Zero Days in Paris, One Day in New York

29 April, 2012 at 4:42 pm (film, performance)

"The Apartment" screenprint by M.OwenI was supposed to be in France right now. I haven’t done much in the way of traveling since jaunting off to Kathmandu several years ago to attend my sister’s wedding, and I was starting to get that itch to see something completely new just to really jolt one’s daily expectations. However, since my trip to France was going to happen under the auspices of chaperoning a student trip, it was not completely under my control and I didn’t make the chaperone cut (too many male chaperones, too many female students, and a justifiable need to try and achieve some balance). Instead, I have ended a quiet week off from work domestically revisiting former experiences in a slightly new way.

The first was that I attended Jason Reitman’s live reading of the screenplay of The Apartment at the Times Center in New York. Reitman had previously led a performance of this script as the second of his series of staged readings at LACMA in Los Angeles. I found out about it about a week and a half before the reading, and tickets were, despite a minimal charge of ten dollars, not sold out. I spent a frustrated few minutes with my cursor hovering over the purchase button, weighing whether it was worth it to abandon a prior commitment and fly out to L.A. for a single performance. It’s something I like to do — go to great lengths to attend a small event, not abandon commitments — I took a trip to Chicago just to see Terry Jones a few years ago, and once drove a crazed, weather-tossed twelve-hour round trip to see Peter S. Beagle for an hour. Both were minor, anecdotal adventures and well worth the stupidity.

In this case, however, I closed the ticket tab of my browser, told some L.A. friends about it, and resigned myself to missing it. It did sell out later that day, and a week later it was announced that Natalie Portman would be playing the role originated by Shirley MacLaine. Then Steve Carrell was announced in the role formerly occupied by Jack Lemmon. The casting coups for this tiny event went out over the entertainment wires, and all subsequent events in the series of six readings evaporated instantly upon pre-announcement. I had missed my chance to see something both star-studded and enviably ephemeral.

And then! Oh, yes, and then… things took a lovely turn. What I did not know was that the New York Times had been a sponsor of the original L.A. live readings.  Had I, I might have assumed that transferring them to the East Coast was reasonably inevitable.  However, without this foreknowledge, it was a pleasant surprise to read the announcement of the New York-hosted event, and to leap upon a set of tickets like a gazelle on a trampoline.  Even with all the notoriety of the LACMA events, I was a little surprised that the shows are so popular, because tickets became available and the event was announced (seemingly) well in advance of securing the performers. And while Reitman himself obviously has his fans, the lack of casting announcements seems to indicate that the celebrity factor didn’t motivate most people to buy their tickets. And with the reading being largely unprepared, how much dramatic finesse or variant interpretation could one expect to be brought to the table? Which leaves, as motivation, that one would go to this event on the strength and reputation of the original material.

The director & cast of the Times Center live read of "The Apartment". Photo by J.KempinI was interviewed by a lovely young woman from the Financial Times before and after the show, and she asked me both what was the attraction of the event and how I thought it went. In both regards, part of the attraction and the success was the tension and unavoidable comparison between the original and the production as it unfolded. I compared it to jazz, but a cover version would have been an equally effective metaphor. Despite Hollywood’s prolonged tendency to remake classic films and their newly found passion for revamps and reboots, films are still largely thought of as static, inviolate objects. This is because, unlike theatre, they don’t change. They are recorded objects, and they proceed at the exact same pacing and tempo regardless of the attention or participation of the audience. That line will always come hard on the heels of its cue, and the music will always swell right when the camera cuts to her reaction. Therefore our emotional response will maintain pace as well, triggered by that particular inflection, the light catching on that particular articulated moment.

Jazz, I gushed pretentiously to the journalist, is about the delaying of harmonic resolution, and live theatre is often about the same. It’s about establishing a tension before providing a resolution, and often that tension is created by silences and pauses. And by doing a cover version of The Apartment an additional level of tension was created because those of us in the audience who, due to the easy availability of home video, may have had the timing and emotional precision of the original in our minds, and any actorly deviation from that would cause us to wait with the next line at the tip of our waiting tongues, anxious for the delivery of the response. It would be nice to watch a remake without constantly comparing it to the original, but — if one is in possession of that context, or that prior experience — but extremely difficult not to. I frequently meet people who prefer a cover version of a song to the original, and it is nigh-invariably because the cover was the one that was encountered first in these people’s respective experiences. That becomes the experiential baseline, and the original version, from that perspective, is the one that has odd patterns of rhythm and creative choice that jars with the memory of what is “right”.

Julie Delpy at the Independent Film Festival Boston screening of "Two Days in New York" Similarly, it is difficult not to judge a sequel, however putative, on the mnemonic impressions of its predecessor. Because I did not go to France, I was not required to host an exchange teacher when the French students came to our rural borough to experience the international disappointment that is America. However, I was good friends with the nerd and documentary buff on faculty who did, and he asked me if I had any French feature films with which they could distract their French homestay, because “going out” and “doing something” weren’t really viable options in our quaint cultural cul-de-sac. I offered up a DVD of Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris, which had left me virtually breathless with laughter when I’d seen it at our local indy cinema a few years before.

I did not review it before passing it along. However, I did just re-watch it before watching its sequel at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston, and I feel frankly grateful that they enjoyed (or claimed to enjoy) it, as it’s really rather more, um, frank than I remembered — no pun intended.  However, since the film is, to a degree, structured to provide the audience with an identification experience of Adam Goldberg’s non-Francophone character, the movie serves to comment on the Parisian experience through an outsider’s eyes. I assumed, therefore that the sequel — which was described as what happens when Marion’s family descends upon her New York apartment and boyfriend — would be the reverse: a comment on American or New York culture with a French fish-out-of-water. As I was going to see this film a mere twenty-four hours after having subjected myself to a whirlwind New York visitation of my own, I thought it would be the perfect way to cap my experience.

I’ve just had this last paragraph eaten by my inability to properly safe drafts on a computer that undergoes random power blinks every so often, so this wrap-up will not be as pithy as I originally intended. While Paris was, from the perspective of Goldberg’s character, about being an alien, much of the rest of the film centered about Marion coming face-on with those aspects of herself that she thought she’d left behind or sloughed off. Old boyfriends, odd customs, bad habits were all suddenly not part of the past at all, but readily accessible. And we began to see that much of this was not simply a conspiracy of geography, but aspects of herself that she carried with her. The themes of the second film are similar, but there’s a greater parallelism between Delpy’s character and Rock’s character, as each attempts to establish themselves as secure, solid citizens, family members, and professionals. Much of the Q&A with Delpy was about the first film, which is unsurprising, but disappointing. I wish I’d been quick enough in my processing to ask about the character and thematic core of Marion selling her soul as a piece of installation/performance art. Her mercurial nature, her willingness to lie, and her difficulty in maintaining an adult aspect when offered with the easy option of reverting to past behavior patterns — these all go to the heart of identity, and identity and individuality could surely be aspects of the soul she brazenly sells. I think it’s uncommon for a comedy to have such deep themes tucked away for analysis. I’m glad that they’re there for the unpacking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, after so many bus rides in quick succession, I need to do a little unpacking myself.

Related Links:
     IndieWire: review of the Times Center performance of The Apartment.
     WireImage: photos of the cast  at the Times Center performance. review of the Times Center performance of The Apartment. review of the LACMA performance of The Apartment.
     WireImage: photos of the cast at the LACMA performance.
     BBC Radio 5Live: Kermode and Mayo interview Julie Delpy and Chris Rock
     The Guardian: Interview with Julie Delpy
     iTunes: Meet the Filmmakers

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