Seen at the Movies:
I’ve expended a lot of energy over the years excoriating Lars von Trier’s mannered filmmaking and what I perceived to be his borderline Victorian attitudes towards women; let’s just say I found Breaking the Waves and especially Dancer in the Dark to be excruciating movie experiences. So I was prepped for von Trier’s latest, Dogville, which features yet another put-upon female, this time portrayed by Nicole Kidman. Advance word of the three-hour film’s bare-bones style—it unfolds in its entirety on a stage set stripped bare of walls and most furnishings, with chalk marks on the floor indicating same—and of its shrill anti-Americanism had me looking forward to another round of misery.
Well, preconceptions don’t always carry the day, because I actually found Dogville to be thoroughly gripping. The Brechtian/Our Town-style staging, complete with theatrical sound and lighting effects, is fascinating, and actually helps one accept the conceit that one’s looking at a Depression-era Rocky Mountain town, which could really be any town on the planet. Kidman, who gives what I think is her strongest, most subtle and varied performance ever, plays Grace, a beautiful if bedraggled woman on the run who turns up in Dogville seeking shelter. The townspeople are persuaded by young idealist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) to welcome Grace into their fold, and to express her gratitude she takes on odd jobs for each of them. The initial harmony of the situation turns sour, however, when the citizens of Dogville come to view Grace’s offerings as their due, and expect more. By the film’s third act, Grace has descended into a state of physical and sexual slavery…but unlike the heroines of von Trier’s last two films, she will be given a chance to exact her revenge.
Dogville Lions Gate Films.
Dogville benefits in equal measure from the close-in, handheld work of DP Anthony Dod Mantle, shooting in HD, and from the sensitive molding of seasons and time of day by lighting designer Asa Frankenberg. Their work is subtly enhanced by visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth’s digital layering in certain sequences. Production designer Peter Grant helps make the absence of scenery a presence, revealing the town in all its features and activity at all times. The understated costumes are designed by Manon Rasmussen. I also have to mention the extraordinary cast, which includes Lauren Bacall (playing a character named Ma Ginger), Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Blair Brown, Harriet Andersson, and James Caan. As for the anti-Americanism, I think it’s too narrow an assessment of what the film reveals--Dogville is actually an indictment of human nature, of what people tend to do when they get a little power.
The New Directors/New Film Series, a co-venture of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, opened Wednesday with Jim McKay’s Everyday People, the slice-of-life story of a Brooklyn restaurant on the verge of closing. I admired McKay’s last Brooklyn-set film, Our Song, but found Everyday People to be somewhat disappointing. It’s agreeably acted by an ensemble cast, and it’s given a vibrant texture by DP Russell Lee Fine, but McKay overwrites, providing each character with position papers on race, class, neighborhood gentrification, and other issues to deliver. This weekend’s festival entries include two buzzed about films, The Story of the Weeping Camel from Mongolia, and Seducing Doctor Lewis from Canada, plus Dig!, a prize-winning documentary at Sundance about the contemporary rock music scene. For more information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.
Everyday People HBO Films
Ernest Dickerson’s Never Die Alone is an oddity, an updated hip-hop version of Donald Goines’ 1974 noir novel that seems unmoored in time and place. I found the story, which features David Arquette as a journalist investigating the death of charismatic gangster DMX, to be more than a little ridiculous, but the movie has style to burn. DP Matthew Libatique goes in for expressionistic camera angles and color saturation that make Never Die Alone always interesting to watch, if not to listen to. Costume designer Marie France contributes the slick duds, and production designer Christiaan Wagener exploits downtown L.A. for its nowhere feel.--John Calhoun
Never Die Alone Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Seen at The Met Things have been pretty interesting at The Metropolitan Opera this season, and a real feather in their cap is the new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome with the fantastic new star, Karita Mattila. She is so wonderful that even the Met’s audiences didn’t seem to mind that the production is performed on a modern set with a mix of modern dress costumes, all designed by Santo Loquasto. The set includes an intriguing house or party place where King Herod is entertaining and his wife’s daughter, Salome, is the center of attention. Let’s assume this place is Herod’s castle, rising majestically from the sand dunes of the desert. A large curved wall seems to be covered with fiery red tile, a nice contrast to the sandy dunes on the other side of the stage. One staircase, hidden behind the wall, leads to an upper level, while a second staircase with a contemporary stainless steel or chrome railing, leads to a lower level where the guests seem to gather when not on stage. In front of