Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 March 2013

At the Faculty Meeting

Jamie: Now, I know you who are visiting faculty are not required to serve on sub-committees, but would either of you be willing to meet to talk about the acting track? I can offer... lunch.
Dan: Oh... lunch! Wow. Are you sure?
Chris: I can do that.
Rice: Me too.
Jamie: Great, well I'll schedule a meeting for Wednesday.
Dan: Is there any place where you guys can get lunch for all of you for around three dollars?
Maggie: Yeah, I don't think the department can afford...
Rice: There is a nice new diner down on main street.
Chris: CVS has chips.

27 March 2013

At the Library...

Librarian: You're a faculty member?
Me: ...
Librarian: I must be getting old.
Me: Are you saying I look twenty-one years old?
Librarian: I guess I better not say.
Me:  ... (What does that even mean?)

22 March 2013

The Champions

For some reason, Champion, Mark Robson's excellent picture from 1949, hasn't been released through normal DVD channels and Netflix doesn't carry it. (Well, it is on Netflix Instant but in a colorized version, which, I hope we all recognize, is an unwatchable format.)

Anyway, this is the only explanation I have for only having seen Champion a couple of days ago.

A couple of important things about this movie. It stars the great Kirk Douglas – '49 was his breakout year, with both A Letter to Three Wives and Champion. And let me say that if you aren't familiar with this actor's excellent work, or if you only know Kirk Douglas from Spartacus, it is time for you to rent Detective Story or The Bad and the Beautiful or Ace in the Hole. All of them are superb and Douglas is fantastic. In Champion he is perfect, he plays the tragedy of his part to the hilt. It is a beautiful performance.

And okay, okay, I hear you say: It's a boxing movie. Aren't they all the same? Well, Champion is a boxing movie, true enough, but it's also a gangster picture. This movie is a story about a boxer who is also deeply involved in the racket that makes the fight-game happen and pays the bills of the pugilists who basically work as slaves. All of the fights are fixed in this racket. There is no way to get ahead except to do as you are told. There are few guns in Champion (it was 1949, and the PCA still had teeth), but the sense of danger is palpable in every scene once Midge, the main character, gets anywhere close to the bigtime.

The best thing about Champion, though, is its style. This movie is one of the blackest films noirs I've ever seen. There is so much shadow in this movie that it is at times even distracting. I found myself straining to see, wondering if my television needed to be adjusted. It didn't. Take another look at that poster up to the left. It is nothing like any poster from the time period. Check out this poster from Battleground, for example. The style is totally different. Champion's poster focuses on darkness. That black is astounding, in fact. It swallows the hero and his girl. And if the text pretends that the movie might in any way be about loving, the sheer audacity of this all-encompassing black belies any of the tagline's pretensions to being a love story.

This darkness works to incredible effect. In the images below, Midge, his trainer, and his brother (Arthur Kennedy, also nominated for an Oscar for his work) discuss the possibility of getting a shot at the title. Midge is supposed to fight the guy in the #2 slot with the hope that he will win and then his next fight will be a shot at the title. Here are the men discussing the situation:
That's Kennedy in the background. Then the trainer tells Midge that he will have to take a fall in this fight. The #2 guy is due his turn. If #2 fights the champion and wins then everyone makes more money and Midge can fight the new champion in a year or two. But no matter what, right now, Midge takes the fall if he ever wants to fight in New York again. Midge is furious, but he agrees to take the fall. Then he knocks that lamp in the foreground straight off right with a powerful blow, and cinematographer Franz Planer (1894-1963) gives us this:
Kennedy has turned to look at his brother, but the light is now gone and there appears to be no one there. What an image! It conveys so much with light: so much of this man's inner turmoil. This is the kind of cinematography I am talking about. Planer's work is fantastic in Champion. It's worth it to watch this movie just for the lighting. Seriously.

And this noir style is not restricted only to scenes about gangsters and violence. We also get exquisite images like this:
Planer puts Douglas directly in the way of the light. He moves immediately after lighting her cigarette, but for just this moment, we get an image of a woman deep in thought, even if she looks as if she is only accepting a light.

I should add that Champion did not win the Oscar for cinematography. That went, and deservedly so, to Paul Vogel for Battleground, another film from 1949 for which I have nothing but love.

18 March 2013

Because I Often Need This Reminder

Students don't often write little notes telling me they liked a course or found the work I assigned useful. So when they do, it is good to keep a record. More for my own sanity than anything else: a reminder that I am not a useless teacher and that students sometimes find a course I teach impactful.

Since I use this blog as a way to remember things as well as a public forum, I hope this doesn't come across as (too) self-serving or arrogant. In any case, at the end of Winter Term 2013, these are the notes I got from students.

