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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Remembering Robert Altman

Robert Altman’s free-flowing, improvisatory style remains unique. Although he has been widely eulogized during this last week as one of the great filmmakers, and had inspired a near-reverential devotion in many directors as well as filmgoers, few have tried to imitate him (and fewer have succeeded). The closest offspring may have come on television: the improvised content (and wickedly knowing satire of Southern California) of Curb Your Enthusiasm; the off-center, pseudo-documentary style of The Office; the multilayered characters and storylines and camera movements of the best early episodes of ER and The West Wing. Even this is not an exact comparison, but those shows are closer to Altman than, say, Crash, the multi-character, multi-plot Oscar winner that could be compared (unfavorably) to Nashville and Short Cuts.

Altman’s career was remarkably long, and he successfully reinvented himself more than once, but his greatest achievements nearly all came in the seven year period that started with M*A*S*H (1970) and ended with Three Women (1977). He made seven brilliant movies in that time, and only he could have made them: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, and Nashville, bookended by and M*A*S*H and Three Women (the first half of which is quite wonderful). He even made a few other movies during the period that are generally less highly regarded: Brewster McCloud, Images, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. A Wedding, which directly followed Three Women, was skillful but rather pedestrian and ordinary, and a long dry period followed.

I was in film school at USC during the 1976-78 period, and several of the professors at that industry-oriented school were openly contemptuous of Altman: “He lets actors improvise…He’s being irresponsible with other people’s money.” That he could make a wide-ranging masterpiece like Nashville for slightly over $2-million meant nothing to them. Since M*A*S*H was the only big money-maker he ever directed, the studios never really respected him. And that may be a clue to the lack of imitators.

Where did that unique ‘70s Altman style come from? Nothing before M*A*S*H had prepared anyone for it. Howard Hawks had successfully used overlapping dialogue in several great films of the thirties and forties, and there is some of that spirit in Altman, combined with a hippie/antiwar/anti-establishment attitude. (He pioneered the use of Dolby Stereo and multilayered dialogue tracks, enhancing the "everyone talking at once" atmosphere with cutting-edge technology.) There’s also a lyricism that balances the hard satire. This is especially apparent in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Then there is the unique visual beauty of the films, the wide, wide Panavision images with their slow glides and zooms. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography in both The Long Goodbye and McCabe provides some of the most innovative visual highlights of that decade.

The use of music is also enormously creative. Nothing could complement McCabe & Mrs. Miller better than Leonard Cohen’s songs. John Williams creates brilliant and amusing variations on the title song of The Long Goodbye to accompany different scenes and moods. The actors created their own songs in Nashville, and while any country music fan will tell you those songs weren’t genuinely country, several of them serve beautifully to expand on the characters and situations in the film.

Last but far from least are the actors. Actors loved Altman and lined up to work with him. The results of the improvisations could be variable, but when they worked, amazing performances could happen: Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and California Split; Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, Geraldine Chaplin, and several others in Nashville; Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in Three Women.

Of the movies that came later, everyone has a few favorites, but not many would argue that the work comes close to that first flowering (made mostly when Altman was in his mid to late forties). I like best among them Vincent and Theo, a marvelous biography of Van Gogh that too few have seen, and the smashing entertainment Gosford Park. Perhaps I need to see The Player again, since I notice it turns up on nearly everyone’s list of favorites. My impression at the time was that it was pretty good but was being overrated because of critics’ affection for the director.

I grew up 50 miles from Nashville, and I attended the local premiere of the great Altman film there in 1975. (I had naively written to the director the year before offering my services as an assistant for little or no pay; I was only 17, so this was unlikely to happen, and at any rate I never got a reply.) My friends and I absolutely loved the movie, and I envisioned it doing great boxoffice and winning Oscars. But although it lasted three months at that first-run theater, many people in Nashville were less than thrilled with what they saw. “I guess we didn’t realize we were all so stupid,” said my parents, meaning the way locals are portrayed in the film. And Minnie Pearl was interviewed on the local news. “That’s not the Nashville that I’ve known and loved my whole life.”

