Dec 27, 2004

Filing From Phoenix

Finishing up what amounts to a vacation in Phoenix, AZ, my hometown, which begins to look more and more like the San Fernando Valley every year--sprawl, freeways, strip malls, white people in dependent denial about the huge Latino population around them.

It's hard to find non-Republicans here, even among folks, like an ex-Marine I spoke to, who are seriously disillusioned about the Iraq war. Why did these people vote for Bush, then? I like Josh Marshall's explanation, which makes sense particularly in light of the relative surge of post-election criticism of the administration from the right. So now they tell us? That otherwise smart conservatives chose to bite their collective lips and fall in line behind "their" man, and either sincerely believed or cynically chose to countenance obscene distortions about the admittedly rather hapless Kerry, is an outrage that puts the final nails in the coffin of the neocons' intellectual integrity. They've revealed themselves, if there remained any doubt, as party hacks to a man--OK, except perhaps this man...

Catching up with a backlog of old New Yorkers, I came across an excellent profile of Michael Frayn, the writer of my favorite political play of the moment. Unfortunately, this is the only way you can read the whole article online, but John Lahr's review more or less captures what's special about the play (and does so for its definitive London production, not the one on Broadway, which has received more mixed reviews). As for the article, which addresses both Frayn's novels and his plays, I was struck particularly by a few lucid quotes, first this one about farce:
"You refuse to let yourself identify with the characters, or feel their feelings. You reject absolutely the idea that it could be you up there, so idiotically embarrassed, so transparently mendacious... This is what gives farce its hysterical edge. Your refusal to recognize yourself has an element of violence in it... Farce is a brutally difficult form. It is also of course a despised one. In laughing at it you have lost your moral dignity, and you don't like to admit it afterwards."
This insight is all the more extraordinary because Frayn has written only one enduring farce, Noises Off--and it just happens to be the last word on the form. A similar kind of detachment, as the article points out, is almost a philosophical position for Frayn, who believes that we are essentially unknowable except by our actions and our words. This creates the tension in his best work, specifically his political work, in which good intentions and bad are hopelessly tangled up together in the inexorable complications of action and reaction. His statement on this matter could almost be a credo, nigh a theology, for the kind of political theatre I like most:
"The German playwright Freidrich Hebbel said that in a good play everyone is right. I don't suppose he meant that you had to morally approve of everyone, but I take it he meant that drama is people presenting themselves with the same force as they do in life, and feeling as justified about themselves as they do in life. If the playwright is taking sides, it's not very interesting, because in life it's not like that--there's no directorial figure, no writer, no God figure saying this guy's right and this guy's wrong. I have always tried to respect Hebbel's dictum."

...This is most definitely not the m.o. of an auteur like Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Aviator is being quite predictably over-rated, at least partly for not being as operatically excruciating as The Gangs of New York, and centrally for playing so nicely and neatly into the hands of awards voters. This is classy awards bait, certainly, but it's got that prestige stink all over it. Its homages to Welles' Citizen Kane are obvious and only slightly embarrassing (Howard Hughes' anti-Rosebud is "quarantine"), but the film reminded me most of Coppola's modest, undistinguished, straight-arrow biopic, Tucker. Cate Blanchett's embodiment of Kate Hepburn, on the other hand, is quite justly being over-praised; it's among the movie's few signs of real, pulsing life and glamour, and as such throws it way out of balance--it dawned on me about an hour in that this wasn't a Kate Hepburn biopic, and that I sorely wished it were.

Still, I look forward to the New Beverly's inevitable revival pairing of The Aviator and Melvin and Howard...

Finally, here is a link to my most recent theatre review. Tomorrow: Back to the City of Angels.

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