Thanks for a great term and interesting discussions on the topics of sexuality as they are portrayed in the theater. Have a great break. WH

Thanks for such a great class this term and all your help! I had so much fun and recommended all my friends who will be on next term to take your Paris theater class since I won't be on campus :( Have a great spring break! NW

Thanks for the wonderful term. I'm really glad I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take a chance on your class. Please let me know what time the department decides to offer your theater class next term – I may not be able to fit it into my schedule, but I may try to audit it. CJP

I had a great time in your class and I'm glad I chose to take this course (rather than taking another econ/math/dry quant course). CF

Thank you for a wonderful class. This has been my favorite class at Dartmouth so far and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing so many interesting plays! Have a good spring term. KO

Sex & Drama was truly wonderful experience. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you. Thank you for being one of my favorite professors here (I'm not sucking up; it's true). Dartmouth has been an unforgettable experience, and I am glad you were a part of it. I've learned a lot, and am much more aware now. I wish you the best, wherever you may teach. I am positive that the students there will enjoy your classes, no doubt. All the best, Professor Thomas. JT

Thanks for what was honestly one of the very best classes I've taken at Dartmouth. This is coming from a senior w/ the easiest major (psych) and thus a shit ton of free class slots to take whatever i want. Considering taking another one of your classes next term despite never being interested in theater before this winter. Thanks again for such a great semester, see you in class next term! JC-B

I like it here. These young people are certainly a polite bunch.

17 March 2013

Un Amour de Jeunesse

The other day I was reading Sharon Bridgforth's extraordinary bull-jean stories with my students in my Sex and Drama class, and they sort of got hung up on the idea of past lives.

If someone is talking about their last-life love then we are operating in a world where reincarnation must exist and we can't ask real historical questions, they told me.

I was surprised at them and retorted with something like Don't you sometimes feel as though you have lived more than one life already?

They are young, much younger than I, and so I shouldn't have been so dismissive of them, of course. But it got me to thinking about living and lives and the ways in which they are divided up.

I often look at my life and feel as though my life is divided up into totally discrete sections. I think back on some of these times and I think about them as entirely different lives. Sometimes when I think about one of my old lives I hardly recognize the person who was living that life. Who was that guy and why did he make the silly decisions he made?

I can remember visiting a friend's grave every single day for a month in the Winter of 2001. I think back on that and I can't even remember what was going through my head when I did that. And I think back to before I decided to live a life as a gay man and I hardly approve of any of the decisions I made then, even if I understand them. I think my point is that it feels like a whole life that is gone. As though I might refer to a person I loved then as someone who was my love in a past life.

Today, while I was watching a movie called Goodbye First Love (I'm still catching up on 2012's movies; don't judge), it struck me how quickly the director, Mia Hansen-Løve, was able to show us the journey of a woman falling in love – it's a matter of only a few remarkable minutes, really, in the film.

But then I marveled at how quickly we fall in love in actuality. It takes so little to fall, to become fascinated with someone in my orbit, to begin spending energy thinking about him, to turn my thought toward his desires, his dreams, to begin to fabricate my own dreams about the two of us in some sort of mode of futurity. Or maybe this is just me.

In Un Amour de Jeunesse, the young protagonist is quite sad about her life, and she tells her lover that she has had a very painful time of it, and that meeting him has changed something for her. But he tells the young lady (in French): Nothing is in vain. Life is never what you expect. Your fantasy version of the world is doomed to failure. It’s up to you to create one that’s deeper, more real. That’s how you become yourself. 

And I think, too, that as easy as it is to fall in love – to become enamored with this person or another and then to wholly direct one's thought toward that person in an all-consuming way – we still have so much choice. We still must begin to craft a real life out of all of those fantasies.

15 March 2013

The North Star

I am not sure why this film is called The North Star. I think there might have been something about it during the movie, but if there was I missed it or I've forgotten.

In any case, Lewis Milestone's film is the worst kind of sentimental pro-war propaganda pretending to be an anti-war commentary. There were a lot of propaganda films in the early 1940s, and this one is slightly different in that it is about Soviet villagers who are invaded by the Germans – no Americans in sight in this movie. No Americans, that is, unless you count Anne Baxter and Walter Huston and Farley Granger and Dana Andrews and Dean Jagger and Walter Brennan. Okay, everyone is either American or German in this film, except that the Americans in The North Star have names like Kolya and Olga and Boris.

The movie is so clichéd that there are literally scenes of Russian folk-dancing in act one and about five different "Russian folk songs", which are really just Aaron Copland tunes with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

Yes: Copland and Gershwin worked on this movie, and the script is by playwright Lillian Hellman. The cinematography is by the great James Wong Howe, and the excellent cast also includes Erich von Stroheim as a Nazi doctor. The special effects in this movie are also pretty fabulous, and they include a great number of awesome explosions and several fires. Exciting stuff. At least, it could be...

