The idea of the most renowned Off-Broadway director gathering a handful of seasoned performers for rehearsals of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a crumbling, abandoned Forty-second Street theater—for several years, and with no intention of opening their exercise to the public—sounds like a New Yorker cartoon in search of a punch line. But it did happen, and Louis Malle’s 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street (Criterion; Blu-Ray $39.95, DVD $29.95) is, at the very least, proof. Contained within Malle’s final film is a faithful and poignant adaptation of Uncle Vanya, but the film itself resists easy classification. Is it an unusually intimate performance documentary, a low-stakes rehearsal captured on film, or a meticulous metafictional chamber drama?
Godard said that every film is a documentary of its actors. Malle’s begins with the various parts of his ensemble making their way to rehearsal through a bustling, grimy Times Square. Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith arrive as a duo, locked in unheard conversation and scrambling across the street to avoid an oncoming firetruck. Larry Pine, preparing to play the would-be seducer Dr. Astrov, turns to admire the backside of a passing female. Wallace Shawn, already embodying the waggish, humiliated Vanya, is wolfing down a street knish. André Gregory, the play’s director and Shawn’s famously verbose dining companion—see Malle’s My Dinner With André (1981)—steals a bite of the unfamiliar pastry, as if entitled to it. The ensemble enters the building, continuing their casual conversations, and when Chekhov’s play (in David Mamet’s plain-spoken translation) begins, we are given no warning or indication. In this Manhattan, one is always already getting into character.
The small community shares scripted disappointments in a quiet, decaying palace while the world stirs unknowingly just outside. The concept neatly matches the self-imposed entrapment of Chekhov’s characters, who might improve their lot by simply packing up and leaving the provinces. Malle tests the gravity of the source material by letting the outside world creep in. Joshua Redman’s jazz score intrudes upon the Serebryakov estate during scene breaks, the characters drink from those iconic blue-and-white “Greek” paper coffee cups, and one pivotal scene is overlaid with the faint blare of sirens.
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What experienced performer has never harbored doubts about an assigned role? In her unassumingly intelligent directorial debut, Higher Ground (2011), actress Vera Farmiga likens religious faith to a particularly challenging performance—one requiring authenticity, self-scrutiny, and a willingness to look stupid and trust in one’s audience. This may sound like a cheapening of the Gospels, but the film (Sony Pictures Classics; Blu-Ray/DVD, $45.99) draws no line in a culture war. The film’s ambivalence is so skillfully modulated that it never lapses into judgment or prejudice.
Farmiga teams with her look-alike younger sister, Taissa, to play the self- conscious but self-possessed Corinne at different ages, spanning the 1960s through the 1980s. She meets her husband as a local teenage rock star (Joshua Leonard plays him as an adult); they stumble into pregnancy and a rushed marriage; and together they join a caring, if mildly cultish, fundamentalist hippie church. Corinne earnestly attempts to express and sublimate her burgeoning feminism through the dictates of the Word. Working from a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, Farmiga exercises her talents on three things American movies rarely get right: sex, small towns and spirituality.
“Because you are lukewarm,” Corinne’s preacher quotes from the Book of Revelation, “I will spew you out of my mouth.” Fortunately, Farmiga does lukewarm better than any contemporary American actress. Drawing from a deep well of benign skepticism, her achievement is all balance; she knows exactly when to let go. You can sense Farmiga’s directorial process by watching her perform, and because this is a woman-directed movie about a woman directing her own performance, the result is nearly a thing of grace.
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On the heels of Shadows, John Cassavetes signed an inauspicious contract with Paramount, allying his acerbic Method spirit to a half-million-dollar budget. The result of the deal, Too Late Blues (1961), made no attempt to mask his reservations, taking as its subject the impossibility of maintaining integrity in a business of sleaze and sellouts. It flopped. Long unavailable on home video—and now provided with a modest but welcome release by Olive Films (Blu-Ray $29.95; DVD $24.95)—Blues remains an overwrought drama but a handy reference point for Cassavetes’s later career and the history of DIY cinema.
If the film doesn’t reek of compromise, Bobby Darin’s jazz pianist “Ghost” Wakefield does. He’s a minor talent anchoring a loyal but antsy quintet; they want something more remunerative than gigging at nursing homes. He partners with an alluring, damaged singer (Stella Stevens, conveying moribund glamour) but finds that his masculine insecurities can only jeopardize her safety. Within months, he finds a comfortable rock bottom as a gigolo on the cocktail circuit.
Like Cassavetes’s later masterworks, Blues is largely plotless and dominated by long, emotionally cluttered scenes. Though he never took a strictly oppositional stance to Hollywood, Cassavetes thought he’d learned a lesson: “I told them I wouldn’t do another film unless I wanted to do it and unless I could do it my own way.” Well, it didn’t happen immediately: his next project, the United Artists drama A Child Is Waiting (1963), turned into an unmitigated disaster, and Cassavetes disowned the film.