Film & Television

The Music of Downton

Thursday, January 12, 2012
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Best Of NPR 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
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"Porgy and Bess" at A.R.T.: Transformed and Illuminating

By Kim McLarin   |   Tuesday, September 13, 2011
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It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers are always writing for somebody. Any writer with ego enough to desire publication has an audience in the conscious or subconscious mind during the act of creation. It is also true that this hovering audience shapes the creation as surely as the potter’s intended use for a pot shapes the clay.  As Toni Morrison asked of the great novel “Invisible Man,”   “Invisible to who?”

I had this thought while watching the excellent and moving adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” at the ART in Cambridge recently. According to the Playbill this production is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” reportedly the title required by the Gershwin estate, but I am not so sure. The opera has been famously, and controversially, adapted by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, and I, for one, am grateful. Were it strictly the Gershwins’ opera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much.

I can’t say for sure, though, because I’ve never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. Never wanted to.

I always assumed George Gershwin and his team created this grand American folk opera primarily for a white, early-twentieth century audience and that it therefore was unlikely to speak to me. What little I knew about the piece--the cringe-inducing lyrics by George Gershwin’s brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward (“I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’ ” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) layered atop the sublime music, the fact that Sidney Poitier had at first refused to star in the movie version, the character description of Bess as a loose drug addict and the depiction of Porgy as deformed--did little to change my mind. Even considering that it might have been bold for the original creative team to imagine the inner lives of black people in 1935 didn’t mean I wanted to see it. Just because a portrayal is sympathetic doesn’t mean it is not also a stereotype.

All of which is to say I arrived at the ART slightly skeptical.  The first few songs—the sweet and famous lullaby “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”--did little to ease my worry. The crap game scene early in the first act--bare-armed black men gambling and courting violence--had me shifting in my seat.

But then the funeral scene hooked me. Here is the moment the production comes into full possession of itself. Here were people I recognized. Here was grieving and movement, gesture and sorrow, and song that I knew. Here was a witness to African-American life that felt deeply-rooted and authentic and true.


How important is such authenticity? To theatergoers who prize Gershwin’s transcendent score over all else, the African dance gestures and dead-on black church movements in the funeral scene may not mean much. Likewise, the set-up which gives context (and standard English) to Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” rescuing it from being a happy, darkey song may not greatly improve the work and the “excavation” of Bess’ character which Lori-Parks has spoken of doing may seem unnecessary or even presumptuous to some.

 To me, though, these transformations allowed me to fully embrace a work I fear I may not have before. They also go a long way toward answering a question I had upon first reading about this production: Does the world really need an updated version of Porgy and Bess? Do black people?

The answer to both questions is yes. The world needs this production because Audra McDonald is a revelation. Even with Parks’ tweaking, the character of Bess still hovers at the edge of blurred, two-dimensionality but McDonald wrenches her into focus as a vulnerable and deeply flawed woman fighting hard to save herself in the only way she knows. As others have said, this is not only great singing but great acting too.

Black people need this production now because “Porgy and Bess” is a story of not only of black romantic love (which would be reason enough), but also of black community, and of the redemptive and transformative power of love. 

Watching Norm Lewis’ crippled Porgy extend his hand to the beautiful Bess (and, yes, I’m glad they took him off of that damn goat cart) I tried to remember the last time we saw a story of a black man’s love for a black woman raising him to manhood and changing his life. When was that on the ART’s or any other local stage? (Heck, try to find, on broadcast or cable television right now, a black man with a black female love interest at all.) When was the last pop culture depiction that not only offered a black woman so valued and desirable that three men were willing to fight over her but, almost casually, also tossed the stories of two other solid and loving black couples into the mix?

And, yes, among a people still scarred, not only by the legacy of legalized racial oppression, but also by the present reality of racial caste and social control, manifest, among other ways, in mass incarceration of black men, any time is the right time for a story of a strong and vibrant black community.

It is not just Porgy who loves Bess. But the other characters who love as well: Clara who loves Jake, Serena who loves her husband, and Mariah and the fisherman and the preacher and the undertaker who love everyone. It is not just Porgy who will save Bess, if Bess is to be saved; it is the flawed but ultimately embracing and forgiving citizens of Catfish Row, who know that in loving and uplifting the least of them they are also saving themselves.

(Photos by Michael J. Lutch)

The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” American Repertory Theater through October 2, 2011, with the potential of a Broadway run early next year. Full information available at the ART’s Web site (including video interviews with the cast), http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/gershwins-porgy-and-bess.

Actor Phylicia Rashad

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
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A Request for Beethoven, and music for the holiday

By Ray Brown   |   Thursday, December 23, 2010
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Dec. 24

Today's 4:00 request is from Marc for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, which we'll hear performed by Robert Levin on the fortepiano, with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique led by John Eliot Gardiner. Continuing the practice he began in his recordings of the Mozart concertos, Levin improvised all of his own cadenzas in the studio, rather than play the ones that Beethoven wrote. My colleague Cathy Fuller asked Levin about the process of creating new cadenzas for Mozart's music, and, especially for Beethoven's First Concerto, I think the same things apply.  Check out Cathy's conversations with Robert Levin here.

After the Beethoven we'll play a work that is increasingly associated with the holidays: the music Prokofiev wrote for the film "Lieutenant Kije."  While this music has been used in several films (perhaps most memorably in Woody Allen's "Love and Death"), it's quite illuminating to hear the music in its original context.  If you have a spare 82 minutes this holiday weekend, you can check out the 1934 film below.  It feels like a Soviet version of the Marx Brothers, based on a bitterly satiric novella by Yuri Tynyanov about a nonexistent officer in the Tsar's army who becomes a very convenient fiction.

