28 February 2011

Entire Planet Participates in James Franco’s Latest Art Project

HOLLYWOOD -- The Planet Earth unwittingly participated last night in James Franco’s latest art project, a still-untitled performance piece so elaborate, not even he understands it. Inspired by an invitation to host the 83rd Academy Awards Ceremony, Franco spent untold hours writing the worst possible material, and delivering the worst possible performance, to the point that most of the 41.3 million Americans watching (as well as countless others around the world) assumed he was stoned out of his gourd. Even co-host Anne Hathaway wasn’t told of Franco’s scheme until early this morning, Los Angeles time.

“I was very conscious that Anne and I are the youngest Oscar™ hosts in history,” Franco told me privately. “Of course, this means that we’ve been marked — not only by the Internet and other modern forms of communication, but also by the duet between Rob Lowe and Snow White, at the Oscar™ Ceremony in 1989. I felt we owed it to our generation to address that early trauma, and to overcome it, by doing something just as terrible. This is our generation’s Gettysburg, our Thermopylae: we must own it.

“Wait — no, let me rephrase that,” Franco continued. “We as a society place entirely too much importance on the Oscars™, at a time when, around the world, people are fighting for freedom, and starving, and dying. What does this say about our priorities as a society, as a species?

“No — wait — what I mean to say is that I’m seeking to compel a viewer to reexamine institutionalized rituals — listen, I gotta go now. Don’t wait up for me, babe.”

“I would have preferred it if Jib-Jib had let me in on the preparations,” Hathaway admitted. “I mean, come on! I know a few things about terrible material; I have a lot I could have contributed. Instead, I was out there giving it 110 percent, trying to pick up the slack. Boy, is my face red now.”

However, Hathaway conceded, the rest of the ceremony was so incredibly boring and predictable that people needed something to talk about. “Now they’ve got it,” she said.

Video footage of last night’s performance will be included in “Ceremonial Executions,” an ongoing interactive installation at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, beginning in October 2011, and submitted as Franco’s doctoral thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design, whenever he remembers to apply for admission there.

Sadly, Franco was unable to find a Snow White costume,
and had to settle for this last-minute substitute.

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27 February 2011

Graham-O-Rama, or Susan au Cinéma

I long ago learned one of the most important rules in French society today: whenever something goes wrong, it must be the fault of an American. So I wasn’t surprised when a young employee of the Gaumont Aquaboulevard cinema stepped out to explain why the high-definition simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride was delayed. There were technical difficulties, he said, hastening to add that these difficulties originated in New York.

What did surprise me was that the audience — primarily older, bourgeois opera-lovers — didn’t buy that explanation. They challenged it, demanding to know whether other movie theaters in the area were experiencing the same problems, insisting that the kid tell them what steps were being taken, whether we’d get our money back, whether we could listen to the music, at least, even if we couldn’t see the pictures. They were downright hostile, and the poor kid was overwhelmed. Imagine the typical American high-school student working in a shopping-mall multiplex (which is what the Aquaboulevard is): how would he handle such an unruly crowd?

Just when all hope seemed lost, the screen flickered, and we saw the pre-overture pantomime that begins this production, already underway. “Where’s the sound?” people were shouting, not realizing that there isn’t any, at this point in the show. But then the overture began, and we were able to enjoy the proceedings more or less without further incident — notwithstanding the unscheduled intermission feature, namely an appearance by the theater manager, who confessed that the technical difficulty had indeed been one of projection, not transmission. In other words, the fault of a French person — though of course he didn’t put it that way.

But my pleasure in viewing could hardly be diminished by such minor irritations. After all, the leading lady for this performance was my beloved Susan Graham.

Having seen Susan in the high-tech Damnation of Faust at the Met a few seasons back, I knew already the thrill of seeing her face projected on a huge scale. She’s pretty, she’s one of my favorite artists, and, as you have surely deduced by now, I’ve got a sloppy crush on the woman: what’s not to love?

So I knew in advance that this simulcast of Iphigénie would be well worth the expense (my ticket cost 27 Euros, substantially more than the $20 charged for a comparable ticket in New York) and the trouble of finding tickets (the French really don’t publicize these simulcasts, and yet most theaters were sold out) and getting to the theater (in a remote neighborhood where I’d never before set foot).

Still, I went in with apprehension. Susan’s famous power over me is to induce a sort of tunnel-vision, in which I see nothing but her. Now I would cede a certain degree of control to the video director in New York. Also, I wanted to be sure I chose the right role, and I knew that her previous HD outing, Der Rosenkavalier, would be too much.

Susan in Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming

Long before I knew anything about Susan, I wrote a piece of fiction about a man who watches his wife sing Octavian: he’s so transported by her performance that he starts to hallucinate, until all the voices in the Trio become hers, her singing mouth becomes the proscenium of another stage, and he passes out. It was a strange little tale, but I knew that my life would imitate my art if I got too close to Susan’s Octavian, already one of her most potent creations. So I went to the Met and saw her in person, instead.

Iphigénie was the right choice. I first saw her perform the role in Paris, in a terrible production, set in a nursing home, in which she was costumed alternately as Bernadette Chirac and as Bettie Page. I saw her Iphigénie next in San Francisco, in a superior staging by Robert Carsen: Susan was liberated and really dug into the music more deeply than before. I was eager to see how her interpretation had evolved in the Met’s production, by Stephen Wadsworth.

