Thursday, 30 May 2013

Week Five - What Maisie Knew, E Street Cinema

What Maisie Knew, E Street Cinema
What Maisie Knew Poster.jpgI wasn’t at all certain that I really wanted to watch this film. On the one hand, the description I had of it suggested a harrowing story about a sweet little girl suffering at the hands of her horrible, selfish parents. The pain of my own present separation from my kids makes viewing or thinking of anything even remotely comparable almost unbearable. On the other hand it was free. So I went along. The cast of adults were part of the appeal: Juliette Moore is usually great, the Viking vampire from True Blood (Alexander Skarsgård) has a real presence and I’ve liked Steve Coogan since his appearances on The Day Today in the early 1990s (though his serious roles have usually been less successful). The story follows the separation and subsequent activities of a New York couple and their thoughtful young daughter. It never really explains why the parents break up; though their later selfish and thoughtless behaviour towards Maisie suggests reasons (i.e. they are both exceptionally unlikeable). They do show glimmers of humanity and affection early on, before wrecking the appearance later, which also makes us suspicious whenever any other character does something decent.
It might be a good film to make divorcing couples watch as a cautionary tale (‘How not to act in Divorce’). I doubt whether it would make anybody reconsider the divorce itself, but as a powerful list of things that divorcing parents should not do (bad-mouth former spouse to the child, use the child to get back at the ex, let child find out about new boyfriend when he picks her up from school, disappear for long periods and leave child with new step-parents etc), it might at least encourage basic humanity. Perhaps one drawback of using the film like this might be that no divorcing parents would think they could ever be as bad and thus it might instil complacency. When the film starts the mother seems loving, but she quickly shows herself to be a horror. In this respect at least, there is some character development. The dad’s decency lasts a little longer, but still falls by the wayside. This makes is expect everybody to be similarly self-centred, but there were flickers of happiness and wholesomeness, just not from the people who should have been decent. Happiness isn’t elusive in the film and my pre-film fears of a relentless dirge of misery were eventually proven misplaced. But what does happen is that the happiness of day is always followed by the pain of night (usually literally). The step-parents are the most decent, affectionate people in it, but even with them we know that it probably won’t continue indefinitely. The young actress playing Maisie might be criticised a little for underplaying her role - she rarely shows outward signs of sadness - but this made the poor behaviour of her parents all the more affecting. We already knew the bad they were doing, and that it must be damaging Maisie’s soul, so the absence of histrionics simply added to the pathos.
In the fifth-century BC, an Athenian playwright called Phrynichus put on a tragedy showing the sack of Athens’ ally, Miletus. The Athenians were distressed, so on that level at least the play was a success. But the play was on a topic too close to the Athenians’ hearts and it turned out that the people were so distraught that they fined Phrynichus. It was decreed that tragedies should stick to mythological themes in future (which is the case for all of the tragedies that survived to the present). As a modern I should be aghast at this Athenian censoriousness, but actually they did have a point. What Maisie Knew is an effective and moving film, but it was also two of the worst cinematic hours of my life. In the end, although not as miserable as I anticipated, it is still not recommended viewing for anybody already feeling depressed and missing their children. Ultimately the film subverted the entire reason for my cultural calendar and the keeping of this blog - as a distraction from my homesickness.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Week Four - Star Trek into Darkness & The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater

18th May - Star Trek: Into Darkness, AMC Theater, Courthouse Plaza, Arlington

The poster shows a flaming starship falling towards Earth, with smoke coming out. At the middle of the poster shows the title "Star Trek Into Darkness" in dark grey letters, while the production credits and the release date being at the bottom of the poster.I approached the 2011 film of the Hobbit with some trepidation. The book was such a beloved part of my childhood; perhaps more responsible than any other single book for pushing my tastes down the (geeky) path they have taken since. If Peter Jackson had replaced those wonderful memories with something superficial and twisted I would have been distraught. Luckily he didn’t. For some reason there had been no such fears about the 2009 ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek franchise, despite Star Trek, in repeats of the original series, in the film versions with Shatner et al and, perhaps most of all, in the Next Generation incarnation, being an equally well-loved and significant part of my childhood mental furniture. Part of the reason was that Star Trek has never really taken itself seriously (i.e. the Tribble episode of the original series). Partly this was also because there have already been so many frankly awful films made already (at least half of the films with Kirk in, all of the films with Picard in and every TV episode with Scott Bakula as captain). So one doesn’t approach a new Star Trek film expecting great things. Nonetheless the 2009 film confounded my pessimism – most of the actors were excellent replacements and the plot device of the disrupted timeline overcame the major drawbacks of setting a film in an earlier period (i.e. that we normally know what is going to happen). But this means, rarely for a Star Trek film, that Star Trek: Into Darkness begins with the disadvantage of bearing higher expectations. Luckily it fulfils them.

