Earlier I posted my review of Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie at the Women’s Project Theatre; for those who want to know more, you couldn’t do better than the discussion, “Staging Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie,” held at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center on 4 March. Jonathan Kalb moderates a panel including director Tea Alagic, translator Gitta Honegger, and scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and the generosity of the Segal Centre, I can post the discussion below — certainly one of the things the critical blogosphere is good for. It lasts for 90 minutes.
Philosopher Simon Critchley and actress Fiona Shaw wag their jaws for a few minutes at a Rubin Museum of Art event, “Talk About Nothing.” For theatre critics and practitioners, some fascinating insights on the leap from Ibsen through Brecht to Beckett, and Ms. Shaw offers a short and entertaining course on dramatic dialogue and national language habits. She opens on Broadway in The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner, in March.
The Anthology Film Archives screening is appropriate; one of Foreman’s acknowledged direct influences was the American independent avant-garde film movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Thanks to Ubu web, I’ve been able to revisit several of these films over the past few days after having been first exposed to them during my college years in the early 1980s. Films like Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity, George Landow’s Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (“the dirtiest film ever made”), and Michael Snow‘s Wavelength approach philosophy in their contemplation of the filmic image. These three filmmakers especially, more than the better-known Stan Brakhage of the movement, seem to me to have a direct relationship with Foreman’s theatre and film work. These meditative films deserve to be more widely seen again; fortunately, the Anthology’s Essential Cinema series rescreens them every now and again. Keep an eye out; if you’re not familiar with this remarkable part of American film history, I recommend taking a look at P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film, now in its third edition.
So many of these films have to deal with the imperfections of the recording media and how they draw attention to the images they reproduce — making comparison with the clean, cold surface of digital video inevitable and surprising. One of my favorite filmmakers of the period was George Landow, later known as Owen Land; one of his first films, Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1965-66) is below. His later Wide Angle Saxon and other films were witty and philosophical reflections on religion and art, but Film In Which There Appear … is also remarkable, bearing comparison to the music of Morton Feldman (as do Michael Snow’s films), in which so much happens among such little movement:
To round out this week’s essays and links on criticism, and at the risk of boring Cameron Woodhead further (at least when there’s a hoary, 50-year-old Sondheim musical comedy to review), I republish below a 2007 symposium, “The critic as thinker,” that I originally posted here on 10 June 2011. Introductory remarks and the video below the rule. In addition, Jana Perkovic continues her survey (with damned statistics) of the Australian critical landscape here; much of what she says rings true for the US scene as well.
Although there is no substitute for reading the plays themselves, you can learn just about all you need to know about twentieth-century drama from four books: Eric Bentley’s The Playwright as Thinker, Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd, and Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. These are the books that, as I read them during my teen years, encouraged me as both dramatist and critic. Reading them, you will also become familiar with the best drama criticism of the century: lucid, engaged writing about theatre and drama as an art form rather than as mere commodity, vastly informed by a knowledge and understanding of culture and other artistic disciplines. It’s safe to say that if you do not know these books, you do not know the modern theatre, nor do you know the best of its criticism.
On the eve of the Tonys, it’s a pleasure to be able to offer “The Critic as Thinker,” a Philoctetes Center symposium from 27 October 2007, that features two of these fine critics, Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein, as well as Stanley Kauffmann, as they survey both their own careers and the changing landscape of theatre in the post-war era. Roger Copeland moderates the discussion, which traverses a wide variety of topics, including the original reception of The Playwright as Thinker, the newspaper review as consumer guide, the disappearance of the middle-brow play (this to my mind is alive and well, but let it pass), Marxist politics, and the alleged responsibility of Frank Rich for the decline of American theatre. The program also features a remarkable question-and-answer session with Jonathan Kalb, editor of Hot Review and author of The Theatre of Heiner Müller and Beckett in Performance, who argues passionately and persuasively for a reconstruction of a critical culture, as well as a possible home for it in the electronic media of the blogosphere (now that the 140-character Twitter feed and only slightly lengthier Facebook status line have all but displaced the blogosphere, however, I wonder what he’d say to this today); former Brustein student and Broadway producer (now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) Rocco Landesman, who valiantly and bravely attempts to defend the status quo; and critic Randy Gener. Those of you who care about money and entertainment will spend two hours this Sunday night watching the Tony Awards; those of you who care about theatre as an art will watch the below instead.
John Cassavetes and Peter Falk on a Philadelphia bus in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky.
Speaking of Philadelphia, maybe the best movie ever made in that city was the 1976 Mikey and Nicky, written and directed by Elaine May (born and raised in Philadelphia; she appeared on the stage of the Yiddish theatre there with her father) and starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes (in perhaps the best Cassavetes film that Cassavetes didn’t direct). They play two petty mobsters who have been friends since childhood; the mob has put a contract out on Nicky (Cassavetes), who is holed up in a seedy Philadelphia hotel. He calls his old friend Mikey (Falk), who comes to his aid and accompanies him on a mad nighttime journey through the city. Little does Nicky know that Mikey is setting him up for his eventual assassination.
The improvisatory feel of the performances, cinematography, and editing obscures the fact that this is a very tightly structured film, and very precisely written. The film that Paramount released in 1976 had been assembled by studio hacks after the studio took it away from May as she worried over the film during the editing process. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who presented a restored version of the film in Toronto in 1980, writes, “My misimpression that the film was partially improvised was also corrected; the script revealed that virtually all the dialogue had been written in advance” — not unlike Cassavetes’ own films, and not unlike the television series that owes most to Cassavetes, the BBC version of The Office. It seems like cinema verite, but like cinema verite, at its best it plunges far beneath the surface it purports to depict.
In Mikey and Nicky, director and screenwriter Elaine May out-Mamets David Mamet in her dissection of male camaraderie and masculinist values in post-war capitalist America. Where she differs from Mamet is that she while may feel sympathy for her characters, she does not feel either affection or back-handed admiration. Perhaps for this reason, the terrifying, violent conclusion of the film feels far more tragic, far more effective, than the violent conclusion of Mamet’s American Buffalo of the same period, a play also set among petty criminals and an aura of betrayal.
It’s a brilliant film, certainly May’s best to date, and features a remarkable cast: apart from Falk and Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, William Hickey and Sanford Meisner also appear. In the below clip, Nicky drags Mikey into a cemetery in search of his mother’s gravestone and they briefly revisit their childhood memories. It’s a moving and revealing moment; Mikey suddenly realizes what he is killing as he sets Nicky up for his fall. Mikey and Nicky was one of the best and remains one of the most underrated films of the 1970s, and given the decade, that’s saying a lot. (Stanley Kauffman condescendingly and insultingly described Mikey and Nicky as “the best film that I know by an American woman” in 1977.) It also captures the Philadelphia of the period precisely. The film is available on DVD from amazon.com. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s liner notes for the DVD are available here, and make for intriguing reading.