This Week’s Arts Feature:
The Movie Network
The Movie Network
Emboldened by the digital-filmmaking
revolution, local would-be auteurs, actors and artists form a thriving
communitythrough inclusive group
By Peter Hanson
Patrick Kindlon and Steven Leibo sure don’t seem like they have anything in common. Kindlon is a hip 20-year-old with tattoos around his neck, and Leibo is a boomer with a Ph.D. who teaches history at Russell Sage. But as they gather into a crowded meeting taking place in Borders Books and Music on a Wednesday evening in July, they discover that they’re both interested in making Adirondack packbaskets. More specifically, they’re interested in how area filmmaker Mike Camoin created How to Make an Adirondack Packbasket, a 56-minute instructional tape. After Camoin shows a clip from the video, Kindlon and others in the room compliment the project and ask tech-minded questions: Why were dissolves used to connect images? Which camera did Camoin use? Did he have a hard time keeping the camera stable when he didn’t use a tripod?
There’s a reason why the people in the audience ask such specific questions—they’re not just movie buffs, they’re would-be moviemakers. The occasion is the latest monthly meeting of Upstate Independents, a 5-year-old organization that now boasts more than 100 dues-paying members. Composed of directors, producers, writers, actors, musicians and other artists who range from working professionals to enthusiastic amateurs, the group is at the center of a revolution in area cinema.
The local revolution is part of a larger phenomenon: Because inexpensive digital-filmmaking technology has become widely available in recent years, more and more people are joining groups such as UI and pursuing their dreams of big-screen glory. The Albany group, a “salon” of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, meets on the first Wednesday of every month at Borders and rarely draws less than 35 people to a meeting. For an area that has produced only a handful of feature films, the size and devotion of UI’s membership is impressive.
“There’s just a tremendous pent-up interest in the Capital Region in all aspects of filmmaking,” says UI cofounder Tom Mercer. “People are looking for a community of like-minded artists.”
Based on the spirited discussion at the group’s July 5 meeting, it’s clear that UI is providing such a community. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, documentarian Joe Glickman shows a goofy short that he made while on holiday with friends; Camoin presents the packbasket video, on which several group members worked; Kindlon says that he and friends are finishing a script; Leibo describes visiting Vietnam with veterans for a documentary about the war’s effect on the Capital Region; area producer Terry Field updates the group on the latest batch of comedy shorts that his group sold to Home Box Office; and so on. People show completed projects, talk shop and discuss future plans, all with the enthusiasm of first-year film-school students.
“We’re very inclusive, as opposed to exclusive,” notes cofounder Carol Brizzi. “We don’t demand that people describe their skill level or education. We allow people to describe themselves as they see themselves, and that is very different from how most organizations work. People don’t have to feel improper describing themselves as an actor because they don’t have five years’ experience. You can call yourself an actor if you’ve only done two shows.”
“We’re nonjudgmental,” adds Mercer. “With many aspects of this business, you don’t have to have a license to practice—you’re a filmmaker if you say you are, you’re an actor if you say you are, you’re a writer if you say you are—and I think we all recognize that.”
UI’s open-door policy smartly reflects the reality of local cinema: The area’s most ambitious would-be filmmakers move to New York City or Los Angeles to pursue their careers, and those who don’t usually have to balance their dreams with day jobs, families and other concerns. While a handful of UI’s members are professionals, the group’s core members are part-timers who want to become full-timers. Mercer, a would-be screenwriter who plans to leave state work this fall after putting in more than 20 years, notes proudly that several members have made the transition from amateur to professional because of connections they made through the group.
“I found a place with people with similar interests, similar dreams, similar hopes—and all kind of in the same boat,” says UI board member David Bunce, an actor and would-be writer-director. “I didn’t happen into a room where everyone’s 16, or a room where everyone’s a successful filmmaker.”
Because networking is among the most important resources provided by UI, it’s fitting that the group’s story begins with two people talking. Camoin, whose background is in social work, met Mercer at a screenwriting seminar held at Columbia County Community College in 1994. Not long after, Camoin received a mailing from AIVF that invited members to start salons in their hometowns. Camoin picked up the phone and pitched the idea to Mercer.
“I kind of discouraged him at first,” Mercer recalls. “It seemed like a lot of work. I had tried in the past to see if groups of artists would coalesce around a common interest, and hadn’t had any lasting success. He made a strong case for it, so I said, ’ll support you.’ But I was still skeptical.”
Camoin wrote to the dozens of AIVF members based in the Capital Region, to see if there was interest in a local salon, and Brizzi was among the first to respond. Camoin, Mercer and Brizzi then set up the group’s first meeting, which was held in March 1995 at Mother Earth’s Café in Albany. Only six people showed up, including the three founders, but UI’s stalwarts were patient. After shifting locations to Media Play in Schenectady and Steamer No. 10 Theatre in Albany, the group settled into its longtime home, Borders, in early 1996. The April meeting that year was a crucial one in UI’s history, Camoin recalls, because the featured guest was producer’s representative John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema.
“He was one of the first influential members of the independent-film movement to come visit us,” Camoin says. “His message is one of empowerment.” Pierson, who helped launch the careers of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith and other major directors, spoke to UI’s members and viewed locally made projects, including an early version of Camoin’s Adirondack documentary, Inside the Blue Line: Leadley’s Legacy. “He signed a poster and wrote ‘UI rules,’ ” Camoin adds, beaming. “He said, ‘I’m telling everybody that you’re the ‘Mike’ in the title.’ ” (The title actually refers to Roger & Me documentarian Michael Moore.)
As the years passed and membership grew, UI developed a reputation as one of the most active AIVF salons in the country; only six of the salons, for instance, have regularly scheduled meetings. The group’s founders credit their momentum to their inclusive attitude, which allows amateurs to mingle with professionals. “I think guests experience an intelligent group, a relaxed atmosphere and some really creative people, so they tell other people nice things about us,” Camoin says, adding that he’s frequently asked to advise filmmakers in other cities when they start AIVF salons.
The group incorporated as a nonprofit in July 1998, at which time Camoin was named president and a board of directors was selected. The incorporation coincided with the acceleration of Camoin’s career; he completed Inside the Blue Line in 1998 and began entering the film into festivals and selling video copies. “The more organized we become, the more control the group has as a whole—and that’s a good thing,” Camoin says. “One of the key steps that allowed us to grow is realizing that I couldn’t host every meeting. That brought such a diversity to our meetings, because people began to program things that were of interest to them.”