A couple of initial observations. Cumberbatch is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes and the character of Spock is based on Sherlock Holmes, so there was an extra soupçon of enjoyment for Conan Doyle fans in the Spock/Cumberbatch tussles. As an Englishman I almost feel obligated to decry the Hollywood ploy of having heroes talk with American accents and villains sound like posh Englishmen. But, really, deep down we all actually like it. If anybody was going to give Spock and Kirk a run for their money it’s good to know it was Englishman (though I couldn’t really have objected to a Latino choice in this case…) So Cumberbatch is a great villain – tough and fiendishly clever, he joins an elite company of English baddies who we secretly admire (Superman’s General Zod, The Lion King’s Scar, The X-Men’s Magneto, and Christopher Lee as Saruman, Count Dooku, and countless Count Draculas). As an Englishman it was also nice to see that the Union Jack still flies in London in the twenty-third century – I’ll stop worrying about the Scottish independence vote in 2014 now. And the moral qualms felt over Kirk’s mission to kill a terrorist without trial, using log-range photon torpedoes, looks particularly relevant in the week that Obama announced new limits on America’s use of drones to kill terrorists.

My opinions on casting haven’t altered from the 2009 film – Spock, Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu were and remain fantastic choices. Kirk and Scottie – not so much. I like Simon Pegg in other things, but his Scottish accent is diabolical, his body shape and face are all wrong, and the slapstick comedy attached to his character never hits the right note. Kirk is ok, but not great. I’m doubtful whether anybody else could have really convinced as Kirk, though the news this week that scientists have now successfully cloned human embryos does make one wonder if the reboot should have been put on hold until we could have cloned and raised a new Shatner.

Finally, the plot was predictable in places – it was fairly clear who Cumberbatch was long before it was revealed, and an important plot device from the final segment was also too obvious. Nonetheless, it was a fun film and it definitely found the right mix between adding enough novelty to surprise and amuse us, whilst at the same time keeping enough of the old Star Trek to pull at our nostalgia strings. A welcome addition to the franchise.

18th May - The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater, Crystal City

My program informs me that the Synetic Theater’s name derives from its ‘synthesis’ of different art forms and its emphasis on ‘kinetic’, dynamic movement. For a Hellenophile like me, using Greek words gets it off to a good start before I even sit down. The program also describes the Synetic Theater as Washington DCs ‘premier physical theatre,’ though I was less sure of what that would mean in practice (do we have ‘physical theaters’ in England? My cultural education continues…) The theatre is approached from the metro station by the tunnels of Crystal City, which doesn’t make it a particularly scenic walk on a quiet evening - it brought back memories of the chap being chased and eaten on the London Underground in American Werewolf in London. It’s a small venue (‘intimate’ in estate agent and theatre program-speak) and the stage is not what I expected would be the case to produce ‘physical theater’. The music before and during the play is mostly classical, which doesn’t match the avant-garde expectations built up by the program description, but does evoke the atmosphere we expect of seventeenth-century Paris.

The story needs no explanation – there have been plenty of film versions, and for anybody my age the Dogtanian series of the 1980s is still the zenith of musketeer (muskahound?) adaptations, though the Michael York/Oliver Reed versions of the 1970s run it close. Like Star Trek, the humour of the other versions and occasionally awful remakes (i.e. the 2011 film with the flying galleons) mean that you approach any version of Musketeers with realistic expectations – it’s not going to incite any profound insights into the human condition, but as long as it doesn’t take itself seriously and has some good fight scenes you’ll exit satisfied.

