Opera 101— Bel Époque

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Overture as history lesson in Roberto Devereux. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Gaetano Donizetti, Roberto Devereux, (1837)
Based on: the play Elisabeth d’Angleterre by François Ancelot
Setting: England, 1598

Plot in 101 words or less: On this week’s episode of The Crown, Sara is sad—really sad—and Elizabeth is mad—really mad. Lord Cecil and his gang of (literal) peers are mad too. They’re plotting against the queen’s favorite, Devereux, who’s been playing footsie with those pesky Irish rebels. Devereux returns to plead his case but admits to Elizabeth he loves another and leaves her ring—the one that would guarantee his safety—with Sara, his best friend’s girl and object of his affections. Sara can’t get the ring back to him and so… off with his head! Should have found some hobbits. Or eagles.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: the overture, which quotes “God Save the Queen”; “Vivi, ingrato”, Elisabetta’s final aria

Mirror, mirror, on the wall… Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As a self-proclaimed bel canto whore and lover of all things Tudor, I was bound to like Roberto Devereux, one of Gaetano Donizetti’s three “queen” operas, which, along with Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, forms what is known as the Tudor Trilogy. But I liked it even more than I thought.

Of course, this is not really surprising as Devereux had another strong point in its favor with the teaming of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, who we last saw together on the War Memorial stage in Norma and on whom I rightly bestowed multiple Figaros for outstanding performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta (left) and Jamie Barton as Sara (right). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Radvanovsky was fantastic here, both in voice and in her acting. The woman next to me seemed absolutely convinced she was elderly. For my part, I was amazed by her ability to convey imperial majesty and temperament as well as a certain kind of frailty and vulnerability. Jamie Barton’s Sara was a lovely counterpoint to this fierce and fearless portrayal, singing with what seemed a heartfelt and melancholic resolve. Tenor Russell Thomas as the eponymous Devereux also sang beautifully, especially in his final moments behind bars in the Tower with “Come uno spirito angelico.” Adler Fellow Amitai Pati once again stood out in a small role, that of the devious Lord Cecil.

What’s a little swordplay between friends? Russell Thomas as Roberto Devereux (left) and Sondra Radvanovsky (right). Photo by Cory Weaver.

This production conducts an elaborate history lesson in the prologue, which I liked, but wasn’t really necessary. It might have been more helpful to the audience to have highlighted more specific emotional or political aspects of Elizabeth’s reign. That said, I’m always happy to see sailing ships.

Still, this emphasis on “history” seemed at odds with the set itself, which was designed by Benoit Dugardyn and based on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater—a choice that emphasized the performance nature of an opera that is not quite based on actual history. While this bare set mostly worked, it did lead to a few clunky staging efforts, such as the final execution and renunciation of the throne. Oddly enough, I liked the whole glass casing idea that opened and closed the opera.

The costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth were similarly uneven. I loved some of the elaborate dresses, but Sara seemed rather plain in comparison considering she was Duchess of Nottingham.

You play with swords, you get the axe. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I realize this brief summary makes it seem like I didn’t like the production design, which is not the case, I just feel like it could have been more cohesive and less didactic somehow. Regardless, the singing was absolutely stellar.

In short, more Tudor queens, please!

Even Shakespeare shows up! Photo by Cory Weaver.

There are only two more performances of Roberto Devereux at the War Memorial Opera House, on September 23 and September 27. Run, don’t walk, to see this incredible production!

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Opera 101—Code Name Verity

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Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air…
But where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

—Stephen Sondheim, “Send in the Clowns”

A performer entertains the crowd in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are two short verismo operas that often appear together on a double bill, as San Francisco Opera has chosen to do for their 2018–2019 season, with a production originally from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège. The entire production is about three hours, including one intermission between the two operas.

