Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Chosen Ones

Hannukah is just a few weeks away. Celebrated by Jews around the world, the Festival of Lights commemorates the so-called miracle of the consecrated oil when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was rededicated in the second century BC.  At the time, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the temple's eternal flame for one day -- and yet, miraculously, the oil continued to burn for eight days (the length of time needed to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil).

Today, some nations maintain an eternal flame to honor their war dead.  The eternal flame which honors President John F. Kennedy is the first instance in which an eternal flame was used to honor an individual as opposed to an unknown soldier.  The thought of one's memory burning bright -- long after that person has left us -- kept rolling around in my mind this weekend as my attention focused on two charismatic and iconic Jews.

Some of our friends and heroes have been eternal flamers throughout much of their lives. Though they no longer walk among us, their memories are so vivid, their impact so strong, that people still refer to them as if they were close friends or brothers.  The mention of the first names of these two men -- Harvey and Lenny -- is all that is required for listeners to know exactly who is being referred to.  Not only did their lives burn brightly, their contributions to the world continue to inspire millions long after their deaths.

On Sunday afternoon I joined some friends for a showing of Gus Van Sant's powerful new biopic, Milk, at the Castro Theater.  The atmosphere was very much like what one experiences during the annual Frameline Festival.   The house was sold out (1400 seats for a  4:00 p.m. screening on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend ain't bad in this economy).  

The audience was a cross section of the people Harvey Milk reached out to:  young, old, straight, gay, black, white, Asian -- the entire crazy cornucopia of humanity to be found in San Francisco.The musician at the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ was playing a medley of classics like Harold Arlen's Over The Rainbow, George Gershwin's "But Not For Me" and, of course, Bronislaw Kaper's "San Francisco."  

If only he could have been there, Harvey would have loved it.  

But as we all know, Harvey was assassinated (along with Mayor George Moscone) 30 years ago in San Francisco's City Hall. Although the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street" long ago achieved international martyrdom (Rob Epstein's 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk, won the Academy Award for best documentary), his spirit remains very much alive in van Sant's new film --  especially as embodied in a truly remarkable performance by Sean Penn.

Not only does Penn capture Harvey's impishness, intelligence, and painful insecurities, it shows him in quiet personal moments when he is the conscientious gay man reaching out to someone else -- even in a moment of great personal triumph or drama -- because that other person is a gay man suffering in pain and loneliness who desperately needs a message of hope.

Although screenwriter Dustin Lance Black intentionally omitted any references to the Jonestown massacre which occurred just one week prior to the dual assassinations, I was thrilled to see the film start with archival black-and-white footage of gay men being handcuffed during bar raids in the 1950s and 1960s, rounded up and put into police paddy wagons.  That's a part of gay history that needs to be seen by the people who don't understand why gay rights are civil rights.  

Special mention should be made of Josh Brolin's fiercely dysfunctional portrait of Dan White, a stunning achievement in digging deep into a psychotic drunk's twisted psyche to explore the kind of self-righteous hatred, political naivete, and ugly stupidity that can be wrapped in the buff body of an All American Irish Catholic policeman/firefighter who remains stubbornly convinced that he is one of the "good guys."

For those of us who knew Harvey (he and I were both writing for the Bay Area Reporter in 1977 and 1978) and who lived in San Francisco at the time, van Sant's film offers many tender moments of nostalgia, some made even more poignant by the sight of Harvey's surviving political friends appearing as extras in various crowd scenes.  This is an extremely powerful piece of cinema which often feels like a cinematic textbook in community organization -- kind of a cheat sheet for the people behind Barack Obama's Presidential campaign.

This is also a film which, considering this year's unfortunate victory by the folks supporting Proposition 8, should be seen with friends, relatives, and anyone you might consider to be a part of your extended family.  In fact, it's a very good film to share with someone you've just come out to.

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In 1971, Leonard Bernstein had been invited to become the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry and spend a year living on campus and counseling students at Harvard University.  On Monday night, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered a free screening of one of the famous lectures that Bernstein taped in the fall of 1973.  

This first lecture, in which Lenny tried to explain the importance of interdisciplinary values as a means of showing how certain basic elements of music could be identified and codified by their similarity in every culture and civilization, tried to explain the concept of monogenesis as well as key elements which help to form an international grammar of music.  Following the lecture (and a video of Lenny conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor), Bernstein talked candidly about what had happened during the taping of that particular performance.  

A bomb scare had forced an evacuation of the recording studio and yet, on a cold night in Boston, a surprising number of attendees waited outside for the performance to resume. Lenny's sadness and disgust at the way the performance had been interrupted had nothing to do with his own ego but was, instead, focused entirely on the question of what an insult this action was to the genius -- and the continuity -- of Mozart's music.

Bernstein's daughter Jamie claims that her father should really have been the poster boy for a liberal arts education.  In her charming essay (which describes why her father was a born teacher) she explains how, through the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts and innumerable other teaching moments, her father inspired millions of professional musicians as well as ordinary people, by giving them permission to like classical music.  The zeal Lenny felt for all kinds of music, his compulsive need to teach, and the sheer ecstasy he experienced whenever he was making music no doubt had a profound impact on his protege, Michael Tilson Thomas, who recently was quick to align himself with the YouTube Symphony Project. 

Had he lived long enough to experience the wonders of the Internet, Lenny would have fallen head over heels in love with this use of modern technology.  Here is a clip from one of his lectures at Harvard:

This year, as professional musicians, cultural institutions, and music lovers around the world celebrate what would have been Lenny's 90th birthday, testimonials from all kinds of people reveal the intense impact Lenny had on their lives.  Here's one of my favorites:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Manipulative Minds At Work

With the economy in dire straits -- and ominous signs that a commercial real estate bubble is about to burst -- what can we learn from the impending bankruptcy of shopping malls across America and the recent death of Gerald Schoenfield? Hired in 1957 at the age of 32 by The Shubert Organization, Schoenfeld was responsible for much of the maintenance and operation of the Shubert theaters.  He helped the organization survive the blight which hit Broadway in the mid 1960s and, from the 1970s on was a major force in the economic turnaround of Times Square's Theater District.

