Monday, June 27, 2016


Sing Street Movie Review

In Sing Street, a sensitive kid named Connor Lawler (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) - soon to be nicknamed ‘Cosmo’ - spots a stylish older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). It’s 1985 Dublin, so she’s dressed like a mix of early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.  She claims to be a model. He claims to be a singer in a rock band; he needs a model like her to star in his next video. We know he’s lying – he’s just a skinny, unassuming boy who has been shipped to a new school where he’s harassed by bullies and teachers alike -  and we sense she might be lying, too. Cosmo presses ahead, though all he knows about music is what he hears from his older brother (Jack Reynor), a stoner in his mid-twenties who wallows in the ‘80s pop explosion. It’s MTV time: Duran Duran, puffy haircuts, and the dying embers of The Clash.  When Raphina asks Cosmo to sing a bit for her, he warbles a few off-key lines from the '80’s chestnut, ‘Take On Me’ by A-Ha. Astoundingly, she accepts his invitation to star in his video. He promptly runs to meet one of his mates and announces, “We have to start a band.” That’s where the fun part of the movie begins, as Cosmo  finds what little talent there is among his rough school mates and, with tips from his brother, whips his raggedy little group into rock ‘n’ roll shape. Writer-director John Carney borrows a bit from films like The Commitments and School of Rock and even High Fidelity, but his real inspiration seems to be the films of John Hughes.  Squint your eyes, and Cosmo could be Jon Cryer or Anthony Michael Hall;  Raphina could be Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy. Sing Street is only superficially about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s actually a romantic teen fantasy, where each of the characters nurses a little wound somewhere in their soul, and the underdogs win.

Carney obviously has an affection for the period and the music, but when Cosmo goes from being a Duran Duran wannabe, to a Robert Smith clone, to wearing one of those dreadful little hats that bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners used to wear, I couldn’t tell if this was just being done for a visual effect, or if Carney was making a joke about the flimsiness of the era.  The music of the 1980s was so delicate, like bubbles, that it needed the silliness of videos to give it what little substance it had. But the movie isn’t really about music, despite the walls of vinyl at Cosmo’s house. Eventually, there are plots to be resolved, and emotional hurts to come to the fore. Even the ultra-confidant Raphina has some adolescent aches that need soothing. It turns out she’s a bit of a mess, but Cosmo loves her just the same, even though she dismisses him as just a young boy. And Cosmo’s family is falling apart – his mother is having an affair, and  his father will soon be moving out. The only solace Cosmo finds during these troubling times is when he’s writing tunes with his buddy Eamon, a loner kid who raises rabbits and happens to play all the instruments in his father’s wedding band.  I liked Eamon. As played by Mark McKenna, he’s the sort of smirking kid I knew from my own teen years, a boy too eccentric to be part of the crowd, but hording unsuspected talents. He’s the sort of co-conspirator Cosmo needs, always willing to try something, no matter how grandiose the idea. He steals every scene he’s in, flashing an easy smile at the joy he has found: he’s in a band.

Fortunately, McKenna doesn’t have any grandstanding moments, which Carney likes to lather on like butter. Raphina gets her bit where she weeps and moans about the troubles in her life, and Cosmo’s brother Brendan has a doozy of a scene where he smashes a bunch of his old albums and laments how he’s wasted his life. “I used to be a fucking jet engine!” he wails. Prior to this outburst, he slouched around the house offering amusing bon mots, an Irish cross between Jack Black and Seth Rogan. “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” he says at one point,  which I suppose gets a laugh in some theaters. As played by Jack Reynor, Brendan is the sort of archetype who exists in these sorts of movies just to tell his younger brother, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made!”  Strangely, he doesn’t look to be more than 24 or 25, but acts as if his life is over. But that’s what makes the movie lyrical, and gives Cosmo his chance to be a hero. By the end, as Cosmo and Raphina run off together, we realize we’re not watching real people, but fantasy figures, no more realistic than the illustrations on the cover of a romance novel. They hurt inside, but the hurts are there so the audience can say, yes, indeed, there’s no worse agony than being a lonely teenager, yet there’s nothing that can’t be cured by simply running down the street, hand in hand with your best girl or guy, while some appropriate music plays in the background.

