Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Theater of War: Tribeca Film Festival

This movie is the documentary equivalent of the Sufi parable about the blind men and the elephant. It’s a record of the rehearsal and performance process for the Mother Courage that was done in Central Park in summer of 06; it’s a mini-biography of Bertolt Brecht; it’s the clearest explanation of Marx’s theory of labor that you’ve ever seen; and it’s an anti-war agit-prop disguised as an examination of the intersection of theatre and politics. The fourth part is the least successful and the most predictable. Anti-Iraq-War marches and memories of anti-Vietnam demonstrations are threaded together with producers and writers talking about how theatre is only really meaningful when it addresses real issues blah blah what can one person do blah blah open eyes to blah blah make a blah blah difference. What would have been much more interesting, given the Brechtian subject, would have been a closer examination or questioning of the business decision of staging Mother Courage in 2006 –- an examination of what effect, if any, preaching to the choir has when an anti-war play is done in front of an audience that primarily agrees with its sentiments. (But that’s my documentary, not this one.)

To this documentary’s credit, there’s enough subversive and downright you’ve-never-heard-this-anywhere-else material to undermine Mother Courage as pro- or anti-anything, and make you ask questions you’re not supposed to ask in a job-based capitalist society. Most of this takes place in the Jay Cantor section. Cantor, an essayist and novelist, does an excellent job of quietly distilling the essence of Marx in a sentence that can’t help but resonate with everyone: “Marx’s theory of labor, simply put, says this: how you work, and for whom you work, equals who you are.” And when you work for people who are defined by the harm they do, as opposed to the good they do, you are part of that process. This is entertainingly illustrated by a section spotlighting the composer, the costume designer, and the head of Props at the Delacorte, and how their work contributes to the final show. Which is all interspersed with rehearsal footage and an on-camera interview with Meryl Streep about the play, the part, and her role as an actress.

In a film where you get to see Brecht’s famous “Yes I think maybe” appearance before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and hear Brecht’s off-camera daughter telling you that this halting on-screen foreigner was really a crafty little bastard who could speak fluent English and left for Europe the day after he gave his testimony, it’s still the moments when Meryl Streep is talking or playing Mother Courage that are the most riveting and involving, especially when she’s talking about her role as an actress (“I am the voice of dead people.”) or about the rehearsal process (“Process comes off as bad acting, nobody wants to see process – it’s like you’re building a skyscraper and you show people the pipes and the plumbing. It’s the stuff that holds the building together, but it’s not what anyone really wants to see.”) It's her scenes and moments that I remember most, and keep coming back to. Does that make me a shallow apolitical slug who finds behind-the-scenes glimpses of famous people more interesting than political action? Duh. Is it going to stop me from thinking very hard about how my daily day-job contribution to corporate America helps perpetuate behavior and attitudes that drive me crazy? No. I just think that if Brecht were marketing this documentary, he’d stress the Streep part and downplay the Marxism, and maybe edit in some more of the one-on-one interview. It’s definitely the one course on the plate that puts a smile on your face as you’re being fed the rest of the meal. As Brecht himself famously said: “Grub first, then ethics.”

[director's commments in q&a to come]

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