And Minnie was right. Brilliant as the film is, it is not a realistic depiction of Nashville. It is a beautifully wrought, satirical fantasy, and it takes place in another city entirely…call it Altmanville – the place, in fact, where nearly all his films are set. I go back there to visit periodically, to see some of the finest, most unusual movies ever made. They form Mr. Altman’s legacy, and it’s a powerful one. He will be missed.

Sufjan Stevens's Songs for Christmas

Sufjan Stevens is on the cusp, moving from cult figure into some sort of stardom:

  • His summer release, The Avalanche, a collection of outtakes from his masterful Illinois album, was a very mixed bag, with some very good cuts, but far from his best work. Yet for the first time he broke into Billboard’s top 100 albums chart.
  • His three-night concert run at New York’s Town Hall in late September sold out almost immediately (helped by a $25 ticket price). When I wrote to his Brooklyn-based record label, Asthmatic Kitty, to bemoan the fact that I (and I assume many other fans) would be missing the concerts, I got a reply that indicated that Sufjan and his company were taken aback by the success, surprised by the quick sellouts. They admitted that the $25 price may have been a miscalculation, since tickets were immediately, inevitably being offered on Craigslist and through brokers for $200 or more – and fans were the losers. (An amazing new 10-minute song, “Majesty, Snowbird,” was captured by someone at one of the Town Hall shows and is currently a popular clip on YouTube.)
  • A recent half-hour set on PBS’s Austin City Limits probably introduced Sufjan to more new listeners than ever before. (See clips on PBS’s web site.)
  • And now there is another good news/bad news announcement on the Asthmatic Kitty web site…Sufjan’s new boxed set, Songs for Christmas, is sold out and backordered. (Amazon seems to still have stock.)

All this growing popularity is immensely well deserved. Sufjan Stevens’s “orchestral folk-pop” is unique and often breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. The soft-spoken yet incantatory power of songs like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” helped make Illinois the best album I’ve heard in the last few years. And Seven Swans, his most overtly religious album, contains several songs (such as “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” and “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”) that move a cynical old agnostic like me to tears. Poetic and mystical rather than preachy, Sufjan’s Christianity remains in the background and on the edges of his very fine “secular” works, Michigan and Illinois, the first two in a projected series of 50 albums named after the 50 states.

Inevitably Jesus is somewhat more prominent in the new boxed Christmas set. It consists of 5 EP-length discs, 42 cuts in all (some, as on all his albums, brief instrumental fragments or transitions), two hours of music for slightly more than the price of one CD. Sufjan has been doing an annual mini-album each Christmas, mixing traditional and original material, both religious and secular, and this set collects the four previous discs and adds a new, longer one for 2006. His melodic style is well matched to holiday songs. If the thought of new renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” “The First Noel,” or (three times, no less) “O Come O Come Emmanuel” makes you gag, this may not be the best new album for your collection. But if you’re a fan (as you may have gathered, I am), you won’t want to miss it.

Several of the best original songs are sad or wistful or even angry. They provide a good counterpoint to such whimsical fun as “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance.” Among these new blue-Christmas classics are “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” – a possibly autobiographical piece, simple and lovely and sad; and “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” – a good quarreling-lovers holiday weepie in the tradition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” (And actually, that’s only a medium-length title for a Sufjan song.)

The new 2006 disc closes with three of these less-than-joyful songs in Sufjan’s patented mini-oratorio mode. They are wonderful: “Jupiter Winter” is cosmic in scope, channeling Gustav Holst for its ending (according to Sufjan’s notes); “Sister Winter” is a much more personal song of sadness and loss, building to a rock-symphonic close that resembles “Majesty, Snowbird,” the new concert-only opus that is creating such a stir; and “Star of Wonder,” mysterious and gorgeous, sustains itself for seven magical minutes.

Certainly the new material provides the most artistically satisfying and exciting parts of the box. But the traditional carols are well done too, and will make excellent additions to your iPod Xmas playlist. Some of the better ones include “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “We Three Kings” and “O Holy Night” (the two blended into one seamless cut), the slightly retitled “What Child Is This Anyway?” and the great-for-kids “The Friendly Beasts.”

