Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log: Dec. 12, 2011 - Dec. 18, 2011: "I'm Late, I'm Late" Edition

NEW YORK—I'm already super-late with this latest artistic consumption log, so let's get right to it, shall we?

Elevator Repair Service's Gatz at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.


Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller), seen at AMC Empire 25 in New York
Screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin locate the beating human heart in Michael Lewis's nonfiction book about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and the near-miraculous 2002 season his team had, and fashions a solid screenplay that receives sturdy direction from Bennett Miller and fine central performances by Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as statistics-minded assistant GM Peter Brand (a character that is actually a fictionalized amalgamation of a few real-life characters).

For the most part, though, I enjoyed Moneyball out of personal nostalgia. Back in 2002, I followed professional baseball a lot more closely than I do now (that dissipation of interest is a hazard of following a team as perpetually disappointing as the New York Mets), and so I found myself smiling and nodding in recognition throughout this film, remembering a lot of details about the season this film depicts. If anything, Moneyball left me feeling the same way Beane felt towards the end as he was deciding whether to leave the A's and take a high-paying new position in Boston. "It's so easy to be a romantic about baseball," he says. The moment he said that, I started feeling a bit romantic about the sport myself, missing the days when I was a more intense baseball fan.

Rest assured, though, that Moneyball has more to it than nostalgia value. Once again, an all-American sport is made the backdrop of larger themes and dichotomies: haves vs. have-nots; the coldness of numbers vs. the warmth of human interaction; romantic idealism vs. harsh reality. (In those ways, it wouldn't be too far off to think of this film as a fitting follow-up to last year's Sorkin-scripted The Social Network, with baseball substituting for Facebook.) Thankfully, Miller mostly stays out of the way of the script and the actors, allowing the themes to come through sufficiently. It also has one standout scene: a real-time negotiation-by-phone in which Beane, with Brand in tow, tries to land a certain pitcher he desperately wants on his team. The highest compliment one could pay to Moneyball is that it manages to fashion a gripping human drama out of the potentially dry subject of baseball's behind-the-scenes business machinations.

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird), seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York
If anything, I found this an even more consistently enthralling an action picture than Steven Spielberg's still quite enjoyable The Adventures of Tintin—which means this fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible series at least comes within striking distance of securing a spot in my personal pantheon of great Bruised Forearm entertainments (I wrote about previous inclusions into that canon here, here and here). Perhaps Brad Bird showed more "heart" in his animated features (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille)...but the action sequences here are so deliriously conceived and superbly wrought that that I can't find myself be bothered by the two or three moments of attempted character drama that don't fully come off (though that's one or two more than Spielberg really tried for in Tintin). And yes, this is absolutely worth seeing in IMAX, which is how I saw it; in fact, it was the first time since I was a kid (read: younger than 10) I had seen anything in a legitimate IMAX format (no, my second go at The Dark Knight at one of AMC's fake IMAX theaters in New Jersey doesn't count).

Nashville (1975, Robert Altman), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y. [second viewing]
I'm not sure if anyone has invoked Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) in talking about Altman's 1975 masterpiece, but, watching this film for a second time—my first time on a big screen—I couldn't help but think of Tati's film in Altman's less overtly formal and more "humane" approach: Nashville's de-emphasis on central characters; its generosity in depicting various points of view; its spirit of inclusiveness with even the most selfish and/or self-delusional of characters. It's a human mosaic, not a message movie or political screed (this is why a film like Paul Haggis's openly schematic Crash—with its thin, position-paper characterizations—dishonors the "network narrative" form Altman pioneered); Altman might have his own personal vision of America in mind, but that doesn't mean he doesn't try to air out different points of view to complicate that vision. And once one gets attuned to Altman's deliberate looseness with narrative, Nashville becomes, well, pleasurable. Many have tried to match it (even Altman himself, with later mosaics like A Wedding, Short Cuts and Gosford Park) , but even now, there has still never been a film quite like it.


Phrenology (2002, The Roots)
The Tipping Point (2004, The Roots)
Phrenology pushes The Roots' hip-hop sound and lyrical substance even further than Things Fall Apart did; by contrast, the relatively more conventional The Tipping Point comes off as something of a creative breather for the group, though still an enjoyable one. That's pretty much all I have to say about these two albums (really, I try, but I'm no music critic, folks).

