Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera

The first opera I ever attended at the Metropolitan Opera was Puccini’s Tosca.

Under general manager Peter Gelb’s guidance, the Met had just tossed aside the sturdy, if creaky, Zeffirelli production of Tosca for a new staging by Luc Bondy, part of a broader initiative to reinvigorate the Met. Bondy’s stark, uninviting production did not prove to be a hit with critics or audiences. Bondy tossed aside the grandeur of Zeffirelli for a haphazard vision that did little to enliven the material. Still, I found the experience delightful. I had never heard Puccini’s score performed live, and, as performed by the Met’s orchestra, it was truly thrilling. I further enjoyed seeing and experiencing the Met itself, an exemplar of mid-twentieth century architecture that finds some strange coherence through its incongruous impulses.

This past Friday, I once again journeyed to the Met for yet another Tosca, this one staged by director David McVicar. The McVicar production exists more or less as an apology for the despised Bondy production, promising a lush and traditional take on a beloved classic. The critical response to McVicar’s staging of Tosca has been muted, as if it would be unseemly to praise a production that takes no significant risks. But who needs big risks when you’re dealing with Tosca? It’s an opera that rarely benefits from innovation.

McVicar’s new staging is certainly attractive. The audience greeted John Macfarlane’s sets with applause, and rightly so; they’re elegantly composed and ornamented. There’s an impressionistic aspect to the way they employ color and texture, further accented by the painterly quality of David Finn’s lighting effects.

But what truly distinguishes this new Tosca is its dramatic clarity. McVicar puts the opera’s characters first, deriving the most striking moments of his staging through their interactions. McVicar loses his way a little toward the end of Act I, during which he needlessly crowds the set with anonymous extras wandering through the cathedral. Otherwise he remains in command of the material, adding flourishes that accentuate some of the opera’s more incredulous turns (including a fairly clever rendition of Cavaradossi’s final moments).

The orchestra, under the command of Bertrand de Billy, sounded as vibrant as ever. Jennifer Rowley played the title role, stepping in for Anna Netrebko, who was ill. Rowley’s firy, complex Tosca was a marvel; she demonstrated breathtaking vocal command throughout her performance, but especially on her very fine rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” Michael Volle’s Scarpia proved to be a terrific match for Rowley’s Tosca, and the great battle of wills between them in Act II proved to be the highlight of the night. The third link in the trio, Yusif Eyvazov’s Cavaradossi, demonstrated great vocal force, but otherwise dynamism and expressiveness; he seemed to struggle with Cavaradossi’s quieter moments.

If this Tosca will do little to make waves in opera history, the Metropolitan Opera now successfully has an updated, contemporary Tosca that will nicely align with many of the other staples in its repertoire. As it looks to other classic productions to update (of the Puccini tentpoles, I’m personally hoping they develop a new version of Turandot,, which, unlike Tosca, would benefit from conceptual innovation), they could do worse to follow the example set by McVicar’s Tosca.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIV

Thus we arrive at the closing moments of Casino Royale, in which Craig’s Bond fully embalms himself in the armor of his constructed persona, and steps out into the world to confront sinister villainy as a state-employed thug in elegant attire.

Even though the ending of Casino Royale was always intended to function as a gateway to the sequel (the initial versions of which were being written by Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as Casino Royale was filming), Casino Royale‘s ending feels less like a cliffhanger than it does the completion of the film’s arc. This is certainly how director Martin Campbell felt, who declined to return for its successor due to a feeling that a sequel would not add much to his work on Casino Royale. Still, Quantum of SolaceSkyfall, and Spectre will each, in their own way, see this finale as a kind of pause rather than a full statement. The Craig era exists in a constant push-and-pull wherein Bond’s identity is asserted and subsequently challenged.

The conversation with M consists of an embarrassing amount of exposition, most of which serves to clear up the mystery surrounding Vesper’s motivations. These motivations have been relatively obscure and clumsily dramatized, and will still remain a bit hazy after this conversation (this murkiness surrounding Vesper’s motivations, and her boyfriend, provides Quantum of Solace with its foundation). M’s comments to Bond contain much supposition along with the few facts she provides. If this conversation achieves anything dramatically, it is to refocus the film around Bond’s relationship to M, who chastises Bond for being coldhearted while also knowing that she needs him to be exactly who he is in order for him to be useful to her and the state she serves.

