Movie Review: Frances Ha (dir. by Noah Baumbach) —-running in place and getting nowhere

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances runs a lot during the course of Frances Ha.  She leaves a restaurant and runs to the ATM, she runs to work, she runs to her parents in Sacramento, she runs back to New York, she runs to Paris, she runs from New York, she runs back to her old college, and she returns again to New York.  And until the end, she doesn’t get anywhere. She’s just running in place. She is hapless and feckless and lonely and dangerously stuck in the past.  And she is endearingly quirky.

Frances is played by Greta Gerwig who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. (There is a follow-up collaboration already in post-production, tentatively titled Untitled Public School Project). She–like countless others–have come to New York, because it’s the world’s biggest stage and she is a dancer. However, we are to infer, not a very good one.

So we follow her trajectory as she breaks up with her boyfriend, as her roommate leaves to move in with her mate, as she “crashes” in various friends’ apartments, and as she is “fired” from her job.  What is a poor girl to do?  Certainly, she makes some bad decisions–an impulsive trip to Paris on her credit card and a friendship shattering tantrum at a restaurant–but ultimately we know she is decent and hard-working, and we hope that things will pan out for her.

I had seen the trailer for Frances Ha a few months back, but hadn’t put it on my “must see” list. Then I saw an article in one of the free newspapers that ran with this headline:

“Woody Allen Call Your Lawyers…Someone has Stolen your Style.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

So of course that sent me to the theaters.  (I didn’t even read the article, just the headline.) The “stolen style” is the cinematography. It is filmed in black-and-white, and there are scenes that very much have a “Woody Allen” feel: New York street scenes, a shot going down into the subway, a scene around a table in an up-scale apartment, a family Christmas dinner.  These all very much LOOK like a Woody Allen film.

However, the similarity stops with the dialog.  What, I assume, is meant to be witty and quirky and insightful is not.  It simply does not come off.

Instead, we follow Frances (and her friend Sophie, played by Mickie Sumner) as she stumbles forward, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes ineptly.  And we want to root for her except that we often lose interest in her.  No doubt that her travails are all true to life, but more often than not it is simply that–true to life.  And life is often not all that interesting to watch.

I realize that Gerwig and Baumbach both have solid credentials in films about life’s wry moments. Baumbach has successfully co-written with Wes Anderson and has written and directed such films as Margot and the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale; while Gerwig has been working–non-stop it seems–with directors as varied as Daryl Wein and, yes, Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), while increasingly taking part in the screenwriting, as well.  But Frances Ha left me wanting something more.

I want to like Gerwig and Baumbach’s work. I want to very much. I am excited about what they are trying. But so far, I am lukewarm with the results. I feel as if I know what they are trying to say, to do, but it is not coming across.

I feel as if they are running in place.


Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.

Movie Review: A Late Quartet–Harmony within the Dissonance

I received an e-mail last Monday that read like this:
Ciao Gianni,
Ho visto un film ieri sera si chiamo “A Last Quartet”. Ho pensato molto a Biggs perche un uomo ha Parkinson’s. Interesante  Buon giorno!!

“Biggs” was a friend of ours who struggled with Parkinson’s until the end of her life and Parkinsons plays a major role in the plot of Yaron Zilberman’s film A Late Quartet.  I had read about the film in those end-of-summer write-ups of films that would be arriving in the coming months, but had forgotten completely about it. And now, here it was in town.

And while a diagnosis of Parkinson’s comes early in the movie, it is not the only malfunction in the story.  The film is about the tensions, dysfunctions, rivalries, and bickerings that take place within a famous string quartet, “The Fugue String Quartet.”  Celebrating its 25th anniversary together, the quartet reveals a shattering disharmony in an ensemble devoted to creating celestial harmony.

The film begins as the ensemble gathers for its first rehearsal after a short period apart. The cello player, Peter (Christopher Walken) cuts the practice short as he finds he is losing control and strength in his hand. After some visits to the doctor, he learns he has the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and he calls the group together to tell them and to announce that the first concert of the new season will be his final performance.
Yet Peter’s debilitating disease plays underneath the rest of the melodrama–much like his cello plays under the melodies of the quartet. Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener) have been married through most of the quartet’s existence, and the strains within the marriage seem to be becoming more and more taut.  There is a silent dissatisfaction and regret running through the both of them. And finally, the first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) is an exacting, domineering, egoist whose suppressed passion erupts in an affair that may fracture the quartet. (No, gentle readers. Although Juliette and he were once lovers before she married, she is not the focus of his attentions.)

A Late Quartet would be considered no more than just a middling film if it weren’t for the performances of Hoffman, Keener, Ivanir and Walken.  Walken, who lately seemed to be a mere parody of himself (more cowbell, anyone?) is superb. I can’t remember ever seeing him this intense, this openly vulnerable. In the class he teaches, he reads his young prodigies T.S. Eliot on Beethoven and reminisces about his and Pablo Casal’s conversations. He is dying, he is missing his dead wife, and he is suffering as he watches his beloved quartet rip apart. It is a simple, understated performance that echoes the role that his cello brings to the music.

