Friday, December 31, 2010

Bollywood mini-reviews

Over the past year we watched something on the order of 30 Indian films, but I only wrote about a handful of them. Sometimes they had already been covered in such loving (or excoriating) detail by other writers that I didn't feel I had much to add. Sometimes they didn't seem worth a full-length post. And sometimes life just caught up with me and I didn't have the time.

So here are some capsule reviews of films that, for one reason or another, never got the full-length treatment.

Dor (String, 2006) is well-written, beautifully filmed, and offers two strong performances by its lead actresses, Gul Panang and Ayesha Takia. Zeenat (Panang) learns that her husband faces a death sentence in Saudia Arabia for the (accidental?) killing of his roommate in a guest-worker dormitory. Zeenat's husband can only be saved by the pardon of the victim's widow Meera (Takia), and so Zeenat travels to Rajasthan to try to find her. Along the way she encounters the itinerant actor Behroopiya (Shreyas Talpade), who—after introducing himself by stealing her belongings—comes to aid her in her search.

Panang is fiercely convincing as the driven Zeenat, showing us both her inner strength and her desperation. Takia, previously cast mainly in lightweight comedies like Dil Maane More!!! (2004) and Home Delivery (2005), gives a subdued and nuanced performance as the young widow Meera. The scene where Meera discovers that Zeenat's friendship has an ulterior motive is heartrending, and very real.

The only thing that makes me hesitate with Dor is that, while its surfaces suggest the gritty realism of parallel cinema, as it goes along it more and more betrays its filmi heart. Talpade's character is simply too good to be true, a self-conscious star turn that feels jarringly out-of-place at times. Director Nagesh Kukunoor incorporates multiple references to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Bunty aur Babli (2005), and in Dor's final moments he directly quotes Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). While I love Bollywood in-references, I think the movie would have been even stronger without these touches. Still, a compelling film about the power of emotional bonds between women.

Two with Kamalinee Mukherjee: Anand (2004) and Godavari (2006)

The best thing about these two Telugu movies is Kamalinee Mukherjee, who is delightful as the confident, independent young heroines. In Anand she is Rupa, a young woman alone in the world who is pursued by two over-persistent lovers. One of them, Anand (Raja), moves in next door and randomly accosts her, and the other, Rahul (Anuj Gurwara), tries to rape her. After Anand saves Rupa by thrashing Rahul in the obligatory fight scene, he then blames her for the attack because she was too friendly with Rahul (!). Writer/director Sekhar Kammula creates a wonderful heroine, and then unfortunately matches her with a woefully conventional, not to say sexist, hero. Despite its charms—Kamalinee's performance, and the closely observed interactions between Rupa and her next-door neighbor Anita (Satya Krishnan) and her kids—Anand felt like it would have been better with a better hero.

Godavari, Kammula's next film, has a slightly different hero problem. Sriram (Sumanth) is travelling by boat down the Godavari River to attend the wedding of Raji (Neetu Chandra), the woman he loves but whose family has arranged her marriage with another suitor. As they float downriver to the temple of Lord Ram at Bhadrachalam, he meets Seeta (Kamalinee). Ram, Seeta, Bhadrachalam—that's not overdetermined, is it? The morose Ram and the plucky Seeta argue constantly, which means, of course, that they're falling in love, even if they're not quite aware of it. Unfortunately in the second half there's an odd incident that makes us doubt whether Ram is really ready to have someone like Seeta—or, really, anyone—in his life.

Seeta is a complex character, very sympathetically portrayed by Kamalinee: she's smart, open, generous, and aware of her own attractiveness, but given to occasional moments of doubt and jealousy. The shots of the river trip and the details of the community life on board the boat are wonderful, beautifully framed by director Kammula, and, together with Kamalinee's charming performance, are the best reason to watch Godavari.

Three with Priyanka Chopra: What's Your Raashee? (What's Your Sign?, 2009), Pyaar Impossible! (Love Impossible, 2010), and Anjaana Anjaani (Strangers, 2010)

Speaking of hero and script problems...

Priyanka may have looked great in the backless, gold-lamé swimsuit she wore in Dostana (2008), but her best asset is her voice, which is low and throaty. As she proves in What's Your Raashee?, though, she's capable of many voices, some extremely grating. Priyanka plays 12 hopeful brides, each representing the supposed characteristics of a different zodiac sign. Watching Priyanka portray 12 different women is pretty enjoyable, but the film gets bogged down in complicated subplots featuring the blandly handsome but distinctly uncharismatic Harman Baweja. Three and a half hours is a long time to spend in his company.

Things don't improve a great deal in Pyaar Impossible!, where we're asked to believe that Uday Chopra is a software engineer. Uday's really not bad in this; the role of the geeky Abhay forces him to tone down his usually all-too-apparent self-love. Abhay manages to be somewhat endearing, as long as you don't think too hard about his stalking of college beauty Alisha (Priyanka). I also have a soft spot for the picturization of the title song, where Abhay shows Alisha how brutal the dating market can be for nonconformists (though I have news for director Jugal Hansraj and his costume department: Priyanka would have no trouble getting a date in those cool nerd glasses). But despite the best efforts of Priyanka and Advika Yadav, who plays her bratty 7-year-old daughter, the silicon-wafer-thin story—written by Uday himself!—doesn't bear a moment's consideration.

Priyanka finally gets to play opposite a plausible hero, Ranbir Kapoor, in Anjaana Anjaani—only the movie's entire budget seems to have been spent on its stars and location shooting, with nothing left over for script development. (Curiously—or perhaps not—no writers are credited on the film's Wikipedia or IMDB pages.) Akash (Ranbir) is about to jump off a bridge when he's interrupted by Kiara (Priyanka), who is also there to jump. Nothing about this film is surprising in the least: we understand where it's going in the first five minutes, but it takes the rest of the film for these uninvolving characters to catch up with us. In the meantime, their cluelessness and self-involvement becomes ever more irritating.

There is one great moment: Kiara and Akash have agreed to a reunion on the bridge at midnight on New Year's Eve, but he hasn't shown. Dejected, she's turning to leave—and then she hears his voice. In quick succession, about a dozen distinct emotions cross Priyanka's face. It's amazing to watch, but one great moment doesn't make up for the rest of the movie.

Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) is a slickly filmed and atmospheric mystery/thriller with appealing stars in Farhan Akhtar and Deepika Padukone, and at least one catchy tune in Shankar-Eshaan-Loy's "Uff Teri Adaa." But the solution to the mystery is so ludicrous that it reveals the rest of the movie to be the empty exercise in style that it is.

I Hate Luv Storys [sic] (2010): Halfway through IHLS I asked my partner, "Do you notice a lack of chemistry between Imran Khan and Sonam Kapoor?" She replied, "I notice a lack of chemistry between Imran and the camera."

And that's the problem with over-saturating your film with references to DDLJ (1995), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and many other romantic classics—you invite comparisons between your lead couple and the most charismatic jodis in latter-day Hindi cinema. In comparison, both Imran and Sonam are, well, inert, separately and together. And that's the main problem with IHLS—all the in-references just serve to highlight the movie's own inadequacies. It's early days yet for Imran and Sonam—this is only his fourth movie, and her third—so they may get better. I'll check back in a few years.

Dulha Mil Gaya (Found A Groom, 2010): Speaking of comparisons, Fardeen Khan should make sure that he never has to share a screen with Shah Rukh Khan again. FK's lack of magnetism is always obvious, but it becomes so glaring after SRK enters in the second half that I felt embarrassed for him. The one entertaining moment is "Dilrubaon Ke Jalwe," which deliriously mashes up SRK's and Sushmita Sen's filmographies. Otherwise, this one is for SRK completists only.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Music

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Books and Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites weren't necessarily produced, but instead first encountered, in 2010.


Favorite rock recording: Patti Smith, Twelve. Columbia 87251 (2007).