This stage version maintained a number of strong points from previous versions, and especially the earthier humour of the 1970s films. Occasionally the comedy didn’t quite come off, and I couldn’t work out whether Porthos was supposed to be a grunting simpleton or a deaf man with simple tastes (he is deaf), but mostly it worked well. The fight scenes were strange though – much more realistic than equivalent scenes from a ballet/dance, but still too stylised to be realistic. The result was dissatisfaction on both counts. The weakest aspect was the dialogue, which was uniformly two-dimensional and stilted. And the acting was mixed. Athos was adequate, Richelieu was good, and the outright comedy roles were excellent (Louis XIII and Aramis especially). None of the female characters ever rose better than average. Milady was at her best whenever she wasn’t speaking – she had two assets for the role but neither of them was her acting ability. In fairness, Milady’s acting was not the worst on show, and as the understudy we might expect that she is not yet the finished article. The actor playing D’Artagnan reminded me most of a successful Hollywood actor. Unfortunately, the actor he reminded me of is Keanu Reeves. And even more unfortunately, it was the Keanu Reeves of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not the Keanu Reeves of The Matrix. The combination of naïve idealism, bloodthirsty toughness and comedy is difficult to pull off, but this D’Artagnan never really came close. The best scenes were those which showcased the synthesis and kinesis of the theater’s name. The erotic tango between Milady and Richelieu, in the middle of a chaotic, violent melee, was sublime. Likewise, D’Artagnan’s meeting with the musketeers in a busy crowd was a brilliantly choreographed hybrid of ballet, acrobatics and slapstick. 

The production reached its peaks of fun during the musketeer fighting scenes, but the story’s tragic elements were much less convincing. In summary, the synthesis is not quite balanced yet. A really good writer and some acting lessons would be a good investment before the Synetic produces its next ‘talkie’. But the choreography of movement was fantastic, and I keenly await their silent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream later in the summer. 

Friday, 17 May 2013

Week Three, Part One – Coriolanus from the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall

Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa, disciples of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, once wrote a book called Shakespeare’s Politics. I haven’t read it yet, though it is on my summer reading list, but I would guess that they covered Coriolanus quite thoroughly. It is one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, and seems to point to a number of themes covered by Straussians elsewhere. This is not about one, albeit complex, individual scheming his way to power, like Macbeth or Richard III, but about a collision between two political worlds: democracy and aristocracy. Democracy has triumphed in the modern West, so we are inclined to take its superiority for granted. And that would certainly be one way to interpret Coriolanus. The first thing said by one of my companions was that Coriolanus is a story about the tragic inflexibility of a great, aristocratic man. His undoing is that he is so noble that he can’t bring himself to flatter, or even show basic politeness, to those of lower status. He regards the people as a mob. Which is certainly true as far is it goes. Coriolanus values his honour over his life and has nothing but contempt for the poor who only seem to want cheap food. And we could say that it is easy for an aristocrat to scorn those who think first of their bellies, but not so easy for those who live daily with poverty.
But in turning away from the aristocratic arrogance that is exemplified by Coriolanus, does democracy also turn its back on the possibility of nobility? Shouldn’t there really be more to life than the search better material conditions? The democrats might argue that, yes, the search for life’s higher meaning can take place once our basic material wants are satisfied, and that such meaning should not belong to the rich alone. This is the drift of liberal thought since the enlightenment. But that is not quite the way Shakespeare portrays it. The common people in Coriolanus don’t really deserve respect: they are a fickle and easily led rabble. They are manipulated by the two democratic tribunes into attacking Coriolanus and banishing him from Rome. And when Rome is then under attack, they blame the hapless tribunes for leading them astray. These tribunes are classic demagogues, out to further their own careers by rousing the people against the rich. Shakespeare, like the anonymous ‘Old Oligarch’ of ancient Athens, seems to think that ‘the highest scrupulousness in the pursuit of excellence is to be found in the ranks of the better class, while within the ranks of the people will be found the greatest amount of ignorance, disorderliness, rascality - poverty acting as a stronger incentive to base conduct, not to speak of lack of education and ignorance, traceable to the lack of means which afflicts the average of mankind.’ Of course, Shakespeare was living and writing in a monarchy, so he was not going to get into trouble for criticising rule by aristocratic or democratic regimes. To that extent, the play authenticated the political system of his day. But it would be interesting to know how the audience responded to his portrayals? The theatre of his time was wonderfully mixed, from the highest to the lowest. Did they identify themselves or their contemporaries in Coriolanus, or did the setting of events in antiquity make the issues less significant to all except the most thoughtful?
It is interesting that the Old Oligarch blames much of the poor’s rascality on their lack of education (which itself results from their poverty). Even this forthright oligarch seems to be saying that democracy might therefore work well if everybody could be educated. Modern technology and material wealth has now led to just that situation, which might be said to have negated the Old Oligarch’s criticisms of the poor, though this is dubious, but the real modern relevance of the play is the two tribunes. These men are clearly better educated than the rabble they lead, but they seemed to have turned against their own class to further their ambitions. They also have no respect or gratitude for the soldiers, like Coriolanus, who protect them. In other words, they are modern left-wing intellectuals who, in the words of Kipling, ‘make mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. And what universal education has mostly done in that respect is send lots more people to university – creating a bigger, shallower intelligentsia. As an aside, for anybody who does feel any sort of gratitude to the soldiers who risk and sometimes lose their lives to defend civilisation, America is a refreshing change to Europe. It must still have its share of one-eyed ‘pacifists’ as well, and on the other side the incessant ‘USA! USA! USA!’ of any sporting event can be trying, but there is a genuinely affectionate, unselfconscious, simple patriotism here which warms the heart.
Coriolanus, like a couple of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, is based on one of Plutarch’s Lives. These were short and very engaging biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures written by the Greek Plutarch during the Roman Empire. Unlike the modern Penguin editions, which tend to group the biographies together by subject (a book of Spartan biographies, a book of Roman biographies and so on), Plutarch originally organised his biographies into pairs, each one containing a Greek and Roman whose lives had something in common (for example the successful military leaders Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great). One of my companions at the play, who happens to be a Plutarch expert, told me the surprising news that Plutarch paired Coriolanus with Alcibiades. This has some superficial logic, because both enjoyed early success but then joined with the enemies of their homelands in war against their own people. But besides that the two were very different characters. Coriolanus can’t succeed as a politician because he is too rigid, too principled to make the necessary compromises.  His attack with the Volscians on Rome is motivated by the assault on his honour committed by the tribune-inspired masses. Eventually bowing to the pleading of his mother to spare Rome, he takes his army away to face death at Volscian hands. Alcibiades was a cad all along. A complex, attractive, charismatic cad, but by all accounts somebody with no real moral fibre. He encouraged Athens’ into wars for his own personal gain, and then when ordered to return to Athens to stand trial for impiety, he went over to Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. Then he helped the Spartans to wreck Athens’ Sicilian Expedition, which had been his idea in the first place. Eventually the Spartans grew tired of him (possibly because he slept with the wife of one of their kings) and he returned to the Athenians, who welcomed him back until at a later date he was banished again for leaving the charge of the Athenian fleet in the hands of his incompetent lieutenant (who then lost the fleet). Alcibiades was an aristocrat like Coriolanus, but like the tribunes he was an able manipulator of the mob to further his own ends. I really must revisit Plutarch to read his reasons for this pairing. But back to the play…
This production is sublime – better in all ways than the 2011 film version starring Ralph Fiennes. The costumes were interesting; using modern costumes can sometimes backfire, especially if done to stress some overstretched point of relevance to the present day, but in this case they worked to support rather than subvert the central themes of the play. Some of the women in Plutarch seem especially alien to modern audiences. Like the women portrayed in Plutarch’s accounts of Sparta, Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia was bloodthirsty and seemingly uncaring about whether her son lived or died, so long as he did it with honour and maintained the standing of the family name. She was played with the perfect amount of stridency and aristocratic hauteur by Diane D’Aquila. Again, this is another side of the aristocratic ethos which we have lost (probably for the better) in our more democratic age. Another interesting innovation was the drumming - along with the excellent stage, it helped to create the evolving atmosphere that heightened the significance of the dialogue and action, especially during the fight scenes. Stage battles, where a handful of men are used to represent entire armies, are often flat and amateurish. Perhaps they appear more insipid because our imaginations are dulled by the ultra-realism of film violence. But the drumming here amplified the life and power of the violence to add a real air of menace, fear and desperation. Patrick Page, as Coriolanus, was much more realistic and appropriate to the story than Fiennes’s psychotic film portrayal. He really succeeded as the hardened aristocrat. One of my companions picked up on the aspect of playfulness in having an arch pretender (an actor), pretending to be someone whose greatest fault is that they can’t pretend. Page really carried this aspect off and his mannerisms at the point where his character was pretending to attempt to pretend was his most human scene of the play. Shakespeare loved this sort of contradiction, as with the comedy situations of men playing women pretending to be men, and the actor did it excellently here with some bitter frivolity of tone and action suitable to tragedy.
Finally, I said when talking about Wallenstein last week that I found the American accents jarring. That was not the case with Coriolanus – if anything, perhaps Americans make better, more believable Romans than English actors do (Rome certainly never seems very far away in a city as stuffed with neo-classical architecture as Washington DC). The problem, I think, with Wallenstein, was that the translation was very modern, creating a constant jarring between the content of what was said and the way it was said. The accents fitted the translation but the translation did not fit the play.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Week Two – Wallenstein, The Sun Also Rises, Playboy and another novel

