Friday, December 22, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Movies

Frantz (2016), directed by François Ozon, screenplay by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo.
Based on the film Broken Lullaby (1932), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on a play by Maurice Rostand.

Nothing about Frantz seemed promising. First and foremost it was written and directed by François Ozon, whose dramas tend to the lurid: transgressive sex and sudden death are recurrent themes. So we were not expecting subtlety or nuance. But we were wrong: Frantz is stunning. As a measure of how unformulaic and original it is, every time I mentally predicted the next narrative turn, my prediction was wrong. Paula Beer, as a German war widow, and Pierre Niney, as the French soldier wracked with guilt over his role in her husband's death, offer understated but compelling performances. And no, it doesn't go there. Or there either. Highly recommended.

Julieta (2016), directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar. Based on short stories from Runaway by Alice Munro.

The plot is about estrangement between parents and children. As with most Almodóvar movies, though, the film is less about the twists and turns in the story than about a series of emotion-packed moments rendered with the hyper-real acuity of a dream. Julieta offers an ensemble of compelling actors; as ever with Almodóvar, the performances of the women are especially powerful, particularly Emma Suárez and Adriana Uguarte as the older and younger Julieta. This is one of Almodóvar's strongest films, rivalling Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999).

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as 'Zucchini,' 2016), directed by Claude Barras, screenplay by Céline Sciamma with contributions from Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro, and Barras. Based on the novel by Gilles Paris.

The title and the animation style may lead you to believe that this is a heartwarming movie about cute kids. In fact, the subject matter—children who have been orphaned, abandoned and neglected (or worse)—is harrowing. As in puppet theater, the animation style allows us some distance from the bleak material, and paradoxically enables us to enter fully into the emotional world of the characters. This approach could easily have gone wrong, but Barras gauges the tone unerringly (amazingly, this is his first feature film).

À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931), directed and written by René Clair.

In a 1931 essay entitled "The Talkies Talk Too Much," René Clair wrote,
I am dreaming of the conflict between the visions of a man's soul and the mechanization of life which daily grows more potent. I visualize a dreamer, a romantic, a vagabond, and I want to set him in my film against a background of tremendous mechanism. [1]
The dreamer, the romantic, the vagabond is Emile (Henri Marchand), who finds himself at every turn at odds with efficient, automated and soulless modern society. À nous la liberté remains Clair's great masterpiece. For my full post on the film please see Rene Clair's early films part 4.

The Bishop's Wife (1947), directed by Henry Koster, screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici, based on the novel by Robert Nathan.

For many, the cast will be reason enough to watch (or re-watch) The Bishop's Wife. Amazingly we hadn't seen it until this year. A bishop (David Niven) beset with difficulties in building a new cathedral prays for help, and his prayers are apparently answered. An angel (Cary Grant) appears and offers assistance—but he focuses his attention on the bishop's neglected wife (Loretta Young), children and parishoners, not on the cathedral. Despite the Christmas setting and Grant's celestial role this is not a cloyingly sweet holiday movie; each of the main characters experiences an important moment of (sometimes anguished) choice.

Indian films

Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), directed and written by Satyajit Ray, based on a story by Tarashankar Banerjee.

On a crumbling ancestral estate, a once-proud family's last patriarch (Chhabi Biswas) tries desperately to keep up appearances. Over the years a major symbol of his family's wealth, power and refinement has been the now-neglected music room, which hosted legendary entertainments. He decides to mount a final night of splendor in the music room, despite the ruinous expense involved. The decline and fall of the hereditary aristocracy would be a theme that Ray would return to, but never more hauntingly than in Jalsaghar.

Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

There are a number of classic narrative devices that recur in Indian films: tragic courtesans, forbidden love, maternal self-sacrifice, endangered children, reunions between long-separated lovers, reunions between long-separated parents and children, actors playing double roles, and courtroom scenes, to name a few. Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus. For my full appreciation of this film, please see Mamta.

Honorable mentions (in reverse chronological order):
  • Get Out (2017, directed by Jordan Peele)
  • The Handmaiden (2016, directed by Park Chan-wook)
  • The Eagle Huntress (2016, directed by Otto Bell)
  • Queen of Katwe (2016, directed by Mira Nair)
  • Sing Street (2016, directed by John Carney)
  • The Dressmaker (2015, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse) 
  • I Married A Witch (1942, directed by René Clair)
  • Un Carnet de Bal (Dance Card, 1937, directed by Julien Duvivier)
  • Le roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936, directed by Sacha Guitry)
Biggest disappointments

A Quiet Passion (2016), directed and written by Terence Davies

Perhaps our expectations were too high. And it must be said that the recreations of 19th-century clothes and interiors are beautifully filmed. But writer/director Terence Davies' tone-deaf script makes the poet Emily Dickinson at times sound smug and self-satisfied, which does not match my perception of this supremely self-questioning artist.

There is no doubt that Emily's deep strangeness and intensity could be disconcerting: her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (inexplicably absent from the film) wrote after an in-person visit that she "drained my nerve power. . .Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But Davies' Emily is often deliberately rude and dismissive of others. Despite an excellent cast featuring Cynthia Nixon (Emily) and E & I favorites Jennifer Ehle (her sister Lavinia) and Jodhi May (her sister-in-law Susan), Davies' black-and-white dichotomies lack subtlety, to say the least. As I wrote in my full post on A Quiet Passion, "Perhaps the next time that Terence Davies wants to make a period film he should let another Davies—Andrew—write the script."

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Difficulties of the heart, 2016), directed and written by Karan Johar

Of course, a Karan Johar film is going to be slick and manipulative. But usually it is also affecting. And a cast filled with favorite actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Anushka Sharma and Ranbir Kapoor promised watchability, at least. But Ae Dil Hai Mushkil features shallow characters who are too busy moping about what they don't have to appreciate their lives of fabulous privilege. As with many another Karan Johar film, the characters are rich; but here that wealth feels like it so insulates them from real-world cares that they have to invent some of their own. Also, even for someone like me who delights in spotting filmi allusions, there were too many. As Beth Loves Bollywood quotes from Uday Bhatia's review, "[KJo's celebration of his own career] is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential." Finally, since when does a Karan Johar film feature bad music? We didn't last an hour.


