Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Beginner's Goodbye: An Irresistible Treat

 The Beginner's Goodbye, a novel by Anne Tyler, has everything going for it. The plot is sufficiently quirky to grab and hold your attention, and yet entirely plausible. The characters are eccentric enough to be funny, but somehow familiar, like folks you have known. Tyler's writing style is clear and easy to read. The sentences are short and conversational because the story is written in the voice of the protagonist, Aaron. Aaron is mad at the world, and his grimly mocking point of view is the source of the book's gentle humor. The story's development reveals a level of psychological insight that makes you feel at home with a trusted friend.

Not a word is wasted; every sentence is neatly crafted to move the plot along, reveal the characters, or suggest the theme. A mere 234 pages long, it quickly comes to a satisfying resolution.

Anne Tyler, b. 1941
Author of The Beginner's Goodbye
Internet grab
One critic complained about the novel's lack of naturalism. Though it was published in 2012, there are very few references to the equipment of the digital life. And maybe, the same critic quibbled, things come out a little too neatly in the end. These complaints come from the wrong point of view. This novel must be seen as a parable about love and relationships. To bulk it up with virtual reality would dull the point. Like a parable, the novel gives you just enough detail that in the end you feel you have learned something, something subtle and valuable.

The novel is so compact that I hesitate to say more, for fear of spoiling some discovery. The premise is stated in the first sentence: “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” The matter-of-fact tone for this outlandish statement is irresistible; I had to see what the speaker meant by that.

Anne Tyler was born the same year as I was, and her career has been enviable. She has published 19 novels, of which I have read about half. The Accidental Tourist was made into a movie. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was very popular, and Breathing Lessons won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Most of the time I try to work my way through the classic novels, like a perpetual grad student. Now and then I take a break for a novel by Anne Tyler, always a treat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

National Gallery: The Joke Is On Me

Scene from National Gallery, a documentary by Frederick Wiseman
Internet grab
From an English teacher's point of view, the documentary movie 'National Gallery' is a disaster. It needs to be reduced from three hours to one; it needs to be reorganized; it needs a catchier opening; it needs a certain amount of narration to bring home the main points; it desperately needs identifying labels on the many beautiful paintings.

From an art lover's point of view, 'National Gallery' is a huge disappointment. The National Gallery in London is one of the greatest museums of art in the western world. Silly me, I assumed a documentary about the museum would be mainly about its art. Not at all. The movie is about the role of the museum in British society, and in particular how it relates to the economy. Instead of art, we have lots of photos of people looking at art, or waiting in line to look at art, or sleeping on a padded bench instead of looking at art. Instead of art, we have photos of Trafalgar Square, the site of the museum, at every time of day and various public events; instead of art, we have a Greenpeace demonstration; instead of art, we have several board meetings that reminded me of what I hated about my job; we have images of blind people feeling specially tactile versions of famous paintings; we have a guy waxing the floor at the museum; we have a craftsman chiseling a new frame. Every aspect of museum life is covered. Discussions of actual paintings, their meaning and their techniques, occupied a total of 30 minutes out of three hours. Uff, what a blow to an art lover.

The fact that my criticism was so comprehensive clued me that I might be missing something, I might be measuring by the wrong standards. So I belatedly consulted the review in the New York TimesNational Gallery, New York Times review.

Sure enough. According to the Times review, Frederick Wiseman, who directed and edited the movie, has invented his own style of documentaries. "As is customary for a Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery” lacks voice-over, talking-head interviews or explanatory text, including identifiers. Mr. Wiseman tends to make you work more than documentarians who spell everything out, which is a problem only if you demand that images reveal themselves completely in the moment you first see them. " It turns out that instead of explaining straight out what he means, Wiseman "builds meaning, scene by scene, creating complexity and building density associatively, so that sound and image become motifs." This is an immersive style of storytelling that requires the viewer to make his own interpretation of the filmmaker's intention.

