13 May 2007

The Return of the Queen: Zeffirelli’s ‘Callas Forever’

Callas Forever: Zeffirelli, Ardant and Irons, between takes

Franco Zeffirelli’s homage to the Ur-diva, Callas Forever, was produced in 2002, but it's still awaiting general release in the U.S.; I saw it in Paris, at the tiny Lucenaire Forum, during the Christmas holiday in 2002. Zeffirelli knew and worked with Callas, of course, and in some ways she’s never left him: her memory wafts through much of the work he’s done since her death, in 1977 — notably his film of La Traviata (1982). Presumably, nobody is in a better position to tell us the truth about this woman and her art.

Yet the film left me wondering whether Zeffirelli ever knew the truth, or whether he simply can't bear to tell it now.

On the evidence of Callas Forever, Zeffirelli wonders guiltily if he couldn’t have done something to save her or (at the very least) to make her lonely last days more pleasant. He uses the movie as wish fulfillment, rewriting the past, fantasizing. What Callas really needed, he posits, was to get back to work. Though her voice was shot, she was still a great actress and wonderfully photogenic: a movie career should have been available to her. Couldn’t Zeffirelli have found a project for her? (Callas’ participation in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea, from 1969, is never mentioned.)

Thus Callas Forever presents the intriguing spectacle of Callas coming out of retirement to film a role she never performed onstage, miming Carmen to a soundtrack of her own EMI recording, from 1964. She’s played by Fanny Ardant, the French actress who starred in the Paris production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class. Jeremy Irons plays the fictional Larry Kelly, the producer of the Carmen film, a longtime associate of Callas’ who, when we meet him, has forsworn opera. But instead of merely secluding himself, like Callas, Larry has stooped to managing a punk band.

The film falls apart before it even gets going. Making Larry a punk-rock impresario creates an easy, unrewarding target. (His band, Bad Dreams, never seen in the film, has gained notoriety for mooning its audience, something we are to infer that a true artist, such as Callas, never, ever does.) Though Zeffirelli’s co-screenwriter, Martin Sherman, wrote the Janis Joplin fable The Rose, it’s obvious these guys know nothing of punk: Bad Dreams is depicted as playing stadium concerts in an era when punk bands didn’t play venues bigger than basements. (Not playing stadiums was the point of punk.) Such mistakes challenge one’s willing suspension of disbelief — a real problem, because in any work of fantasy, whether Callas Forever or Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the audience must believe in the world you’re creating, or you can’t tell your story.

But this movie is full of puzzles that stop a viewer short. For example, almost every man in the film, from Larry’s lover (Jay Rodan) to Don José (Italian pin-up Gabriel Garko), is extravagantly good-looking. Zeffirelli’s longtime penchant for casting attractive men sometimes makes sense: Romeo and Juliet (1968) is about hormonal overdrive, and the actors illustrate that. Here, however, Zeffirelli uses men as set decoration, and it’s baffling. Is he trying to say something about gays and Callas? (If so, McNally did a better job, in The Lisbon Traviata.)

More curiously, Zeffirelli and Sherman name Irons’ character after the founder of Dallas’ opera company, who often worked with Callas (and Zeffirelli) and who died three years before the diva. The film’s Larry Kelly is self-absorbed, petty, manipulative and the engineer of Callas’ final, humiliating concert tours; he’s also one of Irons’ least convincing characterizations. Yet these multiple offenses may not be intended as insults: after all, this Larry Kelly is nothing short of a miracle worker, able to produce an entire film, from financing to final cut, in the few summer months before Callas’ death. Talk about fantasy!

Such shortcomings might be excused if the film developed any of its themes (youth/age, art/trash, truth/fakery, love/career, memory/immortality) or presented its heroine in a more interesting light. Ardant is a fine actress, and she’s up to the job: one sometimes has the feeling that one is watching the real Callas portray a character named Callas. Her physical transformation is stunning, her wildness and determination beautifully played. But here — as in Master Class — we’re given the unsettling image of Callas as stereotype.

