Monday, February 12, 2018

Death and Two Maidens

Our lives may follow a straight line according to time but, for fiction writers, the shortest distance between dramatic paths is rarely the strongest way to tell a story. Novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters frequently shift scenes to show the actions and circumstances of their characters in relation to a forward-moving plot line.

One of the most favorite narrative gimmicks is a flashback. Whether used to highlight a moment from the past that might strengthen a character's motivation, explain a pivotal plot point, or disprove a red herring, traveling back in time can do wonders to build a dramatic foundation, reveal a long-forgotten moment of kindness (or villainy), and resolve a case of mistaken identity. Gilbert and Sullivan frequently included a comic or confessional aria in their operettas which explained a misassumption based on an event from the distant past.

Using a flashback in a stage presentation usually requires a fairly straightforward type of narration. In film, however, a character can narrate past events with an actor's voiceover as the audience is taken back to a time, long ago, when a critical event took place. Whether through a rose-colored memory or an inspired dream, a story can unfold with greater fluidity and, on many occasions, a clever use of magical realism.

James Cameron used flashbacks to great effect in his cinematic blockbuster, Titanic. Not only were the visuals stunning, his ability to switch back and forth between the narration by the 100-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and his depiction of events as they happened on the doomed ocean liner helped to sustain the high level of suspense.

When the film premiered in 1997 there were were two surprising reactions. Despite the fact that the sinking of the RMS Titanic took place in 1912 and the maritime disaster had become legendary, many young viewers were so absorbed in the fictional romance between Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater that they were thrown for a loop when the ship sank. I remember seeing the film with a former ballet dancer who was traumatized by all the scenes in which the actors struggled to escape the rising water.

Two recent dramatic experiences (one on stage, the other on film) made heavy use of flashbacks in ways that enchanted, confused, and ultimately won over their audience.

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Born on June 12, 1890, Egon Schiele crammed a lot of living into his short life. A friend of Gustav Klimt who, in 1911, introduced the young artist to one of his former models (17-year-old Walburga "Wally" Neuzil), Schiele became known as one of the early Expressionist artists; a man who painted distorted bodies as well as nude portraits of himself. In his youth, Schiele displayed incestuous tendencies towards his younger sister, Gerti. In April of 1912 (the same month that the RMS Titanic sank) he was accused of kidnapping a 13-year-old girl, but was subsequently acquitted.

A self portrait by Egon Schiele

Although Wally modeled for some of Schiele's most famous paintings (the two lived together until Schiele abruptly married a young woman from a bourgeois family), she was not his only inspiration. Schiele convinced his younger sister to model for him, and also painted Moa Mandu, who performed around Vienna as a variety dancer. As the Austrian Film Commission's Karin Schiefer explains:
“Before World War I, Vienna had a stage form called ‘Tablo Vivo’ in which women and men stood naked on stage, but were not allowed to move. If you moved, you were immediately arrested. But standing naked while painted as white as possible was art, since you represented statues.”
Larissa Breidbach as the model, Moa Mandu, in a
scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Dieter Berner's new film, Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (which was screened at the 2018 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival), begins with a confusing scene in which Schiele's syphilitic father burns all of the family's stock certificates and paper money in a stove, an act which undoubtedly had a traumatic impact on the young artist. Soon afterward, the scene shifts to a desolate apartment in Vienna, where a feverish Schiele (Noah Saavedra) is lying next to his wife's dead body as his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner), tries to care for him. Her efforts, alas, are in vain. Three days after Edith (Marie Jung) succumbs to the Spanish flu, her husband dies from the same disease at the age of 28.

