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March 10, 2006

Discovering the Obvious

Roy Meachum

What a week! It began last Friday afternoon with a quick dash to catch Dame Judith Dench as the Mrs. Henderson who presented London with nude tableaux, as the famous bridge was shaking but not falling under assault from Nazi bombers.

I loved the flick; it might have hung around longer if Dame Judi had taken away this year's Oscar for best leading actress. On the other hand, Philip Seymour Hoffman landed the lollapalooza male top banana, still his "Capote" rated only a single week in a single local cinema palace.

The week's curtain fell with a DVD-viewing of Sunday's Academy Award-winning "Crash." That was Wednesday. But let's keep the universe in some sort of order.

Only the night before, we hied off to Baltimore's gorgeous Hippodrome for "Movin' Out," a show that literally blew my mind. I haven't been so turned on since the late, much lamented Bob Fosse lit my fire in a string of musicals starting with "Damn Yankees" and "Pajama Game, then came "Cabaret."

Billy Joel's songs provided "Movin' Out's" score, which were fashioned into Tony-award winning orchestrations. Mr. Joel's words and music received deliciously flippant treatment by high-above-the-stage musicians, gloriously led and vocally inspired Tuesday by the Irish-born Darren Holden.

Go figure! Billy Joel couldn't be more New York-New Jersey metro area. In the end it doesn't really matter. The evening belongs not to the pop king and his disciples but a lady most people probably have never heard of before. And that's a dadgummed shame.

Twyla Tharp deserves better; she has earned the best the arts and entertainment world can offer including great fame. Her talent and demonstrated skills as a choreographer have already placed her in the ultimate pantheon when it comes to dance.

Instead of my mere words, I suggest you truck over to West Baltimore and find out for yourself, how explosive, how dynamic, how athletic and downright sexy an evening of theatre can be. And not a single word is spoken.

Ms. Tharp's points are all well taken by a veritable plethora of toothsome women who make her points by going on point while wearing heels. The nigh-gorgeous males startle with muscular power so very filled with grace.

"Movin' Out" comes endowed with spectacle that my memory has some trouble trying to top and that from a mind that remembers my very first professional show, a WPA production of "Whistling in the Dark," at New Orleans' St. Charles Theatre.

Twyla Tharp comes up with the very same stuff dreams are made of, only better. She marries classical ballet with modern dance in a way that Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and Eugene Loring must admire. I sure do, and lots more.

As usual, Ms. Tharp's extravagantly splendid troupe will take Billy Joel's intoxicating score and make a grand jete down the road after next weekend's performances. You've got time. Get there to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. You can thank me later.

As already confessed, this year's Oscar-winning Best Movie managed last May to slide through Frederick, then "Crash" disappeared. No great loss at the time from my prospective. I was dead wrong.

Never mind the fancy statues passed about during Sunday's Academy Awards telecast. Hollywood's highly vaunted electoral process has bombed before; as a measure of high artistic content, it is merely marginally ahead of the way voters select our political leaders.

After some 40 years of professionally observing and recounting the choices, I find myself, at times, in violent opposition to some names tucked away in the "secret" and sealed envelopes.

Jack Nicholson's contorted body language and twisted facial expressions as he only half-muttered this year's Best Picture threw my jaded reflexes into half-gear. More with a feeling of onerous duty than expectation, I managed to snag a rental DVD of "Crash."

Roughly the first hour or so lived down, and below, my worse expectations. I thought of my review for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Something along the line:

"Find a garbage can crawling with maggots and other vermin, redolent of the most disgusting odors man can invent, stick your head in it for two hours and you'll get the same effect as watching this monstrous assault on human life and dignity." Something like that.

As it turned out, "Crash" was no "Virginia Woolf," which took home more Oscars but lost out in the big money race for Best Picture, to "A Man for All Seasons." I still detested the notion of having to sit again through the exercise of sadistic humiliation and masochism.

Going in, as I said, this year's Best Picture laureate struck me as more of the same. It turned around, as Pat pointed out, when Matt Dillon's racist, very bad cop put his life on the line for an African American lady whose dignity and self-worth he had violated the night before.

Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle hang around long enough for the audience to witness their good qualities very much buried within their selfishness and cynicism, which is, of course, the reality initially presented as typifying modern Los Angeles. If there is a cliché, however, written into the script I never really saw or heard it.

"Crash" is an ensemble work, as that description scarcely applies. None of the stars lasts long enough on the screen to take away from the vision tightly held and more tightly believed and executed by writer/director Paul Haggis.

By telling his story in terms of a few who interact with others, but themselves most of all, Mr. Haggis brought to mind "La Ronde," an arts house flick that depicted how syphilis could be passed about in the last years of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire, a hundred years ago.

In a very real sense, "Crash" deals with a deadlier subject; it means to demonstrate how casual cruelty and unnecessary evil are the truly deadly killers of our time. Furthermore, it works.

This is not a film I can recommend to anyone under the age of 25; before hope creeps in; it preaches a gospel of bone-chilling cynicism. Even at my age, I found the initial premise at least destructive, reminiscent as I said of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

And nobody should be forced to swallow that bitter pill of human desolation more than once; it comes, unbidden, into most people's lives.

That said, "Crash" still stands as highly stylized, forcefully creative and brilliantly realized, as an example of how Hollywood can really be: When it thinks with a brain instead of a pocketbook.


Certainly the local movie houses will manage to book again this year's Best Picture, but my advice: Find a DVD copy, which should turn out to be less expensive and really more rewarding.

As I said going in: What a week!

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