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aarspace [Jan. 25th, 2014|11:10 am]
Aaron Luk
This blog is largely retired; please visit http://www.aaronluk.com , where the media essays here have been migrated, and new ones are posted regularly.

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BENJAMIN BRITTEN'S WAR REQUIEM (SF Symphony) [Nov. 27th, 2013|10:42 pm]
Aaron Luk
War Requiem


Art during wartime is a necessity that rallies its audiences to make some sense of costly conflicts, and for many, participation in this creative exchange is their only (or most effective) outlet into the battles being waged. Britten, who would have turned 100 this month, himself a British conscientious objector, debuted this opera in 1962, as an artist striving to resolve the cultural divides between his time working in the US and the UK, and between the reconstruction following WWII, leading directly into the brinksmanship of the Cold War.

Often composing during the weeks-long voyage over the Atlantic during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Britten found himself directly immersed in the artistic process while the crew dutifully did their best to avoid the German U-boats patrolling the same waters. WAR REQUIEM then, can often feel like an opera gasping for breath, opening with brief two- and three-note phrases from the string section, confrontational in their intervalistic resistance to melodic resolution.

Similarly, we tend to associate choral voices, especially those as eerily unified as the SF Symphony Chorus here, with those lost at sea, dating back to their use as the mythological Sirens in any number of classical works. This performance even hides the Pacific Boychoir behind the stage to add a particularly otherworldly quality, as if they haunt the audience as seafarers from below decks.

Originally commissioned for the consecration of the Coventry Cathedral on the completion of its restoration after being leveled in 1940, the Requiem works its way from the low rumble of the brass section into declarative bombast, periodically landing gently onto a series of prayers. Christine Brewer, James Gilchrist, and Roderick Williams served as the solo soprano, tenor, and baritone, performing the mass in Latin verse, along with the poetry written by Wilfred Owen during the First World War.

Williams’s basso profondo is particularly evocative when interspersed with the fanciful phrasing of the woodwinds and the staccato of the strings. The words themselves arguably dilute the elementalism of the piece with its literalism (“I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled.”), but can also act effectively as an overlay to the spiritual quality of the music. That is, it feels not so much directly entwined with the composition, but rather projected alongside it as a kind of aural graffiti.

The sustained and shattered verses from Brewer and Gilchrist accentuate the convulsing pauses taken by the strings in the opening, which shift to dissonant harmonics accordingly. With all sections firing in their respective roles that cycle around over the course of the opera’s six movements, conductor Semyon Bychkov coordinates his players with easy solemnity, yielding a temporal experience that takes the audience through the wars of ages via the religiously styled music of an ardent pacifist.
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86B. FROZEN [Nov. 23rd, 2013|06:13 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, USA 2013.


“The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Musicals and fairy tales are never fully out of fashion, but periodically go into hibernation as artists and audiences negotiate the current state of what is considered the appropriate realism. Song and dance numbers briefly found their heightened forms transferred into the action movement of the late 90's (RUSH HOUR being a prime example, going as far as having Elizabeth Peña rocking out in her kitchen for no reason before receiving a phone call). Animated fables flirted with tempered cynicism in the SHREK movies, and filmmakers pared back on some of the artificial elements that made characters in cartoon musicals more impersonal, like having different actors voicing the speaking and singing parts of a single role.

Accordingly, real life has moved towards the expressionism of those fictional works, as karaoke and dance culture have now reached the point where programs centered around musical numbers in both scripted and reality television have achieved phenomenal popularity. It is only fitting that Walt Disney Feature Animation would strut back into the form, after briefly abandoning it for nearly a decade.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG saw the fabled studio returning to basics, down to the traditional 2D animation, with the new element of racial diversity placed center stage, and then TANGLED brought back the medieval setting of Disney’s earliest longform offerings. Now, writer Jennifer Lee’s success with last year’s WRECK-IT RALPH won her the assignment to co-direct her screenplay for this film with Chris Buck, featuring two compelling female protagonists.

Though the story is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's 1845 fairy tale, it utilizes the traditional quasi-medieval setting populated by American-accented leads that has served Disney well since SNOW WHITE to allow for contemporary mannerisms and themes without disrupting the rules of the world. Which is not to say that the script references anything specifically topical that won't age well, but it does slowly transition in its first few numbers into some tonally disparate yet narratively cohesive musical styles.

The opening song, "Frozen Heart," is song by a chorus of nameless workmen, toiling at breaking apart the vast amounts of seasonal ice. Their language is formally figurative ("Born of cold and winter air and mountain rain combining / This icy force both foul and fair has a frozen heart worth mining") and the rhythms and instrumentation are fittingly rigid. As the story shifts to the two princesses as young children with "Do You Want To Build a Snowman?", the lyrics start to allow for contractions and other modern colloquialisms like "We used to be best buddies" and "What are we gonna do?", as well as humorous interjections such as when Anna breaks the song to speak to a painting of Joan of Arc.

Because these contemporary concessions serve Anna's character personality and motivations, and the audience has already accepted her American accent in this classical world, the musical shifts continue forward to expand the movie's aural palette to fit the layers of emotion to come. It also helps that the dangerous possibilities of the magical aspects of the world are made clear early on, grounding the set of character dynamics and conflicts between royal sisters Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) from their first frames together.

By the fourth number, "Love is An Open Door," songwriters Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (BOOK OF MORMON, 2011's WINNIE THE POOH) are comfortable enough to kick things off with a bass groove, and Bell and Santino Fontana as Hans cut loose with the deliriously silly lyrics like "I never met someone who thinks so much like me (Jinx! Jinx again!) / Our mental synchronization can have but one explanation / You and I were just meant to be." Along the way, the character animators have similarly been filling out their cast's gestural vocabulary, and the audience has been acclimated enough so that a seeing an eyeroll, smirk, or other modern pose serves foremost to make the character relatable, rather than taking the viewer out of the setting designed to be timeless. Such choices are also generally used only briefly; while it's conceivable that the story could work without the modern concessions, the overall benefits are clear, especially when recalling other recent projects that struggled to integrate humor and character relatability while staying firmly in their medieval settings.

This builds to the movie's centerpiece song and conflict as embodied in "Let It Go," not coincidentally also its signature single as a contemporary cover by Demi Lovato. But it's fitting to have invested so much into this song and its magnificent effects sequence that reflects Elsa's state of mind as she embraces her self-imposed exile as a liberation. It's this number that resolutely and resonantly distinguishes FROZEN from other takes on similar material-- rather than turning Elsa into a bitter antagonist rejected by the citizenry fearful of her magical powers, the story celebrates her newfound sense of self, while empathizing that she'll lose contact with Anna in the bargain (the Lovato version adds more lyrics such as "I know I've left a life behind, but I'm too relieved to grieve.")

The script also wisely avoids using any outward resentment or jealousy between the sisters as a dramatic crutch-- it's clear the two care very deeply for each other, but Elsa's understandable reluctance to let anyone in who she might hurt, against Anna's storybook faith in all things Good and Resolvable can't help but drive the audience towards a deep need for reconciliation. These are timeless dramatic elements, but particularly relevant to the current generation that is as physically insular as it is virtually boisterous.

