Talking Movies

December 1, 2012

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway’s first novel was transformed at Belvedere College into one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival by New York troupe Elevator Repair Service.
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Hemingway’s picaresque tale of America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carousing aimlessly around 1920s Paris and Spain was vividly brought to life within an impressively detailed set of The Select bar where these expats spend so much time drinking. Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) is our narrator, a maimed war-hero now earning a living as a writer. Jake spends his days drinking with his quasi-friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) and Cohn’s verbally abusive girlfriend Frances (Kate Scelsa), and flirting ineffectually with native women (Kaneza Schall), but life becomes far more complicated for all these characters when Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor) breezes back into town… Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett, but his war-wound renders him impotent, and so, in one of literature’s most heartbreaking thwarted romances, Brett, despite being truly in love with only Jake, turns to many men to do for her the one thing he can’t. Her impending marriage to fellow rich Briton Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson) might perhaps stop her wandering eye but in the meantime she gets entangled with Cohn, which ensures a very tense visit to Pamplona for the Fiesta for the entire expat group; including Jake’s sardonic, macho, shooting and fishing friend Bill Gorton (Ben Williams).

This show put the other high-profile adaptation Dubliners to shame. Director John Collins begins with Jake’s casual narration straight to the audience, and then strips it away to stage dialogue scenes that use sound effects to conjure what cannot be staged, with the narration used for comic effect as Jake comments on conversations from within or for scene-setting until the climactic bullfight when, deliriously, a sports microphone appears as Jake and Brett sit together commentating using Hemingway’s narration as the star bullfighter takes on an intimidating bull; which is a table with horns being dashed about the stage by Ben Williams stomping the ground. The sound effects are truly spectacular, whether it’s glasses that don’t touch clinking together, a man stepping away from a typewriter which continues typing and when he announces in response to a question that he’s finished rings the end of a page, to the sloshing of the endless booze drunk by the characters, the lapping water and splashes of struggling fish in a pastoral idyll, and the roar of cheering and animalistic grunting from the bullfight. Small wonder that once Cohn’s role is finished Tierney stays on stage so we see him operate the live sound-work.

But this is theatricality that illuminates the novel. The dance to what would have been the catchiest song on the Continent in 1926, which continually interrupts the conversation between Brett, Jake and the Count (Vin Knight), is both a delight of ensemble choreography and encapsulates the frustrating allure of Brett; a moving target of a romantic lead who can’t be tied down by any man. Taylor’s Brett, all short blonde hair, clipped accent, and passionate recklessness, is well nigh definitive, while Iveson is immensely sympathetic and charismatic as Jake. In support in the first act Kate Scelso plays the Ugly American stereotype with astonishing gusto in a lengthy harangue. I didn’t remember Bill being a funny character, but Ben William’s performance was so modern that it was compared to Sam Rockwell and Will Arnett by my companions. Williams only features in the second act but he finds the sardonic humour and hidden tenderness in Hemingway’s declarative hardness, the highlight being his deadpan questioning of a telegram in Spanish – “What does the word Cohn mean?” The entire ensemble excelled though, not least in the amazing Fiesta sequence of pulsating lights, mass shuddering primal dance, and furious ecstatic noise; including Simpson drumming thunderously on a chair. But for all the triumphant sound and fury that created Pamplona’s excitement the heart of the play comes with lighting reduced to mere spots on Jake and Brett as they whisper their agonising unrequitable love for each other – an astonishingly intimate ending for such an expansive and exuberant play.

I had to read The Sun Also Rises for a course, which is always a good way to ruin a novel, but this production was so electric it’s actually forced me to re-evaluate and increase my estimation of Hemingway…

5/5

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November 1, 2011

The Mystery of Midnight in Paris

It may seem excessive to devote an entire blog to analysing just why Midnight in Paris has been such a success, but I think it deserves serious consideration.

On the most superficial level it’s not hard to see why it’s been such a box office hit. It’s been given a promotional push far exceeding any Woody Allen film for a long time, even more so than the much heralded return to form (and Jonathan Rhys-Meyer star-making) Match Point. The marketing push has also largely and cunningly disguised the fact that it’s a Woody Allen film, his stock not being that high. Instead the notion of the film being a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with funny lines and a great high concept has been touted in its endless TV spots. I’ve heard some people argue convincingly that even the evocative and romantic title is enough to entice people to check it out, without the Owen Wilson selling point.

But of course once you’ve sat down in the cinema and realised with horror from the jazz soundtrack and the credits font that it’s a Woody Allen film we come to the even more surprising part of the success story – that this is not a bait and switch deal, this really is a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams are fantastically ill-matched lovers and Allen grants them numerous hysterical scenes where they fail to communicate or connect, he insults her parents, or she takes the side of her obnoxious pedantic friend against him. Allen has never lost the ability to write great gags but such consistent excellence scene after scene has eluded him for years.

Then there’s the central hook – living in roaring Twenties Paris with America’s Lost Generation writers. You don’t need to have read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or know anything about the tortured lives of the Fitzgeralds to respond with delirious happiness and recognition to Allen’s inspired recreation of them. A terse yet wise Hemingway who speaks in blunt short sentences or delivers paragraph long monologues in an abrupt monotone, a Zelda talented and charming yet also clearly troubled, an F Scott who talks like his own characters and is obviously deeply in love but also deeply torn, just feel right – and how perfect that these great writers actually do talk about writing while they get drunk nightly, and that Hemingway keeps steadily producing work for Gertrude Stein to critique for him.

But the hook is only part of the success. There is a sweetness to the movie’s romances and a maturity to its pronouncements on Golden Age thinking that are completely unexpected. Numerous critics have complained that in recent works (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Melinda & Melinda) Allen has constructed a fictive universe so exclusively preoccupied with sexual faithlessness and infidelity that it is not only impossible to care for the characters but that the whole filmic experience is also quite depressing. By contrast you feel certain Wilson’s Gil will be faithful when he finally meets his soul mate at the film’s close, just as you applaud his decision to follow Stein’s advice to write about hope instead of despair, and live that ethos in the now too.

Midnight in Paris is probably Allen’s best film since 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but just how he rediscovered his talent so spectacularly at age 76 will remain as joyfully insoluble a mystery as how Owen Wilson time-travels.

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