BluRay/DVD Reviews

VANYA ON 42ND STREET

By • May 14th, 2012 •

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Many years ago, Dean Martin said, “It’s Sinatra’s World. We only live in it.” I feel the same about Andre Gregory. I don’t know him, yet he appears in my life with disturbing regularity. It’s possible Andre Gregory lives nearby, for whenever I walk on Broadway, there he is. How do I know what Andre Gregory looks like? I saw him at the movies, in MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. Now he seems to be everywhere I go. Once I was sitting in a café, minding my own business and reading the Sunday Times. Suddenly, I felt I was in a movie. Then I realized the movie was MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. It turned out Andre Gregory was sitting behind me, telling some people the same stories that are in the film. After that I went to a church basement with a woman I was dating to see a play by A.R. Gurney called The Middle Ages. The story concerned the difficult relationship of a son with his father. Andre Gregory played the father. He sang the dialogue like Pavarotti, he screamed, he danced across the stage. He made strange gestures that I found irritating. I wanted to leave. My girlfriend made me stay. At the end of the play, when the father is dying of cancer, Mr. Gregory sang the dialogue with a soft tremor, and grasped the air. I cried. It was the most moving evening of theatre I’ve ever experienced.

Now Mr. Gregory is in my apartment, captured within the digital interstices of a Blu-Ray from Criterion entitled VANYA ON 42nd STREET. Vanya is the protagonist of a Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya, which is being performed by a group of actors directed by Mr. Gregory; actually rehearsing is closer to what is going on, in the dilapidated shell of the New Amsterdam theatre on 42nd Street. The film was produced in 1994, roughly five years before the transformation of 42nd Street into a theme park. The New Amsterdam Theatre, originally built by Florenz Ziegfeld around 1900, was the home of the Ziegfeld Follies, long before it was renovated by Disney. There is nothing Disney-like in the wreck of a building seen in Louis Malle’s film, with gilded gargoyles eaten away by mice, and a stage that can not be stepped upon, for leaks have rotted away the wood. A gigantic net is strung overhead, as pieces of the ceiling are continually falling, making soft, rumbling sounds, comforting yet frightful, like the echoes in certain dreams.

VANYA ON 42nd STREET might be described as a documentary turned inside out, with the filmmakers – director Louis Malle & cinematographer Declan Quinn – improvising visually upon the verbal improvisation of the actors based on a text by Chekhov translated into contemporary English by David Mamet. The story concerns a family of artists who work at cross purposes, involving unrequited love and unpaid bills. Although the play is set in a foreign country and in a different century, it’s about the daily grind of things we all deal with, yet with language that somehow transforms, opening up spaces and places one usually doesn’t explore.

I can see why Mr. Malle was attracted to this material, for the actors, guided by Mr. Gregory, experiment with the words of Chekhov in a similar fashion to how the be-boppers led by Charlie Parker took the chords of popular songs and created a rhythmic, emotionally stimulating art form. The focus here, in terms of the interpretation of Chekhov’s text, is not only rhythmic, but also character based. Each sentence not only has the multiple layers Chekhov put there, but also new levels of meaning due to the three year process of rehearsal the actors have gone through.

Mr. Malle’s direction adds another dimension to this experiment, which is based on the practical essence of words spoken in a particular place. While the text has many sublime passages describing the natural world of cherry orchards and forests which are quickly slipping away, the camera focuses on the ravaged beauty of the New Amsterdam theatre, which one can see crumbling before one’s eyes as Chekhov’s words echo through the silent shell of Flo Ziegfeld’s desecrated dream world. This isn’t just a documentation of a performance, but a living document that changes as we watch and become emotionally connected, both to the incidents in the play and the human beings sitting, reciting and interacting in the New Amsterdam theatre, while the camera moves around them and with them, finding a piece of decaying plaster or ravaged gilding that somehow connects with the words that are being spoken.

I could talk about Julianne Moore’s red hair, the warmth of her complexion and how it blends with the wall behind her, gold going to gray and mottled with white streaks, as she talks about love and duty, freedom and responsibility. This isn’t so much a recitation or a performance as an evocation, magical and somewhat frightening, as the quotidian of grit in this decaying showplace becomes transformed through the voice of the actors and the composition of the camera. Ah, so then maybe the film is Disney-like after all, the Disney of PINOCCHIO, when the wooden puppet becomes flesh and blood, when the everyday is revealed as dreamtime or perhaps the dream we think we experience is really the everyday. That is an underlying theme in Chekhov, and it is in Disney’s best work as well.

Of course in Disney, there is singing. There is singing in VANYA ON 42ND STREET as well, especially Brooke Smith in her closing monologue, the rhythm and timber of which is pure beauty because it is so explicit and simple. That, I think, is the influence of Andre Gregory. Simple and yet something beyond what a human being is supposed to be. Song and yet simple breath. No wonder Susan Sontag, as Ms. Smith relates in the interview extra on the disc, showered her with such extravagant praise at the end of an earlier rehearsal at the Victory Theatre across 42nd Street. (Ms. Smith was a little nonplused, as she didn’t know who Susan Sontag was.) I could talk about Wallace Shawn, who seems to be almost sleeping and smiling with inner delight, then suddenly erupts into passionate confession and murderous intent. I should talk about the whole ensemble, the whole film, which should be in your collection if you care about cinema, and about life.

With VANYA ON 42ND STREET, Louis Malle has come full circle. His first feature, THE SILENT WORLD (1956), a documentary made in collaboration with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, was filmed under the sea. His final feature, VANYA ON 42ND STREET, is an exploration of another subterranean world, that of a decaying 42nd Street showplace and a group of actors who are trying to come to terms with a text from yet another vanished world, that of Czarist Russia. While the story of Uncle Vanya is concerned with the tragedy of experience, Louis Malle’s camera observes this heartbreaking ritual with the open-eyed innocence of a joyful child.

The transfer is perfection, as is the film itself. VANYA ON 42ND STREET is Highly Recommended.

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