Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, R.I.P.

That Cyd! When you dance with her, you stay danced with.
--Fred Astaire

In all of American cinema, is there a more understatedly erotic dance than The Band Wagon's "Dancing In The Dark"? Astaire and Charisse have been warily circling each other for half the film, full of jealousy, suspicion and insecurity, until it all erupts in a hotel room argument. They get out their feelings, laugh and reach a kind of detente, but they know that they'll never fully trust each other until they dance together. They take a horse-drawn carriage out to MGM's wonderfully stylized mock-up of Central Park, the blatant rear-projection during their carriage ride adding to the hallucinatory effect: we know we're entering a fantastical, dream-like space.

They move through sparse crowds of people walking and dancing, walk through a path dotted with trees. They remain silent, look at the ground, seem like two nervous lovers on a first date-- and then Charisse suddenly lifts her leg and pulls it rightward, her torso lifting and moving and then twirling with it, a series of moves Astaire matches with a twirl that feels almost conversational. They've had the "first kiss," but pull back a bit, returning to a walk, until they reach an empty circle of pavement, marked off with street lamps and a park bench. Then they give in to their urges: Astaire scratches his nose, as if working up the courage, then spins again, as if to say: do you want to?

He pauses, arms behind his back and legs waiting outstretched, and Charisse faces him in a similar position. They engage in dance for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, not touching at first, just following each others movements in graceful sway, matching each other's twirls, finding each other's rhythms, until their arms outstrech, and they finally hold each other as a single charged unit. Twirls, lifts, dips, spins: they look at each other and they look away, but now they always know where the other is, what the other is thinking and feeling: they can slow down and speed up at will, a perefect partnership. No words are spoken-- the whole song is instrumental-- but none need to be: the body language says everything, captured in three spectacular long takes by director Vincente Minnelli.

It ends as conversationally as it begins: They spin and dance up the steps, back to the carriage, where Astaire spins her into her seat, then gets in with one last, elegant tug-and-pull. They lean back in the carriage and sigh, a perfect moment of post-coital, cinephiliac bliss.

R.I.P., Cyd Charisse.

(h/t to Bully's site, where I first read the sad news).

UPDATE (6/18): Unsurprisingly, The Self-Styled Siren has a gorgeous reminiscence about Charisse that sums up so much of her allure. Glenn Kenny, Bob at Forward To Yesterday and Dennis also have nice remembrances, and Jonathan has changed his banner in tribute.

When Is An Event Not An Event (Or Is It)?

So, a comics writer and blogger named Beau Smith recently posted a Busted Knuckles Challenge to Marvel and DC: "Give the readers one full year of stand-alone stories." Complaining (in a lovely analogy) that such recent mega-crossovers as Secret Invasion and Infinite Crisis had made reading mainstream comics "like trying to get into Studio 54 in the 1970's. Marvel and DC don't want new readers and are doing their best to make the long time readers feel confused with event after event, stories where the weight of the dialogue would test the shoulders of Hercules," Smith observed that "Continuous events and crossovers can only enhance a story and characters when it is just that: AN EVENT. When they happen every week they are no longer awe-inspiring. They become mundane and boring to regular readers and nothing short of confusing to someone trying to step into mainstream comics."

Smith's "one-and-done" challenge (offering readers stories that don't rely on reading x-number of different titles a month to understand what's going on) led to a response from talented writer Peter David, who has written for both Marvel and DC (he's probably best-known for runs on Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor, although I have fond memories of his work on various Spider-Man titles in the 80s). David pondered whether or not such a strategy would be financially beneficial to the Big Two, noting that recent attempts at such titles (including some that he had written) had not sold well, and complicating the issue by posing the question/observation: "The harsh fact is that crossovers sell and independent stories devoid of contact or context with each other don't, or at least not as well. Rather than issuing challenges to the companies to change what's working for them, why not issue challenges to the readership to change their buying habits?"

I'm of two minds about this (as usual). On the one hand, I feel for Beau Smith-- there was something nice, in an earlier era of mainstream superhero comics, about the contained (or maybe two or three issue) story, or the miniseries that was self-contained (for some reason, the mini I always picture when thinking of this is the 1984 four-issue West Coast Avengers, which I devoured and which holds up pretty well 24 years later). It allowed brand-new readers to pick up a title in midstream and understand who these characters were and what their adventures were about, while also stimulating enough interest to seek out back issues, if you could afford to do so. I'm enjoying Secret Invasion, but that's because I've been reading various Marvel Comics off-and-on for twenty years; had I come in as a comics virgin, I would feel utterly lost, and certainly would not get the in-jokes and implications of various lines or plot twists. I know this because I tried to read the Infinite Crisis miniseries last year on the recommendation of a student, and-- as someone who knows very little about the DC Universe-- I was completely bumfuzzled. So, yeah, there's definitely the possibility that these mega-crossovers can alienate new readers (which is both annoyingly hipster, and financially dangerous in the long run, if it turns off confused new generations of comics buyers).

On the other hand, David is right to note that these cross-overs do sell, and that in a shrinking marketplace where comics compete heavily with video games for the young (primarily) male dollar, there's a certain logic in catering to the hardcore, mythology-smart fan. I am actually a fan of decompressed narratives, and defended them last year, although I'm not sure decompression across several issues in a single title (most famously in Ultimate Spider-Man) is the same as decompressing against an entire company's summer line. You could argue that there's a self-fullfilling loop to this argument: these comics sell because interested fans have to buy everything just to understand what's happening, and those sales figures in turn justify new cross-overs, which fans buy to understand...etc. It's the comics equivalent of Ann Richards' famous line about George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple"; the success of Secret Invasion, Countdown, etc. is one of marketing as much as art or fun.

