Friday, October 31, 2008


"Could we have started the atomic age with clean hands?"

John Adams' opera DOCTOR ATOMIC asks the above question in its very first scene. It is a question that the play's protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, ducks at first, but gradually finds himself having to confront. Most of DOCTOR ATOMIC centers on the roughly 12 hours leading up to the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and specifically on Oppenheimer's crisis of conscience as the zero hour nears.

Alas, the production currently occupying the Metropolitan Opera in New York City manages to lose its way pretty thoroughly in a needlessly prolonged and almost entirely tension-free second act. I'm going to have to blame the director, one Penny Woolcock, a filmmaker who is making her theatrical debut with this production, for not ratcheting up the tension and making the characters live onstage as they should. Granted, the libretto doesn't do her any favors. Assembled by Peter Sellars from a variety of sources, the libretto is a patchwork taken from interviews, histories, and poetry. Some of the sources can be rather oblique: if I hadn't read the synopsis before the opera began, I would not have known that an extended love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife is made up almost entirely of poems by Muriel Rukeyser and Baudelaire. Other scenes involve a discussion on calorie counting between Oppenheimer and the general in charge of the operation.

Clearly, LA BOHEME this ain't. The first act progresses well enough, culminating in a marvelous aria from Oppenheimer, sung powerfully by Gerald Finley, taken from a sonnet by John Donne. Sung while standing quite literally in the shadow of the bomb, it lays out Oppenheimer's conflicts very clearly and movingly. Then Act Two begins, and the momentum simply evaporates. The test is delayed due to rain, and characters start dealing with what their development of the bomb might really mean. What might have been an opportunity for increased tension and soulful examination of motives turns out to be, quite simply, a bore. Ms. Woolcock has no idea how to move people around onstage, there are just too many scenes of people simply standing around onstage while the music plays. I started to wonder if someone had missed a cue or something. It definitely ruins the otherwise impressive final countdown sequence, played as the entire cast cowers together onstage, staring out at the audience.

It is worth noting that this is in fact the second full-blown production that DOCTOR ATOMIC has had. The first productions were directed by Peter Sellars himself, and I have a feeling he has a better handle on the material than Ms. Woolcock. The original production has been released on a DVD which I am going to have to check out shortly, just to see if Sellars' production solves the problems the opera presents. I've seen a few clips online that don't make me particularly optimistic. Maybe DOCTOR ATOMIC shouldn't be given a full production at all. I have a feeling that it might be more successfully mounted as an oratorio of some kind.

An oratorio presentation would put the attention where it belongs: on John Adams' music. I don't have the musical vocabulary to do it anything like justice, I'll just say that the score for DOCTOR ATOMIC seems to me on a first encounter to be one of Adams' finest accomplishments, along with his recent opera A FLOWERING TREE. I have no doubt that it will live a long life on my Ipod. Mr. Finley makes a very real physical impression as Oppenheimer, his cool certainty in the opening morphing gradually into anguished fear by the final moments. I have a memory of him leaning forward during the countdown, at an almost impossible angle.

I'll get the CD. If you aren't going to be able to see the production, don't lose too much sleep over it.

Here's a link to the Met Website, where you can see a trailer that makes the production look a lot better than it is:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Sympathy for the Dubya

Oliver Stone's film W settles, in many ways, for a pretty easy depiction of W the man as Misunderstood Black Sheep who Just Wants Daddy To Love Him. This choice on Stone's part lets both W the film and W the man off the hook pretty thoroughly, and I simply don't understand the reasoning behind it. Stone's NIXON numbered Nixon's every nerve, sparing no one and nothing, showing me the shivering guilty little boy behind the permanent five o'clock shadow, and on some level it worked because it was apparently pretty well true. NIXON the movie managed to explain Nixon the man without excusing him, which can't be said of W the movie.

It has to be said, though, that NIXON the movie had a richer subject than W. the movie. Nixon's insane drive for power at all costs made for some fine drama, which W's bumbling fratboy who smirks his way to the top can't come close to approaching. There's nothing in W, for instance, to match the great shouting match between Joan Allen's Pat Nixon and Anthony Hopkins' frantic Dick. I'm tempted to say something about lesser actors for lesser Presidents, but there's more to it than that.

The most consistent attitude Stone takes toward W the man is bemused tolerant sympathy for Poor Lil' Ol' W. We also get W the Cunning Politician, sitting on a park bench rehearsing talking points with Karl Rove, and W the Zealous Convert declaring his politically convenient Christianity, and W the Clueless Boob refusing pecan pie because he's given up sweets in solidarity with the troops. There's some nice mean stuff in there, to be sure, but the edge is continually dulled by the constant return to W the Unloved Manchild. And Stone doesn't even bring up W's controversial and probably non-existent army career, the stolen 2000 election, or the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, issues that might more seriously lessen the sympathy Stone keeps whipping up.

Stone does manage a couple of odd moments. There's a dream sequence toward the end, set in the Oval Office. Bush Sr. is taunting W, they eventually come to blows, and W screams "Get out of my head!" and wakes up in a sweat. At first glance the scene is an embarassment, a film-student cliché, but on second thought it seems kind of appropriate for W to have such a pathetically obvious dream, one that any reasonably sentient being would be able to decode. I don't think Stone meant it as a satiric comment on W the man, but there's something oddly telling about it. The cry to "get out of my head" sticks out, because the film has never really gotten inside W's head in any meaningful way. Stone seems content to recycle the old stories without doing much with them, settling for some easy pop-psych cliches, of which this dream is the best and clearest example.

There's a second set of dreams or fantasies running through the film, more ambiguous and troubling. Every so often Stone cuts to W in an empty sports stadium, listening to cheers coming from absent crowds. There's something genuinely eerie about it, as opposed to the blatant obviousness of the Oval Office dream, a hint of the solitude that will in all likelihood envelope our man W when he's out of office and the crowds have moved on. In the final moments of the film, there's a loud crack from a ball hitting a bat. W. goes out to catch the ball, which never comes. The film's final shot is a closeup of W waiting for the ball, and waiting, and waiting…

I was reminded of the final moments of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the last shot of Lawrence behind a dirty windshield, inscrutable as the film fades to black. Stone might have been trying for something similar here, but it doesn't really work with the film as it stands. With W the man, there can be no ambiguity. To paraphrase W himself, you're either with him, or against him. The fact that there has been no significant outcry from the Bush Administration should tell you how they feel about it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


I've been listening to Radiohead a lot lately. I like this video. The song is entitled RECKONER, and it is from their album IN RAINBOWS.

Find more videos like this on w.a.s.t.e. central