Category Archives: cd
‘KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME,’ a Brilliant, Heartfelt Documentary by the Director of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is perhaps one of the most insightful novelists and humorists of the twentieth-twenty-first century. Robert B. Weide, whose funny bone and fascination with great comedians (he won awards for his work on his documentaries about Lennie Bruce and W.C. Fields) found him helping Larry David launch Curb Your Enthusiasm which he then directed the first five years of the show, winning awards.
That Weide adored Vonnegut as a teenager and was influenced in his career by Vonnegut’s sardonic humor and philosophical, dire wisdom that translated into crazy characters and sci-fi-like plots, seems a no brainer; for at heart, Vonnegut, like all comedians creates humor and irony from soul hell and torment. Where Weide stands out from the rest of the Vonnegut acolytes is that early on in his struggling career, he contacted Vonnegut expressing interest in making a documentary about his hero. When Vonnegut accepted, Weide began the long journey (almost 40 years) to get the film made.
However, like much of what we experience in life, it is the journey that is paramount, and for both Vonnegut and Weide, the journey of working together, connecting and becoming friends seemed to be the most vital enjoyment of their collaboration. That eventually, Weide was able to sift through the mounds of Vonnegut pictures, family films, Weide interviews with family, and Vonnegut on trains and in cars and taking stock of the video clips of his speaking tours to cobble together a noteworthy and maverick film about Vonnegut’s life, will be treasured by fans and newbees alike.
Most importantly, the film introduces an entirely new generation of ironists and satirists to Vonnegut’s soulful miseries turned into sardonic social commentary. Vonnegut always found the human comedy of politics, cultural idiocies and their attendant propaganda pushers cannon fodder for his word bazookas. Weide, who wrote and produced the film and co-directed it with Don Argott, with his editing team, selected the most salient Vonnegut quotes from his works and interspersed them with clips of his videoed tours to pepper a chronicle of Vonnegut’s life in a back and forth circular narration. When useful, Weide has Sam Waterson read some of the quotes from the novels, etc. The rendering is enthralling and what emerges is the everyman that even the most jaded of nihilists will find themselves agreeing with, despite themselves.
What makes the film extraordinary is that in becoming so familiar with his subject, Weide’s conveyance to present him is as a documentary in a documentary. In structure, it becomes downright Vonnegutesque. Vonnegut continually interrupted the flow of action in some of his novels by interjecting the writer’s voice, indeed, perhaps his alter ego in an absurd fashion as we see in drawings in Breakfast of Champions.
Likewise, Weide interrupts his Vonnegut chronicle to interject his thoughts about Vonnegut and his own life in making the documentary. Weide parallels the time period of his life with his ongoing interviews and communications with Vonnegut, critics and his children. He acts almost as an apologist would in averring and showing why it took him so long to make the film. What I find so memorable is that we see both men aging into success and/or the next stages of their lives. It is ironic that now, after his death, Vonnegut is turning over a new chapter in having his legacy brought forth once more; interestingly, though not a lot of fans followed him here, though he never left off writing. With his revitalized legacy in Weide’s film, he will be rediscovered, discovered, read and reread, and appreciated or damned for his great levity and sage quips and droll, nightmare plot scenarios…and his essays and short stories.
As a writer I found the documentary in a documentary structure intriguing and rather tongue-in cheek. It twits the documentary genre because Weide makes it very clear that he is completely enamored of this great social satirist and writer and thrilled that he was his friend. That intimacy and revelation was Weide’s choice and at one point, he also makes it clear that with all that he has put into this film, there is much more that was left out, i.e. the personal moments that happened between the two friends.
Rather than to point out all of the aspects of the Vonnegut chronicle, which Weide seems to leave no stone unturned in Vonnegut’s life, he shows the arc of Vonnegut’s career influences and development. Weide jumps around which makes the documentary intriguing, as he makes connections with his own insights and life, then jumps back and forth, past to present to past to current time. Superb. None of this is in chronological order per se; it is in thematic order. For example we discover late into the film that Vonnegut’s mom committed suicide. WHAT! We get to draw the conclusions as Vonnegut discusses how they found her.
We discover how and where Vonnegut grew up, his joining the service and fighting in WWII to experience the seminal aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, Germany which haunted him for all of his life even after he attempted to expurgate it in his first novel of great success, Slaughterhouse Five. The novel, was a war story about a man who’d become “unstuck in time,” with an ability to leap through life, out of time rather like the mystical experience Vonnegut explains he had in Germany when he envisioned the disaster of Dresden before it happened.
Weide leads us to discover how he developed his humor and social insights about technology; his brother with whom he was close was a world class scientist, forward thinking and forward moving. At times Vonnegut lived hand to mouth after he worked in the GE empire in Schenectady and left it because writing copy was nullifying. But his first wife encouraged him to write fiction; he supported himself writing short stories in the hey day of short story writers, for magazines like Colliers, until TV came and the market dried up. A key turning point in his life and career was the death of his sister and his brother-in-law. He accepted responsibility for taking in their four sons and raising them in a house of chaos. The interviews with Vonnegut’s children are priceless.
Vonnegut’s struggles were the nerve-wracking journey that ended in bankruptcy and forced the family to move and Vonnegut to teach to make some money until he struck gold with Slaughterhouse Five, became a celebrity, hobnobbed with famous writers and divorced his wife, though he stayed close to his three children. In the republication of the novels he wrote before Slaughterhouse Five, he earned enough money to be comfortable, if not happy; indeed, he became more ironic and annoyed and wrote about it with less success and popularity which he never returned to after the 1970s. It was around this time that Weide found him and the interviews with Vonnegut, his children and noted writers and friends and Vonnegut’s novel writing and speaking engagements continued, though his popularity waned. Interestingly, they collaborated on a film based on Vonnegut’s Mother Night, which was hugely unsuccessful.
Though some critics of the film find it distracting that Weide interjects himself in the film with their relationship, I found the clips profound. Weide is revealing the decades long influence Vonnegut had upon his life and career. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons that Weide even made the film at all; to get down as much as he could that fans would appreciate, for they understand Vonnegut’s profound influence. Yet, in what Weide left out, only he will be reminded of the most vital and personal portions he alone experienced, that he keeps as a treasure to himself. For those who don’t like Vonnegut, it’s a ho hum. For fans, their relationship humanizes Vonnegut who had clay feet after his divorce and falling off the Best Seller lists into a kind of writer celebrity oblivion.
However, as one does acknowledge with close friends, all of it, even what might be the little insignificances are important. And enough of the personal intimacies come through between Weide and Vonnegut and his family (smoking a Pall Mall cigarette with his daughter en memoriam) that I found myself broken-hearted that I got to experience Vonnegut in a new way, and that he left this planet and I was too caught up in my own life to stop a moment and reflect about his books and why they so moved me at the time. Though I was a great Vonnegut fan in college, I stopped reading him, put off by his son’s “revelations” about himself and his father.
For me and for others, Weide’s film opens up a new door to appreciate Vonnegut the social critic and voice of thunder railing against the worst of human ills. And we get to appreciate the how and why he was who he was, an American man who carved a place for himself in the minds of individuals to influence their thinking philosophically. For that alone this film is vitally current. Vonnegut fits with our time even more so than the time that found him resonant.
KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME is available in theaters and on VOD
VIEW TRAILER HERE.
The Lost Leonardo directed by Andreas Koefoed and written by Duska Zagorac, Mark Monroe, Andreas Dalsgaard, Christian Kirk Muff and Andreas Koefoed. The film is a fascinating documentary that delves into the nail biting discovery of the painting Salvator Mundi (a portrait of Jesus) that was ill-used, in ragged condition and an obscurity for decades or centuries depending upon what you believe. It was sold for a mere $1,175 in 2005 by New Orleans auctioneers who didn’t really pay much attention to provenance or the possibility of its potential greatness. However, purchasers who hunt for sleepers (undiscovered renowned works) thought it might have value. They wanted it to be restored with the intention of reselling it. How lovely if it slipped under the radar of the New Orleans merchants who were not schooled in high Renaissance art. Finders keepers and all that!