The set includes a 40-page booklet, stickers and a poster. Get it while you can. By next year, Mr. Stevens may have become too big to do this kind of homemade Christmas present for us again.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Short Takes: Recent Films

Running with Scissors
A valiant, uneven attempt to translate the bestselling memoir to the screen. It often ends up resembling a John Irving novel or the TV series Six Feet Under, with its absurd characters and plot twists that are allegedly all true. Director Murphy [Nip/Tuck] tries hard, possibly too hard, to find a visual and rhythmic style to match the material, and mostly fails. But his cast is always interesting and occasionally very fine, especially the three leads: Joseph Cross, touchingly vulnerable and funny as the narrator-protagonist, Augusten Burroughs; Brian Cox, startlingly convincing as the psychiatrist, loonier than most of his patients, who adopts Augusten; and above all, Annette Bening, superlative as Augusten’s astonishingly dysfunctional mother. Jill Clayburgh also has a good if not entirely convincing role as the psychiatrist’s wife, who becomes a second mother to Augusten.

The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry’s last film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was skillful but, to me at least, irritating and smug. Its script by the heretofore excellent Charlie Kaufman seemed miscalculated and unsatisfying, and the two leads, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, were often all wrong for their roles (which didn’t prevent them from getting extravagant praise).

I’m happy to report that all the charm I found lacking in Sunshine is present in abundance in Gondry’s new The Science of Sleep, which he wrote himself. It reminds me of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, but with loads of witty special effects. Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg are completely captivating as the two young lovers who keep missing each other’s signals and slipping between dreams and reality with alarming ease. One of the most entertaining and beautifully directed movies of the year.

Flags of Our Fathers
While it is never less than admirable, and its visuals are often remarkable (the muted color of the photography has certainly been used before, but rarely so effectively), this Clint Eastwood film, about the famous Iwo Jima photograph and its effects on the soldiers involved, never really takes off. Its confusing narrative structure, although one can see why it was used, is one problem. There is a curious lack of fire and passion, with one big exception: Adam Beach as the Native American Marine Ira Hayes is wonderful, totally riveting. Everything else seems a bit listless.

It’s no insult to say that Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant, subversive humor works best in small, concentrated doses. The Borat sketches on his Da Ali G Show on HBO are scathing, gasp-inducing wonders of ruthless satire, with the help of unwitting participants who believe they are making a documentary rather than serving as foils for a wicked put-on. There are several great moments in this feature-length collection of zingers, and lotsa laughs. But the narrative connecting the hilarious bits is not nearly as interesting as the bits themselves, and some of the jokes are just potty humor with little satirical point at all. It’s entertaining, and only occasionally really terrible, but I was hoping for some momentum, a cascade of shock and awe. Alas, no. Still, Baron Cohen’s improvisational comic acting as the lovably boorish Kazakh journalist is quite inspired throughout.

The Prestige
A splendid entertainment – basically a sophisticated and intelligent comic-book adventure. Christopher Nolan showed his talent for grounding outlandish plots to genuine emotion and superlative storytelling craft in Batman Begins. In this new film, not tied to the constricting expectations of a multibillion dollar DC Comics-Warner Bros. franchise, he is free to use a fuller range of his considerable talent. This tale of a deadly rivalry between two stage magicians a century ago has a literally tricky plot that will have you hanging on every quietly spoken line. Visually, it’s top of the line, with Nolan’s usual cinematographer, Wally Pfister, once again showing how extravagant adventures ought to be photographed. The cast is mostly excellent, with some oddities among the accents: Christian Bale speaks Cockney, Hugh Jackman disconcertingly speaks American, Scarlett Johansson disconcertingly speaks British, and David Bowie does a pretty good Serbian as Nikolai Tesla. Michael Caine speaks more or less in his own intonations and is wonderful. Only if you stop to think about the basically thin premise does the movie suffer. While you are watching, you’ll barely have time for such questions.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Favorite Revisited: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is not only the best of all Christmas movies – it’s one of the greatest American films. It’s often mistakenly thought of as a big pile of corny sentimental mush. But as someone who’s allergic to fake sentimentality, I can promise you there is a much more substantive – and dark – achievement in Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece.