The conversation does not serve Craig’s Bond especially well, reducing him to a grim-faced listener. The film tosses away the iconic, nasty closing line of Fleming’s novel, suggesting that it is included more out of obligation to the source novel rather than out of clear dramatic purpose. In Fleming’s novel, it was a searing final exclamation mark in the hardboiled tradition, a blast of misogyny that extended from Bond’s wounded masculinity. Here, it is stated and then subsequently challenged, overwhelmed by M’s musings.

Vesper’s cell phone enables Bond to track down Mr. White. It’s suggested this was her intention all along. Mr. White is clearly somewhat negligent when it comes to the use of cell phone tech. Giving Vesper his personal number and retains the same phone after this affair is concluded. You’d think he would at least have the same sense as a low-class criminal and use a burner.

The finale, staged at Mr. White’s beautiful lakeside villa, concludes Bond’s character arc by showing that he has been absorbed by the character’s iconography. The sequence serves as a purpose statement for Bond: he’s the killer who brings violence wherever he goes, hunting down the criminal elements that cloak themselves in luxury and wealth.

Bond sports an atypically rakish outfit. Given that the dinner jacket was already presented mid-picture, costume designer Lindy Hemming was tasked with effectively created a Bond outfit that could out-Bond the dinner jacket, and she settled on the three-piece suit, which nods back to Connery’s attire in Goldfinger. Where Connery’s gray suit was tasteful, Craig’s is ostentatious. This pinstriped suit is not the suit of a gentleman educated in “Oxford or wherever,” to borrow Vesper’s words, but the suit of a hoodlum. The gangster-ish effect of the outfit is further magnified by Bond’s choice of weapon, which might as well be a Tommy gun.

His smug delivery of the “Bond, James Bond” line rings out both loud and hollow. This is, as Fleming once described him, the man who is only a silhouette. Death will follow in his wake. Cue, for the first time, the James Bond theme.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part I

Quantum of Solace derives its peculiar title from Ian Fleming’s short story of the same name. In the Fleming story (which bears no relationship to the film), it refers to the minimal amount of comfort two people need to find in one another to preserve a healthy romantic relationship. In this film, it speaks to what Bond needs to find in the wake of Vesper’s death, while also (nonsensically) alluding to the name of the villainous organization that drove her to suicide. The title was chosen very late into production; screenwriter Paul Haggis’ proposed title was Sleep of the Dead.

As noted earlier, Casino Royale was always envisioned as being the first part of a two-film arc, and while the sequel was subject to many frantic rewrites that shifted the emphasis of the sequel, the majority of Quantum‘s components can be traced back to that original story outline. Quantum of Solace was always intended to pick up shortly after Casino Royale ended off, allowing the audience to see the aftermath of Bond’s confrontation with Mr. White.

Casino Royale ends with a blast of triumphant iconography, and Quantum of Solace immediately seeks to undermine that sense of Bondian bombast. Casino Royale ended with David Arnold’s robustly orchestrated version of the Bond theme, but Quantum of Solace opens instead with ominous underscore. The studio logos lead into the full-shot introduction, a beautiful vista of an Italian lakeside mountain (the iconic gunbarrel opening, which was given an origin story of sorts in Casino Royale, is withheld for the end credits both in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, returning to its traditional place at the beginning of the film with Spectre). The warmth that suffused Casino Royale‘s images of Italy has been drained away.

Quantum of Solace will be, in many ways, more aesthetically refined than Casino Royale was–the cinematography, the score, the production design, and costume design are generally stronger here than in Casino Royale–but the aesthetic here is fairly stark and chilly. The luxury and exoticism of the Bond series will be present, but will be pointedly juxtaposed with third-world squalor, and even when it does appear, it will rarely seem especially inviting.

