31 July 2012

Dayton & Faris’ ‘Ruby Sparks’

Eating cute: Dano and Kazan as Pygmalion and Galatea.

A nifty little comedy about imagination and reality, Ruby Sparks tells of a young writer (Paul Dano) who creates the ideal girlfriend (Zoe Kazan), only to see her materialize before him as a real woman. The screenplay was written by Kazan, who thus created the character that’s played by her real-life boyfriend, Dano. “Criss-cross,” as Bruno Antony might say. What’s remarkable is how much the movie manages to convey about the writer’s life and the ways in which our idea of a lover may be stronger than the real identity of that person.

Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose Little Miss Sunshine provided Dano with an important early break) opt for nothing short of a manual typewriter for Calvin. It’s retro, and therefore kooky (his home phone has a cord, too), as you’d expect in an hipster indie comedy. But the typewriter is also a telling representation of the writing process: blank paper, cranking platen, staccato rhythms, jammed keys.

Also, as Dano pointed out during his surprise appearance after the screening I attended, with a manual typewriter there’s no option, as there is with a computer, of discreetly switching over to surf the Internet when you’re supposed to be writing. So when Calvin gets writer’s block, it’s externalized in an easily comprehensible way — presumably so even for non-writers.

Presumably, too, non-writers project their own fantasies onto their romantic partners. I’m guilty of this all the time, but then I’m a writer, projecting onto characters and partners alike. I console myself with the reminder that Dorothy L. Sayers and Margaret Mitchell did the same thing, without which we’d never have Lord Peter Wimsey or Rhett Butler. Still, this puts a certain strain on our real-life partners (and some of our characters), and in this movie, as Ruby Sparks becomes both imaginary and real, the initial, very broad comedy (in which Calvin thinks he’s hallucinating) builds impressively and gains in emotional power.

Advice for young actresses: If you want a great line like
“Kiss me, stupid,”
you may have to write it yourself.

If Kazan the screenwriter left any angle unexplored, I didn’t notice. Both Calvin and Ruby are winning characters given spectacular life by the actors. They’re excellent company, and only after leaving the theater do you quite realize just how small-scale the movie is: it’s almost exclusively focused on their relationship, and the rest of the cast stands far at the margins of the frame.

That said, we get two pleasing cameos (from The Daily Show’s Asif Mandvi as Calvin’s agent and from Steve Coogan as Calvin’s rival author), one brief but memorable scene from Deborah Ann Woll (as Calvin’s ex-girlfriend), and pitch-perfect, scene-stealing turns from Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother and Elliott Gould as his therapist.*

Best of all is Chris Messina, as Calvin’s brother, the nearest to a third principal character this movie has to offer. Dano observed during his post-screening remarks that, of all the actors who auditioned for the role, Messina looks least like him — but he’s a marvel of compassion and comedy. The brother/best friend/sidekick actors in other romantic comedies need more actors like him.

“Remember how dad said I had an overactive imagination?”

Kazan intended the screenplay as an updating of the Galatea myth, and says she hadn’t even heard of the term “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” (a staple of popular criticism) before the movie came out. Yet it’s clear that, as a young actress with more brains and louche charm than conventional Maxim appeal, Kazan probably gets stuck with more than her fair share of scripts for Manic Pixie Dreamgirl roles, and she’s fed up with them. While Ruby starts off as just the sort of idealized kook we’ve seen in countless romantic comedies, she’s continually evolving — that is, becoming real — in ways that the writer Calvin doesn’t anticipate. You can almost hear Kazan exclaim, “Take that, lazy screenwriters! Women’s roles are more complex than you assume!”

Like that other recent, admired romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer, Ruby Sparks portrays Los Angeles as a playground–paradise for lovers. But if you have the misfortune of finding yourself in a screening room next to The Dark Knight Rises, as I did, then you will be forgiven for thinking that you’re witnessing Los Angeles in the middle of an earthquake. The shudders and booms from next-door nearly overpowered the soundtrack of Ruby Sparks at times, and that’s a shame. Nick Urata’s wistful, romantic score lends the picture much of its emotional resonance, and there are other terrific songs along the way, including some vintage French pop numbers I quite enjoyed.

Somewhat alarmingly, Ruby Sparks already has evacuated its spot next to Dark Knight on the Upper West side, dropping from a mere two screens in New York to just one, less than a week after the movie opened to sterling reviews. So don’t hesitate to snap it up, if it comes your way.

*NOTE: Dano told us that Calvin’s mother’s house, ostensibly and quite plausibly in Big Sur, is actually in the Los Angeles area and belongs to the Pufnstuf puppeteer Sid Krofft, who pretty much built it with his own two hands.

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30 July 2012

Brian Bolster’s ‘The Lookout’

When I first met Brian Bolster several years ago, he was shy and almost apologetic about his interest in movies, which he appeared to indulge primarily through the near-obsessive collecting of Criterion Collection DVDs. Flash forward to Saturday, and Brian has made a handful of short documentaries — and sold the DVDs to help finance his work.

And he’s succeeding at it, too. His latest documentary, The Lookout, won the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Festival, after a premiere at Slamdance. The portrait of a man in truly splendid isolation, watching for fires from a mountaintop in Montana’s Flathead National Forest, The Lookout is playing in New York’s IFC Center theater through Thursday, with screenings daily at 1:25. At 16 minutes, it’s the perfect lunch break, and I admired wholeheartedly what I saw.

