Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 3: Follow The Fleet and Swing Time

5. Follow The Fleet (1936) is based on Hubert Osborne's play Shore Leave (1922), which was turned into a stage and film musical composed by Vincent Youmans (who later wrote the music for Flying Down To Rio (1933)). The sailors-on-shore-leave plot has been used many times since, including in the Comden-Green-Robbins-Bernstein musical On The Town (stage version 1944, film version 1949).

Follow The Fleet also bears a strong resemblance to the third Astaire-Rogers film, Roberta (1935). Just as in Roberta, Fred's buddy is Randolph Scott; here the two play Navy sailors "Bake" Baker (Fred) and "Bilge" Smith (Scott). Just as in Roberta, Scott is the main romantic lead, while Fred and Ginger are the secondary couple; and just as in Roberta, the story is centered on uniting the main couple in order to save an inheritance (in Roberta, a fashion boutique; in Follow The Fleet, a ship.)

The tone of the movie is set by the first scene on shipboard just before the boys go on shore leave in San Francisco, with Fred singing Irving Berlin's hilarious patter song "We Saw The Sea":

We joined the Navy to see the girls,
But what did we see? We saw the sea.
Instead of a girl or two in a taxi
We were compelled to look at the Black Sea
Seeing the Black Sea isn't what it's cracked up to be.
At the ten-cents-a-dance Paradise Club they separately encounter Bake's old dance partner Sherry Martin (Ginger) and her bespectacled schoolteacher sister Connie (the singer Harriet Hilliard, later of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame). Sherry performs at the club, and we see her sing a great version of "Let Yourself Go" with a backup trio that includes Betty Grable. While Sherry and Bake are getting reacquainted, Connie is getting a makeover from Lucille Ball (in a bit part) and other dancers at the club. When she emerges without her glasses and dressed in one of Sherry's silver-lame gowns, the aptly named Bilge (a love-'em-and-leave-'em type who'd earlier spurned her) suddenly takes notice. Unfortunately, the combination of Scott's callous character and his leaden screen presence make it hard for me to care whether he gets the girl—in fact, Bilge would clearly be bad news for the smart and sincere Connie.

The whole club sequence flows from one incident and number to the next. After her transformation sparks Bilge's interest, Connie sings "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan," a song that would have made more sense in the movie for which it was originally written, Top Hat (1935). In that movie, Ginger's character is trying to resist her attraction to a man she thinks is married; in this one, Connie has done everything she can to captivate Bilge, so it's not clear why she's suddenly singing "I want to resist...I mustn't be kissed." In any case, her resistance evaporates as the song ends, and she leaves the club with Bilge to take him home—and cook him a meal, of course...

Meanwhile, Bake and Sherry return from backstage and inadvertently get involved in a dance contest. Their dance to "Let Yourself Go" is one of their most exhilarating numbers together:


One of the remarkable things about Roberta, one of the models for Follow The Fleet, is that Fred & Ginger's romance is almost an afterthought to the story of Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. This offhand treatment of the Fred-Ginger romance was corrected in Follow The Fleet, where Bake and Sherry have a number of obstacles to overcome. Bake gets Sherry fired from the Paradise Club and then inadvertently sabotages her audition for a new producer by pouring bicarbonate of soda into her glass of water, thinking he's undoing her rival. Sherry—having performed a terrific tap solo (her only solo dance in the series)—then finds herself hiccuping through a reprise of "Let Yourself Go." In retaliation, Sherry provokes a fight that gets Bake confined to his ship.

All is made right, though, on the night of the big benefit show that Bake and Sherry stage to help Connie salvage her ship. That show involves the improbably elaborate but gorgeous "Let's Face the Music and Dance" production number:


In her Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book Arlene Croce compares Follow The Fleet unfavorably to Roberta; she calls the earlier film "ineffable" and this one "a bore" (p. 96). In my estimation, Roberta has the fatal flaws of forcing us to imagine Randolph Scott as the head of a Parisian fashion house, and forcing us to watch Scott and Dunne (rather than Fred and Ginger) work through all of the romantic complications. Follow the Fleet makes Scott a sailor (a better fit for his he-man persona) and provides a plot for Fred and Ginger, two vast improvements over the earlier film. I find Follow The Fleet, aided by its great Irving Berlin score, to be one of the most exuberant and satisfying of the Astaire-Rogers musicals.

6. Swing Time (1936) has a reputation in some quarters as the neglected masterpiece of the Astaire-Rogers films. Arlene Croce writes "There never was...a greater dance musical" (p. 103).

Hmmm. This is another movie where my opinion diverges from Croce's. For me, Swing Time is something of a letdown after the delights of Top Hat and Follow The Fleet, mainly because the plot is so contrived. Fred is the professional dancer and gambler "Lucky" Garnett, whose pals (including Victor Moore's slow-talking sleight-of-hand specialist "Pop") conspire to keep him from his wedding to Betty Furness' Margaret. They convince him that he has to have his formal pants cuffed; pantsless, Lucky misses the wedding. When he finally gets there he does make a deal with Margaret's father, though—if he can earn $25,000 at gambling, the wedding is still on. (What concerned father would refuse that offer?) Penniless Lucky, still dressed in his wedding outfit of top hat and tails, then hops a freight train to the big city to make his fortune and win the girl, and Pop scrambles on after him.

No sooner do they make it to New York than they (literally) bump into Penny Carrol (Ginger), an instructor at an Arthur Murray-style dance studio. This setup leads to what's admittedly the cutest of their meet-cute scenes, where Fred pretends to be unable to dance in order to take lessons with Penny. She tries to give him the brush-off and is about to be fired for discouraging customers by the prissy owner Eric Blore when Fred gets the idea to show him what he's learned in his first lesson (to Jerome Kern's wonderful "Pick Yourself Up"):


Lucky and Penny decide to form a dance partnership. Much business then ensues involving rival nightclubs and the winning and losing of the contract of Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa) and his band, who are apparently the only dance band in New York. To complicate matters, Romero is in love with Penny—like Eric Rhodes' Alfredo Bedini in Top Hat, he's an utterly non-credible rival to Fred. At least this plot line does provide an excuse for Lucky and Penny's audition number, "Waltz in Swing Time." Swing Time is generally praised for how well the songs are integrated with the script, but beautiful as this dance is, it's basically an item number. Unlike "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" or "Cheek to Cheek" or "Let's Face The Music and Dance," "Waltz in Swing Time" doesn't tell a story about the characters (though when the dance is so enjoyable, who's complaining?).

There's actually another item number in Swing Time: "Bojangles of Harlem," a solo with chorus that Astaire dances in blackface. Croce calls this "the homage...of one great artist to another" (p. 107), and it is surely intended as Astaire's tribute to the great tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. And as a dance, it's astonishing—Astaire wears taps on his palms as well as his shoes, and sets up complex counter-rhythms between the music, his feet and his hands. And in the middle section of the number Astaire dances in and out of synchronization with three "shadows" (created by trick photography, not by dancers behind the scrim). But it's hard to get past the blackface thing. While I realize that blackface is a complex cultural phenomenon—even black performers donned blackface—its association with racist stereotypes overwhelms its more nuanced meanings. I have to confess that this sequence, brilliant as it is, is hard for me to watch.

Back to our story, where Lucky vacillates between trying not to earn the $25,000 so he can stay in New York and woo Penny, and acting cool to Penny every time Pop reminds him of his engagement. This push-me pull-you relationship is comically encapsulated in "A Fine Romance," where first Lucky, then Penny (after she learns of his engagement) take turns rebuffing the other (and singing the verse). Penny decides that she's going to marry Romero after all, giving Fred and Ginger the opportunity to dance a beautifully poignant farewell duet together to Kern's "Never Gonna Dance"/"The Way You Look Tonight."

