Filmmaker Marceline Loridan Ivens, RIP

In this 16 February 2018 French video, filmmaker Marceline Loridan Ivens, née Rozenberg, says that is a scandal that the anti-Semitic writings of French pro-Hitler author Louis-Ferdinand Céline are now re-published.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

The French filmmaker and writer Marceline Loridan Ivens has passed away. She is 90 years old. Loridan-Ivens was the widow of the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. She died in Paris yesterday.

In the Second World War she was deported together with her father to extermination camp Auschwitz. She was 15 years old then. Her father did not survive the camp. Loridan-Ivens filmed her experiences in 2003 in the autobiographical film La Petite Prairie au Bouleaux.

Marceline Loridan married the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens in 1963. Together they made several films, such as Comment Yukong déplaça les Montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains) about the last days of the Cultural Revolution in China. With a playing time of more than thirteen hours, that film is one of the longest films ever made.

BlacKkKlansman, film review

This May 2018 video from the USA says about itself:

BLACKkKLANSMAN – Official Trailer [HD] – In Theaters August 10

A Spike Lee joint. From producer Jordan Peele. Based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.

From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. Produced by the team behind the Academy-Award® winning Get Out.

On 10 September 2018, I went to see that film. Though it is mainly about the 1970s, it makes points about the time after the 1970s, now. And about the time before the 1970s: the United States civil war, 1861-1865.

The opening scene of BlacKkKlansman shows a clip from the well-known 1939 film Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) walks among the dead and dying soldiers of the southern pro-slavery army in Atlanta in 1864. Their Confederate flag flutters in the breeze. Dixie, the unofficial national anthem of the breakaway south, plays. The upbeat tune contrasts with the bloodshed, visible in the images, which the rebellion to keep slavery has brought.

Gone With the Wind whitewashes the pro-slavery secessionists. It is based on the 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name which praised the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). One of Spike Lee’s main themes in his film is criticizing the racist tradition in Hollywood movies.

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 by officers of the defeated Confederate army. Driven underground, it resurfaced after 1915. Then, the blockbuster Hollywood film The Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan. It depicted them as gallant white knights, defending the honour of white southern womanhood against rapist and otherwise criminal freed African American slaves during the post-1865 Reconstruction period. The KKK still today uses this racist film on the Civil War and its aftermath as a recruiting tool; as BlacKkKlansman also shows.

Spike Lee recalled how he was educated as a filmmaker:

They taught us all of the cinematic innovations DW Griffith had come up with, but they left out everything that had to do with the social impact of the film [The Birth of a Nation]”, Lee recently told Ebony magazine. “That this film re-energized the Klan. The Klan was dormant, it was dead, and it brought about a rebirth. Therefore, because of the rebirth of the Klan, it led to black people being lynched, strung up, castrated and murdered, but that was never discussed.

Finally, the Civil War comes back in the last scene in Spike Lee’s movie. It shows the 2017 violent extreme right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan, then wanted to obstruct the local council’s decision to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the 1861-1865 pro-slavery secessionists. The neonazis injured many anti-fascists, killing Heather Heyer. BlacKkKlansman shows President Trump whitewashing the Charlotteville nazi violence. And ex-Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, a major role in Lee’s movie, praising Trump because of that. The last image of the film shows the flowers commemorating Ms Heyer.

This ending differs from the original final scene, now the penultimate scene. Police officer Stallworth has successfully stopped a Klan bomb assassination of black civil rights activists. However, then there is a knock on his door. As he looks outside his house, he sees KKK members having a cross burning ceremony. A sign he has solved one problem, but that basically there is still the same problem. As the nazi murder in Charlottesville marked even more clearly.

The inspiration for Spike Lee was the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer ever in Colorado Springs. For the film, Lee changed several things. Like adding a small k in the title between the capital K’s of BlacK and Klansman. And adding a romantic interest by Stallworth in the president of the local black students organisation, Ms Patrice Dumas. And making Stallworth’s colleague in infiltrating the Klan Jewish.

As Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police, the commissioner warns him that his fellow policemen will call him nigger and worse, and that he should not get angry about that.

He soon meets a colleague calling African Americans ‘toads’, a killer of an innocent black boy and a sexual abuser of African American women. Other policemen tell Stallworth they don’t like that behaviour; however, ‘in the police, we are one family’, not reporting on each other.

