Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Original 1926 poster
Turandot was the first Puccini opera I obsessed over as a teenager. Unlike other boys, the first technology that captured my imagination was stereo sound, which was the big new thing then. I went crazy and soon had a gigantic stereo setup in our house, and aside from all the other classics I was hoovering up, I collected all the newest stereo opera recordings. The Metropolitan Opera was still visiting Toronto on it's annual tours, so I was heavily influenced by whatever operas they brought, which was mostly Verdi, bel Canto (Rossini Donizetti), and Puccini. But, with it's torrid 'love' issues, seductions, and  'adult' intrigues, Puccini was a little beyond my scope.

I was more there for the pomp and pageantry, the voices, the large choruses and ceremonial set pieces, and orchestral brilliance that informs much of opera to some degree. Puccini was still a little too musically chromatic and 'slithery' to me: I listened to Tosca, and it seemed a welter of brilliant colours and unsavoury seduction that I just could not get into. I saw a magnificent production of Boheme in Vienna as a twelve year old boy, back there on a visit,  and was so bored by all the love interests in it, I actually left my loge to talk to the attendants in the foyer. There seemed to be something cheap about it, but I mistook Puccini's amazing ease with producing deathless melody for glibness, and since Puccini, as the best musically equipped Italian opera composer, can write a tune that can convince you of anything, of manipulative calculation.

It was not till I happened onto Turandot that I became obsessed by a Puccini opera. In the middle 20th Century, Turandot was not generally appreciated, although it was produced. It is really an anomaly amongst Puccini's operas, in that it is really a Grand Opera, with it's ceremonial set pieces and oriental splendour, with only an element of the 'verismo' reality-style that Puccini had done so much to make his own. The verismo movement came in specifically to remedy the monumentality and grandness suffusing much of 19th Century opera, with an interest in presenting the real events of real people in real life.

With its mythic fairy story, and magnificent  public rituals, processions and ceremonies, Turnandot had been a change of direction for Puccini, who actually put real effort into trying to do the creative, unexpected thing: he even wrote a 'Cowboy Opera' for the Met, 'La Fanciulla del West' [The Girl of the Golden West]. Had be been able to finish it, Turandot might have become Puccini's unquestioned masterpiece.

Courageously, Puccini liked to tackle emotional life issues that were rife with him in his own life, so that the dramaturgical points create catharsis around familiar problems, especially around amatory and sexual politics, but very much as a man of his time, admitting his collusion in them. He, of course, being 'in love' with women, managed to broach a number of 'women's' issues.

Giacomo Puccini in 1908
As a notorious but discreet and slippery seducer of the ladies, Puccini thought nothing of using his fame and allure to fascinate women, especially of 'inferior' classes, and he was very successful with casual hookups with maids and servants. He must have felt guilty on some level, because the very painful gist of Madamma Butterfly, for example, is the deconstruction of Pinkerton's irresponsible and destructive seduction of a woman that results in her suicide, with Pinkerton realizing too late what he has done.

Here, Puccini is parsing the results of a behaviour he frequently participated in, expiating, or at least bringing to attention the destructiveness of such casual seductions, and creating in the opera, perhaps, a deterrent for such attitudes.

The plot of Turandot is the well known fairy story of the Princess who will marry any man (only princes accepted) who can answer three questions she poses. If they fail they are executed. Turandot is so beautiful and wealthy that a constant stream of applicants submit to the test, all to fail, all to die. Her motive for this is to exact a punishment on all men, for the tragic rape of a past princess, whose fate she obsessively mourns. Turandot is in fact one of the first exponents of a redressing feminism, that has become very familiar to us.

But Turandot is accused of coldness and vengeance, and aside from her beauty seems to have few of the attributes of yieldingness or humanity that would make her attractive.

The hero Calaf, the 'Unknown Price', with his father a deposed king and his only servant girl Liu, who secretly loves him abjectly, arrives and, caught up by Turandot's beauty, proposes to answer the questions, and put his life on the line. Members of Turandot's own court try to turn him from his folly. Even as he sees the execution of the last failed suitor, he persists.

