film, the chorus

Fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong

To elaborate more on the Menken/Ashman work in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, one of the things I can appreciate about it now is the way that the same musical themes are used by opposing characters to express different viewpoints – within the same song. It reminds me of the medleys in West Side Story, esp. TONIGHT.

Like this, from the opening medley, BELLE:

Sung by Belle:
There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Ev’ry morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

Sung by townspeople:
Look there she goes that girl is strange, no question
Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?
Never part of any crowd
‘Cause her head’s up on some cloud
No denying she’s a funny girl that Belle

Same music. Different words. It’s a really simple effect but enormously effective. And the way in which it’s effective has to do with the element of the chorus I’m always interested in – the collective nature of imitation. The way ideas, words, themes, are shared between people in a chorus environment. The way that everything gets repeated and reflected back.

Baltimore, film, the chorus

In a wrestling match, nobody bites like Gaston

It has been raining here for the last two days. Not constantly, but violently and intermittently. I have my Poland gear with me all the time now – raincoat, umbrella.

Today, I learned more about a Hopkins program where graduate students tutor undergrads who are having trouble adjusting to college academic work. I saw a posting for it and wanted to check it out. Speaking of checkouts, then I checked my first book out of the library, with my now-working new ID card. It was the DVD of the Disney BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, which I have really wanted to watch for awhile now – and I wasn’t sure why.

Well, I watched it, plus the special features, and I learned the following things which I did not know when I was nine years old:

– Walt Disney tried to develop the story in the 30s and also in the 50s, but never got past the drawing board. (Hey, this is the context in which “the drawing board” is being used properly!)
– Jerry Orbach from LAW AND ORDER played (and sang) Lumiere, the talking candlestick. There was a great all-round voice cast, but that one really blew me away.
– The enchanted objects were thought of as, variously (and I am quoting people here): “having the audience’s experience.” “the interlocutor.” “A Greek chorus.”
– The art director pitched the design concept as “Bambi with interiors.”
– The composers, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, structured the songs and the music in the film “like a Broadway musical,” with turning points in the plot happening during songs.
– The lighting was consciously designed to be “theatrical.”

I have always felt a little self-conscious about the influence that LITTLE MERMAID and BATB have on my chorus stuff. I’ve been very aware of the animation in “Kiss The Girl” in particular. But now, with the knowledge that Menken/Ashman were thinking in those terms – and with more context for the way theater permeated those productions – it seems entirely appropriate. Henceforth, I will cite this movie as an influence without confusion or embarassment.

And then I wrote a poem from the point of view of the guy who runs the asylum where they’re going to lock up Belle’s father, just because he has the best line in the whole movie:

“I don’t usually leave the asylum at night, but he said you would make it worth my while.”

directing, film

everything in the director’s handbook

Kevin Maher on Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke’s director-actor relationship:

…to get him there, Aronofsky admits that he had to use everything in the director’s handbook. Rourke, for instance, refused to even attempt one elaborately choreographed fight sequence. “He’s like, ‘Why don’t you do the routine?’” says Aronofsky. “So I got into the ring and I did the f***ing routine, the whole thing. And that f***ing shut him up for the day.”

film, opera, theater

the film properties hit the opera world

“As marketing becomes more crucial for the survival of the art form, the appeal of an established title becomes more important,” says F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News. “This is what we’re looking at in opera — whether the franchise can deliver a reliable product.”

Variety on a new group of operas based on movies. The most interesting one sounds like the Howard Shore opera of THE FLY, directed by David Cronenberg, which is coming to the LA Opera next month after Paris.

acting, film, location, travel

leaving los angeles: t minus 3

Flashes of Los Angeles, as I shut down Operation Pasadena and prepare to be on the road again.

1) The road.
With no time left to use it, I discover 6th Street. You can have lived here all your life, worked here for years, and still find another (better) way to get from one side of it to the other. It’s particularly good for the Pasadena-to-midtown stretch: the 110 to downtown, and 6th west. Driving here feels like negotiating: I’ll see your sun blinding you off the face of the enormous iridescent office building lurking over the 110 North, and raise you a Cone Zone construction closing off your exit. There’s no one way to get from one place to another, only a series of guesses.