Carney has so much fun with his movie that he piles on three or four happy endings, but it all seems to happen too quickly. The gawky Cosmo becomes a dynamic front man in too short a time; the band becomes polished after just a few rehearsals; and Raphina goes from being the unattainable love object to Cosmo’s willing sidekick with only a smidgen of fuss.  Raphina also appears younger in each scene – when we first see her she looks like Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous, but by the end of the movie she’s nearly as fresh-faced as young Cosmo. The school bully  (played with zeal by  Ian Kenny) , who seems as evil and demented as a character from A Clockwork Orange, mellows, too.  That’s what bullies do in movies like this – they turn out to be lovable, misunderstood blokes. (In real life, though, they eventually murder somebody.) Carney gets a major boost from Yaron Orbach’s cinematography. Orbach makes Dublin look refreshing, as if it’d been blown out by a gigantic hair dryer, and scenes of ships leaving Dublin for London take on a mystical, adventurous tone. The movie may be hollow at its center, but Carney achieves what he set out to achieve, namely, an inflated paean to adolescent daydreams of escape and triumph. 

Where Carney botched it in my book is in the way he treats the band.  The scenes where they shoot their videos are amusing enough, and the boys get to play a gig at their school where they take a few jabs  at a belligerent authority figure, but the band seems to be less important as the movie rolls along.  I wanted to know more about them, and share in their excitement. There’s a nice clip in the trailer (that didn’t make it into the movie) where the group’s scrappy little manager says, “I actually love this band.” I would’ve preferred a movie where a kid starts a band to impress a girl, and inadvertently falls in love with the band. There’s a great moment in adolescence, if you’re lucky enough, where your favorite band is the one you’re in. But Carney didn’t want to make that movie. Instead, he wanted to make The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink, and the movie has been successful enough on the indie and festival circuit (Reynor won a Best Supporting Actor award from the Irish Film & Television Academy)  that he’s probably quite proud. As they say in Dublin, Fair play to him.

The 1980s and a middle-aged man's vision of teen yearning have been sweetened up in this movie,  presented like pictures in a restaurant menu that make the food look twice as good as it does in reality. Five minutes after you leave the cinema, Sing Street vaporizes, except for one bright, magical sequence where Cosmo proposes a band video based on the high school dance scene from Back to The Future. The band suddenly appears in shiny suits, and Cosmo struts convincingly with his hair in a pomp. His parents and brother appear in the audience, teachers do handsprings across the gymnasium floor, and kids bustle about doing their own awkward versions of 1950s dances. It's a fun bit - a 2016 movie looking back at a 1980s movie that looked back at the '50s. Fittingly, Carny’s version of the 1980s is as banal as Back to the Future’s version of the ‘50s, but in this scene it works because it’s only being imagined by Cosmo. When the sequence ends with him realizing the gym is empty, we’re nearly as heartbroken as he is. And you may wonder how moviemakers could stage a scene like this one, smartly melding fantasy - which was the real  raison d'être  behind rock videos - and the bittersweet,  in the middle of such a self-consciously upbeat movie.

Monday, June 20, 2016


But why bring it up?
By Don Stradley

Despite the laborious title of Josh Gross’ ALI vs INOKI: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment,  I’m not convinced that Ali’s fiasco with a Japanese wrestler in 1976 inspired or launched anything. There’d been mixed boxer/wrestler matches going back several decades, and as for “sports entertainment,” the coy term for professional wrestling, there’d been enormously popular wrestling events long before the Ali - Inoki debacle. Hell, in 1934 Strangler Lewis wrestled Jim Londos in front of 35,275 at Wrigley Field. Still, Ali-Inoki is a large link in a very long chain, and as such, deserves a closer look than it’s generally given.  

You couldn’t ask for a closer look than the one Gross gives this odd footnote in sports history, but the tone is problematic. Depending on the reader’s interest, one might be put off by Gross, a longtime MMA journalist, who is clearly more interested in mixed martial arts than boxing. While Gross reminds us constantly that boxers haven’t fared well in mixed rules bouts, he doesn’t acknowledge that a few boxers have knocked MMA men goofy. And while he interviewed quite a few wrestling and MMA types for his book, including an insignificant “writer” from the WWE, he didn’t speak to quite so many boxing people. One whose input is sorely missed – Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee – is long dead.

Inoki was an interesting character  - he was as hungry for fame as Hulk Hogan and Vincent K. McMahon combined, and was knowledgeable about real fighting techniques as well as American-style ring theatrics – but kept himself blanketed in mystery. Was he really Korean, as some suspected? Was he affiliated with gangsters, as many in the Japanese wrestling world are said to have been? He played the role of noble athlete, but anyone who spends 15 rounds trying to kick Ali in the nuts is certainly no boy scout. Then there was the bizarre New Year’s Eve ritual where Inoki’s most devoted admirers would stand in line waiting to be slapped in the face by their hero. It was, recalls Bas Rutten in the book’s intro, a “hard” slap. This was a sort of spiritual exercise, where Inoki would supposedly transmit some of his fighting spirit into his fans. Call me a  misguided Westerner, but I’ve never wanted Lennox Lewis to hit me in the mouth for luck.

The Ali- Inoki debacle took place during one of the worst years of Ali’s career. After the watershed period of 1974-75, Ali’s popularity was at its highest in ‘76, but he was showing signs of age, and even burnout. Ali had wanted to fight in Japan and had fished around for a Japanese boxer, but when Inoki’s promotional company contacted him with an offer, he saw it as a chance to partake in the ballyhoo of professional wrestling. As for the question of who would win between a boxer and a wrestler, I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 12 concerning themselves with it. But according to Gross,  this question has tormented mankind for centuries. Though Ali used it as a promotional crutch, I doubt he was seriously thinking about it. It’s more likely he wanted to get away from boxing for a bit because he needed a distraction, something whimsical to draw money. Ali had, as Dr. Ferdie Pacheco said, “the blood of a con artist.”

Where things went haywire was in establishing rules for the event. Inoki was unhappy when Ali’s camp demanded certain martial arts tactics be banned,  but he knew being linked with Ali was worth a few concessions. The bout, which took place at the legendary Budokan Hall in Tokyo, was pure shit. Inoki stayed low, butt-scooting across the ring, kicking at Ali’s legs. Ali spent the entire 15 rounds yelling at Inoki, unsure of how to deal with the crablike character in front of him. Far more entertaining was what Ali did stateside to promote the match, which included workouts with wrestling journeymen Buddy Wolff and Kenny Jaye. With “Fearless” Freddie Blassie as his “manager,” Ali would throw big, exaggerated uppercuts and the goons would rocket skyward like villains in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. At least it was funny. 

Whether or not Ali-Inoki was legitimate is a puzzle Gross can't solve. For one thing, he relies too much on the memories of crackpots. Can I really trust someone like "Judo" Gene LeBell, who made much of his living in the pro wrestling racket? That it was declared a draw suggests some sort of fix was in, particularly since Ali landed no more than a few punches. To paraphrase Pacheco, someone was going to get fucked, and it wasn't going to be Ali. My own hunch is that Inoki knew in advance that the bout would be called a draw, so he decided to just kick the crap out of Ali’s legs, not to win, but to send Ali home with some lumps and bruises. As for what Ali knew or thought, no one can say for certain. Inoki’s refusal to be interviewed for the book says a lot, too.

And, of course, there was the aftermath, with Ali calling Inoki a coward (I rather enjoyed the accounts of Ali taunting Inoki with some brutal American street talk, the sort that would get him banned from Twitter). For his part, Inoki claimed Ali’s hands were taped in a way that would make his punches too dangerous, hence, his strategy of staying on the canvas. Jhoon Rhee, the heralded taekwondo master who helped train Ali, suggested that Ali and Inoki had been scared of each other, not sure of what the other might do. And the public, feeling bamboozled, quickly forgot Ali-Inoki had ever happened. 

Yet, Ali-Inoki would occasionally rise from the ashes. Inoki kept the boxer-wrestler concept going with bouts against Check Wepner and Leon Spinks (and even a white-haired Karl Mildenberger), while Ali kept a hand in the wrestling biz by appearing as a referee at the first WrestleMania in 1985. The growing interest in MMA during the 2000s lead to Ali-Inoki being hailed, somewhat generously, as a kind of groundbreaker. If nothing else, Ali-Inoki showed future MMA promoters what to avoid. 

Gross covers all the bases. In fact, he covers too many bases, trying to squeeze in a history of pro wrestling in both America and Japan, plus a history of MMA. Despite Gross’ ambition, he lacks finesse. He gets carried away with insider fluff, like a blow invented by Rhee, “that melds thought and action into high-speed data flow.” He’s convincing when he suggests the bout was so badly received because Inoki’s kicking style was lost on American audiences, and he does a good job reminding us of the event's publicity blitz - it was the Ali event of the summer, and was hyped like any of his  heavyweight title bouts - but Gross remains an MMA mark, wallowing in stories about broken shinbones and dislocated shoulders; he’s like a dreamy kid who just saw his first Bruce Lee movie.

And every time he refers to Ali’s punches as “strikes,” I wanted to scream.

Gross, who has covered MMA since 2000, is also clueless when it comes to the pro wrestling side of the story. He strangely refers to Gorgeous George as a “reformed psychiatrist from New York City,” which still has me scratching my head. My favorite clinker, though, was when he mentions a bout between Inoki and Andre the Giant as “probably all fake.” Wow, do you think so?

He gets some amusing anecdotes from people on Ali’s team, namely Pacheco, Gene Kilroy,  and Rhee, who tells of Ali asking him to set up a rendezvous with a Korean woman after the match, even as Ali’s legs were, according to publicist Bobby Goodman, “so swollen he couldn’t put his pants on.”

But, as always, it’s Ali himself who stands out. Exhausted after the bout, surrounded by an entourage of bloodsuckers that numbered nearly 50 by this time, his legs covered in ice packs, Ali growled at a New York Times reporter that boxers were “so superior to rasslers. Inoki didn’t stand up and fight like a man. If he had gotten into hittin’ range, I’d a burned him but good.”  The irony, lost on Ali (and Gross) is that many boxers had said similar things about Ali, that his constant movement in the ring was somehow unmanly, and that if he’d stood still they would’ve nailed him. Now Ali knew how it felt to be Jerry Quarry.

As for Inoki, I keep thinking about matches from late in his career. In what could be seen as his own version of Ali’s "rope-a-dope," the 50ish Inoki would take a prolonged pounding, but at the last moment he’d pin his opponent, and then collapse. His seconds would rush into the ring, wrap him in his robe and take him away, a bit like the climax of a James Brown concert. Inoki’s fans ate it up, roaring as if they’d just witnessed something majestic. Inoki would move slowly down the aisle, his fans trying to touch him, fans who hadn’t even been born when Inoki met Ali, fans who may not have realized, or cared, that most of Inoki’s career was utter show business, but were still standing in line, waiting to be slapped.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016


The Lobster Movie Review

The Lobster arrives in the dreaded form of social satire, a genre that dares you to dislike it, a genre that is generally accepted by those who fear they may appear thick if they don’t declare it an “important” or “smart” movie. Some people have loved this film - it has won awards all around the world, including a pair of 2015 Jury prizes at the Cannes Film Festival -  and it's not without some good moments, but the enthusiasm outweighs the event. The movie bleats out a few trifling points about love and relationships, causing arthouse regulars, starved for anything that isn’t based on a comic book, to go bonkers. That The Lobster is now playing in the same little cinema where I saw Birdman a few years ago, another bloated, empty museum piece, says a lot. It won’t rise as high as Birdman – it’s ultimately a morbid movie that lacks the ironic winking of the earlier film, not to mention the bravura “comeback” performance of Michael Keaton – but it will give arthouse dwellers something to think about in the dark until another Birdman comes along.

Colin Ferrell plays David, a newly single man staying at “the hotel,” a lush country club location where single people are given 45 days to find a new partner, or be turned into animals. He tells them ahead of time that he’d like to be a lobster, because they live a long time, and he has always liked the sea. The hotel is run like a sadistic summer camp – one attendee is caught masturbating, and is punished by having his hand stuck in an electric toaster – and guests are forced to watch play productions by the hotel staff, all geared to show the horrors of living alone. Why guests have to sit through these propaganda plays, when being turned into an animal seems horrible enough, is unclear.

After a botched attempt at a new partnership, David escapes the hotel and flees to the nearby woods. Once there, he meets “the loners,” a group of renegade singles who have their own set of rigid rules and regulations. He ends up falling in love with another loner (Rachel Weisz) , which for some reason is forbidden. He and his new love must escape the band of loners before the tribal chief exacts one of her awful punishments on them, such as “the red kiss,” where a couple’s lips are slashed. There’s also something called “the red intercourse,” which we are spared hearing about. After a while it all starts to sound like ideas dreamed up by kids in a high school cafeteria after their first taste of George Orwell.

Farrell and the other actors move sleepily through the movie, as if they’d been told to downplay everything so the story’s weirdness can take focus. They speak in a lifeless monotone, and Weisz’ provides a narrative voice over that is almost unbearable. Are these people so beaten down by their society’s rules that they’ve lost their personalities? Apparently, this culture feels not only that couples are more valued than singles, but can succeed only if they share some superficial trait – a limp, a propensity for nosebleeds, short sightedness – but there’s no reason for me to explain it all.  Let’s just say the movie starts out as a Nathanael West slice of surrealism, sneaks in a few Terry Gilliam type jokes, and ends with a bit of self-mutilation harkening back to Flannery O’Connor. I left the theater feeling put out. I’d been lured in by the promise of people being turned into animals, was even shown a door ominously labeled ‘Transformation Room,’ and then the story veered away from its amusing, albeit thin premise, into a completely different sort of movie. One group tries to control love; the other outlaws it. Ok, fine. But how did the first group learn to turn people into lobsters? And why are the loners content to live in the woods and follow orders from their heartless leader (Lea Seydoux)? And why is she so mean, anyway?

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote the screenplay with Efthymis Filiiou) benefits from cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis – they create some interesting scenescapes, giving this world the grey, sterile look of a shiny new mausoleum (even outdoor scenes feel like catacombs, the gnarled greyness of the  wooded area serving as a crypt-like barrier from the  outside world). The movie was shot in various locations throughout Ireland, where the sky seems permanently overcast, and tree limbs hover over scenes like ominous giant fingers. Lanthimos favors the striking tableau – hunters running through the woods in slow-motion, loners dancing silently in the forest, each listening to electronic music from their own iPods – and he’s good at conveying the sterility of this society which, contrary to some of the film’s press, is not some “dystopian future,” but feels more an alternate world, conjured so Lanthimos can play with a few feeble concepts. He leaves a lot unexplained, but it never feels like he’s being purposely vague or coy. It’s more like he never considered making his fictional world whole. 

Ferrell’s performance has received kudos, mostly because he wears a mustache and a paunch (that’s what movie stars do when they have to play average folks, you see.) He’s OK as David, quite watchable at times, but few actors can play bland for two hours and not become boring. Ferrell certainly can’t.  John C. Reilly, our most lovable misfit, is entertaining as one of the hotel guests, but he’s done away with far too soon. Ashley Jensen, whom you may remember as Ricky Gervais’ friend in Extras, is wonderful as a woman trying desperately to find a new partner. Jensen can project loneliness the way the young Robert De Niro could show rage – I wanted to see how she survived and perhaps found a new spouse – but Jensen, like Reilly, is gone from the plot too soon. 

There were moments early in The Lobster where it seemed Lanthimos had tapped into a nice, simple metaphor about the arbitrary nature of love. I liked how one of the hotel guests said his father left his mother because he met a woman who was better at math. There was another scene I liked where Jensen danced with a hotel guest, and gave his arm a quick squeeze when the music ended. If you blinked, you missed it, that’s how subtle Jensen is. The movie needed more light touches like that, and more of Jensen, instead of turning into a kind of survival flick where David and his beloved try to escape the loners. It becomes a movie that, despite seeming like it has something to say, can only serve up a heavy-handed message about love being blind. 

Friday, June 10, 2016


Broken marriages, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll
Banging a Gong (and Getting it On) with Tony Visconti
By Don Stradley

Tony Visconti always struck me as a man of mystery – an exotic sounding name that often appeared on the liner notes of my favorite albums, he was either a highly sought after bass player, or a wizard-like knob turner,  one that I imagined dressed like Federico Fellini and worked studio magic for the most magical of recording artists, from David Bowie and Morrissey, to Iggy Pop, the Boomtown Rats and U2 – but it turns out there wasn’t much magic to him at all. Which doesn’t mean he was just some schnook who lucked into a great career as a music producer and arranger; to do what he did, to help create such iconic titles as Electric Warrior, Diamond Dogs, Scary Monsters, and Heroes, plus an ocean’s worth of art rock and obscure punk,  you’d need enormous talent, plus the native ability to earn a performer’s trust. Magic? No. After reading Tony Visconti, The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan, and the Brooklyn Boy (2009, now on Kindle), I’ll say with confidence that Visconti was no magician but was, rather, a hardworking journeyman with great ears and incredible patience, the latter being especially important when dealing with the egocentric world of 1970s rock.

  Early in Visconti, we’re told that a record producer “is responsible for every aspect of a recording,” and that “the best part is when I sit at a mixing console and put it all together.” But traveling around the planet to work with the likes of Paul McCartney or Thin Lizzy could fill him with as much frustration as delight, and gouged from his personal life. Three crumbled marriages, health problems, and enough experiences with heroin and cocaine to derail anybody – the book has its share of overdoses, suicides, and even accidental deaths, including one unfortunate drummer who died choking on a cherry stone – Visconti could easily pat himself on the back for surviving. What he makes clear is that his love of music is what got him through his most challenging times. His tone is that of the stranger in a strange land, in awe of his surroundings, a down to earth Brooklynite who fell in love with The Beatles and, at 23,  hauled ass to London, “the Mecca of modern pop music,” to learn from the masters. 

