d go to Quebec for a week or two in the summer and we would be with Ex Machina, at their building with all their equipment, and we’d workshop. We played with so many different types of technology there — what works, what doesn’t work.
And LePage was open to all of it?
It was his idea! He has the studio and the technology to do all of this on the regular, for his works with his team.
Greta Hodgkinson and Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)
What’s this kind of collaborative creation been like?
Inspiring! Working with Robert LePage and his team has been incredible. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s going to be so different — that’s one thing we’re interested to see: how Toronto audiences perceive it, how they take these ideas. It’s a lot of fun in a lot of scenes — a lot of Norman’s works were fun and funky, with odd humor and quirkiness, so we’ve made sure that’s a good part of it while also maintaining enough of Norman’s life throughout.
There will be audiences who either know McLaren’s work very well, or don’t know his stuff at all but love the ballet. What do you think they’ll come away with?
The show is so versatile, I think audiences who don’t know anything about him will still certainly come away with quite a lot. We sometimes portray exactly the work and sometimes we recreate it, like with “A Chairy Tale” — we’ve studied that video, and we do every single chair move and have black light going. We’ve tried to do the exact replications and bring (his works) to life so people who know it will appreciate it, and people who don’t, it’ll be like the first time watching his work.
I certainly believe we should respect and honor the old original works. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake today, I believe, are the most beautiful how they were originally created, but when you’re creating something new that’s never been done before… it’s why multidisciplinary is a bigger thing. Today we’re so exposed to new technology anyway, but there’s still a crowd that loves that original stuff.
Introducing anything new means risking people getting angry…
Nijinsky was one of the first originators of conceptual dancing and they threw tomatoes at him!
Once the shock of the new fades, it’s been suggested it then becomes the new norm. Some productions have to fight against history, but with this it seems like you’re less fighting it than celebrating it. What’s it been like to learn about these works?
Being Australian, I’m wasn’t aware of McLaren or his movies, but my mother is, oddly enough — she’s in film and television PR, so she’s a lot more in that world. She’d heard of him, and my uncle in London, he’s a cameraman for film, he knew his work also. My mum’s company and circle of friends heard about Frame by Frame and were like, “Wow, Norman McLaren!” Meanwhile I’d never heard of him before three years ago. I’ve done a lot of research and found out a lot more. We’re not making our own version of things; we’re honoring his works as truly as we can.
Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Pretty Yende as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera
Longtime readers of mine will know I was raised on a steady diet of Italian opera. Alongside Puccini, Bellini, and the household favorite, Giuseppe Verdi (whose dwellings I visited last fall, an account of which you can discover in an upcoming issue of Opera Canada magazine), there was also the music of Donizetti. What to say about the man who wrote one of the most famous bel canto works in history, one based not on any Mediterranean story but on a novel by Scotsman Walter Scott? While Lucia di Lammermoor was, alongside La boheme, Norma, and Rigoletto, one of the mainstays of my youth, it wasn’t the Donizetti work I immediately responded to; that honor belonged, rather, to L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), a sitcom-like comedy brimming with warmth and humanity.
The opera, written hastily over a six-week period and premiered in Milan in 1832, is one of the popular and beloved of works in the opera world. Some very famous singers have been performed in it, including Nicolai Gedda, Tito Gobbi, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazon … the list goes on. The opera offers an array of vocal fireworks which are deceptive for their elegant, hummable simplicity. Luciano Pavarotti is widely known (and rightly loved) for his sparkling performance of Nemorino, the hapless, lovelorn male lead; I was fortunate enough to see him sing it live (along with another great Italian singer, Enzo Dara, who sang the role of the potion-peddlar, Dr. Dulcamara). The venerable tenor seemed lit from within in the role, and it’s no wonder; he confessed in interviews that his favorite stage role was, in fact, Nemorino, the role he felt closest to, out of everything he’d done. As well as having one of the most famous arias in all of opera, Nemorino is brimming with neither intellectualism or thoughtful reflection (or even that much witty repartee, unless he’s dead drunk on the potion Dulcamara gave him), but, rather, steadfastly tied to a beautiful, earnest position full of love and longing. Nemorino loves Adina, the popular girl, who doesn’t give him (initially) the time of day; it’s a familiar story, a simple story, and one that, when couched in such splendid music, makes for a great introduction to the art form.
Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera
And so it is that I’ll be hosting a special Cineplex event featuring the opera this coming Thursday (15 March) in Toronto, a Live in HD re-broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore, featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani and soprano Pretty Yende (both of whom I saw last season in various Met productions) in the lead roles. I was recently part of a panel on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 with broadcaster Richard Crouse discussing this, and mentioned Pavarotti, melodic music, and how I got into opera — but really, it’s much more fun to come see — and hear! — for yourself. Details on the screening are here — and you can win tickets here. I may or may not wear my crown (likely not), but I would love to see and meet (and chat with!) opera lovers old and new. Will it change your mind about opera? Maybe. Will you love the music? I would bet the response, post-broadcast, will be a resounding “si” — hopefully see you there!
Lately I’ve been noting how people will choose certain words in order to categorize and even dismiss things they don’t like or understand. “Quirky” is, I think, one of those words. Used as an adjective to ostensibly describe something (usually a movie) that’s odd, unusual, off the beaten path, and just plain strange, it’s also frequently used dismissively — as in, “that’s so quirky, ick.”
I began noticing this when, in preparing to interview Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi for a feature this past fall, I came across the word being used, over and over, with reference to his (amazing) body of work. Eagle vs Shark: quirky. Boy: quirky. What We Do In The Shadows: well… no, that’s funny, because it’s like Shaun of the Dead, but vampires! Hahaha! (The unspoken rule being, if it contains generally familiar tropes, it can’t possibly be quirky.) Like a passive-aggressive friend, use of the word “quirky” reveals more than it might initially imply.
The word came up again when I read about Frank, the Lenny Abrahamson film based on journalist Jon Ronson’s interactions with Frank Sidebottom, the onstage alter-ego of English comedian/musician Chris Sievey. A movie about an eccentric group of musicians lead by a man who constantly wears a gigantic papier-mache head is certainly a unique premise, so “quirky” might be acceptable. But Frank is so much more; the movie, which made its debut this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, is a moving examination of the nature of creativity and human relating. It’s also harrowing in its depictions of band dynamics, rising success, and mental illness. The movie isn’t just weird for the sake of it; every time you see its title character bellowing his strange, surreal poetry or interacting with confused German tourists or making out with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), there’s a small bit of truth Abrahamson is sharing with you, a tiny puzzle-piece that asks to be placed in the jigsaw of your mind. Everyone’s minds are slightly different, so everyone’s going to see this movie — and its characters — in slightly different ways. Perhaps that’s the point.
The film introduces us first to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an English would-be musician working a dull office job. The opening scenes, of Jon looking at various passers-by and composing songs in his head based on what he sees in real time, are brilliant in their simplicity, rendering our hero’s struggle deeply familiar to anyone who works in and around the creative industry. Jon rushes home, inspired by the “boxes” of his suburban surroundings, only to get stuck in the muck of creation, whereby he shares his frustrations with his paltry Twitter following. Shortly thereafter, he’s offered a position in a band headed by the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender). The music the band specializes in is hardly mainstream; it’s a mix of The Birthday Party, The Civil Wars, and Einsturzende Neubaten, its leader and his booming, low voice a curious if compelling integration of Captain Beefheart, Scott Walker, and Jim Morrison.
At once authoritative and elusive, Frank is a fountain of inspiration for Jon. The band, called The Soronprfbs and featuring Frank, Clara (who does theremin and strange keyboard effects), French guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) and his girlfriend, drummer Nana (Carla Azar), trek to the Irish countryside with their manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to record an album, which Jon documents in a series of blog posts, tweets, and Youtube uploads. The inclusion of social media lends Frank a timeliness as well as a sense of urgency; its use isn’t forced or tacky, but rather, a natural extension of the band’s world, and especially of Jon’s ambitions and personality, and how it comes to clash with other sensibilities, namely Clara’s. The updates (narrated blogs and tweets, including hashtags) are consistently believable, and an important part of the film’s themes of ambition and varying definitions of success. When the band gets the chance to play at SXSW, one senses the widening chasm between Jon and his bandmates; the English keyboardist and songwriter is far more devoted (and determined) than the latter to getting an audience and to being, in the film’s words, “likeable.”