UI meetings begin with an announcements section, during which new members introduce themselves, current members give project updates and board members discuss group business; next comes a networking session. Meetings conclude with programs that include screenings, seminars, panel discussions, guest speakers, or whatever the evening’s host thinks will be interesting. Camoin recalls that one of his favorite programs was presented by Saratoga Springs producer Frank D’Andrea, who had people including a musician and a dancer discuss the creative process. “They talked about how it was different for every person,” Camoin says. “It was a fascinating program that got you to think out of the box and think about what works for you.”
“I think that the members can demand of the organization any kind of information, and we can either find it from within or bring it in from outside,” Brizzi says. “We’re very responsive to the membership.”
Brizzi and others cite the group’s diversity as one of its greatest strengths: Because it is not entirely composed of, say, directors, people with different interests can learn from each other and form fortuitous partnerships. Brizzi met sound designer Christopher Haynes through UI; screenwriter Cindy Parrish had a screenplay optioned by Talon Films producers who are group members. Fields’ company, Altar Rock Films, has made several important connections: UI actors have appeared in the comedy shorts that Altar Rock makes for HBO, and the company has an option on Mercer’s The Choice of the Cross, a historical drama about a Pueblo Indian uprising in the 1600s.
“I like the community of it as much as anything,” Bunce says. “I like feeling like I’m really part of the independent-film movement in the area—feeling like I’m really a filmmaker, even if I’m not producing anything.” Bunce adds, crucially, that his involvement isn’t passive; he employs knowledge gleaned during nearly 20 years of working with the New York State Theater Institute. “I’ve learned an awful lot there about organizational skills and the importance of documenting, so I bring a lot of that to the group,” he says. “It gives me a chance to feel like I have an influence.”
UI’s founders say that because the group includes neophytes, professionals and everyone in between, meetings sometimes offer exciting opportunities. “If that last meeting was your first meeting, and you heard the Masucci brothers saying ‘We’re going to shoot in the fall, and we’re open to anybody,’ you’d be on a shoot in a matter of weeks,” Mercer says. (Joe and Dan Masucci, who recently made a faux episode of The X-Files, plan to begin production of their sci-fi thriller Judgment Time in September.) “You can put together the talent to make a film, and that has happened numerous times,” Mercer adds. “I’ve got three separate writing partnerships that I’ve made through the group.”
“I’ve done film production for 20 years,” Field says. “When I started looking to see who’s in my backyard, I was lucky to stumble across Upstate Independents. I think it’s a real resource. . . . I think that particularly today, with digital technology, you don’t have to be in the major centers of New York or L.A. to have access to the equipment. There’s a lot of vibrant interest in film around here—my personal goal is to steer as much production as possible to the area and help that grow.”
“With the digital revolution, I think this region will be a major force in the development of content for the new distribution systems,” Mercer adds, “simply because we’re getting a critical mass of talent.”
Because the new distributions systems to which Mercer refers—notably the Internet and digital television—are still in their early stages, it’s too soon to say whether the Capital Region will become a major production center in the near future. But UI’s members have good reasons for optimism: Last year’s No Business Like Show Business conference, which was held in Saratoga Springs, and this year’s Lake Placid Film Forum both indicate that participation in homegrown cinematic activities is on the rise.
“I have what I’m calling ‘enthusiastic detachment,’ ” Mercer says. “Stay excited about filmmaking, stay excited about projects, but stay detached—keep your expectations in check, so you’re not disappointed.”
While future changes in the area’s film scene are still unknown, one future change in UI’s makeup is approaching quickly: In October, Camoin will step down as president to concentrate on his debut feature, Grazing. He’s confident that UI will soldier on under someone else’s command, in part because of how members came together when he made the packbasket video. Graphic designer-author Penny Perkins helped generate the video’s title cards, musician Gordon Grey composed the score and Scoharie County editor Tony Grocki, who has worked with heavy hitters Jim Jarmusch and Paul Schrader, helped cut the project together.
Camoin says that in addition to helping each other, UI members are ready, willing and able to work with out-of-town filmmakers who bring their productions to the area. At the July meeting, for instance, two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed UI to recruit crew members for a feature they plan to shoot later this year in Saratoga Springs.
“They can show up, ask for help and talented people can be mobilized,” Camoin says. “I think the caliber of the talent in our group is vastly underrated. Collectively, we’re letting the industry know that, ‘Hey we want to be on the map.’ And I think we are.”
By Ralph Hammann
The Hot l Baltimore
Written by Lanford Wilson, directed by Joe Mantello
Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 16
Shades of Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drift over the ghosts that Lanford Wilson raises from the dingy corners of the about-to-be-razed Hot l Baltimore. More than a letter in the sign has burned out at this establishment built with aspirations as high as its ceilings. In John Lee Beatty’s evocative setting, mismatched furniture, missing balusters, faded carpeting and a dirtily intrusive Coca Cola machine belie the hotel’s former grandeur. The hotel becomes a symbol of a blindered and delusional America that has lost sight of its dreams or, as Wilson puts it, a society that has lost the conviction to act on its passions. Significantly, Wilson wrote the play in 1973 and its message was not lost on audiences who had seen the fall of Camelot and the rise of Babel 2.
It is, of course, a perfect play to present at the end of a millennium that has seen great leaps in the progress of silicon and the regression of society. It is also a play that, given a production as fine as director Joe Mantello’s, grows richer in retrospect.
Especially taken in comparison to the many television sitcom-influenced plays of the moment, Wilson’s deft construction of characters who genuinely are products of their pasts also seems a thing of the vanishing past. Here, he presents the marginalized residents and staff of the hotel. Too poor or fractured or dispossessed to be a part of the civilization that is destroying their temporary residence or workplace, they have formed an alternate society whose stay-of-execution at the Baltimore reveals much about their counterparts in the outside world.
They function as a tight ensemble who collide and cohere with each other revealing themselves by gradual degrees. Mantello’s cast savor their parts and each other—some more skillfully than others—but all work in service of the show and, importantly, manage to reveal the varying degrees of humanity that Wilson invests in each character. Never sentimental or clichéd, Wilson seems to feel that in most everyone there is a shard of decency. Sometimes it gets a bit dirtied or crusted over, but this is a play that in many ways is about the human need to bond and the desire to grab a shred of decency even in the last extreme and in the most destitute of the species.
He is, of course, a dreamer, but his dreams are knit together with catgut and piano wire; and a lyric, albeit tough, music emerges.
Mantello makes excellent use of Beatty’s set in his blocking, and uses its multiple levels and varied areas to keep the action fluid and the eye and the mind engaged. The hotel is very much a character to which the other characters relate in this play.