Elsa's fear of hurting others, and her joy in letting it go by simply shutting those others out and enjoying the freedom of being alone, is utterly relatable in a time when even the biggest hearts can easily retreat into themselves while still feeling somewhat connected to the rest of the world virtually. Further, that state of ongoing self-discovery is undeniably healthy, vital and certainly safer than opening oneself up, and is the natural place to find serenity, consuming cultural and intrapersonal inputs entirely at one's own pace. Yet it's a state that can deny the love of others, particularly others whose complementary history, experiences, and support make up a large part of one’s ongoing self.

Anna, meanwhile, is a self-fulfilling embodiment of what can happen when storytellers do not take care to balance out gender roles. Like Sansa Stark in GAME OF THRONES, Anna knows nothing about the world outside her castle, and has only myths and legends to inform her perspective. Still, she is quick to take responsibility for her actions, immediately setting off after Elsa to make things right. Her arc shows another path that those stories can take, while retaining their more durable themes and elements. In this way, today's young girls like Morgan in ENCHANTED can absorb any number of male-skewed stories and see them through Anna's changing eyes, without cynically rejecting the narrative power wholesale; the opportunity to dance within the system is not wasted here.

The sisters' affection is personified by Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), a snowman brought to life by Elsa's magic. Though he's been sold in trailers as a loud and brash exclamation point trampling over the emotional content with comedic interruptions, his role as a living link between Elsa and Anna comes through in his unshakeable loyalty, and his cheerful innocence represents a tragic layer in the childhood denied the two sisters. While Gad’s work on “The Daily Show” did center on his churlishly off-putting demeanor, he came to channel that obnoxious energy from a source of wide-eyed purity with the Lopezes in BOOK OF MORMON as the achingly naive but good-hearted Elder Cunningham. That type is further put to effective use here along with a sense of mild foreboding, as the sisters’ reconciliation would mean a return of the realm from its unnatural winter back into summer, which would literally melt Olaf’s innocence away.

As with all stories that have endured for generations, particularly those intended for children, fairy tales come with a certain amount of predictability. The plot turns are inevitable, but Lee and Buck invest enough in character so that the audience is never fully sure when they will occur, and how they will come about, even when they know what’s coming. The “who”, “what”, and “where” need not change over time, but the details of the “how” and “why” are molded to each audience of the day. As such, the second act in the restaging of time-honored narratives is where the current storytellers can really leave their mark, to delve into the prevailing aspects of the core conflict as they relate to today’s viewers. Lee and Buck deliver on this promise with Elsa’s arc as a perfect vehicle for stellar effects animation, inviting even the most jaded of moviegoers to ponder the state of their own hearts, strong and thriving as they may be even in a frozen state.
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UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL (American Conservatory Theater) [Nov. 21st, 2013|10:55 pm]
Aaron Luk


"...the myth that life has any meaning or significance... just a myth.

But here I was, holding that Myth's pants!"

There was something spiritually archeological in the time spent wandering the local library for me as a child of the 80’s. The physical act of searching for a book or reference by manually indexing through the many drawers of card catalogs, and the traipsing through the aisles while learning the Dewey decimal system towards its actual location, hoping that no one had checked it out. But if someone had, then taking a chance on one of the other books in its section, perhaps by the same author, or in the same series, and ending up reading the whole thing standing in the aisle, while initially just thumbing through to decide whether to bring it home that week.

Thumbing through all the albums in the vinyl section, checking out THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK soundtrack whenever it was available, or reading its liner notes for the millionth time to learn about John Williams’s influences and thematic designs, or Mark Hamill’s previous acting experience in CORVETTE SUMMER. Sticking mostly to the children’s section of the library, but keeping a wondrous eye on the adult section just beyond the card catalog drawers-- its shelves taller, its books thicker, its walls darker. Hiding certain books in a secret place to ensure its availability upon the next visit. Following the clues, finding treasures, leaving artifacts of one’s own.

Glen Berger evokes this spiritual archeology to transcendent levels in his script UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL, as performed by David Strathairn under Carey Perloff’s direction for ACT. Set in 1986 but journeying far backwards from there, a Dutch Librarian relates his wondrous journey all over the world in search of whomever has just returned a book which, according to its stamp (“This stamper contains every date that ever was!”), is 113 years overdue. The show is formatted as a lecture, in which the Librarian addresses the audience directly and uses now-dated but utterly functional technology-- a chalkboard, a tape deck, and a slide projector-- as visual and aural aids.

ACT’s mainstage on Geary is a magnificently cavernous space, yet most often serves well for smaller-scale productions like this that could just as easily be staged in a more intimate venue. For this show, the stage is fully utilized as an overgrown attic which the Librarian navigates in space and time over the course of his adventure. A surfeit of artifacts discovered one by one as evidence of the mysterious book lender's existence is laid out over a split-level architecture accessed via a ladder on wheels. The Librarian's movement across the stage is kinetically charged, whether he's swing dancing with his empty jacket as a partner, or canvassing an entire neighborhood by wheeling around a movable doorway to and fro.

The evidence he presents is strewn amidst a number of other props, many of which are from other productions throughout ACT's history, adding the context of the stage's own aura as part of the Librarian and book lender's shared experience. At the end of the show, the audience is invited to come on stage to wander this artistic timeline for themselves, fulfilling the promise of the physical (though not tactile) presence as innately spiritual.

The Librarian comes to associate the book lender with the legend of the Wandering Jew, he the immoral exile from Christian lore, and the quote above exemplifies how he stumbles into ascribing a higher meaning to his quest. At the same time, he comes to set his obsession aside long enough from time to time to actually enjoy the travels that it has set him upon. His first excursion is to London, where the laundry service from which a ticket was left in the overdue book is apparently still operating.

In addition to seeking out the laundry, the Librarian treats himself to his first West End production, which happens to be Les Mis. His has been a rather thrifty and conservative life in many respects, and he is at first dismissive of the pleasures to be derived from the show. But on each trip, he finds himself taking in more and more culture, from the Peking opera to an outdoor concert in New York (and of course, eventually Les Mis again), inevitably absorbing more of the same through his research of the Wandering Jew. And therein, that spiritual archeology inherent to embarking on a search through the physical rather than virtual world arises.

The play takes place in a time when people would phone librarians with reference queries, such as how to care for certain plants. Without such knowledge available online, households that could not afford encyclopedias at home had only this option to get this kind of information. In this way, the Librarian's quest is inadvertently aided by the human collective, as an incoming query leads him to another clue. The vulnerability of depending on another person for help in even the most basic situations is intimidatingly inconvenient, but it staves off the insularity that can otherwise take hold.

In his accompanying author's note, Berger lists several statistics describing the size and age of the universe, explaining that the play was his attempt to explore the utter feeling of insignificance such numbers aroused. The Librarian's backstory with respect to his personal life reflects this sense of inconsequence-- the man is unmarried and childless, and still laments the one that got away even decades later. He is keenly aware of having missed out on much of life, but withholds from accepting responsibility for it, instead questioning how much free will one really exercises in such situations. He sees life's turning points as driven by Hobson's choices, exemplified by the pre-determination via sleight of hand practiced by magicians when asking the mark to pick a card.

