Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

While in Rome a few months ago we visited the Spanish steps, one of the famous tourist sites in that great city.  I mentioned to my traveling companions that the steps played an important role in the Tennessee Williams penned “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.”  I attempted to summarize the plot for them, but they did not seem all that interested, if at all.   As fortune would have it, the movie, based on the novel was on TCN last night.

“The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” was released in 1961 (see:  It starred Vivian Leigh as a faded actress (Karen Stone) who travels to Italy with her husband after having a disastrous stage performance as Juliet.  The critics said she was too old for the part.  En route to Rome, her husband died on the airplane.  The story has Karen meeting the Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales (played by the wonderful Lotte Lenya), who is a not-so- high-class pimp.  She introduces Mrs. Stone to Paolo, played by Warren Beatty.  Paolo is a gigolo who makes his living off of rich older women.  Karen falls for his charms, realizing all along that she is being used, but in spite of herself, falls for the cad.  In the end, he deserts her and she is left taking the risk of allowing a man who has been stalking her to enter her apartment. 

The beautiful Vivian Leigh was in the waning years of her illustrious film career, although still beautiful.   She was one of those actors from the golden age of cinema who was elegant and who brought refinement to her acting.  She didn’t put her fingernail in her mouth to look coy or cute.  She didn’t have to giggle her hair around to look beguiling.  She played Karen as a dazed woman who had lost her career and her husband.  Thus, Karen’s attraction to Paulo did not grow from lust or a new found sexual freedom, but rather from the numbing loneliness and loss of the anchor of her marriage and career.  She was like a pinball being bounced from bumper to bumper - without thought or reaction.  Sex with Paolo was a tranquilizer and a way to make her numbness subside just a bit.  Sometimes she would be exhilarated by the thought of having such a handsome man pay attention to her, but she would quickly return to automatic pilot after that thought left.  Leigh’s performance was not large and grand, but she captured the existential numbness perfectly. 
Beatty, while very handsome, was no match for Leigh.  His supposed Italian accent was more like Russian.  Beatty got Paolo’s petulance correct, but the smoldering sensuality was simply not within his grasp.  Beatty successfully pulled off Paolo’s wondering eye and his disdain for Americans, including Karen from time to time.

Lotte Lenya was perfect as the sleazy countess.   She was cynical and took delight in making fun of Karen behind her back.  A particularly powerful scene for me was when the Countess asked Karen for $1000.  She did not hesitate to ask.  Karen, in a robot-like fashion, offered $500.  With all of the chutzpah in the word, Lenya came back as ask for $750.  Karen stayed at $500, but this bargaining made the Countess seem even slimier. 

After begin rejected by Paolo, and having been made fun of by the Countess Karen is desperate, and throws the keys to her apartment out the window to a young man who had been following Karen throughout Rome.  He was dirty, and unkempt, but attractive.  It was clear that to Karen, at the moment, any port in the storm would do.  It was a powerful ending to the story.

Rome looked wonderful in the movie.  It was nice to see it without graffiti.  It was fun to watch Karen being driven around in a huge 1960s American car that was twice as long as the everyday Italian variety.  There were several cars of this vintage in the movie, including a Chrysler Imperial with its gun-sight tail light mounted on huge fins.  There was also a Continental with sharp grand fins.  The cinematography was luxurious and made the most of the Italian vistas. 

By today’s standards, this movie seems tame.  It does not have overt sexual acts, but it alludes to them.  It does not have heavy breathing and clawing, but the passion is assumed.  But, to see a great actress at work is worth two hours. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Devil Made Me Do It

“Devil” is a film based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan and it was directed by Brian Nelson.  See:  It is very au courant to be critical of MHS’s movies.  When someone is at the pinnacle on their first film (“The Sixth Sense”), it likely will only be downhill from there, but “Devil” is not so bad. 

There were some shocking parts, thanks to good editing, dark lighting, and the sense of being trapped in an elevator.  Those scares alone were worth the admission because there are so few scares in movies today.  Lots of blood and guts yes- but scares- no.  The photography was very good and the amount of dark green post-production lighting was kept to a minimum.  In fact, the elevator scenes were filmed in normal light and color.  Only when it was necessary for scare did the lights dim.  The extra-elevator scenes did sometimes have that green tint that directors recently seem to equate with “Be afraid, dammit.”  I particularly like Logan Marshall-Green, who is one of the main characters of the film.  He is in the cast of TVs “Dark Blue” and is credible in it also.  The title sequence was wonderful.  It was a helicopter fly-by of the Philadelphia skyline only inverted.  It was effective in setting us up for a film where the bottom (the devil) comes out on top.  I also liked the theme of how one man’s redemption can lead to the redemption of another, even if it is not intentional. 

