13 June 2006

current cinema: A Prairie Home Companion


starring: Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen, and Maya Rudolph
written by: Garrison Keillor, from the story by Keillor and Ken LaZebnik
directed by: Robert Altman
PG-13, 105 min, 2006, USA

Gentle and unassuming, with the warmth and friendliness of an old friend, Garrison Keillor's iconic radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" has occupied a small niche of the American airwaves for nearly 30 years[1]. Here now comes the film version of that public radio institution, done with a quiet inoffensive charm by master filmmaker Robert Altman, the result being a thoroughly enjoyable and faithful rendering of the show and a cinematic delight for, dare I say it, the entire family.

The film's story, such as it is, revolves around the recent sale of the radio station to some media conglomerate in Texas, who wants to turn the theatre into a parking lot, effectively putting the show out of business and making this the final show. Keillor, the show's leader and host, has little interest in making any sort of fuss over the impending end, despite the objections of several members of the cast. Meanwhile, private eye and head of security Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) is busy tracking down the dangerous woman in the white trench-coat (Virginia Madsen) and trying to convince the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) that to end the show would be a great disservice. All of this occurs during the show, broadcast live in front of an audience, but this being an Altman film, the plot has little to do with what the film is really about. Altman's main focus is instead the interplay between various members of his ensemble cast and the inter-workings of a radio show behind the scenes. The plot is merely a structure around which the characters can revolve.

Keillor's script is structured like a radio play, with Guy Noir as the occasional narrator, mostly because if you're going to do an old radio play, you might as well have a private eye narrator, and partly because Guy Noir is one of Keillor's recurring characters. And if you're going to have Guy Noir as the narrator, then you have to have a dangerous woman. Keillor's master-stroke, though, is to make the dangerous woman an angel of death, a fitting metaphor for a radio show on it's last run. She could be coming for the Axeman or any member of the cast or for the show itself or even for the aspect of Americana that the show invokes, but it isn't really important in the end, because she represents the passage of time that serves as the film's unstated antagonist. The bad guy isn't really the Axeman or his Texas corporation (although, it certainly isn't the hero), but the rapidly progressing world that makes such things possible. But no one handles such change better than Keillor, who's motto is that every show is the last show. In a great backstage scene, he sits quietly as the dangerous woman informs him that she is an angel of death, nonchalantly eating an apple. I guess when you've been doing live radio for 30 years, not even death can startle you.

Nor, I imagine, would it warrant much more than an "oh really?" from Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep), who along with Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) forms the singing Johnson sisters. Streep plays Yolanda as something of a Minnesotan housewife prone to moments of hysteria. She flutters through the film, absent-minded and emotional. She shows up minutes before the show goes on the air, her daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) in tow, and remarks that they have plenty of time. The entire radio cast, for that matter, shows a surprising lack of concern for the contents of the program. Other than figuring out what song they'll sing, no seems to be giving much thought to the proceedings on-stage. Keillor seems more interested in telling numerous accounts of how he got into radio, Lefty (John C. Reilly) and Dusty (Woody Harrelson) are busy trying to impress Lola, and Guy Noir can be seen wandering amongst the band. They posses an easy-going professionalism that appear deceptively simple, giving the audience the impression that it can't be all that hard, but this is a hard-won professionalism, perfected over 30 years. That it comes off as effortless is a testament to it's power.

The same can be said for Altman's direction, which can easily be confused with a complete lack of direction. His camera floats through the proceedings, moving from the stage to the wings to backstage with little distinction. To Altman, the proceedings backstage are as important as what's being broadcast over the radio--sometimes even more important--and quite often he's right. The fact that Keillor ignores the singing on-stage in favor of telling a story or that he calmly eats an apple while talking to an angel during the break, says a lot for the mentality both of Keillor and his cronies and Altman himself. It's a common theme in Altman's work that allows A Prairie Home Companion to be a perfect fit into his filmography. It is a film that perhaps only Altman could have made. It is not, by any stretch of imagination, a great film, for much like the radio show it depicts, it has no such ambitions and would be embarrassed to be considered as such. But, it is a whimsical delight, the likes of which is rare, too good-natured to be thought of with anything but fondness. In the end, A Prairie Home Companion is destined to settle into the corner of a great number of DVD collections, waiting for a rainy day or a cold winter night when it might warm the soul, cinematic comfort food to delight the senses.

