Completely down with the cold going around. One bright spot has been the new Antony & the Johnsons album, with this song (is it a song?) The whole disc is a collection of sighs and gasps more than songs. Soul Man.
The opera Il Postino consisted of the love story of Mario and Beatrice, animated by some engaging music: a brass band that followed a politician around, the rowdy percussion accompaniment to the game of fussball (a first for an opera?), the simulated recording of a tango, and the extraordinary wedding song by Mario’s father (Gabriel Lautaro Osuna) that wove together Arabic, Italian, and Old and New World Spanish sounds.
Unfortunately Daniel Catán stuck to the story of the movie Il Postino and made Mario and Beatrice and everything else revolve around the character of Pablo Neruda.
Unfortunate because every time Neruda (Placido Domingo) appeared the action screeched to a dead stop. Even conceding the idea of Neruda as a kindly old wizard, his exasperating arias of warm-hearted philanthropic poetry again and again pulled the plug on the story. Some enlightened tyrant of dramaturgy needed to exile him off-stage, and let him only appear in the words of the other, more interesting, characters.
As if that weren't enough, the opera suffers from a clutter of little scenes, most of which aren’t memorable. And the story ends at Act II, leaving the whole Act III a long, dramatically irrelevant, epilogue.
Rising to the challenge of supporting a pretty hopeless structure, Riccardo Hernandez provided sets that, in the change from scene to scene, imposed their own kind of graceful flow. And they were really nice-looking, too—Beatrice’s room with a giant moon and a statue of Mary:
I stopped by at the Echo Park Film Center yesterday afternoon for a few hours. The Academy was hosting a Home Movie Day. It was a real success—the audience overwhelmed the space.
There were some sweet, strange, lovely things on the screen, but it seemed less a movie experience than a public education workshop devoted to encouraging people to value their personal stories and personal histories. Those are goals that are probably more important than any movie, though I’m sure the event organizers would be horrified.
They managed to make the audience participation a pleasure, and were the main attraction.
Howl would seem a good choice—both the poem itself (unique in being both canonical and a best-seller). Then there is the story of Ginsberg’s life at the time of writing it and the colorful characters surrounding him.
Then there was the obscenity trial. Unfortunately Epstein & Friedman decided to make this the center of their movie. This is no surprise: most of their earlier documentaries (Word is Out, Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet) have stressed the necessity for openness, free speech, coming out of the closet, etc. But treating Howl as a First Amendment issue belittles it.
And the transcripts of the trial, even delivered by famous actors doing cameos, are boring. The same display of obtuseness over and over.
The movie’s best moments are all glimpses of Ginsberg and his friends—his hopeless infatuations, his time as a conventional white collar worker, and—best of all—his springing to life during a recitation of Howl to a small but responsive audience who laugh, clap, and hoot. In the recitation scenes, the Howl—the poem—really comes alive, and I can imagine audiences who haven’t read it getting a taste of its power and pathos and brave humor. James Franco is terrific in these scenes—getting the cadences of the voice without a hokey imitation.
But then there are episodes in which the words of the poem are accompanied by animation. It is an idiotic distraction, and I found myself staring intently at the theater Exit sign whenever these scenes came up. It’s hard to believe anybody thought (1) the words would be enhanced by being linked to illustrations (2) illustrations could keep up with the density and speed of the images in the text (3) that such hopelessly square visualizations were within 100,000 miles of Ginsberg’s text.
There is one brilliant moment when a lawyer at the trial asks who “angelheaded hipsters” might be, and we jump to delightful vintage documentary footage of beatniks dancing. Which raises the question, Since they didn’t want to make a bio-pic, why didn’t they make this a documentary? They probably could have done a brilliant job of it. And after all, most of the time Franco is used to fake a documentary-style interview. Did the project actually start as a documentary, but changed because the necessary moving image documents didn’t exist—and therefore had to be created?
I thought it was déjà vu last Sunday at the LA Opera’s Marriage of Figaro, until we figured out that this was the same production we saw in 2006, with Tim Goodchild’s so-so sets. Everybody except Figaro was in good voice and, above all, exerted themselves to extract the maximum comedy from their part. With Placido Domingo conducting and Ian Judge directing, the emphasis was on the laughs.
The piece evolves from sex comedy to transcendental redemption, but the music never departs from the dramatic situation, even when the dramatic situation is silly. The scene in Act II with the Count getting tools to force open the Countess’s closet couldn’t be more preposterous. But the voices of the Count, the Countess, and Susanna transform it into a apotheosis of affection, embarrassment, pride, naughty glee. Conflict and confusion end in unity and forgiveness.
The stars aligned and I'm going to be working on the Jamaa Fanaka collection at the UCLA Film and TV Archive for the rest of the year. L.A. places, L.A. communities, non-Hollywood movies = fun and fascination.