Mandy Siegfried, known simply as the “girl,” is winsomely naturalistic. What she may withhold in vocal range for characterization purposes, is handsomely compensated for in her free, pure movements. These are of a limber young girl who could as easily be strolling through a country field, lolling on rocks and tree limbs. The realization that she is a prostitute waiting for her next call is a quietly affecting moment, because she has somehow maintained her innocence amid a host of elders and contemporaries who have abandoned, or are close to abandoning, theirs. Siegfried’s performance was, for me, the ticket into the play, just as her character is its irrepressible soul.
Her opposite would appear to be Becky Anne Baker’s happily sarcastic, devil-may-care April, a prostitute whose experience has not so much hardened her as allowed her to adopt an engagingly comic sense of life. It is her earthy performance that provides most of the show’s humor. As a third prostitute, Cyndi Coyne is comic and arresting when she bares considerably more than her teeth in a chaotic scene-closer that rivals the famous end of the second act in You Can’t Take It With You.
A few false notes are sounded by Sara Gilbert, who, physically, is perfectly cast as Jackie—a tomboy caring for her fragile brother (subtly played by Justin Long)—and Helen Hanft, who, as an overly protective mother, verges too close to stereotype.
Kenneth Posner’s lighting poignantly suggests a fading bygone era that must give way to what Tennessee Williams described as a world lit by lightning. In his rueful picture of a languishing world, Wilson is heir to Williams and Chekhov while his dignified portraits of life’s cast-off losers evoke O’Neill’s famous barroom. The WTF production is a rare opportunity to revisit Wilson’s rich contribution to the noble tradition.
Coyote on a Fence
Written by Bruce Graham, directed by James Warwick
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, through July 29
I have a respect, sometimes grudging, for works or performances that evoke sympathy for an individual or individuals for whom the classification “enemy” is handily applied. Das Boot makes one empathize and suffer with the crew of a German submarine on its way to torpedo the allied forces. In Inherit the Wind and Patton, George C. Scott forces, respectively, evolutionists and doves, to respect and even admire men who stand for radically different values. The play, Keely and Du, makes pro-life and pro-choice advocates feel the passion and pain of their adversaries.
Murderers are especially difficult. Macbeth can elicit surprise in its ability to make one empathize with a murderer, and in Iphigenia at Aulis one is shocked to feel for the duplicitous King Agamemnon—who is about to kill his child. Dead Man Walking made many feel the barbarism of the state execution of a murderer, but only Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has truly moved me in this regard.
The recent introduction of DNA evidence, and the wrongful convictions of people to death row, has complicated matters and put many of us on the fence. And now there is playwright Bruce Graham.
His new play, at least just after its performance in the BTF’s intimate Unicorn Theater, doesn’t allow one to easily sit on the fence regarding one’s attitude toward the death penalty. Those against capital punishment will feel championed; those in favor will be forced to reevaluate its conditions. And the masses who equivocate will find their notions of evil and retribution challenged. This is a compelling play of ideas and emotions that makes one bristle one moment, laugh the next, and, in a very special scene, swallow hard. Or possibly choke.
Jessica Wade’s canny scenic design of two adjacent cells on death row daringly distances us from the inmates whose lives we will share for about 90 swift and mercifully unbroken minutes. Although the bars are cut away in places so that we can be afforded unobscured views of the men’s faces, we often see them partially obscured, and the very jaggedness of the broken bars serves to confer an extra degree of harshness or toughness to the men.
The inmates are John Brennan (Michael Waelter) and Bobby Reyburn (Greg Keller). Brennan, who claims he is innocent, has earned the contempt of the prison administration through his articles and obituaries of executed men in the prison newspaper that he edits, and which has attracted the attention of national media. Brennan is an intellectual who has been able to find the humanity in every man no matter what his crimes. His ability is put to the test when Reyburn is transferred to the cell just vacated by an African-American whose execution has left Brennan particularly embittered.
Reyburn, a member of a white supremacist group, hates Jews and blacks, and has earned his place on death row for mass murder in which 37 people, 14 of them being children, were burned alive in a church. Unrepentant, Reyburn claims he was doing God’s work. Long-haired and with his body covered in tattoos, Reyburn amuses himself by doing impressions of animals. We in the audience are, despite ourselves, amused; Brennan is not.
James Warwick’s tight direction of Graham’s unsparing dialogue and powerful performances by Waelter and, particularly, Keller may well leave you stunned. How they manage this doesn’t seem quite fair to reveal. Suffice to say, the manipulation is done truthfully and earnestly, and my admiration for the sizable accomplishment is not grudging.
This is one of the most important plays the summer season is likely to produce.
How I Fell in Love
Written by Joel Fields, directed by David Lee
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Through July 9
Unlike the TV sitcom to which it is kin, Joel Fields’ new play is performed without intermission. It’s a wise decision lest we lose any of the tenuous connections that we might feel for the main characters, Nessa (Traylor Howard) and Todd (Derek Cecil). The laughs are plentiful enough, with most of them caused or enhanced by Howard’s expert timing, but the dramatic weight of How I Fell in Love is little more than piffle.
Marissa Löwenstein’s crayola-bright comedy settings, brought to vivid artificial life by Jeff Nellis’ candied lighting, set the tone for the proceedings, and only once does Fields’ glib script introduce a hint of darkness that contrasts. This occurs in D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “The Mess of Love,” in which Lawrence decries the ego and mental forces that strip love of its meaning and power. It’s the best writing in the play.
Fields’ forte is breezy dialogue with periodic amusements and one-liners that seem to spring naturally from the characters. However, the characters never seem quite real. They develop about as much as do the frustrated and neurotic couples in Jules Feiffer’s comic sketches, but they lack Feiffer’s wit, and occupy much more time.
As impediments to love, Patrick Boll is called upon to do little more than be a self-absorbed doctor (which he does well), and Lynn Collins, despite the plethora of classical credits in her program bio, is asked to do little more as his distaff equal—a vain actress. Collins is also credible and gives the glowing scenery a run for its colors when she lounges poolside in a bikini. She is a genuine dose of L.A.
Cecil is an appealing enough presence as a lost shaggy dog of an English major who is doggedly attracted to the wrong women, i.e., beauties like Collins who intimidate him. After awhile, about halfway through the play, Cecil’s sameness of delivery (too many sentences ending with rising inflections) becomes a not-very-winning whine.
Howard, however, is wonderful. Better than the material, she is luminous without any aid from Nellis. What we feel for Nessa derives largely through Howard’s dramatic presence and the force of her own seemingly indefatigable personality. She draws laughter effortlessly with comic timing that is always spontaneous. Nessa has endured too many compliments that stop at calling her cute and appealingly waifish; Howard reveals the beauty just beneath the façade and provides ample reason to fall in love.
