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Do you do politics, but live for art? Do art, but live for politics? Don’t tell me. Share it with your confessor. Or your bartender.

We saw the Kennedy Center & Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Follies, minus Bernadette Peters, at the Ahmanson on Sunday. Theater tickets were still costing more than an ounce of Acapulco Gold when the original production premiered in 1971 – or was it that the Gold lasted longer? – so I missed that one. I had the original cast recoring in my possession not long after, but I didn’t see a full staging until an uninspired 2001 Broadway revival starring Blythe Danner and Treat Williams. What showed in the high concept musical, then, was an oft commented upon lack of cohesion because of that highness of concept. Not this time. As fully realized a production as the play is likely to receive, the concept is this time fully borne out to it musical comedy, hysterical and haunting conclusion. Two middle aged couples, one-time Follies performers, relive in reunion the follies of their mismatched love lives, finally performing them to a despairing fall in a closing, actual Follies review.  The daring of this theatrical vision relatively early in the monumental Sondheim career, and even forty years later, reminds just how great that career has been. Sondheim is one of the world’s greatest living artists in any medium, still, at 82, towering above everyone else in his field, with nary a pretender in sight.

Whatever the achievements of this production, though, and despite the prodigious theatrical talent of Bernadette Peters, no performance, I think, will match the searing, soaring pain of Dorothy Collins, from the original cast, performing that contender for greatest torch song ever, “Losing My Mind.”

Then word out of Cannes that Michael Haneke had won his second Palme d’Or, for Amour, a film about old age and euthanaisa starring Emmanuelle Riva and  Jean-Louis Trintignant.

In accepting the award, Mr. Haneke shared the stage with the movie’s two actors, who both were accompanied to the stage. Ms. Riva, born in 1927, was last at Cannes officially in 1959 with that classic of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Both Ms. Riva and Mr. Trintignant spoke briefly after Mr. Haneke did. The visibly frail Mr. Trintignant (born in 1930), whose astonishing career includes some of the most famous European films of the past half-century —“A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “My Night at Maud’s,” “The Conformist” — said that, for him, Mr. Haneke was the greatest director working today.

The two careers span an approximately twenty-year period in European film that is one of the high points in the history of any art.

Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Trintignant in The Conformist.

The two in Amour.

Last night on  HBO, Philip Kaufmann’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. The film has many of the difficulties of bio pics, which with very rare exceptions feel constrained by the shape, or dramatic shapelessness, of a whole life, and thus fail to provide the form of an artist’s enveloping vision. Still, in the film’s strongest section, the Spanish Civil War captures what was the short-lived attraction between the two – engagement in daring, vivid lives of action, commitment and writing. While Gellhorn comes off best, no one fares well, least of all John Dos Passos, who must hate Hemingway again from grave to grave for being portrayed the smallest whiny wuss as ever bleated naively for a cause. Gellhorn seems less to find meaning in the cause of engagé journalism than to be incapable of living more personally and deeply. Hemingway, if possible, is played a grander preening bag of juvenile bluster than usual. There is something about that long Civil War section, focused on the filming of the famous documentary, The Spanish Earth, that makes all that celebrity volunteer coverage of a foreign war appear too much a search for personal significance in other people’s blood.

Still, there is one deeply affecting moment that captures the best inarticulable essence to the Hemingway life of bravado, that almost redeems it, if he didn’t seem otherwise so awful. He and Gellhorn are at the front line observing a firefight when they see a Republican soldier shot to death very near them. Hemingway runs to him, to take up the fighter’s head and whisper some last words – Gellhorn knew not what they were – in the man’s ears in his final moments before death. Enraged, Hemingway then picks up the fallen man’s rifle and joins the charge into battle. Gellhorn says in the voice over that it was at the instant of Hemingway’s private, whispered words to the dying man that she knew she was in love.

At that moment, for a few moments, I almost loved him, too. But I suspect that was the way it was for everyone with Hemingway.

AJA

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