Schoenfeld, who is credited with helping to solidify a strong business foundation for the revitalized Shubert empire, insisted that city government understand the value of Broadway's theaters as an economic engine (a philosophy which has been proven in numerous studies subsequently conducted by regional arts organizations). Having introduced computerized ticket sales to what had, for many years, been an industry handicapped by small-time operators and inane traditions, he soon added links to ticket outlets in other cities. The fact that on-line ticketing for so many shows has become so easy is due, in large part, to the fact that The Shubert Organization now owns and operates Tele-Charge.

Theatrical investments are a form of high-risk real estate speculation.  Although The Shubert Organization had always owned the largest number of legitimate theaters in the Times Square district, Broadway's economic downturn led to the loss of some historic venues.  The Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters were razed to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel (which now houses the Marquis Theater). With its ornate lobby and winding staircase, the beautiful Mark Hellinger Theater (which hosted the original productions of Plain and Fancy, My Fair Lady, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Illya, Darling, Coco, Dear World, and Sugar Babies) was sold to the Times Square Church.

Starting in the 1970s, The Shubert Organization took a more active role investing in shows which had the potential for long runs, and competing with the Jujamcyn and Nederlander theater chains for prospective tenants.  The Shubert Organization also had a unique capacity to open a hit show and, when convenient, move it to another one of its profitable properties.  One need only look at some of The Shubert Organization's anchor venues to see how theatrical longevity translates into steady profits.

Since the 1960s, the Winter Garden Theater has been home to The Unsinkable Molly Brown (532 performances), Funny Girl (2 years), Mame (3 years and 5 months), Follies (522 performances), Cats (7,485 performances), and Mamma Mia! (nearly 3,000 performances).

The Imperial has been home to Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Zorba, nearly five years of Pippin, They're Playing Our Song (1,082 performances),  Dreamgirls (1,521 performances), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (608 performances), Jerome Robbins' Broadway (633 performances), nearly three years of Les Miserables, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (627 performances).  Its newest tenant is Billy Elliot, a hit musical that can be expected to stay put for several years.

The Majestic's long-run tenants have included transfers from other Shubert-owned theaters of Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, A Little Night Music and 42nd Street (for six years),  as well as such long runs as Golden Boy (568 performances), Sugar (505 performances), and more than two years of The Wiz.  Its current tenant, The Phantom of the Opera, has been there for more than 20 years and will soon pass the 8,700-performance mark.

The Shubert has hosted The Apple Tree (463 performances), Promises, Promises (1,281 peformances), A Chorus Line (6,137 performances),  Crazy For You (1,622 performances), six years of the long-running revival of Chicago and more than 1,500 performances of Spamalot.

Compare this track record to that of a Broadway theater with a great location but surprisingly less profitability.  Originally built in 1910 as the Globe Theater, after serving many years as a movie house, it was purchased by City Playhouses in 1957, beautifully restored and reopened as the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1957.  In 1959, the Lunt-Fontanne became the home of the original production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.  

During the 1960s, however,  it housed a series of mediocre musicals including Julie Harris in Skyscraper (248 performances), Sid Caesar in Little Me (257 performances),  Tony Roberts in How Now, Dow Jones (220 performances),  Norman Wisdom in Walking Happy (161 performances), and Robert Preston in Ben Franklin in Paris (215 performances).  

There were also some notorious flops: Come Summer (one week), Lionel Bart's La Strada starring Bernadette Peters (which closed after one performance), Look to the Lillies (25 performances), the execrable Her First Roman (starring Leslie Uggams as Cleopatra), and Bertolt Brecht's The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (8 performances). Two separate productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet starred Richard Burton (1964) and Nicol Williamson (1969).

After the theater was acquired by the Nederlander chain in 1973, more profitable shows started to get booked into the Lunt-Fontanne. Peter Pan ran for 554 performances, Sophisticated Ladies for 767 performances, Catskills on Broadway for 453 performances, Titanic for 804 performances, and Beauty and the Beast held forth for nearly six years.

* * * * * * * *

On Saturday, I attended the opening performance of 42nd Street Moon's production of Ben Franklin in Paris.  Having seen the original Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne more than 40 years ago, I was curious to see how it would hold up.  Not as badly as I suspected, not as well as one might have hoped.

Jackson Davis and Stephanie Rhoads (Photo by David Allen)

The original production followed the classic formula for a Broadway musical of its time. Get a proven box office star (Robert Preston), find some reason to put him onstage (who hasn't heard of Benjamin Franklin?), dress everyone in period costumes, and throw in some novelty dance numbers. Put an appealing kid onstage, mix and stir with some dancing monks, get all the men drunk and work some of Franklin's most famous sayings into the script.

What's not to love?  You'd be surprised.

Although Preston was a much beloved Broadway star -- a thoroughly competent film and stage actor noted for having the best diction two octaves south of Julie Andrews -- even his proven stage presence could not anchor such a lightweight vehicle. Ulla Sallert's rendition of a French accent was, for the most part, unintelligible.  The plot seemed forced, to say the least. As shaky as its Act I hot air balloon ride, Ben Franklin In Paris ended up going down in Broadway history as one of those curiously/spuriously conceived "why?" musicals.

Jackson Davis and David Kahawaii (Photo by David Allen)

In the 42nd Street Moon production Jackson Davis worked hard to bring out the joi de vivre in a Ben Franklin who was addled by gout and desperate to win his country's recognition from France.  Although Stephanie Rhoads made the Countess Diane de Vobrillac's romantic intentions more playful and understandable, she could not create enough spark in the character to make the audience really care about the Countess's relationship with Franklin.  Andrew Willis-Woodward did some nice work as Franklin's nephew, Temple, with Jennifer Ekman warbling sweetly as his love interest, Janine.

As most Broadway buffs now know, two of the strongest songs written for Ben Franklin in Paris were actually "ghosted" by Jerry Herman. "To Be Alone With You" stands so far above the rest of Mark Sandrich, Jr.'s music and lyrics that it is almost embarrassing. Sandrich's best songs ("Look For Small Pleasures," "Half The Battle," and "Hic Haec Hoc" remain tuneful, if minimally developed musical numbers.

* * * * * * * *

A more fully-developed piece of work was to be found in No Parole (Family Is A Life Sentence), the entertaining one-man spectacle being presented by The Marsh in which Carlo d'Amore explores his difficult relationship with his mother (who could easily give Rose Hovick a run for her money in the world championship competition for dysfunctional parenting).

Mr. d'Amore is a short, wiry, and extremely appealing actor with the kind of hyper intensity you might expect to get if you cross-bred a Hispanic Jeremy Piven with the Energizer Bunny. His mother was a life-long con artist who never let the bars of a prison cell get in the way of running a scam -- a woman with the lovably delusional eccentricities of Auntie Mame combined with the ruthlessness of a Chinese girl scout trying to sell more cookies than anyone else in town.

Photo by Michael Owen

As her beloved Carlito describes his growth from a wide-eyed little Peruvian boy (who adores his overly-dramatic mother's Anna Magnini-style histrionics) into a professional actor who must care for his incapacitated mother in his illegally-rented New York apartment after she has suffered a  stroke, one marvels at the precision of his craft, the deftness of his timing, and the ferociousness of the tale he is telling.  It's easy to empathize with d'Amore as he describes his angry confrontation with his addled mother (who, even with her disability, is still running scams) as he looks into her teary eyes and hears her ask if he's angry at her because she used her intelligence for bad things.

I doubt Mr. d'Amore ever expected to hear his mother described as an inherently more stageworthy character than Benjamin Franklin.  But No Parole offers audiences a highly skilled portrait of a complex and damaged soul by someone whose personal life has been riotously funny, profoundly painful, and at times, achingly pathetic -- an artist who has managed to take what he knows about in life and turn it into an entertaining, challenging, and deeply moving piece of theater. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mad About The Boy

The delightfully irascible W.C. Fields is famous for advising fellow actors never to work with children or animals.  Once, when asked if he even liked children, Fields replied "I do -- if they're properly cooked."

With or without the proper spices and bake time, children are constantly used as plot devices in cinema. They may be portrayed as a hostage (Ransom), a wunderkind (Little Man Tate), or a genuine pain in the ass (Family Guy).  The world can be seen through their eyes (The Sixth Sense), we can feel their pain (Lorenzo's Oil), or we can marvel at their ingenuity (Home Alone)

Children may be our link to an alien life form (E.T.), an ex-lover (Kramer vs. Kramer), or the truth behind maintaining an important cultural tradition (Keeping Up With The Steins).  Meddling children can push us into new romances (Sleepless in Seattle), inherently dangerous situations (Weeds), or the adventure of a lifetime (Jurassic Park).

Three films seen this week looked at children struggling to cope with hostile environments.  My initial interest in seeing Role Models was simply that I like its two male leads:  the extremely handsome Seann William Scott (who became famous for his portrayal of the obnoxious Steve Stifler in the American Pie movies and is now starting to look like Neil Patrick Harris with baseball biceps) and the very talented actor/writer, Paul Rudd.

I didn't recognize either actor when I first saw the trailer for Role Models. But with Rudd sharing the writing honors with director David Wain, the film turned out to be much more likeable than I expected.

Scott and Rudd play a pair of losers who, as they tour suburban high schools, are supposedly warning kids about the evils of drugs.  In truth, they are pushing a product called Minotaur, a highly-caffeinated energy drink similar to Red Bull.  When things go horribly wrong for Wheeler (Scott) and Danny (Rudd), both men end up being appointed by the court to log 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, where they will be paired with "little brothers" who are in need of mentoring.

Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a nerdy adolescent computer gamer whose only sense of self-esteem comes from his adventures in the online fantasy role-playing world of a Dungeons & Dragons type of game called L.A.I.R.E.

Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), on the other hand, is a violent, horny, foul-mouthed little black brat with an unbeatable track record for terrorizing potential "big brothers."  Factor in Jane Lynch's ball-busting performance as Gayle Sweeney (the recovering crack addict who manages this big brother/little brother type of nonprofit) and plenty of laughs await the audience.  It takes a while for the plot to hone in on the redemption which will carry the film to its successful ending but, once it does, you'll find yourself surprised at how happily you're rooting for Augie, Ronnie, Danny, and Wheeler to succeed.

* * * * * * * 
Don't expect any comedic moments in The Fight (Le Ring), a French-Canadian film written by Renee Beaulieu  and directed by Anais Barbeau Lavalette that is being presented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of its Quebec Film Week.  In this grim look at a lonely 12-year-old's effort to carve out a life for himself, young Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay stars as Jessy, a resident of Montreal's rundown Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district.  

Jessy, who has not been taking his Ritalin, comes from a family of obvious losers.  His father is a petty criminal.  His older brother (who is sent to a reform school after he totals the family car while letting Jessy drive it), keeps trying to recruit Jessy as a drug runner.

After Jessy sees his mother shooting up between her toes, she abandons her husband and four children to hit the streets, turning tricks in order to pay for her drug habit.  When he finds her, she rejects her son, leaving Jessy and his confused sister (who is awakening to her own trampy sexuality) to fend for themselves in a bleak and sordidly grey world of despair, drugs and disillusionment. In one heart-rending scene Jessy leaps from the bathtub, and runs to the fire escape where he screams at his departing father that he's starving and needs to be fed.

Like many kids his age, Jessy (who is a big fan of a ring personality named Firestorm) has a passion for wrestling.  Two of the few benevolent souls in his life are a strange homeless person who is paid to throw wrestling matches against Firestorm and the owner of a wrestling school. Other than a bicycle which can occasionally take him away from the misery of his home life, Jessy doesn't have much of a future.

In her debut as a film director, Lavalette scores a grim triumph thanks in large part to her father's (Philippe Lavalette) acutely sensitive cinematography.  Capturing the dreariness of a rundown neighborhood during the grey weather which haunts Montreal, she follows Jessy around on his bicycle, constantly looking into his eyes as he tries to sort out the physical and emotional squalor he confronts on a daily basis.