I first saw this movie in the best possible way, and I feel very lucky. I was attending USC’s film school, and they were showing a retrospective of Capra movies. USC has connections at the film studios, and they can often get pristine prints from studio vaults. This was way back in the 1970s, kids, before It’s a Wonderful Life had gone into the public domain and become a Christmas staple on every local TV station in the country. And I, a fairly experienced young film buff, had, believe it or not, never heard of this movie! So I went to see it with zero expectations of any kind, and no knowledge at all of the plot. (And also, by the way, it was nowhere near Christmas, and this was L.A. anyway, where it never feels like Christmas.)

What unfolded before my widening eyes was a glistening, gorgeous 35mm print. If you’ve only seen Wonderful Life on television, you’ve only half seen it. It is beautifully crafted – the photography, the editing, the storytelling itself are models of fine workmanship, probably Capra’s very best movie. The cast, from the leads down to just about every supporting role, is nearly perfect. And as the film proceeds, it develops an astonishing emotional pull, as powerful as a freight train, a nuclear missile, an earthquake.

I was 20. As far as I can remember, I had never cried at a movie before. It came upon me out of nowhere in the last scene, when our hero’s brother toasts him as “my big brother George, the richest man in town.” I was overwhelmed with emotion, suddenly sobbing uncontrollably. And it shocked me. What the hell was going on?

It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man driven to despair and attempted suicide. The story begins with others praying for him, on Christmas Eve – and then quickly goes back to trace how he got there. How did George Bailey, popular, sweet-natured, generous, fall so low? We follow him from childhood on, as his big dreams get shot down one by one. Other people get opportunities and success over the years; he stays in his small town, stuck running his family’s modest, struggling business, a savings and loan. And as the story reaches its climax, he’s about to lose even that. The situation turns him into a snarling, bad-tempered Mr. Hyde, yelling at his family and picking fights — and finally wandering out to a bridge near town, standing still, staring down into the water, about to jump.

The secret to the emotional wallop the film packs is that we share in George’s despair. This story takes you to a very deep, dark place. Certainly it’s leavened by humor along the way, and the fact that we see George’s tale as it is being told to his rather goofy guardian angel adds a big dose of whimsy (maybe too big a dose for some). But James Stewart is very skilled at finding the creepy, obsessed souls of nice guys (as he did later to even more stunning effect in Vertigo), and he takes the audience right along with him.

So when the magical conclusion of the film takes us first to an even darker place (a fantasy alternate universe), and then lifts George, and the audience, out of the darkness and into the warm light of family and friends, the effect is extraordinary. This is why it’s one of the most surefire tearjerkers in Hollywood history. And the fact that it makes people cry, and includes Christmas carols, and cute kids, and a banker villain of Dickensian meanness, and a stammering elderly elf of an angel, has led to its reputation as pure cornball. But I don’t see how anyone who watches the movie in its entirety could still feel that way about it.

Also unforgettable is the love story the movie tells between the Stewart character and Donna Reed as Mary, his wife. There’s a particularly memorable scene, brilliant and atypical for Hollywood, where the two, who have been quarreling, end up tangled in the cord of an old-fashioned phone as they listen to a long-distance call, and then suddenly find themselves weeping and kissing passionately, utterly in love. It’s capped by Mary’s mother walking in on them and hissing her disapproval. Stewart and Reed are amazing here. (Unfortunately, Donna Reed also gets the dumbest scene – near the end, when George is shown what the world would have been like without him, and Mary is discovered to have become a mousy, bespectacled librarian. It’s ridiculous and unconvincing, but at least it’s over quickly.)

It’s that climactic, Christmas Carol-derived sequence that most people remember – where the angel convinces George of his life’s value by showing how bad a place the world would have been if he weren’t there. It’s skillfully, even superbly, done, except for the librarian part. But it would be just a gimmicky plot if the emotional tug of what comes before and after were less intense.