Verismo is an Italian operatic style that emerged in the late 1800s and can be considered a realist (or naturalist) style, with plots taking their inspiration from real life. In other words, verismo presents everyday people with everyday problems, albeit at the usual operatic extreme. [Side note: The other major non-Puccini verismo opera is Andrea Chénier, which opened the 2016–2017 SFO season.] I can’t say I’m a huge fan, despite naturalist author Émile Zola being a favorite of mine. However, this was my first “Cav/Pag” as the kids say, so maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

In both Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, the plot is fairly straightforward: a married woman is having an affair and her jealous husband kills her lover. But only one has clowns.

Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (1890)
Based on: a novella and play by Giovanni Verga
Notable Cultural Reference: The Godfather Part III
Setting: Sicily, Easter Sunday, 1890s

Plot in 101 words or less: Villager Santuzza is pregnant by ex-soldier Turiddu, son of innkeeper Mamma Lucia. Before getting his gun on, Turiddu was with Lola, but when the cat’s away the mouse will marry someone else, namely Alfio. Because getting with Santuzza made Lola jealous (as planned), she and Turiddu start up again. Santuzza gets pushed around literally and figuratively, curses Turiddu, and tells Alfio what’s what. And… intermezzo. Everyone, drink! Well, everyone except Alfio, who refuses Turiddu’s wine and challenges him to a duel. Turiddu Mike Tysons Alfio’s ear—apparently it’s a Sicilian thing, not one of the “Ten Duel Commandments.” Justice is served.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: the Intermezzo

Laura Krumm as Lola, Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci (Clowns) (1892)
Based on: an actual incident (maybe)
Notable Cultural Reference: Seinfeld, “The Opera” (clip 1, clip 2)
Setting: Calabria, Ferragosto (August 15), 1860s

Plot in 101 words or less: Traveling performers, including Canio—clowno numero uno—and his wife Nedda, come to town for a Ferragosto performance. Soon Nedda is by herself, singing Jenny Gump’s prayer. Tonio—clowno numero duo—tries to seduce Nedda, to no avail, mostly because she likes villager Silvio, who’s no fool. Unfortunately, Canio learns of their affair before they can run away together. The performance begins. Mise en abîme alert! The audience realizes too late that the jealous obsession playing out on stage is a little too real: Canio stabs Nedda, and then Silvio. In short, you are well advised to be scared of clowns.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Vesta la giubba”

Amitai Pati as Beppe, Lianna Haroutounian as Nedda, and Dimitri Platanias as Tonio in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While both of these operas as written take place in southern Italy, this production by Argentine José Cura sets both operas in La Boca, the Italian quarter of Buenos Aires. This mostly worked for me, although, if you didn’t read the production notes, I can see why you might be confused at times since the characters in this production overlap. For example, Pagliacci opens with Turridu’s coffin, Santuzza appears noticeably more pregnant in Pagliacci, and the character of Silvio now works in Mamma Lucia’s bar from Cavalleria. In fact, it is Mamma Lucia who utters the famous closing of Pagliacci—“La commedia è finita”—which I found a distinctly odd choice, whatever the rationale.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza (seated) in a scene from Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As this was my first Cav/Pag, I went in fairly open to both operas. From what I had read, Cavalleria seemed to be considered the more “musical” of the two, but I came out highly predisposed to Pagliacci. The construction is far more creative, including the complex “play within a play” and the breaking of the fourth wall with the prologue, but it is also stronger from an emotional perspective and had more “breakout” arias to these ears.

As for the singing, it seemed a bit uneven. While I really loved the tone of most of the singers, at times they felt underpowered. This was mostly on the male side, as the women came off fairly well.

The highlight for me was soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Nedda in Pagliacci. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria was also impressive, although I don’t think she had much to work with. Her acting certainly stood out: Given that the role is not particularly sympathetic, I felt for her. (If you remember, Semenchuk was also a highlight for me in Luisa Miller. I was even impressed by some of the smaller parts, such as Laura Krumm’s Lola, which is rare for me.

