Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Αφροδιτη Αρίανδα

If Venus in Fur was a dance, the woman would lead for the first hour, the man would try and fail to lead for the next 30 minutes, and then the woman would trip him up at the climax. And everything but the trip would get a laugh.

So no, it's not really a great play, any more than Fred and Ginger movies are great movies.  But just like you watch Top Hat for the dances, you watch Venus in Fur for Nina Arianda.  She's the show here, and she's Fred and Ginger both: darting, swerving, dipping, lunging, and turning on a dime between every move she makes.  And in that great dancer way, it doesn't look like she's making the moves, it looks like the moves are using her as their embodiment.

It's a tour de force acting performance, and it gives weight and depth to a cleverly-scripted softcore take-down of Leopold von Sader-Masoch’s hardcore 1870 Austrian novella, in which the haughty and distant Vanda von Dunayev matches wits and psychoses with the mink-pelt-loving Severin Kushemski.  The premise is that Arianda's modern-day Vanda is an actress auditioning for the play version of the novella, written and directed by Hugh Dancy's Thomas Novachek.  Hilarious mind-and-body games ensue, as modern-day Vanda wheedles and seduces her way into reading the script with Novachek--only she already knows the script by heart, knows the novella inside out, and has a stalker's familiarity with Novachek's personal kinks, including an offstage girlfriend.  What's really going on?  And does it matter when you're just as dazzled by the actress as her onstage foil is?

Go ahead. Take your eyes off me. I dare you.

Did it matter to me?  No.  I was laughing too much.

But it's not all comedy.  There's a reversal in the slave-master dynamic in the source story that's criticized by Modern Vanda as she re-enacts it, and there are several  echoes of Greek mythology and Greek tragedy--the most pointed being an echo of The Bacchae, when Novachek plays Novella Vanda close to the end. 

As for that end, I don't know if I buy it, but there's no denying it's been built into the script from the beginning. Is it a function of the age we live in or the production we're seeing which makes the final moments feel flaccid?  (Pun intended.)  My own personal opinion is that it lacks the one element that's been in the rest of the play from the very start: Vanda's mutability. Not to spoil it, so let's just say that, instead of portraying an extension of what we've already seen, the end of the play would have worked better for me had it been more of a revelation--a final unmasking by the actress of one more personality, with its own voice and physical attributes--a climactic moment, in other words.  Pun intended.

If you've seen the play, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you should.   Like I say, it's not Euripides, and I can't imagine it being done by anybody else and being this good.  But I'm glad I saw it, because Arianda gives one of those performances I would have kicked myself for missing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I’m only going to say this once, my friend:
Everybody talks to me about everything.
And when I say everything, I mean the stuff
People don't even tell their therapists--
And when I say everybody, I mean
The German-, French-, and English-speaking world.

So when you start talking generically
About that brief affair you had, or how
You made a few mistakes a few months back,
Or that hot married woman you hooked up with,
Or how you started seeing your New Love
A week ago? Trust me--this isn’t news.
I already know every last detail.

That married woman? We had lunch last week.
Your brief affair? Oh please--it never stopped,
At least according to the other party.
I know you started hooking up with your
New Love six months ago because she went
And introduced you to her bestest friend,
Who then told me. I know the names
Of all your sad mistakes, and even where
You made them, because every single one
Of them told me or told a friend of mine
Every last detail, from the flirty texts
To all the angry e-mails at the end.

So every time you skate around the truth
Or tell me half a story, just remember:
I am a walking tabloid morgue of gossip.
I am a front page of the New York Post
With your name on it. I’m the Wikileaks
Of libel. And the only thing that stops
Your secrets from all getting Google hits
Is that I am ten times more trustworthy
Than a deaf priest in a confessional.
Which means I will not speak to anyone
Of what you say to me, any more than
I will repeat what I’ve been told of you.

Just know I know.

What’s new?

Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells

Monday, February 27, 2012

In Her Dreams Of Spring

In her dreams of spring
She slithers between bushes underneath
The curve of Pisces

Curls up into herself like a tea leaf
To sleep in hollow trees

Deciphers the celestial Cyrillics
Into an alphabet of earth

Builds markers for her soul into a tower
Of cool marmoreal stones

Forgoes each last responsibility
For the grave chore of joy

Eats berries for each firefly she sees
Until her face and hands are smirched cerulean

Gossips with trees, and stops the gossip of
Young girls with urgent kisses

Digs her toes
Into the mud until she’s mucked with life

Grows horns and uses garter snakes for garters
While sipping wine from thimbled acorn shells
Collected from a feathered hat, that when
She whispers the right words in the bright tongue
Of stars, will turn her into a white raven

Who loves the sky

Who loves how small we are
And how it’s all connected and it’s not

The far incomprehensible design
And beauty of what has not yet appeared
But is, quintillions of light years away

Galaxies breathing, spinning, and collapsing--
Curling into themselves like bright tea leaves
To spin in hollow space

The perfect sense of the unknown, and how
The limitless cold distance of the stars
Makes her feel small and huge at the same time--

Like something insignificant as dust
And something so unique, the universe
Itself seems to have been created to

Create her.

Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Year's Oscars, or, The Stiffs Our Dreams Are Made Of

I have only two sure-fire Oscar predictions: if ten people say the word “Hazanavicius,” it will be pronounced ten different ways, and by 1AM Monday morning we are all going to be sick to death of hearing the word “dreams” used to describe multi-million-dollar market-researched products of the global film-making entertainment complex. I can hear those presenters now, all of them repeating a version of the phrase, “Movies are where dreams come true,” to describe The Artist and Hugo and The Help (“A dream of tolerance and equality.”).  And of course, the irony is that this year’s nominated movies are only like dreams because, ten minutes after they’re over, you can’t even remember them.  (“The Descendants.  A dream of seven confrontations that never actually happen.”)

Actually this poster is more like 
"Look--George Clooney is totally 
checking out that teenager's ass."

So besides the dream thing, is there a pattern in this year's nine Best Picture nominees?  You bet there is.  We have a feel-good movie about 9/11 (Extremely Twee and Incredibly Mawkish), a feel-good movie about World War I (The War Horse, aka Schindler’s Stallion), a feel-good movie about institutionalized racism (The Help), a feel-good movie about nostalgia (Midnight in Paris), a feel-good movie about the birth of movies (Hugo), a feel-good movie about silent movies (The Artist), a feel-good movie about adultery, life support, and family legacies (The Descendants), a feel-good movie about baseball (Moneyball), and an actual honest-to-God film about  growing up in the 50’s and God’s answer to Job (Tree of Life).

When you look at it like that, it boils down to a race between two movies: the one about baseball, and the one where nobody talks.  If The Help had a couple of guys in it, it’d be in the running too, because everybody likes to feel good about racial equality.  But since it’s impossible for the Old White Male Majority of Academy voters to watch an all-female movie without (a) feeling threatened and (b) imagining the envy of their peers if they were seen in public wining and dining all the nubile young actresses in the film, it’s just (you should pardon the expression) a token nominee.

As for the other six movies?  Since most of the Academy voters are old enough to remember World War I, and still think they can get cast as a romantic lead opposite Marion Cotillard, on paper the race should be between War Horse and Midnight In Paris.  But Midnight In Paris has the temerity to presume that you’ve read a book in your life, which makes it a New York movie, so that’s out.  And War Horse was directed by Steven Spielberg (who isn’t even up for Best Director), which means that, from the opening credits, you know that the horse lives and the final shot is going to be a beautiful sunset. (If Spielberg directed King Lear, Cordelia would not only live, she would marry Edgar.  On a hill.  During a sunset.)

What else?  The Descendants?   The only thing slighter is  the chance of rain in the Sahara.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?  It’s the 9/11 version of Where The Wild Things Are: call it Where The Mourning Kids Are.  Hugo?   If Martin Scorsese couldn’t win for movies with plot and characters, how can he win for movies with effects and allegory?  (Although since this IS Hollywood, that’s exactly what he’ll win for, right?)  And Tree of Life is one of those no-middle-ground movies (a) you either despise or adore which will (b) be argued about 50 years from now.  In other words, an actual creative work of art that doesn’t pander to an audience, a category that includes a lot of other non-Oscar-winning classics, like, say, Goodfellas. (Sorry--couldn’t resist.)

All of which leaves us with the silent movie from the French team that brought you Those OSS-117 Movies, and The Soderbergh Movie That Never Was.  If it was me, I'd split the difference by giving Brad Pitt Best Actor and The Artist Best Movie.  But I don't think that's the way it's going to go down. There's a lot of buzz for George Clooney as Best Actor, which I don't understand. Mostly because I still don't understand why he was nominated.  I mean the movie was nice, but memorable?  Only the daughter was memorable, and she didn't get nominated.   Is Jean Dujardin memorable? Yes--he has a thousand watt smile and an expressive face.  Will that make him this year's Roberto Benigni?  Probably.  But like everything else this year, and maybe I've just got da blahs, no one really stands out. (I've seen 4 out of the 5 Best Actor performances; didn't see Demian Bichir.) So since it's not about who you want to win, it's about who you think will win, who will get the statue? Either Dujardin or Clooney.  Of the 4 I've seen, Pitt would be the wild card, and Gary Oldman the really wild card, even though he had about as many lines in his movie as Dujardin does in his.  

