10 March 2012
I dare you to come up with the name of an American woman in politics who’s more admirable or more impressive than Barbara Jordan — that leader of civil rights and feminism. So how good is this news: Viola Davis has announced that her new production company will adapt Jordan’s biography in a new film, starring Davis herself.
Due to Jim Crow laws in Texas, Jordan could not attend the University of Texas, so instead graduated from Texas Southern — where she became a champion debater of the first rank. After developing a law career in Houston, she became the first African American to be elected to the Texas State Senate, and the first Black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives from the South. Her speeches remain masterpieces of American literature.
I can’t imagine what she must have experienced as a Black woman in Texas and national politics during an era when most white men had no problem expressing their racism and sexism openly.
One time I met a professor in Texas who had known Jordan. They were close in age had something else in common: they were both gay. Jordan never came out publicly about her sexual orientation — according to this guy she believed it was too soon, even in the 1990s, for gay rights to gain traction in the public eye. Yet some of her eulogies in 1996 made mention of her life partner, Nancy Earl, such that it has become common to speak of her as a gay woman in the intervening years.
7 November 2010
I want to be Julie Taymor. Or am I in love with her? As I eagerly anticipate her forthcoming movie, “The Tempest” with Helen Mirren as Prospera (and oh, how I swoon at the idea of a female Prospero), I’ve been remembering everything I’ve loved of hers recently and thinking how much warmth and drama she constructs with her wide-ranging work. I love her for the highbrow quality of her directing (the operas “The Magic Flute” and “Grendel;” and all that Shakespeare, including the 1999 film “Titus”); I love her for “Across the Universe” (2007), the lovely Beatles music-inspired film; and I can only wish I spent enough time in New York to see her upcoming Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” for which she co-wrote the book as well as directed. She’s a marvel. She’s audaciously dedicated to beautifully imaginative staging and design, but it’s not for the mere esoteric pleasure of looking; it’s a self-consciously theatrical directorial choice, but one that enhances our experience of the content. She makes us fall in love with art in all her work. Just look at these scenes from “Across the Universe” to get a sense of the way she loves to frame a shot, balancing the beauty of a face with a perfectly-timed version of “Hey Jude” that folds in other voices at just the right moments:
Before “Glee” started offering us new interpretations of hoary old favorites, “Across the Universe” nearly broke my heart with its slowed-down, careful versions of those classics. It’s not just that the actors are so lovely, and that they have such beautiful, perfect voices (and that I’ll never be able to look at Jim Sturgess again without seeing his physiognomic combination of Paul and George). It’s that by slowing down these songs and singing them with such love, the actors show me something new there that I haven’t heard in a long, long time. In fact, I think “Glee”‘s recent (great) re-singing of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a nearly note-for-note ripoff of T.V. Carpio’s version from the film:
Combined with that breathtaking cinematography, Taymor heightens all your senses: you find yourself rapt, trying to absorb all that detail and the big sweep of a beautifully constructed scene. She raises us up to see art’s role in the lives we wish we were leading. It reminds me of a line from Stephen Holden’s NY Times review of the film in which he commented, “Somewhere around its midpoint, ‘Across the Universe’ captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person.” Think about her work on “Frida” (2002), in which she somehow captures the experience of falling in love with the rebellious, transformative aspects of art and revolution. It’s true that I don’t feel the same kind of tremendous, heartbreaking love for Shakespeare as I do for the Beatles or early 20th century Mexican art, but in “Titus” too, I find myself gazing at what she did with Jessica Lange’s and Anthony Hopkins’ faces — encrusting them with mud or gold paint to heighten our experience of the story as a whole.
“Titus” was the most theatrical of her films, which makes me curious to see what she’ll do with “The Tempest.” It’s audacious on its own to expect December movie audiences to go out to the cineplex for Shakespeare (I mean, we could go see the new “Harry Potter” instead), yet the early release of images from the film spark the same excitement that I experience watching that amazing car crash scene and animated hospital sequence from “Frida.”
There are many wonderful interviews with Taymor in which she explains her methods, but I was struck by this one from Subtitles to Cinema in which she explains that she tries to boil the central story down to an idiograph. “It’s like in old Japanese paintings – if you were to paint a bamboo forest, you should be able to find its essence with only three strokes,” she explains. In the same way, she seeks the essence of her tales with a visual image. “Like a cubist painter, I want to open up the image and give you a fresh perspective. That is my job. And cinema makes it possible.”
December 10 — that’s when “The Tempest” is due out. Helen Mirren could do with a good film after appearing in a series of duds this year (boy, it was depressing to see those reviews of “RED” and “Love Ranch” that, while giving Mirren her due, wrung their hands of the films), and I love the fact that the film nearly coincides with the opening of the “Spider-Man” musical on Broadway. Yup: I want to be Julie Taymor. And just sit back and admire her from afar.