WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE FAMILY IMPLODES (On Stage and Screen)

Paul Simon wrote that there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and that sounds about right.  But it's much harder to change the world around you when things are going wrong. Even harder perhaps to change oneself.

Because when the world breaks down and things aren't working out as we hoped, then we need someone to blame.  It has to be someone's fault.  Your husband, your wife, the Arabs, the Jews, the Aristocrats.  But if it's yourself?  Then how do you deal with that?

YEAR BY THE SEA, a movie written and directed by Alexander Janko, adapted from Joan Anderson's memoirIn the opening scene of this movie, Joan (Karen Allen) is at her older son's wedding reception when she finds out from her realtor that her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has put their home on the market without even bothering to tell her.  Her son the groom gives a toast without even mentioning her.  Her other son doesn't even ask her to dance.  She has somehow become a non-person even to her nearest and dearest.  The only friend she seems to have is her publisher (S. Epatha Merkerson), who keeps asking Joan when she's going to write her next book - which is curious, since we never even see Joan open a book, much less make any attempt to write one.  In any case, Joan finds a coupon ad for a rental cottage in Cape Cod, and she impulsively calls and rents it rather than go off to Wichita, Kansas with her husband for his new job (whatever that may be - we never find out).

The good news about this movie is that Karen Allen's smile is still an elixir for whatever ails you, lighing up the screen with her inner glow.  The camera still loves her, and her likeability quotient is as high as ever too.  You want to like her character, just as you want to like this movie, a true independent with lovely shots of seals playing on the beach and small town eccentrics doing eccentric things.  But this is where the bad news comes in, because writer-director Alexander Janko has no clue how to write a screenplay.  Even more, he's clueless about his cluelessness, saying at the Q&A after the screening that "the creative aspect of this movie was never a problem" - ha!  It's a huge problem when your main character says "my sons are going to hate me" for leaving their father, and then there is no follow-up phone call or scene addressing this.  When she tells her husband, "We had a successful marriage, we did a great job raising our kids," but the one time she tries to reach her sons (at her husband's prompting), they don't even pick up the phone and apparently never call back.  And then what's really the state of this marriage?  Did these people ever love each other?  Michael Cristofer does an admirable job trying to invest his character with some sense of reality when in fact there isn't any - he's just a type, not a human being.  And every time there's a scene between him and his wife, it is interrupted by the wife of psychologist extraordinaire Erik Erikson (how specific is that?), who wants to go dancing on the beach, scarves flying like some Cape Cod protege of Isadora Duncan.  Instead of genuine emotional discovery, we get self-help slogans and New Age psychobabble. And still, Joan never even makes a notation in her journal until suddenly in the Third Act she turns out a memoir at the same time that Mrs. Erickson is writing hers (pre-sold, of course).  Because it's just that easy!

It's understandable that Mr Janko has discoveries of his own to make about screenwriting and directing, since he has made his living up until now as a movie composer.  What is less understandable is how terrible the score for this movie is.  There are so many songs, and every single one so on the nose.  I mean, it's just cheesy to use a song about feeling depressed when you're feeling depressed.  Isn't that in Movie Scoring 101?  Against all odds, I still think this movie is worth catching - first for the seals, and then for the luminous, inventive performances of Karen Allen and Michael Cristofer.  Just imagine how great they could have been if they'd actually been given something to act!

