Thursday, January 7, 2010

Guido at the Mercy of Detractors

So we've come to the end of our long, verbose journey. Tim Brayton, of the excellent film blog Antagony and Ecstasy and I have been tracking the winding path of Nine to the screen. First we had a discussion based on my viewing of 8 1/2, Federico Fellini's film about his life and artistic struggles (parts one and two) then we talked about Tim's initial listen to the original cast album of Nine, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's musical adaptation of the film (which can be found here). Now we've each seen the film version, directed by Rob Marshall and...well, it's a pretty sad discussion. Tim has already posted our discussion at his blog, but here it is for your reading pleasure.

Hi Zev,

Well, here we are at last with Nine, as adapted by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella from Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's 1982 Broadway musical - or is it? I know we both have quite a few disappointments with this one, for a lot of shared and personal reasons, but I want to put that off for the moment to focus on what seems to me the film's strange and ultimately fatal choice to bring so very much of Federico Fellini's back into the fold, both visually and narratively. I remember finding to my shock how much the stage musical didn't feel like a travesty of that 1963 classic, simply because it was so damn different: the thematic concerns, the way the narrative was structured. And while I might have still disliked the movie - director Rob Marshall and I do not have a very good history together - a film adaptation of Nine still would have been worth seeing.

But that's not what we saw, is it? Frankly, the film Nine doesn't feel at all like an adaptation of the show: it feels like a remake of spiced up with some songs from the stage Nine. Which is a crippling, terrible choice. A film of the musical might have been able to avoid the worst comparisons with Fellini's masterpiece, on account of being so very different; but Marshall and the writers not only court comparisons, but practically beg for them. For starters, the structure is much closer to the film than the musical: this is especially apparent in the second half, which is where the previous two versions of the story diverged most, and the film Nine follows in nearly all specifics, especially the much later arrival of Luisa Contini to the spa where Guido is staying, and the addition of several "filmmaking" scenes - I can't think of any other way to call them - like the sequence where Guido and the producers watch the screen tests, a major climax in Fellini that is wholly absent in the stage version.

The result is a terribly aimless hybrid of two essentially disparate takes on a similar (not identical!) scenario, and the film Nine never figures out what it wants its identity to be. There's simply not enough left of the musical's treatment of a man-child and the woman who have shaped his world to have that stand as the film's primary angle, but Marshall is no Fellini, and he doesn't have remotely the same things to say about creative block, although he certainly appears to suffer from it.

Even worse than it's middling appropriation of motifs from two incompatible sources, there are plenty of points where the movie just makes stuff up, which is nowhere more obvious or more upsetting than the end of the story: unaccountably, Tolkin, Minghella and Marshall decided to do away with the moment where Guido contemplates (or, in some interpretations, commits) suicide, which in both and the stage Nine seems like the obvious and inevitable point that the story has been building to all along. Instead, there's just some lame flash-forward that has all the feeling of a lazy biopic ending. If I could tell what they were trying to do there, I think I'd be a much happier man.

I'm also confused and heartbroken by the way it treats Guido's fantasies: one of the chief appeals of both the previous movie and the musical was the way that we're rarely clear whether a given moment is Guido's fantasy or the actual reality he is observing; eventually we come to understand that there's not much point in distinguishing them. But, using the same trick that appeared in Marshall's dispiriting adaptation of Chicago, all of the musical numbers are unambiguously Guido's fantasies, and everything that's not a musical number is plainly "reality", no ambiguity or melding of the real and the imagined to be found. For me, that is the whole entire point of 8½, and if it's not quite as central to Nine, it's still a tremendously important component - to do away with that entirely seems to have quite missed the point of both works of art that Marshall et al are copying.

I could and probably will say a lot about the way the film travesties Fellini, but for now, I'm tossing it over to you, to ask a) what you think about its attempt to combine the two sources, and b) your feelings on the things the film does to Yeston's music, and I know that on this second point, at least, you have some very definite, very strong opinions.


I think you've expressed how the film unsuccessfully blends the Fellini and the original musical very clearly, though the list of shots (e. g. Guido meeting Carla at the train) and scenes (e. g. the conversaton with the Cardinal in the spa) cribbed directly from Fellini could go on and on.

