Friday, May 30, 2008

Pandora's Box (Lulu) (1929)

Die Buchse der Pandora or Pandora’s Box (Lulu) by G.W. Pabst (Germany, 1928) with English subtitles

Pandora’s Box (Lulu)
screenplay adapted by Ladislaus Vajda translated from the German by Christopher Holme (Simon & Schuster, 1971) 136 pages

Few actresses have intrigued me as much as the silent film actress Louise Brooks with her wonderful sheath of shining black hair and beautifully expressive dark eyes. I can honestly say that she has enchanted me solely with the role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box and her role as Thymiane Henning in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Eighty years after the fact she still captivates both with her beauty and the freshness of her performance.

R used to obsessively search for, and collect, scripts for old films. Once he contemplated selling them or giving them away. I’m glad he didn’t because otherwise I wouldn’t have this pretty 1971 edition of the film script of Pandora’s Box complete with film stills.

The Criterion Collection produced an excellent print of the film complete with a sometimes intrusive, sometimes annoying, classical music soundtrack, which bears little resemblance to the action on screen. There is a naturalness of manner here that seems absent from most silent films. It tackles, or alludes to, so many subjects that would disturb a squeamish viewer: incestuous longings and Oedipal struggles, murder, prostitution, suicide, women exploiting older men for money, violence, lesbianism, and ends fatefully with the appearance of Jack the Ripper.

The plot of the film is an amalgamation of two plays by Frank Wedekind: Die Buchse der Pandora and Erdgeist (Earth Spirit).

The chiaroscuro of the Expressionist style accentuates Brooks’ beauty – the blackness of her hair, the porcelain quality of her skin, the richness of her dark lipstick.

Beautiful, amoral Lulu (Louise Brooks) has a lover, Dr. Peter Schon, played with intensity and passion by Fritz Kortner. Schon, a newspaper owner, who wants to marry a girl of high standing to enhance his career despite his relationship with Lulu. Lulu also entrances Schon’s son Alwa Schon (Franz Lederer). Schon warns Alwa away from Lulu for to marry such women, as Lulu would be “suicide”.

Lulu is shadowed throughout the film by Schigolch (Carl Gotz) who is variously described as her “first patron” or sugar daddy, depending on which print you see. He is a repulsive but protective older man who follows her from one escapade to another. Brooks went on to say later that he smelled the part.

Lulu aspires to the stage and agrees to appear in Alwa’s revue. Louise once described herself as the “world’s worst actress”. One viewing of this film should dispel that theory. The look of utter dejection on her face when she first sees Schon’s fiancée at the revue is unforgettable. The array of emotions that pass over her lovely face says more than any book might.

I don’t know what medium will, or could, replace film but I can’t imagine what would showcase the beauty of someone like Brooks in a better fashion. Someone once said that it is impossible not to venerate the image of beautiful creature who we have taken and projected on to a fifty foot screen. The medium is conducive to veneration. Like Dietrich or Garbo you can’t take your eyes off Brooks whenever she’s on screen.

All who encounter her are mesmerized, Schon, Alwa, even Countess Anna Geschwitz (Alice Roberts playing a thinly veiled, frustrated lesbian admirer).

Schon cannot resist Lulu even as he claims that his marriage to her will destroy him. Lulu does indeed become a widow (and on her wedding night too) and sets her sights on his son, the handsome, gullible Alwa. They are driven to a reckless, wandering life with Alwa relying on gambling to sustain them and an Italian Marquis attempting to pimp Lulu out in exchange for his silence about her whereabouts as she is sought by the police for Schon’s death.

Lulu quickly abandons the Countess Geschwitz whom she sweet talks into trying to obtain money to pay off the Marquis when it is discovered that Alwa is a card cheat. They beat a hasty retreat to London by boat where she then subsists as a prostitute supporting a near catatonic Alwa and the ever leering Schigolch living in abject poverty.

Anachronistically, and inexplicably, she meets up with Jack the Ripper and invites him home even though he has no money because she “likes him”. He wavers but eventually Lulu succumbs – her death is seen only by a single shot of her hand, clutching her new lover and then slackening when she is killed. The Ripper terrorized London in the 1880s, Lulu is clearly a flapper in the 1920s but this may be the result of the amalgamation of the two Wedekind plays.