Stallworth would like to do undercover police work, instead of boring archive work. The commissioner offers him an undercover job: spying on local black students. They have invited Kwame Toure (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) for a lecture. The commissioner says that Toure used to be in the Black Panther party. And he agrees with (racist) FBI boss Hoover that the Black Panthers are supposedly the most dangerous group in the USA.

In his lecture, Kwame Toure tells that as a young boy, he was a fan of Tarzan films. As on screen white man Tarzan beat up black Africans, young Toure used to scream: ‘Kill these savages!’ However, later Toure became aware that he was really shouting ‘Kill me!’ That black is beautiful, not ‘savage’. So, another criticism by Spike Lee of racism in Hollywood films.

The Toure speech opposes the Vietnam war. Vietnamese have never done anything against African Americans. The lecturer shouts: Hell no, we won’t go! And the whole hall explodes in approval.

In the film, Stallworth concludes that Kwame Toure is at least partially right. He concludes he should spy on the Ku Klux Klan rather than on African American radicals.

Later in the film, veteran actor and singer Harry Belafonte has a role. He plays an old man lecturing to the black student organisation. He recalls how, as a teenager in Texas in 1916, he witnessed the cruel lynching of a fellow innocent black teenager, falsely accused of raping a white woman. That horrible lynching was just after the film The Birth of a Nation had come out.

David Walsh wrote a critical, far too critical review of BlacKkKlansman; that important, impressive, though not infallible film. Though he did praise the final Charlottesville scene. Walsh has two valid points:

[Actor Topher] Grace is all too foolish and insubstantial as [David] Duke, a sinister and persistent figure, with deep connections to the major political parties, the international far-right and elements within the US military and the state.

Spike Lee’s film does not have enough attention for … one of the more significant of Stallworth’s discoveries—that several active members of the US military, including NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] personnel, individuals with their fingers on the nuclear button, are members of the Klan chapter. We see Stallworth having a brief meeting with an FBI agent about the matter, and that’s that.

NORAD headquarters is near Colorado Springs, as is the US Air Force Academy. The city was becoming a center for the religious and fascistic right in the period BlacKkKlansman treats. The filmmakers do not trouble themselves about that.

African American leftist filmmaker Boots Riley writes that Spike Lee inspired him to go to film school. This film disappointed him so much that he wrote sharp criticism of it. According to Riley, the movie role Stallworth is much more heroic than the real life police officer Stallworth was; and the often so racist police is depicted too much like a force against racism.

Painter Raphael on film, review

This video says about itself:

Raphael: The Lord of the Arts – Extended Theatrical Trailer

24 March 2017

Raphael – the Lord of the Arts is the first film adaptation of the life and work of one of the most famous artists in the world, Raphael Sanzio. Few figures in the history of art have lived a life so full of intensity and fascination. He died young, aged 37, and yet managed to leave an indelible mark on the artistic world. In a well-balanced dialogue between historical reconstruction and expert commentary, the film retraces the most significant moments of Raphael’s life.

Set in 20 locations, two of which are major exclusives – the Vatican Logge and Cardinal Bibbiena’s apartment in the Apostolic Palace – the film explores more than 30 works of art, including the most famous and most representative of Raphael’s work. Beauty comes to life through the brushwork and enduring genius of one of the most talented artists the world has ever known.

Luca Viotto is the director of this film. The main roles are by Flavio Parenti as Raphael; Angela Curri as Margarita Luti, aka La Fornarina, Raphael’s model and lover; Enrico Lo Verso as Giovanni Santi, Raphael’s father, and Marco Cocci as Cardinal Pietro Bembo, whose portrait Raphael made.

On 19 August 2018, I went to see that film on Italian Raphael, 1483-1520. He was a painter´s son, making it easier to become a painter himself. Though his father died when he was only eleven years old.

Raphael is one of few painters whose name was incorporated in the name of an artistic movement. It was the 19th century British Pre-Raphaelite movement. That these British artists chose that name on the one hand shows that Raphael was famous, even more than three centuries after his death. On the other hand, it shows they did not want to emulate Raphael, but rather preferred earlier painters.

Young artists, opposed to the artistic establishment, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, a year of revolutions. Originally, they were a secret society.