The script gives the actor a fair amount of room to emote and inject character choices, in the wry asides peppered throughout the exposition. The Librarian's relative naïveté, such as how he takes great pride in coming up with the apparently novel idea of using his sick leave to continue questing when his vacation days have been exhausted, add humor but also demarcate points from which he will grow after the experiences of his worldwide jaunts. As mentioned above, there is also a good amount of physicality to the performance, and Straithairn makes it look deceptively easy, all the way to the choreographed Yiddish dancing that he convincingly executes with an initial nervousness that falls away, as if it's something the Librarian taught himself.

Life, even with the wayward choices one makes over the years, can be meaning deferred. Having a physical space to explore can aid immeasurably in gathering unique experiences and leaving one's mark upon doing so. There may come a time when the virtual equivalents completely subsume those physical spaces, but plays such as this remind of us of the value in inconvenience, especially those that come from trying new things for the first time. A full investment of one's self requires no less.
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85. LE JOLI MAI (THE LOVELY MONTH OF MAY) [Nov. 20th, 2013|11:51 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, France 1963.

le joli mai

“My Chinese friend smiled and said to me, ‘At last, we’ve civilized them… they no longer point at us.’”

Digitally restored in 2K, Marker and Lhomme’s provocative essay film snapshots Parisian life in its first spring of peacetime during the May of 1962, following the end of the Algerian War for Independence three months prior. The remnants of imperialism and the oncoming surge of leftist demonstrations around the world pervade the society the filmmakers focus upon here, as they ask pointed but leading questions of their various interview subjects on the streets to draw out the political context they themselves seem desperate to activate in the audience of their day.

While Marker’s 1977 A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT would later ponder the legacy of the New Left and directly explore its key events and spokespersons, this project fascinatingly captures the moment in time when those movements were only on the peripheries in the daily lives of the vast array of Parisians on camera here. The student uprisings of 1967-1968, in which future filmmakers like Olivier Assayas were alternatively practicing and eschewing “revolutionary syntax” in their political and creative endeavors, were but a glimmer in the eyes of the relatively disorganized radicals of this spring, one of whom mistakes Marker and Lhomme as government-backed propagandists, and lambasts them accordingly. In classically iconoclastic Markerian fashion, the film subtitles this incident as a “[FATAL MISUNDERSTANDING]”, going out of its way to clarify its ideological leanings. Even so, that radical comes off as more than than a little misdirected, as an onlooker remarks that she’d probably be happier in Russia, to which she emphatically responds that she would. Though Marker’s sympathies are clearly with her, the ideology behind the works in this period still had a ways to go to mature into a coalescent following.

Marker is not without affection for his subjects, and takes the time to let them have their say on all aspects of their lives. Yet he easily swerves their segments towards his overall thesis of first-world malaise set against the more grounded concerns of encroaching global unrest. As an inventor broadly describes his creative process and extrapolates its larger philosophical implications, Lhomme's camera finds a long-legged spider crawling over the oblivious man. Marker also quickly picks up on the precious symbolism, and responds to his subject that his work is like “weaving a spider’s web,” to which the inventor heartily agrees. This is a recurring observational style in the piece that at once calls these myopic French folk to task, while keeping the proceedings playful rather than mean-spirited. Even so, I felt slightly more ill at ease with this than I have been with Marker’s outwardly breezier works, and it speaks to how resolute he was in igniting a larger awareness in the populace at this particular time.

The political aims are also made explicit with the narration’s take on doves, declaring them as dirty creatures in montage, preferring instead the wisdom of owls, no doubt an equally filthy animal in reality. Marker again plays upon symbolic imagery, but at the time of the film’s release, such ideas must have seemed especially incendiary-- France’s state of peace called into question as merely an ill-informed suspension of ethnic prejudice.

The continuation of such conflict plays out in Marker’s interviews with foreign nationals who have had to struggle in their adopted country. A college student whose family moved from Africa when he was 14 relates the quote at the top, in which he finds solidarity with other racial outsiders in France, while puzzling about how such a nation could ever have subjugated his native land. Similarly, a skilled worker of Algerian descent discloses how he left his job rather than confronting a racist colleague, reasoning that “people were not meant to hate one another.” Despite his pacifism, he then describes how he was beaten in front of his parents by the police over a false report. The filmmakers expand the context of his story by intercutting it with footage of children wandering in alley in the Algerian neighborhood, making chalk drawings on the walls-- their future uncertain, but clearly what’s at stake in the young man’s example.

Such sobering segments are juxtaposed with slightly more lighthearted segments that ultimately intensify the political context in their contrast. Lydia, a seamstress for theater, is shown intercut with her cat in elaborate costumes, immediately following the interview with the African student. While she is not exactly in the 1% of the French populace of the day, she has a lot going for her, and her worries are undeniably less dire than some of the others depicted. Marker even asks her point-blank how she feels her attractiveness benefits her life overall, and she is humble enough to recognize that it does. As always, cats recur in Marker’s work, and he intersperses shots of felines making faces at the camera, accompanied by an impish harpsichord, with a conversation in which a table of white-collar men discuss the effect of automation on labor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they fail to presage the displacing impact that such advances would have, focusing instead on the increased free time it would allow their blue-collar brethren.

The levity and ponderousness meet in between with segments such as that of a joint interview with a young soldier 10 days out from returning to Algeria, alongside his bride-to-be. Marker celebrates their joyous relationship as high-school sweethearts while posing to them the serious questions of family planning. The two are remarkably forthright and realistic about their future, in particular articulating that they expect that their children will well indeed hold values quite different from their own. Yet another series of intercuts juxtapose the couple with someone else’s wedding ceremony, one in which the older folks among the revelers get especially silly, donning Groucho Marx masks and cavorting about like one would expect the youthful interviewees to be doing. Perhaps it is the man’s military service that has this couple aged before their time, but they express a careful optimism that forms an unexpected hallmark of the otherwise quasi-demagogic film.

Outside the stock exchange, the filmmakers interview a couple of young boys as to their career goals, which turn out to be surprisingly modest, though not necessarily out of character for the children of the day, as similarly depicted in the UK’s 1964 SEVEN UP! and its subsequent installments all the way to last year’s 56 UP. Postwar disquiet would seem to unwittingly level the dreams of even those who have yet to begin to explore their potential. Both young budding stockbrockers plan to start at the bottom as clerks, and it’s only with Marker’s prompting that they allow that they might want to be bosses someday. He directly asks whether it’s the power that attracts them, and this is another case in which his pointedness comes off as overly forced, but it’s interrupted by a critical onlooker who chastises the crew for “interviewing minors.”

Such a disruption would normally seem sanctimonious, yet it feels oddly apropos of the collective checks and balances that Marker and Lhomme would surely endorse, and the would-be heckler summarily becomes the next interview subject. Everyone has a voice in this film, though the editing and other techniques ultimately make those opinions serve that of the filmmakers-- a hallmark of the essay film as opposed to the documentary. In this way the format calls itself into question-- are the directors as tone-deaf to the ideas of their subjects as the subjects themselves are to the burgeoning conflicts within the country itself? It is a query we can postulate from our rarefied position in the future, where the political activism Marker was so keen to inflame has become mundane in its constantly aggravated state. Indeed, time will tell which generation made better use of the international information at hand.