Twelve is Patti Smith's album of covers, but it sounds and feels like a really good Patti Smith record. Some of the songs were originally by artists with whom she obviously has a strong affinity: Jimi Hendrix ("Are You Experienced?"), Mick Jagger & Keith Richards ("Gimme Shelter"), Jim Morrison ("Soul Kitchen"), Bob Dylan (though the song is a surprise: the born-again era "Changing of the Guards"). Other choices are more unexpected: Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), Allman Brothers ("Midnight Rider"), Paul Simon ("Boy In the Bubble"), Stevie Wonder ("Pastime Paradise"). Many of the songs she includes are so iconic in their original versions that it's an act of daring even to attempt to cover them--only such a strongly individual performer could get away with it. A good companion to her recently released memoir, Just Kids. Thanks very much to Robin for sending this along.

Favorite classical instrumental recording: (tie)

Joseph Haydn: Baryton Trios. Balázs Kakuk, baryton; Péter Lukács, viola; Tibor Párkányi, cello. Hungaroton 31174 (1989).

The baryton was an 18th-century instrument that falls somewhere between a viola da gamba and a cello in its sonority. In addition to bowed gut strings, though, the baryton had another 8 to 20 sympathetic metal strings that could be plucked by the performer. These baryton trios were originally written for Haydn's patron Prince Nicholas Esterházy, an avid amateur baryton player; Haydn himself may have played the viola part. They are lovely works that generally reach neither for deep profundity nor for spectacular virtuosity, but instead for intimacy and melodic pleasure. One remarkable thing about the trios is that they involve only low(ish) strings, which results in a very rich sound. An utterly charming recording.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba; Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics 93362 (2008, originally recorded 1995).

Johann Sebastian Bach's second son, in contrast to his father, is sometimes accused of a lack of profundity. But these sonatas are masterful and expressive works that stand comparison with the senior Bach's own viola da gamba sonatas. At least, in these performances, which involve two of the most brilliant musicians to emerge from Italy's early music movement. This wonderful disc makes me wonder what other C.P.E. Bach treasures I've overlooked.

Favorite classical vocal recording: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Lorraine at Emmanuel: Celebrating the Lives of Craig Smith and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music; Craig Smith and John Harbison, conductors. Avie 2130 (2008).

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's voice was "primally beautiful, rich in tone and true in pitch, warm and deep and wine-dark," as Alex Ross once wrote.[1] If you ever had the privilege of seeing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson onstage, you know what a thrilling experience it was to hear that voice live. And it wasn't just that her voice was gorgeous; her commitment to conveying textual and emotional meaning was total. During the time you'd spent in her company you felt that you had lived more deeply.

This disc documents three concert performances given at Boston's Emmanuel Church: two arias from Bach cantatas, and Dejanira's arias from Handel's oratorio Hercules. At first glance the programming seems a bit odd: the Bach works are sacred, the Handel secular; the Bach is in German, the Handel in English; and the dates of recording are several years apart (the earliest is from 1992, while the latest is from 1999). But this disc holds together thanks to Hunt Lieberson's superb performances. She was once a violist with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, and it's easy to believe that she felt a special connection with the ensemble. And with the music: conductor Craig Smith famously founded Emmanuel Music in order to perform Bach's cantatas, and Hunt Lieberson had performed many as both a member of the orchestra and as a featured vocalist. She also clearly loved Handel: she became famous in part for her assumption of the role of Sesto in Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glimmerglass in 1985, and made a specialty of Handel roles in her recordings with the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Hunt Lieberson's life was tragically cut short by breast cancer in 2006, making even more precious the rare documents (such as this one) of her profound gifts.

Favorite (semi-)opera recording: Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen. Jonathan Kent, stage director; Paul Brown, designer. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/The Glyndebourne Chorus; William Christie, conductor. Opus Arte DVD 1931 D (2010).

The Fairy Queen of the title is Titania, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Purcell's music was originally performed as a masque in between acts of a heavily cut performance of the Shakespeare play, and remarkably that is how it is performed here. It makes for a long performance—the running time is 230 minutes, or nearly 4 hours—but in restoring the Shakepearean context the director Jonathan Kent allows Purcell's songs to reflect and comment on the action of the play. And the staging of the musical material is highly imaginative and really fun: I'm pretty sure that Purcell's original score didn't call for giant bunnies to bound onstage and start having sex in a variety of acrobatic positions (the, er, choreography is by Kim Brandstrup). The cast of vocalists (which includes Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson) is excellent and quite characterful. Conductor William Christie's long familiarity with this score is evident in the sparkling playing he draws from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. A wonderful example of how Baroque theater can be reimagined for modern audiences without doing violence to its original meanings.

Favorite opera performance: (three-way tie)

Mozart and Da Ponte: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). San Francisco Opera, with Danielle De Niese (Susanna), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Ellie Dehn (The Countess), Lucas Meachem (Count Almaviva), and Heidi Stober (Cherubino); Nicola Luisotti, conductor. Seen September 21 and October 5, 2010.

In an earlier post I wrote about why Le Nozze di Figaro is, for me, the greatest opera ever written. The San Francisco Opera's handsome Figaro, directed by John Copley, showed how effective a production can be when it pays attention to what the composer and librettist intended. It's set in the late 18th century (the time of its composition), and the sets and costumes realistically attempt to evoke a rural Spanish estate. There were a few missed opportunities—for some reason directors almost universally feel that they have to mess about with the garden scenes, which have no need to be changed—but mainly the action was straightforward and persuasively realized. Of course, it helped to have an excellent cast, with Danielle De Niese as an especially delightful Susanna, and Ellie Dehn as a touchingly vulnerable Countess. So good we saw it twice! (Photo: Danielle De Niese as Susanna; credit: Marty Sohl.)

Handel: Serse (Xerxes). Berkeley West Edge Opera, with Paula Rasmussen (Serse), Angela Cadelago (Romilda), Ryan Belongie (Arsamene), Anna Slate (Atalanta), Sonia Gariaeff (Amastre), Don Sherrill (Elviro); Alan Curtis, conductor. Seen November 21, 2010.

I wrote about this production in an earlier post. A wonderfully ambitious production for a small local company, with a conductor and prima donna of international stature and an accomplished supporting cast. This is exactly what companies like BWEO should be doing: programming under-performed gems in clever productions that make virtues of tight-budget necessities. I hope that the success of Serse leads to future productions of other comic or semi-comic Baroque operas: I vote for Cavalli's La Calisto.

Blow: Venus & Adonis. Magnificat, with Catherine Webster (Venus), Peter Becker (Adonis), and José Lemos (Cupid). Warren Stewart, conductor. Seen October 10, 2010.

I also wrote about this production in an earlier post. Venus & Adonis, like its successor by Purcell, Dido & Aeneas, is a lovely chamber opera that packs an emotional punch well out of proportion to its size. As I wrote earlier, "Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I'm amazed that it isn't programmed more frequently....Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life."

1. Alex Ross, "Fervor: Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson," The New Yorker, September 25, 2006.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Books

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites were first encountered this year, but not necessarily produced this year.


2010 was for me the Year of the Victorian Novel. For the first time I discovered the pleasures of curling up in an overstuffed armchair with overstuffed 19th-century fiction.

Favorite novel: George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)

In my earlier full-length post on the "three love problems" of Middlemarch I wrote, "its characters are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged." Eliot writes with an almost painful psychological acuity and unsparingly dissects the emotional dynamics of love and marriage.

