Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ride Boldly Ride

After sending out Monday's post, I had the following e-conversation with my friend Bill:

BILL: What? Me on crutches and you in a sling? I can't stand it any more!!!!
MATTHEW: Yeah; it's like the end of El Dorado.

Then I sent him this picture:


To which Bill responded:

BILL: That is the funniest thing I've seen in a long time!!!!!! Oh God, how do you do it?

What can I say? I have a magpie mind, and a database of jpegs to match. And a pile of DVD's too. I spent the rest of the day thinking, "Y'know, it's been a few months since I saw El Dorado; maybe I'll pull it out and watch it again tonight." And I did. Instead of writing, of course; because (just as there must always be a novel, and it must always be a Russian novel) there must always be a movie, and it must always be a Western movie, when Matthew is procrastinating about writing.


So why this Western movie? Here’s the plot in a nutshell. Hired gun Cole Thornton (John Wayne) rides into El Dorado to take a job from Bart Jason (Ed Asner), but when his old friend JP Harrah (Robert Mitchum), the town sheriff, tells him that the job entails helping Jason get the deed to the water-rich McDonald Ranch, Wayne literally backs out of the job. On his way back to town, he mistakenly shoots one of the McDonald boys, and when the kid finishes the job by putting a gun to his head, Thornton delivers the body to the boy’s family, and then rides away from that as well, only to be ambushed and shot in the back by Joey, the dead boy’s sister. The bullet turns out to be too close to Thornton’s spine to operate, and a few days later he rides out of town to take a job in a mining town.

Six months later, Thornton rides into a different town, and watches Mississippi (James Caan) kill the last of four men who murdered his friend Johnny Diamond. The dead man works for Nelse McLeod (Christopher George), a gunslinger who is just as fast as Wayne, and who has just been hired for the job that Thornton gave up six months ago. McLeod figures it’s easy pickin’s because Sheriff Harrah is now a drunk, thanks to being jilted by a girl. This is the one piece of news that finally sends Thornton back to El Dorado to (a) reprise the drunken sidekick plot of Rio Bravo with Mitchum in the Dean Martin role and (b) help his friend and side with the McDonalds against Bart Jason. Y’know, like he should have done in the first place. Like John Wayne (being John Wayne) would have done in the first place, right?

Sorry. Not this movie. This is a movie about a man who rides away from everything, as evidenced by the clip below. Since most of my friends know how devoted I am to making over-the-top generalizations, it should come as no surprise when I say that there is no other scene in a John Wayne movie, let alone an American Western, where you will see the following action take place:

video

It's almost shocking, isn't it? A Western hero retreating. Hell--John Wayne retreating. Literally backing away from a fight. (And check out the Nelson Riddle horns at the end. That same refrain shows up at least once in every episode of Batman.) But this one sequence is what the whole movie is about. People backing away from or not owning up to their responsibilities, to what they owe other people because of their actions.


Take Cole Thornton. He's been paid in advance to work for the bad guy, but he chooses not to. It's never stated outright that he doesn't want to get involved on either side of this battle, but the way he backs out of that scene says it a lot stronger than any words could. Here's a man who knows that if he accepts this job, he'll be doing evil. So he doesn't. But is not doing evil enough? Not the way this movie works. 90 seconds after renouncing evil, one of the McDonald boys takes a wild shot at Thornton and Thornton plugs him in the stomach. The gut-shot kid knows this is a certain death sentence, and finishes himself off. What does Thornton do? He does the decent thing and returns the boy's body to his family; and then rides off again. He doesn't say, as you would expect the Good Guy to say--as you would expect John Wayne to say--"I owe you for the death of your son, so I'm taking his place until this war with Bart Jason is over." Instead, he tries to put some of the blame on the boy's father, for telling the kid what happens to a man who gets gut-shot, and rides off again.