Still, there's a third argument here, besides that of economic synergy or artistic fulfillment, and that's one of new media logics: are these company-wide crossovers-- however canny or disappointing-- another example of the Steve Johnson argument? Jeff has blogged about this extensively, and Bradley recently did, too. Riffing on Whitman, Jeff declared, "I sing the body digital," mapping out a form of "Googledentity"that assumes, " we are machines. Machines like Burroughs’ writing machine that is half text half human devouring and copying and appropriating cultural moments and ideas. To me, this is the Googledenity. All your links belong to me. I am the link. In my Googledentity, I link to Sam Malone pretending to read War and Peace so that he might impress Diane. My identity is made up of links. Viral connections. Hubs of information." Johnson's argument in Everything Bad Is Good For You, as I understand it (it's on my list of things to read this summer) is that recent forms of popular culture that are often maligned as dumbing down the culture or making more violent-- television, video games, the web (and we might add comics)-- actually make us smarter by encouraging new forms of cognitive mapping, richer understandings of links, backstories, spacial dynamics, narrative or character arcs, and so on. Jeff often cites Lost as an example of this; I would cite Battlestar Galactica, Alias and Joss Whedon's work, which in very different ways from one another seem to work according to the hypertextual model Johnson seems fascinated by. It's a style of storytelling facilitated by shifts in technology (the rise of the complete season DVD, which allows for easier, quicker viewing and re-viewing, and encourages multi-arc narratives) and economics (niche channels like the WB, HBO, Showtime or Sci-Fi that don't have to get huge audiences but can cater to specific demographics).

In this logic, Secret Invasion and its ilk-- with their multi-title scope, scattered narratives (like weblinks), winks and asides, online-only supplementals and connections that reach back years and even decades into a company's mythological history -- force the reader to become, in Jeff's terms, the hub of information (reading Batman R.I.P. last night, I again felt that sense of "what the hell is happening here" overcome me, but also noticed that every issue had a "checklist," Whitman-style, to tell us which issues would fill in the narrative gaps). He or she then becomes the filter, the more active participant in the vast narrative experiment that Brian Michael Bendis or Grant Morrison is conducting. That word-- both scientific and musical-- suggests both the instability of the project (this whole thing could fail, a la Civil War) and its improvisational qualities (Marvel and DC provide only the musical sketch, and it's up to us to fill it in, to invent our own songs).

What say you, serialized narrative fans? Yay or nay on multi-title/episode/program narrative arcs?


Cliff Schecter, author of The Real McCain, has been keeping a campaign blog, and links today to a very funny sketch film based on one of the more infamous anecdotes in his book.

Warning!: The link above will take you to a video full of uncomfortable, offensive and possibly embarrassing words. Highlighting and playing with the ramifications of the words (and John McCain's misogynistic hypocrisy) is the whole point of the sketch, but fair warning for those who are at work, have families, etc.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stan Winston, R.I.P.

Special effects/makeup genius Stan Winston died of cancer today at the age of 62. One of only two special effects artists to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Winston worked on some of the best-known science fiction and fantasy films of the last twenty-five years, including Jurassic Park, Aliens, Terminators 2 & 3, Edward Scissorhands, and A.I.. His most recent work was in Iron Man (he created the various armors) and its huge critical and box office success must have been particularly gratifying. His translations of the comic book's imagery were brilliant, and in Robert Downey, Jr., he had the perfect surrogate for his designs: both men shared an interest in detailed craftwork, quirkiness, risk-taking and surprise.

Born in Richmond, VA, Winston came to Hollywood to try his luck as an actor, and worked for several years as a stand-up comedian before starting as an apprentice in the makeup department of Walt Disney Studios. That affinity for performance and comedy explains why the special effects in another of his films, Galaxy Quest, are pitched so perfectly between gee-whiz techno-geekiness and affectionate parody: no matter the scope of the picture he worked on, he always made the fantastic and improbable seem both possible and very human. R.I.P., Stan Winston.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Some Enchanted Evening

I don't have nearly the knowledge of contemporary theater that blogger Josh R. does over at Edward Copeland On Film: if you want a good sense of what you should be cheering for as this year's Tony Awards wrap up on CBS, please go read his excellent review of the season/set of predictions.

But as Lily Tomlin did a wonderfully hilarious introduction to the Xanadu performance (she's both gently mocking and genuinely loves it, and her pause in her plot description when she mentioned "It's about an angel who descends to earth to help her love open a roller disco" was priceless) and as the producers of South Pacific graciously accepted the award for best revival of a play, I realized that I was now at the same point I am with the Oscars: I almost care more about the revivals, career tributes and lifetime achievement awards than I do the newer, nominated shows.

Does this make me less a theater fan than a fan of theater history? A guy born out of time? Or is it a question of physical proximity (movies open everywhere, not just in one big city) and the cheaper costs of renting or going to a movie as compared to a musical play? I loved the number they showed from In The Heights, and Tomlin is right: Xanadu looks like a hoot. But neither of those numbers had the same impact on me as the "Move On" number from Sunday In The Park With George, or the medley of numbers from South Pacific, or Patti LaPone's typically lyric-chewing rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from the Gypsy revival (is there any vowel or consonant that LaPone won't bite off, masticate, then spit across an auditorium?). This year, the musical revivals seem to be where it's at (the shockingly atonal number from Grease aside).

At the center of all of this, of course, is Stephen Sondheim-- he wrote the score for George, the lyrics for Gypsy, and can count South Pacific lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II as his mentor (the Pacific revival was also produced by Andre Bishop, who shepherded the original production of George to Broadway in 1984). He received a lifetime achievement award tonight, and while he did not attend, his speech (read by Mandy Patinkin) was the best thing I heard on the stage all night: funny, teasing towards his old compatriot Hal Prince, and full of immensely generous and moving words about the librettists with whom he'd collaborated. Fifty-one years after West Side Story debuted on Broadway, Sondheim remains not only the towering figure in American musical theater, but the Tony Awards' most alluring and elusive ghost.

You Won't Like Him When He's Angry

According to this Times headline (via Reuters), The Incredible Hulk "smashed" the box office this weekend, taking in $54.5 million. "A bigger, better 'Incredible Hulk' crushd the North American weekend box office," it writes. Later, it notes, "Marvel and Universal brought the first 'Hulk' to theaters in 2003, but that more introspective film failed to follow through on its muscular debut after disappointing comic book fans.

I haven't seen The Incredible Hulk yet: despite my abiding love for superheroes, I always found the Hulk to be immensely boring. His 70s TV show (where he'd only be the Hulk for a few minutes at a time) was a drag for a little kid, as was his cartoon program (paired with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) in the mid-80s, and even on the comic book page he's always struck me as a single entendre concept: how long can you drag the Jeckyll-and-Hyde concept out before "Hulk Smash!" becomes "Hulk Snooze!"?