This poster is totally unrelated to the film
But this movie is awful. There are so many tearful goodbyes that I lost count. And the scenarios where people sacrifice themselves in order to help the village or "do something greater than themselves" are so plentiful that one wonders who is left alive to benefit from so many sacrifices.

Worse yet are all the ridiculous platitudes about how this will be the last war we ever fight, and we owe our lives to this great nation and we ought to do anything to preserve it.

And then there is the blatant propaganda of The North Star. Now, I know the Nazis were bad people (they still are!) but they did enough real bad things for us to talk about without us making up stories about them. The North Star seems to think it prudent to tell the world that the Nazis are bleeding Slavic children to death in order to use their blood for transfusions on German soldiers. Really?!?! Aside from this being the most sentimental crime an evil Nazi could ever commit, it is also a totally undocumented phenomenon and was, in all likelihood, invented for the purposes of propaganda only.

The North Star, I'm afraid, is a wartime curiosity and not much more than that.

10 March 2013

Happy Birthday, Sharon Stone

I love few actresses as much as I love Sharon Stone. In her autobiography Faye Dunaway compares herself to Stone at certain junctures in her book. The two women are friends, and I always thought the comparison an apt one.

The photograph above was taken during the Marina Abramović show The Artist Is Present. This is Stone looking into Abramović's eyes. It is a singularly insightful portrait, I think.

One of the things I will always remember about Stone is from her appearance in Inside the Actor's Studio, in which Stone referred to acting as bringing love into the room. This description has haunted me in a good way since she said it and I find it a particularly moving way of speaking about something that can so often be shallow and silly. Stone is the real deal.

Love. Her.

07 March 2013

Why I Still Care about the Oscars

This was the most exciting Oscar year in recent memory. So many of us had no idea who was going to win what, and as it turned out there was even a tie. I was all about it. My friends and I drank heavily, ate brownies and cheesecake, and spent a lot of time criticizing Anne Hathaway's dress (which, in case you hadn't noticed got worse as the night went on because of all of the creasing that fabric did around her midriff.) When I woke up after the Oscar ceremony on February 25th, however, everyone was trashing the Oscars.

  • Andy Griffith wasn't in the "In Memoriam" tribute (with all of the people who passed away last year).
  • Lupe Ontiveros wasn't in the "In Memoriam" tribute.
  • Michelle Obama shouldn't have handed out Best Picture.
  • Ang Lee shouldn't have won for Best Director while places that do visual effects go bankrupt.
  • Seth MacFarlane was racist and sexist and not very funny.
So much griping! It almost ruined the good time I had while watching the Oscars. I don't want to say too much about all of this, but what I find most irritating about all of the criticisms of the Oscars is that people are mad that the Academy of Motion Pictures didn't do what they wanted the Academy to do. I love Lupe Ontiveros and I love Andy Griffith (I watched Matlock every day for five years, actually), but who cares if they are included in the Academy's tribute to the recently deceased? As Howard Beal says in Network, what's that got to do with the price of rice? There are more interesting things to complain about if you're gonna complain about the Academy than that Whitney Houston (she was left off last year) or Lupe Ontiveros or Farrah Fawcett (she was left off in 2010) didn't make the In Memoriam slideshow.

People are also complaining about Seth MacFarlane. He was racist and sexist and irritating. Um... I know these people saw Ted because it got an Oscar nomination, so I also know that they expected MacFarlane to be all of those things. I find him annoying at all times, but I was there for the awards and the stars, not Mr. MacFarlane. (The truth is, everyone trashes the Oscar host. Every single year. And so there was no way MacFarlane could win with this one. Though I prefer my entertainment to be less racist and sexist as a rule.)

Charlize is pissed!
As for the awards, I am always hearing, well so-and-so should have won that award. We want our favorites to do well. Understandably. Imagine, though, that there are 10 of us together in a room and we all attempt, together, to come up with the best movie of the year. It's true, perhaps, that Argo would not be at the top of our lists – maybe a few of us. But, then, our choices would probably be really contentious. My favorite movie of the year was Beasts of the Southern Wild. My friend Matthew's was Compliance. Julie's was Zero Dark Thirty. Michael's was The Master. Now, I pretty much hated Compliance, though I really liked the other two. But my friends are equally negative about my favorites and each other's favorites. Of course they are.

Turns out, people don't all like the same things.

So, Best Picture is always going to be a film that people can agree on. A likeable, fairly good film, that a majority of people can get behind. Your typical winner is The King's Speech or Chicago or Slumdog Millionaire or Braveheart. None of these films is particularly brilliant. None is particularly heinous. My point is that The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men and Silence of the Lambs are outliers. They are the exception not the rule. The rule is Titanic and Forrest Gump and Gladiator.

