Tuesday, July 26, 2016

6 Great Period Drama TV Shows (You Haven't Seen)

Loudly have pop culture critics announced the inauguration of the Golden Age of Television. I'm a little leery of the idea of declaring any age a golden one while we're still living it, but there's certainly no doubt that there has been an explosion in scripted television. This has been accompanied by a significant increase in budgets for television shows, which has meant that genres that previously had proved prohibitively expensive or suffered under the effects of cutting corners can benefit from lavish productions, including entirely new, rather than rented costumes, location shooting, CGI, and many other luxuries. These increased budgets have been a particular boon for period productions, which have never looked better.

I'm always on the lookout for good period dramas and up until a few years ago found television's offerings rather uninspiring with the exception of British literary miniseries. Lately, I am discovering a veritable bounty of well-scripted, well-acted period pieces, with gorgeous costumes, spectacular sets, and lavish designs. Here are six highly bingeable period dramas:

The Bletchley Circle (2012-2014, 2 seasons)
The premise of this show excited me to no end: four women come together after the war years which they spent code-breaking at Bletchley Park to solve crimes. The first season is some of the best television I've ever seen, comparable to the first season of True Detective in terms of its intense suspense, its complex characters, and the depth with which existential questions are examined. Unfortunately, the second season is not as good; the first half was fine, though not great, and the second half was frankly disappointing. Though not overtly a series about feminism, the focus on brilliant women, who, no matter what their personal situation, crave the outlet of intellectually demanding work makes for a compelling response to the intense misogyny seemingly endemic to similar crime dramas. The main cast - Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, and Julie Graham - give subtle, powerful performances and the show resists, almost until the end, focusing on romantic subplots to the detriment of the mystery-solving.

The Bletchley Circle is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Borgias (2011-2013, 3 seasons)
Jeremy Irons is seductively slimy and fantastically Janus-faced as the power-hungry, corrupt Borgia pope, while François Arnaud gives a muscular, alternately brash and wounded performance as his eldest son, destined for the church but longing for a more heroic career, and Holliday Granger evolves from a girl sweet as sugar to a woman as poisonous as arsenic as the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. The show, a passion project written and directed by Neil Jordan, takes significant liberties with history, relying as heavily on legend as on the written record, but only a history stickler would care. The Borgias is about politics and political power, first and foremost, and its treatment of the subject dwarfs similar fare such as The Tudors, pitting historical figures, from Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) to Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee), against the Borgias and each other. Much like Game of Thrones, the show dares to titillate while it horrifies, glorify while it disillusions, awaken a lust for power as it demonstrates with gory directness the costs of such lust. The theme music by Trevor Morris merits a mention; it thrums with fervor, borrowing as much from liturgical music as it does from the pulsing beats of contemporary cinematic scoring.

The Borgias is currently streaming on Netflix. 

The Crimson Field (2014, 1 season)
Sadly, only one season of this engrossing drama about nurses, surgeons, and wounded soldiers in a field hospital during World War I was produced. Though like most period dramas, its plots are melodramatic in terms of their structure and emotional tenor, screenwriter Sarah Phelps has crafted complicated characters that pull the viewer in with an urgency born of the desperate situations in which they find themselves and sustained with unexpected moments of revelation, bitterness, tenderness, and sacrifice. Rather than shocking cliffhangers and sudden discoveries without any basis in what has come before, Phelps weaves taut webs of suspense through the entangled relationships and power struggles that are the meat of the show. The focus is primarily on the nurses, played by Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kerry Fox, Marianne Oldham, and Alice St. Clair, and as such it joins a small but growing subgenre of war dramas about women's experiences.

The Crimson Field is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Paradise (2012-2013, 2 seasons)
One of my very favorite television shows ever, this show stands out both for its gorgeous production values and its unusual setting: a department store at the very dawn of the consumerist era of industrial capitalism. It would have been pointless to try to produce The Paradise before the advent of extravagant budgeting, for much of the pleasure in watching it is found in being dazzled by the gorgeous wares on display in the store, the silks and velvets, ribbons, pearls, fine china and cut-glass atomizers, fans and hats. Though the show became progressively more engrossed in romantic relationships, the best episodes focus on the frustrations and successes of running the business, with the store's manager (Emun Elliot) and his favorite shopgirl (Joanna Vanderham), who has a genius for salesmanship concocting ever more delectable offerings. Better written than Downton Abbey, The Paradise is a puff pastry of a television show. Read a full review.

The Paradise is currently streaming on Netflix.

Road to Avonlea (1990-1996, 7 seasons)
This Canadian television show created by Kevin Sullivan, who also wrote and produced Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, is based on L. M. Montgomery's The Story Girl and The Chronicles of Avonlea, as well as many of her short stories. Wholesome in the best sense, warm-hearted, and very, very funny, Road to Avonlea essentially narrates the trials and tribulations of the denizens of a small town on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the last century and it creates a world so real, so inviting, that one can't help wanting to live there. It's rare for the writer of an adaptation to capture so perfectly the voice and feeling of another writer's stories and characters and yet the many contributors to the series, most of them unsung (female) screenwriters, mastered the remarkable ability of seemingly channeling Montgomery from beyond the grave. Both Rachel Lynde (Patricia Hamilton) and Marilla Cuthbert (Colleen Dewhurst), from the Anne films, make appearances.

Road to Avonlea is not currently streaming, though it is available on DVD.

