Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Caged Bird Sings

Marriages often lose their spark. While men may spend less time agonizing over a loss of passion or caring in their relationship, for many women the lack of economic power or the freedom to simply be themselves can be a suffocating experience. The woman who seems to have everything at her fingertips (but who remains curiously unhappy) was first memorialized in a song written by Arthur J. Lamb to music composed by Harry von Tilzer.

A Bird In A Gilded Cage became one of the hit songs of 1900, selling more than two million copies of sheet music. Even after women got the vote and made huge advances in the work force, its sentiments still ring true today.

When people think of the Statue of Liberty, they often recall the famous poem by Emma Lazarus that is engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted within its base. Its message was clearly aimed at immigrants arriving in search of a better life, filled with opportunity in the land whose streets were supposedly paved with gold.

Few, however, think of The New Colossus in terms of describing a desperate woman's hunger for love and freedom. If you re-read the poem through the eyes of a battered woman, or someone who has fled a loveless marriage, Lazarus's sonnet takes on a whole new meaning:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The abused, neglected, or trophy wife can be found in every civilization. In books, movies, theatre, and opera, the woman who feels trapped by her circumstances is a vital dramatic force. When considered as a genre, two films recently seen at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival and one of Richard Wagner's most famous operas help to put the stifled, submissive woman's predicament in a startling perspective.

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I doubt you could find a more unhappy soul in all of opera than Wagner's Sieglinde. When the audience meets her in Act I of Die Walkure, they quickly learn that she was torn from the loving arms of her mother and twin brother and forced into a loveless marriage with Hunding. Isolated, humiliated, hungry for love, it's no wonder she's been mixing herbs and berries just in case she ever needs to slip her husband a sleeping potion which might allow her to escape.

The San Francisco Opera recently debuted its second installment in a new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are so many wonderful innovations and insights in this new staging that, even after having seen a variety of Die Walkure productions since 1967, it was almost like experiencing the opera for the first time.

Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Siegmund (Christopher Ventris)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Aside from being cast with six remarkably strong singers in the principal roles, this new production showcases just how far opera producers have been able to stretch the Ring through the creative use of computer technology and the interpretative gifts of insightful stage directors. Let's not be shy about this: working with projection designer Jan Hartley, stage director Francesca Zambello has found new ways to bring life to many orchestral passages, starting with Siegmund's frantic dash through the woods until he comes upon Hunding's house. The transition from earth to Valhalla and back (through the use of blurred images of skyscrapers, clouds, and "golden cars" on freeways) is a breathtaking accomplishment in moving the plot forward.

I was also deeply impressed with Michael Yeargan's set designs, which:
  • Give the Act I transformation of Hunding's hut into a bold, moonlit landscape a new level of lyrical beauty to match Wagner's score,
  • Transform Valhalla into Wotan's conference room in a skyscraper that literally scrapes the sky,
  • Reposition Siegmund's death to a rumble scene beneath a highway overpass (Wagner goes all West Side Story!),
  • Allow the Valkyries to parachute across the stage with the bodies of dead heroes they are escorting to Valhalla, and
  • Deliver a magic fire scene that could thrill any arsonist.
Mark Delavan as Wotan (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One of the trademarks of Zambello's work over the years has been to find the tiniest moments which can deliver critical insights into her characters. Whether one notices how she has Fricka caress Brunnhilde's cheek with the kind of insincere maternalism one would expect from Cinderella's wicked stepmother -- or has Brunnhilde give Wotan a very butch and loving punch on his shoulder to boost his spirits -- Zambello continually finds new and very simple ways to add underlying touches to a situation which strengthen the dramatic bonds between characters.

Brunnehilde (Nina Stemme) and Wotan (Mark Delavan)
Photo by: Terrence McCarthy

Special mention should be made of Mark McCullough's lighting and Catherine Zuber's costumes, which help to frame this new Ring in ways that stress its humanity. No Ring, however, can survive without a strong conductor on the podium and Donald Runnicles coaxed some wonderful sounds out of both the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and his soloists. Although an announcement was made prior to the performance that soprano Nina Stemme (Brunnhilde) was suffering from a bronchial infection, one would never known from the richness of her tone and the dramatic forcefulness of her performance.

Christopher Ventris brought more lyricism to Siegmund's music than I've heard in quite some time. As Hunding, Raymond Aceto displayed a huge voice and threatening character. While Mark Delavan is still growing into the role of Wotan, he is making formidable progress with the music as well as the characterization.

