Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indy’s Women: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford’s wry, sardonic, vaguely reluctant action-energized masculinity always seems to hold the seed of its own critique. Even in the current flick, he comments wearily on the necessity that he extract himself from touchy situations, assessing his ability to contain threats with quick insight and clear confidence but none of the arrogance or stupid invulnerability that seems de rigueur for so many action heroes.

Indy’s escapades always have an ulterior motive; ultimately, it’s all about the research. The representation of professors on film speaks volumes about cultural stereotypes—see, for only several, recent instances, Smart People, in which Dennis Quaid plays a disheveled, impervious literature prof, and The Visitor, in which Richard Jenkins offers a much more nuanced portrait of a sad, lonely, professionally stalled economics professor. In the Crystal Skull, we first see Indy captivating his class of young acolytes, wearing the requisite suit and bow tie of the 1950s egghead. Donning his battered brown fedora signals his transition to action hero. Gone is the effeminizing suit and tie, replaced with his sweat-stained safari shirt, brown pants, and scuffed boots, his worn but ubiquitous bull-whip by his able side.

When his younger boy-partner admires Indy’s strength, our hero wise-cracks that he’s only a teacher part-time. During the rest, adventure is his playground and he’s proud of his ability to execute his moves. Under every ivory-towered absent mind, it seems, is a superman waiting to loosen his tie and leap tall buildings. But for Indy, the requisite one-against-many fist fights, car chases, and narrow escapes seem subsidiary to the character’s main goal, which is to secure knowledge, as well as the containers in which it’s supposedly borne. In the Indiana Jones series, the quest to know justifies the pursuit of things.

The Crystal Skull, in fact, makes the pursuit of knowledge its overt and primary motive, as the totemic object over which its heroes and villains struggle represents an ancient Mayan ritual symbol that honored the gods and dispensed wisdom. The errant skull must be returned to its rightful resting place, so Indy and his team face a perilous journey down a series of increasingly long, fast, and furious waterfalls, and into and out of various caves and tombs, shoving aside cobwebs and fighting off the creatures of the dark that imperil their way.

(In one of the film’s most unfortunate missteps, these creatures, who stream from the central tomb much as the horrible, giant red ants copiously bled from their mound earlier in the film, are costumed as caricatures of Native American Indians, with feathers, war-paint, and loin-cloths. The extras’ over-the-top make-up screams Disney World ride more than it serves as a scary narrative detail, a gratuitous bit of racism that could have easily been cut.)

The characters line up good and bad pretty much along the knowledge v. things axis—Max, the turncoat double-agent who pretends to be “Jonesy’s” friend, inevitably becomes consumed in the great final conflagration since he refuses to leave the cave of treasures, greedily stuffing his pockets with jewels and gold. The good folks, who survive, are those who “know,” and know enough to constrain their desire by respecting the origins and proper ownership of things. “Oxy,” for example, Indy’s anthropologist colleague, somehow lost his mind in his effort to return the skull to its rightful homestead, but proceeds to regain his coherence over the course of their journey. His appreciation for “the natives” is rewarded quid pro quo: the return of the skull buys him the return of his mind. As they travel, Oxy’s cryptic remarks, which only Indy can decipher, lead them to the skull’s originary cave and allow them to set the world aright.

The film’s villain, on the other hand, can’t keep her obsession with knowledge separate from an imperialist desire to acquire things and cultures. In the final confrontation, when the skull is returned to sit among the twelve others that make up their own tribal council, the Russian villain is incinerated by her own hubris. Played with gleam by Cate Blanchett (even if, as A.O. Scott reported in the Times, her accent slips all over the globe), the icy evil-doer peers too deeply and looks too hard into the skull’s empty eye sockets, chanting, “I want to know” (or rather, “I vant to know”) over and over until the skull’s extraterrestrial powers turn her into smoke, her greed punished with death.

Most notable in this fourth installment of the Indy chronicles is his reunion with Marion Ravenwood, his hard-drinking buddy from the first film, and her newly introduced son, who (spoiler alert, although it’s not much of a secret anymore) turns out to be Indy’s. “Mutt,” played by Shia LeBeouf as a rather vain greaser, has quit school to pursue motorcycle maintenance (a perhaps an oblique reference to a more Zen way of life than the kind Indy pursues, however reluctantly). When he realizes the boy is his, Indy insists he should go back to finish school, again trying to honor knowledge over adventure. Given old Dad’s activities, book-learning is a hard sell.