The Crown (2016, created and written by Peter Morgan)

This was the first of two series we watched this year featuring the dilemmas of young women suddenly thrust into positions of power. Although Claire Foy doesn't actually look all that much like Elizabeth Windsor, she makes you believe that she does by employing familiar gestures and vocal intonations. Her performance is very affecting, but she also shows the hidden steel inside the uncertain young woman (as when she interferes to break up the romance of her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) with the divorced royal equerry Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles)).

The Crown is the sort of series that tries to create a sense of drama by accompanying shots of people walking down a hall or cars driving down a road with foreboding music. And the petulance of Prince Philip (Matt Smith) over his subordinate role can grow tiresome, as it may have in real life. But the jockeying for power in the last days of the government of Winston Churchill (a scene-stealing John Lithgow) and the constant strains on familial and household relationships—not to mention the lovingly recreated 1950s gowns and hairstyles—make for engaging viewing. We're very much looking forward to Season 2, reportedly Foy's last before another actress takes over in the role of Elizabeth.

Victoria (2016, created and written by Daisy Goodwin)

Speaking of fabulous gowns, Victoria is filled with them, along with amazing interiors and beautiful carriages. It's also filled with scheming relatives, upstairs-downstairs contrasts, and not-very-convincing CGI cityscapes.

On the death of her uncle King William, the 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is crowned Queen, to the displeasure of her mother the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming), her mother's lover Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), her uncle the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth), and the Tory Party leader the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles). She is guided through the treacherous political waters by (and begins to feel more than monarchical gratitude towards) the widowed Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell). And soon Victoria must make the fateful choice of a husband.

There's a certain falling-off of dramatic tension after Victoria marries her cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and in the first episodes featuring Albert he is a bit whiny. Victoria also has rather annoying theme music by Martin Phipps, performed by Mediaeval Baebes. Nonetheless, these are minor issues that detract little from the series' many pleasures. The second season is scheduled to be released on DVD in January.

Biggest disappointment 

To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters (2016), written and directed by Sally Wainwright

This is a curious joint biography of the Brontë sisters. Curious, because it leaves out hugely important parts of their lives. As an example, one of Charlotte's formative experiences was her sojourn in Brussels at the Pensionnat Heger in the early 1840s, first as a student and then as a teacher. There she fell in love with the married Constantine Heger, a passion that she maintained for years afterwards. That love was represented in her novels: directly in her first novel The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) and in Villette (1853), and indirectly in Jane Eyre (1847; Heger was clearly one of the models for Rochester).

But the series begins after Charlotte's return from Brussels, and as a result the parallels between her life and her work are absent. So, too, are major figures such as Heger and Elizabeth Gaskell (a close friend of Charlotte's and her first biographer). We don't see her father Patrick's notorious rages, or his furiously negative response to Arthur Nicholl's proposal of marriage to Charlotte in 1846.

Instead, the series focusses to an excessive degree on Branwell, the Brontë sisters' dissolute brother. It is no surprise when he dies—his self-destructive impulses have been made all too apparent—but it is a surprise when his death is followed shortly by those of Emily and Anne (who up to that point have not seemed to be ill at all). As a result of this imbalance the series might well have been called Branwell. Too much crucial material about the the Brontë sisters' lives is absent: dare I say, rendered invisible?


I Am Not Your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck, written by James Baldwin

This film was drawn primarily from Baldwin's own writings, narrated by Samuel Jackson, and from photographs and footage of Baldwin. Although the focus is mainly on people and events from the U.S. civil rights struggle in the 1960s, Baldwin's writing speaks urgently to the present moment. We can only wish that he was still alive to speak truth to power. Essential viewing.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years (2016), directed by Ron Howard, written by Mark Monroe

Ron Howard has tracked down amazing footage of The Beatles playing live in their formative years. We are able to watch (and share the band's disbelief) as in a matter of months they go from playing basement bars to being pursued everywhere by cameras, reporters and mobs of frantic teenagers. We also witness their astonishing growth and development as musicians and songwriters under conditions that are anything but conducive to change. Don't look for evidence of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, who are absent from the film; it picks up in 1963, after Ringo joins the band, and ends with their retirement from the stage in 1966 (with a brief coda of the band's 1969 rooftop concert). It's an amazing story that never gets old, and Howard largely lets footage shot at the time tell the story. Pure pleasure.

More favorites of 2017:

  1. Quoted (with slight modification) in Celia McGerr, René Clair, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 101.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Recordings

In its January 2018 issue Opera News has picked Philippe Jaroussky's Bach-Telemann: Sacred Cantatas with the Freiburger Barockorchester (Erato) and Joyce DiDonato's In War and Peace with Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Maxim Emelyanychev (Erato) as two of the best concert/recital albums of the year. I strongly agree with both choices, but can't resist pointing out that you read it here first: both were on my favorites list for 2016. [1]

Like Opera News, I add recordings to my favorites list when I finally hear them, so many of the recordings on my list of favorites were released before 2017. Like this one:

Hamilton: An American Musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic).

It really is as brilliant as everyone has been saying for the past two years. And as everyone already knows, it is the story of the Revolutionary War hero, Federalist Papers author and founder of the Federal Reserve Alexander Hamilton told through rapid-fire rap. Miranda's tongue-twisting wordplay is performed trippingly by himself as Hamilton and a largely African-American cast portraying his revolutionary compatriots such as Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), and the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs).