Lest I be accused of being soft, I do have some criticisms.  For example, I did not get the feeling of claustrophobia of four people being trapped in an elevator.  Most of the time, we were looking into the elevator from a security camera.  I would have preferred to have five or six people trapped and I would have preferred camera work that would have captured the kind of “in your face” personal space that such cramped quarters would have engendered.  The story also had to rely too much on exposition to explain what was going on. This included not only a voice over, but most of the explanation came from a religious Hispanic guard who knew what was going on from the get go because of a story that his grandmother had told him.  His genuflecting and crossing became tedious, as well as his ever-so-knitted brow.  Of course, no one believed him (like the sheriff in “Jaws”) until it was nearly too late.  Such a plot device was not really needed in that the audience could come up with their own interpretation without a lot of difficulty.
I have never fully understood why those religions that posit the presence of a devil seem to make the devil more powerful that their deity.  If not more powerful, at least he or she does better tricks.  Why don’t four people get stuck in an elevator with god who makes them do good things?  What- that would be boring.

Roswell and Chopin

Last evening, Joyce Yang played the piano at a recital sponsored by the Chopin Society of Atlanta, but more of that later.

 The recital’s venue was the Roswell Cultural Arts Center (I assume that the Roswell Noncultural Arts Center is around the corner).  This facility, located in of all places, Roswell, GA, is shares the campus of the Roswell City Hall.  I have been looking for some information on the cost of constructing the Center, but a quick Google lead me nowhere.  The facility looks like it was designed and built by the lowest bidder.  Unimaginative and plain to the nth degree is the best I can say for the facility.  It looks like a high school auditorium.  That aside, I am not sure why our tax dollars should be footing the bill for this hall anymore than for the numerous sports stadia located across the country.  Atlanta has many performing arts venues located all over the city and its suburbs.  The problem is that there are more venues than there are performances in this city of 6 million.  Its culture may be wide, but it certainly isn’t deep.
Back to the recital.  Ms. Yang (see is a young pianist who won the silver medal as the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano competition.   The program began with a work titled “Gargoyles” by David Lieberman.  I could find scant information about Mr. Lieberman on the web so I doubt that his has yet become a “big name” in music circles.  Judging by Gargoyles, that may take a long time.  The most memorable part of the piece was the very beginning when I was attempting to silence my cell phone.  It rang loudly once at about the second note of the introduction.  Oooops. 

The second piece was “Estampes” by Claude Debussy who the program says was born in 1962 and died in 1918.  He must have been the inspiration for “Benjamin Button.”  This piece was influenced by American jazz and Ms. Yang became very animated during these sections.  I like Debussy’s orchestral music, but his piano music- not so much. 

The third piece was Chopin’s Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise.  It never ceases to intrigue me about how Chopin so fully understood the piano and was able to use that understanding to make such romantic and lush music. 

Following the intermission, Ms. Yang treated the audience to some pieces by Scarlatti, which had not been part of the program.  I believe that these pieces were originally written for the harpsichord.  Being that it is one of my least favorite instruments, I am happy that she played the piano versions.
A Chopin Nocturne and Ballade followed.  I am a fan of the nocturnes- they are beautiful and full of romance.  Ms. Yang performed them with skill.  The recital ended with Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.” I know this piece mostly in its orchestral version.  It is bombastic and big music and it is always a crowd pleaser.  There was a standing ovation for Ms. Yang, and she mostly deserved it. 

Now, for some complaining.  The recital began at 7:00 pm.  I wondered why such an early hour until I entered the hall.  It was full of children who were dragged by their parents to get some culture.  A few sitting close to me were in constant movement during the first half of the program- fortunately they left at intermission.  There were two young women sitting behind me who were complaining-during the performance- to each other about the kids being so noisy.  One even went so far as to imitate the sound of a creaking seat that had a wiggly child in it.  Again this was during the performance!  I had to listen to both the kid and the two women.  Bummer.

