Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mr. Turner: Impressions of the Artist

The film Mr. Turner gives us the crabby little rotund man behind those expansive luminous seascapes of early Victorian England.  Embodied by actor Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner is a bull in the Victorian china shop, grunting and waddling through drawing rooms, sullen or abrasive in conversation.  Yet his eyes well with tears at amateur performances of music, and we see him animated with affection for his father and with passion for art.

Director/writer Mike Leigh skirts the well-worn arc of biopics -- from obscurity to fame -- by starting mid-life, when the artist and his eccentricities are already well-known.  It would seem that the only way to go is down through diminished reputation and declining health.  We do see Turner mocked in a music hall sketch, his work displaced in the gallery by Pre-Raphaelite kitsch; we visit the studio of a photographer whose technology both threatens Turner and fascinates him; we see the stiffening of the proud man's gait, hear the racking cough.

But Leigh leavens the story of decline, told in short episodes, with scenes that show other themes in the artist's life.    

Of course, art itself is a major motif in the movie.  Turner will travel to Holland or to a Scottish sea port, strap himself to a ship's mast during a storm, pay a prostitute to pose, or consult a scientist about magnetic qualities of the spectrum, all to capture the images he wants. He maintains fierce independence among other artists at the gallery, and defends a past master from the snide attacks of a callow John Ruskin: "That man," he says, "was a genius, an artist of his time."  When Turner's own time seems to have passed, his neglected works crammed in his shabby gallery, a discerning American offers a fortune for the lot, and we know that his reputation will outlast the fashions of his day.

Another sequence of episodes trace Turner's gradual discovery of love late in his life, set in counterpoint to scenes that show his callousness.

For callousness, Leigh shows Turner resist calls from a former mistress to support their desperate family. Turner loans fifty pounds to an impecunious artist who stubbornly antagonizes all who would help him, just to be rid of the man. Learning that the man's children have starved to death while their father indulged his pride, Turner's sympathy is aroused, extending so far as to forgive the debt and to denounce the man.  The longest single thread in the story, and a painful one to watch, is how Turner takes advantage of a housemaid, never acknowledging her devotion to him, not even noticing her dire physical decline.

But when he takes a room at the seaside home of a former slave ship's captain, Turner and the captain's cheerful wife begin a polite friendship that, in her widowhood, develops into a mutually nurturing relationship.

I wonder if Leigh intends for the movie to imitate Turner's own approach to art?  He does fill the screen with Turneresque skies that reflect on water.  Yet it's not the delicate colors that he emphasizes when he shows us Turner at work, but sudden jabs with the brush, impatient smearing with his fingers, even spitting at the canvas.  The film's spare musical score by Gary Yershon, played all by strings, seems an analog to Turner's work, sounding to me (on first hearing) like a wash of harmonic colors punctuated by sudden jabs with the bows.  The movie likewise is a portrait told in daubs that resolve into a design only as we get some distance.   

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Someone's Still in There: Krista Tippett Discusses Alzheimer's

Often, Krista Tippett's radio program On Being offers thoughtful, generous guests whose ideas bloom in answer to her curiosity.  Today, the show featured clinical psychologist Alan Dienstag, who works with Alzheimer's;  As that disease has touched my family, I listened on headphones at the grocery store, pausing in the cereal aisle to cry a little.

Tippett's show used to be known as Speaking of Faith, and she asked this guest to opine on what his Jewish tradition has to say about Alzheimer's.   "God forgets, too," he said.  God isn't just the creator of awesome things, but must be in the pain, too.  In other answers, the doctor suggests that Alzheimer's gives us a concentrated vision of what we are all experiencing, i.e., being like a picture that's fading.  He's moved by the sight of his patients in writing groups, trying to set down who they are while they still can do so.

He offered some comforts.

Even in a late stage, a caregiver will recognize humor or sadness, "dispatches" from the person inside.  Sometimes, there's wisdom: the woman who struggled to answer why she loved the beach, before saying, "There's a kind of music always there." A wife was distraught that her husband couldn't say who she was, until one day he said, "I don't know who you are; but I love you," just what she needed to hear.

Memory, we now know, isn't brought up from a well, but pieced together from many different parts of the brain, a creative process.

When Krista Tippett asked the doctor how he'd feel getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer's now, he said he'd feel grief and loss, but not fear. For one thing, he explained, the Alzheimer patient isn't aware of the condition, and he told of a husband who told a support group,"I forget things sometimes, but I get by just fine," while his wife cried silently behind him. 

