THE FLICK**** The Reel Thing


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THREE LOSERS – A slacker projectionist (Louisa Kraus as Rose) and two depressed cinema attendants (Jaygann Ayeh as Avery and Matthew Maher as Sam) – slowly reveal themselves to each other in a series of vignettes set in the empty (and deliciously realized) auditorium of a cinema, The Flick. Their conversations are halting, often stilted, uncertain; and revelations of character, of their pasts and hopes for the future are teased out in this often hilarious, densely layered, absolutely absorbing play (It kept me awake for three hours…that’s saying something)

At its heart, The Flick, Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed for the stage by Sam Gold, is about the desire for what seems almost unattainable: self-awareness…imagined as a route to connecting better and building relationships.

In the play’s microcosm, its people – all three – circle each other without knowing really how to connect. Because they’re so clumsy with the signals they send…with the way they project themselves, the only projection they can all be sure of is the one on the screen (In a nice touch, Avery’s father is a professor of semiotics – the study of signs and signals)

The immediate answer to the existential question Avery asks Sam near the beginning of the play, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is: projectionist. The flickering light of the projector; the discussion of how film – celluloid or digital – is best projected (which is the more honest projection Avery, a cineaste, wonders) is the symbolic center of the play. The reel is in a sense the real. How self-aware do you need to be to project how you want to be seen? Is life just a series of performances?

Because the characters haven’t worked these things out, they project impressions – flickerings – of themselves that are misread and that keep them isolated, disconnected from each other, from the rest of the world…their hopes and any potential for self fulfillment (In the play, the motif of the movie is treated both as an escape from reality and as a bizarre route to connectivity)
The beginnings of breakthrough start with the two men playing the Six Degrees of Separation game. Avery is a master if it: his knowledge of movies and their actors enables him to answer every increasingly obtuse connection put to him by Sam. He can find the connections in fiction…he just doesn’t know how to find them in life. And perhaps for this reason, he tried to kill himself a year ago.

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Rose, envied for her lofty status – as projectionist – and self protectively dismissed by Sam (who loves her) as a lesbian, is so self absorbed, her sexual fantasies feature only her. She offers up another game: see what horoscopes have to suggest in terms of who should be connecting with whom…and what insights into each other they offer.

They’re silly games, but they break the ice. As the play unfolds, the characters learn about themselves as they learn about each other (way beyond the cliches of a horoscope). They reveal, often unknowingly, in their desultory conversations, elements of themselves that begin to build bridges across the gulf that separates them. There’s a symbiotic relationship between awareness of self and of others.

The play charts the evolution of the interconnectedness of these three; the – false – beginning of trust and the –real- beginning of their own self-knowledge.

It’s a beginning. But only a beginning. When all three are caught out cheating (happily deceiving themselves, that stealing from the till is really only their –deserved- dinner money) character trumps connectivity.  Rose’s self centeredness, and Sam’s blind love for her justify them selling out Avery. Whatever trust had been created disappears.

But no matter, their enhanced self-awareness means that they can all, with greater surety begin to answer the question posed at the beginning, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And perhaps with this, the future for all of them holds some promise; that the potential of self-fulfillment might actually happen.

 

THE FLICK. By Annie Baker. With Jaygaan Ayeh, Sam Heron, Louisa Krause (movies: Martha, Mercy, May and Young Adult), Matthew Maher (movies: Gone Baby Gone. A Most Violent Year). Directed by Sam Gold. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. Sound Designer: Bray Poor. On at the National Theatre

 

NICE GUYS** Dumb and Dumber with guns


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NICE GUYS HAS a few brilliant moments and an occasionally inspired piece of script writing, but overall it feels like one of those movies shaped by focus group research and a squadron of script doctors.

Unlike the truly great buddy movies (Butch Cassidy… Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Rush Hour, Men in Black, Bad Boys etc) when you can feel the affection between the buddies despite (or maybe because of) their differences, this one feels like two separate and not very interesting or funny characters who happen to be sharing a story. Said story (set in 1977) is a series of brain storm vignettes in search of an idea and patched together probably by an accountant (which is surprising as its author, Shane Black gave us classics like “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Lethal Weapon”)

It centres around the picaresque search for a, possibly dead, porn actress who’s made a cause-related porn film; one that uses nudity and sex (natch) to highlight the plight of birds; they’re dying due to cars without catalytic converters. WTF you may well say. That’s the plot line?

