Don’t know if it’s true for anybody else, but I’m just trying to get this day out of the way. Latest avoidance tactic, an hour or so at the City Diner with my dog at my feet, reading some chapters in Jan Herman’s biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, about Wyler shooting Mrs. Miniver and trying to find his place in the war. The analogy is inexact, but I sometimes feel as though we’re living through our version of the Blitz – trying to adjust to a general threat to all and still hold onto decency.
Yesterday, I finished watching Fred Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary, City Hall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the Wiseman films I’ve seen (and am very aware there’s quite a bit I haven’t). City Hall joins In Jackson Heights (his film on that neighborhood in Queens) and his epic about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, as my three favorites of his. Each in its way, without tub-thumping, is about democracy. In both Ex Libris and City Hall, we see endless meetings of people in office uniforms sitting in flatly-lit rooms around conference tables discussing points of policy, strategizing procedure, speaking in full paragraphs. Sometimes the ear goes a little dead, but the people on the screen stay engaged and most are informed by moral passion. And then Wiseman takes us out into the community where the decisions made around those tables have real-life impact on the citizens. There are also occasional flat-out gorgeous shots of the skyline and the parks and the residential areas in contrast to the banality of the office scenes, reminding us that the work in these cramped rooms is taking place within the larger context of the beauty and exuberance of the city. (Ex Libris takes us to a variety of neighborhoods around New York City, City Hall jumps around from neighborhoods of pristine row houses to places where the residents are kept awake by rats.)
OK, 4 ½ hours is a long time to go (or not to go) in one sitting, and I didn’t. And I’m guessing that, when it is finally run on PBS (one of the funders), most people will record it to DVR and watch in installments. But, no, it shouldn’t be chopped up into episodes. It is important to be aware constantly of its size because a city is a big fucking place, and all the stuff we watch is happening pretty much simultaneously. I watched it by renting it through Film Forum for 48 hours for $12.00. Well worth it. (And I’m happy to have sent some change into FF’s coffers.) Link: Film Forum — City Hall
As for reading, mostly I’m bouncing between the Wyler biography, an oral history of the directors of the “Golden Age of Television” called The Days of Live: Television’s Golden Age as seen by 21 Directors Guild of America Members by Ira Skutch, and reading or watching older American plays.
I’m afraid it was inevitable that this brought me to the film version of Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Green Pastures. The genesis of the play was in the work of a white writer named Roark Bradford who, in his 1928 book, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, said his work was based on the preaching of Black preachers in poor parishes teaching the gospel by drawing on imagery that would have been familiar to their parishioners. So a day in heaven is pictured as a fish fry, etc. Green Pastures was an enormous hit for its time, running for a long time on Broadway and maintaining its popularity through touring. It was twice presented to overwhelming response on The Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s. With its huge cast and chorus, it also offered employment for years to countless Black performers, most notably Rex Ingram, who is a strong presence in three leading parts (including “de Lawd”) and made a career of performing in different productions. (He also played the genie in The Thief of Baghdad and Jim to Mickey Rooney’s Huckleberry Finn.)
But, yipes. With the exception of Ingram and Eddie Anderson as Noah, everybody is presented as child-like and simple. For all the good intentions, it is agonizingly condescending.
This reminded me of another theatrical retelling of the Bible I saw years ago in London, the National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries, written by Tony Harrison (adapted from traditional texts) and directed by Bill Bryden. This was an environmental production made up of three full-length pieces: The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday. As some critic whose name I can’t recall observed about the production, it existed simultaneously in three time periods. The first, the Biblical times when the stories take place. The second, the period just before the arrival of Shakespeare when local craft guilds in English towns would embrace the responsibility of retelling the story in terms related to their work and lives. And the third, the present (a/k/a 1985), with folk-rock music and counter-cultural influences still holding on beyond the 1960s. The show was videoed and is available on YouTube with what appear to be German subtitles. Allow me to recommend one particular link in which the actors portray the butcher’s guild telling the story of Abraham and Isaac. After they finish the sequence, featuring muscular, stirring language and wrenching performances, they pull out their long, straight butcher’s knives and dance, and the climax of the dance is a transformation that is theatrical gold. This happens a little after four minutes into this link, and I urge you to watch it. More than 30 years after I first saw it, this makes me gasp. The day I spent at this show easily is among the dozen most exciting things I’ve seen in my life.
There is a palpable distinction between the ersatz folk material of Green Pastures and Harrison/Bryden’s Mysteries. The transformation of the stories of the Bible aren’t reduced in The Mysteries but inspire awe, and the guild members the actors play, though not sophisticated, are viewed as possessing collective genius that inspires eloquence. Anyway, if it took enduring Green Pastures to remind me of The Mysteries (and to have the pleasure of sharing it with you), then I suppose it was worth it.
And I’ve managed to get through more than an hour of this day writing this.