Their inspiration was influential art critic John Ruskin. According to Ruskin, in medieval art truth prevailed, correctly, over beauty; and in most later art, beauty prevailed, wrongly, over truth. Ruskin wrote that Raphael was the prominent example of that change. Truth, he said, should become more important than beauty again: artists should once again become ‘Pre-Raphaelite’.

Meghan Trudell wrote on the Pre-Raphaelites:

The Pre-Raphaelites rejected academic artistic conventions, in particular the insistence that Italian Renaissance painting had set the standards for composition and subject matter in painting.

They denounced the Royal Academy as a reactionary institution and official art as conservative and pretentious, and called for a wide ranging artistic and moral renewal.

In particular, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the “primitivism” of Medieval painting. This was a move away from grandiose historical and religious subjects towards a more intimate style that emphasised emotion and literary themes.

Here, I disagree somewhat with Ms Trudell. Though rebellious, the pre-Raphaelites still, like the art establishment, had many historical and religious subjects in their work. Like there had been mostly religious subjects in their beloved medieval art. They were arguably the first artistic movement ever naming themselves.

Their contemporary Gustave Courbet, a French rebel against then predominant classicist and romantic art, went a step further, rejecting painting historical subjects. In 1848, he already painted in a new, realist, style. In 1855, Courbet wrote the manifesto of the new realist movement. Courbet´s example of artists naming their movements themselves, organizing exhibitions together, etc. became an example for later tendencies, even for opponents of realism like the, mainly French, symbolists.

Another issue with Meghan Trudell’s article is that Raphael is usually considered as, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, one of the three great artists marking the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerist art; not from Medieval to Renaissance art. Raphael was one of the first depicting emotions on human faces; paving the way from High Renaissance to Mannerism. So, when Meghan Trudell writes the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to ’emphasise emotion’ then they were arguably more ‘Raphaelite’ than ‘Pre-Raphaelite’.

Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo did not call themselves ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Mannerist’ artists. Art historians called them that after their deaths. Contrary to 19th century and later artists considering themselves realists, symbolists, futurists, dadaists, etc.

Raphael was one of the first artists to employ female models. He was also innovative otherwise: depicting emotions on human faces, as we wrote earlier. His strategy, the film says, was: learn from other master artists; try to equate them; then try to surpass them.

As the film shows, Raphael was born in Urbino, a small, but then artistically important town. He continued to bigger, still artistically more important, Florence. Finally, to Rome, where ‘Renaissance popes‘ could afford money for art.

Besides painting, Raphael also worked at architecture and drawing, eg, designing tapestries.

This video is called Raphael’s Drawings.

In her review, Joyce Glasser calls it unfortunate that the film says nothing about the rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo, while they both worked at the Vatican; a point about which Hudi Charin says in her review: ‘Raphael and Michelangelo’s relationship is almost entirely skipped over.’ The film suggests wrongly, according to Glasser, that Raphael became a universally beloved artist without any conflicts.

I would not say that the film says nothing at all about the Raphael-Michelangelo rivalry. But it hints at it rather than making it a central theme.

The film also shows Leonardo da Vinci unveiling his Mona Lisa in his workshop, with only Raphael being present. We don´t know whether that really happened, writes Ms Glasser. The problem with Raphael, like with many 16th century artists, is that we don’t have very many reliable biographical facts.

The film set showing Leonardo's Mona Lisa, with director Luca Viotto on the right

The good side of the film, Joyce Glasser says, is that it shows so many of Raphael´s works.

Hudi Charin writes:

In partnership with the Vatican Museums, it provides us with incredible insights into rooms that are normally packed full of visitors. One of the most enchanting moments has to be in the Raphael Rooms.

As I saw in Rome only a few months ago, these rooms are always full of tourists, meaning you can never experience it fully. With steady camera-work Raphael takes us through each room, projecting the full journey the artist would have intended for his audience.

However, ´the names of the paintings and their locations, as well as proper names, are rattled off in Italian so that these citations are all but meaningless for the average viewer´, Joyce Glasser criticizes. That may be true for the version of the movie which Ms Glasser saw. However, not for the version which I saw: English spoken, Dutch subtitles.

One of the paintings in the film is the Madonna of the goldfinch.

