Seen at the Movies:
It’s January, the major studios are releasing their also-rans, and half the movie industry is off at Sundance. But even at this time of year, a worthwhile film can sneak into theatres, and such is the case with Kevin Macdonald’s gripping docudrama Touching the Void. Actually, docudrama isn’t really the correct term for the film, which might be more aptly termed a dramatized documentary. The story is of British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and their harrowing ordeal in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The two climbers wanted to be the first to scale the western face of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande, and they reached their goal. But on the way down, Simpson fell and injured his leg. Yates attempted to help his partner off the mountain, but during a storm accidentally lowered him over the lip of crevasse. Unable to see and certain his friend was dead, Yates cut Simpson’s rope—a climbing taboo. Simpson ended up inside the crevasse, but somehow managed to find his way out and drag himself back to base camp. When the mountaineers returned home, Yates was ostracized by the climbing community, and Simpson wrote the book on which the movie is based at least partly to clear his friend.
Touching the Void. Photo: IFC Films.
Translating this tale into a compelling film posed challenges. A straight dramatization, with only two characters who spend most of the story apart, might seem inert. A straight documentary would only have talking heads and static mountain footage at its disposal. So Macdonald, who directed the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, blends the two—Simpson and Yates tell their story on camera and in voiceover as two understated, mostly silent stand-ins enact it. This may sound vaguely disreputable and History Channel-ish, but it works well. And the film is thrillingly shot by cinematographer Mike Eley, on locations primarily in the Alps. (Footage of the actual location provides the establishing shots.) Touching the Void is a real white-knuckler, as Eley and climbing photographer Keith Partridge put you right next to the protagonists on a sheer ice cliff, and sometimes, with the aid of platform rig that suspends the cameraman in midair, a bird’s-eye view of their exertions. Simpson’s time in the crevasse (not a set, but a real Alpine crevasse) has its own visceral impact—the spectrally beautiful formation is like a womb swallowing him up in the earth.
Also opening this week, at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, is a restoration of E.A. Dupont’s fascinating 1929 silent Piccadilly, starring Anna May Wong. (The restoration is a co-venture of the British Film Institute and Milestone Film and Video, which is releasing the film on DVD.) Wong was a Hollywood player typecast by her Chinese ethnicity, and she turned to England in a quest for more interesting roles. Her character in Piccadilly, an exotic nightclub dancer and seductress, is no less stereotypical than what the actress was being offered in Hollywood, but at least it was a big part. And she’s fantastic in the film, all but blowing the nominal star, Gilda Gray, off the screen. Piccadilly is a bit slow-moving, but Dupont, a German director best known for Variety, along with DP Werner Brandes and production designer Alfred Junge, make sure it’s a consistent eyeful, even when the beautiful Wong is offscreen. A bonus--Charles Laughton, making his film debut, appears in the small but amusing role of a demanding nightclub patron.--John Calhoun
Anna May Wong in Piccadilly. Photo: Milestone Film & Video.
The Mysteries, at Classic Stage Company, provides a kind of bifurcated theatrical view of Holy Scripture. Act I, drawn from the medieval York and Wakefield cycles, focuses on stories from the Old Testament; the tone is simple, reverent, reflecting an almost proletarian point of view. Act II, a compilation of short plays by the likes of Dario Fo and Mikhail Bulkagov, is modern, tough-minded (at times scathing), and intellectual in its outlook. It makes for a bracing theatrical omnibus, a refreshingly intelligent and honest look at these timeless stories and the tremendous influence they still exert, even in this skeptical age.
Brian Kulick’s production is, in many ways, typical of his work—visually arresting, filled with gripping staging ideas, with less attention paid to getting a unified style out of his company of actors. Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad: The story of Noah is a slapstick riot, with a series of well-deployed buckets of water aimed at the shrewish Mrs. Noah. The sequence in which Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac is deeply unsettling, even with its happy ending. The second-act Crucifixion is simply stunning in its impact—watching it, one is reminded of the brouhaha surrounding Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic, yet here the tale of Christ’s death is given a modern twist and indelibly rendered using the simplest of means. My favorites in the cast include Bill Buell as Noah, Michael Stuhlbarg as Christ, and Sam Tsoutsouvas as a rather urbane Old Testament deity.
The Mysteries. Photo: Dixie Sheridan.
Mark Wendland’s setting, a series of long tables placed on a bed of hay, with a rather dramatically rigged array of lamps, is remarkably flexible. Kevin Adams’ lighting is enormously inventive in the first act, a little less so after that, which is entirely appropriate to the needs of the text. Mattie Ullrich’s costumes are heavy on woolens and tweeds, and have the right working-class ambiance. Darron West’s sound effects are helpful in demarcating the piece’s shifting styles. The Mysteries may not be a perfect production, but cheers to CSC for tackling this material and providing us with one of the most unique shows in town.--David Barbour