Runners-up: (tie)

The novels of Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875), Can You Forgive Her? (1865), The Small House at Allington (1864), He Knew He Was Right (1869)

Trollope perhaps has a more conventional view of the roles of men and women than does George Eliot. And it's difficult to decide if the prejudices and conventionality of his upper-class characters are entirely their own, or whether they're not shared to a lesser or greater extent by the author. But if in Middlemarch George Eliot peoples a provincial village with richly drawn characters, Trollope manages to people the entire city of London and several surrounding towns. The only thing more astonishing than the sheer volume of his output—in the decade between The Small House at Allington and The Way We Live Now he wrote 18 other fat novels, plus short stories, essays, plays, travel sketches, and a school textbook (!)—is its uniformly high quality. His female characters are especially vivid, and Trollope makes their dilemmas keenly felt: there are women who love men unworthy of them (Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, Marie Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, and Lady Glencora in Can You Forgive Her?), women who face family opposition to the men they love (Hetta Carbury in The Way We Live Now, Dorothy Stanbury and Nora Rowley in He Knew He Was Right), women trapped in difficult marriages (Lady Glencora, and Emily Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right), and women who find no outlet for their intelligence and their passionate desire to make a difference in the world (Alice Vavasor in Can You Forgive Her?). Trollope's fictional world is almost Tolstoyan in the complexity and richness of its characters.

The late novels of Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro (1899) and Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires' Memoirs, 1908)

Six months ago I wrote a post on Dom Casmurro; after The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas I think it's Machado's strongest novel. But I have a special affection as well for his last book, Memorial de Aires, translated by Helen Caldwell as Counselor Ayres' Memorial (University of California Press, 1982). In a series of diary entries we follow Aires' observations of the slowly blossoming romance of a beautiful (and somewhat reluctant) young widow, and his elegiac reflections on love and the passing of youth. The final passages of this slim story beautifully crystallize Aires' melancholy acceptance of time's erosive power on memory and the emotions. The book is a masterpiece in miniature.

Favorite non-fiction book: (tie)

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009)

I posted about Zadie Smith's "smart, insightful and beautifully written" essays earlier this year. "Dead Man Laughing" affectingly describes the death of her father and their shared love of British comedy, while "Middlemarch and Everybody" inspired me to pick up Eliot's wonderful novel for the first time. Changing My Mind is now out in paperback.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)

In the summer of 1967 the 20-year-old Patti Smith arrived in New York City with $32 and a battered copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations in her pocket. By chance she encountered Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two began a romantic and artistic partnership that transformed both of their lives. Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling. The book won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and is now out in paperback.

Next time: Music

Friday, December 10, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Movies and television

The end of the year tends to put one—or at least me—in a reflective and retrospective mood. What follows is a list of my favorite movies and television from 2010; books, music, and art will be included in my next post.

Please note that these are not movies or TV shows that were necessarily created or released in 2010, but rather ones that I first encountered in 2010. As you'll see, almost all of these favorites date from years or decades earlier.

Bollywood 2010

Is it just me, or was this a pretty dismal year for Bollywood? I found myself following the examples of Memsaab, Beth, and Bollyviewer in turning primarily to Bollywood's Silver and Golden Ages for my viewing pleasure.

Favorite Bollywood movie: (tie)

Seeta aur Geeta (1972)

What a delightful movie! Hema Malini is adorable in a double role as twin sisters separated at birth. Seeta is raised to be a properly submissive daughter in a rich household, but her greedy relatives cruelly exploit her. The spirited Geeta is raised by a poor family and becomes a street performer with her partner Raka (Dharmendra). Of course the twins get switched, their respective families get big surprises, and many catchy R.D. Burman songs (and a few tight slaps) ensue before everything is sorted out. If for some reason you haven't yet seen this charmer (directed by Ramesh Sippy and written by Javed Akhtar, Satish Bhatnagar and Salim Khan) put it at the top of your list.

Sadhna (1958)

Yes, this classic from Yash Chopra's older brother B. R. is a tawaif-with-a-heart-of-gold story. But the great performance of Vyjayanthimala as the courtesan Champabai, the wonderful songs of N. Dutta (music) and Sahir Ludhianvi (lyrics), and the film's powerful indictment of the exploitation and oppression of women, make this a very special experience. As always, I'm lagging behind in my discovery: see Memsaab's post on Sadhna from two years ago, which is beautifully written and filled with screencaps of M.N. Malhotra's gorgeous black and white cinematography.

Favorite Bollywood soundtrack: Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

This movie is full of wonderful music sung by the great Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. But what makes this one of the greatest soundtracks ever are a series of qawwali competitions where the performances just keep getting more brilliant with every exchange. Rohan (music) and our friend from Sadhna, Sahir Ludhianvi (lyrics), outdid themselves; this film has almost too much great music to take in. And if that's not enough, you get to see the songs picturized on Bharat Bushan, Madhubala, and the sparkling Shyama and Ratna.

Favorite non-Bollywood movie: Tokyo Story (1953)

An elderly couple (Chishu Riyu and Chieko Higashiyama) make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the big city to see their children and grandchildren—only to discover that no one has any time for them. A radiant Setsuko Hara, the couple's daughter-in-law, is the only one who treats them with kindness; but we can see that her own life is cruelly constrained by her poverty and widowhood. Director/writer Yasujiro Ozu takes this simple story and creates a masterpiece of restraint in which details of the characters' lives and emotions are slowly unveiled. As rich an experience as reading a great novel.

Favorite English-language movie: Flushed Away (2006)

We're big fans of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit series, but somehow we missed this Aardman Animations feature when it came out. Maybe the comical adventures of rats in the London sewers didn't sound all that appealing at the time. Flushed Away turned out to be hilarious, with sight gags and movie references coming so fast that it's difficult to catch them all. And the characters are voiced by actors Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan and Bill Nighy.

Favorite TV show (on DVD, of course): Middlemarch (1994)

George Eliot's Middlemarch is an 800-page novel, but this excellent BBC/Masterpiece Theater series—written by Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice fame—manages to include virtually every major incident in the book (and many of the character-revealing minor ones). A wonderful cast, and of course fabulous costumes and locations, make this another great BBC adaptation.

Runner-up: Glee, Season 1

I wrote about Glee recently; since that post we've continued watching the first season. The story lines are getting ever more absurd, the quality of the music is wildly uneven, and it feels like the last third of the season is just marking time until the big finale. It still manages to be utterly addictive, though.

Next time: Books, music, and art

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Handel's Serse

When I heard that Alan Curtis would be conducting and Paula Rasmussen would be starring in the Berkeley West Edge Opera's production of Handel's Serse (Xerxes, 1738), I was astounded. Curtis is one of the world's foremost conductors of Baroque music, and together with his period instrument orchestra Il Complesso Barocco has made more than a dozen full-length recordings of rarely-performed Handel operas such as Deidamia (1741), Tolomeo (1728), and Floridante (1721). If you're looking for a great place to acquaint yourself with both Curtis and Handel opera, I highly recommend Amor e gelosia: Handel Operatic Duets featuring the beautifully intertwined voices of Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato.

Paula Rasmussen is Serse in the only available DVD of the Italian-language version of the opera; her conductor is Christophe Rousset with Les Talens Lyriques, and her co-stars include Sandrine Piau, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Patricia Bardon and Ann Hallenberg. Here's a clip of Rasmussen from this Dresden Semperoper production, performing Serse's exquisite opening aria "Ombra mai fu":

And yes, Serse is singing to a tree, which immediately suggests that Handel intended for the opera to have a less-than-fully-serious tone. Thanks to that unusual mixture of comic and serious elements Serse came in for some criticism in Handel's time. The printed libretto contained a note To the Reader which alerted its first audiences that the story contained "some imbicillities" [sic], though those imbecilities were largely derived from Herodotus' account of Xerxes in his Histories. And Charles Burney, in his A General History of Music (1789) wrote that the libretto "is one of the worst that Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it..." In Handel's time, serious and comic elements in opera tended to be strictly separated: an opera was either seria or buffa. Handel, however, mixed the serious and the comic in operas such as Agrippina (1709), Partenope (1730) and Serse, looking back to the 17th-century models of Monteverdi and Cavalli, and anticipating the Da Ponte and Mozart operas of the 1780s.

