Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Log: Different, or Maybe Not

Two items on the Netflix calendar.  They're different, but perhaps I can identify a common thread.

One: the legendary production of King Lear with James Earl Jones, given at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare-in-the-Park in 1973.   It's a delight, although you have to get used to the fact that the actors are declaiming the way they need to for an outdoor audience on a summer evening. Not an easy job: I've joined the Shakespeare-in-the-Park audience exactly once in my life--this in 1996--and I sat in the back row from which, for all their apparent declamation, I couldn't hear a thing.  But then, the play was Timon of Athens (only time I ever saw it) and perhaps it was just as well that I did not hear a thing.

Lear is different on that score: this was actually our third Lear within a year and I haven't any idea how many I might have seen over a lifetime (actually not that many, but more than three).  We are at the point where (unless silenced) we can chime in with our own interpretation of favorite lines--never fun for anybody, I suspect, except the utterer.  We're also at the point where any performance is going to live in the shadow of previous performances, perhaps for good, more often for ill.   Is Raúl Juliá really okay for Edmund the Bastard?  Well, yes, actually, though it took a few minutes' getting used to.  But that guy who played Edmund's father, Duke of Gloucester--he of the old-pro résumé, should be dependable for anything. Grant that he had to shout, but can't he do anything but shout?

And Jones himself?  I quite liked him.  By our time he comes so close to self-caricature, you wonder if he can ever actually get out from behind the glaze.  But you got the sense that he'd given thought to every line, that he had a purpose and was determined to get it across.  Mrs. B did spot one problem--he seemed to get younger as the evening went on, or perhaps better, to forget how old he was (in life, 42; in character "fourscore and upward").  It was almost as if he was telling himself: hey, it's working, I'm bringing this off!  No matter, well worth the time and the attention.

Second item: Street of Shame, an account by the extraordinary Kenji Mizoguchi of intertwined lives in a Tokyo brothel.  It's filmed with all of Mizoguchi's legendary patient compassion.    You can't call it "realistic" exactly: I double-dare anybody to watch 87 straight  minutes of what life is really like in a brothel (though perhaps Boardwalk Empire comes close).  But it is unblinking in its own way. And you think--wait a minute, this is 1956. Say again, 1956?   Tokyo?  A compassionate film about the lives of sex workers?  Who exactly was watching?  Would anybody have done (did anybody do) anything in America even remotely close?

I've already conceded that there isn't much of a common thread here, although I suppose you can add both to your "unblinking compassion" file.  And here is one more: in both cases, I found my selves thinking about the film itself but also about the context--context(s) which seem so far away.  New York in the 70s: not a happy place, but there is something joyous about seeing Juliá and Jones and several other minority theater folks on on display in such a desirable venue.   I'd been telling myself it was some kind of a breakthrough, but now: a glance at the old cast list shows me that both Jones and Juliá had performed in the Park before.  Still in both cases, that in both cases, the content seems so long ago and so far away. From 1973, or 1956.  Long ago and far away: how did that happen?

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