This desire to “being in a band people like,” as Frank puts it at one point, reminded me of something a well-known music figure said a while ago, that people don’t form bands so that they can play in their garage; they form them in order to play for audiences who will appreciate their work. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t help but turn over in my head as the film unfolded; Frank forced to consider the notion that perhaps there are some people who come together simply because they enjoy the energy the other brings and revel in the vitality of those joined energies, expressed through a joyous cacophony that, like a labyrinth, only they (as a combined unit) know their way in and out of; such bands play for themselves, and no one else. Is that wrong? Is it strange? Is it… quirky?
Abrahamson doesn’t seem so concerned with quirk as he does with humanity. That focus anchors the film’s tone and deepens the relationships between its characters. Frank is a fascinating portrait of not only artists and bands but its own audience. I found myself rooting for Jon, and was charmed by his interactions with Frank; I identified with his drive to be celebrated and successful. The wisdom of the screenplay (by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) is that it doesn’t judge Jon when he fucks up (which he does, more than once), but allows for moments of grace and quiet, which are expressed so powerfully in the scenes toward the film’s end. You won’t be in tears by the final credits (Frank doesn’t wallow in melodramatic mawkishness, preferring strong adult drama, something in woefully short supply lately) but you will be forced to contemplate the hows and whys of success, art, and the overall validity of the phrase “mad genius.”
“Genius” is nonetheless a good word to describe the performances in Frank. Gleeson is highly moving, and frequently uses his wiry frame to express Jon’s insecurities, frustrations, and fears; Gyllenhaal is compellingly icy as the highly protective Clara, while Fassbender is truly mesmerizing, conjuring an unforced poetry that modulates between manic and mysterious. The movie’s supporting cast is strong as well, with Azar vibing a young, resolute Maureen Tucker, with her big eyes and quiet confidence, and Scoot McNair as the scatty if troubled Don. The music, by Stephen Rennicks, deserves acclaim; too it’s a wonderful amalgam of influences, with playful lyrics full of surreal imagery, underscored by pulsating bass lines, shrieking guitars, and bleepy-bloop effects, reflecting the band’s personalities, their immediate environments, their relationships, and moods. I’d wager that if Ronson and Straughan’s screenplay is the bones of the work, the music is its heartbeat, with Abrahamson’s masterful direction the skin that draws everything together.
So call it “quirky” if you want, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it or think Frank is just a “weird” movie about a guy in a papier-mache head. The film’s elements, while unusual, combine to form a highly watchable piece of cinema. It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s important. The music is amazing. The performances are beautiful. Embrace your quirks, or leave them at the door, but see it.
Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I’ve enjoyed most didn’t involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.
I’d heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called “dark horse” of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don’t played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.
Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis (“Gen”) and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that “The world doesn’t want him!” (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we’ve seen Gen work with. There’s an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.
However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to “the center” as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game’s mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen’s gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.
Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it’s Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can’t take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There’s something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.
Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It’s a feeling I couldn’t help but experience as I looked out at the movie’s cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film’s tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!
Many people will remember where they were when they heard the awful news about the passing of Robin Williams. I had just returned from walking my dog; she enjoys trotting through the grass and being pet by the small children we inevitably run into; I enjoy the moody, orange streaks of a summer sunset and the cool early-evening breezes. We both return to the house refreshed and happy. But my calm, content mood went straight south when I opened my computer to see the update about Robin.
And it is “Robin” to me, it’s been “Robin” for a long time. I had the pleasure of spontaneously running into the man not once but twice when he was filming in Toronto almost a decade ago. There’s a strange intimacy that happens with some actors; Robin struck me as a quiet, thoughtful person, not even half the manic personality he was onstage, but more of a deeply sensitive, feeling artist, the cute, funny boy in school who used humor as a defense mechanism. Being funny was a way of expressing the tremendous energy and imagination he carried around inside him, continually incubating new ideas while keeping watch over his latest batch of squawking hatchlings. He was tremendously playful, and tremendously feeling, and, to me at least, he was somehow always in need of a hug. Within much of his wide and varied work lay a deep sense of vulnerability, which was deeply touching, even as it was occasionally hard to watch. Perhaps that’s why there was a odd sense of the familiar when we met, an immediate understanding that allowed each of us to come away from those impromptu chats gently beaming. I didn’t expect or ask anything of him, and he seemed relieved I wasn’t starstruck or asking him to be “zany.” It was just good to be around a very talented, very real human being. I often wonder if he had a radar to pick out us sensitive souls who appreciated his playfulness and understood its humanistic, deeply vulnerable origins.