There’s a very high-quality DVD available, and NBC now shows a really fine print as well, usually twice during the holidays – though it’s interrupted by dozens of ads. So there’s no need to suffer through the terrible, washed-out prints from the era when the movie’s copyright lapsed. If you haven’t seen this one for a while, give it another look. It may be impossible to watch it through completely fresh eyes, as I was fortunate enough to do 30 years ago. But it’s still a great movie, one that hits you right...there.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Political Aside - Reasons to be Cheerful, or: The Far Side of Paradise

I can think of at least four broad reasons to be happy and relieved about last Tuesday’s election results. None of them requires that you believe liberal Democrats are saints or saviors - only that a dialogue is better than a monologue in Washington.

1. It wiped the smirks away

On Election Night, I was stuck at the Atlanta airport trying to get back to New York. By a stroke of luck, they boarded us early, at 7, for a flight that didn’t end up leaving until 9 and didn’t land until 11. I say ‘luck,’ because it was on one of Delta’s formerly-Song planes, featuring satellite TV. So, political nerd that I am, I happily watched CNN, Fox News and MSNBC for 4 hours. (I realize that this, even more than a Democratic Congress, may be some folks’ idea of hell.)

By far the most satisfying moments in those 4 hours were on Fox, as the right-wing anchor Brit Hume and commentators like Fred Barnes struggled to put a positive spin on the Republican debacle. These men wear perpetual smirks and sneers, and relish every opportunity to mock and deride their opponents while praising and/or excusing even the most disgraceful acts of the Bush administration. But that night, they eventually gave up trying to pretend. Those smirks were wiped off their faces. It was wonderful to see.

And the next day, our Smirker-in-Chief presented a remarkably gracious and humble face as he reacted publicly to the “thumpin’” his party had received. His words at the post-election news conference and during meetings with the incoming Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were on some level, of course, just well-rehearsed, politically necessary bullshit. We will no doubt get back to sniping and partisan hot air shortly. But one of the most exasperating things about the Bush government has been its pigheaded insistence that it has done nothing wrong, as evidence to the contrary has risen to mountainous heights. So even a momentary pause in that very destructive attitude is something we can all be grateful for.

2. Accountability has the chance to make a comeback

Much has been said, both before and after the election, about the scary left-wing extremists who will take over Congressional committee chairmanships in January. I believe this is nonsense, for several reasons, but the most important cause for cheering is that committee hearings, full of partisan bloviating as they certainly will be at times, will provide the currently lacking counterpunch to Republican policies. If they are used properly, they will have real teeth as they find and reveal the corruption, inequity and plain wrong-headedness that inevitably riddle the foreign and domestic policies of any government. For most of the last six years, the Republican Congress has served as an echo chamber for these policies, and dissenting voices were given little chance to be heard or acted upon.

The largest issue facing Congressional committee oversight is the war in Iraq. As Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker puts it, the “mendacity, incompetence, lawlessness, and ideological arrogance surrounding the origins and conduct of that war” need to be fully aired in public hearings. A lot of this will be backward-looking finger-pointing, but it’s still a healthy exercise, and it is the constitutional duty of the Congress, a duty Republicans have understandably let lapse.

As for future policy directions, the bipartisan Baker commission report will come out next month, and we can hope it will provide a starting point and a blueprint to finding a way out of the frightening chaos the war has become. At least two polar opposite points of view will have to be reconciled: with equal vehemence John McCain says send lots more troops and win the war militarily, and John Murtha says bring them home now, because our very presence is a major cause of the chaos. I don’t believe either of these viewpoints is nearly as ironclad as their proponents do – but a public hearing based on a bipartisan report can begin to formulate some policies to propose to the administration. And we can hope that Bush will actually listen to these voices rather than continuing to charge boldly forward with his failed policy.

Domestically, here are three examples of areas Congressional committees should look hard at:

* The stealth insertion by California Republican Duncan Hunter of a provision that kills the Office of Inspector General charged with finding waste and corruption in defense contracts in Iraq. This was sneaky and reprehensible, and certainly has the appearance of undue influence by defense industry lobbyists.

* The provision in the Medicare drug plan that forbids the government to negotiate prices on medications. Again, this has the unpleasant odor of corporate lobbyists creating policy that protects their industries at taxpayer expense. Billy Tauzin, former Republican congressman, now head of the pharmaceutical lobby, helped craft this provision right before he left Congress to take the lobbying job.