Ford’s advanced age is addressed head on, providing some of the film’s best jokes. Always the hesitant hero, Indy is now also a profoundly tired one. Mutt calls him “gramps” and “pops” not because of their new familial tie but because Indy seems ancient to him: “What are you, 80?” Mutt asks guilelessly. That Indy doesn’t try to overcompensate for his old bones is one of the film’s sweetest conceits.

Given Ford’s limited ability to perform his own stunts (although he clearly accomplishes enough of them to make his performance impressive for a 65-year-old), this film focuses on his relationships much more than the earlier ones, creating for him a nuclear family that’s solidified in the end by a marriage, of all things. How ironic to see Indiana Jones domesticated, although since more sequels are never out of the question, whether he can settle into the conventional, complacent couple-dom that action heroes always, if sadly and nobly, resist remains an open question.

Until film’s rather ludicrous, conservative conclusion in marriage, Karen Allen, returning as Marion, has fun representing a middle-aged woman who’s more than a domestic help-mate for Indy. She drives their get-away cars over cliffs, confident that they’ll all survive; she delights in fighting off evil physically and intellectually; and she never cowers in the face of the fearsome or revolting challenges that confront Indy’s party on their way to the story’s happy finale. Watching her take such energetic good fun in being part of the crew brings a welcome point of female identification to the typically masculine (and male) action story.

Likewise, Blanchett’s villain, with her silly black helmet-hair and her icy blue eyes—however ridiculous the character or her recycled Cold War conflict—provides a fun display of female power and ingenuity. With two women in central roles—one good, one bad—the Crystal Skull offers more gender balance to the action-adventure plot. Of course, were Indy as young as he used to be, the women might remain constrained in subsidiary, sex-object-to-be-protected roles. Now that he’s older and more conscious than ever of his mortal limitations, Indy’s women can assume a more central role in his escapades—his masculinity has less to lose or to prove.

But that’s part of the fun of it.

Humming to John Williams’ familiar score,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Deb Margolin's Time is the Mercy of Eternity

Deb Margolin takes her title and her impulse for this set of four brief plays from a poem by William Blake. I saw the production May 9th, at the West End Theatre in New York, a third floor walk-up space perfectly intimate and appropriate to the sentiments of the evening. The four pieces read like short stories interconnected by themes of loss, grief, violence, and death. Margolin’s language, always so rewarding and exciting to experience at the theatre, is typically rich, allusive, and elliptical here. Her narratives drop the audience into the middle of stories that don’t necessarily need a beginning, middle, or end, because what we experience in their telling is the vitality of a moment in which something is observed, the clarity of a slice of time that captures something keen and unforgettable, something that might otherwise be forever lost.

Margolin’s sense of time works like that—she demonstrates, through her writing, that life is really an accumulation of moments that we can never retrieve, that we can only try to remember through association, through language, through feelings that are always undependable but necessary, nonetheless, to fleshing out our memories.

Margolin calls this evening “a quartet of pieces for a quartet of actors” who are multiply cast across each playlet. “The multiple casting,” she says in the published script, “is designed as a kind of human poetry, casting light on the imbricated conceits and thematic unity of the multiple pieces.”

The first piece, When They Quiet Down I Start, is masterfully performed by Curzon Dobell. He presents the intense monologue directly to the spectators, who serve as witnesses to the posthumous confessions of a man who was a suicide bomber in some unnamed location (leaving us free to imagine him anywhere in the Middle East, from Israel to Iraq). He’s now the bus driver, he tells us, the ferryman crossing the River Styx to carry the souls of the newly dead into heaven/eternity.

Dobell’s performance is precise and compelling, his wiry body tense with focus yet conversational, almost colloquial in his delivery if not in his language. He pulls us into his disquisition about the ridiculousness of suicide bombers’ actions and desires, scoffing at the notion that 72 virgins constitute adequate motivation for mass murder.

Instead, the bus driver says he was convinced to join the self-destructive ranks of suicide terrorists not for the rewards his initiators tell him will be his in the next life, but for how pulling the string on his jerry rigged device of self-immolation will make everything stop, will arrest a life that’s become too chaotic and emotionally over-stimulated.