See the diva mope. See the diva rage. See the diva make a grotesque play for the much younger tenor. See the diva play her own records in a fit of morbid self-pity (not unlike Tom Hanks in Philadelphia). Even if the real Callas did such things, we don’t want to watch it — not because it tarnishes our idol, but because it tells us nothing about why Callas was Callas. (After all, if acting out to Callas records made one a great artist, I’d be Henry James by now.) Zeffirelli’s personal knowledge of the singer avails him few insights that can’t be gleaned from a magazine article; the average episode of VH1’s Behind the Music is more enlightening — and more original. Zeffirelli gorges on clichés, including some of his own making. Almost shot for shot, he recreates the scenes from his own La Traviata film in which the lonely, peignoir-clad heroine roams her Paris apartment, while a man (Renato Cestiè’s young porter in Traviata, Irons in Callas Forever) spies on her. Violetta, Maria: what’s the difference?

Ultimately, Callas herself shatters Zeffirelli’s fantasy. The entire movie is a game of “what if,” and in the closing scene, Callas firmly, irrevocably ends the game, as if the memory of the real woman is so powerful that it permits Zeffirelli to go no further. He can’t imagine her letting him rescue her.

She’s a daunting figure for anyone to contemplate, but perhaps particularly so for Zeffirelli. Callas is remembered (inaccurately) as pouring all her creative gifts into a brilliant, brief career; Zeffirelli has been coasting for decades, drowning his inspiration in crowd-pleasing but meaningless décor. Look at his most recent Traviata for the Met: why should Violetta sell her jewels, when she could make more money selling off the furniture and the Fiestaware in her vast country mansion? Certainly Callas was conscious of the visual dimension of her art, and that’s why photographs of her onstage are often more communicative than other singers’ entire performances. But Zeffirelli seldom gets beneath the surface appearances of anything. It’s not even clear that he tries — even when the story is as personal as Tea with Mussolini (his disappointing film from 1999) or Callas Forever.

So far as Larry is a self-portrait, the glimpse we get of Zeffirelli in Callas Forever is pretty sad, and not only because of Irons’ wan performance. Zeffirelli once gave himself co-screenwriting credit with William Shakespeare, but that erstwhile brio is absent here. Larry and Callas are the same age, but they’re not peers. Larry isn’t an artist at all. He merely creates opportunities for artists, some of whom (Bad Dreams) he openly disdains. Callas never compromises; Larry negotiates. She lives alone with the memory of a passionate love affair; he has a lover, but treats him indifferently. And so on. The appropriate rock reference here is from Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” If that’s how Zeffirelli sees himself, no wonder his fantasy Callas defeats him.

At every point, he’s undermined by Callas’ voice, which he uses extensively on the soundtrack. Perhaps Zeffirelli can be pardoned for not creating art that stands up to that voice — still compelling, decades after the recordings were made, long after one has listened to them over and over. In Callas Forever, I heard her Carmen and “Un bel dì” as if for the first time; in Master Class, the finale of La Sonnambula proved similarly revelatory. What was happening on screen or onstage was irrelevant and (by comparison) uninteresting; in both cases, I grew impatient with the writers, the directors, the actors, anyone who prevented me from listening more. Neither script could explain (or compete with) the voice itself.

Callas was a great artist and a glamorous personality. It’s only natural that other artists would be drawn to her. They want to explain her, understand her, possess her. But she resists. She won’t be pinned down. Mourning Aristotle Onassis doesn’t explain her last days — not entirely — just as no single circumstance explains the coloring of a phrase in the Habañera. Perhaps only another artist of her stature, one as able to grasp multiplicity, one who sees every color in the spectrum as brilliantly as she did, could do her justice. Callas will always contradict pat answers — and Zeffirelli, of all people, should know that.

This essay was originally intended for Opera News, but tabled pending general release in the U.S. of Zeffirelli's film. Since Callas Forever went direct to DVD in America, in 2005, my article never ran in the magazine, and it appears here for the first time.

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04 May 2007

Préfecture Follies of 2007

If I've dropped off the radar screen lately, there's a reason. It's that time of year again, the annual Préfecture Follies, as I struggle to remain in this country legally. The process does get easier and easier ... up to a point.

As in years past, I spent sleepless nights, fretting for weeks over the paperwork, then managing to do it all at the last minute. Again I booked a hotel room in Versailles and overnighted there, then awoke at 4AM in order to arrive at the Préfecture (across the street) and begin standing on line. This year, I broke my record, arriving at 4:25. I was third.