The denouement, though, has to be one of the least convincing in the series. Romero falls for the same, lame "your trousers should have cuffs" gag that prevented Lucky's wedding to Margaret at the beginning of the film. And then Penny, learning of Lucky's now permanently broken engagement, decides amid gales of forced laughter that "There isn't going to be any wedding"—to Romero, at least. To me this scene reeks of the writers' desperation to wrap up the movie, and confirms the truism that watching other people laugh is rarely funny. Fred and Ginger do get a coda, though, where they sing "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight" simultaneously in harmony, as snow falls on New York. A lovely ending to a film that for me—whenever Fred and Ginger aren't dancing, at least—doesn't quite live up to its reputation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 2: Roberta and Top Hat

As we've proceeded with our re-viewing of the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies, it's gradually become clear that there are (at least) two templates for their movies. The first, the one we all remember, is outlined in the introduction to Fred & Ginger Part 1. The second template is based on the two-couple conventions of comic opera: there's a leading couple around whom the romantic complications center, and a secondary couple who provide most of the comedy. The surprise in the second type of film is that, even when they're top-billed, Fred and Ginger play the comic secondary couple. As in...

3. Roberta (1935): You'd think that it would have been obvious to everyone how well the Astaire-Rogers star pairing worked in The Gay Divorcée (1934), but for Roberta they were returned to supporting roles. The film was planned before The Gay Divorcée was released, so perhaps that explains the filmmakers' caution in falling back on the Flying Down to Rio formula.

The movie was based on a Jerome Kern stage musical of the same title. As was the usual practice, several numbers from the stage show were cut, and new songs—"Lovely To Look At" and "I Won't Dance," also by Kern—were substituted.

The lovely Irene Dunne gets top billing as Stephanie, the main designer at a glamorous Parisian boutique. When Roberta's owner dies and leaves the shop to her American nephew John Kent (Randolph Scott), he and Stephanie clash at first before they realize they can't live (or run a business) without each other. Stephanie and Kent are the serious romantic couple, and so Dunne doesn't get to give full play to the wonderfully wry comic persona she later displayed in movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). She does sing the Kern classics "Lovely to Look At" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" in a high operatic soprano that, because it doesn't have a hint of jazz in it, sounds like it should be in a different film. The stolid Scott is typecast as an American lunk who gets in over his head in both business and love.

Fred is Huckleberry Haines, leader of the Wabash Indianians dance band. Ginger is Lizzie Gatz, Huck's hometown sweetheart who went to Paris to make her fortune and now performs as the cafe singer "Countess Scharwenka." With Dunne and Scott going through the all the romantic plot twists and misunderstandings, all Fred and Ginger are given to do is banter, sing and dance together, which they do superbly. In "I'll Be Hard To Handle," Ginger sings the song in her "Countess Scharwenka" accent, and then she and Fred launch into a tap routine that reprises the relationship of their characters while it showcases the actors' easy comic rapport (at about 1:35 you can hear them laugh together for a moment over something invisible to us mere mortals):


Delightful as this is, it's their second dance together that's the iconic number from Roberta: the fluid "Lovely To Look At/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" duet, with the lithe Ginger in a clingy black satin gown and Fred in the white tie and tails that he'd make his trademark in the title number of their next film, Top Hat (1935):


In The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book Arlene Croce calls this movie "their most ebullient film" (p. 46), and speculates that it's because during the filming of Roberta the super-hit success of The Gay Divorcée was becoming apparent. Whatever the reason, the high spirits evident in this film carry over into at least their next three collaborations, starting with...

4. Top Hat (1935): This was the first of their films to be written specifically for Astaire and Rogers, but it essentially follows the model of The Gay Divorcée—initial antagonism and mistaken identity inevitably being overcome by love. Rogers plays Dale Tremont, friend of Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), wife of the theater producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who is putting on a London show featuring the American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers (Astaire). Got all that?

Dale comes to believe that Jerry is Horace, and so she is outraged by his romantic pursuit of her around London and all the way to Venice (or perhaps I should say "Venice," since no attempt is made to made the Venice locations look like anything other than the huge Art Deco film set that they are). And Dale is very puzzled by Madge's eager matchmaking between her and the man she thinks is Madge's husband. Of course, ultimately the confusion is cleared up, but not before Fred and Ginger sing and dance through some terrific Irving Berlin numbers written for the movie.

Fred's solos to "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" (in which he first wakes up his downstairs neighbor Ginger with a tap routine, and then puts her to sleep with a soft shoe reprise), and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (in which he "shoots" a male chorus line with his walking stick), are justly famous. But—no surprise here—I find his duets with Ginger to be the highlights of the film. First is "Isn't This A Lovely Day," where Fred and Ginger conduct a charming courtship dance in a deserted gazebo in the middle of a sudden downpour:


(This scene should look familiar to Bollywood fans, as it's the original to which director/writer Karan Johar is paying homage in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).)

Fred and Ginger's second dance together is "Cheek to Cheek," which begins with Fred singing "Heaven, I'm in heaven..." Easy to believe when he's dancing with Ginger. This is the number with the famous ostrich-feather dress; according to Croce, it was designed by Rogers herself. It floats around her beautifully, especially when Astaire twirls her, dips her, or lifts her into the air—a suggestion of heaven, indeed, in what is probably their best-known (and perhaps loveliest) duet:


I find the plot of Top Hat to be a bit too thin—is it really conceivable that Dale wouldn't realize her mistake almost immediately, or that she would so readily agree to marry the fop Bedini (Eric Rhodes, of course)?—but I realize that the plot is beside the point. Top Hat is delirious tongue-in-cheek fun, and it was a smash. It's still probably the movie people are most likely to be thinking of when they think of an Astaire-Rogers movie. Amazingly, though—in my humble opinion, at least—they still hadn't reached their peak.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 1: Flying Down To Rio and The Gay Divorcee

You may think you remember what a typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie is like. There's initial antagonism—they meet cute, but while he's instantly smitten, she is unimpressed. He pursues her; she rebuffs him, but eventually acquiesces to a dance. As they move in a sweeping, fluid duet to a gorgeously romantic song, now a standard, that was written for them—Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," say, or "Cheek to Cheek"—she finds herself falling in love with this odd-looking but beautifully graceful man. Their courtship dance is observed, aided and impeded by a cast of comic supporting actors which include Edward Everett Horton (a continually exasperated best friend), Eric Blore (a fey waiter or valet), and Eric Rhodes (a vain foreign competitor for Ginger). All the characters move in a world of elegant cafés, resort hotels, tuxedos and evening gowns—and this at the height of the Depression.

So it was a bit of a shock to discover, as we began to re-watch the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies for RKO Pictures (excluding the musical biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), that only two of their first five movies together actually conform to this model. And it's also surprising how contingent the beginning of their partnership seems. One of the greatest dance pairings of the 20th century came together as a matter of chance (which, as we will learn in their second film together, The Gay Divorcée (1934), "is just the fool's name for fate"). Fred was famously (if perhaps apocryphally) screen-tested and found wanting: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." Ginger was the better-known and more experienced movie actor, but she had mainly played supporting roles as a wisecracking chorus girl. In two of their first three films together Astaire and Rogers are not even the top-billed stars. But as Katherine Hepburn famously (if perhaps apocryphally) said of them, "He gave her class, and she gave him sex."