Watcher in the Woods: Leif Haugen.
All photos courtesy of Brian Bolster.

Just out of camera range, Brian camped for a week in a tent next to the window-lined wood-frame cabin of Leif Haugen, a veteran lookout who spends his summers — fire season — scanning the majestic scenery for signs of trouble. The cabin, one of the four oldest of its kind, has a wood stove and a propane generator but no electric lighting and no plumbing. Pack mules bring Haugen’s food; he carries water himself from a nearby stream. Most days, his only human contact is the crackling voice on a two-way radio, when he checks in with the forest ranger station. What’s surprising, then, is how easily Haugen speaks with Brian, giving the audience a clear understanding of the solitude and simplicity of his life on the mountain.

You come away thinking that Haugen must be truly dedicated to his work: yes, it’s beautiful country to look at, and he does have a roof over his head, but you’ve really got to love roughing it— as well as ceaseless solitude. I certainly couldn’t do this without going stir crazy, and I probably couldn’t even manage the single week that Brian spent out there. But Haugen, a carpenter in Montana the rest of the year, gets plenty of reading and writing done, and he seems to thrive like Thoreau in the wild. Moreover, it’s important work, protecting these stately trees and craggy mountains.

With Haugen’s soft-spoken voiceover and an eye for detail that takes in each of the cabin’s few furnishings as well as the sweep of the scenery, Brian conveys Haugen’s day-to-day routine. The pace is measured, graceful, and the approach unsentimental and clear. We’re not forced to ooh and ahh over the landscape, yet Brian doesn’t ignore the beauty, either: he managed time-lapse sequences of a starry sky and a gathering storm that are stunning, especially on the big screen at the IFC Center.

Brian’s got schemes for new films now, even as he shares The Lookout with audiences, and it’s terrifically exciting to see him pursuing his goal this way. Of all the cultural developments that grew up while I was in France for seven years (you have no idea what a shock Snooki was to my system), this is surely one of the happiest. I’d tell you that Brian’s a talent to look out for — but you can see that for yourself.

Much of Haugen’s time is devoted to upkeep
of the venerable Thoma Lookout, one of the last of its kind.

NOTE: For more information on Brian Bolster and his work, I highly recommend this interview on the Self-Reliant Film website.

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27 July 2012

‘The Schrooning’

Redrum! Redrum! Noorhcs!

An exchange with one of my favorite artists, soprano Jennifer Aylmer, has inspired me to write yet another of my “treatments,” rough outlines for movies that really, really ought to be made — about opera singers. And in this case, there’s an excellent role for Jen herself. Currently sharing her wisdom with the kids at the Seagle Music Colony at Schroon Lake, NY, Jen is a winning actress, as well as a fine singer, and easily one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Jen was trapped in her cabin during last night’s deluge in the Adirondacks, and — well, I’ll let you judge the rest for yourselves.

The real Jennifer Aylmer


A group of young SINGERS are gathered around a campfire. RICO CARUSINO, a young tenor, is telling a ghost story, while the others listen in terror.

So the soprano spurned him, saying she wanted to sing nothing but “The Shepherd on the Rock,” and she sent him out into the night.

(a comic baritone):
(Mocking) And he never accompanied again! Boo-wah-bwah-ha-ha-ha!

(a dramatic soprano):
You can laugh all you want, Sal, but everybody knows what happens next! Not three days later, Erik Tyson-Deaton’s lifeless body washed up on the banks of Schroon Lake!

(a soubrette):
But before his body could be identified and buried —

(a mezzo):
— He disappeared!

(a bass):
And they say that, on dark nights, the Lone Arranger still roams the trails and peers into the cabins —

(a kindly older man or caretaker of some sort):
Now, stop it! That’s just an old story, kids. There’s absolutely no truth to the rumor that we’ve lost 37 students at the Colony in the past 75-and-nine-tenths years! Or that, every two years after a freak thunderstorm, we find brutally dismembered body parts all over the woods! No truth to that at all! [Pause.] By the way, did everybody remember to fill out those life-insurance forms last week?

(a heroine):
Come on, everybody. Looks like it’s starting to rain, and besides, we’ve all got to be singing like birds first thing in the morning!

[As the group breaks up and STEVEN begins to put out the fire, JEN turns to him.]

Say, I was pretty good at math in school. If those completely fabricated and untrue incidents occur every two years, aren’t we due for another one right about —

No! Stop talking about this! And while you’re at it, don’t go wandering off the trails, and for the love of God, don’t go up to that little clearing on the hill, where that is NOT a makeshift cemetery and Satanic altarpiece up there that you see sometimes when the moon is full!

Oh. Okay. Good night.

[The rain begins to pour as JEN walks back to her cabin. Thunder crashes, and through the wind, JEN can hear a faint, unearthly music: the flute obbligato to “The Shepherd on the Rock.” Nervously, she hurries, then stumbles. A hand grabs her by the shoulder.]


Gee, watch your step, Ms. Aylmer! We’d hate for anything to happen to you!

(As she gets to her feet.) You startled me!

It’s a bad idea to walk alone on these trails at night — especially in a rainstorm like this one.