And before I get into the flaws, a promise: I will say what works about the movie at the end of this message, because it's hardly a total waste.

One of Rob Marshall's fundamental ideas about film musicals, and a very unfortunate one, is that an audience simply will not accept characters breaking into song within the story. There has to be some sort of framing device, with the songs being one character's fantasies. I actually thought the device worked rather well in Chicago, where the main character dreamt of a vaudeville career, but it is far less successful here. There's simply no reason for Guido Contini's fantasies to be songs, unless the film establishes the rule that song is a part of the storytelling language.

Another problem with the device, and to my mind the more damaging one, is that it takes agency away from the women. One of the main distinctions between and Nine is that the stage musical gives the women powere they didn't have in the Fellini. They are singing directly to Guido, confronting him with their feelings, and baring their souls directly to the audience. If everything they are singing is simply what Guido imagines, it saps them of much of their power, and again makes them abstractions whose inner life Guido doesn't understand and the audience can't really access.

Several other major decisions made on the film were similarly wrongheaded: what can we make of the fact that the stage version's major stylistic device, to have the adult and child versions of Guido be the only men in a sea of women, was jettisoned? Suddenly, there are men back in Nine. However, none of them have major roles, so rather than stylistically bold and arresting the film just seems peculiar.

Why drastically reconceive two characters? Lilliane La Fleur, the fearsome Parisian producer, is changed to Judi Dench's Lilli, the kindly costume designer who acts as Guido's confidante. Leaving aside that it makes no sense for Guido to have a trusted friend of any kind, this removes any tension from "Folies Bergere": if it's not performed by a producer demanding that Guido make the musical he promised her to get the contract, what's the point? Similarly, why turned acid-tongued critic Stephanie into a fawning Vogue writer, remove her caustic countermelody from "Folies Bergere," and replace it with the really awful "Cinema Italiano"? (More on that song in a moment.) It's almost perverse to make changes that so obviously harm the story's drama.

You've already mentioned the dispiriting way the movie puts reality, memory, and fantasy into rigidly separate worlds and the weird ending, My ire is reserved for two major elements: the choreography and the music.

Rob Marshall got his start as a Broadway choreographer, but he seems to have lost something along the way. With a few exceptions, his choreography gives the impression of nothing more than crotches and breasts being thrust at the camera. Apparently this is supposed to be erotic, but only one of the characters in Nine is a prostitute. To take "A Call From the Vatican," a teasing seduction, and turn it into an exotic dancer's routine that makes Penelope Cruz look downright cheap, is really distressing. He even adds it at the least appropriate possible times--when the female chorus comes in at the end of "Guido's Song," singing a classical-sounding melody, why are they shimmying like strippers? When he avoids that trap, he ends up with choreography that is just plain dumb--why is Guido running around the set like a jungle gym and doing chin-ups during "Guido's Song"? Why does the choreography in "Cinema Italiano" consist of the chorus doing runway struts and posing, then jumping up and down while shaking their heads back and forth? (It's even more ridiculous looking than it sounds, I promise.)

But it's what happens to Yeston's score that's really heartbreaking. First off is the fact that something like half of it is missing. I didn't much miss the title song or "Getting Tall" (though I do wish they'd done something more with young Guido), but they also cut "The Bells of St. Sebastian's" (the best song in the show, and one of the great first-act closers in musical theatre), "Be On Your Own," "Simple," the entire "Grand Canal" sequence (along with the plot point that his eventual movie is a biopic of Casanova which mirrors his own life), "Not Since Chaplin," "Only With You," half of "Folies Bergere"...I understand movies have to make cuts, but this is ridiculous.

And the lyric changes? While I'm the first to admit that the musical has some clinkers, shouldn't the point of replacing them be to improve them? While I appreciate that "Be Italian,/ You rapscallion" was replaced by "Be Italian,/ Be Italian," the other changes just replaced eh lyrics with other eh lyrics, and in a few cases made decent lyrics worse. I still miss "When he was working on the film on Ancient Rome/ He made the slave girls take the gladiators home," which speaks more to the mad way Guido's life is affected by his art than "Like Michelangelo, he paints his private dome,/ But can't distinguish what's his work and what's his home," which is painfully on the nose.