With a conductor and lead singer of international stature, this fall's BWEO production of Serse (seen November 21) promised to be a landmark. But as I was settling into my excellent seat—the 600-seat Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School is quite intimate, an ideal venue for Baroque opera—I noticed that this three-act opera was being presented in only two parts, and that nearly an hour of music had been cut.

Worse was the program note from BWEO artistic director Mark Streshinsky, which unfortunately I had the leisure to read before the curtain rose. First he mentions his conception of Xerxes: "He has an absolutely brilliant military intellect, he is prone to outbursts, he's evidently obsessed with botany, and he has no clue as to the personal feelings or emotions of the people around him. I suddenly thought to myself: 'This guy has Aspergers's [sic] Syndrome!'" Of course this diagnosis is not only anachronistic, it's unnecessary—after all, isn't Xerxes the absolute ruler of the Persian Empire, and wouldn't that explain sufficiently his disregard for other people's feelings? But then Streshinsky continues, "Un-doctored, Handel operas are a great challenge to a director and to an audience....Cuts and, in this case, a re-configuration of Act 3 do wonders for the plot, avoiding several moments that make me think 'Huh?'"

While the conventions of early 18th-century opera may be unfamiliar to modern audiences, a heavy directorial hand can make things less rather than more comprehensible. Cutting and re-arranging Handel's work not only does violence to its musical and dramatic integrity, but the disjointed result can drag, rather than flow. As Handel scholar Winton Dean has written, "The organization is so taut, and the equilibrium between the musical, dramatic and scenic components so nicely balanced, that almost any cut weakens the design. As a result, the duration appears longer, not shorter, when cuts are made..."* And any director whose response to an opera is "Huh?" should probably think about staging a different opera. So it was with a sinking heart that I awaited the opening chords of the overture.

It quickly became clear that Streshinsky's production was going to be bright, bold (Lucas Krech's lighting design washed the stage backdrop with intense pinks, oranges and blues), modern, and broadly campy. Here's a taste of the approach: Serse's aria "Io dirò che l'amo né mi sgomentarò" (I will say that I love her); the observers are Xerxes' brother Arsamene (countertenor Ryan Belongie) and the servant Elviro (bass Don Sherrill):

(Set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro; costumes by Romy Douglass.)

Camp is the default approach to Baroque opera by directors who don't trust the musical and dramatic material to hold the audience's interest. The danger with such an approach is that as the director strives for cheap laughs he can obscure or undercut the moments of genuine feeling. But this kind of comic approach can also work—as David McVicar's Bollywood Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724) has shown—and it did so here, pretty delightfully.

Xerxes falls in love with Romilda, the brightly soubrettish and very game Angela Cadelago. Romilda, though, already has a secret lover: Arsamene. Here is Cadelago singing Romilda's aria "Nemmen con l'ombre d'infedeltà" (No shadow of unfaithfulness):

The burly Elviro garbs himself in highly unconvincing drag in order to convey a clandestine love-note from Arsamene to Romilda; but the message gets intercepted by Romilda's gawky, lovelorn kid sister Atalanta (the wonderful Anna Slate), who uses it to try to snag Arsamene for herself:

Meanwhile, Xerxes' dumped fiancée Amastre (rich-voiced contralto Sonia Gariaeff) shows up in male drag (all the cross-dressing is in the original, by the way) to keep an eye on Xerxes. Many love complications ensue before all the proper couples are sorted out in the end.

Musically, the evening was a bit mixed. The singers were generally excellent, especially the four principal women (Rasmussen, Cadelago, Gariaeff and the wide-eyed Slate, who practically stole the show when she emerged from under the heaving bed on which Romilda was trysting with Arsamene). Under Curtis' direction the instrumentalists (some of whom were moonlighting from well-known Bay Area Baroque ensembles) gave a strong account of Handel's great score. Highlights included Rasmussen's glorious "Ombra mai fu," her duet with Gariaeff, "Gran pena e gelosia," and Gariaeff's mournful solo aria "Cagion son io del mio dolore". Mention should also be made of Gilbert Martinez's fluent and amusing harpsichord continuo playing: at one point an all-too-familiar arpeggio indicated the ringing of a character's cell phone.

But the cuts to Handel's music were quite extensive. Some arias were cut entirely, and others lost their B sections and/or da capo repeats. Cutting the repeats of da capo arias not only makes them shorter, but less meaningful. In a da capo aria the first section expresses an emotion, and then the second section a contrasting emotion. When the music of the first section is repeated, we return as well to the first emotion, only this time it's inflected with the second emotion. Cut the second part and the repeat of the first part, and those nuances disappear (and the characters' emotional responses get flatter and less complex). However, given that Streshinky's production was aiming more at comedy than pathos, the cuts weren't as damaging as they might have been in an opera like Alcina or Ariodante.

The success of this production suggests that the Berkeley West Edge Opera might want to look at some other ironic or comic Baroque operas, such as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), or Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). I think they'd have a chance of being as crowd-pleasing as this winning, clever and highly enjoyable production of Serse.

* Winton Dean, "Production style in Handel operas," in The Cambridge Companion to Handel, Donald Burrows, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 253.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 2

A continuation of Baroque Bollywood Part 1, tracing the parallels between Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Love triangles: Love triangles in Baroque opera can get quite, er, baroque. In Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa (1713), for example, the Roman emperor Ottone loves Cleonilla, who has a crush on her male page "Ostilio," who is really a disguised woman named Tullia, who has come to court seeking her former lover Caio, who abandoned her and now loves Cleonilla. Got all that?

A similarly tangled love plot features in Handel's opera Serse (Xerxes, 1738): Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, who loves Atalanta's sister Romilda, who loves Arsamene in return, but finds herself also subject to the amorous attentions of Serse.

This double triangle—two sisters in love with the same man, two men in love with the same sister—is uncannily similar to the plot of the Bollywood movie Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours, 2002). In that film, Mahima Chaudary loves Arjun Rampal, who loves Mahima's half-sister Preity Zinta, who loves Arjun in return; meanwhile, Preity's childhood friend Jimmy Shergill has secretly been in love with her for years. The complication in DHT is that Preity so desperately wants her sister to be happy that she asks Arjun to marry Mahima, and for Jimmy to pretend to love herself. To do so, of course, he has to pretend that he doesn't already love her. This sort of delirious perversity is what makes DHT one of my favorite love-triangle movies, but I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who values their sanity.

Among my other favorite love-triangle Bollywood movies are Baarsaat Ki Raat (One Rainy Night, 1960), where both Madhubala and Shyama love Bharat Bhusan; Katha (1983), where quiet, shy Naseeruddin Shah loves Deepti Naval, who is infatuated with the heartless cad Farooq Shaikh; Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998), where Kajol falls in love with her college classmate Shah Rukh Khan just as he's falling in love with new girl at school Rani Mukherjee, then years later Shah Rukh discovers that he loves Kajol after all—but only after she's become engaged to Salman Khan; and Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), where Shah Rukh Khan teaches Saif Ali Khan how to woo Preity Zinta, the woman Shah Rukh himself has fallen in love with. (A man acting as a go-between for the woman he loves and another man is also a subplot Handel uses in Serse.)

Some other plots that are common in both Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Revenge: A son who must revenge his father's or mother's humiliation or death is central to Baiju Bawra (1952), Amar Akbar Anthony (1978), Rocky (1981), Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Trimurti (Trinity, 1995), Koyla (Coal, 1997), and countless other films. It's also a subplot in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724). Sesto, the son of the Roman general Pompey, must avenge the murder of his father and the imprisonment and attempted seduction of his mother at the hands of the treacherous Greek-Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy). Sometimes, as with Tolomeo, the evil done by the villain is so profound that justice can only be served by his death. This is also true of the bad guys in Koyla, Trimurti, Karan Arjun, Khal Nayak, and many other Bollywood films.