I did like Ang Lee's much-maligned version, though, precisely because it tried to do something new. Its use of split-screens in the style of comic book pages; its more character-driven, loopy visions of the book's various relationship triangles; and the sense that the whole thing felt like a fever dream inside the title character's head; all of this made the Hulk fascinating and accessible to me in a way that earlier iterations of the character hadn't. Lee's passion and imagination had done what I thought impossible-- translating and transforming a one-note character into a live-action space and making him gripping. That it "failed" at the box office was incidental, and the concern about that especially ironic, given that it came from hipster fans and critics who would normally obsess about an actor/writer/director "selling out," or somesuch rhetorical silliness.

But here's the tricky thing about the Reuters-approved storyline (one supported by other media outlets): however good the new film is (and I'm willing to give Edward Norton the benefit of the doubt, despite the reports that he might be a little unhappy with the final film), it actually made less money in its opening weekend than Lee's supposedly hated version. The 2003 Hulk took in $62.1 million to the new film's $54.5, a difference which becomes even greater when you adjust for the inflation of movie ticket costs in the intervening five years. It made considerably less than Iron Man ($98 million in its opening weekend), and even less than the mediocre Fantastic Four sequel ($58 million) did in the same weekend slot last year. And The Incredible Hulk was massively hyped, not only in theatrical previews, but all over the back covers of comics, the pages of glossy magazines, and the broadcasts and website of the Sci-Fi Channel, whose constant and vociferous coverage almost made them feel like a silent partner in the project. There was good buzz and bad buzz, but it was certainly a film that got a lot of media benefit of the doubt.

Which somehow reminds me of this guy. I don't doubt that if you got John McCain angry enough (made fun of his hair, for instance) that he'd turn into a raging green behemoth. But what really links the two is the media's insistence on sticking to pre-approved stories: the new Hulk is "cooler" than the old, people like it more, it's just, it's just...better. And all the box office/polling data be damned, that's the story we're sticking to. It makes imagining new stories a lot harder when all the coverage wants is "McCain Smash!" (he is, after all, our "Master and Commander").

For those growing tired of the McCain media myths, Frank Rich deconstructs several of them here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, R.I.P.

It's kind of heartbreaking watching the MSNBC crew grappling with the sudden and shocking death of Tim Russert. Keith Olbermann is ashen and barely keeping tears back, and Andrea Mitchell keeps referring to him in the present tense, as if she can't quite believe he's gone.

I know I can't. I came of age politically just as Tim Russert was starting as the host of NBC's Meet The Press, in 1991. I often disagreed with him, and was sometimes critical of him on this blog. But this is terribly sad news, a reminder of how life transcends political differences, and how much richer and more complex our human relations and emotions are beyond partisan warfare or online sniping. No one should die at 58, and I can't even imagine what his family is feeling right now.

R.I.P., Tim Russert.

Muffled Voices

Dan In Real Life is full of mumbled lines, whispered lines, lines in sotto voice and lines that feel half-spoken/half-swallowed; its verbal softness is matched by a Sondre Leche score whose gentle folk-jazz pop rhythms wouldn't feel out of place at a Pottery Barn, or in a very swingin' elevator. It's a movie designed to soothe, to quietly distract, to unobstrusively announce its presence like a shy relative at a family Thanksgiving. The whole thing is so matter-of-fact and unforced in its rhythms that you almost feel like you've eavesdropped on a private conversation. Whether you want to overhear this particular conversation is a more debatable point.

As it turns out, the film's stylistic gentleness is a neat trick, because its narrative is an emotionally messy one (we sometimes forget that shy people can be egomaniacs, too). The cast is so winning and cinematographer Lawrence Sher so good at using the landscapes to frame and comment on their diagreements that it's easy to forget how blankly narcissistic so many of the characters really are. The effect is both beguiling and unsettling: I liked a lot of Dan In Real Life, but couldn't help feeling like there was a darker movie screaming to break out of its sitcom framework of befuddled dad, family shenanigans and loved denied.

If you're going to make such an emotionally conflicted piece, it helps to have two leads who underplay both the saccharine and the melodrama. Steve Carrell's persona is essentially a good-natured one: he's the well-intended, easy-going guy who's quick with the wry line or big smile. That charm makes Carrell's career choices all the more interesting, since he often deploys those qualities in roles that are far knottier: Little Miss Sunshine's suicidal Proust scholar, The Daily Show's almost psychotically befuddled correspondent, and The Office's Michael Scott, whose combination of wounded pride, self-absorption and puppyish desire to please make him so much richer than one first expects. When Steve Martin received his Kennedy Center honor last year, Carrell was one of those paying tribute, and you can see a bit of Martin's buttoned-down madman in Carrell's work, but I also keep thinking of early Tom Hanks: the "everyman" who realizes the close relationship between charm and smarm, who tries to do good but suspects deep down (as a friend of mine said of Hanks while watching the Oscars a couple of years ago), "that it's really just all shit." In the title role of Dan, Carrell's smile is offset by a hawkish, peering nose and big eyes that can be both loving and wary: even in the sweeter moments, they dart and roll and glance around the room, creating a nervousness that belies the platitudes of the dialogue.

As the object of Carrell's desire, Juliette Binoche is a good match: like him, she is warm, smart, and full of understated nervousness. Watch them together in their first scene, a "meet-cute" at a seaside Rhode Island bookstore: she mistakes Carrell for a store clerk, and asks him for help finding a "funny" book. "But not ha-ha funny," she says, her hands gesticulating, her body seeming to vibrate with anxiety. "And certainly not 'make fun of other people' funny," she continues, her litany of bibliophiliac desires pouring out of her like verbal diarrea, recalling Annie Hall's nervous first meeting with Alvy ("You say good game, and so right away I have to say good game..Oh, oh..God, Annie. Well...oh, well...la-de-da, la-de-da..."). She's more controlled, though-- unlike Diane Keaton's open-hearted Annie, Binoche's Marie guards her emotions, and part of Binoche's charm is how well she contains her character's feelings: they're far more interesting when the burble up from below. As Binoche unleashes her monologue, Carrell simply walks, and nods, occasionally "um-hmm"s: it's almost entirely responses, but he's a superb listener, and the economy of his movement-- low-key, graceful and unobstrusive-- nicely offsets Binoche's more hyper body. They balance each other beautifully, which is what makes the dialogue that follows-- and the romantic scenes that follow that-- all the more grounded and believeable. We know it's a plot point-- and so are the various complications that block their love for 90 minutes-- but it doesn't feel like one, but rather like an organic outgrowth of what's come before.