So the joke in on me. In the first place, I must remember to read the review before I see the movie. If I'd known that the movie was not about art, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. In the second place, here is a whole new style of documentary that I was unaware of.

I got value out of the movie. I learned stuff. I was sufficiently entertained to sit there for three hours, though I did have to phase out now and then, as I used to at department meetings. I really liked hearing all those English intellectuals with their strange voices, though I was surprised by how much time and effort they put into stating fairly obvious things. When the movie was over, my husband and I discussed Wiseman's main points, drawing out his unstated conclusions, just as we were meant to do.

But, personally, I could have a lot of fun editing this incoherent mess into a snappy, A+ documentary.

Friday, December 19, 2014

'Player Piano' Could be a Very Funny Movie

1885 Player Piano
Internet Grab
Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano could be made into a very comical movie.

You know how a player piano works? The notes to a song are coded into a punched tape that operates the keyboard, thus creating music, of a sort, without a pianist.

The premise of this novel is that almost every job has been replicated by a punched tape that operates an elaborate mechanical contraption. Vonnegut didn't know a lot about science or technology, but he extrapolated from the player piano, plus electricity, vacuum tubes, and a few other technologies common in the 1950s, to imagine a world in which there is nothing much for human beings to do.

The author had great fun imagining how different automated systems might work, and a set designer or an animator would have great fun trying to replicate the machines, systems, and environments that he describes. In a word, they are all clunky when compared to modern technologies—complicated and rigid, and rather endearing,  like a player piano.

The novel is organized around one serious plot, exploring philosophical themes, and a comical subplot, for the sake of satirical comment. The rather transparent premise of the subplot is that a spiritual leader of a major Asian country, the Shah of Bratpuhr, is touring the highly automated United States as a potential customer for American technologies. The Shah's nephew, Khashdrahr Miasma (Cash Drawer Miasma?) serves as his interpreter. Here's how Vonnegut describes the Shah: “wizened and wise and dark as cocoa, encrusted with gold brocade and constellations of twinkling gems.” For total contrast, Vonnegut presents Khashdrahr as “nervous, grinning, young, and forever apologetic for his own lack of éclat or power.” Can't you just see these two guys on a movie screen?

From the point of view of the Shah and his nephew, every aspect of American life is baffling and bizarre, filling this subplot with satire and sarcasm. One stop on their tour is Carlsbad Caverns, which is the home of a vast computer, described by the author as a “subterranean jungle of steel, wire, and glass that filled the chamber in which they stood, and thirty larger ones beyond.” Vonnegut's primitive vision of the progress of computer technology is inadvertently comical, but the Shah's reaction to this machine is broadly sarcastic. Khashdrahr explains that “people in his land sleep with smart women and make good brains cheap. Save enough wire to go to moon a thousand times.”

Even the main plot has a way of dissolving into a humorous scene. The protagonist, Paul, has been expecting a big promotion. The division manager who tells him he got the job, spends the whole interview cleaning a rifle, and pretending to shoot phantom birds in his den, and at the end he takes Paul back into his living room where they join their wives to enjoy a recording of a rousing march called "Stout Hearted Men." An actor like John Goodman could have a lot of fun with this caricature, especially if playing off some nebbishy actor like William H. Macy as Paul.

One long section is a cheeky portrayal of the hollowness of organized recreation. Anyone who's ever been on a company morale-building outing will alternately wince and laugh at the rules for getting to know one another, the team sports, and the skits extolling the group's value system. Vonnegut exaggerates the company retreat into a surreal comedy.

Despite it's antiquated feel, all of this satire, irony, and hilarity is in service of a theme that is very relevant to contemporary life: what is the value of labor? What are humans for? Do humans have any value other than as workers? What do time-saving devices save time for? How does a person shape his life without a job? These issues are much more relevant now than when Vonnegut imagined this problem. With the advent of computerization, more and more jobs are actually being eliminated. Just the other day, an article in the New York Times noted that the number of men in the work force has gone down significantly, and questioned what are these guys doing with their lives. And the next day, there was an article about the reduced number of women who are working, and how they were shaping their lives. At an even more basic level, the question is, should we just follow every technology wherever it takes us? Or should managers and decision-makers spare a thought for human needs and values when they plan the uses of new technologies?