But in Baiju Bawra, when the moment of truth arrives for the son, he finds himself unable to carry out his revenge. And this is another common plot element in both Bollywood and Baroque opera:

Forgiveness: In Bollywood, tyrannical fathers and other authority figures who transgress against those under their power are often forgiven, no matter how outrageously they've overstepped the bounds of justice. In Ishq (Love, 1998), for example, the fathers of Ajay Devgn and Juhi Chawla will stop at nothing to get their children married to one another, even though Ajay loves Kajol and Juhi loves Amir Khan. The fathers force their children to unwittingly sign false marriage contracts, deceive them into thinking that Kajol and Amir are lovers, have both Kajol and Amir attacked by goons and Amir brutally tortured, and blackmail Kajol and Amir into leaving India entirely. But in the final five minutes, as Kajol and Amir are boarding a ship into exile, there is a tearful confrontation on the dock, the true lovers are reunited, and everyone forgives the two fathers.

Ishq may be way—way—over the top. But Baroque opera got there first. In Handel's Rodelinda (1724), the villain Grimoaldo invades and conquers the kingdom of his neighbor Bertarido, imprisons him and sentences him to death, attempts to seduce Bertarido's wife Rodelinda, threatens to kill her child if she doesn't marry him, and abandons his own former lover Eduige. However, Bertarido escapes, and in the last five minutes of the opera saves Grimoaldo's life, forgives him, reunites him with Eduige, and reinstates him as the ruler of the neighboring kingdom.

The emphasis on magnanimity, of course, is intended to legitimate a system in which the father/ruler wields all the power. We've just spent three hours watching that power being employed arbitrarily, selfishly, and unjustly, which might tend to make us question its very basis. But both Baroque opera and Bollywood want it both ways: they want to move us with the plight of characters who are experiencing unmerited suffering, and reassure us that the father/ruler will ultimately be reformed. Because the supreme value of both forms is the...

Happy ending. As Shah Rukh Khan's Om Prakash says so memorably in Om Shanti Om (2007), if the ending is not happy, then the movie is not over, my friend. There are a few exceptions: Devdas (1935, 1955, 2002, et seq.), Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From One Heartbreak to Another, 1988) are tragedies, and the later films of Guru Dutt, such as Khagaaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress and Servant, 1962), also have dark endings. In Baroque opera, too, there are the rare works that end unhappily, such as Blow's Venus and Adonis (1684), Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), or Handel's Tamerlano (1724).

However, in both Bollywood and Baroque opera the imperative that the ending be a happy one, and that a happy ending necessarily means the union or reunion of the main couple, can lead to some pretty wild plot contortions. Baroque operas went so far as to rewrite myths to make them conform to the need for a happy ending. The original Orpheus myth, for example, ends with Orpheus' wife Eurydice imprisoned forever in Hades and Orpheus being torn apart by the Maenads; but Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) ends with Apollo reuniting the couple in the heavens.

So in both Bollywood and Baroque opera there can be a mad scramble in the last five minutes to tie up all the loose threads of the plot, forgive all transgressions, and unite the correct couples. For Bollywood, Ishq is a particularly egregious example, but last-minute reversals are legion. The "wrong" groom or bride realizes in the middle of the wedding ceremony that their bride or groom loves someone else, and steps aside so that the true lovers can be married (hello, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (What Am I To You?, 1994), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mujhse Dosti Karoge! (Will You Be My Friend?, 2002), Dil Hai Tumhaara, and Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I'm Crazy About Prem, 2003)). Or the woman who has spent the entire film trying to unite with a distant, absent, or estranged lover realizes that she's fallen in love instead with the steadfast nice guy who's been helping her out the whole time (stand up, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To You, 1998), Kya Kehna (What Is There To Say, 2000), and Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007)). But a special prize has to be awarded to Lajja (2001), in which the happy ending is the loving reunion of a husband with his wife...the wife he has spent the previous three hours trying to kidnap and murder (!).

But again, Bollywood was simply following the well-worn path of Baroque opera. In Alessandro Scarlatti's Griselda (1721), Gualtiero tests his wife Griselda's fidelity by pretending to have killed their daughter, renouncing Griselda, forcing her to work as a slave in his household, promising her in marriage to one of his courtiers, and finally pretending that he is going to marry the young ward of a neighboring prince (really, his and Griselda's daughter). In the last five minutes of the opera Gualtiero reveals his deceptions, and restores the faithful (and still loving) Griselda as his wife.

Sometimes, perhaps, forgiveness can go too far, and the happy ending can seem instead like your worst nightmare.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 1

A while ago, Memsaab drew attention to the many parallels between opera and Bollywood in her posts Opera and Hindi Cinema and The Bartered Dulhania. Those parallels are especially striking in Baroque opera, and so I thought I would add some items to Memsaab's lists and amplify some others. Life intervened, but at long last I'm following up on that impulse. To start, there's the question of

Originality (or lack thereof)

In the Baroque era, musical originality was not the supreme value that it later became. Composers thought nothing of recycling librettos and storylines. The librettos of Pietro Metastasio, the greatest poet of opera seria, were set multiple times by every major composer of the era.

Composers not only re-used characters and stories, they also recycled their own and others' melodies. Partly this was because there wasn't really any such thing as a repertoire—an opera would be performed for a season, or perhaps two, and then usually never be performed again. Why not make use of music that would otherwise be forgotten?

Handel, for example, re-used much of the opera, oratorio, and cantata music he'd written in Italy when he composed his first opera for London, Rinaldo (1711). One of the most famous arias from Rinaldo, Almirena's "Lascia ch'io pianga" (Let me weep over my cruel fate) was taken virtually note-for-note from Pleasure's aria "Lascia la spina" (Leave the thorns, pluck the rose) from the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Dillusionment), which Handel wrote in Rome in 1707.

Handel wasn't above borrowing other composer's music, either, although he often altered and improved it. His early opera for Venice, Agrippina (1709), for example, includes material from operas by Handel's German colleagues Reinhard Keiser and Johannes Mattheson.

How else, one might ask, could Baroque composers maintain the incredible productivity that was demanded of them? Often they'd have only weeks to compose a four-hour-long opera which might involve 30 or 40 arias. Handel wrote more than 40 operas, plus oratorios, cantatas, motets, masses...that's a lot of tunes.

The productivity question arises with Indian movies as well. While I've heard various figures for the number of films Bollywood turns out in a year, it seems to be somewhere between 150 and 300. And that's just mainstream Hindi cinema; there are also films in Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu, among other languages. The Central Board of Film Certification reported in 2009 that there were over 1200 feature films produced in India. No wonder Indian filmmakers borrow plotlines and characters from wherever they can find them: myths, novels, and especially other movies.

I haven't tried to keep count, but I've noticed that a lot of the Bollywood films we've seen draw either indirect or direct inspiration from Hollywood movies. Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (Love Had To Happen, 1998) borrows from French Kiss (1995); Mohabbatein (Love Stories, 2000) from Dead Poets Society (1989); the first Munna Bhai movie, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (We're As Good As Anyone Else, 2002) from Analyze This (1999); Chori Chori (Secretly, 2003) from Housesitter (1992); Koi Mil Gaya (I Found Someone, 2003) from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Life In A... Metro (2007) from The Apartment (1960), and on and on.

The tracing of borrowings can also become quite involved. Sholay (Flames, 1975), for example, one of the most revered films in Bollywood history, takes its main plot from Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which itself borrowed from The Magnificent Seven (1960), which reimagines Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) as a Western. Heyy Babyy (2007) takes its premise from Three Men and a Baby (1987), which was itself a remake of the French film Trois hommes et un couffin (1985). Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (Silently, Secretly, 2001) borrows heavily from Pretty Woman (1990), which was a retelling of My Fair Lady (1964), which was a film version of the 1956 Lerner and Loewe Broadway show of the same title, which was a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1912).

