Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Television

John Everett Millais (Samuel Barnett), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner),
and William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall) walk through an exploding art gallery
in the "Heroes" promo for Desperate Romantics

This was our Year of the BBC Series. We saw so many excellent series that it's hard to pick out just a few as standouts; the general standard for acting, writing, directing, and production design was amazingly high. So my apologies for a list that's a bit overstuffed; the series are given in the order in which they were viewed:

Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) in Cranford
Cranford (2007) and Return to Cranford (2009): As the titles might suggest, these Heidi Thomas-scripted Elizabeth Gaskell adaptations focus on the inhabitants of the fictional town of Cranford, and the challenges to their traditions posed by new social, political and economic changes. Dame Judi Dench heads an ensemble cast of excellent British actors such as Imelda Staunton, Barbara Flynn, Claudie Blakely, Lesley Manville, Jim Carter, Michael Gambon, and the serenely radiant Julia Sawalha (I could hardly believe that Lydia Bennett in 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was created by the same actress, so different are the characters). Julia Sawalha is the reason we began watching Lark Rise To Candleford (see below).

Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) in Wives and Daughters
Wives and Daughters (1999) is another Elizabeth Gaskell adaptation, this time written by Andrew Davies (who also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 Pride & Prejudice). It's centered on Molly Gibson (the ethereal Justine Waddell), a young woman who must deal with her unpleasant new stepmother (Francesca Annis) and her beautiful but emotionally manipulative new stepsister (Keeley Hawes). Another excellent cast that also includes Michael Gambon, Barbara Flynn, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, and Rosamund Pike.

Mirah (Jodhi May) and Daniel (Hugh Dancy) in Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda (2002): I wrote about this George Eliot adaptation my earlier post "Why BBC literary adaptations are so delightful: Daniel Deronda edition." It features gorgeous locations, a wonderful Andrew Davies script, and another excellent cast (including Amanda Root, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Dancy, and Jodhi May).

Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha) in Lark Rise To Candleford
Lark Rise To Candleford (2008-2011): I wrote about this series in my posts "Lark Rise To Candleford" and "The Victorians and Bollywood: Lark Rise to Lagaan." The high quality of the scripts is maintained to the end of Season Four.

Mr. Slope (Alan Rickman) in The Barchester Chronicles
The Barchester Chronicles (1982): For a more detailed appreciation of this series, please see the Update to my post "A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire." The young Alan Rickman is especially slimy as the sibilant snake-like sycophant Mr. Slope, a forerunner of Harry Potter's Snape.

Irene Heron Forsyte (Gina McKee) in The Forsyte Saga
The Forsyte Saga (2002): Strictly speaking a Granada Television, not BBC, series, but equally lavish and equally well-cast. At first I wondered whether the problems of the self-involved members of this rich family (and the unfortunate people who found themselves in their orbit) were going to hold my interest for ten episodes and 700 minutes; we started to call it the "Lack of Foresight Saga." Then came the episode in which the family's dying patriarch, Old Jolyon, discovers an intellectual companionship that blossoms into platonic love with the sensitive Irene, his nephew Soames's estranged wife. In this episode, too, Old Jolyon begins to understand and accept the choices made by his artist son Young Joylon when he followed the imperatives of love over those of duty. This touching episode was beautifully written by Stephen Mallatratt and acted by Corin Redgrave (Old Jolyon), Gina McKee (Irene), Rupert Graves (Young Jolyon) and the other members of the cast. From then on, we were hooked.

Lizzie Siddal (Amy Manson) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner)
in Desperate Romantics
Desperate Romantics (2009): If you're somewhat allergic to costume dramas you'll still enjoy Desperate Romantics. It follows the misadventures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they drink to excess, sleep with their models, and scandalize the Victorian art world. What makes the series take off is the larger-than-life performance of Aidan Turner as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an artist and poet who is determined to make up for his relative lack of talent (or, at least, his lack of application) through relentless self-promotion. From the neo-glam-rock theme song on, the series is given a deliberately anachronistic tone by writer Peter Bowker and directors Paul Gay and Diarmuid Lawrence. Ordinarily deliberate anachronisms annoy me, but they work brilliantly in this very modern tale of sex and art-world success. Great fun, and a surprising amount of bare flesh (male and female). Definitely not your typical BBC series.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Books, Movies, and Music