Poster art for Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

From there, the film ricochets back and forth between the dying Schiele to scenes of his childhood and early brush with fame. In describing what drew him to the challenge of directing and co-writing a screenplay about the Austrian artist, Berner explains that:
Drawing was a kind of surrogate life for Schiele right from the start. As a boy, he was bad at school and neglected his homework because he always drew. It was his way of understanding the world, of somehow getting the world under control (his generation obviously sensed and felt the downfall of the monarchy, the downfall of the world in which they grew up). Schiele always had a sketchbook with him to capture moments of life. Like a director, he wondered what the talking gesture was, what the visually interesting moment was, and then captured it in his sketchbook.”
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
“His pictures are well thought-out constructions and by no means thrown away. It is a process of seeing, and we wanted to tell that in our story. Schiele also took pictures which often reveal that the chosen poses were extraordinary. He developed new, expressive poses. He made the body a means of expression, trying to tell about the body. What does the body tell us about a human alone? This is very interesting for a director and we wanted to tell this process in the film. How is it that someone invents such expressive poses? In this respect, painters are the directors of their pictures.”
Noah Saavedra (Egon) and Valerie Pachner (Wally)
in a scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Casting a biopic that takes place in a distinctly different historical period can present an odd challenge for a filmmaker. As Berner explains:
“An essential point of my concept was to show young people -- not actors who play young people, but those who are really young in front of the camera. I knew from the beginning that it would be very difficult to find someone who was young and, at the same time, had the life experience needed to play such a complicated character. That is why we started the casting process a very long time in advance."
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
"We finally found a young man who had experience as a model and wanted to try it as a movie actor. He could not remember two sentences at first but, from the beginning, he had that energy for me (the charisma I could associate with Schiele), so I decided to take the risk and brought him to this role for over a year. As a result, he actually wanted to be an actor, attended drama school, and finally passed the entrance exam at the famous Ernst Busch School. He also spent two semesters painting and drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in order to make the drawings that occur in the film itself.”
Noah Saavedra stars in Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

Berner's film benefits immensely from Götz Weidner's production design, Carson Thiele's cinematography, and André Dziezuk's musical score. Although the extremely photogenic Noah Saavedra's portrayal of Schiele can be riveting to watch, I found it fascinating to see how the rounder and less animated faces of Maresi Riegner (Gerti) and Valerie Pachner (Wally) subtly stole one scene after another. Larissa Breidbach (Moa Mandu), Cornelius Obonya (Gustav Klimt), Elisabeth Umlauft (Adele Harms), and Marie Jung (Edith Harms) all shine in supporting roles. But it is Pachner's face which haunts the film.

Noah Saavedra (Egon) and Valerie Pachner (Wally)
in a scene from Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden

The irony is that, in 1915, when Schiele married Edith Harms, he expected that Wally would stay on as an integral part of his life. But after four intense years as his mistress and muse, she immediately left him, never to return. As with many films that rely on flashbacks, there are times when a viewer might prefer a more linear approach to Schiele's story. With the action bouncing back and forth between the artist's healthy years and his feverish death, it's surprising that the film leaves a much stronger image of Wally's face than Schiele's in a viewer's mind. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco's Magic Theatre recently unveiled the world premiere of a beautiful new play written and directed by John Kolvenbach (whose previous works produced by Magic Theatre include Goldfish, Mrs. Whitney, and Sister Play). Working on a simple unit set designed by Erik Flatmo (who also designed the show's projections), with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, the premise of Reel to Reel seems deceptively simple.

Through a series of flashbacks, the audience is exposed to the 55-year-long marriage of Maggie and Walter, a loving (if occasionally cantankerous) couple who met in 1995 at a party in New York and remained together until Maggie's death in 2050. Although the couple did not have any children, they cherished their creative outlets. Walter was an aspiring filmmaker and Maggie found a way to transform her childhood passion from a hobby into an art form.

At the age of nine, Maggie told her parents she wanted a tape recorder for Christmas. Upon receiving a Sony 5400, the first thing she recorded was the sound of her mother’s washing machine. As her fascination with curating sounds deepened, she recorded digestive noises, the sound of Walter on the phone with his mother, and obsessively re-recorded the sound of a noodle cracking some 600 times. Kolvenbach finally found the key to Maggie's character when he realized that she could be a sound professional. "The play opened up for me when I figured out that she made sound collages," he states.