Thus begins the journey of a painting that remains a mystery to this day and has been examined, pawed over and quibbled about by some of the most prestigious art galleries, museums and their curators in the world. Like a well-heeled detective, Andreas Koefoed cobbles together the video clips of individuals who pondered over, investigated and worked on the Salvator Mundi. He also interviews art critics, museum curators, experts, scholars, art historians, investigative journalists, the Founder of the FBI Art Crime Team and shady art dealer businessmen who profit off of billionaires who purchase such costly works privately or at auction. These wealthy could care less if the provenance is in question as long as the perception remains that it is authentic. They do this in order to bury their money in the painting purchase which hides a record of their wealth from the pernicious eyes of tax collectors.
The adventure Koefoed embarks on is thrilling, and he unspools the clues like a master mystery writer. The chase of whether this work is truly the “lost Leonardo” keeps one enthralled. However, there is no conclusive finality and uncertainty reigns with every word his subjects use to speak about the painting.
Perhaps conceived with hope initial buyers Alexander Parrish, sleeper hunter, and his friend Robert Simon (an old masters paintings expert) fantasized about what the Mundi was and who painted it. They acted on their conceptualizations, and to satisfy the curiosity of their wallets, they brought the Mundi to top art restorer Dianne Modestini who had partnered with a spot-on expert recently deceased, from whom she had learned. With his assistance, over the years, she had gained expertise and knowledge restoring fine paintings.
As Modestini worked on the Salvator Mundi, she nearly fainted examining the mouth of the figure in the painting. The Salvator Mundi‘s similarities around the right side of the upper lip resembled that of the Mona Lisa. The more she worked, the more she concluded that only one individual could paint in this way: Leonardo da Vinci. As time progressed, the Salvator Mundi in verbal shorthand is referred to by ironist art critics as the male Mona Lisa.
Only eight known paintings are globally attributed to the Renaissance master who was “forward thinking” by about 500 years; among his papers are drawings of space ships and underwater submersibles. He was a scientist, painter, mathematician, inventor and all-around genius. However, that this is a “da Vinci” turning up at auction, like a ghost from the backwaters around New Orleans, remains as implausible and incredulous to some global art experts as unicorns are to empiricists. And these scholars are prepared to deny the work’s authenticity as are those experts who are prepared to defend it to the death as a Leonardo. Belief and faith in the power of money trumps any concern about whether it is a fake that a highly skilled genius painter tossed off and was happy to get some money for.
The problem with any work of fine art, is to establish the provenance and period when it was painted based upon the artist’s technique, any underpainting, the chemicals used to mix the paint as well as the chemical composition of the pigments. Art restorer Dianne Modestini affirms on pain of death that the Salvator Mundi, which sold in 2017 for a record-setting $450 million, is the “lost Leonardo” based upon her understanding of the demonstrated technique and brush strokes.
On the other hand, art critic Jerry Salz who is knowledgeable about the corruption embracing high art sales, auction houses and art galleries who benefit from them is the receptacle of a vast skepticism about the Mundi. Saltz’s demonstrated wisdom is not to be underestimated. Indeed, the art industry has been taken over like other arts industries, for example theater, by the philistines. When money is concerned, auction houses and dealers allow the presence of fakes to take a backseat to money, power and the perception of authenticity, backed by lucid, clairvoyant analyses and explanations.
If you can get away with billionaires offering you hefty sums for works they believe to be authentic, but may not be, who is hurt? If the billionaires are squirreling away their treasures for the purpose of tax evasion in Freeports (tax free airport storage, above the law of all countries) no one will see these fakes anyway and the benefiting institution and billionaire are content. By the time they may have to sell them at a loss, most probably they’ve made twice as much in their corrupt enterprises in the interim. These rich guys are good for art; they are easier than the overhead of collecting subscriber donations and the hard work of charitable fund raising galas to run galleries and museums sometimes at a loss.
An additional factor to consider as to why the allure of wealthy anonymous buyers is so great for the art industry is that running public museums and private art galleries, one must pay exorbitant insurance costs and for security to prevent the little people from thieving works off the walls and reselling it to rich clients who can only display them privately. Better that the art dealers, auction houses and galleries contract with these billionaires who risk purchasing fakes which will most likely be kept in locked rooms in their mansions, Freeports, villas or one of their 15 million-dollar condos neatly situated in favored cities around the world.
The only ones concerned about fakes are the renowned public museums with a rich history of standing by their experts’ knowledge, respected institutions like the Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum. They do not take kindly to displaying fakes or works that are questionable alongside their incredible proven treasures. And perhaps millionaires who don’t have the money to burn on fakes might be concerned. Other than that, billionaires have entered the art world and they are a sure thing for art dealers and auction houses.
In this amazingly instructive film about the upper classes and the corruption of geopolitical wealth, the filmmaker and writers launch off into three thematic threads emphasizing the concept at work which is the “game.” Sectioning off three segments to keep our understanding regular, he amasses a tremendous amount of research in video interviews, archived photos of works and voice overs. These are structured as the “Art Game,” the “Money Game” and the “World Game.”
It is in this discussion of how art is a game, we begin to understand the shadowy dark money world that fuels fakes and authentic pieces alike. Clearly, the filmmaker reveals that one doesn’t engage in this game naively or without experience and circumspection or you will be taken and regret it. How well can you play the game? How well can you game the auction houses and art dealers? How thoroughly can you game yourself?
If you (like the Russian oligarch who purchased the Salvator Mundi from a French Freeport owner are stuffing away your potential fake in Freeport storage units, then art is a safe, untraceable transaction far from Interpol or Vladimir Putin. As an investment it is unrecorded in any bank unless it’s the safely corrupt Cyprus Bank which deals with foreign transactions from corrupt leaders, and practices money laundering.
Such art has no significance to oligarchs, least of all the meaning of “the savior of the world” Salvator Mundi, which may be a joke to the oligarch or afterward MBS who purchased it anonymously as revealed by the FBI art crime bureau. If you truly care about seeing the Mona Lisa or a work of Rembrandt, then the corruption of viewing a fake is monstrous. The reason why the public purchases memberships in museums and donates millions is because they believe what they view is the “real deal.” The fiasco with the sales of the Salvator Mundi and its dubious authentication based on faith has exposed the art industry’s realm of “alternative realities” and the grand con possibilities. Is it or isn’t it a fake? Only the “little people” are self-righteously outraged if what they look at are fakes hanging in the walls of prestigious museums.
Auction houses and galleries and museums have bridged the reality gap into the alternate Donald Trump/Vlad Putin universe (my intimations, not the filmmakers though it is an important theme for our time). These dealers, auction houses and their buyers justify the authenticity or value of the works they sell because they can, especially if the industry trafficks in bullshit. The honest critic or expert is unwanted then, no matter their weight in gold. These themes Andreas Koefoed raises in this profound documentary which is a sweet siren’s warning. And it gives the average museum goer the fodder to ruminate and feel rage at how art has become an untrustworthy commodity, not a historical, cultural legacy.
But billionaires don’t mind the cache that goes with owning various works, for example, MBS who was anonymous until the great reveal by the FBI. Why would the murderer of WaPo reporter Jamal Kashoggi be interested in a painting that means “the savoir of the world?” The thought of his repentance at his villainous acts of killing family and the “traitorous” reporter is laughable.
On the other hand the notoriety of buying it because he could, was alluring. Owning the painting was a way to gain acceptance and prestige. This was so much so that he enticed the curators of the Louvre that he would loan the Salvator Mundi to them as representative of the “Lost Leonardo,” the male Mona Lisa with its provenance and authenticity in doubt. They were interested, until they heard his conditions. They must hang his purchase with the clouds of fakedom wafting off it—next to the Mona Lisa. The publicity alone would be tremendous. In 2011, the UK’s National Gallery displayed the male Mona Lisa with all its warts of uncertainty so that crowds could show up and imagine it was real. For the Louvre to hang the “Male Mona Lisa” next to the “Mona Lisa” would be a validation of it, sort of like riding the Mona Lisa‘s coattails into veracity, truth and art reality.
