A Jazzercise Play

I saw a night of theater I’ll never forget last night. The Last Class: A Jazzercise Play, written by Megan Hill, by a new theater collective called Dodo is up through next weekend, March 5th.

It’s a comedy that unfolds over the course of a jazzercise class, the last, sparsely-attended one at a small town community rec center, and the instructor, played by Hill herself, is not happy about it. I went because the actor Amy Staats, who’s always funny, plays her co-instructor, and the two of them did indeed make a great comic duo.

Very American, this content, this belief in the power of positive thinking, even in the face of pathetic disinterest – or worse, when you feel debilitating anger welling up inside of you, as Hill’s instructor does when she thinks of the new rec director Chelsea poaching her jazzercise students and then 86’ing the class to make room for her own Zumba class.

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This kind of humor, New York theater people poking fun at Middle America, can come off as mean-spirited, but I never got that sense from the group, I suppose because they were so on topic about the struggle: What is the limit? What wound is so personal that positivity can not fix it? And it helped that as a conceit it has the built-in forward motion of the class, a beginning, middle and end.

It also helped enormously that Hill inserted a touching monologue near the end, in which her instructor detailed why she became a jazzercise instructor, everything it means to her to be good at something, which elevates the whole play to a more universal, honest and sadder level.

Film geek confession: The minute it began, I was reminded of Winter Light – another tight timeline of a story, about a crisis of faith a small-town priest goes through while facing the fact that no one wants to come to his masses.

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Father, Son, and Jazzercise.

The Theaterlab on 36th Street is a great, intimate space for the play – though part of me would love to see it again in a grander place, with more of a class following along. There are special deals to see it if you’re willing to participate as a jazzercise student, but word is there’s a waiting list for that.

At one point last night another patron in the back row (there are only three rows) pushed his chair too far back and tumbled backward off the stadium seating. Until it became clear he was unharmed (and it seemed like it could have been ugly for a few seconds there), Hill stopped the play. Staats shook her head and blamed it on Chelsea, who’s letting the rec center go to hell. Magic.

Two Days, One Night, Two Films, Three and a Half Billion Women

Two days, two films about gorgeous women mentally falling apart, so completely different.

First, in theaters everywhere – well, in two theaters here in New York anyway – the Dardenne Brothers are showing that they still got it. The duo that brought La Promesse, Le Fils, and The Kid With the Bike, among others, has teamed up with Marion Cotillard to make another deeply simple drama set in the Belgian working class.

The power of Two Days, One Night (written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) is in the simplicity of its premise. Sandra, suffering from a yet-unnamed illness, gets rousted from bed one afternoon to make an appearance at her job, so she has a chance to keep it. The boss already put her job to a vote, and she lost: Her sixteen coworkers, given a choice between keeping their expected €1,000 bonus and keeping their ill coworker on the team, voted overwhelmingly for their bonuses. But not so fast. It’s Friday afternoon, and Sandra’s best friend/coworker persuaded the boss to let them vote again, if Sandra can show up by 5:00 to ask in person. She gets there in the nick of time, and a vote is scheduled for Monday morning. Now she has the weekend to locate her coworkers, and lobby them to keep her on board.

The depth in the film comes from its portrayal of depression, which is damn hard to write a good script about. It’s so open-ended, the challenge is finding the finite premise, and make conflict out of the character’s penchant for giving up – their hit-and-miss willingness to even engage in the plot – while also tending to the bigger plot. It was probably a simple matter of the French language, but somehow I kept thinking of Gerard Depardieu as Robespierre in Danton, waging a legislative battle from his sick bed, The Terror consuming his body. How much better this was. How much more viscerally I could feel it.

Marion Cotillard

The times I was a tourist in Europe, and, say, took a train from the aeroport to the historic center of town, I couldn’t help but think that “real Europeans” live in the housing developments and bus routes of the suburbs I was zipping past. The Queens Counties and Yonkerses of Europe, without cathedrals. And I love the Dardennes for taking me there again and again.

Not that it’s a strictly personal story. They indulge in one moment that contextualizes the whole thing. As he’s driving away from Sandra that Friday afternoon, the boss points out that he has no choice but to give the crew this either-or decision because the company must compete with the Chinese! It’s a heavy-handed moment that arguably doesn’t belong, but there it is, so all the ads can say things like, “a profoundly political snapshot of an age of economic insecurity.”

Coincidentally, I’m still slowly traipsing, unplanned, through a year of Italian cinema, and I was honestly so bored by L’Eclisse that I was giving up on Antonioni, but since there’s a chapter devoted to Red Desert in a book I’m reading called Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, I thought I’d give him another try. Whoa! Am I glad I did!

Deserto Rosso was written by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and I’d love to see a major retrospective of films made from Guerra’s scripts. It would include L’Avventura, Blow Up, and Zabriskie Point, but also Amarcord and Nostalghia. In 1964, the same year as Red Desert, was Marriage Italian Style, of all films, which Guerra also got a co-writing credit on.

I guess I’d never tried it before because I was scared of the bombast: “A drama about alienation in the modern world…” the Netflix blurb begins. Well, maybe. I also see, at its core, what could be an independent film plot about a woman who has an affair with her husband’s colleague. I was surprised to read that Antonioni felt his films were direct descendants of neorealism: “I began as one of the first exponents of neorealism, and now by concentrating on the internals of character and psychology I do not think I have deserted the movement, but rather have pointed a path toward extending its boundaries….I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism.”*

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in "Red Desert."