But I love the Academy Awards. I love them because they make a list of some of the important films that captured the popular year in film. I love them even more because they work like a kind of baseline against which to make our own lists. They draw attention to specific aspects of film. During the Oscars, some friends and I were griping about the film scores that we were nominated. Dayne didn't like any of them except Dario Marianelli's Anna Karenina score, a score I thought was sort of boring. My response was: The best scores of the year are The Master, Skyfall, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, and Cloud Atlas. These are facts.

I think my point is that what the Oscars do is give us a frame for choosing our own favorites – for sharing these favorites with each other (sometimes heatedly, I will admit), and more importantly, for seeing other movies.

But I don't care if my favorites win the Oscar or not. I am happy when they do, of course; it means all sorts of pay raises and awareness, etc. But a good film is still a good film.

The bad part about this year's Oscars was that there weren't as many films in total nominated as usual. More films and more actors need more attention, and the Academy focuses that attention every year, so they need to spread that love around!

A little perspective. I live in a small city in New Hampshire at the moment, so I don't have much access to films as they come out. I'm catching up on 2012 right now: last night I saw Ann Hui's quiet, beautiful film A Simple Life and a day or two ago I saw a cute Flemish romantic film with two teenage boys called North Sea, Texas and last week I finally got to see Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike. These films are all pretty excellent, and all got great reviews, but they're not in our multiplexes (they don't come to Hanover NH) and so fewer people see them than see the big bad behemoths like Les Misérables. If we want to talk about the Academy ignoring films or actors or directors, we ought to start with the excellent cinema coming from places around the world that are not the United States. There are some awesome films out there that aren't even on the Academy's radar.

I've started to ramble, but what I want to make sure I say is that the Academy is going to get it wrong. Of course six thousand odd people aren't all going to agree with you. This is a surprise?

I try not to spend time hoping they'll agree with me. I prefer to compare my own tastes to the Academy's. Like I would with any old friend.

02 March 2013

Visitez Mon Site! (Holy Motors)

I know there are a lot of in-jokes and symbols and references I am supposed to get in order to enjoy Holy Motors, and I supposed it didn't help that I haven't seen any of Leos Carax's other work, so you will have to judge me for my reaction to this movie.

Holy Motors (this is the title in French, as well) is a movie about a man who rides around the Île-de-France region all day in a white limousine. He has nine appointments for the day, and for each appointment he is (apparently) – or perhaps simply portrays – a different person. All fine and well, but why?

The film is quite self-consciously about the movies, and so Holy Motors displays a nostalgia for old films and old ways of making films, as well as nostalgia in general (a beautiful building has been gutted and will be turned into some modern monstrosity, the headstones in the cemetery don't have names but instead say "visit my website"). Nostalgia is not really my thing, so I didn't quite identify with the film's sentiments on this count. In fact, I found the day's second appointment – which contains the most hip technology in the film – to be one of the most intriguing of the day's appointments.

The film is also about Leos Carax, though, and these are the references I didn't get as I watched. Evidently he conceded to make this film digitally and he believes that older cameras are holy in some way (they have motors, which is where he, apparently, gets his title). The main character's name is M. Oscar, which is Leos Carax's given name. Carax appears in the film, as well, having woken up from a dream and stumbling into a movie theatre where everyone is (as still as stone) watching King Vidor's The Crowd. I was oblivious to all of these self-references, and I am not sure if they are intended to be humor. I rather think that they are: in-jokes for the initiated. They certainly are not self-critiques, however. Holy Motors is not interested in real self-reflexivity.

Holy Motors is interested in what is real and what is not, where people go when they are not in our lives, whether we can actually trust what we see or not, whether the cameras are lying. Again, I get these questions, but I am not really interested in these kinds of questions. Perhaps it is so many years working in the theatre. Is this real? Is this possible? In the theatre we don't really ask that. We ask how to do it or what is happening or where it is headed. Of course it's not real.

More than anything, Leos Carax's film reminded me of David Lynch. Carax is much more interesting than Lynch for my money, but their styles are very similar. The poster, too, recalls the poster for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the film made me think of that too – but only for a little bit. Weerasethakul's project (I am thinking of his other films, as well) is very different and strikes me as a spiritual exploration, not of what is real, but of what is possible or how desire can shift our morphologies. Or maybe I'm just saying that I like Weerasethakul and don't like Lynch or Carax. (The poster is also supposed to make us think of Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes without a Face), and if you miss the fact that Édith Scob is in both films, there is an explicit reference to Les Yeux near the end of Holy Motors.)

I will say this for Holy Motors, it is constantly surprising. Every time I think I have figured it out, Carax reminds me that I have not. The film's ending(s) are absolutely insane and worthy of any Lynchian surreal trip.