I heard the same vocal freedom last night, and I caught new details, too. In the first scene, for example, Iphigénie observes the calm after a storm (some of Gluck’s most thrilling music), and yearns to find the same kind of calm in her stormy soul. The way Susan caressed that word “calme” couldn’t have been more poignant or true. She was suffering from a cold, but you could hardly tell, and whether Iphigénie was raging or grieving, this was a complete performance.

Unbeatable: Groves, Graham, and Domingo

The video close-ups gave me a chance to appreciate her physical interpretation, too. She was completely absorbed in the character, in contrast with her co-star, Plácido Domingo, whose acting remained superficial (albeit effective enough); her expressive eyes constantly sought out answers to the mysteries that haunt her. We saw flashes, too, of the noble authority of the princess Iphigénie was born to be, notably in an exchange with Pylade (Paul Groves), even as Susan limned the character’s more pronounced traits, her desperation and her wounded, traumatized soul. You don’t often see acting this good in opera — or at the movies, for that matter.

Domingo just turned 70, the first impulse is always to wonder how he’ll sound. He was suffering from a cold, too, but he sounded magnificent. It’s a modern marvel. Groves sang with such sweetness and tenderness, yet also summoned up the necessary heroics when the time came. During a backstage interview at intermission, Wadsworth talked about the dynamic between the passionate emotions in the plot and the restraint in the score, and conductor Patrick Summers accordingly managed to keep real feeling in the lilting, elegant music.

However, Wadsworth’s staging didn’t always translate well to the big screen. He’s divided the stage into three playing areas, leading to awkward crowding and milling, especially when the dancers are doing their odd, aerobic, intrusive business. And the intense naturalism he elicited from the principals sometimes clashed with the more stylized direction of the chorus. Iphigénie’s women had a series of ritualized gestures, which makes some sense — they’re priestesses, after all. But these were deployed haphazardly, severally, and intermittently, so that I never really understood them.

His biggest gamble was the depiction of the family drama that precedes this tale: actors mimed the roles of Agamemnon and Clytemnestre, sometimes popping up onstage when we least expected them. (I most expect them in Oreste’s dream, with the chorus “Il a tué sa mère," where they seem almost necessary.)

The video director, whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten, may have needed to sit in on an extra performance or two before setting out, because her cameras were sometimes too close, sometimes too far, often switching back and forth awkwardly, and sometimes very badly aimed. When Pylade is singing his tender love song to Oreste in Act I, we shouldn’t be focused on the Vulcan mind-meld that Oreste and Iphigénie are conducting on either side of an adjacent wall.* When Iphigénie concludes her big aria, we’d like to look at Susan; we shouldn’t spend the next minute watching Domingo, patiently awaiting his cue. And so on.

Also, if the Met is going to continue to produce these live simulcasts, they’re going to need to do a better job of educating the singers and staff. Although Domingo is peerlessly media-savvy and has been the subject of numerous documentaries, he didn’t always seem to know where the backstage cameras were and whether the sound was on; this led to an unguarded, undignified moment when he walked in on Wadsworth’s interview. It wasn’t a major embarrassment, but it could have been worse, and the image-conscious Met ought to snap to attention.

Natalie Dessay was our charming hostess, applauded by her compatriots at the Aquaboulevard, and we got a welcome glimpse of Joyce DiDonato, talking about the upcoming Le Comte Ory. (I wasn’t expecting to see her, and I let out a little yelp when I did — prompting one neighbor to mutter, “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il a, ce type?”) Really, it was a satisfying evening, and for all my quibbles and calls for refinement, I’m ready to endorse the simulcast program unreservedly.

And this is not the least of the reasons: I was happy and excited, in the days leading up to the performance. I used to get this way when I was a boy, when one of my favorite singers was going to perform in an opera telecast on PBS. That kind of excitement led, in turn, to my seeking out more singers and more operas, and learning more. I’m sorry that tickets to the simulcasts are so expensive (though many of these operas are being broadcast on television at later dates), but they’re helping to make opera — the real thing, not crossovers or Il Divo — accessible to more people. And in more countries, too.

Also, did I mention that I got to see Susan Graham’s face on a great big movie screen? I’ve got to endorse anything that makes that possible.

Damnation of Faust: Previously, this was the largest screen
on which I’d seen Susan’s face.

*NOTE: Part of this is Wadsworth’s fault. It’s an interesting choice to show Iphigénie mysteriously drawn to Oreste, but it could be confusing to position her next to that wall. An audience has to spend a lot of time reasoning it out — “No, she can’t hear them, because if she could, then she’d learn that Oreste is her brother” — when we ought to be listening to Pylade. But an audience in the opera house can look away, or back and forth; an audience in a movie theater has to look where the cameras are pointed.

It should also be noted that I’m spoiled: the first Iphigénie I saw was Francesca Zambello’s staging for Glimmerglass and New York City Opera. That production seemed to get everything right.

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26 February 2011

Césars 2011

The French Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma awarded the César, its own version of the Oscar™ last night, and since many of the contenders have been subjects of essays and reviews here, I’m offering the results, along with some commentary, as a kind of update.