This is not a nice human being, okay? He's not even the nicest guy in the movie. Most people would probably give that title to James Caan's ingenue sidekick, but for my money, it's bad guy Nelse McLeod by a mile. Thanks to a career-best performance by Christopher George, McLeod is just so damn pleasant and cheerful you don't care that he kills people for a living and has no scruples. He's a total professional, and he's relaxed with it. He even dies with a sense of humor. Cole Thornton, on the other hand? About as cuddly as a cactus. Thornton is somebody who doesn't give a shit about anybody, good or bad, except himself. Somebody who is, in essence, a coward, which the movie spells out pretty clearly when Joey McDonald ambushes Thornton and shoots him off his horse. Where does she shoot him? In the back. Which is physically impossible, given the angle of fire as we're watching the movie. But we accept it, because it makes thematic sense. In its own way, it's flawlessly logical: (1) Only cowards who run away from a fight get shot in the back. (2) Cole Thornton has a bullet lodged in his back. Therefore (3) Cole Thornton is a coward. And to make it even more obvious, what happens to Thornton every time that bullet rubs up against his spine? His gun hand goes numb. Because he refused to recognize a debt he owed the McDonalds, his gun hand is useless.


You probably think I'm reading too much into what is essentially a sauntering entertainment, but believe me, it all fits. The first time we see Thornton's gun hand go numb? Right after he finds out from McLeod that JP Harrah is the town drunk. It's like the bullet is an expression of inner guilt; he's subconsciously punishing himself for not taking a side when he had the chance, and now look--his best friend is drinking bottle after bottle of Old Clothesline, the whiskey that hangs you out to dry, and Thornton can't even get on his horse without help. And who's that helping him? Why if it isn't Mississippi, the kid who uses a knife because he can't shoot straight, the kid who just spent two years paying back a debt by killing the men who killed his friend, and is now going to follow Thornton to El Dorado to pay him back for saving his life. He's like one of those innocent idiot knights in King Arthur who run around acting out of honor because it's as natural to them as quibbling about honor is natural to us. Or actually, since he's the only one in the movie to recite poetry, he's like the troubadour, like Alan A Dale with a sawed-off and a funny hat. Or, when you really come down to it, --

(See? Don't get me started on this movie. And I haven't even said anything about the women yet.)


So the movie sets up this wonderful web of debt and responsibility; and then, when Thornton returns to El Dorado, it's like that point in Measure for Measure where the disguised Duke walks into a potential tragedy and twists the plot into a Rube Goldberg machine that is designed to do one thing and one thing only: maneuver Isabella into a position where she gets the chance to either condemn or forgive Angelo. The break is just as sharp in El Dorado, and because the movie is so easy-going it doesn't actually hit you, but it's there, all right. Suddenly we're in a different movie; different but familiar, because the town of El Dorado has suddenly become Hawks Country, where the men are constantly wondering if they're good enough, a youngster gets to prove his stuff, an old codger gets to provide comic relief, and somebody who used to be one of the fastest guns around has become the town drunk because of a girl. (Fun movie fact: when Hawks asked Wayne to do Rio Lobo, Wayne replied by saying: "Do I get to play the drunk this time?") What this means for the set-up is that the closely-worked-out pattern of obligation and uninvolvement that informs the first half of the film gets lost in the second half, and your response to what's on screen depends pretty much on whether you like Rio Bravo enough to see it done through a fun-house mirror. (That's me over there holding up my hand and saying "Count me in." Truth to tell, I'm with Robin Wood on this one, rest his soul.)


If I'm totally honest with myself (and the older I get, the more I better be, right?), I have to admit that the Rio Bravo Redux second half doesn't live up to the promise of the first half, in much the same way that the where-the-fuck-did-THAT-come-from second half of Measure for Measure seems like All's Well Redux, complete with the same unbelievable bed trick. (If I ever become a writing teacher, my class will have only one assignment: take the first half of Measure for Measure, before the Duke intervenes, as a given; now throw out the rest of it and finish the play yourselves.) In both cases, I think the same thing happened. Just like Shakespeare creates an engine that can only create a tragedy, and then re-wires it in full view of the audience to produce a comedy, Hawks sends a gunfighter on a path from indifference to involvement and potentially death, and then delivers him into the forgiving arms of the Rio Bravo situation, which is his own version of the bed trick. Did this happen because neither man was essentially tragic by nature? Did it happen because both works are late career and concerned with redemption more than confrontation?