1. Flying Down to Rio (1933): But neither class nor sex is much apparent in their first film together, which barely qualifies as an Astaire-Rogers film. She's fourth-billed, he's fifth, and they have only one brief number together. But they provide the only sparks of interest in a plot that seems like it was thrown together over lunch on the first day of shooting. Dolores Del Rio is a sultry Latin bombshell who so bewitches blond bandleader Gene Raymond that he follows her with his entire orchestra down to Rio de Janiero. Raymond wins the girl and rescues her father's hotel (which has been denied an entertainment license) by—of course!—strapping dozens of dancing girls to the wings of airplanes and executing a Busby Berkeley-style aerial production number over the beach.

Ginger plays Honey Hale, the singer in Raymond's orchestra, and Fred is Fred Ayres, Raymond's accordion player/assistant conductor/sidekick. They don't take the floor together until midway through the film during the novelty dance number "The Carioca" (music by Vincent Youmans; lyrics by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn). As the lyrics have it, "it's not a foxtrot or a polka," but rather an odd dance in which the partners touch foreheads while executing a complicated tango step. Not even Fred and Ginger can make this look graceful, and at one point they make a joke of it by knocking their heads together and then staggering around the dance floor as if dazed. You'll feel a bit dazed, too, if you watch this movie, which is for Fred and Ginger completists only:



According to Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972), Ginger wasn't even originally cast in Flying Down to Rio: "Rogers might not have been in the film at all if Dorothy Jordan, who had been cast, hadn't decided to marry Merian C. Cooper, the head of the studio, and go off on a honeymoon rather than dance with Fred Astaire" (p. 25). Fortunately for all of us, Ginger seized that chance, and it led to star billing in their next film together.

2. The Gay Divorcée (1934) was based on a Cole Porter stage musical, The Gay Divorce (1932), which was Fred Astaire's first (and final) Broadway hit without his partner and sister Adele; after its success, he went to Hollywood. In the transition from stage to film, many things were lost, including most of Porter's songs ("Night and Day" was the only survivor), but a few things were retained, including both Eric Rhodes (as a preening professional adulterer) and Eric Blore (doing his waiter routine). Edward Everett Horton is Fred's best friend, a dim lawyer who takes on the task of getting Ginger divorced from her elderly, indifferent husband. (Indifferent to Ginger? Of the many implausibilities in this film, that might be the hardest one to swallow.)

There's a good Astaire solo number near the beginning of the film, "A Needle In A Haystack" (music by Con Conrad, lyrics by Herb Magidson). Fred gets dressed in a natty suit while dancing around, over and on the furniture in his sitting room, all the while singing about his quest to find the girl he's suddenly smitten with (who is—who else?).

In the worst idea in the movie Horton, a non-dancer, is partnered with Betty Grable in a novelty number, "Let's K-nock K-neez"—thanks to Horton's inability to dance, Grable is left to carry the very weak comedy of this number on her own.

In fact, it's amazing how much screen time is taken up by characters other than Fred and Ginger; it looks as though the studio still had doubts about their ability to carry a film. They don't even get to dance that much together, just two numbers. The first is Porter's "Night and Day," the model for every falling-in-love ballad that followed. It's taken at a significantly faster tempo than, say, Ella Fitzgerald's later version, but even so it's fluid and beautiful. Ginger finds herself alone with Fred; she tries to leave, he prevents her, and they fall into a swooning dance until her half-hearted resistance is overcome. At the end of the dance Rogers gazes at Astaire in what seems to be unfeigned wonder:



One thing to be aware of in this clip and in the others to follow is how beautifully they're shot: the takes are long (sometimes an entire, minutes-long dance is a single take!) and medium shots are used to make sure both that the dancers' bodies are generally visible from head to toe, and that the viewer has a sense of the space that they're moving in. That was due to Astaire, who choreographed and directed his own dances.

The second Fred-Ginger number is "The Continental" (another Conrad/Magidson song), modelled explicitly on "The Carioca," and similarly involving armies of black and white clad dancers executing precision steps in front of a vast white edifice while we wonder what's happened to Fred and Ginger, who disappear five minutes into this 17-minute marathon. Fortunately they return to dance up and down the stairs at the very end.

So, many of the elements of the classic Astaire-Rogers films are present in this one, but the script isn't nearly as clever as it should be, and far too much time is taken up with tired vaudeville routines involving the other characters. Much better things were to follow...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Lagaan and Rang de Basanti didn't make my list of favorites

This post is probably going to get me in trouble, but I thought I'd address a couple major absences from my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s list. Both Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001) and Rang de Basanti (Paint It Saffron, 2006) will make many people's best-of-the-decade lists, both films won a slew of awards and were India's official entries for Best Foreign-Language Film at the US Academy Awards. So why are they missing from my list of favorites?

The first thing to say is that I wasn't trying to make a list of the "best" films of the decade, but of my personal favorites--that is, films I'm drawn to see multiple times. Neither Lagaan nor Rang de Basanti falls into that category. The reasons that particular films speak to us and others of equal quality don't can be mysterious. Still, I'll try to explain why I left each film off my list.

Lagaan is the story of a group of Raj-era villagers who, during a devastating drought, face having to pay a ruinous tribute to the British. Being a sporting type, though, the cartoonishly evil captain of the local British regiment offers to forgive the tax for three years if the villagers can beat his crack cricket team. The villagers have never played the game, don't know the rules and have no equipment, but having no choice they accept the challenge. Led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and aided by the British officer's sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the ragtag villagers must overcome their caste prejudices and romantic rivalries to unite and face the British in the Big Game.

Which takes up the entire second half of the movie. And that's where the problems arise for me, because Big Game movies are suspenseless. We know the underdogs face almost impossible odds, we know the dominant team will build up a near-insurmountable lead, and we know that at the last possible moment--spoiler alert!--the underdogs will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The other suspenseless question at stake in Lagaan is whether the hunky Bhuvan will come to reciprocate Elizabeth's growing love or remain true to his village sweetheart Gauri (Gracy Singh).

--End of spoiler--

Obviously, an uncertainty about the outcome isn't the only reason to watch a narrative. We know, for example, how a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie will turn out even before the opening credits roll, and theater troupes haven't stopped putting on productions of Hamlet just because the audience already knows the ending. But in the case of Lagaan, the rewards of the performances (of its Indian cast, at least) and of Ashutosh Gowariker's direction aren't enough to counterbalance the long, slow unfolding of the inevitable that is its second half. For me.

Rang de Basanti actually has a somewhat similar narrative structure--a disparate group of Indian men comes together and, with the aid of a young British woman, overcomes their differences in the service of a larger goal. In this case the group is made up of pleasure-seeking, apolitical young men who agree take part in the British woman's film about the Indian independence movement. In the process, they learn about the courageous and non-sectarian freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. The men's awakening political consciences then inform their plan to expose and avenge the government corruption that has resulted in the death of a friend who was an Indian Air Force pilot.

Like the earlier freedom fighters, the modern-day group turns to violence. Unlike the freedom fighters, though, the modern-day group is not living under the military occupation of a foreign power that has imposed press censorship, arrest without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, secret tribunals, and which has massacred a peaceful and unarmed crowd of men, women and children gathered to celebrate a religious festival. Instead, the modern group lives in a flawed and corrupt but still functioning democracy with a relatively free press.

So when they decide--spoiler alert!--to assassinate the government minister and the industrialist who are responsible for their friend's death, it seems more a failure of imagination than an act of revolutionary justice. And when the minister becomes hailed as a martyr to terrorism, their strategy backfires in a big way. So their next step is an armed takeover of the All-India Radio station, from which they broadcast details of the cozily corrupt relationship between government and business; then they all die in a hail of bullets as the station is stormed by security forces.

