Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A bit of 2011 culture

I started my new job on March 28 and, just as I was getting used to the new schedule and routine, a nasty cold knocked me out two weeks later. Outside work, dozing off and falling asleep were becoming my only recreational activities.

I did manage to stay awake for a few cultural experiences. On March 30, J. and I met friends for dinner at Ras Dashen before crossing the street to the Broadway Armory for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. Aside from the venue name, the space seemed perfect for a dark, spare, echoing look at contemporary war—in Iraq. A storied regiment, Black Watch finds itself a writer’s object of study even as its members recount their observations about their American counterparts. Like making movies, war seems to be a matter of waiting, but with a tragic ending. The starkness of the space reflects the raw emotions the men of Black Watch feel as the war inexorably draws them in and then as the writer, who has seen nothing, tries to draw them out. You had to be there to understand and to know death.

I’d like to be more interested in current movies, but the ongoing crop of action, comedy, reality, and franchise retreads leaves me cold. That’s why I almost missed Jane Eyre. Granted, like most movies now it has been done before. In the version I’ve seen most often, baby-faced Orson Welles does the honors as jaded man of the world Edward Rochester, while Joan Fontaine keeps her lips pursed, her feelings repressed, and her heart open. That Jane Eyre is memorable for a strong performance by Peggy Ann Garner as little hothead sinner Jane, a pretty turn by Elizabeth Taylor as the sweet but sickly Helen, and a cloying but good showing by Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s coquettish ward (and daughter), Adèle.

While the 1943 Jane Eyre was shot primarily and noticeably within the confines of a sound stage and lot, the 2011 edition is more expansive (and expensive), beginning with a distraught young woman running across the haunting, perpetual twilight of the moors, which may be the best feature of the movie. The rest is almost as claustrophobic as the earlier version or the mad woman’s confinement. For all his wealth, worldliness, and travels, what we see of Rochester’s world is as narrow as Jane’s.

Aside from the brooding open-air cinematography, I didn’t find much to recommend in this Jane Eyre. There’s less focus on Jane’s childhood and the influence of her “education.” The child actors aren’t as important to the movie, and their performances are weak. I found myself missing Peggy Ann Garner’s explosive farewell to her aunt (Agnes Moorehead). Adèle appears tangentially only, speaking French because she’s French, and apparently no one needs to know what she’s saying. She’s there because the plot requires it but what her presence reveals about Rochester’s character is lost. Even Rochester’s supposed intended bride flits through without making an impression. The only character who does is Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, because she’s played by Judi Dench, who is talented enough to pull off such a weak role with aplomb. The man who, along with his sisters, takes Jane in is also noteworthy, but mainly because his appearance is jarring, his personality tightly wound, and his relationship with his guest awkward and forced.

That leaves Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a pairing that has as much chemistry as two inert substances. Jane lacks a distinctive personality, substituting white-faced teariness for controlled emotions. Rochester, who should be bitter, brutal, and enigmatic, seems to be doing his fairest impression of a 1980s sensitive guy in touch with his feminine side. Their pairing, the dynamics of which should be at least a little disturbing, is about as interesting as that between two Yuppies circa 1987. Passion of feeling there is not, especially that passion that makes the Victorian society of literature so compelling. I wanted to like Jane Eyre, but it needed to be more than a movie with pretty scenery and attractive faces rushed through without life or context.

Fast forward from the Industrial Age to the Machine Age and beyond for Death and the Powers by Tod Machover (music) and Robert Pinsky (libretto). This time—perhaps ironically, given the subject matter—the performances outweighed the subject, and the repetitive movements of the Crow-like robots held more interest than either the torturous music or stilted libretto. Strangely, nothing about either music or libretto evoked the monotonous, regular, stifling hum of the machine, despite the use of that word, no matter how awkwardly, enough times to make me grind my teeth reflexively. The music is more random than a well-ordered machine (whether industrial or computer) could make it, although perhaps a machine could create a mood—any mood. It wasn’t even irritating.

In a weird anachronism in this futuristic world of blended man and machine (technology), people still read newspapers, and the print press is still powerful. Neither my hostess nor I quite understood where that came from or what it was supposed to mean. In the age of technology, the conventional notion of the press is obsolete has been for some time. What was the point?

The robots were cute, the set decor different if a bit too reminiscent of a disco, and the performances good. Sara Heaton as the daughter was exceptional, which the audience appreciated. But it’s going to take something truly awful to unseat Death and the Powers as my least favorite opera to date.

Doctor Atomic is modern opera executed beautifully, with music that evokes emotions and a libretto that fuses poetry and arguments into a thought-provoking vision of the apocalypse, before and after. Death and the Powers seemed to be words and notes signifying nothing.


  1. The trailer for Jane Eyre didn’t look promising. I think your review has saved me from feature-length disappointment. Thanks.

  2. I feel guilty for being so harsh, especially as I read Jane Eyre eons ago and don't remember it that well. It's rated highly by most on IMDB, but I see a few curmudgeons didn't like the truncated screenplay, the awkward pacing, the leaps of imagination required to find the chemistry, the abrupt ending, etc. Some blame the direction and screenplay for the lackluster performances—the actors never had time to show the relationship evolving. I'm not sure I buy that entirely.

    I can't even remember what Rochester looked like!