The Louvre refused. They were not willing to display a potential fake next to their acquisition whose provenance they were certain of. And MBS, annoyed that his offer was spurned, didn’t take them up on allowing them to display the Mundi in a separate room, explaining its restoration and questionable provenance. Of course the film does not go into the irony of a MBS with all his murders on his head, owning the portrait of Christ as the “savior of the world.” It doesn’t have to. The irony is stunning as is MBS’s arrogant longing.
With the exception of museums who display art so that the public can enjoy it, this whole industry is a philistine’s game (the money lenders and buyers who trade). They could care less if David Bowie (no offense meant to this fabulous artist whom I adore) smeared some of his dung on a canvas and signed it and sold it to the highest bidder. Such was the case with Pablo Picasso who became so disgusted with the “trade” aspect of art in the hands of philistines, he used to draw on napkins at restaurants and depending upon whether he liked the wait staff or not, signed the napkin and gave it to them. In some instances, he drew it, signed it and then destroyed it as they hungrily watched. For the artist commercialization of their work is loathsome and welcome, but only if they reap the rewards in their lifetimes, which usually does not happen. However, what can be done if the vultures pick their bones clean after they’re dead and gone? No wonder Banksy rigged the shredding of his “Girl With the Baloon” after the gavel hit in an auction that garnered a record price for his work.
The Lost Leonardo presents a vital perspective of the “art industrial complex” as it were. Who decides what is great art, even if it is potentially fake and not all the experts can agree on its authenticity? The fact that it’s MBS who purchased it for (after a circuitous route of sales from $1175, to $87 million, then $127 + million) $450 million does nothing to establish its credibility. And after the National Gallery exhibited it to great celebration as a da Vinci in 2011, they mired themselves in the smut of gaming when the FBI revealed that MBS purchased it for a price which means it’s now unsaleable and unpresentable if he persists in riding on the coattails of other Leonardo paintings which he could afford, but which should not be sold to him. This is especially so after it has been proven that he ordered Kashoggi to be brutally murdered, an M.O. of his despite his vapid denials.
However, like many billionaires who remain anonymous he worked through an agent. Would the auction house have sold this work to him if they knew he was purchasing it? They know how to play the game. And as a result, they have smeared themselves and the art world with BS which is what the Dutch filmmaker subtly infers in The Lost Leonardo.
This is a film to see, if not for a good look at the painting which is mostly a restoration and therefore, is more Dianne Modestini’s effort than da Vinci’s. It finished screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Look for this beautifully edited and scripted documentary streaming on various channels or perhaps at your favorite Indie theater after its release on 13 of August. Don’t miss this Sony Pictures Classic if you love art and are interested in learning more about the specious and scurrilous art traffickers which unfortunately find dueling interests with renowned museums who cannot afford works of art, after the traffickers bid the works to obscene heights.
The World Premiere of All These Sons directed by Oscar-nominated Bing Liu (Minding the Gap) currently screens in Documentary Competition at Tribeca Film Festival. Also, the film is the feature debut of award-winning editor Joshua Altman. Accordingly, to catch this extraordinarily heartfelt work celebrating Tribeca’s twentieth year, make sure to screen it by 20 of June the festival’s end date.
One cannot help but become involved with the young men, their mentors and guides that Bing Liu shadows and interviews in this intimate portrait about two Chicago programs designed to help black communities. Uniquely dedicated to social and personal responsibility, the programs target the South and West sides of Chicago. And they particularly address gun violence. Bing Liu’s portrait is a timely and in depth perspective showing how individuals in these black communities work to re-educate, empower and heal young at-risk black men.
For decades Chicago’s gun and gang violence on the South and West sides garnered national headlines. Sadly, the terrible fact remains that the city government attacks the problem in a limited fashion. First they beef up the aggressive policing measures. Second, the police practice tough enforcement rules. Does police brutality occur? Of course as police use necessary force, sometimes ignoring excessive force which tips over into brutality. Unfortunately, abuses benefit no one. And they create divisions in an already wounded community.
By targeting those who have little opportunity to escape violent neighborhoods, the troubles circle and repeat. Violence never mitigates violence. Instead, it creates hopelessness. Indeed, oftentimes, such short-sighted plans exacerbate violence, a condition that brought Chicagoans to the current state of affairs.
Embedding themselves, Bing Liu and his team shadow two community members who introduce them to the troubled neighborhoods and the programs that help mitigate violence. Billy Moore of Iman and Marshall Hatch, Jr of Maafa, lead effective programs with tremendous effort, love and care. Throughout, filmmakers enlighten us to Moore’s and Hatch, Jr.’s backstory and the backgrounds of those under their care. Indeed, Moore and Hatch, Jr.’s lives qualify them for this work. Having once been on the other end of violence, they know the score and hold nothing back to win over those in their programs.
As the filmmakers view group sessions, personal counseling and interview Moore and Hatch Jr., we understand how Iman and Maafa create a safe space. Ironically, the at-risk youth constantly look over their shoulders for gang vengeance to knock on their doors. Drive-bys in violent neighborhoods kill the innocent and the guilty. Throughout the documentary, we understand that these young men have either killed, been in jail or have lost loved ones as the casualties of turf wars and revenge.
The documentarians approach their research revealing a flare for ethnography. Powerfully, the subjects show how they attempt to change the conditions that produce gun deaths. Thus, the programs select those young men most at risk of being a victim or perpetrator. Before their acceptance, participants must dig deep. Finally, examining their fears and justifications, the young men confront the traumas in their own lives that perpetuate violence.
When Bing Liu and Joshua Altman in cinema verite style follow Charles, Zay and Shamont as they confront their former identities to carve out new personas, we hook into the poignancy and humanity of the process. Realizing the benefit of their own honesty with themselves, participants thrive. Interestingly, they begin to make life-affirming choices. Of course, the daily fight requires they stick with the program and adhere to their mentor’s guidance. If they accomplish this difficult task, they will construct a better future for generations to come. Indeed, their hopefulness and sensitivity redefines and stops them from acting like violent stereotypes. Kudos to the filmmakers for their unfiltered, raw perspective of the participants’ stories. Bing LIu’s honest rendering reveals Charles’, Zay’s and Shamont’s vulnerability, authenticity and will to transform themselves.
All These Sons (a reference to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons) grabs one’s heart and emotions. Indeed, this occurs because Bing Liu and Joshua Altman allow us to hear and see these young men working hard against the cycle they could easily fall back into. Theirs remains a testimony for our time that change can happen. The filmmakers and all subjects in the film relay their powerful message with the faith that fewer may be lost than if the Iman and Maafa didn’t exist.
Finally, this documentary provides a viewpoint rarely seen. It focuses on its participants who speak their truth clearly, succinctly. As a result their bravery and courage to do the hard work of transformation shines.
All These Sons screens in the Documentary Competition category at Tribeca Film Festival 2021. Check for tickets and times by clicking HERE.
Shapeless, in the Midnighter category at Tribeca Film Festival like its title, remains fairly opaque if one doesn’t recognize the signs of Ivy’s (Kelly Murtagh) illness early on. Cleverly directed by Samantha Aldana and written by Kelly Murtagh and Bryce Parsons-Twesten, the film premiered at Tribeca in the “Midnight” category. Thus, this review will provide no spoiler alerts. Rather than to ruin the eerie emotional dislocations and frightening weirdness the director brilliantly conveys with sound (music selection) and visuals, let Shapeless wash over you when you see this intriguing film.