But trust me--The Artist is a lock to win for Best Picture.  Why?  Because whether anybody says it out loud or not (and nobody does), we are reliving The Depression, and The Artist is the modern equivalent of a Fred and Ginger movie.

As for the other acting awards?  I’d like to see Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave win for Supporting Actor & Actress in Coriolanus, and Tilda Swinton win Best Actress for We Need To Talk About Kevin.  But none of them were nominated.   I’d also like to see everybody who’s ever been in one of the Harry Potter movies win a special ensemble Oscar.  That includes the three leads, none of whom was ever arrested for anything in the course of the series, something which would have happened after the third film if they’d been American kids.  (Hell--if they'd been American?  They'd all have slept with Lindsay Lohan during Goblet of Fire.) 

Of the actual nominees, I’d like to see Christopher Plummer get Best Supporting Actor for Beginners (which should have been nominated for Best Picture) and Melissa McCarthy win Supporting Actress for Bridesmaids (ditto).  As usual, these categories will be the bellwethers for the bigger awards. If Max von Sydow wins Supporting Actor, it's a vote for silent movies (he doesn't have a line in the film).  If Jonah Hill wins, Moneyball may have an outside shot at Best Picture.  If Berenice Bejo wins Supporting Actress, it’s Artist all the way.  My gut says Supporting Actress will go to one of the two actresses nominated for The Help, which means the dark horse here is Jessica Chastain, because she’s The Real Deal and she’s one of The Stories Of The Year.  If she wins, it’ll be because she’s been consistently memorable in everything she’s done in the last seven months--during which time she’s worked with almost as many people as Max von Sydow has in his entire career.

Best Actress? On the surface, this is an easy choice, because only one of the films for which the actresses are nominated is a Feel Good Film. (There’s an essay about women and film in that statement; if I feel up to it, I may just attempt it.)  Given that criteria? Viola Davis should win. But the Academy loves women who suffer (and there's my essay), so Michelle Williams has a shot. (Plus she’s playing a real-life tortured movie star, something the Academy voters regularly go gaga for.)  But Glenn Close suffers in Albert Nobbs, so she has a shot. And Rooney Mara is playing the popular culture's Current Epitome of A Tortured Female, so theoretically, she has the best shot of all to win.  The only one who doesn’t have a chance is Meryl Streep, who is playing a woman nobody liked in a movie nobody saw, and is fast turning into a female cross between Paul Muni and Charlton Heston. I eagerly await her Mother Teresa, her Carol Channing, her Ann Richards, her Miss Marple, and her Margaret Mitchell.

Which leaves Best Director. Personally, I’d love to see that go to Scorsese or Terrence Malik, because Hugo was All Direction And Little Else, and because Tree Of Life is, as I mentioned, a creative work of art which nobody else on earth could have made in just this way except the person who did make it.  And I think Woody Allen has a shot, because of the nostalgia angle, and because all the old white male voters think they could get Lea Seydoux in a heartbeat. (Which actually accentuates the whole Woody Allen And Young Girls Thing, so there could be a backlash there.) But in the end, this is one of those categories where who I want to win, who I think should win, and who I think will probably win are three completely different people.  I want Terrence Malik to win, Martin Scorsese should win, but Michel Hazanavicius will probably win for The Artist.

Having said all that, what would make my Oscar Night special? (Besides, y’know, giving up celibacy for Lent with Sandra Bullock?)

One thing: Michael Shannon winning Best Actor for Take Shelter. Too bad he wasn't nominated.

The posters above, as well as a few others, can be found here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Bones of Love

Below, some fragments from unfinished love poems.

I like to think that someday, in the near distant future, literary paleontologists will look at these stray fossils and construct whole poems out of them.

(Yes--that would make me the male Sappho.)

With my last breath, I will exhale your name:
A moth who burns for joy, kissing your flame.