* The aftermath of the Abramoff-DeLay scandals. Nancy Pelosi has been quoted as saying, “We will make this the most honest and ethical congress in history.” Let’s hope these are more than simply politically expedient words. A genuine cleanup of the ethical mess involving lobbyists’ money would affect Democrats as well as Republicans. Will they have the nerve to take this issue on in a meaningful way?

3. Fiscal sanity can at least be talked about, if not yet enacted

I know my Republican readers will laugh or become apoplectic, or both, at this notion. The stereotype of Democrats is as champions of Tax and Spend. But a couple of things have happened during the last three Presidencies to change that. Both Bush pere in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 1993 pushed through deficit-reduction packages that included both tax increases and spending cuts. This caused much uproar among those for whom taxes are an ideological flash point rather than an economic tool. But the public had learned to despise the huge budget deficit, and there was widespread relief that by 1999-2000 the government’s budget had actually gone into surplus. There were plenty of disputes about who or what deserved the credit, but no one was unhappy to see the deficit disappear.

It was understandable that in 2001, an incoming Republican administration wanted to return some of the budget surplus to the public through tax cuts, also thereby stimulating an economy that was reeling from the collapse of the dot-com bubble. But then came 9/11, followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And what may have seemed sensible in peacetime looked very different during an expensive war. But in another example of the ideological pigheadedness that has characterized the Bush administration, for the first time in this century, the government cut taxes during wartime. The result was, duh, the deficit ballooned again. The surplus seemed a distant memory. This year’s deficit is $260 billion. $1.5 trillion has been added to the national debt since 2001.

Again, there has been much fear-mongering about what Democrats may do about taxes starting in January. The short answer is, nothing – because with a narrowly divided Senate and a Republican president, any significant tax increases are dead. But Congressional committees will have a bully pulpit to raise questions about the size of the deficit and who really has benefited from the Bush tax cuts. They will, if they are smart, look for revenue streams beyond the personal income tax, and point out that not all taxes are income taxes. They can take advantage of the fact that a majority of Americans still hate the deficit and would rather see it reduced than have taxes cut further. The Dems could propose rollbacks of tax cuts on the very wealthy, and the public would support them. These rollbacks still wouldn’t get past Bush or the Senate. But there is a chance to change the debate.

Republicans have tended, for the purposes of public argument, to lump all taxes together, and imply that they are all personal income taxes targeting everyone; they prefer to gloss over corporate taxes as well as the benefits to the very wealthy. They like to pretend that the patchwork political package of Bush tax cuts is perfect and shouldn’t be touched, even though of course those cuts could be altered without abolishing them. They even embarrassingly gave huge tax breaks to oil companies right before oil price increases drove profits through the roof.

If there are hearings about all these things, we should rejoice, not cringe. And if the liberal old lions of the Democratic party overreach, there will be a backlash. I believe they know this, and I believe they will tread more carefully than some expect them to. But isn’t it better to have this dialogue, even if it turns into a shouting match? Certainly it’s better than the one-party echo chamber we have had for six years.

4. The rise of the moderate-conservative Democrat

I have mixed feelings about this one, because I disagree with these freshmen Blue Dogs on many issues. I’m to the left of them on gay rights, gun control and abortion; and to the right of them on free trade and globalization. The combination of social conservatism and economic populism seems to me an uneasy throwback to the Dixiecrats of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the reason their election is good news is that it may signal a cooling down of the polarization of politics that has poisoned our national dialogue for the last dozen years or so. (In fact, this began in the Reagan years, but it became much worse during the Clinton administration, and hasn’t let up since.)