[As THEY enter Jen’s cabin, JAMIE continues.]

I heard ol’ Pete say he was expecting this storm to be the biggest one Schroon Lake has seen in two years!

(Doing the math.) I — I don’t think I know Old Pete.

Set designer’s proposal for Jen’s cabin.

Oh, sure. He works down to the gas station down the road. I understand he’s got the only working telephone within miles of this place.

[Suddenly, the lights go out. Both JEN and JAMIE gasp.]

Ms. Aylmer, are you still here?

I’m right over here, Jamie. Where are you?

Right by the door!

[Outside the cabin, the obbligato is drawing nearer. Nearer. Nearer. Then — a knock at the door.]

Sh-should I answer it?

I’m sure it’s just somebody bringing us a spare flashlight, Jamie! It’s not as if the undead monster Erik Tyson-Deaton is going to burst through the door the moment you —

[Suddenly, the door bursts open.]


I won’t let anything happen to y —

[Blackout, end of scene]

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24 July 2012

Previewing ‘Bring It On: The Musical’

It’s a testament to Amanda Green’s strength as a songwriter that I bought a ticket to her latest effort, Bring It On, with no reason to believe that the show would be my cup of chai. It’s yet another musical adaptation of a popular movie (the first in a franchise about cheerleading competitions starred Kirsten Dunst and opened in 2000) of the sort that Broadway exploits so often these days, the better to lure in tourists, and surely therefore it would entail an earsplitting rock’n’roll score. With reasonable certainty that the cheerleading and choreography would be impressive, I decided to treat the show as a dance concert — as well as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to track Amanda’s creative development.

In the end, I was right about two things: the absolutely astonishing choreography does indeed elicit gasps and whoops from the audience, and Amanda’s lyrics are indeed wonderful. Beyond that, though, Bring It On is pure entertainment, tremendous fun from start to finish, with superlative contributions from all concerned.

Amanda Green: What She Was Born to Do.
Now go update your website, please.

And let’s start, for once, with the sound design. The producers and director (Andy Blankenbuehler, who also choreographed) trust the sheer energy of Bring It On to excite us without artificially stirring us up by pumping the volume. Sound designer Brian Ronan keeps the levels clear and comfortable, and though I sat in the fifth row, center, I never once feared for my eardrums.

With a “libretto” by Jeff Whitty, based on Jessica Bendinger’s screenplay, Bring It On manifests an admirable confidence in the material and in the art form. At least until Stephen Sondheim rolled around, Broadway musicals didn’t often tell complex stories, and Bring It On couldn’t be simpler. A cheerleader transfers to a new high school but doesn’t let go of her competitive ambitions; by helping her, her new friends teach her important lessons about what really matters in life.

We get elements that chime with the inclusive, misfits-make-good theme of Glee, and there’s an immensely gratifying subplot that evokes All About Eve. There’s a love story, and it’s frankly conventional, yet it’s told so economically, with such appealing actors, that we’re granted the satisfaction of figuring most of it out for ourselves. Thus the big love scene (“Enjoy the Trip”) imparts something bigger and wiser than a mere “I love you.”

The creative team steadfastly refuses to bludgeon us with the obvious even when it comes to La Cienega, a statuesque beauty. As Act I unfolds and she emerges from the ensemble, we realize that she’s really a boy (played by Gregory Haney) and probably gay. But there’s no angst and never a big declaration, so that La Cienega is free to be herself, which is to say one of the gang.

Character turns: Nautica (Ariana DeBose), Bridget (Redmond), and La Cienega (Haney).

Brought up on Broadway, Amanda has been patiently honing her craft for years, and surely the fact that she has performed her own songs for cabaret audiences has proved an essential stage in her development: she knows firsthand how to get through to us. Lamentably, I was in France when her previous Broadway show, High Fidelity, enjoyed its too-brief run, but I played the cast album endlessly — possibly to the consternation of my neighbors in Beynes, but to my own delight.

Amanda has learned to make characters sing the way real people talk. She doesn’t resort to highfalutin Sondheimian diction or Schwartzian rhyming-dictionary monosyllables, and her poetry is honest and true. While she may have inherited some lyrical gene from her father and his writing partner, that helps her words to convey character and sassy wit, there’s a startling underlying fierceness that’s all her own, and it pops up all over the score to Bring It On.

Bridget (Redmond) becomes the moral center of the show.

A helpful preview article in Playbill explains some of the collaborative process: the songs, ranging from ballads to rap, and all pitch-perfect, were written by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, High Fidelity) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), and the lyrics by Amanda and Miranda. (Hey, now I’m rhyming!) While the team probably knows for sure who wrote what, the rest of us would be hard-pressed to identify their fingerprints. What counts is that the characters, not the authors, express themselves so clearly.

And the cast is up to the challenge, the young actors turning in fresh, distinctive characterizations. In addition to Haney’s savory La Cienega, I particularly admired Kate Rockwell’s imperious Skylar, Ryann Redmond’s exuberant Bridget, and Nicolas Womack’s brash Twig. Gifted and good-looking, Neil Haskell thrilled TV audiences when he appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, and he’s at it again as Steven in Bring It On. And Elle McLemore is a twisted delight as the Eve Harrington character, called (why not?) Eva.