[1] The first broadcast was on 6 July, 1974. There were 12 people in attendance. It was off the air for two years in the 80's. For those unfamiliar with the show, the web page has audio archives for your listening pleasure.

09 June 2006

a small look at the state of American theatre

This week I was asked to direct a seated reading for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, the annual showcase of original one-act plays and local actors. Directing a seating reading isn't as impressive as it sounds, as it's mostly a fuction of who you know, but the festival is a good opportunity for writers and actors who might not normally be noticed to get some much-needed publicity. Theatre directors and filmmakers in the city (such as myself) have been known to cast actors after seeing them in the festival and there's always at least one or two good plays, even in a bad year.

A quick note on the process: a bunch of writers send in their one-act plays, which are read by a panel of judges and the judges weed out the ones that are unsuitable. The plays then go to the directors, who read through all of them (roughly 50) and pick ten or so that they might want to do. Then, they all get together and try to figure out who gets to do what.

This might not be so difficult except that there are rarely ten plays worth doing. This year I count six. The rest range from the mediocre to the awful to the so awful they then become awesome (the one about a guy who gets a robot pregnant is priceless).

And this is not to trash the efforts of amateur playwrights all over the country. The mediocre plays seem to have qualities in common that may be interesting in comparison to the state of films today. Other than a shaky grasp of language, they seem to have one of two problems: they either fail to develop their story in any way, or they yearn to be important and prfound without having anything important or profound to add.

The plays with the first malady are really little more than an interesting (or not) premise stretched into a thirty page script, almost like an idea hatched at a bar then hastily written the next morning. In other words, they feel like the sort of bad studio movies you get when an executive has an idea and rushes it into production with little concern that they haven't go a script. They become filmed ideas, so empty and pointless you wonder why anyone bothered. This is always something I've chalked up to being a quirk of Hollywood, but if that's the case, then why are so many of the plays I read this week so similar to a form of entertainment that nearly every intelligent person in the world considers vapid? Since when does Hollywood's worst serve as a template for aspiring playwrights? I mean, it's one thing to write a play as a whim, a fun little excercise, or a class assignment, but it's another to submit it to a nationally known festival, thinking it'll actually make a good play. Hell, it even costs money to submit.

So maybe the Hollywood dreck isn't coming from focus groups and business-minded executives after all, but is rather a product of something else. Could it be that there's something inherent in our society that thinks entertainment such as this actually contains some artistic value? As far as I know, the majority of people who submit these plays are people who, for better or worse, consider themselves artists, so it can't just be that they think it might be fun. At some level they actually think this stuff is good. So, perhaps the studios actually think their product is good. I don't know for sure and this is a long way to get to a short thought, but it's interesting to me all the same. The test, I think, will come Monday when we see who takes what play. In other words, what do theatre professionals consider to be a good play (or, close enough to good)? Until then, I'll keep reading the robot play. It's always good for a laugh.

04 June 2006

You grows up and you grows up and you grows up.


Today (4 June) is my 27th birthday, which makes me feel old and everything, but that's not the reason for this post. I figured I should mark the occasion in some way, so I shall list here 27 films I love, because that's the post I could think of that was appropriate while requiring the least amount of effort. This is, by no means, a definitive list.

(in no particular order)
1. Swingers
2. Casablanca
3. Fight Club
4. Annie Hall
5. Magnolia
6. The Graduate
7. Dekalog
8. Harvey
9. Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain
10. Waking Life
11. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset
12. The Dirty Dozen
13. Scenes From a Marriage
14. American History X
15. La Meglio gioventù
16. Punch Drunk Love
17. Rear Window
18. In the Bedroom
19. Play It Again, Sam
20. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
21. Lost
22. Hoosiers
23. The Royal Tennenbaums
24. This Is Spinal Tap
25. Some Like It Hot
26. L'Attente
27. The Godfather, Parts 1 & 2

02 June 2006

current cinema: Water


starring: Lisa Ray, Sarala, John Abraham, and Seema Biswas
written and directed by: Deepa Mehta
PG-13, 117 min, 2006, Canada/India

Over the last several years, cinema has made a noticeable move toward more issue-oriented topics. Call it the documentary influence or an offshoot of the indie explosion of the last decade or the re-emergence of the foreign film, but more and more films are using the power of the medium to expose various forms of injustice and social indignities around the world. Rarely are these films well received by the institutions responsible for the dynamic on film, but few films have faced the same level of pressure as Deepa Mehta’s Water, the third film in her “elemental trilogy”[1], which was shut down by religious fundamentalists in 2000, only to be completed in 2004 under a fake title.