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Music

Favorite live music events:

Jill Tracy (photo credit: Neil Girling)

Jill Tracy and Daniel Handler: "The Ballad of Fantômas." City Lights Books, San Francisco, April 6; presented by Peter Maravelis' Fantômas-By-The-Bay centenary celebration

Jill Tracy is a gothic cabaret chanteuse who has composed soundtracks for silent films, including Murnau's 1922 horror classic Nosferatu. Handler, among other activities, is an accordionist who has played on projects with Stephin Merritt (Handler appears on The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs as well as albums by The 6ths and The Gothic Archies). Together they performed an unforgettable version of Kurt Weill and Robert Desnos' Ballad of Fantômas, which enumerates, in graphic detail, the many crimes of the title character. The performers were helped along on the gruesome choruses by an enthusiastic absinthe-soaked crowd (absinthe generously supplied by St. George Spirits). Dark cabaret, indeed.

For a taste of Jill Tracy's work, here is a short film of her song "The Fine Art of Poisoning," directed by Bill Domonkos:

Philippe Jaroussky & Apollo's Fire, "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Hertz Hall, Berkeley, October 30; presented by Cal Performances

The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is a truly amazing performer, and his appearance with the period instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire was far and away the most thrilling live music event we witnessed this past year. You can read more details about this electrifying concert in my earlier post.

Favorite classical music recording:

Philippe Jaroussky: Carestini — The Story of A Castrato. Le Concert d'Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor
[Carestini] rendered everything he sang interesting by good taste, energy, and judicious embellishments. He manifested great agility in the execution of difficult divisions from the chest in a most articulate and admirable manner. It was the opinion of Hasse, as well as of many other eminent professors, that whoever had not heard Carestini was unacquainted with the most perfect style of singing.
—Charles Burney, A General History of Music v. 2, pp. 782 - 783
The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has many excellent recordings, but Carestini perhaps best showcases the full range of his gifts. This recording of arias written for the castrato Carestini includes examples of both lightning-fast coloratura and affecting slow arias. The works performed include some less-familiar arias by well-known composers such as Gluck and Handel, as well as wonderful arias by such undeservedly neglected composers as Capelli, Graun, Hasse, Leo, and Porpora. Like Cecilia Bartoli, Jaroussky seeks out underexplored areas of the repertory and brings his most exciting discoveries to renewed life. This is a superb disc, and of his recordings perhaps comes closest to suggesting the excitement of his live performances.

Favorite opera performances (live):

Handel: Acis & Galatea. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, June 18; presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

I wrote about this brilliantly staged and beautifully performed chamber opera in an earlier post. We were fortunate to see one of its stars, Aaron Sheehan, as Orpheus in our other favorite live opera experience of 2011:

Charpentier: La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers. Magnificat; Warren Stewart, director. St. Mark's Episcopalian Church, Berkeley, October 15

Another superb evening of music from Magnificat. Orphée retells the myth of Orpheus' liberation of his beloved Eurydice from the underworld realm of Pluto and Proserpine. Charpentier's chamber opera compresses a huge range of emotion into a compact package. Magnificat's principal singers—Aaron Sheehan (Orphée), Laura Heimes (Euridice), Jennifer Ellis Kampani (Daphné, Aréthuze, Proserpine), and Peter Becker (Pluton)—performed Charpentier's exquisite music beautifully. Another triumph for the singers, Magnificat's instrumental ensemble, and director Warren Stewart.

Favorite opera (broadcast):

Renée Fleming (Rodelinda)
and Andreas Scholl (Bertarido)
Handel: Rodelinda. Met Live in HD broadcast, December 3

For Rodelinda Handel wrote some of his greatest music and created one of his most affecting heroines. Renée Fleming, the title character in this production from the Met, has a voice that at this stage in her career seems to have lost some agility and is showing some wear. The countertenor Andreas Scholl, as Rodelinda's husband Bertarido, was also not in his best voice for this broadcast. However, all hesitations were swept away by their total commitment to their roles. Their farewell scene at the end of Act II was passionately convincing; during Rodelinda's Act III mourning aria "Se 'l mio duol non e si forte," real tears coursed down Fleming's cheeks; and the kiss Bertarido/Scholl planted on Rodelinda/Fleming at the conclusion of the opera was full of unfeigned affection.