Raphael, Madonna of the goldfinch

The Dutch subtitle wrongly translates English ‘goldfinch’ as ‘goudvink’. That is a literal translation: gold is ‘goud’ in Dutch; finch is ‘vink’. However, the bird species called (European) goldfinch in English is called ‘putter’ or ‘distelvink’ (thistle finch) in Dutch. The species called ‘goudvink’ in Dutch is called bullfinch in English.

Raphael also depicted bigger birds in his religious works; like the Eurasian cranes on the right here, in a tapestry design showing the Miraculous Draught of Fish.

In this cartoon by Raphael, Christ tells Peter to cast his net into the water whereupon he and his fellow apostles make a miraculous catch. The story refers to Peter’s role as “fisher of men”, who converts others to Christianity. It also demonstrates his humility as he kneels before Christ to acknowledge His divinity, and confess his own sinfulness. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Hudi Charin writes:

We are also told [in the film] Raphael was ground-breaking, and it is true that he was, but without comparisons with earlier Renaissance paintings, his mastery can not really be appreciated.

The same problem is seen in the Transfiguration analysis where the voice-over describes it as the best painting of Christ in the whole of art history, which is quite a claim without a comparison with any other paintings of the same subject.

The Transfiguration is said to be the last painting Raphael made before he died; probably of malaria.

The last scene of the film shows Raphael’s grave in the Pantheon. The Pantheon was the only ancient Roman building still standing in 16th century Rome. Originally a polytheist temple, it later became a church. During most of the film, we have seen churches and other buildings full of paintings. There are not any paintings in the Pantheon. Somewhat symbolic for the empty spot Raphael left behind by dying.

Director Luca Viotto died in February 2017, just before the première of his Raphael film. The very beginning of the film commemorates him.

Megalodon sharks, film fiction and reality

This video is called The Meg, Official Trailer #1 (2018). Jason Statham, Ruby Rose: Megalodon Shark Movie HD.

By Carolyn Gramling, 12:41pm, August 10, 2018:

What ‘The Meg’ gets wrong — and right — about megalodon sharks

A paleobiologist helps Science News separate fact from fiction in the film

OK, so what if a giant prehistoric shark, thought to be extinct for about 2.5 million years, is actually still lurking in the depths of the ocean? That’s the premise of the new flick The Meg, which opens August 10 and pits massive Carcharocles megalodon against a grizzled and fearless deep-sea rescue diver, played by Jason Statham, and a handful of resourceful scientists.

The protagonists discover the sharks in a deep oceanic trench about 300 kilometers off the coast of China — a trench, the film suggests, that extends down more than 11,000 meters below the ocean surface. (That depth makes it even deeper than the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, the actual deepest known point in the ocean). Hydrothermal vents down in the trench supposedly keep those dark waters warm enough to support an ecosystem teeming with life. And — spoiler alert!—   of course, the scientists’ investigation inadvertently helps megalodons escape from the depths. The giant living fossils head to the surface, where they terrorize shark fishermen and beachgoers a la Jaws.

But could a population of megalodons actually have survived down there? To explore what is and isn’t possible and what we still don’t know about sharks, Science News went to the movies with paleobiologist Meghan Balk of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who studies the ancient predators.

Did megalodons ever actually get as big as they are in the movie? Extremely unlikely

The megalodon sharks of The Meg reach sizes of about 20 to 25 meters long, the film says — massive although just a tad smaller than the longest known blue whales. But estimates based on the size of fossil teeth suggest that even the largest known C. megalodon was much smaller, at up to 18 meters — “and that was the absolute largest”, Balk says. On average, C. megalodon tended to be around 10 meters long, she says, which still made them much bigger than the average great white shark, at around 5 to 6 meters long.

Would a megalodon otherwise look like the film version? Yes and no

The movie’s sharks aren’t entirely inaccurate representations, Balk says. These megalodons correctly have six gills — between five and seven is accurate for sharks in general, she says. And the shape of the dorsal fin is, appropriately, modeled after the great white shark, the closest modern relative to the ancient sharks. Also, a male meg in the film even has “claspers”, appendages under the abdomen used to hold a female during mating. “When I looked at it, I was like, oh, they did a pretty good job. They didn’t just create a random shark”, Balk says.