As the camera sails across the water to the Italian shore, edits give us glimpses of Bond’s eye, the hood of the Aston Martin, the spin of the wheel, guns being readied. It’s a bit of atmospheric calm before the hysterical impatience of the car chase overwhelms us, and it’s one of the film’s more elegant flourishes. The car chase that follows, alas, is somewhat obnoxious, taking the frantic, dizzying editing popularized by the Greengrass Bourne films to absurd heights (both editor Rick Pearson and second unit director Dan Bradley worked on the Bourne movies before joining the Quantum team).

Bond had flirted with quick-cut editing in the 1960s, as Peter Hunt worked as an editor to develop an impressionistic action-editing style that reached its apex when he graduated to director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Hunt’s approach to action still paid close attention to what was in the frame at any given time (indeed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its sumptuous use of widescreen shot composition). Quantum of Solace is much sloppier. The car chase has little sense of geography, and feels pasted together from shots that have no real business occurring in sequence (there’s even a preposterous cut to a shot that is, essentially, of nothing; we get the glimpse of a back-fifth of a car as it leaves the frame).

After the clean, carefully dramatized action of Casino Royale, this is something of a crushing disappointment. This frenetic onslaught of image and sound robs these action scenes of any opportunity for suspense; there’s little-to-no attention paid to geography, and it remains quite difficult to register exactly what choices are being made when and by which characters. In this regard, the car chase will not be the worst sequence in the film, but it’s still significantly more exhausting than exciting, and unfortunately squanders some very fine stuntwork.

Eagle-eyed viewers will note that Craig is actually not wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the end of Casino Royale. Taking over from Lindy Hemming, costume designer Louise Frogley decided to shift designers (the suits in Quantum of Solace, which, incidentally, are the most attractive and best-tailored suits of the Craig era, were provided by Tom Ford, whereas Casino Royale‘s suits were provided by Brioni), and instead of replicating the Brioni three-piece suit outright, she shifts to a two-piece suit with a similar color and pinstripe pattern.

Bond escapes and wheels his battered Aston Martin into Siena, Italy, and the film gives us the first appearance of one of the film’s recurring motifs: the title card for each locale lists the city’s name in a unique font, often using the architecture of the location to frame the text. It’s a clever idea, if not always well-implemented (the text is occasionally too stylized to read easily). Part of me wishes that the subsequent Craig films had made it a recurring feature of the era. The end of the pre-title sequence sequence will offer another stylistic flourish: a freeze-frame of Bond’s smug look as he tells Mr. White to get out of the boot of his car.

These touches are rooted in a fundamental dissonance that runs throughout Quantum of Solace, wants to cling to some semblance of playfulness in its approach to the material even as it gets particularly nasty and severe. The title cards are not, by themselves, too incongruous, but there are uglier displays of this dissonance. When Quantum of Solace‘s climax juxtaposes a buffoonish, impotent henchman getting his pants blown off by an explosion with an attempted rape, Quantum of Solace manages the dubious distinction of achieving a level of distastefulness that no prior Bond film had ever managed to achieve.

The title song for Quantum of Solace was originally going to be provided by Amy Winehouse, though she was unable to complete the track, and Jack White and Alica Keys were brought in to provide the Bond series’ first duet. The resulting tune, “Another Way to Die,” may not be the worst example of songwriting ever attached to a Bond film (“Another Way to Die” is oddly structured and lacks a good hook, but the camped-up lyrics, which hearken back to the Bond songs of the early 70s, are amusing enough), but, as performed, it’s nearly unlistenable. If White or Keys had sung the song in isolation, the track might have been passable, but whenever they sing together, the result is unpleasant. The underlying cause of this unpleasantness might be the poorly-implemented raw analog production more than the vocals themselves.

Composer David Arnold did not have a role in composing the theme, but after Quantum of Solace was concluded, he collaborated with lyricist Don Black, Bond veteran, to work thematic material from his score into a song for Shirley Bassey, “No Good About Goodbye.” “No Good About Goodbye” may just be a so-so pastiche, but it’s much better than “Another Way to Die,” if only because it’s performed by the great Shirley Bassey.