A couple of words of background first, however. Americans should know that the César is not named after any Roman emperor or general, or character in Astérix, but after the fellow who sculpted the award statue, at which I’d never gotten a good look before I prepared this blog post. Yikes, it’s ugly, isn’t it? Like something that’s come out of the trash compactor at the junkyard in Neuilly.* I prefer to dwell on the César’s other namesake, the character played by Raimu in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy, a landmark in French moviemaking.

The biggest surprise this year, to this observer, was that Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and Gods) didn’t carry off more prizes. (It had the most nominations.) I haven’t seen the picture yet, but it’s the most prestigious release of the year here, much talked-about and favorably reviewed. Based on the real-life murder of Cistercian monks in Algeria, Des hommes et des dieux tackles questions about faith, engagement with others, and relations between Europeans and Middle Easterners; it was France’s official candidate for an Oscar™ this year, though it was bypassed. The César voters gave it the nod for Best Picture, but slighted its star, my former workout buddy Lambert Wilson (in what’s said to be the best performance of his career), and its director, Xavier Beauvois.

Des hommes: Lambert Wilson, with a co-star
(whom I don’t recognize)

The prize for best director went instead to Roman Polanski, for The Ghost Writer. That was a perfectly decent movie, and I found no fault in Polanski’s direction, but you’ve got to think that this award was motivated more by politics than by aesthetics. Polanski had stiff competition, not only from Beauvois but also from Olivier Assayas (for Carlos) and the eminent Bertrand Blier (for Le Bruit des glaçons) — but of course none of those guys endured house arrest in a châlet or possible extradition on charges of statutory rape. Much of France’s artistic community rallied around Polanski during the extradition case, and in a sense, they did so again last night.

On the whole, a much nicer way to spend an evening.

I’m not at all ambivalent about the winner of the Best Actor prize, Eric Elmosnino, who blew me away in Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg, vie héroïque. My God, how often does any Best Actor prize go to the actor who gave the best performance of the year? This is an eminently deserved recompense for a rich, nuanced portrayal of a man about whom every single person in France has deeply held preconceived ideas: the odds were stacked against Elmosnino in so many ways, but he really triumphed.

Elmosnino, with the late Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin

He was up against some formidable competition, not only Wilson but two other superstars, Gérard Depardieu and Romain Duris, whose dominance of French cinema is such that it earned them nominations for two lightweight comedies.** I thought Laetitia Casta’s uncanny incarnation of Brigitte Bardot represented a career breakthrough, and the Académie voters agreed with me, up to a point: she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but didn’t win. Meanwhile, Sfar wasn’t nominated for his direction, and he lost the contest for Best Picture, but he did pick up the César for Best First Film. And I’m pleased to note that Sylvain Chomet’s L’Illusionniste won Best Animated Film.

The love for Polanski extended to the category of Best Adapted Screenplay, which prize Polanski shared with Robert Harris for The Ghost Writer. What surprised me here was that a rival, Bertrand Tavernier’s La Princesse de Montpensier didn’t win. I’d recently both seen the movie and read the short story on which it’s based, a work of fiction that reads very much like a treatment — though written in the 18th century. The author, Madame de La Fayette, distills most dialogue, skips character background, and collapses major plot points into single sentences, or fragments thereof; she honestly doesn’t seem to take an interest in her subject (and neither does the reader) until she’s nearly reached the end. Tavernier expanded and deepened this material, providing a brilliant lesson in how to write a screenplay. Since he and the picture were overlooked for most other prize categories, this would have been an easy way to pay respect to a fine director (who has, admittedly, made better films in previous years).

Montpensier: Lambert Wilson again, as the Count of Chabannes,
with Gaspard Ulliel as the notorious Duc de Guise.
As I’ve observed, Wilson is the hardest-working man in French show business,
though Ulliel is no slouch.

The French award the Césars immediately prior to the Oscar™ ceremony, presumably to increase the likelihood that other people will notice; they typically provide absolutely no indicator to the outcome of the American contests. However, you may want to note that The Social Network won Best Foreign Film; The King’s Speech wasn’t nominated. (Just released this week, it won’t be eligible for a César until the next time around.)

I wonder whether we can follow the awards ceremony on the Interweb.

The complete results are as follows, with a † to indicate films I haven’t seen:
Best Film: Des hommes et des dieux
Best Director: Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Best Actress: Sara Forestier, Le Nom des gens
Best Actor: Eric Elmosnino, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Alvaro, Le Bruit des glaçons
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Lonsdale, Des hommes et des dieux
Most Promising Actress: Leïla Bekhti, Tout ce qui brille
Most Promising Actor: Edgar Ramirez, Carlos
Best Photography: Caroline Champetier, Des hommes et des dieux
Best Editing: Hervé de Luz, The Ghost Writer
Best Original Screenplay: Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc, Le Nom des gens
Best Music: Alexandre Desplat, The Ghost Writer
Best Sound: Daniel Sobrino, Jean Goudier, Cyril Holtz, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Set Design: Hugues Tissandier, Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec
Best Costumes: Caroline Vivaise, La Princesse de Montpensier
Best First Film: Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Animated Film: L’Illusionniste
Best Documentary: Océans
Best Short Subject: Logorama
Best Foreign Film: The Social Network
Honorary César: Quentin Tarantino

*NOTE: The sheer ugliness of the César statue may have benefits for losers, who don’t have to display the damned thing in their living rooms, and who may be perfectly sincere, after all, when they say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

**Duris was nominated for his role in L’Arnacoeur, a run-of-the-mill rom-com that could have come directly from Hollywood (except that everyone’s speaking French), and so Americanized that it pays lengthy homage to Dirty Dancing, that incomparable masterpiece of the Seventh Art.

