Monday, February 6, 2012

Phyllida Lloyd | Mamma Mia!

music for the estranged
by Douglas Messerli

Catherine Johnson (screenplay, based on musical book), Phyllida Lloyd (director) Mamma Mia! /

I have a confession to make. I do not nor ever have liked bubblegum. I also do not like bubblegum music, particularly when it comes in the form of the phenomenally successful Swedish group ABBA. To me their music sounds like it has been composed by a refrigerator—perhaps a result of the cold Swedish winters in which, surely, some of their music has been written. But then, to call their music "Swedish," would be absurd. It's hard to say where ABBA's music might be from, since the lyrics are in English and their sing-along close harmonies somewhat reminds one of campfire songs. Yet the lyrics are often so bizarre that it is difficult to imagine anyone having written them. Consider the strange nostalgic song of a "battle for liberty":

There was something in the air that night

The stars were bright, Fernando

They were shining there for you and me

For liberty, Fernando

Though I never thought that we could lose

There's no regret

If I had to do the same again

I would, my friend, Fernando

If I had to do the same again

I would, my friend, Fernando

  Or the major refrain of an irresistible, but failed, love:

Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I've missed you

  Their great paean to dance is just as absurd, with its sudden focus—"oh yeah"—on a tambourine:

You are the dancing queen
Young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing queen, feel the beat
From the tambourine, oh yeah

And who else in the world might have conceived of a love song centered on Napolean's Waterloo battle?

 No one else in the real world might possibly utter (or even sing) these lines. ABBA's songs, in short, come from nowhere but ABBA land, and have no specific ties to any particular place or county but, perhaps, the inner terrain of Bjoern Ulvaeus', Stig Anderson's, and Benny Andersson's minds. And it is this very isolation from anything real that drives their music, making it seem retro even when it first appeared. The strange English of these songs makes them feel as if they have come from some alien world, a world, which in its quirky but love-based messages, comes close to being ridiculously camp.

     I think this very quality explains why outrageous gays such as those in The Adventures of Priscilla and outsider women such as the two central figures of Muriel's Wedding are attracted to ABBA, and why I am not.

     Accordingly I did not see the movie nor theater version of Mamma Mia! Everyone had told me that no matter what I thought about the music, it was just plain fun. But as a contrarian, I skipped the pleasure. Besides, I have another quirk in not particularly liking the acting skills of Meryl Streep*(see below). I do, however, like Pierce Brosnan, Colin Furth, Julie Walters, and others of this cast, and, although few of them can keep up with the amazingly energetic and good-looking Streep, they do help stoke Phyllida Loyd's silly trifle of a movie. Along with these seasoned actors, the beautiful boys and girls, and the lovely Greek island of Sokpeles, I almost was able to swallow the ABBA pills, and sit back to enjoy this pastiche about a young soon-to-be bride who is desperate to discover her father.

     As her handsome fiancée (Dominic Cooper) explains to her:

                 Sophie: I wanted to get married knowing who I am.
                 Sky: You don't find that from finding your father, Sophie, you find it
                          by finding yourself.

   No more seriousness! The rest of this film is devoted to song and dance. The couple at the center, in fact, never do marry, but ride off into the sunset to discover each other and the world before they tie the knot. But family sentimentalists can still celebrate Donna's (Streep) marriage to Sam (Brosnan), Rosie's (Walters) proposal to Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry's new found love, a male Greek islander!

    The director, realizing her bon-bon is only a sweet repast, does not attempt more than that, allowing the film to make millions of dollars at the box-office.

*Streep is an excellent actor, and certainly deserving of the many rewards she has received. But her immersement in character makes for the kind of acting of which I am least fond. The great actors, for me, are those who profoundly "play" the character while still remaining, somehow, themselves, or, at least, projections of who they might like to be—figures like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando. In theater and film, I want the actors to be just that, actors, larger than life figures who are able to competently play imaginary beings. The word "imaginary" is crucial; I want to be able to see the theater of the gesture without the actor overdoing it or hamming it up. With Streep, however, I never can get a sense of who she is underneath her character; she is so able to mime and imitate, that I cannot see the actress playing her role; even though my companion, Howard, met her when he visited her artist husband, I cannot imagine who Streep is off screen or stage. Perhaps that is why she has only played in what I suggest are "Hollywood" movies. Although she has played in dramas, she has, to my knowledge, never played in a "serious" film, by which I mean one that pushes the boundaries of cinema. She acts perfectly for a scripted idea of what character is, but can seldom create an original and memorable being since she will not reveal herself. In short, Streep acts without being an actor. She is a Polish survivor of the concentration camps, a brilliant Danish story-teller trapped in Africa, a wicked dictator of the clothes industry, an outsized chef dedicated to French cooking, a joyful hippie-like leftover, stranded at mid-life in Greece, even an "iron woman" of British politics—yet she has never performed as Meryl Streep. A chameleon is a cold-blooded being.

Los Angeles, February 10, 2012

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