For the men, one obvious highlight was tenor Marco Berti’s delivery of Canio’s “Vesta la giubba” (I was rather relieved when he delivered on that since I felt he cut short the final note of “Nessun dorma” when I last saw him in Turandot). Berti was also one of the better actors: Despite his heavy makeup and mask, I really felt his anger. I also liked Merola graduate David Pershall as Nedda’s lover Silvio. He has been in a few things I’ve seen but I’ve never made note of him before. His love duet Haroutounian was very nice. I thought Adler Fellow Amitai Pati had excellent tone as Beppe and stood out in his aria even if it was a bit soft. Dimitri Platanias, the sole singer to truly have a dual role and making his SFO debut, as Alfio in Cavalleria and Tonio in Pagliacci seemed to do a little better with Pagliacci, especially in the prologue.

Amitai Pati as Beppe as Arlecchino in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A distinct disappointment for me was the dance interlude. Given the resetting, I was hoping for a fiery Argentine tango with its classic snap kicking and I felt the choreography did not live up to its potential.

What did live up to their potential were my fellow operagoers, whose outfits (mostly) rose to the occasion. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage was fairly weak this year, so I’ve only included my own pictures below; however, I wasn’t able to capture all my favorite looks. For example, Komal Shah wore a beautiful Dolce & Gabbana floral number and Camille Bently donned a black, jeweled Christian Siriano gown, both of which were well suited for the “¡Viva La Noche!” theme.

There are six more performances of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci at the War Memorial Opera House on September 12, 16 (2 pm), 19, 22, 28 and 30 (2 pm).

Opera Plots in 101 Words or Less, Act III

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In the third act of our series on concise opera plots, it’s all German all the time. Specifically Wagner, or, as I like to think of him, Vague-ner. Not that he’s vague so much as his plots seem to wander all over the place, much like a hobbit on his way to Mount Doom.

You may remember that I promised this post way back in May 2015, after writing the first two acts of this plot production. At the time, I had recorded HD versions of the Metropolitan Opera’s entire “Ring” cycle on my trusty DVR, which turned out to be not so trusty. And so, watching and summarizing Wagner’s epic masterpiece was put on hold. Until now.*

As in my posts on the warhorses, I’ll be sticking to 101 words or less** per opera. It almost makes me wish I spoke German, since then I could use really long words.

I’ve included the three other Wagner operas I’ve seen live (Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) in this post, but it focuses on the oft-quoted Der Ring des Nibelungen, a series of four “music-dramas” that tell the story of a little person who forges a magic gold ring of power that everybody covets. Also, there’s a sword that needs to be pieced back together. Sound familiar?

Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.

—Sure, Tolkien, whatever you say.

SPOILER ALERT: There are no puppies or unicorns, but there is a rainbow. Who says Germans aren’t lighthearted?

Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843)
Based on: a retelling of the Flying Dutchman legend by Heinrich Heine
Notable Cultural Reference: Captain Video and His Video Rangers
Setting: Norway, 18th century

Storms + sleepy watchman = stealth ghost ship. Math is fun! Enter the Dutchman, cursed to roam the seas until he finds someone faithful unto death. Since Captain Daland values gold more than his daughter, he invites the stranger home. Cue Senta, who’s hanging with her friends, spinning and singing, as girls do. The stranger looks exactly like Senta’s Tiger Beat Dutchman portrait, so she’s all in. Unfortunately, ex Erik strives to remain relevant and his whining drives the Dutchman away. Senta throws herself into the sea, thereby lifting the curse. Like dogs, they all go to heaven, so it’s cool.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Overture, “Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen” (aka the Spinning Chorus)

Richard Wagner, Lohengrin (1850)
Based on: medieval German romance; the chanson de geste Garin le Loherain
Notable Cultural Reference: Father of the Bride and every wedding you’ve ever attended
Setting: Antwerp, 10th century

Swan, swan, hummingbird, swan. Actually, scratch that, there’s no hummingbird. There’s also no baby duke Gottfried! Count Friedrich accuses Elsa, Gottfried’s sister, of foul play so he can rule instead. Visiting King Henry decrees God will judge through single combat. A knight appears (via swan boat) to fight for and marry Elsa; however, she can’t ask his name or birthplace. She eventually does. Nosy parker. So, Lohengrin, knight of the Holy Grail and protector extraordinaire, must leave. And… swan. OMG, baby Gottfried is a f*cking swan, y’all. Ortrud’s a witch and cursed him ages ago. Elsa, stricken with grief, falls dead.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Treulich geführt” (aka the Bridal Chorus, aka “Here Comes the Bride”)

Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Based on: an original story by Richard Wagner
Notable Cultural Reference: Triumph of the Will
Setting: Nuremberg, 16th century

Knight Walther, in town on business, spots Eva and falls hard. Alas! Eva is to marry whoever wins the local song contest. David, who crushes on Eva’s companion Magdalene, explains the rules of mastersinging (it’s a thing, okay?). Walther can do this, no problem (he can’t). Burgermeister Meisterburger Beckmesser, who also wants to marry Eva, fumes. He serenades a disguised Magdalene by accident, much to the dismay of David. Fight! Fight! Walther (literally) dreams up the perfect song and cobbler Sachs stirs the pot by ensuring Beckmesser plays the fool. For some reason, this takes almost six hours to play out.

Sung in: German

Greer Grimsley as Wotan in San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) (1876)
Based on: Norse sagas and a medieval German epic poem
Length (with no intermission): 15 hours

The “Ring” cycle consists of four operas intended to be performed together in sequence: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, or, as I like to say, Goddamn It’s Long). They tell the story of the theft of the Rhine gold and the forging of it into a magic ring of power and the tragedies that befall those who possess it. The four operas total about fifteen hours (without intermission) and follow multiple generations of mortal men and gods. Balance is only restored when the ring is destroyed by fire. Think The Lord of the Rings, but with more women.

The Rhinemaidens and Alberich in Das Rheingold. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) (1869)
Notable Cultural Reference: Xena: Warrior Princess: “The Rheingold”
Length (with no intermission): 2 hours, 30 minutes

Pretty but dumb Rhinemaidens let dwarf Alberich steal the Rhine gold and forge a magic ring of “boundless might.” Meanwhile, Wotan and Fricka build a shiny new castle but won’t pay contractors Fasolt and Fafner, so the giant brothers take Fricka’s sister Freia hostage. When the gods realize they can’t live without Freia’s Fountain of Youth™ apples, Wotan and sidekick Loge trick Alberich and steal his ring as ransom. Alberich curses his “precious” to bring woe to all who possess it. Gold, gold, gold. Bicker, bicker, bicker. Fafner clubs Fasolt to death. Everybody else scampers over the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Bin ich nun frei” (aka Alberich’s Curse)

Tough love from Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) (1870)
Notable Cultural Reference: Apocalypse Now; Bugs Bunny: “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Length (with two intermissions): 4 hours, 30 minutes

Siegmund is on the run. He shelters with unhappy wife Sieglinde and husband Hunding, recounting his tale of woe. (Mother dead! Sister abducted!) Siegmund and Sieglinde have the hots for each other, but, gross, they’re twins. Remember cheapskate Wotan from Rheingold? He’s their father! Wotan instructs favorite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, but Fricka wants to punish the couple. Brünnhilde tries to save Siegmund but only manages a pregnant Sieglinde and a shattered sword. Wotan leaves Brünnhilde sleeping on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire. As you do. The Valkyries are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cowards.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Hojotoho! (aka Ride of the Valkyries)

Nine Valkyries? Hey, aren’t there nine Nazgûl? I thought so.

—Me, just now.

“Renewed shall be blade that was broken…” by Daniel Brenna as the eponymous Siegfried. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Siegfried (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Django Unchained
Length (with two intermissions): 4 hours, 50 minutes

We open on Mime, brother of ringmaker-heartbreaker Alberich, who has, in a not-at-all-suspicious twist, adopted the fearless son of Sieg2. It’s a small world after all. Mime thinks Siegfried can get him the One Ring. You remember, the one with the fratricidal giant Fafner? FYI: He’s now a dragon (don’t ask). Strider the “Wanderer” arrives and poses a few riddles, Siegfried drinks blood and learns to speak bird (again, don’t ask), and Mime gets what’s coming to him. A broken sword is forged anew, a spear is shattered, and Siegfried awakens a sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss. Also, there’s a bear.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Horn Call

At first, Siegfried mistakes Brünnhilde for a man and, when he removes her armor, cries ‘That is no man!’ My god, Tolkien, you are shameless.