Unlike my lucky partner, I still haven't seen Hamilton on stage, but the cast album stands on its own. Miranda's musical references range from Gilbert and Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance) and Rodgers and Hammerstein (South Pacific) to LL Cool J Biggie Smalls ("Goin' Back to Cali") and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five ("The Message"), but Hamilton is also dazzlingly unprecedented. And at a time when voices have been raised in fear and anger against immigration, the musical points up the foundational role of immigrants and people of color in creating and sustaining our country and its ideals. Many thanks to the relative who gave this album to me thinking I might enjoy it; if I had to limit myself to a single favorite recording heard this year, Hamilton would be it.

Eugene Onegin (1958). Directed by Roman Tikhomirov. With actors, singers and dancers from the Bolshoi Opera and Theatre (Kultur DVD).

Speaking of biracial national heroes: Alexander Pushkin, Russia's most revered poet and the author of Eugene Onegin, was descended from an African slave. This film of Tchaikovsky's opera of Pushkin's novel-in-verse features actors lip-synching to the now-classic recording conducted by Boris Khaikin. Although the lip-synching is sometimes apparent, the arrangement also has some key advantages: Tatiana, a young woman awakening to first love, is portrayed by 21-year old Adriana Shengelaya. The soprano providing her singing voice, Galina Visnevskaya, was more than a decade older, and on film, with its unforgiving closeups, would likely have been less convincing in the role of a lovestruck teenager.

With a running time of less than two hours, the film does not include all of the music of the opera—the choral sections in particular were cut. But all of the key scenes are here, many filmed on location on beautiful country estates and in the streets around the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). The sumptuous ball scenes feature dancers from the Bolshoi, and the singing is superlative.

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Otto Klemperer (EMI).

The Magic Flute has long been my least favorite of the operas Mozart composed in the last six years of his life. It wasn't only the tenor hero and the spoken German dialogue that presented difficulties; Schikaneder's libretto also seemed like a mishmash of unsubtle symbolism, patent misogyny and blatant racism.

But after discovering this recording, I can now more fully appreciate that The Magic Flute also contains sublime music. Klemperer cut all the spoken dialogue and packed the cast with great singers such as E & I favorites Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp.

If you haven't had enough of my opinions about Mozart's most-performed (and by many, most beloved) opera, please see the full post on The Magic Flute, That post also features Janowitz singing Tamina's "Ach, ich fuhl's" and Popp singing the Queen of Night's "Der Hölle Rache."

Two other recordings by the leading women of The Magic Flute were also among my favorites this year. On Strauss: Orchesterlieder/Metamorphosen (Virgin Red Line) Janowitz sings a program of Richard Strauss's orchestral songs with creamy tone, accompanied by the Academy of London conducted by Richard Stamp. And The Very Best of Lucia Popp (EMI) is a two disc-set that includes many of Popp's most cherished recordings. Her versions of Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder, with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic, are surpassed only by those of Janowitz with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

To hear Janowitz and Popp each singing Strauss's radiant "Morgen!", please see my post "Five songs." And to hear each of them singing one of his Vier Letzte Lieder, please see "Four last songs."

Allegrezza Del Nuovo Maggio. Music by Biagio Marini. Emanuela Galli, soprano. Ensemble Galilei; Paul Beier, director (Stradivarius).

This was the year I discovered Emanuela Galli. She has been recording for two decades, but as usual it has taken me years to discover what many have known for quite some time. Her voice has a timbre that I can only describe as slightly dark, or shaded; it is somewhat reminiscent of, though not quite so plangent as, that of Montserrat Figueras (one of this household's favorite singers).

I was having lunch in Berkeley's Musical Offering Café when her album of Barbara Strozzi songs recorded with Beier and Ensemble Galilei, Diporti di Euterpe (Stradivarius) was being played. That album, alas, seems to be out of print (though it is available for streaming), so I immediately sought out everything else I could find. 

In addition to her recordings of Strozzi she has recorded discs of music by far lesser-known but very worthy composers such Durante, Luzzaschi, Stradella, and many others. Her album of music by Vivaldi's contemporaries Porpora, Hasse and Galuppi for the women of the orphanages of Venice, Le Grazie Veneziane (with the Vocal and Instrument Concert Dresden, directed by Peter Kopp, Carus) is another favorite. And the Luzzaschi album featuring Roberta Mameli and Francesca Cassinari, Concerto delle Dame (La Venexiana directed by Claudio Cavina, Glossa) would also have made the list if it hadn't been recorded at annoyingly different volume levels from track to track. 

Here is the title track of Allegrezza del Nuovo Maggio (Joy at the new May):

Philippe Jaroussky:
La Storia di Orfeo. With Emöke Baráth (soprano). I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor (Erato).
The Händel Album. Artaserse (Erato).

These albums display both the virtuosic and the emotive sides of Jaroussky. La Storia di Orfeo places compositions by Monteverdi, Sartorio and Rossi in sequence to tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Jaroussky is partnered with the soprano Emöke Baráth, who sings affectingly.

The Händel Album would seem to cover well-worn ground. But Jaroussky has selected some gems from several of Handel's lesser-known operas such as Imeneo, Flavio and Tolomeo. If Hamilton had not been my favorite album of the year, it would have been this one. "Ombra Cara" from Radamisto:

More favorites of 2017:

  1. Has Opera News had a conversion experience regarding historically-informed performance? Of the seven concert/recital albums with orchestral accompaniment on their "Best of 2017" list, five involve period-instrument ensembles. In addition to the two mentioned above, they are Anne Hallenberg with Les Talens Lyriques (Christoph Rousset, director), Anna Prohaska with Il Giardino Armonico (Giovanni Antonini, director), and Iestyn Davies with Arcangelo (Jonathan Cohen, director).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Live performances

Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet: produced by Lieder Alive! at the Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco, September 10.

To open the 2017/18 Liederabend Series rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, accompanied by the Alexander String Quartet, presented a program of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), Rückert-Lieder (Rückert Songs), and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

Mahler published these song cycles in orchestral and piano versions; Zakarias Grafilo, first violin of the Alexander Quartet, has now arranged them for string quartet. The quartet versions offered both intimacy and lushness, and Scharich's voice floated beautifully over the strings. These performances were superbly realized on the part of everyone involved.