THE WORLD: Beats me. And really, dude. Comparing a John Wayne movie to Measure for Measure?
MATTHEW: You know Shakespeare played the Duke, right?
THE WORLD: We're leaving.
MATTHEW: No, really. He also played Iago.
THE WORLD: Leaving now.
MATTHEW: And originally, El Dorado was going to be a western version of The Iliad*.
THE WORLD: Will the last person to leave the website please close the tab?

*True story. Leigh Brackett based the original script on a novel called The Stars In Their Courses. I told you not to get me started.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Why my right arm is in a sling today

When you're bowling here:



And your sausage fingers look like this:



The only ball you'll be able to use will be this big:

Actual size.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer, or, "Finally--something released in 2010 that's worth the price of admission."

I've been holding off writing about this movie because I've been trying to think of what to say about it other than "Go see it."



That's the weird state I always find myself in when I actually enjoy something creative. I never know when I'm going to get the urge to do an autopsy on a movie or hold it out to you cupped in my hands like a baby bird.

CRITICAL MATTHEW: Perfect image, dude. Autopsies are performed on the dead. Baby birds are alive.
MATTHEW'S THERAPIST: See? It's like the talking cure! All you have to do is keep speaking and all your inner questions are answered.
MATTHEW'S FRIENDS: No! No! Don't tell him that!
MATTHEW'S THERAPIST: Why not?
MATTHEW'S FRIENDS: Because it's impossible to get him to shut up as it is! Now we'll never hear the end of him!
MATTHEW: That reminds me of a story.
MATTHEW'S FRIENDS: We know!

My therapist laughed when I told her "This is a picture of
two idealized versions of me duking it out."


Plus this is a thriller, so the less I say, the more you'll actually be able to experience what I did when I saw it. So let me throw out a few thoughts and impressions, and we can talk about it afterwards. Meaning: first of all? Go see this movie. Now.

Thoughts and impressions: I don't know where in Europe they filmed the Martha's Vineyard scenes, but it sure as hell looks authentic.

Who would have thought that Pierce Brosnan would have such a great post-James Bond career as an actor? (And that means you, too, Matador.)

If this movie had been made in the 70's, Michael Caine would have played the Ewan McGregor part. And this movie could have been made in the 70's. It's hard not to compare it to Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.



It's also next to impossible not to think of it as a thinly-veiled allegory about Roman Polanski's exile status. A guy shut up in a remote bunker besieged by the media? It's not just the plot of the movie; it's the director's life. (So you can totally see why he was attracted to the project.)

The movie starts out creepy and never stops, helped in no small part by the Alexandre Desplat score. And shots like this:



That's not a film frame; that's a photograph. It can stand on its own as an image whose effect is greater than the sum of its parts. If they were selling posters of this image, it would adorn the living rooms 5 out of every 6 NYU film students.

What else? There's a GPS bit that is so brilliantly simple that it's worthy of every Hitchcock comparison you can come up with. And this movie also has one of the greatest final shots of any movie made in the last 20 years.


All of which we'll talk about when you see it. Deal?

Thought For The Day - Post Health Care Bill Version

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

- Benjamin Franklin

Friday, March 19, 2010

reasons to love new york #319

Y'know how, on a country road after a rain storm, you see worms everywhere?

In New York after a rainstorm, you see a lot of these:




















all photos taken on 3rd Ave between 23rd and 32nd Streets on Sunday, 3/14/10 at approximately 10AM

Thursday, March 18, 2010

100 Proof: Amateur Night



"Is it St Paddy's day over there?" asks Ava. "Mike T calls that 'amateur night'."