A Young Doctor's Notebook (2012-2013, 2 seasons)
Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm star in this lightning-quick series about a brilliant, conceited, and morphine-addicted doctor assigned to a miserable, snowy hospital outpost during the Russian Revolution. Based on writings by Mikhail Bulgakov and written by a team of British writers with a gift for irreverence, the series has a very black sense of humor indeed, glumly reveling in the miseries of surgery, and its increasing focus on the costs of addiction brings it to a darkly ambiguous conclusion. The two stars are both at the top of their game, delivering performances that alternate between a brazen ridiculousness and a heartbreaking poignancy; they are supported by Rosie Cavaliero, Adam Godley, and Vicki Pepperdine. This show isn't for everyone, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita or Gogol's "The Nose." Stinging, bitterly funny, gleefully gross, A Young Doctor's Notebook is unquestionably unique.

A Young Doctor's Notebook is currently streaming on Netflix.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fifteen 90s Films Every Feminist Should See

The 1990s saw the release of a rather impressive number of feminist, or at least woman-centered, films, and more surprisingly, quite a few were mainstream releases, especially in the first half of the decade. Rather than include some of the most frequently cited feminist films of the 90s - such as  All About My Mother (1999), Clueless (1995), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Orlando (1992), The Piano (1993), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Thelma and Louise (1991), all of them great films and well worth watching for feminists - I instead have selected films that rarely appear on lists of feminist films, but that nevertheless have much to offer to the feminist viewer.

Addams Family Values (1993)
Last month, I wrote about Wednesday's feminism, and while I wouldn't say that the Addams Family films on the whole necessarily have a feminist agenda, since the politics expressed are liberal but fairly scattershot, it is worth watching this film for the Thanksgiving pageant alone. In it, Wednesday, Pugsley, and their new friend, fellow outcast Joel Glicker, wreak havoc on the freakishly sunny camp counselor's racist, classist, sexist mess of a take on American history. The pageant is a comic tour-de-force, but the film overall is hysterically funny, even better than the original The Addams Family. The superb cast includes Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci, Christopher Lloyd, and Joan Cusack.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
This Australian film is a no-holds-barred and utterly irreverent road movie, following three drag queens touring the outback in a lavender bus they have christened Priscilla. Much more daring than your average American comedy, Stephan Elliot's film pushes against assumptions about gender, sexuality, fatherhood, and how performance is inevitably involved in all three. Hugo Weaving stars as Tick a.k.a Mitzi Del Bra, who adores the release of the stage but also regards it as an escape from the pressures of recognizing his responsibility as a father, Terence Stamp is Bernadette, a transgender woman whose impossibly romantic hopes have been repeatedly dashed, and Guy Pearce is Adam a.k.a. Felicia Jollygoodfellow, dangerously flamboyant and always courting trouble, taking gleeful delight in getting a rise out of his companions. Though the film is at heart a comedy, the peril faced by these three performers in the conservative, macho environment of the small towns in the outback gives it an edge.

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993)
Nick Broomfield's documentary is one of the classics of the genre, a difficult film that explodes comfortable notions about the justice of the law, journalistic ethics, and the ultimate aims of the media. While today, the news media are perhaps more distrusted than they have ever been, in 1993, Broomfield's film mercilessly exposed the hidden workings of money, and the selling of a salacious news story, behind the trial and conviction of the most notorious female murderer in American history. Broomfield acquired incredible access to his subject, forming a friendship of sorts with her characterized by manipulation, betrayal, and a certain degree of compassion on both sides. The film also interrogates how Wuornos's gender skewed our perceptions of her, both as a killer and as a victim. In 2001, Broomfield released a second documentary about Wuornos, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which focused on her descent into possible psychosis and her execution.

Contact (1997) 
This science fiction film based on Carl Sagan's novel and directed by Robert Zemeckis stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, an obsessively dedicated scientist devoted to finding signs of alien life and making contact. For feminists, this is something of a landmark in science fiction filmmaking, the first film since Alien to center a woman - a competent, qualified woman - at the center of a space adventure, but in this case, in stark contrast to Alien, the protagonist is not engaged in a battle for her life, but rather a battle for knowledge. Contact is a rare film in that its adventure is rooted in scientific inquiry, rather than alien aggression or extraterrestrial colonialism, and Ellie is the voice of both scientific reason and the voice that dares to question our most deeply held beliefs. Mention should be made of the special effects, which still look darn impressive even though the computer technology is nearly twenty years old. 

Fargo (1996)
Though this Coen Brothers masterpiece could have been improved with a slightly less male cast - Frances McDormand stars, but the only other women with speaking parts are the kidnapped wife and two hookers - this crime drama is both an icy cold satire and a hard-boiled thriller. Police chief Marge Gunderson, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, investigates a series of homicides, which she eventually links with a crew of vicious, and not especially savvy, criminals played by the likes of William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare. There are several aspects of Marge's character that radically separate her from the vast majority of female protagonists: 1) she is in charge and the men defer to her without putting her down because of her gender; 2) she is by far the most competent character; 3) she is the primary bread-winner and decision-maker in her happy, faithful marriage; 4) she is not in the least glamorous and her "bad-assery" can be ascribed purely to her abilities rather than her looks or flashy moves; 5) she's realistically pregnant. The mere fact that Marge continues working, still totally competent, still totally invested, while she's pregnant - and not the usual Hollywood pregnant, which is just a tasteful smooth bump - is unprecedented.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) 
Peter Jackson's violent, disturbing thriller delves into the psychologically fraught dream worlds of teenage girls. Based on the brutal murder committed by Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in New Zealand in 1954, the film explores the feverishly addictive friendship that blossoms between the two girls, each in her way damaged, whether by illness and neglect or bullying and traumatic sexual initiation. Their relationship is interpreted by their parents as homosexual, at the time considered a mental illness, and the attempt to separate the girls results in a vengeful fantasy spilling over into reality. Jackson wisely concentrates on the passion of the girls' friendship, allowing the sensuality and yearning intensity of adolescent infatuation to build up without delineating for the viewer clear boundaries between the normal pain of growing up and the psychotic obsession that drives murder. Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet give fearless, unforgiving performances.