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25 February 2011

Black Schwan

Darren Aronofsky set his Oscar™-nominated hit movie, Black Swan, in a ballet company. He had no choice. After all, nobody could create that kind of psychodrama in Opera World, where there’s never any perfectionism, relentless ambition, personal sacrifice, twisted family relationships, kinky sex, tyrannical impresarios, imperious prima donnas, or gorgeous music that’s inscrutable to most mainstream audiences. And heaven knows singers have no body issues whatever.

However, since Hollywood is incapable of original thought these days, it’s only a matter of time before somebody attempts a knockoff. In anticipation of that production, I’d like to offer a rough draft of the screenplay.

Scene 1:

The Apartment, morning. The MOTHER is helping the SINGER to dress.

SINGER: I had the dream again, Mama. I was singing in Lohengrin. Not the Wilson production. This time, I was wearing a helmet.
MOTHER: That’s nice, dear.
SINGER: With feathers.
MOTHER: You deserve the part, sweetheart. Nobody’s been in the young-artist program longer than you.

Scene 2:

The Rehearsal Room. TAMAS, the director of the opera company, is pacing among the YOUNG ARTISTS and CHORISTERS.

TAMAS: This season, we’re going to present Lohengrin. I know, it’s been done to death. But this time, we’re going to make it fresh, relevant, completely original. For example, in my production, Ortrud will wear this.
(He pulls out a gigantic lizard-head mask.)
CONDUCTOR: Uh, Tamas? It’s been done.
TAMAS: Would you believe a really big gerbil?

Scene 3:

The Dressing Room. Tight close-ups as the SINGER puts on an even tighter corset.

Scene 4:

The Rehearsal Room. The SINGER has just finished auditioning.

TAMAS: Not bad. Not bad. If I were casting only Elsa, the role would be yours.
(The SINGER’s eyes fill with tears.)
TAMAS: But I am not. The singer I need must be able to sing both Elsa and Ortrud. Simultaneously. Now — try it again.
SINGER: But I’m a tenor.
TAMAS: This is opera, not real life! Sing, I tell you! Sing as if your life depended on it! Sing!

(The SINGER begins, while the CONDUCTOR quietly pounds his head against a wall.)

Scene 5:

The Restroom. The SINGER throws up.

Scene 6:

The Rehearsal Room. The STANDBY enters while the SINGER practices “Euch lüften, die mein Klagen.”

STANDBY: Hi! I’m Dubista Lenz, dramatic soprano and the only spark of life in this entire movie. I just flew in from San Francisco, and boy, are my arms tired! (Takes a swig from a hip flask, lights a cigarette.) Know where I can get some girl-on-girl action around here?
SINGER: No. (He screams and runs out of the room.)
STANDBY: Well, excuuuuuuuuse me!

Scene 7:

A Corridor backstage. As the SINGER rushes past, we overhear the gossip of two CHORISTERS.

CHORISTER 1: Did you hear about Trina?
CHORISTER 2: So sad. She’s the one who should be singing Elsa.

Scene 8:

The Restroom. The SINGER throws up again.

The great Astrid Varnay as Ortrud

Scene 9:

The Wardrobe Room. The DRESSER is taking the SINGER’s measurements.

DRESSER: You’ve put on a little weight.

(Tight close-up of the SINGER’s horrified face.)

Scene 10:

The Biergarten, interior. The SINGER is eating his fourteenth Bratwurst.

Scene 11:

The Apartment. The SINGER is staring in the mirror, while the MOTHER (off-camera) knocks on the bedroom door.

MOTHER: Sweetheart, are you all right?
SINGER: Just leave me alone!

(He begins scratching his head. He watches his reflection in horror as his wig comes off.)

Scene 12:

The Donor Reception. In the palatial foyer, the SINGER is confronted by TRINA QUELLE-MORBIDE, the drunken prima donna.

PRIMA DONNA: Brava. Bra-va. Why don’t you just sing Sieglinde, too, while you’re at it?
SINGER: She’s not in this opera.
PRIMA DONNA: You think that matters to Tamas? How did you get this job, anyway? Did you sleep with him?
(For no apparent reason, SHE stabs herself in the throat with a knitting needle.)
PRIMA DONNA: Gosh, look at the time! I’d better be going.
(She staggers away, while the SINGER looks on in horror.)

Scene 13:

The Rehearsal Room. The STANDBY is singing “Einsam, in trüben Tage.” The SINGER enters and watches in horror. The others realize he’s there, and an awkward silence ensues. At last:

CONDUCTOR: It’s nothing to worry about. Dubista is your standby, that’s all.
(The SINGER wheels on TAMAS.)
SINGER: Not her! Not her!
(He runs out. TAMAS shrugs, and turns to another YOUNG ARTIST.)
TAMAS: Okay. Ernst-Joachim, you’re on.
YOUNG ARTIST: You got it, coach.
(He begins to sing “Einsam, in trüben Tage.”)

Scene 14:

The Apartment. The SINGER is scratching his entire body now.

