Love, Death and Maladies – “The Malady of Death” Review

La Maladie de la Mort - Bouffes du Nord Theatre, Paris 2018

The theatre director Katie Mitchell and her frequent collaborator, playwright Alice Birch have been called “radically experimental” and “unapologetically controversial”.  Their latest collaboration The Death of Malady, a re-imagining of Marguerite Duras’ novella, which recently had a limited run at the Barbican is a bold production, but unfortunately the risks don’t pay off as well as some of their other works.  A narrator (Irène Jacob) sits onstage in a sound booth while a sex worker (Laetitia Dosch) waits for a man who has hired her to spend multiple nights with him in a hotel room and consent to whatever he wants.  The man (Nick Fletcher) provokes her to this challenge so that he could find out what it means to love. On stage there is a small crew filming the action which is projected on an overhead screen. The passage of time is presented in a clever way and because your attention is shifted between the action taking place on stage and what is on the screen you don’t notice the subtle ways they shift to the following day or to another location.  As the play progresses these shifts are more intentionally clear.

The play is listed as a work of “live cinema” and the results of this are mixed.  The cinema staging serves to move the action along from one place to another and to jump back and forth in time.  As the events taking place are erotic and sexually manipulative, it also serves as a commentary on pornography (a subject Birch explored in her play We Want You To Watch).  The man has hired this woman to watch her and perform whatever sexual acts he desires and the audience is also serving as a voyeur watching these actors perform for them.  

In the original novella Marguerite Duras includes a note at the end of ideas on how best to stage it for the theatre and it has inspired many productions including this one.  The biggest difference between the novella and the play is that the action shifts from the perspective of the man to the woman. In the novella you know almost nothing of the woman’s background while in the play there are flashbacks of her as a little girl coming home to find her father has committed suicide and how that relates to what she’s currently going through.  In the novella the mysterious nature of both characters feels surreal. Though the woman is paid money in the novella, we find out she’s not a prostitute but only accepted his proposal because she knows he’s suffering from “the malady of death”.  This serves to give the story a more romantic quality than the play, which is much more violent and aggressive. In the play it’s clear that the woman is a prostitute and she even sets boundaries for what can and can’t be done, when at one point he goes too far and starts choking her.  There is a romance in the novella that is purposefully stripped from the theatrical version because Birch and Mitchell force you to consider the reality of a woman being placed in this scenario. The only thing that would compel someone to participate in this is if they were in dire need of the money.  In the novella the woman is such an elusive figure that you never know if she (or he for that matter) really exists. In the play the woman is much more grounded and we see glimpses of her life outside of the hotel room. There is a poetry in the novella that when translated to the stage comes off as pretentious, which is not helped by the black and white images that look like a bad French New Wave film.  

Mitchell and Birch’s last collaboration Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre was an audacious work with perfect staging and direction.  It was centered around the stories of three generations of women and intersected them with all of the actors on stage with the dialogue and action jumping from one time period to another. The play is about the trauma that is passed down in a family and through its clever staging was able to express how one generation affects the other in a seamless way.  Unfortunately the bold risks taken in that play didn’t translate as successfully in their adaptation of The Malady of Death.  

Fresh Take on “A Star Is Born”

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There is a particular formula which takes place when a popular actor tries his or her hand at directing or when a popular singer switches gears to act.  Critics either judge them harshly and are eager to tear them down, or over-praise them if they show a modicum of competence in their new roles.

The new film A Star Is Born marks the directorial debut of actor Bradley Cooper and also presents a big jump into acting for the singer Lady Gaga but unfortunately their movie falls into the over-praised category.  The new version is the fourth, with the original dating back to 1937 so the story is clearly one that seems to connect with audiences enough to revisit it every few decades. Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote the film, plays Jack, a famous singer who is miserably drinking himself to death.  Once he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring singer at a drag show he becomes smitten after seeing her sultry rendition of an Edith Piaf classic, drawn to the purity in her singing and wide-eyed aspirations.  Jack has a complicated relationship with his manager and brother Bobby, played by Sam Elliott who gives a standout performance. Cooper proves himself to be a more than competent director and he does some of the best acting of his career in the process.  He puts the camera right up close to himself and his fellow actors and this works well in the concert scenes, particularly the one that opens the film.  The camera follows Jack as he enters an arena filled with thousands of adoring fans and shows how he can disconnect enough to perform as if he’s alone.   

The movie has some fine moments throughout, particularly a sequence that features Dave Chappelle, playing one of Jack’s childhood friends, George “Noodles”.  There’s a sweet scene where Jack creates a ring out of the string of a guitar to propose to Ally but it’s surprisingly upstaged by one of George’s daughters who is having a full blown conversation with herself in the background that has nothing to do with the proposal.  It’s an honest moment of spontaneity that Cooper wisely leaves in the film adding nice texture.