Howards End (1992)
This adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel examines British society at the turn of the last century, examining with brilliance and a sympathetic eye conflicts between the classes and the sexes. Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, and Samuel West, the film is a masterpiece, with stunningly gorgeous cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts and a superlative screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala. From a feminist perspective, the film is both critical of and perceptively compassionate towards the paternalistic notions of feminism that began to be cultivated in educated circles, such as those in which the Shlegel sisters move. Their pity is roused by the plight of the poetical and poor Leonard Bast, whom they attempt to help on the strength of idealistic principles with no basis in the reality of English society. At the same time, they become bound to the wealthy and propertied Wilcox family, through the unexpected inheritance of the country house for which the film is named. 

Impromptu (1991)
George Sand, at least in the Anglo world, is better known for her notorious personal life, her many and varied sexual adventures, her habit of donning male clothes, her refusal to abide by the social niceties, than she is for her dozens of brilliant, and radically feminist, novels. This romantic romp about Sand (Judy Davis) and her pursuit of the foppishly sensitive and hypochondriac Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant, cast against type and giving one of his best performances) doesn't have much basis in the historical record, but it makes for a delightful hour and a half and it is a welcome change to watch a woman embody the traditionally masculine role of the romantic chase. The cast is excellent: Davis was born to play Sand, Grant is entirely convincing as the rather pathetic figure of the ideal Romantic, while Julian Sands is a stand-out as Franz Liszt.

Little Women (1994)
Louisa May Alcott's novel for girls has long been a touchstone of American feminism; this adaptation directed by Gillian Armstrong explicitly connects with the feminist discourse of the nineteenth century, drawing on Alcott's biography - Alcott was passionately committed to the movement for women's suffrage, as well as a staunch abolitionist - to supplement Jo's character. Little Women is gentle, but it takes women and women's lives, whether domestic or lived in the professional world, very seriously, granting to the trials, disappointments, joys, and hopes of female adolescence and young adulthood the same thoughtful gravity assumed in similar stories about boys and men. With a poignant score by Thomas Newman and wonderful, warm performances from Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Susan Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne, and Mary Wickes, this film is required viewing for feminists, a thoughtful, complicated, moving portrait of the lives of four American women.

Madame Bovary (1991)
Flaubert's novel has been adapted many times, but Claude Chabrol seems uniquely qualified to bring it to the screen, his clinical, unpitying compositional technique echoing the unsentimental and phlegmatic prose of book, a seminal work of naturalism. The cinematography by Jean Rabier is so saturated that one could almost believe it was drenched in a sudden thunderstorm, its deep, almost black greens and purples contrasted with the cool ivory of Isabelle Huppert's skin and the soft oranges and browns of rotting foliage. Huppert gives a passionate performance, basking in Emma Bovary's indulgent, sensual reveries, beadily coveting a man's love with the same cupidity with which she regards a beautiful silk or string of pearls. Another standout in the cast is Jean-François Balmer, in the thankless role of the bumbling cuckold Charles Bovary, a ridiculous man and yet one that hardly deserves his cruel fate. The film, like the novel before it, critiques marriage as a union between two people granted fundamentally unequal power and opportunity. If Emma Bovary is vain, selfish, deluded, and greedy, she has been conditioned to seek out her happiness in beauty, material position, proof of her own attractiveness through the attentions of men, and social glamor. Denied education, purpose, respect, income, work, and a husband she could at least find attractive, she is a woman who cannot be blamed without condemning all of the society that formed her.

Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Muriel's Wedding was marketed as a romantic comedy, but as such, it's decidedly not romantic and its humor is unusually black for the genre. Toni Collette is Muriel, an overweight, unpopular young woman desperate to have a glamorous wedding and be liked by the fashionable mean girls she went to high school with. She defrauds her crooked small-time politician father and her mousy oblivious mother to go on holiday and then skip town for Sydney, where she befriends Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) and finds her calling as a bride-for-hire for a piggish swimmer anxious to qualify for the Olympic team. Though the film is very, very funny, it is bitter as hell, shredding the gooey mawkishness of every romantic comedy cliché and ultimately rejecting romantic love in favor of friendship between women.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
This devastating and devastatingly beautiful Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou takes place in the 1920s, prior to the Chinese Civil War, and traces the tragic destinies of the concubines (Gong Li, He Caifei, and Cao Cuifen) of the wealthy Chen (Ma Jingwu). Some critics have interpreted the power struggles and rivalries between the concubines as a metaphorical rendering the social fracturing and jockeying for power of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and that is certainly an illuminating interpretation; however, from a feminist perspective, one can view the film as an incisive attack on power structures that force women to depend absolutely on the favor of dominant men. Such structures forbid easy alliances among women, who are compelled to compete for male largess, and encourage betrayal and cruelty, eventually dooming all women to be discarded, whether killed, left to wallow in insanity or poverty, or merely left to decay in isolation. This is not a hopeful film, but it is an unforgettable one.