Finding out who your real friends are: Danielle (Warren), Campbell (Louderman), and Eva (McLemore).
With Betty Comden, Amanda’s dad turned All About Eve into a musical, Applause. But that show features substantially less cheerleading.

The central roles are given to two outstanding artists. As Danielle, an inner-city spitfire yearning to move on, Adrienne Warren projects such intensity that she might easily dominate the entire show — but as Campbell, her bourgeoise rival-turned-ally, Taylor Louderman holds her own with a winning mix of ditsy humor and sincere emotion. Displaying authentic voices and flawless moves, they’re both sensational, and the relationship that grows between their characters is as potent as that in any love story.

Star power: Warren and Louderman.

Really, everyone in this show is terrific. Comprising experienced cheerleaders as well as dancers and singers, the cast has been perfecting these performances since the show originated at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, subsequently touring in California and who knows where else. (I’ll have to ask Amanda.) As choreographer, Blankenbuehler demands high-flying feats of derring-do, and — while singing and staying in character — these kids deliver.

Inevitably, perhaps, I remembered that other cheerleading musical, last season’s Lysistrata Jones, and indeed David Korins’ set design is even simpler, while no less evocative — and still, with its substantially larger cast, Bring It On never left me feeling shortchanged. Whitty’s book is better thought-out than Beane’s for Lysistrata Jones, and Bring It On is exceptionally family-friendly, too. (I sat next to an 8-year-old girl and her doll.) I suspect that high schools with strong cheerleading programs will be producing this musical for years to come. Why put down your pom-poms in the off-season?

Score one for plausibility: Lysistrata Jones wore a sexy grownup outfit, too, but here, Campbell is only fantasizing.

Really, the happiest surprise of this show is how much respect it shows for the classic musical-comedy form. The creative team — quite joyously, from what I can tell — relies not only on its outsize gifts but also on the individual strengths of the performers, which is how all of the greatest Broadway shows, without exception, used to operate. This is in no way one of those pre-fab tourist-trap movie adaptations, but a real show.

Bring It On officially opens its limited Broadway run on August 1: the performance I attended last night was a preview. Thus I hasten to underline the presumption, which accompanies any preview, that things can only get even better. Bring It On is so good already, it’s hard to see where there’s any room for improvement — but Amanda has surprised me before, and I can’t wait to see this show again.

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20 July 2012

How I’ll Be Watching Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Homecoming’ Tonight on PBS

Just phonate!

Tonight on PBS, Joyce DiDonato returns to her hometown of Kansas City for a performance with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony in the spectacular new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. (Check PBS for more information and for local listings.) The concert, Homecoming, was recorded live on March 24, and the program features The Deepest Desire, Jake Heggie’s song cycle to poems by Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life heroine of his first opera, Dead Man Walking, which is based on her writings.

Joyce made her New York City Opera debut (which was also her New York stage debut) in the role of Sister Helen, and Virgin Classics recently released a CD of the complete opera, recorded during her performances of Dead Man with Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers conducting. I know that associating with Sister Helen has uplifted both Joyce and Jake spiritually, and their interpretations of her poems couldn’t be more persuasive. (Joyce’s earlier recording of Deepest Desire and other contemporary songs won France’s coveted Diapason d’Or award a few years ago.) On my birthday (!), iTunes began offering a recording of the complete Kansas City concert for download, at an extremely attractive price.

Joyce and Maestro Stern take a bow.
Photo by Chris Lee from the PBS website.

The television broadcast omits some of the numbers and concentrates on Deepest Desire and one other work, Rossini’s cantata about Joan of Arc, Giovanna d’Arco. Joyce is one of the finest exponents of Rossini around, and I’m sure this performance will be a knockout, as well as a thematic link to Sister Helen and to Joyce’s own upbringing: Catholic girls with a mission.

But in the case of the cantata, unlike that of Jake’s song cycle, the words are almost beside the point. No less an authority than Stendhal advises audiences, when listening to Rossini’s music, to make up their own stories. And in the event that you’d like to know what story I’ll be telling myself while Joyce is singing tonight, I’d like to provide you with a synopsis.

Everything’s up to date:
The Kauffman Center was designed by Moishe Safdie.


Giovanna is a typical country girl from Kansas. She attends a typical high school, where she is president of the 4-H Club and where her uncanny resemblance to the actor Jake Gyllenhaal goes largely unnoticed. Recently, she has won a prize for best sheep at the county fair, and she shares with us her secret: fleeces grow fluffier when she sings the sheep to sleep.

Giovanna’s peaceful existence is troubled, however, when she begins experiencing strange visions. A gigantic, menacing rabbit appears to her and commands her to overthrow the English invaders who are oppressing the land. It is God’s will, the Rabbit says.

Giovanna points out that there are no English invaders in Kansas. “How can you be sure?” the Rabbit replies. “They lurk amongst us, speaking English, after all.”

Giovanna wrestles with her conscience, while the Rabbit wrestles with a sheep. At last she submits to God’s will. Arming herself in her brother’s football helmet and an old axe from the woodpile, she storms the English classroom at her high school.

Meanwhile, the Rabbit eats the sheep.

Confronting her English teacher, Giovanna proclaims that the land rightly belongs to the King of France and to God. The Rabbit appears, and hands Giovanna a coveted Diapason d’Or award, while the English teacher retreats to the principal’s office.