The biggest problem with the movie which seriously holds back its potential is the casting of Lady Gaga, who is being hailed as a “revelation”.  Gaga doesn’t offer up much emotion in her face and this is particularly noticeable with Cooper’s use of close-ups throughout the film.  Gaga is obviously a gifted singer and in the musical scenes she lights up in a way that is unfortunately not present throughout the rest of the movie where her performance feels flat.  Gaga’s performance calls to mind the film 8 Mile starring Eminem.  Both movies have a star performer channeling their personal life in ways that resemble their own stories but while Eminem’s performance was hailed as being raw and powerful at the time it doesn’t hold up today. Whether this will be true for Gaga’s performance here and if the film as a whole will live up to its hype remains to be seen.

 

Fresh Take on “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

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In the new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post a group of teenagers are placed in a gay conversion therapy camp called “God’s Promise” and aren’t allowed to leave until their supervisors and guardians feel they’ve been properly “healed”.  The title character, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is brought there after her boyfriend discovers her making out with another woman in the backseat of a car during their prom.  The film has echoes of the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the leader of the programme, Dr. Lydia Marsh (played by a terrific Jennifer Ehle) is a terrifying modern day Nurse Ratched.  Marsh runs the programme with her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) who was “successfully converted” from a prior life of homosexuality after her intervention.  God’s Promise is made up of a diverse group of kids who have varying degrees of commitment and belief in the benefits of the programme. Cameron is drawn to two of the more rebellious students, Adam (Forrest Goodluck) and Jane (Sasha Lane) and the three of them sneak into the woods to smoke up whenever they can.  

The tone of the film is a bit uneven from time to time and you get the sense that the filmmaker’s aren’t entirely sure of themselves, but in a way this helps to connect the audience with the confusion that the kids are faced with being placed in this strange environment.  Besides for Dr. Marsh, the organisers of God’s Promise are presented in a surprisingly sympathetic light. There is a touching scene when Reverend Rick is counseling Cameron about a tragedy that took place there and she ends up comforting him instead. She asks him if they have any idea what they’re doing and instead of pretending that he does, he breaks down and says he doesn’t know how to answer her question.  Gallagher Jr. has a sense of vulnerability that he displayed well in the mini-series Olive Kitteridge that is put to good use here.  Another standout performance is from Emily Skegg who plays Cameron’s roommate, Erin.  When we first encounter Erin she is presented as the typical, obedient student, but Skegg unveils the complex layers of her character throughout the film, particularly in a scene when she wakes Cameron in the middle of the night to scold her for having a dirty dream and then ends up seducing her instead.  The scene is shocking at first but then becomes bittersweet. Chloë Grace Moretz unfortunately gives a weak performance as the lead character and that along with the tonal problems hold the film back of its potential. The film ends with a nice homage to The Graduate with the fate of the characters decidedly up in the air.  

 

Fresh Take on “Faces Places”

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In the film Faces Places, which is now playing in cinemas and on demand in the UK, the legendary French film director Agnes Varda teams up with photographer JR on a road trip through France presenting large scale photographs of people in unique and odd locations.  They drive around in a truck that has a giant photograph of a camera lens that operates as a mobile photo booth and printer. People step inside the truck, take their picture and the print comes out of the side of the truck. The pairing of JR and Varda is a perfect cinematic juxtaposition.  The 33 year old JR is young, hip and always wears his trademark hat and black sunglasses, refusing to take them off as much as Varda pleads with him. Varda, with her two-toned bowl haircut is incredibly petite, as if gravity is trying to pull her 88 year old body into the ground. She is wonderfully eccentric, calm and confident in the knowledge that her time on this planet is certainly nearing its end and embarking on a project that satisfies her.   “JR is fulfilling my greatest desire. To meet new faces and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory” she says.

Though the film is a documentary, it has some nice moments of fancy.  The film begins by showing how the two of them didn’t meet with comical scenes of missed opportunities like Varda dancing in a night club with JR just a few feet away or at a bus stop where an annoyed Varda can’t be bothered to wait the three minutes and decides to walk instead.  The two set off trying to meet people in remote villages of France and try to connect them to each other and the audience through their work. The final result of the first set up is over a dozen portraits connected by a giant baguette.  

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One of the things they address is how as technology has improved we are becoming more and more isolated. They photograph one farmer who was able to cut his entire staff because he can do the work of a few people alone with his modern equipment but laments that it has made him anti-social.  They paste a massive portrait of him that takes up his entire barn and saying that they’ll make him the star of the village of 140, to which the man replies he already is.

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One of the film’s most poignant stories features a woman who refuses to leave her childhood home, the last of a row of houses in an old mining village.  They memorialise her by placing her photograph on her entire home which moves the woman to tears.