San Francisco Opera might take note of how effective Stephen Wadsworth's thoughtfully detailed but straightforward production was; it required no updatings to fascist Europe, and refused to undermine Handel's drama with jokes or camp. The contrast with SF Opera's well-sung but emotionally inert production of Rodelinda from several seasons ago couldn't have been more stark.

Most clueless audience members:

Philip Glass: Satyagraha. Met Live in HD rebroadcast, Century Cinema 9, San Francisco, December 7

Satyagraha is about the young Gandhi's encounters with injustice in South Africa and the formation of his philosophy of compassion and non-violent resistance. In the final scene of the opera, Gandhi (Richard Croft) steps forward and sings an extended solo on an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita which means in part "I come to earth...for the protection of good, holding back evil and upholding virtue." Suddenly the screen was illuminated by a flash—a woman sitting several rows in front of us had taken a flash picture of the screen. Not only is that incredibly rude, it's incredibly stupid: when you take a picture of a lighted screen, using a flash will both wash out the screen image and brightly illuminate anything directly in front of you (like the backs of the seats in the next row). Evidently this woman was indeed unhappy with the quality of her picture, because as the scene progressed she went on to take several more. After the third or fourth flash, a guy a couple of rows behind her screamed "IF YOU TAKE ONE MORE PICTURE I'M GOING TO COME DOWN THERE AND KILL YOU!" Meanwhile, Gandhi sang on about compassion and non-violence.

Jill Tracy
City Lights Books
The Fantômas Website
St. George Absinthe Verte
Philippe Jaroussky (in French)
Apollo's Fire
Boston Early Music Festival
Aaron Sheehan
Metropolitan Opera Live in HD

More Favorites of 2011:
Bollywood, Books, Movies, and Television

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Movies

Brief Encounter (1945): I have a penchant for movies about doomed love; after all, among my ten favorite films of all time are Vertigo, Casablanca, La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho. So I'm not sure why it took me so long to see this David Lean-directed classic. Perhaps I wasn't ready to see it until now; I do think that to fully appreciate this film it helps to be at least as old as its protagonists (who seem to be in their mid-30s). I'm just glad I didn't let any more time go by.

The story is taken from Noel Coward's play "Still Life": a man and a woman (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) meet in a railway station cafe every week at the same time. Their casual encounters for movie-watching and window shopping soon deepen into love—only, both of them are married and have children. If you're thinking, "This can't end well," you're right.

The film is filled with wonderful scenes. Probably the most excruciating is when on a rainy night the couple winds up together at the apartment of an absent friend, and seem to be on the verge of consummating their affair, only to have the friend return unexpectedly. And the couple's final parting, interrupted by an oblivious, chattering busybody, is agonizing.

Brief Encounter is beautifully photographed, and Robert Krasker's stunning black and white cinematography is gorgeously rendered in the Criterion Collection DVD transfer. Another striking element of the film is the score: Rachmaninoff's sweepingly romantic Piano Concerto No. 2 ebbs and swells through virtually every scene. (Cleverly, the music has a diegetic origin: the film is largely told in flashback, and a radio is playing the piece in the background of the frame story). Having a single piece of music so closely intertwined with the story was a technique later used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo, with Bernard Herrmann's variations on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Curiously, the conductor of the Vertigo soundtrack, Muir Matheson, also conducted the Rachmaninoff score of Brief Encounter (Eileen Joyce was the soloist).

But what makes the film so memorable is the extraordinary performance of Celia Johnson as Laura, the suburban housewife who unexpectedly discovers in Howard's Alec a final chance at passionate love—only to find herself incapable of the necessary cruelty and selfishness to seize it. Johnson's face, which looks almost plain from some angles and classically beautiful from others, registers every nuance of her self-condemnation. A masterpiece of thwarted desire.