The Rapture (1991)
The Rapture is a rare film that takes born-again Christians in earnest, positing in all seriousness the possibility of the Rapture, as prophesied by certain sects. Mimi Rogers plays a woman living on the edge, indulging in orgiastic encounters with strangers, who is converted to Christianity when a series of seeming coincidences convince her that the Rapture is on its way. She successfully converts in turn a former lover (David Duchovny), who becomes her husband and with whom she has a daughter. Rather than portray her eventual disillusionment as a return to sanity and reason - the usual choice with movies dealing with this subject matter - writer-director Michael Tolkin does the very opposite, forcing his protagonist to confront her doubt in a world in which the Rapture is very, very real, and is definitely, truly occurring, as described biblically. This film asks us to suspend judgement, to empathize, to wonder, and to open ourselves to possibilities usually dismissed by mainstream film audiences, and such a project is, in my opinion, a decidedly feminist enterprise.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)
This masterpiece, directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant, approaches Austen with a maturity and wittiness unparalleled in the long and ever longer list of Austen adaptations. Thompson's screenplay is both archly satirical - among the great comic turns are performances by Imelda Staunton, Elizabeth Spriggs, and Hugh Laurie - and dreamily romantic, even melancholic. Though Austen herself hardly qualifies as a feminist in contemporary terms, her novels tell the stories of women with no occupation but marriage and no distraction but the hunt for a husband with sober-minded thoughtfulness, while mischievously mocking, and in the process, deconstructing the hypocrisies, injustices, and puerilities of genteel Regency society. Astonishingly, Thompson's script equals Austen's novel (granted, her first completed book and the weakest in terms of its structure, though not its sentiment).

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991)
Though this film based on the horse diver Sonora Carver's memoir indulges in blatant melodramatics, the story itself merits that spectacular approach. Sonora (Gabrielle Anwar) runs away from her aunt's miserable shack during the Great Depression and talks her way into a job with Doc Carver (Cliff Robertson), an old-style entertainer à la Buffalo Bill who runs a traveling horse diving show. Doc Carver's son (Michael Schoeffling) supports her ambition to dive horses, but his explosive relationship with his irritable father threatens to blow up into violence. This film follows the trajectory expected by any "inspirational true story," but it retains a clear-eyed, idealistic honesty that gives it the integrity that so many such films lack. Special mention should be made of the cinematography by Daryn Okada, who captures a honeyed, sepia-toned quality redolent of the 1930s and recalls Robert Surtees's work in The Sting.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The 15 Greatest Ballet Films

The ballet film has become a decidedly more challenging proposition for filmmakers in the post-studio era, since producers can no longer call on a stable of salaried dancers, set designers, musicians, composers, costumiers, and choreographers that enabled Hollywood studios to produce musical after musical, from the advent of the talkie until the 1950s. Ballet films are also notably a women's genre, both because they are typically marketed towards women (the assumption, in the United States anyway, being that ballet is too feminine for men) and because they usually star women, putting the ballerina, often a tragic figure torn by the choice between a career and the domestic life of marriage and motherhood, front and center. It is no great wonder, given that Hollywood has progressively devalued genres typically marketed towards women, whether melodramas, romantic comedies, or ballet films, that these movies often receive little critical attention and languish in obscurity, to be, hopefully, rescued by feminist critics.

All of the films on this list feature ballet in some form of another, from the classical choreography of Petipa through the modernism and neoclassicism of Nijinsky and Fokine to the avant-garde dances of Pina Bausch. It is a frustrating fact that the avant-garde ballet, even old avant-garde works like Bronislava Nijinska's Les noces, surely one of the greatest twentieth century ballets, rarely finds a home within cinema, while the classic ballets of the nineteenth century, especially Swan Lake, as well as Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, continue to define the art form within film, but such is the case. Though some of these films feature other styles of dancing, I have only included films that have at least one significant ballet sequence.

An American in Paris (1951)
Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly's musical extravaganza broke new ground for ballet in Hollywood films. Though ballet sequences had been done, Hollywood producers were generally leery of ballet, especially in long sequences without dialogue or sung accompaniment, but they were convinced in this case to permit a seventeen minute ballet, entirely without dialogue, and it paid off in spades: of eight Oscar nominations, the film won six. Kelly's choreography is playful, sexy, and whimsically intellectual, pulling poses and gestures from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Van Gogh, Utrillo, Renoir, and Rousseau, the most striking example being "Chocolat dansant dans un bar," an appropriate set of motifs given that Kelly's character is a young American painter. The object of his affections is played by Leslie Caron, a favorite film star of mine, in her motion picture debut at age twenty, while the ever grouchy Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, and Georges Guétary round out the cast.

Black Swan (2010) 
While many ballet films have used Swan Lake both as a central musical and choreographic motif and to amplify the significance of the central dancer's internal struggles, none have done so with such depth and complexity as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a fragile, repressed perfectionist, seemingly easy prey for the misogynistic director (Vincent Cassel, who has said he based his performance on Balanchine), who urges her to masturbate in order to prepare for the dual Odette/Odile role. Her anxiety to be as perfect as the black swan as she is as the white blossoms into extreme paranoia, as her fingernails begin to bleed, a rival (Mila Kunis) seems to romance her, and her memories increasingly diverge from what those around her seem to remember. As stylish a psychological thriller as one could wish for, Black Swan also shows a rare empathy for the actual back-breaking work that goes into dancing at the most advanced levels. 

Cinderella (1961) 
This gorgeous Soviet ballet film with the Bolshoi Ballet stars the brilliant and underrated Raisa Struchkova as Cinderella, giving an exuberant, joyful, poignant performance without the tiniest whiff of ego, though she would have been justified in feeling pleased with herself. The prince is played by Gennadi Lediakh, whose dancing is both athletically masculine and elegantly buoyant; he's excellent, but I've found very little information about his career in English. Another standout is Elena Vanke, who is deliciously funny as the odious stepmother while doing some very impressive footwork. Cinderella has a freshness that many of the other major fairy tale ballets lack and this film, made less than two decades after the premiere, has an ethereal quality that sets it apart. Prokofiev's exquisite score is conducted by Yuri Feier, who also conducted the premiere.