As for the newly written songs...I am going to assume that Rob Marshall ordered very specific things, rather than that Maury Yeston has lost his touch, because none are particularly worthwhile. "Guarda La Luna," for Guido's mother (Sophia Loren) is a blah set of lyrics and minimal dramatic content wedded the beautiful waltz melody from the show, but otherwise passes almost unnoticed. "Take It All" is passable, but it seems more like an excuse to get Marion Cotillard to remove her clothes than anything else, and deprives us of "Be On Your Own," an absolutely scorching song. And "Cinema Italiano" is really just awful. It has the wrong sound for the period, idiotic lyrics, and an annoying melody, plus is sung by a pointless character and lacks dramatic impact. Amazingly, it was only three minutes long, but it felt much longer.

And now for an episode of musical theatre nerdiness: the orchestrations. For those who are unfamiliar, the orchestrator takes a piano-vocal score from the composer and decides how many instruments are in the orchestra, which they are, and who plays what. Sounds simple, but a good orchestration can add immensely to the musical and storytelling power of the score. Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the original production, gets my personal vote as greatest living Broadway orchestrator (he also worked on the original productions of nearly all of Stephen Sondheim's shows since Company). The original orchestrations are gorgeous, and help the score leap out in all of its musical and dramatic richness.

The movie's new orchestrations by Doug Besterman? Not so much. I understood after seeing the movie why so many reviews have called the score bland: the orchestrations are unforgivably dull. Besterman took an original score and made it sound like every other film musical--lots of instruments, very little thought. Sometimes, he actively made the songs worse: the underscoring of the "Overture Delle Donne" drove me up the wall. It's a terrible shame, because the people who see Nine without knowing the score will have very little reason to check it out.

And now, as promised, the things that worked: Daniel Day Lewis is a rather good singer, even if he is 10 years too old for the part. Judi Dench, though playing an unnecessary character, sells her number like a pro, and has delicious line readings. Penelope Cruz manages to wrest a few moments of genuine seductiveness and vulnerability from Marshall's vulgarity. And Marion Cotillard...she's a wonder. When she was on screen, I couldn't take my eyes from her, and I felt deeply for her. She handily made "My Husband Makes Movies" the highlight of the film, managed to make "Take It All" sound better than it has any right to, and had me misted up in the screening room scene. I can't believe I haven't seen La Vie En Rose yet.

To change the subject completely: this movie, while not that great, hardly enters the pantheon of bad movies--and is nowhere near the worst film adaptation of a stage musical. But I think it may end up doing serious damage to the show. Despite a run of nearly two years, five Tonys, a national tour, and a well-received revival, Nine has never really entered the musical theatre repertoire. I don't know if it's too artsy and European, people can't get past the concept, or what, but it isn't produced nearly as often as shows of a similar caliber. Until the movie was made, it wasn't well known to non theatre people. And now, the people who know the show will know it as a mediocrity or worse. The name recognition might help it get produced, but the terrible reviews and word of mouth, not to mention the anemic grosses, are more likely to discourage companies. And that's a damn shame.

So, what say you? Any more thoughts?

I agree wholeheartedly with damn near every word you've said. You're right on with Marshall's essential mistrust of the musical format, and I can't fathom why he keeps making the damn things if this is how he feels about them. While I must respectfully disagree that the fantasy angle worked better in Chicago than in Nine - minimally, I think there's precedent in Fellini for making this story take place mostly inside Guido's head - I still think Chicago is better on the whole because at least there are some good dance numbers. The choreography in Nine is just plain lousy. You mention the three worst offenders, and I have nothing to add to that, really; but good Lord, it's just embarrassing that he is an alleged professional. I could have designed better numbers than that.

