Mother Courage and Her Children and History Lessons
One of the most abused critical terms we have is “Brechtian,” and the weeklong series “Brecht and Film” offers the rare opportunity to discover what that adjective really means. As it turns out, Brechtian practice and Brechtian theory are different matters entirely, occupying opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, and this series offers superb examples of both. To understand and experience Brechtian practice at its finest, hightail it to Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth’s intelligent and resourceful 1961 filming in black-and-white ‘Scope of the most celebrated Berliner Ensemble production, Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Helene Weigel and directed by Brecht and his longtime associate Erich Engel. It’s a play with musical interludes about the psychology of war profiteering, viewed from the inside; shot in a studio, the film employs all the stage scenery and skillfully masks different portions of the frame to honor and enhance the original mise en scene. For the more challenging rigors of Brechtian theory–which argues against the emotional engagement of the audience, something Brechtian practice never fully abandons–try History Lessons. One of the most beautiful and difficult features of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, this 1972 filming of portions of Brecht’s novel The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar is a major early summary of this masterful and radical filmmaking couple’s grasp of history and the material world. A young man in contemporary dress drives through contemporary Rome and interviews characters from ancient Rome–a poet, a jurist, a peasant, and a banker. Straub-Huillet’s unorthodox handling of space through editing is like no one else’s, and the duo’s passionate adherence to direct-sound recording is comparably powerful. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Mother Courage and Her Children: Sunday, March 1, 6:30, and History Lessons: Wednesday, March 4, 8:00, 773-281-4114.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film stills.
An incoherent title for a less than coherent satire originally known as just An Alan Smithee FilmAlan Smithee being the pseudonymous directing credit conferred when a real director has his name taken off a film, usually due to interference from the producer. Ironically, this labored send-up of Hollywood greed and foolishnessscripted by Joe Eszterhas in what appears to have been uncontrolled rage rather than recollected tranquillitywas apparently directed by Arthur Hiller, who had his own name removed from the credits, yielding a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. The premise of this muddled, hit-or-miss comedy, done in pseudodocumentary form, is that an Englishman (Eric Idle) whose name actually is Alan Smithee becomes the director of an action-adventure blockbuster starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan, then flips out and steals the negative. I laughed a couple of times but can no longer remember at what; mostly I was simply amazed that the aforementioned actors, Ryan O’Neal, Coolio, Chuck D, Sandra Bernhard, and a good two dozen industry insiders ranging from Harvey Weinstein to Larry King to Eszterhas himself, could disgrace themselves with such submoronic material as if it were the height of hipness. If you harbor an interest in watching so-called industry smarts autodestruct, this carries a certain morbid appeal, but that’s about the extent of it. (JR)
I haven’t read Margaret Rosenthal’s biography, The Honest Courtesan, which formed the basis of Jeannine Dominy’s script, but I found this a much more enjoyable, enlightening, and intelligent treatment of Venice and sex than the specious movie version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. Set in the 16th century, it’s about a beautiful and brilliant woman (Catherine McCormack) who’s unable to marry the aristocrat she loves (Rufus Sewell) because of her family background. Trained as a courtesan by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), she becomes a formidable political figure through her liaisons with the most powerful men in Venice as well as visiting royalty, until the Inquisition threatens to brand her as a witch. (The title’s something of a misnomer, by the way, since she’s much more a feminist heroine than a bitch goddess.) Though the dialogue is predictably anachronistic in flavor, producer-director Marshall Herskovitz, best known for his work on Thirtysomething, gives this a narrative sweep and polish that makes it consistently entertaining. The city is used beautifully, and so, for the most part, is the cast (though Fred Ward seems a bit uncomfortable with his part). With Oliver Platt and Moira Kelly. 112 min. (JR)
Apart from the eye-filling black-and-white video Oriental Elegy, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s painterly, visionary side has seldom been more evident than in this gorgeous 1997 contemplation of a son caring for his dying mother. The story is minimal, but the color images are so breathtaking that there