2) The Fairfax corridor.
There’s no more alien pizza, or cosmic pizza, or all the wrong names I ever gave Nova Express. I had two of the three most significant meetings of my time in Los Angeles in that all-night, sci-fi-decorated Fairfax pizza joint. i only remember one of them, but I know the other one happened. And now it doesn’t exist. If anything is a confirmation that I should be leaving town, it’s this sad disappearance. The front is boarded up.
We end up in Canter’s instead. A friend suggests that everything in life that isn’t theater is the green room. I buy sunglasses and a suitcase in the thrift stores, observe the selection of vintage menorahs, walk the walk, and eat the kugel.

3) The Heath Ledger Experience.
Waiting in line at the Grove. Running into the theater, dignity abandoned, scrambling for seats. One of the most wonderful performances I have ever seen, or ever hope to see. We laugh loudly at all the wrong places, at the most violent moments, when his acting is superlative. Which is a lot. I’d watch Christopher Nolan direct the phone book.
I was guilty of some of the cheesy reasoning folks have been throwing around about his death, BSing with a philosophy professor friend of my parents’ that a dark role makes your outlook on life darker, that playing the Joker drove him over “the edge.”
But that’s just not true. I don’t know how anyone can say that the performance actually drove him mad, when any actor would be so proud of that performance that it would drive them to greater sanity. He knew how good he was, and he was enjoying being that good. He was on top of his game, technically perfect, and proud of it.
Makes me believe, even more, that his death was an accident.

(I created a new category with this post, location, for things that are about places but not necessarily just about traveling. All my observations on place have been travel-related, for the last year, but I want to link into them with a more grounded noun.)

film, theater, writing


I spend the evening with my oldest friend and his parents, all of whom are artists or educators. They are enthusiastic about podcasting, and they want me to tell them what I’m doing next. I don’t know. Only writing.

My oldest friend, who is a Victorianist, defines the Gothic for me, and I define the chorus for him. We know our fields of specialty because we define them broadly – to him, everything is Gothic, and to me, everything is a chorus.

I go back to Pasadena and watch Mike Leigh’s film TOPSY-TURVY again (about Gilbert and Sullivan) thinking it will give me some insight into collaborating on a play with music. I notice, this time, that Gilbert is directing the whole thing, too – rewriting his lines on the fly, and staging with absolute brutality and simplicity, allowing no one’s ideas into the shape but his own. It reminds me very much of the directors I have worked with who have also been the writers of the piece in question. Their ideas are good, but their processes are less open to innovation from the actors than the processes of directors who are only directors.

I think of the rehearsal I just had last week for the short Ron Allen play, and how little he said compared to how much I said. To write and only write, you need to be prepared to give your words into someone else’s hands.

Watching TT again also makes me wonder about making sure both CF and I continue working at the highest artistic level of which we’re both capable – not compromising ideas for each other as Sullivan felt he was for Gilbert – I wince at the memory of a few times during the reading where I asked him to provide music that was essentially musical sound effects, humorous and uncomplicated. On the one hand, I think he is more open to that kind of thing than other people I’ve worked with. On the other, we’ve never really talked about it.

It’s funny – I also realize, in this watching of the film (and after reading some writing online about it), how Mike Leigh’s filming of the scenes from the G&S operettas really plays up the fakeness of theater as a medium. It’s all about seeing the humans behind the illusions.

books, film, travel

Bibiliotheque Nomadique

Kim and I had breakfast this morning and went to Half Price Books. I got lost in brilliant, wonderful Anthony Lane‘s Eric Bentleyesque anthology of film criticism, NOBODY’S PERFECT. I adore his writing:

“On a broiling day, I ran to a screening of Contact, the Jodie Foster flick about messages from another galaxy. I made it for the opening credits, and, panting heavily — which, with all due respect, is not something that I find myself doing that often in Jodie Foster films — I started taking notes. These went “v. gloomy,” “odd noir look for sci-fi,” “creepy shadows in outdoor scene,” and so on. Only after three-quarters of an hour did I remember to remove my dark glasses.”