Margolin writes chilling images that in Dobell’s delivery capture their macabre appropriateness. He describes bodies that look wrong, because they’re new to being dead and don’t quite know how to do it yet. He describes faces frozen in death masks, covering bereft souls weeping with loss as he ferries them to his world.

He describes his own moment of destruction, when he approached a crowded train station and watched as people moved down the tracks toward a train that stopped farther away from him than he expected. Only after they’ve cleared his portion of the platform does he pull the string that sets off his bomb, killing himself but not, he implies, many others.

Throughout When They Quiet Down I Start, a second actor wearing the white cassock of a priest stands with his back turned to the audience, appearing to pray. The bus driver refers to him occasionally, glancing at his glowering back for a response, somehow wordlessly rejecting the solace of his presumed prayer.

The small stage is decorated by an overturned table, its legs extended into the air, with two upended chairs resting on its underside, and a large steamer trunk set vertically, against which the bus driver leans and on which he places his blue-and-white paper coffee cup.

A video plays overhead, projected against a set of very large steel doors. Images of train tracks and women splatter and fragment across the screen, illustrating the chaos and inchoate sensations of a man walking knowingly toward his own death. The design’s cumulative effect creates the aura of noisy quietude, the force of its contradictions compelling us to witness the stories that unfold within.

The monologue imagines the emotional interior of a man who’s by no means a martyr, but someone unhappy for other reasons, who sees his carefully choreographed murderous act as a way to address his own psychosis and despair. By making it personal instead of political, Margolin’s writing somehow humanizes these terrorist acts. She puts a specific face on the action and lets us imagine that these destructive choices are made by particular people with real histories, whose brief lives brought them to this moment for individual, more than political, reasons. Margolin and Dobell deftly remind us that human actions exceed ideology.

In Clarrise and Larmon, the second piece, Lisa Kron plays the mother of a boy who’s been killed, senselessly, in war. In the play’s opening moment, a soldier gives her and her husband a photograph of their son’s remains: his knee, calf, ankle, and foot. Clarisse questions the reporting soldier’s language of fear. In answer to her questions, he says, “I’m afraid so,” or “I’m afraid not,” or “I’m afraid it would have been . . .” and other declarations of timid hesitation. “Why are you so afraid of everything?” she asks impertinently and honestly. He can’t understand her challenge to the banal language we use to inform people of the most awful truths.

Kron and Dobell—making a quick emotional transition into the husband’s role from the terrorist he plays in the first piece—play wife/husband mother/father in the intimate yet formal way that typifies Margolin’s work. Their language is too perfect, too writerly to be real, but at the same time, that bit of artifice helps heighten our understanding of the emotional magnitude of their feelings.

The play’s most wrenching image is the last, when Clarisse rips the photograph of her son’s leg into bits, crying that the boy needs to go back where he came from, and tries to shove his image back into her womb. The pain of loss and the impossibility of retrieval become achingly clear.

The third play, The Rich Silk of It, is dedicated to the memory of Lyric Benson, a Yale acting student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend/fiancé. Her death devastated the Yale community of which Deb, who teaches playwrighting and acting and other courses at the university, was a part. The piece imagines the final three seconds of Lyric’s life, as she stands on the stoop of her apartment building, trying to persuade her psychotic ex not to kill her.

She recalls happier moments from their shared past; she tells him he wouldn’t want her mother to find her body on the stoop, as what mother should be forced to discover the body of her child? She talks non-stop to him and to us, as the light focuses our attention on her face and her assassin’s inscrutable back.

The piece is perhaps the evening’s most ambitious, partly because Margolin attempts to tell so much of the back-story of this last tragic moment. In the other three pieces, she spins out a rich web of allusions and connections that comprise one particular moment of eternity. But in Rich Silk, she looks for answers in a larger network of time, in a series of moments that culminate in Benson’s murder.

The piece dislodges chronological time, flashing forward and back across the moments that brought the young woman and the deranged man to the moment of her death. Yet where the evening’s three other plays are tinged with irony and absurdism, The Rich Silk of It plays earnestly and realistically, generating the expectation that the story will provide motivations and reveal the secrets that realism leads us to anticipate. Instead of the swift slice of intersectional, slightly skewed reality that the other pieces provide, this one is more teleological, looking for answers that really can’t be found.