“Pabst and Lulu”
, Brooks’ essay about Pabst and the experience of working on that film, is wonderful as an introduction to the script by Vadja. Her final assertion alarmed me though. She contends that Lulu receives the “gift” of death by a sexual maniac through her death, something that she had always wanted since childhood. The evolution in thought about women and violence is startling …who would dare to contend such an absurd, cruel thought now?

Like the Pandora of Greek mythology unleashing evil upon the world by opening the box, Lulu destroys all in her path and hence must be punished accordingly. Lulu must suffer, not only suffer but to die a horrible death at the hands of a killer to atone for her unbridled sexuality, for her utter destruction of Schon, Alwa and any male who crosses her path.

The premise is misogynistic, even cruel, in its depiction of Lulu but that does not mitigate the power of its archetypes or the beauty of its images. If beauty were a currency, Brooks would have been rich beyond compare.

More on Louise Brooks:
  • Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks
  • The Girl in the Black Helmet by Kenneth Tynan, reprint of a 1979 New Yorker article
  • Louise Brooks by Barry Paris (Knopf, 1989)
  • A Conversation with Louise Brooks by Richard Leacock, an interview during the filming of Lulu in Berlin (1984) which may be viewed on the Pandora's Box (Lulu) DVD released by the Criterion Collection

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Romeo e Giulietta 2

Hmm, spring is here! Time to expose the offspring to Stratford ... I thought Romeo and Juliet might be a good idea as it is a well known plot. We read a kids' version of the play together before we went to Stratford.

Once upon a time I asked my significant other why he didn't seem to enjoy the Stratford Festival (note, he says he no longer feels this way). He said it reminded him of ... and I'm quoting: "death" because the average age of the theater goer seemed to be in the 70s. This is a gross exaggeration; however, I know what he's talking about. But the demographic does seem to be changing a bit. The more serious fare attracts an older audience. Unless we wanted see Cynthia Dale (which we did NOT) the audience did tend to be older in the productions we selected.

Every year I would talk him into going to see a play close to my birthday in June. Hey, I'm an open minded gal, I even let him pick the production. Now we choose with the offspring in mind: can she understand/withstand this production? Can we find a children's version she can read before we go? Two years ago we saw Twelfth Night which she seemed to enjoy. Fortuitously there is an Amanda Bynes movie which follows this plot called "She's the Man" which we all loved, adults included. Last year it was Comedy of Errors. She seems to fare best with the comedies.

So it was Romeo and Juliet this year. The director Des McAnuff made interesting choices in the staging and costuming. For instance, in the opening scene where we see the warring Montagues and Capulets, the actors are dressed as if they are on the set of La Dolce Vita circa 1960 complete with shades, slick suits, windbreakers and a vespa on stage. When the Capulet clan prepares for the masque they slowly change into traditional, and very beautiful I might add, clothing which they retain until the final scene (Paul Tazewell was the Costume Designer).

In the final scene when we see the devastation wrought by the warring families in Juliet's tomb, the clothing is vaguely, just vaguely, 40s noir. Someone suggested that this was meant to signify the universality of this prejudice and hate (it can be found everywhere at all times) but I found the effect disorienting.

The designer had dressed the Montagues in various shades of blue, the Capulets in reds and pinks, all beautifully done, exquisitely done.

I loved the idea of colour blind casting which fits in perfectly with the theme of the star crossed lovers. This production featured a black Juliet (Nikki M. James), making her Stratford debut, and a white Romeo (Gareth Potter) and both had, interestingly, both a black and a white parent.

Juliet seemed more overwrought than overcome with passion. Although Juliet is only meant to be 14 in the play (impossible to cast I know), even this young actress seemed too old to play the ingenue. Gareth Potter was charismatic and vibrant as Romeo even if he did not have the classic good looks for the part. But there lacked a certain indefinable chemistry between the lovers.

Ever the superficial theater goer I said to J, our daughter, that we should try and find a better looking Romeo in the cast and to my surprise saw the name of ex-co-worker Azeem Nathoo in a largely non-speaking role. What a nice surprise!

Evan Buliung as Mercutio is particularly appealing. There is something about his physicality and spirit which seems reminiscent perhaps of the original bawdiness of many Shakespearean characters.