You're also right about what happens to the music. One of the things I noted when we discussed Nine was that I felt the songs worked better as part of a musical continuum, whereas I was a bit lukewarm to a lot of them just taken as individual bits of singing. Lo and behold, the movie breaks that continuum and makes the songs sound a bit flimsy in the process - and of course the awful orchestrations don't help with that (I'll see you the overture and raise you the flat and not at all sexy reworking of "A Call from the Vatican"). Nor, for that matter, does the singing; I think I have much less generous feelings towards pretty much everyone than you do. The huge exception is Cotillard, who wrests every drop she can from "My Husband Makes Movies" and turns it into probably the strongest moment of the film, although that song was a lot better when it came at the start of the show, and not in the middle; but that's what the writers get for following too closely.

I did mention that I would have more to say about that, didn't I? Then I should probably get on with it. The biggest problem with Nine as a remake of is quite simply that Rob Marshall is not undergoing a crisis of his art, such as it is. Fellini's movie was about his process, telling a story that commented upon its own creation in an Ouroboros-like cycle of self-reflection and naval-gazing. Marshall isn't doing anything remotely like that. His film's treatment of Fellini's scenario is based on the most shallow understanding of the matter of that I could imagine: a director is wasting time and money. Both and the stage Nine make it clear that Guido is trying to represent himself as cinema, but by taking out any hint that Guido's movie is autobiographical, the film denies us even that bit of meaning. There just don't seem to be any dramatic stakes involved: he'll either finish the movie or not, whatever. In 8½, finishing the movie was a matter of life and death.

The movie's Guido is little more than a parody of Fellini himself; even in there weren't so many direct references to the director's previous films. All this does it to make the film even less urgent and certainly a great deal less personal. In place of creative block, marital angst, mortal dread, or any of the other things that made the first film and the musical interesting and thematically rich, Nine the movie seems to largely operate in that terrible space occupied by the lesser biopics, in which pointing out that Federico Fellini existed and did things takes the place of actual introspection. It also leads to that dreadful "Cinema Italiano", about which not enough terrible things can be said; may Heaven save me from ever again hearing "neo-realism" rhymed with prism. The whole pointless song, sung by a pointless character (and if there's one change relative to that is a complete and unmitigated fuck-up, it's turning the caustic, arrogant critic into a vapid gossip-mage reporter) says one thing: "In the 1960s, Americans liked stylish European movies!" And that's probably the closest Nine the movie has to a theme itself. At any rate, it has nothing whatsoever to say about the creative process, and very little to say about one man's relationship to women, which as you have astutely noted, was a thematic thread that lost all validity the instant that the women were stripped of their personal agency.

I'm going to do the intolerably lazy thing and just refer back to my review of the film for the rest of my problems; they are not few, and a lot of them overlap with what you've said. But since you're playing nice to end your thoughts, I guess I can do the same thing: as mentioned, Cotillard is great, and I think that Dion Beebe's cinematography is quite extraordinary, even making the hellish "Cinema Italiano" interesting to look at. Even when Marshall has him doing terrible things - such as copying the Seraghina sequence from the movie exactly - he does them with a good deal of talent and grace. And um... the sets never fell down? This is hard.

In looking at our comments, I've come to a rather dispiriting conclusion: this film version of Nine lacks a compelling reason to exist. The engine of was Fellini's own artistic block and psychological stress. The stage version of Nine made use of a full, complex score, a stronger focus on the women, and a very different but still compelling take on the central story. The movie combines their approaches with some new material into...well, something. There's good work being done by the actors, particularly Cotillard, and apparently the cinematography is quite excellent (I'm not anything like a connoisseur ). But there doesn't seem to be any animating passion to it. Why does this director tell this story with these performers? Well, a musical with lots of stylish clothes and an insane number of Oscar winning actors must have seemed like like a sure bet to win some Oscars of its own. This is hardly an uncommon reason to make a movie, though the poor reviews and terrible grosses make it unlikely it will succeed at even that debased goal. It's just depressing to see the Oscarbait treatment given to a musical I so dearly love. It's especially sad because I think there is a good movie to be made of Nine. Unfortunately, it hasn't been made, and it's unlikely ever to happen now.


So that's the end of our part of the story: we've talked enough. But what about you? Anyone have thoughts about any incarnation of the story? Have any of you seen the movie? Please comment, either here or over at Tim's post, and be part of the conversation!

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