Indeed, the impressionistic Shapeless centers around this singer/entertainer who must confront her inner demons but doesn’t. By degrees we understand how Ivy’s unconscious undercurrents surface, then retreat, then repeat in ever-widening circular patterns. Tellingly, during Ivy’s isolated moments at home, we gradually understand the entrenched and frightening conflict. However, we never see beyond to the reasons or logic of what she created that fuels her addiction. Because the film avoids the psychological, a huge chasm of uncertainty opens to engulf us in Ivy’s misery. For what she wars against, no cure presents itself. And Ivy doesn’t seek one. She just charges on and moves deeper and deeper into denial.
Fittingly, the Tribeca Film Festival Midnighter takes place in the eerie, atmospheric and elusive city of New Orleans. Known for its jazz backwaters, ghostly tales, haunting sounds, sights and smells and voodoo, the city is the perfect setting. Overarchingly, the film suggests, infers, intimates. No substantive clarity surfaces. We just get to watch Ivy grow more and more debilitated with little explanation. However, Ivy’s choice to sing in clubs contributes to her addiction. Yet, ultimately, her sickness threatens to destroy her singing career. In some ways, dependence on drugs would be easier for her to overcome. What she battles runs so deep that it refashions her into a strange creature. Thus, the fantastic becomes a part of her nature and in turn devours the health and wholeness she would seek.
Finally, Ivy, addicted to self-destructive behaviors on one level becomes further addicted to her fantastic response to those behaviors. Two people, the creature and the woman who seeks salvation, her outer and inner life rock her soul.
The director’s decisions about sound, editing and set design to imbue characterization remain spot-on. And the overall effect unbalances the viewer. Subsequently, as the film enthralls, one becomes more displaced about understanding Ivy. Conclusively, when the viewer realizes the addiction threatens Ivy’s life, yet she can’t overcome it, the shock settles into numbness. This parallels Ivy’s experience. Her situation can’t be that bad. We think as she thinks. Gradually, the viewer swept up in Ivy’s denial, accepts it as circumstance: “it is what it is.” Nevertheless, the director clues in the audience that her condition must not be ignored. And eventually we understand why, though we don’t ever find out the “why” of it.
Based on a true story of Kelly Murtagh’s personal struggle (she also co-wrote the screenplay) Shapeless becomes a cautionary tale of lies, denial, addiction, self-destruction with no resolution. Murtagh’s performance elucidates the hopelessness of those addicted and swept up with illnesses like hers. Her performance in effecting Ivy’s gradual decline in her singing voice which starts out as merely adequate, shines with understanding. Indeed, Murtagh portrays Ivy’s denial and acceptance of what she does to herself with brilliance.
The film should be seen for many reasons. Two key reasons remain Murtagh’s subtle, nuanced portrayal and Aldana’s stylized rendering of Ivy’s condition and its impact on her life. Shapless screens at Tribeca Film Festival. For tickets and times check this link: HERE.
The New York Botanical Garden is perhaps the most exotic and forward-thinking, theatrical living museum of plants and one of the most magnificent green spaces in all of New York City rivaled only by Central Park. In presenting their largest botanical exhibition ever from June 8 -September 29, 2019, the New York Botanical Garden has achieved a seamless meld with a globally renowned, award-winning Brazilian modernist artist, Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994).
For this wonderful exhibit, members get to go free on Friday, Member’s Day. See links below to the symposium on Friday.
The influential Brazilian modernist, landscape architect, plant explorer and cultural giant, is deserving of a celebration of his prodigious design work which features examples of the lush gardens he created throughout Brazil and the world. His unique and innovative modernist perspective gave birth to thousands of landscapes and private gardens, including the famous curving mosaic walkways at Copacabana Beach in Rio.The exhibition exemplifies every aspect of his artistry with a curated gallery of his eye-poppying paintings, drawings and textiles.
The amazing Burle Marx was a maverick in highlighting the importance of environmental preservation and particularly exotic plant species some found only in Amazonia a good part of which is in Brazil. In the NYBG horticultural tribute to Marx, the exhibition team pulled in experts like Raymond Jungles (FASLA) his protégé who personally knew Marx and worked with him, and those like Edward J. Sullivan, Ph.D., the Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Art History and Deputy Director, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who has studied Marx extensively and who continues to write about him.
Jungles used his expertise and personal experience working with Marx to design the exotic tropical feel and immense grandeur of the installations revealed in three stages of the exhibition. The first is the Modernist Garden with striking, patterned paths that lead through extensive curvilinear planting beds to an open plaza with a reflecting pool backdropped by a wall. This wall design is inspired by a Burle Marx installation in the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo. The entire vibrant black, white and grey walkway and colorful, sweeping plantings are framed by spectacular palm trees that tower to their natural heights, many contributed by Jungles’ own personal collection.
The Explorer’s Garden in the conservatory showcase (not the Palms of the World Gallery whose dome is being refurbished) features the tropical rain forest plants among Burle Marx’s favorites as a bone fide “plant nerde.” These include those he adored, particular exotics which he constantly used in his installations to inform Brazilians about the natural world’s smackdown of diversity in their home country. With this he was constantly building up Brazilian’s sense of home pride.
The Water Garden evinces Burle Marx’s use of plants from a wide variety of tropical regions in his Brazilian designs and throughout the world. The reflecting pool is the natural habitat of temperate water lilies which are blooming in the variety of pastel colors. And it will include the more exotic water lilies that only basque in warm waters of Florida and the equatorial regions; these are of darker purple hues, etc.
Burle Marx’s Art and Garden Lifestyle Philosophy are extensively covered through film, and exhibits of his paintings, drawings, textiles and more all inspired by Brazilian culture. You will find this extensive exhibit in the Art Gallery and on the fourth floor of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. This section of the exhibit reflects his work from the final 30 years of his career from 1964 to his death in 1994) and shows not only his evolution as a person but also as a titan who beautifully integrated all the finest of the cultural and wholistic elements of an individual rooted in every aspect of his country’s well being. In this section you will see the apotheosis of Burle Marx, the print maker, ecologist, naturalist, artist and musician as well as innovator whose modernist landscape architecture whose designs of parks and gardens lifted Brazil’s reputation and culture as an important contributor on the international scene.
Engaging public programming showcases the sights and sounds of Brazil and its lively contributions to music and dance evoking Rio de Janeiro, the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (“Wonderful City”) that Roberto Burle Marx called home and inspired his life and work. Expect to experience the dances, music, foods of Brazil at the NYBG for the length of the exhibition which runs from June 8 through September 29, 2019.
Details about the exhibition’s diverse and engaging schedule of public programming for all ages is available here:
Information about the Brazilian Modern Interactive Mobile Guide, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is available here:
New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx, NY 10458 United States
White Noise, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Oskar Eustis is a long thrill-ride into the psyches of thirty-somethings reeling from the abuses of previous generations’ willful negligence, regarding racial and gender mythologies. These stereotypes and demeaning memes abide with a vengeance below the surface of friendship power dynamics and mixed-race love relationships. Indeed, Parks suggests these are embedded in the American cultural DNA. And not even elaborate experiments such as the one long-time friends Leo (Daveed Diggs-always the consummate actor/performer and a joy to watch) and Ralph (Thomas Sadowski acts with moment-to-moment precision) embark on to expurgate Leo’s fears of being shot while black, ameliorate issues of racial identity politics int heir psyches..
The ultimate message in Parks’ White Noise remains: if these race and gender myths abide among friends, then what hope is there to modify, redeem and heal the nullifying cultural divides that exist among races, genders and economic classes that are at odds with one another? This is especially so in the retrograde Trump era when noxious white supremacist groups have been empowered to embrace hate and fear by a president who finds upholding the constitution and civil rights laws loathsome and inconvenient.
The inherent sado-masochistic, master/slave ethos deep within the mindset of all who have white/black relationships and their gender derivatives are mostly covered by social veneers of liberalism. Parks lays bare this phenomenon in a gradual reveal that she stages within an artificial construct prompted by Leo after he has been traumatized by the police. However, it is an idea that Leo long thought about to deal with his inability to sleep which he attributes to an ambient fear begun at childhood. It is a fear that has morphed like a monster into unsettled apprehensions about being black and living in a repressive culture of white privilege.