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The nature of JR’s work is ephemeral and they paste one of Varda’s cherished photographs of an old friend on a German bunker which fell into the beach and within a day the photo is washed away.  “The sea always has the last word” Varda says. The simple and profound film is also a meditation on death with Varda talking about friends and loved ones who have passed, including her husband the director Jacques Demy.  There is a scene at the end of the film which is so painfully beautiful that I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s something that will certainly stay with me for a very long time. Varda’s eyes tell a story in themselves of a lifetime of hurt, betrayal, tolerance but also joy.  JR is keen to this and ends the film by pasting her eyes on a train saying they will travel to places Varda has never been.

 

Fresh Take on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Much has been written about Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and here are a few things I found striking that haven’t been as widely discussed as the more explosive revelations within it.

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Even though it is squarely about Trump, the book could have been called All The President’s Men (if that title hadn’t already been made famous by Woodward himself). It’s really about the men (with a few exceptions) that surrounded President Trump in his first year in office, and what they did to contain and prevent him from his worst impulses.  Woodward didn’t interview Trump himself, and I doubt much insight would actually be gained from the inclusion of Trump’s words here.  Interviews with Trump are long and rambling and don’t actually provide much insight into the man, besides that he is a compulsive liar and that he can’t focus on anything besides himself.  In a 2016 pre-election interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, who painfully had to try to pin down Trump to interview him for the book, said that Trump’s key characteristic was that “he has no attention span.”  This is something that the characters in Fear not only understand but use to their (and perhaps our) advantage.  Woodward writes about “an administrative coup d’etat” where staffers would either ignore the President’s orders or would go so far as to remove letters from his desk in the Oval Office to prevent the President from signing them.

One much discussed passage in the book is about a furious Trump not understanding why the US spends money to protect foreign countries like South Korea and Taiwan and having to be told that it’s done to prevent World War III.  Another passage which hasn’t been as discussed but is nearly as terrifying recounts Trump’s aides explaining to him that China could retaliate against a trade war by refusing to sell antibiotics to the US (nearly 97% of the US supply comes from China).  

These accounts show the clear danger that Trump presents and how the strategy of containing him could be quite beneficial.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that this is actually just delaying the inevitable and that if there were mass resignations similar to what happened in the Nixon administration during Watergate, the stronger the case for Congress or the voters to do something about it and prevent someone like him from getting elected again.     

Some characters like Senator Lindsey Graham and Steve Bannon come across as political opportunists while others fare better, notably economic adviser Gary Cohn, White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the President’s lawyer John Dowd.  One of the criticisms of the book has been that Woodward’s sources could likely be presenting themselves in a flattering light to him so that history will be kind to them. Woodward has pushed back against this saying that he tries to get as many sources as possible and isn’t relying on just one person’s account.  In interviews he has repeatedly quoted his old editor Ben Bradlee saying that over time “the truth emerges”.  The more that is reported on this the more truth will certainly emerge.

BlacKkKlansmen review

*Warning-this review contains multiple spoilers to the plot and ending of the film*

There’s a scene at the end of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a baptist church, where the segregationist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace is interviewed.  Wallace was quite old and visibly frail at the time (he passed away in 1998, a year after the documentary came out) and he tries to highlight the positive things that he did as governor, including providing free textbooks to African-American schoolchildren who couldn’t afford it.  An African-American man who knew Wallace said that when you were alone with him one-on-one, he was the nicest man you’d ever meet, but when the cameras and the political spotlight was on him, it was a different story. The interview ends with Wallace calling forward his caretaker and aide, an elderly African-American man named Eddie Holcey and while holding his hand repeatedly says that he is his best friend.  Holcey, visibly uncomfortable, stands there holding his hand and then tries to move out of the frame. The scene is incredibly powerful and memorable (after 20 years it’s still burned into my memory), but in a way it feels out of the place in the documentary.  You get the sense that the footage was so good, showing how broken this once-powerful man was, that Lee couldn’t resist including it in the film.  The scene also serves to humanise this racist monster of a man, who was implicit in the deaths of the four little girls that the film is about and so much more.  Wallace is practically pleading to the camera for history to remember him kindly, and even though it won’t, nor should it, you can’t help but feel empathy for him.  There’s a scene at the end of Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansmen that shows a montage of footage from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last August and the violent attack against counter-protestors where a man drove a car through the crowd and killed Heather Heyer.  Similar to the Wallace scene in 4 Little Girls it’s incredibly powerful and visceral but feels even more out of place in this movie.  Lee is trying to draw a line between the fictionalised depictions of the KKK of the 1970s in the movie and what the deadly real-life result is in the end.  The footage is undeniably powerful and Terence Blanchard’s score, beautiful on it’s own-but not quite fitting throughout the movie, is used to great effect during that end sequence.  The movie is problematic because so much of what we see before that end sequence is so sloppily put together.