The Glass Slipper (1955) 
This gem of a fairy tale film is a masterpiece, undeservedly forgotten. The Cinderella of this film, played by Leslie Caron, is rebellious, angry and hurt at the abuse she receives, desperate to love and desperate to spare herself further pain - in other words, this obscure musical, with one simple change, gives us a Cinderella without the willing martyrdom of Patient Griselda. There are two ballets, choreographed by Roland Petit, and while the dances are not especially technically challenging, they are quite innovative in terms of story-telling and design (by Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons, who evoke the designs of Bakst and Benois for the Ballets Russes) and the second one in particular is heart-breaking, a devastating tragedy in less than ten minutes. Prince Charles is played by Michael Wilding, out of his element in the dances but otherwise excellent, while the whimsical Estelle Winwood is Ella's kleptomaniac godmother, Elsa Lanchester is her vicious stepmother, and Keenan Wynn is the prince's sophisticated and slightly debauched best friend. 

Invitation to the Dance (1956) 
This all-dance anthology film, director and star Gene Kelly's dream project, was an utter disaster at the box office upon its release, scuttling further possibilities for even such relatively tame avant-garde fare receiving significant (and necessary) studio funding. There is no dialogue in the movie, the stories being told exclusively through dance, and it brought together some of the finest dancers, including Igor Youskevitch and Tamara Toumanova, and composers, including Jacques Ibert and André Previn, of the era, uniting their talents with the wealth of the MGM studio. The first sequence, "Circus," is a tragedy, a more sentimental I pagliacci or Petroushka, about the romantic entanglements of a clown, circus ballerina, and aerialist. The second, "Ring Around the Rosy," is a modern version of Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de... (though this debt goes unacknowledged), with a gold bracelet taking the place of the diamond earrings; the dancing in this sequence is especially inventive, playing with jazz, ballroom, and tap influences. The last sequence is a technical tour-de-force accompanied by arrangements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade in which Kelly leaps, cavorts, twirls, and stamps his way through an animated Arabian casbah, the animation provided by Hanna-Barbera. The film is deeply flawed, but it is nonetheless one of the most significant dance films ever made.

The Nutcracker (1977)
Though it's hard to believe now, The Nutcracker was not always a yearly Christmas tradition, becoming the December behemoth we all know and love/hate only after Balanchine's new production at the New York City Ballet, which premiered in 1954, became an annual, zealously observed ritual. To put this in perspective, in Fantasia, Deems Taylor says of The Nutcracker ballet, "nobody performs it nowadays" - Fantasia came out in 1940. This 1977 version, originally broadcast on television, features the American Ballet Theatre in Mikhail Baryshnikov's adaptation of the Balanchine and it's an opportunity to see Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in their most famous partnering. Though severely abridged, the telefilm uses a range of cinematic effects that heightens the sense of dream-like magic essential to a successful staging of the story.

Pina (2011)
Pina Bausch was one of the most innovative and radical choreographers of the modern era, a successor to the revolutionary modernism of Vaslav Nijinsky, and Wim Wenders's film is a tribute to her work and an exploration of its implications, which is analyzed almost exclusively through the movements of the dances themselves. The film includes excerpts from some of Bausch's most influential and subtle ballets, capturing the mysterious fascination her dancers emanate in the throes of her choreographic spell; among the pieces featured are Bausch's version of The Rite of Spring, Café Müller, and Vollmond. Bausch's dances confront the difficulties of what it means to be a human being, a human body, struggling with them and never conceding defeat. While the classical technique of Petipa placed the locus of the dance in the legs, Bausch reversed that technique, with the arms engaging in the complex series of gestures once the dominion of the legs, while the legs remain still only to suddenly leap upwards or collapse to the ground. If Pina radiates one quality above others, it is the love that her dancers feel for her and the love she clearly felt for her dancers.

The Pirate (1948)
Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly, the innovators of An American in Paris, were already experimenting with ballet in this 1948 film. Far too sophisticated and avant-garde for mainstream audiences, particularly audiences unused to modern ballet, the film was a painful flop. A pastiche of swashbucklers, The Pirate is gleefully subversive at almost every level. It tells the story of Serafin (Kelly), an unscrupulous circus acrobat who has his lustful eye on Manuela (Judy Garland), a sheltered young señorita who harbors explosive sexual fantasies about the pirate Macoco. The movie pushes against the boundaries of acceptable ideas of gender, sexuality, and desire, and even race - Kelly performs with the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, two of the greatest American dancers of all time, whose appearance in an otherwise lily-white production inspired protest in certain regions of the United States. Kelly's sexually charged ballet, framed as Manuela's fantasy, is unlike any other dance in a Hollywood film and could conceivably be one of the earliest explorations of private female desire in a mainstream movie.

The Red Shoes (1948)
A strong contender for the greatest ballet film of all time, The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a heedless young girl with a longing to dance is bewitched by a pair of red shoes and eventually dances herself to death. The story both provides the framework of the modern plot of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between a career with a Svengali-like impresario (Anton Walbrook) and the love of an idealistic composer (Marius Goring) and the libretto of the gorgeous, thrilling ballet, which is the jewel of ballet cinema. The ballet's choreography is by two of the giants of twentieth century dancemaking, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who also dance, and the music is by Brian Easdale. This film has something magical at its core, something which both disturbs and elates. Few films succeed in portraying anything but the superficial aspects of being an artist, but The Red Shoes reveals the complex depths of feeling, impulse, and thought that motivate the making of great art, the exaltations and the despairs of the artist.