To free himself of the apprehension and feel that he is empowered in his own identity apart from racial, socio-political constructs, Leo devises the Master/Slave freedom project. He finally convinces his professor/writer friend Ralph to contract his services as a slave. Leo believes that if he is owned by Ralph who will be his Master for 40 (a magically symbolic number) days, he will be psychologically secure in the knowledge that he is protected by his “Master” in a culture that promulgates institutional racism and brutality against blacks via the justice system, economic inequality and unequal opportunity. As a result of this experiment at the end of the 40 days, Leo believes he will move to the core of his own reality and become free of the stereotypes, memes, lies, matrixes, objectifications and internalizations of abuse inherent in the culture and society of America.
During their extended friendship over the years, Ralph and Leo believed they had risen above racial gender politics and achieved a state of being “cool” and close with each other. Their friends/girlfriends Misha (the humorous Sheria Irving) and Dawn (the crisp, on point Zoë Winters) whom they’ve also known for years and have swapped as partners provide the security and sanctity of love and help to be the glue that has kept the group together and flourishing.
But during Leo’s and Ralph’s Master/Slave experiment, the women learn that they have been lying to themselves and each other. Indeed, for Leo, Ralph, Misha and Dawn their outward congeniality, love and closeness is a ruse, a construct they have created for and with each other to keep the “outer hellishness” of the culture away from them.
But the ruse hasn’t worked. In one way or another all are lost and feel incomplete, despite their relative successes, a fact revealed by the conclusion of the master/slave project.
Indeed, the experiment overturns the foursome’s relationships, their perceptions of each other and ultimately how they view themselves. In the past they have fed off the group’s collective identity and while it has made them feel loved, it also has hindered them. Misha, Dawn and Ralph have cheated on each other and are incapable of fidelity, peace or joy. Though they were able to get around being “cheaters” with secrecy and forgiveness, they remain unfulfilled in love.
That each is searching is obvious, though they are not sure what they want or who they want it with, for they are identity challenged. Only Leo has been faithful to Dawn. Only Leo, Parks’ heroic protagonist has enough self-awareness to understand he is chained by the past in the present. He realizes that he will only be at peace by finding a way to free his being to live in harmony with himself.
Over the course of the master/slave project, Parks reveals how the dynamics of this foursome fragments. Their group identity together and with their partners cannot withstand their own hypocrisies which the project reveals. Ultimately, as Leo learns, they also learn how they’ve allowed the cultural constructs to imprison them. And their attempt to avoid these underlying hate-filled concepts that surreptitiously guide their behaviors in their friendships and love relationships with each other has thwarted their quest for peace and autonomy. Their ability to forge their own healthful identities and act on their self-knowledge with a confidence that will free them has been constrained.
After Leo and Ralph “progress” into their simulated journey back into history to effect the egregious acts of domination and subservience, the worm turns: the relationships between them and among their girlfriends morph. “Freed” to imprison himself within the soul crushing white privilege dynamics, Ralph throws himself into the “master” tropes and changes his attitude to become more bossy and edgy with Leo. Influenced by members of a White Club he joins as a secret society, he leases a punishment slave collar for Leo and pushes the master/slave behavior to levels of cruelty and exploitation he would not have thought possible of himself prior to their experiment.
Interestingly, Leo for a time is able to sleep and rest in this masochistic abuse of slavery because it is “out in the open,” and “in your face.” Above all, he is the “author and finisher” of his slave role having come up with the contract and agreeing to the amendments that Ralph suggests. By controlling the construct himself and choosing to be subservient, he empowers himself with what he learns. As he becomes freer, Ralph’s dignity and honor are compromised, though superficially he thinks he is empowered. However, by engaging as Leo’s “Master,” Ralph becomes more loathsome to himself. It is, a state which he fought his entire life, but was incapable of overcoming. Ironically, in the “Master” roll, he further enslaves himself as a hateful loser who “gets off” on being exploitive.
The lies and pretended altruisms end. Leo’s “cool” relationship with Dawn (Winters) is over and Misha’s (Irving) hidden sexual relationship with Dawn dissolves in a fight. However, Misha admits she will most probably still keep Ralph around because by having a white boyfriend, she feels protected as part of the privileged culture. That they will continue to be unfaithful to each other doesn’t matter.
By the conclusion of Parks’ dramatic polemic, Leo understands his personal self-imposed oppression he internalized from the culture’s oppressive mores. He also realizes that like his ancestors, in spite of it, he will thrive and prosper. On the other hand Ralph’s weakness so manifests to himself that he is broken. Indeed, white privilege which is meant to prosper white males in their dominance of all “under them in the culture,” actually weakens and enslaves them worse than those they attempt to victimize. The women who go along with the white privilege program are swept up in the abuse and are forced to live in a sub rosa muddle of lies and obfuscations which propel them into an abyss of misery and torment. Only if they work to extricate themselves from the fears that destroy their wholeness, will they become free to establish their own autonomy and identity.
Parks’ play is a powerhouse in its satiric elements and in its themes. She brilliantly presents her concepts through the interplay and active relationships between and among Dawn, Leo, Ralph and Misha. Eustis’ direction is insightful and illuminating. The performances, are solid; Daveed and Sadoswki are electric and the effect they produce is frightening. Irving and Winters continually surprise, and Irving’s program “Ask a Black” is absolutely hysterical. The satire throughout is astounding with just enough subtle rendering to punch you in the gut with a bit of truth to leave you breathless.
As a caveat, I nodded out during some of the solos which were expositional and might have been slimmed down to keep the pacing taught. I did find I was completely focused during Diggs’ opening monologue which was electric. His easy, relaxed bonding with the audience completely engaged me. The other solos were less so, not a fault of the actors or direction. It may have been the order in the overall arc of the play’s development. Or the solos might have been a tad redundant with explanation not dramatization.
Kudos to the design team that helps to bring the production to life. These include Clint Ramos (Senic Design) Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design) Xavier Pierce (Lighting Design) Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design) Lucy Mackinnon (Projection Design) U. Jonathan Toppo (Fight Director) Michael Rossmy and Kelsey Rainwater (Intimacy Directors).
White Noise brings one-of-a-kind performances to a thought-provoking, memorable play about the subtle, historic mores and influences that control us if we are not introspective or self-examining. It is a must-see which runs with one intermission at the Public Theater until 5 May. For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Once the insidious and malevolent corrupt buy their way into the halls of power, it seems impossible to oust or destroy them. However, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, directed and designed by John Doyle currently at CSC, reminds us that all is not hopeless. Indeed, corruption and those who revel in the money and preeminence it fosters must irrevocably crash to their doom as their sphere of influence which propagates great harm eventually is overthrown by the just. Indeed, there are always a glorious few who face great risk for the greater public good.
This sleek version of The Cradle Will Rock, Director Doyle fashions using the template of the original production which employed no elaborate spectacle (see this article about the original production). The actors are staged so that they move in toward the piano and outward and in the round (the CSC playing area which is actually a square surrounded by the audience). The pianists (I was impressed by their talent and the number of the cast some who play with exquisite grace.) also do double duty and sing beautifully as members of the ensemble.
The entire play is sung as a quasi opera, in a Bertolt Brecht style with ferocity and near didacticism. The subject matter of how dirty money is used to fuel predation and victimize the culture is worthy for this stylization. Cradle’s themes are mythic; its protagonists and antagonists timeless. The arc of development elevates the plot to the spiritual warfare of good vs. evil. We watch how the uncorrupted-awoke fight to bring truth and majestical courage to the souls of the unenlightened. This is done in the hope of empowering and freeing them of their subservience to power domination and demeaning cult worship of the “leader.”
The Brechtian music effected by the pianists and ensemble pounds out the plot and themes which clearly resonate for us today. In every corner of the world, we note representative Mr. Misters (the warlord of Steeltown) akin to dictators, autocrats, warlords.