Alan Blumenfeld and Kevin Hudnell, 2 Venetian Jews

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Ellen Geer - There are only 3 more performances of this remarkable production at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga - on 9/17 at 7:30, 9/23 at 3:30 and 10/1 at 3:30.  I urge to catch this show before it closes.  The cast is excellent, none more so than Los Angeles theater stalwart Alan Blumenfeld.  His Shylock is a proud Jewish man in a city that hates Jews, and that does not allow a Jew to hold any job that a Christian can do.  He is a legal alien, and he has become a money-lender because this is the only way he can provide for his family.  He has in fact become the most successful Jewish money-lender precisely because of his pride - he is determined to succeed in spite of all the obstacles that the Christians have put in his way.  The object of his deepest affection is his daughter Jessica, but early in the play we see she has fallen in love with a cavalier young Christian man, and she elopes with him, taking a huge portion of her father's wealth with her.  So when rabid anti-Semite Antonio comes to him for a loan of 3,000 Ducats for his friend Bassanio, Shylock draws up a contract demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on his loan.  Director Ellen Geer and her artistic associates have edited the play a bit to emphasize the cruelty at the core of it.  When Portia - played wonderfully by Willow Geer - recites her "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech, it seems deeply hypocritical, as she delights in Shylock's destruction, just as she has earlier delighted in the defeat of the Prince of Morocco, wishing that "no more of his hue come to court me."  Far from seeing the play as a triumph of "mercy," the Botanicum production shows us a narcissistic, self-satisfied society with no problem demonizing the Jew as "the other."  Far from diminishing the play, it has never seemed so gloriously cogent to me before.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott at a Noise Within - "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times" is the famous opening of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities.  Regarding Mike Poulton's adaptation, I would call it "the best of adaptations and the worst of adaptations" - well, maybe not the worst, but definitely lacking.  What it does best is to create the terrifying reality of the French Revolution, that began as a blow for populist justice and morphed into a frenzy of bloodlust and revenge.  The staging at A Noise Within is very inventive in creating tableaux that bring this national nightmare to blazing life.  This is embodied in the character of Madame Defarge, brought vividly to life by Abby Craden.  Madame Defarge's need for justice is entirely understandable, but her thirst for revenge has become insatiable, and Ms Craden forces us to experience the erotic urge that this has come to represent for her.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

Where Mr Poulton's adaptation is lacking, however, is in developing characters of any depth that we can understand and care about.  There is simply so much plot - so much story, so many twists and turns - that it's hard to get beneath the glossy surface of the scenes from the French Revolution and feel anything for those who are trapped there.  This is not an easy problem for any adapter - Dickens's novel is bursting with storylines, and it has dual heroes - Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), who is at first accused in British court of being a French spy, only to end up a prisoner in the Bastille; and Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), a lawyer's associate who is responsible for Darnay's London acquittal.  But who is Darnay?  It's hard to get a grasp on his character in the midst of his continuing peril.  And who is Sydney Carton?  Well, that comes through more clearly, thanks in large part to Mr Stuart's memorably persuasive portrayal. Carton is intriguing but quite an enigma.  I could have used more scenes deepening his motives, especially with Lucie, the central female figure, to make his actions at the conclusion feel more inevitable.

I did love the theatricality of this production, as well as its ambitiousness.  At the very end, a young actress gives a speech in the shadow of the gallows which was genuinely heart-wrenching.  It demonstrated what happens when the human family gives way to self-destruction.  I just wish this production had more of that.

 


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO KAREN ALLEN? (Answer: A Lot)

The 2017 Hollyshorts Festival of short films is entering its final weekend at the TLC Chinese Theatre 6, and I highly recommend checking out the guide and catching some of the films if you can.

The Festival began on Thursday August 10th with the 30th Anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and by the conclusion on Saturday evening will have screened 400 films of 40 minutes or less (chosen from the 6300 films that were submitted).  I've managed to see around three-quarters of all the films, and I can report that there are some brilliant short films being made.  Films that definitely deserve your attention.  Since many can be accessed by online links or will appear at future local festivals, you may indeed have a chance to see them elsewhere.  I'll be providing a complete run-down of the best films I've seen at the Festival early next week, so be sure to look for that.

One of the films shown in the Hollyshorts festival was A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., adapted and directed by Karen Allen from a short story by Carson McCullers.  The story is gossamer-thin, a small slice-of-life interaction between a boy and a strange man in his 60s at a village tavern at 6 in the morning.  The boy has a paper-route, and he's stepped into the coffee shop as he always does after dispensing the papers. The older man calls the boy over and tells him, "I love you."  All the people in the shop - mostly men about to go to work in the paper mill - laugh at hearing this.  The man then goes on to explain himself, to give his own philosophy of love, which he came by through a great deal of suffering.  There is something vaguely religious about the scene and the "love" that the man expresses, but it remains oblique and enigmatic. as Ms. McCullers certainly intended.

