Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In Memoriam: The Ziegfeld Theater, 1969-2016

Last week the Siren was in Midtown, meeting a friend for drinks, and she passed the Ziegfeld Theater, Manhattan’s most glorious movie venue. And she saw that The Force Awakens was playing there, and thought, “Hey, that one’s practically a license to print money. I know the Ziegfeld's had some problems, but I bet Star Wars is helping a lot."

Given her prophetic abilities as they stand currently revealed, you can take the Siren’s theory about what killed the Ziegfeld for whatever it’s worth. But dead the Ziegfeld most certainly is. A "high-end event space"? Thank you so much, O Titans of Business! We were running out of those in Manhattan!!

Here's the Siren's theory, anyway. Take it or leave it.

Real estate killed the Ziegfeld.

But not in the way you may be thinking (i.e., the theater's own rent). Real estate killed the Ziegfeld's audience.

Movies, as the Siren wrote in her novel, are the people’s art form. For all the glitzy premieres held at the theater, like any other venue it needed people who could attend regularly. And as the years went by, fewer and fewer working-stiff film lovers lived within striking distance of the Ziegfeld. It is at 141 West 54th Street in Manhattan, between 6th and 7th Avenues. It’s close to a lot of subway trains. But the Ziegfeld is a long-ass haul from much of Brooklyn. It is a shlep from much of Queens, where a lot of shallow-pocketed cinephiles also live. From the Bronx or Staten Island, fuggedaboudit. Combine that with the rise of ever-more-pristine home video versions of the crowd-pleasers that once were the Ziegfeld’s bread and butter, and, well.

You can call it laziness, if you want to be a scold. But when you’re scraping by, as so many ordinary New Yorkers are, time is money. An hour to get there, an hour to get back, after long hours of however you’re earning a living — that isn’t a small physical and mental consideration. If you are paying a sitter a typical NYC rate, it’s a pretty large monetary factor as well.

Who does live close to the Ziegfeld these days? Well, there’s this charming edifice, which casts a shadow like a middle finger raised to Central Park, and is filled with condominiums bought as investment properties, many of them empty for large blocks of the year. (More are on the way.) When these owners are in town, the Siren suspects they spend more time at expense-account restaurants and the offices of personal shoppers than they do in the red-velvet seats of the Ziegfeld.

There are many hotels in the immediate vicinity, full of tourists on the phone to the concierge, begging for tickets to Hamilton. When you spend New York money for a visit here, a ticket to a movie seems like awfully weak tea. “The Force Awakens? Really? C'mon honey, we can see that back in Phoenix. If we can’t swing Hamilton, let’s try The Book of Mormon.”

The Ziegfeld was a swell location for the Siren when she lived on Avenue A, and even better when she lived on 125th Street and Broadway. She can remember when they still allowed smoking in the balcony. She can remember standing on 6th Avenue, very far back on the line to see a dazzling 70mm version of Vertigo. Such was the space at the Ziegfeld that even though it was sold out, she had a great view. The Siren can still hear the sympathetic groan that went up from the audience after a certain tragic death in Lawrence of Arabia.

Probably the last time the Siren went to the Ziegfeld was for the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, god bless ’em. It was All About Eve. The great Elaine Stritch introduced the movie and took questions afterward. A Bright Young Thing asked a question about “back in your day.” There was a pause of terrifying length. And then The Goddess Elaine responded, “This IS my day.”

Oh my god, how the Siren will miss the sound of more than a thousand film fans laughing when a good line brings down the house.

But here is the memory of the great Ziegfeld that the Siren will carry forever, the way a besotted fan remembers every syllable a star uttered while signing an autograph.

It was perhaps one month after 9/11. The Siren’s BFF, a film editor, talked her into getting on the subway and coming uptown to see Funny Girl at the Ziegfeld. This man doesn’t like musicals. He’s no Barbra Streisand fan. If he loves William Wyler as the Siren does, he has yet to elaborate on it. But insist he did, and thus did the Siren haul her cookies up to West 54th Street.

The movie was preceded by a preview for Ice Age, which involved a squirrel precipitating an enormous, thunderous, crashing avalanche of massive fragments from an infinitely towering wall of ice. The squirrel runs like crazy to avoid being crushed.

Why this struck anyone as a fine-and-dandy preview to run on a gigantic screen, in October 2001, in New York City, the Siren will never know. She sat in horrified silence, and her BFF managed only to mutter, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Mercifully, Funny Girl began. And on the screen at the Ziegfeld, that film bloomed. The streets of New York, backlot or location, beckoned. Streisand’s blazing talent never seemed more apparent. Up comes this number.

At about 2:30 Brice is boarding the ferry and you get a glimpse of lower Manhattan — without the World Trade Center, a view that until recently, the Siren had never known and her friend only vaguely remembered. We watched this on the screen at the Ziegfeld, with that sound system wrapping us in Streisand’s eternally New York voice. Streisand/Brice stood on the ferry's deck, belting out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's anthem as the boat pulled across the harbor. The Siren started crying. She looked at her friend, and he was touching the corners of his eyes.