The plot of the movie is the semi-true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who was the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs.  After suffering through working in the records room and having to deal with a particularly racist cop, Stallworth gets to do some investigative work and is assigned to go undercover at a meeting of the Black Student Union where Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, is speaking.  He meets the president of the student union, a young woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a romantic plotline is built around that.  Stallworth sees an advertisement for the local KKK chapter and decides to call and pretend to be white and interested. A meeting is set up and since Stallworth obviously can’t attend it because of the colour of his skin, his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is sent and pretends to be him.  Their investigation into the KKK leads them to discover a terrorist plot where they are planning on bombing the Black Student Union, and in the process Stallworth manages to become phone buddies with David Duke (Topher Grace), the grand master of the KKK, who comically doesn’t realise he’s discussing white supremacy with an African-American cop.  

One of the main problems of the movie is that the filmmakers take such liberties with the actual facts of the story that most of the plotline feels completely implausible.  In real life Stallworth did speak to the KKK and Duke on the phone, while his partner pretended to be him in person but in the film the two actors sound almost nothing alike.  Flip’s character has none of the charisma that Washington’s portrayal of Stallworth has which makes them pretending to be the same person even more implausible.  The depiction of the klansmen are almost all played for laughs and most of them are presented as painfully stupid or at the very least inept. This depiction of them strangely serves to render them harmless.  The characters are saying the most vile racist things and planning out terrorist attacks, but because they’re presented as so comically inept, their sense of danger is removed.  As the climax approaches with the attempted bombing, the stakes are surprisingly low because you don’t think these fools can actually pull it off (and of course they don’t, some of the more vile KKK characters end up getting killed and another is arrested).  

Topher Grace’s performance of David Duke is a great light-hearted mockery of the man and there is something to be said for stripping a dangerous person of his power by making him slightly buffoonish, but it’s then quite striking when you see footage of the real David Duke at the end of the film.  The real Duke is dangerously charismatic (you don’t climb the ranks of an organisation like that without a real sense of charisma) but to see the juxtaposition of the real Duke and Topher Grace’s version of him is quite jarring. Imagine if Chaplin showed actual footage of Hitler at the end of The Great Dictator?

The biggest problem of the movie is that it plays directly to the liberal audience that’s watching it and doesn’t challenge them at all.  There is a scene in the middle of the film where a white police officer is telling Stallworth how David Duke is trying to change the perception of the KKK to normalise it so that eventually they will have someone sympathetic to their cause as the President of the United States.  Stallworth says that will never happen and the other officer chastises him and tells him to wake up. The scene is played for cheap laughs given the current occupant of the Oval Office but it feels completely out of place in the film. Are we to believe that a black man in 1970s America doesn’t think that America could produce a racist president?  These events are taking place while Richard Nixon is the sitting president after deploying the “Southern Strategy” to gin up support by appealing to racism against African-Americans like Stallworth.  The scene isn’t meant to make logical sense and is so ham-fisted that it wouldn’t be out of place if the characters turned to the camera and winked to the audience.  There is also a subplot of a token “bad cop” named Andy Landers, (Frederick Weller) that doesn’t seem fully thought-out. Landers seems to take pleasure out of roughing up African-Americans and in one scene he goes so far as to feel up Patrice after he pulls her over.  Stallworth asks his colleagues why they don’t report Landers and Flip says they’re a family and they protect their own. True enough, but then inexplicably towards the end of the film there is a scene when the cops, Flip included, set up Landers and take him down. When Stallworth shows up to work the next day, he struts down the hallway and his fellow cops are giving him high-fives.  Are we to believe that there is only a single truly racist cop in a Colorado Springs police department in the 1970s and the only African-American officer takes him down and is treated like a hero? This scene and so much of the movie completely lets the audience off the hook. A liberal audience member (the only people that would likely see the movie to begin with) watches that scene and can be happy that the one “bad apple” cop has rightfully received his comeuppance.  

The movie is meant to be an homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and the liberties taken with the story and presenting Stallworth as an unparalleled hero fit that but the more heavy-handed connections to present day America are what make this movie so problematic.  America, and so much of the world, is clearly going through a racial crisis at the moment and Spike Lee could be the perfect artist to address this, but unfortunately he fails spectacularly with this movie. The visceral montage of the Charlottesville rally at the end of the film highlights what a missed opportunity the film that came before it represents.  Similar to what he achieved with 4 Little Girls or his documentaries about Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise), if Lee used his skills as a documentary filmmaker instead it might result in a more focused artistic effort tackling the same issues head-on.