Friday, October 01, 2004

The Price of Admission 

Sometimes a film or a stage production has a single moment in it that I call "the price of admission." That moment so stirred something in me that I will not ever forget it.

On occasion, I also use the phrase "price of admission" to describe a moment that was so fantastic that regardless of the fact that I might consider the work in its entirety to be unsuccessful, or even a failure, that moment outweighs the rest of the experience.

Here then are an array of these moments from two mediums, theatre and film, that have etched themselves into my consciousness forever.

Angels In America: The Descent of the Angel
I had the good fortune to see Angels several times in its original Broadway production at the Walter Kerr. There were so many terrific things in that production, especially in Part I: Millenium Approaches. (Part II: Perestroika is a much more difficult piece linguistically and conceptually.)

The POA moment for me came at the end of the play and it was is vivid in my memory that it became a central part of the elegy I wrote for my father. At the end of the play, Prior Walter is alone in his bed, terrified. The ceiling of his apartment opens and The Angel descends into the air above his head and announces, "Greetings, Prophet. The great work begins: the Messenger has arrived." The stage goes black. And I found myself sobbing. I can't even really explain why. I'm not interested in organized religion. Something about that moment felt like it had reached some sort of Platonic form. Some great mystical truth was happening and it was resonating with something inside me, I know not what. Thank you, Tony Kushner.

Apollo 13: Ed Harris Scans the Control Room
At the end of the film, Ed Harris is standing in the center of the control room. All of the engineers and managers are jumping up and down and cheering because they've just learned that the crew has successfully landed in the ocean. The camera finds Ed Harris. He's not moving. His eyes slowly scan the room and he allows himself to look around. We can see emotions scudding across his broad open face. Tears well in his bright blue eyes. His weathered face begins to break up into a flood of creases as he slowly begins to smile.

Absolutely brilliant. A wonderfully understated performance that only works on film. Without a closeup, you would never be able to read the minute shifts and waves of thought that scan over his visage. I liked the movie. But that particular moment was it for me.

The Fisher King: The Waltz in Grand Central
There can be only one. And it's Terry Gilliam. One of the most unsung visual directors of the unconscious. All of his films are really variations on Don Quixote, which is ironic since Don Quixote is the one film he's never been able to make.

At any rate, in The Fisher King Gilliam really began to strut his imagery in a purely romantic way which was epitomized by the scene in Grand Central. Robin William's character has fallen for Amanda Plummer's. He's stalking her about and follows her into Grand Central. Under the power of his pure, agonizing, and thus far unrequited love, Grand Central's commuters are suddenly turned into a mass of waltzing humanity. A crystalline moment. The main room of the station is now different for everyone who saw the film.

The Little Princess: The Servant Gives a Look
An uncredited actor, Sandeep Walia, does something here that's hard to describe. I can't figure out what happened to me when I first saw this or why. Is it the actor? Is it the storyline? Is it the editing? Is it the musical note underneath his glance?

I'm stumped. All I know is that our poor heroine has been fatherless for the entire film. She and her father are separated at this point by only a hair. But they are not yet reunited. The "Indian servant" enters the plot to give the young girl an intense, Ben Kingsley-esque style of knowing look and suddenly the truth is revealed. Or that's how it felt to me. I burst into tears. (Is there a theme here?)

Magnolia: Everybody Sings
Paul Thomas Anderson is the single greatest filmic director of his generation. By filmic, I mean that he uses film to tell the story in ways only possible on film. Rather than rely on exposition, the story is expressed by what we see and learn in the shot. Plus, he has an innate sense of drama in the way that he lines up a shot that further communicates what is going on in the story. Look at the opening shot of Hard Eight or the famous tracking shot of the party by the pool in Boogie Nights and you will see what I mean.

Given his gifts, it's not surprising that P.T. Anderson feels the need to experiment. There are many experiments within Magnolia, but the one that took my breath away was the moment where suddenly all of the characters in the film are bound together by a mystic, music video moment. Each of them begins "singing" (lip syncing) "Wise Up" by Aimee Mann. And it's not a short segment either.

Beautifully shot (natch) and wonderfully paced, the omniscient camera moves from story to story and each character sings a portion of the lyrics that perhaps they really need to hear. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was daring, shocking, and ultimately, very moving.

Mnemonic: The Iceman Walks
Director Simon McBurney's Complicite (formerly known as the Theatre de Complicite) brought a production called Mnemonic to the John Jay College theater a few years ago. Mnemonic was a multimedia theatre production which wove the characters' search for their identity as members of a family into the search for the identity of a man frozen in ice in the Alps in prehistoric times.

The production had many wonderful pieces of stagecraft, images and strong performances. However, the price of admission was watching the cast transform a chair into The Iceman. The chair is incorporated into the story as being a family heirloom of our protagonist (played by McBurney). It is prominently used throughout the show. Suddenly, at the end of the piece the chair was sort of unfolded by the cast (you couldn't tell it was designed for this) and as a group, they functioned as puppeteers to move the chair across the stage in its newly humanoid form to tell the story of the Iceman's final moments; how he came to be where he died on the glacier.

It's so hard to do this moment justice. But just as PT Anderson does things on film that can only be done on film, McBurney does things on stage that only take wing in live theatre. It was absolutely breathtaking.

A Winter's Tale: Hermione Comes Alive
The RSC came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1994 with a tremendous production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale directed by Adrian Noble. It was a gorgeous production of what can be a very difficult show.

This play is full of problematic moments, e.g., the famous stage direction "Exeunt, pursued by a bear." (You try finding a bear for that role.) At the end of the play, Leontes the King, believes that his wife, Hermione is dead. In a moment of jealous rage, he believes he caused her death because of her supposed infidelity. At the end of the play, he has come to realize his mistake, but it's too late. Her faithful servant brings him to a statue of her that he's not seen. It's supposed to comfort him. At the moment that he pronounces his sorrow the statue steps down from the pedestal. Hermione is alive.

This scene can be completely hokey...or completely unbelievable. But in this production, the actors achieved alchemy. Even knowing the play, I held my breath unsure of what was going to happen. And when she stepped down from that pedestal...well, you know by now what I did.
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