Dec 15, 2012

Battle Scars

(photo by Scott Landis)
Incredibly busy at the moment, but I'll take a moment to point you to my latest review, of a particularly high-profile Broadway property:
There’s a classic bit of advice for actors: Walk into the audition thinking of yourself as the solution to the director’s problem; be that solution and you’ve got the part. Closing the deal is a steeper challenge for the cutthroat salesmen in David Mamet’s 1983 masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, now getting a gripping if lopsided Broadway revival starring Al Pacino. The customers these salesmen go after—mostly offstage, with one telling exception—must be convinced they have a problem in the first place, one that only a costly real estate investment can solve. The salesmen’s job, then, is to hunt for signs of vulnerability, of weakness, in their fellow men, to isolate and circle the victims, then pounce without mercy. The dramatic irony of their situation, though, is that this rapacity doesn’t harden them; instead, their extreme sensitivity to human frailty, even though it’s used for exploitive ends, seems to have shredded their nerves and wrecked their composure. These are by and large an oddly fearful and touchy bunch, as if their worst nightmare is to become marks themselves.

Hence the itchy, sweaty, sweary back-and-forth that constitutes the trademark Mametspeak, which is closer to a music than a language.
Read the whole thing here.

Dec 10, 2012

History, Decentered

If Lincoln improves upon reflection, it is partly because it inspires reflection at all. That may sound like a low bar—there are plenty of subpar entertainments that may get stuck in our heads for the wrong reasons, like evil pop earworms—but in this case, though I found the film of uneven quality, I must credit its ambitious scope and intelligence for the quality of the reflections it's prompted, and certainly hardly only from me but from a wide range of smart folks who know a lot better about the issues it raises, and have prompted still further reflection on my part.

Yes, I've read the lefty takedowns of the film's treatment of the radical abolitionists, most notably Aaron Bady's, and I've followed the back-and-forth led by my favorite thinker on the Civil War, Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was most intrigued, though, by the suggestion that Spielberg and Kushner, far from cribbing or dumbing down received wisdom about the 13th amendment fight that is the film's narrative engine, may have actually advanced a novel and historically grounded argument about Lincoln's arguable motivations that adds to our understanding of the period. Who'da thunk it?)

Much of this criticism boils down to a problematic if totally understandable kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking—a line of critique that "proper" culture critics are supposed to refrain from, in which they don't so much give their opinion of the work as it stands but instead offer their prescriptions for the story the artists should have told. From experts whose field is overlapped by a hugely influential film claiming some degree of historical authority, this kind of feedback is valid enough as far as it goes. My problems with the film, though, had less to do with the film Spielberg and Kushner didn't make than the one they did. And most of my issues could be filed in the familiar Spielberg-as-manipulator complaint file. It's not a position I resort to reflexively—I found Schindler's List, for example, almost entirely beyond reproach on this front—but it's reaction I often couldn't avoid. To give one example, in the pivotal scene of Thaddeus Stevens' capitulation, the great egalitarian, played endearingly by Tommy Lee Jones as a kindly bear in a flesh suit, is seen to temper his views on racial equality for a utilitarian end. There's a sharp subsequent scene in which he explains his actions, quite convincingly, to an indignant colleague, which should have sufficed to let us know that Stevens was at peace with the wisdom of his decision. But during the speech itself, Spielberg can't leave well enough alone; he must instead show us faces that are first shocked, then sagely approving, as Stevens' allies "get" his larger point.

There was also, for all the film's fine-grained detail and historical intellect, a perhaps inevitable prestige-historical-picture haze about too much of it (we might finger John Williams' score here, though I think it's only a symptom of the aesthetic cul-de-sac the film fails to avoid too often). Daniel Day Lewis' magisterial performance may be more aptly called a work of sculpture than of portraiture, with both the three-dimensionality and the cold surface that implies; there were at least a few scenes too many whose point seemed to be to show Lincoln's forlorn retreat to his distant interior depths, the place where are made the hard decisions beyond the ken of mere mortals.

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury talking with David Krut about the art of William Kentridge; video courtesy of Soho Rep's Feed

One well-worn line of critique about historical dramas is the question of not only who gets to tell the stories, but more broadly around whom the "great" stories are centered. It's to Corey Robin's credit, for instance, that, while he shares many of Bady's critiques of the film from the left, he recognizes the extent to which Lincoln "decenters" the 16th president from the story of emancipation—an all the more striking and subversive achievement given the film's title and its clear framing as a kind of Great Man of History drama.

I thought of these issues of historical representation in a new way, though, while watching Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 at Soho Rep (now extended through Dec. 16). Sensationally staged by Eric Ting and fiercely acted by a six-member ensemble, for me the piece's unique achievement is to situate us in the fraught space between parable and documentary, and to interrogate our motives for retelling the past's horrors—for reliving them vicariously, through nonfiction theater and the essential interpretive fictions it accrues.

Taking a not-widely-known colonial genocide as her subject, Drury seeks both to honor its specificity, to treat it not as a "rehearsal Holocaust" (the perpetrators were Germans) but as an irreducibly particular atrocity in itself, and to widen the lens and ask who by rights should tell such a story, and by what artistic means. Does it make sense merely to present a prosecutorial case against a clear crime that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can all too easily deplore? Or should we be asked to consider, even cathartically inhabit, the dilemma the perpetrators felt they faced? And if we do manage that dubious feat, where do we go from there? This is thorny stuff, given vibrant, unsettling stage life, and most impressively, in a seemingly freewheeling but tightly controlled form that mimics a piece of ensemble-devised theater as well or better than many actually ensemble-devised pieces (without the benefit of a program, my wife found it hard to believe it had been written by one woman rather than by the six actors themselves).

We Are Proud To Present... certainly prompted as much reflection as Lincoln did, with the added benefit of also being viscerally involving in the moment in a way the film simply wasn't for me. I couldn't help thinking of another provocative, historically minded meta-play, a tendentious analogue between the Weimar Republic and Reagan America called A Bright Room Called Day, staged nearly 30 years ago in a tiny Chelsea theater by its own promising young writer. That upstart's name was Tony Kushner. In sum, as much as I have come to admire the eminently admirable Lincoln, I look forward to the day when our great stories are in the capable hands of another generation of storytellers.