All I can say is, he's not the only one. I think Amateur Night is what everybody in the bar/food industry calls St Patrick's Day. They dread it the way a pharmaceutical company dreads universal health care. And all it takes is five minutes on the streets of Times Square to see why. When I get out of work around 4, 48th and Broadway is chock full of staggering and shouting members of every ethnic group imaginable, all of them wearing AstroTurf Green. If they were all laid end to end you would have had ten football fields.

DOROTHY PARKER: If they were all laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.
ME: And none of them would remember it.



Earlier in the afternoon, I send my bartender friend Liz a quick e-mail:

From: Wells, Matthew (CS)
Sent: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 12:58 PM
To: liz weber
Subject: happy amateur night


I'll stop in later, just to prove that not all Irish alcoholics are a total pain in the ass.


True to my electronic word, after spending three hours pulling out project folder after project folder and going "I need to work on this one! No--wait--THIS one!" I throw the Business As Usual folder into my bag and head for Maxie's Grille, where I walk into a total Gaelic madhouse at 7:45PM. Three deep at the bar, everyone drinking Guinness (even the women who looked like they'd walk out of the joint if somebody didn't order them a white wine spritzer), and Liz behind the bar, multitasking like a stage juggler who starts with three balls end ends up spinning plates while she's keeping half a dozen bowling pins in the air. (My project for next year: I want to throw all the people in the so-called business world who use the word "multitasking" behind a bar on St. Patrick's Day just so they can understand the REAL meaning of the word.)

I'm greeted at the door by Will the manager, who spreads his arms wide and goes, "Whoa! Haircut!"

ME: Yeah, I got tired of looking like an Old Spice commercial.
WILL: You look great. Want a shot of Jameson's?
ME: Is the Pope getting a lot of flack for ignoring child abuse in the clergy?

Since there's no room at the bar, I sidle into one of what I think of as the corral tables, because that's what they used to be called at The Cedar. I Catch Liz's eye as she's dervishing back and forth between customers, and she grins and then give me a wide-eyed "You got a haircut!" look which tells me, wordlessly, how good she thinks it is. After ordering a Guinness, like everybody else within shouting distance (and believe me, everybody is shouting, there's gonna be a ton of Tallulah-voiced cube dwarfs in this neighborhood tomorrow morning) I see Darryl and Felix off in the corner, standing under one of the TV screens, and wave hello to them. Will comes back with my shot of Jamey, wishes me a happy Saint Patrick's Day, and spins away, kvelling about the fact that the place is so busy. This kind of crowd is a manager's dream; they all know that there's an unwritten law of the universe which says that the more crowded a bar or restaurant is, the more people out on the street want to come in and make the crowd bigger. Nothing creates a crowd like a crowd; and contrariwise, nothing makes people turn around and walk out quicker than the tumbleweed effect of empty bar chairs.

The beer of choice for people who want to pretend to be Irish for a day.

I'm halfway through my first pint and organizing the Business As Usual folder into scene by scene notes and format and concept reminders, when a guy comes in with two women and glances my way. I'm taking up the corner seat on two small tables pushed together to make a four-top; as he goes to the bar to order drinks, I tell the women he's with that they can take the other three chairs, and I separate the two tables. They thank me profusely, and the guy asks me what I'm drinking. "Guinness," I say, and he buys me my second round. Who says kindness doesn't get rewarded?

THE WORLD: People who are kind to assholes.
ME: No, sorry, you should be kind to everybody.
THE WORLD: Even assholes?
ME: Sure. That's how you find out who the assholes are. It's like free speech. Free speech is the reason why you always know who the morons are.