Still, there is more than enough room for some unbridled idealism from the era-- children cluster around John Glenn’s space capsule, which at the time was making its way through a worldwide tour. Imagery showcasing the wonder of scientific advances and dreams follows shots of religious iconography, most memorably in the paintings of Pierrot, a local cabbie. His canvas shares space between classical renderings of Jesus and his Apostles, as well as his own creations such as Cosmo Man. The Silver Age of comics was just underway, and the French equivalent of Marvel’s ideals found expression here in the unlikeliest of artists.

Like the opening interviewee, a family man who makes his living selling suits, who can only relax when commuting in light traffic, France’s 1962 accords were on the precipice of larger social battles. The filmmakers enlisted top luminaries Michel Legand for musical score, along with Yves Montand (who also sings the ironically cheerful musical interlude at the halfway point) and Simone Signoret to respectively provide French and English narration. As per the usual Marker dialogue, the script calls for droll interjections rather than straightforward descriptions. The preceding titles indicate that Marker asked Lhomme to remove 20 minutes from the original cut for the re-release, perhaps recognizing that so much of what they were attempting to incite soon came to pass, necessitating that the overall picture represent 1962 Paris as a whole rather than merely a political powder keg on the verge.

The restoration yields a pristine image free of artifacts, enhancing the fragile sense of calm surrounding the city. Though the film turns outright didactic by its conclusion (“As long as there are prisons, you are not free”), it remains a significant documentation of a society at the threshold of a definitively liberal era. The extent of the violence preceding this respite would be made publicly clear in the 1966 cinematic re-creation of THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, and the May captured here would shortly explode into the 1968 events exhibited in Assayas’s 2012 APRÈS MAI (After May, or as released stateside, SOMETHING IN THE AIR), bringing the movement full circle for our time.
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83. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS [Nov. 15th, 2013|11:45 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013.

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Exist? Is that all you do when you're not in show business?”

A startling and timely reminder that folk music and its surrounding culture did not necessarily arise out of folksiness, the Coen Brothers put an orphaned musician through the ringer of his proto-Bohemian existence for one desperate week in the winter of 1961. A wrenching star turn from Julliard alum Oscar Isaac as the title character opens with his soulful solo rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” before a modest-sized but appreciative crowd in a small club owned and operated by the unpretentious and supportive but creatively bereft Pappi (Max Casella).

The Coens shoot the entire three-minute-plus song fairly tight on Isaac without any other introduction to the film, save the production company titles, letting the onscreen and offscreen audience marinate in the performance; Llewyn Davis at his best, uninterrupted by any of the other considerations of life. The darkness in the lyrics belie the wounded souls underneath the folk traditions-- “They put the rope around my neck and hung me up so high / The last thing I words I heard ‘em say, ‘won't be long now ‘fore you die’, poor boy”, and it’s a far cry from the sunny John Denver LP’s my parents owned, yet is comprised of the same earnestness in the lyrics and stripped-down instrumentation.

The way folk music colors within the lines, unlike the radical rhythms of jazz and blues, or the electric distortions of rock, inclusively carries its audience far back into the musical timeline. There's a beauty to the music in its repetitive progressions and mid-range vocalizations that can convey a wide swath of emotional states and yet it's easy enough for an engaged listener to sing along, or even pick up an instrument and join in. Thus, the irony that Llewyn finds himself continually on the outs with such a welcoming and friendly collective speaks to the turmoil driving his decisions that takes more than the music to resolve.

As a struggling solo artist after the end of his previous partnership in a moderately successful duo, Llewyn’s loss of identity preconfigures similar feelings on a national scale two years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But the events of the film are merely on the eve of that historical swing, and Llewyn’s fellow Greenwich denizens find their commercial foothold with “Please Mr. Kennedy”, a bubblegum bit of tomfoolery gently mocking the Space program eight years before Neil Armstrong would set foot on the Moon. “Please Mr. Kennedy, I don't want to go into outer space,” sing the players, as America's deployment into Vietnam was gestating with the President wanting to “draw a line in the sand” against Communist expansion.

That song, retrospectively disposable but witty enough for the context in which it’s set, is written by Jim (Justin Timberlake), a bland-sweatered smile of a man that today’s audiences would more likely associate with the softness of folk, as opposed to Llewyn’s brusque misanthropy. The audience first meets Jim when he joins his wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Llewyn at Pappi’s club to watch their friend Troy’s set. It is not made clear at that point in the story that Jim is also a musician, and his non-specificity, as he breathlessly declares Troy a "wonderful performer", makes him merely an affable dullard and likely cuckold, until he and Jean are invited to join Troy on stage. The three of them then perform a Peter, Paul, and Mary-esque (though Pappi’s aside of “Men come to see Jim and Jean because they want to f!ck Jean” isn’t something I’ve ever heard stated about that trio) rendition of Hedy West's “Five Hundred Miles”, a wistful ballad about life on the road.

Yet the actuality of this artistic vagrancy is fading fast for Jim, Jean, and Troy, to Llewyn’s frustration. While Llewyn must still beg, borrow, and steal for even a roof over his head each night, Jim and Jean have settled into a Greenwich apartment (even worse, with plans to move to suburbia), and Troy has a pending record deal with a big-time Chicago producer, even while still serving in the military. The genuineness of Llewyn’s creative struggles do not help him connect to his would-be benefactors, and his inability to yet fully express himself in terms outside of his prior work has him destroying much of the support he does have.

Other than in the anti-war protests that were still some years off, folk music is not particularly associated with countercultural movements, but Llewyn’s grumbling at the others’ success is understandable. Shouldn’t the purity of art created outside institutional support count for something? Perhaps, but even Llewyn isn’t sure what that purity entails, as he balks at even a performing privately for the household of a history professor (Ethan Phillips) who has given him shelter and friendship many a time (“I’m not a trained poodle; this is how I make my living!”). Even when he concedes to one song, he ends up throwing a tantrum and leaving in a huff when the professor’s wife (Robin Bartlett) chimes in to sing his former partner’s verses. The hole left still haunts Llewyn, and even his new solo music feels less than fully engaged… he is much more sure about what he doesn’t want, than what he does.

“There are two kinds of people,” he tells Jean, “the kind who group people into two kinds of people--” “And losers?” she counters, suffering none of his self-righteousness or pity. Isaac and Mulligan renew their chemistry as a married couple in DRIVE, with Isaac as the marital interloper instead of Ryan Gosling, pivoting around Mulligan and her character's budding family as a potential but unlikely endgame for the protagonist. Llewyn and Jean have a complicated history, one that Llewyn feels is unresolved, while Jean has grown to look only forward, if anything outright resentful of the past. She too mourns the void left by Llewyn's partner, but has accepted Jim and the more secure life they will lead, and doesn't seem to have much further desire for the stage.

Generationally for the baby boomers, this would also play out as the creative communities of the Greenwiches all over America ultimately became but waystations between wartime institutions, as Troy exits the Army and Jim and Jean enter suburbia. Llewyn, himself a former Merchant Marine, senses this as well, and can only lash out at them in turn, mocking Troy's formal courtesies as robotic, without realizing, as Troy's producer later tells him, that “Troy connects with people.”