Suddenly, Giovanna awakens with a start. She is at home, in her bed. Her mother is cooking dinner — and the steak is burnt. As smoke fills her simple country bedroom, Giovanna runs into the yard and gathers her sheep around her to await the arrival of the volunteer fire department.

“It was all just a dream!” she murmurs as she reflects on her strange experiences — little realizing that the Rabbit is standing right behind her.


Joyce takes a bow after singing Giovanna d’Arco.
Photo by Parker Eshelman from the PBS website.

UPDATE: PBS has posted the complete video of Homecoming on its website. Click here to watch!

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19 July 2012

Téchiné’s ‘Impardonnables’

Carole Bouquet and André Dussollier as Judith and Francis.

When André Téchiné’s latest film, Impardonnables (the U.S. title is Unforgivable) was accorded only two screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival last spring, and when both sold out, I comforted myself with the assurance that the picture would receive a commercial release in the United States, and probably soon. Yet when I arrived at the IFC Center on Tuesday, barely two and a half weeks since it opened there, I found it reduced to three screenings per day in the smallest auditorium in the theater. How was it possible that a new film from one of France’s most gifted auteur directors, greeted with a glowing preview by Terrence Rafferty and a rave review in the Times, should be struggling this way?

Granted, while Téchiné’s stars, André Dussolier and Carole Bouquet, are two of the most dependable actors in France, they’re not marquee names over here. Bouquet is best remembered for her first film, Luis Buñuel’s Cet objet obscur du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire), made 35 years ago. Even Téchiné is something of a connoisseur’s specialty, and Impardonnables doesn’t hold the commercial appeal of his Les temps qui changent (2004), a droll relationship comedy about long-lost lovers starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, or the topicality of Les Témoins (Witnesses, from 2007), a drama about the impact of AIDS in a close-knit community over a period of several years.

Uneasy relationships between generations:
Francis and Jérémie (Mario Conte).

Yet I was pleased overall with Impardonnables. While never quite attaining the richness and complexity of Téchiné’s masterwork, Les Roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds, 1994), it’s a vast improvement over its immediate predecessor, La Fille du R.E.R. (The Girl on the Train, 2009), and it valiantly upholds most of Téchiné’s strengths and virtues — above all, a novelistic approach to storytelling and a profound compassion for his characters. In Impardonnables, it’s not the people themselves but the acts they commit that are — or that at first seem to be — unforgivable.

And so we meet Francis (Dussollier), a successful author with writer’s block, who comes to Venice in search of inspiration. Instead, he finds Judith (Bouquet), a real-estate agent. When she shows him a house on a small island, he flirts with her, saying he’ll rent it if she’ll agree to marry him. She’s flabbergasted, of course, and replies, “You know nothing about me.”

Judith is an expert in fakery,
but she doesn’t always recognize it when she sees it.
Seen here with Andrea Pergolesi, Bouquet is phenomenally well preserved.

That question — whether we know another person, whether we can know her — proves crucial as Judith and Francis do indeed marry and move in together. His writer’s block persisting, a bored and jealous Francis instigates a real-life narrative and watches it as it unfolds. When Judith discovers what he’s been up to, she says drily, “The more I know you, the less I understand you.”

Around this core drama rotate side stories and several of Téchiné’s preferred themes, notably including random acts of startling violence and, more importantly, the sexually tense, sometimes exploitative relationships between generations. Here the young person in question is Jérémie (Mauro Conte), an ex-con and the son of Judith’s former girlfriend, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), who just happens to be a detective: both prove useful to Francis in his schemes, and he takes advantage of them even as he sincerely wants to help them.

Adriana Asti as Anna Maria, with Dussollier.

But Jérémie and Anna Maria can’t even help each other, and in any Téchiné movie, family, even when it means well, is seldom any protection from harm. Here, for example, the luscious Mélanie Thierry (remembered from L’autre Dumas and La Princesse de Montpensier) plays Francis’ daughter, Alice, who abandons her teenage daughter (Zoé Duthion) in order to chase after a drug-dealing Italian nobleman (Andrea Pergolesi) — and while she does love the wild boy, Alice is also motivated by a desire to gain her independence from her overly possessive father.

All of the relationships in Impardonnables are a mess, really. In order to cope with mess, Téchiné suggests, we’ve got to forge alliances where we can, go it alone when we must, and strive to forgive that which is unforgivable.

André Téchiné.

It’s curious that, in reflecting on a director who is unquestionably French, I so often think of him in comparison with two thoroughly English authors. Though I daresay Téchiné would prefer that I speak of Flaubert or Maupassant, Les Roseaux sauvages reminds me inevitably of Eliot’s Middlemarch. So, to an extent, does Impardonnables, in the absolute fairness with which the author treats each and every character. Flaws are motivated, and motivations are understood even when not entirely justified. Everyone means well, and everyone is tested morally. It is possible, at any given moment, to identify with any given character in these communities.

The foremost exponent of that approach was, of course, an Englishman named Shakespeare — and at his best, Téchiné is a worthy descendant of the Bard. Francis in Impardonnables is not so far, really, from Prospero and his little island.

That’s why I make a point of seeing each Téchiné film as it’s released, and it’s why I urge you to do so, too. It make take a little work to see Impardonnables, but your effort will be rewarded.