The middle act of the opera is the riddle scene, a monumental fantasy featuring the Emperor, Turandot's father, and his court and all the ritual around asking the questions. Calaf answers them successfully, but when he sees that Turandot will still not gladly marry him and fall in love with him, gives her a counter-proposal.  Since Turandot nor anyone at the court knows his name, he will forfeit his life to her if she can find it out before the next dawn.

The last act begins with Calaf's aria, perhaps Puccini's best tune, which has in recent decades become justly famous especially from the Three Tenors concerts when it was promulgated around the world, even to the world's soccer fans. Now it is ubiquitous, but it is one of many melodies that cram this score. 

Marco Berti as Calaf
The dramaturgically effective denouement is packed with issues, the last of which Puccini was not able to solve musically for a very personal reason, and this prevented him from actually finishing the opera.

The princess calls for anyone to find out Calaf's name, and it is realized that his followers must know it. The torturer is called to extract the name from Liu and she commits suicide to keep the secret, proving her love for the price.

When at the dawn ceremony, Calaf realizes Turandot is still cold to him, tells her his name, and, in giving her the power of life or death over him, [such a 'woman's' issue], hopes to melt her heart with his total surrender. At the end, when the princess is to tell his name, she falters and proclaims "His name is…Love" and breaks her murderous impasse.

Now Puccini had for years been married to a woman who was cold and rigid, especially sexually, which must have been one of the reasons for his constant philandering, and when he came to the very end of this opera, could not bring himself to find the music to describe the melting of the princess' heart. It would have been psychologically and emotionally important to have Puccini's music to be guided through these final capitulations, and it is a pity that we will never know what music he might have produced to convince us of the ending.

It points at the unresolved tragedy at the core of his own married life. What makes the parallel with his own real life even more compelling is the fact that Puccini had been accused of a dalliance with one of his maids, and she had committed suicide over it. Subsequent autopsy revealed her to be still a virgin, so had been innocent.

However, 95 percent of Turandot had been completely finished, so it was given to another verismo composer, Franco Alfano, to complete, for the eventual premiere, by Toscanini. Some of the text describing the rapprochement between the Prince and Turandot at the end was truncated, and the final moments of the opera score are filled with the rising dawn, and the excitement and glory of the final victory, and is still an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Toscanini sabotaged the whole effort when he stopped the premiere at the point Puccini had stopped composition, so there would have been a glaring discontinuity, which would not have even been noticed if he had not stopped.

It is almost moot that we should complain that Puccini failed to produce that final tune to show the melting of Turadot's heart, and musically the opera seems complete with Alfano's ending. He wisely capped the whole affair with Calaf's winning tune in a final peroration, so we are sent home humming.

Too much is made of the fact that Puccini did not finish this piece, but the fact that he was simply not able to do so—he did have time—points to the fact that Puccini really was getting all his inspiration from his own life experience, which filled all the tunes he completed with such irresistible vitality and conviction, and in this one instance, he did not have the life experience that would have gone into his art.

 Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Retrospective: Ben Stiller

The Ben Stiller Show ran for 13 episodes in 1992. It won an Emmy for writing a few months following its cancellation by Fox. With Dylan McKay hair and a face whose clock had stopped at five o'clock, Stiller played the host of the sketch program, "Ben Stiller." In the interstitial segments, "Ben Stiller," a short, dark, and handsome young actor, addresses a handheld camera as he walks through hip LA locales, interacting with cast members (a young Andy Dick, a young Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk) and rubbing elbows with weekly guests (including Bobcat Goldthwait, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gary Coleman). It's the basic MTV format, jerky and grainy, off the cuff realism. But here's what's really going on: "Ben Stiller" is a pie-eyed schmuck trying and failing to be hip; his cast members don't seem to like him much and quietly insubordinate; often, the weekly "celebrity" guests aren't sure why they're there and are rankled by "Stiller." The sketches themselves established an odd, at times absurd tone of comedy that would go on to feed sketch shows like Mr. Show (David Cross wrote for the show), The State, and MADtv, but the brilliant self-deprecating tone of these bumpers between sketches really flies under the radar. You get the idea that Ben Stiller thinks "Ben Stiller" is a 90's tool: hip and edgy, while fundamentally having to kowtow to an affected idea of hip and edgy.