Troy is played by Stark Sands, bringing his experience both as Lt. Nathaniel Fick in the Iraq War miniseries GENERATION KILL, as well as a stint in the Broadway production of AMERICAN IDIOT. Sands brings an unvarnished purity to the role, and his Troy, like Jim, is too polite or too blind to call Llewyn out on his bullshit the way Jean does, yet there's a sadness to the composition when he walks away from Llewyn, and the camera, for the last time. A robot he may be, yet he represents so much of what Llewyn could achieve, and the two could even have formed a new duo, if Llewyn wasn't so self-absorbed.

Other than a section chronicling Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago along with an ornery blues musician (played by the Coens’ resident demon elemental, John Goodman), the narrative events are relatively free from the surrealism of most other Coen films. Even so, their visual style is evident throughout, this time lensed by French DP Bruno Delbonnel, with regular Roger Deakins occupied on SKYFALL. Extremely wide-angle shots of Llewyn standing at the end of a narrow hallway recur in multiple locations, emphasizing the close quarters in which he’s forced to seek shelter. The film’s color palette is drab and sallow, giving it a dated and melancholy look, as if plucked directly from the nation’s collective memory. Its look is the mirror opposite of the Coens’ THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which was shot in color but processed in black and white, producing unexpectedly vibrant imagery. Here it’s more like looking at photography that’s yellowing and fraying at the edges, and the period reconstruction of 1961 New York is wondrous and immersive to behold.

The Coens spread the dramatic tension out over small bursts, mostly moving Llewyn from one temporary situation/solution to another, but keep things suspenseful on a small scale using simple plot devices such as a constant need to literally save a cat with a propensity to jump outside open windows, and a long drive on the highway after days with no sleep. Yet for all its gloomy scenarios, there’s still a romanticism in looking back on such a lifestyle, especially as we struggle to keep our modern metropolises viable for artistic incubation. Musician David Byrne recently lamented the decline of the creative class in today’s NYC (though he undersells the thriving arts scene in Hong Kong despite it being a hub for finance professionals), and the housing crisis is reaching a fever pitch in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a large portion of the creative community have moved to the East Bay or even further. Yet, would it be easier now for Llewyn to jump on couchsurfing.org and maybe offer guitar lessons in return? Troops are still coming home as professional musicians; are we really less supportive of artists now than we were in the heyday of folk music, or are we ourselves draining the creative pool by assuming other professions?
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82. NEBRASKA [Nov. 13th, 2013|09:28 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Alexander Payne, USA 2013.


“This was my parents' room. I’d get whipped if they found me in here. Guess no one’s going to whip me now.”

Life in America moves fast, even in its most rural and isolated territories. Though the characters of Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA are heavily haunted by the history of the past few decades on a personal and national scale, and the events of the film take place in the present day, the movie strives for a look and feel that has no specificity in time, while remaining unmistakably American.

Shooting on digital for the first time, Payne and director of photography Phedon Papamichael deliver sterling imagery in black and white, looking especially stark yet inviting across the open plains and long-abandoned farms. The dates on tombstones, as well as references to the Korean War provide temporal details and context, and yet there are few cues to call attention to the contemporary setting; no one in the movie happens to use a cell phone or browse the Internet over the course of the story. The greyscale palette, rather than making the movie look dated, instead focuses the viewer on the quality of light and shadows on the faces and walls, the performances in these forms and shapes. These choices that would seem to call so much attention to themselves as stylistic hyperbole unexpectedly blend into the loaded complexities of the long-brewing conflicts between the characters.

How is this achieved? Much of how these seemingly contradictory elements find compelling complements in collaboration comes out of the acting, particularly in how the lead players are cast just enough against type to realign the audience’s perceptions. Will Forte plays the stoic straight man to most every other onscreen foil, despite being best known for his comedic caricatures. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern has created countless memorable antagonists over many decades on film, and directors such as Walter Hill have used his talent for essaying particularly garrulous characters to great effect. In Hill's THE DRIVER, Dern has the lion's share of the dialogue and must carry that side of the film's primary dynamic, as his bent cop goes up against Ryan O’Neal’s titular protagonist, a steely professional wheel man with a practiced economy of verbiage. Even when playing an embittered paraplegic nearly twenty years later for Hill’s WILD BILL, Dern gets off a mouthful to make a big impression as a formidably volatile threshold guardian in only a couple scenes. “Stillness” is not a property one generally associates with Dern’s performances, even ones in which he is confined to a wheelchair.

And yet that is precisely the quality that he brings to Woody Grant, a man in the twilight of his life whose dementia convinces him that a standard sweepstakes mailer hawking magazine subscriptions has in fact netted him the million dollar prize to be claimed in Lincoln, Nebraska. We first meet Woody ambling along the shoulder of a busy highway, one of many open spaces against which he will be composed in the story. Already determined to reach Lincoln by foot, he is shortly found and hospitalized, and met with growing yet wearied concern by his wife Kate (an outstandingly assertive and forthright June Squibb) and his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk).

David, adrift at the end of a long-term relationship and finding little meaning in his work as an electronics salesman at a brick-and-mortar showroom (like Ross, a local news anchor, David is on the cusp of professional obsolescence before his time, a member of a swiftly fading institution), resolves to humor the old man and make the drive to Lincoln with him, stopping along the way in the family’s old hometown of Hawthorne, in the hopes of long-delayed bonding despite having long felt abandoned to Woody’s alcoholism.

One expects such a backstory to manifest in Dern’s mastery over volatility in his performance, but he and Payne go another route, presenting Woody at a stage in which he seldom speaks, having long let go of whatever youthful ambitions he once held. There is a tragedy in this forfeit of fulfillment, especially as Woody can’t even remember what his goals or dreams might have been, and it’s not hard to imagine that he lacked the clarity of purpose to follow through on them even if he hadn’t been a chronic drinker. The sum of a man’s life is too much to evaluate on such terms, and yet the quiet observational quality that Dern brings to the character expresses the complexity of these layers, as he takes in the memories embedded in every face and building of Hawthorne.

The totality of emotions encountered on his adventure lay bare just how much resentment can stew over time, but the actors are experienced enough to convey the nuance that makes it clear that there is much more underneath than mere notions of betrayal or jealousy. Those are merely the entry points from which the drama invites the audience to get to know these characters as lifelong companions-- sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, but always of a family, related by blood or not. Woody’s return to Hawthorne, particularly under his confused auspices as a soon-to-be millionaire, ignites the small town as much as any national event would, and opens up several avenues to explore what’s behind Woody’s stillness and how others react to it.

One of the simmering contexts at the heart of the story is the slight divergence in values between the two American nations upon which the Grant family have settled astride. Per Colin Woodward’s demarcation of historical and cultural values along territorial lines, the Grants have returned to their humble origins in The Midlands, having left them behind some time ago for the periphery of industry in The Far West, where Kate founded her own hair salon, a mild step up from Woody’s garage in Hawthorne. In their wake, the Grants left behind enough unresolved resentment that was bound to be revisited with Woody given a hero’s return mid-route to his fabled winnings in the relative Lincoln metropolis.