On the other hand, it’s actually a bit odd that the movie’s megalodons wouldn’t have evolved some significant anatomical differences from their prehistoric brethren, Balk says. “Like the eye getting bigger” to see better or becoming blind after a few million or so years living in the darkness of the deep sea, she says. Or you might even expect dwarfism, in which populations restricted by geographic isolation, such as being stuck within a trench, shrink in size.

Would such huge sharks have had enough to eat down there? Extremely unlikely

In general, “there’s just not enough energy in the deep sea” to sustain giant sharks, Balk says. Life does bloom at hydrothermal vents, although the deepest known hydrothermal vents are only about 5,000 meters deep. But even if there were vents in the deepest trenches, it’s not clear there would be enough big species living down there to sustain not just one, but a whole population of massive sharks. In the film, the vent field is populated with many smaller species known to cluster around hydrothermal vents, including shrimps, snails and tube worms. Viewers also see one giant squid, but there would have had to be a whole lot more food of that size. C. megalodon — like modern great whites — ate many different things, from orcas to squid. And the humongous megalodon sharks in the movie “would have eaten a lot of squid”, Balk says, laughing.

Could sharks live at such depths? Unlikely

How deep sharks can live in the ocean is actually still a big unknown (SN Online: 5/7/18). “Quantifying the depth that sharks go to is a big endeavor right now”, Balk says. Few sharks are known to inhabit the abyssal regions of the ocean below about 4,000 meters — let alone the depths of oceanic trenches lying below 6,000 meters. Aside from the scarcity of food, temperature is another limitation to deep-sea living.

Sharks that do inhabit deeper parts of the ocean, such as goblin sharks and the Greenland shark (SN 9/17/16, p. 13), tend to have low metabolic rates. That means they move much more slowly than the energetic predators of the movie, Balk says. C. megalodon, although it lived around the globe, tended to prefer warmer, shallower waters and used coastal regions as nursing grounds.

So, could megalodons have survived to modern times without humans knowing about it? Extremely unlikely

Sharks shed a lot of teeth throughout their lives, and those teeth are the main fossil evidence of the life and times of prehistoric sharks (SN Online: 8/2/18). Fossilized C. megalodon teeth found in sediments around the world suggest that the creatures lived between about 14 million and 2.6 million years ago — or perhaps up until 1.5 million years ago at the latest, Balk says. It’s not clear why they went extinct. But there are a handful of hypotheses: competition for food with other creatures like orcas; ocean circulation changes about 3 million years ago when the Isthmus of Panama formed (SN: 9/17/16, p. 12); nearshore nursery sites vanished; or possibly a loss of prey sources stemming from a marine mammal extinction about 2.6 million years ago.

Bottom line: The sheer abundance of shed teeth — as many as 20,000 per shark in its lifetime  — is one of the strongest arguments against megalodon surviving into modern times, Balk says. “That’s one of the reasons why we know megalodon’s definitely extinct. We would have found a tooth.”

“The Meg”, Warner Bros.’ big-budget shark flick, took $44.5 million at the domestic box office on its opening weekend — jumping into the No. 1 spot.

Claude Lanzmann, Shoah filmmaker, RIP

This video says about itself:

Shoah (1985) part 1

Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary recounts the story of the Holocaust through interviews with witnesses – perpetrators as well as survivors.

From the Jewish Telegraph Agency, 5 July 2018:

Claude Lanzmann, one of the world’s foremost makers of documentary films about the Holocaust, has died.

Lanzmann, a French Jew who directed the canonical 1985 film “Shoah”, died at the age of 92 in Paris on Thursday, Le Monde reported.

Although he is best known for the 9-hour-long documentary bearing the Hebrew-language name of the Holocaust, his many projects “have changed the history of film making forever”, a Le Monde author wrote in the eulogy for Lanzmann.

His works about the Holocaust were extensive and innovative in how they tackled early on aspects of the genocide that had been scarcely discussed for their sensitivity, including the role and level of knowledge of locals in Eastern Europe about the mass murder of Jews in their countries. He also dealt with the sensitive and divisive subject of Jews working in the service of the Nazis in the framework of the annihilation.

Lanzmann, who in 2011 received the French Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction of merit, had two children, one of whom, Felix, died last year of cancer at the age of 23. Lanzmann was deeply affected by Felix’s death, Le Monde wrote.

