Wagner’s Dream

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Originally published in 2013

Wagner’s Dream (2012) directed by Susan Froemke documents the most recent production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Metropolitan Opera.  If one has even a passing familiarity to opera, the idea that a new staging of the Ring Cycle would be bombastic is obvious, but this film illustrates how much more grandiose this version is.  To be plain, this production could have been the equivalent disaster that the Broadway play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became.  How could an opera that is over 140 years old be a potential debacle? The documentary illustrates this fact clearly, to the extent that an opera novice will be excited and entertained by the production’s trials and triumphs.

The ambition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle cannot be understated, both historically and for present performances.  The composer never realized his complete vision for this massive piece; he passed away having only produced it once.  Any production changes, which Wagner hinted at making, have to be imagined by subsequent companies.  The Metropolitan Opera’s idea to bring Wagner’s dream vision to light was to contract French-Canadian stage producer Robert Lepage to oversee the massive undertaking. Lepage and his team aimed to build one set that would be used for the entire 16 hour Ring Cycle; a 90,000 lb. computerized and manually operated set dubbed “The Machine”.

What unfolds through the course of Wagner’s Dream are the trials that the Met encounters using “The Machine”, along with regular theatrical problems, like losing a conductor during the run and bringing in a new Siegfried a few weeks before opening.  It is fascinating watching the stage crew deal with the unruly, gargantuan set and the frustrations this puts upon the rest of the company.  The opera house had to be reinforced or the set may have collapsed the floor.  The singers, though accustomed to expressive acting in Wagnerian operas, are highly challenged by the set and have understandable arguments against even stepping foot on it.  At one point a Rheinmaiden is nearly crushed when the set moves into position and she is not correctly hidden in a crevice.  Having to navigate such a daunting set, as well as having to perform in one of the most difficult operas ever written, illustrates how utterly amazing the company is as a whole.

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The documentary is more an ode to theatrical innovation and efficient teamwork, than a tale about the Ring Cycle.  Audience members are interviewed throughout the film about their impressions of the newly imagined pieces. The reactions range from the upset traditionalist to the young “hip” opera-goer who doesn’t mind the deviation in set design.  Wagner’s Dream is swift in its treatment of the operas; the labyrinthine story is quickly explained with a few sentences.  The real action of this film derives from the overhanging audacious artistic vision of Wagner, Mr. Lepage and his team’s engineering feats and the enthusiasm of the crew and cast.  The sheer joy, energy and expertise which the Metropolitan Opera Company exudes, fills this documentary with a universal quality.  Opera is an unfamiliar art form for many; the backstage view presented helps to normalize and bring down to human scale the audacious task they hope to accomplish.

Author’s Note: I had the good fortune to procure one of the few remaining tickets for the May 11, 2013 performance of Gotterdammerung; the final performance of the entire production.  The words epic, entrancing spectacle do not even get close to describing how amazing this opera was.  “The Machine” is terrifying; it creaks and swings about wildly(there was even a short techincal stoppage during the first intermission due to it malfunctioning). The orchestra kicks complete ass; 6 harps! SIX!!  I spent Act 3 sobbing because it was so mind-blowingly beautiful.  Due to this being the very last performance, the stage crew took a bow.  “The Machine” lifted up and 50 or more stagehands emerged and started waving at the audience. They got the largest ovation of the day and damn, did they deserve it. I cried and cheered along with everyone else.  An amazing life experience; transcendent.

 

Quick Take: In the Turn

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In the north of Canada lives a little girl named Crystal who loves playing sports, as most children do. Despite Crystal’s enthusiasm for athletics, she is denied a place to play, simply due to biology and her school’s antiquatedly rigid definition of gender. In the Turn, directed by Erica Tremblay, is a documentary which marks Crystal’s challenging journey growing up as a transgendered girl, along with the heartening stories of a league of transgendered people who find community, acceptance and the chance to kick-ass through the sport of roller derby. The athletes profiled offer contrasting perspectives on how queer people live out their lives in a world dominated by cisgendered culture. The results are often grim, as in the case of Crystal’s struggles being accepted by her peers and how this affects her youthful worldview grievously. In whole, the emboldened spirit and optimism of the roller derby players and their encouragement of Crystal’s desire to compete are truly joyful. The humour and happiness of the transgendered athletes makes In the Turn a welcome confident picture that life can be normal for all, even when the stakes are stacked so high against a person at life’s outset. As one roller derby player remarks, “There’s a boring, boring life at the end of the rainbow.” This heartwarming documentary makes one believe this will be the future for Crystal and other kids like her; one of acceptance, compassion, love and of course, combative, adrenaline-inducing sports.