Central to this fraternal conflict amongst the regional drift is Woody’s old partner in the garage, Ed, in a selflessly layered performance from Stacy Keach. Ed is as loud and brash as one would have expected Dern’s Woody to be, as he outwardly trumpets Woody’s success to the rest of the town with folksy cheer, while privately insisting to David that some portion of the winnings be handed over to him, to settle a long-held debt. Different flavors of this confrontation recur throughout Hawthorne, and David is presented with contradictory recollections of Woody as a mooch who borrowed money right and left, or as a milquetoast who performed automotive and other maintenance services as favors without payment. That both impressions fit under the umbrella of Woody as an uncontrollable drunk speaks to how complex a history of one’s life can be, even in the memory of a small town.

The simplicity of the townfolk is sometimes played for laughs, but the overall picture wants the audience to get to know these people and respect their way of life, and share in their dreams and goals, some of which are lost to the history through which the Grants can only half-remember in their solemn sojourn. These are Americans that cinema often dismisses as exaggerated yokels, but as films like this and Richard Linklater’s BERNIE subvert the immediate comedy into relatable human drama, these native sons of so-called flyover country honor their roots while bridging their stories to audiences in their newly adopted territories. Payne does not stage interviews with local residents (or rather, actors playing them) as did Linklater in the West, Texas of BERNIE, but he does present instances where his supporting characters look directly at the camera, one of which plays out in an extended take where the entire male contingent of the extended Grant clan watch a football game on television. The fourth wall is still present, but the audience and these characters get to look right at each other for long stretches of time, and it urges the viewer to find the relatability in these situations, even at their most absurd and humorous.

Stories of reconciliation such as this tend to be between men, particularly the father-son dynamic so deeply explored by Dern and Forte. What NEBRASKA adds is Kate’s presence, which hits a nerve with every bit of backhandedness she expresses toward the bitterest memories she holds of the old town. Mostly, this consists of her recollecting all the dirty things the menfolk did in their day to get in her pants (meriting a priceless “Jesus, Mom, was the whole town trying to seduce you?” from David), but one of her best scenes comes from a visit to the Grant family plot in the local cemetery. While it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Kate and her in-laws, as she reveals their petty nature over a series of acerbic anecdotes, she’s also very much at one with their family history, including its most tragic incidents such as the childhood death of Woody’s brother. Ultimately, she respects the entirety of her place in the Grant line, and her preponderance is a moving way to take in the most severe aspects of life as only part of a larger whole.

The return to one’s hometown is not a new trope, but has rarely been so comprehensively depicted in an end-of-life instead of quarter- or mid-life crisis. The visual style of the piece, from the opening frames of the 1950’s Paramount logo to the eerily static vistas that only digital photography can capture, along with the novelty of the casting, ask the viewer for enough of a commitment up front to the movie’s contradictions on all levels. The audience rides along on the same journey through the terrors of senility, the bitterness of abandonment, the pain of rejection, all the way to the relief of letting go of everything above. Lucky us.
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80. THOR: THE DARK WORLD [Nov. 8th, 2013|11:44 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Alan Taylor, USA 2013.

Thor: The Dark World

"I like the way you explain things."

The latest installment in Marvel Studios’ Phase Two continues the first THOR film’s trope of fashioning a bridge between science and mythology to level out its disparate characters and worlds; it is a heavily-expository approach to character, one that is often better served by the chemistry between the actors, but it is a notable datapoint along the narrative trends circling this material ever since Marvel’s Silver Age spun out of the wake of Atomic detonation towards the idealism of the Space Race, when “God-fearing” and “scientifically-curious” were adjectives that were more closely aligned along nationalistic values than in their present incarnations.

In the current development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor’s movies are the most compromised, being the most mythic in origin while needing to perform the heavy lifting in introducing the extranormal elements necessary to raise the narrative stakes high enough to bring the other Avengers together (thus necessitating the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy in this phase, providing an avenue to bring in more antagonists powerful enough to be a threat requiring the combined might and wit of the good guys, while staying on course with the current zeitgeist of sci-fantasy adaptations rooted in militaristic counter-terrorism). Because the other denizens of this universe are much more grounded in real-world scientific principles on some level, the characters and arcs in the Thor films are tasked with bridging the gap to make the narrative fabric a convincingly shared one, particularly for modern audiences raised on the careful reconstruction of the superhero as merely a resourceful zealot who understands the power of legend, as envisioned in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Which is not to say that these movies don’t get to capitalize on the advantages of scale inherent to their mythology-- this universe’s ace in the hole is still Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, perhaps the gold standard for antagonism in this literary tradition, as the character can be taken in any direction; Loki’s tragic backstory and trickster archetype laces his every choice with potent internal conflicts for free, while automatically stirring complementary inner conflicts in Thor, as well as their parents Odin and Frigga. It’s a nearly foolproof dynamic for any writer, so it’s no surprise that this film’s primary dramatic engine continues to stem from the brothers’ conflict, even as its actual plot stumbles along to hit the points prerequisite to the high drama in which it and the audience are much more invested (the main convenience that lays the groundwork for the key events of the film is literally just called The Convergence, an alignment of the 9 realms that creates temporary random portals between them, and occurs every 5000 years, for which the Asgardians are mysteriously unprepared. One would imagine they’d at least have had a big viewing party planned).

It’s not that there isn’t chemistry between Thor and Jane, and as stated above, the meshing of science and myth that they represent is vital to the rules of this universe, literally humanizing Thor (distinguishing him from Loki, who buys into his myth as a god, while legitimately believing himself to be a more capable ruler than others who currently hold such posts in all the realms, making him more than just a power-hungry aggressor), and elevating Jane, but we already know that they love each other, so a story in which their affections are stymied mostly by external factors is essentially more about those factors than it is about their connection. The relationship between Sif and Thor is momentarily explored this time around, but again, the vast amounts of sci-mythic exposition from the previous film and the first act of this one have expressed just how important it is that for Thor and Jane, the very existence of the other person expands their understanding of the universe, and thereby, the magic of life itself, so the film doesn’t have to spend much time dismissing Sif as a romantic rival. This is also why Jane’s intern Darcy has been portrayed as scientifically inept-- in addition to seasoning the proceedings with comic relief, it clears the stage for Thor and Jane’s chemistry to blossom unabated, but it also diminishes their dynamic, for now, though there are some nice small bits throughout the film in which Jane acclimates rather well to the wonder of Asgard by way of her understanding of its scientific workings, and to the majesty of Thor’s parents by way of her forthrightness and respect in earnest. Still, it’s one of many ways in which the women get short-shrifted in this episode, and one can’t help but wonder if it’s something that Patty Jenkins could have addressed had she been retained as director on this project.

But generally, most every element in this story is in service of furthering the Thor/Loki dynamic-- while the photoshopped poster of the brothers in an affectionate embrace has made the rounds as an Internet lark, it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the film’s actual content and motivations. Even while imprisoned, temporarily no longer serving as the focal point for the plot mechanics, Loki drives much of the actual drama, practically spitting in Odin’s face before being confined to his cell, and tenuously humoring Frigga’s attempts at reconciliation.