Finally a group of people actually leave the bar area and head off to wherever it is people go for after-hours drinks when it's only 9PM, and I actually have room enough to walk over to Darryl and Felix and say hello in person. After talking with them for a few minutes, I notice an empty seat at the bar, and I hop onto it faster than a claim jumper at Sutter's Farm. "Hel-LOW!" says Liz, who is half-looped from all the activity and half-looped from fighting a cold. "You haven't looked like this in years," she says, pointing to my hair. "And it's taken years off my face," I reply, and I know, I know, I'm fishing, but like a good friend, Liz nibbles at the bait by saying "It does, it does," and then swims away to the service bar. Will is behind the bar with her at this point, doing bar back and continuing to kvell about the joy of being busy; and Darryl and Felix are now sitting at the bar alongside me. The night is winding down a little, and we can all feel it; so we keep drinking because we don't want it to wind down for us, damn it.

In true obedience to Amateur Night Law, even though people are starting to leave, the noise level has increased in the bar area. This is because Amateur Night Law requires all fake Irish tipplers to vocally compensate for their lack of Hibernian genes by shouting instead of talking, and then yelling at the top of their lungs instead of shouting to make up for the fact that all the other shouters have decided to go shouting in the streets as they head for CVS to stock up on Advil and Smart Water. Currently earning the title of Rí Scairt (which is Gaelic for King Shout) is a guy named Olaf, who is only slightly more civilized than a soccer hooligan, and who starts yelling "IT'S PATTY'S DAY!!!!!" over and over again, finally getting up on a chair by the hostess station and spreading his arms like DiCaprio and Winslet in Titanic and screaming "IT'S PATTY'S DAY! WHOO-HOOO!!!" At which point he gets cut off and handed his check. I love it when guys named Olaf pretend they're Irish. It's like celebrities pretending they're writers.

So the place slowly clears out, and the late-night regulars start to trickle in. Here's Umberto, the gay waiter from City Crab who thinks I'm gay. He asks me if I saw A Single Man, and we talk about that for a while. I recommend the book to him, and am a little surprised that he doesn't know it was a book before it was a movie. And here's Rachel the City Crab waitress who's also a painter. She sits next to me and we talk about the tattoos she's planning on getting, one on each arm. Thankfully, the late-night regular on whom I have a Hopeless Schoolboy Crush (patent pending) does NOT come in tonight, which is a Good Thing For Matthew, because she usually comes in after 11 and when she does, it is always--always--right after I have finished that one beer too many, or done that one shot of Jamey too many, and cannot speak without slurring, or move without weaving, or walk without staggering. When I get like this, an Irishman would call me a grass-holder, in honor of the joke that says an Irishman is never drunk as long as he can hold onto a blade of grass and not fall off the face of the earth.

But I am not this drunk tonight, although I have definitely uploaded the Hug Everybody App into my emotional IPhone, and am reaching out to Liz to say goodbye as I leave, hugging Darryl and Felix as I leave, and hugging Rachel after I hang with her while she smokes a cigarette on the stairs outside.

RACHEL: It's nice tonight. Last year it rained on St. Patrick's Day.
ME: It always rains on St. Patrick's Day. Bloomberg pays to have it rain on St. Patrick's Day.
RACHEL: I think this is really it.
ME: I think so too.
RACHEL: Spring.
ME: Yeah.
RACHEL: Maybe we'll get a real spring this year.
ME: Wouldn't that be nice?
RACHEL: Instead of going from 34 to 84. And needing an air conditioner by the end of March.
ME: Not this year.
RACHEL: I hope not. Between the daylight savings and the warm weather?
ME: I think this is really it.
RACHEL: I think so too.
ME: Spring.
RACHEL: Yeah.

And about time too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Library Is On Fire - Mercury Lounge 3/9/10

The Library Is On Fire is what I call a black-and-white band, meaning that you could take 100 photographs of them performing in color and ten snapshots of the same show in black and white, and those 10 black-and-whites would blow all the color shots out of the water.









TLIOF is also a loud band; and when I say loud, I don't just mean LOUD, I mean the kind of band which starts a show with 50 people in the room chatting to each other and ends that show playing to the 15 people who actually came to hear music instead of socializing.









Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're also damn good. So if you like shows where one pair of earpluge is just not doing the trick, you really need to come see these guys at The Knitting Factory Friday night.