In the setting of Steeltown, USA, the 1930s during the height of the depression, Mr. Mister, we learn from those whom he’s battered and destroyed (Harry the druggist-Tony Yazbeck) gained power and control through devious means. The action takes place over one night in a Steeltown jail during an action to unionize. When Moll (Lara Pulver) is thrown in jail rather than to give her favors to a corrupt cop (Eddie Cooper), she is befriended by Harry the druggist. In flashback scenes the ensemble enacts, we learn how Mr. Mister (David Garrison) surreptitiously grabbed power. Harry explains Mr. Mister’s machinations to the mistakenly jailed Liberty Committee (the ensemble). They are Mr. Mister’s fandom anti-union support group, who wait for Mr. Mister to bail them out; they are not as police thought part of the pro-union protest.
The flashbacks identify how any corrupt power broker operates…surreptitiously, without the light of truth being shined on their oppressive, coercive, fraudulent actions. Thus, the ensemble reveals the events of how Mr. Mister’s wife (Sally Ann Triplett) buys support and influence to solidify his power network corralling important institutions like the press (Editor Daily-Ken Barnett), the church (Reverend Salvation-Benjamin Eakeley) the factory and social organizations.
Harry points up the ruthlessness of Mr. Mister who killed a newly elected union leader and his family in a fire bombing and caused Harry to lose his business and drop into hopelessness and despair. Of course the irony is in not blowing the whistle on Mr. Mister and risking death for his testimony, Harry ends up being destroyed in a living death by Mr. Mister who coerces him into his own mewling self-destruction. Indeed, the revelatory theme is better to die a martyr in the hope of bringing down evil than sustain a living death while the corrupt grow and evolve like monsters engulfing all in their path to get what they want which never includes the public good.
Eventually, all of the prominent and influential members of Steeltown join Mr. Mister’s fandom Liberty Committee and this entrenched power structure runs roughshod over the “little people.” We learn for example that Mr. Mister bullies and commands others like President Prexey (Ken Barnett) to adhere to and foment his political policies. We also learn of cover-ups of accidents despite witnesses (Rema Webb) because of Mr. Mister’s negligence. His lack of accountability is legend which he keeps in the shadows buying off the press and threatening others with harm if they “spill the beans.”
The heroes of Cradle, Moll who is a conduit and listener of truth, Harry who knows the truth but waits too late to reveal it, Ella Hammer who witnessed a death and cover-up and courageous union leader Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck in an ironic choice for he also plays the devastated Harry). The union leader activist is arrested and brought to the jail for distributing leaflets. All of these individuals stand against the Liberty Committee whom they try to persuade against Mr. Mister.
However, when Mr. Mister comes to free the committee from jail, we understand that his fan base has neither the intelligence, the spiritual will, the courage, nor the understanding to recognize that a nefarious, demoralizing, psychotic sociopath is a danger to their own well being and freedom. The title of the Liberty Committee is a sardonic Orwellian touch for they are too blind to be free. Blitzstein’s work is one sardonic trope after another. As for the duped committee, they live trapped in their outer material selves, not in their souls or extended consciousness, mind, will.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mister also offers to bail out Larry Foreman. Accepting the bail money has a price: join Mr. Mister’s extended perfidious enterprise and work against the union, a work to enslave the community, not free it. Foreman rejects Mr. Mister’s offer. The Liberty Committee excoriates/ridicules him for his courage which they interpret as stupidity. But Foreman who takes the high road and remains in jail makes a sterling prophecy to himself and to us. With defiance he predicts that Mr. Mister’s oppressive, corrupt power over Steeltown will end.
Indeed, the implication is clear in every century, in every time and place. The warning for such infantile autocrats who must control all at their own whim like a petulant child is “The Cradle Will Rock!” And as surely as the wind blows with increasing strength, that cradle inevitably, will fall bringing down dictator baby.
This production certainly speaks for our time and we may take heart, if we wish, that Larry Foreman’s prophecy is an inevitability. I enjoyed the minimalism of props which the actors use seamlessly. And I enjoyed the use of greenbacks which dominate the scenes to illustrate how Mr. Mister’s wife, et. al buys his influence from those equally corrupt who take the money and support his rise in exchange for their freedom of choice to stop him.
The greenbacks which eventually end up in a big pile (the symbol of velvet destruction) in the center of the playing space, are left by the head of the Steelworker’s Union, Larry Foreman. He cannot be bought. The money is an appropriate symbol of what can make human beings like Mr. Mister and his minions in Steeltown pernicious, callous, hardened and wicked.
“Apparently” fewer in number, there are those like Moll, Harry the druggist, Ella Hammer and Larry Foreman who eschew the “love of money” to kill/defraud/lie/steal for it or be complicit with those who do. How many have the strength of purpose, unction and anointing to do follow their heroic example and create a better world? Many, though it appears to be easier to go the way of Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee. By the conclusion it is to the unseen “many” of like minded individuals that Larry Foreman makes his prophecies. In them lies the hope of the fierce wind that will rock the cradle.
Blitzstein’s work initiated as a result of the debacle of The Great Depression, then and now highlights how economic inequality was and is a by-product of power elites who purchase institutions (religious, press, law enforcement, industry, social networks) to hold sway. In a time of economic prosperity it is impossible to corral people to do one’s bidding. Thus, the push for economic equality, the production reveals, encourages a strong and stable social system which discourages autocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, “one-man rule.” Indeed, who pushes the culture in order to exacerbate economic inequality which is the lifeblood of instability and divisiveness? Who indeed!
This is a fine production thanks to these talented actors: Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb, Tony Yazbec. Doyle’s direction/staging/design is spot-on. And kudos go those creatives responsible for Costume Design (Ann Hould-Ward) Lighting (Jane Cox, Tesse James) Music Supervisor (Gregg Jarrett) Associate Scenic Design (David L. Arsenault) Associate Costume Design (Amy Price).
Here is a caveat for this production. The lyrics to the songs are gems. The voices of the actors, the gemcutters. The more precisely enunciated with authenticity, the more beautiful the overall piece of jewelry (the song). Indeed, we long for exquisite, priceless pieces. At times, the gemcutters in the production, were imprecise; the song lyrics were garbled. When the cutters were precision sharp and clear, the songs soared and thrilled. This is a potentially stunning production which fell a bit short for that reason and that alone.
Nevertheless, it is a must-see as a trenchant allegory for our time. The Cradle Will Rock runs with no intermission about 90 minutes. The show closes on 19 May. You can purchase tickets at their website by CLICKING HERE.
A few years ago the Public Theatre did a sardonic version of Julius Caesar using directed ridicule to lay bare some parallels between Caesar’s power grab with that of the new Trump administration. In that iteration blonde, pompous Caesar wore a dark suit and long, red tie and Calpurnia flounced around in designer clothing. The allusions were clear as were the themes. Overweening power unchecked in a representative government leads to civil strife, chaos and future oppression. Though Theatre for a New Audience’s rendition of Julius Caesar offers no such national twists, the production’s finely tuned staging, set design, incisive acting by the principals and superb use of the ensemble ratchet the themes of political intrigue and civil strife to a much more nuanced and foreboding level.
This version is novel in costume design, sound design and scenic design with sterling efforts by Raquel Barreto (costumes) Sibyl Wickersheimer (set) Paul James Prendergast (sound). Though the costumes are predominately in modern dress, the impact of the characters’ roles is inherent in their design. The masks and wigs headgear of the ensemble are dramatic and eye-catching in the opening scene with the crowds celebrating the Feast of Lupercal. The same occurs later during Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s funeral orations.
The director Shana Cooper brilliantly employs the ensemble during the mob scenes and crowd scenes in Act I and Act III and then in the battle scenes in the last acts. The staging is riveting and in the first half of the play, the ensemble enacts the lower class plebeians with acute meaning and power. The mob action is a vital aspect not only of the arc of development in the action of Julius Caesar, but also as emblematic of Shakespeare’s themes about governance, leadership and control of the public will.