Beginning at 5:00 we'll play three hours of music (and a bit of radio drama!) for the holidays, including excerpts from The Nutcracker, works by Bach and Corelli, carols sung by Chanticleer, the Boston Camerata, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus (who will also be singing our holiday broadcast of Handel's Messiah at 8:00 tonight). We'll also hear a few snippets of Patrick Stewart's magnificent audio version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," as well as a few surprises. All of us here at 99.5 thank you for making us a part of your celebration, and we wish you a joyous and peaceful holiday.


For Veterans Day, Favorite Films From The Frontlines

By Jared Bowen   |   Wednesday, November 10, 2010
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A scene from Saving Private Ryan. Photo by Amblin Entertainment – © 1998


BEDFORD -- Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. has a lot of what you might expect: Fighter jets, uniformed men and women bustling about and the requisite on-base hangout. At the back of Hansom’s MinuteMan Club sits 2nd. Lt. Patrick Gernert, who sits at a card table with two other servicemen, talking about their favorite war movies.
 
“Mine would probably be Forrest Gump,” says Gernert. “Even when he was miles from home he always thought about Jenny, and he always wanted to get back to her. He got bit in the butt, but he did definitely get home.”
 
Just like every football player has seen Rudy, and every filmmaker has studied Citizen Kane, for America’s men and women in uniform there are a go-to set of must-see movies that are often quoted, joked about and heavily relied on.

Must-See War Movies

Saving Private Ryan

Its first and last acts are among the most realistic and brutal depictions of war captured on film. In between is a timeless story of innocence facing the ultimate test.

Top Gun

One of a handful of movies granted full cooperation by U.S. Miltary, Top Gun defined heroics in the air for a generation with iconic star turns by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer.

Forrest Gump

On one hand the story of a simple fan living an extraordinary life. Dig deeper and follow the baby boom generation as it grows up through Elvis, Vietnam, and the age of disco, drugs, and disease.

Stripes

Classic Bill Murrary comedy. "Don't leave. The flowers will die."

Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick's mix of surrealism and dark humor follows a Vietnam platoon's evolution from boyhood to war machine.

Gladiator

When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

“I mean, you can’t go wrong with Full Metal Jacket,” chimes Staff Sgt. Andre Edgardo Olaciregui-Perez, who normally craves the comedy stylings of Bill Murray and company. “Stripes is good, too. ‘The name’s Francis Sawyer.  If I catch any of you guys in my stuff, I kill ya.’”

Olaciregui-Perez then wades into the danger zone with his next pick, Tony Scott’s 1986 melodramatic ode to military machismo Top Gun. He sums it up in one word: "Lame.”
 
Tech Sgt Khaliliah Velez is a little kinder. “All I gotta say is Take My Breathe Away. Every time I hear that song, that movie pops into my head, and I liked it," Velez said. "Now, it’s not Air Force, but I like the movie.”
 
The one movie they all agree is paramount is the untouchable Saving Private Ryan. “This movie, straight from the entrance, the Battle of Normandy” says Gernert. “It’s like—wow—boom—bomb—you know all this stuff going on, everybody ducking down, you hear the splash of the water—splush. It’s just intense, really intense.”

Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and the Allied
troops land on the beach of Normandy.

For the group assembled at this card table, there are a variety of different missions under their collective belts -- some of which include long deployments. To them, there is a different set of go-to comfort movies: The ones that take them home, when home is many miles and months away.
 
“They kind of helped me get through my time there,” says Velez. “You know, reminded me of my family and of things that I like to do in the States that I wasn’t afforded in Iraq. The Devil Wears Prada, The Breakup, Failure to Launch, Underworld 2, you always gotta switch it up a little bit. Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift was one that was close to home because it reminded me of son because he loves cars. And then, The DaVinci Code, just to kill time. I fell asleep most of the time, you know, it’s a long movie.”
 
Sergeant Olaciregui Perez has a shorter list of comfort movies. ”I was in Kuwait in 2007 and 2009, and my two favorite movies of all time, that I’ve watched repeatedly over when I was deployed, were Cast Away and Gladiator.”
 
Cast Away is really interesting cause you know, you have this guy that gets stranded, in the middle of nowhere and really has no hope. But because of his determination in wanting to go back to what was close to his heart, it kind of deals with the same thing as in deployment," Perez said. "You know, you’re ready to go back, but you understand that you have to do certain things at the location. It’s like a journey, or an adventure. That’s why Cast Away is close to me, I guess.”

 
Maximus (Russell Crowe) addresses the
Roman crowds.

As for Ridley Scott’s action-packed historical epic Gladiator -- that one is a little more obvious.
 
“Every guy, they all wanna be Russell Crowe in that movie,” says Perez. “You know, screaming out, ‘Are you not entertained?  Are you not entertained? Is this not what you want?’  You know, it’s just very thrilling—it’s amazing.”
 
It’s also an escape. So in wartime, amid the intensity, the brutality, the loneliness—it’s clear listening to these veterans that in the 21st century, movies are an integral part of the war experience.
 
“I guess I would tell someone that’s in the military with me, you know, whatever makes you laugh, smile, cry, because we all have different tastes,” says Velez. “Whatever takes you to your happy place—just watch it.”

 


Moviola's War Movie Picks

About the Authors
Kim McLarin Kim McLarin
Kim McLarin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Taming it Down, Meeting of the Waters and Jump at the Sun, all published by William Morrow. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record and the Associated Press. McLarin has also written for TheRoot.com and Salon.com.
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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