And if you like this --

02 Magic Bumrush Heartz - The Library Is On Fire

-- or this --

05 I Miss You So Much, It Hurts So Bad - The Library Is On Fire

-- then you really need to get your hands on this:

Magic Windows, Magic Nights

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Well no WONDER As You Like It was so depressing

From The Daily Mail on the Sam Mendes/Kate Winslet split:

A source close to Mendes explained the break-up by saying: 'He became bored working on his latest theatrical project, and he took that boredom home with him. And that led to the spark being taken out of their marriage.'

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thank God That's Over!

Contrary to what is laughingly referred to as the calendar, The Februaries do not actually end on 2/28 or 2/29 -- they end when Daylight Savings time begins. And I don't know about you, but this year, it took me totally by surprise. I kept wondering why all the movie times were off when I tried to see Green Zone Sunday at noon. Silly rabbit. Now once again it is dark when I rise out of bed to go to work, as it should always be at 6 in the morning. And once again there is daylight long after I emerge from the dungeon of my day job. It's spring. Rejoice. Or better yet, download this and play it as loud as you can:

Sing Sing Sing - Benny Goodman

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Off With Their Heads


Watching Tim Burton's Return to Wonderland -- wait; no -- The Hatter The Bitch and the Rabbit Hole -- no; sorry -- Alice In Wonderland, you can't help but think that whatever else he may be interested in, actual human beings are rather low on this director's list of loves. (And by the way: DO NOT (repeat) DO NOT waste your money on the 3D version of this. It's visually stunning, but it is not Avatar. Nothing much except a couple of dragonflies at the beginning and a blue butterfly at the end have that great zoom-out-at-you 3D effect.) (Oh, and Johnny Depp, who is getting more and more like a CGI effect with every film.)


Actually? I lied. It's exactly like Avatar; it has the same what-passes-for-plot, which is actually a character description: The Reluctant Outsider-Of-Destiny who joins one side in a battle and helps them win against all odds. Because of the immutable law of Hollywood which says you can never ever have your main character be the straight woman for a bunch of nut cases, Alice now has a lethal case of that modern artistic disease called a Character Arc. This comes complete with a missing father, a helpless mother, an impending marriage to a dentally-challenged ninny, and a Pitch Line: Alice must embrace her destiny as the savior of Underland (a word she mispronounced as Wonderland when she was a kid--idn't dat kewt?), which only takes place when she remembers that what she thought was a childhood dream actually happened to her. (Insert allegory about child abuse here.) (No--wait--sorry--that's A Thousand Acres.)


Insert names, too. The Red and White Queens have names, their kingdoms have names, the Dormouse and White Rabbit have names, even the Caterpillar has a name. (But though he puffs on a hookah, he never inhales the smoke. God forbid we show the children a blue worm inhaling.) Only the Hatter doesn't have a name. But Depp makes up for that by switching back and forth between Loopy British Accent and Sarcastic Scottish Accent, just to fulfill the Mad part of his character. This is all part of the general design, which is aimed at giving a local habitation and a name to what was originally a satire on Victorian manners and politics, none of which makes it into this version (no Mock Turtle, no Knight, no Lion and Unicorn). Instead, what we have is a scroll with a Latin name I have already forgotten (something like The Oraculum, which is Latin for Unobtainium), in which the end of the film is predicted and everybody tries to prevent it. This is what happens when a bunch of people in suits shoehorn a story into a concept. You get nothing but a gigantic echo chamber.


And there are echoes galore. On one level, watching this movie is like playing How Many References Can You Find. When you’re not thinking “Stephen King did this so much better in It,” you’re thinking “CS Lewis did this so much better in the Narnia novels.” And when you’re not saying to yourself “All this needs is a couple of Harburg/Arlen songs to be Wizard of Oz,” you’re saying “All this needs is a couple of French accents to be Joan of Arc.” Me, I sat there thinking, "I know exactly how the Disney suits thought of this movie."

DISNEY SUITS: We're going to to do to Alice In Wonderland what Hook did to Peter Pan!
ME: If you mean fuck it up? You're exactly right.