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During the Frameline 32 Film Festival this past June, I was thrilled by Were The World Mine, Tom Gustafson's magnificent new film which draws its inspiration from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. With Tanner Cohen starring as Timothy and Wendy Robbie as Mrs. Tebbit (the drama teacher at an all-boys prep school who casts him as Puck), this movie remains a total delight.   Recently released into theaters, Were The World Mine loses absolutely none of its strength on second viewing.  It's a remarkably vivid and satisfying cinematic experience, a brash new movie musical which is all the more enjoyable for those members of the audience who really know their Shakespeare.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Common Cents

The ghost of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, has hovered over this year's election for many reasons.  Lincoln was the first and -- until November 4, 2008 -- the only President to be elected from the State of Illinois.   President-elect Barack Obama has been modeling his cabinet after Lincoln's famed "team of rivals."  And, like it or not, many Americans have worried about the possibility of President Obama being assassinated while in office.

In its 1990 off-Broadway premiere, the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Assassins explored the motivations of those who have attempted to murder American Presidents.  In the following scene Patrick Cassidy and Victor Garber sing about the legacy of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln:

As most folks know, Lincoln was shot on Good Friday while attending a performance of Tom Taylor's farce, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater.  The fact that Honest Abe might actually have been laughing at the very moment he was shot is part of what haunts and inspires The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks.   

The folks at Thick Description, which presented the West Coast premiere of The America Play back in 1994, are now reviving it in their intimate theater on Potrero Hill.  An old business axiom suggests that, when handed a lemon, one should try to make lemonade.   As a result, deference is due to Sondheim, Weidman, and Parks for using the tragedy of a President's assassination to create a controversial piece of theater.  

The ghost of Abraham Lincoln dominates the stage in this revival, with Rhonnie Washington once again taking on the role of The Foundling Father, a "digger" who became famous for his impersonations of Abraham Lincoln and who earned a living by allowing anyone who paid a penny to pick up an (unloaded) gun and reenact the moment when Lincoln was shot.  

Rhonnie Washington and Daniel Westley Skillman
 (Photo by Rick Martin)

An added bonus?  

For the price of a penny, ordinary people get to shoot the man whose face appears on the penny. The gimmick takes on a life of its own for the actor/digger, evolving into a popular attraction which titillates women as well as men.  

Can it titillate a modern audience as well? I'm not so sure.  

Under Tony Kelly's direction Rhonnie Washington, Cathleen Riddley (Lucy) and Brian Freeman (Brazil) try to bring as much music to the language carefully molded by Parks to shape a sense of absurd symbolism, ridiculous rituals and bloated beliefs that have grown to acquire deep personal meaning -- even if there is little truth to back them up. Throughout the play's 95 minutes I found myself wondering if I was watching a black version of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (which the famous London drama critic Kenneth Tynan described as "a metaphor extended beyond its capacity").

Cathleen Riddley and Brian Freeman (Photo by Rick Martin)

While much of this play's appeal escapes me, I truly did love Rick Martin's unit set, a solidly wooden affair that one can actually smell from the theater's first row of seats.  Described by the playwright as "A great hole.  In the middle of nowhere.  The hole is an exact replica of the Great Hole of History," it serves its purpose well in framing a black hole of American theatre.

* * * * * * *

If you watch carefully, you'll see Abraham Lincoln's face peering down on the bizarre proceedings in this 1999 political skit from MadTV:

I mention this because, in the waning days of the Bush administration, I went to see Oliver Stone's W., a movie which is astonishing for its total inability to make the viewer care about any of the main characters or sycophants who populate the screen.  A sad reflection on what Americans have endured during the past eight years, W. makes one feel as if, in trying to find the vampire responsible for sucking the blood out of America's economy and moral standing in the world, one made the mistake of looking in a mirror in hopes of finding the villain.  Any hope of trying to find a "there there" only insults the memory of Gertrude Stein.

Though we had plenty of warnings about how calamitous a Bush Presidency might be, the proof has been far worse than any toxic pudding imaginable.  Curiously, the musical choices made by Oliver Stone for his movie included the use of very simple, hummable songs (The Yellow Rose of Texas, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and The Ballad of Robin Hood) played softly and sweetly, with a child-like innocence that could easily appeal to any born-again Christian. These familiar, soothing melodies underscore the machination, abrogation, alienation, intoxication, and utter lack of  introspection and sophistication of the 43rd President of the United States.

As with every other job he has held, George W. Bush has laid waste to the United States of America.  When historians try to analyze the effect of his Presidency on the culture, they may well discover that in addition to being the worst President this country has ever experienced, he was its greatest buffoon.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Second Hand Woes

It's no secret that we live in a world of heightened expectations, where marketers concentrate on selling the sizzle rather than the steak.  Many products are oversold, events overhyped, and expectations stretched way beyond their limits.  

Can Sarah Palin really see Russia from her window?  You betcha!

The truth is what what you see is what you get.  In a WYSIWYG world flights get delayed, people have flaws, and software has glitches. Food tastes sour, pens run dry, and lovers fart at the most inopportune moments. One of MadTV's classic creations was an ongoing spoof of the personal ads created by subscribers to the Great Expectations dating service.  Here are three of the best. First off, the immensely talented Alex Borstein in one of her signature roles:

Next, Andrew Bowen impersonating Keanu Reeves:

And, finally, Debra Wilson in fine form:

What each of these characters exhibits is a certain cluelessness about why people may not be drawn to them.  It's not that they don't want or deserve to be loved.  It's just that their behavior triggers a big warning sign flashing over their heads that will tell potential dates to keep moving (if they know what's good for them).

* * * * * * *

Even though a movie may score a huge box office success, there's an unstated rule in the film business that a sequel is rarely as good as the original.  Think of what happened with Jaws Rocky, Jurassic Park and other blockbusters whose legacy was transformed into a major franchise (not always with the best results).  

To a certain extent that fate has befallen Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. When the original Dreamworks production of Madagascar hit theaters in 2005 it was an instant success -- and deservedly so.  This time around, it seems more like a case of using computer mapping to generate a population of crack-a-lackin' zebras like Marty (Chris Rock), and replicate cartoon DNA all over the screen.  The penguins are back, as determined to fly as ever, and Sacha Baron-Cohen's mad King Julian is still a deliriously daffy delight.