Mädchenjahre einer Königin/Victoria in Dover (aka The Story of Vickie, 1954): A young girl discovers that she's really a queen, meets her Prince Charming, and they live happily ever after. It's the stuff of fairy tales, but it really happened to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who at the age of 18 became Queen Victoria.

In Victoria in Dover the young queen is portrayed by the even younger Romy Schneider, who was only 16 when the film was made. Schneider is utterly delightful as a teenager who suddenly has to negotiate her way through the minefields of power. Amazingly (as I discovered after the film) pretty much all of the details of her early reign as portrayed in the film are historically based, in particular her mother's attempt, in league with her lover Sir John Conroy, to seize control and reign through her daughter.

Only the incident that gives the film its English title is fictional. Victoria is being pressured to marry, and has already seen (and rejected) two of the three suitors selected for her. The only one she hasn't yet met is Prince Albert. Sick of the intrigues at court, Victoria decides to flee in disguise to spend a few days in Paris. When she reaches Dover she stays overnight at an inn while waiting for the next boat to Calais. Staying at the same inn is a dashing young man who introduces her to waltzing and both literally and figuratively sweeps her off her feet.*

Of course, we can see where this is going, but director Ernst Marischka gets us there charmingly and with a deft comic touch. And Schneider is simply radiant. She went on to become famous in the Sissi trilogy, another real-life fairy tale directed by Marischka; if the Sissi trilogy is as delightful as Victoria in Dover it will be wonderful indeed.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Books, Music, and Television


* Historically, Victoria really was smitten with Albert; she wrote to her uncle Leopold, "He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see." In her diary, she confided that she found him "extremely handsome," with "a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful." They had a happy marriage by all accounts, and Victoria gave birth to nine children. She was devastated when Albert died of typhoid in 1861, nearly 22 years after their marriage.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Books


John Everett Millais: "Was it not a lie?"
The Chronicles of Barsetshire: My 15-month journey through the novels of Anthony Trollope is coming to a (perhaps temporary) end, although I haven't yet read even half of the novels he published in his lifetime.  Before I embarked on this voyage I thought of Trollope with a kind of condescension. How could someone so prolific be any good? I quickly discovered how misplaced that condescension was.

The six-novel series The Chronicles of Barsetshire (1855-1867) certainly ranks among this great novelist's greatest achievements. I wrote more extensively about the series in A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1. I wrote then, "If you think that a series of six novels about rural English clergy sounds boring, think again. Trollope's Barsetshire novels are filled with power struggles, class dynamics, financial disasters, and impossible loves. Fierce emotions seethe under the placid surfaces of the proper Victorian characters."

The first two novels were also made into an excellent BBC series, The Barchester Chronicles (1982), which will make an appearance in my list of favorite television shows seen in 2011.  And the fourth and fifth novels in the series, Framley Parsonage (1861) and The Small House At Allington (1864), were illustrated by John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the subjects of the BBC series Desperate Romantics (2010)—which will also be on my list of favorites from the past year.

Henry O'Neil: Before Waterloo (1868)
Vanity Fair: In An Autobiography (1883) Trollope wrote, "I myself regard Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language." I confess that on reading this I had to look up the author of The History of Henry Esmond (1852), and discovered that it was written by Trollope's onetime editor William Thackeray. This made me curious to read Thackeray; instead of starting with Trollope's recommendation, though, I decided to begin with Thackeray's most famous novel, Vanity Fair (1847). Since as of this writing I'm only halfway through, perhaps it's a bit premature to put it on my list of favorites. But so far I'm thoroughly enjoying this "Novel Without a Hero" and its two heroines, the good-hearted Amelia Sedley and the delightfully unscrupulous Becky Sharp.

Just a year or two before he died, Trollope himself wrote an "answer novel" to Vanity Fair entitled Ayala's Angel (1881). Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp is the orphaned daughter of a disreputable artist, and—realizing that the game is rigged against those of her parentage, class and gender—uses all her wiles to make her way in society among the wealthy and socially connected. in Trollope's novel Ayala and her sister Lucy are also the orphaned daughters of an artist, and also find themselves having to make their way among their "betters." Perhaps Trollope had initially imagined the sincere Lucy and the beautiful but willful Ayala as his versions of Amelia and Becky. Only, in Trollope's world both young women are ultimately able to marry for love; in Thackeray, marrying for love is either an impossibility or a self-delusion.