Over time, Maggie became so attuned to the everyday sounds in her relationship that she could easily identify Walter’s “signature sigh” as well as the clicks made in his later years by both of his aging knees as he rose from a chair. Such sounds were duly recorded for use in some of her solo presentations (Walter was relieved to learn that she never managed to surreptitiously plant a microphone in his underwear).

Zoe Winters in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

Throughout their marriage, Maggie has always been the more adventurous and aggressive partner. When they first met, she bull-dozed Walter into his bedroom but, after a night of torrid sex, disappeared (leaving him panicked that he might never be able to find her again). As the couple has aged, Maggie can see how her husband reflects the many changes in their lifestyle. “Walter is my living mirror," she states, "and he’s getting old. What do I find attractive now? It can be anything. He remembers to pick up the mail and that’s kind of hot.” Walter, meanwhile, feels "nourished" by the way his wife snores.

Although there are only two characters appearing onstage in Kolvenbach's play, they are portrayed by two couples. Zoe Winters (Maggie 1) and Andrew Pastides (Walter 1) portray the couple at 27 and 42 years of age. Carla Spindt (Maggie 2) and Will Marchetti (Walter 2) portray them as they age into their early 80s.

Unlike many family dramas, Reel to Reel is not about marking how one ages by measuring one’s life against the growth of one’s offspring. Instead, the play is the soundscape of a marriage that pays careful attention to what two partners listen to and hear from each other. Consider it an aural (rather than oral) history of a relationship. As the playwright explains:
Reel to Reel is about the hurdles and rewards that come with sticking it out. I wanted to look at an actual relationship where all we saw were the smaller moments of what it is to be with somebody. I started to think about the most intimate things in a relationship, to think about sound and if you could make a play that was comprised of sound. Could you render a relationship in a way that was accurate and intimate?”
The cast of Reel to Reel (Photo by: Julie Haber)
“I wanted to write about marriage, relationships, intimacy, and what is the tiny space between the end of our mouth and the beginning of someone’s ear. It’s also about what it is to lose someone. In the play, all the sound (foley and music) is made live by the actors. The idea is that everything is from these two people (four actors playing two people) and everything we experience is made by them. This is a play that is both about intimacy and that is itself an intimacy (the watching of which should be an intimate experience).”
Will Marchetti in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

Walter’s inner thoughts about Maggie range from low-level lust (“You could set fire to a damp sponge in that thing” or “My wife’s calves lower my IQ”) to his simmering frustration (“I listen to her take a shower and I can hear that she’s doing it wrong,” and “It’s possible to go from sitting comfortably to being overwhelmed with homicidal rage in seven of her syllables”).

Like many long-term couples, as Walter and Maggie grow older, their dialogue can range from a simple question expressed in their personal shorthand (“Do you want to go that place by the thing?”) to a major display of passive-aggressive behavior when Maggie must catch a flight to London and, although he finds it difficult to admit, Walter would prefer that she stay at home with him.

Will Marchetti and Carla Splindt in a scene from Reel to Reel
(Photo by: Julie Haber)

With costumes by Meg Neville and foley design by Sara Huddleston, the four-actor ensemble breathes a curious kind of life into Kolvenbach's script which makes one grateful that the playwright directed his delicate drama. While Zoe Winters and Andrew Pastides give strong performances as the young and middle aged couple, I found Will Marchetti and Carla Splindt's performances as the wrinkled and withered lovers especially poignant.

By the time bits and pieces plucked from 55 years of companionship have been compressed into an 80-minute performance, the audience senses how invisibly the delicate glue holding this fragile drama together resembles the foundation of musicianship and intuition developed between members of a top-level string quartet. Even though punctuated by the accompanying sounds of washing machines, telephones, and medical equipment, the give and take between Maggie and Walter is filled with as much tenderness and wit as an exceptional piece of chamber music.

Performances of Reel to Reel continue at the Magic Theatre through February 25 (click here for tickets).