Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Danish Girl – a movie review by William Falcetano


The Danish Girl – a movie review by William Falcetano

The Danish Girl is a dramatization of the story of Lili Elbe, who underwent pioneering sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in the 1930s.  It arrives at a moment in American cultural history when the phenomenon of transsexualism has been brought to the public’s attention by the coming out of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist, the TV series Transparent, where “Dad is a woman”, and the legalization of gay marriage by the Supreme Court.  America is, if not in the vanguard, at least leaning toward greater toleration, more acceptance, and a more liberal, indeed a more accurate understanding of the human condition.  I have made the case in recent film reviews that the cinema is a medium of education, which has, for better or worse, replaced the role of books in contemporary mass culture.  As public understanding has evolved so has public empathy and solidarity with others who are different from the main stream.  You might say that this is a teachable moment and our director, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), has seized this moment to make a lush art film in which two artists make their lives into works of art.  The cinematography is gorgeous – in fact beauty, the love of beauty, and the seduction of beauty are important themes of this film.  But the main theme of this film is about taking possession of one’s own life and making it into a work of art.  Our hero/heroine has done just that, by undertaking (or attempting to undertake) the transition from male to female.  This is an old road, Tiresias of ancient Greece took this path and came back to report on it (women have more fun in bed).  And of course there is a long tradition of transvestism in film (Some Like It Hot, Tootsie) and theater (Shakespeare does it a lot – Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona).  The phenomenon of gender bending seems to hold as much fascination for those who do not do it, as it does for those who do; and the theatrical quality of it seems to entail an audience and a certain level of interest, i.e., voyeurism.

Americans might remember Christine Jorgenson, who was often presented as the first person to undergo SRS in the 1950s; but there were predecessors in Europe and Lili Elbe is the most famous of them.  Her story (Man into Woman and The Danish Girl) is one of triumph and self-creation, even if it ends tragically.  She was, like others, including Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars”, a sacrifice to the learning curve of medical science.  (It is a remarkable coincidence that the movie was released on the week that Holly Woodlawn died, another transsexual Warhol Superstar).
We meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne – who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) and Gerda, his wife (the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who appeared in The Fifth Estate), at a fashionable soirée for artists in which the liberated women are smoking and everyone is playing the game Let’s Make the Married Couples Blush.  But Einar and Gerda manage to shock the free-spirited singles by the story of their first encounter, which was full of role reversals: “it felt as though I were kissing myself”, Gerda says wistfully, foreshadowing the whole movie.  When the subject of a ball for artists comes up, Einar complains that he feels he has to “perform himself” whenever he attends such events.  Indeed, the Shakespearean suggestion that our lives are a kind of performance and the world a stage is at the core of the film.  Transvestism is nothing if not a performance art; and its great practitioners, the drag queens of film and theater, are denizens of the stage, often mocking established sex roles, turning upside down traditional understandings of beauty, men, and women.

Einar is lucky to have such a loyal and understanding wife; Gerda undergoes this journey with her often troubled husband.  She too is an artist, her specialty is fashion portraiture, and she asks Einar to model for her when the sitter cancels.  He somewhat reluctantly dons stockings and shoes as a dress is placed over him so Gerda could finish the painting.  This encounter with womens’ clothes rings a bell in Einar’s head that just keeps on ringing.  He and Gerda enjoy the amusing pastime until, finding themselves in Paris, they live openly as a lesbian couple, and seek “treatment” for Einar/Lili’s “condition” (widely considered an illness at the time).  Quackery abounds and in one scene Einar makes an escape out a window as a phalanx of doctors and orderlies marches down the hallway to lock up the crazy man.  Yet such obstacles did not stop Lili on her quest to transition from male to female.  Indeed, it was looking at it in this exclusively binary way that proved to be her undoing, as Lili insisted on receiving a uterus and ovaries – that proved a bridge too far and led directly to her death.  Lili was a martyr to medical science, but also a pioneer of the transsexual phenomenon and the modern treatment of it.

