Friday, November 30, 2012

Trojan Women (After Euripides) at BAM

Photo: Richard Termine
Just when you thought enough of monitors and digital displays, enough of post-modernist sets and quantum approaches to acting, enough even of nudity, what about an old fashioned proscenium production that does justice to the text, comes Anne Bogart’s direction of the SITI Company’s Trojan Woman (After Euripides) at BAM. And a slam BAM thank you mam production of a classic play it is. If the A.S.P.C.A. gave an award for howling by a human then Ellen Lauren who plays Hecuba would surely be a frontrunner. To do the production justice, there is an attempt to capture the irony and realism that characterize the Euripidean approach to tragedy. Rather than “After Euripides,” the production might better be characterized as after Aeschylus and Sophocles since it’s truly faithful to the playwright, who created a modern seeming universe in which the Gods are absent or totally malevolent. Considering all the recriminating that’s going on—with Helen blaming Paris and Hecuba blaming Helen and everyone commiserating over the glory that was Troy—this Trojan Woman has something in common with both Sartre’s No Exit and its famous line “hell is other people” and Chekhov’s Three Sisters who either live in the past or the future, but never fully inhabit the present. But what’s with Menelaus (J. Ed Araiza) in a tux looking like a lounge singer, Poseidon (Brent Wertzner) in his surgical looking greens and Odysseus (Gian-Murray Gianino) dressed like he's just attended graduation at Annapolis? “I did not destroy you, only you did,” Helen (Katherine Crockett) announces at one point. Actually from what transpires on stage, it might be the histrionics that are to blame. Something’s amiss when a production of Trojan Women starts to look and sound like General Hospital.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

George Carlin’s 7 Words Revisited

Photo by Bonnie from Kendall Park, N.J.
George Carlin did a famous routine in which he talked about “Seven Words You Could Never Say on Television." They were “shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.” Tout ca change, tout c’est la meme chose. That was back in l972 and you can hear all of them on public access and on  cable, but maybe only one on the networks or anywhere else for that matter--the lonely “piss.” You’d be hard put to find much push back about a cop telling his partner he has to take a piss on Law and Order: SVU. Motherfucker is not popular amongst classicists since what Oedipus did is still a touchy subject. Proctologists find shit offensive since it’s dismissive of an activity they’ve spend a lifetime studying, defecation. Cocksucker is disliked by its practitioners since it takes an activity, fellatio, which is considered to be an expression of love, and turns it into an expletive. Fuck is still a hard one to sell. How many times have we heard “is all he or she does is want to fuck?” as if he or she are doing something bad. It’s rare to hear a male or female complaining about their partner and saying “is all he or she does is want to have sexual intercourse.” Tits is another one. “Sweetie, you have really nice tits” is offensive to some woman who find tit to be a fetishistic objectification of the word breast which they deem more noble. Naturally the best is saved for last. Cunt is still the mother of all offensive words, despite its superiority to the often wrongly used vagina. Cunt encompasses the whole female genitalia while vagina, for example, really just refers to the inside. Even though pussy was not on Carlin’s list for the obvious reason that the networks could never have taken a word referring to an infant cat off the air, only pussy creates as much controversy. Prick didn’t make Carlin’s list for the same reason, but you’re better off calling a guy a cunt rather than a prick, if you really want to be insulting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook. Does the syntax of the title sound a little like Good Will Hunting, the Gus Van Sant classic, in which therapy and therapists are the chosen arena of cinematic scrutiny? Of this genre, Silver Linings Playbook resembles another recent release, The Sessions to the extent that the vessel is romantic comedy. Good Will Hunting and earlier cinematic approaches to mental illness, like Ordinary People fell more into the realms of drama and melodrama and in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, black humor. Bipolar disorder is the mental illness du jour with David O. Russell, who wrote and directed the movie, picking up on the ubiquity of a diagnosis which seems to encompass an increasingly large swath of behaviors. Students of DSM-IV will probably have a hay day with the film’s ragtag diagnoses and medications amongst them Klonopin, Lithium and Xanax--now all household names. However, the main symptoms shown by the film’s main character, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), are a form of mania that takes the form of grandiosity and compulsive pollyanaism manifested in his insistence that every cloud has a silver lining. Pat’s love interest is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who self-deprecatingly refers to herself as “a crazy slut with a dead husband.” But mental illness is everywhere, in this latter day Snake Pit. The supposedly sane characters like Pat’s father (Robert De Niro), a bookmaker, and would be restauranteur all have their problems which include OCD and delusional thinking. The movie is really Americana, to the extent that it’s a melting pot of symptoms and treatments that include football in the guise of an Indian born therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) who is a Philadelphia Eagles fan to another great American past time, dance competitions, whose cinematic provenance goes back as far as Sidney Lumet’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (l969).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Saul Steinberg