8th May – Wallenstein, at Sidney Harman Hall (The Shakespeare Theatre Company)
The play was mostly excellent, though it was a little jarring to hear something described to me as Shakespearean spoken by Americans and with an American translation (the phrase 'what the hell?' cropped up twice, which I suspect wasn't there in the original German). There were also a few too many comedy elements for a tragedy, even right up to a couple of minutes before the ending. And the main character gave a sort of commentary on proceedings from the present (where he's in purgatory), which mentioned the American constitution, a board game named after him and the fact that some of the characters didn't exist historically - which occasionally made it difficult to feel involved in the story itself.

But it was a great story, and it had some excellent acting (apart from the American playing an Irishman, whose accent was mostly American but then occasionally slipped into very bad Irish). Had a fantastic seat at the front (so at least I could see the actors' faces) and also got a free glass of wine because I still count as a 'young person', so the $20 ticket was a bargain.

Before I bought the ticket I was reading Phillip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. In one of those odd and slightly eerie coincidences, one of the characters was working on research based on Schiller’s Wallenstein, which added another layer of interest to proceedings. The Shakespeare Company have paired the play with Coriolanus, emphasising a hero/traitor theme which has some resonance. Wallenstein and Coriolanus were both great military heroes who ultimately turned against their homelands. Wallenstein is a little more complicated than Coriolanus though. Coriolanus has greater modern reverberations because he stands for the conflict between aristocratic military individuality and democratic political egalitarianism. Useful in war, he is a liability in peace and his betrayal of Rome stems from the betrayal he himself has received from the people and their politicians. But Wallenstein’s motives are less clear-cut. We are never sure if he is betraying his emperor because he thinks it is the only way to ensure peace in Europe (a justifiable motive to modern ears) or because he is simply an ambitious schemer who wants to make himself the king of Bohemia. In Dick’s novel, Wallenstein is compared with Hitler rather than Coriolanus. Both are again depicted as great military leaders (though I’m dubious about Hitler’s real abilities as a commander), both were led astray and ultimately destroyed by their blind faith in astrology and superstition, and both wrecked Europe with their crimes (or possibly failure in Wallenstein's case).

But how about throwing my hat in the ring with a historical comparison of my own? The Athenian general Nicias was also a great military leader and like Wallenstein he yearned for peace in the midst of a long war (the Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC). Both tried to broker peace in the midst of their wars – Wallenstein secretly, Nicias openly. Where Wallenstein failed, Nicias initially succeeded. The Peace of Nicias interrupted the Peloponnesian War – but the treaty was wrecked by his countrymen a few years later when they launched a long distance attack on Syracuse (in Sicily). Nicias argued in the assembly against this invasion, but was outvoted and then sent on the mission anyway as a general. When forced to lead an expedition he thought was madness he made mistakes; exacerbated by his superstition (just like Wallenstein). The poor omens made him stay at Syracuse even when it was obvious the situation was hopeless and that escape was the only option. Ultimately the entire army was destroyed and Nicias, a ‘man who, of all the Hellenes in my time, least deserved such a fate’ perished alongside them.

So, in similar circumstances and with similar aims, the traitor Wallenstein and the loyal Nicias took different courses of action when they disagreed with their leaders. Both ended badly, so perhaps the rather banal moral here is not whether or not to disobey a foolish leader – but to avoid putting too much trust in superstition.