And make a future equal to our dreams

Like sun and rain, we will combine to make
A garden out of what we could alone
Make nothing

A whole in loving greater than its parts

There’s only tension when we never pay

Love writes a poem filled with perfect rhymes;
Marriage sees all the typos

Light is not light unless it shines in darkness;
Love is not love unless it’s the oasis
In hatred’s desert

I need you like the bullet needs the wound

Happiness is the only mortal wound
That doesn’t need a bandage

There must be some way we can share this bed
Without having to shrink to fit inside
Its narrow confines

I think of you the way fish think of water--
As a world to be lived in

You say “I love you,” but I know you mean
“Te Quiero,” not “Te Amo,” which is why
I die inside each time you whisper it

Love bright and cold like some far distant star

Love is a land mine I keep stepping on
To count how many pieces I have left
After I'm blown apart

Before you, I was happy to be wanting

Love is the fire in winter, and the breeze
In summer, that make livable the cold
And itchy heat of intimacy’s house

You make me weak so you can be my strength--
You cripple me, and then sell me the crutch.

That’s why I’ll always love you: because I
Can never hit your curve ball

A love so strong, together we can dine
On it and never see an empty plate

Of course you wound me.  How else can I bleed?

Let love be what we each in faith profess
And life the space in our togetherness.

My backwards steps all end up in your arms

The wooing clock stops when we say “I do.”
That’s when the clock of marriage starts to tick,
A timepiece that will need ten times more tending
For it, and us, to work

My love letters have just one vowel: you

Oh let us say
“Always” and “Never” like young lovers do,
And not like warring married couples, who
Shoot them like bullets in an argument

You live on drama, so that’s what I feed you.
You’re all that’s wrong with me--that’s why I need you.

Your lips, those succulent dishonest twins

And trade the whole world for a pair of eyes
In which that world’s reflected

If you
Were within reach, I’d never let you go

You are my cross; I am your passion’s toy--
My love for you a crucifix of joy.

Each time I please you or I make you laugh,
My heart salmons a waterfall

I want to leave this life holding your hand

Your soul’s a sword not even God can sheathe.
You are my tree: what you exhale, I breathe.

Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Grey, or, Endgame

Guess what the operative word is in that tag line.

1.  “Well there’s something you don’t see every day. A horror movie about how people die, not just who dies.”   That’s the first thing I thought when I walked out of the theatre.  

2.  It’s dark, depressing, brutal, unsparing, but never gratuitous, which is a rarity in any movie where the actors get picked off one by one.

3.  In every monster movie, there’s a Van Helsing, somebody who’s an expert on this particular type of monster.  In this movie (surprise!) it’s Liam Neeson, who happens to be a wolf-killer.  And just like in vampire movies, nobody else knows jack about vampires, so our expert is free to set the premise, explain the threat, plant the seeds of future events (alpha males, the wolves’ den), etc.  Which would have annoyed me a lot less if only one of the other actors had just a smidgen of wolf trivia at his fingertips.

4.  Best airplane crash since Fearless.

5.  There’s a scene right after that crash which is the movie in miniature, a scene in which Neeson’s character Ottway tells an injured co-worker that he’s dying and he should just let himself go.  I found it to be really powerful, mostly because, in a scene like this, you almost always see the living actor tell the dying actor that everything is going to be all right, and when the dying actor says something clever or forward-looking and then dies, the living actor gets to shed a sorrowful tear.  In this movie?  The dying guy cries.  Because who wouldn’t when he’s told he’s dying?

6.  This is not just a movie about how people die, but about how people face death.  If you don’t want to spend money to think about that for two hours, then go watch Haywire, which is about how people face an ass-kicking by Gina Carano.

7.  If this was a Western movie, it would be about a 7th Cavalry patrol that’s lost in the Dakota Territory and getting picked off one by one by sneaky Sioux warriors.  If it had been made in the 40’s?  The survivors would be rescued.  In the 70’s?  No way.

8.  As a matter of fact, the entire movie can be summed up by the oft-quoted rallying cry of Crazy Horse during the battle of the Little Big Horn: “Today is a good day to die.”

9.  There’s a teaser scene at the end of the credits, a brief and ambiguous 3-5 second shot that is over almost as soon as you see it.  I think I know what it means, and what it echoes earlier in the film.  But it’s still a head-scratcher.

10.  Hard to believe this is the same guy who directed A-Team.

11.  On a level above plot and story?  If you know anything about Liam Neeson’s personal life, and the loss of his wife Natasha Richardson, you can’t help reading Neeson's personal grief into those recurring moments when he dreams about his young (lover?  wife?) repeatedly smiling and saying, “Don’t be afraid,” a memory which isn’t explained until close to the end.  And no, it's not a happy explanation.

12.  And on another level--the one that’s hardest to take?  The Grey is a movie about how Life is a horror movie where everyone dies.  Because isn’t it, really?  And we may not want to watch it more than once, but then we don’t get to live it more than once either.

13. Heaven: the religious equivalent of a post-credit teaser. Discuss.