The intent is to splice the film into a documentary about cars to be shown at the Detroit motor show. Huh?
You might call it an auto erotic protest. You might call it other things.

Even if you’re prepared to lower your demands for a coherent plot in service to the higher authority of good comedy and farce, you’d still be challenged to find this one worth following. Bad guys arrive and shoot people from time to time; we trail through a boobs dense Playboy type pool party; bodies turn up in unexpected places and Kim Bassinger (whose Botox-ed face is now immobile) steps in as a crooked Head of the Department of Justice.

Director/writer Black (who also directed Iron Man 3), perhaps listening too much to those focus groups, must have continuously sought to up the ante on farce even if it made no contribution to either sense or comedy.

Russell Crowe is the heavy (literally. This is a very portly version of the Gladiator) who beats up people (but mainly bad people who deserve his fists of fury). Ryan Gosling is a brain challenged, alcoholic, unscrupulous private investigator who we know is good, really…honestly, because he’s a caring (if eccentric) dad to the kind of kid that only appears in American movies: the sassy kid (Angourie Rice).

I guess both leading men, after a decade of ‘serious’ felt they wanted to display their comedic talents.

And maybe one day, that day will come

 

NICE GUYS. Dir/writer: Shane Black. With Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling. Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer. Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows)

 

THE MIRACLE OF TUSCANY*****


 

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WE FIND IT necessary…life-enabling really, to travel to Tuscany as often as time and money can afford. This year, we travelled around the Lucca/Pisa area, snaking along the narrow streets overlooked by the shimmering ancient ochre towns nestled in distant hills and bordered by orchards of silvery olive trees and rolling vine cultivated valleys with their exclamations of green cypruses.

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We began our trip in Montemagno near Calci: a tiny speck of a village perched on the shoulder of a luscious leafy hillside through which a tributary of the Arno tumbled noisily.

After the traffic and pollution and political vitriol of London, this was a first step into what could easily be a distinctly earlier time zone. The road (there was only one) that led to our apartment in Montemagno, made more to accommodate mules, was at a stretch to accommodate our (small-ish) car. There’s a single pizzeria where everyone seems to dine; and a tiny alimentari, tightly packed with a bounty of home made fragioli, dense truffle scented wild boar salumi, jars of exotic Raghus and an enoteca of local wines.

The days ahead held no promise of abstemiousness.

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Across the way, a tenth century church, recently modernized… in the fifteenth century and now a crowded cemetery lorded it over the valley.

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And a few kilometers below us, the well-preserved shell of a monastery, still functioning after eight hundred years, white against the blue sky, was the local tourist draw.

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But this was a place less of ancient wonder, more one of (us) wandering ancients.
Lucca, where we went next, by way of a wedding in San Casciano in Val di Pesa (and a necklace of other pearls: Vicopisano, San Miniato, Greve in Chianti, Pistoia and Montecarlo) is really the place for ancient wonder.

The old heart of the city dates back to the early Roman Empire. It was here that Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassius divvied up their rule of the empire.

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But the ocular proof of Rome hardly exists, apart from the cold foundations of a villa that lie below the floor of the main cathedral. Rather, the densely packed buildings of the town embrace the rise of Christianity from the early medieval period to the late Renaissance.

Your encounter with the city starts with its massive, impregnable wall,

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watched over by the stone lions of Lombardy

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and, never to be left out, the Catholic presence of a pope. It’s so wide two cars (if they were still allowed to drive there) could easily speed along together. Now the wall – all four kilometers of it – is, for the active, a pleasant joggers route; for the rest of us, it’s a place to promenade and peer into the manicured lawns hidden at street level behind their own high walls. At its balustrades, it broadens to accommodate grassy parks with children’s swings and slides. There are benches for the weary and, for the sun-shy, avenues of arched trees provide handy cover.
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From here, up high, you can see, looming over the tiled roofs, over the wall itself, a number of towers, like periscopes, with bells ever ready to alert its citizenry to the call to prayer or outside threat.