Quick Take: Actress

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Brandy Burre was a featured player on seasons Three and Four of The Wire, as political consultant Theresa D’Agostino, navigating the combative landscape of Baltimore’s bureaucracy. Years later Brandy remains an artist who similarly maneuvers herself through the difficulties of raising children, finding fulfillment in romance and continuing her career as an actress. Actress (2014), directed by Robert Greene, is a documentary which explores Brandy’s life negotiating differing social worlds with a hallucinatory gaze.  Arresting images of the actress and her surroundings invite the audience inside the world of an artist; the shifting haze of reality they mediate to share their gifts with us, as well as finding a balance towards personal contentment.

Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

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My high school yearbook quote in 1997 was from the Pulp song Bar Italia “If we get through this alive, I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” I thought that line was ever-so-clever, as it denotes the drudgery of high school and also because no one knew who Pulp was.  Until reaching college, I was alone in my fandom of Pulp, despite the fact that they are one of the greatest English bands of all time and were wildly popular in Europe when I was a teen.  I randomly found out about them from alternate radio and their music has been a lasting part of my life ever since.  The music has a movie-like grandiosity, with knowing, darkly humourous lyrics which intrigued me as a young woman. I may not have been able to directly relate to the song I Spy, with such lyrics as

“You see you should take me seriously/Very seriously indeed/Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks/Smoking your cigarettes, drinking your brandy,messing up the bed you chose together/And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon and catch us at it in the front room”

yet I sure was excited by the delivery. Such honesty about adult life and the trouble of it all, paired with lush music, was too much to resist.

The documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets(2014), directed by Florian Habicht, is an exploration of how the band Pulp evolved as well as the city they hail from, Sheffield, England. This is not a concert film or even a strict biographical overview, it’s more of a series of portraits of the residents of Sheffield and how the band Pulp fits into the city. There are multiple interviews with Sheffield residents young and old and how they feel about the band. All generations are equally proud of their hometown band, with varying levels of knowledge of their musical output. Some amusing episodes involve an older woman critiquing why Pulp is better than Blur and a young girl hearing Disco 2000 for the first time and meekly stating that it might be good to dance to.

The interviews with Jarvis Cocker and the rest of the band reveal some insights on their relationships and how their sound changed over 20 years. We see the drummer Nick Banks, who coaches his daughter’s soccer team, complete with Pulp-sponsored kits, looking like a fairly normal guy. Keyboard player Candida Doyle speaks of how an early diagnosis of arthritis lead her into music, which helped her to overcome her affliction. The other band members are shown to be equally regular, or Common People, even Cocker to an extent. Jarvis is obviously the most noticeable member of the band and speaks about how celebrity was not much to his liking.  For such a revered and celebrated band, this documentary almost makes them seem like a humble outfit from a small city who just happened to stumble into stardom. A very interesting stylistic choice for both the band and the director; too self-deprecating to admit their own excellence, they downplay their successes and strive to still be of a Sheffield-mindset.

The cinematography displayed in this film is masterful. Not to be unkind, but Sheffield, England is a little rough around the edges. The camera captures the housing schemes, graffiti and fish markets with crisp clarity. Sheffield may not be the most aesthetically pleasing city; the people are the real draw.  The most engaging portion of the film is a vignette in which a diner full of elders sing Help the Aged.  Hearing the lyrics “Help the aged/One time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue” sung with playful gusto by a group of white-haired seniors is delightful and touching.

Pulp is a band which never went with the trends and produced their own unique sound and style, not unlike the city of Sheffield.  The elderly, the young, the outcast all collectively gained understanding and comfort from Pulp’s music. The farewell concert the band plays in Sheffield is interspersed within the daydream scenes of Sheffield, a quant portrait of music and regular life. I wanted more songs and was left with a bit of longing. As Cocker states, being on stage is the closest thing to living in the moment.  “NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.”

A few of my favorite songs:

Sunrise from the album We Love Life

Seductive Barry from the album This is Hardcore

Underwear from the album Different Class

 

Duran Duran: Unstaged by David Lynch

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With the concert film Duran Duran: Unstaged (2011) David Lynch produced a true movie theater experience.  This is not a film to be watched on a tv; this deserves a space which brings people together, as a live concert would. On September 10th, 2014 the film was shown theatrically for one night only and the reception at the Tivoli Theater in Kansas City, where I viewed it, was electric. Never before have I been to a film in which the audience danced, sang along and clapped like it was a live show. I went in as a Lynch fan and left incredibly impressed by Duran Duran’s musical prowess and their legions of devoted fans.

The first thing I noticed which was different from other films was crowd noise pumped into the theater previous to the movie starting. Lynch specifically had the murmur of a live audience playing as people were taking their seats, to set the mood like an actual show would have.  Then the lights went down and the film came up with no previews. The beginning showed Lynch filmed with a swaying camera and him speaking about having many dreams about Duran Duran. Then he said something to the effect of “When I snap my fingers, the concert will start”. He snapped and then the fun began; the stage filled with the members of Duran Duran and the concert started.