One of Lanzmann’s most recent and profound cinematic works — he was a writer, a journalist and columnist in addition to his film making career — was released in 2013. A documentary titled “The Last of the Unjust”, it is based on interviews that Lanzmann conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only surviving president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Chekhov’s Seagull, new film

This video says about itself:

10 May 2018

The Seagull starring Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening and Corey Stoll directed by Michael Mayer is reviewed by What the Flick?!

One summer at a lakeside Russian estate, friends and family gather for a weekend in the countryside. While everyone is caught up in passionately loving someone who loves somebody else, a tragicomedy unfolds about art, fame, human folly, and the eternal desire to live a purposeful life. Adapted by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam (“The Humans”) from Anton Chekhov‘s classic play and directed by Tony-winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), THE SEAGULL explores, with comedy and melancholy, the obsessive nature of love, the tangled relationships between parents and children, and the transcendent value and psychic toll of art.

By David Walsh in the USA:

The Seagull: Is there a “Chekhovian mood” at present?

30 June 2018

Directed by Michael Mayer; screenplay by Stephen Karam, based on the play by Anton Chekhov

Michael Mayer has directed a new film version of Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, written in 1895 and first produced in 1896.

Mayer’s film, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, begins at a Moscow theater in 1904. The actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), after a triumph, is told that her elder brother is dangerously ill. In the middle of the night, she rushes to his estate outside the city, accompanied by the celebrated writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll).

Irina finds her brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), on death’s door. Her son Konstantin (Billie Howle), a would-be playwright, who lives with his uncle, is also present. When Konstantin finds himself alone for a moment, there is a knock at the window. It is Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman with whom Konstantin was much in love and who left to become an actress two years before …

Other than making these brief scenes, which in Chekhov’s play come close to the conclusion, into the opening of their film (and repeating them later), Mayer and Karam remain faithful to the original drama (or comedy, as the playwright termed it).

It is two years earlier. Konstantin is staging his foolish, grandiose Symbolist-Decadent play, set tens of thousands of years in the future (“All is cold, cold. All is void, void, void. All is terrible, terrible”), at dusk on the grounds of his uncle’s estate, with Nina in the lead role as the “soul of the world”. His mother, the author Trigorin—with whom she has begun a relationship—and Sorin are in the audience, along with the local doctor, Dorn (Jon Tenney). Also present are the estate manager, Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), his wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss). The latter is being pursued by the ineffectual, poverty-stricken schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Michael Zegen).

There are numerous undercurrents. Irina Arkadina is bored in the country, jealous of Nina’s appearing in Konstantin’s play and hostile to the latter’s attempts to create “new forms of art”. She ridicules the play and succeeds in ruining her son’s experiment. Konstantin dislikes Trigorin, the short-story writer, whose works he finds insubstantial. Sorin, already ill and musing about death, regrets that he never succeeded in fulfilling his two greatest desires, to become a writer and to marry. Polina and the doctor have had an affair at some point. She is unhappy in her marriage to the boorish Shamrayev. Masha, her daughter, appears destined to follow in her footsteps. In fact, Chekhov’s play begins with Medvedenko asking Masha—who is unrequitedly in love with Konstantin—why she always wears black. “I’m in mourning for my life”, she replies. “I’m unhappy.”

For Konstantin things only get worse in the following days. In a fit of anger, he shoots a gull (not a “seagull”, in fact, the drama takes place on an inland lake) and places it at Nina’s feet. He warns her he will soon end his own life in the same way. Trigorin determines to make Nina, lovely and naïve, his latest conquest. Prophetically, he tells her an idea for a new story: “A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed.”

Konstantin does attempt suicide, but fails. Nina falls in love with Trigorin and tells him she has decided to take the plunge—she will leave for Moscow and become an actress. He arranges to meet her in the city.

Two years later. Masha and Medvedenko are married, miserably. Sorin is fatally ill. We learn that Nina and Trigorin lived together and had a child, who died. Nina has not proven to be an especially brilliant actress, although she has something of a career. Trigorin has returned to Irina Arkadina. Nina, as before, knocks on Konstantin’s window. They talk, she begins to compare herself to the gull. She is still hopelessly in love with Trigorin. She has a second-rate acting engagement for the winter, in the provinces. She leaves …

Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s plays, wrote the famed Russian-Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold years later, “corresponded to the general mood of the Russian intelligentsia at that time.” Meyerhold, who became a friend of Chekhov’s, played a leading role in the legendarily successful 1898 Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull (the original production, two years previously at a different theater, was an abject failure). Konstantin Stanislavsky directed—and performed in—the 1898 production, which also featured Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife.