The Mahler cycles are being recorded for release in 2018. I hope that Lieder Alive!'s recording project will also include Grafilo's arrangements for Scharich and the ASQ of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder.

Through the commissioning of these arrangements, the sponsoring of performances and the successful crowdfunding of support for the recordings, Lieder Alive!'s director Maxine Bernstein is showing what a small but visionary organization can accomplish. For more on the 2017/18 Liederabend Series, see Lieder Alive!'s website.

Four opera productions  (in chronological order of performance):

Each of these productions showed what can be done despite limited means when you have a daring imagination and dedicated performers.
  • Atalanta (music by Handel): produced by the SFCM Baroque Ensemble at the Hume Concert Hall, SF Conservatory of Music, March 12. 
A talented young cast accompanied by the SFCM Baroque Ensemble conducted by Corey Jamason brought Handel's comedy of false identities and romantic confusion to vivid life. Especially impressive was soprano Morgan Balfour in the trouser role of the lovelorn Meleagro/"Tirsi." Another in a series of excellent Baroque opera performances by SFCM; for more on SFCM's free and low-cost concerts, see the SFCM Performance Calendar.
  • The Chastity Tree (music by Vicente Martin y Soler, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte): produced by West Edge Opera at the Pacific Pipe Company, Oakland, August 12.
Although the vast Pacific Pipe warehouse in industrial West Oakland might not seem like the most obvious venue for 18th-century opera, WEO's director Mark Streshinsky made a virtue of necessity in this bold and campy production. As I wrote earlier, "Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly." For more of my review please see "The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana"; for more on their upcoming productions, see the West Edge Opera website.
  • La Circe (music by Pietro Andrea Ziani, libretto by Cristoforo Ivanovich): produced by Ars Minerva at the ODC Theater, SF, September 8.
La Circe is based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and takes place after Ulysses and his men have left Circe's island. Circe is a sorceress who at first welcomes shipwrecked travellers, and then transforms them into wild beasts, trees, brooks and rocks when she grows tired of them.

As with the other productions mounted by Ars Minerva's intrepid artistic director Céline Ricci, Ziani's opera has not been performed since the time of its creation. Ricci not only unearthed the opera and directed the staging (aided by Patricia Nardi's beautiful scene-setting projections), she sang the title role compellingly. Other standouts in the excellent cast included Kindra Scharich as Andromaca and Aurélie Veruni as Scylla. In bringing unjustly forgotten operas to new life Ricci is performing an invaluable service for lovers of Baroque music.

Ars Minerva has already announced its new project, Andromeda, a Cosmic Tale.
  • The Rape of Lucretia (music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Robert Duncan): produced by the SFCM Opera Department at the Hume Concert Hall, SF Conservatory of Music, December 10.
This production of Britten's dramatically compelling opera took place amid the ongoing eruption of sexual assault allegations made against powerful men. No allusions to the #MeToo movement were made in the program notes or in director Heather Mathew's staging, but they didn't have to be. A powerhouse performance by Chantal Grybas of the heroine's overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame was given an even greater resonance because of the cultural moment. Britten's score was incisively played by the Conservatory Orchestra under conductor Curt Pajer, and the real-life context made the entire experience especially memorable.

SF Music Day 2017: produced by Intermusic SF at the War Memorial Veterans Building, San Francisco, September 24.

During this annual day-long event Intermusic SF (formerly SF Friends of Chamber Music) presents a huge variety of performances and panel discussions, all for free. This year I counted more than 30 groups performing in four different venues around the vast Veterans Building. It's impossible to take in everything, but I saw wonderful performances by Musica Pacifica, the Minsky Duo, MUSA, Alam Khan and Arjun Verma, and the Telegraph Quartet.

But I think the highlight of the day for me was the period-instrument Sylvestris Quartet playing (as they announced from the stage) "250 years of French string music in 30 minutes." The music ranged from François Couperin to a meltingly beautiful rendition of the slow movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' String Quartet No. 1. (The performance in the video below is by the Quartetto d'Archi Venezia.)

I look forward to hearing more from these musicians in the coming year; a performance calendar is available on the Sylvestris Quartet website. For more on Intermusic SF's programs, see the Intermusic SF website.

(click on the image for a readable version; here is the full version)

Fun Home (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel): produced by Fox Theatricals, Barbara Whitman and Carole Shorenstein Hays at the Curran Theater, SF, January 28.

Translating Bechdel's brilliant graphic memoir into a Broadway musical would seem to have been an impossible task, but somehow Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron managed it: the Broadway version won five Tonys, including best musical, best book, best original score, and best direction. From the evidence of the roadshow version it deserved them all. The book and music were amazingly well done, and Sam Gold's direction kept the ever-shifting time-frames perfectly clear. Special praise goes to the actors playing Bruce Bechdel (Robert Petkoff) and all the Alisons: Kate Shindle (as Alison), Abby Corrigan (as Middle Alison), and (I believe) Alessandra Baldacchino (as Young Alison; no announcement was made). Even for someone very familiar with Bechdel's memoir and entering the theater with a certain skepticism, it was an intensely moving experience.

Takács Quartet Beethoven cycle: produced by Cal Performances at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, October 2016 - April 2017

It was a privilege to be able to hear the world-renowned Takács Quartet perform all of Beethoven's string quartet music, and to participate in the many residency activities (open rehearsals, panel discussions, interviews and master classes) that surrounded the concerts. My thanks once again to the members of the Takacs Quartet, who were amazingly generous with their time, wonderfully open to interaction with the audience, and surprisingly funny throughout, and to producer Cal Performances. For my reflections on the experience please see:
Honorable mentions

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: La Temple de la Gloire (Rameau): produced by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, April 30.

This production featured excellent singers, striking Baroque dances re-created by Catherine Turocy of the New York Baroque Dance Company, wonderful sets and costumes, and brilliant music performed by one of the world's premier period-instrument ensembles, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. What more could one ask for?