The new villain, Malekith, has much more banal motivations than Loki, and his entire faction of Dark Elves seek merely to return the universe to its initial state of darkness, and only have a grudge against Asgard because its progenitors were the first to stand against and defeat them, in a cluttered prologue narrated by Odin. There is some lip service paid along the way to draw parallels between Odin and Malekith’s relative ruthlessness, as both are all too willing to sacrifice their own people to achieve their ends, but overall, Malekith’s presence here is primarily to provide Thor and Loki with a common nemesis. Which certainly works and wisely elevates the dynamic in which the audience is most invested, but Malekith needs to stand on his own as a character, and despite Christopher Eccleston and the makeup department’s valiant efforts, there’s not enough detail to make him stand out as a threat, forcing the screenwriters to take some drastic shortcuts to give him enough weight to merit both brothers’ attention. The character’s nobility is tough to convey alongside his relative griminess; while there is an elegance to his design and that of his armor, it’s undercut by the chaotic effects of his obsession with darkness, and his primarily violent nature. Taylor and crew try to pull a Khal Drogo on him, even going to the lengths of having Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje deliver the bulk of their dialogue in an invented language, but without the perspective of an outsider amongst them like Daenerys, the Dark Elves come off as no more compelling than a solitary band of orcs and Uruk-Hai.

The filmmakers know what their strongest elements are, but struggle to string along the connecting plot points to get to them; along the way, we get some strong glimpses of Asgardian culture, as the bulk of the action takes place in that realm this time, but even the most cathartic moments feel less than fully earned. Fortunately, the character work is still fairly well-considered for the two that are most paramount to the story-- by now it should be pretty clear who those two are. The action set pieces are structured to advance Thor’s development as an effective leader, both amongst his Asgardian brethren, as well as his Midgardian companions, rather than the poor team player as whom he began the saga, the most coordinated of which involves nearly every key player executing some specific portion of Thor’s escape plan to smuggle Jane out of Asgard, including some trickery that impresses even Loki. There’s just enough that works here to deepen the most promising of the ongoing conflicts at play, and it’s unfair that this story has so many purposes to fulfill and plot points to hit in service of the larger story goals of the universe, but it’s a dangerous game that Disney/Marvel is playing if they can’t find a way to more organically balance these needs, as they need to give more than two characters in this slice of the storyscape their proper due as thematic foils.
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79. THE ARMSTRONG LIE [Nov. 7th, 2013|11:03 pm]
Aaron Luk
dir. Alex Gibney, USA 2013.

The Armstrong Lie

“I was caught in the middle of a fight between the myth makers, and the myth busters.”

There’s a cop directing traffic on the roads trafficked by the Tour de France, but as the camera pulls back, we see that he is not wearing pants, and is merely one of the many costumed spectators camped out upon the route. Like the organizations governing the sport itself, the notion of regulation is but another element of the overall narrative, subservient to the entire construct of professional athletics. As such, the competition does not begin and end with the race itself, or the training periods therein-- it never ends, and all the attendant publicity, investigations, and the lies that spin out of them, are all part of the game. There are human drives at work beyond those for money, power, and glory, and they are so encompassing that to some extent, we are all complicit in the Armstrong Lie.

This documentary, which repurposes footage originally captured for a feature focused on Armstrong’s 2008-9 return to the Tour, invites its viewers to suspend value judgments for at least two hours and take a look at both the larger context of the Lie, as well as the internals of Armstrong’s makeup and motivations. In the process, one comes to reevaluate the role of sports as a professionally constructed narrative that encompasses everyone involved on either side of the stands. Gibney’s outsider perspective as a newcomer to the sport allows the audience to discover its cultural aspects organically, no matter the level of initial familiarity.

As covered by On The Media in 2010, a Wall Street Journal study found that a typical 3-hour televised football game features about 11 minutes of actual play. As audiences, we are drawn to the surrounding drama of the game, and get to know its more esoteric details, so that we can recognize when something special happens. For at its core, the highlights of a typical competition can be reduced to fairly simple, unromantic statements-- “Guy hit a ball with a stick,” as Dan Rydell put it on “Sports Night”, comforting his boss Isaac Jaffe, who in 1955 had picked an inopportune time to visit the men’s room at the Polo Grounds, thereby missing “the shot heard ‘round the world” when Bobby Thorson hit the homer to clinch the pennant for the New York Giants against the hometown rival Brooklyn Dodgers.

Yet even with such reductions available, some narratives are too good to pass up, and speak for themselves, no matter how invested one might be in the sport. Armstrong’s recovery from testicular cancer to win several Tours is certainly one of those. The prevalence of doping among professional cyclists, especially when interpreted as a uniform practice, eventually became a more enticing narrative, as legends are often made to be torn down, and the handwritten cheers along the Tour route become baldfaced criticisms of Armstrong and the UCI. But the original story of the survivalist comeback had so many positive aspects, not the least of which was an optimistic outlook on cancer awareness, imbuing current patients with a concrete hope. And so the old adage of “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” was adopted by everyone, including those who knew the true story. But there’s always a deeper, more humanistic story behind the legend.

The code of silence among those few, such as Armstrong’s teammates and trainers, as well as potentially the higher-ups in the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body for the sport, is a potent and unforgiving force that ultimately destroyed friendships and careers. And so Armstrong defended his reputation tooth and nail, even winning defamy lawsuits against those who were telling the truth about him. When he finally came clean, he did so in the most dramatically appropriate fashion, in an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, another quintessential American success story, and an icon practically immune to controversy.

Even this confession, then, is part of the ongoing competition. To a newcomer, so many elements of the sport seem enormously contradictory. The spectators can move onto the route itself, even as riders are passing by, even though this would be unthinkable in a track and field event. An individual wins the Tour, yet is part of an overall team. One’s teammates can help out by letting one draft behind, or by determining the optimal pace for the current stage, and yet another teammate may be an adversary, aiming to win the title for himself. The movie presents Armstrong and his 2009 Astana teammate Alberto Contador as such rivals, heightening Armstrong’s motivations and raising the dramatic stakes for the comeback that would ultimately be his undoing.

Many interviewees here posit that had Armstrong not attempted such a high-profile career resurgence, the doping allegations would not have been pursued further. At the same time, they give the impression that Armstrong wanted to prove to himself that, at least once, he could win without the usual boost. We live in an age where competitors will deliberately make things harder on themselves to demonstrate that their skills transcend such limitations. Video gamers have especially adopted this practice, as evinced in the GTAIV crimeless challenge and the FINAL FANTASY X No Experience Points Challenge. But Armstrong was not anticipating that he would perform as poorly as he did in the initial stages that year-- coupled with the intense rivalry with Contador, the movie heavily hints that he gave in to doping once more in order to compete at the same level, despite him denies it even post-Oprah. (Contador would eventually be stripped of his subsequent 2010 win for doping.)

The movie also explores Armstrong’s consultations with Dr. Michele Ferrari, shown as the ultimate mechanic for the human body. The level of scientific minutia to which Dr. Ferrari plans a training regimen, including the doping intervals and doses, shows just how entrenched and developed the doping is in the sport. Ferrari’s “contributions” to the sport are well-known enough that he’s been sentenced for sporting fraud and banned from all professional athletics. Armstrong’s correspondence with Ferrari is presented candidly, in contrast to the extremely formal unannounced drug tests to which Armstrong is subjected by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The tests take place in Armstrong’s home, as he grows increasingly chagrined with each administration occurring in smaller intervals. Even so, he is respectful of their intent-- the credibility of such tests rely upon their unpredictable occurrences, and in the presence of his children, he has no room to equivocate. Like with the child cancer patients he meets with as part of the Livestrong initiative, Armstrong is at his best, and perhaps his most honest, with his children. “Your job is to take blood,” observes one of his daughters after the umpteenth examination. “No, her [the administrator’s] job is to take blood. My job is to give blood,” corrects Armstrong. There’s something moving about how he never has to lie to a child the way he does to an adult, and it makes it all the more tragic that Livestrong is seen to be tarnished as well by his reputation. But it also gives him something to fight for in the neverending race, to redeem himself by restoring Livestrong’s genuinely uplifting qualities in which everyone can participate.