At Marc Forster’s request, MK12 designed the title sequence of Quantum of Solace, interrupting Daniel Kleinman’s run as the title designer since 1995’s GoldenEye (MK12 also designed the location title cards and the intricate computer interfaces used by characters throughout the film). The sequence, which features a shadowy Bond traversing an empty desert while haunted by shadowy women, lacks verve and imagination, though it offers at least one spectacular image: Bond, tumbling through space, falls through a zoetrope of female silhouettes, which circle around him like Saturn’s rings.

The title sequence’s final image is of Bond firing a bullet into a sand dune and scattering sand everywhere, which may or may not serve as an effective metaphor for Quantum of Solace‘s general imprecision and dubious trajectory.

The Bond Films of Lewis Gilbert

Filmmaker Lewis Gilbert passed away on Friday, February 28th, 2018, at the age of 92. Gilbert was considerably more than a Bond film director, but his three Bond pictures–You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979)–are especially dear to my heart. They were significant films of my youth, each having left an imprint on my aesthetic consciousness.

Gilbert’s three Bond pictures are all something of a piece with one another, built on similar structures and images. Gilbert’s first (and, as far as I’m concerned, best) Bond film, You Only Live Twice, opens in the vacuum of outer space, and his last film, Moonraker, ends there, giving his time with Bond a pleasant symmetry. All three of his Bond pictures understood that the primary pleasure of the Bond series has always lain in its surrealism, and working with such talented collaborators as Roald Dahl, Ken Adam, Freddie Young, Claude Renoir, Jean Tournier, and John Barry, he gifted us with some of the most striking, immense spectacle the cinema has ever seen.

In tribute to Gilbert, I have collected some of my favorite images from his three Bond pictures.

May he rest in peace.

Phantom Thread

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, people are collections of conflicting impulses that express themselves through behavioral patterns, driven less by will than they are by conscious and unconscious desire. They collide into one another like atoms, sometimes repelling one another, sometimes establishing bonds and forming new stable (or unstable) compounds. When Anderson’s films explore landscapes like that of the pornography industry or religious cults, they remain less interested in big, capital-letter ideas like Religion and Capitalism than they do in the way industries and communities function as expressions of collective behavioral patterns. Over the course of his career, Anderson’s films turn ever more to the mysteries inherent to faces and physical gestures, the portals by which we glimpse the chaos of the human mind.

Anderson’s latest feature serves as an extension of a journey he began in 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Often misapprehended as a Big Metaphor Movie, Blood was less of an allegory than it was a character study, following oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he attempts and fails to establish social bonds with those around him. Starting with Blood, Anderson’s films feel increasingly impressionistic and improvised, roaming more and more freely in their observation of human activity. The ebbs and flows of Blood remain strange and unpredictable, a film of odd time jumps and loose ends. The consistent focal point is Day-Lewis, who, through Plainview’s utterances and postures, paints a portrait of gradual degradation. Detached from the human beings that surround him, Plainview’s behavioral pattern reinforces itself so much that he de-evolves. The film’s allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Darwinian landscape achieve resolution in the film’s final scene, wherein Plainview completes the transformation from human to ape.

Anderson’s subsequent feature, The Master, traced the relationship between a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, and the object of his fascination, a mentally troubled young man named Freddie. Freddie, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, may be the closest thing in any of Anderson’s films to a creature of pure animalistic impulse, all twitchy energy and earthy desire. His presence brings out a bit of the animal in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd, too, who both loves Freddie for his freedom from decorum and because he sees in Freddie the fulfillment of his own creative project. Freddie remains in Dodd’s orbit for some time, but Dodd cannot satisfy him, and so Freddie finds satisfaction through more primal means than the dogmas and rituals of Dodd’s cult.

Anderson brought Phoenix over to his next feature, Inherent Vice, where he plays stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello. Vice‘s neo-noir shaggy-dog story allowed Anderson to explore the architecture of American society as a labyrinth both extending from and constraining a colorful spectrum of people-animals, each caught in the throes of their own peculiar madness. Its existential anxieties about society and the self are ultimately one and the same. Both society and the individual remain fundamentally unfathomable, following an uncertain path to an uncertain destination. Knowledge of either is, at best, provisional.