the dunes is a contraption that sits above the cistern where John The Baptist is imprisoned, with planks of wood over the hole. The dunes, looking almost like cartoon cut-outs, are hard enough to walk and stand on, and at several different moments there are angels of death, dressed as men of the desert in black robes and turbans and adorned with large feathery wings. When all seven of them are perched atop the dunes, the effect is a very striking tableau. The costumes range from dusty army uniforms to Orthodox Jewish men in their black coats and hats. These figures contrast greatly to Salome and the other party guests: she is wearing a sexy white evening gown while her friends wear gowns and bathing suits — perhaps this is a pool party but I could not see a pool from where I was sitting — and the men are in tuxedos. Salome later changes into a silver tux herself with a layered black bodice that she strips out of piece by piece, as she dances the dance of the seven veils (choreographed by Doug Varone) until she bares all for a second (did I say nudity at The Met?) and is wrapped in a big bathrobe. What a dance, and what a performance, all accented by the lighting designed by Jim Ingalls who dappled the dunes with the hot sun, and added a contemporary look under the patio or pool deck with a stripe of purple (neon or LED perhaps). All in all, this brief one hour and 40 minute production is a perfect example of updating an opera successfully. I’d like to see more like this, and look forward to seeing this one again. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Salome at The Met
Seen off Broadway: What with Joan Crawford and the late Mercedes McCambridge as gun-toting sparring partners, gobs of Freudianism and anti-McCarthyism, and "cowboys dying with the grace of ballet dancers" (in the admiring words of director Francois Truffaut) it’s no surprise that someone would set Johnny Guitar, the daffy cult Western from 1954, to music. The big surprise is that it wasn’t Charles Busch, Lypsinka, or Joey Arias, who incarnates Joan with every sneer and shoulderpad intact in the annual Christmas with the Crawfords revue, who drew first on Nicholas Ray’s curious masterpiece. Outside of a few broad asides (like the tumbleweed, pulled by a wire, which skitters across the stage as the show opens), Johnny Guitar: The Musical hasn’t been reconceived as a complete camp fest.
Embattled New Mexico saloonkeeper Vienna (Crawford) and her nemesis, arch-conservative rabble rouser Emma (McCambridge) are played, pistols packin’, by two actual women (Judy McLane and Ann Crumb) and not a pair of drag queens. Realizing there was little way to improve on the purple passions of Philip Yordan’s screenplay ("How many men have you forgotten?" quizzes Johnny Guitar, a gunfighter who’s foresworn shooting for strumming, of his old flame Vienna. "As many women as you remember," she replies. Later, "He makes her feel like a woman, and that frightens her," deduces Vienna of Emma’s repressed lust for the rascally outlaw the Dancin’ Kid, one of Vienna’s more-or-less forgotten men. And so on…) producer and book writer Nicholas Van Hoogstraten has left it largely intact. Gone are Victor Young’s brooding score and the classic Peggy Lee theme song, replaced by mock Marty Robbins-type tunes supplied by director and composer Joel Higgins, forever to be associated with the terminally bland 80’s sitcom Silver Spoons. His music here is pretty vanilla, too—respectfully over-the-top, a contradiction in terms that prevents Johnny Guitar from being much more than agreeable light entertainment for cinematic saddletramps and greenhorns new to the material. And for that I was grateful, given how painful it could have been, in the manner of so many uncertain screen-to-stage tuners. It’s livelier, and a lot shorter, than last season’s Broadway bum steer Urban Cowboy, and I laughed every time at Robb Sapp’s note-perfect mimicking of cowpoke actor Ben Cooper in the role of Turkey, the juvenile delinquent who’s also got a yen for Vienna.
Johnny Guitar Photo: Joan Marcus
A hoot and a holler goes out to the design team, who, led by lighting designer Ed McCarthy (whose last name sure suits him for Western witch-hunting), replicate the "Trucolor" processing of the film down to every overripe red and blazing orange in the fire scene that ends Act I. The book follows most permutations of the original, which keeps set designer Van Santvoord hopping to switch his high chaparral-style flats at the Century Center for the Performing Arts from Vienna’s saloon to a bank to a mine shaft and a mountain pass (the latter scenic pieces are cleverly turned around to become the interior of a hidden lair). The literal "Johnny Guitar" suspended over the stage as the show begins is a nice touch, too. No one who sees the film ever forgets Crawford playing a piano while wearing a flowing virginal white dress during one baroque confrontation, and neither have Santvoord and costume designer Kate Voyce, who dresses Guitar (played by Steve Blanchard) and the other gunslingers in handsome cowboy duds and provides some very stylish boots for the ladies. And kudos to sound designer Laura Grace Brown, who helps make the many gunshots ring out loud and clear and remembers to add a funny echo effect to the canyon scenes. If anyone plans musicals of Rancho Notorious or Duel in the Sun, two other camp Westerns, this is the design posse to round up.— Robert Cashill