If it hasn’t been obvious, the play is an account of how Nessa and Todd fell in love as a result of their meetings in the shared waiting room of their two incompetent psychiatrists’ offices. The initial stages of this are well handled by Fields, but when depth is called for he can only rely upon Howard’s performance. Complications, if one can call them that, occur simply and too conveniently with little sense of impact or inevitability, and consequently, no catharsis. This may be the way things are in an accidental universe, but the writing seems too perfunctory and the characters react to such 11th-hour events as abortions and separations with a casualness that may be part of a contemporary society raised on television sitcom role models. And while this may make for satisfying TV, it doesn’t make for a lasting impression in the theater. The best that can be said of it is that it is, with apologies to Nessa, cute.
Morals of the Story
By Mae G. Banner
The Sleeping Beauty
New York City Ballet, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 5-8
It’s tempting to speak irreverently about the Charles Perrault fairy tale of The Sleeping Beauty, which is the narrative source for the 1890 Russian ballet that SPAC audiences saw last week in a truncated restaging by Peter Martins for the New York City Ballet. Martins’ ballet, made in 1991, is eye-filling, stage-filling, and ultimately enchanting. Yet, the French court manners behind it can be wondered at.
For example, the whole trouble starts because the parents of the newborn princess forgot to invite the fairy Carabosse to the christening. The black-gowned Carabosse, eyes flashing, fingernails out to there, is really really mad. She shows it by casting a spell on the baby, dooming her to die on her 16th birthday from pricking her finger on a spindle. Only the gentle power of the Lilac Fairy saves Princess Aurora, transforming death into a hundred-year sleep that will end when the prince comes to awaken her. So, is the moral of the tale: “Check your guest list carefully, or woe betide you?”
French, too, is Prince Desire’s reaction when, after hacking through a hundred years’ growth of impenetrable brambles to reach the sleeping Aurora, he decides she is beautiful, even though her clothes are decidedly out of fashion. So, then, is the moral: make the woman, but a noble prince may overlook fashion errors?”
Perrault himself may have smiled as he added his moral to the story. According to one paraphrased translation, it is: “Young ladies, take your time in choosing a husband—but, do not take a hundred years.”
Well, City Ballet got through its first 43 years without a version of Sleeping Beauty. Under founding choreographer George Balanchine, the troupe made its mark dancing uncluttered, swift-moving ballets in which structure mattered more than story. Now, with Martins’ Sleeping Beauty in the repertory, City Ballet dancers, used to simple leotards and tights, have become courtiers in heavy, jewel-encrusted costumes, dancing in a language somewhat foreign to them.
The production is rich in color, from the parade of silk-caped courtiers in the christening scene to the radiant gold of the final wedding scene. The scenery, too—a watercolor castle on a hill; a golden-brown autumnal park where the prince goes to hunt, and where the Lilac Fairy shows him a vision of Aurora; a magical bejeweled sailing ship that leads him to Aurora’s castle; a grand chandeliered ballroom for the wedding—is more lavish than anything in City Ballet’s book. Just looking at this ballet is an invitation to be enchanted.
And the dancing? Martins claims that he did not choreograph, but only arranged City Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, choosing parts from the original choreography of Marius Petipa and splicing in George Balanchine’s lovely “Garland Waltz” for the celebration of Aurora’s 16th birthday, plus his own choreography for a quartet of Jewels who appear as wedding guests in the second act.
The story, from christening to the prince’s approach to sleeping Aurora, is danced in a long first act. The second act is devoted to the huge wedding with a ballroom full of dancing guests, including many characters from other fairy tales. Certain passages are so well-known and so revered by balletomanes that they must be included in any production of Sleeping Beauty: The solo variations by the five fairy godmothers in the christening scene; the “Rose Adagio” in which the 16-year-old Aurora greets four suitors from the corners of the world; the dazzling fish dives in the wedding duet of Aurora and Prince Desire.
City Ballet devoted the first week of its three-week SPAC season to Sleeping Beauty. In the performances I saw, Margaret Tracey began as a somewhat stilted Aurora, but soon found her way, dancing the role with the exuberance of a dewy girl, then the delicacy and seriousness of a bride. In the same role, Wendy Whelan danced with a commanding strength that was royal indeed. Of the two princes I saw, Nikolaj Hubbe was powerful and virtuosic, even adding a touch of razzle-dazzle to his presentation of Tracey in the final fish dive, while Damian Woetzel brought real emotion to the role, and dignity even to the flashiest variations.
Outstanding in the wedding scene were newly promoted principal dancer Jenifer Ringer and Benjamin Millepied as Princess Florine and the Bluebird. Their leg beats were hummingbird swift, and Ringer seemed almost to fly. Edward Liang as Gold in the Jewels quartet performed crisp jumps with the super control that will make him a prince one day.
Like Greek gods and goddesses controlling the fate of mortals, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy preside over the action, contending throughout in a battle of good and evil. Helene Alexopoulos, substituting for Merrill Ashley, pointed with long fingers that quivered like dangerous live wires. Maria Kowroski as the Lilac Fairy was beautiful, but too mild. In her performances, Jennie Somogyi had more substance.
Good wins, of course, and so does true love. When the King and Queen, Aurora’s parents, place their own crowns on the young couple’s heads in the final scene, we know that power has passed to a new generation, even as The Sleeping Beauty ballet has passed to this very contemporary company.
Grupo Corpo Brazilian Dance Theatre
Ted Shawn Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 8
Grupo Corpo, a company of 19 balletically trained, swivel-hipped dancers from northeast Brazil, returned to Jacob’s Pillow last week after their wildly successful debut a year ago. They seem even smoother now, moving together in unending horizontal lines that cross and re-cross the stage like refugees in an eternal diaspora.
Sometimes, the dancers step high or do a neat jeté; sometimes, their bodies are bent double, arms hanging loosely, fingers nearly scraping the floor. Sometimes, they strut with arms akimbo and twist their way across the stage, kicking out as they traverse the space. Occasionally, a couple dances a balletic duet, weaving classical lifts and turns between the ever-moving lines of dancers, as if the couple were going through some flamboyant crisis while countless other lives went by without taking any notice.
There’s a hypnotic quality about the group-based choreography of Rodrigo Pederneiras. I think it has to do with the power of a group moving in unison, bodies repeating a phrase like voices chanting.
Saturday afternoon’s family matinee consisted of one hour-long dance, Benguele (1998), a U.S. premiere. The word Benguele refers to an area in West Africa, but, as Pederneiras explained in a post-concert discussion with the audience, “In Benguele, make a big travel through the places who have influenced our culture. It’s like a big walk. It will never stop.”
The dance is a weave of movements from Europe, West Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula with its strong Arabic threads. The final section is a pop celebration, a Brazilian fusion of all these elements.