--End of spoiler--

But what a waste. Again, their actions seem more motivated by a martyr complex than by a realistic assessment of what would be needed to effect change in their society. Do they consider becoming investigative journalists, exposing misdeeds and directing press campaigns against the incompetent, venal and corrupt? Do they join or create organizations dedicated to bettering the lives of the victimized and powerless? Do they pledge themselves to the Sisyphean task of making a sustained difference? No--working for change in incremental ways is brutally hard and largely unacknowledged work. I felt that Rang de Basanti, in its glamorization of violence, was actually expressing a profound despair about the possibility of real, long-term change in Indian society (and in modern global capitalism in general). That despair may indeed be well-founded, but I felt that the characters--largely children of privilege themselves--hadn't yet earned it.

So that's why neither film is one I'm eager to see again, and why neither made it onto my list of favorites for the past decade. Alternative perspectives are welcome.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s

In response to theBollywoodFan's list of his favorite films of the 2000s, I offer my own selections for the past decade.

Five favorite Bollywood films, plus one ringer (in chronological order, and yes, five out of the six feature Shah Rukh Khan):

Devdas (2002): Sanjay Leela Bhansali's retelling of the tragic loves of Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan), his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) and the courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) is one of the most sumptuous movies ever filmed. Madhuri Dixit's dances are highlights, but all of the songs are integrated into the story with unusual care.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003): Three friends (SRK, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta) learn about laughter, life and love in modern-day New York--but one of them is concealing a tragic secret. Karan Johar's tightly structured script, director Nikhil Advani's razor-sharp direction and the excellent performances of the cast are what made this the film that hooked us on Bollywood.

Veer-Zaara (2004): Veer, an Indian man (SRK) and Zaara, a Pakistani woman (Preity Zinta) meet and fall in love, but are separated for years by the political divisions between their countries. The lush, evocative score by the late Madan Mohan perfectly matches the sweeping emotions of Yash Chopra's love story.

Water (2005): The ringer, since this isn't really a Bollywood (or even Indian) film. But director/writer Deepa Mehta's story of an impossible love between a student (John Abraham) and a young widow (Lisa Ray) in pre-independence India is highly compelling, and both principals offer excellent performances.

Paheli (2005): A feminist retelling of a puppet-theater folk tale in which a neglected wife (Rani Mukherjee) finds emotional and erotic fulfillment with a spirit who takes the form of her absent husband (SRK). So gorgeously shot by director Amol Palekar and cinematographer Ravi Chandran that we forgive them for Shah Rukh's unflattering moustache.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006): A brave experiment, in which director/writer Karan Johar tells the story of the disintegration of two mismatched couples (SRK & Preity, Abhishek Bachchan & Rani). No heroes and no villains, just complex, largely believable characters caught up in an emotional maelstrom. Abhishek's best performance to date, I think.

Six films that were worthy contenders for the favorites list, plus one ringer:

Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000): It's a Tamil rather than Bollywood movie, I know, but I wanted to include this contemporary version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility because it's so charming. A great story (of course) and wonderful performances by Aishwarya Rai and Tabu as the Marianne and Elinor characters.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001): The story of three young men (Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan) and their romantic involvements with three women (Dimple Kapadia, Sonali Kulkarni and Preity Zinta), this film was a major milestone for its youthful director/writer Farhan Akhtar and for many of its cast members.

Hum Tum (2004): Great chemistry in this romantic comedy between Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee. Unfortunately, the success of this one gave us the inferior Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007) and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008) (both on the List of Shame below).

Swades (2004): SRK is a NASA engineer who returns to India to bring his ayah back to the States, only to get caught up in trying to solve the problems besetting her village. Whatever happened to the lovely Gayatri Joshi, SRK's love interest in this one?

Black (2005): Yes, it's a remake of The Miracle Worker (1962), but when Amitabh Bachchan as the teacher and Rani as his reluctant student do such fine work, what does it matter?

Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006): The charming story of a gangster boss (Sanjay Dutt at his most appealing) who holds imaginary conversations with Gandhi, takes a vow of nonviolence and, together with his uncomprehending sidekick Circuit (Arshad Warshi), stands up for the residents of an old-age home. A prime candidate for an introductory film for Bollywood neophytes.

Om Shanti Om (2007): SRK and the appealing Ritesh Deshmukh Shreyas Talpade are especially good in the first half as scrounging "junior artistes" in 1970s Bollywood. The modern-day second half with SRK doing a self-parody as the superstar Om Kapoor doesn't hold up quite as well, but the film is an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek valentine to past and present Bollywood.

Seven films for which I have an inexplicable affection, even though they're all flawed in various ways:

Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002): In many ways this isn't a very good film--but the performances by Preity Zinta as an illegitimate daughter and by Rekha as her embittered stepmother make it compelling anyway. If you can stop watching during the final hour, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Munna Bhai MBBS (2003): Sanjay Dutt's second outing as the good-hearted gangster Munna finds the big galoot attending medical school. Some of the humor is predictable or strained, but Sanjay's a delight throughout.

Koi..Mil Gaya (2003): Affecting performances by Hrithik Roshan and the ever-lovely Preity Zinta make this remake of E.T. (1982) surprisingly endearing.

Chori Chori (2003): Add this one to the growing "actors transcending their material" pile. Rani is adorable as Khushi, a woman who is scamming her way through life when she encounters Ranbir (Ajay Devgan), an architect who is stalled both professionally and personally. Of course, we know where this is going long before the characters do, but it's still enjoyable to watch Rani get there.

Vivah (2006): Yes, director Sooraj Barjatya's story of the "journey from engagement to marriage" of the young, beautiful and well-to-do Prem (Shahid Kapoor) and Poonam (Amrita Rao) is lovely, but slow-moving and sentimental. And your point is...?

Aaja Nachle (2007): Madhuri Dixit's return to Bollywood, if not quite to Devdas-level dancing form, transcends its "let's put on a show" formula thanks to her engaging performance.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008): OK, the premise stretches credulity past the breaking point. But SRK's performance in a dual role (especially as the introverted Suri) is delightful, and the number "Phir Milenge" brilliantly pays homage to Bollywood's Golden and Silver Ages.

Finally, ten movies that range from disappointing to flat-out awful (you get to decide which movie falls under which category):

Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2000)
Yaadein (2001)
Shakti: The Power (2002)
Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003)
Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007)
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007)
Saawariya (2007) (Rani's sequences excepted)
Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008)
U Me aur Hum (2008)
Chandni Chowk to China (2009)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Busby Berkeley

In the early 1930s the director and choreographer* Busby Berkeley created a new form of film musical. Berkeley designed and directed elaborate production numbers featuring armies of chorus girls moving in geometrically precise arrangements. The production numbers in previous musical films had generally been shot from static positions in front of the proscenium—a theater audience's point of view. Berkeley's innovation was to make the camera a part of the choreography by placing it directly overhead, on the chorus line, or even tracking between the dancers' legs onstage.

We've recently been watching several of Berkeley's early musicals for Warner Brothers, and I thought I'd offer a quick survey. I realize that calling these movies "Busby Berkeley musicals" neglects the contributions of directors like Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn LeRoy, who were often in charge of the dialogue scenes. But with all due respect to Bacon and LeRoy, it's the Berkeley-directed dance numbers that make these movies unforgettable. So, in descending order of watchability:

1. Gold Diggers of 1933 is Berkeley's masterpiece, containing some of his most jaw-droppingly enjoyable numbers. Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and comedienne Aline MacMahon play wisecracking but good-hearted chorus girls (a setup so successful it was recycled a few years later in the excellent Stage Door (1937), also starring Ginger Rogers). Ruby Keeler is (what else) the ingenue, and her love interest Dick Powell is a rich kid slumming it as a Broadway songwriter. But all you need to know is that the screenplay provides enough snappy dialogue and comic situations to keep you thoroughly entertained between numbers.