MOTHER: I’m really worried about that rash of yours, sweetheart.
SINGER: Leave me allein!
MOTHER: Now, now. Don’t make me use Mister Straitjacket on you, young man!
(She reaches to him, then steps back in horror as his shirt buttons pop off, revealing the gleaming silver breastplate of a full suit of armor.)
SINGER: I said, leave me ALLEIN!

(He hits her with a Bratwurst, and she falls to the floor, dead in a pool of mustard. The SINGER resumes staring in the mirror and scratching himself. He is now completely bald.)

Scene 15:

The Stage of the Opera House, opening night. The SINGER portrays both Elsa and Ortrud, as planned — but suddenly strips off his costume. Underneath his sheath-like medieval gown, he is wearing his armor, and as he rips off his long blond wig, we see that wings have sprouted from his skull, as if his head itself were Lohengrin’s swan-helmet. To the bewilderment of the CONDUCTOR, he begins to sing “Mein lieber Schwan.”
In the audience, we see TAMAS. He is smiling in quiet satisfaction as he watches.

TAMAS: Perfect!


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22 February 2011

La Politique, American Style

Dominique in the Lion’s Den: Strauss-Kahn and Delahousse

Ordinarily, the (extraordinary) American who pays attention to French presidential elections finds them refreshing. How swift and shiny is a French election, how like a sports car! The whole thing is over and done in a couple of months. The echo-chamber of so-called journalistic “analysis” and “commentary” is squeezed into a few weeks’ time here, and we’re not assaulted by campaign ads, either. Frequently, the candidates (and the journalists who cover them) actually talk more about issues than about strategies or personalities. And we are spared that agonizing build-up to the build-up that so many American candidates and reporters find absolutely engrossing: the months-in-advance buzz about whether Senator So-and-So’s trip to New Hampshire means she intends to run for President.

This weekend, we got a disturbing indication that the halcyon days of French presidential campaigns may be drawing to a close. France 2, one of the state-owned broadcast networks, heavily promoted its Sunday-evening interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist and current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Nearly 1 in 3 French viewers witnessed the dogged attempts of the evening-news anchor, Laurent Delahousse, to extract a confession: are you planning to run, are you thinking about running, are you planning to think of running?

Punting, with no bunting: Strauss-Kahn

Not unlike the typical American candidate in such circumstances, DSK (as he’s known) punted. Let’s face it: even in France, if you’re going to launch a campaign, you want to do so in a controlled environment, with maximum potential éclat. You’re not going to give it away as a freebie on somebody else’s TV show.

Delahousse nevertheless seemed surprised by DSK’s discretion, and for what seemed like an eternity, the anchor hammered away for any crumb of news that might fall. This was tedious in the extreme, and frustrating to Delahousse, too, it seems. In the next interview segment on the evening news, the anchor proceeded to ask Diane Kruger, the German movie star, whether she planned to run for president. “The question has been on my mind all weekend,” Delahousse joked, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer.”*

What effect would a Kruger candidacy have on French elections?
(Pictured here with Liam Neeson in the movie she was plugging on France 2.)

This was bad enough, but for the next news cycle, in every outlet of the print and electronic press, we had to endure endless reporting and analysis of the interview: what DSK didn’t say, why he didn’t say it, what it would have meant if he had said anything, and how significant it is that so many of us tuned in to hear him say nothing at all, even though the first round of the French presidential elections is more than a year away. (Unexamined was the larger question why anybody should care about any of this.) Need I point out, this is exactly how these stories play out in the American press.

The non-story of the non-announcement was never my favorite part of political journalism, when I worked at CBS: I always felt I was being played for a sucker.** Yes, it would be a wonderful scoop if Senator So-and-So declared his candidacy in the middle of your interview; it would be an equally wonderful scoop if monkeys flew out of his butt.

American politicians have particular incentives for protracting the period prior to the announcement of the candidacy, mostly having to do with fundraising. First, they want to see whether they can raise any funds, a time-consuming inquiry that consists of calling in every political favor they have ever done anybody, while carefully avoiding the too-blunt question, “How much cash will you give me if I run?” The second concern is campaign-finance rules, which don’t apply until a candidate launches his campaign.

These concerns aren’t usually pertinent to French politicians, and DSK would be wise to worry more about overstaying his welcome with the electorate, who will hear more than enough about him in 2012, provided he does run.

However, the winner of the last presidential election here was Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed “Sarko l’Américain” for his brash personal style and his celebrity status, as well as his free-market faith (rare in this country) and his hands-on approach to governing. Apparently Sarkozy’s success in 2007 opened the door to a more American-style political culture. Quel dommage.

President Sarkozy, expected to run for a second term, has received
one high-profile endorsement already.

DSK isn’t playing this game — at least, not yet. He’s a thoughtful pragmatist, a status that probably cost him the Socialist nomination in 2006.*** Along with Martine Aubry, he’s one of his party’s designated grownups; since she’s presumed likely to run for president herself, I’m not sure where that leaves him.****

During his interview with Delahousse, DSK was considerably more forthcoming about the IMF, which, as he kept explaining patiently, is the only job he has right now. But it’s not one that lends itself to sexy, exciting, headline-making pronouncements, on any country’s news programs, and in the many hours of follow-up analyses of the interview, we heard plenty about DSK’s earth-shattering admission that, yes, he does talk over his career moves with his wife, and he values her advice — but I heard not a single word about DSK’s policies at the IMF.