Like a weaving, Benguele had consistent ground notes overlaid with brief, colorful solos and duets. These contrasting moves were matched to the commissioned score by Joao Bosco in that the lines of dancers swiveled to the drums while the soloists and couples danced to the guitars or vocal lines. The music was a pastiche of folk-like songs, some in African languages, one in Arabic, layered with instrumental sections and pop tunes. Whenever a new musical section began, the quality of movement changed, but always keeping the horizontal lines intact.
The Arabic section was mesmerizing, the singer’s voice somewhere between pure sexual lure and ecstatic prayer. Here, unexpectedly, we saw dancers undulate across the stage along a high platform, their bodies silhouetted against a rust-red backdrop, adding a new and strange layer of movement to the ongoing lines that crossed the stage below.
The excitement built as one man crossed, moving in profile, crouching low to the ground, extending one long leg, then the other, in the guise of a stealthy cat ready to strike. Meanwhile, the shadow men on the platform above took the shape of giant, squatting, long-legged spiders, shifting their weight from one foot to the other.
From these ground-hugging capoeira moves to acrobatic lifts, Benguele wound its way to the joyous final celebration, the now beribboned dancers jumping like puppets to the sound of an accordion.
The many children in the audience were enthralled with Grupo Corpo’s swift and skillful moves. A 5-year-old boy asked Pederneiras, “Why did you choose sunset for the part on the platform?” His answer: “Because it is such a beautiful color.”
Mime’s of the Essence
Ko-Motion Movement Theater get to
By John Rodat
In a rehearsal space several hundred feet square, deep below the Egg at the Empire State Plaza, three black-clad figures wrestle with ropes, cables, knots and nets—the rigging and gear of an oceangoing vessel. Backs bend, tendons strain, muscles tense at the labor, while bodies pitch and roll at the whim of the deep sea. One expects to hear the cry of gulls, the rush of wind and sailors’ rough shouts of cooperation, exhortation and condemnation. One expects to hear a Captains Courageous soundtrack. But the room is largely silent. Silent, that is, save the slight squeak of bare feet on the wooden floor or the occasional huff of exertion from the otherwise mute and deadpan deckhands.
Of course there is no sea spray, no salt air, no real ropes or cables, no mainsail, no flying jib; these false mariners’ visages are reflected not in the black, glassy surface of the wind-raked North Atlantic but in the mirrored wall opposite the dancers’ barre. Nonetheless, as the members of the Ko-Motion Movement Theater run through a mime piece titled "Movements of Work in the Sea," in preparation for their 20th-anniversary performance on Friday (April 8), all the absent elements are effectively implied by the actors’ movements.
Ko-Motion cofounder Rich Kuperberg steps out of the tableau to explain the nature of the illusion: "It’s similar to electricity going through the wires: You don’t see the electrons, you see the resultant movement. You see the body move and you don’t know how." He says that his goal is an audience’s apprehension of the emotional tone of the scene, a sympathetic but open-ended feeling rather than the certain knowledge of a narrow and specific narrative. "The whole idea of this technique is moving thought," he says. "We’re always careful not to hit the audience over the head with literality."
So, don’t expect Man Walking Against the Wind.
The poetic suggestiveness of the art practiced by Kuperberg; his wife and partner, Ann Morris; and the members of Ko-Motion (Geralyn Brossart, Laura Siegel, Ann Farnon and intern Kelsey Diggory) is due to the troupe’s unique blending of modern dance with a form of theater called corporeal mime. Developed in the first half of the last century by Frenchman Etienne Decroux, with whom Kuperberg studied, corporeal mime is unlike the traditional and more recognizable form made famous by Marcel Marceau (who also studied with Decroux before the two came to a philosophical impasse). Corporeal mime minimizes the use of the face as a theatrical tool, prioritizing instead the body, specifically the trunk.
"The face is too small to be expressive," Kuperberg points out. "The audience can’t see it. That’s why Marceau puts whiteface on. . . . His expression is concentrated in the face; Decroux’s expression is concentrated in the trunk."
"That’s where the expression is, because that’s where the heart is," adds Morris.
The result is a highly athletic style of dramatic movement—at once less leading and episodic than pantomime, and less obscure than many variants of modern dance. Kuperberg asserts that, despite the aversion to overly literal pieces, Ko-Motion’s compositions do have cohesive dramatic intentions: "Decroux used to say, ‘The dancer kills the king many times; the mime does it once.’ So, in other words, [the dancers] are doing this because it’s dance." With just a trace of a smile, he caricatures the vague, flurried motions of interpretive dance. "In mime," he states earnestly, "they’re doing it because it’s an act of desperation or whatever. It has a theatrical premise. There’s a reason for it."
The issues—the thematic "reasons"—explored by Ko-Motion are as diverse and complex as those explored in any other medium. They include the tension between technology and nature, between individual and community, between a personal will to influence environment—to effect change—and a childlike delight in found objects, in the here and now.
All of these conceits will be evident in the upcoming anniversary celebration, which will feature combinations of clowning, illusion, prop manipulation, dance and mime—including one piece titled "Figures," which the troupe promises will exemplify "the purity of the corporeal style in its simple elegance of gesture and powerful emotional impact."
Morris zealously expresses her enthusiasm about the upcoming performance: "[The audience] is going to get something really different. They’re going to get a little bit of everything: They’re going to get the power and the beauty of corporeal mime; they’re going to get some really wonderfully entertaining comic, physical clowning; they’re going to get a moving experience."
Her husband joins in, equally excited. "If you can find a theater that stimulates that part of your brain where you don’t have to summarize, but you can experience it on your own individual level, where you can communicate with everybody in the audience. . . . For me, it’s almost like mental telepathy. It’s almost like the next form of communication."
Kuperberg specifies, however, that the communication is of an ambiguous, challenging and provocative type, not intended for the "sitcom audience" used to being spoon-fed pat and time-worn clichés. His confidence in the impact of his chosen discipline allows him loftier ambitions. "That’s my goal: To keep them constantly interested," he states. "Where we stay one step ahead of them all the time. They’re not going to catch up to us. As soon as they catch up with you, you’re dead. So, throughout the hour and a half, they’re on the edge of their seats—that’s the way it’s supposed to be."
It is an ideal and uncertain goal, but as Kuperberg’s mentor, Etienne Decroux, decreed: "The mime must have the mind of a novelist, the body of an athlete, and an ideal in his heart."
A Dancer’s Eye
Poster-size black-and-white photographs are laid out like giant playing cards on the floor of the North Gallery at the National Museum of Dance. Steven Caras, New York City Ballet dancer turned photographer walks between the rows, studying the images. Suddenly, he swoops down like an eagle on its prey, and scoops up a photo of a dancer in arabesque, moving to the other end of the row.