While the slain student (played by Claire Siebers) is a unified, clearly delineated character, her murderer—played by Khris Lewin, a visually arresting, muscular, small, bald, white man—changes personae frequently. Lewin portrays the very troubled boyfriend in one moment, a dubious gay bartender the next, and an anonymous man whom the boyfriend also accosts the next.

Although this instantaneous multiple casting underlines the boyfriend’s chaotic subjectivity, it also lessens the frightening effect of his insanity. The play intercuts his moments of pure psychosis with more sober reflections by the other characters Lewin plays, breaking the terrible momentum of his drive to murder the woman.

We observe the boyfriend’s possessive rages, his expressed desire to cut the woman into little pieces the better to devour her. We hear the bartender’s cautions, his sense that something’s not right with the man the young woman intends to marry. We see her visit a priest, concerned that she can’t seem to bring her fiancé to god. And we watch uncomfortably as he performs his desire to possess her emotionally, physically, and sexually.

Because the piece is more realistic, we expect explanations. Our desires, though, are finally foiled; what answers can be found in the act of a madman? The image of a woman talking against the silhouette of a man holding a gun on her is compelling, but clouded by the back and forth of time. Leaving her suspended in that one awful moment, those three seconds before she’s hurried to eternity before her time, might have been a powerful enough choice.

In the eponymous last piece, Kron returns to play “Woman in Bed,” who’s revealed as stage-hands open those large steel doors and push a full, tastefully decorated bed out onto the stage. It turns out she’s lolling, fully dressed, on a store display, calling for the attention of “Woman in Blazer,” an officious saleswoman who tries to cajole her out of her bedding back into the proper reality of the department store.

Although her motivations are never quite clear, the Woman in Bed feverishly describes her desire to talk to the Woman in Blazer, finally seducing her into the bed to frolic among the sheets and covers. The brief scene ends in a passionate, unexpected kiss, providing a moment of humor and happiness, however inexplicable, that ends the evening.

Margolin’s writing and the actors’ embodiments provide the evening’s rich satisfactions. The direction, however, is a bit too ham-fisted for such delicate, intricate writing and ideas. Although in his program note, director Marc Stuart Weitz seems to understand Margolin’s intent, he freights the four pieces with cumbersome weight.

Weitz envisions these scenes with too much stuff and too many extraneous people come on between the plays to move décor on and off. These intersessions let us detach and rest, when we should be moved inexorably through each of these short pieces to feel their cumulative effect.

Ultimately, they all tell one story of loss, death, yearning, and finally, hope. Their collective impact might be better served by a directorial hand able to highlight the writing through simple, crystalline images, instead of filling the stage with actions and things that distract from the pure impact of Margolin’s words and the actors who say them and feel them so well.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, May 08, 2008

La Vie En Rose

When I first ordered this film from NetFlix, I got the beginning French article wrong and received instead Ma Vie En Rose, the coming-of-age story about a young boy who desperately wants to dress as a girl. I was disappointed that I hadn’t received the biopic about Edith Piaf I’d expected, but I’d wanted to see the other film and watched it anyway. Although I thought it beautiful and moving, I’m still not sure whether it’s trans- and homophobic, or if it’s a sensitive discussion of a boy’s gender ambivalence/ambiguity.

La Vie En Rose, on the other hand, I found unambiguously wonderful. Writer-director Olivier Dahan’s film eschews chronology, cutting backwards and forwards in Piaf’s tragic life, from her collapse onstage at one of her final performances and onward to her death, back to her childhood as the abandoned daughter of an alcoholic street singer and a circus contortionist. She’s taken in early on by a warm-hearted prostitute named Tatine who works under the stern hand of her madam, who happens to be Piaf’s paternal grandmother. Scenes of the sickly young Edith navigating the purgatory of a 1930s Paris bordello capture the inchoate confusion of the perversions and lusts that course through the house’s warren-like rooms and winding hallways.

Here and throughout the film, Dahan shoots from Piaf’s perspective. These early brothel scenes deliver incoherent images of men and women in various states of undress and unusual sexual postures that are difficult to piece together, as they would be for an eight-year-old child who knows not what she sees. Seen through Edith’s eyes, the brothel seems a happy place; Tatine and another prostitute clearly love and care for the girl in ways her parents could never manage. They entertain her during her bath, and take her for walks, swinging her by the arms between them.

