Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curse of Impaired Language Skills

All one has to do is read through the classified ads on Craig's List to get a sense of how many people cannot type, cannot spell, and often do not even know that they have used the wrong word while trying to express their thoughts. Some of these mistakes are standard problems with Engrish (i.e. stating that "I like to give my man pressure" -- instead of "pleasure" or "I want to give you nice robdown" instead of "rubdown"). Others are typographical errors which result from transposed characters. All too often, one gets a sense of reading text created by people for whom English is a second language -- or for whom texting may well be their primary language.

If you can read this blog then you probably have -- at the very least -- a 12th grade reading level. But what about people who can't read? What about people whose native language leaves them at a severe disadvantage when thrust into another culture? Those of us who take our ability to read for granted are in for a rude shock when the floor is pulled out from under us. I can still remember the icy chill that went down my spine in 1989 shortly after I landed in Cairo and realized that most signs were in Arabic. There was no doubt about it. I was up shit's creek without a paddle.

Many communities contain multigenerational households in which the parents and/or grandparents are immigrants who never mastered the English language. In some families, the parents are high school dropouts who cannot read English well enough to fill out forms, read a menu, or perform hundreds of other tasks which most of us take for granted. Any sense of shame about their illiteracy is kept strictly within the family, which has usually acquired numerous behavioral techniques for covering up the fact that someone cannot read. 

As a result, some families are often forced to eat in fast food restaurants where the parents point to pictures of the food they wish to order. In many of these families, the children often help to run a small family business by reading and explaining correspondence to their parents. While there are means of covering and compensating for their parents' functional illiteracy, many opportunities remain out of their reach. Why? Because they cannot read.

Functional illiteracy is no stranger to stage and screen.  In 1912, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion introduced audiences to Eliza Doolittle (one of English literature's most famous rag-to-riches celebrities). The musicalization of Shaw's play, My Fair Lady, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, has since become a theatrical and cinematic legend.

Much has been written about Kate Winslet's performance as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader. However, while many articles focus on Michael Berg's need to come to terms with the fact that Schmitz was an SS guard at Auschwitz, what many seem to dismiss as a minor plot point in David Hare's screenplay is the fact that Schmitz is functionally illiterate. The character's inability to read is what allows other SS guards to pin the blame on her for supposedly drafting a document that has been used as a key piece of incriminating evidence.  

When, as a law student observing the trial, Berg realizes that Hanna could not possibly have written the document, he quickly grasps that (a) she does not want anyone to know that she is illiterate,  (b) she is willing to pay a horrible price to hide her inability to read, and (c) exposing her handicap would be a cruel betrayal of the woman who was his first lover. Late in the film, when Berg confronts Hanna in prison and asks what she has learned while incarcerated, she proudly tells him that she learned how to read.  

It would be easy for audiences to misinterpret that statement as meaning that Hanna didn't learn anything about her guilt as an SS enabler.  It would be easy for filmgoers to dismiss her statement as a trivial conceit if they do not understand how important that achievement must be for a woman like Hanna Schmitz, whose illiteracy forced her to live within an intellectual vacuum for so many years.

Fleeting hints at Hanna's reading disability throughout the movie may or may not be picked up by audiences. There is the look of confusion and jealousy in Hanna's eyes when she sees a group of young boys laughing at items on a menu (a menu that she cannot read).  There is the look of utter panic in Hanna's eyes when she is told that she is being promoted from a tram car ticket taker to a desk job (in which she is doomed to failure). And there is the practiced skill with which she brushes aside her young lover's attempts to have her read to him from his books.

If, when watching The Reader, most of your attention was focused solely on the question of how someone could have been complicit in such horrible war crimes, I urge you to watch the movie a second time. Look at it not only from the perspective of someone who cannot read but who, as a result of her functional illiteracy, has very limited means with which to tackle complex decisions. Watch carefully as Hanna explains why she did not free the people who were trapped in a burning church and you will get a much deeper understanding of how the curse of impaired language skills plays out in real life situations.

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A new, nonformula baseball movie currently making the rounds of film festivals is due to arrive in theaters later this year.  You'll definitely want to keep an eye out for Sugar and the stunning screen debut of Algenis Perez Soto (whose brooding face will haunt you long after the film ends). Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Sugar tells the story of a young baseball talent from the Dominican Republic who gets recruited to play in the minor leagues by Kansas City's team.

Within his tiny, impoverished community, Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a potential star, the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Everyone wants a piece of his future, whether they are close relatives or people who live nearby. Everyone believes he will be a great success once he gets to America and becomes a major league baseball star. Even Sugar believes a lot of the hype, telling his girlfriend that he will buy a Cadillac that can drive across the water to come back to get her.

