The Ides of March (15)

Cinematic clichés abound in this campaign thriller.

The Ides of March (15)
dir: George Clooney

Take a liberal American movie star whose integrity is uncompromised by his pin-up status. Put him in a grown-up film that balances its
serious commentary on the political system with a knowing comic tone. Throw in enough healthy cynicism to flatter the audience. What have you got?

Well, you've got The Candidate, starring Robert Redford as an incrementally disillusioned Democratic hopeful, or Bulworth, with Warren Beatty as a suicidal Democratic senator who starts telling the truth to voters. It's in the spirit of such films that George Clooney has directed and co-written The Ides of March, which proposes that some politicians might be self-serving, even hypocritical. All I can say is thank goodness this isn't a piece of promenade theatre: it's best to be sitting down if you're going to receive a shock like that.

Clooney plays Mike Morris, governor of Pennsylvania, who is campaigning to be the Democrats' presidential candidate. We barely glimpse his rival, but then this isn't about the puppet show so much as the puppeteers manipulating the marionettes and one another. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the rising star behind the scenes of the campaign, believes that his man is the liberal dream made flesh. A seen-it-all reporter (Marisa Tomei) warns him not to get "all goose-bumpy" about Morris, but nobody comes right out and says, "Look what happened with Clinton" or, "Don't get your hopes up - he could be another Obama", just as no one ever discourages the teenagers in a slasher film from frolicking at night on an abandoned campsite by saying: "Has no one here seen any Friday the 13th movies?"

There are some promising characters to distract us while we wait for the scales to fall from Stephen's eyes. Morris's campaign manager, Paul Zara, is a stubby pro who probably smells of day-old machine coffee. Who else could play him but Philip Seymour Hoffman, the puce-faced actor with three names and 300 ways of expressing anxiety? Paul Giamatti, Hoffman's only rival for the title of America's Greatest Sad-Sack, plays Zara's opposite number, Tom Duffy. Whenever the two of them appear in the same scene, there's a high risk that any fortysomething men within a ten-mile radius will experience stomach ulcers and a midlife crisis. ("Giamatti" would work very nicely as a collective noun - "a Giamatti of sad-sacks". Possibly even better than the current favourite, a travelodge.)

Unfortunately, Hoffman and Giamatti aren't given much more to do than huff and puff and blow the hero's preconceptions away. The screenplay (based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North) is not without merit. Running through it is the idea that politics demands the surrender of identity. Stephen flirts with an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he refers to variously as "Mary" and "the cleaning lady". Morris jokingly calls Stephen "Paul" when he thinks he's trying to smuggle through one of Paul's campaign ideas, and calls his own wife "Stephen" when he suspects her of doing the same on Stephen's behalf. One character uses a dead person's mobile phone so that it appears the deceased is calling. "Excuse me while I disappear," croons a lounge pianist aptly.

The vanishing motif extends to the film, which never goes for originality when the anonymous or tried and tested will do. How many more times will we have to see the face of a morally divided man half-concealed by shadow, or a clandestine negotiation taking place on a bench by a river?There's also the problem that the film doesn't spin its web of intrigue terribly wide. Even "web" is probably an overstatement. It's more a cat's cradle of intrigue.

There's a change of genre in the picture's fav­our when it switches from fast-talking political screwball to paranoid thriller, promising a kind of North By Northwest Wing. But Clooney is so worried we'll miss the left turn that he heralds it with sombre musical cues. I don't know what it is with him and directing; I rather wish he wouldn't. The Ides of March isn't embarrassingly inept like his last film, Leatherheads, but nor is it moredistinguished than an average TV movie. Clooney is a handsome, charismatic actor who can get big studios to green-light his shopping list. Can't he accept those limitations?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis