Friday, February 17, 2012

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

A very eerie and elegant The Woman In Black, a not so great Hugo and a freakishly good Meryl Streep in the pedestrian The Iron Lady.

A grossly underrated The Ides Of March and a great Demián Bichir in a not so great A Better Life.

Plus, my customary annual rant about the Oscars.

War On Religion

I'm starting it. Who's with me?
I'd like to deflect all those accusations by Republicans that Obama is waging a war on religion. I'm the one who's doing that, so send all your queries to me.
Every day I wage my silent, thankless battle about the spreading idiocy of religion of all denominations in public and political life, where it has no place.
For instance, it was rather amazing to see a panel convened by Sean Hannity asking 20 clergymen of different religions how they feel about female contraception. What do you know? They all have extremely strong feelings against it! They get to opine and decide, without consulting women, whether women should have access to contraception. This is the height of reason and fairness. There was not one woman in the panel. An Anita Bryant conservative witch would have come in handy, but not even. This is what religion does: it writes a blank check for self-righteousness, downright imbecility and barbarism and people just go ahead and cash it. Then they pat themselves in the back, to boot.
Let me put it this way: I hate religion. I hate what it does to people.
Faith is another matter. You want to believe in an afterlife, heaven and hell, God, limbo, nirvana, by all means; it's your right, knock yourself out. I read Astrology Zone religiously every month. We all need that old black magic somehow.
But why do we all have to believe in God? And if we don't, why are we perceived as morally deficient? Why do men get to decide that women should sit at the back of a bus, or not play sports or drive, or not have a right to decide what to do with their own reproductive systems? Because this is abuse of power and only something as irrational as religion can warrant such a thing.
I would argue that, more often than not, those of us who hold reason in higher esteem than faith are far more ethical than those who shelter their morally revolting attitudes behind the front of religion. Church going and breast beating and following  irrelevant stone age laws, or in the case of fundamentalists, deeply distorted, maniacal interpretations of religion, give people a pass from true piety, true charity, true love and true morality.
It makes no sense to decry the termination of an embryo as against the sanctity of human life, and at the same time cheer every time someone is fried in the electric chair. It makes no sense to believe in a guy who said you should love thy neighbor and then demonize and persecute gays, or people from other religions, subjugate women and keep the poor and the gullible in ignorance and darkness.
When it was invented thousands of years ago, religion was useful as a civilizing tool. In those days it was linked to the seasons and the tides and the movements of the sky. It helped people understand their place on Earth and in the universe. It helped create relatively functional societies. It laid down some necessary laws (like "thou shalt not kill", something it has not heeded itself). It also encouraged artistic expression. Fine. But it becomes dangerous the moment it acquires political or economic power, which is when it starts acting like a bully.
If it is as pure and lofty as it claims to be, why should organized religion concentrate wealth, or dictate policies? It should aid the poor, comfort the needy and be an individual source of solace, not be a stick with which to control and abuse people and cheat them out of their money and their human rights.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spacey the III