“You see, the right arm is up. I want that here, at the end of the row, to balance this other picture at the far end. I’m working for symmetry.”
Symmetry, variations on a theme, climax. Caras is choreographing his exhibition.
The exhibition, an american mosaic, consists of 95 photographs, enough for a room of color and another of black-and-white, culled from almost 23 years of Caras’ work as a dance photographer. His subjects range from former City Ballet colleagues Peter Martins, Suzanne Farrell, Peter Boal and Jean-Pierre Frolich to modern and post-modern dance companies, such as Twyla Tharp, Pilobolus, and Elizabeth Streb. Baryshnikov and his White Oak Project are represented, and George Balanchine is here in two previously unpublished backstage photographs.
There are exciting live performance shots, as well as studio and rehearsal shots, dressing-room portraits, and behind-the-scenes moments. “When I look back at the choices that I made, [for this exhibition] my eye does not go for the action shot. I have to say to myself, ‘People love to see people flying through the air.’ But, what appeals to me are quieter, architectural moments, without using the P-word, ‘pose.’ ”
Caras—rangy and handsome on the cusp of 50—was a member of the corps of City Ballet from 1969-1983, dancing in more than 40 Balanchine and Robbins ballets, often in solo or principal roles. SPAC audiences might have seen him in Agon, Donizetti Variations, or Symphony in C, among many others. It was, as any corps dancer will tell you, a wonderful career that provided a clear sense of self—an identity in dance.
However, Caras said, “I was at my dancing peak. I was living with [principal dancer] Bart Cook, who was a great dancer, and I could see that I was not going to reach that level. I needed something to keep my mind off this sadness. I couldn’t let dancing become my whole identity. I basically bought a used camera to defer my tunnel vision.”
What began as a hobby became the basis for a new career that actually started around 1977, with rehearsal and performance images of the City Ballet that were reproduced in exhibits and books on dance. As Caras completed the transition from being a dancer to capturing images of dancers, he said, “My hobby became a way of continuing to belong. I didn’t want to leave this family. It was a way to stay connected to dance.”
Because Caras knew the dances from the inside, he knew the moment that would yield the telling shot. Moreover, he had the trust of dancers and choreographers, who gave him access to rehearsals and private moments. “Photography took me around the world. I saw more. My interests started to develop.”
Now, as a freelance photographer based in West Palm Beach, he trains the members of Ballet Florida and rehearses the company in their works choreographed by Balanchine and Martins. He also continues to photograph Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet and goes on assignments—such as his recent trip to the White Oak plantation north of Jacksonville, where he took photos of the resident rhinos and giraffes along with the dancers.
Perhaps his best-known photograph is “Last Bow,” an image of Balanchine standing with one hand on the blue and gold stage curtain of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center after the company’s closing night performance of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, on July 4, 1982. Balanchine was hospitalized that fall and died in April, 1983.
“Last Bow,” with the stage strewn with flowers and costumed dancers applauding from the wings, is the larger-than-life-size photograph that invites visitors into the dance museum’s Hall of Fame. It also is the jacket photo for the hardcover book, Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works.
Caras recalled how the photo came about. “It was the last night of the spring season. I wasn’t in the last ballet, so I went up to the first ring [balcony], partial view seats, stage right, to photograph ‘Tchai 3’. Our closing nights were always brilliant. The Ballet Guild rallied to throw flowers. The dancers are always up because we’re going to dance in the country, in Saratoga. It became a tradition for Mr. B. to come out. Well, this night the audience just wouldn’t stop applauding. The stage was still lit. You could see the dancers watching. It was clear the audience would not go home until Mr. B. bowed alone—and he just appeared.
“When I saw the photo, I knew I had something special. I was very humble. I immediately put it away in a special place. Then, after Mr. B. died, I made Peter Martins a picture for good luck because he was about to take on the hardest job in the world [as ballet master], and, so, they decided to use it. Lincoln Kirstein [co-founder with Balanchine of City Ballet], when he saw it, he bought one for everybody in the building, everybody: dancers, stagehands, janitors, musicians, and all. I’m really glad it’s part of the permanent collection at the dance museum.”
Maurice O’Connell, general manager of the museum, said the Caras exhibition, two years in the planning, will remain on view through April, 2001. After that, it may travel to other museums, such as MASS MoCA. “If it travels, I will design it to suit the space,” Caras said. “It takes a dancer to make the photos flow in a way that will be harmonious. I’m good at arranging.”
An american mosaic, dance photos by Steven Caras, is on view through April 2001, at the National Museum of Dance, (99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs). Admission to the museum is $4 adults, $3 older citizens and students, $1 children under 12. The museum is open 10 AM-5 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. For information, call 584-2225.
—Mae G. Banner
Hall Right Now
The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Corporation has announced its schedule for the Fall/Winter season of 2000. Drawing from an eclectic pool of musical genres, the venue is promising the “most ambitious ‘Music at the Hall’ series to date.”
Opening the season is fiddle wizard-composer Mark O’ Connor, who will perform the New York premiere of his “Double Concerto for Two Violins” (Friday, Sept. 22). For the politically irreverent, the musical-comedy troupe the Capitol Steps presents a satirical take on American government (Saturday, Sept. 30). Later in the season, the Music Hall hosts two new string-band supergroups, NewGrange and the Wayfaring Strangers—the former boasts Grammy-winning banjo player Alison Brown, multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall and others, while the Strangers feature banjo legend Tony Trishka and mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman (Saturday, Dec. 2).
For the complete Fall/Winter Music Hall schedule see Announcements, page 46.
Death Be Not Proud
By Stacey Lauren
Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House
Time & Space Limited Warehouse, through Aug. 8
‘You are hereby sentenced to be executed by the State of New York” runs boldly across the top of a stark white wall. Under the sentence are a number of mug shots, victims of legal executions carried out at Sing Sing Correctional Facility’s “death house” predominantly during the 1940s and ’50s. Bare light bulbs and wires are strewn throughout the installation. But instead of the usual drama achieved with light, the presence of electricity is instead a quiet threat, a reminder of the means of execution.
The impact is subtle and effective without sensationalism, without manipulation. Beside the portrait of a young and beautiful black boy is a cold-blooded white murderer of two young girls, a mafia mogul guilty of many crimes, and a rapist. The pictures line the walls. Some lean against them and others are flat upon a shelf like disheveled gravestones in a cemetery. The images are not embellished. They’re actual, previously secret, archival state files recently retrieved from the New York state prison in Ossining. Scott Christianson, author of the book Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House and former deputy director of parole operations for New York State, organized the exhibit of the same name that’s now at Hudson’s Time and Space Limited.