Spring having arrived early this year (my garden in Beynes has been blooming since January, and the irises are unfurling this week), the weather was better yesterday than it's been in previous years — but "better" is a relative term. It's hard to dress warmly when you know the temperature's going to be in the mid-80s later in the day, yet in the pre-dawn hours, when you're not moving, and there's a stiff breeze blowing from the north, you regret having left your parka in storage back in Westchester. My hands were so cold that I couldn't hold the book I'd filched from the hotel. (Molière, The Learned Ladies. Yes, people do leave the strangest things in hotel rooms.)

Fortunately, my fellow standees were the chummiest I've yet encountered there: a gregarious Romanian, whose French was terrible but whose good cheer was as infectious as welcome; a thoughtful Moroccan chef, whose French was, of course, flawless; and a sullen-looking Senegalese hip-hopper who turned out to be sleepy, not sullen. We actually had conversations.

"Why would you leave the United States?" the Moroccan wanted to know.

"The food is better here," I replied.

"Are you nuts?" came the answer.

But I felt like a savvy character. I knew the ropes. I had the skills. I'd even planned my menu the night before, to minimize the need for bathroom breaks. (Which are nigh impossible, because there are no bathrooms.) Although there were only a handful of us for the first 90 minutes, the later arrivals eventually numbered more than 120, according a shamelessly gleeful head count conducted by the Romanian, who was first on the line. In all likelihood, most of these people didn't even get wait-listed. "There's no point coming here at all after 7AM, even on the best days," said the Senegalese, "but you have to know." One poor soul showed up at 8:15, and we marvelled at her cluelessness. We would never be so dumb.

Exercising the astute powers of political observation that are the hallmark of the disenfranchised, we agreed that Nicolas Sarkozy is all but certain to win the presidential elections. (The first round of voting will be Sunday.) Sarkozy is a hardliner, who as interior minister already made things tough for immigrants in France, and as president would like to make things tougher still; we agreed that it was worth enduring a few hardships if it meant retaining our legal status and staying out of Sarko's clutches. "You can't expect them to make it easy for you," said the Romanian. "They can't just let people in. You have to make an effort."

After a mere 4 hours and 20 minutes of waiting, we were admitted indoors. This year I didn't receive the expected convocation, reminding me to show up and telling me what documents I'd require. Without the list of documents, I was directed first to the general assistance area — even though I already knew which documents and had them on my person, in triplicate. "Well of course you didn't get a convocation," said the woman there. "C'est normal. You're supposed to come here directly, any time in the two months prior to the expiration of your residency card. Then we'd have given you the list, and you could have done the rest by mail. You don't have to come here early, you don't have to wait. Of course now that your card is expiring in a few days, you have to do everything in person, right away."

From her demeanor, you'd have thought I'd inconvenienced her, rather than myself: though she's usually one of the pleasanter people at the Préfecture, yesterday she was almost surly. Meanwhile, I was mortified. I'd suffered in all the usual ways, yet I didn't have to.

After a few hours, I remembered — dimly — that yes indeed, I had been warned about this. Last year, somebody (probably La Souriante, the Smiling Woman, who's always been so kind to me — no, really) told me about the two-month deadline and the processing by mail. Somehow, I'd forgotten: apparently my wits are not their sharpest on these mornings when I've been waiting for hours in the dark with no sleep and no coffee. If I renew again next year, please remind me, in late February, that it's time to be efficient.

I was told to come back at noon to get a new number, for the processing room, which doubles as a day-care center for the yowling babies and rambunctious toddlers of the other applicants. Maybe they bring the neighbors' kids, too; who knows? There are a lot of them. You stare at them with festering envy you don't bother to disguise. Wouldn't you love to be screaming and running around, too, instead of sitting there, hour after hour?

The young woman at the window there was the same who'd been a trainee last year, under the supervision of La Souriante, who's gone now, presumably retired. (Maybe that's why she was smiling.) One surprise in the processing: the Ex-trainee wanted a new copy of my birth certificate, with an officially recognized translation, even though I'd already provided both two years ago. Do they think something's changed? Could I have been born a second time, without notifying them or selling the story to Weekly News of the World? Fortunately, I'd brought both the certificate and the translation, so we continued without a hitch ... for a while.

Last year, I imposed on several people to write testimonial letters, to show that there was some chance of my earning a little money from freelance gigs, but La Souriante showed little interest in them. So this year I imposed only on F. Paul Driscoll at Opera News — and thereby flustered the Ex-trainee. "But you've just given me a sworn statement to the effect that you will undertake no professional activity while you're here!" she yelped.