Sleeping Beauty (1965)
This Soviet ballet film features my favorite male dancer of all time, Yuri Soloviev, who, although he did not defect along with his contemporaries Nureyev and Baryshnikov, steadfastly refused to join the Communist Party, despite the possible lethal consequences of this decision. His dancing is both more delicate and more precise than that of his contemporaries and he was often compared to Nijinsky. His grand jetés have a weightless quality that lends an air of ethereal magic to even his most athletically challenging performances. In this gorgeous and highly cinematic version of the ballet, performed on sets that transform the theatrical experience into something purely immersive, he shares the stage with Alla Sizova, Natalia Dudinskaya, and Irina Bazhenova. Though the film is in desperate need of restoration, it is an essential, both for the brilliant quality of the dancing and the artfulness of the filmmaking.

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Jacques Offenbach's opera is the source for another masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a pageant of brilliant color, dazzling choreography danced with panache, and exquisite music. The ballet-opera, which in its turn was inspired by stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of The Nutcracker, follows a sensitive lovelorn poet on his travels in Paris, Venice, and Greece. The ballets are choreographed by Frederic Ashton, who also danced alongside Léonide Massine, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, and Ludmilla Tchérina, while the singers include Robert Rounseville, Monica Sinclair, and Ann Ayars. The meticulous attention to design and costume and the flamboyant use of color in both the design elements and the cinematographic lighting recall, as does the presence of Massine, the exoticism, sensuality, and innovation of the Ballets Russes. Special note should also be made of the extraordinary editing by Reginald Mills, who masterfully edited the film to the rhythm and phrasing of the previously recorded music.

Talk to Her (2002)
Though not obviously a dance film, Pedro Almodóvar's film (in my opinion, his best) is framed by Pina Bausch's Café Müller, a performance that subtly alters the perception of the devastating events of the story, which also includes an intense and disturbingly seductive pornographic film that acts as a pastiche of silent, experimental filmmaking. The story is psychologically complex, following two men who mourn and obsess over the comatose women they love, one a bull-fighter and the other a ballet student. The dance distills the complex meanings of the film, magnifying and deepening those meanings and elevating through its metatextual commentary the sufferings, joys, tentative attempts at connection, and compassionate impulses of the characters, played with exquisite sensitivity by Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, and Rosario Flores, into expressions of universal human longing.

The Turning Point (1977)
DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine) is reunited with her old friend and rival, Emma (Anne Bancroft), just as her beloved daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) is starting her own ballet career. While Emma became a prima ballerina, DeeDee gave up her career when she became pregnant with Emilia, and both women have a stake in the younger girl's success, especially when she is seduced by a young Mikhail Baryshnikov. MacLaine and Bancroft both give intense, ferocious performances, dramatizing the agonizing choice they each made between career and motherhood: each woman is desperate for the rewards that the other reaped. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, The Turning Point is one of the few ballet films to receive positive critical recognition.

The Unfinished Dance (1947)
The Unfinished Dance is a strange and deeply flawed, and yet fascinating film. Starring child star Margaret O'Brien as Meg, an aspiring ballet student, the story is a cross between The Children's Hour and Black Swan, though it reins in the gathering darkness for a treacly finish that makes little sense. Meg obsesses over the company's prima ballerina (Cyd Charisse) and feels personally threatened when an international star (Karin Booth) comes to headline a new production of Swan Lake (perhaps the wonkiest version I've ever seen). Hoping to humiliate her idol's rival by killing the lights during her solo, Meg instead opens a trap door in the stage. This film is both unexpectedly dark and unexpectedly centered around women - the only major male character is Meg's kindhearted guardian (Danny Thomas) - and its ultimate message is, even more surprisingly, rather feminist. The movie seems to insist that, despite rivalries, betrayals, and the demands of would-be fiancés, there is nothing more important for a dancer than to dance.

Waterloo Bridge (1940)
This tragic melodrama - supposedly Vivien Leigh's favorite of all her films - is about the ill-fated love affair between a ballerina (Leigh), Myra, and an army captain (Robert Taylor), who meet in the frantic early days of World War I on Waterloo Bridge in the midst of an air raid. Their whirlwind romance is disapproved of both by his snobbish aristocratic mother (Lucile Watson) and her tyrannical ballet teacher (Maria Ouspenskaya), who explicitly sabotages the relationship. Like so many ballet dancers of cinema, Myra is forced to choose between a man she desperately loves and the discipline and self-sacrifice of a ballet career. It is no accident that Myra appears in Swan Lake, the haunting ballet that, in its psychological fracturing of the female dancer, proves so resonant in these films that confront the costs of being a ballerina.

Bonus: The Rite of Spring (1987)
Though not technically a film, the Joffrey Ballet's restoration of Nijinsky's choreography for Stravinsky's avant-garde ballet set in pre-historical pagan Russia is essential viewing for any ballet fan. The Rite of Spring was, of course, the most controversial ballet in history, a scandal that precipitated the advent of the choreographic avant-garde that nurtured the careers of Nijinska, Massine, and Balanchine. Though it is impossible to know just how completely ballet historian Millicent Hodson succeeded in reawakening Nijinsky's masterpiece, the choreography is electrifying, its pulsating, trembling bodies in the frenzied desperation of blood sacrifice and sun worship. Watch the ballet (and an accompanying documentary about the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction).

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Which Opera You Should See This Season, According to Your Favorite Literary Classic

In September, the Metropolitan Opera will open for another season and in anticipation I'm presenting a list of which opera you should see according to your favorite literary classic. I did so last year and am pleased to be your guide to the 2016-2017 season.

Buy your Metropolitan Opera tickets here.