Like so many, I grew up watching Robin, on television, and then in movies. His turn as the teacher in Dead Poets Society came at a vital moment when, as a frustrated high school student, I realized there were many different styles of teaching, and the one I was being exposed to in my own English class at the time was definitely lacking. (Thankfully, I got my own version of Mr. Keating a year later.) Many times since I find myself wishing he’d done a series of poetry readings —live, online, for radio; he had a depth of feeling for words, language and music, and used them to full (sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad) effect whenever he performed. His solo voice was just as powerful and memorable as his rubbery physicality. Oh, that he had read the poetry of Shelley into a microphone, or done a live performance of Ginsberg’s work. A million magical worlds lived in him and were given voice through his performances, worlds we were entranced, seduced, beguiled by. He allowed us to remember wonder, and to find our own.
Robin understood “funny” but he was keenly aware of what can lie underneath. Mrs. Doubtfire was uproariously funny (and still is, to my mind), but, like his character in The Birdcage, there’s an intense hurt shot through the performance, one you can keenly sense in those sad blue eyes, and it’s made repeated viewings of both movies difficult to endure. Funny! Sad! Funny! Sad! His mix of humor and drama, of light and dark, feels authentically human, and continued to be expressed in a variety of roles, with the darkness (particularly in One Hour Photo) providing a vital counterpoint to the more life-affirming material (Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams) that won him mainstream awards and accolades.
Robin’s movies have, in so many ways, been markers for moments in so many lives, the “I remember whens” over the last 48 hours collected and offered like sacrifices on the alter of a disease we can name but can’t quite approach. Since Monday night, I’ve debated with myself about posting anything on his passing, not only because I’ve had my own intense experiences of depression, but because I don’t want to equate them with his suffering. Do I have a right to analyze, compare, or contrast? No, and neither does anyone else. Robin’s depression was his own; his suicide is also his own. Impossible to condone, difficult to understand, his decision does bring into stark relief the deep, dark room many depressives (I count myself among them) move in and out of, with frustrating, sometimes exhausting regularity.
As such, it seemed important to me on a personal level not to jump on the journo-pageview-train and spew out something half-assed, half-baked, schmaltzy, trite, narcissistic, didactic, high-handed, or grief-splaining. The rush to reaction, to “thinkpiece” a tragedy, for clicks and shares and comments, makes me recoil at the perceived ethics (and unfortunate financial realities) of my chosen world. How do I bridge the need to report as a journalist with the need to think, feel, grieve, and contemplate as a human? I’m truly not sure it’s possible in today’s high-speed world. In many ways I’m still not sure why I’m writing this now. But having lost many people I love to depression, and having nearly succumbed myself, it seems right that perhaps shouting to the darkness will inspire something greater than words and links from the armchair-activists I’ve seen across social media lately. Something like acceptance, and compassion in action. As Robin himself wrote in a reddit AMA last year, “Anytime compassion can be contagious, it’s a good thing.” That, to me, is a contagion worth spreading, acting on, shouting about. We need it.”
It’s probably selfish of me to want more from Robin in terms of work — movie performances, television appearances, those taped poetry sessions — and yet I keep wishing for them. As someone wrote on my Facebook wall Monday night, “I thought and hoped this was a terrible hoax.” Robin’s light reminded at least this sensitive soul I wasn’t alone, that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of, that playfulness matters. Keeping these elements intact against a world filled with ugliness is difficult, sometimes painful, but I want to believe it isn’t impossible. It can’t be. Carpe diem, shazbot, good morning Vietnam… O Captain, my Captain. The rest is silence. Thank you, dearheart. x
Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies.
When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones.
Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander(The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.
I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt.
Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away.
Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.”
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.