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Lenses

I have the impression that most literary types didn’t like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby this summer…. but I enjoyed it. I liked the super-saturated colors, the dizzying camera angles, the speeding cars, the glamorous costumes, and the anachronistic music…. I love it when the man in the pink suit explodes into violence (see below). [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIewKn6EnAs] I love the book too, but they are two different animals. As Daisy tells Jay, “this world is made entirely out of your imagination,” and that’s what both book and film pull off. That willed act of imagination is the essence of the novel that any adaptation should try to get right, and Luhrmann has the gift. Like Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, Luhrmann dives in to his story wholeheartedly and believes in what he has made. I think the film’s attempt to show some background by cutting to Gatsby’s dustbowl childhood and war service was a mistake for the same reason: it should stick with the fictions and leave the “reality” for us to imagine. Does the film represent the book?  It interprets it — as it is supposed to, through Luhrmann’s extraordinary lens.

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A Mind Diseased

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9n-HSMZfJc]

 

There’s a novelty element to the latest Macbeth on Broadway: the play is set in a mental hospital and Alan Cumming plays a patient who acts out all the roles. It’s a tribute to the production and performance that you cease thinking about that novelty while sitting in the theater, immersed in the pathos heightened by this setting. We learn nothing about the “main” character, the patient, but much about Shakespeare’s characters.

After all, Macbeth does lose his mind during the course of the play. He turns from a man afraid to consider murder to one who can slaughter a whole family. The voices and visions all find an uncanny home in this production, and the directors can be economical in suggesting them. The weird sisters and the visions of ghosts and bloody daggers appear organic in this context and so the production doesn’t bother with many special effects. It uses surveillance cameras and three TV screens to show close ups of Cumming that exagerrate his strangeness and the disorienting action.  Cumming’s impersonations are all implied with a few gestures or simple props: a blanket turned into a cape for MacDuff, a baby doll for Malcolm, and even more simply, a shift in voice and body language for Lady Macbeth. You can see from the clip above that Cumming doesn’t play Lady Macbeth broadly, so to speak, but saves the melodrama for the lines themselves.

By the end, when Macbeth reaches his elaborately foretold fate, the interpretation of reality, the sense of sense-making, has become crucial to the play as a whole. Macbeth was led into his tragedy by one weird sisters’ prophecy and he is brought down by another one. But in both cases he reads (or misreads) the prophecies very literally: he will be king, Birnum Wood will never move to Dunsinane Castle, no man is not born of woman. His literal interpretations of his visions are equally destructive, and seem to suggest a “fatal flaw” in the old terms of character analysis — or madness. It is this inability to understand and interpret the reality around him, to be instead driven by an urgent inner reality, that makes Macbeth, the play and the character, tragic.

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Black and White and Read All Over

I’ve been reading, and writing, about characters set against backdrops of texts, and here is a wonderful visual example of that juxtaposition. Photographer Carl Van Vechten often took portraits against geometric backgrounds, which creates a complex formal composition. It seems to set human variety within a grid of some kind.

Here the grid is especially interesting because it too is man made, or written. Yet Van Vechten disrupts our expectations that culture will be predictable and regular by making the words all aslant and senseless.  Against that background of torn posters and mangled phrases stands another photographer, surrealist Man Ray, also at an angle. The effect is disorienting in the best way — Ray’s tie appears to hang sideways, disturbing gravity; the words appear to climb and fall. Van Vechten, best known for his portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures, was both an artist and author himself. This photograph seems his attempt to be both at once: both writer of image and photographer of text. It particularly suits Man Ray’s own art of surprising juxtapositions. The artist here, conventional in shirt and tie and profile, also borders on the absurd–as if that black and white frame can’t quite contain him.

To see more photographs by Van Vechten check out the Library of Congress’ collection.

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Light and Motion

In 1909 Thomas Edison visited Mark Twain at his house in Connecticut and made the film you see before you. The intersection of these two great men, and their respective fields, at the same place and time is tantalizing. You see the familiar figure of Twain shambling around his house, then playing cards with his daughters. He could be talking, but the film is silent, and he moves with the herky-jerkiness of a Charlie Chaplin. The quality is terrible, but Twain in motion is irresistible.

There is the slightest suggestion of a story: as Twain sits with his daughters, drinking tea in a gazebo-like structure, a younger man enters and gives one girl a hat. She puts it on and adjusts it, the three resume, and then they leave together. Is this a plot? In dramatic fashion, there have been entrances, exits, and props, but we have to imagine the characters and narrative. Perhaps the younger man is a servant.  Perhaps the girl was too much in the sun. Literature is well advanced by Twain’s time, but how should we read this early film? As fiction or documentary? Unlike the people, the camera doesn’t move, though there is one edit to divide the indoor and outdoor scenes. The film’s model, if there is one, seems to be staged theater, with figures who face and approach the audience, though it’s only a camera.

In 1926 Virginia Woolf wrote that “at first sight, the art of cinema seems simple, even stupid.” She warned the new art from too close a connection with literature, instead suggesting that film claim an expertise of its own: engaging the eye.  The cinema can erase time and distance, she wrote, and even efface our presence, showing “life as it is when we have no part in it.”  Watching a film allows us to be here and there, now and then, simultaneously. In this film we see with our own eyes and Edison’s.

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