Well. . .how about an engaging narrative? In opéra-ballet each act tells a different story related to the overall theme, which in the case of La Temple de la Gloire is the Good King. The final act is one long celebration of the magnanimity and virtue of Trajan (read: Louis XV), which does not exactly make for compelling drama.

This was a huge undertaking for both PBO and Cal Performances, and deserves to be applauded—it is difficult to imagine a better production of this work. Fittingly it took place on the UC Berkeley campus, since the university's music library houses an original manuscript score and libretto. But according to the program notes the audiences of 1745 felt that this was a philosophical treatise disguised as an opera, and I have to say that the passage of 270 years has not provided reasons to alter that assessment.

Les Arts Florissants: Actaéon (Charpentier) and Dido & Aeneas (Purcell). Produced by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, November 9.

These two Baroque chamber operas are linked not only by period and scale, but thematically: the tragic myth of Actaeon is referenced in Dido & Aeneas. They were given musically and vocally excellent modern-dress performances by Les Arts Florissants, with stage movement thoughtfully directed by Sophie Daneman.

However, the small instrumental ensemble (there were only seven players, including music director William Christie leading from the harpischord) and the relatively light voices of the singers, many of whom were recent graduates of LAF's young artist program Le Jardin des Voix, meant that the performers had difficulty filling the 2000-seat Zellerbach Hall with sound. As a result, some of the power and immediacy of these works was lost. A more intimate venue, such as the 700-seat Hertz Hall, would have better served both the artists and the works.

More favorites of 2017:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Nonfiction

B. G. MacCarthy: The Female Pen: Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818 (NYU Press, 1994)

This book and the one that follows helped shape my 2017 fiction reading list, and informed my responses to the works I read.

MacCarthy's book, which first appeared in the 1940s, is like sitting down over a glass of good wine with an incredibly well-read and discerning friend. I had to keep stopping to jot down the authors and titles of books I had never heard of but that sounded intriguing, such as Elizabeth Griffith's The Delicate Distress (1769) and Susannah Gunning's Memoirs of Mary (1794). MacCarthy is also the reason I read Charlotte Smith's novels, Eliza Haywood's Miss Betsy Thoughtless and Charlotte Lennox's Henrietta, all of which made my list of favorites this year.

Instead of imposing an overarching ideological framework on the books she discusses, MacCarthy offers detailed description and sympathetic but not uncritical readings. If you are thinking of exploring writing by women from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, MacCarthy is an excellent guide.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: The Madwoman in the Attic (Yale, 1979)

Given my strong interest in 19th-century literature it's surprising that it took me so long to pick up Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, which has achieved classic status. (The title, of course, is a reference to Rochester's wife Bertha in Jane Eyre.) The authors don't lack for Big Ideas, but it is those very ideas—in particular, Freudian criticism and the sort of feminism that speaks sweepingly of monolithic male power—that can make The Madwoman in the Attic seem dated at times.

Here's a sample that verges on unintentional parody: in discussing the short story "The Lifted Veil," Gilbert and Gubar write, ". . .George Eliot apparently identified with the failed aspirations of a fallen Satan because of her own sexually engendered fears of flying and falling. . ." (p. 456) "Apparently," although they offer no evidence? "Fears of flying and falling" rather than, say, drowning, which is the fate of characters in Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda? "Sexually-engendered"? As they say on the previous page, "All of this would seem to lead us far afield from 'The Lifted Veil.'" Indeed.

But Madwoman is on my list of favorites because Gilbert and Gubar can also be very insightful about the dilemmas expressed in and through women's writing in the 19th century, and particularly in the work of Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. In another passage (p. 455) they write,

[Mirah's] angelic resignation [of her stage career] is contrasted directly with the demonic ambition of the Princess Halm-Eberstein, Daniel Deronda's mother.

Stricken with the same sort of 'double consciousness' (chap. 51) as Latimer [in 'The Lifted Veil'], the Princess knows that 'every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster' (chap. 51). . .the Princess explains to her son that he cannot understand her rebellion against forced renunciation: 'You are not a woman. You may try—but you can never imagine what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl' (chap. 51).

Passages like this in The Madwoman in the Attic inspired me to read Daniel Deronda, which is also included in my favorite fiction of 2017.

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: Letters

At half-past three on Saturday afternoon, September 19, 1846, Elizabeth Barrett left her family's house in Wimpole Street, London, to go to Hodgson's bookshop around the corner in Great Marylebone Street. Barrett, who suffered from chronically poor health, had spent most of the past six years in virtual seclusion in her bedroom, seeing only a few regular visitors and venturing out of her room infrequently. As usual on her rare expeditions outside the family home she was accompanied by her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, and her dog Flush.

She never returned.

Barrett was secretly meeting Robert Browning, who had been corresponding with and visiting her for the past two years, and who, a week earlier, had married her in a clandestine ceremony. After meeting in Hodgson's bookshop, the couple left together for Paris. While back in London Barrett's dictatorial father raged at the news of their elopement (he disinherited Elizabeth and never spoke to her again for the rest of his life), they travelled on to Italy, where they were separated only by her death 15 years later.

It's an astonishing story, told through the letters Browning and Barrett exchanged almost every day during their courtship. Their letters, together with incidents from their twice-weekly personal meetings, became the basis for one of the most beloved sonnet sequences in English literature, Sonnets from the Portuguese. For a fuller story of their courtship and links to the digitized letters and the Sonnets, please see the first of five posts about Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

Edward Dusinberre: Beethoven For A Later Age: Living With the String Quartets (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

When the musicians attempting to play Beethoven's Op. 59 quartets complained to him of the unprecedented difficulty of the pieces, the composer is said to have responded, "Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age." Perhaps that age has not quite yet arrived, because the Beethoven quartets can still shock and confound.