The theme is reinforced by a host of minor characters: a guy who can fix anything, a guy who makes a living by betting on a TV show about music, a guy who is gaga over different uniforms, a frustrated laborer who has an extra-marital relationship, and his defeated wife who forgives him; a stay-at-home mom who is glad her dishwasher broke down because it gives her something to do; a real estate salesman who tries hard not to sell an old-fashioned farm that has been on the market for a long time.

Surprisingly, mixed in with all this humor and philosophizing are several scenes with penetrating character analysis. For instance, Paul feels guilty about his position as a manager in an automated society because so many people feel left out, useless, and under-valued. But when he tries to show his wife, Anita, the problem that is bothering him, she takes the point personally, being somewhat self-conscious about her own background, and they get into a big row. Later, after Paul has inadvertently become the leader of a rebellion against the system, he is captured and put on trial. He takes the opportunity to speak eloquently for the value of human labor, but a lie detector and a skillful questioner, reveal that the real motive behind his fervor is hatred of his own father, who was considered the founder of the automated system. It's amazing that Vonnegut would throw this bit of Freudian analysis into the midst of a defense of human values.

I found it challenging to rock back and forth between broad humor and penetrating character analysis.  Good acting and directing could portray this change of tone.

The theme of this book is so important that it could be required reading for an MBA program: not just how to manage the economic engine, but how to put human values above the self-enhancing values of science and technology. If you could put it on the screen, making a joke of the clunky machines and bringing out the pathos of the quirky characters, Player Piano could be a very relevant, and very funny, movie.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Die Meistersinger: A Musical Lecture

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a hard sell. There's no way I'm ever going to make you wish you had been with me at the 'Met Live in HD' performance at our local theater recently. All I can do is explain why it held my interest from one word to the next, from one note to the next, almost every moment.

The hardest aspect for me to get around concerns the HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera house in New York: the amount of light adequate for the stage presentation is not adequate for the video cameras. As a result, all the costumes appear to be some shade of gray, especially for the long night scene. I found myself starving for color.  I thought at first that the costume designer was on some crazy modernist tangent, but the still photos of the opera I found online seem to show warm, natural colors, so we have to blame a technological weakness of the HD broadcast medium.

The next most serious problem was that the tenor is comically obese. The tenor is supposed to be a dashing knight who can win the heart of a woman merely by ogling her in church, and who can win an elite singing and poetry contest without any training or practice. Johan Botha, the tenor who sings the role, is so fat that his jowls jiggle distractingly.

Johan Botha as a singing knight in Die Meistersinger
My shot from the movie screen of the curtain call.

On the right, Botha as the knight and  Annette Dasch as the fair maiden, Magdalene;
On the Left, Karen Cargill as Magdalene's attendant and Paul Appleby,
as the apprentice shoemaker; in the center, Martin Gantner as the town baker
and chairman of the singers' guild. Internet grab.
Opera singers tend to be overweight; most of the cast could stand to lose a little weight, but you accept the singer on the far right as a beautiful maiden, and even her attendant on the far left manages to be coquettish, but Botha is so heavy that he has lost mobility, especially in his face. No matter how hard he tries to project emotion, he always wears the same eager, fatuous grin. I'm sorry, but that's a problem.

And how does Botha keep his place in one of the most demanding opera companies in the world? He has a damn good tenor voice. In the finale, when he performs the winning song, it is truly a winner; you seriously believe that he could win any singing contest. But the heart of a beautiful maiden?

