Tag: actor

Bruno Ganz, A French Novel, And Grappling With Loss

garnier angel opera detail

Detail from the top of the Opera Garnier, Paris. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

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 as Wings of DesireWim 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.

engel ganz wenders

Still from “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”,) 1987.

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. 

legs book reading

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.

Cazotte devil illustration

Illustration from the first edition of “The Devil in Love” by Jacques Cazotte. (Photo via the Stanislavsky Theatre).

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.

angel

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 Schadenfreude of 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. 

Forever Robin To Me

(photo via)

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 HuntingPatch Adams) that won him mainstream awards and accolades.

(photo via)

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.

(photo via)

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

At Last

Hollywood awards season is a test of endurance for me. More of a clubby series of self-congratulatory pageants dressed in designer finery than a credible display of artistic achievement, the Oscars are perhaps the most obvious of high school popularity contests. And yet my stomach was all butterflies as I anxiously checked the list of Best Actor Oscar nominees this morning. There’s something about big-name recognition of longtime favorites that is immensely satisfying, popularity contest or not.

It was amazing – beyond amazing -to see Gary Oldman finally, at long last, get nominated for an Academy Award. Longtime friends will tell you I had a huge crush on him – or rather, on Oldman’s awesome, inspiring, occasionally terrifying talent. For all his talk of despising “the method,” he seemed to live what he acted. It was thrilling to watch him move between genres so easily, and become so unreservedly, uninhibitedly lost in a role. It still is, I’m discovering.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead cemented my love of language and literature. What impressed me in the film, along with Oldman and fellow Brit Pack-er Tim Roth’s comfort with that language, was their sparky natural chemistry. Taking cues from older traditions (Godot especially) and mixing them with the best of British vaudeville (Laurel and Hardy especially), Oldman and Roth are a tag team of interconnected excellence. I was enchanted by Oldman as the dimwit of the pair, whether he was tinkering with Foucault’s pendulum or watching sailboats in the bathtub. But it didn’t prepare me for JFK, where I was struck dumb by his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. Far from being merely imitative, the slight, mushy-mouthed, supposed lone-gun-assassin suddenly becomes very human – a lonely, tortured figure, demonized by his own swirlingly persistent, painfully obvious need to belong. Oldman gets the “lone” part of “Lone Gunman” absolutely dead-on.
Oldman’s performance -those urgent blue eyes, the slumped shoulders, the quick temper -seared itself on my young mind. I found State Of Grace and again was astonished. The performance as the wild-card gangster Jackie – haunted, passionate, angry -is simply one of the most memorable ever committed to film. When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992, I was well-versed in Oldman’s canon, and had no trouble picturing the guy who’d played Sid Vicious years before becoming the sexy demonic Count. He’s a great actor – and that’s what great actors do. They’re not supposed to be pretty. Right? I didn’t like Gary because he was pretty. I liked him because he was brilliant. Barely recognizable from one role to the next, Oldman has a great, unsung habit of plumbing the depths of despair, celebrating the heights of absurdity, and living the vida loca (sometimes for real) across the cinematic universe. He is every color in the artist’s paintbox, every hue and beam and shadow on the canvas.
So while some of his choices haven’t inspired – the reductive baddies in Air Force One, Lost In Space, The Fifth Element and The Book Of Eli come to mind -he’s always been eminently watchable. As Radio Times reporter Danny Leigh so eloquently put it, “A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good ones spectacular.” Neither the Harry Potter nor Batman re-envisionings were on my cultural radar, but late one night about a year ago, I was watching TV and saw Christian Bale’s square jaw jutting out of the famous black cowl on television, and a flood of inspired memories returned, of nights spent worshipping a choir of spectacularly realized misfits I felt I knew so well. Joe, Sid, Jackie, Rosencrantz, Lee, Ludwig, Norman, Jack, Drexel. Dracula. That guy. Then George Smiley sauntered in.
Like many, I’ve questioned why the Academy Awards -or indeed its poorer Golden cousin -haven’t recognized Oldman for his work. He said on NPR Fresh Air recently that he thinks of himself as a “character actor” more than anything, which is a huge shame. Could a character actor so beautifully personify John Le Carre’s quietly complex spy? Come now. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow-burn sort of work. Its passion is whispered, not declaimed, in the most adult kind of way. Much has been made of how “quiet” Oldman’s performance is too. Yet don’t confuse that term with “small”; his Smiley is as grand and fiery as anything else he’s ever done over the past three decades. It’s an inner sort of flame, the sort you can see running across his probing blue eyes when Smiley carefully takes his morning swim, each stroke a calculated piece of focus and concentration. We sense the innate heartbreak Oldman’s so excelled at portraying onscreen in the past, when Smiley catches his wife being unfaithful with a co-worker: the gaping mouth, the stunted breath, the wide eyes and wild blinking. We sense that fierce passion when George takes a seat in the film’s final moments, straightening his shoulders, jutting out his chin ever so slightly, the merest hint of a smile crossing his lips. You want to shriek at the perfection of it all.
As it is, I’m left, at the end of today, wanting to shriek with joy over that nomination, and yet quietly taking a few deep breaths of joy, contemplating that genius might, just might, be recognized by the popular kids. Some of us think it’s about time.
Top illustration by Matthew Brazier.

