Saturday, February 06, 2010

FILM: Los Abrazos Rotos

In his latest film Los Abrazos Rotos, director Pedro Almodóvar at times channels Alfred Hitchcock, and at other times, Luis Buñuel. The opening scene, a macro close-up on a single eye, is an explicit homage to Un Chien Andalou, and a tantalizing tip to film theorists that Almodóvar is going to artfully play with the theme of seeing and film. The main character is a famous film director who has lost his sight, as well as the love of his life, in a car accident. And one of the most stunningly beautiful visual scenes in this film is of the blind man "reading" the pixels in a grainy video of his last film as if it were braille. Layers of seeing and watching and filming are fascinatingly woven in this strange tale about a film being made, and the filming of the filming, part of which includes the secret surveillance by a jealous husband of his aspiring actress wife, which leads to the Hitchcock elements. While full of arty references that film theory students will eat up, this is no plotless Brakhage or Warhol film. There is an intriguing film noir plot of an affair abruptly ended by a suspicious death that may have been a murder, and there are some great Hitchcockian car scenes, suspenseful without any actual chase, just a creepy feeling of being watched. The plot lies buried in the blind man's past, and Almodovar lets it gently and mysteriously unfold, as we get to know his characters, all brilliantly cast: Lluís Homar as the haunted blind director Mateo Blanco (who forsook his name when he lost his sight and his love); Blanca Portillo as Judit García, his editor/manager and unrequited lover; Penélope Cruz as Lena, his passionate lover and not-very-talented star of his last film. The film within the film (and the filming of the film within the film) is used to great effect, without becoming too gimmicky. At times, the line between the inner film and reality blurs. There is a great scene when Lena's jealous husband is watching a soundless videotape of his wife making the film, as a hired lip-reader tells him what people are saying; then as Lena addresses the camera directly, the real Lena enters the room behind him and speaks the lines that her on-screen picture is enunciating. While the film was a bit slow to get going, I was thoroughly drawn in by the end with these intriguing characters, the mysterious story threads tying them all together, and the artful filmmaking.

Friday, February 05, 2010

BOOKS: The Post-American World

I came across this book in an unusual way. I received an email from someone who regularly sends me the worst right-wingnut scare rumors, and this particular email was all panty-twisted over a photo of President Obama holding a book which, upon closer look had the title "The Post-American World", and it was written by a Muslim! "See," the email howled with horror, "look what Obama is reading! He really is part of a secret Muslim cabal intent on destroying America!" Being appropriately sceptical of such emails, I looked a bit closer and made out the partly-obscured name of the Muslim-terrorist author of this evil tome: Fareed Zakaria, international editor for Newsweek, and a widely respected expert on foreign policy. I immediately added the title to my list of books to read. So glad I did.

His provocative title, it turns out, is not about the fall of America, so muc as it is about the "rise of the rest". The book is a shrewd analysis of how America's role as the world's sole superpower is inevitably going to be soon eclipsed by China and India, and what that will and won't mean. I'd never read Zakaria before, but I found him to be tremendously insightful, as well as very knowledgeable. The book is eye-opening in its quantification and qualification of the rise of China and India (as well as other countries), but at the same time it is reassuring in its assessment that the surpassing of the US economy need not be the catastrophe many may fear. In fact, he cites Roosevelt's dictum that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Our worst possible policy choices in reaction to the rise of the rest of the world would be ones based on a fearful retrenchment into protectionism and isolation. Our best possible policy choices continue to embrace open trade and immigration, key drivers that have advanced America and can continue to do so. He compares and contrasts the present US situation not to Rome (as is so often done), but to the British Empire in its decline, which given where Britain is today was obviously not the end of the world. He offers some interesting observations about military might versus the soft power of legitimacy and being a center of ideas and innovation. And he had some interesting insights into econometrics, noting that our current measures of savings and consumption are based on an industrial economy. For example, spending on research and development, or a college education, gets measured as consumption, when it's really more of an investment, especially an in information economy.

I came away from this book feeling more realistic and also more optimistic about the future for America. And also very glad that our President is reading books like this one.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

STAGE: Camelot

I was raised on show tunes from a young age, and as a kid I can remember listening to my folks' reel-to-reel tapes, especially the great Lerner and Lowe musicals like Camelot and My Fair Lady. I'd never seen Camelot on the stage, and so when I heard that the Pasadena Playhouse was putting it up, I wanted to go see it. Then when I read that the Pasadena Playhouse -- beautiful historic theatre that has put up some truly great productions over the years -- was closing due to financial difficulties, I immediately went out to get tickets. That just added a whole layer of meaning to the experience, to see this play about the fateful demise of a wonderful ideal, as the very theatre was experiencing its own demise.

Not having seen any other productions of Camelot, I can't compare this one, but I found it utterly charming and moving. The set was simple and spare, a series of wooden poles and platforms, and the ensemble of eight players began the play in a self-conscious "we're about to tell you a story, so please indulge us with your imagination" manner (actually rather Shakespearean), and also a touch of self-deprecating humor -- "there was a majestic castle on a hill" as a picture of a castle is noisly unfurled and hung on one of the poles; "it was snowing" as an actress arches an eyebrow while tossing a handful of torn paper in the air. The self-conscious stuff added a nice laugh here and there, but was a light touch, and not overdone. The cast was terrific. Shannon Warne (Guinevere) reminded me of mezzo diva Jennifer Larmore, with a beautiful and powerful voice that glimmered like sunshine, and with a confident charm that commanded the stage. I think she could have got most every guy in the audience to joust against Lancelot for her! Shannon Stoeke (Arthur) did a marvelous job being a tentative idealistic boy-king in the beginning, maturing into a strong man with the conviction of his ideals even when it was torture for him to do so. Doug Carpenter brought a swaggering bearing and a rich deep baritone to realize the unself-consciously pompous Lancelot. The other three fun-loving knights and that deliciously wicked Mordred were all finely enacted too, rounding out a great ensemble. The director did a great job balancing the tone of the play, mostly light and charming with emotionally powerful moments. The climax at the end of Act I was particularly powerful, with Arthur making a desperate, passionate recommitment to his ideals, and then the breathtaking reveal of Lance and Jenny, naked in each other's arms. That was brilliant theatre. And of course I was totally charmed (as well as filled with warm nostalgic feeling) for the brilliant music and lyrics of Lerner and Lowe.

I was sad to see the show end, and sad to see the theatre close. I hope that they will be able to stage a comeback, and that the "(not so) brief shining moment" that was the Pasadena Playhouse will be the "once and future" stage.