Next comes the plot, which is as familiar as the plot of a teen movie: it is merely a singing contest, with the hand of a beautiful maiden (and all the worldly goods of her father) as the prize. Not surprisingly, the dark horse contestant (Botha) is from out of town, and he has new ideas about singing and poetry, ideas that are rubbished by the committee of judges. After a crash course, he sings with such passion and verve that he wins everyone over and gets the girl. Ho hum. There is no suspense or surprise to draw us along.

While the plot is familiar, the music is so fresh and innovative that it's a little disorienting. Most of the time, the singers seem to be talking; they exchange a few lines at a time as if in conversation. The characters spend much of their time explaining things or arguing, instead of expressing their emotions. I was quite involved with what they were saying, and the poetic way they were saying it. The music seemed entirely subordinate to the the words and ideas. By the way, Wagner wrote both together, just like the contestants in the story.

With ideas dominating, the music flows on and on, like a river. There are no songs with beginnings and ends. There are no detachable melodies. The music is very melodic, but for much of the opera, it is one long continuous melody. It takes you into a sort of dream state, like Indian raga music. Musical figures or themes appear and disappear, and blend together. It's as though beneath life's conflicts and confusion, there is always a stream of beautiful music. Lucky Wagner.

The most amazing thing about this opera is that it's subject is the theory of composition: How to compose a song; what makes a good song; the relationship of convention to innovation; the role of the critic; the experience of the composer. Wagner is stunningly systematic. He starts out by comparing composition to the craft of shoemaking. The delightful concept behind the plot is a village where the craftsmen are also poets who sing the songs they write; in the mid-1500s the town of Nürnberg actually had a guild of craftsmen who were singers. So Wagner starts out by looking at musical composition as a craft. Next he takes up the question of who gets to be the ultimate judge of quality. Should it be fellow performers, like the Academy Awards? Or should it be "the people," like a popularity contest? Next question: does a performer need a teacher or can he get his inspiration from life experience?

An excellent comedy sub-plot is built around the process of judging a song. When the knight first tries out for the singing contest, his performance is "marked" harshly according to some obscure set of rules by the town clerk, who is an expert judge, as well as the knight's potential rival. The clerk even stops the performance, and the knight must assert himself over a hubbub to deliver the final verse. Later when the clerk attempts to serenade the fair young maiden the night before the contest, the cobbler drowns out his efforts with a rain of hammer blows on the sole of a shoe he is making, getting revenge on the pompous ass. In the contest itself, the clerk is tricked into singing a song written by someone else, a song he doesn't understand, and he makes a hilarious mess of it. The baritone Johannes Martin Kranzle does a great job on this tricky role.

Since the story is about how to write a song, it's true hero is the town's music teacher. Based on a real-life shoemaker-poet who also wrote music and plays, the character of Hans Sachs is one of the most complex and fully developed parts in any opera. Sachs has been the custodian of the guild's high standards for many years, yet he is open to innovation. He can be spiteful, as when he wrecks the clerk's serenade; he can be open-minded, as when he listens sincerely to the knight's first song at the try-outs. He has tender feelings for the fair young maiden, but he is realistic enough to know that he is too old for her, and noble enough to promote her romance with the knight of her dreams. In the third act he has a pensive solo about man's foolishness, yet he rises out of this depression to make everything come out right for the lovers and for his village. Fortunately, Michael Volle was magnetic in the role. His stage presence was vital and confident, and his bass-baritone voice ranged from powerful and authoritative to mellifluous and shaded. He made the 'teacher as hero' very believable.

Michael Volle as Hans Sach, the shoemaker and music master;
Annette Dasch as Eva, the fair maiden.
Internet grab.
Wagner's creativity was comprehensive. The lyrics sung by the contestants are beautiful nature poetry, quite typical of German literature in the mid-19th century when he wrote it. In addition to poetry, the opera has a pretty romance, a lecture on composition theory, comic scenes of great hilarity, a soul-searching solo, pageantry and songs for a huge chorus, and spiteful satire targeting Wagner's own critics. It's no wonder it took him four and a half hours to say it all (he could have been a teensy bit more concise in a few places); with two 45-minute intermissions, the entire performance clocked in at six hours. It was a challenge: viewers really needed to get a bite to eat and walk around a bit while the complicated sets are being changed out. But it's not as hard as you would imagine. It's kind of swell to be in Wagner's world, hypnotically musical. I was in no hurry to leave.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