On the other hand, while his character plays second violin in the quartet, Philip Seymour Hoffman is certainly the first violin in this ensemble. It is his quiet emotional rollercoaster, his final refusal to be everyone’s “doormat,” his true declaration of love for the wife whom he has just betrayed that is the masterstroke in this film. The film builds on Hoffman.  He and Cathrine Keener have worked in several films together (most notably Capote and Synecdoche, New York) and their comfort with each other is evident. The character she plays is perhaps the least discoverable–she is strong and yet damaged, wise and yet blindered, loving and yet cold.  Mark Ivanir (who people will recognize from countless television series as well as three Spielberg films and a couple of DeNiro projects) plays the role of the obsessive Daniel. Focused on passionless precision, he is the counterweight to Hoffman–who inwardly covets Daniel’s role as first violinist.

As well as the ensemble works off each other, the music is perhaps the most memorable.  The quartet is preparing Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet (in C-sharp minor), a piece that Beethoven wrote during his last days and which taxes the strength and stamina of the performers as well as the integrity of the instruments.  We learn that it is what Schubert asked to be played to him as he was dying. In the film, the music is actually played by the Brentano Quartet, and it is stirringly emotional.  If you wish, you can hear it here:

Schubert once said after having heard Opus 131, “After this, what is left for us to write?”  The film A Late Quartet falls far short of those heights, yet when I think of Parkinson’s Disease and the people who I knew who have suffered from it, I wonder if the “what is left…?” is the haunting motif. I wonder if the Christoper Walken character–who so much wants the quartet to continue after him–has considered the same.

Central Park in Spring…Poetry in April

Went up to NYC for two days. The weather was glorious. Bright sunny skies and comfortable 70-degree weather. Central Park was bustling–workers extending their lunches, children climbing rocks, skateboarders, bikers, and roller-bladers whizzing around. There were even some early sun-bathers stripped down to the bare essentials. Good energy all around–New York at its finest.

The reason I went up to New York was to attend the 10th annual “Poetry and Creative Mind” gala held at the Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center on Thursday night.  Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the gala celebrates National Poetry month by presenting various writers, directors, and personalities to read two or three poems of their choosing.  Simply, the night was fun. The presenters were relaxed and entertaining, and the audience was appreciative and receptive.

The readers were Meryl Streep, Brook Shields, Diana Reeves, Colum McCann, Chip Kidd, Bill Keller, Terrence Howard, John Wesley Harding, Claire Danes and Tom Brokow.

Chip Kidd (Master of Ceremonies) dressed in an extraordinary red-and-white striped suit jacket, Kidd was humorous and quick. He handled a small mishap very well when he introduced out-going Academy president Tree Svenson who reached the podium and had to leave stage to retrieve the speech she had forgotten.  He also performed a skit based on his assertion that all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of the “Yellow Road of Texas,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and the 1970 theme song for Pepsi.

Colum McCann. McCann’s National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin was a dramatic, emotional,  exciting portrait of New York City in 1974.  (see and hear McCann talk about the novel here:

McCann recited “The Road Not Taken.” He said that instead of gifts for Christmas, he asks his children to memorize a poem and gave us one that he had asked them to memorize. It was “A Meeting” by Wendell Berry and dedicated to Frank McCourt. His poems all tended to celebrate “the road not taken.” They included Rukeyser’s “Then I saw What the Calling Was” and Amy Clampitt’s “Blueberrying in August.” He ended with the very powerful poem by Nikky Finney called “I Have Been Somewhere.”

Claire Danes, the actress, recited e.e. cummings’ “if up’s the word.”  The poem had been read at her wedding.  She then read  Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with you.”  It was new to me–although I inherited O’Hara’s completed poems from my uncle–and it was such a wonderful love poem. Here it is:

“Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

Having a Coke with you
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it.

John Wesley Harding –John Wesley Harding is the stage, folk-singing name of the writer, Wesley Stace. As Wesley Stace he read Thomas Wyatt’s  “They Flee from Me”  which he calls the greatest poem ever written. (I’m not sure I agree). For his second poem, he brought out his guitar and sang the poem, “The Examiners”–which is on his latest album.   He had seen it in a contest in the Times Literary Supplement and was immediately struck by it.  As he noted, the poem may have come in 3rd in the contest, but “numbers 1 and 2 weren’t being played on the stage at Lincoln Center.” Here he is singing “The Examiners”:

Terence Howard, the stage and screen actor, seemed the less comfortable of them all. He haltingly read Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers,”  but then hit his mark with Rod McKuen’s “Gifts from the Sea.”  It was moving and lovely.  And to me a surprise.

Brooke Shields gave perhaps the best performance of all.  She first read “The Spoilsport”  by Robert Graves, then the very funny “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins and then Howard Nemerov’s “To David, About His Education.” Her delivery was relaxed and humorous and each of the poems themselves were both light and thoughtful.