Nina’s tragedy, wrote Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky’s colleague and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, specifically spoke to the situation of many girls “from the provinces at the time—girls whose ambition it was to escape from the dullness of their environment … to find something to which they might ‘give themselves’, all of themselves; flamingly and tenderly to sacrifice themselves to Him, the gifted man who had stimulated their dreams. As long as women’s rights were rudely limited, theatrical schools were full of girls like these.”

The “general mood of the Russian intelligentsia” in question, if one accepts Chekhov’s drama-comedy as a guide, contained discouragement, disillusionment and the sense of one’s personal insignificance and the pettiness and egoism of one’s concerns and ambitions. Add to that the dullness and stagnation of life in the country, where the only interruption of the boredom apparently extending to the end of time takes the form of desperate intrigues and pointless, doomed (and sometimes destructive, as in the case of Trigorin-Nina) love affairs, and the picture of life for this layer of society that emerges in The Seagull, and in Chekhov’s stories and plays generally, is not an attractive one.

As Elisaveta Fen wrote, in a 1959 introduction to a volume of Chekhov’s plays, “the characters … behave and talk as if they have lost their way, lost faith in themselves and in their own future.” Of course, other social forces and “moods” would shortly exert themselves explosively and eloquently in the 1905 Revolution.

American director Michael Mayer (born 1960) has done a competent job with The Seagull. This is an effort at a straightforward presentation of Chekhov’s play. The basic themes and ideas come through. The actors are generally fine. There are moving and even insightful moments. Saoirse Ronan, who seems a little over her head at certain points, makes an emotional and troubling final appearance as the now experienced and wounded Nina. Elizabeth Moss is also moving as Masha, who “voluntarily” enters into a marriage she knows will make her life nearly unbearable.

But this Seagull never rises to any great height. It is largely uninspired. There is no particular indication that Mayer, who describes himself as a man of the theater, has any strong film sense. The many close-ups and quiet conversations, if the truth be told, become a bit tedious. It is a film made without strong purpose.

How much of this is Mayer’s fault and how much of it is the fault of the conditions under which this interpretation of Chekhov’s work takes place?

Meyerhold repeatedly refers to Chekhov’s theater as a “theatre of mood” rather than Realism or Naturalism.

There is something to this. One indelibly associates Chekhov (1860-1904), for better or worse, with the quiet desperation and feelings of impotence and ineffectiveness of his leading characters. Chekhov brought tremendous honesty and sincerity to his stories and plays (“Life unfolded in such frank simplicity that the auditors seemed almost embarrassed to be present”, Nemirovich-Danchenko said of the opening night of The Seagull in 1898), but not the widest range of situations and emotions.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who liked Chekhov personally, once complained to him, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.”

Elisaveta Fen, in her introduction to Chekhov’s letters, wondered how it was possible for “so profoundly Russian … moods, characters and dramatic technique” to have been so well received, for example, in England between the world wars. She suggested the answer might lie “in the social temper of the periods concerned.” Fen argued that for the typical, educated middle class Englishman, “few would deny that the intellectual and emotional climate of the years 1919-39 was one of disappointment and depression … The two periods [in Russia and England] … are stamped with spiritual discouragement.”

This strong association with definite moods, of course, works both ways. Because of his specific characteristics as a writer, Chekhov inevitably seems somewhat out of place under certain social circumstances, circumstances of rapid social upheaval and transformation, for example.

In Literature and Revolution, written in the early 1920s, Leon Trotsky referred to Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre as belonging to the “islanders”, that section of “the intelligentsia who live on an island in the strange and hostile ocean of Soviet reality.” He went on, in more astonishment than anger, “Just imagine: these people are living, to this day, in the mood of the Chekhov Theater. The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya [two of Chekhov’s other major dramas] today!” In other words, how incongruous this subdued “Chekhovian mood” was in convulsive, ferociously energetic, post-revolutionary Russia, where the masses were still quivering in every fiber.