 Visconti wants to portray himself as a regular guy, but he can’t help but share some typical rock ‘n’ roll moments, like the time he screwed third wife May Pang (yes, John Lennon’s ex-girlfriend) on an elevator, or how certain artists liked to record in the nude, or the troubles he had getting Marc Bolan through a clawing mob of teen fans. He’s also endearingly candid about some of his mistakes, such as turning down a chance to produce Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’ or the way he’d once pegged a 19-year-old Bowie as too weird, too “out of kilter with what was happening on the scene.” Visconti’s slog through the 1980s makes for painful reading, particularly when new bands began relying on studio trickery to mask their ineptness. Producing an album for Scotland’s Altered Images was such a struggle that Visconti writes, “I wanted to take the bass and guitar out of the group’s hands and play them myself.”  

The final chapters don’t have the crackle of the early sections. His era over, Visconti practices Tai Chi, studies with motivational gurus, accepts the fact that he isn’t the marrying kind, and laments that “the music business keeps us in a permanent state of immaturity.” Still, we read about people like Visconti to get behind the scenes, and in that regard his autobiography sparkles. Along with great insights about recording techniques, we get telling snapshots of the bands of the day. The performers he worked with often come off as selfish, and unpredictable, but capable at times of unexpected generosity. Bowie, in particular, became a longtime friend. Visconti, it seems, craved the friendship of the people who hired him. As I read between the lines, I think he hoped to be an honorary member of the bands he produced, and felt something like heartbreak when he was passed over for another producer. Of course, becoming a de facto band member was no more likely than a midwife hired to deliver a baby would become a family member. The producer’s  job is to nurse the sound and bring it out into the world,  and few have done it with such passion and innovation as Visconti, never minding that he was working with people who dressed like elves, couldn’t tune their own guitars, and behaved like spoiled children.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

WOYZECK (1979)

       In a barren courtyard, seemingly untouched by human life, a soldier appears. He’s in a frenzy, running with his rifle. All around him are bleak buildings, their sickly green color nearly matching his washed out uniform. An unnamed authority figure running alongside him screams orders. The soldier stops, jogs in place, then drops to the ground to do push-ups. His name is Woyzeck. He’s an army barber, low ranking, faceless. For extra money, he’s volunteered to take part in a psychiatric experiment. 

       As he performs his mundane exercises, he scowls at the camera. His eyes are filled with hate. Does he hate himself? Does he hate the army? Does he hate us, the viewers? 

       That Woyzeck is played by Klaus Kinski tips us off. Things won’t go well for this soldier, or the people around him. Owning one of the most distinctive faces in the history of cinema, Kinski looks demonic even when he’s playing a dunce. Woyzek is married with an infant son; he comes home from his duties looking hunched and apologetic, a hobbled husband trying to make ends meet. As played by Kinski, Woyzeck is a gargoyle on the brink of madness. Under the spell of a local doctor who has gleefully promised to put him in a “nuthouse,” he’s verging on insanity from the moment we see him; we can’t imagine what this poor man might have been like before.

       That is what makes Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979) such a brave and challenging movie. Using Georg Büchner’s unfinished play from 1837 as his source material, Herzog declares his intentions early by focusing on Kinski’s bizarre mien. According to an interview Herzog gave to journalist Paul Cronin, Kinski had actually fallen down on the hard cobblestones during the first scene, which caused the side of his face to swell up. Herzog thought fast. He told Kinski, his longtime collaborator and occasional nemesis, “Just look at me.” Kinski obliged. Herzog kept the shot, and used it as the film’s opening. I’m still thinking about the scene several days after seeing it.

       Woyzeck’s wife Marie (Eve Mattes) is having an affair with a local drum major, a burly soldier she describes as having “the chest of a bull and the paws of a lion.” He’s everything her husband is not. Woyzeck is fragile, demented. The soldier is practically leaking with confidence. He happily struts for Marie, telling her to imagine him with his white gloves, marching. She looks like she might bite him out of sheer excitement. Marie feels guilty, but she can’t help herself. The scene where Marie dances with the drum major reveals something about women who cheat on their husbands; she shows a joy and abandon that she could never show with her feeble Woyzeck. She even becomes more beautiful. We watch Marie dance with this man who is not her husband and we almost forgive her.

       We know that Woyzeck will eventually realize that his wife loves this other man. We know well in advance that someone in Woyzeck’s brittle mental state will wreak a holy hell on someone. It doesn’t matter. The movie’s dismal majesty comes from watching how Woyzeck makes his journey from point A to point B, from browbeaten soldier and cuckold to raging avenger.