The reason being that in a culture where a strict adherence to religious ideals is a fundamental way of life, Water dares suggest the ideals and, to an extent the religion itself, is a flawed construct of economic convenience, that a large group of people have been oppressed and marginalized simply because it is cheaper, that said ideals might even be immoral. Such suggestions often raise the ire of those who cling to the belief structure, as it calls into question their entire way of life.

Specifically, Water deals with Chuyia (Sarala), a seven-year-old widow who has had her head shaved and been sent by her family to live in a house of widows where they might not be tainted by her misfortune. There she befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the crown jewel of the house with her long hair and such beauty that she is frequently called across the river to entertain rich clients. The widow’s life is a drab one. They are forbidden from wearing anything other than a white sari or eating much more than rice or interacting with normal members of society or otherwise participating in anything beyond a basic survival. But a chance encounter brings Kalyani to the attention of Narayana (John Abraham), a progressive disciple of Ghandi who supports a Indian nationalism yet questions the religion on which the country relies. Naturally, he falls in love with the beautiful Kalyani and focuses his energy on marrying her, a practice that is newly legalized but frowned upon.

Clearly this is a raw deal for the women affected, but what’s remarkable about these women is how their faith endures despite the treatment their belief system has inflicted on them. These are women of strong devotion, most of them quick to condemn Chuyia’s question of what happens to the male widows as a form of heresy, yet a simple lack of faith would improve their lives considerably. But that’s what faith often is–a belief despite reason.

If the depiction of the treatment of widows in India is to be believed (and there’s no reason to think it isn’t), then you have to wonder about a society that permits such injustice. At the same time, though, it’s difficult to reconcile such a thing with a Judeo-Christian world view, as it shares little with the Hindu system. To a western audience, such treatment seems incomprehensible, but I imagine a Hindu looking at some of the tenets and laws of Christianity might find them equally appalling. It’s all a matter of context, really.

Little of this has to do with the film itself, which in terms of quality compares to Maria Full of Grace (2004), but that’s okay because Mehta’s chief concern is shining a light in a dark corner and dealing with stories and lives that are often pushed aside. As a result, Water tends to simplify the issue at hand and occasionally forces a message on the audience (especially in the film’s final act, which borders on preaching and is about fifteen minutes too long), but it’s hard to fault Mehta’s tendency to push an agenda when people are resorting to violence in an attempt to silence her.

More effective than Water the film is the issues and topics it tends to raise, chiefly that of social injustice and the role of faith, the origins of religious tradition, and how that affects a modern-day world. Narayana argues that widows are treated horribly because the authors of the Holy Scriptures were cost-conscious and as such not all the traditions should be taken as dogma, since often they come from a time and place that had different requirements for survival. The film, set in 1938 as Ghandi is beginning his quest for independence from the British, deals with an India struggling to adapt itself to a modern world. Western influence is forcing some traditions to die, but religion refuses to budge, because if the Holy Scriptures are truly sacred, they cannot change. For if they were, it would be an indication that they are wrong, but what happens when society changes so much the Scriptures (or at least the classic interpretation of them) no longer fit with a modern morality, if what was previously acceptable is now wrong? Do the Holy Scriptures change or must we change the context in which we view them? A classic interpretation cannot co-exist with a humane treatment of widows and an inhumane treatment of a human being does not exactly co-exist with the basic principles religion espouses.

Mehta’s main point, if I understand her correctly, is that while faith is a wonderfully powerful thing, sometimes a blind faith and devotion to tradition is ultimately dangerous and immoral. And in a battle between religious tradition and morality, we must choose morality, regardless of the potential consequence. In the film’s final scene Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) commits an act that is at the same time a sin and the right thing to do. But if a sin is a clearly moral action, what does that mean for the institution that decrees what is and is not a sin?

[1] The other two are Fire (1996), a look at loveless arranged marriages (with a lesbian subplot), and Earth (1998), which deals partly with various religious groups in India. I have not seen either film.