But don't listen to me; I'm the jaded adult in the theatre. The kids who were there when I saw this? Loved it. They squealed at the action sequences, cheered at the finale, giggled during the Futterwhack (don't ask), and were generally awed at the visuals. Which are deservedly awesome. When it actually stops to breathe, this is a gorgeous movie to see on a big screen, just for design alone. You can spend the entire film grooving on all the heart-shaped props in the Red Queen's castle. And Helena Bonham Carter's giant bobble-head is the perfect expression of both character and actress. The movie is full of brilliant little touches like that. But, like Avatar, you walk out wishing the script was as brilliant as the visuals. Which just shows to go you that, whatever else he may be interested in , set design and atmosphere are sky-high on Tim Burton's list of loves.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance


The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play. It’s the play that made me fall in love with Shakespeare, which means it’s right up there with all the other things that made me fall in love: Seven Samurai (Japanese movies), Sasha and Digweed’s Communication (techno), Maverick, Cheyenne and Sugarfoot (westerns), Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy) and Sheila Tagrin (girls). It's also the play I directed, in the dark backward and abysm of time, when I was a senior in high school. As I have so often had occasion to remark these days, boy, do I have a great future behind me.

I know the script of this play the way I know a Beatles song -- I may not be able to recite all the words on my own, but I will be word perfect once the song starts playing. Which is why it’s impossible for me not to be annoyed when Argiers becomes Algiers, the still-vexed Bermoothes turn into the still-vexed Bermudas, the line “Oh what a blow was there given!” is missing its punchline (“An it had not fallen flatlong.”) and my favorite WTF line in all of Shakespeare, “And most chirurgeonly,” is nowhere to be found. This is also why it’s impossible for me to be objective about this play, so what follows is not so much a review as a collection of thoughts about the experience of this particular production.

First thought: nice opening. The play begins with a shipwreck scene, but the production begins with Prospero, who’s sitting stage left reading a book from the moment the house opens. It's a great conceit: here's somebody with his head in a book all the time; no wonder he lost his dukedom. And that was 12 years ago. Guy hasn't changed a bit. Only when he’s ready does he don his magic robe, put on his belt of power (shades of Wonder Woman and her magic belt), take up his staff, and conjure up the storm which will cause that opening shipwreck scene. At which point we’re reminded that Sam Mendes is directing this play, since the shipwreck scene is marred by the same annoying effect that marred last year’s Winter’s Tale: any time there’s an aside, the actors all freeze, the stage goes dark, and a spotlight hits the commenting actor. Then the action starts up again, only to stop with the next comment; and then it begins yet again only to grind to a halt with the next aside. It’s so jerky and frustrating that it’s impossible not to believe that the single most formative experience of Sam Mendes’ life is his struggle to drive stick.


The next, oh, 20 minutes is the longest single exposition scene in Shakespeare. The story is, he wrote it to win a bet with Ben Jonson, who kept making fun of the fact that Shakespeare never stuck to the Aristotelian unities of place and time.

JONSON: If you wrote the Agamemnon, you would have staged everything from Aulis to the Trojan Horse before getting to the homecoming. You and your mouldy tales. You put Father Time in Winter’s Tale, and Pericles takes place over what, twenty years? Man, you couldn’t do single set and real time if your life depended on it.
SHAKESPEARE: Oh yeah? Here; read this. It’s called The Tempest.
JONSON: Oh my God! The second scene is nothing but exposition! And not even interesting exposition.
SHAKESPEARE: Yeah. See how boring single set and real time are?

And that’s the challenge when doing this play: how to sugar the long Prospero speeches so that they don’t put everybody to sleep. (And it’s not like Shakespeare is unaware of what he’s doing, either; Miranda’s line “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” could be spoken by anybody in the audience.) So what does Mendes have Prospero do? Blindfold his daughter so that, in effect, he is just a disembodied voice, and then rattle on while she sits there like a prisoner waiting for the firing squad to arrive. I’m still trying to figure out the whole blindfolding motif, and it is a motif -- Prospero covers Miranda’s eyes a couple of times in this production, like he’s protecting her from something. But what? I can understand covering her eyes when Caliban shows up, but when you’re giving the premise?