The audience was full of people who spoke Polish.  I had the good fortune, however, to sit behind a beautiful Russian woman who was dressed in a black slip-like dress. I usually don’t like fragrances, but she had on a delicate coconut and fruit concoction that only added to Chopin’s romantic music.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New Trinity Baroque

I have never been a big fan of baroque music, except for the compositions of Bach and some Vivaldi.  The music has struck me as elegant and pleasant enough, but mannered and devoid of feeling.  Even with Vivaldi, I often hear “sewing machine” music.  I have not liked recordings of Baroque music since they so often have the harpsichord so closely mic’d that it seems like it is driving the music rather than supporting it.  I also have not liked recordings of period instrument recordings.  The strings often sound strident to me.

Two weeks ago, however, my views were challenged.  I had an opportunity to hear a concert, titled “Italian Baroque Extravaganza”, by the New Trinity Baroque Ensemble (NTB).  The venue was St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, which is an attractively contemporary structure in a suburban neighborhood.  The building’s acoustics seemed to be a flattering fit for the ensemble’s period instruments.  Predrag Gosta is the conductor.  When addressing the audience between works, his enthusiasm is engaging and fun. 
There are ten musicians in the ensemble and Gosta conducts from the harpsichord or chamber organ as required.  Two instruments of particular note in the ensemble are the baroque harp and the chittarone, which is largest of the lute family, developed in Italy during 16th century. It was designed to improve on the bass register of the lute.  The sound of the NTB was wonderful and golden.  There was no stridency in the higher registers and the harpsichord took its appropriate role as an integral part of the ensemble, without receiving undue highlighting.  The sound was indeed elegant and without the harshness that I have come to associate with period-informed recordings of Baroque music.

Six pieces comprised the program.  There were three pieces by Vivaldi.  The standout for me was the Concerto for 2 Cellos, which contained some of the richest and warmest melodies that I have heard from the Baroque period.  The Vivaldi “Stabat Mater,” with soloist Magdalena Wor, was also beautifully performed.  All of the pieces were fairly short, which is not all bad considering the uncomfortable chairs in the church!

Gosta, and the NTB, rekindled my interest in the Baroque and period-informed performances.  I also think that this concert was the best I have attended in Atlanta over the last three years.  I look forward to attending again.

I need a new maid

“The Handmaid’s Tale”  is another dystopian view of the not so distant future.  For a summary, see's_Tale_(film).  Natasha Richardson stars, along with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, the latter with a terrible black hair color.  In the story, the women of the Republic of Gilead (which looks alot like New England) have been made sterile as a result of pollution.  Gilead seems to be the good o’ US of A after a fundamentalist revolution.  Duvall’s character says that the revolution was necessary to stop the influence of the liberals, big-government worshippers, atheists, and homosexuals.  Does any of this sound familiar?  Anyway, Richardson plays Kate who is abducted while mistakenly crossing into Gilead’s borders.  Her husband was killed, and she becomes a Handmaid, that is, a still-fertile woman whose job is to spawn with one of Gilead’s men, in this case, the Commander (Duvall).  The procedure is that the couple has intercourse while the barren wife (Dunaway) watches and holds onto the handmaid’s hands.   The procedure is designed so that the wife can ensure that nothing affectional goes on.  I am not sure why in vitro-fertilization, or artificial insemination would not have worked just as well, except that it would not have been as interesting and oddly un-erotic.
I did not care for the movie much.  The premise is interesting and is probably is consistent with men’s fantasies to have sex without attachment.  But, Richardson just did not seem convincing.  While Jane could not openly express her feelings because of the nature of the governing regime,   Richardson did not effectively convey Jane’s simultaneous public stoicism and private anger, angst, and sadness over losing her husband and daughter.  Dunaway was great as the conflicted wife, who had to make her life meaningful through her flower garden.  Duvall was very good as the in-charge, macho, slimy Commander, who wanted both sex and affection.  Aidan Quinn served as a love interest for Richardson, but this relationship was not so intimate that Jane shared her feelings about her losses.  As a result, the relationship seemed cold and not compelling. 
The fundamental problem with the film was that it was as sterile as Gilead’s woman.  There was little emotion with which to identify and Richardson did nothing to heat it up. 

I would like to see the film redone with today’s sensibilities and a more mature actress who could find the right mix of public aloofness and private turmoil.  Likely the story will not be retold, however, since it wouldn’t require guns, computer graphics, and a very loud soundtrack.