Friday, July 23, 2010

Women On The Verge of A Breakthrough

During the early 1960s theatergoers noticed a curious phenomenon among new shows opening on Broadway. It seemed as if there was a contest to see who could create the longest title to cram on a theater marquee. Among the top contenders were:
While trying out in Detroit and Washington, D.C., a new musical directed and choreographed by Gower Champion labored under the clumsy title of Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. After its producer, David Merrick, heard a recording of a song Jerry Herman had written by famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, he quickly changed the name of the show to "Hello, Dolly!" Through a series of brilliant casting coups, Merrick managed to keep it running for 2,844 performances at the St. James Theatre.

To be sure, Dolly Levi isn't the only exasperating woman to be found on stage and screen. Who can forget Ruth Gordon's geriatric sexpot in Harold and Maude, Lucille Ball's antics on I Love Lucy, Vicki Lawrence's characterization of Thelma Harper, or Bea Arthur's sharp-tongued Maude Findlay? What about such classically difficult women as William Shakespeare's bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth, Jean Giradoux's wily Madwoman of Chaillot, or Euripides' tragic Medea? Each of these women had what we now politely refer to as "issues."

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Lots of people get stoned in Agora. However, very few of them end up giggling about it. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, Agora is set in Roman Egypt in 391. A..D. Covering a period of intense religious and political unrest in which Christians hate Jews and Romans hate Egyptians, one thing remains constant. Men -- particularly hyperreligious and stupid warrior types -- really hate smart women.

Enter Hypatia of Alexandria (Rachel Weisz), a Greek philosopher, gifted mathematician, aspiring astronomer, and budding atheist. In other words, a damned exasperating woman! The proud daughter of Theon of Alexandria (Michael Lonsdale), Hypatia is seen teaching an all-male class of students as the movie opens.
  • One of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who is very impressed with himself, is surprised that Hypatia would reject his advances. As the years go by, Orestes converts to Christianity and becomes Governor of Alexandria.
  • Although he is not one of her students, Hypatia's surprisingly intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella), also attends her lectures. Davus is deeply in love with Hypatia, but his love is unrequited.
  • Another student (Rupert Evans) grows up to become Synesius of Cyrene.
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her slave Davus (Max Minghella)

Over the years, as her students grow into powerful politicians and religious leaders, Hypatia keeps wrestling with the mysteries of the night sky. An early believer in heliocentrism (which postulates that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun), she eventually discovers that the planets travel along elliptical rather than circular paths and that the sun is one of two foci in each ellipse.

When violence erupts between the pagans and the Christians, Hypatia takes refuge in the library of the Serapeum. Soon she is struggling to save the knowledge of classical antiquity contained in Alexandria's famous library as she tries to prevent the library's scrolls from being destroyed.

Hypatia's father was also the uncle of Saint Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), the Bishop of Alexandria. As the leader of the Christians, Cyril (who resents Hypatia's influence over Orestes) tries to force her to convert to Christianity. After she refuses, Cyril condemns her and orders that Hypatia be stoned to death. Davus softens her death by suffocating her instead. As the film's star, Rachel Weisz notes:
"Really, nothing has changed. I mean, we have huge technological advances and medical advances. But in terms of people killing each other in the name of God, fundamentalism still abounds. In certain cultures, women are still second-class citizens, and they’re denied education."
Rachel Weisz with the cast of Agora

As much as I love historical fiction on the silver screen, Agora can be a very frustrating film to watch. It sometimes leaves viewers with the feeling that they are watching two movies (one about astronomy, intellectual integrity, and individual freedom and the other about old-fashioned macho rivalries). Agora's script ranges from the radical to the ridiculous. Much of the cast's acting ricochets between preachy philosophizing and political pomposity.

The film's near schizophrenic approach to examining Hypatia's life could easily prevent viewers from seeing this film. The best way to enjoy Agora may very well be to ignore much of the story and instead focus on its abundance of visual riches.

Unlike many modern films that use CGI scripting for battle scenes, special effects, and as a means of reproducing a different era, the huge sets for Agora were built on the island of Malta where the film was shot. If you have a passion for Egyptian history and artifacts, you'll want to see this film simply for its recreation of period detail.

The fact that Amenabar ends up relying on CGI scripting for his journeys into outer space (in order to give a better perspective on the film's astronomical issues) becomes a slight annoyance compared to the richness of Xavi Giménez's cinematography and Frank Walsh's superb art direction. Here's the trailer:

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Over the years, one of the responsibilities embraced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been to introduce audiences to neglected masterpieces. The Woman Disputed (a 1928 melodrama starring Norma Talmadge as the patriotic prostitute who saves Austria's independence) definitely qualifies as such a film.

Although it was not embraced by the critics at its premiere, when screened during the recent 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The Woman Disputed proved to have a powerful story centered around a woman torn between conflicting loyalties.

Norma Talmadge as Mary Ann Wagner

As the film opens, a man is seen running and looking for a place to hide. With the help of Mary Ann Wagner (Norma Talmadge) a streetwalker who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, he manages to conceal himself in a garbage can. As Talmadge sits astride the garbage can, preening for potential clients, she draws the attention of Otto Krueger (Gustaf von Seyffertitz), a mysterious man who follows her to her rented room with the intention of committing suicide.

Krueger has assured the young woman that she will be well taken care of by his nephew. When she contacts Nika Turgenov (Arnold Kent), he arrives with his best friend, Paul Hartman (Gilbert Roland), by his side. Although they are soldiers in the Russian and Austrian armies, the two friends stand up to the police on Mary Ann's behalf and soon befriend her.

Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland

As time passes, the three become inseparable until two closely-related events change their lives. When Paul asks Mary Ann to marry him, the news comes as a rude shock to Nika (who thought the young woman would surely want to marry him, instead).

Soon thereafter, both men are called to report for duty after war breaks out between Austria and Russia. After Paul asks Nika to allow him an hour of happiness with Mary Ann before he heads off to war, Nika vows to savor his own hour of happiness someday, somewhere, somehow.

Time passes and Mary Ann receives a message from Paul asking her to meet him in a nearby town where they can be married. When Russian soldiers advance on her town and start to blow up buildings in their way, Mary Ann has no idea that the enemy's commanding officer is Nika.

Nika establishes his headquarters in the local church and declares that anyone who tries to escape from town will be shot. But he is surprised to see Mary Ann brought before him as one of the people violating his order.

A trio of social snobs (including a man who once noticed Mary Ann on the street when she was a working girl) declares that Mary Ann is not fit company for respectable people like themselves. However, after Mary Ann is offered a chance to save her life by forsaking Paul and marrying Nika, the hypocrisy of the Passerby (Boris de Fast), Count (Nicholas Soussanin), and Countess (Gladys Brockwell) becomes laughably obvious.

Although Father Roche (Michael Vavitch) encourages Mary Ann to give her body to Nika, in a private session he tells her that he is actually a spy named Liebert, who needs to escape so he can get vital news to the Austrian forces. After he appeals to her sense of patriotism, Mary Ann finally gives in to Nika's demand, allowing Liebert to flee to safety. When the Austrian army marches into town, who should be their commander but her fiancé, Paul!

When Nika and Paul come face to face, Paul learns of Mary Ann's shameful acts. What Paul does not understand is that his triumph was the direct result of Mary Ann's surrender to Nika -- a point driven home in the dramatic finale as Mary Ann is hailed by one and all as the woman whose patriotic sacrifice changed the course of the war.

It was fascinating to watch Talmadge (whose marriage to the film's producer, Joseph Schenck, was deteriorating during the filming while she was involved in a torrid affair with her co-star, Gilbert Roland). The direction by Henry King and Sam Taylor turned The Woman Disputed into a deeply satisfying drama (the plot is based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant). Stephen Horne's musical accompaniment on piano and flute -- in a performance that included a fierce run of double octaves at one of Mary Ann's most challenging moments -- supported the action so strongly that, by the film's finale, the audience was enthralled with the plot, the actors, and Horne's insightful score.

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Also screened at the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a provocative film never released in the United States. Directed by George Wilhelm Pabst, 1929's Diary of a Lost Girl is a tale of middle class morality gone to rot. As the film begins, Thymian (Louise Brooks) is a slightly zaftig teenager preparing to celebrate her christening day. She can't understand why her devoted governess, Elizabeth (Sybille Schmitz), is mysteriously being forced to leave their employ in shame.

Thymian may be clueless about her father's infidelity, but his assistant is not. Meinert (Fritz Rasp), the young man who works downstairs in the pharmacy owned by Thymian's father (Josef Rovensky), promises to explain everything to her at 10:30 that night. He promptly gets her pregnant.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth (the pregnant governess) has drowned herself, Thymian's father has brought home, married, and impregnated a young woman named Meta (Franziska Kinz), and wants his shameful daughter out of his house. Simultaneously, the elder Count Osdorff (Arnold Korff) has decided to cut off his son, Count Nicolas Osdorff (André Roanne), who enjoys a fairly debauched lifestyle.

After Thymian refuses to marry Meinert, her baby is given to a midwife and the young girl is shipped off to a strict reform school. The director of the school (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife (Valeska Gert) are latent sadists who enjoy disciplining the girls placed under their care. The younger Osdorff has no success in persuading Thymian's father to take her back from the reform school.

With help from her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), Thymian escapes from the facility and ends up working with Erika in a luxurious brothel run by a fat old madam who was probably forced into prostitution in her youth. One night, Thymian's father visits the brothel and barely recognizes his daughter.

However, when Thymian's father dies, she is invited to the reading of his will. Upon seeing Meta and her children about to be left penniless, Thymian gives her money to Meta's youngest child in the hope that the little girl won't have to follow in Thymian's footsteps. Having learned of her generosity, the elder Count Osdorff proposes that they marry so that he can make up for the hardships Thymian endured in her youth. She soon becomes a Countess and is enjoying herself at the beach when her aunt Frieda (Vera Pawlowa) spots the Count.

Soon Frieda and her friends have invited Thymian to join a committee of concerned women who help young girls in trouble. Much to her shock, Thymian is taken to the same reform school she attended and confronted with an unhappy young girl who is being severely disciplined. She quickly realizes Erika and realizes that the same sadistic couple are still running the school.

Louise Brooks joins a brothel in Diary of a Lost Girl

As the film ends, Thymian takes Erika under her wing after informing the other women on the committee that she already knows the so-called benefits of their reform school. Louise Brooks delivers a beautifully layered performance in the title role. I wish I could identify the impressive actress who portrays the brothel's kind and corpulent madam.

The key to the plot of Diary of a Lost Girl is that, on her christening day, Thymian was given a diary in which she could record all of her secrets. The diary's first entry is Meinert's note to meet him in the pharmacy at 10:30 p.m. From there, her life's twists and turns keep getting recorded in her diary. The screening of Diary of a Lost Girl at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Luckily, the film can be seen in its entirety on YouTube: Here's part 1:


flj52452 said...

A very thoughtful review and, I agree, Agora was beautifully shot. I saw it when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorts some history in service to his art (the Library didn't end that way and Synesius wasn't a jerk), but that's what artists do. I don't go to the movies for history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

Anonymous said...