And what numbers! From the opening "We're in the Money" (featuring chorus girls clothed in coins and Ginger Rogers singing the lyrics in pig latin) to the "Shadow Waltz" (with dozens of dancers playing neon-lit violins), Berkeley's stagings of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs are mind-boggling. My favorite may be the delirious "Pettin' in the Park," which says more about the sexual mores of my grandparents' generation than I really want to know. Here are the last two minutes or so of this sequence (formerly available in its entirety):



The movie closes with "Remember My Forgotten Man," a harrowing song about the mistreatment and neglect of World War I veterans, unforgettably performed by Joan Blondell and Etta Motten. Don't miss this one.

2. 42nd Street (1933) became the template for every backstage musical to follow: when a Broadway show's star (Bebe Daniels) breaks her ankle just before opening night, the ingenue chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to go on as her replacement. The movie has Harry Warren and Al Dubin's great title song about that "naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty" (or as Ruby Keeler sings, "spawty") thoroughfare, and the classic line delivered to Peggy by the harried director (Warner Baxter) just before she steps onstage: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

It also has Ruby Keeler's first and worst film performance. Her line readings are stiff and unconvincing, and worse, her dancing is ungainly and looks like the hard work it must actually be. When she launches into her clomping tap-dance* break during the climactic version of the title song, the tempo of the music audibly slows down instead of speeding up.

Throughout the film Keeler has a stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look. Perhaps she herself realized the ludicrousness of the scene in which another chorus girl gives up her chance to take over the leading role in favor of Keeler. That other chorus girl, who in fact handles the snappy dialogue and the jazzy choreography much more smoothly than Keeler, is played by Fred Astaire's future partner Ginger Rogers. Nah—she could never carry the show...

3. Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney burns up the screen in an intense performance as the harried director of spectacular live "prologues" supposedly put on before movie screenings (sure—if the movie theater is the size of an airplane hanger and the exhibitor has an unlimited budget). To win a contract he's got to stage three prologues on one night in three different theaters—and he's only got a single weekend to prepare everything.

But you can forget (or enjoy) the multiple implausibilities when the movie includes Cagney, the great Joan Blondell, and one of the most absurdly spectacular numbers Berkeley ever filmed, the "water ballet" "By A Waterfall."

The inevitable Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are also in the cast, with Keeler giving one of her better performances as a secretary who steps onstage and becomes a star. Just don't think too hard about the racial politics of the final number, "Shanghai Lil" (in which Cagney shows that he can sing and tap-dance a little, too).

4. Gold Diggers of 1935: Lightning does not strike twice; this sequel-in-name-only to Gold Diggers of 1933 testifies to the (temporary) exhaustion of the Berkeley formula—or perhaps, after his grueling work schedule of the previous three years, to Berkeley's own exhaustion. This time, instead of playing a gee-whiz kid, Powell plays a cynical and jaded gold digger himself. The plot centers on the creation of a charity stage show which is so spectacularly lavish that it loses tens of thousands of dollars.

The two main production numbers, to the Warren-Dubin songs "The Words Are In My Heart" and "The Lullaby of Broadway," only partly compensate for the unsatisfying plot. The opening and final images of "Lullaby" are a direct homage to the photographs of Man Ray, suggesting that Berkeley's surrealism was highly self-conscious. And talk about surrealism: the "Lullaby" number is staged as a bizarre morality play which ends with the Broadway Baby (Wini Shaw) falling to her death from a skyscraper—an eerie anticipation of the suicide of Dorothy Hale, immortalized in Frida Kahlo's famous painting. A strange coda to an oddly dark film:



(This is only a fraction of this number, which is nearly 15 minutes long; the full sequence is no longer available.)

* see Jeffrey Spivak's comments below.

Update 6 Feb 2011: Jeffrey Spivak's Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley has been published by the University Press of Kentucky. Thanks again to Jeff for his detailed comments below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Azhagi

The Tamil-language film Azhagi (2002) was adapted by acclaimed cinematographer Thankar Bachan from his own short story "Kalvettu." Perhaps Bachan was too close to the material, because to me it felt that as a writer and director he sometimes got in the way of his excellent cast. The film is compelling, but some miscalculations and inconsistencies make it less powerful than it might have been. (Image from thankarbachan.com.)

As schoolchildren, Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi are friends and allies against the cruelties of adults and other children; and as they grow older, they begin to feel the stirrings of an unspoken love. But they are separated when Dhanalakshmi is forced to marry her abusive, alcoholic brother-in-law, while Shanmugam goes off to veterinary college.

Years later Shanmugam (Parthiban) accidentally encounters the widowed Dhanalakshmi (the always superb Nandita Das) and her young son, now impoverished and living on the streets. He decides to bring them home and give Dhanalakshmi a job as a household servant to help his wife Valarmati (Devayani) with their two children.

But no good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and Dhanalakshmi's presence in Shanmugam's household is soon exciting nasty insinuations from the townspeople and inflaming suspicions in his wife. And her suspicions aren't entirely unjustified. It's clear that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi's powerful feelings for one another haven't been extinguished, although--with mixed success--they both try to avoid overstepping the bounds of their new relationship. Shanmugam's mother-in-law is outraged by what she sees as Dhanalakshmi's too-familiar manner, while his wife Valarmarti's initial sympathy begins to wear thin as her awareness of her husband's past (and present) emotional connection to the beautiful Dhanalakshmi grows.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including the child actors who play Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi at various stages of childhood and adolescence (the credits are in Tamil only, so I couldn't identify who they are). Nandita Das' performance as the adult Dhanalakshmi is especially affecting. And the wistful songs by Ilaiyaraaja enhance the melancholy mood. All of these elements come together at the moment that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi first encounter one another again in "Un Kuthama" (vocals by Ilaiyaraaja):


But unfortunately Azhagi also includes supposedly comic episodes (featuring the petty corruption of Shanmugam's colleagues) which for me only served to disrupt the delicately established mood. There's also a gratuitous and implausible fight scene where Shanmugam defends Dhanalakshmi's honor (and his own) against a group of insulting men. Bachan may have felt that he had to include these masala elements in order to insure the film's commercial success, but for me they were jarring interruptions that seemed to belong to another film entirely.

At least the comedy and fight scenes can be hastened through using the fast-forward button. More problematic is the character of Valarmati, who swings wildly between the extremes of sympathetic understanding and bitter anger. Bachan needed to add a bit more nuance to her character, although the lovely Devayani does what she can to make Valarmati's reactions seem credible.

I've got a major weakness for stories of impossible loves: characters whose yearning for one another is so held in check by social convention and by their concern for hurting others that they can never bring themselves to act on their feelings. If you share my susceptibility to stories of thwarted passion (or my admiration for Nandita Das) you'll find a good deal to enjoy in Azhagi, despite its flaws.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The newspaper of record on Chronic City

From two reviews of Jonathan Lethem's new novel Chronic City (Doubleday, 2009) in the New York Times.

Michiko Kakutani, October 13, 2009:

"tedious, overstuffed"

"a lot of pompous hot air...the entire book...pretentiously — and clumsily — tries to create a kind of virtual-reality game version of Manhattan."

"insipid"

"coy ... juvenile and mannered"

"annoying and tiresome"

"an irritating bore"

"...these creatures inhabit neither a real flesh-and-blood Manhattan nor a persuasive fictional realm, and they’re so clearly plasticky puppets moved hither and thither by Mr. Lethem’s random whims that it’s of no concern to us what happens to them in this lame and unsatisfying novel."