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These towers evolved over the years from martial sentinels to erect displays of status. At its peak, there were over a hundred of these slender, crenellated aerial castles. Height was status. In these towers of power, size mattered. Today, the one that stands out most distinctly is that of the Guinigi tower: several mighty oaks top off a rooftop garden – a garden dedicated to rebirth and fertility
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Once you’re within the walls, there are no cars (apart from those of the officials or of the hopelessly lost) So, it’s a walking city.
And everywhere you walk, there are wonders to gawk at: from the stunning little Romanesque churches, built with few windows (an inward facing church, defensive against the memory of a hostile Pagan world)

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to the grand lofty cathedrals and churches that dominate the many squares. DSC_1097

Narrow streets (mainly of fashion shops) meander past the dozens of town piazzas, most with their own churches and clutter of cafes, like urban rivers flowing into cobbled lakes.

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Beyond the city, interspersed amidst the hundreds of wine and olive oil producing frattorias are a ghetto of 17c and 18c villas; palaces really…vast, elegant buildings set like jewels in jasmine-fragrant beds of ornamental gardens, lovingly tendered by an army of serfs. The word is not loosely chosen. Many of these priceless palaces – Villas Reale, Torrigiani, Mansi etc. are still in the hands of their original eighteenth century owners.

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Wars came and went, fortunes rose and fell, the bitter enmities between Lucca and Pisa and Florence dissolved into a united Italy, but the same rich, regal aristocrats remained. To the manor born they were and will forever be…a class way above vulgar distinctions of class.

Just about 20km south of Lucca is the larger, equally stunning town of Pisa, once a powerful Saracen-conquering maritime power and center of silk manufacture. This is of course the home of the famous leaning tower, which is its blessing (who hasn’t heard to the leaning tower of Pisa?) and its curse: Pisa is so much more than a leaning tower.
But what a tower.
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Designed by one Bonanno Pisano, construction was begun in 1173 and finished (like pretty much all the major buildings in the region) two hundred years later. Time moved at a different pace then. You see it (the tower that is, not time) as you enter the city; closer than you’d think; bigger than you’d imagined and leaning over so far, you wonder what invisible hand continues to hold it up. It was from the top of this tower that Pisa’s most famous son – Galileo – dropped off a stone in his ‘discovery’ of gravity. Weirdly enough, when you look at the tower through a camera lens, it seems less tilted than it is, as though the camera is succeeding in correcting what multiple experts had failed to do.

Maybe they’d all thought fixing it would be a Pisa cake.

The tower is part of a complex of glistening eleventh and twelfth century marble buildings – the Plaza of Miracles. At one end is a circular, echoing, vaulted baptistery within whose walls secret curving staircases lead you to a viewers’ balcony above.
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And, sandwiched between this and the Tower is the city’s dominant cathedral – the Duomo Cattedrale Santa Maria Assunta – laid out in the shape of a Latin cross and decorated throughout with tapestries, paintings and bronzes depicting the life of the Christ. Images to learn from and to pray to…visual expressions of the Catholic mythology.
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For most visitors, this is Pisa. And that’s it. A few quick poses ‘holding’ up the tower and they’re back on their buses to Tuscany’s more famous city – Florence.

They’re missing a lot.
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The curving Arno, once the superhighway of its maritime might and flanked by the apartments and palaces of Renaissance big wigs (including a Medici mansion) slices the city in two. On the one side, up one of its web of Medieval alleyways is the Piazza dei Cavalieri, built to celebrate the importance and potency of the grand dukes of Tuscany.

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And on the other side of the Arno sits the comparative simplicity of a tiny densely carved Gothic church – Santa Maria Della Spina – that was reputed to have contained one of the thorns from His crown.
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The two fundamental sides of our universe: Power and religion. Battles and belief. War and God. Money and miracles. Then as now forever twinned like love and marriage.

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That said, here, in this region lies peace, not war. Here is where the calm that descends… among these rolling hills, these ochre walls, these ancient places of worship ever echoing with their bells of communion and susurrations of the Pater Noster, these unlabeled bottles of crisp delicate wines, these flashes of hill conquering cyclists, these limitless Bella vistas…

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