In a later passage in the same work, Trotsky pointed to “the passive realism of the Chekhov school” and suggested that “the experiences of Uncle Vanya” may well “have lost a little of their freshness.”

But the pendulum didn’t stop there either. The emergence and eventual domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy had created new political and cultural conditions by the late 1920s. In the name of “proletarian culture”, a great deal that was superficial, vulgar and “narrowly rationalistic” came to the fore in Soviet literature and drama.

Konstantin Stanislavsky

Aleksandr Voronsky, the editor and literary critic, Left Oppositionist and Trotsky’s co-thinker, felt it necessary in 1927, in his essay, “Notes on Artistic Creativity”, to come out forcefully in defense of Stanislavsky (whose theater had responded in the meantime to the artistic implications of the Bolshevik-led workers’ revolution), the Moscow Art Theatre and Chekhov. In a comment on Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art, Voronsky argues in favor of the theater director’s painstaking efforts—his book, Voronsky writes, “is permeated with blood and sweat”—and great artistic creativity.

He specifically and pointedly takes note of Stanislavsky’s emphasis on intuition and the need of the artist to “turn away from one’s common, everyday mood and become infected with the creative mood” and to “forget himself and yield to the flow of other feelings.” Again, Voronsky is taking aim here at pragmatic, utilitarian, cheap, purely “external” realism, which the national-minded ruling caste in the Soviet Union was encouraging. Here, under these conditions, Voronsky was promoting psychological insight and “inner realism” too, a secret which, he insists, the great literary artists—including Chekhov—understood.

“It is not hard to strut about”, Voronsky continued, almost provocatively challenging the advocates of so-called proletarian art, “or to write and say with a condescending expression that the Art Theatre represents the past. Perhaps it does represent the past, but this past was wonderful, we haven’t yet grown to its height, and our writers and actors have something to learn from it.”

There are a remarkable 475 films or television programs based on Chekhov’s works or associated with them somehow, many of them in the postwar period, when disappointment and discouragement were widespread sentiments. And other feelings too. It’s not necessary to identify Chekhov simply with a “retrograde” sensibility. But he seems to come to the fore at more socially quiescent times, which also allow perhaps for reflection and regret.

The Soviet film The Lady with the Dog (Iosif Kheifits, 1960), based on one of Chekhov’s most memorable short stories, would likely have been inconceivable in an earlier period of Soviet history. A man and women, both unhappily married, meet at a resort. They have an affair, but return to their old lives. They meet again, and make tentative plans to go on meeting, but the reality that they cannot get out of their marriages oppresses them. In the final scene, the audience is only aware of the Russian winter and the couple’s hopeless situation.

Does Mayer’s new film indicate the presence of a “Chekhovian mood” in the American intelligentsia today? The election of a Trump and the general and unprecedented filthiness of the political and cultural atmosphere have undoubtedly generated disquiet and unease. Feelings of impotence in the face of the growth of the far-right may exist in certain intellectual and artistic quarters.

And from the point of view of the issues raised by Voronsky, Chekhov and his circle as the representatives of a more serious, principled approach to art and to the audience, there may be something there as well. Each time a “classic” is filmed at present, no matter how inadequately, one has the feeling that the actors (and probably others involved) give a sigh of relief, appreciating that they have the opportunity for once to do something other than an empty, stupid superhero movie.

On the whole, however, the upper middle class in the film and entertainment world has done well for itself economically in recent years. Identity politics, among other things, has the function of offering this affluent layer the illusion it is “socially engaged” and “influencing things.”

Complacency and a lack of urgency largely prevail. Mayer’s Seagull reflects this in its own way. It is not done with tremendous passion or commitment. Chekhov’s work, to be effective, must suggest the cruelly, tragically suppressed feelings and drives under the surface. The quietness or even “half-heartedness” of the characters merely expresses the force of that suppression. Here, too often, there is merely passivity. American filmmaking hasn’t yet grown to the height of this “wonderful” past, far from it.

As noted, Chekhov is not for every time and place, or for every taste, but he was a serious artist. He wrote in a letter, “I hate lying and violence in all their forms—the most absolute freedom, freedom from force and fraud in whatever form the two latter may be expressed, that is the programme I would hold to if I were a great artist.” Who do we have like that today?