Anderson’s latest feature, Phantom Thread, takes the form of chamber drama, an appropriate progression for a filmmaker so fascinated with the revelatory power of human gesture. The intimacy of the form narrows and tightens Anderson’s gaze–he has never been so careful–as he observes its central trio, finding the madness in a world of beautiful surfaces. Daniel Day-Lewis once again re-teams with Anderson, appearing here as dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who, with the aid and guidance of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), maintains the prestigious House of Woodcock. When he becomes infatuated with a girl named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his life is thrown into disarray.

Anderson, who has always been something of a sensualist, takes great delight and pleasure in surveying Woodcock’s work, in exploring the ecstasies of its lines and textures. These dresses are not just objects, but vessels of personality. They’re the intimate, sensual expression of Reynolds himself. Both Alma and Cyril partner with Reynolds in his work; he requires both of them to focus his creative energies.

Things begin to strain as Alma’s presence realigns Reynolds’ world, unbalancing the power dynamics that have sustained it. These pivots and shifts, some comic, some suspenseful, play out in tightly written scenes wherein much is left unsaid. In Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville, Anderson has three extraordinary faces that can say everything without uttering anything.

Phantom Thread offers a vision of romance rooted in evolving co-dependency. Phantom Thread‘s final line, uttered by Daniel Day-Lewis, gestures back toward Daniel Plainview’s final declaration from There Will Be Blood. In Phantom Thread, though, the emphasis has shifted: it is not an ending, but a new beginning. A bond has been formed. A new pattern emerges.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIII

“The big picture.”

These words, lifted from Bond’s chastisement at M’s hands earlier in the film, reverberate with a darker significance as Bond murmurs them to Le Chiffre.

The “big picture” involves more than the details of the organization that employs Le Chiffre. The “big picture” suggests the entirety of the complex web of political power in which these individuals find themselves. With greater understanding of context also comes greater understanding of self, and thus the Craig films’ trajectory pairs its investigations into the shadowy corners of the “big picture” with ever deeper dives into the shadowy corners of Bond himself.

Craig’s Bond never comes to terms with his place as a pawn of state power, even if he craves the sense of purpose that comes with it. Bond often chooses to exceed or contradict the orders of his superiors to pursue his own impulses (this trait has always been part of the Bond character from his inception, but remains more prominent for Craig’s Bond, a man perpetually revolting against himself and the world around him). At this moment, having faced near-death at the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond will reject the role of a hired assassin to pursue an uncertain future with Vesper.

Bond recovers from his ordeal at Le Chiffre’s hands in scenic Lake Como (this being a Bond film, a standard hospital simply would not do), and the film takes the lull to fix its gaze on Bond and Vesper. The scenes that unfold here are, on a writing level, some of the weakest in the film, failing to properly showcase the complexities of these characters and their doomed romance.

Nevertheless, I remain entranced by Eva Green, who, even as she has to suffer the indignity of uttering incomprehensibly strange dialogue about Bond’s little finger, remains incandescent and enigmatic. Vesper has clearly begun to fray, though Casino Royale frustratingly fails to offer moments that truly allow for Vesper’s psychological state to take center stage. Vesper may be a less complex character in Fleming’s novel, but the equivalent material there does put Vesper’s emotional disintegration front-and-center. Still, Green makes the most of these little moments she’s given, underlining the way her guilt complex plays into Vesper’s idealization of Bond. 

M will suggest later to Bond that Vesper had made a deal with Mr. White for Bond’s life, and that Vesper likely knew through these days with Bond that her death was imminent. Thus, Vesper’s escape with Bond remains, for her, an excursion into fantasy before the end of her world, and we can observe moments where the fantasy is punctured by awareness of her own mortality.

I noted before that the plotting regarding Mathis fails to satisfy. This section certainly needs some notes of anxiety and menace, but the “Is he or isn’t he a traitor?” ambiguity leads nowhere. The film flirts with Hitchcockian suspense as Mathis provides Bond with a drink that may or may not be poisoned, but the scene never draws out the suspense enough to make it register.