The cinematic elements of the piece are not particularly subtle-- almost every moment is accompanied by a very assertive musical score, and the headlines expositing the evolving state of the scandal are animated with heavy motion graphics. Yet the volume of material is what conveys the complexity of the layers to the story, and Gibney’s own narration grounds the piece as a personal experience, one in which Gibney himself wrestles with his role in the narrative. He initially aimed to be impartial, especially while being accused by other cycling teams of creative a puff piece for Armstrong, yet finds himself irresistibly rooting for the guy as he made significant advances in that fateful 2009 tour, even though he had more than suspicions as to what was really going on. Armstrong himself acknowledges Gibney’s needs a number of times in hotel room interviews along that Tour: “Sorry I f*cked up your movie,” he half-jokes, when it becomes clear that he won’t win despite a valiant, almost certainly dope-fueled rejuvenation.

Sports is the baseline metaphor for all other human endeavors and stories. This is why it strikes me as odd when sportswriters compare athletes to characters on “The Wire” or politicians-- the clear delineations and regimented flow of the game are what allow more complicated concepts to naturally map to it, not the other way around. But perhaps our collective investment in sports, as driven by our need to satisfy some bloodlust in a context less loaded than actual war, or to participate in the manufacture of phenomena, demands that we acknowledge the larger narrative in which we are all complicit. As the pattern of concussions in the NFL show, the players can pay a cost beyond even the fame and fortune they enjoy. Yet, there is a rigidity in our need for these cultures that resists pondering those larger costs-- “at what price glory” has ceased to be a rhetorical question. We are merely haggling now.
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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Theatre for a New Audience) [Nov. 4th, 2013|01:50 am]
Aaron Luk


Awash in sumptuously fluid production design that organically interacts with its memorable players, director Julie Taymor and company's take on Shakespeare's play that perhaps best encompasses all his favorite themes over his body of work, from the volatility of young romance to the conspiracy of political machinations to the creative process and public reception of itself, and all the interpersonal relationships involved. Its story contains three separate sets of characters, whose arcs overlap via the plot advancements courtesy of intervening faeries with their own agendas, but the play structurally consists of each mini-cast acting as an audience to the subplots involving the other players.

The elegance of similar character dynamics being reflected across class and station is also expressed in how simple objects on stage are cleverly transformed to stand in for scenic elements. The audience enters the theater to find only an empty bed on the stage; when the performance begins, Puck enters from behind the audience, goes to sleep on the bed, and then the Rude Mechanicals spread out the bed sheets to cover the stage, affixing them to hooks as the bed and sheets are lifted up above the audience, and then an image of a sky and the title of the play are projected onto them. Over the course of the show, the large sheet serves as the sky, or a scrim, or billows down to become clouds, and even forms a large dress for the faerie queen Titania, which lifts to admit her lover before images of flowers are projected onto it, in a spectacularly family-friendly depiction of sex.

The new venue, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, for which this show is the debut production, that now houses this company is a deeply immersive one, with seats surrounding three sides of the stage proper (like an "Elizabethan courtyard"' per the official description), which also juts out past each section, from which actors may enter from behind the audience. For this play, actors playing faeries are also often placed on second-floor rafters, just below the viewers at that level, to observe the main action and intercede at key moments, and there are many instances of characters pulled up off of the stage or placed beneath it. All in all, Taymor and designer Es Devlin have really maximized their use of available space, and their inventiveness keeps the audience transfixed on the story while believing in the simple magic of stagecraft that makes faeries real.

The small army of actors playing the faeries are dubbed the Rude Elementals in the playbill, as they also serve as the forest (moving along and across the stage in black while holding rods, boxing in the various Athenian lovers with precise choreography) and other natural elements, as when they roll on the ground in succession as obstacles that the Athenians must jump to avoid. They are made up of children and high school students, already accomplished dancers and actors, who ably hold their own with the more experienced thespians (during a party scene, they all performed very specific bits of business to flesh out the convivial atmosphere without distracting from the primary dramatic exchanges-- I was particularly amused by a little girl who pretended to drink and not particularly enjoy the contents of her empty champagne glass).

The characterization of young lovers in Shakespeare plays often plays up their immaturity as romantic, making for some lopsided drama, especially when big plot points and resolutions hinge upon the substance of that romance, but the intervention of the faeries into the human affairs acknowledges the arbitrary nature of love and such emotions, offering entertaining and layered personifications for dramatic shortcuts. Particularly commanding is David Harewood as king of the faeries (indeed, during intermission I overheard a fellow theatergoer declare that "Oberon is badass"), portraying the lord's might, magnanimity, and pettiness with pitch-perfect line readings as well as wordless observations toward the other characters. Oberon's presence is so declarative (and matched by the majesty of Tina Benko's Titania) that it allows Kathryn Hunter's Puck to downplay the character's mischievousness while retaining her sharp wit and candor, and convey a trusted retainer who prides herself on a job well done, rather than merely a nosy trickster with superpowers. Their conspiratorial relationship comes off as one with little or no malice, making the proceedings all the more fun and humorous, as even these two formidable forces of nature are taken aback to see the manner of chaos they have wrought.

The young lovers themselves, Hermia (Lilly Englert), Demetrius (Zach Appleman), Lysander (Jake Horowitz), and Helena (Mandi Masden) each discover their own cadence and intonations for the classical dialogue, and especially come into their own once Puck's meddling has taken hold, as their respective reactions to sudden romantic shifts give them a wide berth for fantastic physical comedy as well as delivering quickly escalating argumentative meter.

Filling out the mix of garb and accents are the Rude Mechanicals, who similarly each bring something unique in their approach to the material. It's their exchanges and experience that form a hilarious subtextual take on the creative process, as they bicker over how to stage a play for the Athenian court. Giving each of them a different modern archetype (some might say stereotype) along with the associated 21st century garments sets them apart from the classical characters and emphasizes their own divergent perspectives, making their scenes easily dynamic as long as the actors don't assert their modernity in a way that disrupts the overall chemistry. Thanks to the tight direction and strong instincts from the players, this doesn't happen. Max Casella makes for a dominantly expressive Nick Bottom, the lead actor in their ragtag company, and gets to puppeteer the mask on his head for one of the more famous turns in the play, which must on some level hint at what Shakespeare thought of some actors.

Elliot Goldenthal composed the original score and set certain passages of the dialogue to music, and the songs serve the characters well, especially as they are mostly used to express a rapport between them. Full of imagery that requires just enough audience imagination to make them feel like part of the magic, this midsummer bodes well for many more beautiful productions for seasons to come.

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