Tippett ended the program with a reading from a collection of poems that arose from the poet's workshop experiences with Alzheimer's patients.  The collection is Oblivio Gate by Sean Nevin.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Last Five Years on Screen: Feeling is Enough, with Music

It's not the tale but the telling that makes the film adaptation of The Last Five Years wonderful.

Supple, expressive songs by Jason Roberts Brown articulate and enlarge the characters' thoughts and feelings in a variety of styles. The camera, directed by Richard LaGravenese,  also enlarges the characters' faces, expressive and appealing. "Jamie"(Jeremy Jordan) and "Cathy" (Anna Kendrick) fall in love, marry, then grow apart as his career becomes "the other woman" (actual other women being his accessories).

It's a familiar story made fresh by the author's manipulation of time.  At the start, "Jamie" has left to pursue his career, and "Cathy" is "still hurting."  We see her, tears in her eyes, take off the wedding ring, the watch, the bracelet. But then we see Jamie burst into an apartment with Cathy wrapped around his thighs, singing to his "Shiksa Goddess" about how crazy he is about her.   He's at the start of the relationship, moving forward, giving her along the way that bracelet, the watch, and the wedding ring; she's at the end, looking backward; we see their opposing trajectories in alternating scenes, meeting midway at the wedding. 

The most magical song of the movie is the story of "Shmuel," a song in Brown's best Fiddler-on-the-Roof  style, in which energetic "Jamie" tries to lift dispirited "Cathy" to see herself in a fable about a tailor who has a chance to use time in a new way.  Performing as husband, tailor, spirit, and old Yiddish narrator, Jordan performs the number with verve and precision, tugging "Cathy" out of her funk.  It's staged for "Jamie" to dramatize his whimsical story from cloth, lamps, and holiday decor found in the apartment

All the other songs are so honest that they make us smile and hurt.  The hurt is always there, because we know how it turns out, though we hope against hope that these sweet, well-intentioned, beautiful people with their soaring voices are going to somehow get back together.

I had mixed feelings about the stage show.  (Read reflection here.) The movie is able to round out the story in a new way, and I love it.

My only qualm is this:  Betrayal, by Harold Pinter, also told its story backwards, peeling layer after layer off the original impression we get of the affair.  Betrayal thus builds to a revelation that the situation was never so clear-cut as we thought.  In the end of this one, have we learned anything new?  I can't think of anything revealed by the criss-crossing of time, only an uptick in sympathy for the boy.  Feeling is the point:  At any given moment, we're feeling the exhilaration of young love and ambition, while we're also feeling sympathy with the loss of the same.

Well, with all the music, the lyrics, the acting, the scenery, the dancing and glorious voices to appreciate -- feeling is enough. 

[See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to the composer that Jason Roberts Brown "worships" (his own word) Sondheim, his shows, and musical theatre more generally.]

Wisdom about Life from Songwriter Joe Henry

Not only have I never heard Joe Henry before, but I didn't even recognize any of his collaborators besides Madonna.  But in just a few minutes' talk with Krista Tippett on her radio program On Being, this guy tossed off some wisdom both profound and obvious. 
  • Those "bumps" in the road of life are the road of life; ants at the picnic are part of what it means to have a picnic. I added to myself, "Difficult classes are what teachers are for!"
  • He thinks of marriage as a verb, and, once you're married, you can never not have been married, any more than he could not be a brother, even if, "God forbid," he and his brother were to suffer estrangement.  Today's sermon by Fr. Daron Vroon at St. James' Episcopal Church concerned this same idea:  "covenant," unlike "contract," is a binding relationship, not just a transaction.  
  • Songwriting is a process of discovery.  The song has a wisdom of its own; the creator has to learn what the song already knows.   Later, in another context, he said the same thing about relationships, esp. marriage.
  • His beloved parents were devout Christians; he never identified with the religion, but felt his salvation in music.  His earliest memory was sitting under the ironing board, looking up at the foam under the cover, while his mother watched JFK's funeral.  He knew she was upset. He asked, "Does this mean you're going to die?"  "Yes, dear."  "Will I die, too?"  "Yes, dear." 
  • A lyric of a song on his latest album tells us that "a blind man looks out of your eyes." 
The clips of his music did not appeal to me; but he sounds like a good, wise, healthy man.