Bürgtheater – Trilogie des Wiedersehens: Slow and dated

March 25th, 2010 § 0

This past Sunday was my first trip to Bürgtheater as a full-fledged German speaker. Dear Astrid had lured me there in a previous life as a non-German speaker. She was adamant that I must see their astonishing work.

Somehow with Astrid we ended up somewhere in the galleries. It was more a feeling of alienation and awe. Something Shakespearian with much murder. Theatre in a language one doesn’t speak is rarely a winning hand so I was loathe to make any judgement. We also attended a number of charming small pieces in the Casino at Schwarzenbergplatz, far more successful.

But this time for Trilogie des Wiedersehens Radoslava and I were in the second row of the main stage.

Comfortable and close enough to make a clear judgement.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens is set in real time at an art exhibit organized by Moritz. It seems that the whole town is there, from the doctor, to the printer, to the local writer. All the woman are there too in minidresses and pantsuits.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 2
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole town is there.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

Wonderfully enough there is a cast of sixteen in the Trilogie des Wiedersehens. Almost invariably, a play with a large cast will win my heart or at least my respect. A large cast gives the director so much richer a canvas to work with.

The setting is the 1970’s so many of the actors are wearing outrageous wigs, which sadly look like wigs. I don’t remember seeing my parents or their friends parading around in wigs in the 70’s so we are already started on a bad hair day.

I also don’t remember people screaming all the time in the 70’s or necessarily understand why they would be having sex in washrooms with people they don’t like. The second part is more credible.

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes. The stage turns back and forth between the main exhibition hall with the food and drink and a little frequented back corridor nominally watched by a guard.

In each little vignette, more information comes to the surface about the past relationships and internal angst of each character. At first we devoured these cryptic exchanges seeking to make sense of the whole. As the characters screamed more and more we lost interest.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 4
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

The whole piece is made up of little conversational vignettes.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

The mortally slow pace between vignettes didn’t help. I don’t know if the director was trying to show us that the seventies were indeed a slower time, but certainly to the people living in the seventies they didn’t perceive time as slow but it certainly appeared that way to us with twenty to thirty seconds between one vignette ending and another one starting.

Now both of us are busy people active in the economic sphere of life. Perhaps certain Austrians, students or bureaucrats would find the pace relaxingly realistic. But the slow pace distracted both of us from being able to enter into the piece.

It didn’t help that the characters were all dull and rather pathetic. None of them could be described as aspirational. And it seemed each actor was hellbent on mocking his or her own subject. A single exception: Juergen Maurer as the doctor was serious and persuasive. His role was near inconsequential but you felt that if Maurer had more to say, the play might actually go somewhere.

Portently he tells his shrill wife "Your low self esteem doesn’t allow anyone to say anything kind to you."

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking of Susanne (Regina Fritsch) and Elfriede (Sabine Haupt). In the end, the characters were dull and hysterical, invoking little sympathy, whether via screaming or drunkeness or their inability to eat a sandwich without spilling cream all over themselves.

Trilogie des Wiedersehens 3
Trilogie des Wiedersehens, 2009

Instead we listened mainly to the incessant rants and shrieking.
Photo by Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater.

In short drunken idiots leading hideous lives.

The first act ends with all of the actors naked on stage standing in a posed group (carefully arranged to reduce pruriency to a minimum). The stage rotatates out again bringing them all to center and the lights drop.

The significance? That we are metaphorically naked before our friends and family. I don’t think I’ve seen anything at Bürgtheater which didn’t include nudity on stage. I love nudity on stage – it’s a great way to force a reaction. But here, nothing.

Strangely, the Austrian reviews of Trilogie des Wiedersehens are quite good. Perhaps we missed the humour. But having spent over one and a half hours with the crowd on stage, neither Radoslava nor I had any wish to spend any more time with them.

We left at the half, relieved to be spared more of the shrieking and base accusations.

In terms of the stagecraft, the set and the lighting were of a high level. The costumes were acceptable but kitschy and exaggerated, a grotesque. The acting was the same.

The one particularly clever piece of stagecraft is during the scenes in the main exhibition hall with the full cast present, the director contrives to have all of the conversational groups nod at one another as if the other were speaking. The actors each took a particular tick (a nod or a roll of the eyes) to the limit. Very droll and reminded me exactly of the sometimes surreal effect of being at a party: everyone feigning to listen to everyone else.

The Viennese worship their Bürgtheater (the second or third best stage in the German speaking lands according to the Viennese). Based on what we saw Sunday, they are nowhere near the Royal Shakespeare Company. Frankly I’d expect more engagement and conviction from a RADA graduation class. In grotesque, the top Moscow theatres would leave these lost souls wandering in limbo. They outplayed most of what you’d see in Toronto, which would be similarly emotionally vacant but even less persuasive.

This is not my last trip to Bürgtheater this year. I’ll give them another couple of chances to change my mind but Trilogie des Wiedersehens was not a good start. Surprising as with a huge ensemble cast and complicated relationships, it caters exactly to my taste.

Performance seen 15 September 2009.

Photos from Bürgtheater official publicity photos.

Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Spectre Film Review

March 24th, 2010 § 0

I was twice in Film Museum this weekend. Once for the rather poor Out 1: Spectre. I amused myself to read the German subtitles and check them against the spoken French and try to learn a few new words.

Juliet Berto Jacques Doniol Valcroze
Juliet Berto as Frederique, Jacques Doniol Valcroze at Etienne:
Life is just a giant chess game but for keeps

The problem with the film Out 1: Spectre is that it is all on the spot improvisation. If you’ve ever done much improvisation, you know that even when it goes well it usually takes some time longer to develop. There is a lot of going in circles to get the plane off the ground. Spectre One documents those circles. For the twenty five minutes of successful drama you are forced to sit through four and a half hours of film, three hours of which are actors warming up to their subject and another half hour just extraneous long shots.

Perhaps most interesting as a social document if we trust the director to accurately document avant garde theatre practice and mœurs of the time. Some contemporary French critics did praise the sociological side at the time, so let’s presume that the clothing and behaviour is correct. In that case, it is astonishing how much people smoked and drank in that time. They didn’t take it easy on the coffee either.

Out 1: Spectre ostensibly treats Balzac’s Thirteen: thirteen who consider themselves above society and who are willing to cooperate to break any laws to get what they want.

The Fat Director (Michel Lonsdale as Thomas) is one of the most irritating personalities to ever grace the silver screen. He has a huge head, a great big rump, tiny shoulders, persistently dirty hair. Throughout the film, he pontificates with his mouth full of nuts or sandwiches or booze or cigarettes. He manages to put his oily hands on every attractive woman crossing the screen. Partcularly incredible is when he sits on the bed stroking his ex-mistress Sarah, while his current mistress sits on the floor, even bringing water to Sarah at his request.

Very amusing is the scene where he shares an apartment by the seaside with the most beautiful actress of his troupe and a bearded youth. The relationship isn’t sorted out clearly but it looks like this Dionysian young acolytes are sharing the same bed with old Satyr. What Michel Lonsdale is doing to merit this very special treatment is difficult to fathom. His carnal facility must rival the gourmandise of his eating – a hideous image but at least one level on which one can engage with Spectre One – distaste for a personnage so strong that you can taste it. He seems to have built a cult of personality within the group.

The most engaging actor is Juliet Berto in her role as seductress/thief/blackmailer. The different tricks she plays to part foolish men and their money are entrancing for a man. Have you ever been a dupe to a broad on the make? Watch her performance and you know you have been. Her most formidable adversary is Etienne (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) who is one of the conspiratorial ringleaders. His gravelly voice and polite strength were incredibly impressive. Apart from a single scene at the end where he and Michel Lonsdaleare talking around the conspiracy, Doniol-Valcroze’s improvisation is the most fluent and convincing. You know that he’s dealt with any number of duplicitous women and is not phased by them in the least.

Jean Loud seems to be lost here. He is the glue binding all the different parts of the film together with this investigation of the thirteen.

My favorite director Eric Rohmer appears briefly in a cameo as a university professor discussing Balzac. Not a particularly convincing performance but an amusing enough inside joke. It’s amazing how old Rohmer was even back in 1972. Astonishing that he is still making movies. Eric Rohmer gave up on automobiles in his thirties and since then cycles everywhere (I am not sure that is presently true granted his age). Rohmer made the decision to abandon automobiles for environmental reasons. Hopefully, cycling/car abandonment has a very positive effect on my own long term vitality and productivity.

But in the end Out 1: Spectre disappoints. So much time for so little.

The image is also hideous. I don’t know what the original print looked like but what’s left in the can is a washed out pink and orange mess. You can hardly see the colours. The visual inadequacy of the material in this case is a substantial problem. Out 1: Spectre is most successful as a social document. In a social document, one wants to be able to clearly see the clothing and design, to taste and feel the surroundings.

So somebody saved some money with inadequate development facilities. No wonder they were worried about cost issues with dozens of hours of footage to tie together.

Curiously enough, the full Out 1 times in at twelve hours and forty minutes. It was supposed to be a miniseries for French television. TF1 refused to air it. Jacques Rivette didn’t want to see his work thrown away so he edited it down to the 225 minute version we saw. Apparently, the longer version makes more sense. I don’t have twelve more hours of my life to find out.

Timing in at 246 minutes and even longer, La Maman et la Putaine is otherwise the inverse of Out 1: Spectre. There are only three core characters. The action takes place in a minimum of settings (Café aux Deux Magots, a street by the Pantheon, a dormitory room and a filthy apartment).

All the three characters do is talk and drink. But the relationship lives its own life. Every moment is absorbing as you sink further and further into their psychosis and realise that despite their connection, a trainwreck is up ahead.

Most people are familiar with Jean-Pierre Léaud flippant work in Truffaut’s film as his own alter ego Antoin Doinel. Later in life Léaud slummed with half hearted efforts at acting. But here in La Maman et la Putaine, he is entirely persuasive as the café wastrel pocket philosopher. The line between life and cinema seems to disappear entirely.

While the text seems absolutely natural, it is in fact tightly scripted. None of the improvisational excesses of Spectre One. The difference in quality between these two similarly dialogue driven films from the same epoch with many of the same concerns should be a case study in the dangers of improvisation in the feature film format. A tight script makes all the difference between inspired and boring.

Both Bernadette Lafont and Françoise Lebrun are brilliant as Léaud’s companions in their ménage à trois.

Jean Eustache made few feature films in his relatively short life (43 years), committing suicide.

The one trait the two films have in common are the prodigous quantities of alcohol, coffee and cigarettes consumed.

No wonder most Parisians in their forties look a damn wreck.


It can be hard to find good information about Out 1: Spectre so here are some references to help.

Detailed plot entry at Wikipedia.
Jonathan Rosenbaum review with pics
A rather weak IMDB entry

Draft originally written in April 2009

Epic Fantasy still not on the big screen: Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogies

March 4th, 2010 § 43

I saw a bit of Legends of the Seeker, adapted from Terry Goodkind’s books. The whole series while rather entertaining if for nothing else for the constant stream of look-alike blond action babes who trot across the screen. Can anybody actually tell the difference between Denna, Cara, Corlinda, Nicci incarnation two to name just a few? Whoever is casting the series has tunnel vision.

Much of the story seemed to be adaptations of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenenant novels. In just one example, the Mord’Sith seem a near clone of the Bloodguard but with breasts.

Which set me to asking myself whatever happened to a film version of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenenant Trilogies (there’s three of them)? The Thomas Convenant novels are fantasy for grown-ups dealing with issues such as acceptance and exclusion via physical metaphors like lepresy. The sex lives are also very complex, exploring the breakdown of the physical elements of love over time.

Despite some heavy hitters signing up to develop such a film, no studio signed off on it. Here are Stephen R. Donaldson’s own notes on the subject.

"Covenant" film news: it’s over. The producers who optioned "Lord Foul’s Bane" have tried everything they could think of, without success. Now their option has expired, and they have declined to renew it. Bury it now, folks, ’cause it’s dead. 1/29/07

Possible "Lord Foul’s Bane" film: bad news. It doesn’t look good. So far, the project has been rejected by Fox, Sony, and Dreamworks. "Too dark." "Too much like LOTR." The prospective producers have decided to change their tactics. They are now hoping to get a reputable director "on board." If they succeed, this may increase the project’s credibility.

I’ll post more news when I have some. 2005

This past week, "The Hollywood Reporter" announced that "Covenant" is coming to the big screen. This is both premature and misleading. Here are the facts to date.

The production team of Mark Gordon ("Saving Private Ryan") and Peter Winther ("Independence Day") is quite serious about wanting to make a "Covenant" film. "Revelstone Development" has a design in place and a screenwriter on board (John Orloff, "Band of Brothers"). What Gordon and Winther do *not* have is a studio (i.e. money); and without a studio little or nothing is likely to happen. Since Hollywood basically shuts down in December, Gordon and Winther plan to start approaching studios in January.

I would like to emphasize that I have no control over any aspect of this process. After all, the film rights are held by Ballantine Books, not by me. I’ve met Winther and Orloff, and I’m convinced that their respect for and excitement about "Covenant" is genuine: for that reason, I’m starting to get excited myself. And I have no doubt that Revelstone Development will consult with me from time to time, and will take whatever I have to say seriously. But I have no actual power here. Nor do I want any. In fact, I’ve refused every offer to give me any power. I love movies; I hope a "Covenant" movie (or several) will be made; I hope it will be good; and I hope it will be successful. But I’m simply not qualified, either by experience or by personality, to make the kinds of decisions–and compromises–which are essential to film-making. And I have my own work to do, work which pretty much consumes all of my creative energy. So I’m rooting hard for Revelstone Development; and if Gordon, Winther, and Orloff ever want my opinion, I’ll give it to them. But really this is all out of my hands.

More news as it develops….

P.S. I’m just guessing here; but I suspect that peculiar references to "Saturn" in "The Hollywood Reporter" are a confused conflation of "Satan" and "Sauron." I can’t think of any other explanation.

As it happens, Russell Crowe has decided NOT to take on the role of Thomas Covenant, no doubt (drum-roll, please) because he considered it too taxing. Imagine my surprise. As you may know, money people typically commit to a movie, not because they like the project, but because a "bankable" star has agreed to participate. Therefore the "Covenant" film remains purely hypothetical.

I’m amazed that the Thomas Convenant series has never been made into a motion picture considering how far near the bottom of the barrel Hollywood scraped for its Lord of the Rings lookalikes in the boom years. Or that it hasn’t been picked up for a television series.

Too sophisticated?

Ann McAffrey’s Dragon series made it to the big screen on a large scale. Even latecomer to the screen Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy made it Sci Fi channel in 2004. Surely somebody has to get around to the Thomas Covenant Chronicles eventually even if they end up simplifying and whitewashing some of the darker elements.

Paolo Fresu and Ralph Towner at Porgy & Bess: Chiaroscuro tour

March 2nd, 2010 § 0

Superb trumpet play, along with quiet mastery on the guitar. Your ears are there for Paolo Fresu but Ralph Towner makes it all possible.

I bought the Chiaroscuro CD while I was there. Surprisingly the CD is just a shadow of how Fresu and Towner play live together. This is one rare occasion where the live performance clearly outranks what the musicians can do in the studio. I guess you had to be there.

Porgy & Bess artistic director Christoph Huber was very animated after the show as well. It was one of the top five concerts I’ve ever attended there in five years.

Paolo Fresu on trumpet 3
Paolo Fresu on trumpet
Paolo Fresu on trumpet 2
Paolo Fresu on trumpet
Paolo Fresu on trumpet
Paolo Fresu on trumpet

Paolo Fresu and Ralph Towner at Porgy & Bess: Chiaroscuro tour Continues »