Love The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas? See Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini:
These two historical dramas, both prominently featuring actual figures from history, are swashbuckling adventure tales in which the forces of tyranny are confronted with dashing, debonair heroes, adepts at swordsmanship, musketry, and archery and driven by noble impulses and righteous patriotism. Both novel and opera were deployed as pointed political critiques: Dumas lambasted the hedonism and malfeasance of the ancien regime, while Rossini glorified the nationalist idealism of Tell's rebellion against the Austrians to unify his country, according to the 19th century philosophy of national sovereignty as a utopian state of liberty. The opera is best known for its overture, which has been featured prominently in films as diverse as A Clockwork Orange and Disney's The Band Concert.

Love The Decameron by Boccaccio? See L'Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho:
L'amour de loin is by far the most modern opera of the Metropolitan season - it premiered in 2000 - and it is the first opera by a woman to be heard at the Met since 1903. The opera tells a fragmented story of unrequited love that transcends distance and even knowing whether the loved one is merely a figment of the imagination. The apparent simplicity of the plot is undergirded by a rich subtext, a dizzying intellectual pool in which the characters come to understand the very nature of love. In other words, it is very much like the love stories told in The Decameron, like Fiammetta's tale of the prince of Salerno whose devastated lover drinks a potion made of his poisoned heart to join him in death (IV.1), or Emilia's tale of Gostanza, who sets off in a boat believing her lover dead, only to find him across the sea (V.2). Though I'm not familiar with the full opera, what I have heard is strongly reminiscent of the music of Georges Auric.

Love Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen? See Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák:
Ibsen's iconic play, based on Norwegian legend and written with total disregard for the exigencies of stagecraft (forty scene changes!), travels back and forth between conscious and subconscious with an ease usually found only in fairy tales, like Rusalka, which is a version of The Little Mermaid with an ending even darker than Andersen's, in which the rejected water sprite is transformed into a spirit of death and her prince chooses in the end to die in her arms, for one final kiss. While Ibsen blends social satire with bizarre instances of surrealism and wickedly ingenious flights of fantasy, and Dvořák's opera tells a simpler, far sadder story, both works are deeply embedded within the folkloric traditions of their composers' respective national cultures and share a vision of the supernatural as alluring and treacherous. Rusalka has become a staple of the American repertory only in recent years, with Renee Fleming making the doomed sprite a signature role. The Song to the Moon is a supreme example of Dvořák's loveliest melodic composition.

Love The Wings of the Dove by Henry James? See Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss:
Strauss's opera, which includes some of the most gorgeous passages of the composer's music, tells a romantic, yet melancholy story. The Marschallin, at thirty two, has taken a teenaged lover, Octavian, who she recognizes will inevitably fall in love with a younger woman. The opera, like Henry James's novel, is set in the rarefied drawing rooms and boudoirs of the aristocratic and wealthy, but the truer parallel is stylistic, with James's dense, opulent, subtle prose the literary counterpart of Strauss's exquisite, textured, and complex score, which makes use of a large orchestra. James and Strauss were roughly contemporaries and while both lived through and were influenced by movements such as decadence and modernism, both were at heart children of 19th century romanticism, a romanticism that remained intact even as it was battered by the sharp jabs of modernity and gained nuances of avant-garde complexity.

Love Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy? See Eugene Onegin by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
Landmarks of Russian culture, Tolstoy's novel and Tchaikovsky's opera (based on the novel in verse by Pushkin) both center on women who are trapped within their social position, only able to express their love for men deemed inappropriate by society by risking everything they have. Both are intensely romantic, while also deeply critical of Russian aristocratic society. Neither Tolstoy nor Tchaikovsky (or Pushkin, for that matter) could be considered feminists, but their sensitive portrayals of the tragedies of women whose sole outlet for a restless desire to live outside the confines of their opulent domestic cages was to fall in love illicitly make both the novel and the opera worth examining from a feminist point of view. The opera includes the famous Letter Scene, Tatiana's extraordinary aria, a beautiful, tumultuous evocation of a young woman's first love and her discovery of herself within that love.

Love Candide by Voltaire? See L'Italiana in Algeri by Gioachino Rossini:
Rossini's opera is a dramma giocoso, or a drama with jokes, a genre that developed out of the Neapolitan tradition, and it tells the story of the Bey of Algiers, who is desirous of an Italian bride, having tired of his Algerian wife. He sets his sights on Isabella and instructs his favorite slave, the Italian Lindoro, to arrange it, but Lindoro is himself in love with the girl. The opera's sense of fun, its fascination with absolutism and sex, and its whiplash-quick plotting make it a perfect pairing with Voltaire's picaresque satire, which blisteringly critiques the optimism espoused by Leibniz with a tale of high adventure and romance that lampoons the very genres of which it is comprised. 

Love Adam Bede by George Eliot? See Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček:
The desperation of an abandoned woman with an illegitimate child is at the center of these two works; Eliot's novel is about foolish, naive Hetty who falls for the local squire, even as the honorable laborer Adam pines for her, while Janáček's opera is about Jenůfa, seduced and impregnated by one brother and pursued and disfigured by the other. These dark stories permit some few rays of light at their conclusion, allowing their devastated heroines to seek salvation through love in various, sad forms. Jenůfa is widely considered the greatest Czech opera; it is both a highly idiosyncratic and radical opera and a work that makes extensive use of Moravian folkloric music, an especial passion of Janáček's, who also did priceless work as a musical ethnographer. Those who assume the 19th century novel and all operas are always sentimental will be hard-pressed to find much in the way of sentimentality in these realist dramas centered on the working classes.