       Woyzeck was made immediately after Herzog’s Nosferatu, where Kinski played a baldheaded vampire. In order to save money and take advantage of a Slovakian work permit, Herzog and his crew stayed in Slovakia and started shooting Woyzeck as soon as Kinski had grown some hair. Herzog would say years later that Kinski had exhausted himself playing the vampire, which is what helped him seem so vulnerable as Woyzeck. Kinski was often combative with his director in their previous collaborations, but Herzog found Kinski to be very accommodating during the making of Woyzeck. Kinski loved the character, and believed Herzog’s vision for the film was important. Herzog had allegedly considered Bruno Schultz for the role; Schultz would’ve been fine, and perhaps more in line with the traditional interpretation of the character, but certainly not as magnetic or otherworldly as Kinski.

       It’s a stunningly beautiful movie. Cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, who had worked with Herzog many times, somehow makes the old buildings and swampy lakes of Moravia look ancient and unhealthy, but remarkable just the same. Kinski is often at the center of the frame, looking every bit as old and mysterious as the sick old derelicts surrounding him, as if he’d emerged from a bog. The film’s nightmarish violin score sounds like noise torn from Woyzeck’s very damaged mind. The film’s 27 scenes, each more intense and bizarre than the last, were filmed over a mere 18 days. What sort of movie could be made in 18 days now?

       Herzog once said “there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture, and because of this the film sparkles.” I think  Kinski is the key. Very few actors have ever come to close to capturing the essence of a person unraveling, but Kinski does so in the way he jitters and mumbles, the way he snaps to attention even when he doesn’t have to, the way he hurries down the street, anxious to get somewhere, but not sure where. Some might say that Kinski is too obvious a choice, and that he wears the film’s climax on his face, while another actor, Shultz for instance, would be more subtle. They might be right. Still, I’d rather watch Kinski, an actor whose emotions seemed to be writhing under his face. He wasn’t just playing to the cheap seats; he acted as if he wanted to be seen from the heavens.

       Büchner’s play is one of the landmarks of German literature. It has been produced countless times for stages around the world. According to the IMDB, there are over 40 versions of it made for both feature films and television, the most recent being a 2014 Portuguese production. (A 1972 version from Iran switched the main character from a soldier to a postal worker, long before the term “going postal” came into vogue.) What accounts for the play’s longevity? I’m tempted to say Woyzeck holds a place in German culture similar to the one held in America by Death of a Salesman. But if Death of a Salesman is a mirror of the American way of life, what does Woyzeck say about the German mindset? I can't venture a guess. But the plays, written more than a century apart and on different continents, seem to be related. Both plays feature an infidelity. One story concerns a lowly salesman; the other a lowly soldier. Both are trying to keep a family together. One ends in a suicide; the other ends in a murder. I suspect that no one wants to be Willy Loman, the tragic lead of Salesman, or Woyzeck, but the durability of both plays suggest that these besieged characters must somehow reflect us. Perhaps we watch stories of this nature unfold and think, I may not be exactly like these guys, but I’m not too far away.

       In a way, it’s Woyzeck’s jealousy of his wife’s affair that nearly snaps him out of his madness. Of course, it steers him into a new kind of madness, one that involves bloody vengeance, but it’s almost a relief to see him stop being a fool and turn into a man of action. Without a cause to fight for, whether personal or social, how many of us are just like Woyzeck, bumbling along in our drab uniforms, just waiting for the right humiliation to bring us to life?


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: HER AGAIN - Becoming Meryl Streep

The early years of Wonder Woman...I mean Meryl Streep 
by Don Stradley

Until she appears in a movie as memorable as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, I’ll withhold any declaration that Meryl Streep is our Greatest Living Actress.

Though Streep has always brushed aside such accolades, Michael Schulman’s Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep certainly wants to argue the case in her favor. Schulman spends more than 200 pages depicting Streep, as the late Raul Julia once said of his Taming of the Shrew co-star, as if she were “an acting factory.”  

But if Schulman stops short of hailing Streep as the greatest living anything  – and his book is wonderfully researched and his points cogently stated – he’s certainly smitten with his subject, showing her as a sort of savant who made the unlikely leap from her high school swim team in Bernardsville, NJ to a become a kind of uber-feminist,  an instinctual artist who was not only comfortable playing  hags at the Yale Rep, but also wielded  an almost preternatural beauty that no man could resist. Though it’s doubtful that any teenage boy ever saw The Seduction of Joe Tynan and promptly wallpapered his bedroom with posters of Streep, Schulman can almost convince a reader that Streep was/is a kind of mouthwatering earth mama - the words “beauty” or “beautiful” appear 39 times in the book, as if Schulman wants the idea to penetrate our subconscious.

When not pushing Streep as ‘Venus on the Half Shell,’ Schulman presents her as a kind of smiling mercenary, giving great portent to a journalist who interviewed her in 1979 and wrote, “There is something in Meryl Streep of the killer.” 