A 90's Ben Stiller character is essentially unlikable, delusional, and broken inside. Whatever sympathy the viewer might feel for these diminutive-but-muscular wrecks depends on the balance of these elements. Stiller is a good-enough looking guy that he probably could have started off on the romantic comedy foot that he's often hopped on throughout the 2000's, but instead he quickly started to use whatever looks he had and physique he was able to cut against himself. The son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Stiller comes from a Borscht Belt background--a Jewish strain of comedy where the joke is how pathetic the comedian is--and I'm sure there's a key stain of this in his cloth. 

Character-wise, the tooly sketch show host was followed by the yuppie executive in Stiller's directorial debut, the naval exploring Generation X love letter Reality Bites. Stiller's sell-out character was pitted against the dreamy, dirty, philosophical Ethan Hawke character for Winona Ryder's love. The movie is maybe the most earnest thing Stiller's done in his career, topped only by the recent The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but it's very telling that, in a film up to it's eyes with cool, young stars, he gave himself the role of the chump. It would be in 1995, though, with Judd Appatow's first major film, the fantastically dark Heavy Weights, that Stiller would land on a new type of schmuck that would define the strongest hemisphere of his career: the macho schmuck.

I can think of no other actor who can make being in shape seem absurd and pathetic. In Heavy Weights, Stiller plays "Uncle" Tony Perkis, an emotionally crippled faux fitness guru who commandeers a venerable weight loss camp for his maniacal means. It's a hyperbolic, one or two note character that Stiller will go on to don in ancillary roles throughout his career, but in Perkis' solipsistic dimness and Stiller's complete commitment to a certain brand of silliness, you'll find early shades of Derek Zoolander.

A buff Stiller (as Tony Perkins) at magic hour.
The Zoolander character began as a one-off sketch for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. The archness of it's tone and the sharpness of it's teeth would land it perfectly in The Ben Stiller Show. A lot of the familiar Zoolander bells get rung in this initial few minutes--Blue Steel and Ferrari; the shared apartment with other male models; the trouble with left turns. The sketch is included so the fashion industry can have a laugh at itself, and it's mostly harmless. At a sustained movie length, though, the Zoolander lambast--thrumming under the comedy--can feel scathing; you may come to feel for the character, but his world of fashion orbited by celebrity remains essentially, unredeemingly vapid.


The Ben Stiller Show took frequent stabs at it's network, FOX. But that was common at the time, with shows like In Living Color, The Simpsons, and Married... With Children deriding their home and their fellow shows. Stiller would go on to be especially embraced by the late-90's MTV set, never mind that he'd been plenty critical of the values, quality, and worth of that network and the culture that surrounded it. It's fitting, then, that Zoolander was produced by VH1. Stiller's next scouring of Hollywood, it's blockbusters and it's star system, 2008's Tropic Thunder, was itself something of a Hollywood blockbuster.

It might sound odd to suggest that Ben Stiller doesn't get enough credit. I think most people would say he's overrated. But, considering the first decade of Stiller's career, I get the sense that he was often the smartest guy in the room, but, by casting himself as the dumbest guy in the room, you'd never know it unless you were paying close attention. Unfortunately, Hollywood (in the broadest, vaguest sense) is not great when it comes to subtly, can be like a dumb animal that doesn't know it's seeing itself in the mirror. In some ways, Stiller's relationship with Hollywood reminds me of that particular type of friendship where there's one slow guy in the group who doesn't really get that everyone's always making fun of him. In this case, however, that dim friend is the one with all the money--the one who can cancel you a few months before people get the joke and give you an award for it.

Stiller can't help but rely on the industries and fads he's critical of to support his critiques, but as the years have gone on the risk has been that that reliance will overwhelm the resistance. If you keep making the same joke to a person who doesn't really get it, that joke just becomes reality. His career post-Zoolander found Stiller in heaps of romantic comedies and family films that lack a sense of humour about themselves and it's become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Ben Stiller and "Ben Stiller."