    The film is a lush and loving embrace of Old Europe of la Belle Époch.  There are wonderful scenes on the docks in Copenhagen, where Einar and Gerda share an artists’ garret with wide plank floors and natural light.  The camera lovingly embraces Paris and Desden; and the gorgeous art nouveau interiors will make you run out to buy a ticket to Paris, Vienna, or Prague.  A movie about transvestism must pay attention to couture and this will delight and charm viewers who pine for a time before sneakers and jeans ruled the world. Yet, it was the allure of beauty that brought Lili to her doom as she gazes lovingly at herself in mirrors, Narcissus-like.  And, like that pretty boy of ancient Greece, Lili died in thrall to this seductive and enchanting reflection, unable to live as a male and unable to become a female.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Endicott College Creative Writing Students Series: Featuring the work of Emily Whitney

An Escape
By Emily Whitney
Everybody needs to have an outlet of some form. In life whether every person knows it or not, they cope, even if their outlet is sitting daydreaming, or deep breathing, there’s no doubt that having an outlet is necessary. When one thinks of an outlet and what it could be defined as, an object might not be their initial thought. My outlet is defined by three words, the name of a physical object, My Lacrosse Stick. A ball in the netting is not the only thing that my lacrosse stick holds. Within that netting, worn of hundreds of throws and catches each day holds my passion and some of my fondest memories. Within the frayed and dirt encrusted strings, I see my dad and I passing everyday after school since I was 8. Along the shaft of it are the words in royal blue GULLS #8. In between the Gulls and my number lies a massive dent that has no paint on it and only shows the metal bare boned rod. There are small ridges and little but noticeable marks that detail the rest of the surrounding paint. These many marks remind me of the moments I’ve experienced throughout my college career. When I clench my stick I feel comfortable. My dry hands wrap around it and I can feel  them tingle. Holding my lacrosse stick is the most natural thing I know how to do. It makes me feel at home; I never get bored of this satisfaction. When I feel stressed or need an outlet there’s never a doubt in my mind what to do. The answer is always to grab my beat up stick, to escape, to cope, to remember what I love so much, what makes me happy. 

Student Bio: Emily Whitney
Junior at Endicott College

I am an Education Studies Major, concentration in Early Childhood.
I live in Rye, New Hampshire. I thoroughly enjoy writing. I keep a journal and love to free write in my leisure time. In addition, I am a member of the Varsity Women’s lacrosse team here at Endicott. A lot of my writing is about lacrosse. It is my passion and something I could continually write in depth about, and it inspired this observational piece.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin New Repertory Theatre – January 30 - February 28


The Testament of Mary
 by Colm Toibin
Directed by Jim Petosa
New Repertory Theatre – January 30 - February 28

It’s a challenge to take on an icon, and few icons are bigger—or more challenging—than Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Catholic Church believes that she was not only impregnated by God, but also taken bodily to heaven. It can be tough sledding to find a human being people can relate to in there.

In Testament of Mary, a one-woman show based on his novella by the same name, Irish writer Colm Toibin gives it a shot. In his own words, “I had to just leave the Gospels aside, leave all sources aside, and begin to imagine: What would that be like if you had known this man as a baby? If you had nurtured this child.”

A noble starting point. Unfortunately, I came away unconvinced that he had really imagined—fully imagined, felt in his gut—what this experience would have been like for Mary. I came away thinking that this man has no idea how intensely a parent feels about his—or, in the case of the play, her—child.

The problem is that Toibin never establishes a real, believable, moving relationship between Mary and Jesus. We get almost no sense of what it was like for her to know him as a baby, to nurture him. There are a few vague references to him as a child, but nothing that paints a picture of the child who became the man. In fact, we don’t get a whole lot about who he is as a man, either. Considering the gut wrenching conclusion of Jesus’s life, the pain, the loss, the drama of it never really come alive, because we don’t know who he was or, most importantly, who he was to Mary, who is telling us the story.

The play opens with Mary having just seen off two of the evangelists, the followers of Jesus who wrote the Gospels. We don’t get a very clear picture of who they are, either, despite the fact that Mary has presumably been associated with these men for more than 20 years—the play taking place 20 years after Jesus’s execution. All she ever tells us about the followers of Jesus—and she tells us this several times—is that they were misfits. She’s just irritated with these two for wanting her to alter her story to match what they’re writing.

It’s this contrast between what the evangelists want to write and what she experienced that is the basis for the play. It is this discrepancy that leads Mary to tell us her version of the story—mainly, the part about Jesus’s getting in trouble with the Jewish leadership and the Romans and then being executed. This should be powerful stuff, but Toibin never gives Mary the words that would make her experience—of raising Jesus, watching him grow physically and spiritually, become a great spiritual leader, be in great danger, and, finally, be framed and brutally murdered—truly come alive for us.