But with only Etan Cohen in charge of the script, the story seems to be running on a much lower octane level of fuel.  It will make millions, to be sure. "Spin-off product" is written all over the screen.  If you don't believe me, check out this video treatment of rapper's song (destined to become an anthem for chubby chasers around the world ) sung by Moto Moto, the male hippo who likes his women big and chunky.

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It's rare that one thinks of the earth's ecological system as second-hand goods. However, a stunning new documentary written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Jean Lemire uses the degradation of the earth's atmospheric health as the basis for exploring climate changes in Antarctica.  

No doubt inspired by the famous Shackleton expedition (whose history hangs over this expedition with ghostly prescience), the scientists and filmmakers expect their three-masted schooner to be locked in place by pack ice throughout the Antarctic winter.  Instead, they discover that, with a 6 degree Celsius rise in temperature resulting from global warming, the pack ice will not form and stay solid for long.  

This phenomenon offers a dangerous warning about the degradation of the earth's atmosphere. Important marine patterns of migration and mating have been thrown dangerously off cycle. Instead of being able to freely cross from the Sedna IV to their land base (using the wood and rope bridges that have been built), the crew must cope with ropes and cables that keep snapping as the ship -- buffeted about by strong winds -- comes close to being wrecked on a nearby reef.

Another result of global warning is that some of the food stores delivered by an Argentinian icebreaker (valuable supplies which had been carefully buried in ice caves on shore) have defrosted and started to rot.  With scuba divers in flippers attempting to play hockey while testing to see which ice floes will hold their weight (and crew members merrily playing ping pong on a table that has been brought out onto the ice so they can play in the open air), the entire expedition takes on a very different reality than what was originally planned.

For those who enjoyed the BBC's Planet Earth series (which aired on the Discovery Channel), Lemire's The Last Continent offers a sumptuous visual treat.  Its stunning views of the Antarctic landscape, coupled with great underwater photography, place it at the top of the list of great travelogues and nature films.  The San Francisco Film Society will be presenting Lemire's documentary as part of its Quebec Film Week at Opera Plaza (which has limited seating) and, trust me, you won't want to miss it.

In addition to Donald Sutherland's ominous voiceovers, you'll be acutely aware of the powerful dynamic added to this film by Canadian composer Simon LeClerc's musical score (whose portentous orchestrations invoke memories of such epic maritime disaster films as James Cameron's Titanic and Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure).  

I can't recommend The Last Continent strongly enough. Here's the trailer:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Finding One's Own True Self

Every parent wants to believe that his child is a genius.  But a unique set of challenges awaits the parents of those children who are indeed exceptionally gifted. Although an exceptional child may be a math whiz, excel at chess, or have extraordinary athletic strength, he may also lack the basic social skills needed to function in society.  For parents of exceptional children, the identification of what makes their child so unique (combined with the proper care and nurturing of that child's talent) can become a lonely, frustrating experience.

From television's Smallville (which chronicles the high school years of the young Clark Kent) to Billy Elliott, from movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer to Akeelah and the Bee, the growth and maturation of the exceptional child has proven to be a goldmine for scriptwriters. Three of my favorite films about exceptional children are:

Beautiful Boxer:  Ekachai Uekrongtham's magnificent sports film is based on the true story of Nong Toom, Thailand's famous transgender kickboxer who,  even as a young child, exhibited signs of being fully in touch with his feminine as well as masculine characteristics. 

Vitus: Fredi Murer's enthralling film about a Swiss child piano prodigy who begins to study encyclopedias at the age of five is one of those rare films that celebrates prepubescent intelligence.  Equally adept at math and music (with a mental acuity far beyond what most grade-school educators can begin to teach), the young Vitus -- who desperately wishes to enjoy a normal childhood --  uses his fierce intellect to take control of his life.

Hom Rong (Overture):  In Ittisoontom Vichailak's poignant feature film based on the life of Luang Pradit Pairoh, the camera follows the career of a small child who learns the fiendishly difficult ra-nad ek (Thai xylophone) and goes on to become the most revered master of traditional Thai music. 

Last week I had the great good fortune to add another movie to my list of favorites as I watched King Siri, which was recently shown as part of the Third I South Asian Film Festival. This thoroughly captivating feature film from Sri Lanka (written and directed by Somaratne Dissanayake and performed in Sinhalese with English subtitles), has to be one of the most breathtaking films made about a gifted child in years.  Much of this is due to the phenomenal work of cinematographer Channa Deshapriya, a true camera artist.  Equal credit should go to the work of its scrawny young star, Kokila Jayasuriya.

Sirimal (an impoverished 11-year-old boy from a remote Sri Lankan village), exhibits such a rare level of intelligence that he achieves the highest grade on a nation-wide school examination. His illiterate parents have never watched television, do not read newspapers, and lead very simple lives. 

When Sirimal is sent off to one of the nation's top private schools in Colombo, his dramatic talent makes him a key player in another competition.  Meanwhile, he must protect himself from the bullying of a fat rich kid who  (despite his total lack of talent and underhanded power grabs) assumes that his size and wealth entitle him to play King Siri in the school play.

Everything about this movie -- the music, cinematography, plot, and acting -- is so refreshing that one cannot help but feel elated when, through a strange twist of fate, Sirimal finds his true calling in life. Although the trailer lacks any subtitles, you'll easily get a sense of the visual riches to be found in this thoroughly enchanting film.


While the onset of puberty can derail many a child prodigy's career, the raging hormones which signal the body's awakening sexuality can also trigger questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. Many gay people, as they wrestle with new challenges to their identity, discover that they have little information at their disposal with which to understand the changes they are undergoing. Depending on their culture, some are totally unaware of their gayness. Because of their religion, others may be forbidden from even thinking such thoughts.

Although Western influences tried to wipe out a great deal of Indian culture -- including any references to the two-spirited people who were believed to be comprised of both male and female spirits  --today's two-spirited Native Americans self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersexed, and transgender men and women.  

