Friday, June 28, 2019

Samuel Beckett: Finding Not-So-Happy Days at the Movies

Last weekend my husband and I saw a big-deal production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, staged by James Bundy, the estimable dean of the Yale School of Drama. In the extraordinarily difficult central role, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest was both luminous and heartbreaking, and the physical production could not have been faulted. And yet. And yet. Afterward, my spouse, who knows full well how I like to work my playgoing and filmgoing experiences into blog posts, mentioned that he doubted I’d soon be blogging about Beckett. As always, I’m happy to prove him wrong.

Beckett’s play, which well befits a master of the Theatre of the Absurd, takes place entirely on a bleak dirt mound, which I couldn’t help associating with global warming run amok. To make matters even more ominous, in the first act Wiest’s chatty Winnie is buried up to her waist in dirt. She can gab away; she can greet the day with a smile and a luxurious stretch of her arms; but she can’t leave. Then there’s Act Two: now Winnie is encased in dirt up to her neck. Only her head protrudes to try to find some small crumb of joy in her surroundings. In the long-winded Act One, I admit I got sleepy, though Beckett’s play is so dreamlike (or nightmare-like) that moving in and out of a doze somehow seems like an appropriate response. During Act Two, I stayed fully awake, and the play as a whole left me with a lot to ponder.

Of course no Samuel Beckett play should be taken literally. The 1969 Nobel laureate, author of such classics as Waiting for Godot and Endgame, viewed the human condition with a kind of comic nihilism that has no appeal for many audiences (my long-suffering spouse included). I remember hearing, though, that a traveling production of Godot, in which two tramps bicker while waiting fruitlessly for an important figure who never arrives, was greeted with awed attention at one performance. These particular playgoers were prison inmates, and they knew exactly the mangled emotions—and the feeling of endless, pointless waiting--that Beckett was trying to project. 

Always one to experiment, Beckett sometimes revealed in his plays a strong interest in human interaction with machines. Though he died long before the Age of the Internet, he liked to keep abreast of technological advances. A notable example is 1958’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a short play in which a single character, a man in his sixties, interacts with tapes of his own voice recorded thirty years earlier. And, unlikely as it may seem, Beckett also aspired to direct films, racking up 12 credits for staging short works for the camera. He made his first movie, simply called “Film,” in 1965, with the great Buster Keaton in the silent central role. I’ve heard that Keaton had no idea what the filmmaker was after, but he knew how to take direction, and the result is mesmerizing. In the seventeen minute black-&-white film, Keaton is seen almost  entirely from the rear, enveloped in a heavy black coat, his trademark porkpie hat planted firmly on his head. He scuttles down a wintry urban street as if pursued, and enters his shabby flat where whatever it is he fears still seems to be coming after him. A sense of doom infuses every frame, and Keaton’s mastery of his physical self allows us to share the dread he’s feeling., though an interlude involving two cats is extremely funny. Tension builds, until finally the impending horror stands revealed. But maybe you’d better see it for yourself. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Subject Was Rape: How Hollywood Tries to Make a Difference

In recent weeks, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, has been the talk of Hollywood. And why not?  This four-part documentary series funded by Netflix gives faces to the five young men of color who were wrongly convicted of taking part in the brutal rape of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The case, which involved police coercing the accused into false confessions, is widely considered one of the great failures of the American judicial system. Members of the so-called Central Park Five served up to 15 years in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed. Clearly this was a travesty of justice. 

A new book by my colleague Christopher Johnston outlines another kind of travesty, this one involving victims of rape and sexual assault. In Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice, Chris uses all his journalistic skills to explore the ways our society has let down rape survivors. It’s still all too common for police officers and defense attorneys to treat rape victims with cold skepticism, implying that these women (through their dress and behavior) had encouraged the vile acts perpetrated on them, that they were somehow “asking for it.” Fortunately, a coalition of law officers, sociologists, district attorneys and others has made great strides in introducing new standards of care for rape victim and new strategies for putting their assailants away for good.

One key recent discovery has come from Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State who has done considerable research into what she calls “the neurobiology of trauma.” Campbell has clinical proof that for a person facing sexual assault, fight or flight are not the only possible responses. It’s also perfectly natural for the victim to freeze, totally incapable of resisting an assailant. That’s why a woman under duress may not fight back, and why her inability to summon up the details of the assault for investigating officers does not prove that she’s being untruthful.        

Chris’s book is filled with the profiles of men and women, mostly in Cleveland and Detroit, who’ve made great advances in helping rape victims. Many of them have been impelled by their own personal histories to come to the aid of others suffering from sexual trauma. Partly this involves learning to handle victims with kindness and respect, especially during the invasive procedure required in the preparation of sexual assault kits. What’s outrageous to learn is that these kits, which contain crucial DNA evidence capable of  putting a rapist behind bars, are in many jurisdictions ignored for decades. In Detroit, for instance, the current push to provide state-of-the-art services for rape victims began with the discovery, in 2009, that 11,341 kits were crammed into a warehouse, unprocessed.

Hollywood movies and television shows have done their share of rape-related stories. Often cheap sensationalism is involved (yes, I worked in the B-movie industry). But back in 1988 Roger Corman alumnus Jonathan Kaplan made The Accused, a film that takes seriously the plight of a woman who’s raped by some goons in a barroom. Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her gutsy performance as a rape survivor who fights back. Even more interesting to me is the fact that Mariska Hargitay, the longtime star of TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has been inspired to take on the plight of  survivors of sexual assault, as well as abused children. Her Joyful Heart Foundation, established in 2004, is an active part of a push to test all backlogged rape kits, nationwide. See for more info. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

"Late Night": Rancor in the Writers’ Room

It’s not easy being the only “girl” in the room. That’s what Mindy Kaling faces when, she lands on the writing staff of a big-name late-night talk show. In the film Late Night, Mindy plays Molly, an eager-to-please young woman who just happens to walk through the door after the show’s host decrees that the next hire be female. (Being brown doesn’t hurt either.) So there she is, an obvious diversity hire, surrounded by white males who are convinced she has nothing to offer. 

I admit I felt her pain. It took me back to when I, as a very young PhD, nabbed what seemed like a dream job, a tenure-track position at a major university. I wasn’t exactly the sole woman present at my first faculty meeting: there were two elderly females who’d been there for years and were considered part of the furniture. But my introduction to my new colleagues could have been better. The chairman of my department, noting that I’d worked in the film industry, gave me “credit” for not only writing and overseeing but also appearing on screen in porno films. (Hey, Roger Corman flicks may have their T&A moments, but they hardly qualify as porn!.) .Everyone eyed me curiously. I should have realized then that my days as a serious academic were numbered.

Of course we in the audience know, when Mindy is reduced to sitting on an overturned wastebasket because no one will grant her a chair, that eventually she’ll prove her mettle. (The fact that the plucky Kaling wrote this film and served as one of its producers is a guarantee that she’ll land sunny-side up.) But the big boss whom everyone hates and fears is not some alpha male. Instead it’s Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a late-night host who’s one part Ellen DeGeneres (cropped hair and tennies) and one part prima donna. She may come across on the tube as friendly and fun, but  behind the scenes Katherine is a true dragon lady, snapping at her staff, firing folks left and right. Part of this, of course, may be insecurity: her show, popular for years, has seen a steep ratings decline, and she’s just been informed by the network head (yes, another woman) that she’s destined for the chopping block.

It’s remarkable, really, how many words there are in the English language for pushy females. I’ve just used a few of them: prima donna, dragon lady. And of course there’s the B-word. Interesting how many movies I can think of in which a female boss deserves these epithets. See Sigourney Weaver (who steals other women’s bright ideas) in Working Girl.  And, of course Meryl Streep as the diva of all divas, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada. In each case a likable newcomer (Melanie Griffith, Anne Hathaway) has to get past an older female who grants her no respect. That’s Kaling’s role too, but Thompson’s Katherine is not simply an ogress who has to be taken down a peg. We see enough of her to learn her admirable traits: high intellect, a respect for quality in all its forms, enough self-knowledge to realize that she hasn’t lived up to her own lofty ideals.

As Katherine’s husband, John Lithgow reveals the side of her that few people see. In last year’s The Wife, another great mature actress, Glenn Close, played a role in which her spouse won the accolades she herself deserved. Catherine’ musician husband, diminished by Parkinson’s, is glad to grant her the spotlight. He only wants—as Kaling’s Molly wants—her to be her very best self.