Monday, July 30, 2012

1971 - A Clockwork Orange

It's been a busy few weeks as Kat and I have been getting all the pieces together for the inaugural production of our theatre company, Australian Made Entertainment. In September, we will be presenting Cosi, a classic Aussie comedy about a bunch of mental patients who cobble together a performance of Mozart's opera, Cosi fan tutte. If you can't make it to New York in September, you could always check out the film version, which I believe is also available on Netflix. In any case, be sure to 'like' us on Facebook to keep up to date with our progress.

After a hectic week, I managed to squeeze in a viewing of another Best Picture nominee from 1971's contest...

A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick
(based on the novel by Anthony Burgess)
Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin, Godfrey Quigley, Anthony Sharp, Warren Clarke, Aubrey Morris, Michael Bates
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

In an indeterminate futuristic time period, London has a serious crime problem with gangs of young thugs terrorising innocent citizens on a regular basis. One such gang of "droogs", led by Alex (McDowell), enjoys a night of "ultra-violence", first beating up a homeless man and then assaulting writer Frank Alexander (Magee) and raping his wife (Corri) in a home invasion. The next night, after Alex brutally rapes another woman (Karlin), his "droogs" turn on him, leaving him to be caught by the police. When the woman later dies, Alex is sentenced to prison for murder.

A couple of years later, Alex becomes a test subject for a new aversion therapy, a rapid conditioning technique intended to cure violent tendencies in criminals. While agreeing to the treatment gives him a get-out-of-jail-free card, he soon struggles with its often disturbing and inhumane effects.

Stanley Kubrick certainly knows how to give a film a distinctive style. Each of his films is unique in its presentation and A Clockwork Orange is perhaps his most stylised, in large part due to Anthony Burgess' source novel, which supplies the film's dialogue with some peculiar new English words. Burgess essentially created a new dialect that is best described as a Russian-influenced English. While it certainly lends the story an air of originality, it sometimes comes across as rather childish, as in the case of "eggiwegs".

Another standard of a Kubrick film is its sumptuous design and again, A Clockwork Orange is no exception. The retro-futuristic sets are beautifully fascinating, as are the strange costumes, particularly Alex's mother's weirdly inappropriate outfits. We are also treated to some inventive make-up as each of the central droogs displays an individual, asymmetric style. Even the music is somewhat stylised. While most of the score consists of classical music, it is juxtaposed with occasional moments of electronica, just in case we forgot we were in the future.

The one possible drawback of all this heavy style, however, is that it risks putting the audience at a bit of a distance. The very serious issues of the psychology of crime and the moral implications of brainwashing seem less accessible because of how abstractly they are presented. One such oddity is the "performance" to demonstrate Alex's reformation, as actors subject him to a sort of evil version of Punk'd. The artificiality also makes it easy to desensitise oneself to the violence in the film. I mean, how seriously can you take an assailant when he assaults his victims while dancing and crooning "Singin' in the Rain"? Or beats a lady with an oversized penis sculpture? Well, actually, those scenes are kind of creepy. In fact, despite the style, there are plenty of emotionally moving moments, so maybe the point is made.

While the character of Alex is unmistakably theatrical, Malcolm McDowell (pictured) at times shows clever restraint in his breakout role as the troubled youth. Other actors fail to avoid consistently theatrical performances, namely Patrick Magee, whose wild facial ticks are somewhat distracting. On the other hand, Michael Bates' pantomime portrayal of an enthusiastically gruff prison guard has its funny moments. Star Wars fans may appreciate seeing the man inside the Darth Vader suit, David Prowse, as Frank's placid attendant, Julian.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

1971 - Fiddler on the Roof

As New York suffers through its current heat wave, being inside a theatre is a pleasantly cool place to be. On July 4th, Kat and I, along with a few friends visiting from out of town, took in a show, and what better show for Independence Day than Gore Vidal's The Best Man. The play itself was a little long and static (they still found time for two intermissions) but the star-studded cast made it all worth it. At 81 and 86 respectively, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury are as captivating as ever. And they share the stage with a veritable who's who of the sitcom universe - Will & Grace's Eric McCormack, Night Court's John Larroquette and Murphy Brown's Candice Bergen.

