Thursday, June 14, 2001

A Trip to the Library

As a small child growing up in Nashville, my life was dull in many regards - my sisters and I didn't get to watch much TV, rarely went to movies, and lived a very quiet life. Going to our branch library in Green Hills was a weekly necessity; my sisters and I always checked out the maximum number of books allowed and usually had read them all in the first 48 hours. The Green Hills branch was, after our home, one of our more constant and comforting environments.
But the Ben West Library - the Main branch - that was our Disneyland; a treat for enduring a visit to the doctor, or finishing school for the summer. It had those Tichenor puppets that we saw on school field trips, and more books than Green Hills - books we couldn't find elsewhere. It had the thrill of novelty, and for fanatical readers like me and my older sister Amy, it was nirvana. Among the three of us girls (Greta wasn't an enthusiastic reader and would allot us her share), we could get 24 books, and we planned and contrived how to get the most out of that unreasonable (to us!) limitation: "I'll get The Secret Garden and you can read it when I'm done, if you'll let me read Anne of the Island when you're finished..."
25 years later, I am still going to the Main library, but more frequently than back in those days. In high school and college I researched countless papers there, I moved into the Adult Fiction area, and in recent years I have haunted the audio-visual department for books on tape for long commutes. I was delighted that it was moving into a bigger space. The last 2 months have been hard - waiting for the building to open, yet unwilling to approach the slowly emptying husk of the old building that had been my Disneyland.
I could not wait for the official opening ceremonies on Saturday - I left work early on Friday to see if I could sneak through in advance. Fortunately for me, the doors were open and I was able to walk in. All along, I had not envisioned what the space would look like, even though I had seen architectural sketches on display. I figured it would be a dull, functional civic space with linoleum floors.
I walked into the main lobby on white marble. I was in Heaven's Library. Three immense stories of books and materials and conference rooms and stages and computers and galleries. It was as though someone had asked me, "What would you like in your library?" and every single suggestion offered was met with a hearty "We'll do it!" My mouth stayed agape for most of my reconnaissance through the building. Nice things like this, where you're genuinely surprised and delighted, are so rare in this world that they should be commemorated with plaques.
I went into the Popular Materials section, and did my first acid test. In over 2 decades of visiting Metro libraries, I have noticed how many beloved but out-of-print books have slowly disappeared from the shelves, like old dogs sent to "live on a farm;" or stolen by highly literate thieves. I have gotten in the habit, in bookstores and libraries alike, of checking to see if these books still live on shelves somewhere. So I started checking... H.E. Bates? Check. Brent? Check. Bristow? Check. Alcott - the obscure works? Check. They were all there. It was painful to leave them on the shelves, but I could tell that the checkout stations weren't open.
I should mention that there were other people walking through like me, but many had tags on, and I instinctively knew I wasn't supposed to be there... which made wandering through the stacks even sweeter. I saw the immense children's section, with almost a half-dozen copies of each book on the shelves in some areas. Blyton? Check. I was finally captured on the third floor, looking out into the lovely courtyard. A very nice young man named Dallas politely informed me that the library wasn't open to the public yet, but offered to walk me through a few areas I hadn't seen yet on my way out.
The Grand Reading Room (magnificent - look at the ceiling!). The Nashville Room (spacious, after that tiny room in the old building). The Theater (even the stage lighting was hung!). The Art Gallery (an exhibit already in place)... and I was out in the street again. In a world where we usually expect so little, and usually get it, the new Main Library is a delight, exceeding my expectations in every respect. The media is fond of asking the question "Is the Internet making libraries obsolete?" to which this building, and the vision behind it, shout a resounding and defiant "NO!"
I'm going back on Monday during my lunch break. Let's see... Malvern? Streatfeild?

Thursday, January 11, 2001

What's Wrong With Branagh's "Love's Labor's Lost"