On est tous dans le même bateau — We’re all in the same boat.
Bouquet and Dussollier.

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17 July 2012

For My Birthday This Year, I Am Resigning Retroactively as a Judge on ‘American Idol’

Please note the extreme care with which I have retroactively cropped myself out of this picture.

Today I turn 51, and it’s certain to be what my grandfather would call “a Magic Year.” And a busy one, too. With a contract for my authorized biography of Madeline Kahn and with my upcoming debut at Fort Worth Opera, I’ve got a lot to do this year. That’s why I’m taking my cue from Mitt Romney’s advisers.

The fact is, I’m going to be so busy that I find it necessary to resign retroactively as a judge on American Idol, dating back to 2007. Granted, I haven’t been named a judge yet on American Idol or indeed anywhere else, but the point is that, when they do name me a judge, I will be so busy that I will have to step down even sooner than immediately.

This was a very difficult decision, as you can imagine. The whole American Idol experience has brought so much joy to my life, excepting always those moments when I actually watched the show, which I find creepy and humiliating to contestants and viewers alike. But really, it’s time for me to move on, and if this means that Aretha Franklin can be named a judge retroactively dating back to 2007, I’ll feel I’ve given the show the very best I have to offer.

Also, I would like to collect retroactively a very large fee from the Coca-Cola Company for the prominent product placement
in this picture.

I’d also like to announce retroactively my birth in France, instead of Texas. Clearly there’s been a lot of confusion over my birth certificate, but I think that with this retroactive clarification, everybody will find it much easier to understand why I am the way I am, instead of the way I am not.

Finally, it has become apparent that I will be so busy this year that I must regretfully and retroactively break up with James Franco. This was a very difficult decision, but you must understand that Jib-Jib is so fascinating that merely searching the Internet for every mention of his name is a time-consuming distraction from my other work. It leaves me no time to spend with him, or even to meet him.

Naturally, I thought about transferring my affections retroactively to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but he’s nearly as fascinating as James Franco, and besides, Jib-Jib has always been a little jealous of Jo-Go, and I want our retroactive break-up to remain amicable, for the retroactive sake of our retroactive children. Therefore, I would like to announce that I am obsessed with a perfectly decent but frankly less interesting actor, Jesse Eisenberg, dating retroactively to his commendable performance in The Squid and the Whale in 2005.

Now that we’ve cleared up these matters, I hope we can get back to talking about the economy. Thank you.

Here’s a picture of Jesse — or “Juicy,” as I call him — giving another perfectly acceptable performance in a movie entitled Adventureland.
I wonder what ever happened to that girl in the picture with him.

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16 July 2012

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

Dear George: Streets full of water. Please advise.
Photo by Olga Vannucci.

The contemporary publishing industry, under assault from technological innovations and declining readership (or anyway, declining purchases), has become a no-man’s-land for first-time authors — as I know firsthand. Three novels in succession failed to find publishers, and my rejections dwindled from lengthy essays for the first to terse e-mails for the last, divided equally into two camps: either the book was “too commercial” or “not commercial enough.” Even the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn required three years of wandering before finding a happy berth at the University Press of Mississippi, and for now, my agent has forbidden me to use the word “fiction” in his presence.

But with technological innovations have come new solutions to the ever-maddening predicament of author rejection: it’s increasingly easy to publish one’s book for oneself. Outlets such as Amazon take care of distribution, and the author is left with the work of making sure potential readers hear about the new book. There lies the rub, but more and more writers are bucking the system, and rather than grouse about the system (as I prefer to do) or throw themselves at the mercy of beleaguered commercial houses, they’re taking matters into their own hands.

That’s been the case of four friends, and I take this opportunity to point you to their books, each of which is entirely worthy of your attention and any of which might have been snapped up by a commercial house only a few years ago — that is to say, in a different environment entirely, which is coming to seem like a different planet. In time, we may come to look at my friends as pioneers who blazed the trail that other writers — myself included — may follow.

Edward Doughtie was the first writer I knew, a neighbor in Houston and family friend since my boyhood. Granted, in those days my definition of a good book generally entailed at least one wizard and a few elves, Munchkins, or talking animals, whereas Ed’s books tended to concern Renaissance poetry, well over my head. A professor at Rice University for many years, Ed is the author of Lyrics from English Airs, 1596–1622, for example, which must be the book he’d have been writing in his study at the very time when his children and I were yelling at the top of our prodigious little lungs and running around his yard — which is to say, right outside his window — for hours at a time every single day.

I confess that I’ve never yet read Lyrics from English Airs, but I take a certain pride in the book nevertheless: if I’d been any worse-behaved while a guest in Ed’s home, he’d never have finished writing it. So I must not have been too savage as a child.

In his retirement, Ed turned to writing murder mysteries, and when he failed to find a publisher for them, he began to publish them himself, first on his blog and now as e-books available for sale through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I made it a point to download to my Kindle his first e-book, Four-Part Dissonance, and I read it with immense pleasure on a long bus ride a few weeks ago.