I can't say that all of these borrowings, influences and inspirations bother me in the slightest, apart from the question of writers receiving proper credit. For me it's mainly a question of how effectively the borrowings are Bollywoodized. Some Bollywood films are disappointingly literal: Life in a...Metro just transplanted The Apartment wholesale from New York to Mumbai. Others, though, improve on the originals. I'd rather watch Kajol than Meg Ryan, or Rani Mukherjee than Goldie Hawn, any day.

More parallels to follow!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cartoonish, sordid, bawdy--and irresistible: Glee

Trust me to come late to any party. I've been hearing about the Broadway-goes-to-high-school Fox series Glee for over a year. Up until recently my aversion to TV programs that aren't BBC adaptations of 19th-century novels won out over my curiosity. Now that the complete first season is available on DVD, though, I've bowed to the inevitable.

Glee follows the fortunes of a high school glee club in a small midwestern city, and the format allows many opportunities for the cast (many of whom look like they haven't seen the inside of a high school classroom for a decade or so) to perform song and dance numbers. Unlike in most Bollywood movies or operas, in Glee musical numbers are usually diegetic. That is, when a character is singing and dancing, they're doing it in the context of an audition, a rehearsal, or a show that's actually happening in the world of the other characters. But like all musicals, Glee still offers the singing-in-the-shower fantasy of effortless performance. We see the performers going over a few dance steps, working on a couple of bars of music, and then the next thing we know, some Top 40 song or show tune standard has been reinvented in four-part harmony and synchronized gestures.

One reason four-part harmony and synchronized gestures don't happen spontaneously in my real life, apart from my lack of talent, is because they actually require hours of planning and grindingly repetitive rehearsal. Glee pretends to acknowledge the hard work that goes into that illusion of effortlessness, but in fact the rehearsal scenes are pretty cursory. Instead of watching our heroes practice under the critical eye of their director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), most of our time is spent learning the details of their lives. This being Fox, those details are often cartoonish or sordid. I'm going to betray my old-fogeydom here, but the script is amazingly bawdy for a show that's broadcast (at least for now) at the family-friendly time of 8 pm on Tuesdays. It's also amazingly funny, with the evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Emmy-winner Jane Lynch) getting many of the most cutting lines.

Glee also pretends to side with the misfits and outcasts against the popular kids, but in the first half-dozen episodes we spend far more time with the Glee Club queen Rachel (Lea Michele), the conflicted quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith), and the mean head cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron) than with Mercedes (the amazingly talented and criminally underused Amber Riley, who seems to be the only black person in the school), Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz, who similarly seems to be the only Asian person), Kurt (Chris Colfer, whose bullied gay teen is one of the few characters on the show who actually looks teenaged) or Artie (Kevin McHale, whose wheelchair-bound character could raise lots of interesting issues if he were allowed more than one line per episode). Having served their purpose—tokens and foils—they've been pushed into the background.

But there's no point in being curmudgeonly about Glee—it breaks down all resistance, not to mention rational thought. The creators of the show have an unerring instinct for the soundtrack of Midwestern young adulthood over the past three decades: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Queen, Bon Jovi. And the arrangements of these "classics," glee-club style, are both inherently funny and surprisingly effective. What does it say about me that I actually enjoy the Glee-ified rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'"? Nothing very good, probably:

Throw in cameos and special appearances by Broadway stalwarts like Kristen Chenoweth (an original cast member of Wicked), Idina Menzel (an original cast member of both Rent and Wicked), and Neil Patrick Harris (of the brilliant Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), and it's a pretty irresistible cocktail. Yep—I'm addicted.

Monday, October 11, 2010

John Blow's Venus and Adonis

Magnificat, the vocal and instrumental early music ensemble directed by Warren Stewart, opened its new season this past weekend with concert performances of the first English opera, John Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683?/1684). Blow was a musician and composer in the court of Charles II; among his students was Henry Purcell, whose later Dido and Aeneas (1689) has many echoes of and parallels with Venus and Adonis.

One striking parallel is that both operas were performed at Josias Priest's boarding school in Chelsea for "young gentlewomen." This is particularly remarkable given the frankly erotic content of both operas, but especially of Venus and Adonis. The opera was originally performed before Charles II, and was written in part as a satire of the sexual license at court, where only "the Foolish, Ugly and the Old" are faithful. In the prologue, lovers are urged to be "willing, lovesome, fond and gay," and Cupid commands, "Lovers to the close Shades retire, / Do what your kindest thoughts Inspire." On Adonis's entrance in Act One, he asks, "Venus, when shall I taste soft delights, / And on thy bosom lie?" and Venus promises to give him "freely all Delights, / With pleasant Days and easie Nights." In that first performance of the opera at court (probably in 1683), the part of Venus had been performed by one of the king's mistresses, Mary "Moll" Davis, while Cupid had been played by the 10-year-old Lady Mary Tudor, daughter of Davis and the king. That in the boarding-school performance of 1684 both these parts and that of Venus's lover Adonis were taken by unmarried young women—a note on the libretto (reproduced in facsimile in Magnificat's program) mentions that "Mr. Priest's Daughter acted Adonis"—would only have made the opera even more eyebrow-raising.

The story is taken from Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses. While embracing her son Cupid, Venus is scratched by one of his arrows, and falls in love with the beautiful youth Adonis. She warns him against hunting dangerous game, but he heedlessly tracks a wild boar to its lair and is mortally wounded. When Venus finds his body, she transforms his blood into a flower. In Venus and Adonis—the libretto, long assumed to be the work of Aphra Behn, was recently attributed to Anne Kingsmill Finch, Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York [1]—it is Venus who urges Adonis to join the hunt:

Adonis: Adonis will not Hunt today,
            I have already caught the noblest Prey.
Venus: No my Shepherd, haste away, haste away,
           Absence kindles new desires:
           I wou'd not have my Lover tired.

Unusually, Blow's opera, like Dido and Aeneas, ends tragically (in Baroque opera, myths were often rewritten to have happy endings). The dying Adonis returns to Venus: "...let me on your soft bosome lie; / There I did wish to live, and there I beg to die." The opera concludes with a lament for Venus and a final mournful chorus, clearly used by Purcell as a model for Dido's lament.

Blow's flowing melodies were performed beautifully by Magnificat (with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as the Graces). Special mention should be made of soprano Catherine Webster's Venus, countertenor José Lemos' Cupid (his Lesson was especially amusing) and bass Peter Becker's Adonis, all of whom were excellently sung and characterized. Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I'm amazed that it isn't programmed more frequently. I've been interested in Baroque opera, and this work in particular, for more than a decade and a half, but this was my first opportunity to see it performed. Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life.

Stewart has planned a typically diverse and imaginative season for Magnificat. Upcoming concerts include Charpentier's Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Midnight Mass for Christmas); an evening of music by women composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre; and Orazio Vecchi's madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso (The Twin Peaks of Parnassus). For details, see the Magnificat website.

[1] Mill, James A. (2008). "A versifying Maid of Honour": Anne Finch and the libretto for Venus and Adonis. Review of English Studies, 59 (238), 67-85.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Sixties

Sixties coverWhat exactly do we mean by "The Sixties," anyway? For almost everyone, the decade has a meaning beyond the purely chronological. Arguments can be made that the cultural, social and economic changes that are encompassed by the term "The Sixties" really begin as early as the release of Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right," in July 1954, or as late as first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's television show in February 1964. The decade could also be said to have truly begun with the protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco in May 1960, or the election of John F. Kennedy in November 1960, or the March on Washington in August 1963. As for the end of The Sixties, a vast number of events have been given that designation, stretching from the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert in December 1969 to the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975.