—Still me.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Excalibur
Length (with two intermissions): 5 hours, 15 minutes

Norns of Exposition™ provide a “previously on” and serious foreshadowing. Siegfried puts a ring on it, but eventually bails, heading straight into the hands of those plotting against him, including Hagen, Alberich’s son. Very, very long story short, Siegfried is mindwiped and gets the One Ring back, earning Brünnhilde’s wrath. Meanwhile, Wotan moans about losing his spear (not a euphemism) and prepares for the worst. Tricksy Hagen kills twice over to get the ring but a ghostly Siegfried says “Nein!” Brünnhilde takes one for the team, riding the ring straight into the fires of Mount Doom. Fire and flood cleanse all.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Funeral March

San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tune in next time for the unknown, but not unsung, at least when it comes to the movies. I promise it won’t take me three years.


*I’d like to give a special shout out to the woman who couldn’t use her own set of tickets to the San Francisco Opera’s most recent production of The Ring as well as @revgirrl who got them for me. I didn’t always agree with the staging or production choices, but the singing was fantastic across the board. Bravo!

**If you are thinking of commenting that this should be “fewer” instead, please read this first.

The Great Unseen: Wrap Party

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As promised, here is my final ranking of the twenty-eight films I watched for my project on The Great Unseen, which I started last fall. This ranking is based on my precision film-rating system which assigns a point value in six different categories (pacing, plot, and dialogue; characters and performances; atmosphere and originality; technique; overall reaction; gender and race representation). Of course, some of these movies are so different that it is extremely hard to compare them. Suffice it to say I really liked about half and mostly liked the rest. More importantly, I’m happy to have watched all of them and don’t regret the time I spent on any—even the ones I disliked—since they have been on my radar for some time.

To the rankings!

  1. Rio Bravo (1958)
  2. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  3. Barry Lyndon (1975)
  4. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
  6. Daughters of the Dust (1991)
  7. High Noon (1952)
  8. Orlando (1992)
  9. Safety Last! (1923)
  10. The Little Foxes (1941)
  11. The Thing (1982)
  12. Wild at Heart (1990)
  13. Banshun (Late Spring) (1949)
  14. Body Double (1984)
  15. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  16. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  17. Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906)
  18. A Night at the Opera (1935)
  19. Beau Travail (1999)
  20. Blow-Up (1966)
  21. The French Connection (1971)
  22. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  23. Taxi Driver (1976)
  24. Raising Arizona (1987)
  25. Duck Soup (1933)
  26. The African Queen (1951)
  27. Pretty in Pink (1986)
  28. Mad Max (1979)

If you read my original posts on these films, most of these rankings won’t be too surprising. I was a bit surprised that Daughters of the Dust and Orlando ended up as high as they did and Taxi Driver so low, but it’s math, people, you can’t argue with it. And I do like pretty pictures.

Probably the best part of this project was that it led me to films beyond the list, such as Assault on Precinct 13, which I loved.

For my complete series of posts on The Great Unseen, you can read about the original challenge here, and then parts 1-3 at Matinée Idle, Dinner and a Movie, and Midnight Movies.

The Great Unseen 3: Midnight Movies

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After a long break for mad travelling in October and December, mad movie watching for Noirvember and the Oscars, and mad blogging about some bad-ass women for Women’s History Month, I am back with my final “The Great Unseen” post, which covers the cinematic canon from the 1960s through the 1990s.

As a reminder, for this series, I selected three to five critically acclaimed or culturally significant films that I hadn’t yet seen (or thought I hadn’t seen) to represent each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. My goal was to watch at least twenty-five of these hitherto unseen canonical works over the course of this project. You can see the original list here.