Gregory Cowles, October 25, 2009:
"astonishing"

"'Chronic City' owes less to Bellow (a scrupulous realist, after all) than to antic postmodern fabulists like Pynchon and Rushdie and DeLillo"

"knowing and exuberant, with beautiful drunken sentences that somehow manage to walk a straight line"

"In Lethem’s earliest work the tricks and extravagances and gymnastic prose sometimes seemed arch or mannered—merely clever—but they have grown steadily more confident, and here they serve the higher purpose of flinging Manhattan onto the page in all its manic energy....style and subject merge"

"turbocharged"

"thrilling"

"we want it to last forever"

"'The Fortress of Solitude' was a great novel.... 'Chronic City'...is even better. "

"Even in an alternate reality—even in a fiction—passion and significance are everywhere if you know where to look."
(Image from the Knopf/Doubleday website.)

Update 4 December 2009: Chronic City has been chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2009 (only five of which are fiction).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola Alcina

This past week in the Bay Area the Baroque vocal group Magnificat (in collaboration with the Carter Family Marionettes) performed Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina's Island, 1625) as a puppet opera. (Images from the website of Magnificat.)

Francesca Caccini was a remarkable figure. According to scholar Suzanne Cusick's informative program notes, Francesca was the daughter of the famous singer and composer Giulio Caccini (of "Amarilli, mia bella" fame). Francesca sang at age 13 in the first opera to have survived complete, Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice (1600), to which her father also contributed music. Francesca not only had a beautiful singing voice by contemporary accounts, but was a multi-instrumentalist and later a teacher and composer as well. She wrote hundreds of songs and music for at least 17 entertainments for the Medici Court in Florence. Unfortunately most of her songs are lost, and the only one of her operas that survives in performable form is La Liberazione di Ruggiero.

Ferdinando Saracinelli's libretto takes its story from the same portions of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532) from which Handel's Alcina (1735) was drawn. The knight Ruggiero has been seduced by the beautiful (but evil) sorceress Alcina and is lingering with her on her enchanted island. Ruggiero doesn't realize the danger he's in: he's just the latest in a series of conquests that Alcina has bewitched; his predecessors have been turned into the lush plant life that covers her island. The beautiful (but good) sorceress Melissa and Ruggiero's betrothed, Bradamante, go to Alcina's island to shame Ruggiero into returning to his martial (and marital) duties. As Ruggiero dons his armor and prepares to leave, Alcina at first pleads with him to stay. But when her tears fail, she vengefully uses her magic to unleash demons and fire against Ruggiero. Ruggiero's valor and Melissa's counter-magic triumph, however: the other enchanted knights and ladies on the island are freed, the demons are overcome and Alcina is vanquished.

Cusick's program notes make the case that this story wasn't chosen at random--that it functions as a partial allegory of the complex political situation in the Medici territories, which were then co-ruled by the regent Archduchess Maria Maddalena and her mother-in-law, Christine de Lorraine. I'm not completely convinced. First, along with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Tasso, Ariosto's chivalric romances were part of the common currency of stories that composers and librettists could be assured that their courtly audiences would be familiar with. Additionally, if the opera is an allegory the role of Alcina is highly problematic. Unlike her portrayal in Handel's opera a century later, her depiction in La Liberazione di Ruggiero--while initially sympathetic--turns unequivocally negative by the end of the opera. So we have a battle between a good witch (Melissa) and a bad witch (Alcina) over a man reluctant to assume his duties. If the good witch is seen as Maria Maddalena, the bad witch then becomes associated with Christine, and the reluctant knight with Ferdinando II de Medici, for whom Maria Maddalena and Christine were acting as regents. Such associations could not have been anything but highly offensive to Christine, a very powerful woman who was likely present at the first performance.

Magnificat's production was a pastiche of elements, many of which were deliberately anachronistic. All questions of "authenticity" dissolved, though, in the charming performances. The puppets were an ingenious solution to the problem of staging this spectacular opera, which features mermaids, sorceresses on flying dragons, singing trees, and a concluding (sea)horse ballet. There was a natural connection between the opera and the working-class Sicilian puppet theater tradition, which incorporates figures from the chivalric romances (the armored figures of Ruggiero and the rescued knight Astolfo were, we were informed, actually constructed in Sicily). The Baroque stagecraft in miniature was utterly delightful: the rolling ocean waves, flying dragons, sea monsters, magical transformations, and the highly amusing references to The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz were handled with captivating cleverness.

And of course, even in a puppet version the opera had a full share of Baroque gender-bending: Melissa, sung by a male countertenor, cross-dresses as Ruggiero's former mentor Atlante in order to confront him; meanwhile, the same male countertenor voiced one of the three damigelle who were Alcina's handmaidens.

The only element of the production that I had mixed feelings about was the puppet Pulcinella, who commented on and participated in the action intermittently throughout the opera. Pulcinella, a commedia dell'arte character associated with earthy jokes and comic misadventures, is a common figure in Sicilian puppet theater, so his presence made sense. But it's highly unlikely that comic interludes were part of the initial performance of the opera (courtly decorum would not have permitted it). And truth be told, I found it difficult to switch between Caccini's beautiful music and Pulcinella's bad puns, bawdy gestures and scatological jokes.

All in all, though, the production was a brilliant success on every level--and most especially the musical. The musicians and singers of Magnificat were uniformly excellent, and Caccini's music was simply gorgeous. I have to mention by name soprano Catherine Webster (Alcina), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Paulino (Sirena, Damigelle), alto countertenor José Lemos (Melissa/Atlante and other characters), and bass Hugh Davies (Nettuno)--their contributions in particular were superb. But every member of Magnificat and the Carter Family Marionettes should congratulate themselves on a triumph.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vanaja

Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that's how I felt about writer/director Rajnesh Domalpalli's film Vanaja (2007). The film has many virtues. Among them are the excellent and largely nonprofessional cast, and especially the radiant performance of Mamatha Shukya in the title role. Also striking are the beautiful images of cinematographer Milton Karn: the gorgeous saturated colors of fabrics and painted walls, and the stunning landscapes of South India. But chief among the film's pleasures are the Kuchipudi dance sequences performed by Shukya with astonishing skill.

Vanaja (Shukya) is the vivacious adolescent daughter of the struggling fisherman Somayya (Ramachandriah Marikanti). To help her father, and to learn the intricacies of Kuchipudi dance, Vanaja becomes a servant of the local Brahmin landlord, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). But Vanaja catches the eye of Rama Devi's son Shekhar (Karan Singh), who rapes and impregnates her. She quickly discovers that the wealthy and high-caste are immune from justice. Ultimately, Vanaja faces a choice between keeping her child (and sustaining her dreams of becoming a dancer) and escaping from the cruelties of Rama Devi's household.

The DVD extras include a delightful interview with Shukya, in which she displays her quick intelligence, mischievous charm and brilliant smile. In that interview she says that in her view Vanaja triumphs at the end of the film. For us the ending was far more ambiguous, and Vanaja's future seems highly uncertain.

Shukya's grace and assurance in the dance sequences suggest a lifetime of study, but in the interview she reveals that before the filming began she had only had a year of training. The DVD extras include all the unabridged dance sequences from the film, and they are very much worth seeing in their entirety. Even if the film's disparate elements don't quite cohere, Shukya's performance as the wronged but resilient Vanaja is unforgettable.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Il Trittico

Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico (Triptych, 1918) is a trilogy of one-act operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi. It's unusual to get a chance to see all three operas in one evening, as Puccini originally intended; of the three, only the last makes it into Operabase's list of the top 50 most frequently staged operas. This season Patricia Racette, an Exotic and Irrational favorite, assumed all three leading soprano roles in San Francisco Opera's production; we went to see the September 30 performance (photos of the SF Opera production by Cory Weaver).