The rest of the cast isn't quite up to the level of the leads, but they're given a lot less with which to play. A surprisingly winning Dane Cook takes the thankless role of younger brother/romantic foil Mitch and makes him a genuinely nice guy, whose unknowing block of Dan's romance occurs alongside his desires to see the widowed Dan happy. Dan's three children are well-essayed by Allison Pill, Brittney Robertson and Marlene Lawston; that I wanted to see more of them suggests how good the movie is at avoiding or parodying various teen film cliches. It was nice to see the underused Jessica Hecht (who played Susan, lover of Ross's ex-wife, on Friends) in a tiny supporting role: she has a way of rolling a throwaway line off her lips and making it sound like a sarcastic bon mot. John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest have the trickiest roles as Dan's parents: they have to signify warmth and love and paternalism while also cluing in the audience that, deep down, they're pretty lousy parents: self-absorbed, boring cyphers who mean well, but never really connect with their kids in the ways they think they do. Utterly deadpan and full of perfectly fake smiles, these two veterans work beautifully as the film's emotional guideposts: funny, sweet, and kind of creepy, when you think about it.

Should we think about it? The movie ends with Dan, an advice columnist, speaking in voiceover about "expecting surprise." It's the kind of readymade, Hallmark card thesis statement that could sink the film, if so much of the film hadn't already explored and punctured its treacly sentiments with genuine curiosity and humor. Director Peter Hedges is a better director than writer-- his considerable skill with the actors and eye for the ironic, deep-focus tableau spins his occasionally cliched script in some funny directions-- and I wasn't always sure if he grasped the full selfishness of the folks he was putting on-screen. But in the end, Dan In Real Life is about tone more than plot, a reminder of the sometimes-lost pleasures of relaxed, unforced filmmaking, and the advantages of the quiet voice. And if you don't like everything it has to say, well-- that's what you get for eavesdropping, after all.

Guys and "Dolls"

It's the trailer for Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse!


Olivia Williams looks stylish and quietly menacing as the head of the organization, Eliza Dushku looks tough, funny and vulnerable as the lead "doll," and Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett looks very cool as the FBI agent trying to unravel the mystery. The trailer suggests Whedon's talent for dialogue that simultaneously reveals character and pops with sensual play is undimmed, but it's the wonderfully widescreen look of the thing that really turns me on. It hints that all that time filming Serenity and pounding out Wonder Woman script drafts really kicked Whedon's already movie-stuffed visual imagination into high gear, and that he might have figured out how to turn a midseason replacement show into the world's coolest seven-hour movie.

(h/t to Dave for sending me the link).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Baby Love

Wow. Just...wow.

Oh, Michelle Malkin...Every day, when I walk by the banner on Main St. that displays a garish painting of your face, I regret that Cineville College ever gave you a degree.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dreamtime: Fantasy Figures

A dream, two nights ago:

I'm at a party in a video/bookstore. Robert Redford is there (of course), and for some reason he's wearing an Iron Man t-shirt (of course). I bump into him and say, "Hey, I have that t-shirt! You're wearing my t-shirt!" Redford smiles, then disappears. A few minutes later, he re-appears, wearing a Batman tee. "So, you like superheroes, eh?," I ask him. Redford doesn't flinch: "Oh, I'm quite conversant with the whole superhero community," he says matter-of-factly.

Note In A Cineville Coffee Shop

T-shirt spotted across the way, with the heads of our illustrious Administration leaders on it:

"Say No To Dick and Bush."

As the kids today might say: Word.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Notes On The City: The Art Of Faking A Walk

Once again, The Daily Show is ahead of the curve.

And here's Dr. John on the same disaster.

(h/t to Salon de Frankie for emailing me the Salon link).

Purple Reign

Rock Star...

Funk fiend...

Lover Man...

Pop genius...

Happy 50th, Prince!

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Technical Question...

You may have noticed that the text on this here blog is getting squishier-- a bug in the Blogger CSS has caused it to move to a squeezed, single-spaced line instead of its usual spacious...whatever it was. Blogger made the following announcement on its "Known Issues"/"Dashboard" page:

The line spacing of your post may become more condensed after using a blockquote.

Update, 6/5: This has been fixed in the master copies of the blog widget and the template CSS. If you have changed either on your blog, you may not get the fix. To fix this yourself, find the .post p { line in your CSS and move the line-height line into a new .post {} CSS block.

See? Now that I've used that block quote, the text has gone squishy. My question is this, and I throw it out to those of you who use Blogger, or who are more techno-savvy than I:

Do you know what any of the above means?

I went to my template page, as well as several Blogger help pages, and it's hard for me to translate what they're saying. I have never made template changes on my blog, so I'm not sure why it didn't just fix when Blogger seems to have fixed it. I'm happy to go in myself, but I'm not sure what a ".post p {" line is, and don't want to mess it up. It doesn't look horrible, but it bugs me (to pardon the pun).

Anyone have any advice on what to do?

Rock On

Tagged by Larry with the following meme:

The Debut Album Generator!

1. Go here. The first wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2. Go here. The last four words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.

3. Go here. The third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

Voila! Your band has released its debut album and is ready to rock to the top of the chart!

Cool! I always wanted to start a band, and this is way easier than learning an instrument.

Let's see...Step One...

1. My band name: Mühlacker Water Tower

2. My debut album: ...Worth it. Be kind.

3. My album cover:

I'll tag The Digital Sextant, Salon de Frankie, and (although he doesn't have a blog, why leave him out of the fun?) Dave J. (Dave, you can just leave your answers in the comments section if you want to play). On the wiki link on step one, just hit "random article" on the left sidebar when you get to the main page, and whatever article comes up will be your band name. Similarly, if you want a new page of random quotations on step two (if you just end up getting the same quote as everyone), hit "New Page of Quotations" at the bottom of the page. Have fun! Rock on!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Your Greatest Hopes And Highest Aspirations..."


Here's the money quote from tonight's speech:

The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

Now, bring on Senator Tigh.

OK, This Is Just Weird

Hey, just what we need-- another gray-haired underachiever hanging out on a flight deck!

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics XV

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley, R.I.P.

Dazzled Yet Sober: Yves Saint Laurent, R.I.P.

