Friday, April 10, 2020

BBC Arena: Jonathan Miller (2011)


BBC Arena: Jonathan Miller (2011, D: David Thompson). Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2011. My screenshot.

BBC Arena: Jonathan Miller (2011, D: David Thompson). Jonathan Miller at home in 2011, presenting family documents. My screenshot.

GB © 2011 BBC. P+D: David Thompson. Arena Series Editor: Anthony Wall. Production Team: Alexandra Mattholie, Rosemary Tratt. Camera / Sound: Justin Evans, Malcolm Hicks. On-Line Editor: Paul Ingvarsson. Film Editor: Anne Dummett. Researcher: Serena Brown.
    With thanks to Will Wyatt, Kate Bassett, Peter Eyre, Isabella Bywater.
    St John's College, Cambridge – The Old Vic Theatre – Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – Museo della Speccola – Museo Bardini – Cenacolo di Santo Spirito – Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
    John Harris, Kimberley Thomas, Francesca Zardini, Luigi Cuppellini, Ludovica Sebregondi, Fausto Barbagli, Elena Pianea.
    Featuring: Jonathan Miller, Rachel Collet, Oliver Sachs, Eric Korn, Eric Idle, Humphrey Burton, John Bird, Anne-Marie Mallik (Anne-Marie Huxstep), Penelope Wilton, Elijah Moshinsky, Roger Norrington, Kevin Spacey, Christopher Frayling, Patrick Uden.
    Excerpts from: Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Florence 2011), The Body in Question (1978), Torres Straits (1998), The Zoo in Winter (1969), Beyond the Fringe (1964), The Drinking Party (1965, based on Plato's Symposium), Alice in Wonderland (1966), The Zoo in Winter (1969), The Merchant of Venice (1970, starring Laurence Olivier), King Lear (1975), Horizon: Ivan (1984), Intimations (1965), Rigoletto (1982, mafia style), Così fan tutte (1995, with a mobile phone playing the Nokia tune), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1986, with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey), The Mikado (1986, with Eric Idle), St. Matthew Passion (1994, dramatized production for BBC).
    90 min
    A private Vimeo link viewed on a 4K television set at home in Helsinki, 10 April 2020.

In memoriam Jonathan Miller (19342019).

Official BBC introduction:
    "Documentary exploring the extraordinary life of Sir Jonathan Miller CBE."
    "Jonathan Miller is usually described as a 'polymath' or 'Renaissance man', two labels he personally dislikes. But no-one quite like him has made such an impact on British culture through the medium of television, radio, theatre and opera. He has straddled the great divide between the arts and the sciences, while being a brilliant humorist, a qualified doctor and even a practising artist."
    "With the man himself and a host of distinguished collaborators, including Oliver Sacks, Eric Idle, Kevin Spacey (who owes his first break to Miller) and Penelope Wilton, this Arena profile explores Miller's rich life and examines through amazing television archive – mostly from the BBC – how he makes these connections between the worlds of the imagination and scientific fact." (BBC)

AA: As a birthday present to myself I watched this wonderful and stimulating television profile of the late Jonathan Miller, the great British doctor, director and author who died last November.

After a prologue in Florence where Miller is directing his current production (Gaetano Donizetti's opera Don Pasquale) we are invited to his home in Camden Town where Miller talks about his parents. His father Emanuel Miller was a pioneer of child psychology and a military psychologist during WWI, dealing with victims of war trauma. It was a background of "old-fashioned Jewish Bloomsbury intellectuals". In the opening shots we also meet Jonathan's wife Rachel, his "anchor of serenity".

Having studied at Cambridge and University College Hospital Miller qualified as MD and worked as a doctor. His fellow students Oliver Sacks and Eric Kohn became lifelong friends. Already as a student Miller became known as a humorist, and his career in comedy started as a parallel to his medical profession. During the film we share Miller's passion for natural history museums which seem to have inspired his mise-en-scène as a director. The fascination for zoology, biology, embryology, social anthropology, the history of medicine and madness provides material for many extraordinary television series such as The Body in Question. His passion for animals goes so far that he becomes a brilliant mimic of animal voices, startling even for the animals themselves. He even loves snakes.

With Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook Miller presents the tv comedy series Beyond the Fringe in which "every authority figure is fair game for mockery" (Eric Idle). Visiting New York Jonathan meets Robert Lowell, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer and Mort Sahl, and gets acquainted with the founders of The New York Review of Books and becomes also a contributor, reviewing Arthur Miller's After the Fall and Roman Polanski's A Knife in the Water, among others. As editor and presenter of the cultural magazine Monitor he covers a lot of ground. We see a glimpse of Peter Brook rehearsing Mahabharata. An infamous piece with Susan Sontag has not survived, only a parody remains, sampled here, "on true phoniness". Also glimpsed is a modernization of Plato's Symposium called The Drinking Party. It started to rain when it was filmed, and shots of umbrellas inspired Miller to abstraction.

For Miller, Alice in Wonderland was "a melancholy journey of growing up". We see footage of Miller meeting the leading actress, Anne-Marie Mallik, as a grown-up woman. Miller admired her "solemn mirthless appearance", her being "not the least bit impressed" by any of the fantastic occurrences. The disconnectedness of the dream mode intrigued Miller.

In 1968 Miller was launched on a career as a theatre director. He felt confident to do anything. We see Laurence Olivier at Old Vic as Shylock in modern dress as an ordinary businessman, appropriating Hitler's victory step after the occupation of Paris. "As a doctor I look for the small detail all that theatre is about", like geriatric boards look for signs of dementia. Miller is fascinated by the nature of disgust which he must face also in the The Body in Question, the history of medicine, holding a human heart or brain in his hand. He is interested in machine analogies. The Horizon feature called Ivan focuses on Parkinson's disease, how its symptoms may be overcome by little schemes. Medicine: "in a way I never left it".

As an opera director a key for Miller is to find an artist of the same period such as Nicolas Poussin in directing Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo. Miller is an avid visitor of art museums in which he finds inspiration for his set-ups. In his staging of Rigoletto he found a parallel in the mob milieux of New York's Little Italy. In Così fan tutte he introduced the mobile phone to the opera stage. "But I would never change the period of Don Giovanni or Le nozze di Figaro".

With Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey (whom he launched) Miller stages A Long Day's Journey Into Night defying O'Neill estate strictures by introducing overlapping dialogue. Breaking all rules, Miller starts to make art from found objects such as obsolete locks. His sculptures and collages have affinities with the work of Kurt Schwitters. Junk can become art. In his staging of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado Miller throws the japonaiserie out of the window and finds inspiration in Duck Soup of the Marx Brothers.

It is Easter, I am watching this on Good Friday, and fittingly the program ends with St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach which Miller in a ground-breaking way stages as a theatrical spectacle for the BBC, a work with "some of the most dramatically convincing and eloquent music ever written". We see the self described "Jewish atheist" Miller directing the scene where Peter hears the cock crow for the third time. "Erbarme dich, Mein Gott".

Miller contemplates his life after having gone "Beyond the Fringe". "He is full of regrets", comments Patrick Uden, and disappointed with "the way the world has treated him", a reaction which is for Uden totally unjustified. The film ends with Miller listening to a record of the Comedian Harmonists performing "Wochenend und Sonnenschein" ("Happy Days Are Here Again").

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