Reading Jenny Diski's The Sixties (Picador, 2009), though, is a reminder that those markers are very US-centric. The Sixties were a worldwide phenomenon, as the student protests of 1968 showed. For Diski, a British writer whose book begins by questioning the entire project of retrospective historical periodization by decade, The Sixties "began in the mid-1960s...and it ended in the mid-1970s when all the open-ended possibilities we saw began to narrow, as disillusion, right-wing politicians, and the rest of our lives began to loom unexpectedly large" (p. 3).

If you think that definition sounds more personal than sociological or historical, you'd be right. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Diski turned 18 in 1965, and 30 in 1977.) The publication of The Sixties as the latest entry in Picador's Big Ideas/Small Books series, which is devoted to consideration of broad philosophical, psychological and sociological topics (other titles in the series so far are Time, Violence, Bodies, and Moral Relativism), is somewhat misleading. The Sixties does not attempt to be a comprehensive survey of the sweeping changes that occurred during the period. The civil rights and anti-racist movements in the US and UK, the parallel movements for feminism and gay and lesbian liberation, and the anti-Vietnam War movement are given only sketchy coverage. Developments in art, fashion, film, television, and books get varying degrees of glancing attention. And of the sacred triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, it's the first two that Diski spends vastly more time on. Music--surely a central aspect of the experience of the Sixties for anyone who lived through them--gets only a couple intentionally comic asides, perhaps because she can safely assume that Sixties music remains inescapable. (In the introduction, after puncturing baby boomer nostalgia about differences in youth culture between then and now, she writes, "In truth, the only thing that is absolutely certain is that the music then was better" (p. 3).)

So as Diski's definition of the period suggests, you shouldn't look to The Sixties for an "objective" account of the era (as if such a thing were possible). But as a description of her experience of a confusing and contradictory time The Sixties takes its place alongside Diski's other excellent and highly personal works of nonfiction. She focusses on three main areas--communal living/politics, alternative schooling, and radical psychiatry--and describes her difficult and often painful experiences with each. (Incidentally, the emphasis on personal experience as a central element of reportage was a founding principle of the New Journalism created by writers such as Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and Ellen Willis--another legacy of The Sixties, and one which Diski doesn't mention.)

While The Sixties is most successful when it's most personal, occasionally Diski lapses into "we speak," as in "We were guilty, too, of failing to understand the power of capitalism..." (p. 132). Exactly who is "we"? Diski generally avoids the annoying baby boomer tendency to universalize individual experience, though. And she does point out that the "we" she is invoking were a far smaller group than it seemed at the time, as the later elections (and re-elections) of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher showed: "One day, I supposed, our lot would be in charge and then things would be different. It didn't cross my mind then that 'our lot' would not remain our lot, or that there were another lot (and far more of them) in our generation who were as pragmatic about power as the unreconstructed generations before us" (p. 78). As this suggests, her discussion of the legacy of The Sixties necessarily includes its many failures of both practice and imagination; the final word in this slim, highly readable and thought-provoking book is "discouraged."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Black Narcissus: A parable of colonialism, or who's the narcissist?

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) is a classic of Technicolor cinematography. It's also a classic of colonialist ideology.

A small group of Anglican nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is sent to establish a convent in a remote Himalayan village. They are given a mountaintop palace once occupied by concubines, and plan to create a school, infirmary, chapel, and garden on its grounds. But the isolated setting, the constant wind, the obstinacy of the "natives," the erotic paintings on the walls, and the propensity of the local English agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) to wander about shirtless are soon whipping up hysteria among the nuns.

The story, based on a Rumer Godden novel, is ludicrous, especially when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) snaps, dons a siren-red dress, lipstick and high-heeled shoes, throws herself at Mr. Dean and—spoiler alert!—tries to push Sister Clodagh off the mountain. The convent is doomed by the combined force of the villagers' indifference and the eruption of the nuns' own repressed emotions.

What's harder to stomach than the film's pop Freudianism, though, is its depiction of the Indian villagers. "Black Narcissus" is the nuns' nickname for the Young General (Sabu), the son of the village headman, who dresses in colorful finery and attends the children's classes in English, French and typing (very useful skills in a remote Himalayan village). When the "natives" are not being shown as childlike, comically vain imitators of the English, they are shown as inscrutable, dangerously sexual, or ominously threatening.

So it should come as no surprise that the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered to get the details of the Indians' culture right. I'm no expert, but when on several occasions we hear the drums of the villagers, their rhythms sound more like Skull Island (from King Kong (1933)) than Himalayan Indian. The clothes look like a mix of regional Indian styles with a heavy overlay of film-studio fantasy. And as 17-year-old Kanchi, a young Jean Simmons—in obvious brownface—is asked to perform hilariously inept "Indian" dance moves.

It could be that there's a satirical tone that I'm just missing. The shots of Sister Ruth in her mad frenzy verge on camp:

But I don't think the filmmakers intend any satire. The music cues us when a scene is meant to be lighthearted (most of those involve May Hallatt, who plays the caretaker Angu Ayah without brownface and with a broad Cockney accent). The gorgeous cinematography, the somber tone and the lingering closeups of a conflicted Deborah Kerr give the rest of the film a sheen of high seriousness. Our perspective remains almost entirely on the mountaintop with the nuns, and it is they with whom we are invited to sympathize. I think we are meant to see the nuns as well-meaning but naïve, attempting to do good work in a place where the climate is unsuitable and the ignorant, superstitious people are stubbornly unreceptive.

But this is classic colonialist ideology, liberal version, as memorably described by Noam Chomsky (in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship," from American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1967)) and Edward Said (in Orientalism (Vintage, 1979)). To make the suggestion the nuns are serving the British imperial project and that the Indians have their own subjectivity requires reading the film against the grain.

The film's elegiac final images, where the monsoon rains begin to fall as the nuns leave the village, take on a different meaning when you note the date of the movie's release. 1947, of course, was the year that the entire British imperial project in India was abruptly abandoned. That self-regarding sense of melancholy at the end of Black Narcissus ignores, as does the rest of the film, the experience of the Indians themselves. And so it functions as a sort of parable about the loss of the Raj—only in real life the self-concern of the British turned out to have deadly consequences for their former subjects, a legacy of displacement and violent conflict that continues today. It prompts me to ask: Who are the narcissists here?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In defense of Devdas, the movie everyone loves to hate

What follows is an expanded version of a comment originally posted on Bollyviewer's review of Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955):

Since everybody hates the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version of Devdas (2002), I feel I have to say a few words in its defense. After all, I did pick it as one of my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s.

Say what you will about Shah Rukh Khan in the thankless title role—and most people say he's over the top. But I'm not sure any approach would make this character fully sympathetic. After all, Devdas is callous, weak, abusive, self-pitying, and self-destructive. Given those elements of the character, going operatic makes as much sense as any other approach (someone underplaying the role would have gotten lost in SLB's outrageously lush visuals).

But what makes the 2002 version so special for me is Ismail Darbar's music, and the way that the songs are so carefully woven into the narrative. In fact, the songs convey absolutely crucial information, particularly in the sequence "Bairi Piya," "Morey Piya," and "Kaahe Chhed Mohe."

Taking the first four songs in order:

1. "Silsila Yeh Chaahat Ka" expresses the yearning of Devdas' childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) for Devdas' return:

While here I burned

It's significant that the first number is a performance of Paro's unwavering devotion—a devotion that will be severely tested over the course of following events.

2. "Bairi Piya": Devdas and Paro tease and flirt with each other, though there's an edge that suggests Devdas' later violence against Paro. Two important things happen during this song. First is the symbolic marriage of Devdas and Paro, when Devdas gives her his grandmother's wedding bangle. And second, each makes a prediction about the other's future. His prediction for her:

You'll marry an old man

Hers for him:

You'll never marry

Both predictions, of course, will come true.