During the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival I had a chance to enjoy Deb-we-win Ge-am-aan, Our Place in the Circle (Lorne Olson's documentary short from Canada in which the filmmaker explored his spiritual journey toward a greater awareness of what it means to be a two-spirited person in an Aboriginal society). Working with a Canadian theater company to develop authentic costumes for tribal ceremonies, Olson's film has some hilarious highs (as well as some more somber, introspective moments) as he looks into himself and his past to discover what it means to be a two-spirited person in today's world.

For those who subscribe to Logo (one of the gay cable channels), Noah's Arc has become quite the guilty pleasure.  Try to imagine a combination of Sex and the City and Martha Stewart Living populated by a quartet of African American drama queens with attitude to spare.  Then smother it with Velveeta and soul food and you have the beginnings of Tyler Perry's worst nightmare.

It took me a long time to find the dramatic key to understanding Noah's Arc, but I think I finally got it last week while watching the full-length movie  (Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom) spawned by the television series.

Like Candace Bushnell's  Sex and the City, the protagonist of Noah's Arc is a fierce clothes horse with a strong independent streak whose close friends and love affairs provide fodder for the ongoing soap opera that is his life.  However, unlike Carrie Bradshaw, Noah's physical appeal is distinctly androgynous -- easily crossing back and forth between masculine and feminine fashion statements.  

As embodied by the alluring Darryl Stephens, Noah presents audiences with a much more complex gay man than they may be used to dealing with.  Instead of a clown like Will & Grace's Jack McFarland, he is an intelligent scriptwriter who is also a mess of conflicting emotions.  

His friends include Christian Vincent as Ricky (the unrepentant muscular slut); Doug Spearman as Chance (the darkly brooding intellectual who, along with his partner of 10 years, is trying to raise a child), Rodney Chester as Alex (the over-the-top drama queen whose patient and devoted lover is a beefy hunk employed by a Los Angeles AIDS Clinic), and Jensen Atwood as Wade (the boyfriend who thought he was straight until he met Noah and changed his tune).

There is a curious quality of writing in episodes of Noah's Arc that embraces every cliche and stereotype while battling to educate its audience about black gay men.  Many moments don't ring true -- either because the plot frequently seems like a ridiculous construct or because the characters aren't always believable.  

But as I watched Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, I began to understand the curious hold that Noah has over all of his friends and lovers.  It's not just his complex sensuality or his outrageous wardrobe choices.  It's that Noah the adult was probably an exceptional child and is intensely loved by all because of exactly those qualities which, as a gay man, make him a more complex creation.   The people around him gain strength from Noah's ability to integrate opposing parts of his personality into one package and be comfortable with who he is.

There are plenty of cringe-inducing moments in Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom (which follows Noah and his friends to Martha's Vineyard for Noah and Wade's wintry wedding). And yet, all of the script's tackiness and cheesy unbelievability magically falls to the wayside as soon as a preacher states "By the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce you husband and husband."  

That's something that has been missing from the world of cinema for a long, long time.  The shock of seeing it onscreen makes it worth sitting through the rest of the movie.  

After examining the challenges faced by Thai kickboxers and percussionists, Swiss pianists, Sri Lankan child actors, and a quartet of black drama queens from Los Angeles, the entire arc of an exceptional child's life and career was neatly summed up with a special showing of Reaching For The Note. As part of the 90th birthday celebration of Leonard Bernstein's life, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered a free screening of this stunning 1997 PBS documentary.

Bernstein's life lasted just a little more than twice as long as Mozart's. From the time he started taking piano lessons at the age of 10 until his death three months after celebrating 50 years of conducting, Bernstein was a creative force of massive contradictions.  An artist who was truly a musical titan, Lenny struggled between his dual identities as a conductor/composer, Broadway/classical creative artist as well as trying to balance the heterosexual and homosexual parts of his psyche.

Famous for his Broadway musicals (On the Town, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), his operas (Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place), orchestral, choral and chamber music, he was also known worldwide for his passionate conducting, brilliant lectures, and intense devotion to the state of Israel.  One of the greatest forces in international music during the 20th century, he helped to reintroduce Gustav Mahler's music to the public and worked with everyone from Sergei Koussevitzky to Aaron Copland, from Stephen Sondheim to Maria Callas.  

His huge, fierce appetite for life (often lived to the limits of exhaustion) never prevented him from working with young musicians, lecturing for anyone who would listen, or embracing the wonders of the universe.  Ironically, for all of his genius, Bernstein could not sing.  Blessed with a wealth of interview and archival footage, the PBS documentary offers a rare opportunity to examine the entire arc in the life of a creative genius -- from exceptional child through to Bernstein's death at the age of 72.  

It is a life well lived which, even today, leaves audiences in awe of the artist as well as the man.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Price Glory?

Once used as a moralistic warning about the need to pay your debts, the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is making a surprising comeback.  So are the rats.   That's because old secrets never die. They just get juicier and, if unprotected, much costlier.  Three events this week brought that point home with startling power.

On Monday night, I attended a lecture at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco by journalist Sharon Waxman, who is currently doing a book tour for her latest piece of work: Loot.  Having lived and worked in the Middle East, Waxman's curiosity was piqued while touring some of Europe's collections of antiquities.  The information offered about some of the art was interesting, to be sure.  But what she really wanted to know was "How did this stuff get here?"  

The "stuff" she refers to includes items like the Elgin Marbles, Egyptian relics, and artifacts looted from Persia, Sparta, and other long lost civilizations.  Waxman's quest first led her to examine the history of museums -- how they started, where they grew, and how they amassed their large collections.  

Her conclusion?  There's a lot that curators are not telling us.

Some of their secrets concern items  that have never been seen by the public because they have been hidden in museum warehouses for many years. Others concern items acquired under questionable circumstances.  

In recent years, the turf wars between international museums (such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art)  and the nations which were the original sources of the art have erupted into major lawsuits demanding that certain pieces of art be returned to their sources.

To hear Waxman discuss the "down-low" world of museum dealings with regard to antiquities is to get a surprising look into how lost pieces of sculpture and art make news.  She describes how a major museum can accidentally destroy a new acquisition by varnishing its surface, as well as what happens when a curator gets handed a perplexing challenge.  In one case, a curator in Los Angeles received word that someone had died and left a collection of rare Mexican artifacts to the museum. Upon examining the art, it became clear that much of it had been stolen.  