Dusinberre's book is a first-person history of the world-renowned Takács Quartet (he joined in 1993, replacing the founding first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy). It's also a description of the compositional origins of selected Beethoven quartets, as well as a detailed account of the challenges of performing them. Both on the page and in person Dusinberre has a delightfully dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. Whether you are approaching the quartets for the first time or have spent a lifetime attempting to fathom their mysteries, you could not ask for a more informative and entertaining companion.*

I had the very great fortune in the past year of seeing the Takács Quartet perform all of Beethoven's music for string quartet in a series of concerts (and surrounding activities) sponsored by Cal Performances. For my thoughts on Beethoven and the experience of the concert series, please see "For a later age," "Not beautiful," and "The other Beethoven."

Michael Reynolds: Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell, 2016)

As I wrote in the post The Rosenkavalier trio,

. . .Reynolds' detective work has shown that the opera [Der Rosenkavalier] owes its existence to a creative trio: Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the collaborator who has finally gained some recognition for the extent of his contributions, Count Harry Kessler. . .Reynolds has uncovered a treasure trove of production photos, programs, scores, and other materials, and has thoroughly investigated the myriad sources of both Der Rosenkavalier and the work that it was largely modelled on, L'ingénu libertin. . .If you love Der Rosenkavalier, Reynolds' book is essential—and fascinating—reading.

Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg: A Crack in Creation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

Over a cup of coffee at a campus cafe a decade ago, UC Berkeley molecular biologist Jennifer Doudna learned about CRISPR from her colleague Jillian Banfield. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are highly regular sequences of DNA that had been found in many single-celled organisms such as bacteria, but at the time their function was unknown.

Doudna began work on the CRISPR system and after years of effort she and her colleagues discovered that it plays a key role in the bacterial immune system. CRISPRs matched sections of viral DNA. When a similar virus invaded the cell, CRISPR, together with proteins generated by CRISPR-associated system genes (Cas), targeted the same sequence in the virus and cut it.

Doudna realized that a system that targeted and cut specific sequences of DNA could be used to edit genes in any organism. She and members of her lab developed a simplified and highly precise gene editing technique using CRISPR and one of the Cas proteins, Cas9. Not only could specific genetic sequences be cut, but new sequences could be introduced that would be spliced into the gene by DNA's natural repair mechanisms.

The implications are mind-boggling. It is now possible (in theory, at least) to eliminate diseases that are caused by small genetic variations, such as sickle-cell anemia, or by viruses such as HIV. It is also possible to edit genes in the germ line, making any changes heritable. And it may also be possible to spread a particular gene through an entire species using gene drive. In gene drives, both specific genes and the CRISPR system to introduce the genes are passed from generation to generation. In fast-reproducing species the selected genes will quickly become dominant. In this way, for example, mosquito-borne diseases could be wiped out by releasing sterile mosquitoes engineered with gene drive, causing the population to crash (and also causing a possibly catastrophic cascade of effects across the ecosystem).

It seems as though we have entered a new era in which we can actively direct the evolution of our own species. Doudna has called for a global conversation on the ethics of CRISPR gene-editing, and has devoted much of her time to sparking that conversation. Her highly readable and thought-provoking book is an important part of that vital effort. Here's another: her TED talk from 2015:

More favorites of 2017:

* The first version of this post inexplicably omitted Beethoven For A Later Age from my list of favorites; my sincere apologies to the author.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Fiction

It's that time again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite books, music, movies and television first experienced during the past year.

18th- and 19th-century fiction

As should be no surprise to regular readers of E & I, literature of the 18th and 19th centuries dominates my end-of-year list of favorites:

Eliza Haywood: The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751)

Haywood's novel-writing career spanned three decades and major shifts in style and sexual culture. Earlier I wrote about her first novel, Love in Excess (1720), which displays the influence of the amatory fiction of Aphra Behn. The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless seems to be influenced less by literary models and more by Haywood's own experiences.

To escape conflict with her new stepmother, Betsy flees to London and to the protection of a family friend. Her free behavior leads several men-about-town to make assumptions about her profession (followed by crude sexual advances), and alienates her suitor Mr. Trueworth. 
'I wonder,' continued she, 'what can make the generality of women so fond of marrying? — It looks to me like an infatuation. — Just as if it were not a greater pleasure to be courted, complimented, admired, and addressed by a number, than be confined to one, who, from a slave, becomes a master. . .they want to deprive us of all the pleasures of life, just when one begins to have a relish for them.' (Vol 4, Ch. 3)
Betsey seems very modern in her determination to live as she pleases, and it is not only in the 18th century that women have encountered difficulties in doing so. When she is trapped into marrying an incompatible man, Mr. Munden, it seems impossible that she will ever be united with a man of true worth. In featuring an error-prone but sympathetic heroine, Miss Betsy Thoughtless anticipates the novels of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen.

Charlotte Lennox: Henrietta (1758)

Charlotte Lennox was most famously the author of The Female Quixote (1752), a parodistic novel about the dangers of too much novel-reading. Henrietta (1758) is about dangers of a different kind. Henrietta, an orphan, travels to London, where she is made the object of multiple unscrupulous schemes on her body and her reputation. She must rely on her wit and steadfast principles to escape the many traps set for a young woman living in the city without family protection or fortune.

