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Friday, October 24, 2008

...But it has zombies in it. How can I not like zombies?

I read Marvel Zombies by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips in Borders today and was glad I didn't pick it up either in singles, hardcover or trade. It was competently executed, with one or two good gags (emo zombie Spider-man and "Hulk is the Hungriest Man there is") and a few good disturbing notes (the idea of the zombie Avengers faking rescues to lure out survivors, for example).

But it neither teased out any societal analysis as the best zombie media does (Romero films, Walking Dead, World War Z) or went for all out tastelessness that the most enjoyable gut munchers do (almost any Italian zombie film not made by Fulci, Dead Alive).  The only thing approaching subtext was the title: this was a book for Marvel obsessive or zombie obsessives. Unfortunately, I count myself as a zombie obsessive (I've watched Hell of the Living Dead, people. That is not something a sane person undertakes lightly) and I found it as unsatisfying as the morsels of human flesh that fall out of the zombies' own rotten gullets.

Pondering a couple post topics soon:  A Defense of Lucio Fulci, a write-up of Act of Violence (with Robert Ryan and Van Heflin) and Mystery Street (with Ricardo Montalban and Charles Laughton's beard), or maybe something about Who Can Kill A Child? (if Netflix comes through).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Woyzeck" (Vesturport Theatre) at Brooklyn Academy of Music

If I made it to heaven, I'd have to help out with the thunder. "Woyzeck" by Georg Buchner

So I wanted to visit friends in NYC and I decided to schedule it around the production of "Woyzeck" playing for one weekend at the BAM, because Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (not the comic book writer but the violinist behind the Dirty Three and a member of the Bad Seeds) had written original music for it.  I'd already seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform live within the past month, but I figured that this music was unlikely to be recorded any time soon and wanted to see how it would fit into the context of the play. 

First, a caveat: its been a while since I've read "Woyzeck", so I remember the broad plot and the fact that Buchner never finished the play before he died (or at least, there is no "finished" version of the play) and so different productions will rearrange the scenes in different orders.

For those of you unfamiliar with the play, Woyzeck is a poor soldier who supports his lover Marie by participating in strange medical experiments. Marie has an affair with the Drum Major in his unit and Woyzeck kills her over it.

The story sounds like it should be the basis for a Nick Cave song anyhow (like "Where the Wild Roses Grow"), so I figured it would be a good fit. And it was. The four or so songs that showed up in the piece were a brilliant mix of absurdity and emotion, whether an off-key Tin Pan Alley love song Woyzeck warbled for Marie (underlining his instability and insecurity) or the swaggering blues rock of the Drum Major's entrance (that has him bragging about being six foot seven in bare feet!), the songs made sense of a play that sits on the razor's edge between Dreiser and Beckett. And the cast had some good (or at least appropriate to the character and song) voices. The Drum Major (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) occasionally ventured into the territory of bad heavy metal vocalists, but otherwise could have been a (non-annoying) Broadway singer.

Unfortunately, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' music really only shows up in the first half.  And the show only clicks when everyone is singing. Because (oh god!) this play was directed by a pretentious European director with A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.  There is nothing more dangerous in the world of theatre than a director with a bit of acclaim and A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.

See, Gisli Orn Gardarsson decided to set his production of "Woyzeck" at a water factory that looks like a cross between playground equipment and the Nostromo in Alien. Oh, and there are also water tanks that the actors will swim in, like people would if they were making drinking water.  And a trapeze and a climbing rope, just like in all water factories. The design is well-executed, but I never felt that this set, even in the abstract, was a place where people worked. It was a cool-looking place that the actors could do circus tricks on.

You know, I am breaking my "No Snark" vow, but geez, High Concept directors must be stopped!

Moment of fairness: water is talked about a lot in "Woyzeck". But except for a bit of inconsistently altered dialogue (Herr Gardarsson also "adapted" the script), three vague lines in the director's notes and the water tanks to play in, there wasn't a sense that the water factory itself was that important to the world of the play that Herr Gardarsson conceived.  It could have been any factory or any physical labor site or even the army.  So perhaps someone could still do a water factory "Woyzeck" that would work, but it would at least have to use the concept to inform the actual play.