Born in Algeria, the shy and quiet son of a lawyer and insurance broker, he would grow up to become right-hand man to Christian Dior, and would take Dior's already-groundbreaking example to new places in the 1950s and 60s with his own designs, which ranged from beatnik chic to playfully postmodernist (one famous 1965 show displayed dresses based on the paintings of Mondrian). He would revolutionize women's fashion in the late 60s and 70s by popularizing pants as an essential day and nightime element in women's wardrobes ("My small job as a couturier,” he once said, “is to make clothes that reflect our times. I’m convinced women want to wear pants”), and also make tuxedos and smoking jackets essential elements of the stylish woman's wardrobe. His style ranged from classically elegant and conservative to avant-garde and "street," with a famous stop in 1976 at "Russian peasant." He would eventually design not only haute couture and women's sportswear but perfumes, menswear, jewelry, and costume designs for ballerinas and movie stars like Catherine Deneuve (in 1967's Belle de Jour):

The Times obit suggests that for all his dazzling success, Saint Laurent's philosophy was strikingly simple in its parts: "He often said that all a woman needed to be fashionable was a pair of pants, a sweater and a raincoat." And yet, like a master chef working only with two or three ingredients, the patterns, combinations, tastes and desires he drew from them made Saint Laurent an essential part of fashion culture for fifty years.

R.I.P., Yves Saint Laurent.

(Top left photo: Reuters; top right photo: Phillipe Wojazer/Reuters)

Sunrise, "Sunset"

Two live versions of my favorite Kinks song, the one about Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, and all those people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo station on Friday night. The first shows the Kinks, and while the sound quality could be a little better, I love the black-and-white transfer and how the fades and TV framings make Swingin' London seem like a transmission from some lost, fabulous alien planet. Given Blur's enormous musical debt to the Kinks, I shouldn't be surprised that Damon Albarn and Ray Davies harmonize so beautifully in the second clip, but I do really dig the older brother-younger brother chemistry they display here.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Finishing The Hat

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a delight, a wildly entertaining whirl-a-gig of a movie whose endless invention and abiding good humor returns the joy to the Indy franchise after the lifeless pandering and self-consciousness of 1989's The Last Crusade. The film is full of references to earlier moments in the series, as well as other films and pop cultural touchstones like The Wild One, Vertigo, American Graffiti and Howdy Doody; the friend I saw it with was sure he even spotted Back To The Future in the mix. But rather than feeling like a film geek's encyclopedia, Steven Spielberg weaves the quotations and pastiches in with a cinephile's sure hand, and an almost garish movie love (at one point, Cate Blanchett struts across the blacktop of a military base with her sword dangling from her belt, and the sky behind her seems to shift into a ripe purple, even though it's daytime: you know then, with a contented sigh, that you're in good hands).

Spielberg knows that we know that he's doing this, and more-- that we know that he knows that we know that he's doing this. That sentence is only slightly more complex than the dazzling stunts that litter the movie, and as I watched it all unfold on the screen in front of me (it's a must for a big screen), I found myself laughing, shaking my head and then laughing again: the movie welcomes this kind of emotional complicity, counts on your catching the jokes and the go-for-broke spirit, and rewards you by offering a spatial, emotional and narrative generosity that's rare in this age of the hipster blockbuster; the stunts, the references, and even John Williams' boisterous score are all designed to draw you in rather than shut you out, to connect you to the characters on the screen, rather than provide smug distance. At a movie-going time when "aren't you having FUN?" sometimes feels like a threat, an empty promise or a group-think coercion, Spielberg and co-conspirators George Lucas and Harrison Ford seem to genuinely want to know, and to make sure that a good time is had by all.

I have to admit, this is all something of a surprise: the previews looked a little dodgy and desperate, I was suspicious of adding Shia LaBoeuf to the mix (which is nothing against Mr. LaBoeuf, an actor I almost always enjoy-- it just felt a little bit too "Cousin Oliver" for my taste), and the reviews had been decidedly mixed. Was the 19-year layoff too long, I thought? Would the film just be a sad little exercise in nostalgia, the action movie equivalent of that other summer exercise in nostalgia, just as narrowly focused and just as desperate as Carrie to keep it up? The film's opening shot-- a transition from the Paramount logo's mountain to a molehill in the desert-- seemed like a deliberate joke about deflating expectations. That's pretty cute, and the jalopy-military caravan drag race that followed was well-cut by editor Michael Kahn, but it was the pullback that ended the scene that convinced me everything would work: one of those great crane shots Spielberg is so handy with, as the camera moves to a long view of the desert afternoon, and the Elvis on the soundtrack fades into static, then silence. It felt like a sonic portent, eerie and funny and mysterious, and when, following that, they dragged Harrison Ford and Ray Winstone out of the back of the fifties automobile and threw him into the visage of Blanchett, I was pretty sure we were off to the races.

The movie is full of countless grace notes: a tight close-up on Blanchett's villain as she turns her bobbed head in anger against a delirious back projection; sweet nods to Sean Connery and the late Denholm Elliot; LaBoeuf ever-so-politely protecting his crotch from oncoming tree traffic while straddling two cars in a jungle; the THX, you-are-there roar of the first, then the second, then the third waterfall; the wind blowing Indy's hat up a church aisle and into his hands. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski can't quite recapture the pop of Douglas Slocombe's original work on Raiders, but his touch here is much lighter and more graceful than in many of his other collaborations with Spielberg: the cinephiliac moments are given space to breathe without slowing down the considerable action.

The film knows it has to address the time gap, and Ford's aging action persona, and it does so with a great deal of grace and wit. Having seen the film, I have no idea what David Denby's referring to in his review when he notes of Ford's performance, " He’s in great shape physically, but he doesn’t seem happy. He’s tense and glaring, and he speaks his lines with more emphasis than is necessary, like a drunk who wants to appear sober... his hostile unease in some of the dialogue passages is a real killjoy." (Someone-- James Wolcott, maybe?-- once referred to Denby as the bright kid who's afraid to admit that he likes something as "declasse" as the movies, and I think the struggle-to-be-prudishness of that passage is a quintessential example). In fact, none of what Denby says above registers on the screen: Ford is more relaxed, and having more fun than he has at any time since Air Force One. Where he's seemed embarrassed and cranky in nearly everything from romcoms to action thrillers in the past decade, here he light, bemused, and seemingly relieved to finally be playing his age. "Damn, thought that was closer!," Indiana Jones mutters after one of his whip tricks doesn't work, but Ford says it with an "oh, what the hell" twinkle in his eye, that "let's just try this and see what happens" spirit that's always been at the heart of the Jones persona. He moves extremely well, but the film doesn't shy away from making his stunts slower, a bit more awkward and achy, and from letting LaBoeuf carry some of the action load. Denby is right about one thing-- in a way, Ford has the Sean Connery role this time around, but he carries it off with panache, underplaying the jokes, finding the right note of middle-aged regret in his scenes with Karen Allen and Winstone, and delighting in bouncing off of so many talented co-stars.