The curator wisely decided to contact the Mexican government and negotiate a curious but equitable solution.  Mexico would take back half of the collection.  The American museum would pay for the restoration of the other half and keep it on temporary loan as part of its collection.

Describing how new wealth in the Middle East is leading to a crop of new museums in places like Dubai and Qatar, Waxman pointed out that Egypt's museums suffer terribly from lack of funding and proper maintenance.  In talking with some curators before the opening of one of Qatar's eight new museums, she suggested that, with all of their newfound wealth, they could attempt some kind of joint venture with Egypt's museums. Perhaps, by arranging to help restore some of Egypt's treasures, they could get an opportunity to exhibit some of them on a temporary basis. 

To her utter amazement,  not one of the curators had ever given any thought to such an arrangement (an idea which might be a "given" to Western curators).

In another tale of derring do, Waxman described how a piece of art which had been returned to its source country (after being housed in a major museum for several years), ended up being stolen from its location in a small town. Chock full of tales about intense rivalries between French and British diplomats stationed in the Middle East during the Napoleonic era -- as well as explaining how certain fashions swept through Europe after the discovery of Egyptian tombs and paintings -- Waxman's book promises a most informative gallop through art, archaeology, the museum world, and the black market for antiquities.

* * * * *

The gimmick of a poorly-conceived debt being called due lies behind many a theatrical work.  In an opera like Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, a tortured soul must roam the seven seas until someone else's noble sacrifice allows him to find eternal peace.  Numerous variations on the Faust legend have dealt with people who have sold their soul to the devil for youth, money, fame, and glory.

On Tuesday, I headed over to the Marin Theatre Company for the opening night of Conor McPherson's magical little mystery play, The Seafarer.   Like many good suspense dramas, McPherson's play focuses on a nasty little secret.  

In The Seafarer, the devil arrives on Christmas Eve to collect his winnings on a bet from an almost-forgotten game of cards. While it may be easy for some people to effect a "devil may care" attitude, this is one night when the devil actually does seem to care.  

He wants to collect a man's soul. And, in the process of doing so, he wants to humiliate Sharky (and possibly Sharky's brother, Ivan, as well).  Apparently, the local pickings have been pretty good for the devil because there are enough roaring  drunks in Baldoyle, Ireland who are so determined to win a round of cards that they will promise anything -- their souls, the souls of their neighbors (and their neighbors' children) -- if only they can just win the next hand of poker. 

Although Sharky (Andy Murray) once bet his soul in a card game, he has recently stopped drinking and is trying to take responsibility for his daily actions. His blind brother Richard (Julian Lopez-Morillas) is an unrepentant and extremely obnoxious drunk who is content to wallow in his bodily filth for days on end -- as long as he can get his hands on another drink.  

Although the two men live together in a squalid setting littered with beer bottles, their younger brother, Ivan (Andrew Hurteau) is actually married.  For years, the nearsighted Ivan (who was completely exonerated in the deaths of a local family due to an unexplained fire) has kept remarkably quiet about a hand he once won in a card game.

The Seafarer is essentially a long night of drinking, bragging, and complaining by a group of three brothers with only Sharky trying to keep a sober eye on the proceedings.  When their friend Nicky arrives with a mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Robert Sicular), it soon becomes apparent to Sharky just who Mr. Lockhart is and what he has come for.

The cast of The Seafarer (Photo by Ed Smith)

As a lifelong nondrinker, it's hard for me to relate to the rudely intoxicated, almost adolescent behavior enjoyed by rowdy drunks. Although the audience in Mill Valley was highly entertained by the alcoholic antics in Act I of The Seafarer, most of its humor was lost on me.  

However, no one writes a monologue quite as stunningly as Conor McPherson and, in the second act, he gives the devil his due. Lockhart's eerie description of the true, desolate and lonely nature of hell is a breathtaking piece of writing which can only achieve maximum theatrical impact because Sharky and Lockhart have been left alone on stage.   The rowdier drunks have left the room in a macho attempt to beat up the winos that keep causing trouble in the alley.

Under Jasson Minadakis' taut stage direction, MTC's well-oiled ensemble coaxes the audience through a raucous night of hard and determined Irish drinking.  Giving new truth to the old saying that "the devil is in the details," McPherson's surprise ending combines a sense of poetic justice and myopic wonder with the hard-drinking and patently unbelievable luck of the Irish.

* * * * * * *

A much happier tale of a personal debt waiting to be paid goes on display this weekend when the San Francisco Film Society -- as part of its New Italian Cinema minifestival -- presents the droolingly delicious Lezioni di Cioccolato (Lessons in Chocolate). I call it "droolingly delicious" because it's so easy to drool over the male lead, Luca Argentero.  To be sure, there's a lot of chocolate as well.

Argentero plays Mattia, an arrogant Italian stud who, as a building contractor, is always trying to shortchange clients on the materials he uses, skirt safety regulations, and underpay undocumented laborers. He's a total bastard. A totally gorgeous bastard who undergoes enough of a redemptive transformation that, by the end of the film, he describes himself as "a lying asshole who at least wants to change."

As a result of Mattia's stubborn refusal to erect protective scaffolding at a jobsite, one of his best workers falls from the roof and is severely injured.  Invoking an Egyptian superstition, the worker refuses to talk to the police for four days.  

Kamal (the delightfully bug-eyed Hassani Shapi) was once an accomplished pastry chef in Cairo. Prior to the accident, he had enrolled to take a course in the art of chocolate making -- a course offered by the renowned Perugina chocolate company once every hundred years.    Now, thanks to Mattia's cost-cutting shenanigans, he's stuck in a body cast and there is no way that he can physically take the course.  Unless, of course, something can be worked out.  

A wily Egyptian who knows how to milk lots of entertainment from making his boss suffer, Kamal insists that Mattia take the course under Kamal's name (and teach Kamal how to make chocolate on the side)  or else Kamal will report Mattia to the police.  He insists that Mattia cannot bribe someone else to do the work for him but must take the course himself.