We glanced at each other some minutes after the number was over, and started to laugh. Because we were both such saps, because this film was so much better than we had ever given it credit for being, because the city was beautiful in 1968, and by god, it would be again. We were probably annoyingly loud, very much the sort who could inspire a blog post about bad movie manners, had blogs been more of a thing in 2001. But it didn’t matter much, because we were sitting more or less dead center, and there were only about a dozen other people in the Ziegfeld.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Truly, Madly, Deeply; Alan Rickman; and Loss

The Siren starts by admitting that she rented Truly, Madly, Deeply some twenty-odd years ago only because she had a raging crush on the late Alan Rickman. (How the Siren hates having to put “the late” in front of that name.) She’d flipped for him, like most of the women and a good many men in the film-watching world, in Die Hard. That lean face, that lustrous voice, that walk that made you yearn to see him cross a room, headed straight for you. OK, he was playing an armed robber, and a notably ruthless one at that. But he was the biggest dose of dangerous cinematic swoon since the likes of Basil Rathbone (to whom Rickman was often compared).

The Siren’s father had died not long before she saw Truly, Madly, Deeply. So, inevitably, the movie wrecked her. The Siren’s beloved, movie-watching mother died suddenly in November, and at the moment, it’s an effort to revisit this film even in memory. But the Siren's going to do it anyway.

The story concerns a London-based translator, Nina, played by Rickman’s lifelong friend Juliet Stevenson, for whom director Anthony Minghella wrote the part. Her lover Jamie (Rickman) died some months earlier. He woke up one morning with a sore throat, and within days, he was gone. Now Nina is trying to get on with it, but in most ways, she can’t. She's a blubbering mess every time she sees the shrink. She has a new flat, but she hears Jamie’s voice echoing through it.

Then one day Nina is playing a Bach sonata on the piano, one that she and Jamie used to play together. A note from a cello sounds, and slowly the camera moves to show you that Jamie is there, playing his old instrument. At first it’s hard to tell whether the camera is showing us Nina’s daydream. And then she turns, and together with Nina you realize, no. He’s there.

The Siren often dreams about the people she’s lost. In these dreams, she always knows that her father and mother are dead, yet somehow they are back, and she accepts it in the way a dream makes you accept everything. There’s no big reunion, seldom even any discussion. The emotions come when the dream is over. When Nina turns and sees Jamie, she embraces him, weeping so hard she can scarcely see, clutching to make sure this is him, this is his body. That moment has everything the Siren would feel if she found her parents when she awoke, if she could say, “You’ve come back to me.” She would weep and clutch at them the same way. We all would.

Nina’s love has returned, and the movie traces the goofy joy that has come back with him. They play music, sing off-key serenades, talk, even make love. He stays for days, then weeks. Jamie is amusing, attentive, he’s always around. But he complains ceaselessly of feeling cold. He eats strange food. He fills the flat with pale, badly dressed friends from the afterlife who lounge around the TV, argue about whether to watch Annie Hall or Fitzcarraldo, and scatter crumbs all over everywhere. ''I don't know who these people are,'' Nina protests, to no avail. ''I don't even know what period they're from.''

And so Nina gradually recalls the things she pushed out of her memory when Jamie was still gone. He has a snobbish streak and a tendency to drone on about the Tories. He’s controlling, too. Even on loan from the hereafter, Jamie nags his girlfriend about how she brushes her teeth. He maxes out the thermostat and rearranges the furniture without asking. It isn’t that Jamie is secretly a jerk; he’s artistic and loving, and besides, all his rebukes and suggestions are uttered in that sinuous Rickman voice. But soon we realize that this scenario is wrong, that no matter how badly she wanted him back, Nina can’t be with Jamie anymore.

What isn’t as apparent, at least at first, is that Jamie hasn’t returned to comfort Nina. He’s here to show her how to do that herself. And then, he will leave.

The shot of Alan Rickman as Jamie, watching Nina through a window as she walks into what will be the rest of her life, is the Siren’s favorite in all his films. (And brother, the Siren has seen a lot of Rickman. That crush is still with her, and always will be). Rickman was never maudlin. He isn’t prompting the audience to pity Jamie or marvel at his sacrifice. In his face, and his wave, and when he turns back to his ghostly friends, Rickman plays the truth of this supernatural, impossible moment: Jamie still loves Nina, and from wherever he will spend eternity, he wants to know she is fully living while she’s alive.

Most of us believe art isn’t didactic, much less therapeutic. And yet there are movies like Truly, Madly, Deeply that tell us things, or perhaps affirm truths that we already know. That whatever plane the dead move to, no matter how cruelly or how soon, that is where they have to stay. That even if we could call them back, in a deeper sense, we couldn’t. When she first saw this film, the Siren thought of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and how the heroine Miranda faces the pitiless finality of death:

If I could call you up from the grave I would, she said, if I could see your ghost I would say, I believe…‘I believe,’ she said aloud. ‘Oh, let me see you once more.’ The room was silent, empty, the shade gone from it, struck away by the sudden violence of her rising and speaking aloud. She came to herself as if out of sleep. Oh no, that is not the way, I must never do that, she warned herself.

Anthony Minghella’s film makes the same point as Porter’s tragedy, only with comedy and hope. Surely the people who knew Minghella turned to Truly, Madly, Deeply after he died of a brain hemorrhage, age 54.

Alan Rickman, so precise and intelligent an actor, must have known Truly, Madly, Deeply was both catharsis and comfort. But it isn’t a good one to see when grief is fresh, or at least the Siren won't do that. After time has passed, and you’re trying to find your way forward, the film is beautifully and exactly right.

Maybe next year, Mr. Rickman.