Don't think I haven't noticed that my posts involving Shakespeare are suspiciously popular.
All ye who intend to "borrow" this for your term papers, use quotation marks or relent!
In any case, this is a review of the production of Richard III currently at BAM, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by Sam Mendes.
Kevin Spacey is a great actor. Richard III is a great villain and William Shakespeare is the greatest writer that ever was. So how's the production? Good, but uneven. Mendes has conceived a very sparse production with contemporary overtones. The costumes are modern Elizabethan (and rather boring), the stage is mostly bare, surrounded by many doors symbolizing the many victims of this proto-mass murderer. For Richard is a political serial killer, reminiscent of a Stalin, or a Mao. Thirsty for power, he kills what he fears, and because he kills so much, he fears everybody, so he has to dispose of everybody.  Homicidal tyrants have existed since day one, but it takes Shakespeare to make one into a character that clearly defines a complete psychological space.
Richard is deformed, prematurely born; it is said of him that he had teeth before he had eyes. To hear him tell it at the beginning of the play, everybody's happily carousing in times of peace,
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up...
(Has anybody ever written so beautifully about ugliness?) Since Richard cannot carouse, he has to scheme. He is physically a monster, and perhaps because of the cruelty of nature and society towards him, he is cruel himself. Poor Richard lived long before political correctness and bleeding hearts (a phrase that comes from this play!). One can imagine the bullying he endured. The play hurls spectacular insults at him, but fortunately Shakespeare is not from the age of pitiful self-justification. He is not as cheap as to want us to feel sorry for the guy. He makes him human, and therefore one ends feeling a pathetic sort of pity for him. What a waste of intellect, what deformity of purpose, which is what one always thinks about people who use all their mental energy for destruction. Think Assad Jr. now in Syria, or Ghadaffi, or any totalitarian monster of our age. There is a wonderful soliloquy when Richard is finally visited by conscience, which expresses the psychic isolation and engorged ego of the sociopath:
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Excuse me while I plotz.  This profile could have been written, less adroitly perhaps, by one of those forensic psychologists at Quantico. Its modernity blows me away.  Everything is I with this man. He is alone and apart from human society. A classic sociopath.
Well, Spacey goes to town, emphasizing Richard's duplicity and his terrible need for attention. It is a powerful performance, a bit shticky, in my view, very Spacey-like, which is not bad, since he is the master of dripping sarcasm. My biggest problem with this characterization is that he screams like a maniac. Many times, the screaming obscures the words. This is unfortunate, because Richard is one of the most verbally compelling characters in all of Shakespeare. This is one Richard hell-bent on garnering attention, full of mercurial fury, but it would be more interesting if he would connive more quietly and let his fury seethe inside his crooked frame. As you saw above, Shakespeare goes to beautiful lengths to describe his physical weakness, which serves as a stunning contrast to his robust capacity for evil. It should surprise everyone at court that this pathetic cripple harbors such gigantic homicidal tendencies, but Spacey is not a wee man, nor is this a quiet performance. He wears a polio brace and has a crooked leg and a bent foot, the iconic hunchback, relies on a cane and is totally misshapen. As he ambles up and down the stage he looks suitably grotesque, but it would be far more chilling to see his power come, not from throwing tantrums, but from a powerful tsunami of a mind inside a shriveled frame. After more than three hours, the outbursts get annoying and lose effectiveness. I will confess, this reminded me of my Mom and Dad's dueling parenting techniques. Mom was a frequent hell-raiser, while Dad was a quiet seether. Guess which one sent me into paroxisms of fear? One look from my Dad's silent anger was enough to make me wither in my chair, whereas my Mom's operatic outbursts eventually caused my sisters and me to roll our eyes.
Less is always more.
Spacey shows off his verbal dexterity and riffs around with the rhythms interestingly and at breakneck speeds, if not always eloquently. Still, he has some incredible moments, as when, in a mediatic event reminiscent of the putrid piety of today's Republican candidates, he pretends to pray in church (holding a Bible as a prop, of course) as he orchestrates his usurpation of the throne. Here, he reminded me of Newt Gingrich. Richard has members of his clique actually beg him publicly to become king as he feigns modesty and surprise. This is done through a live video feed on a big screen so we can see what Spacey does best, which is to show us what he's thinking through the most minimal gestures. At one point, he coyly averts his eyes, but there is more than false modesty in this tiny act; there is a weariness which encompasses everything that has happened up to that point and everything that will happen next. Mendes equates Richard's appetite for power with the megalomaniac personality of a totalitarian dictator. It makes perfect sense for our day and age.
Spacey is valiantly over the top for the entire play, giving a physically generous, possibly quite painful, exhausting and unsparing performance that has him sweating buckets, and in a clever use of his real sweat, Richard is constantly wiping his brow, which adds a layer of sliminess to the character, sweaty like a Tricky Dick.
Alas, just as Richard's monstrous ego takes up all of the play's space, Spacey takes up all of the stage. Most of the actors are nowhere near his level. The men are mostly inconsequential. The women fare better, but except for Gemma Jones, excellent as Queen Margaret, and the actress who plays his poor mother, the rest of the actors are left in the dust, and this smacks of headliner vanity to me. Why are the two young princes Richard kills portrayed by young women? The horrifying shock of their murder is grossly diminished by this arbitrary piece of casting.
Still, for the most part, the production is visceral and bracing. Mendes has some cool visual ideas, particularly towards the end, when Richard and the good Richmond share a dream, sitting on opposite sides of a long table as all the spirits of the murdered appear to haunt one and inspire the other, and a fantastic coup de theatre when a finally dead Richard is hoisted up from a meat hanger, feet first, to dangle like a piece of butchery, himself reminiscent of all the blood he spilled.
So how is Richard human? We know he has suffered, he is unloved and worse, incapable of love himself. Shakespeare was too cool to change Richard's nature just to appease the audience. He shows how human nature is, not how it should be. There is something heroic in Richard's determination to stay true to himself, in his relentless quest for some sort of social redress. He has never known love, how would he change? I am I. He is pitiful for his ignorance of human restraint, for his incapacity for mercy. He knows what he is, and this must be so painful.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

God Damn!

I am lucky to have such fabulous friends that they give away tickets to the opera.
To 6-hour operas, to be exact. So I dropped everything I was doing to see the new Met's production of Gotterdammerung, by Richard Wagner. This, as far as I could gather from the program, is the last of the operas in the Ring cycle, which lasts about 17 hours total. Apparently the guy had not yet heard of "cut to the chase".
To be honest, I could care less about German mythology*. There is always some magic potion to blame for all the chaos. It's not a character flaw; not someone made a tragic mistake but somebody drank the wrong brew without knowing.  Siegfried, who is in love with Brunnhilde, takes a magic potion and falls out of love with her and in love with another woman. Disaster ensues.
I was curious to understand why Wagner is an endurance contest for both audiences and singers alike. I believe I have the answer now.
The new production by Robert Lepage has been very controversial, because it is very modern. It's hard to describe, but the stage is dwarfed by a huge contraption of wooden planks that move as the scenes change. Projections of water, fire, a forest, are screened on the planks.  Apparently, at the beginning the machinery was clunky,  causing great grief to the humans on stage, but now they seem to have worked out the kinks. I liked it, once I got used to it. But after 6 hours, the novelty wears off. And I'm thinking, if you have people sitting for 6 hours, you may want to change things a bit. Keep 'em entertained.