This is the tightest ensemble since the first film in the series: where Ford had to virtually carry the dark timbre of Temple of Doom on his own, and Last Crusade was a buddy picture, Crystal Skull is much more of a group effort, and the whole film benefits as a result. LaBeouf's role is underwritten-- it starts strong and ends well, but you get the sense some heart-to-hearts with Indy in the middle were left somewhere in a previous script draft--but he takes all the thankless 50s greaser references that George Lucas apparently insisted on and grounds them in real feeling: he's convincing in the dramatic scenes, has expert comic timing, and is surprisingly adept with a rapier. In far smaller roles, Ray Winstone and John Hurt sketch out their stereotypes of Limey grifter and crazed professor with expert hands, making the most of their on-screen time and stealing a few laughs with just a twist of the eyeball or cock of the head.

I have to agree with Larry (I'd link to the specific post, but it's as lost to the ether as one of Indy's artifacts): it's wonderfully good fun to see Karen Allen again. As Indy says to her Marion Ravenwood in the back of a Soviet truck, "There were other [women]...But none of them was you." Marion was always Indy's best sparring partner, and from the minute she appears on screen, she increases the cinephiliac joy about 50%. Her smile is bright and dorky, her slight overbite seems to be connected to her eyes-- they both light up at the same time-- and the character's fearless spirit and wry sense of humor makes her a great change from the screaming ditz (Kate Capshaw) and shallow femme fatale (Alison Doody) that talented actresses were stuck with in the intervening Jones films (only Allen could watch cinematic son LaBoeuf sword-fight with a Soviet agent while stradled between two fast-moving cars in a crowded Peruvian jungle, and still sell the humor within the motherly concerns of lines like, "Disengage!...Engage now!...Disengage!"). "Same old, same old," Indy mutters about Marion's constant kidnapping by the enemy, but you can tell he's as glad to see her as we are, and that Ford is overjoyed to be playing with someone at least a little closer to his own age. When I caught the gleam in Allen's eye as the car she's driving careens off a cliff-- "Bring it on!," the eyes seem to be saying-- I felt the same way.

In the end, though, these movies are really only as good as their villains. Raiders is the most successful of the four because Paul Freeman's Belloq is such a wonderful doppelganger for the hero-- the stakes seemed so much higher, the interactions more grounded, and it was all enhanced by Freeman's expert intermingling of underplayed wit and melodramatic fervor. If Col.-Dr. Irina Spalko doesn't reach quite those heights (as my friend noted, she doesn't get the heart-to-heart with Indy that Belloq did in that bar), she's still the best sparring partner Jones has had in 25 years, and that's all due to Blanchett. Decked out in military coveralls and tunics and sporting a shiny Louise Brooks bob, she's having more gleeful fun than anyone else on-screen, and carrying on a long and honorable tradition of Anglo-Australian actors playing Continental baddies. Given the film's delightfully sophisticated plays with pulp, does it really matter if her accent occasionally slips from "Ukranian" (by way of Boris & Natasha) back to Blanchett's native Austrailian? On the ride home, my friend asked, "So why does she carry the sword?," and my answer was almost instantaneous-- "I don't care why" (to which my friend nodded his assent). At a certain point (for me, anyway) real-life logic in these matters gives way to cinematic logic, and if having an omnipresent sword in her belt means she gets to unsheath it with a twinkle in her eye and transform herself into Errol Flynn, then so be it.

Blanchett is a fiercely charismatic actress, of course, and so it makes sense that the film's cinephilia would coalesce around her character-- she gets many of the good lines, the great walks, the dazzling framings. And in the end, for all Irina's villainy, she's theoretically the audience's surrogate: entering the temple of the alien gods (don't ask), her eyes are full of wonder, and she chides Indy's caution like a viewer who's just seen the apologetic Last Crusade: "Belief, Dr. Jones, is a gift you have yet to receive. My sympathies." In the end, Irina's chiding joke is the film's mission statement: are you willing to leap off the cliff with the filmmakers or not? Crystal Skull's gift-- for both filmmakers and audience alike-- is to restore that belief, and to renew the code of cinephilia that Irina speaks like a mantra in the film's climax: "I want to know...to know everything."

A Bond-A-Week: Shaken, Not Stirred

Pity poor 007: the Sunday New York Times publishes a lengthy article about his literary and cinematic exploits, and then assigns that insufferable twit, Charles McGrath, to write it.

Pity poor A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, and Dave Kehr-- they have done such a great job in the last five years of elevating the Times' movie coverage, making it smart and funny and wide-ranging and genuinely cinephiliac, and then along comes McGrath to undo all their hard work, with his stale one-liners ("...Bond, of course, is ageless and immortal. Never mind those three packs a day; he has wind to spare. His liver, astoundingly, is still holding up"), his sketchy research ("It was [producer Albert Broccoli] or his writers who made a trademark of the “Bond. James Bond” line, for example, and who insisted on the “shaken, not stirred” business. Fleming’s Bond is not nearly so fussy about what he drinks, as long as there is plenty of it."-- it's really the "or" that gives away how much McGrath can't be bothered to look it up), and his overall air of withering, Times-patented condescension, reminding people of how out-of-touch the Times' film coverage used to be.

But most of all, pity poor Sebastian Faulks, who's apparently written a pretty good new Bond novel, and gets stuck with McGrath as his junior Addison DeWitt. Isn't this sort of like having Maureen Dowd on your side? Faulks' novel, Devil May Care, sounds pretty good, and I look forward to reading it. But I'd trust McGrath's reading of it a lot more if I didn't feel like his article just regurgitated any number of cliches about popular writing: smug distance from the text and sly winks to the reader to let him/her know you're above it all; skimming the top of the texts without delving too deep; regurgitation of conventional wisdom instead of original insight; flippant dismissal of any possibility that the texts might have any depth or play or meaning (meaning, after all, is reserved for social problem films and Thomas Friedman columns). "At a certain level," McGrath writes without a hint of irony, "all the Bond stories are the same story." Perhaps, but couldn't the same be said for the sorts of critical responses McGrath's column so formulaically embodies?