Ed is an accomplished chamber musician, a cellist in fact, and this gives him a limitless supply of the stuff of mystery — that is, a mystery to the rest of us. The musical background in this story works much as academia does in Amanda Cross’ novels or as the ringing of English church bells does in one novel of Dorothy L. Sayers.* Mere mortals such as you and I would throw up our hands, unable to ferret out the clues amid the arcana and the trivia, but a truly intrepid detective, such as Kate Fansler or Lord Peter Wimsey or Ed’s character, the more down-to-earth Aldo Branch, will know just what to do.

Four-Part Dissonance kicks off with the brutal murder of a famous chamber quartet in the toniest neighborhood in Houston; instantly, we’re introduced to intertwining intrigues among musicians and patrons, police detectives and insurance investigators, criminals and ex-lovers, most of whom are as juicy and richly imagined as the characters in an old Warner Bros. movie. As a reader, you don’t need to know the difference between a Stradivarius and a Fender, but Aldo Branch does, and it’s great fun to follow his adventure.

Ed isn’t out to reinvent the wheel here: he’s done his homework and written an authentic murder mystery, the kind of entertainment that, back in the day when more people actually read books, would easily have found its market.

The late John Mosedale, one of my mentors at CBS News, had enjoyed a certain degree of commercial success with his books already when he completed his last novel, The Church of Shakespeare. However, due to his declining health, John’s family opted to publish through Lulu.com — so that John could have the satisfaction of holding the finished book in his hands. I’ve written already about this utterly captivating novel, which is available in paperback through the Lulu.com website, and I continue to recommend it enthusiastically.

Even now, a couple of years after I finished reading, I’m still reminded of John’s protagonist every time I find myself in a bus or subway and barraged by the conversation or bad music of the inconsiderate folks around me: how I’d love to do what Bix Baxter does at such moments, and start declaiming Shakespeare! But alas, I lack the courage.

Eli Lederman, a friend from college days, had no interest in subjecting himself to the rounds of submission to commercial editors, and he bypassed them entirely, setting up his own company in the process. Drawing on his years of experience in the financial business, he’s written a juicy novel that’s quite likely to tap into whatever frustration and anger you’re feeling in the wake of the financial crisis — and because he came to this world from a different one (physics, for mercy’s sake), he’s got the objectivity of the outsider, and all the wit and bite that go along with it.

I haven’t yet finished High Finance, though thus far it’s fast-paced and rich in every sense. But I couldn’t see the point in omitting it from this little survey; I’ll save a more conventional review for another time. High Finance does strike me as the sort of book that, in a healthier climate, would have made quite a splash at a commercial house: a controversial milieu described by a real insider, giving us the scoop we’ve been panting for. Hell, an attorney named John Grisham has made a fortune with less to recommend him.

And how well the alumni of Brown University do write! Not just Eli, but also Olga Vannucci, who’s written a perfectly charming memoir, Travels with George, about several trips she made to her native Italy with her young son. Her prose is spare and evocative, and she selects anecdotes and images with judicious flair. Her chapters are quite like journal entries, and may have begun as such; it’s possible that a professional editor would have helped her to shape and to structure the book a bit more, but in giving the reader the impression of sharing letters and postcards from a dear friend abroad, Olga more than succeeds.

Honestly, I know people who will read every book ever written about Italy, and I’ll herewith recommend that they move Travels with George to the head of the list. Among her other achievements, Olga is quite likely to make you hungry for authentic Italian food, and the odd thing is that young George remains steadfastly unimpressed by the greatest delicacies of the culinary art. To a degree, this is refreshing: he’s a normal American kid, and therefore finicky. But the Frenchman in me wants to swat his derrière and tell him to eat what’s served him and to like it.

Indeed, Olga often writes wistfully as she retraces her own childhood steps in the hope that George will find the same inspirations, pleasures, and meanings she once found. Her memories are so beautiful! Naturalmente she wants to share them with him, just as she shares them with us! She stops short of writing anything that will embarrass George when he grows up, but this reader was reminded of his own childhood notions — from an opposite vantage.

Oh, how I envied all the kids who went to Europe! How unfair it still seems that I must wait until adulthood to cultivate — to liberate, really — all of my famously exquisite, exquisite tastes! Art! Music! Antiquities! Food! Wine! (Well, Olga keeps George on a pretty short leash around the vino, so we don’t really know whether he’d have liked it.)

How seldom my little friends seemed to appreciate the tremendous advantages they were offered when they went abroad. I remember one friend who bemoaned that he was being forced to visit England, “a dumb country” in his opinion because “they call policemen ‘bobbies.’” Really, he said, he’d prefer not to go to such a place. I wanted to scream at him. What wouldn’t I give for the opportunity he had!

Poor George doesn’t go that far in his resistance to Italy, and he certainly doesn’t bring me to the point of screaming. But I’m at least as wistful as Olga is, and I look forward to the sequel, which I hope Olga will entitle I Told You So, George, in which the kid grows up, returns to the patria, perfects his command of the language, develops not merely a taste but a hunger for cucina italiana, and discovers that being Italian is a distinct asset when it comes to picking up girls.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying his mother’s tender memories and polished prose — and applauding her ingenuity in getting this book published.

*NOTE: Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of another formidable professor of English literature, Carolyn Heilbrun, with whom I studied at Columbia.

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13 July 2012

Anthony Roth Costanzo Releases ‘To Do’ List

Arc-en-ciel: The James Franco of Countertenors.
Photo by Dario Acosta.