3. "More Piya" involves two intercut sequences. Paro's mother Sumitra (Kirron Kher) celebrates what she thinks will be Paro and Devdas' engagement with a love song about the encounter of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna.

Krishna and Radha in the Dance of Love

Meanwhile, on the banks of their local stream, Devdas is raping Paro. While "rape" perhaps doesn't quite capture all the nuances of what's happening between them, there really is no other word for it. Paro loves him, doesn't struggle, and ultimately acquiesces, but there's no mistaking her reluctance:

No don't force me

The invocations of Krishna and Radha in Sumitra's song and the prominence of the flute (Krishna's instrument) in the Devdas-Paro sequences, plus the the explicit symbolism (the river bank, the water jugs, and the way Devdas removes Paro's jewelry and veil as a husband removes his bride's on their wedding night) leave no doubt about what takes place between Devdas and Paro. And this makes Devdas' later repudiation of Paro even more heartless and cruel.

4. "Kaahe Chhed Mohe": The very next song, performed by the tawaif Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) for Devdas, his dissolute friend Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff) and a third man whose importance is only revealed later, is another retelling of the Krishna and Radha story. As Chandramukhi sings of Krishna,

He shamed Radha

Devdas realizes his own cruelty and callousness towards Paro, and the terrible mistake he's made in sending her a letter of rejection. Alas, his remorse comes too late.

Incidentally, thanks to Ismail Darbar Pandit Birju Maharaj's excellent music, Madhuri's brilliant, eloquent dancing and SLB's swirling, hypnotic visuals (which evoke other great courtesan dances from films such as Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Pakeezah (1971) and Umrao Jaan (1981)), "Kaahe Chhed Mohe" remains my Platonic ideal of what a Bollywood dance number can be.

Devdas was the second Bollywood film we saw, and we were mesmerized by it. I realize that we're in a distinct minority, and know it's a film that people love to hate. But it's so obviously a labor of love for everyone involved that I just can't share that disdain. And SLB's hallucinatorily rich visuals are a sumptuous feast. The moment in "Kaahe Chhed Mohe" when Chandramukhi spins outside, and we see the whole pleasure district behind her lit up in the night and filled with tiny moving and dancing figures, is simply breathtaking.

Bimal Roy is, of course, one of the greatest directors of not only Indian but world cinema. I think, though, that a small-scale and realistic approach to these characters just foregrounds how despicable Devdas' actions are. Instead, I feel that the story of Devdas requires a heightened quality and larger-than-life emotions, something that the SLB version certainly provides.

As I wrote in my comment on Bollyviewer's post, give me a moment to get under cover, and then you can start throwing things!

Update 28 May 2012: It seems that it's not just me who appreciates Devdas. It came in at a surprising Number 1 in the Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan Movies as voted by the viewers of Namaste America. And it was listed at Number 8 on Time magazine critic Richard Corliss' 10 Greatest Films of the Millennium (Thus Far), although any list that also includes Moulin Rouge (2001) and Avatar (2009) has to be viewed with some skepticism.

Here's a glimpse of why Devdas is so ravishing: the exquisite Madhuri Dixit in "Kaahe Chhed Mohe":

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bollywood Babylon, and two other books with Bollywood in the title

The term "Bollywood" is problematic but inescapable, as Rachel Dwyer notes in the introduction to her 100 Bollywood Films (BFI Screen Guides, 2005). It persists because it's a useful shorthand: other alternatives are clunky ("Hindi commercial cinema"), only partly descriptive ("Hindi cinema" ignores films in Urdu) or misleading ("Hindi popular cinema" conceals the power of media industries in shaping popular taste).

Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London, but her book is free of film studies jargon and is highly readable. As its title implies, it consists of 100 short (2-page) reviews of Bollywood movies from the early sound era to the present. The main criteria for inclusion are language (Hindi-Urdu), production and distribution (mainstream commercial), "importance in the history of Hindi cinema," and representation of the work of significant directors, stars, music directors, writers, and playback singers. Many of the films she chooses are obviously personal favorites as well. She excludes parallel cinema, so there are no films by, say, Satyajit Ray. Dwyer does find room for Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (1976), though not his Zubeidaa (2001), which featured major Bollywood stars and a score by A. R. Rahman.

Of course, no selection of 100 (I actually count 101) Bollywood movies can be comprehensive. I'd argue with some of Dwyer's choices, such as Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2001), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) (which she says "will be seen in the future as a landmark film"; I have my doubts), and Disco Dancer (1982)—all big hits, of course. I'd also prefer a chronological rather than alphabetical organization, but it's likely that Dwyer inherited the format from the other books in the series. On the plus side, names are indexed as well as titles, so it's easy to look up all of the films in the book that feature a particular director or actor. Especially if you're beginning to explore Golden and Silver Age films (movies released before 1980 account for nearly two-thirds of the entries), you'll find 100 Bollywood Films to be a useful compact guide.

Subhash K. Jha is a journalist, and it shows in the breeziness of the prose in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli Books, 2005), which covers about twice as many films as Dwyer's guide. Jha's capsule reviews are shorter than Dwyer's, but he packs a maximum amount of summary, analysis and context into a small word-count. The Essential Guide is also liberally illustrated with film and promotional stills, with a majority in color (100 Bollywood Films has fewer illustrations and they're all in black and white). Nearly every right-hand page also features a short sidebar focussing on a particular film or star. And while Jha includes only one pre-independence film (Dwyer discusses 9), he offers a substantial section on parallel cinema (22 films) and has entries for 18 films from the early 2000s (Dwyer includes only 5).

Jha divides his choices rather unhelpfully into genres among which the distinctions aren't always clear—for example, he includes three kinds of drama, "War Drama," "Family Drama" and just plain "Drama," with the last taking up fully half of the book. The "War Drama," "Historical" and "Action" sections are only four pages long, and (shockingly) the "Romance" section only covers 12 films. Better, probably, to have fewer and larger sections, or to simply arrange the films chronologically. Fortunately, there's a name and title index; unfortunately, the index doesn't indicate which page contains the major entry for a film (Dwyer's index prints the main entry page numbers in bold type).

Jha's book is a good choice for its sheer breadth of coverage and its author's obvious enthusiasm for his subject. Both Dwyer's and Jha's guides are now somewhat outdated, though, and I hope new editions are being prepared.

Finally, there's William van der Heide's hilariously mistitled Bollywood Babylon (Berg, 2006). Far from the lurid exposé that the title promises, the book instead consists of extensive interviews with writer/director Shyam Benegal. While Benegal has employed actors, music directors, and playback singers that have also worked in mainstream Bollywood, his films are generally classified as parallel cinema. They are often realistic, morally ambiguous stories of women struggling against the constraints of a patriarchal society. And Benegal has had the good fortune (or good taste) to work repeatedly with extraordinary actors, including Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.

The book is organized into chapters on Satyajit Ray, Benegal's beginnings as a filmmaker, his views on Indian cinema, and a film-by-film survey of nearly all of his work up to 2006. This approach is similar to Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, Revised edition, 1984) or José de la Colina and Tómas Pérez Turrent's Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel (Marsilio, 1992). And it offers similar rewards: you don't have to be an evangelist for the auteur theory to feel that a director has a uniquely important perspective on his own work.

Van der Heide is a knowledgeable interviewer, perhaps to a fault—he is sometimes so busy telling Benegal his own interpretation of Benegal's films, or elicting Benegal's response to the criticism and comments of other writers, that he neglects to fully draw out Benegal's own views. The interviews are presented as uninterrupted transcripts; all explanatory material is given in the endnotes to each chapter. Those endnotes are so extensive, though, that it might have been better to try to integrate some of them (the film synopses, for example) into the main text.

Still, if you are interested in Benegal's work or parallel cinema in general, Van der Heide's book is essential reading. It, too, though, will need updating, whenever Benegal decides that he's through making films. Although he's in his mid-70s he's still going strong, having released Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba! (2010) since this book was published.