There is a strangely inappropriate intellectuality about a play on this subject. Even though the actress, Paula Langton, tries to convey pain, sorrow, fear, loss, the words she’s saying are always at one remove from reality. It’s as if she’s talking about some celebrity she’d read about, rather than about a human being she’d given birth, raised, and watched go off into the world. Even under normal circumstances, parenting a child to adulthood is one of the most profound experiences of a lifetime. Under the circumstances of Mary and Jesus’s life, it must have been intensely painful, and, again, although Langton strains to express that pain, Toibin has not given her the material she needs to make the experience real for us, so it’s rarely believable.

The play turns on a cowardly act of Mary’s in the context of Jesus’s execution, something she has felt guilty about for two decades. But, first of all, as a parent, I didn’t believe she would have done what she says she did. Secondly, even if I had been able to believe it, it would have had little emotional impact, because, again, Toibin had not painted the picture of a real relationship between this mother and child that would give the act the impact he clearly wants it to have.

Toibin also employs dreams—too often a writer’s deus ex machina—twice within a short span of time to deal with both the iconic image of Mary holding Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion and with the idea of Jesus’s resurrection. Again, this serves to distance us from her experiences, rather than deeply engaging us with them, because these experiences are not even real for her.

And, finally, Toibin introduces the pagan goddess Artemis as the entity to whom Mary has turned in her disillusionment with Judaism (and, presumably, Christianity, although she never mentions it). This devotion to Artemis comes out of nowhere, in no way feels like an organic development, and smacks of a former Christian sticking it to his former church by making Mary a pagan.

So, what should be a profound story about a parent and a child, about love and loss, about existential suffering, ultimately comes across as an intellectual exercise. I kept wanting to care about Mary’s experience, but she never made it real for me, and it’s hard to care about a life that doesn’t seem real.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Back the Night by Melinda Lopez

Back the Night by Melinda Lopez
Directed by Daniela Veron
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre – February 4-28
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

I’ve never opened a review by talking about the “talk back” that occurred after the performance—where playwright, director and actors take questions from the audience—but it’s fitting to do that for Back the Night, because it helps point up the qualities that make this play so powerful.

At the opening of the talk back, playwright Melinda Lopez spoke about how the play came to her essentially “whole,” the characters and action of the play clear and distinct in her mind. This speaks to how inspired and unified the play feels in production. She also spoke about how the play was “workshopped” with the actors before rehearsals started—a luxury not afforded all plays—and revised accordingly, which makes it clear why the play is so tightly written and why the actors work so well together.

Lopez also spoke to her hesitancy about writing a play that called into question a young woman’s story about being assaulted, which signifies the depth and honesty of play. And, finally, the actress Melissa Jesser talked about how Lopez’s characters have layers, like an onion, which indicates how complex and real those characters seem when you see them on stage.

Back the Night is the story of how Em and Cassie, best friends in college, deal with Cassie’s being struck in the head and knocked down on a dark path behind the college’s frat houses. Cassie says it was a frat boy taking revenge on her for publishing statistics about rape at the fraternity houses on her blog and for trying to get frats banned. Em and their good friend, Sean, a gay man, are enraged by this attack, and so are we—at first—but things get much more complicated as those layers of personality that Jesser referred to begin to reveal themselves.

It’s impossible to specifically describe the action of a play like Back the Night without spoiling the drama, but suffice it to say that Cassie becomes more than a victim, Em learns more about Cassie—and about herself—than she bargained for, and the issue of women’s safety on college campuses ends up having reverberations far from the campus itself.

The biggest danger in a play such as this is the playwright becoming self-righteous and strident. As Lopez herself said during the talk back, “There are no sides to this issue. No one says, ‘Oh, I’m all for violence against women.’” Thus, the issue deserves an examination such as Lopez’s, which is brave and complex enough to go beyond the simplistic one of perpetrators and victims—without, I hasten to add, ever being insensitive to victims.

This is not a “political” play with cardboard characters representing ideas; it’s a human play. Cassie and Em, and most of the other characters, continually surprise us. Lopez has said she likes to write about people with secrets, and Back the Night is full of surprising revelations—which, again, is why revealing the plot twists would ruin in for anyone who wants to see it.

And you do want to see it, if you appreciate tightly written, psychologically complex plays that make you think. Back the Night dramatically demonstrates that it’s impossible to completely know someone—even a close friend; that good people are capable of doing bad things; that we aren’t always honest enough with ourselves to face what we really feel about difficult experiences. It plays out these ideas with truly human characters, who love each other, laugh with each other, confront each other, try to figure out each other—and themselves.

If you agree that this is what the best theatre is all about, buy your ticket now. The play runs for less than a month, and the word is going to get out. Melinda Lopez and Back the Night are the real deal.