To take the operas in reverse order of performance, but ascending order of rewards:

Gianni Schicchi (pronounced "Skeeky") is a story taken from Dante's Inferno, but given a comic twist by Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano. The grasping extended family of the rich Buoso has gathered at his deathbed. That family includes the young Rinuccio, who wants to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the wily merchant Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio's greedy relatives are opposed to the match because Schicchi cannot provide what they consider to be an adequate dowry. When the family discovers that Buoso has cut them out of his will and left all his wealth to a monastery, though, Schicchi proposes that he impersonate the dead man and dictate a new will to a notary. You can probably guess how Schicchi turns the situation to his (and Lauretta's, and Rinuccio's) advantage.

Gianni Schicchi's paper-thin plot succeeds or fails on the strength of the singer portraying Schicchi; Paolo Gavanelli proved to be a master of comic gesture and timing. And the eye-popping set and costume designs (by Allen Moyer and Bruno Schwengl, respectively) that update the action to a fantasy 1950s added to the comic atmosphere.

The high point of any Gianni Schicchi production, though, is Lauretta's delivery of one of Puccini's most famous arias, "O mio babbino caro" (O my dear papa). Thanks to Onegin65, here is a recording of one the greatest Laurettas ever, Victoria de los Angeles:



In English the words are, "O my dear papa/He [Rinuccio] pleases me, and is handsome/I want to go to Porta Rossa so we can buy a ring/Yes, yes, I want to go there!/And if my love were in vain,/I would go to the Ponte Vecchio/and throw myself in the River Arno!/I am aching, I am tortured!/Oh God, I want to die!/Father, have pity on me, have pity!"

Taken out of context, as it often is in recitals and on movie soundtracks, this aria sounds like an anguished plea from daughter to father (after all, she threatens suicide). As directed by James Robinson in the San Francisco production, though, Racette made clear Lauretta's playfulness and comic exaggeration. Clearly, this Lauretta is very much her roguish father's daughter.

I'd thought that the overt piety of Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) was going to be a bit hard to swallow; I should have had more faith--in Puccini's theatrical instincts. At the core of the opera is a bitter confrontation scene between Angelica and her icily imperious aunt, the Principessa (the great Ewa Podleš, making her SF Opera debut).

Years ago, Angelica was sent to the convent because she had disgraced her family by giving birth to a son out of wedlock; now, the Principessa coldly demands that Angelica sign away her inheritance to enable her younger sister to marry. In this clip from the May 2008 l'Òpera de Sabadell (Catalonia) production, the implacable judgement of the Principessa is brilliantly expressed by the almost otherworldly voice of the contralto Mariel Aguilar (thanks to lenalita2008):



The words (again by Forzano) in English: "Often, in the evening, I go to the chapel to pray. In the silence of those prayers my spirit seems to leave me and join your mother's in secret, ethereal communion. How painful it is to hear the dead mourn and weep! When the mystical trance passes, I have only one word to say to you: Atone! Atone! Offer my justice to the Blessed Virgin!"

Unfortunately, the San Francisco production undermined, rather than reinforced, the sense of menace that Podleš' spine-shivering voice created in this scene. The convent was represented as a harshly lit refectory, with overhead fluorescent lights eliminating all shadows. Lighting designer Christopher Maravich also eliminated any sense of the time of day; when the characters sing of the setting sun turning the water of their courtyard fountain golden, nothing was shown onstage.

Robinson's directorial choices also undermined the ending of the opera. There's no way to discuss this without spoiling it, so if you don't want to know what happens, skip the next two paragraphs. The Principessa reveals to Angelica that her son has died; numbed, Angelica signs away her share of her parents' estate, and then resolves to join her son in death by consuming poisonous herbs. As she's dying, she realizes that she's committed a mortal sin, and begs the Virgin for forgiveness. In her final moments, she sees a vision of a young boy, and hears a choir singing of salvation.



The SF Opera production deliberately demystifies this moment. The choir, of course, is the other nuns, and the boy is obviously one of the children who had earlier come into the refectory for dinner. He gazes through the closed door at Angelica convulsing on the floor; she dies, and the curtain falls. What's missing is what this vision in her final moments means to Angelica. I think it would have been far more effective for us to realize that she's seeing one of the children, but then for the doors to open and a golden light suffuse the scene: we know that it's just a boy from the hospital, but Angelica clearly believes that it's a vision of her son. If the director felt that he had to demystify Angelica's experience further, he could have done it in reverse: have the golden light fade, the doors close, and have Angelica's vision resolve into one of the children from the hospital. Robinson's choice, though, seemed unsatisfactory--it gave us no sense of Angelica's experience in her last moments, only our own rational and disenchanted perspective. A missed opportunity. Still, thanks to Racette and Podleš, the Angelica/Principessa confrontation was thrilling.



I feared that Il Tabarro (The Cloak) would earn the "shabby little shocker" tag that Joseph Kerman so notoriously (and unfairly) applied to Puccini's Tosca. Again, I underestimated Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami. Il Tabarro is a masterwork in miniature, a brilliantly compressed tragedy that hurtles inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. The barge-master Michele suspects (rightly) that his wife Giorgetta is having an affair with one of their deck-hands, Luigi. What make Il Tabarro so great is that each character is given his or her full due. Luigi (the excellent Brandon Jovanovich) has been harshly exploited his whole life, working under grueling conditions for other men's profit. Giorgetta is clearly the best thing that's ever happened to him, and Racette's ravishing voice and womanly curves make his irresistible attraction highly convincing.



Giorgetta herself dreams of escaping the barge and returning to the excitement of Belleville, the working-class neighborhood where she grew up. But as Racette's nuanced performance tells us, Giorgetta is not just bored and frustrated: she wants to leave the barge in part to escape the memory of a child that recently died in infancy. The hulking Michele (Paolo Gavanelli) is clearly set up to be the bad guy--only, in a darkly lyrical scene, harrowingly sung by Gavanelli, he pours out his love for his wife, his anguish at losing her love, and his sorrow over the death of their child. Gavanelli's portrayal makes Michele an immensely sympathetic character, which complicates our response to the horror that follows. The first portions of the SF Opera preview give a (too brief) sense of the production:



In Il Tabarro Puccini employs the orchestra brilliantly to set the scene and mood. We hear the mournful horns of ships on the Seine and the ringing of distant church bells. The growing sense of suspense and menace is palpable. For me, Il Tabarro was the revelation of the evening, and of the three operas that make up Il Trittico, the one that I'm most eager to see again.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The future of books

As a bookseller and a (future) librarian, I'm deeply concerned with the future of books. Books are convenient, functional, relatively inexpensive, portable, semi-permanent and often beautiful physical objects, and I'm convinced that for those reasons the codex will be with us for many decades to come. (Image by Philippe Kurlapski.)

But there are immense pressures building to shift books into digital formats. And as you might guess, huge international media and consumer electronics conglomerates aren't doing this for your convenience. They're pushing for electronic books to replace print because digital licenses give them more control.

The Copyright Act of 1976 gives book owners rights--fair use and the first sale rule--which limit the restrictions copyright holders can place on the use of copyrighted material. Fair use means that limited portions of a copyrighted work can be reproduced and re-used without permission for purposes such as education, commentary and parody; the first sale rule means that once you own a legitimately obtained copy of a copyrighted work you can generally give it away or sell it to someone else.