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in “Red Desert.”

I guess this was on his and Guerra’s mind when they wrote the scene in which the heroine Giuliana asks her lover Zeller what he plans to take with him on his long trip to South America:

Zeller: Two or three bags.
Giuliana: If I were to go away, I’d take everything, everything I see, all the things I use every day, even the ashtrays.
Zeller: Then you might as well just stay put. You’d end up missing everything. The street where you live, your city.
Giuliana: You see in classified ads:”For sale, owner must relocate,” as if it were an excuse to abandon everything…or almost. Why? It shouldn’t be like that.**

It’s as if their characters are expressing the thesis and antithesis of their new spin on neorealism. She wants to record reality as it is. He wants to keep two or three suitcases of it and construct something closer to a whole picture of reality than just turning on a camera and letting it roll. Genius, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I can tell that, like Amarcord, I’m going to have to watch this film again and again.

Not that it’s completely invulnerable to criticism! Giuliana’s insanity is hard to swallow. Monica Vitti is one of those Italian women with faces so beautiful, and noses so imposing, that you turn into a stuttering idiot while you talk to them. If she appeared at your door in a toga and pouted, you’d ask if you could please go to ancient Rome with her. She stands still and the film revolves around her.

"Through a Glass, Darkly": woman as a timeless vessel.

“Through a Glass, Darkly”: woman as a timeless vessel.

So why is she writhing on the floor every time she gets stressed out? “Alienation in the modern world” got you down, Giuliana? It’s as if Antonioni and Guerra lost their nerve and couldn’t merely make a film about a couple in crisis, who shine a light on their era and all its splendid, polluted alienation. They even include a dreamy story-within-a-story that Giuliana tells her young son, about a pubescent girl on a red sand beach who follows an empty ship and discovers sexual desire in a metaphorical sense, and it cures the boy of his own “ailment.” They place the motive in every male in a voice this girl hears in that eponymous red desert, where “from an inlet among the rocks, the numerous rocks that she never realized were like flesh, and the voice in that spot sounded so sweet. Everything was singing. Everything.”

That’s plenty for me, but they had to make Giuliana freak out too. Make her embody and be her own alienated time. I guess they took the ship metaphor from Through a Glass Darkly – decrepit ship as crazy place where women dwell and men come of age by following them there – which was only two years old when they shot this, and went deeper with it.

I suppose this will happen as long as men write scripts in which women are a psychic element and not characters in the complete sense. Every woman is all women, all three and a half billion of them. And her insanity is a metaphor for what ails reality in general.

Two Days, One Night, which would be a great-niece of neorealism, or something like that, is a step in the right direction, since Sandra’s insanity is just what it is, a big pain in her ass, that makes everything harder and shines a light on nothing.
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*From Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
**Apologies to Guerra and all Italian speakers: I jotted the dialogue off the Criterion Collection subtitles.

Godard and All That Self-Importance

If Joseph Conrad, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ozzy Osbourne all had your birthday, you’d be excused for thinking you’re a writer with something very important to say. Or at least, who’s entitled to a little more self-importance than the average goateed guy with a MacBook.

Well, they are all three born on the same day, December 3rd, and it is my birthday, and I see these guys, my fellow children of 1-2-3, as cautionary examples. Sagittarians in general like to think of ourselves as “the deep ones” wherever we go, but we’re prone to over-thinking things, and philosophy and religion for their own sake. And none of these three ever suffered from any, shall we say, deficit in their estimation of the importance of their own work.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

It’s years since I’ve tried reading Conrad, but I’ve listened to more Black Sabbath since I turned 40 than in all my previous life combined, and by a lot! Their first two albums Black Sabbath and Paranoid are rock itself at its best. But then they embraced their devil music label, played to their own devoted fan base, whose taste was getting worse, and made a lot of mediocre music.

Sounds like Godard! It’s never enough for an Ozzy Osbourne to sing love songs (or lust songs) like Robert Plant. He has to go for the Satan versus God thing. And it’s not enough for Godard to make some smart but catchy films like his first few. He has to make definitive statements about cinema itself, and dare you to say “I don’t get this.” Ingmar Bergman has some juicy quotes about St. Jean-Luc’s excessive intellectualism:

“In this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

To a different interviewer, he was less kind: “I’ve never gotten anything out of [Godard’s] movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a fucking bore. He’s made his films for the critics.”

“He’s made his films for the critics”!

If we’re going to get catty, though, we should point out that Bergman’s early films – the simple stories and comedies he shot with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer – are aging better than his “great period.” I wish I could go back in time and take every copy of The Passion of Anna from every DVD shelf where it’s been the only Bergman selection for the past fifteen years, which is not uncommon, and replace it with Summer Interlude or To Joy. Things started going off the rails when Bergman became the keeper of the flame of important cinema, unsparing in his honesty and daring and precise in his use of camera. In other words, the deeper he got with longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose birthday happened to be – guess when – December 3rd.

(It’s also Julianne Moore’s birthday, and she seems to have it all figured out, so there is hope.)