Unfortunately, there were no performances that suggested even that charitable view. Every character spoke/shout (in English) in the exact same inflection. In all fairness, I'm not sure if it was the fault of acting in the performers' non-native language or a directorial choice, but I will say that when they sang, the performers seemed to use the proper kind of phrasing you would expect from an American pop song. I was sitting in the balcony, so I might have missed some physical subtlety, except the default setting for physicality was clumsy slapstick. Woyzeck (Ingvar E. Sigurdson) pissed on the Doctor's face (Harpa Arnarsdottir), the Captain (Vikingur Kristjansson) tried to rape the Doctor, etc. (In retrospect, a lot of brutality was visited on the Doctor, played by a woman, in a way that is not borne out by the play. It had no place in the play and it added undertones of misogyny where none existed before.) "Woyzeck" is not a comedy, but if it must be, it shouldn't feel like one of those sub-Three Stooges comedies that PRC films cranked out by the dozens in the 1940s.

These are just the major issues that struck me during the play. It is hard to believe that this company performed a critically acclaimed Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and in New York!

The one thing I will give this awful production is that it illuminated a religious side of "Woyzeck".  The frequent references to water, the Captain's bourgeois discussion of morality, Woyzeck's disbelief that sin should leave no mark on Marie's face, and the quote that starts this post seemed increasingly significant in this tonally dissonant piece where finding a director's meaning was like reading a hack detective novel missing half the pages. I thought that "Woyzeck" focused on the dehumanizing ways of the modern world in the manner of Georg Kaiser or Arthur Schniztler. But in my state of alienation, it seemed to represent the dehumanization of the poor in a world where bourgeois conceptions of religion consider morality to rely on money.  Thus the Captain can say Woyzeck is good but not "moral", the Doctor can conduct cruel and manipulative experiments on him, and the Drum Major can take his wife with no consequences. Woyzeck is without friends to help him (Andres is merely a gossip, Marie is his betrayer, the other men watched the Drum Major beat him without helping) and there is no chaplain or priest to offer comfort. As such, he can only commit a brutal murder against the one person less powerful than him. 

I'd need to read the play again to verify if this could be a valid interpretation. But other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' compositions, it was the one interesting thing I took from the evening.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And sometimes I feel that life's a movie/ but I don't like the film

So, all this talk of Kenneth Branagh directing Thor (which is an inspired choice for an action picture, but who thought Peter "Dead Alive/Meet the Feebles" Jackson would work out for Lord of the Rings?) has reminded me of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, where he stunt-cast the film to within an inch of its life.

Some of those choices worked out well (Charlton Heston as the Player King!), others barely registered (poor Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo), and some were incredibly misguided [Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger ("and tell me, what's the deal with the Adam as the first gardener?"), Robin Williams as Osric?]. So in the spirit of William Shakespeare's Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, I have come up with a new game:

KENNETH BRANAGH'S [Blank]

The way you play Kenneth Branagh' s [Blank] is pick a stage play and come up with an ideal cast based on people outside the chosen genre. So if you're casting Antony and Cleopatra, no (primarily) Shakespearean  actors. Other than that, they can be anyone, living or dead, from any era of their career.  Of course, you can play fast and loose with that last part, but still, STUNT CASTING!

As the inaugural edition of Kenneth Branagh's [Blank], I present, 
Kenneth Branagh's Richard III

Richard III - Richard Baseheart played two fascinating psychopaths in the early part of his career for Anthony Mann (Robespierre for Reign of Terror, cop killer Roy Morgan for He Walked by Night) and it would have been great to see him essay one of theatre's most famous psychopaths at that stage in his career. I doubt he would have fallen into the campier vein that so often afflicts Richards.

Edward IV - Sterling Hayden (in his 1950s heyday) might seem an odd choice for a dying King, but in his best roles, Hayden was able to simultaneously embody solidity and fatalism. In Johnny Guitar, as a figure of denial and impotence helpless before Joan Crawford, in The Killing, a careful, reasonable man doomed to fail by human nature and coincidence. And Edward is supposed to be prematurely aged by years of relentless drinking and womanizing anyway. So slap some old age make-up on him and I bet he would have done well as a once-mighty warrior undone by guilt and his own over-indulgence. (P.S. No need to mention the impotence at the heart of Jack D. Ripper in Strangelove, is there?)

George, Duke of Clarence - one of my favorite renditions of Clarence was an incredibly flawed Chicago Off-Loop theatre production where the actor playing Clarence saw him as a weak-willed, burnt-out slacker who always relied on his charm to bail him out. Jeff Bridges is able to portray sons of privilege (Winter Kills, Iron Man) and burnt-out slackers (The Big Lebowski, for starters). Plus, he would add complete a trifecta of York kids who look powerful but all fail as men of strength in one way or another. 