Love Emma by Jane Austen? See Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano:
Though Cyrano de Bergerac is a tragedy and Emma a social satire, both works exploit the drama inherent in the practice of matchmaking, one in a decidedly phallocentric vein and the other in a gynocentric one. Cyrano is a dashing, martial aristo in love with his cousin Roxane and cursed with a nose of astonishing length who agrees to woo his love by proxy for Christian with whom Roxane is infatuated; the meddling, while well-intentioned, goes badly, and tragedy ensues. Emma Woodhouse is a clever, scheming aristo who occupies herself primarily with matchmaking, pairing up all her acquaintance with smug self-satisfaction, and becoming infatuated with the charming Frank Churchill in the process, to her friend Mr. Knightley's chagrin; the meddling, mostly well-intentioned, goes badly, but a happy lack of swords and duelling pistols in the Austenian universe allow all to be set to rights. 

Love Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? See Der fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner:
I myself loathe Wagner's music, which I find bombastic and vainglorious, but there is no denying his stature as one of the giants of opera. Der fliegende Holländer, or The Flying Dutchman, tells the story of the cursed ship's captain doomed to sail the seas until he finds a woman to love him. Both in its atmosphere of darkness and storm and in its exploration of such grand themes as the nature of mortality, the meaning of life (or the sort of half-life the Dutchman's captain and Frankenstein's monster must endure), and the sacrifices required of those who love, the opera makes a fitting pair with Mary Shelley's paradigm-shifting science fiction novel, in which Victor Frankenstein succeeds in reanimating a deceased body with results both horrifying and heart-breaking.

Love Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore? See I puritani by Vincenzo Bellini:
Lorna Doone and I puritani are both historical romantic period pieces that use 17th century English history as the backdrop for their stirring adventure tales. Blackmore's romance set in the wilds of Exmoor is in the tradition of Scott; John Ridd, son of an honorable farmer murdered by the Doones, former aristocrats turned outlaws, falls in love with Lorna Doone, the granddaughter of his sworn enemy. In Bellini's final opera (he died less than a year after the premiere at age 33), Elvira, torn between her love for Arturo, the queen's champion, and her father's insistence that she marry Riccardo, leader of the Puritans, believes herself abandoned on her wedding day. The contest between the two men soon develops into a battle for control of England (and her religion), while Elvira goes mad with grief, giving the lead soprano an opportunity to sing one of Bellini's brilliant mad scenes. This exceptionally beautiful bel canto opera includes the virtuosic soprano aria, Son vergine vezzosa, and the exquisite tenor aria, A te, o cara, amor talor.

Love Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte? See Carmen by Georges Bizet:
Erotic obsession is the evil spirit under which these lustful characters are born and they pay for its sway over their psyches with more than their lives. While Bronte's goblin-like Heathcliff takes vengeance on his beloved Cathy, who is as proud and wilful as he is tortured and vicious, Bizet's Carmen treats her lovers much as she does the cigarettes she smokes: they are many, they are sensuously enjoyed, and they are tossed aside once their flame sputters out. Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory, a sensuous verismo extravaganza that shocked 1875 audiences with its explicitly sexual and morally corrupt heroine. The Habanera and the Toreador's Song are two of the most famous arias of opera and the score can be heard in dozens of films, from the explicit adaptation starring Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones, to The Aristocats and Up

Love The Divine Comedy by Dante? See Don Giovanni by W.A. Mozart:
Another staple of the operatic repertory, Mozart's Don Giovanni is a masterpiece, a full-blooded and challenging work that opposes the worst excesses of libertinism with a moralism that is too sophisticated to be dismissed by cynics, too terrifying to simply brush aside. The story of Don Giovanni and his thousands of seduced and abandoned conquests ends with one of the most astonishing and frightening moments of opera, in which the shameless, remorseless libertine is dragged down to hell by a horde of demons. The opera's moral - "for a sinner, his death is equal to his life" - is essentially Dante's thesis, the truth that the great poet evokes to chilling effect in the Inferno, and, hopefully, to with salutary consequence in the Purgatorio and the Paradiso

Love The Red and the Black by Stendhal? See Werther by Jules Massenet:
Two preeminent works of romanticism, this novel and opera both deal in the fatal despair of young men in love with women who cannot be theirs. Julien Sorel, the protagonist of Stendhal's novel, longs for the glory of conquest, whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, but he fails to appreciate the costs of attaining his desires, nor does he reckon with the reality of actual love. Werther, on the other hand, embraces that reality, tumbling into an ever deepening infatuation with his friend's fiancee Charlotte, pouring out his feelings to her in a series of tear-stained letters, and ultimately succumbing to an erotic (though no less real for its eroticism) despair. The opera is a simpler affair than Stendhal's novel, but both seek to dramatize the hopeless outcomes of loving wrongly and both acquit, even if ambivalently, their heroes of true wrongdoing. 

Love Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges? See The Magic Flute by W.A. Mozart (in English)
Though unfortunately, Mozart's opera (my favorite of his) will be presented in English rather than German, the Borgesian reader will find much to appreciate in this fantastic opera, which narrates the many-layered, densely symbolic story of Tamino, a bewildered prince who sets out to rescue Pamina, alluring daughter of the Queen of the Night, from the sinister Priest of the Sun, Sarastro. Tamino is accompanied by Papageno, a bird-catcher who dresses in feathers and plays the pipes, a being somewhere between a buffoonish Sancho Panza and an actual bird. The surreal meets the sublime in a story that could have been composed by Borges's Pierre Menard. 

The Metropolitan season also includes Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod, Manon Lescaut and La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Idomeneo by W.A. Mozart, Fidelio by Ludwig von Beethoven, Salome by Richard Strauss,  Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, and Rigoletto, Aida, Nabucco, and La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Synopses of all these operas and many more can be found here.
Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner
Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner