The Chicago production of the Aaron Sorkin play, The Farnsworth Invention, directed by Nick Bowling and playing through June 13, has the lively sort of staging, acting, and pacing that I’ve come to expect from the TimeLine Theatre Company, which presents “stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues” at their 615 W. Wellington headquarters. I discovered this company a little over year ago with the world premiere of Masha Obolensky’s Not Enough Air, also directed by Bowling, and have subsequently seen his production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys as well, which was my first encounter with TimeLine’s remodeled, almost-in-the-round playing space. (In between these events, I also showed up for a reading of Sophie Treadwell’s 1920s expressionist play Machinal, done as a sort of adjunct to Not Enough Air.) Neither of these follow-ups has quite equaled the sheer Wellesian bravura of the Not Enough Air production, but I can’t say that either one has ever bored me for an instant — even if the sheer energy required in the new playing space, with the actors moving their various props onstage and off with lightning-fast cues, can occasionally (if only momentarily) overwhelm certain aspects of the stories being told.
But The Farnsworth Invention at least has some more interesting history lessons to teach than its immediate predecessor, despite the fact that Sorkin’s theatrical engineering periodically distorts the historical record for the sake of simplicity and fluidity. (For a detailed unpacking of the distortions, go here.) The main lesson for me rests in the fact that hardly anyone has heard of Philo T. Farnsworth (played by Rob Fagin), the farm boy in Utah who not only invented television (having already worked out some of the rudiments in his early teens) but also coined the term for it, while practically everyone has heard of David Sarnoff (very adroitly played by PJ Powers), the other main player and narrator in this play, a Russian Jewish immigrant and business man who virtually stole the invention. (Many of Sorkin’s distortions rest on his interpretation of “virtually”.) After all, it’s business men rather than inventors or artists who tend to police the historical record as we usually know it. (Think of the accounts that are usually filtered down to us of Orson Welles at RKO, as told by the studio honchos who fired him and/or their latter-day academic lackeys, or the fact that we’re usually obliged to understand Eric von Stroheim via Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg.) It’s worth adding that the Sarnoff figure (see Powers below, on the left, opposite Fagin) dominates the play’s narration almost as much as he dominates the popular historical record.
Sorkin himself has acknowledged how fast and loose he has been with some of the facts, and even manages to incorporate some of his trickery in what, for me, is the play’s most effective coup de théâtre — a climactic confrontation between Sarnoff and Farnsworth that Sarnoff admits, just after we’ve seen it, is purely his own invention. This Brechtian ploy helps to rationalize some of the play’s simplifications, and I guess the bottom line is that this play and production help to start the learning process rather than assign it any definitive closure. [4/22/10]
The following is taken from a web site known as Robin Wood’s Blog:
As many of you are aware Robin Wood died on 18 December 2009 at the age of 78 after an exceptionally productive and engaged life. Robin’s creativity and industry were not restricted to film criticism. He also wrote novels and screenplays, which were of a piece with his film criticism, both being centrally concerned with the ways in which the current structures of society are inimical to the full flowering of people’s lives, are inimical to, indeed, Life itself, as Robin (and Dr. Leavis) defined that term in their respective writings.
Robin’s estate will be privately publishing one of Robin’s novels, the one that appears to have been most personal to him and, perhaps for that reason, the one he was proudest of. The novel will be sold by reservation, and publication is tentatively scheduled for September 2010. The novel will be published in quality paperback with an introduction by his life partner and the executor of his estate, Richard Lippe. The price has yet to be determined (although it is expected to be in the vicinity of CDN$30.00 including shipping).
For those who wish to reserve a copy of the novel, please notify either Gary McCallum or Richard Lippe as below. Once the price has been determined, purchasers will be notified and payment requested in advance of shipment.
Gary J. McCallum Richard Lippe
Barrister & Solicitor 705 - 40 Alexander Street
2 Finley Road Toronto, Ontario
Brampton, Ontario Canada, M4Y 1B5
Canada, L6T 1A9 T: 416-964-3534
T: 905-452-0701 E. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This weblog will from time to time post further information about the novel, its publication, and its author.
WARNING: The novel that will be published is entitled Trammel up the Consequence. In this novel Robin’s preoccupations were expressed – one wants to say released – in a most graphic manner that may not be acceptable to some readers. [4/20/10]
All of those who can find or make no meaningful distinction between the following two sentences — “The world is going to hell in a handbasket”; “America is going to hell in a handbasket” — are likely to find an article called “The Cecil B. De Mille of Movie Lists” by Stuart Miller, featured prominently in the Arts and Leisure section of today’s New York Times, precisely the sort of entertaining news that intelligent movie lovers should be paying close attention to. I’ll try to oblige them.
The article celebrates (and perpetuates) the untiring efforts of a produce clerk in Austin, Texas to list the 9,200 greatest movies ever made, a project clearly viewed by Miller as the quest of an enlightened primitive. But what could be more primitive than Miller’s own assumption that the clerk’s omission of silent films and animated films is a secondary matter, to be squirreled away in the article’s penultimate paragraph? Or, even worse, that three more minor omissions, apparently equivalent to one another in importance, and clearly even less important than silent and animated films — “documentary, made-for-TV and foreign-language films” — can be acknowledged parenthetically in a follow-up sentence?
I suppose we should all therefore assume, along with Miller and his editors, that foreign-language documentaries, silent documentaries, made-for-TV documentaries, foreign-language TV films, and foreign-language animated films (among other neglected possibilities) are omissions that aren’t even worth mentioning, even in passing, as existing categories.
Thanks, guys, for brightening up my day.
So is it the world, America, Austin, or simply the New York Times that’s going to hell in a handbasket? You tell me. [4/18/120]
The first still above comes from writer-director Yves Hanchar’s Sans rancune!, the second from cowriter Sophie Hiet’s and director-cowriter Julie Lopes-Curval’s Mêres et filles, also known as La cuisine and Hidden Diary. Both of these highly involving 2009 features about parents and personal legacies were shown at the French Film Festival held in Richmond, Virginia last month — a sort of pedagogical as well as cultural event presented by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond that took place over four days (March 25-28), and where I was privileged and delighted to be a guest.
These two films certainly weren’t the only interesting things I saw at the festival. (Among the more notable items were Philippe Lioet’s touching and beautifully acted Welcome, a story about the growing bond between a Calais swimming instructor and a Kurdish teenager trying to reach a girlfriend in England illegally by swimming across the English channel — a very popular film in France that was nominated for ten Césars last year but sadly won none of them; a very eclectic essay film about motorcycle racing, kids, and movies by Pierre-William Glenn, the remarkable cinematographer who shot both Truffaut’s Day for Night and Rivette’s Out 1; and, strangest of all, Le train oú ça va…, an “intimiste” and domestic 3-D short by Jeanne Guillot, whose masters thesis for La Fémis, arguing that 3-D films need not be spectacular, was translated into English and posted on the festival’s website.) But part of what fascinated me about these two features was how well they (coincidentally) paired off together.
The first is a period story, set in a Belgian boarding school in 1955, about a fledging writer whose father disappeared during the war but may have re-emerged incognito as his bossy teacher and mentor at the school. The second is set in the present, where an independent 30-year-old woman is visiting her parents, including her troubled mother (Catherine Deneuve), but the story is interspersed with flashbacks to the 1950s arising from the daughter’s discovery of her grandmother’s hidden diary. Both films might be described as serious mystery stories with strong and compelling characters whose eventual (and satisfying) payoffs involve the complexity of family legacies. I hope more Americans will get a chance to see them. [4/17/10]
The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has recently (and very kindly) given me permission to post it here. — J.R.
Shelley Winters performance as Lolita’s Charlotte Haze offers one of the best refutations of the notion that Kubrick was a misogynist who could depict women only as bitches like Marie Windsor in The Killing or as bimbos. (Maybe Christiane Kubrick in the last scene of Paths of Glory, then known as Susan Christian, is another counter-example, but unlike Charlotte, she hardly has time to register as a character.) Winters’ overbearing yet highly vulnerable culture vulture, who has to bear the full brunt of both Humbert Humbert’s patronizing and his private scorn, is portrayed with genuine warmth and sympathy — indeed, more of both than can be found in Nabokov’s novel or original screenplay.
This friend and one-time flat mate of Marilyn Monroe, whose stint with the Actors Studio preceded and probably encouraged her own, Winters (1920-2006), born Shirley Schrift, has suffered no less from the stigma of playing dumb blondes when Hollywood sexism was at its height, implanting the similarly false impression that she was as dumb and as unlettered as her characters. But one of the gifts offered by the 1000 + pages of Brooklyn-brash dish in her two lively memoirs, Shelley (1980) and Shelley II (1989), is the realization that even if she had fewer intellectual ambitions than Monroe, she was clearly no ditz, especially when it came to imposing her will on producers, directors, agents, husbands (including Vittorio Gassman and Anthony Franciosa), and lovers (including Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, William Holden, and Burt Lancaster). Apparently writers, too; she got to spend some quality time in New York discussing Charlotte Haze with both Nabokov and his wife, and Jean Genet once wrote her a letter declaring her the definitive madam in The Balcony. (1963). “Kubrick had the insight to find the areas of me that were pseudointellectual and pretentious,” she wrote. And in terms of her politics, she was no slouch. She was so tireless a campaigner for John F. Kennedy that she wouldn’t agree to work in the U.K. on Lolita unless Kubrick promised she could fly back in time to attend JFK’s inaugural ball (which she wound up missing anyway, due to a snowstorm).
Her characters had an uncanny penchant for getting bumped off, often halfway through her pictures — not just in Lolita, where the death is accidental, but also in A Double Life (1947), Cry of the City (1948) The Great Gatsby (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951), and The Night of the Hunter (1955); she was also, by her own account, “shot by Jack Palance and by Rod Steiger in two different films, and OH yes, overdosed with heroin by Ricardo Montalban [in Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960]”. It could even be argued that she specialized in playing the sort of abrasively annoying characters that audiences wanted to see wiped out in some fashion. Even so, her characters often left a sweet aftertaste following their (usually rude) departures, in their (usually disheveled) wakes. – Jonathan Rosenbaum