In this, the first film she's directed, Karen Allen slows the pace of life down to a crawl.  We are as far away from the pace of the other films in her festival block - mostly urban dramas, suffused with hip-hop music and rhythms - as it is possible to be.  The film is shot in black & white with the exterior scenes suffused with dawn's early light.  (In Ms. McCullers' story, it's raining hard.)  The Berkshires landscape is almost painfully beautiful, and Ms. Allen lingers on it as long as she can before the boy (played by newcomer Jackson Smith) enters the tavern/coffee shop.  The strange man is played by Jeffrey DeMunn,in a performance of astonishing delicacy.  Where this character seemed like something of a holy fool in the McCullers story, DeMunn comes across here as an almost otherworldly figure, who seems as if he comes from a different species than the hard-edged, cynical townsfolk.  He is a wanderer, a lost soul who has somehow been found, who has stumbled upon the secret of living.  Again, everything transpires so slowly that it almost feels like we are out of the time/space continuum, as if the older man and the boy are communicating on a higher plane than the other patrons exist within.  This emphasizes the spiritual quality of their dialogue, where DeMunn seems like a guru passing on his wisdom to one of the few people who might understand him.  But does the boy understand?  Does the story that DeMunn's character tells him change the boy's outlook on life?  Ms. Allen retains the story's sense of enigma, though the film version feels larger, more spacious, more striking.  It feels less like a slice-of-life than it does a religious scene painted by Caravaggio, if Caravaggio painted in black-and-white.  Which is to say there is a meditative quality to it that is deeply heartfelt.  Personally I'd like to see it again, because the slowed-down pacing requires some adjusting to before the surprising aspects of what transpires can be fully appreciated.

 

I chatted with Karen in the Chinese Theatre's lounge area on the day after her film screened.

"I first read the Carson McCullers story when I was 22," she said.  "It just made an immediate impact on me, and this has stayed with me ever since.  It feels like something that I just had to do, and I'm so glad that the opportunity finally came along to do it."

The film has already been awarded "Best International Short" at the Manchester Film Festival, and Karen was named Best Director at the Rhode Island Film Festival.  She deflects my question about any other films she might like to direct and speaks instead about the stage plays she has directed, mostly for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City and the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Mass., near where she lives.  "Theater was my first love, and I keep going back to it," she told me.

Of course, for many people around the world, Karen Allen will always be Marion Ravenwood, the feisty and independent woman in Indiana Jones's life.  She played this role in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and there is simply no overstating the effect that her character had on boys of many ages in Raiders of the Lost Ark - a film that itself has a place in the American psyche just behind Star Wars.  And no wonder - story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Steven Spielberg.  These are the folks you want steering your ship.

"Well, sure, we had George Lucas and Steven Spielberg working at the top of their game," she said. "But you have to remember that Spielberg's last film at that point was 1941, which was a critical and financial disaster.  He has never experienced failure on that scale before, and he was definitely licking his wounds. We were all aware how much he had at stake with this film.  And he was prepping ET at the same time that we were shooting Raiders, so yeah, there was a lot going on."

Karen and Jeff Bridges in STARMAN

In addition to her role in Raiders, I'm partial to her performance in Starman (1984), in which she's trying to help an alien played by Jeff Bridges get back to his planet.  There's a lovely innocence to the movie, and there's so much chemistry between the two of them.  Karen has continued to do movie roles over the years, often in independent films that tend to get lost somewhere in distribution.  She stars in a new indie film coming out September 8th, Year by the Sea, in which she plays a woman who retreats to Cape Cod in the hope of reclaiming who she was before marriage and children.

Karen Allen will always have a place in the hearts and minds of film afficionados as the lovely girl next door who emerges more vividly as a genuine person the more you get to know her.  At age 65, there is still a natural, unvarnished beauty about her, personable and soulful.  And when she smiles, there is once again that girl next door, lovely but not remote, inteligent and full of mischief, who could also be your best friend.

"I'm in a period of transition," she said.  "I'm looking around for how best to spend my next 20 years.  I'll let you know when I find it."