Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Heroes, Martyrs, Knaves: Oscar Grant, Ian McKellen, the Matt Damon franchise

I inhaled a lot of drama this weekend. Didn't plan to, it just happened. I don't mean the drama that clutters up one's own life, but the sort that's played on stage and screen.

Friday night I had the great fortune to see Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Not only is the play a riveting look at male isolation and aggression, written by a modern dramatic master of same, but the lead roles were fiercely jousted by two of the finest living British actors: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley added their Tony Award winning star power to round out the cast. Sound like a Broadway-worthy lineup? That's because the production is on its way to New York this fall, where No Man's Land will be played in rotation with Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre.

Saturday afternoon I watched Elysium, the latest Matt Damon might-as-well-call-him-a-superhero flick, which benefited from a setup -- the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth as IMDB has it -- that will seem sadly credible to those who follow the current trajectories of wealth distribution and environmental degradation, which are related topics, after all.

On Sunday I finally saw Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Julius Grant III, culminating in his tragic death a few BART stops from where I live, at the hands of transit police, on New Year's Day, 2009. The film was released on 12 July, and is still playing in Berkeley, at the California theatre.

In No Man's Land, the two principals circle each other warily, sometimes in thrall to each other's lies and evasions, sometimes railing against each other's deception. Truth is contested, perhaps unknowable. Each character stakes out solitary territory in the form of sketchily described history, competing claims, and slippery observation, in a single large room of the home belonging to a monied and alcoholic litterateur, Hirst (played by Stewart). The failed poet Spooner (McKellen) rises to the bait when Hirst -- honestly befuddled? deceitfully? -- first goes on about remembering Spooner from their years at Oxford, then denounces him as an imposter. Spooner eventually begs. The Crudup and Hensley characters menace throughout. Hirst retreats into alcoholic opacity, which is where he was when the curtain first lifted. Each man fears for the integrity of his territory, defends it, and ends the play as alone as he started. All of the characters are soused, none are sympathetic, yet the production is riveting. It's a house of knaves.

In Elysium, Max (Matt Damon) is an orphan,  grown-up in a Los Angeles decayed into dusty, sprawling slum. Max has spent years boosting cars and doing time, but as the film opens has taken honest work in a Dickensian factory, helping to manufacture the robots that police his world. His driving motives are muddled. For understandably selfish reasons he doesn't want to return to prison. When a risk he is forced by a callous manager to take at the factory results in his exposure to a lethal dose of radiation, Max resolves to do whatever it takes to gain access to medical technology available only on the 0.001%'s space station, called Elysium: quasi-magical machines that heal any and all illness and injury this side of death. Then -- and I'm eliding here to avoid spoiling the, um, preposterous plot -- a little girl with leukemia tells him a child's fable, and Max, exercising superhuman strength with the aid of Terminator-like technology while dying of radiation poisoning, schemes and fights his way to Elysium where he ... wait for it ... closes the movie as a Christ figure. It's Hollywood, people.

In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) is portrayed as a Joycean sort of hero: like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, he's a flawed human being navigating the ordinary pleasures and perils of a single day in his hometown. Like Elysium's Max he's been in prison, but now he's not. He drops off his daughter at school and makes up with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz); he begs the manager who fired him for another chance at his supermarket job (no dice), and later charms a shop owner into permitting the women he's out with on New Year's Eve to use his restroom. He gets in a fight on a packed BART train with a man who recognizes him from a stretch in Alameda County's jail. Amped-up police respond, pull Grant and his friends off the train, and at the culmination of escalating rounds of testosterone-inflected chest bumping, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle unholsters his sidearm and shoots Grant point-blank in the back. (In real life, Mehserle claimed he intended to reach for his taser but grabbed the 'wrong' weapon. Mass protest ensued. Mehserle is free after serving half his short sentence for an involuntary manslaughter conviction.) Fruitvale Station portrays a world in which flawed humans sometimes make it home to their loved ones, as Leopold made it home to Molly; while other flawed humans get shot in the back. You may know the place. You live there.

YMMV, but I found the most highly produced (and expensive) of these dramas to boil down to a dose of the same old same old. It was the least moving, precisely because the real world -- never mind the setting, I'm talking about the humanity -- was airbrushed and mythologized out of it. [Sony paid $115,000,000 for Elysium, according to the Hollywood Reporter (actual budget unknown), and took in just over $30M in its first weekend, including my $8 matinee ticket. Fruitvale Station was acquired by the Weinstein brothers for $2.5M, its budget was reportedly less than half that and it was filmed in 20 days. I haven't got a clue what the Pinter play cost to produce, but I'd wager it's closer to the Ryan Coogler film than to Neill Blomkamp's.]

Fruitvale Station is my weekend's clear winner; I prefer drama that adheres closely to the world outside my door, in all its varied and particular messiness. Michael B. Jordan portrays a man at human scale. Despite its departures from known truths of Oscar Grant's story -- it's drama based on not a documentary -- Coogler has given us a way to listen past the chuff we call "news," to approach the heart of what it's like to live in 21st century urban America.

The Berkeley Rep's run of No Man's Land has sold out its performances, through the end of August (the tenacious might get lucky scoring tickets returned to the box office on the days of performance). Pinter's drama is formal, not natural; but it reaches deep into the fear and loathing that animate the shrunken souls of men trapped by shriveled notions of masculinity. I regret that I believe their numbers are legion, and that they make cameo appearances in Fruitvale Station.


If you're in New York this Fall you have another shot at seeing actors that one Berkeley Rep staffer aptly described this weekend as "the Geilgud and Olivier of my generation": the Cort Theatre's run of No Man's Land opens on 31 October.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize

Image of the cast of No Man's Land provide by Berkeley Rep: "Internationally acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are joined by Tony Award-winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in a special presentation of No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photograph by Jason Bell." Image of Oscar Grant from Wikimedia Commons.

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