塵緣 (1985, 蘇芮) [third listen]
Finally—a chance to offer up a few words about one of my favorite Mandarin pop albums! I've mentioned 蘇芮—who also went by the Western name "Julie Su"—before; Jia Zhang-ke fans surely know who she is (she sings the song on the radio Zhao Tao dances to by herself in his 2001 film Platform). This 1985 album—her greatest album of the '80s, in my opinion—doesn't feature that song, though. Instead, it features the title track, a glorious nine-minute epic about the overcoming of heartbreak that is quite possibly one of the greatest cuts you've never heard.

Don't believe me? Check it out here (and to my mind, you don't need to understand what she's singing to get the gist; the music and her impassioned voice, signify everything that needs to be, uh, signified):

The rest of the album is pretty great, too—some of the most adventurous pop music Julie Su ever recorded, by turns rocking, spacey, surreal, romantic, regretful, and ultimately heroic. (If I've piqued your interest in it at all, you can pick up a copy here at


Gatz (2010, Elevator Repair Service), performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
Yes, I traveled all the way down to Princeton, N.J., to see this highly acclaimed six-hour theatrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby live—and I paid quite a lot for the privilege ($150, more or less). It was worth every penny.

If you've heard anything about Elevator Repair Service's Gatz, you'll perhaps know of it as "that word-for-word stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby." There's more to it than that, though. Here's the set-up: A lowly office worker runs into computer problems during a normal day at the office, opens up his Rolodex and, lo and behold, finds a copy of The Great Gatsby sitting in it. He opens up the book, starts reading...and then gradually, within that one office set, the novel starts to come to life around him, even as "Nick Carraway"—because, of course, Fitzgerald's story is told from Nick's point-of-view—keeps reading from the book, which he holds in his hand (most of the time, at least) as he reads aloud every single word. This guy doesn't just read The Great Gatsby; he gets lost in it, the way anyone would get lost in any engrossing novel or work of art.

But wait, you might be asking at this point: Doesn't that set-up suggest that Gatz essentially adds up to little more than a staged recitation of this American literary classic? No. Judging by The Select—the Elevator Repair Service's stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises that I saw earlier this year here in New York (I offered up some commentary on it here)—this company thrives on finding inventive ways to illustrate great literary texts on stage, and a lot of the playful frisson of Gatz comes from the way they experiment with lighting, staging and acting to not only bring The Great Gatsby to life within its deliberately limited means, but to turn the whole production into an indirect meditation on the sheer act of book-to-stage adaptation. Simplification and/or compression is often the name of the game when it comes adapting a work from one medium to another; here, though, director John Collins and company apparently decided to try the opposite approach, presenting the whole work in toto. And yet...for one thing, listen to the way Scott Shepherd, who plays Nick/the narrator, subtly conveys different modes of engagement with the material he's reading aloud. Sometimes he gets fully into it, most notably in early party scenes and during Daisy's first reacquaintance with Gatsby; other times he just reads perfunctorily, as if figuring the language would take care of itself. Shepherd, in other words, gives a real performance even as just a "reader"; his feat of acting, among other details, is enough to get one to reflect on one's own preconceived notions about what's "theatrical" or not. Surely it's telling, then, that when Shepherd finally puts away the book and recites its final chapter from memory, his performance, freed from the shackles of the text, suddenly achieves a sense of creative freedom that was not consistently apparent throughout the rest of the production.

Of course, Gatz still works quite grippingly as a straight-up stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby—as long as you don't go in expecting fresh revelations about this much-discussed work of 20th-century art. As an adaptation, it's more about imaginative illustration than profound illumination. Its provocations lie elsewhere. The Elevator Repair Service seems to have decided that—unlike Gatsby and his attempts to remake himself into the man of his and Daisy's dreams—the only truly honest way to "adapt" The Great Gatsby to the stage would be to allow the words to speak for themselves while still trying to make it play as a work of theater. Is this maybe the only way to truly do justice to a literary work in a different medium? In being retrograde in its approach to adaptation, Gatz is also, paradoxically, more daring.

All of that basically sums up my disorganized, incoherent, complicated thoughts on this monumental work, simultaneously an act of theatrical hubris and artistic humility. It's coming back for an encore theatrical run at the Public Theater in New York in the spring (details here); if you're willing to put in the time and money for it, I think it'll be worth your while—at least if you're game for having your conception of the possibilities of theater rocked to its core.


victorian inn bed and breakfast said...

Nice collection of scenes you have shared here. Moneyball attracted so many people and left long lasting impact.

Kenji Fujishima said...