Bill Keller said that the only reason he had been invited to read was that he had written a NYTimes article in which he said that Congress would be a much better governing organization if they read more poetry. (He said that maybe that would be better than the “Congressional prayer breakfasts” that so many like to boast about.) He cited the late Adrian Rich who once said that “poetry was the perfect antidote to moral certainty” and felt that that was something sorely need in present day Washington. He read three love poems, one each by Brad Leithauser, Kay Ryan, and Frederick Seidel. He ended with Stephen Dunn’s “Our Parents.”

Dianne Reeves. The great jazz singer showed that she can also sing the blues. In the middle of  the Gwendolyn Brooks “Queen of the Blues,” she sang the middle verses in  throaty, bluesy voice that wound back into the poem gently into the poem. It was the high point of the evening. She also read a humorous one about a woman’s hips and another about language and grammar by Kenneth Koch in which the elements of a sentence vowed their love ”until the destruction of language”

Tom Brokaw. Affable and charming, surprisingly his remarks fell flat and his poetry selections were not that memorable. He joked about having been placed between Reeves and Streep. Affable enough, but not that great a performance.

Meryl Streep is always regal, even when she is casual and comfortable. She read W.H. Auden “As I walked out one evening” and then Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”–she flubbed her lines at the end, but the performance was still spell-bounding.  To atone for her slip-up, she then recited a Chinese poem, first in English and then in Chinese.  It seems that she can do anything.

There was a large reception at the end–one could see in through the glass walls and it looked fine and sumptuous–but it was for the performers and the higher-priced ticket holders only.  Instead I walked across the street and had a whisky and replayed the night in my head.

Friday Film Review–Manhattan

My sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I happened to be searching for a particular clip from the movie Manhattan.

You know the opening of Manhattan where Woody Allen is doing a voice over, purportedly writing a book about his love for the city? The gorgeous photography–Woody had the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis as his cameraman–the pulsating Gershwin music, the edgy decision to film in black and white, all work to make this perhaps Allen’s most beautiful film and certainly his greatest paean to the energy, diversity, pulse of New York City.

If you don’t know what I am referring to, check out the opening clip here:

The simplicity is its beauty.  There are no screen credits, no rolling text, just this gorgeous black-and-white montage of Manhattan.  The title of the movie itself appears as a vertical, flashing neon sign, one that you might not notice because it is so incorporated within the segment.

Quickly, the plot of the story is this: Isaac (Woody Allen), a writer whose ex-wife is publishing a tell-all memoir of their marriage, is dating a high-school girl (Mariel Hemingway).  Granted that in hind-sight this relationship feels a bit uncomfortable, but Isaac is in fact the moral center of the film (and his high-school girl-friend perhaps the most mature and un-jaded of all the characters). His dating the young girl pales as an issue when juxtaposed against the shallownesss, the deceit and the disloyalty of the other main characters.  Isaac’s friend, Yale, is having an affair with Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in what seems to be a reprise of her Annie Hall role–all intellectual charm and goofiness. (Manhattan came out two years after Annie Hall.)  She is endearing here as well, but it is basically the same character. Anyway, Isaac is attracted to Mary and Mary to him, but he will not act on it because she is having an affair/relationship with his best friend. The fact that his best friend is cheating on his wife who is also Isaac’s friend is also troubling to him.  Not until the affair between Yale and Mary ends, does Isaac allow himself to act on his feelings towards her.

I won’t spoil it, but there is more  treachery and disloyalty to come, and towards the end of the film, Isaac bursts into the classroom where Yale is teaching and makes an impassioned speech for morality. It is one of those movie moments when the action, the story, the jokes stop and someone makes an intelligent plea for humanity and for decency.

But the story, in many ways, is secondary for me with the film.  It is simply beautiful. The black-and-white photography mixed with George Gershwin’s exhilarating music is majestic, perfect.  It might not be far off to say that no one can make a city look better than Woody Allen.  Consider his recent efforts outside New York:  Paris in Midnight in Paris, Barcelona in Vicki Christina Barcelona, and London in Match Point.  In each film, the particular city seems a character in itself–a beautiful, energetic, lively character. A city’s tourist bureau would love to have Woody Allen film their promotional releases. He has a certain means of capturing the magic, the gestalt of a place. (Rome is next in his upcoming film, To Rome with Love.)

I used to pop Manhattan in the VCR/DVD whenever I was feeling particularly blue, for watching it somehow made me feel better.  I don’t know why–it really is rather depressing on the whole–but Isaac’s last speech to Yale is something special. Or perhaps the energy of Manhattan itself is what affects me, and my personal malaise at the time proves to be no match for that vigor and life pulse.

Anyway, as I said, my sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I stumbled upon this wonderful video by accident. Someone has taken the opening scene of Manhattan, and substituted black and white photos of Edinburgh.  Woody Allen’s voice over–where he praises Manhattan–is taken up verbatim except instead of Woody’s unmistakeable New York accent it is a strong Scottish voice and the word “New York” is replaced with the word “Edinburgh.”  Here it is below. Enjoy it.