CultureJew: What Can Save Us Now?

It’s hard to think straight today, the morning after the murder in Pittsburgh. It feels as if the world is coming undone, as if Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” But the fact that there was a Yeats is a comfort to me. When our lives seem incomprehensible, remember the arts. People are still painting, writing, composing, creating. We are still capable of beauty as well as horror.

Elaine May on Broadway

If you want to see a straight play peopled with credible characters dealing with a real-life situation, one that is filled with authentic feeling rather than pumped-up outrage or sentimentality, with dialogue that will make you laugh out loud as well as sigh with recognition, go see the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery.”  The play was first produced off-Broadway in 2000, and it’s the third Lonergan play to be on Broadway in the last four years. I’m a huge Lonergan fan and think he’s one of the best writers working for stage and screen today.

The cast for “The Waverly Gallery” is pitch perfect, and Elaine May is a revelation as an aging West Village gallery owner who is slowly succumbing to dementia. Lucas Hedges plays her grandson, who acts as the narrator for the action. Michael Cera plays the talentless artist who Gladys Green (May) has invited to hang his work in the gallery and move in to help her out. His was the weakest performance when I saw the play, but that was early in the run and he should be better by now. Joan Allen and David Cromer play her daughter and son-in-law, struggling to manage the inevitable decline.

There’s not much than can be done, and the acknowledgement of that sad reality is what makes the play so touching. Gladys was once a vibrant, energetic woman, someone who could do the seemingly impossible, like find an affordable apartment on the East Side that was cheap and close to the park. Now she can’t find anything, including her keys. Her family loves her and tries to help her, but she still drives them crazy with late-night phone calls and terrified delusions. It’s terribly sad and yet funny at the same time. May’s comic timing is still perfect and she brings all the humor out of this all-too-common situation. She’s hanging on as tight as she can, but she’s slowly slipping away.

World War II Redux

The one film I saw at the New York Film Festival, “Transit,” is an artsy exploration of the tragedy of forced migration. It starts in occupied France, where Georg agrees to escort a North African refugee with an infected leg wound to Marseille, the one free port where the refugee might sail to America. When the man dies in the train car, Georg takes the manuscript he was carrying and a passport belonging to the manuscript’s author, who we have seen commit suicide at the beginning of the film, and adopts that person’s identity. Georg contacts the refugee’s family and befriends his young son, Driss. He also goes to the immigration office and learns that there is a visa waiting for him (or for the man he’s impersonating) to go to Mexico. That man’s wife has also gone to the office and learned that her husband is in the city. As she searches for him, unaware that a stranger is posing as her husband, the film becomes ever more Kafkaesque.

Director Christian Petzold adapted the story from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name, but he has eliminated all specific references to Nazis and World War II. Yes, the country is occupied by threatening forces and police are shooting people in the streets, but the cars are contemporary and Marseille looks as it does today. The people desperate to escape are of all races and could have come from anywhere. Petzold’s clear point is that people running from war and persecution today are no different than they were in the 1930’s and 40’s. That becomes ever more clear as Georg seems to exist in a sort of transit camp, one where there’s nothing to do but wait and eat pizza and drink wine in cafes. While beautifully shot and an interesting intellectual puzzle, “Transit” doesn’t have much emotional power.

Neo-Nazi in Norway

I wouldn’t say that for “22 July,” the riveting and emotionally draining film by Paul Greengrass about the massacre of almost seventy teenagers on a Norwegian island in 2011 by the neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik. Greengrass can create tension and suspense as well as any director working, as he proved on “Captain Phillips” and the Bourne movies. Breivik’s careful planning and execution in the first third of the film is nail-biting, but the rest of the movie, which focuses on the young survivor Viljar Hanssen and his difficult recovery, is just as absorbing and deeply moving. Breivik stands trial, where he is defended by a lawyer repelled by his ideas but assigned by the court at Breivik’s request. Although the killer sees himself as a patriot and warrior for a just cause, Greengrass presents Breivik as a deeply damaged, solitary young man with delusions of leading an army to defend Europe against immigrant hordes. How these delusions led him to murder 77 people he didn’t know, including an island full of teens, is a horrifying mystery.  With the events of the last few weeks, that conundrum is more relevant than ever. The movie is available on Netflix.

Literary Crimes Can Pay

I just saw the new Melissa McCarthy film “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” and enjoyed it immensely. McCarthy gives a wonderfully surprising performance as a down-on-her-luck writer of biographies who takes up forging celebrity letters to pay her bills. The movie is based on the real-life story of Lee Israel, a biographer whose writing career went into decline in the 1980s but who found a new audience when she wrote a book about her criminal activities. The terrific screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty doesn’t judge Israel or her larcenous pal Jack Hock, brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant. Nor does it sentimentalize them–they are both difficult, cantankerous, self-absorbed characters who still have to live, despite their limitations. McCarthy’s subdued, empathic performance brings out Israel’s humanity without minimizing her nuttiness. She’s the sort of woman who doesn’t think twice about taking someone else’s coat when she leaves her agent’s Christmas party, and acknowledges that she likes cats much more than people. (On second thought, that’s probably true of most cat owners.) Really good.

Laughs from Down Under

Does anyone else like “Rake” as much as I do? Has anyone ever heard of it? This Australian television series available on Netflix stars Richard Roxburgh as a dissolute lawyer who consistently wins his cases despite being drunk or high most of the time. His clients tend to be the same sort of low lifes he is, but they find their champion in Cleaver Greene, Roxburgh’s character. The series spends relatively little time in the courtroom since Cleaver always has lots of family and romantic problems, and the writers enjoy taking jibes at Australia’s political scene as well.  It’s lighthearted and often laugh-out-loud funny, and Roxburgh is an exceptionally appealing actor. Check it out.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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