Pamplona

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I was lucky to get to see Pamplona starring Stacy Keach at the Goodman Theater. Set in a hotel room in Spain, Pamplona shows Ernest Hemingway struggle with writer’s block as the tries to write an article on bullfighting for Life magazine. As he struggles, Hemingway looks back on his life – all four of his marriages, his conflicts with his father and mother, his writing career and his love and respect for bullfighters and their sport.

Throughout the play, vintage photos are projected on the hotel walls placing the set in history. Pamplona is staged in Goodman’s smaller theater, which resembles Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater so every seat provides a good view in an intimate setting.

Keach brings Hemingway to life and is wonderful in this show. You have to be a powerful performer to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. Kudos to Keach.

I enjoyed learning more about this writer and was pleased with the surprising ending. Just masterful. The play was one of the best of this year’s season.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

Tatsumi

Tatsimi is the autobiography of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a famous manga artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese comic books, a literary genre differs significantly from American comic books. Tatsumi is interspersed with short stories by Tatsumi which gave me a sense of how this graphic genre handles mature themes and experiences with insight, irony and

Tatusmi grew up during the war and took to drawing professionally to help his mother make ends meet. His father was good-for-nothing and once Tatsumi started selling his work, his father destroyed his drawings.

The film follows Satsuma’s career from his teenage to middle age years. We see is popularity grow, his career stall when he outgrows the genre of teen manga and finally goes on to develop a new genre, called gekiga, which targets middle aged readers. It’s the story of the career of an artist and doesn’t go into much detail into Satsuma’s personal life once he’s grown. I found it a terrific introduction to an art form. In addition, since Tatusmi’s life spanned WWII and the ensuing years so full of change for Japan, it was an excellent way to learn about modern Japanese history.

Moulin Rouge

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I didn’t know John Huston directed Moulin Rouge in 1952. A friend, who also likes old movies,  shared a couple DVDs with me and this is one of them. I never saw the 2001 Moulin RougeI (and probably won’t because it sounds like a very different story).

Huston’s Moulin Rouge is a biopic, the story of the famous painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec, played convincingly by José Ferrer, frequents this cabaret where all the colorful characters of 19th century Paris convene to dance, drink and often fight (not only the men, but most likely, the ladies). Lautrec was born into a noble family. At and early age he is injured falling down the stairs and the doctors fail to repair his bones as they should. Thus Lautrec’s growth is stunted making him a social misfit.

Yes, he’s witty, smart and talented, but when his first love rejects him running from the room when he declares his love, Lautrec decides he’ll never fit in the country, in his father’s world so he heads to Paris and paints the dancers and clowns at the Moulin Rouge and shares drinks and barbs with the best artists of his day: Cezanne, Monet, etc.

Twice in his life he meets a pivotal woman. The first is a low class manipulator and I pitied Henri as he pined for this deceptive sponge. Later he meets a woman worthy of love, but he’s too jaded to expect that a woman would really love him.

I didn’t expect much of this film, mainly because I’d never heard of it. I found it an absorbing biography of a witty, fascinating artist.

A Man Called Peter

man called peterI didn’t know what to expect when I started watching A Man Called Peter (1955). It turns out it’s a biopic about Peter Marshall showing his life from the seminary. Of Scotch descent, Marshall (played by Richard Todd, whom I’ve never seen before) comes to America for seminary and by dint of his riveting oratory, becomes a popular preacher in Atlanta, New York and then Washington, DC. He preaches real deal Christianity, which is hard to take, especially for some a rich society lady who donates a lot of money Marshall’s unapologetic about his bold ministry but the main theme isn’t rebellion so eventually the movie doesn’t dwell on that conflict.

We see a minister who’s a whirlwind, so energetic it’s exhausting to watch. His wife was captivated by his charisma but soon he wears her out. It’s not that they divorce, but she does get ill and I don’t know how I’d deal with someone who’s constantly in motion. She does manage though.

In Washington, DC Marshall is named chaplain of the U.S. Senate and I loved watching him challenge the powerful. It was a shame that his life was cut short. That came as a complete surprise, but you can’t rewrite biography to suit your wishes.

The film would mainly interest Christians as Marshall’s pretty earnest. He’s very dynamic, but doesn’t go through any periods of doubt or dark night of the soul, which I think many modern viewers expect in their cinematic (or televised) clergy.

Iron Lady

I made my way through Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic with Meryl Streep. While I agree Streep should be commended for her portrayal of Thatcher, I can’t say I’d want to sit through the film again. It’s an interesting take in some respects, but I had to make myself resume watching as I found the foggy look back at Thatcher’s life through the fog of dementia got old after awhile.

I liked the opening scenes with an old, retired Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher slipping out to get some milk at a mom and pop store, and I stayed with the film in the beginning as it cut back and forth between the time of Thatcher’s later years when memories of her past and hallucinations of her jovial dead husband come up unbidden (yet in more or less chronological order) and the start of her career.  Yet as the movie progressed and the film never headed for deeper water, I got bored.

I learned that Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter and that she had idolized her father who espoused staunch “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatism. She got accepted at Oxford and we don’t see much of her days there. It seems Oxford didn’t get her to change or deepen her thinking one iota. Evidently, university wasn’t an important part of her life. I must remind myself that since the story is seen through the eyes of someone with dementia the narrator isn’t reliable. (Not a technique I’d use for a biopic after seeing this.) Soon the film jumps to Maggie’s catching the eye of Denis Thatcher at a political meeting and they’re soon married. Denis starts out as a progressive man who is attracted to Margaret’s strength, but as the movie continues he’s sort of a cheerleader with few ideas of substance to offer his political wife.

After some speech lessons and media coaching Margaret soon manages to get elected as the first female Prime Minister of the U.K. With overhead shots of a sole light blue suited woman amongst a herd of dark suited men and one white pair of white pumps surrounded by a dozen brown Oxfords, Iron Lady offers us strong images accentuating the gender imbalance Thatcher faced. I do applaud her for making her way into this Old Boy’s Club, yet I felt it was too bad that apparently she didn’t bother to bring in even one other woman.

The scenes when Thatcher had to make hard decisions regarding the Falkland Islands and economic policy present us with a real iron lady, but Thatcher also seems to be a woman with one idea and no friends whatsoever. She does grieve over an aide who died when the IRA planted a car bomb, but there was no dimension to that friendship. There isn’t much dimension to any of the relationships or ideology. From this I suppose Thatcher was as flat and simple as Reagan, her pal.

I appreciate the demands of the film which required that Streep play an ambitious politician who has to fight for her place at the table and a faltering, once  powerful woman, aware that her mind’s playing tricks. In the end that wasn’t enough. I grew tired of the shifting from the present to the past.

I know what dementia’s like and it’s a losing battle, thus not one I’d choose for a main character. I also found myself judging her children and the Brits for not providing adequate care for their aging Prime Minister. Surely, Thatcher wasn’t the first P.M. to decline this way. Why would she be left on her own so much? Why would those who care for her have that amateurish “Oh, she’s losing it” surprise that people who aren’t experts in dementia have (which the patient’s aware of and hates)?

In the end I wish they’d have sacrificed some of the cool images and given us more depth of character.