Before she became the beautiful assassin of Schulman’s dreams, Streep had been a quirky, bossy girl. She’d tried various personas during her high school years – at one time she was seriously studying opera – before settling into her first “role,” that of a perky cheerleader who would eventually be crowned homecoming queen. For Streep, it was all calculated – she’d wanted the attention of boys, and decided the only way to get it was to become a blond rah-rah girl. So she rinsed her hair in lemon juice and started laughing at jokes told by the wits on the football team. Fortunately, by the time she found herself at the Yale School of Drama, she’d chucked her pom-poms and embraced the women’s liberation movement.

Though many women did exactly what Streep did in the early 1970s, resigning their pasts for something more meaningful, Schulman sees Streep’s morphing into a feminist as having major significance, like Keith Richards hearing his first Muddy Waters record. Of greater interest is that Schulman dispels the mythology around Streep’s time at Yale, which included classmates Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and others, as a golden era of creativity. In truth, they were just a bunch of neurotic, moody kids, and the Yale system wasn't nurturing. Streep worked hard, but didn't exactly soar at Yale.  She came up against some snotty instructors who dismissed her obvious ability, perhaps out of jealousy. That her interest in acting remained intact in such an unhealthy atmosphere is a testament to an inner toughness that, more than any number of putty noses and wigs, helped her to have a long career in movies.

Though he relies too much on effete windbags like Robert Brustein (Yale’s dean of actors) and Israel Horovitz (dull playwright of the 1960s), Schulman finds interesting sources elsewhere: old boyfriends, other actors, teachers, directors. In all, more than 80 people agreed to be interviewed for the book. Producer Joe Papp comes off as a selfless hero and daddy figure; Dustin Hoffman, an obnoxious twerp. Don Gummer, Streep’s husband since 1978, is a wallflower in his own wife’s bio, getting only slightly more ink than Streep’s hairstylist, Roy Helland. Meanwhile, John Cazale, Streep’s first serious love who died of lung cancer at 42, looms over the story like a thunderhead. This is understandable – Cazale, the tragic dead lover, gives Streep an aura of melancholy, and allows a romantic like Schulman to unload some of his best prose. He writes about Cazale and Streep as if they were star-crossed lovers, “like two exotic birds, or like Pierro della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.”  If only he’d stopped there.

As if Cazale’s death isn’t enough, Schulman has a sugary habit of injecting drama where it’s not, from Streep battling New York traffic to get to an audition, to – my God! How did she do it?! - braving uncertain weather for an outdoor production of Measure for Measure, all to reinforce his image of Streep as “the Iron Lady of acting: indomitable, unsinkable, inevitable.” At heart, Schulman is a stage door Johnny, and after a while the book is less about Streep than about Schulman’s love for her. Such incidental moments as Streep reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at Vassar are treated like events we should mark on our calendars.

Even Cazale’s deathbed scene gives Schulman a chance to turn Streep into Wonder Woman. Apparently, when doctors informed her Cazale was dead, she started pounding Cazale’s chest, which momentarily revived him. With his last breath, he told her not to worry, and then he died. This would’ve been a fine and sad scene on its own, but Schulman has to interject his own nonsense. He writes, “What was it that brought him back? A final rush of blood to the brain? Her sheer force of will?” 

Right. Along with mastering European accents, Streep has power over the newly dead.

There are thoughtful accounts of Streep’s work in The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs Kramer, but Schulman is so adamant about portraying her as “an unstoppable star” that her occasional setbacks – a failed interview at Bennington, the time Dino De Laurentiis called her ugly – come as a relief. Schulman sets the tone early, breaking down Streep’s 2012 Oscar speech as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet, but there’s something off-putting about his fanboy enthusiasm. “The thrill of it was metamorphosis,” he writes of Streep jumping from one character to another, as if Streep invented acting. He praises Streep for rendering Joanna Kramer as “not a dragon lady, but a complex woman,” when any good performer would’ve done the same, whether or not they possessed Streep’s “alien precision.”   

Schulman is an editor at the New Yorker, and at times Her Again feels like a long New Yorker article under David Remnick’s watch: informative but dried out, tasteful the way an old lady on her way to church is tasteful. Still, where Schulman succeeds grandly is in recreating the period when Streep burst upon the scene, the time Mel Gussow once described as “the season of Streep,” the magical months between 1978 and 1980 when she couldn’t take a wrong step, a time when, as Streep herself put it when the frenzy died down, “it was either me or the Ayatollah on the covers of national magazines.”

It was, in retrospect, a hell of a time. Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, despite the author’s gushing, may make you wish you’d been there to see a new kind of movie star in bloom.