George Gently: Character Development

A wave of disappointment swept over me when I realized I had finished George Gently, a British detective series I had been watching straight through from the beginning on Netflix. For several weeks, the cases of Chief Detective Inspector George Gently and Sergeant John Bacchus were a regular part of my life and gave me a lot to think about. The show ran for six seasons, with two to five 90-minute shows per season.

What sets this series apart is that the theme of character development is established in the first episode and continued in a subtle way throughout. The Chief Inspector is into righteousness: policemen must follow the law while investigating crime, and endeavor to be courteous and respectful as well. The Sergeant is the classic "callow youth." He's a smart aleck. He jumps to conclusions. He resorts to trickery and violence to get the bad guys, assuming he knows who the bad guys are. He indulges every sort of prejudice. In the first episode, Gently takes it on himself to teach Bacchus how to be a good copper, and a good man. For instance, one crime involves some gay men: Gently is tolerant and open-minded; Bacchus is scornful and spiteful. In the course of solving the case, their views are tested, and the callow youth gets his comeuppance. He matures, a rare thing to observe both in fiction and in real life.

All this requires terrific acting, and no one is more convincing than Lee Ingleby as Sergeant Bacchus. A slender man, with a sunken chest and an eager gait, Ingleby is well-cast in the role of reluctant student. His expressive face plays out the theme of each show, as he makes the transition from callowness to enhanced understanding, from lazy copper to passionate truth seeker. Martin Shaw has the assets of a gruff voice and martial bearing to help him convey the attitude of righteousness. His role is easier because it is consistent, but in every show the Chief Inspector's loyalty to his principles is tested, and he has to show ability to control his emotions and impulses, with an older man's stiff, pouchy face. These guys are so good I can hardly believe they are actors with personalities of their own.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

1st Night: Così Fan Tutte with Sizzle

Scene from 1st Night
grabbed from The New York Times
Who knew there was a genre of opera movies set on grand British estates? After I happened across Quartet on Netflix, the service suggested 1st Night, another movie about romance among opera singers who are preparing for a performance on a lavish estate; its spacious grounds include a charming forest, just perfect for secret rendezvous.

This movie came out in 2013, and American critics panned it. In fact, they were quite condescending about how insipid and unrealistic it is. I think they missed the point. The issue is spelled out in a bar scene in the movie. A youthful director explains that he wants to mount a production of Mozart's ever-popular comic opera Così Fan Tutte that is meaningful, that shows how the emotions of the lovers are universal and how the play is relevant to modern life. A more experienced tenor says no, this opera is all about style, not substance—and he's right. Così was Mozart's idea of a delightful confection, not written to bring insight or emotional release, but to create an excuse for great singers to deliver bright and pleasant music. So, in order to enjoy this movie, you first have to be able to accept the idea of romantic farce, and not expect too much.

Secondly, you need to like music. What got my attention was the quality of the voices, along with the quality of lip-synching. You may never have heard of Richard E. Grant (who plays a wealthy British industrialist and frustrated opera singer) or Julian Ovenden (who plays an aspiring opera singer who has a way with women), but if you watch much British TV, you'll recognize their faces. You know they are not really singers, but they, and the other actors, belt out the songs in such a convincing manner that the music takes on new life. Full disclosure: I've never liked this opera—it's frivolous and stylized—but the movie made me realize what wonderful and joyous music it presents. It made me realize I was taking the opera too seriously. The story is just an excuse to show off beautiful singing, and the intention of the movie is to refresh your enjoyment of music you may already know well. The only thing that disappointed me was that the unseen singers were not given more recognition; their names don't appear until far into the credits, and their faces are not shown at all. It was their recorded performances that really made this movie attractive, as well as rich and lively orchestral music.