I had some momentary sadness about not being able to buy the book, due to being s.d.f. The only book I’ve allowed myself to acquire in the last year is Kate Christensen’s THE GREAT MAN – I took a paperback pre-release readers’ copy from a laundry room in Denver. But the day reminded me that I need to keep wandering through bookstores, and that my ideal life (which I have not arrived at yet) will include both living out of a suitcase and having a place in which to accumulate a library. An apartment is secondary. Just a library.

If I were wealthier I would buy every book I want in every city I go to, and give them away upon leaving, thereby reading everything and also disseminating bookage. Which is a lovely plan, but about as practical as the advice I read for prospective pet-adopters in a magazine today: “If you want to adopt a pet but have no time to spend with them, but have a lot of money, adopt the pet and pamper him with visits to doggie day care.” Somehow I think that the “but have lots of money” clause is going to be a problem.

More Anthony Lane in a profile: “The truth is, that if you’re working on a piece at three in the morning, you’re not Keats; you’re just late. The glitch in this argument is that I’m not a creative writer. I don’t write poetry or novels or drama but criticism, which is the eunuch of the family. I watch other people doing it and talk about what they’re doing in a squeaky, high voice.”

directing, film, style, theater, writing

Noun Modifiers

In the course of the Convergence teleconferences, I mentioned to a friend of mine, who’s a filmmaker, that I make a distinction in my mind between directing and writing – directing is about allowing more freedom to other people in the process, being open to new possibilities, and writing is about total control over a limited sphere. They are very different. I didn’t use to feel this way, but I certainly do now, since I’ve stopped being such a controlling director.

Coming from the POV of film, however, he said that “everything is writing – directing is writing, editing is writing.” Because he does still have total control over every sphere. Because you can select the take, and you can get exactly – EXACTLY – what you want.

This is probably why film stresses me out as a medium. I can no longer imagine wanting that many things that specifically. I tried it, and it was exhausting. There’s so much freedom in being able to share those wants with others – to let them want things, and let that inform the process and the result.

And I think I’ll look to writing for control, and to directing for the absence of it. This came to my mind again as I was working on/with an actress with/on a monologue from Measure For Measure this afternoon. If I had gone into the session knowing what I wanted to see from her, I never would have been able to see what she had to bring to it.

The only way I would make a film again would be either an animated one (which is all writing) or else something like Chris Guest, with improv-based writing – where the film captures the final result of a process which is more theatrical.

Maybe writing isn’t even “writing” in that controlled way. Maybe the best writing is when you surrender control, as well, to the characters, the words, the sounds. Maybe everything is directing.

I am so unlike the artist and person I was at seventeen that I can barely recognize myself. At least I still use too many adjectives and adverbs. It’s still a problem, but at least it’s a problem that’s familiar. I can say, “Oh yeah, that’s me – I use too many adjectives.”

a propos of nothing, family, film, Lydia, theater

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be…

It’s been a busy week – not only did I see Sweeney Todd again, (just as bloody, just as good), watch an open dress of Theresa Rebeck’s OUR HOUSE (vitriolic sendup of reality TV, pools of blood, writer-strike humor), have teleconferences with almost all the confirmed Convergence participants, and just finish 3 days of LYDIA tech, but I managed to overhear this conversation in the elevator, not five minutes ago:

Woman: My mother always wanted me to marry a cowboy, and I said, hell no.
Man: I’m not a cowboy?
Woman: Well, you do fix the fence sometimes. You’re sort of a cowboy.
Man: I could be a cowboy.
Woman: You do have those outfits. (To her companion) He has some cowboy outfits.

But back to what’s really important, which is the Sweeney Todd movie – I went to see it again on Tuesday despite the impending tech and my unfinished rewrite. I had Phil’s observation in mind that it was too clean of a London for him, and it certainly is a very clean propscape. Every object that’s introduced is used. Every reference is followed up on. It’s a spare staging.

It’s like a play in that way, and I think it’s Burton’s homage both to the material’s theatrical origins and to the single-minded focus of Sweeney’s mind. There may be other things in his world, but he doesn’t see them. And Sondheim approves – ArtsJournal led me to a piece in the Lebrecht Weekly where the composer said “This (ST) is the first musical that has ever transferred successfully to the screen.”

In conclusion, January 12 is my mother’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mom.