Kamal, however, is not about to stop there.  In order to make the gorgeous, studly contractor look more like a poor undocumented immigrant worker, he strips Mattia of his expensive clothes and pretenses and proceeds to drive him to distraction with one crazy Egyptian tradition after another. Meanwhile, Mattia keeps trying to maintain his business contacts on the golf course. 

Needless to say, Mattia screws everything up.  Although he is rescued by Cecelia, the prettiest woman in the chocolate making class (Violante Placido), he quickly discovers that Cecelia -- who has a bad habit of falling for men who are pathological liars -- has enough emotional baggage to sink an aircraft carrier.  

As Mattia soon learns, in order to make great chocolate -- and create "tiny moments of ecstasy" -- one cannot skimp on quality.  Every trick Mattia has used to succeed in business in the past now works against him.  Once Kamal and Cecelia knock the wind out of his sails, Mattia determines that he might as well try to win the contest for creating a new chocolate treat the hard way: by doing it honestly.

Written by Fabio Bonifacci and directed with a great sense of mischief and elan by Claudio Cupellini, Lessons in Chocolate is a fickle farce that moves at a frantic pace.  You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want more chocolate.  It's all great fun, aided and abetted by a superior cast of clowns.

Although these video clips lack subtitles, you'll get the drift easily enough.  The trailer, which focuses on the movie's many pratfalls, doesn't really let potential audiences in on the true sweetness of the film's story and the redemptive powers of chocolate.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Classroom Discipline

My, how times have changed. When I was a kid, discipline was never an issue in the classroom. Faced with stern elementary school teachers (some of whom looked like aging Irish spinsters in Kate Smith dresses), one never even dared to misbehave. 

When I got to junior high, my home room teacher was a mammoth woman with a foggy contralto that would have been the envy of anyone casting a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  Whenever she lifted her substantial pulchritude onto the corner of her desk, waves of fear raced through the classroom as students expected to be hit with flying debris as soon as the desk collapsed under her massive weight. 

I still have memories of Loretta Mullaly's gigantic hulk making its way through the school corridors as students hugged the wall in fear of being crushed to death.  All she needed to say was four words:

"Out. Of. My. Way.

No one ever dared to challenge her.

My father, a high school science teacher at Brooklyn's Midwood High School (which I also attended as a student) retired a few months before the school's first onsite stabbing. He never looked back. Perhaps that's why I was curious about a French film written by Francois Begaudeau and directed by Laurent Cantet (who won the 2008 Golden Palm Award at Cannes) entitled Entre Les Murs (The Class), which is scheduled to hit theaters in January.

A gifted novelist who used his own experiences as a classroom teacher to craft the film's screenplay, Begaudeau portrays a tireless and devoted educator who tries to keep some level of respect alive between students and teacher during his French-language classes in a tough Parisian high school. Facing off against a group of disaffected teenagers chock full of attitude, short on discipline, and eager to push back against authority, Begaudeau must also struggle with the harsh realities of France's multicultural population. 

Obvious sports-related tensions exist between the black male students, whose favorite teams may represent Morocco, the Ivory Coast or France.  There is a humble, intelligent and highly-motivated Chinese student (Wei) whose mother faces deportation after having been arrested for being in the country illegally. 

A disruptive, underachieving black student named Soulayman eventually gets expelled with the class's knowledge that, as punishment, his father may send the boy back to their native village in Mali.  Then there are issues about language: who can use which words without insulting another classmate (not to mention the retaliation that ensues when the teacher, as he clumsily tries to make a point about grammar, uses the French equivalent of  "skank"in front of two teenage girls). 

Begaudeau is hardly alone in his struggles. We see him in the teachers' lounge, at staff conferences, and at parent-teacher meetings trying to keep students inspired, keep their parents involved, and make it to the end of the school year (although physically, spiritually and emotionally exhausted) in one piece. 

The Class is most notable for the skill with which its creators have coerced its mostly non-actor cast into solid improvisations based on classroom incidents. Spoken almost entirely in French (with subtitles in English) it is a shockingly honest and unsentimental depicition of the classroom dynamic with all of its inherent frustrations.  If you remember the old commercials which asked "Is it real or is it Memorex?" you'll find yourself having similar doubts while watching this film and wondering "Is this fiction or a documentary?"

Until I saw two heartbreaking pieces at the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival, I was unaware of the tragic scandals involving the phenomenon of Indian Residence Boarding Schools in the United States. Supremely misguided efforts by American educators insisted on removing many Indian children from their families -- sometimes for periods of 10 years at a time -- and sending them off to boarding schools where the basic goal was to beat the Indian out of them.   

By eliminating any references to native culture and the use of Aboriginal language, educators (often Catholic priests and nuns) stuck to a simple guideline:  "Kill the Indian, save the man."
Unfortunately, many generations of Indian families were sent to these schools. 

Filmmaker Tessa Desnomie belonged to one such family (whose children suffered mightily at the hands of sadistic Catholic nuns employed at the Lebret school). Desnomie's short documentary, It Had To Be Done, relates how two women (her aunt Anita and Anita's close friend Doris), helped to put an end to some of the school's abusive practices.  

Anita and Doris had been devoted friends as children.  After graduating from Lebret and starting to raise their own families, they were subsequently employed by the school.  One of the women recalls how, as an adult working in the kitchen, she finally got up the courage to buck a nun's orders to serve children bologna that had turned green with mold.  A powerful part of the film is the use of artwork depicting a child's terrified impression of a nun as an angry, vicious, threatening and ghoulish creature -- the embodiment of enough malice and evil to scare the crap out of anyone.

A more thorough look at the cultural problems created by this perverse approach to cultural brainwashing can be seen in Chip Richie's 80-minute feature, Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School.  Guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, this heartrending documentary uses plenty of fascinating archival footage -- mixed with testimonials from older Native Americans who survived the humiliation, abuse, and brutal degradation of the boarding school experience -- to describe how the American government tried to destroy Indian culture, demolish the family unit, and obliterate tribal unity.  

You can order DVDs of several documentaries that depict America's history from the Native American point of view (including The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy,  Black Indians: An American Story,  and How To Trace Your Native American Heritage ) from Rich-Heape Films.  What you will discover in these films is a far cry from what you learned while playing "Cowboys and Indians" in your youth.