Monday, December 18, 2006

ARTS ROUNDUP. Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches. Being, as regular readers will know, an ineffably butch Budweiser-pounding mook with unmanicured nails, I don't take in cabaret shows much, but I was hauled to this one and I'm not sorry I was, despite the drink prices at Joe's Pub.

LKIPLALM is billed as a recreation of Patti LuPone's famously looney late-shows at the now defunct Les Mouches, done, presumably, to work off some of the scenery she consumed in Evita every night. Channeler Leslie Kritzer knows the spectacle of a hopped-up Broadway diva regaling gayest Chelsea with a bizarre mix of show tunes, "Mr. Tambourine Man," and mood-swing banter would be comedy gold, and she does get plenty of laughs -- e.g., mentioning her "brother Bobby", she waits only for the faintest hint of applause before throwing her arms out and howling "OH THANK YOU! HE'LL BE SO PLEASED!"

But Kritzer has a deeper game going, too. She sings the shit out of the songs, being well-equipped to do so, and commands the character utterly, so that even the weirder selections ("Heaven is a Disco"!), and the more byzantine vocal arrangements, wind up much more interesting than mere feats of parody. The strangeness of "Patti LuPone" is only coincidentally a comedienne's trick, and mainly a full-length portrait of a show-biz monster trying, with the powerful but ultimately limited gifts at her command, to blast through self-absorption into the hearts of an audience that she believes/hopes really Gets Her. Kritzer never pulls a gimp string to indicate this; she sticks to the script (accompanied by LuPone's original arranger!) and lets her performance do the talking. It's acting of the highest sort flying under the colors of chanteusery.

The Queen. One reason I'm not as much of an auteurist as I used to be is Stephen Frears. He cheerfully hops from style to style in deference to whatever text he is treating, yet has given me enough pleasure, from Prick Up Your Ears through High Fidelity, that I just can't relegate him to Less Than Meets the Eye. His may not be major films but they're smart and they work, and that's a lot these days. One can do worse than serve a good script well.

That cuts two ways, of course. The faults of The Queen are very plainly the script's, and maybe a more ambitious director would have overcome them. It's not just the apparently low budget that leaves the movie looking like an exceptional Masterpiece Theatre episode. Frears doesn't do quantum leaps -- he does good blocking.

I don't mean to carp. There's plenty of wonderful stuff here. It was a brilliant idea to treat the death of Princess Diana as a dramatic crisis of the British monarchy, and the pinched scale of the film well-suits the extraordinary point of distinction between this and, say, costume dramas like Cromwell -- Dianagate was, on the film's terms, a crisis not of the blood-and-thunder sort but of the television age, and the slightly shoddy look of The Queen perfectly suits it: Tony Blair doing PM business in a footballer's jersey and HRH in a Range Rover are fine visual equivalents to the absurd modernity of the situation.

The acting is just delicious. I was worried at first by Helen Mirren -- she seemed to be leaking a bit more sentimentality than I had expected. But this turned out to be a clever move: aside from some muted histrionics, her Elizabeth grows frostier in affect, though clearly more troubled in spirit, as the crisis overwhelms her. I love her. I love James Cromwell, too, and lousy dialect aside, his Philip is perfect in its petty imperiousness -- he might have been a humble burgher protected by lackeys (and his own thick skin) from all evidence of his impotence. Alex Jennings resembles a young Edward Fox, which adds a beautiful, old-England fillip to the lip-chewing desperation of his unloved Charles to find the correct sliver of space in which to hide and mourn.

Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory as the Blairs are lovely -- the first shot of them in their car, waiting for their first official visit to the Queen, is played, lit, and shot to make them resemble intelligent weasels curiously snuffling outside the Palace -- but they are put in the unlovely position of carrying the secondary theme: New Labour's first crisis as an overblown domestic incident ("It's not as if I have anything better to do!" cries the PM at one point). This is where the drama runs into heavy sledding: while it is fascinating to see how the political is made personal, it's sort of gross to see the personal made political. When Cherie plays devil's advocate in Tony's shifting feelings toward the Queen (even pulling a Freudian card), the tactic is stagey, neat, and evasive, and splitting Blair's cynicism off and onto a PR character really gives the game away. I think it might have been better, in the manner of those old costume dramas, to let Tony be more fully responsible -- not just constitutionally but dramatically -- for the forces arrayed against the Queen's stasis. Modern exigencies be damned: Blair v. Windsor is more crackling drama than Blair et alia v. the monarchical bureaucracy -- as the wonderful final confrontation of Tony and Liz shows.

Still, this is a vision worthy of dispute and even contemplation. I was annoyed, when I first saw it, at the (it seemed) ludicrous bit in which the Queen raptures over a stag that is later hunted down and butchered. Dramatically it is corn, or whatever Brits have instead of corn (Toad inna Hole, perhaps). But on consideration I think it has a proper Shakespearean resonance. The prefatory title card of The Queen quotes Henry IV: Uneasy lies the head etc. But this incident sent me to As You Like It: "What shall he have that killed the deer?/His leather skin and horns to wear." Jacques saw the deer's horns as "a victory branch"; his Lords took them as a sign of cuckoldry.

Caprice. Ronald Firbank was known to me only as a favorite of Auden's before I read this short novel. I can see why Auden liked him. Though it's full of conversation, Firbank's method is poetic; it takes several pages of dense language to ascertain that Sally Sinquier is an English girl from a country family of some standing who runs off to London in pursuit of theatrical fame ("'Somehow it makes no difference,' she murmured, turning toward a glass. To feign Ophelia -- no matter what!"). Once launched, her career -- in every sense -- is recognizable to any reader of Bright Young Thing chroniclers such as Waugh and Huxley. There are pretenders, there is deceit, scandal o'erhangs, defeat is imminent and then cruelly realized. But the charm of Firbank's language is unique, as seen in this description of the little theatre in which Sally, as yet on the cusp only of success, is obliged to sleep:
An absence of ventilation made the room an oven and discouraged sleep. Through the width of skylight, in inert recumbence, she could follow wonderingly the frail pristine tints of dawn. Flushed, rose-barred, it spread above her with fantastic drifting bars masking the morning stars.

From a neighboring church a clock struck five.

Miss Sinquier sighed; she had not closed her eyes the whole night through.

"One needs a blind," she mused, "and a pane --"

She looked about her for something to throw.

Cinquento Italian things -- a chest, a crucifix, a huge guitar, a grim carved catafalque all purple sticks and violet legs (Juliet's) crowded the floor.

"A mess of glass... and cut my feet..." she murmured, gathering about herself a negligee of oxydised knitted stuff and sauntering out toward the footlights in quest of air.

Notwithstanding the thermometer, she could hear Miss May Mant breathing nasally from behind the door.
One could go on for quite some time like this without much hint of plot, but Firbank has a good one and ties it up nicely in less than a hundred pages. It's a minor work affording major pleasure.

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