I think the problem is that the singers have little to do but stand and sing. I was sitting way up there in Valhalla, so it was hard to see the acting. Still, it seems that all the energies were dedicated to figure out the staging of the machine, but not that of the singers, who are extremely static, screaming to the winds. Then again, if you have to sing for 6 hours straight, you may not want to be running around the stage.
I welcome less literal productions of operas, because Opera, a bizarre mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, can always do with less of the ridiculous. To wit, there is a plot point in this story, where Siegfried runs around with a schmatteh over his head. It's supposed to have magic powers, but it still looks like a schmatteh.
So now that technology allows for great magic onstage, instead of cardboard forests and cellophane flames, new productions should be fun. But, at least in this instance, something about the grandeur of the stage machinery stifles the colorful imagination of the story. The German mythology has very powerful images, like dragons, flying horses, water nymphs, women with shields, etc. A lot of that is left to the imagination through the singing, provided that you read the useful but pedestrian sounding supertitles. If instead of being dark and brooding and too intellectual, this whole spectacle would be more dreamlike, as is the quality of myth, I would have been more transfixed. But it felt a bit cumbersome, while this enormous work needs some agility. 
The Met orchestra, splendidly conducted by Fabio Luisi, sounded great, the singers as far as I could tell, were pretty awesome, particularly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde. That woman can sing. And sing. And sing. And the guy who played the meanie was amazing too. Major bravos for him.  Siegfried sang beautifully but the singer needs to get lessons in deportment. He moved like a slob from Jersey. 
I won't pretend that I did not doze off a couple of times. I was awake for all the good parts, including an awesome fight between two sisters (Deborah Voigt and Waltraud Meier), the part of the chorus, which is gorgeous, the beautiful music when Siegfried finally bites the dust, among others. At the end, Brunnhilde sings like for 15 minutes with little interruption. It is truly an amazing feat of vocal power.
But there were these incongrous plaster statues (the Gods) that looked totally kitschy, and at the end their heads blow off (or rather pathetically pop out like popcorn) in the most incredible display of self-annihilation by a director I have ever seen. For 6 hours we finally bought the planks and the projections and the drab  costumes and the stern minimalism and endured 6 hours of Wagner to reach the apotheosic conclusion and Lepage closes with the cheesiest effect, thereby undermining everything we saw and breaking the spell, in what I can only assume he mistakenly thinks is an ironic comment about the fragility of the gods. It was so ridiculous people were laughing, and not in a good way.
It was slow, exciting, ridiculous, magnificent, crazy and very, very long.
I'm glad I saw it.

*I resent that major Jew hater Wagner and his obsession with Teutonic myth. He can stick the braids and the horns and the breastplates up his ass. The music is great though.

Occupy Cable

I don't understand how The People don't send all the cable companies to the guillotine.
They are sheer incompetent evil. I got an offer from Time Warner Cable for a pretty good deal including cable, internet and phone for 89.99 a month (for the first year, then it's 3 million dollars a minute). I don't have cable and I'm paying more than that, so I decide to switch.
Any time you have to deal with any of these companies, I assure you, you will rue the day.
As we are getting ready to set up the switch, the other shoe starts dropping: there's a $25 installation fee, (okay), and another $25 FCC fee they never mentioned until after I had agreed to switch. Fine.
We set up an appointment. But I have to reschedule it because of an important conflict. This is when they actually start behaving like assholes. It turns out, that like a bad date, they are so busy, the next appointment is until 2045. But I have already asked my other company to disconnect service, right? So I'm screwed. They finally give me a date 2 days hence and then we are all so happy it worked out only for the guy to inform me that they cannot connect the phone that day, so it's gonna be another $25 for another appointment. I told them to go fuck themselves. They have been calling me about my missed appointment ever since.
So back to my regular company. Since I threatened to leave, they are offering me a sweet deal. Why can't they just offer a fair deal to everybody without all the drama?
I take the deal. The guy comes at the last minute of the three hour appointment window and sets up my new super fast modem -- which doesn't work. Why? Because the order was not set up properly. So he has to come again the next day. To be fair, this guy is pretty reliable. He comes the next day, at the hour he said he would, and sets everything up. Presto. Happiness. Today I try to call Texas and a voice informs me that my long distance service is not set up. AAARRRGGGHHH.
When private companies behave like inefficient public bureaucracies, something is very wrong. They charge an arm and a leg, plus the other arm and leg in absurd fees and taxes. Same happens with airlines and other American corporations that gauge the customers AND treat us like crap. What is up with that?