10th May – Playboys from 1964
A bit of a cheat – during my day at work I started reading an old 1960s issue of Playboy (for work reasons, honest). In a single 1964 issue, there were articles by Vladimir Nabokov, Bertrand Russell and Ernest Hemingway, an interview with Pablo Picasso and a short Bond story by Ian Fleming. The old joke about subscribing to Playboy ‘for the articles’ seems to have had some basis in fact. I say ‘had’ but, for all I know, modern Playboys are just as intellectually highbrow. Though I doubt it.

In any case, it would be interesting to compare the cultural high-mindedness of those old Playboys with the output of modern literary or current affairs magazines. Progress or decline? They also had some fascinating advertisements too (in an un-PC, Mad-Menish sort of way)…

‘7-Up: The Man’s mixer’

‘As long as you’re up get me a Grants… Thanks darling’

‘Aristocrat is one of the world’s great smokes’ (remember adverts for smoking?)

‘If it’s the lean, strong look of you that attracts the lady, give credit to your Saxon Maincoat… quiet, knowing, unpretentiously male’

And my personal favourite. ‘This is a man’s world. Heady aroma of sizzling steak. An eye for beauties. It’s the world in which you belong… in your ruggedly handsome club shoes’

So, the big question of the day: where can I buy a Saxon Maincoat and a pair of club shoes in 2013?

9th – 12th May – Robert Rankin’s MechanicalMessiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age

Robert Rankin was one of the living writers I loved most as a teenager, along with David Gemmell and Hugh Cook (especially his Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, of which I’ve read every novel at least three times). As soon as I discovered them I devoured their previous work in a few weeks and then waited impatiently for whatever was next off the presses. Although my tastes have changed over the years, these three will always retain my loyalty and affection for providing at least some of the education which I was supposed to be getting at school. Sadly, both Cook and Gemmell have now passed away, but Rankin is still soldiering away and I’m still almost up to date with his output. I’m allowed to take books out of the Library of Congress, so decided to make getting up to date on Rankin my first priority before moving on to the heavy stuff. And this was an enjoyable read, if not as much so as those I read as a teenager. Partly that is because my tastes are different now (hopefully better) and partly that is because Rankin is quite a formulaic writer. But it’s also because his work can be grouped into four categories: the Hugo Rune books (initially excellent), the Brentford books (best of all), the steampunk books (like the one currently under discussion) and the other stuff (the not-quite-there stuff when Rankin had seemingly grown bored of Rune and Brentford, but before he discovered steampunk).

Rankin didn’t invent steampunk, but it is an inspired choice of vehicle for his ideas; perfectly fitting his eccentric Britishness (his American characters, including the Marlowesque Lazlo Woodbine, never really work). But at the same time it is more recognisable to an international audience than his Brentford books and has the added benefit that people seem to enjoy the genre enough to form steampunk dressing-up clubs (and I’ve noticed there is one in Washington DC). Still, as an Englishman I can relate even more easily to the characters sitting in the pub or nipping into Norman’s corner shop in Brentford. Partly this is pure nostalgia for the novels I was reading as a teenager, but it goes a little deeper than this. One reason those in-betweeny novels of the late 1990s and early 2000s didn’t work was because the settings were so strange to begin with (for example, Toy Town). Wacky plots and characters just merged into the scenery and those novels ended up as adventure stories with a few running gags. But in Brentford, the ordinariness of the stage contrasts with the bizarrity (new word?) of the actors, and that’s when things get funny. So whilst the steampunk settings worked for a while, and probably garnered Rankin a much bigger audience, it’s time to introduce that new audience to Jim Pooley and John O’Malley.

12th May – The Sun Also Rises
I suppose I ought to make a confession at the outset. Despite what you might infer from my own grace and panache on the dance-floor, I am not actually a classically trained dancer. Or a connoisseur of dance in my capacity as a spectator. In fact, to my eternal shame, this is my first visit to the ballet. This does create a few problems of analysis. In thinking critically about any subject, the first step is to compare the subject with others of its type. Sometimes we can be more specific still, going beyond considerations of medium and genre to comparisons between this work and other examples of the creator’s handiwork. So writing about my first trip to the ballet creates problems. Was that use of giant puppets original or clichéd? Was the lead character’s disrobing into only his underpants (twice!) daringly transgressive, or do all ballets contain similar scenes to titillate the female-majority audience (which would make his frolic in the bathtub a sort of male wet t-shirt contest for posh ladies)? The boxing scenes were beautiful, but then I suppose lots of ballets contain fight scenes. Are there many other ballets set in 1920s Paris and do they all utilise popular French songs and the can-can? That last seems obvious enough to be banal, but if Parisian ballets are a rarity, perhaps I have witnessed something special today? I suppose one answer would be to read the ballet reviews of more experienced hands, to get a better idea of context, but that sounds like too much hard work (and too close to my day job to be enjoyable). So instead let me present my novice impressions, which perhaps I’ll revisit when I’ve seen a few more ballets.