"It says that I will neither seek nor accept employment in France — this is freelance for an American magazine," I babbled. "— I've always been told that this is acceptable!" The Ex-trainee remained doubtful. Suddenly I had visions of being deported — frog-marched out of the Préfecture and straight to the airport — and my room isn't even clean.

In the end, however, my American income didn't raise anybody else's eyebrows. What they really care about is my bank statements; next year, I won't pester F. Paul. Yet the lesson was reinforced: now that I've been here a few years, the only remaining complications in this process are those I create for myself. Damn.

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01 May 2007

The Dark Victory of Rena Grant

I have no photos of Rena.
But she might like to be remembered this way.

Rena still sneaks up on me. I am suddenly eager to share with her a book or a song, or a bit of malicious gossip. I pass beneath her window, on the NYU campus, and I start to call up, to see if she's home: does she want to hang out for a while? Or worse: I pass beneath her window and hope she doesn't see me. She'll want to drink, and her drinking has become something I want to avoid.

But she isn't there. Fifteen years ago, she locked herself in that apartment and set out methodically to drink herself to death. She began with the scotch she preferred, and moved on quickly to vodka, then nail-polish remover and rubbing alcohol, until there was nothing left to drink, and no Rena left to drink it. The only light in her room came from the television: I don't know what she was watching. By the end, it probably didn't matter. The television was just another voice in her head.

Her demons had become too noisy, so she drowned them. She was schizophrenic, we learned afterward, and like other schizophrenics she self-medicated, using scotch as a drug. For a long time, it worked.

She was from a little town in Scotland so remote, she said, that the only entertainment was to sit around watching the peat do whatever it is that peat does. She looked like the young Bette Davis, smart and dangerous, with enormous, passionate eyes. She always had style.

I remember running into her one afternoon in New Haven. She was struggling along the street, tacking up leaflets in protest of Thatcher's oppression of the miners. That much wasn't surprising, although I barely knew her at the time: Rena was Scots, Rena was Communist. Protesting Thatcher, protesting any capitalistic, imperialistic transgression, was predictable behavior from her. But she had dressed up to do it.

Her nails freshly painted, her hair upswept, she wore a vintage shirt-dress, a faux-pearl necklace, and pumps. A third-hand fox stole clung to her shoulders only in an instinctive attempt to attack her throat. Without style, nothing.

Yes, Rena's revolution would be glamorous. Nobody doubted it. Rena would see to it. She spun tales of proletarian paradises, so vivid that the happy workers seemed to dance before us as she spoke. The romance carried her away. She sang sentimental Victorian songs: "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls." She pantomimed Verdi heroines, and poured another drink.

Her friends didn't know why she drank so much: we didn't know that she drank so much. She was by turns graceful and deceitful in her drinking. A little diversion here or there kept you from noticing that she was never without a drink, or that she became ill if she went more than an hour without alcohol. When she went to teach her classes, she recycled little cartons of Tropicana orange juice to fill with scotch, which she'd sip while she lectured. If a play ran on too long, she pretended to dislike it, left early, and went for a drink as if to purge the aesthetic offense.

The first time I ever walked out of a play, I was with Rena Grant. It was an appalling production — and Shakespeare's Scottish play, to add insult to injury. I was willing to slog it out, just to see Glenda Jackson. But Rena whispered in my ear, "Do you want to go?" And so we went. To a bar.

Eventually she stopped leaving her apartment. We pretended not to notice that she could no longer fake sobriety. We pretended not to notice what a struggle it had become just to hold herself upright.

And the voices in her head became louder, impossible for her to ignore. She was never much of a housekeeper, but her apartment became squalid. Dishes stacked up in the sink, a thick layer of grime coated the stove and much of the kitchen, both her bed linens and the cat's litter box went unchanged, and ashtrays went unemptied.

This didn't prevent her from inviting people in, but it began to alarm her guests. For my thirtieth-birthday party, the apartment was in such malodorous disorder that friends arriving early felt compelled to do a fast clean-up: since it was a surprise party, there was no possibility of moving to another venue.

Rena was embarrassed by this incident and hired a cleaning woman to come in a few times a month. This violated her political principles, but she had no alternative, she explained to me. "Whenever I start to clean house, I hear my mother's voice, telling me I'm no good at it."

"You hear voices?" I said.

"Figuratively, of course," she lied.

