Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies (2009)

Ha! I’ve been fussing at the old rosary of whether activist drama has any usefulness whatsoever, and then I stumble across this play in which the author shrewdly avoids the need to answer that question by instead simply stating it. It’s an exquisitely and numbingly honest setup: Two idealists are racked with doubt about their ability to change the world. Making themselves and each other miserable. One of them decides to just give up. The other one decides to just keep trying. They both remain racked with doubt and miserable. The end!

This is a great example to pull out when you hear someone complaining that such and such a movie, novel, play, etc. is “formulaic.” Life is formulaic!

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Red Cliff, John Woo (2008-2009)

What do you do on days when the dictates of the medical industrial complex and/or your own rebellious body require you to spend the entire day on the sofa? I watch movies, and the best kind of movies to watch on these days must meet two criteria: They need to be very engaging and accessible; and they need to be really, really long. I used to deploy Tora! Tora! Tora! for this purpose on a fairly regular basis, but I’ve seen it too many times, so I went with this. If you get the Asian release, it comes in two parts, it’s more than four hours long, and it totally does the trick.

Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1991, 1993, 1995)

A very stolid, very British trilogy set during WWI, concerned less with the fighting itself than with its cultural, social, and psychological ramifications. I enjoyed reading this, but looking back it seems to me more like a particularly informative and well-designed museum exhibit than a work of art. I learned a lot and enjoyed myself, but I wasn’t changed. I feel misanthropic saying that, because it’s really very well done, but there it is.

One more grouchy but true comment. The jacket copy goes on about how these are antiwar novels. This is not true. The books feature many antiwar characters, both historical and fictitious, but the spirit of the enterprise is clearly one which values most stiff upper lips, heroism, willingness to kill, allegiance to comrades and country, and all that.

Actually, when I really get thinking about it, these books are kind of rotten. Barker presents us with a large group of vivid and sympathetic characters, all of whom are opposed to the war in one way or another, and all of whom are marked by self-doubt, moral failings, and various other weaknesses. By the end, though, all the books’ heroes have sucked it up and gotten on with being soldiers, and it’s pretty clear we’re supposed to be proud of them.

I might feel differently again tomorrow, but just now I’m kind of thinking these are really kind of pernicious!

Ruined, Lynn Nottage (2009)

The use of rape as an instrument of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most horrific ongoing crises in the world today. Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey traveled to the DRC and heard the stories of many rape victims first-hand. Nottage used this material to write this play, which Whoriskey directed.

I can think of few other examples of works of art which so vividly demonstrate the problem of the representation of human depravity. That problem being that on the one hand, one wishes to see terrible crimes brought to light, in hopes that once exposed they will be ended and punished, but on the other hand one despairs to see the indescribably horrible described, since any such description inevitably minimizes the scope of the crime.

Nottage’s play succeeds for me in theory, because it draws attention to a crisis which is not receiving enough attention. But it fails in practice, because it turns that crisis into a narrative, with types for characters and a classic Freytag pyramid for a plot, and so provides a coherence, structure, catharsis, and sense of resolution which the reality in the Congo does not possess.

I’ve been asking this question of myself for twenty years, and I know I sound like a broken record, a whiny American bourgeois, a useless intellectual who would have been shipped out on the first train to the pig farms during the Cultural Revolution, but the question persists regardless, namely, how does the politically-engaged artist ensure that the audience won’t feel they’ve already done something to help just by experiencing the art?

Enron, Lucy Prebble (2009)

Can you tell I’m trying to find a play or two to use for my “Uses of History” course this fall?

It seems clear that Prebble’s play loses more than most by just being read on the page rather than seen on the stage, since apparently the production itself is a real extravaganza of dance, music, zippy high-tech effects, and so on. Spectacle is no doubt an appropriate mode for this story, which is all about the use of smoke and mirrors to occlude reality. The play itself is loose and lively, with lots of fast-paced short scenes stitched together, rather than long lugubrious capital-D dramatic scenes. I’d have to see it to say much more, but this seems to me a promising mode for coping with the problems of depicting historical realities on stage.

In my comments on David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, I opened up a little vein regarding Anglo/American relations as played out, so to speak, through the vector of theater. Add this to that, filed under Interesting and Unexplained: Prebble’s play was a smash hit in London but absolutely bombed when it moved to Broadway. Thoughts?

Taken, Pierre Morel (2008)

I knew it! I knew it! I watched fifteen minutes of this and knew Luc Besson had to be behind it. One brooding, incredibly kick-ass super-spy assassin dude. One ingenuous giggling Lolita. Squads upon squads of horrible hairy criminals lining up to be stabbed, garroted, etc. Emasculated French bureaucrats. It’s got to be Luc Besson! And sure enough, there he is, with top writing credit. I’ve written before about how relentlessly creepy this dude is. This one had me positively giggling at how much of his twisted slip is showing. Ex-CIA strongman’s impossibly girlish (the girl wears clothes in toddler-bright patterns, and literally skips instead of walking) 17 year old daughter goes to Paris, where she is immediately abducted by swarthy Albanian human traffickers. Of course–happens all the time, right? The very next day, the girl’s friend and traveling companion has already been hooked on heroin and chained to a whorehouse mattress, but because she is a virgin–Besson has taken care to let us know that the friend has already been deflowered, while daddy’s girl remains pure as snow–our girl is sold at an auction (which appears to take place in the same mansion where the masked ball is held in Eyes Wide Shut) to a–c’mon, you can guess this–hook-nosed Arab sheik who enjoys raping virgins on his yacht. Do you think daddy will arrive in time to save his milky-skinned baby girl from the sheik’s warty scimitar?

It strikes me this is kind of a Daisy Miller story.

It would be fun, and not terribly time-consuming, to make a list of the identities available to females in Besson’s universe. There are pure innocent virgin children like this one; fallen wild whore children like la Femme Nikita; stupid middle aged cow mothers who, once they have borne their beautiful daughters, are good for nothing but vapidly following after the most powerful man they can find; and knowing world-weary sages of a certain age. I think that’s about it. Of course, that’s a few more roles than are available to men; about them Besson is very strict: you are either a killer or killed.