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: Nebraska

A story about a dysfunctional Wyoming family dealing with their alcoholic and Alzheimered patriarch didn’t strike me as a good way to spend two hours. But I was talked into it and wandered out into one of these not so cold nights we've had recently just to be an accommodating partner.

From the very first scene I knew that I was in the company of someone who understood aesthetics, human dynamics, love, and the pressures of the American Dream. The director, Alexander Payne, is most well known for The Descendents, which starred George Clooney and is probably one of the highest attended movies that The Bookshelf has ever shown. Wikipedia says that Payne was actually born in Nebraska and his parents (Greek and German immigrants) owned a restaurant there.

The storyline goes like this: The delusional father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is sure that he has won a million dollars. He received some flyer in the mail that hoodwinked him. The sweepstakes requires him to go to Lincoln to pick up his winnings. His wife (June Squibb), who is funny, repulsive and endearing throughout, is fed up with Woody. Number two son, David (Will Forte), gives up trying to change his dad’s mind and decides to take him to Lincoln to play out his father’s ridiculous fantasy. On the way, they meet up with their whole extended family. Even the mother agrees to come along for a ride. Of course, the playing out of this addled figment does not go well, as you might well imagine. But the last scene makes it all worth while.

Forte, Dern, and Payne

I’m not sure how Payne was able to put together a bleak movie in which the audience giggled all of the way through. Perhaps it was the great script, maybe the quality of acting. How did he make such a visually stunning film which was set mainly inside a car, inside homes painted with despair, or in seedy bars with troupes of sad people who, yup, just drinking their beer.  And did I mention that it was shot in black and white? Perhaps because Payne grew up in a restaurant and this painted the human condition for him, and perhaps because he understood how the American Dream was really a nightmare for many. Or perhaps he is just in love with all of life around him regardless of who they are or what kind of car they drive. At any rate, I'm just glad that I made it out the door that night!

- Barb

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Her:" Lesser Versions of What I've Already Felt

When I was in junior high (circa 1996) these handheld digital pets called Tamagotchi were everywhere. I guess the gizmo could be considered a game, where the goal was to keep your creature healthy and happy and disciplined; if you were a deadbeat, the thing could die. A heap of kids at my school—maybe those who still hadn't stretched over that pubertal gap?—obsessed over the gadget, treated the 8 bit pet as though it was real, would talk to it, got grief for feeding it during class. Teachers would confiscate them until it became obvious that the resulting freak out wasn't worth the hassle. It so happened that the kid in the school who was most unabashedly and troublingly devoted to his Tamagotchi had his stolen. The possibility that he lost it never came up. If his pet was abducted on Monday, his hysterics reached a fever pitch on Friday, when someone in administration gave him a slot in the morning announcements to make a blubbering, gulping plea to have his pet returned. Or, if not returned, he begged that it be cared for. "Don't let it die!" I remember the kid squealing—or something of the like—and I'm sure every single pre-teen in every single class cried just a bit with laughter.

But it occurs to me now, after watching Her and recalling the abduction of what's-his-name's robin egg-sized pet nearly twenty years ago, that that kid—whether nuts or not—must have felt legitimate love for his computer chip, and so felt honest worry, and fear, and bereavement. How do we parse true love from situational or delusional love? I guess this is one of the questions on simmer throughout Spike Jonze's fourth feature.

Theodore and Samantha
Her is set in a vaguely distant future where everyone wears hiked-up slacks and are incessantly talking to someone who isn't beside them. Theodore Twombly composes personalized letters for and lives alone in an apartment that he's seemingly given up on unpacking. Twombly's an awkward guy—increasingly Joaquin Phoenix's bailiwick—in an emotional morass following a split from his wife. He's been dallying with the divorce papers. Seeing an ad for OS1—"an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you"—Twombly signs up. (Anyone doubting the guy's motivations would do well to pay attention to his indifferent answer to whether he'd like a male or female voice: "Female, I guess.") The voice he gets is the hoarse Kathleen Turner model (voiced by the Scarlett Johansson model). It names itself Samantha and I don't think I'm ruining anything by fast-forwarding through how they become friends, and how Theodore feels understood by this artificial intelligence like never before, and how both he and those around him come to question the legitimacy of loving an incorporeal, self-generating entity.