I am happy to say I have finally achieved my goal, although I must admit that this final group seemed much more like homework than my earlier forays.

Since my last post, I managed to get through a further fifteen films on my list: Blow-Up (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The French Connection (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Mad Max (1979), The Thing (1982), Body Double (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Daughters of the Dust (1991), Orlando (1992), and Beau Travail (1999). As a reminder, I also watched Pretty in Pink (1986) early on in the process. Plus, I watched three more new-to-me classics as a direct result of this project—Z (1969), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and The Driver (1978).

As with my first and second posts in this series—Matinée Idle and Dinner and a Movie—the old adage of “classics are classics for a reason” has proved true. Not that I loved every film I watched, but I appreciate that they are mostly deserving of their place in the canon.

And with that… Lights! Camera! Action!

Cool Customers

Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni
Cool Hand Luke (1967) by Stuart Rosenberg
In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Norman Jewison
Barry Lyndon (1975) by Stanley Kubrick
The Driver (1978) by Walter Hill

I’m really sorry that I first saw Blow-Up after already having seen Blow Out, the Brian De Palma remake, which is far more satisfying from a plot perspective. However, from a sociological perspective, Antonioni’s film is a fantastic portrayal of London in the swinging 60s. [Side note: Among other 1960s icons, this film stars an unrecognizable Jane Birkin in a minor role.] In Blow-Up, a fashion photographer—based on real-life photog David Bailey—believes he has unwittingly captured a murder on film. Despite this intriguing mystery element, the film is more about a day in the life of this photographer than anything else. As such, it has perhaps the least satisfying ending of all the films in this post, with, of all things, mimes playing tennis. It does, however, have a cool use of diegetic music, with a score by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

Speaking of cool, along with Barry Lyndon (see below), Cool Hand Luke is a film where I had to make multiple viewing attempts. I tried to watch it a few times last year and just couldn’t get into it. Even when I did finally sit down and watch the whole thing, it definitely ebbed and flowed for me. I think one reason is I couldn’t figure out the character of Luke, and so he just couldn’t hold my interest despite being played by Paul Newman. Plus, the film is very heavy-handed with its Christian symbolism—even the folk song Newman sings (beautifully) is called “Plastic Jesus” for crying out loud. Still, I always like a good prison drama and visually it is a stand out, with lots of beautiful imagery and extremely interesting framing and angles. This is definitely one I am happier to have watched than I was to watch it. I chalk that up to director failure.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

In the Heat of the Night is one of the films on my list that I didn’t have strong opinions on one way or another. I had no idea if I would like it or not. I loved it. The plot, the performances, everything. The film only feels dated in the sense that race relations somehow seem worse now? The basic plot is that Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective who is waiting for a train in a small town in Mississippi when he is picked up for the murder of a local bigwig. Rod Steiger plays the local police chief who, after initial skepticism on both sides, enlists Poitier’s help in solving the crime. The murder gets solved a little too quickly at the end, but that is a minor quibble for a film that deservedly won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger.

They call me MISTER Tibbs!

Barry Lyndon was one of the films on my Great Unseen list that I was particularly dreading. For its length of course (just over three hours), but also because Kubrick is hit or miss for me. I did have a couple of stops and starts with it; however, once I got over the half-hour mark, I was fully into it. Really, I shouldn’t be surprised, because I love gorgeous period dramas, and this film is certainly that. Every frame is a painting (literally). Plus, it was based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, whose satirical Vanity Fair I loved when I read it yonks ago. Additionally, I usually love when a director takes on a technical challenge and Barry Lyndon does that with a vengeance: Kubrick desired to avoid electrical lighting wherever possible and used ultra-fast lenses to shoot the interiors. [Side note: Although it is often stated that this film is shot entirely with natural light, that is not the case.]