Why a discussion of this movie, already released in the US and abroad (without, I might add, reaching Nashville) and just as speedily sent to video would be of interest to anyone but myself is apparent to me, even as I write this - but when it's 3:55 am, and you cannot get back to sleep for the myriad of details and inconceivable choices made by Kenneth Branagh flooding your mind - well, there's nothing for it but to purge it by writing it out. To say that this production is lamentable is a mildness which I employ because I respect Branagh's original intention when he conceived the piece. That the words "disappointing," "bizarre," "murderous," "pointless" and "stupid" might also be well used in such an analysis is inescapable.
Branagh has, in recent years, made a practice of mounting lavish productions of Shakespeare's works on film - and in an effort to make the final product more palatable to Americans audiences, he offers several pivotal roles in each production to a handful of deserving actors from the US. Like greedy children offered the contents of a candy store, they devour this rare opportunity, for as we all know, there's nothing like Shakespeare to validate one's career as an actor. Some actors have managed extremely well - Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing, for example, and I suppose Billy Crystal as the gravedigger in Hamlet wasn't too bad - but as production follows production, his efforts to choose actors in hopes of appealing to the broadest common denominator become more obvious and ill-advised. Alicia Silverstone as The Princess of France, Matt Lillard as Longueville, Nathan Lane as Costard - teenage boys and girls, horror film fans, Disney fans! You can almost see Branagh crossing focus groups off a list.
And they aren't bad, precisely. There's a certain awkwardness in their delivery, but thanks to Branagh's lavish cuts, they never speak for long, except for one well-done section, which I will return to later. Their main crime is that of obviousness. To enjoy Shakespeare, it's almost better to be ignorant of the identity of the actors. Am I the only one who thought Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love was simply playing herself with a British accent? Gwyneth modelling a series of lovely Renaissance dresses, pretending to be an English lady? She was too big to be believable, and not good enough as an actress to transcend her own celebrity and hype.
But I digress. The point is that Alicia Silverstone and Matt Lillard are too tainted with celebrity and modernity to be believable in such a piece. Nathan Lane is actually pretty good. So the American actors go through their parts at top speed (have you noticed that Branagh adores having actors arrive in a scene at a run, possibly dressing or accessorizing as they dash in, all breathless... it gives such a sense of realism to the scene, don't you think? Ay, the first time I saw it. After about 4 productions the trick becomes obvious, especially when he employs it several times in the same film.) As I was saying before I was distracted, they "go through their parts at top speed," hoping their deficiencies in presentation will not be as evident if they whizz by us. Perhaps this is why the film clocked in at 90+ minutes.
We all raise a collective eyebrow here. Would someone please explain to me how, on God's green earth, could a Shakespeare play be reduced to an hour and a half and still be called Shakespeare? The cuts are so numerous, so Jack-the-Ripper-esque in their totality - the internal organs of the poor victim lie beside the gutted body. Um, that's a bit gross. Ok, it's like a pretty new dollhouse - beautifully detailed, nicely furnished - but there's no-one in it. Nary a doll. Nah, I like my Jack the Ripper analogy better.
Where was I? Oh, the play's been cut. A lot. And, to complete the confusion, many popular songs of the Gershwins and Cole Porter have been slotted in. The actors sing and dance. Adequately. But, why oh why? It's as though Branagh has lost all faith in Shakespeare; and as the self proclaimed producer of Shakespeare on film for our generation, he's determined to get a piece that no-one else would do (there's a reason why I've never even had the opportunity to see a production of it) and to keep up the current mode of modern settings such as Ian McKellan's Richard III, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet (emphasize the Plus, it's what makes it cool!) and Ethan Hawke's Hamlet (which doesn't even deserve to be mentioned, it's so hideous) he's grabbed desperately at the idea of turning Love's Labor's Lost into a musical set in an ersatz WWII era Europe a la Hollywood. I must credit Branagh on his efforts to make the characters clear and the plot (such as it is) discernable. The old-fashioned Movietone newsreels he created have a charming air of authenticity about them, and as the newsreels are done entirely in modern English, anyone who might have gotten lost in what remains of Shakespeare's language is set straight. Also, Branagh has kindly color-coordinated the 4 couples in red, orange, green and blue (as director/producer/actor, he chose the blue for himself and Natasha McElhone; it matches his eyes), just in case anyone was getting lost.
As I mentioned earlier, they sing and dance adequately, But that's not good enough. Yes, actors can be coached and skillfully choreographed to look good in a dance number, and I don't doubt some of them have had some dance training in their past. But dance professionals have a stillness, a nuance that amateurs can't duplicate - there's a shakiness to amateur dance. It reminds me of Circus of the Stars - yes that's Bernie Koppels from The Love Boat up there on that trapeze - but you know he just wasn't meant to be there. And most of these actors just can't pull off song and dance with the kind of skill that makes you want to watch them. Any voice can be processed in a studio to be on pitch and sound good, so there's no point belaboring that.
I think I'm almost done, so I'll return to the good part I mentioned before. After a highly confusing mishmash of songs, dance, feeble comedy and occasional speeches which make no real impression on the audience, circumstances force the 4 couples apart. In an almost miraculously intact series of farewells, all of these actors get a few moments to show that they do understand the language, and that they are credible actors. I was actually moved by the scenes between Alessandro Nivola as the King of Navarre and Silverstone as the Princess of France; likewise the scene between Branagh and McElhone. It was almost infuriating that these actors were denied the opportunity to really shine in a Shakespeare production, and instead were only offered this slipshod mess of a piece.