The effect of displaying once covert information from the impenetrable prison as a documentary art show is profound. The venue exposes brutality like no other. Minimalistic presentation allows a viewer to experience the full impact of the systematic legal killings of supposed criminals. Each human being is confronted as a human being, not as a silent statistic. Although statistical information such as age, occupation, crime, rap sheet, etc. are provided under each picture, the information only allows for greater understanding of the gross injustice associated with the abuse of power. A startling example: Anibal Almodovar. Pictured in a straitjacket, his hair is grasped firmly in the hand of an authority figure wrenching his head backward. His face is distorted from pain, ostensibly both physical and emotional. The image is presented along with facts about the man: Age: 21. Education: 4th grade. Crime: Strangled his wife, Louisa, in park, night. Claims: Innocent, framed by detectives. Almodovar was sentenced on March 10, 1943, and was executed six months later. While this example is intensely sad and there are many more like it, the knowledge empowers.
In addition to the proliferation of mug shots presented, transparencies of other victims hover loosely from the ceiling like flags symbolizing the irony of some warped sense of justice on the one hand, and on the other, these spectral images remind us of a human being who once was and beckon us to renounce the barbaric behavior of the past. Poster-sized images allow for greater intimacy, a greater human connection.
There are also letters from inmates: “Dearest Sweethearts, my most precious children . . . ”; final meal requests: “barbecued chicken, french fries and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream”; records of personal effects: “small box of hankies, lipstick, emory board . . . .”; and executioner’s report cards: “Julius Rosenberg, SS P:#110-649 Time in: 8:04 Time out: 8:06 3/4. Amps: 8. Ethel Rosenberg, SSP: #110-510. Time in: 8:11 1/2 Time out: 8:16. Amps: 6 1/2.”
A picture of the electric chair is there, along with a more horrific image of a convict blindfolded and shackled to a 19th-century torture chair. The famous image of the electrocution of Ruth Snyder on Jan. 12, 1928, captured by hidden camera provides the reality of extermination. Three exposures on a single glass negative (two doses of electricity and the calm in between) give the shaky appearance of what one can only imagine as the actual experience. There’s also an autopsy report: “The brain weighed 1,270 grams and is normal on sectioning . . . The cerebellum seen from the posterior surfaces is opaque and greyish in color. It has a boiled appearance . . .”
These raw, vivid and heart-wrenching details expose the horrifying realities of capital punishment. This exhibit will hopefully inform a public largely in favor of capital punishment and inspire further educated debate. With Gov. George Pataki’s reinstitution of the death penalty in New York and (a Grim Reaper himself) Gov. George W. Bush’s impending coronation, careful consideration of this issue is more than urgent. Real voices of real people heard posthumously in Condemned are soft but reverberative and the chorus sings out in opposition to regression, striking a most human chord:
And now it’s time
for last goodbyes
By Mae G. Banner
Cosi fan tutte, The Secret Marriage
Lake George Opera Festival, Spa Little Theater, through July 9
Now in its third year at the Spa Little Theater, the Lake George Opera Festival looks quite at home. William Florescu, general director of the festival, has chosen two comic operas, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (rough translation: “Women are like that”) and Domenico Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage. They are sung in the original Italian, with English supertitles.
The festival has solved the problem of where to put the orchestra in the 495-seat theater with no pit. The 32-piece orchestra that plays Mozart’s effervescent music for Cosi fan tutte is comfortably ensconced on a balcony built above the stage.
Daniel Beckwith conducted, bringing out the bright sweetness of Mozart’s music. Anthony Manoli, who accompanied the recitatives on harpsichord, made his instrument a partner in the conversation or an echo to a singer’s thoughts.
The set, spare and spacious, is an 18th-century drawing room in which two pairs of young lovers become thoroughly muddled, mismatched and mortified, all because of a bet the men make with their older friend, Don Alfonso, who says their fiancées cannot be faithful. To prove Alfonso wrong, the two soldier boys pretend to be called away to battle, then return disguised as seductive foreigners in glittering turbans and capes, and each proceeds to woo the other’s betrothed one.
The women are sisters whose self-righteousness equals their fiancés’ over-confidence. Though Dorabella and Fiordiligi protest roundly at the “strangers’ “ advances, they are attracted. Their bubbly maidservant Despina, in cahoots with Alfonso, eggs on the women to flirt and have some fun while their soldiers are away. Dorabella, the younger, gives in first. Fiordiligi, of stricter temperament, stands on conscience much longer, but succumbs at last.
Matters go so far that a mock double wedding is staged, with Despina gotten up in a judge’s robe and white wig, acting as notary. At the last minute, disguises are dropped , true indentities revealed, and the couples reconciled to each other.
The cast was beautifully balanced vocally and physcially. Bass Stephen Morscheck was a most urbane Alfonso, funny and wise as he stirred the pot of deception, then toucing in a lovely trio with soprano Beverly O’Regan Thiele as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Dorabella.
Thiele’s role required wide range, dipping to near-contralto lows and rising to soprano trills. She was strong and convincing throughout, especially in her bittersweet aria, “Be merciful, my love.” Zifchak was fun when she veered from her demure manner to lovesick foolishness, skipping about the stage and literally letting her hair down.
The two soldiers, tenor Gioacchino Lauro LiVigni as Ferrando (Dorabella’s fella) and baritone Franco Pomponi as Guglielmo (Fiordiligi’s guy) had a Steve Martin moment as the turbaned suitors, flying around the women, flourishing their capes maniacally, and bragging that they were “wild and crazy guys.” LiVigni sang a tender song about the power of love, and Pomponi addressed the women in the audience directly, deploring their fickleness.
Despina, brightly sung by soprano Cheryl Parrish, is a red-headed dumpling, bubbling about the stage, but like a commedia dell’arte maidservant, quite practical in her views of men. Joining in Alfonso’s plot to teach the lovers that flexibility is better than rigid conscience.
However Cosi is neither a fluffy comedy nor a farce. Rather, it’s a Moliere-like satire on emotional overreaching, on expecting too much of one’s lover and oneself. Most important, Mozart’s music is simply beautiful. That, finally, is the point.
Now, The Secret Marriage is another plate of antipasto. Stage director Joseph A. LoSchiavo has imported his Wolf Trap production, updating the 1972 Cimarosa opera to 1930s Brooklyn. Mistake.