After Vanity Fair, I'm looking forward to Henry Esmond and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)—perhaps they'll appear on my list of favorites for 2012.


Predictably Irrational (2008): The sad news from behavioral economist Daniel Ariely's research over the past several decades is that not only are we not the utility-maximizing rational calculators portrayed in standard economic theory, we are extremely irrational, but in utterly predictable ways. This means that, even if we think we are aware of our irrational tendencies, those tendencies can be (and are) exploited by economic actors (advertisers, retailers, and bosses) for their own financial advantage.

For example, we judge prices, salaries, and romantic choices in comparison to what else is available, not by any absolute standard. So we insure our perpetual unhappiness, because there will always be someone earning more than we are, or dating someone better-looking than our partner. Perpetual dissatisfaction is music to the ears of those who want to sell us new things to replace those that are perfectly fine, but which we no longer desire.

This also means that we can be manipulated by the way goods are priced. So much for the equilibrium between price and demand; as Ariely writes, "it is market prices themselves that influence consumers' willingness to pay" (p. 45-46). What we perceive as our personal preferences are often simply the result of arbitrary choices made at some point in the past; those choices have become anchors in a process that Ariely calls "arbitrary coherence." We tend to procrastinate, try to keep our options open endlessly, unconsciously allow our expectations to determine our perceptions, and overvalue what we already own or things that are "free." All of these tendencies are used against us by those who stand to profit by them.

The only bright side is that public policy can be crafted to take account of our irrational impulses and behaviors. The dark side is that in a society that fetishizes freedom of choice, such attempts are usually portrayed as paternalistic (or as creeping socialism). Meanwhile corporations are free to ruthlessly exploit our irrational impulses. A fascinating and sobering book.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Movies, Music, and Television

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Bollywood

It's that retrospective time of year, and over the next week or so I hope to review my favorite music, books, movies and television from 2011. In my Favorites of 2010 my Bollywood choices dated from 1972, 1958 and 1960. But oddly enough, my two favorite Bollywood films seen in 2011 were actually released in the last twelve months. In alphabetical order:

 Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns and revelry, 2010)

I wrote about Band Baaja Baaraat in an earlier post. Since then we've seen it a second time, and enjoyed it even more. I'm still disappointed by the final speech of Bittoo (Ranveer Singh), which, if the subtitles are reliable, seems too self-involved. But up until that moment the film offers the compelling story of two wedding planners, Bittoo and Shruti (the excellent Anushka Sharma), who don't recognize until it's almost too late how much better they are together than apart. Plus BBB has some good Salim-Sulaiman songs; click on the link to the earlier post to see the charming "Ainvayi Ainvayi."

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You don't get a second chance at life, 2011)

In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, three college friends who have grown apart over the years are drawn back together when one of them becomes engaged. The engagement pushes them to finally take a long-delayed road trip through Spain. On that trip each of them must face his greatest fears and make a life-altering choice.

Initially I thought that the friends-learn-life-lessons-on-road-trip plot seemed too well-worn. But an excellent script (by director Zoya Akhtar, actor Farhan Akhtar, and Reema Kagti) and strong performances, particularly from Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol and Hrithik Roshan as the three friends, made this one of the most memorable films I saw in the past year. And while Shankar-Eshaan-Loy's songs didn't impress me tremendously when I heard them before seeing the movie, they work beautifully in the context of the film. "Khaabon ke Parinday" is a good example of a low-key ZNMD song that's grown on me, in part due to the spectacular Spanish scenery:

I have to confess that another reason I was reluctant to see ZNMD at first was the presence of Katrina Kaif in the cast. The few times we've seen her we've found her acting to be self-conscious, her dancing to be graceless, and her collagen-enhanced lips to be distracting (and not in a good way). But here she does a wonderful job as a free-spirited scuba instructor who helps the stressed-out workaholic Arjun (Hrithik) re-examine his priorities. A lovely movie that I look forward to re-watching soon.

More Favorites of 2011: Books, Movies, Music, and Television