And Henrietta has a proposal scene that may remind you of another, more famous one:
'I see (resumed he) that I have not been happy enough to inspire you with any tender sentiments for me. Pardon me, miss Courteney, but I must be so free as to tell you that if you were not prepossessed in favour of another person, the proofs I have given you of my affection would not be received with such indifference.'
'There needs not any such prepossession,' replied Henrietta, vexed at this hint, 'to make me receive with indifference the proofs you have hitherto given me of that affection your lordship boasts of. Am I to reckon among these proofs, my lord, the insult you offered me at Mrs. Eccles's, and the strange declaration you made me in the country?'
'Ah, how cruel is this recapitulation now!' cried lord B—: 'do I not do justice to your birth, your beauty and your virtue, by my present honorable intentions?'
. . .'Well, my lord,' replied Henrietta, who had listened to him with great calmness, 'if ever I was in doubt of your intentions, you have clearly explained them now; of them, and of the sentiments you have avowed, you may collect my opinion, when I declare to you, that if you had worlds to bestow on me, I would not be your wife.'
'Is this your resolution, miss Courteney?' said his lordship.
'It is, my lord (she replied) . . .It is interest by which I am influenced, when I refuse your offered alliance, because I am sure I could not be happy with a man whom I cannot esteem.'
'Hold, madam, hold,' interrupted lord B—, 'this is too much: I have not deserved this treatment, but I thank you for it; yes, from my soul I thank you for it: it has helped restore me to my senses; I have been foolish, very foolish, I confess. . .The best apology I can make, madam (said he) for the importunate visit I have paid you, is to assure you I never will repeat it.' (Vol. II, Ch. VI)
It seems clear that Jane Austen drew on this scene for Darcy's first, impulsive proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Charlotte Smith: Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788); Celestina (1791); and The Old Manor House (1793)

In my post on Charlotte Smith's novels, "What have I to do now but to learn to suffer?", I wrote,
To paraphrase Chekhov, if in the first volume there's an orphan in a castle, in the last volume it will be revealed—spoiler alert!—that the orphan is actually the legitimate owner of the castle. On the way to this revelation (and true love. . .) there are false accusations. . .unwelcome attentions. . .misunderstandings, duels, hazardous sojourns in foreign lands, midnight pursuits, and fateful (and highly coincidental) meetings.
Smith was another influence on Jane Austen; as I wrote,
If Emmeline looks back to the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, Celestina looks forward as well to the novels of Jane Austen. Once again the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family. And once again the son of the family in which the heroine was raised falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby.
For the many other parallels between Smith's novels and Austen's, please see the full post linked above.

Stendhal: Le rouge et le noir (Scarlet and black, 1830)

Did Stendhal go to my high school? His picture of the game-playing, insincerity, and deliberate cruelty in the romantic relations between men and women takes me back to my teens. Julien Sorel, a handsome and ambitious young man from a working-class background, tries to make his way in Parisian high society. When the daughter of his rich benefactor falls in love with him, Sorel decides that he must keep her off-balance by pretending indifference; as soon as she is sure of him, she'll treat him with the same disdain she lavishes her other fawning suitors:
After a short moment's silence, he managed to control his heart enough to say in an icy tone: '. . .It's not your position in society that's the obstacle, but unfortunately your own character. Can you promise that you will love me for a week?' 
(Ah! let her love me for a week, a week only, Julien murmured to himself, and I shall die of joy. What do I care for the future, what do I care for life itself? And this divine happiness can begin at this very instant if I will, it depends entirely on me.)
Mathilde saw he was thinking deeply.
'Then I'm altogether unworthy of you,' she said, taking hold of his hand.

Julien embraced her, but at once the iron hand of duty gripped his heart. If she sees how much I adore her, I shall lose her, he thought. And before he withdrew himself from her arms, he had resumed all that dignity that befits a man. (Ch. 31; translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw)
The feelings Julien inspires, and his inability to accept them without calculation, will ultimately have tragic consequences both for himself and for the women who love him. Scarlet and Black is also a portrait of a corrupt and venal society fixated on appearances over substance, one which in some ways may remind you of our own.

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

The endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce pits family members against one another, souring natural affections and drawing even those with good intentions into obsession and self-destruction. A harrowing vision in which the all-enveloping miasma of the legal conflict is reflected in the murk of the outer world:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. . .Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. . .Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

. . .The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. (Ch. 1)
In 2005 Bleak House was made into an excellent BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring Gillian Anderson, and E & I favorites Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin.

George Eliot: Daniel Deronda (1876)

Written a few years after Middlemarch, this was the last novel Eliot completed. The hero of the title finds himself torn between his complicated feelings for the capricious, pleasure-loving Gwendolen Harleth and his growing love for the orphaned Jewish refugee Mirah Lapidoth. As he delves deeper into the mysteries of his origins, it becomes apparent that Daniel has more in common with Mirah than he at first suspects.

Eliot's fictional treatment of the "Jewish Question" and the stirrings of Zionism in late-Victorian England has divided critics since its appearance. Their opposing positions are encapsulated by F. R. Leavis, who famously thought that all the Jewish episodes should be cut out and the novel renamed Gwendolen Harleth, and the first translator of the work into Hebrew, who included only the scenes featuring Mirah and her Zionist brother Mordecai.

I hope that, without being accused of philistinism, I can express the feeling that the scenes featuring the saintly Mordecai in particular can sometimes go on too long. But that is a very minor issue in a great novel. Daniel Deronda is a powerful work that deserves to be more widely read and appreciated. In 2002 it was also made into a wonderful BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring E & I favorites Romola Garai, Jodhi May, and Amanda Root, which I wrote about in the post "Why BBC literary adaptations are so delightful: Daniel Deronda edition."

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, translated by Eleanor Marx (1856-57/1886; Eleanor Marx is pictured above)

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, Emma Bovary takes poison.

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, the first English translator of Madame Bovary, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, took poison.
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. (From Eleanor Marx's introduction to her translation)
For more on the parallels between Eleanor Marx and Emma Bovary, please see "These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx

For a comparison of Eleanor Marx's excellent English translation of Madame Bovary to three other highly-praised versions (by Gerard Hopkins, Francis Steegmuller, and Lydia Davis) please see "The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary

Contemporary fiction

Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf, 2017)

This, only Roy's second novel after 1997's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, is almost Dickensian in its outrage at injustice. Roy peoples her story with striking characters, such as Anjum, a Hijra who raises an abandoned child and makes her home in a graveyard, and Tilo, a woman who, caught up in larger conflicts, tries to remain true to herself.