What do we talk about when we talk about love? It's a semiotic minefield that's not worth tiptoeing through right now. But, in a broad way, it's worth thinking about the disparity between personal, particular love and the cultural and traditional templates of it—or, really, the disparity between feelings of love and ideas of love.

Consider Twombley's job. In Her's future—and more and more in our present—handwritten letters have gone from something banal to something romantic, antiquated. Sharing them is something we mostly go out of our way to do now and, in the future, something we hire a writer to do for us. They are expressions of history, of the history of how people were in love, more than they are an outpouring of something interior and unique. Ultimately—and this is more a comment on language and mores than it's cynicism—how we express our love to the person we love, and the way we display love for a social audience, is mostly a mélange of inherited conventions.

Unpacking his post-split malaise, Theodore confesses to Samantha his want to feel something new, but this isn't a life lust that leads to skydiving or eating/praying/loving . "Sometimes." he says, "I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I'm not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt." This issue for Theodore is not what he does, but how he experiences it.

And so the question that nags Her is is Theodore running from the stale, or running towards the sui generis? Is he avoiding the rote pitfalls of a conventional relationship, or is he recalibrating his ability to love and be loved without the scaffolding of convention?

Since Being John Malkovich, Jonze's films have concerned men struggling to love or be loved, with their own minds/attitudes as the major impediment. Her's Samantha is the perfect antidote: she ostensibly loves Theodore for who he is and, in some way, is allowed to do because of her lack of actual experience and her breadth of context. She’s feeling in that pure, unfettered way that Theodore longs to because, really, Theodore is Samantha’s first love, whatever Samantha is. She has the idea of conventions, but not the experience. The major shift in Jonze’s theme is that the love is easy, and that’s why it’s so hard.

It's left up to you to decide what the worth of that core love is if it's not orbited by recognizable conventions. I think of the right-wing attempt to devalue same-sex love by implying that if we start monkeying with the "accepted" expression of love we'll leave open a door that will allow people to start marrying their dogs or their lawnmowers. But the fact remains that there are people who are in love with their dog or landscaping gear, and I'm sure that they'd say that their love is as cogent as the love shared between a man and a man, or a man and a woman. And I don't know how to make a decision about this, as Her doesn't either, when I consider that the love and fear expressed by that squirt missing his Tamagotchi remains one of the most powerful, not self-conscious expression of feeling that I've encountered. More telling than anything, I think, was that this kid was not solely concerned with having his object returned to him, but that his presiding worry was that something terrible would happen to it. Go get your Bible, because I'm pretty sure that test of true love is in there somewhere.
The Kaufman Brothers
The best resolution I can muster comes from one of the most human, softest, least neurotic moments of Jonze's second feature Adaptation (written by Charlie Kaufman) finds a pair of balding, overweight Nicholas Cage's hiding from an orchid thief. Introverted twin Charlie recalls seeing his extroverted brother Donald being mocked behind his back by a girl he was in love with. "I knew," Donald says. "I heard them."

"How come you looked so happy?" Charlie asks.

"I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want."

Charlie objects. "But she thought you were pathetic."

"That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you."
Andrew Hood is the author of the short story collection Pardon Our Monsters and The Cloaca.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What is this? A voting blog for ants?

We’re watching Zoolander on February 27th at 9:00 p.m. What will we watch in March? That’s up to you.

If you’re new here, this is how it works:

1.      Each month, we watch a classic movie.
2.      Before that movie, you get a ballot and fill it with any five flicks you’d like to see on the big screen.
3.      We take those ballots and create a shortlist of five movies for your voting pleasure.
4.      You vote via this blog.
5.      The winning movie becomes the next movie club selection.

Now that you know how things work, here are your choices for March Movie Club:
Choose A Movie For March Movie Club

Note that you can only vote once. After that, the poll won't appear when you view this blog. Results will be revealed when we watch Zoolander

'Til then, see you at the movies!