Thursday, March 12, 2009
Saturday, March 7: MADAMA BUTTERFLY vs AGNES VARDA
Life is full of interesting juxtapositions. In a world where days off work means at least two movies, I unwittingly create some interesting comparisons: sometimes they meld (Wendy and Lucy vs Lake Tahoe) and sometimes they clash (Watchmen vs Treeless Mountain.) Last Saturday was a case of beautiful extremes: classic tragedy in the form of Anthony Minghella's production of Madama Butterfly at my local multiplex to modern whimsy in the form of Agnès Varda takes on Agnès Varda in the Beaches of Agnès at the Walker Art Center.
First, I acknowledge that my secret is out: I love going to the opera in the movie theater. I swear it is turning me into an opera junkie. Maybe I'm like a trained monkey and everything on the big screen is interesting. I would like to think it is more than that. Making the opera more accessible to people like me (not necessarily an opera fan) has opened a door to a whole new world. (Before anyone starts barking, I do patronize the MN Opera, and I would be the first to believe that ticket sales are up for the MN Opera partially because of the popularity of the Met's live broadcasts.) Some might call it the great dumbing down of opera, but I love showing up at the theater at noon on a Saturday in my tennis shoes and my baseball hat to see some of the best opera productions in the world in HD for 22 dollars.
For those who think I have slipped in my Italian bathtub and hit my head, I'm talking about the Metropolitan Opera's live digital broadcasts sent to movie theaters across the globe. In its third season of live HD broadcasts, the numbers are staggering: broadcasting in 31 countries in over 850 theaters, with over one million people attending live broadcasts this season. Locally there are a dozen or so theaters that offer the broadcasts, Roseville and Block E being my hubs.
Saturday was Anthony Minghella's production of Puccini's much loved Madama Butterfly. It was the only opera that Minghella, collaborating with his wife Carolyn Chao. The production is amazingly sparse and utilizes forms of Bunraku theater including a puppet that plays the son of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. (Bunraku theater was also what Masuhiro Shinoda used for his 1969 film Double Suicide.) Apparently the puppet got more press than the singers when the production premiered, but it is easy to see why. The puppet is so amazingly animated it took on a life of its own.
The story is admittedly one of oppression, chauvinism and extreme tragedy - all common operatic motifs. It is hard to look beyond the politically incorrectness of the narrative to the beauty of the music and the singing. (Pinkerton got some hisses at the ovation.) At the turn of the century, it probably would have carried a sense of the exotic along with the overall pathos. For what it is worth, the opera is a women's opera is the sense that the beefy role is that of Cio-Cio-San, our mistress in distress. The male roles in Butterfly are placid despite some final emoting from Pinkerton.
The overall feel of any opera, sparse or not, tragic or not, is one of grandeur. Madama Butterfly is no different, dealing with love, life and death, quintessentially and archetypally. Take away the archetype and The Beaches of Agnès may not be that different. In a different time and different place and much much different tone, Agnès Varda's self-portrait at 80 years old is no less enchanting.
I'll call her the Grandmother of the New Wave because everyone else does, and it does indeed give her life some frame of reference. Before the swaggers and the philosophical tit-for-tat disputes ever surfaced in the nouvelle vague, Agnès Varda made her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, exploring many of the techniques and themes later exploited by the New Wave. She married director Jacques Demy and they had this boisterous creative life together. If Varda's films are experimental, so is her life: continually exploring and expanding her creative impulses.
Her lighthearted take on life is the focus of Beaches, reminiscing with vintage footage, interviews, and staged vignettes. Whether we are seeing her in the belly of a whale or just enjoying a circus on the beach, all scenes are delightfully representative. Varda was first and foremost a lover of art. She first studied photography and found film as a way of expanding her voice. But that is not all, dressing up like a potato at an art exhibition is also a way of expanding her voice.
The Beaches of Agnès is a hard film to review, per se, because it is so personal and one would have to be stone cold not to enjoy this woman's sense of humor and vigor for life. She talks about Demy and his death, her kids, her friends, her work and everything in between. An incognito Chris Marker even makes an appearance...as a hand drawn cat. Honestly, there is really nothing to dislike here.
Operatic tragedy doesn't have too much of an emotional effect on me, but the grand splendor of opera does. In all it's sums and parts, I find opera just about as moving as anything. The fact that I'm seeing it on a movie screen doesn't shatter this at all for me. The Beaches of Agnès is no opera, but it offered something of a grounded balance to Madama Butterfly. Have them both in one day borders close to perfection. Both are powerful in their historical context, rich in their artistic valor, and completely entertaining.
The Walker's Women With Vision continues through March 21.
There are two more programs left in the Met's live broadcasts.