Meanwhile, in an air-conditioned apartment, I take a look at 1971's next contender for Best Picture...

Fiddler on the Roof
Norman Jewison
Joseph Stein
(adapted from his book of the Broadway musical, which was based on stories by Sholem Aleichem)
Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Ray Lovelock
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins

In the small rural Russian town of Anatevka, a local Jewish milkman named Tevye (Topol) and his wife Golde (Crane) eke out a poor but relatively happy existence. One by one, their daughters begin to fall in love, causing Tevye not a small amount of angst, since his traditional views only allow for arranged marriages. His eldest daughter Tzeitel (Harris) wants to marry the poor tailor Motel (Frey) instead of the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) to whom Tevye has promised her. Tevye eventually relents, giving his permission, but when his second daughter Hodel (Marsh) doesn't even ask his permission to marry radical Perchik (Glaser), Tevye has more trouble accepting it. Finally, his third daughter Chava (Small) has chosen a non-Jewish man, Fyedka (Lovelock), for her partner and Tevye's limits are tested.

Watching Fiddler on the Roof immediately after fellow nominee Nicholas and Alexandra allowed for a fascinating comparison. While the two films are vastly different in genre and style, they both take place in early 20th century Russia during a revolution, albeit two separate revolutions. However, more fascinating is the fact that, despite their perspectives being on opposite sides - one from the Tsar's point of view, the other from a peasant's - the general theme of the story is strikingly similar. Both focus on a protagonist who struggles to hold on to tradition amid a changing world.

Regular readers may recognise my aversion to heavy religious content, yet I found Fiddler on the Roof pleasant and somehow comfortable, no doubt a result of my Jewish upbringing. Although, the affinity I have towards Jewish culture is definitely less to do with the religious elements and more so with the traditions, which, of course, this picture relishes. Plus, I have a strong familiarity with the soundtrack - probably more than any other musical - having grown up hearing those catchy tunes, so there is undoubtedly a nostalgic effect at work here, too. I don't mind admitting that I felt goose bumps as the music swelled for "Tradition".

Along with its outstanding music - which, incidentally, won prolific film composer John Williams his first Oscar, for Scoring Adaptation - the film also delivers some beautiful images, earning the Academy's Cinematography award as well. The sweeping Eastern European landscapes are featured heavily, but the campy dream sequence is particularly unique, looking like something from Rocky Horror.

For a stage musical, the song sequences are cleverly presented here on film, often making good use of the medium. Especially effective is Sunrise, Sunset, which is sung in voice over, the lyrics being treated as the inner thoughts of each of the characters. Similarly, Do You Love Me? proves the power of a well-written song coupled with clever direction. It is essentially a simple and genuine scene in which a man asks his wife if she loves him, only they both happen to be singing. Very touching.

Despite the many, many touching moments, including the penultimate scene, don't expect a traditional showstopping number to conclude this musical. The actual ending is a bit of a downer, truth be told, not just because of the plot, but because, after all the emotion and humour of the past three hours, it just sort of peters out.

It's hard to imagine anyone but Topol in this role. He is charming and passionate. I had the good fortune of seeing him on stage in this role in Sydney during his Australian tour a few years ago. His performance then was a little tired, which is perhaps forgivable since he had been playing the role for almost 40 years. However, in the film here, he is fresh and vibrant, garnering a Best Actor nomination from the Academy. Leonard Frey received the film's other acting nod for his effective portrayal of the timid tailor, Motel. And for the TV trivia buffs, yes, that's the original Starsky himself (Paul Michael Glaser) as the radical Perchik. Or if you're a Mad About You fan, you might recognise Burt Buchman (Louis Zorich) as the cowardly Constable.