The unhealable wound at the novel's center is Kashmir, a beautiful land where thousands of people have died and no side can claim the moral high ground. As Tilo writes in the novel, no doubt echoing Roy's own sentiments,
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's lots to write about. That can't be done in Kashmir. It's not sophisticated, what happens here. There's too much blood for good literature. (p. 288)
But it is not only in Kashmir that there is injustice and violence. When Tilo chooses to have an abortion she is required to have someone else—preferably the father—sign the consent form for general anesthesia. She decides to have the operation without it, and passes out from the pain. When she wakes up, she is in the general ward.
There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. . .Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Dehli there was no war other than the usual one—the war of the rich against the poor. (p. 398)
The title of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not entirely ironic. There are moments of joy and of human connection and solidarity. A community of misfits, of the rejected and the rejecting, forms in spite of the relentless social, political and economic pressures that pit people against one another. Roy's clear-eyed and dispassionate dissection of the hypocrisies, deceptions and brutalities practiced even by those who claim to be fighting for justice makes for harrowing but urgent reading; her powerful prose and vivid characters make her work emotionally compelling as well.

More favorites of 2017:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 4

À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

In a 1931 essay entitled "The Talkies Talk Too Much," René Clair wrote,
I am dreaming of the conflict between the visions of a man's soul and the mechanization of life which daily grows more potent. I visualize a dreamer, a romantic, a vagabond, and I want to set him in my film against a background of tremendous mechanism. [1]
In À nous la liberté, the dreamer, the romantic, the vagabond is Emile (Henri Marchand). When we first meet him he is in prison, sharing a cell with Louis (Raymond Cordy). Prison life is regimented, surveilled. The men are marched everywhere in lockstep while stern guards observe their every move.

Strict silence is enforced among the prisoners, whether at the workbench (where they are making children's toys—objects that symbolize innocence and freedom) or at the prison mess hall. It is a system intended to crush hope.

The workbench:

The prison mess:

But Emile and Louis have a plan: with smuggled implements they are cutting through the bars of their cell in a bid to escape. As Emile—standing on Louis's shoulders so that he can reach the window—is cutting through the bars, he cuts himself. Louis binds Emile's wound with his handkerchief. The prison scenes unfold without dialogue, but Clair portrays the almost tender relationship between Emile and Louis with visual economy.

When they make their break, Louis is able to heave himself over the prison's inner wall, but Emile is spotted and the alarm is sounded. Emile realizes that by the time he makes it over the inner wall to join Louis they will both be caught. He throws the rope to Louis with the cry "À nous la liberté!"; they both realize that Emile is sacrificing himself. Louis gets away; Emile is recaptured and returned to the prison (and, no doubt, a longer sentence).

On the outside, we follow Louis's progress in a series of dissolves that cover a few minutes of screen time and years of diegetic time. We see him transformed from a sidewalk record salesman into a phonograph shop proprietor, the owner of the "Palace of Records" (a vast emporium with a fleet of logoed delivery trucks and lackeys to light his cigarettes and open his limousine door), and finally into the boss of a huge phonograph factory employing armies of assembly-line workers.

The factory day is remarkably similar to that of the prison. Long lines of men in uniform, watched over by guards:

The assembly line:

The cafeteria:

A vagabond is lounging in a field near the factory, leaning on his elbow and loafing at his ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

His view is soon blocked by the boots and uniforms of two representatives of law and order. They have a message for him, one echoed by businessmen, politicians and schoolteachers:

School, work, and prison: institutions of confinement, coercion and enforced conformity.

The vagabond, of course, is Emile, who has finally been released from prison, and who must be helped by the two policemen to see that work means liberty.

Emile ultimately finds his way to a job in the phonograph factory, but his dreamy nature, suspicion of authority and inability to perform the repetitive work at speed bring cascading chaos to the regimented and Taylorized efficiency of the assembly line.

Emile is hauled before the boss for punishment. To his amazement, the boss is his old cellmate. Louis pretends not to recognize Emile; taking him to his private office, Louis tries threats and bribes to get rid of him. But when Louis notices that Emile's wrist has been cut, he binds the wound with his handkerchief, as he'd done in prison, and his fellow-feeling returns:

Emile reawakens Louis's conscience, and helps him to realize that being a big boss is also a form of imprisonment. Both men want to find a way to regain their freedom, but discover that it is not attainable without difficulties and sacrifice.

The rich man who is alternately cold and warm towards his vagabond companion may remind you of Chaplin's City Lights (1931), while the chaos on the assembly line may suggest Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). In fact, Clair's production company, Tobis Film, sued Chaplin over the similarities between Modern Times and Clair's film. Clair refused to participate in the suit; he admired Chaplin and was deeply embarrassed by the plagiarism accusations against him. It's also clear that if there were any borrowings, they went both ways. Chaplin, in fact, said that he had never seen Clair's film, while Clair stated in an interview with Le Soir that "I, myself, owe him very much; and besides, if he has borrowed a few ideas from me, he has done me a great honor." [2]

Clair would go on to write and direct two more films in France, Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day, 1933) and Le dernier milliardaire (The Last Billionaire, 1934), neither of which I've had the opportunity to see. In the mid-1930s he moved to England and made two films with producer Alexander Korda, and as World War II loomed he travelled to America and directed films in Hollywood, including The Flame of New Orleans (1941, with Marlene Dietrich), I Married a Witch (1942, with Veronica Lake), and And Then There Were None (1945, with Roland Young). He returned to France after the war and continued to make films until the mid-1960s; he died in 1981 at age 82.

Perhaps Clair's wartime American period will be the subject of a future post. But À nous la liberté remains his great masterpiece, and essential viewing. It is available on DVD and via streaming through the Criterion Collection; the Criterion Collection DVD also includes Entr'acte, discussed in the first post in this series.

Other posts in this series:
The early films of Rene Clair part 3: Le Million (1931)
The early films of Rene Clair part 2: Sous les toits de Paris (1930)
The early films of Rene Clair part 1: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

  1. Quoted (with slight modification) in Celia McGerr, René Clair, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 101.
  2. Quoted in Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Abrams, 2003, p. 225.