Singular

“You go into a bit of a vortex and then you hear the words, ‘Jeff Bridges‘… “

That’s Colin Firth talking about what goes through his mind this awards season.

The British actor didn’t have to worry about Bridges tonight, though; he won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards for his stunning performance in A Single Man.

I saw Tom Ford‘s film (based on a work by Christopher Isherwood) just this afternoon, and I am not sure I can properly articulate its beauty in any meaningful way. The film revolves around George Falconer, a professor in 1962 Los Angeles, who has recently lost his partner. Ford features several long, meditative shots of Firth, whether he’s looking for something for breakfast, sitting in his car, sorting through his bank box, or remembering his times spent with Jim (Matthew Goode). George’s life is both bereft of life and hefty with love, as his interactions with his lifelong friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) and new friend Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) demonstrate. With keen use of colour, a gorgeous sense of framing, and a flair for considered shading, Ford nicely balances the silence and the symphony, both literal and figurative. It’s an immense achievement that silently yet masterfully articulates the life of one man in quietly desperate circumstances.

Along with being a play on ideas of the single and solitary, the film is a meditation on aging. I was especially moved by the lingering close-ups of Firth’s expressive, natural face. No smooth-faced, muscled-up, botoxed Hollywood star, one could see the rough bumps and expression lines a late forty-something man has, and has righteously earned. In no way do those wrinkles detract from Firth’s physical attributes; in fact, they add to his attractiveness. In other words, never mind the Darcys -here’s the real thing. A Single Man gives us an honest portrait of an outsider -talented, articulate, even playful -who feels rejected by a world that deems him undesirable and considers his contributions worthless. This is deeply related to the speech George delivers on fear to a classroom full of pie-eyed students. The relationship between fear and love is profound in any arena, and Ford nicely, effectively explores this connection, using, again, the palette of Firth’s incredible face. Such an achievement is rendered with the deftest of strokes, and the most subtle arrangement of light, colour, shape and shadow balancing with the close, hard facial shots. It’s not hard to identify Ford’s design background here, but his translation of it into a cinematic expression is nothing short of astonishing for its emotional resonance.

Walking amidst a street fair after the film, I was still haunted by the director’s beautiful vision, the actor’s aged face, the silence, the noise, the light and the shadows. Questions around youth, age, beauty, and love, and one’s perceived “worthiness” of each whispered about like midnight waves lapping at cold toes. Some things are, perhaps, best left unanswered, but the shining faces on the street -of young and old alike -enjoying the sunny day, and the simple joy of living, was a fitting counterpart, and a beautiful reminder of the very things Isherwood wrote of. Viva love. Viva life.

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