Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Tale of Three Anti-Capitalist Musicals: HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM, BRIGADOON, MARAT/SADE

1933 -  Dir. Lewis Milestone

A pre-code salute to vagrancy, anarchism, and the days when Central Park was a bucolic Arden for the eloquent "books in the babbling brooks" breed of Depression-era homelessness. Milestone's delightful film is crammed with half-spoken Rogers and Hart songs lamenting the amount of work it takes to remain unemployed ("You own the world / when you don't own a thing"). There's enough economic savvy and cool Central Park set design here to make it both Brechtian and bucolic, an AS YOU LIKE IT with Central Park as Arden, Jolson as exiled king (he would not change it), and his men a bouncing band of singing bum types played with refreshing lack of hokey sentiment. Frank Morgan is the real mayor of NYC, the kind of duty-bound consciousness type that wistfully tosses change to Jolson's king tramp like he'd love to trade places - their weird symbiotic friendship creates a very cool core that gives the film bounce when it needs to avoid the snares of its second half's collapse into the usual Jolson-gives-up-the-girl City Lights-style melodramatics. Madge Evans is the girl in question: Morgan's neglected mistress, eh takes a jump off central park bridge into the surprisingly deep river where Jolson rescues her, completing the Shakespearean-Jungian geometry, which Ben Hecht has so cagily drafted (Naturally she comes to with amnesia and no place to sleep). With a cool black turtleneck and the swagger of a Bronx Maurice Chevalier, until he turns all plutocrat and schmaltzy, Jolson shows why he was once a box office draw. Aside from the eventual soup stock pathos, the only bad guy is a thousand dollar bill Jolson finds in the trash --the very rumor of which sends the park's once-happy denizens into violent riot. Oh capitalism, could you not spare this one tree? Imagine the Lubitsch touch on a SCARFACE spittoon and you have of course Warner Brothers. One of its many awesome little joys is hearing Frank "The Wonderful Wizard" Morgan saying "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home," six years early!  Capitalism may be the key to getting lovely things--and Evans is lovely, especially when covered in delicious Central Park creek water--but Joson must learn the hard way: sacrifice of happiness for spending power is not admirable! In the end, for all her loveliness, Evans is worse than a dozen thousand dollar bills!


1954-  Dir. Vincente Minnelli

If you never thought a magical Scottish hamlet could be boring, you thought wrong. Vincente Minnelli shows he is not Ford, and thus has no grasp of what makes Scottish culture great, i.e. Scotch whiskey. Alcohol here is clearly associated with a crowded Manhattan bar Gene Kelly and sourpuss drunk Van Johnson inhabit before and after their trip to Scotland (to shoot grouse, like they'd know one if they saw one). Scotland is played by various uninspired sets on which Kelly climbs and taps and sings like a `silly monkey.

Minnelli stacks the deck by making everyone at the bar vulgarians and Kelly's fiancee a social climbing materialistic bitch - there's no redeeming value in the city and nothing but redeemable value in the country. But associating booze with big city shallowness does little to allay the dull piety of the mythical town itself, which is stranded in a fundamentalist annex of John Ford chaperone-and-plow malarkey but without Ford's magic touch (the only way, perhaps, to see the magic in the mossy glens is to be lit up from within by Glenfiddich. This ain't the Scottish musical version of THE QUIET MAN, much as it would like to be, and the widescreen formatting--meant for giant Cinemascope stretch screens-- eschews close-ups and fast edits (such things made audiences nauseous and disoriented on such large canvases) in favor of long shots on obvious stage sets, where, for example, everyone's dancing feet are at the bottom of the screen, and their heads at the top, duplicating a Broadway theater experience, perhaps (the screen matching the height and width of the stage), but in failing to explore the magical possibilities of its subject, even on the big screen it's enough to reduce you to napping in all the wrong places.

If you want something magically Scottish, check out I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING or LOCAL HERO. What you get from BRIGADOON is the dry notion that Scottish culture is so inhibited it makes Irish Catholics look like Haight-Ashbury hippies  Considering the awesomeness of the stars--Kelly and my favorite Cyd Charisse--there's some surprisingly awkward dancing amidst the finery, and the super sexy Cyd is barely recognizable: her legs hidden in thick skirts, shapely upper regions sheathed in a highlands sash. She's supposed to look wan and bonny but often just seems sad and hungover.

Meanwhile Van Johnson is the ugly American personified, grousing about how he came to Scotland to shoot grouse and making alcohol look bad as he drawls off his endless flask and shotguns treed locals. Why does Kelly insist on bringing him along? He's like Ronald Coleman's ungrateful brother in LOST HORIZON. Why go to Scotland just to deal with that kind of crap? Just don't hang out with him! On the other hand, does Kelly really want to eat haggis and smell burning peat moss and offal for the rest of time immortal? Why doesn't he just go back to New York and find a different bar? One less crowded and boorish? He's a grass-is-greener type is our Gene, aye, and sure'n the grass is no greener than in a wee place you can never get to except once every hundred years.

1967 Dir. Peter Brook

Glenda Jackson stabs a guy named Marat during the French Revolution, while the Marquis de Sade looks on, delighted, and corrects flubbed lines--or are his corrections part of the play within the play? That's so Brechtian! Meanwhile the mental institution director interrupts too, but in rhyme, so is he part of the play or not? What are all these interruptions! Madame et monsieur, in the vein of Brecht et Artaud, I present la Revolution.

Dats real pretty, Glenda
Based on Peter Weiss's play-within-a-play about some drama therapy at the insane asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, the full UK title is "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." And since now you're watching a video of a movie of a play within a play about the French Revolution, you could add onto the title in your head at the end "and filmed by Peter Brook, screened on TCM and watched by me in the 21st century") there's guillotines, a whole maze of fourth walls, and long twisted half-sung monologues about walking through the bloody streets of Paris back when they were flooded by a river of noble blood, bath steam, and the special way syphilis makes you insane (antibiotics had yet to be invented) and hydrotherapy might help for the moment but there's no cure for the madness of trying to create a government for the people when the people are all corrupt, murderous, uneducated, unwashed and  ridden with brain-corroding STDs!  I used to intern in the creative arts therapy drama department at Bellevue, so I know the score, and this here's real! At least it was... on some level... onstage. Watch out Glenda Jackson doesn't reach right out from the screen and stab you too. In her weird swaying narcoleptic way, she's fucking sexy as hell.

Superb on every level, some of the songs are almost Fairport Convention-level psych-folkish but most wind their way into a weird madness that seems to slowly build from murmurings of the masses to become the sort of numbers that would send the entire cast of Les Miserables running for their lives to the safety of foreign ports. Enjoy the digital fruits of your capitalist bourgeois internet whilst you might, noble literate.  New Marats are born every day, or am I thinking of mallrats?

Either way, we're doomed.

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