PROSPERO: I’ve led a rather interesting life; would you like to hear about it? Good; let me blindfold you.
MIRANDA: Whatever, Dad.

All I can think of is that it's about two things: his magic, and the fact that this particular Prospero has no idea how to deal with real people. As far as the magic goes, I can buy that Prospero creates the shipwreck. But if you’re going to set him up as somebody who can control not just the winds but the other characters on stage, if you're going to make the man a puppeteer, then you have to be very precise about (a) who the puppets are, (b) when and if they can ever act on their own, and (c) why the puppeteer is manipulating them. That clarity is missing here. Lenane’s Prospero appears to be manipulating everybody, including the bad guys. I mean, Antonio and Sebastian are natural plotters; it’s only natural for Prospero to use his arts to make sure their plotting fails. What is not natural is for Ariel to hand both of them daggers so they can attempt to commit murders which will then be prevented. It’s beautifully staged; Ariel walks past them and the daggers he hands them look like they have always been in their hands. But it’s troublesome when you think of the puppeteer angle. It’s one thing to say, “I know you will try to commit murder, but I am going to prevent you,” and quite another to say, “Here’s a couple of daggers so you can try to commit murder so I can prevent you.” It makes the game look rigged from the start. I mean, if Prospero can control everybody to this extent, then you’re watching an argument against the existence of free will, not a play. Or an argument about an all-powerful figure who makes people commit sins so that he can indulge himself in not just preventing them but in forgiving the sinners. After, y'know, an appropriate amount of spiritual torture. I don't know about you, but to me this is both dramatically and theologically unsound.

I used to do the "You are three men of sin" speech as an audition piece,
so don't get me started on this guy's Ariel.

It’s also untrue of this production, which is about vengeance and forgiveness. Almost everyone who’s not being tested or manipulated in a center ring of sand sits on chairs in an upstage pool of water and waits their turn to go onstage, staring off into space while they wonder if the Equity healthcare plan covers the kind of pruney foot rot that infected half the grunts in ‘Nam. The constant presence of actors waiting to go on gives the impression that Mendes is staging a Brechtian exercise in presentational ethics, where everything has a pointed moral and everyone has a lesson to learn. Especially Prospero. Judging the production backwards, the naturalism of Stephen Dillane’s underplaying, once the opportunity to forgive has been presented to his character, stands in stark relief to the shouting hand-waving over-emphasizing hammyness of his early scenes. I kept asking myself “Why is he over-acting like this?” and of course, by the end of the play I understood exactly why: to make a contrast between Prospero the avenger and Prospero the forgiver. The problem I had with it is that shouting is a technique, not a character revelation. When he's observing -- like Jacques -- Dillane's Prospero is in his element, speaking naturally and pointedly. But when he's talking to other people, he's a completely different person, and unfortunately it looks like he's a completely different actor as well. It's a valid and fascinating choice to make Prospero the socially inept twin brother of Jacques, but I feel like I'm making an after-the-fact excuse by thinking of Dillane's performance this way, because while watching it, I didn't know what to make of it. It's like he was playing an acting version of vengeance versus forgiveness: the rarer action is in underplaying than in hamming it up.

But like I say, it’s impossible for me to be objective about this play. Or to see it fresh, for that matter. Even the moment that made people gasp -- Caliban’s first entrance -- reminded me of the same entrance, done in exactly the same way, from the 1974 Public Theatre Tempest with Sam Waterston as Prospero, Carol Kane as Miranda, and Randy Duk Kim as the best Trinculo I have ever seen. (And God, what a weird production THAT was.)

But I will say this. If everything Dillane did as an actor was designed to make his delivery of the epilogue poignant, simple, and profound, then he totally succeeded.

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