Peter Donaldson as Friar Laurence, Gordon S. Miller as Benvolio were self-assured, confident in their command of the parts as was Lucy Peacock, Nurse to Juliet. John Vickery as Lord Capulet grated on the husband but I preferred him to Sophia Walker as Lady Capulet whom we have seen in previous Stratford productions and seems to shriek all of her lines as a way of showing emotion.

The Set Designer Heidi Ettinger cleverly utilizes a medieval bridge to double (triple) as Juliet's balcony, the Capulet tomb where Juliet is buried, and a bridge where the feuding families run to and fro tormenting each other with abuse and blows.

A very cool May day on which to visit Stratford; the lovely swans were out in full force. We admired from afar remembering a nasty episode where one tried to bite me because (I think) he or she thought I was trying to to take its food when I was trying to feed the greedy so and so.

We had dinner at Down the Street, a small restaurant which we love for its food and cordiality.
All seemed pleased, the reluctant spouse, the slightly bored tweenie who did her best to keep up with the play and mama who forced them all to come out and play.
P.S. It looks like someone agrees with me in part about this production, see Richard Ouzounian's critique of the production at Foiled by Star-crossed lovers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Romeo e Giulietta 101

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1595) re-published by Arden Editions 1996 edited by Brian Gibbons

Who would dare critique the master? Not I. With a Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet looming I wanted to reread the play. Instead I will concentrate on the origins of the play, which are, not surprisingly, mostly Italian in origin. This information is all derived from the Arden edition of the play and edited by Brian Gibbons.

A fragment of the plot can be found in the Greek play Ephesiaca by Xenophon (I have read that he lived in the 2nd, 3rd or 5th c. A.D.). It tells the story of Anthia, who is separated from her husband Habrocomes and is rescued from robbers by her admirer Perilaus. To avoid marrying her rescuer, Anthia obtains a potion which she hopes will kill her; it is actually a sleeping potion. She is buried in a tomb, awakens and is carried off by tomb-robbers to enjoy "other adventures".

But it is not until the late 15th c. when Masuccio Salernitano included a story with elements of the themes found in Romeo and Juliet that we would recognize today in the 33rd of his Cinquante Novelle (1476). The story is set in Siena. Mariotto secretly marries Giannozza with the assistance of a compliant Friar. Mariotto kills a citizen and then is exiled to Alexandria. Giannozza is pressured to marry but instead she decides to take a sleeping potion and sends a message to Mariotto. She is buried and rescued from the tomb by the Friar. She sets sail for Alexandria in search of Mariotto but her message is never delivered. Mariotto returns to Siena disguised. Thinking her dead, he enters her tomb, is caught and beheaded for his desecration. Giannozza returns to Siena, learns of his death and dies of grief in a convent, like any nice Italian girl would do.

In his writings, Masuccio stressed that the story was based on real events which happened during the course of his life.

Luigi da Porto (1485-1529) revisited the plot in Historia Novellamente Ritrovata di Due Nobili Amanti (A Story Newly Found of Two Noble Lovers) published in 1530. He set the story in Verona and renamed the lovers Romeo Montecchi and Giulietta Capelletti perhaps utilizing the surnames of two very real warring families in the 13th c. although the Montecchi family lived in Verona and the Capelletti family was from Cremona and there was no romance between characters of these names. Dante mentions the surnames of the two families in his Purgatori VI as an example of civil unrest.

da Porto invented Friar Lorenzo (Friar Laurence), Marcuccio (Mercutio), Thebaldo (Tybalt) and the Conte di Lodrone (renamed Paris). His plot perhaps most resembles Shakespeare's.

Matteo Bandello (c. 1480 – 1562), an Italian novelist, published his version of the da Porto story in 1554 which was translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau, a French author, editor, translator, in 1559.

The English poet Arthur Brooke translated this into a 3,020 line poem (1562) as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet which is likely the version that Shakespeare read.

Some thoughts on the performance to follow ... all drama leads to Italia!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (Doubleday, 2004) 288 pages

This book, the first in the series, I find to be more poetic than the second which is odd. It's as if Jeff Lindsay (who is actually the crime writer Jeffry P. Freundlich) was trying to write in a more literary manner initially. Perhaps the second novel was written in a hurry to capitalize on the success of the first. And that success has been substantial. There are two more books coming up ...

