With the explosion in documentaries over the past decade or so, we’ve also witnessed a rise in what in my less generous moments I like to call the “promotional doc.” You often see it in music documentaries – movies about, essentially, how awesome or unique a band is. The kind of thing that would probably work best as a DVD extra, where you wonder if part of the impetus behind making the film wasn’t because it told an amazing story but because it offered the chance to piggyback on the popularity of the chosen subject. This is not always necessarily a bad thing – some of these movies are pretty enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of the musician or photographer or politician or whatever it is that they’re glorifying. But then every once in a while you get something like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which was supposed to be a promotional film for Metallica and turned into an epic about an entire band’s collective neurosis, and you suddenly realize what it looks like when a documentary really uses the full power of its medium.
Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream doesn’t really transform the way Some Kind of Monster does, but there’s potential here, only some of which is fulfilled. The film is essentially a backstage look at Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which can currently still be seen at The Met. The production was much ballyhooed at first -- here was Lepage, the visionary theater and film director, reinventing Wagner’s opera cycle and a central text of Western civilization with a host of aerialists and one of the most impressively odd stage designs anyone has ever seen, anywhere. But, critically speaking at least, it was a disaster – reviewers trashed the way Lepage’s ostentatious and glitchy set distracted from the opera itself. (A couple of folks even compared it to the Spider-Man musical. Ouch.)
Wagner’s Dream gets into a bit of this – it has to – and there’s something bracing about seeing Froemke document the creation of a production only for it to start going horribly wrong. But it doesn’t, not exactly. Not in the film at least. Froemke shows just enough to let us understand that not everybody is going along with Lepage’s vision for Wagner, but she also sticks to a basic structure of ambitious underdogs triumphing against all odds. A lot of the problems the production had end up seeming like temporary roadblocks in a journey towards something better, though she’s not perverse enough to end the film in triumph. That said, the film's open-ended finale, especially in light of the withering criticism of the opera over the past few months or so, is probably more hopeful than many would say it has any right to be.
I suppose I could get more up in arms about this, but, full disclosure, I actually watched this Ring Cycle and kind of loved it -- creaky set, crashing screensavers and all. (That said, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a giant Microsoft Windows icon show up halfway through Die Walkure.) And for anyone who witnessed Lepage’s “Machine” in the flesh (so to speak), the film will prove fascinating. This massive, endlessly flexible, twenty-four bar set essentially mutated itself throughout the production as individual scenes and acts demanded. Yes, every once in a while, you heard it creaking and churning into place; yes, it limited the performers’ movements, which can be problematic in a Wagner opera, where they already have to move so slowly just to make room for all that damned music. But when the thing got going it was magical: Seeing the bars seemingly come loose and windmill behind the performers during the opening moments of Gotterdammerung, or watching them twist themselves into a lateral stairway to provide a birds’ eye view of Wotan and Loge descending into the underground world of Nibelheim...it took your breath away. Or at least, it took my breath away. I suppose serious opera heads will find that sentiment vulgar, but, well, there you go.
By the time the opera cycle itself had concluded, I realized I loved The Machine and its oddly unpredictable configurations. Others weren’t so keen on it. The best parts of Froemke’s film eagerly chart its origins, development, and (troubled) execution. (Lepage at one point suggests that the design was inspired by the tectonic fragmentation of Iceland, the origin of the myths that Wagner was adapting in the first place.) In Wagner’s Dream, you watch it all lumber into place with dread and anticipation, and there’s something genuinely unnerving about the fact that by the end you can't tell if the whole thing was a success or a catastrophe.