The visible uncertainty that Craig brings to Bond’s admission to Vesper that he doesn’t know what a real job underlines the fragility of their romance. They have constructed fantasy versions of each other, each seeking an escape from their situation, one that the real world would likely shatter even if Vesper wasn’t carrying a secret burden. Vesper fully knows that it is a fantasy, but Bond does not.

When Bond and Vesper bid goodbye in the hotel lobby in Venice, you can see that Vesper knows she’s seeing Bond for the last time, that this is the last happy moment of her life and she wants it to sustain her through whatever follows. Vesper then becomes a prop, a cipher whose motivations are left to be explained by another character in the aftermath of her demise. 

The Venice section of the film had a different structure in earlier drafts of Casino Royale, allowing her the chance to speak for herself. Originally, Vesper’s suicide preceded the action climax. Bond found Vesper dead in their hotel room, along with a video created by Vesper in which she explained her actions, and then pointed him toward Gettler and the money. 

This structure was changed by Paul Haggis, who felt that that structure squandered the emotional momentum of Vesper’s betrayal. The final version does allow Bond’s emotional state to propel the action, but the gunfire and spectacle also has the effect of overwhelming the relationship between Bond and Vesper.

The overcomplicated mechanics by which Bond learns of Vesper’s betrayal are confusing and inelegant. Bond checks Vesper’s phone as he gets a call from M about missing money, then quickly calls the banker, Mendel, who is able to see that the funds are being withdrawn from a branch nearby. After this flurry of clunky exposition and coincidence, Bond leaps into action.

I very much like the sequence as Bond trails Vesper (she wears a red dress, a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). Bond, stung by the betrayal, instinctually returns to the role of a killer as he moves with purpose through the shadowy corridors of Venice (nicely lit by Meheux).

Earlier versions of the sinking house sequence were more subdued and might have been more dramatically balanced (early drafts had Bond facing off against only Gettler, not a group of thugs, thus making it a brutal brawl more akin to the stairway fight), but, likely in order to provide a stronger action climax, it became more complicated and grand.

The sinking house in Venice reinforces classic Bond formula (a climax in a imploding space, typically a villain’s lair, is a Bond staple, and one that all of the Craig films follow). The collapse of the Venician house serves as a metaphor for the collapse of Bond’s hopes for domesticity with Vesper, hopes which were always as vulnerable as a house suspended on the water.

The unfortunate effect of placing Vesper in the midst of this action climax is that, contrary to Haggis’ intent, Vesper becomes a prop, rather than its centerpiece. Confined to an elevator, she gets little else to do but scream as the house begins to disintegrate.

Gettler, the miniboss of the Venice setpiece, has an appealing retro look. He would have perhaps benefitted from some additional setup to make his appearance here more of an event, rather than justt serving as another unestablished character like Carlos from the Miami chase, appearing only to justify the existence of an action setpiece.

The geography and number of players remains murky throughout, so what gives this sequence definition and propulsion is the spectacle of Bond cutting his way through his surroundings with unflinching viciousness. He seems more Terminator-like than ever, yanking out a nail that has been buried in his shoulder with little concern. (One touch, visible if you break the sequence down shot-by-shot, is that Bond uses his Omega as a knuckle-duster, a nod back to Ian Fleming.)

Vesper defies Bond’s attempt to save her, choosing death rather than confrontation. The horrifying sight of her drowning is much more vivid and harrowing than Fleming’s version (suicide by overdose) could possibly have been if translated faithfully to the screen, further heightening the drama by making Bond an active participant, struggling but failing to save her.

Bond pulls Vesper from the water and begins administering CPR, only to recoil when he becomes aware of his actions. Bond’s identity crisis, emblazoned on Craig’s contorted, red-eyed face, has come to a head. Bond belongs neither to the service nor to Vesper. He gives in to his grief and moves to Vesper, cradling her lifeless form.

Thus Casino Royale offers an image that will become one of the recurrent motifs of the Craig era, appearing in Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall: Bond holding the body of someone he failed to save, while a solitary witness looks on.

Here, the onlooker is Mr. White.