For example Caesar (an appropriately arrogant Rocco Sisto) is a master manipulator of the crowd which he plays upon like “the actors in the theater” according to the humorous Caska (the ironic, churlish Stephen Michael Spencer). Of course their will is Caesar’s command and it is how and why he will be “crowned” by the senators who understand the extent to which Caesar has gained the people’s trust and love. Shana Cooper conveys this theme of crowd manipulation trenchantly. For the first time in the numerous productions I have seen of Caesar, she most coherently understands Shakespeare’s portrayal of the crowd as a preeminent character.
How the crowd/rag-tag people are manipulated by Caesar, Brutus and Antony recalls how every charismatic leader gains and maintains power: he/she infuses the will of the people with the direction of his/her own desires, neatly disguised. Though Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden is superb as the high-minded, conflicted betrayer of his friend), launches himself into the pulpit at Caesar’s funeral, his honesty doesn’t allow him to use the clever, ironic rhetorical strategies of Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour is super as the passionate rogue who stirs the emotions of the mob). Antony’s duplicity as he turns the crowd away from praising the “honorable” Brutus to damning him is a masterwork of leadership genius.
Mark Antony enrages the crowd into seething, blind violence for his self-dealing purposes. The speech is one of Shakespeare’s greats and Barbour does it justice. As counterpoints to each other in this Act III climax of Caesar’s funeral, Dirden’s Brutus and Barbour’s Antony reveal exceptional talents in voice and in their living moment-to-moment in the skins of these admirable and incredible Romans, whom we come to appreciate as leaders of that time, far occluding current politicians of our time.
The contrasting scenes which feature the wives of the leaders, Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Portia (Merritt Janson) indicate the human side of Caesar and Brutus away from their roles as leaders of the people. In their importuning their husbands, both Stewart and Janson are sensitive and heartfelt.
The power and beauty of Portia’s pleas to get Brutus to tell her his secrets lest she only be his “harlet” and not his “true wife” is a standout. Cooper’s astute direction of Portia who reaches behind Brutus to take his knife and give herself the wound which convinces him to “tell all,” is cogent and precise. Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden rock the house in this poignant, well-wrought scene which reveals their love and concern for each other and which also gives credence to why Portia kills herself violently after Brutus flees Rome.
Likewise, the love and concern expressed in the bath scene between Calphurnia and Caesar is well thought out and delivered. We are heartened that Calphurnia has discovered a “face-saving” way to convince Caesar not to go to the senate. But all ends in the exchange between proud Caesar and Calphurnia after she is foiled by the clever Decius (an exceptional Barret O’Brien who is on point throughout this high energy scene as well as before and after the assassination). She wilts like a dead flower as Caesar chides her for his caving in to her fears; and at that moment, Caesar is a dead man unless he accepts the truth of warnings of the Soothsayer and Artemidorus.
Calphurnia’s angry cry after Caesar’s death in waving the bloody scarf at her husband’s corpse is the perfect acting choice. Indeed, how many times do wives correctly advise their husbands who ignore them only to be proven right after it is too late? If Caesar had only listened to her, she would not be staring down at his mangled body, mourning him.
Cooper’s staging of the conspirators around Caesar before and during the assassination is enlightened and sizzles with power. A brilliant touch which may rankle traditionalists is that Antony brings Calphurnia to Caesar’s funeral so she may respond, with anger, remorse and tears. It is the epitome of logic that reveals Antony’s character and foreshadows the future. She is one more prop that Antony uses to manipulate the crowd to such mutiny that in the next scene they beat to death a poor innocent poet (Armando McClain) in an amazingly choreographed scene.
The direction of the ensemble and principals throughout the first part of the play creates tension and engagement with great purpose in elucidating themes. For example as Antony works his mischief to stir the crowd to bloodshed so “mothers will but smile when they see their sons quartered…” Cooper has Caesar rise with the help of Calphurnia and walk off. This is prodigious direction/staging. Symbolically, we understand that Caesar’s spirit has been evoked/resurrected by Antony to roam the land seeking vengeance in the capture or death of the conspirators and all those in concert with them. This ghost of Caesar threads through to the final Acts and foreshadows Caesar’s haunting Brutus at various times and finally when he appears in Brutus’ tent and embraces him before the disastrous battle of Philippi.
The last acts of Julius Caesar have been characterized as throw-away. Not so in this production which has streamlined and strengthened them. The argument between Brutus and his once close friend now “enemy” Cassius, Matthew Amendt (Cassius) and Dirden (Brutus) deliver with power. As Cassius, Matthew Amendt’s portrayal is spot-on, though at times I felt he could project more. This is not the conniving Cassius we witnessed in the first act. Amendt’s Cassius is hurting, disturbed, humanized. On the other hand, Brutus has become a bellicose emotional lightening rod. As the two quarrel, we empathize with Cassius and then we discover why brutish Brutus is attacking his former close friend, now fellow soldier.
Cooper avoids the problems with the last acts also by consolidating characters to keep the character list leaner than the original play. She also exemplifies and symbolizes how the spirit of vengeance and war range against each other in stylized battle scenes which are exceptionally choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch with the ensemble in modern army camouflage and make-up.
These scenes especially heighten the excitement, tension and energy. Also, they manifest and represent the sheer adrenaline expended during wartime. The fact that Cooper uses no blood or physical violence is symbolic more of the spirit of war that seems eternally present in every era. In their actions the ensemble steps in unison, in their arm, hand, leg movements and gestures in military fashion without weapons.
The overall effect is frightening in what it suggests, the fierce will and hot determination to war against one’s countrymen who were once brothers/colleagues. The lighting effects are exceptional thanks to Christopher Akerlind especially in these scenes. The music and sound are portentous.
The bloody assassination scene is contrasted with the stylized battle scenes which have no direct physical contact or blood. The pivotal character is Caesar, a god. Stabbed thirty-three times, he bleeds; no other character does. Symbolic parallels are drawn between animals sacrificed to predict the future, or gain favor with the gods or heal a nation. The contrasts and irony emphasized in this Tragedy of Julius Caesar are dire; the republic is not healed, but destroyed with his bloodletting. And the bloodless fighting of the ensemble indicates that the spirit of power domination, and war as an effective tool of “dominion” is integral to human society and must be checked through wise governance.
Caesar is the sacrifice. By the time his spirit of vengeance has consumed all who would stand in the way of peace, 100 senators are dead, even the most rational and erudite Cicero. And his vengeance won’t be finished until Octavius (the martial Benjamin Bonenfant) purges his enemies and becomes Caesar Augustus. (Emperor Augustus decreed August 15 should be celebrated as his festival Ferragosto. From that time to this, all Italy closes down to celebrate.)
The production concludes with the stylized choreography and the comments that Brutus killed for the good of Rome. But Cooper’s staging makes clear that the killing will continue. Thematically, we acknowledge that the spirit of war, political intrigue and vengeance will carry through Augustus’ reign and beyond.
Cooper’s production best highlights Shakespeare’s inherent prophecy that war and assassination as political exigencies are perhaps inevitable. The show which runs until April 28th is a must-see for its daring risks that shake tradition, elucidate new concepts and provide exciting, vibrant theater. You can purchase tickets to The Tragedy of Julius Caesar which runs with one intermission at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY) by CLICKING HERE.
The documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a provocative and compelling look at a case which stunned New England. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, presented in the Spotlight Section, the filmmaker examines two different perspectives of the case against Michelle Carter who the court found culpable in the death of her friend/boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Carr features the prosecutions arguments, replete with video clips taken from the courtroom. Also, the filmmaker features the arguments presented by the defense in the courtroom. She does some follow-up interviews of the witnesses on both sides.
The eighteen-year-old, Conrad Roy III, was found in his pick up truck asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at his own hand. He had purchased a generator which trapped the carbon monoxide from his car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, he and Michelle Carter left 60,000 text messages of their relationship, feelings for one another, their mental states, fantasies about being like Romeo and Juliet and more.
However, as the texts made clear, Roy III was in pain and wanted to commit suicide. He was being treated for depression and he was on the medication Prozac which has been tied to suicide deaths. Whether as a friend, help-meet, or as a self-serving, dastardly and willful individual looking for attention as the prosecution painted her, some of Michelle Carter’s final text messages encouraged him to finish his goal to end his life. What was never recorded was the final phone conversation they had together. Whether this was up until the moments of his death is unclear. Only the text messages remain as evidence.
In the first segment, Carr presents an outline of the backstory of the texting relationship between Carter and Conrad Roy III who only saw each other face to face around 5-6 times, but in teenspeak were “talking” which meant they were close. Indeed, Michelle Carter referred to him as her boyfriend. In the first segment Carr includes many of their texts, out of order in following the prosecution’s case to hone in on various arguments. They often texted that they loved each other. Carr culled through the approximately 60,000 texts between the two individuals. She uses their texts and sound effects on a black screen for full effect in both segments of the HBO presentation.
Carr uses video clips from the public hearings during the case. She interviews Conrad Roy III’s family members. There was difficulty between his parents who were divorced and were with other individuals. Clearly, Conrad Roy III didn’t have an idyllic home life, however, the extent to which this contributed to his pain and wanting to commit suicide was only alluded to by Carr briefly in the film. Michelle Carter’s family life was not covered, but her parents are together and supporting her throughout the ordeal and civil lawsuit by Conrad Roy III’s family.
Interestingly, there was no jury trial, but three judges decided the case. Since the media had garnered such an outcry spiking controversy against her, the Defense decided no jury trial was in her best interests. In Part II of the series which is an HBO Showcase and scheduled to air some time in the summer, the documentarian presents the Defense’s perspective why Michelle Carter should not be held accountable for Conrad Roy III’s suicide..
Michelle Carter never gave voice to her own feelings testifying before the judges in court. Nor was she interviewed for the film. Her testimony, the missing piece of the puzzle, may never be revealed now that she is serving her prison sentence after she lost her appeal.
Carr chronicles the events mirroring each perspective. The film is structured precisely to allow the audience to decide where they land, in support of Michelle Carter or in favor of the prosecution. I found both arguments riveting, but the situation is extremely complex and the film does not evidence the complexity. One must “see” between the lines.
The femme fatale image of Carter whipped up by a media hungry for clicks and viewers tragically skewed the case beyond a proper examination of the mental background related to both Conrade Roy III and Carter. Carr includes the Defense testimony of the doctor who discusses Conrad Roy III’s mental state. Also this witness ties in the effects of Prozac which in some individuals create suicidal tendencies. However, in this area, the film and perhaps the defense’s medical strategy doesn’t go far enough.
I know of at least three individuals who were on Prozac who either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide; these were adults. Conrad Roy III was 18-years-old and it is unclear the extent to which this drug exacerbated his pain on his young mind.
Nevertheless, the focal point of the prosecution’s argument became Michelle Carter’s encouragement of Conrad Roy III in the last hour and one–half of his life to choose death, not life. The Defense strategy used a freedom of speech argument saying Michelle Carter’s speech was protected, and couldn’t be used against her, even though it was morally reprehensible to encourage someone else to commit suicide.
The judges ruled against Carter using as evidence her texts of encouragement. She urged Conrad Roy III to get back into the truck and finish what he set out to do as the carbon monoxide was filling up the cabin. Because she did not encourage him against killing himself, she was given the sentence she received. The Defense could disprove the prosecution’s faulty logic, however, there was no answer for what the judges deemed in their opinions indefensible, which was her encouragement to suicide.
Obviously, Conrad Roy III had doubts the last hour of his life whether to kill himself or not. Interestingly, he sought out Michelle Carter precisely for what she gave him: support in his endeavor. He did not call his parents, his sister, or go on youtube where he would have been discouraged. His parents notified? He would have been put in the Psych Ward. His will to choose one who would support him kill himself is clear: indeed, in that he holds the ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice of texting her, of phoning her and not someone who would stand in the way and prevent his wishes.
However, in that the judges obviated and ignored his obvious, willful selection and damned her. Her texts were used as the weapon to kill him, not his own will, determination, previous texts, treatment for depression, known wishes to commit suicide and the youtube video he posted about “social anxiety.” The evident misogyny in not looking at Conrad’s ultimate selection of Michelle Carter to get what he needed in the last moments of his life is apparent. It was his choice; the responsibility was his, and he took her down with him.
Indeed, the judges and prosecution believed that Michelle Carter should have “gone on record” inspiring Conrad Roy III toward life, though clearly the fact that Conrad Roy III purchased the generator and sat in the pick-up and eventually stayed in the cabin to inhale enough of the poison to kill himself, ultimately revealed that his will was toward death, as heinous as that may seem. The tragic irony is that the text messages “appear” to reveal what happened. However, not even Michelle Carter knew what was going on in the final moments with Conrad Roy III. She only responded to what he told her. Only he knew what he did, for only he was present. Thus, though her Defense didn’t enforce this argument, Carter was swept up in what is largely circumstantial evidence.
Following the judges’ logic, examine the instance of a jumper at the top of a building who is cursed at and screamed at with encouraging phrases to jump by the crowd below. If he jumps, all in the crowd should be held responsible for his death. They are not. Ultimately, the choice whether to jump or not is in the mind/will of the jumper.
The filmmaker by the very nature of her selection process cannot be objective, though she tries. She includes some trial clips over others and interviews of Conrad Roy III’s parents and Michelle Carter’s friends over others. She also interviews the reporters who covered the case.
However, in presenting the clips, to my mind questions are raised about the adequacy of the defense and the adequacy of the testimony of the mental health professionals in the cross examination of the prosecution’s medical professional. There should have been more health professionals testifying about Conrad Roy III’s mental health, the side effects of Prozac, and Michelle Carter’s mental health, etc.
In attempting to organize the series into two parts and “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” the approach is a quick and dirty way to further sensationalize this tragedy and “involve” folks in the “harmless” game of having an “opinion” about Michelle Carter. To actually dig deeper and approach the subjects from another angle would have been more profound and elucidating. The question remains. Where is Michelle Carter’s viewpoint, opinion and testimony in all of this?
Though this isn’t a focal point, the film does raise additional questions philosophically as to whether it is “right” to assist someone else in their wish to commit suicide to escape extreme mental anguish. If the person appears to aver, should one encourage them in support, or take the opportunity to help them stop their plans, knowing they will try again, perhaps until they succeed? Indeed, teen rates of suicide are increasing as suicide rates overall are increasing in our nation, and especially for those veterans who have PTSD. What is the law’s stance regarding suicide? Did Michelle Carter know? Or is this a matter of human rights and one’s autonomous decision?
Suicide is a slippery slope. Taking into consideration the ages of these individuals (Conrad Roy III was of age), Michelle Carter at the time was younger, the teen mind set, the teen subculture, the lack of communication with parents and siblings of both families, the effects of Prozac, many variables need to be examined to understand better what may have happened. However, Conrad Roy III enacted all of the steps he needed to kill himself, even elected to use carbon monoxide and not a gun or pills. Michelle Carter a supportive friend/girlfriend reacted to what he told her with her texts. But no one was present except Conrad Roy III.
Carr’s work is intriguing in relaying teen social constructs that are current. She focuses on raising the specter of suicide that haunts our culture. The clips of Roy speaking on social media are particularly gut-wrenching. Did his parents see these? Now, more than ever, parents need take note and make sure lines of communication are always open with their children. If this had been the case, would Conrad Roy III have taken the ultimate path he choose for himself?.
The organization of the documentary is sufficient for what the filmmaker’s intended purpose may be, to “have the audience decide.” Another approach might have yielded much more information. The documentary will air in the summer on HBO.