Menage a Trois

"There is one awful thing in this life," Jean Renoir's Octave famously observed in Rules of the Game, "and that is that everyone has their reasons." Bobby (Raul Esparza), the hero of Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical, Company, faces a similar dilemma: standing at the center of his friends' social lives ("Never a bother!/Seven times a godfather!," goes a famous line from the number "Side by Side by Side"), he observes everything-- their pot smoking, their arguments, their promiscuity, their sudden kung fu fighting-- with a bemused detachment, always handy with a quip and a sympathetic ear, at once the leading man and the stage director of the glittering whirl ("Whenever I'm around Bobby," one friend observes, "I feel like I'm auditioning for him"). He doesn't judge to their faces, and if he has an opinion, he only shares it with the audience in an aside, as if we're his co-conspirators, his friends at the party. Everyone is allowed their reasons, which allows Bobby to quietly keep them compartmentalized from one another, which allows him to move with ease across a variety of social spaces. The problem is, the same ironic grin that acts as his passport and keeps his friends' craziness at bay is keeping him from connecting with anyone. And that's killing him.

Recently released on DVD, the filmed version of stage director/choreographer John Doyle's 2006 Broadway revival (directed for television by Lonny Price) captures all of this in a dazzling series of wide angle and telephoto lens shots, their constant plays with space visually capturing the tug-and-pull of Bobby's social relations. This sense of the stage/screen as a kaleidoscope is further enhanced by the editing, which often isolates Bobby in close-up-- we see his smile and dancing eyes, but are subtly reminded that he's always just outside the circle, looking in. Such circularity is literalized in Doyle's in-the-round staging: the whole show takes place on a single, sparsely decorated square (courtesy of scenic designer David Gallo) whose abstractions allow for surreal vingettes; when Bobby brings dizzy flight attendant April (Elizabeth Stanley) home after a date, his "bed" is actually the stage's grand piano, a gorgeous embodiment of the production's links between music, meaning and love.

As in Doyle's 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, the actors play instruments on the stage, offering their own accompaniment; because they are always on-stage (Thomas C. Hase's striking light designs throw them into shadow when they're not part of a scene), they act as an emotional Greek chorus that moves in diagonals, circles, zig-zags, like a manic New Orleans marching band: Bobby might feel he doesn't need to commit because he's literally never alone. It makes his hysterical remark in "Side by Side by Side"-- "When you've got friends like mine--!"-- less a cry of thanks than an admission of entrapment. The net effect of staging, lighting, music and movement is to present urban life as a series of Cubist panoramas and incidents-- once we get our bearings on where we are spatially or emotionally, the scene changes, and we must start over again. This shifting, doubled perspective enhances the layered melodies and meanings of Sondheim's music, and adds depth to librettist George Furth's icy jokes: they're funny, but also offer us flashes of warmth and pain beneath their reflective surfaces; as theater critic Martin Gottfried noted when Company first debuted on Broadway in 1970, "Sondheim's new musical...is a tremendous piece of work, thrilling and chilling, glittering bright, really funny (and not so funny)...".

When it opened 38 years ago, Company was an immediate, controversial success, and its reception set the pattern for Sondheim's career for the next fifteen years: wildly divergent critical response, modest success at the box office, and a recognition that, love it or hate it, the expectations for what a musical could be had just shifted. It was not Sondheim's first show: he'd written one almost-produced show in 1954 (Saturday Night), written the lyrics for three others (West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965), and the complete scores for two more (1962's hit A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and 1964's flop Anyone Can Whistle); he also wrote an original musical for television in 1966, Evening Primrose, which would receive a lovely "revival" on CD in 2001, with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead. But between 1965 and 1969, he struggled to get an original show on Broadway, working with librettist James Goldman (brother of screenwriter William) on a show called The Girls Upstairs, which would go through numerous revisions until it appeared in vastly different form as Follies in 1971. Company, then, was the real breakthrough, the show that followed a long layoff and announced a new and even more breathtaking Sondheim to the theater world.

It began as a series of one-act plays by Furth, an actor friend of Sondheim's; Furth had planned to do it all as one show, with the various characters all played by a small cast in different wigs and costumes. But when Sondheim passed the plays on to his close friend Harold Prince, the director-producer nixed that idea, and suggested doing them as a musical. Sondheim liked the plays, and Furth, but was reluctant to write the score, whose add-on quality he feared would make it "Brechtian" (an epithet to the composer). A promise by Prince to produce The Girls Upstairs following the production of Company finally convinced Sondheim, and the result was something quite different from his earlier shows. Perhaps Sondheim's position-- as the writer coming in and adding his voice to the mix-- paralleled Bobby's "outsider looking in" enough to give him a link with the characters; perhaps he was jazzed by the gorgeous orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, a bright young orchestrator who'd just brought a modern pop sound to Promises, Promises the year before; perhaps (as he's endlessly and somewhat defensively claimed in interviews for thirty years) Sondheim is just a good mimic, and found a way to pull out the guts and emotions from Furth's one-liners and musicalize them.

Whatever the case, Company's score shows a wide-ranging talent that touches on ballads ("Being Alive," "Someone Is Waiting"), dance numbers ("Side by Side by Side"), satires and pastiches (like the girl-group number "You Could Drive A Person Crazy"), character-driven humor pieces ("The Little Things You Do Together," "Barcelona"), and songs whose melodic and lyrical invention defies categorization (I guess you could call "The Ladies Who Lunch" a 12 o'clock number, but it's a deeply ironic and fatalistic one, while "Sorry-Grateful" almost feels like an anti-ballad in its honesty). Like Bobby, Sondheim stands both within and outside the show, deconstructing a whole history of theatrical convention while still providing the emotional connections and aching depth those conventions were designed to convey (it didn't surprise me when I recently learned that Sondheim was a big fan of the French New Wave-- they're operating on the same wavelength). There's an intense pleasure in craft (you know you're hearing a master at the top of his game when he manages to lyricize a yawn in "Barcelona"), but never at the expense of character or feeling.

