Saturday, February 21, 2015

fifty shades of gray

No.  I am not sinking to the level of writing about the pedestrian novel and movie that is now turning some women in Britain into ale glass hooligans.  The whole phenomenon is little more than the Deep Throat of the 20-teens.

Nor will this essay be about Oregon's new governor with her self-description of bisexuality.  "I have a foot in both camps."  And, apparently, a third foot firmly lodged in her mouth.

Those topics are far too easy targets.  Not to mention they are tiresome.

The title stems from a far different source.  As I was driving to and from Portland yesterday morning, the weather in the northern Willamette Valley took a noticeable turn from its partly cloudiness.  A series of gray clouds crunched together like a weather traffic jam over the Cascade range.

Normally that would mean snow in the Cascades -- and my thoughts turned to getting back to Bend before I ended up snowbound on this side of the range.  (If you want to edit out the drama queen portions of that sentence, it means I might see a few flakes in the air on my drive to Bend.)

But I decided to stay in Salem to attend a movie I have wanted to see since I heard it came out.  Into the Woods.

Anyone who has visited Mexpatriate even occasionally will know that I am a big fan of Stephen Sondheim's work.  Into the Woods is not one of my favorites, but I am still fond of it.

Re-working stage plays for movies is a tricky business.  They cannot be transferred in whole because the conventions of live performances and movies are not compatible.  I give you as examples the film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A little Night Music

Both were pleasant stage plays.  They were disasters on the screen.

The big exception is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Tim Burton performed a miracle in finding the core of the play and then building Sondheim's music around it.

I am pleased to report that Into the Woods works.  The book centers on the Cinderella story, but builds on it with some familiar fairy tales (little red riding hood, Jack and the beanstalk) and an original piece that seems familiar (the baker and his wife).

Parading the Jungian archetypes against obvious sets works on stage, and the audience can indulge the conceit that what we are seeing is a psychological drama transpiring in one -- or several -- heads.  That device does not work as well on film.

Rob Marshall managed to do it, though.  The world outside the woods is filmed naturally -- making some of the singing seem a bit too precious.  But, when the characters enter the woods (of their minds), they walk through a proscenium arch that would made F.W. Murnau proud.

Because I know the score and book from the play so well, I constantly had to fight not to compare the movie with the stage play.  And I only partially succeeded.  The movie cuts several songs that did not propel the story.  Most of the decisions were wise.

But several cuts left the second half of the film bereft of its existential message.  The catharsis that the baker experiences in "No More" is central to the show's theme.  Without it, the conversation he has with Jack about punishment ("It's not that simple") seems ungrounded.  As does Little Red Riding Hood's concern that her mother and grandmother would be disappointed in her for murdering a giant ("
But a giant’s a person. Aren’t we to show forgiveness?").

The strength of fairy tales is in their morals.  And that was the greatest strength of the stage play -- even when Sondheim opened himself to charges of moral relativism with lines like: "
Witches can be right, Giants can be good./  You decide what's, right you decide what's good."  (Even though I would argue that a moral absolutist still relies on a moral agent to choose wisely.)

So, after all the academic mumbo jumbo, did I like the movie?  Yup.  And I would recommend it.

If you know the play, leave most of that knowledge at home.  If you think you would be offended that the "magic bean" theme (that tied the piece together musically) has gone missing, you should not see the movie.

Because it does have shades of gray, it is a great piece for viewers who like to take out their adult sophistication for a little exercise.  With today's lot of American films, it tends to get a little flabby.


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