Photo by  Inge Morath
Saul Steinberg was famous for his drawings, but according to Deborah Solomon’s review of the new Deirdre Bair biography, Steinberg often crossed the line (“Drawing the Line, and Crossing It,” NYT, 11/21/12) “As Bair reveals,” Solomon says, “his love life was a string of infidelities, and crabbiness was his default mode.” The review quotes Steinberg’s wife, Hedda Sterne, as saying, “In a way sex was his life. He deprived himself of true union because he was not ever in love.” Bair, according to Solomon, also describes how Steinberg’s indiscretions which included “the teenaged daughters of his dearest friends” were often excused because “his work was manifestly first rate, and talent tends to foster forgiveness.” Steinberg’s mixture of talent and promiscuity places him in a long line of Lotharios that include Victor Hugo and George Simenon in literature, John F. Kennedy and his father Joseph in politics, and Wilt Chamberlain, the basket ball player who claimed to have slept with over 20,000 women. And one wonders about the relationship between talent and sexuality. Did the talent occur because of the sexuality (with the sexuality being a manifestation of a certain ambition) or in spite of it? Or is hyper-sexuality the reward bestowed on certain narcissistic geniuses,whose insights into human behavior don’t include a keen understanding of the effect they may have on others? On the other hand, can we say that love is an overrated emotion and that one of the products of Steinberg’s highly developed sensibility was to know a good time when he saw it? Hedda Sterne, who died in 2011, was interesting in her own right, as the sole female member of the Irascible Eighteen a group of abstract expressionists which included Pollock and Rothko.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Law in These Parts

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, currently playing at Film Forum, deals with the separate set of laws that govern Israel’s occupied territories, laws that were instituted after the ‘67 war. The question it asks is how one of the most democratic societies in the world and certainly the only democratic society in the Middle East can live in a state of legal schizophrenia. The film is essentially a succession of interviews with prosecutors and judges about their roles in the maintaining of military law. The Law in These Parts is rife with paradoxes not the least of which is that Alexandrowicz transforms judges and prosectors into defendants. The turning of the tables underscores how anomalous the suspension of rights is in a society with such a highly developed jurisprudential superego. However, early on the film establishes the inequities. In order for civil law to exist in the territories, the residents would have had to be made citizens. In order for the Geneva conventions to be applied to Palestinians resistance fighters, they would have to be recognized as being a bona fide army and not merely  terrorists. Article 49 of the Geneva conventions argues that an occupying force may not “transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Due to this, the legal basis for the settlements was found in Mawat, the concept of "dead land,” deriving from Ottoman law (a segment of the film where the youthful Ariel Sharon significantly makes an appearance). However amidst all these inequities is an anomaly. The residents of the West Bank and Gaza are still able to petition the Israel Supreme Court, a right that is apparently sui generis in the history of occupations. Documentary footage plays in the background and there is anecdotal evidence like of the Palestinian woman who is imprisoned for 18 months for giving pita bread and sardines to a resister. Naturally war is war. But what is the relationship between theory and practice, between de facto conditions and belief in human rights? During one sequence a judge points to the Israeli flag and then to the scales of justice. The dichotomy between the principles of sovereignty and justice is what The Law in These Parts underscores. The film is emphatic in its condemnation of the abuses that have occurred particularly through the rulings that allowed settlers to confiscate Palestinian lands, but with politics so entwined in the judiciary, it offers scarce comfort that the dual standard will be ameliorated in advance of any political resolution of the conflict.