The difference, as theater historian Ethan Mordden noted in his history of seventies Broadway, One More Kiss, was that Sondheim left certain questions unanswered: he might have been working within and through certain song conventions, and might have provided the emotional depth and longing they offered (while, indeed, adding even greater depth and meaning to them), but he was going to leave the note unresolved, not tie up all the loose ends, mess with our sense of space, time, and closure. Decades later, Sondheim would reflect on this :

The "ambivalence" that Sondheim notes in the interview above was well-captured not only by his music and Tunick's brightly nervous orchestrations, but by the entire company (as Mordden notes, the title of the show is a pun on theatrical production). Prince had broken through as a director four years earlier with Cabaret, but Sondheim would be his richest collaborator, the one that set off his imagination in casting and staging, and he controlled the stage as if it were a movie set, using movable scenery, scrims, and lights to "cross-cut" from one space and time to another. Boris Aronson's set was a glittering urban landcape of steel, glass and moving parts (an anecdote as a way of suggesting the tightness of the collaboration: when he was composing the title song, Sondheim called Aronson and grilled him for several minutes about the size of the stage, its dimensions, and how long it would take the working elevator onstage to move up or down to a certain point; this was all because he wanted to get the exact number of beats it would take in the song's intro for Bobby to ride the elevator, walk across the room, and start singing). Most of all, Michael Bennett's choreography found the perfect balance of professionalism and amateurism: like every other member of the team, he deployed his considerable gifts, not just to dazzle (although his numbers did that) but to suggest and illuminate character: as Mordden rightfully notes, you want the dance to look good, but not too good, because we still need to believe these characters are just middle-class, professional people, and not professional performers.

All of this history is necessary to contextualize the achievements of Doyle and his cast and crew. The 2006 Company, while it won the Tony for best revival last year, was slammed in some corners for being a radical change from earlier productions, especially in its use of on-stage instrumentation. It's true on a surface level-- the sonics and scenic design are in an almost completely opposed relationship to Tunick and Aronson's achievement, for instance. But on a deeper level, its radical spirit and willingness to reorient our relationship to the show-- its knowingness about our vast Sondheim geekery, and its willingess to turn that trivia against itself-- is completely in spirit with the original Sondheim/Prince achievement. It comes at the end of a decade of Sondheim revivals and tributes-- including new productions of Saturday Night, Follies, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday In The Park With George, as well as a four-month staging in 2002, in Washington, DC, of nearly every Sondheim show--and is the perfect capper, because its sense of difference reminds us: this is an uncomfortable show. Sondheim is an uncomfortable talent ("I think a writer should scare himself," he says in an interview on the Company DVD), and while he's now a grand old man of theater (due to receive a well-deserved lifetime achievement award at the Tonys this month), his work seriously pissed people off, all the way up through 1984's Sunday In The Park With George, at least. He challenged every convention of musical theater, and in doing so established new conventions, but a true Company should leave us slightly unsettled, even as we whistle its tunes on the way out the door.

Thankfully, Doyle and his brilliant cast are up to the challenge. Not every number comes off-- Angel Desai is a wonderful Marta in the dramatic scenes, funny and smart and perfectly balanced between awareness and delusion, but her "Another Hundred People" doesn't quite come off, feeling less like a number in the show and more like a well-intentioned evening of cabaret. And there were moments when I missed the hard metallic edge of Tunick's orchestrations, the way they just sound like a city (at one point, Marta asks Bobby, "Do you know what the pulse of the city is?," and Bobby quips back, "A busy signal." It's a wonderful joke, not least because Tunick's original orchestrations captured that sound and made it part of the show's texture). For the most part, though, I was reminded again of how durable Sondheim's songs were, and how well the glistening new orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and the various voices brought new life to them. Elizabeth Stanley's April finds the sympathetic core of a ditzy stereotype; Heather Laws' Amy makes neurosis comprehensible and even a little attractive; Bruce Sabath's Larry fleshes out a bit role and makes it a character you wish they'd craft a whole show around; and Barbara Walsh pulls off the impossible task of following Elaine Stritch as Joanne. Watch her in "The Ladies Who Lunch"; I almost curled up in a ball before it started, because it's the best-known number in the show, and as associated with Stritch as "Rose's Turn" is with Ethel Merman, or "Over The Rainbow" is with Judy Garland. How, one thinks, can anyone bring anything new?

The answer is to act it, instead of just singing it. When it was done in 1970, Stritch was in spotlight, the rest of the stage blacked out, almost as if the show disappeared and she was just singing to the audience. In 2006, the stage remains lit, and Walsh's Joanne sings to her co-stars in the bar, as well as to herself. She stumbles across a few notes, intentionally, highlighting that Joanne's been drinking all day, and her timbre is loaded with whiskey regret. She's so fluid in her movement from dialogue to song to dialogue again, and her co-stars' facial reactions are so essential, that for the first time, I really understood how the number fit into the show, and into her character: it's not just a fantastic star number, a great standard, but a cri de coeur, an ironic anthem whose pathos both undercuts and ennobles it. It's a striking moment, and it makes Joanne into something much richer and sadder than just a quip machine or snarky know-it-all: she's becomes the show's most tragic figure.

Which brings us to the much-acclaimed Raul Esparza as Bobby. Yes, he's as fantastic as you might have heard. Yes, he brings rich feeling to his final number, "Being Alive," and the moment is every bit as cathartic and show-stopping as you've been told. But what struck me was how funny he was: all the publicity photos (including the one at the top of this blog post) were so dark and melodramatic that I half-expected him to break out in a number from Passion at some point. But he's wonderfully sly and dexterous with the physical comedy in the first half of the show (watch how often he leaps up on the pillar in the center of the stage when company comes, clinging to it like a security blanket), and very jazzy in his line readings, spinning the jokes just enough to make them pop. All of this is so essential because we need to be seduced by Bobby, need to understand why so many people would want to spend so much time with someone who is-- let's face it-- something of a narcissist. Bobby is a charm monster, and Esparza does such a good job of establishing the charm early on that the monstrousness sneaks up on us as much as it does him, until it threatens to devour him in the second act. It's a difficult menage a trois of humor, heart and deconstructive comedy, one that both Esparza and the show as a whole pull off with considerable aplomb. When Bobby stands alone onstage at the end of the show, the voices of his friends trailing out of his apartment, that ambivalence of which Sondheim speaks is at its peak: is this a moment of triumph, or just a different kind of loneliness?