Fricka (Janina Beachle) and Wotan (Mark Delavan)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Sublimely strong performances came from Eve-Maria Westbroek (possibly the best Sieglinde I've heard since Leonie Rysanek owned the role) and Janina Baechle as Fricka. Both women made smashing San Francisco Opera debuts, deserving every ounce of acclaim at the final curtain.

An interesting measurement of the performance's caliber: When I saw my first performance of Die Walkure back at the Metropoliitan Opera in the famous production that was conducted and directed by Herbert von Karajan on Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's sets, Supertitles had not yet been invented. Wotan's lengthy monologue in Act II was enough to put anyone to sleep. (For the record, the cast for that production included Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Thomas Stewart, Christa Ludwig, and Gundula Janowitz.)

Since them, I've seen Rings sung in English and German, with Supertitles in English and Danish (!) on sets modeled after Arthur Rackham's famous drawings to those resembling the District of Columbia's underground Metro system. Thanks to the current levels of technology Supertitles, Jan Hartley's wondrous visual enhancements, the strength of Donald Runnicles' conducting, and a wealth of human touches by Francesca Zambello, this performance of Die Walkure sped by in a flash, making me wish it possible to come back the following night and experience it all over again.

It was also a glorious night of singing. This Ring is a co-production between the San Francisco Opera and the Washington National Opera. I can't wait to see it again as part of 2011's full Ring cycle (click here for more information).

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Actor/producer Tilda Swinton and filmmaker Luca Guadagnino have been involved in a labor of love for the past decade, a film which I first saw at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival and found to be even better at a subsequent press screening. I Am Love is not for the casual filmgoer or someone hoping to see the latest box office hit. A little over two hours, this is much more sophisticated fare aimed at those with brains and hearts, rather than the crowd that simply likes to see things explode.

To be sure, there are plenty of explosions throughout I Am Love. But they're all internal, hidden behind the eyes and fiercely kept under control in the privileged life within a wealthy Italian dynasty whose father figure has finally decided to retire. After having built a business that survived World War II, Edoardo Recchi, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) has decided to put the family business in Milan in the hands of his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti). Although Edo's younger brother Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro) and his father have no problems selling the business, Edo is acutely protective of the family name and its legacy.

Within the Recchi household a loyal staff of servants has kept the estate running like clockwork. Even with Tancredi's daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) off at school in London -- where, in addition to developing her photographic skills, she has come out as a lesbian -- and her devoted maid, Ida (Maria Paiato) fussing over her, Tancredi's wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton), is merely going through the motions of being a wife and mother.

Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi

A former Russian beauty whose father was an art conservator, Emma married into money. Even if her mother-in-law, Allegra (Marisa Berenson) can be difficult at times, there is little to rock Emma's world until she meets the young man who beat her son Edo in a horse race. Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) has no pretenses, is a brilliant chef, and feeds Emma what Swinton jokingly referred to in one interview as a plateful of "prawnography."

But with the family business undergoing changes, her son engaged to a young woman named Eva (Diane Fleri), and the possibility that she will soon be confronting empty nest syndrome, Emma is the kind of woman who feels herself drying up from lack of use. A sudden twist of fate which has her falling in love with her son's new business partner leads to the make-it-or-break-it moment when Emma must choose between more boring years with Tancredi or an exciting new love that has no guarantees.

The first time I saw this film I had to wrestle with the kind of problem that comes from knowing too much music. When the film was introduced, a great deal was made about how this was the first time composer John Adams had let his music be used for a film. As it became obvious that much of the soundtrack had been lifted directly from Nixon in China (including Pat Nixon's aria about being homesick for California), I found it increasingly hard to concentrate. At the second viewing, I had no such problem and could simply sit back and luxuriate in a film that is so beautifully crafted as to prove a constant source of shock and awe.

Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi

I Am Love is wonderfully introspective, lusciously vibrant, and filmed so beautifully that you will want to see it more than once. Adams' music, which instantly captures a sense industrial wealth with its chugging momentum, beautifully captures the tug-of-war within Emma's heart as she starts to yearn for a life she can't possibly enjoy with her husband of nearly 30 years.