But in the digital realm, licenses, electronic protection measures, and proprietary software allow publishers to prevent fair use or transfer. Now, you can't copy even a small portion of your e-book; once you're done with it, you can't resell it or even give it away. And even your right to keep a copy of a work you've paid for can be revoked at any time by the seller.

Big Brother, thy name is Amazon. This became rudely apparent this summer to owners of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader who purchased certain editions of George Orwell's novels Animal Farm and 1984. As reported by Brad Stone in the New York Times, when Amazon discovered that the vendor of the titles did not actually own the U.S. rights (the books are in the public domain in Canada but not the U.S.), it remotely deleted the books from its customer's Kindles. Amazon's Kindle terms of service states that customers are buying the "right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content"--but the 1984 incident shows how hollow that promise is. The irony that the books involved were Orwell's dystopian visions of totalitarianism is almost too delicious: in 1984, of course, Winston Smith's job at the Ministry of Truth is to delete records of the past that don't conform to current Party orthodoxy by dropping them down the "memory hole" where they will vanish forever.

Stone quotes Kindle owner Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom: “It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon...I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

It wasn't just the texts that were deleted. Kindle allows readers to make their own notes, highlighting and annotations to electronic texts, and those were disappeared along with the e-books themselves. Stone writes of high-school student Justin Gawronski, who had a summer assignment to read 1984 and woke up to find that all of the annotations he'd made to his Kindle version of the book were gone. Gawronski said, "They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work." Two months later, as reported by Miguel Helft in the New York Times, Amazon offered to replace readers' copies of the deleted Orwell works, including their annotations--an offer that probably comes a bit late for Justin Gawronski.

And as Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain points out in Heft's article, Amazon's ability to remotely delete Kindle content raises the specter of texts you've purchased being permanently deleted or altered in the future in response to lawsuits or government action. Only with Kindle editions, there's no need for anything so crude as an incinerator--a few keystrokes will suffice.

So is the Kindle any good? In a recent New Yorker piece, novelist Nicholson Baker compared the experience of reading a book on his Kindle 2 to driving "a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks." He details the Kindle's shortcomings--its clunky design, the low contrast of its screen, the "black flash" that occurs every time it displays a new page, the lack of page numbers (instead each section of text has a "location range"), the poor reproduction of illustrations such as photographs, tables and charts. Worst of all, Baker writes that a comparison of the print, online and Kindle versions of the New York Times reveals that the Kindle version is missing content: not only photographs, but "its Web-site links, its listed names of contributing reporters, and almost all captioned pie charts, diagrams, weather maps, crossword puzzles, summary sports scores, financial data....Sometimes whole articles and op-ed contributions aren’t there." In a check of the July 8th and 9th editions of the Times, Baker found five articles that are entirely missing from the Kindle versions. (Image by ShakataGaNai.)

Speaking of monopolies... Presumably, better-designed e-book readers will solve many of the Kindle's issues. And books and other texts that are created specifically for e-book readers, rather than converted from print versions, will offer photographs, tables, charts, and other illustrations that are clearer and more legible. But for the foreseeable future the vast majority of electronic texts will remain digitized print versions.

The largest print-to-digital conversion project is Google Books, and its history to date is not reassuring. For one thing, with any Google service there are significant privacy concerns. For another, Google now has monopoly control over a huge collection of digitized works taken from library collections. As Anthony Grafton writes in the online New Yorker,

"The out-of-print books Google has digitized come from nonprofit institutions that built their collections as a public good....These public treasures will now be monetized for the benefit of a private corporation. True, Google will give every public and university library one terminal where readers can access its entire collection. But these machines won’t be able to download or print texts--and you can imagine the lines. Libraries that want full access to all the books in Google will have to pay for the privilege, and for every download."

Finding the book you want isn't so easy, though. As UC Berkeley's Geoffrey Nunberg details in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Google Books' metadata is a mess. Nunberg found that titles were garbled ("Moby-Dick: or the White Wall"), authors mismatched to books ("Madame Bovary By Henry James"), publications misdated (Robert Shelton's No Direction Home: The Life And Music Of Bob Dylan was dated 1899), subject headings misassigned (Jill Watt's biography Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was in the Religion category--although she might indeed be a holy figure to some), and text links misdirected (the link for the 1818 tract Theorie de l'Univers took Nunberg instead to Barbara Taylor Bradford's 1983 novel Voice of the Heart). A 1995 book about the web browser Mosaic was given the publication date of 1939 and attributed to Sigmund Freud.

These examples point to two main problems with the way Google creates metadata. The first is that instead of paying for the thorough, detailed, and accurate metadata painstakingly created by librarians for their collections, Google is clearly relying on automatic assignment of metadata via computer scanning. Nunberg finds that an 1890 guidebook, London of To-Day, was given the publication date of 1774 (a very different "to-day" than 1890) because the first pages contained an ad for a clothing manufacturer founded in 1774. The medieval studies journal Speculum was assigned to the subject category Health and Fitness, because the computer didn't understand the difference between the Latin word for mirror and the medical instrument. These are the sorts of errors that arise from trying to automate a process that requires human judgment.

The second problem is that instead of using library classification systems, such as call numbers and the Library of Congress Subject Headings, Google has chosen to use the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) system. The BISAC system was designed for bookstores containing thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of titles, not for research collections of millions of volumes. BISAC's idiosyncrasies get magnified by the sheer size of the Google Books collection. Call numbers permit distinctions between and groupings of similar works; for example, when you find a book in an online library catalog, most allow you to browse a virtual "shelf" to examine all the books that are classified in nearby call number ranges. But the BISAC categories are too crude to be a useful browsing tool when the collection consists of millions of volumes.

In the absence of usable metadata, the only efficient way to access Google Books is through text searching. That doesn't work very well if you are looking for a specific edition of a work (since the text will be identical in each), or are trying to investigate the literature of a particular period. Nunberg doesn't say so, but it's clear that Google needs to hire some librarians to sort out its metadata.

Meanwhile, libraries are eliminating books. David Abel of Boston.com reports that the administrators of Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, have decided to eliminate the books from its library:
"In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

"And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature.

"Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers."

Perhaps this isn't an issue for students whose families are rich enough to send them to Cushing (which costs nearly $43,000 a year for boarding students), but 18 e-book readers seem laughably inadequate as a replacement for an entire library. Students doing research and perusing assigned texts will evidently have to purchase their own copies to do so. (Clicking on the catalog link on Cushing's Fisher-Watkins Library page led only to an error message the night I tried it.)

Of course, many textbook publishers are moving into e-book formats because digital protection measures prevent students from sharing or selling their used textbooks. Now every student must buy their books new and only new, which means greater profits for publishers. (Image by Mark Wilson for the Boston Globe.)

The good old days. Which is what book publishing has been about for centuries. As Richard Nash writes in his review of Ted Striphas' The Late Age of Print (Columbia University Press, 2009), e-books are just the latest strategy in publishers' long-term struggle to control consumers by "inducing demand" and "creating artificial scarcity." Restrictive digital licenses are "the apotheosis of the publishing industry’s capacity to restrict a reader’s ability to do what they want with their books." In other words, we shouldn't mourn a genteel, non-commercial literary culture that is largely illusory. But if we want to retain fair use and first sale rights, we must organize.

Update 24 September 2009: The New York Times' Miguel Helft is reporting that the settlement between Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers is being renegotiated. The settlement in the copyright infringement case brought by the authors' and publishers' groups against Google was reached last year, but is now being revised to address privacy and antitrust issues raised by many concerned individuals and groups, including a coalition of authors and publishers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, UC Berkeley's Samuelson Clinic, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.