The show itself was a very tight set featuring guest artists joining the band(Beth Ditto, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance and Kelis) and Lynch superimposed images over the band and sometimes completely obliterating them, showing the images alone. This sounds like an easy and cheap concept, yet it worked splendidly. The Duran Duran fans were super stoked and literally sang along with every song. I, as a casual Duran Duran listener, was mesmerized by the images, the music and the enthusiastic audience reception. Before the film, I thought it would be a bit of a goof; within one song I was totally convinced that this was a great idea.

The images which Lynch used were sometimes very literal and sometimes completely absurd. During the song ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ illustrations of wolves were flashed on the screen. During ‘Ordinary World’ a stream of blue exhaust cascaded from the side of the screen over the band. This was very simple, very fitting for such a lovely song. During the interstitial pieces when Simon Le Bon would banter with the audience and his band mates, fire was often superimposed over his talking. What the symbolism of fire over Le Bon talking is, I have no idea, but that was not the wackiest image of the film. The high-point of the film was when the band played ‘Come Undone’. If you recall the music video, well, Lynch’s interpretation was leagues away from that. I believe he took the lyrics “Can not forgive from falling apart at the seams” literally. The images which were placed over this song included a charcoal barbecue grill, filled with hot dogs, being methodically hit with a spatula. Also stuffed animal mice and other puppets mouthed the lyrics. Those images surely do lend themselves to the idea of ‘coming undone’ mentally and were unexpected and highly amusing.

I am pleased that I was able to experience this film with a theater full of people. David Lynch and Duran Duran created a unique theater experience; something that will not be replicated ever again. Truthfully, since I am not a Duran Duran super fan, I would have watched a little on DVD and probably would have become disinterested after a few songs. With this special event, I was drawn into the joy of the fans and also the quality picture and sound design.  It was as near to a real concert as one can get (minus the obligatory can’t-handle-their-drugs collapsing fan) plus the added absurdity of Lynch’s vision. A strange and unusual pairing David Lynch and Duran Duran may have seemed, yet it sure did turn out to be a whole lot of fun.

The Address by Ken Burns

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

-President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

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The Address is the latest documentary by the great American director Ken Burns for PBS. The documentary appears to tread on well-covered Burnsian ground by centering on a group of teenage boys who learn to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address over the course of a school term. The documentary is quite different from Burns’ usual style with the lovingly filmed sepia photographs and emotive narrators reading the words of those long past; this documentary employs the students themselves as narrators and explores their present lives.

The young men who attend The Greenwood School are not the average student and neither is the school. The Greenwood School is an educational facility which boards teen boys who have a variety of learning disabilities which make them incompatible with rigid traditional schools. These young men have been poorly served by their previous schools and The Greenwood School offers them the opportunity to break old habits, learn in a way that suits their unique and varied learning issues and imbues them with the confidence a traditional school would never offer. As a former special education student in a public school myself,  I can attest to the sadness that these students feel when they were picked on by fellow students and teachers for not fitting an unattainable mold of perfection. The Greenwood School strives to provide the boys with respectful instruction, to instill in them the fortitude they need to survive in the world as an adult and to teach them that they can succeed with perseverance and hard work.

It is a tradition at The Greenwood School that the students learn to recite the Gettysburg Address, perform it at a gala dinner and receive a coin of accomplishment for their efforts. The act of memorizing and reciting a famous speech may appear easy, but for these students with varying learning disabilities and a lack of confidence, this is a monumental task. The educators at Greenwood use the Gettysburg Address as a teaching tool specifically because it is short, but also one of the most poignant, moving speeches ever written in the history of mankind. By teaching these students who have been repeatedly beat down in their previous educational environments that they can understand and interpret this speech is a brilliant lesson. The rest of the world may have written off these young men, but at Greenwood they are not seen as problems and are encouraged to see the intelligence they possess if they simply work hard and believe in themselves.

The documentary has a light quality to it; the boys are filmed romping about in the snow, wrestling and acting as typical kids. The educators lend a warm feel to the school and the film; they are top-notch in their profession and compassionate, as all teachers should be but often fail to become in traditional school environments. Compared to the massive documentaries which Burns regularly produces, this film may seem slight. Instead of a grand American story, the director provides a window into a smaller, but critical narrative about our current lives. The competent education of young people with learning disabilities is crucial to turning out a well-balanced crop of future adults. With ingenuity and perseverance the educators of Greenwood have succeeded in finding a way to instruct those previously disregarded as lesser by those with little imagination. The concise words put forth by Lincoln were to honor the dead of the Battle of Gettysburg; the lasting legacy of the sorrowful yet emboldening prose still reaches into the lives of Americans and changes them for the better.