Freundlich is an interesting guy, married to Hilary Hemingway, Hemingway's niece (yes - that Hemingway). She is Ernest's brother Leicester Hemingway's daughter and a writer herself as well as a producer and screenwriter.

Dexter, the serial killer who only kills killers, has become a sort of cult hero and the books have been made into an amazing TV series produced by Showtime.

It begins with the ritualized torture and murder of a priest who specialized in killing orphan children. Even lapsed Catholic that I am, I found this hard to take but irresistible to keep from reading. What a premise! The writer makes it hard to dislike Dexter's killing of the priest no matter how reprehensible it really is. He has done vile, unspeakable things, repeatedly. It makes you uncomfortable to think you understand Dexter's position, that you have these feelings of vigilantism withinyou. This is what makes it so effective as a piece of writing.

Some differences between the series and book: Dexter's character, largely due, I think, to the talents of Michael C. Hall, appears more nuanced. Hall captures the voice of Dexter perfectly but we feel more compassion for Dexter in the series. He is complicated, conflicted in the series, and at times genuinely sympathetic. He is not handsome as the book asserts but nerdy attractive, "lab rat attractive" I guess you would say (with a slightly creepy edge).

Dexter's realization of how he was found by his foster father Harry Morgan, a cop, at a crime scene unfolds more carefully and suspensefully in the series. His relations with his foster sister Deb Morgan, also a cop, seem more nuanced - true he wavers between trying to care about her and actually caring.

Sgt. Doakes, his nemesis on the Miami police force who senses that Dexter is hiding something comes off as a cold, relentless pit bull in the book but is given more texture in the series. He has a lover who is murdered, he has a family whom he loves (two sisters and a mother), he has a shady history that explains his hardness, his toughness.

Lt. LaGuerta is frostier, nastier and get her comeuppance in the book. Angel who is a nebulous entity in the book (and is actually referred to as "Angel-no-relation" is flesh and blood in the series: a good cop, honest, lusty with a wandering eye and knack for picking the wrong women.

As the book came to an end I felt a bit overwhelmed with the graphic nature of the book. The ugliness of what had transpired. The premise was truly original but the writing was mediocre. I thought will this book endure? Would I read it again? No. But as series? Yes it might be a classic.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

La figlia, sua Mamma e sua Nonna

Mother's Day! What a complex, wonderous joy it has been to be J's mother (for the most part). We have our rocky days like anyone - yesterday morning for instance, tears and recriminations all around about a pair of missing swimming goggles! Ai yi yi - le lacrime!

But I am total marshmallow about my kid and handmade gifts like this one pictured above that she made for Mother's Day. J made it at The Clay Room on the Danforth. She saw an illustration in a book there and copied it by hand on to the plate. R made pancakes for all, a Sunday tradition. He had made a CD of classical baroque music and gave me a gift certificate for my favourite store French Country. Oh Daisy! I was a happy duck ...

My sister had a great idea, she asked that we all have cavati at her house and invite Nonna, all the sibs, their partners and the kids and partake at her spiffy apartment. The cavati look like this but we don't serve it with pork gravy (how strange) - we use just plain tomato sauce. Cavati are hand made, homemade pasta, shaped a bit like gnocchi but smaller, and very dense. Delicious!

I remember one of the first times that I brought the prospective husband home to meet the extended family. The aunts (or possibly Nonna, my mother) were serving cavati. One of my numerous uncles was trying to teach R how to say the word cavati. So R said, perfectly clearly, perfectly well ,"Cavati". Uncle said, "No, repeat after me: CA-VA-TI". So R said again perfectly clearly,"Ca-va-ti". Again he heard, "No, CA-VA-TI!" By this time, R and I are exchanging mischievous glances. This went on for some time.

Now spelling out ca-va-ti is our code word for someone deliberately mishearing or misunderstanding something you've said.

So we had a great day and lovely gifts. In particular, my sistah gave us a framed photo of the three of us from two years ago. It's so rare to have a nice shot of all three family members!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Dinner at Eight (U.S., 1933) directed by George Cukor

I can't remember when R and I first saw this film together (I think it was at the delightful but now vanished St. Mark's Cinema in the 1980s in New York) but I remembered being absolutely delighted with it, especially with Jean Harlow's performance.