The problem with opera is that it is static. Whether sumptuous or spare, the sets are clunky and confining. Modern opera singers are skillful actors, but they are principally concerned with the technical difficulties of rendering the music, and they have a tendency to stand in a line across the stage like kids at a recital. Any movie director who loves opera is bound to think, "If only I could inject space, movement, and emotion" into their favorite opera.

In 1st Night, Mozart's music is enhanced by being staged in a real garden, a real wood, a real ballroom. Since the actors don't have to worry about their voices, they move around in their environments, and actors are better at acting that even the best singers. They are able to portray what singers can only express.

Which brings us to Sarah Brightman. I hate to admit I've been living under a rock, but I didn't know about this multi-faceted entertainer and have never seen one of her shows. In this movie, she is absolutely convincing as the opera's music conductor; her only singing is with a chorus she is supposed to be directing during the set up scenes, but it is quite beautiful. Her acting is energetic and sexy, but not over the top.

The music of Così is refreshed by being remixed to fit a new plot, one that mirrors the opera in some ways. For instance, a fight between lovers in the movie precedes the rehearsal of an angry duet in the opera; a chase scene in the woods reflects the energy of a vigorous orchestral interlude.

I listened to this whole movie twice because the music is so beautiful, but it took a sumptuous production, a lively script, subtle direction, and convincing acting to make me realize just how beautiful it is. The director (and writer) who loves opera resoundingly is Christopher Menaul. I wish I could thank him for this little gift of Mozart.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Quartet: Fantasy without Special Effects

Imagine this, if you can: A retirement home set in spacious, green grounds with magnificent old trees. A retirement home where the residents—former professional musicians—are all intelligent, talented, and eager to sing and dance, despite their infirmities. A home where the staff is small, but caring and dedicated. Imagine a retirement home full of music, as groups rehearse and individuals practice, where lessons and lectures are given to youthful visitors. Now imagine all these wrinkled old has-been performers with their shaky voices and their stiff fingers contriving to put on a gala benefit performance, with all the conflicts and angst of their careers arising again. Okay, now, if you've watched a lot of British mysteries, you might be able to conjure up a highly reserved romance among the aged set. All this is major fantasy, irresistible fantasy to a certain age group, and it is realized without the benefit of any special effects in a movie called Quartet, that I happened to notice on Netflix.

You have to wonder how a movie like this gets made; who finances it? Do they make a profit? It has none of the features that are supposed to be required to make movies attractive—sex, violence, glamour, etc.—except one really big star, Maggie Smith. And did you ever hear of this movie? Maybe I missed it, but I don't think it was promoted in this country. This shows the power of the niche audience, which shouldn't be overlooked when you consider what kind of movie can turn a profit.

Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood that was performed on the London stage in 1999, and the movie came out in 2012. It was Dustin Hoffman's first film as director. To his credit, the movie does not look like a play, though it could easily have been stagey. Financing was British, with help from BBC films. In Britain, the other stars are big names: Michael Gambon, Tom Courtney,  Billy Connelly. The supporting cast is made up of actual retired singers and musicians with fascinating faces.

The problem with this movie is that it is predictable, formulaic. A formulaic fantasy is going to seem lame for the wider audience, but consider this, doesn't every age group have its fantasy movies? To an oldie like me, the formulas for kids' movies are really lame and obvious, as are the formulas for teen movies, and for most of the major market movies.

The question is, how well do they work the formula? The answer is that for a certain large niche, this movie is completely engaging, and very satisfying as escapism. The characters have charming eccentricities and the acting is flawless. Almost all screen time is given to conversation, interaction, and revealing behavior. Very little time is given to the mechanics of reality: getting food on the table, getting pianos tuned, dealing with illness. People are always talking or making music. Leave the nitty-gritty of the aging process, familiar enough, to serious, edgy, innovative films. This is a sweet little piece of enchantment for those who have a lot to forget.