The first point to make is that ballet audience like to give the performers lots of encouragement. If I hadn’t already been to a couple of plays in America, I might have thought this was an example of American exuberance, but since Wallenstein wasn’t constantly interrupted by rounds of applause after every scene and soliloquy, we’ll have to put it down as a ballet thing. Before the performance even started, we had Septime Webre appear on stage to give an introduction (which isn’t something you tend to get with plays), which involved taking part in four separate rounds of applause (though one of those was for Mothers’ Day). We also applauded at the end of each scene, at the end of each dance sequence, whenever somebody, somewhere mistakenly thought it was the end of a dance sequence, and whenever a dancer did something especially difficult (it’s lucky that it wasn’t me initiating the applause, because all the dance moves looked difficult). My curmudgeonly distaste for over-applauding aside, this did contribute to a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Briefly, the story centres on an American war veteran in 1920s Paris, living in the shadow of World War One. He was injured in the war and is now impotent, but is in love with an English double divorcee who is herself engaged to a Scotsman and flitting between a couple of other lovers during the story. The story works well and is told with precision and insight, but one niggling complaint is the depiction of those 1920s Americans as the ‘Lost Generation’. Surely the ‘Lost Generation’ refers to those who actually died in the war, and especially the dead of those countries which suffered much higher rates of mortality than America did, not a handful of intellectuals living it up in Paris sometime later? Is there currently a ‘lost generation’ of Australians working in London’s pubs?

The score was highly evocative of jazz age Paris, and the move to Spain in the second Act was accompanied by a musical adjustment to a Latin tempo which worked fantastically. The scenery was mostly quite drab, except in Spain, which was disappointing. However; the idea of having the surtitles appear in the title card silent film style was inspired, the costumes were stunning, and the dancing itself was dazzling. Everything had the appearance of effortlessness, until I pictured myself on stage and realised the sheerest unlikelihood of ever attaining such summits. I struggle to make picking up my four year daughter look effortless, so perhaps I was never cut out to be a ballet dancer.

Whenever a novel is adapted for film you can count on one of your friends pointing out that the film wasn’t as good (only second-rate novels make really great films). And no doubt a mostly wordless dance version of a profound novel will inevitably be lacking some of that novel’s depth. But as I haven’t read the novel, I could enjoy the story I was given in blissful ignorance.  Still, it does suggest a wider question: is ballet high-art because it is inherently ‘high’, or because it is watched by rich people? Plato criticised tragedy because it irrationally aroused emotions – whether or not that is a fair criticism of tragedy, does it apply better to ballet? Ballet can’t really get across deep philosophical insights. What it can do is evoke emotion and awe, but is that enough? Perhaps ballet is the theatre’s equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster: a superficial but emotion tugging experience, but with grace and beauty instead of explosions and pithy one-liners.

There is a wider question of cultural relativism nagging at the back of mind: why do governments subsidise the high arts? I’m talking of the UK here, because I don’t know the situation in America. The audiences for ballet and opera are well-heeled, so they probably would still survive, to some extent, without subsidies. Do we value them more highly than other, less subsidised art forms? It seems that there is a special place for arts like ballet and opera, but why do we consider them so valuable? Surely our governing ideology is cultural neutrality? If all cultures are equal, why not simply let the free-market decide which arts get the money. If the market wishes to support reality TV shows and talent shows, then so be it. But if we accept that some cultural practices (ballet, opera) are more worthy of government support than others (lap-dancing), then does that imply that similar judgements could be made of other cultures? One suspects that some hypocrisy is at work: lip service is paid to the equality of all cultures but at the same time our politicians selfishly give money to support the interests that they themselves deem worthy. Or do the government support these arts because they used to be important? In other words, is the government essentially the curator of a cultural museum, keeping ballet and opera alive out of antiquarian interest?

Next week, Coriolanus, a visit to the National Art Gallery, the new Star Trek film and The Three Musketeers at the Synetic Theater