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”

JR Varda

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.

Markets Gone Mad-Amazon edition

Just a quick update on my piece on Apple becoming the most valuable company reaching the $1T market value threshold with news that Amazon briefly hit that same point yesterday.  Amazon’s path to get to that position was quite different from Apple’s, since Amazon is a relatively “young” company.  Whereas Apple went public in 1980, Amazon only did in 1997.  The companies are also wildly different in terms of profitability.  In 2017 Apple’s profits were $48B while Amazon’s was $3B.

A couple of good pieces that cover this news is this piece from the NYTimes and another one from Bloomberg, both of which are cautious about what the future holds for Amazon.

Changing the Model

As audio platforms like podcasts become mainstream, best-selling authors are moving into it and other new spaces to reach a wider audience, but the impact they’re having in relation to legacy book publishing and sales is yet to be seen.

Many popular authors have recently made the jump from traditional formats such as newspaper/magazine columns and books to new models like podcasts and audio originals on Audible.com.  A high profile case of this is Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink) who has a popular podcast, Revisionist History.  Gladwell has sold millions of books but said that he decided to venture into podcasts to more easily reach his audience. Speaking with the New Yorker editor David Remnick, Gladwell sees podcasts as a means to get to a younger audience but also to keep his current readers engaged in between books in an environment where their attention is in high demand.  In an interview with Adweek Gladwell sums it up by saying, “if you’re going to be relevant…you have to try to reach people in more than one way because these worlds are getting quite fragmented.”

The best-selling author Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Moneyball, Flash Boys) had a column for Vanity Fair but he recently made the switch to audio originals for Audible.  Similar to Gladwell, Lewis is doing this as a means to expand his audience.  No doubt Lewis will find new “readers” through Audible but I wonder how many of his existing fans will follow him to that space.  Audible is mainly a subscription service and for £7.99 a month you can download one audiobook or Audible original a month. You can also get audio books without a subscription and you can buy Michael Lewis’s latest audio original, The Coming Storm for £5.49.  So for roughly the equivalent of a quarter-year’s-long subscription to Vanity Fair (annual price is currently £24) you could buy a single story that otherwise would have been a magazine column.  

Another author who has done this in one way or another is Robert Caro, famous for his landmark biographies of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and his ongoing series on US President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson).  Caro is an old-school writer in almost every sense of the definition (Caro is famous for handwriting his drafts), but even he has made an Audible original with his latest work, a short memoir-esque piece only available on that platform.  Caro has long talked about writing a memoir once he’s finished with the LBJ project, but considering he is 82 years old some of his fans understandably fear that he will never get to it.  The Audible original could be a means to start getting that information out there in a quicker-to-market format than the usual process to get a book published. In an interview Caro said that he did it as a way to get some of his speeches saved for posterity.  

Some popular podcasters are going in the other direction though.  The comedian Marc Maron, who was an early pioneer of the podcast format published a collection of excerpts of the conversations he’s had on his popular podcast, WTF as a book.  Switching to this new model could prove lucrative and Amazon with its deep pockets is trying to court popular authors and likely looking to become the Netflix of audiobooks and colonise that space. The more popular the author, the likelier it is that some of their fans will follow them to the new platform but it remains to be seen how successful it will be for up and coming authors.  The filmmakers behind Crazy Rich Asians were pursued by Netflix and turned down their lucrative offers because they felt the movie being a success in the old-fashioned model was more important.  In an interview on Vulture, the film’s director Jon Chu said, “If it came down to money, what are we actually trying to do here?…Taking it to the theater, it’s a symbol that a Hollywood studio system thinks it has value…It put us emotionally all in and upped the stakes…Without that, we wouldn’t be doing this marketing push. It would just be on the front page of Netflix or wherever it could end up.”

There is certainly a large market for these new models (the comedian Joe Rogan recently said he gets 30 million downloads of his show a month) but it’s not being discussed in the same way, and this accounts for the decision to release Crazy Rich Asians theatrically.  Gladwell’s books are discussed widely and a few of the main concepts that he’s struck upon (“The 10,000 hour rule”, David & Goliath) seem to have broken into the mainstream.  Gladwell has some thought-provoking concepts in his podcasts as well but it is difficult to find the audience that discusses those ideas and critiques them in an engaging way.  For the most part podcasts aren’t reviewed the same way that books are, and this could be a sign of the struggles of old media trying to keep up with new media. In the interview with Remnick, Gladwell actually points to this as part of the appeal of podcasts, saying that there is no “critical infrastructure” that exists to tell people which podcasts to listen to, similar to what happens in books.  

The power of the book was expressed recently with the news that the legendary journalist Bob Woodward was coming out with a book about the Trump presidency.  Until recently the book was kept under wraps and considering how much is written about the administration and the constant daily turmoil, the fact that Woodward was able to do this on the sly was news on its own.  Woodward, famous for his reporting on the events that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment, represents a dying breed of journalists. Even though he’s a working reporter who is occasionally on TV and has columns published, just the announcement of the book coming out became news in and of itself which could be a sign of the power of the old paradigm of book publishing.  Even authors who have embraced the new models aren’t giving up on books with Michael Lewis releasing a new book this fall and Malcolm Gladwell working on one as well.