Democrats have opened up their party to non-ideologues who want to get things done. Maybe the Republicans will follow suit, although in the short run, Congressional Republican moderates have all but disappeared – several of them were defeated on Tuesday night. But whatever one may think of them, Republican figures like John McCain, Susan Collins, Rudy Giuliani are much more popular with the general public than ideological firebrands. The public hates partisan extremism, and always gravitates toward the middle. For true believers, this always seems a disappointing compromise. But for the rest of us, it seems the only way to stay sane.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Grey Gardens: Cult Movie Becomes a Cult Musical

Grey Gardens, the Maysles brothers’ 1975 cinema-verite documentary portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s most eccentric cousins, has now become a very unlikely source for a new Broadway musical, following a successful Off-Broadway run. Some of its scenes and its structure don’t entirely come together, but on the whole it is a remarkable achievement, both hilarious and touching.

The movie developed a devoted cult following in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly among downtown NY’s artsiest fashionistas. At the time the movie was made, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” as Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter are universally known, were 79 and 56. They lived in East Hampton in Grey Gardens, a 28-room house of infamous squalor: “52 cats, fleas, practically no running water,” not to mention a family of possibly rabid raccoons eating through walls and taking over the attic. To call the two Edies eccentric and their relationship dysfunctional is certainly an understatement. Little Edie’s unique fashion sense and equally unique way of speaking have to be seen and heard to be believed.

The musical imagines, in its first act, what life was like for the Edies 30 years earlier, before Grey Gardens fell into disrepair, when they had money and moved in high society circles. Then the second act basically brings the film to life on the stage. In a performance that has already drawn extravagant acclaim and a new cult of admirers, Christine Ebersole plays Big Edie in the 1941 scenes and Little Edie in the 1973 scenes. Her recreation of Little Edie’s appearance and voice is quite extraordinary. I had just watched the film on DVD a few days before seeing the play, and the effect was startling.

The first act is much more conventional, with superficial resemblances to any number of family drawing-room musicals, like parts of Meet Me in St. Louis or Mame. But the dark seeds of the Edies’ future are there, and both the film and the play’s second act enrich, and are enriched by, this backstory. We see the preparations for the engagement party of Little Edie and Joe Kennedy (John Kennedy’s brother), and little Jackie Bouvier, the future Jackie Kennedy, is there, age 12. What starts cheerfully becomes steadily gloomier, sadder, more foreboding. Scandal will end the engagement, and the wedge between mother and daughter is strengthened. Little Edie goes off to try for show business success and an independent life in New York.

But we have already glimpsed the rather creepy, manipulative bonds between Big Edie and Little Edie, and when the curtain rises on Act Two we’re not surprised to find that Little Edie moved back home and hasn’t left since 1954. She’s trapped – by her mother’s grasp and by her own inertia. But the dialogue between the two of them, and the accompanying songs, provide about half an hour of outrageous hilarity at the beginning of the second act. Doug Wright, who wrote the script, has done an uncanny job of incorporating almost every noteworthy line from the film, even though the film was totally unscripted and the lines were caught on the fly. (Wright is also responsible for I Am My Own Wife, another true story about an amazing eccentric.)

The problem comes when the play’s creators try to give it a structure and an ending. The movie has no story as such; its progression is measured by the size of the hole in the wall the raccoons make. In the play, there are musical numbers featuring ghostly figures from the first act, and a finish that makes explicit Little Edie’s futile wish to get away. But these additions actually work against the material. Only the strength of the characters and the performers keep it going.

The songs in the first act are lovely but mostly innocuous. The second act opens with a brilliant number interspersed with a Little Edie monologue drawn from the film: “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” Deservedly, it got a huge ovation the night I saw it. It’s soon followed by Big Edie’s “The Cake I Had,” another show-stopper. But the songs in the second act which incorporate the characters from Act One are less successful. They seem rather like failed experiments.

And yet…Christine Ebersole is a wonder, and Mary Louise Wilson as Big Edie (in 1973) is also very good, if a bit more elegant and likeable than the movie’s scarier character. Allen Moyer’s scenery, William Ivey Long’s costumes, and the lighting by Peter Kaczorowski are all first-rate. The play’s creators have set themselves an almost impossible task, and they deserve a lot of credit for trying, even if the results fall short.

I found the movie fascinating, funny and horrifying, an emotional train wreck that’s hard to stop watching. At its best, this adaptation comes close, although it’s inevitably a little slicker, a little less open-ended. See them both, if you can – there are very few movies or musicals quite like this.