Not long afterward, a dispute with a colleague became so violent that the poor fellow was honestly scared. He complained to the department chairman, and Rena was ordered to see a psychiatrist. For many years, Rena had prepared for just this occasion. She had studied all the right books, and her melding of psychology and politics in the field of English literature had made her an academic star. (She ripped through Oxford and Yale, receiving her doctorate while still in her early twenties.) She used to brag that she knew precisely what to say to make a psychiatrist think she was crazy — and what to say to make a psychiatrist think she was sane. She had memorized all the appropriate rejoinders, just as an actress memorizes dialogue.

But when the interview came, she couldn't play the part. The psychiatrist saw through her defenses, clearly enough at least to recognize that her mental health was poor, but not clearly enough to identify her sickness or to treat it.

Maybe death was her victory over the dark, the only way to prevent the destruction of what she had. If she had survived, her future would have been grim, and brief. The weekend she died, Rena faced the loss of her job, deportation back to Scotland, institutionalization and (in all likelihood) organ failure and the death it was already too late to stop.

When the paramedics arrived in her apartment, they thought she was pregnant, so distended was her belly.

I got the call around dawn on a Sunday morning when I had, as it happened, stayed up all night, doing things I shouldn't have done. My friend Kyra Sinkowsky broke the news to me, but I didn't believe her. Rena was always testing people, devising intrigues, plotting elaborate practical jokes.

Her colleagues and students at NYU held a memorial service for her, in Deutsches Haus, on May Day. Her father was there, whom we'd never met: he was the subject of her bitterest, most horrifying stories, and we now realized that we could not be certain any of those stories, and their ingredient accusations, were true.

Most people who spoke were sad and very, very sorry, gently grieving, sweetly nostalgic in their recollections of Rena, yet it seemed to me they could be talking about almost anybody. They missed Rena, not only in the sense of feeling her absence but also in the sense of not hitting the target.

Meanwhile, I was angry. Angry at myself for not saving her. And angry at her for leaving too soon, with too much work left to be done. The glamorous revolution had not begun. The proletarian paradise was still out of reach. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism had been discredited, and even the Chinese and the Cubans were abandoning the precepts Rena held dear. John Major was still in office in Britain, George Bush in America. In Los Angeles, a jury had reached an obscene verdict in the Rodney King case, resulting in an explosion of violence that continued even as we spoke.

The memorial service was interrupted and brought to a halt when the university administration shut down the campus. New York police were concerned that the Los Angeles riots would spread to Manhattan — any minute now.

As I walked back to my office, I thought how much Rena would have enjoyed the timing — and how much more she would have enjoyed a popular uprising.

But there were no riots in New York that day, and Rena wouldn't have been there to see them anyway.

We had the stars.

In the days that followed, her friends circulated reassurances. There was nothing we could have done to stop her. She was a determined woman, we said; she argued down anyone who tried to intervene.

Moreover, Rena wouldn't have wanted us to blame ourselves. We continued to say this, until blame seemed more fearsome than death itself. We could face Rena's suicide, so long as we took no responsibility for her loss. No one of us could bear to think that any of the others might harbor some private, futile guilt. So we consoled each other. We survivors must not suffer. We were eager to let each other off the hook.

And yet, all the while I reassured our friends, I thought, "Of course you aren't to blame: I am."

If I hadn't turned away from the warnings, couldn't I have saved her? Couldn't I have been wiser, couldn't I have loved her better? She wouldn't have allowed the others to save her, but wouldn't she have allowed me?

I didn't want to be let off the hook. To bear no responsibility for her death would mean never to have shared her life.

I wanted to believe I could have saved her. I wanted to believe I could have made a difference. I wanted to believe my love was important. I wanted to believe I was not powerless, helpless, friendless.

And Rena wasn't there to correct me. She used to shudder whenever I said anything foolish (which was often). "Bill, darling, it just doesn't work that way," she would say, her Scots accent making every syllable more scornful.

And in this case, she might well have paraphrased her beloved Bette Davis: "Don't ask for the moon, Bill; we had the stars."

For the way it works is merely this: I was special to her, but I wasn't special enough to save her. It was foolish, and rather arrogant, to think I, of all the world, could have been the one. Maybe nobody was the one.

Her loss remains a deep wound, and a startling one: I go about my business, and look down to see I'm still bleeding. It's like an old war movie, where the soldier goes on fighting, never noticing he's been shot. Yet I'm in no hurry to heal.

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