The set, on its own terms, is a knockout. Built and dressed by Garett Wilson and naturalistically lit by David Yergan (both of Skidmore College and Home Made Theater), the big mahogany dining table and buffet, the floor lamp by the overstuffed chair, the treadle sewing machine in the corner all are dead ringers for my father-in-law’s apartment in Queens. But, that’s the problem. Build a realistic set, and the audience expects to see real people work their way through real problems.
However, Cimarosa’s characters are not real. They are stock figures, one foible per body, and their problems are burlesque turns. The tension between the director’s conception and the actual plot made for a tedious evening.
Add to this LoSchiavo’s wooden staging and the tedium becomes restlessness. How many tablecloths can you fold and unfold? How many plates can you carry back and forth? How many times can Geronimo, the befuddled father, ask, “Will anyone speak up and tell me what’s wrong?” Alas, no one does.
No one speaks up because that’s how Cimarosa wrote it. The composer’s endless repetitions may be the source of the stilted staging.
The singers, all excellent, did their best to bring Secret Marriage to life. Bass-baritone Peter Volpe is blustery and sly by turns as he seeks to marry off his eldest daughter (soprano Jennifer Aylmer) to the wealthy Count (baritone Jeff Mattsey). The Count, smarmy and with a swollen sense of entitlement, fixes his eye on the younger daughter instead. But, young Carolina (soprano Lynette Tapia) is secretly married to Paolino (tenor Brian Downen), who, by the way, is the most sympathetic character and has the loveliest arias to sing. Then, to complicate matters further, the sisters’ aunt, who is mistress of the house, falls for Paolino. This part, sung by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick is the most thankless, neither amusing nor realistic.
Writes and Wrongs
By Peter Hanson
Which Lie Did I Tell?
By William Goldman
Pantheon, 486 pages, $26.95
As one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and successful screenwriters, William Goldman has a unique perspective on the dishonesty that surrounds and fills the movie industry. He’s been betrayed during the painful development processes of various film projects, he’s listened to media nonsense after his pictures either hit or missed, and he has even propagated what he calls “Hollywood horseshit” by using sleight of hand to increase the entertainment value of his scripts. He’s been writing movies for nearly four decades, and when he says that “nobody knows anything”—an oft-quoted Goldmanism that’s also the title of his irregular Premiere magazine column about Hollywood—he’s including himself, because no matter how much experience he accrues, he’s still surprised by the level of insanity that pervades the movie business.
Anyone interested in entering said business, or simply in observing it from afar, will devour Goldman’s second book of behind-the-scenes observations, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. Although the book is primarily focused on the experience of writing movies, the author devotes substantial energy to skewering the bloated punditry of those who say they know it all about Hollywood:
“There is an amaaaazing amount of bullshit that you read in the print media or hear on the tube about why movies are hits or flops. Titanic was this, that’s why it turned out the way that it did. The Postman was that, that’s why it turned out the way that it did. . . . Here is the truth about Titanic: people wanted to see it. Here is the truth about The Postman: people didn’t want to see it. Everything else is mythology.”
Rather than deconstructing why movies are commercial successes or failures, Goldman investigates why movies work dramatically, particularly those he wrote or cowrote. Picking up where the first Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) left off, he describes the evolution of The Princess Bride, Misery, The Ghost and the Darkness, Absolute Power and other films; his experiences vary from the elation of working with like-minded collaborators to the dread of facing deadlines with no idea of how to deliver what’s been demanded of him by unreasonable employers.
A strong thread of self-analysis runs through the jaunty, conversational book, which makes it far more that just a tell-all or a how-to text. In autobiographical bits scattered throughout the lengthy manuscript, he traces his career from the ’60s, when he morphed from an ambitious novelist to the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to the ’80s, when a doomed three-picture deal with a producer made him virtually unemployable in Tinseltown.
The drama of the book is Goldman’s climb back to the top of the industry, because in addition to the frustrations of having some pictures gel and others dissipate, Goldman wrestles with two ongoing quandaries—the question of whether he’s a real writer or a whore to the movie industry, and the difficulty of dealing with Hollywood egos.
The Ghost and the Darkness, for instance, was born when Goldman read about “the man-eating lions of Tsavo,” a bloody historical incident from the turn of the century, in which construction of a massive African train track was halted by the Jaws-like attacks of feline predators. Goldman nurtured the story into an action-adventure yarn that attracted the interest of producer Michael Douglas. The movie’s juiciest role was written enigmatically, to give the film a mythic quality, but when Douglas decided to play the role as well as produce the film, he asked for rewrites that destroyed the mythic quality. Goldman meekly acknowledges that Douglas acted to protect his image—and, by extension, his earning potential—but rails at the foolishness of sacrificing story on the altar of stardom.
“That’s how insecure they are,” the author says of superstar actors. “And that’s how big they want us to think their dicks are. And if all this makes you sick, get out of the business.”
Backstage recollections comprise the book’s first section, and analyses of Goldman’s favorite cinema scenes comprise the second. While the scenes are varied—the dick-in-the-zipper bit from There’s Something About Mary is presented alongside the chess game with Death from The Seventh Seal—Goldman’s comments aren’t particularly insightful. He mostly notes the content and technique of the scenes, then wonders at their effectiveness.
The book gets deeper and more useful, however, in the last two sections, which explore the nuts and bolts of screenwriting. First, Goldman discusses several of his movie ideas and then examines the problems that would be involved in seeing the ideas through to fruition. (This section is filled with intriguing material about how Goldman’s psyche informs the kinds of stories he tells and is affected by.) In the book’s last and most provocative segment, the author presents an unfinished screenplay, The Big A, then explains how he plans to finish the original story.
The breezy adventure is a typical Goldman concoction about a charming schemer, but has numerous obvious problems. These problems are identified—in wonderfully unflinching terms—by a handful of top screenwriters to whom Goldman showed The Big A. Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise), Scott Frank (Get Shorty), Tony Gilroy (Jagged Edge) and others all suggest how they would improve the script, and the interplay among these fertile minds is as entertaining as it is informative. None has illusions about creating great art, but all want to create conscientious entertainment that neither insults nor shortchanges the audience. For movie fans who lament the state of modern cinema, it’s refreshing to see how much thought goes into the conjuring of mainstream narrative; it’s also dispiriting to note that the attention is being lavished upon a mediocre idea, and that anything wonderful devised by the writers probably would be drained from the project once a star got his hands on it.
The things that Goldman reveals about the industry in Which Lie Did I Tell? would be oppressively sad were it not for the highlights of his résumé—Butch Cassidy, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, Misery. Every so often, his perseverence is repaid when a terrific movie emerges from the morass of egos, infighting and second-guessing that is the picture business. He’s one of the lucky ones, though, which explains the book’s sobering dedication: “For suffering screenwriters everywhere (It’s what we do).”