Thus we may be looking at the dawn of a new era, when an American’s sole remaining comfort when following French election campaigns is the notion that none of it matters very much outside the borders of France. That notion is false, of course, and yet how quaint it all seems, like a comic opera, and don’t the candidates have such curious, musical names! Ségolène Royal, why it’s practically an aria already!

Everybody sing!

*NOTE: For the record, Diane Kruger is not running for President of France. She does, however, speak excellent French.

**My next-least-favorite political stories were the “horse-race” updates: who’s ahead, who’s falling behind, yadda yadda. Campaign advisers love these stories, and so do many journalists — all you have to do is look at a poll, which is so much easier than reporting on the issues. Nobody, not even Dan Rather, could ever explain to me why such stories were worth our time, although I have heard the theory that they help to generate excitement among potential voters, and may lead to improved turnout at the polls.

***DSK is also Jewish, which makes him a target already for far-right nationalists (and even a few rank-and-file members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire); and the fact that he’s currently running a global financial entity is going to pose certain problems in any future campaigns. This may explain why he enjoys Sarkozy’s support in that particular job. How much easier it would be to campaign against the Jewish head of an international cabal of bankers! (Not that Sarkozy would ever, ever pander to far-right nationalists, of course.)

****Other (presumed) likely candidates for the Socialist nomination include the dysfunctional ex-couple Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, the former party secretary who did such a godawful job in 2007 that Royal broke up with him.

ADDENDUM: Because the French are not a trivial people, we also spent the weekend discussing Boris Boillon, the first French Ambassador to Tunisia, post-revolt, who is expected to lose his job any minute now, since he undiplomatically insulted a group of Tunisian reporters. Many French citizens believe that the 41-year-old Boillon, pictured here in an unretouched recent photo (seriously), would be better suited to other kinds of work, but you’ll have to guess precisely what jobs they proposed.

CORRECTION: The original post incorrectly stated that Boillon had already been fired; he remains the French Ambassador to Tunisia, for the time being.

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20 February 2011

Brooks’ ‘Broadcast News’: A Memoir

Maybe they ran out of Kurosawa movies?

The Criterion Collection, a series of DVDs more typically devoted to arthouse classics and foreign auteurs, has recently released James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, provoking in me a couple of conflicting reactions. First: “What’s next? ‘Scott Baio’s Zapped, the Criterion Edition’?” And second: “I guess it’s been a while, after all.” Enough time has passed that my own life — or a chapter of it — has been deemed a classic, and what once seemed a private snapshot has become a time capsule.

Broadcast News came out soon after I started working at CBS, and rarely have I been so sure that I was watching myself in a major motion picture. For some of us around the newsroom, the movie really did depict scenes from our lives: it was well-publicized that Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News producer, was the model for Holly Hunter’s character; and somewhat less acknowledged that CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger was the model for Albert Brooks’ character. And James L. Brooks had been a CBS News writer, back in the day. For real, not pretend.

Dance with the Devil:
William Hurt and Holly Hunter

The William Hurt character was obviously modeled on somebody at another network, we determined, since no CBS newsman could be so mediocre in intelligence, so unethical in behavior, or, for that matter, so good-looking on camera. Somebody suggested that the character must be based on Tom Brokaw, and the consensus at CBS coalesced around this suggestion. This was patently ludicrous, of course, but we were team players, young and excitable, in love with our newsroom and staunch in our belief that our work was important.

Hey, look up there! It’s us!

Broadcast News captures that spirit, but it also shows its decline, and not only in the massive layoff for which the film drew inspiration from “the night of the long knives,” as Dan Rather called it, which took place at CBS shortly before I arrived there. It’s very hard to think of yourself as a team player when you’re being unceremoniously tossed onto the street, to think of your work as important when a bean-counter informs you the network can’t afford it, or to cling to your ideals and principles (as Albert Brooks does in the movie) when your job is on the line.

My colleagues and I came of age when broadcast reporters — like Dan himself — had become pop-culture heroes. Surely not since Murrow’s Boys (who were also CBSers, of course) had journalists enjoyed such widespread esteem. To those who wanted to see it this way (and I certainly did), reporting on the Vietnam War and on the Watergate Scandal confirmed absolutely the necessary role of a free press in a healthy democracy.

William Hurt as Tom Grunick

This idea seems quaint today, I admit. Maybe it already was in 1987 — maybe earlier. Even in the 1970s, when the persona of the crusading journalist took hold of my imagination, Ted Baxter at WJM offered a prescient antidote to Woodward and Bernstein. And although I came to CBS News expecting to find a certain reverence for that newsroom’s hallowed traditions — something like the atmosphere Jay McInerney describes in the fictionalized offices of The New Yorker, in his novel Bright Lights, Big City (another time capsule) — it turned out that the only person who truly shared my attitude was Dan Rather himself.*

There was considerable debate in the newsroom as to how much — or whether — Jack Nicholson’s anchorman in Broadcast News was based on Dan. “Not at all,” I argued, but some of my colleagues held different opinions. Nicholson’s character remains aloof from the struggles in the newsroom, whereas Dan agonized over every one of them. But then, I worked with him more closely than other people did.

Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman

It was easier (and more fun) for the newsroom gang — “Munchkins,” as SPY Magazine once called us — to identify ourselves in Joan Cusack’s character, especially in what is arguably the most famous scene in Broadcast News, her frantic dash to get a videotape on the air. All of us had enacted that scene on many occasions, and in later years, such sprints became the cornerstone of my cardio workout.

Still, it is a strange thing to see your job and your moral dilemmas played out on a big screen. Stranger yet to see them played out again, in the knockoff that followed one year later, Switching Channels, a forgettable riff on His Girl Friday set in an all-news cable network.

Christopher Reeve, Kathleen Turner, and Burt Reynolds
in Switching Channels
Didn’t these people have anything better to do with their time?

Switching Channels got all the details wrong — its newsroom improbably mixes the major attributes of CNN and a local public-access station — it bypassed the ethical questions, and it’s dull, besides.** This may have been the first indication that James L. Brooks got it right: he understood us and what we were about, and Broadcast News was already approaching classic status the year after he made it.

As the years went by, I don’t think many of us would have proposed our workplace as the ideal setting for any kind of comedy, whether tough and smart like Broadcast News or dopey like Switching Channels. Maybe it was a question of my maturation, or the evolution of my duties, but a lot of the fun went out of the job. We were all bright and sophisticated still, yes, and some of us were funny. But the pressures that Brooks depicts in the background of his film became more and more central to our work.

Joan Cusack (left) in a rare moment of repose.
(One reason I identified so strongly with her was, of course, the hairdo.)

Too many other reporters covered our newsroom as if it were itself a kind of movie, and they gossiped about our anchors as if they were soap-opera stars; “entertainment values” pumped more steadily into our own programs, eroding our credibility and our own sense of worth. And in the quest for higher profits, layoffs and bureau closings kept coming, one after another, making it harder to do the job — for those who still had one.

Broadcast News has come to look like a warning — one of many, as it happens — that too few people noticed as such. It will be hard for me to go back and look at the movie again. But oh, for a moment, it was grand!

*NOTE: From the start, Dan indulged me in our shared fascination with the CBS News Tradition, making a point of introducing me to any of the “legends” (the word he invariably used) whom we came across in our adventures: Janet Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, Fred Friendly, Douglas Edwards, and so on. Sometimes, notably in Friendly’s case, I actually got to know these folks, a little. (And let it also be noted that we met Holly Hunter once on an airplane.)

**However, we Munchkins heartily approved of the performance of young George Newbern, who played us in Switching Channels, and who was extremely cute, besides.

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18 February 2011

The Alliot-Marie Affair

French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is facing intense public scrutiny and calls for her resignation in the aftermath of a Christmas vacation in Tunisia. With anti-government protests there already begun in December, Alliot-Marie is accused of possible conflicts of interest, stemming from revelations concerning a ride in a private plane owned by a wealthy Tunisian; a real-estate deal concluded between that plutocrat and her parents; and a previously undisclosed phone conversation with then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Indeed, upon her return to France, Alliot-Marie revealed none of these details (leaving that job to the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné) but initially expressed support for the embattled Ben Ali regime. Not least because the French government is widely perceived as having been unprepared for the Tunisian uprising, Alliot-Marie’s critics have kept her on the defensive ever since.

In the eyes of this observer, she’s badly mismanaged the scandal: first denying (falsely) the Tunisian businessman’s close ties to the Ben Ali family; castigating opponents who, she says, are trying to use her parents’ private dealings to bring her down; and insisting that she’s been forthcoming about the matter, even while embarrassing details continue to surface, one by one.

With due respect to Le Canard Enchaîné (and, for that matter, to The Onion), what are some of the other allegations now emerging in the aftermath of Alliot-Marie’s Tunisian holiday?

  • Re-gifted the Moulinex blender her cousin gave her last year.

  • Forgot to pack sunscreen. The sun in Tunisia can be very powerful, you know.

  • Petitioned Tunisia’s Parliament to declare her Queen for a Day.

  • Kept singing Carla Bruni songs after others asked her to stop.

  • Drank local, varietal wine on at least two occasions.

  • Insulted limousine driver who mistook her for Christine Ockrent.

  • Failed to show proper reverence for locations where Star Wars was filmed.

  • Bought tacky souvenir T-shirt as gift for Martine Aubry; did not remove price tag.

  • Recommended that Tunisian protesters eat cake.*

  • In blatant defiance of official French policy, tipped waiters for good service.

*Note pour les francophones: “brioche” serait l’équivalent.

UPDATE: On February 27, President Sarkozy announced that Alliot-Marie would step down from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to be replaced by Alain Juppé.

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16 February 2011

Progress Report 10: Madeline Kahn & Kenneth Mars

As Franz Liebkind

I first saw Kenneth Mars, the actor who died on February 12, on Fernwood 2-Night, the syndicated comedy series that grew out of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and seemed so grown-up, even illicit, because it aired late at night, past my bedtime.* Mars played local businessman W.D. “Bud” Prize, a recurring character, and exhibited many of the qualities that marked his more famous performances, notably an exaggerated accent and an inspired range of belligerent arrogance and barely controlled lunacy.