The photography is a fantastic achievement and deservedly won an Oscar for its cinematographer, John Alcott. The film also won Oscars for Adapted Score, Art Direction, and Costume Design. It was nominated in seven categories, but “lost” Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not too shabby. Really, I think the only change I would make to the film (beyond cutting down on the military scenes) is Ryan O’Neal, who seems a bit too bland for the role of Redmond Barry. Of course, I wouldn’t have cast O’Neal in The Driver either, where I thought the same thing. [Side note: The Driver was okay but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.]

Barry Lyndon is certainly not for everyone, but it may end up being my favorite Kubrick and is probably one of the three films in this post I am most likely to revisit.

Hotheads

Z (1969) by Costa-Gavras
The French Connection (1971) by William Friedkin
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) by Sidney Lumet
Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese

The French Connection was a film that I was really looking forward to, despite knowing almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know that there was an actual French connection! I have to say, I was rather disappointed. I had a real hard time following what was going on, even with the subtitles turned on. I guess that makes sense since the director has said that the documentary-realist style of the film was based on Z, another film I had been meaning to see for some time, but ultimately proved to be rather confusing and fairly disappointing. Both films picked up for me in the second half, and they have their high points, but I think I just don’t like the style used. Of course, my disinterest might also have to do with the fact that these films paint an incredibly bleak picture of our world, and that’s just not what I want to see right now.

Dog Day Afternoon is one of those 1970s films that comes up quite often on lists of great heist movies, which is how it found its way onto my original Great Unseen list. Although I really enjoyed this film, I do not agree that it is a heist film, which I think needs to have either an “assembling the crew” sequence or an intricately planned crime, preferably both. The only thing this really has in common with heist films is the back-end “heist gone wrong” element. Still, this is a great “heist gone wrong” film—brilliant performances all around and way ahead of its time in terms of social commentary and representation. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how we seem to only now be getting back to that type of thing. In any case, this is perhaps why Dog Day and In the Heat of the Night seem the least dated to me, even if the look of both is incredibly dated.

On the other hand, the visuals of Taxi Driver seem remarkably fresh. Unfortunately, that was the only thing I really liked about the movie. This is definitely one of those “homework” films I mention above. I’m happy I saw it but do not think I will ever seek it out again. I’m known for not particularly liking unreliable narrators and the subject matter and main character are supremely uninteresting to me. Annoying even. It’s like Catcher in the Rye in movie form. The fact that this is so high on the Sight & Sound list (#31) only goes to prove how much film criticism is dominated by stunted men. I mean, I know women like this film too, but I just couldn’t get past the unrelenting violent misogyny and racism. Perhaps if the ending had been more clearly a fantasy, Taxi Driver might seemed more of a condemnation than a lionization of this behavior, but, as is, this movie is just repellent to me.

An approximation of my face watching Taxi Driver

And sometimes this

Mad as Hell

Mad Max (1979) by George Miller
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter
Body Double (1984) by Brian De Palma

Speaking of repellent, Mad Max. Well, not repellent exactly, but, oh man, not what I expected after loving Fury Road so much. I was really looking forward to this, but it didn’t hold much interest for me. I just couldn’t buy into this world. Definitely grindhouse territory. I know that The Road Warrior is supposed to be much better, but I’m not sure I can muster up enough enthusiasm to seek it out. We’ll see.

If only they had had Sigourney Weaver…

Luckily, I was able to quickly rebound from Mad Max with a John Carpenter double feature of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. I had been meaning to watch both as part of this project, but Assault didn’t make it on the official list because I had so many 70s movies to watch ahead of it. Given that Assault is an updated take of Rio Bravo, I suppose it is not surprising that I loved it. From the plot, to the humor, to the incredible characters and camerawork, this is simply one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. In fact, The Thing was almost a letdown after Assault, but it’s very good as well. It probably suffers somewhat from my having seen so many television episodes and other movies riffing on The Thing before actually watching the inspiration itself, but that can’t be helped.

How could I not love this crew?

I go through all that, and his gun isn’t even loaded.

—Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13

Body Double is another film that suffers somewhat from my familiarity with other similar films, although in the case of Body Double, it is the films that inspired De Palma rather than the other way around. Body Double also feels incredibly dated, both in its look and attitude. And that’s before you even get to the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video that randomly appears in the middle of the movie. Nevertheless, Body Double has some good twists and turns and its representation of Los Angeles really stands out from the pack.

Crazy Stupid Love

Pretty in Pink (1986) by John Hughes
Raising Arizona (1987) by Ethan and Joel Coen
Wild at Heart (1990) by David Lynch

This string of films is where everything I thought I knew about myself went right out the window. As someone who generally loves the Coen brothers and still loves Sixteen Candles despite its problems, I thought I would love both Pretty in Pink and Raising Arizona and hate Wild at Heart, but no, the exact opposite proved to be the case.

Oddly enough, while the film mostly avoids the problematic messages of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink is mediocre at best. The stakes are so low that it is hard to care about anything that happens. The “rich” kids aren’t even that rich and the “poor” kids certainly don’t seem to be very poor. Not to mention James Spader seems about a gazillion years too old for high school and just comes off as ridiculous. And don’t even get me started on that god-awful dress. Yikes.

The best thing by far about Pretty in Pink

Raising Arizona is a film I thought I hadn’t seen but in fact am now pretty sure I did but just didn’t remember. Why didn’t I remember it? I guess because it’s not really funny and sort of boring. That’s right, I said it. It’s like the Coen brothers were trying to make a screwball comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace (which I love) but instead made Bringing Up Baby (which I really dislike). There’s just too much slapstick and stupidity here for me.

So I suppose it’s odd that I liked Wild at Heart as much as I did because in many ways it has a similar vibe to Raising Arizona, with an extra dose of stupid and crazy. But maybe that’s just because Nicolas Cage is in both. Given how much I liked Twin Peaks when it was first on the air, I don’t know why I didn’t see this when it came out. However, I imagine I might have hated it then for its weirdness. But I love this pair of crazy kids; they are truly one of the great cinema couples and very much partners in their individuality, if that makes any sense.

The way your head works is God’s own private mystery.

—Sailor to Lula in Wild at Heart

Feminine Mystique

Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter
Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis

And, finally, three canonical films by female directors, all of which I avoided (for a variety of reasons) when I first undertook my #52FilmsByWomen project.

I have long known that Daughters of the Dust was considered a classic but, to be honest, I thought it looked rather boring. Had I known it also used non-linear storytelling I probably never would have considered adding it to this list. However, that approach really worked for the storytelling here, which in many ways reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, though on a smaller scale. And the visuals are gorgeous. Gorgeous.

You can’t get back what you never owned

—wise words from Nana Peazant in Daughters of the Dust

Orlando I avoided because it was Virginia Woolf. While I didn’t come away loving this, it was certainly very interesting and another film that was gorgeous to look at. I love how the travel through time was represented. It would have been nice to have some sort of explanation or context for the gender change—I’m not sure why it didn’t happen when Orlando first fell into the deep sleep. It almost makes me want to read the novel. Almost.

I watched a series of Claire Denis films when I first did #52FilmsByWomen, including Chocolat (1988), 35 Rhums (2008), and White Material (2009), but Beau Travail escaped my notice because I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a film about the French foreign legion. Had I known it was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and was partially scored with Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name, I might have taken notice. Heck, just knowing it opened with everyone dancing to Tarkan’s “Şımarık” might have gotten me to pop this one in the DVD player. In any case, this is more of a tone piece than anything. You do have to be in the right mood for it.

Shirtless men exercising to opera? Sign me up!

And that’s a wrap, folks! If you undertook my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you ended up watching in the comments below.

Filmography

The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Blow-Up (1966)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The French Connection (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Mad Max (1979)
The Thing (1982)
Body Double (1984)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Orlando (1992)
Beau Travail (1999)

Other Classics
Z (1969)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The Driver (1978)

For previous posts in The Great Unseen series, click below:
The Great Unseen
Matinée Idle
Dinner and a Movie

Tune in later this week for my film quarterly report and definitive ranking of The Great Unseen!