Poor health consigns young Edith to months in bed; at one point, she’s temporarily blinded by an eye inflammation. Her dependency on caretakers and medications begins early and haunts her life, eventually contributing to her premature death in her mid-40s. Her physical needs infect her emotional constitution, turning her quickly from a strong, devil-may-care young woman with a flippant attitude to her own poverty, to the cantankerous, querulous diva who adores and despises those who eventually control her career.

La Vie en Rose is an often moving biopic whose form and content meld to create its portrait of the tragic artist. The camera dedicates itself to Piaf’s perspective; as it moves through her life, hand-held shots with very few edits move with her from room to room, seeing through her eyes the walls literally closing in around her, feeling along with her confusion, determination, and despair. The camera captures physically, as well as metaphorically, how time and space collapse around Piaf.

Toward the end, the film detours into unnecessary melodrama, given Piaf’s already heightened life story. The story reveals that she had a child, a daughter who died young from meningitis. It’s not entirely clear why Dahan’s script withholds this information until the finale, which overburdens the secret with importance it doesn’t really earn. Are we supposed to think that Edith’s often cruel emotional connections to people resulted from the loss of her only child? Does the writer-director presume this explains more of her complicated personality than scenes of her own degrading childhood?

In fact, the film does its best work illuminating the formative impact of poverty on Piaf’s life. When her stardom brings her wealth, she believes in it no more than she did her own mother’s fealty. The diva’s bitterness is so thoroughly internalized, no fortune could compensate for those early deprivations. She remains, throughout her life, the street singer, hat in hand, reaching out to audiences who marveled at her voice to feed her emotionally and physically.

Marion Cotillard’s performance as Piaf richly deserved the Oscar she received for Best Actress this year. Her performance of the doomed diva is intensely physical; it seems to emanate from her round, kohl-drawn eyes as well as her pleading, sweeping hands. Cotillard lip-synced Piaf’s singing, but her physical mannerisms and her impersonation of Piaf’s vocal virtuosity is so persuasive it’s difficult to tell that the voice emanating from those perfectly rounded, quivering lips isn’t hers.

Cotillard embodies Piaf’s songs completely, reveling in the chanteuse’s vocal idiosyncrasies and her signature gestures, using her elegant, bird-like hands to enhance her music’s emotional appeal. The film underlines that “piaf” means “little sparrow” in French, a name bestowed on Edith by her first benefactor (played benevolently by Gerard Depardieu).

Despite her precarious health, Piaf commands a stage. The contrast the film captures between her increasingly vulnerable, frail body and her powerful, charismatic stage presence is utterly compelling, even frightening. Later scenes, in which her talent overwhelms the capacities of her small, brittle frame, are terrifying, brutal in how they depict Piaf’s will to sing and the way in which her talent ultimately seems to kill her from within. Her body, it seems, couldn’t withstand the power of her voice.

Cotillard never loses sight of Piaf’s intense vulnerability and her contradictory strength (opposing characteristics that Joe Roach, in his wonderful book, It, says are what mark people who have “it,” that most elusive, difficult-to-describe star quality). She persuasively ages, playing Piaf from her teen-aged years to the end of her life with nuanced, convincing changes of tone, character, and emotional quality. The sole DVD extra demonstrates the make-up artist’s achievement with the film, as the meticulously constructed age effects and wigs allowed Dahan to film Cotillard in extreme close-up without losing believability.

The crippling arthritis that contributed to Piaf’s early death made the singer look twice her age. Convalescent scenes after her breakdown toward the end of her career show her bent as if with osteoporosis. In her illness, she wears her once-dark, lush hair in a badly dyed haze of carrot-colored fuzz around her head, and her face is lined and crumpled. Yet despite her body’s deterioration, Piaf continues to command her spirit, her voice, and her companions. Only when she realizes that she’ll never sing again does Piaf acquiesce to death.

Piaf’s original talent was raw and rather glib, as she stood on street corners nearly daring people to stop to listen and appreciate her voice. As various male coaches help her construct the more calculating emotive image for which she became known, the performativity laced through her performances becomes stunningly clear. Piaf performed herself, even while she truly seemed to love and feed off of her fan’s adoration for the image she created and held at such a short distance from herself. She found kinship in performance, connecting to audiences who were always anonymous and fleeting, but huge sustaining presences in her life.

The Feminist Spectator