Buckingham - when you've got a cold, chilling Richard, you normally need a Buckingham who is smart, charming with tinges of malice. I've always felt that Buckingham is best as an up-and-comer who thinks he's too smart to suffer any consequences for his actions. Gene Kelly in his prime could always balance cleverness with charm and moments of aching vulnerability, always useful qualities in a con man. At the same time, in films like It's Always Fair Weather and What a Way to Go!, he was able to delve into toxic levels of self-loathing, contempt and egotism that would be a near-match to Richard more private scenes.

Lord Hastings - Another theory on Richard's conspirators: Hastings is someone who's got to be ambitious but too weak to carry out Richard's worst acts. Eric Roberts in Star 80 did a terrifying job of burrowing under the skin of an incredibly unlikeable person who did awful things and making him pitiful without apologizing for him, a difficult task for any actor. Hastings is not as horrific, but there are similar issues of someone capable of doing manipulative acts of evil but still oddly naive.


Catesby - Lee Marvin always held the coiled intensity of a snake waiting to strike, even in old age, and I love the image of Catesby as an older retainer of Gloucester's, one who came up through the ranks in the War of the Roses by his bravery and cruelty. And Marvin always finds a way to own the screen whether he's on screen for five minutes or fifty.
 
Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey - Relatively minor roles, but after all the time travel to Nineteen Fifty Something and morally conflicted people, I'll go with a game changer and pick James McAvoy and Simon Pegg. With the former, you'd understand why you'd need Richmond to come back (beyond the obvious bloodline issues), while the latter points out Elizabeth's annoying, unpopular family. Also, this Richard III shaping up could use some comedy that wouldn't be wack-a-doo.

Henry, Earl of Richmond - Christian Bale. And yes, he's already been in one Branagh Shakespeare history. But Richmond is a cipher, someone with connections to the throne but removed enough from the original fray to sweep in as a unifier. I don't know what else Bale can do, but he can play a cipher, the mask given human form.

And, since I don't want this to be a three thousand page post, onto the women:

Queen Elizabeth - Nicole Kidman. Because you should be able to see why people are annoyed by this nouveau rich aristo being Queen, while seeing how she could charm Edward into marrying her (no small feat when she was up against a French princess) and noticing the sheer cold steel in her spine that allowed her to hold her squabbling, fractured family together as long as she did. I don't think there's any question that Kidman is good at being alluring (in the psychological sense, not just the obvious aesthetic sense) while also being calculating and manipulative. Elizabeth shouldn't be evil, I should clarify, otherwise there is no point in that long scene with Margaret and the Duchess of York about teaching her to curse her enemies. But Clarence and company need someone who is off-putting, if only so we understand why everyone bickers and turns in on each other as Richard knocks them off one by one.

Margaret - Leslie Easterbrook, if only for Mama Firefly in Devil's Rejects. By this point in tetralogy,  the character has lost whatever claim to nobility (in all senses of the word) and merely possesses an epic hatred for the world. She is only queenly in her grotesquerie. And what are her confrontation scenes except slightly more elevated versions of Easterbrook's interrogation by William Forsythe in Devil's Rejects?

Anne - Anne needs to be both incredibly sexy and deeply conflicted about that. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain her acceptance of Richard on any level. She must be the first one to call herself a fraud if Richard is to succeed. Naomi Watts, in I Heart Huckabees and Mulholland Drive, did an excellent job of being pretty and charming, seeming innocent yet wrapped up in tons of neuroses and self-awareness. Richard has got to persuade her that she is guilty of Prince Edward's death (and it is an amazing feat), but she has to take the first step herself. 

Duchess of York - This is hard because the Duchess of York strikes me as resigned and quietly sad until maybe the very end of the play (where she denies Richard her blessing). I feel like she's got to have some strength (otherwise, how could she survive all her many losses and still try to comfort Elizabeth) but she's not a figure of rage. Can I propose (alternate reality) Jane Fonda? Ignore Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule and pretend that the brilliant actress from Klute and the like somehow matured keeping that same sense of gravity. Her performance in Klute has to be a masterwork of subtle touches, a mix of resignation types stoic and suicidal, turning a stock character (a prostitute that needs to be protected and rescued) into a living human being with a mess of contradictions relating to issues of control and performance of self.

I'm calling this here because otherwise I'd be writing this post until Kenneth Branagh made Thor. However, I tag Leigh, Helen and Zev to carry on the meme, if they so wish it.