His chin always seemed ready to pick a fight, and he led with it, much the way a rooster in a barnyard leads with its beak; in later years, I came to think he’d be an excellent choice to play Richard Wagner. (Bud is self-conscious, however, and frequently wears a “chin-odontic device” to change its alignment.) In two important screen roles, Mars’ chin is practically a star player, surveying a dining room of lesser mortals in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and rallying a mob in Young Frankenstein. But that chin could be vulnerable, too, even while making me laugh, as Mars proved in The Producers.

After all, any writer frustrated in his ambitions must feel a little sympathy for the playwright Franz Liebkind.

With Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers

Mars’ death is itself a disappointment to this writer. I’d like to have met the man who made me laugh so hard; beyond that, I’d like to have interviewed him for my authorized biography of Madeline Kahn. They appeared together in What’s Up, Doc? and Young Frankenstein, milestones in each career, and both starred in the ill-fated pirate farce Yellowbeard, as well. What stories Kenneth Mars might have had to tell me!

What’s Up, Doc? was Madeline’s first feature film, and her first indication that she might not always get to play the “pretty girl.” As I’ve explained here, she was miserable during the production; while she and Mars share the screen only briefly, he might have been able to shed more light on her state of mind and the process whereby she overcame her unhappiness to deliver an explosive, star-making performance.

As Hugh Simon: Pissing from a great height.
Mars towered over his What’s Up, Doc? cast mates.

Young Frankenstein, by contrast, was one of Madeline’s happiest moviemaking experiences. She and Mars have no scenes together, except for the triumphal march by the entire cast that was filmed on the last day of shooting, and originally intended to play under the closing credits. I’m not sure what Mars might have observed: Madeline’s entire time on the set amounted to a single five-day week, plus a pickup day several weeks later, when the march was shot.

The Monster meets Inspector Kemp.
(For years, I didn’t recognize Mars under Kemp’s makeup.)

But that set was so happy that Gene Wilder tried essentially to replicate it a short time later, when he directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. I’d like to speak with anybody who participated in Young Frankenstein.**

It’s too late to speak with Marty Feldman, who died during the filming of Yellowbeard. Here again, Kenneth Mars might have been able to help me. As another cast member put it, that film united “Mel Brooks People” (Madeline, Feldman, Mars, Peter Boyle) with “Monty Python People” and a third community, distinguished British actors (including James Mason, Michael Hordern, and Beryl Reid). Kenneth Mars might have shared Madeline’s high hopes for Yellowbeard and her disappointment in the results, her pleasure in reuniting with old friends, and her grief at losing one of their number.***

Mars ably exploited his distinctive face and his height,
but he didn’t require them to create a memorable character.
As Triton in The Little Mermaid, he reduced one friend of mine to almost-inconsolable tears.

But in biography-writing as in comedy, timing is everything. Feldman died long before I dreamed of tackling this project; so did Cleavon Little (from Blazing Saddles). Harvey Korman’s death preceded the project by only a little while; Dom De Luise died just as I began to track him down. Madeline’s career touched so many others: there’s simply no way I can reach everybody.

Korman as Hedley Lamarr: You’ve got to think he’d have been a fascinating interview, too.

There’s a gamble involved, too. Until a publisher commits to this book, there’s a limit to what I can afford to do, in terms both of time and of expense. Just transcribing the recordings of interviews I’ve already conducted will take money to hire somebody — or time that I could be devoting to other work that will keep me afloat.

I’ve already spoken or corresponded with many of the people whose participation I consider absolutely necessary to the success of this biography: family, friends, and colleagues. But as one of those people, Betty Aberlin, rightly points out, there are legions of people I haven’t even identified yet, especially the backstage, off-camera colleagues who may have witnessed significant moments in Madeline’s life and art. These folks may hold the biggest surprises of all.

From Mars to the Final Frontier:
A late-career appearance on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Madeline and her generation were revolutionaries, changing the way my generation views movies and television. They were Young Turks, but now they’re Grey Eminences. I’ve got to hope they hang on — or tell their stories to friends and family members, who will pass them on to me. A story secondhand is better than no story at all.

But make no mistake: the sooner I can get back to work, and the more people I can speak to, the stronger the book will be.

As Otto Mannkusser in Malcolm in the Middle

You can help, not least by leaving comments on this blog, where prospective editors may see them. And as I come up with other means to demonstrate that which some editors seem to doubt — namely, that there’s a substantial audience waiting eagerly for this book — I’ll let you know, even if it means supplying you with torches and pitchforks and leading, chin-first, a charge on the publisher’s castle.

As Kenneth Mars might say, “A mob is an ugly thing … and I think it’s just about time we had one.”

*NOTE: Fernwood 2-Night also introduced me to the comedy of Martin Mull, Fred Willard, and many others. In retrospect, I understand it as a treasure house.

**Shortly after Young Frankenstein, Madeline co-starred in Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, the rehearsal and filming of which required more than five months of Madeline’s time. The contrasting formulae couldn’t have been clearer in her mind: a short shoot with pretty costumes and good friends equals a pleasant experience, whereas a long shoot opposite a cover girl (Cybill Shepherd) equals abject misery.

***Another Yellowbeard co-star, Martin Hewitt, has so far declined to share with me his recollections of Madeline — but he’s done so in a singularly tantalizing way, making it sound as if the stories are very good indeed. Let me know if you ever change your mind, sir.

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