Moving swiftly to squelch rumors that — having already won the Operalia competition, sung at the Metropolitan Opera, co-starred with Leelee Sobieski and Jane Birkin in a Merchant–Ivory film, toured Europe in his own dance–theater work, graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, and discovered the Higgs boson, all by the age of 30 — he has nothing left to achieve, the American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo addressed reporters today in a hastily assembled press conference.

“I have, here in my hand, proof that there are in fact several things I have yet to accomplish,” Costanzo said, distributing photocopies of a handwritten list entitled “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today.”

“For example, I have not yet completed the invention of time travel,” the Phi Beta Kappa member told reporters. “However, if all goes according to plan, I expect to finish that yesterday, shortly after I end world hunger.”

He has also played Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man.

“Also, I’m really behind on booking the reunion tour of So High, my all-countertenor boy band, which as you may know is the top-selling Classical group in Japan; and I’ve only just started to translate Spinoza into Sanskrit and back again,” the five-time Olympic decathlon medal-holder stated. “After breakfast, I’ll get right to work. I promise.”

In addition, Costanzo’s “To Do” list cited a trip to Oslo, where he will accept the Nobel Prize for medicine. “Curing cancer was always a dream of mine. It’s truly gratifying to have met that goal — mostly in my spare time and on weekends — and to have been recognized by the Nobel Committee,” said the Greek native, who sprang full-grown from the brow of Zeus in 1982.

“Also, I do not yet have a Wikipedia page,” he admitted, adding, “Seriously, what’s up with that?”

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12 July 2012

Pixar’s ‘Brave’

Grrrrrl Power!

Quite a lot of fanfare attended the release of Brave, “the first Pixar feature with a female protagonist.” And it’s true that, while the studio has done very well with female sidekicks (Dory in Finding Nemo and Jessie in the Toy Story sequels, for example), they’ve never before given us a heroine at center screen. However, what’s gotten less attention is that, in Brave, the Pixar gang are making up for lost time: they give us not one heroine but two.

Even when the filmmakers aren’t gorging on mountain greenery, the images are arresting — and Merida’s hair is so brilliantly animated, it’s practically the movie’s third heroine.

And so we find not only headstrong young Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald, so compelling in No Country for Old Men) but also her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Intelligent and accomplished, but each in her own way, they embark on a journey that follows the formula for a classic buddy picture: at first they clash, then dire circumstances force them together, and they wind up in closeness and understanding. A mother–daughter buddy picture? Revolutionary! And quite satisfying.

A most unlikely buddy picture.

Brave also functions as a sly commentary on the Princess Phenomenon, which began (probably) as a marketing concept but which has overwhelmed all of Disney, Pixar’s parent company, and much of contemporary society, besides. Now every American girl thinks she’s a princess, but long-range consequences be damned! We have toys to sell! Yet Merida’s story underscores the degree to which being a princess means taking on responsibility, and not merely being daddy’s little girl or sitting around and waiting for some prince to rescue you.

Family portrait: Fergus (Billy Connolly) spars with Merida (Kelly McDonald), while Elinor (Emma Thompson) looks on.

So, while it’s not altogether unheard of for a Disney princess to use her wits, it’s striking that Merida saves the day not with her warlike prowess and the gifts from her father, but with her wit and diplomacy — the very tools her mother would use. She’s still striving to get what she wants, but in recognition that there are consequences that affect many, many other people, and that she has a significant role to play within her community. Really, this may be the best bat mitzvah present ever made.

Skilled parenting: The history of Europe would be very different if more monarchs were like Elinor and Fergus.

Queen Elinor even looks a bit like Thompson, and for this audience at any rate that meant that it was easier to cut her a little slack: she’s not Mother Gothel, the witchy stepmother of Tangled, and she’s got her reasons for opposing her daughter’s wishes. You think, “Most of us would be thrilled if Emma Thompson were our mother! Be more patient with her!” Which, eventually, Merida is.*

In its own little way, quite possibly the best bat mitzvah present ever.

The women hold the real power in this picture, and that assessment very much includes the Witch (voiced by Julie Walters) whose magic transforms not only Elinor but also her relationship with Merida. Without exception, every male in the picture is a figure of fun, from blustering King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly**) to Merida’s rowdy, buffoonish suitors and her sweet-toothed brothers, a grinning trio of redheaded imps. All of them turn out to have good hearts — Fergus utterly adores his daughter, a tomboy fashioned in his own image — yet all of them are ineffectual, and quite incapable of rescuing even the most helpless princess.

Merida’s brothers: Grinning imps with a sweet tooth.

It’s up to the women to save the day, and it’s worth observing that neither Merida nor Elinor is entirely right or entirely wrong: they have to compromise in order to find happiness. Pixar has provided not merely “a feature with a female protagonist,” but a kind of post-Princess, possibly feminist manifesto about the nature of power and the strength of women. I recommend it highly.

Bull’s eye!

*NOTE: The commentary on Disney’s execrable Brother Bear (2003) may or not be intended, but whereas the earlier picture betrayed the entire Disney philosophy, Brave upholds the belief that we’re at our best when we are truest to ourselves — not when we are bears.

**Of course Billy Connolly plays Merida’s father! The picture is set in Scotland: who else would you cast? But he’s terrific.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (or a wimple, for that matter).

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