She is the only one I can watch in that film today and not wince doing so. The other actors are so preoccupied with Acting, with a capital "A", that it's almost painful to see. An unrepentant bad girl on screen, she is true to form as Kitty Packard, an uncouth little tart who squanders her husband's money and fools around with her doctor.

Directed by George Cukor, a virtual god in the pantheon of Hollywood film directors (The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), Born Yesterday (1950), My Fair Lady (1964) and many, many more wonderful films), it's wonderful to see that this film was made only three years into a long, exemplary career. The film was based on the Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.

Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), an upper crust society hostess, is planning a dinner party and nothing will go right for her.

Among the guests are Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), a rough and tumble, power hungry, nouveau riche millionaire who is trying to get his hands on the Jordan shipping empire run by Millicent's husband, an ailing and largely ineffectual scion of the upper classes named Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore). Jean Harlow is Packard's scheming but soft hearted wife with high society aspirations.

Their daughter Paula Jordan (Madge Evans) is having a secret affair with another dinner guest, failing movie icon Larry Renault (John Barrymore, aka "The Great Profile") who is on the skids with an alcohol problem, an enormous ego and, unfortunately, almost as much make up as Harlow.

Then there is the aging actress Carlotta (Marie Dressler), who leeches off the wealthy guests, in particular her former flame Oliver Jordan. Dressler, hailed as a comic genius at the time, doesn't fair so well with her mugging and vaguely Frankensteinish demeanor. I have never understood the appeal of this actress.

The dinner all threatens to go awry: one invited guest commits suicide; Oliver Jordan's business is threatened by Packard and a mysterious ailment which he refuses to divulge to his family; Kitty's philandering doctor/lover is discovered by his wife; servants have their own lives and inconsiderately intrude with the preparation of the menu.

However, the dinner will be served at eight.

The film script by Herman Mankiewicz, Frances Marion, and Donald Ogden Stewart is funny and irreverent and quick and even the dreadful mugging of the Barrymores, Beery and Dressler cannot ruin it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Dexter Devotee

Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (Vintage Books, 2005) 292 pp.

Into a girl’s life a little trash must fall … Okay, I admit it. It’s not all high art and classic lit. I do have a passion for noir – film, literature, pulp fiction – and this book satisfies that perverse need. It is the second in the series (of which there are currently three).

The name Dexter Morgan may not be known to you but it should be because he is the main character of Dexter, a terrific TV series from Showtime with Michael C. Hall based on this so-so book with an ingenious twist: the “likable” serial killer, a vigilante, who only kills other killers.

Dexter is a crime scene investigator, a blood splatter expert, working for the Miami Police. He has learned to channel his lust for killing with the aid of his father Harry Morgan, a cop, who adopted Dexter after rescuing him from a horrific crime scene. To say more would spoil the plot.

The book opens with one of the most disturbing instances of an assault on a human being that I have ever read, so horrific, that I am relieved it never made it to the series in such a literal way (the plot surfaces somewhat in the series but in a modified, toned down form).

Dexter’s sister, Deb Morgan, is also a cop. In this novel she becomes involved with Kyle Chutsky, a fed, who becomes the victim of a serial killer's designs whom he is sent to investigate. She enlists Dexter's help to recover him. The killer is an ex-special ops cop gone AWOL who worked in El Salvador with Chutsky and one of the Morgans' fellow cop, a Sgt. Doakes, played menacingly by Eric King. Doakes is the only one who is suspicious of Dexter.

Dexter is always accompanied emotionally by the "Dark Passenger", the alter ego that kills and offers a running commentary on what transpires. I could do with a little less of the pithy remarks by the Dark Passenger and his repeated assertions that he feels nothing.

The Dexter character in the TV series is more morally complex, more intriguing. He does feel something for the people around him: Rita, his girlfriend, and her children; his sister and his father Harry. Michael C. Hall, formerly with the equally original TV series Six Feet Under invests a certain charm in the character that I think is largely absent from the book. Dexter, the character in the book, is extremely fascinating but not, I think, that likable.

It's very difficult to put down and a breeze to get through. I say, park it in neutral mentally and just go with it! On to book one (which I should have read first) ...