What Guadagnino has been able to do is build a wonderful sense of intimacy in the widest of open spaces while capturing internal thoughts and flickers of recognition with an astounding level of emotional truth. Throughout the film, Flavio Parenti's Edo, Edoardo Gabbriellini's Antonio, and Alba Rohrwacher's Elisabetta glow with the optimism and vitality that accompany youth. But it is Tilda Swinton, whose radiance and beauty cannot be extinguished, who carries the film from start to finish in a magnificent performance that will thrill anyone who sees I Am Love. Here's the trailer:

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When Nozomi (Bae Doona) sets about creating a more satisfying life for herself in Hirokazu Kore-eda's new fantasy, Air Doll, she is nowhere as repressed or frustrated as Sieglinde and Emma Recchi. Nozomi is a Japanese blow-up doll, the kind of surrogate used for sex and companionship by lonely Japanese men who can't have a real relationship.

Nozomi as an air doll

What makes Air Doll so stunningly different is what happens when Nozomi magically comes to life and goes wandering around Tokyo. Kore-eda has a vivid memory of his first encounter with Yoshiie Goda's manga comic, The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, when it was was published by Shogakukan in February, 2000:
"I distinctly remember how much I was moved by this manga. This doll, inflated by the man she loves, walks around town at night and says to herself 'My empty body is filled with his breath. I may never be able to inflate myself on my own. Even if that means the end of my life, I don't care.'

I think the idea of being made whole by someone else's breath is a very intimate way to interact and receive satisfaction. The contrast between the human trying to fulfil himself, and the doll being fulfilled by someone else is so intriguing for me. When I read the scene where the inflatable doll sheds a tear, loses the air inside her, and gets filled with the breath of the person she is in love with, I found it very erotic. I found the scene very cinematic as well. I had never shot anything like that before, and I wanted to try. This is sex through one's breath, and I believed I could express this cinematically and metaphorically."
Poster Art for Air Doll

It doesn't take much for a viewer to willingly suspend disbelief as Nozomi goes wandering around town. Never mind how she gets in and out of the apartment where Hideo (Itsuji Itao) bathes her every night. Or how quickly she learns the ropes when she gets a job working in a video store with Junichi (Arata).

As Nozomi, Korean actress Bae Doona has such a goofy, doll-like quality that it's impossible not to want to believe that she has become human. The problem, of course, is that she essentially mirrors the society around her. Not knowing how things work in real life, she is prone to innocent mistakes. As Kore-eda explains:

"This film may appear to be a love story, but what lies deep down below are the questions about human nature: Can people fulfill their own emptiness? What is the meaning of life? What is a human being? In this film, I want the characters to connect with each other through the 'air doll.' Through this 'connection' people grow up and change. This is a reflection of my view of the world and its people: The truth and beauty of life lies in this kind of growth and change. The doll is determined to live her own life to the fullest even if death awaits at the end. 'I am sad and happy at the same time,' she says. How we feel about our lives, I believe, is inherent in these words: it is the truth about our 'sad and happy' lives.

All the characters in this film are lonely, regardless of their gender. For the female characters, the keywords are 'emptiness' and 'absence.' I came up with female characters from different generations in order to contrast with the doll’s aging process, and depict their emptiness in a dramatic manner. For example, one girl tries to fulfill her emptiness by eating, while the doll can’t eat. Another woman is afraid of aging, but the doll decides to enjoy her life and embraces growing older by abandoning her [air] pump.

For the male characters, those are 'substitution' and 'perversion.' The male characters don’t go straight to what they desire, but instead look for alternative solutions. These perverse men yearn for death, not life. These are the people I tried to portray. In other words, the film is about the loneliness of urban life, for both men and women."

Air Doll takes an unexpected turn when Nozomi backs into a sharp object and begins to deflate. As the always understanding Junichi starts to blow air through the valve into her body, a strange new realization of the power of life and emotion starts to fill Nozomi. Wanting to return the favor, she stabs Junichi -- only to discover that, as a real human being, he doesn't have a valve.

After discovering that Hideo has bought himself a replacement doll, the increasingly curious Nozomi takes a side trip to visit the doll manufacturer, Sonoda (Odagiri Jo). By this point, Air Doll is in a fascinating world all its own.

Odagiri Jo as Sonoda

Air Doll gives audience a new and refreshingly different way of examining what happens when the air seeps out of a relationship. While not a perfect film, it soars in many moments thanks to Bae Doona's exquisitely frail, ethereal, and doll-like beauty. Here's the trailer:

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