Unfortunately, dreams have a way of evaporating in the face of reality. After practicing with the Kansas City team during their spring training in Arizona, Sugar starts to realize that he is up against some pretty stiff competition. When he is sent to a minor league team in Iowa, he is hosted with two elderly white farmers. 

Separated from the other Spanish-speaking baseball recruits and culturally adrift against a Christian white background, Sugar's bravado soon starts to dissipate, followed by his confidence in his ability as a pitcher. When a leg injury keeps him off the field, he loses all confidence, drops off the team, and heads to New York in the hope of finding a new life for himself.

This is not your typical feel-good sports movie about someone who triumphs over impossible odds. Instead, it is the story of a promising young man who, lacking sufficient language skills and cultural references, finds himself without a support system on which he can rely.  In the end, Sugar must use his street smarts to survive. He ends up where many like him have ended up -- working menial jobs and leading a life that takes him nowhere near the rainbow he once thought would be his. 

Luckily, people have always liked him, and he survives through the generosity of newfound friends. At the end of the film, when one such friend invites Sugar to join a local baseball team comprised of Spanish-speaking players who get together for the sheer fun of playing, he encounters numerous other big fishes from smaller ponds -- men who thought they had everything going for them, who were recruited by sports teams, but who ultimately failed to make the grade.

Sugar is an extremely poignant film which follows a career path that is taken by far more people than sports fans want to know about. It is a path of great potential doomed to obscurity by a combination of bad breaks, emotional difficulties, and functional illiteracy. As you watch the film you'll notice a great sense of silence around "Sugar" Santos, the silence that accompanies not understanding the language or culture in which you must function in order to survive. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Treasure of the Indies

Times are tough.  In the week since Barack Obama's inauguration nearly 75,000 people have lost their jobs. The clothes Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wore during her most recent campaign (all $180,000 worth of them) are reported to have been stuffed into trash bags that remain hidden in a closet at the Republican National Committee's headquarters in Washington, D.C., awaiting donation to charity. In Saginaw, Michigan, a 93-year-old man froze to death because he hadn't paid his $1,000 energy bill (one inspector described the case as the first time he had ever encountered a situation in which someone died of hypothermia inside their own home). 

Thankfully, contrition is making a comeback. Former Merrill Lynch CEO and McCain supporter, John Thain, has promised to refund the $1.2 million he spent to renovate his office suite last year. The disgraced former CEO of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld (who, on Sunday, October 5, was punched in the face and knocked out in the company gym) sold his wife their $13.75 million dollar mansion for a mere $100. After receiving a terse message from the Obama administration that said "Fix it," Citigroup abandoned its plan to buy a new corporate jet for $50 million.

If you really want to see how to get the most artistic bang for your buck, check out some of the screenings at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival where, year after year, audiences are amazed by how much creativity is given free rein on a minimal budget.  In recent years the quality of films shown at this festival has risen so sharply that many of its independent filmmakers could proudly screen their work at any major international film festival. 

Who knows? Maybe the submission fees are much more affordable at SFIndie Fest. Maybe the larger festivals are overwhelmed with submissions from Hollywood studios and foreign producers. When it comes to pulling quality cinematic art out of thin air, two of the films scheduled for screening in February at SFIndie Fest could not be more radically different in their tone, style, talent, or format. Yet each one speaks to the heart of independent filmmaking with a clarity, precision, and wealth of ideas that is truly startling and admirable.

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Animation is a genre that poses no limits to the imagination. Fans of SFIndie Fest (and various animation festivals) are accustomed to seeing Bill Plympton's delightful cartoon shorts. A full-length feature of Plymptom's art, however, offers a much more sobering display of his talent. There are moments in Idiots and Angels when one seriously wonders what goes through Plymptom's mind when he is asleep. Or what drugs he is taking while he is awake.

Although there are many things about Plympton's latest animation feature that will startle audiences, perhaps the most astounding is the fact that only four graphic artists worked to bring it to fruition. Compared to blockbuster full-length animation features like Disney-Pixar's Wall-E  -- or the Madagascar franchise developed by the folks at Dreamworks (which list hundreds of animators in their credits), Plymptom's new film is so much leaner, infinitely meaner, and remains truer to the perversity of its basic concept.  Idiots and Angels doesn't get lost in extraneous plot devices, repetitive mappings, or the business of nurturing potential product spinoffs. Instead, it concentrates on Plymptom's fearsome artistic vision which, at its very least, is a phenomenal achievement.

The plot is simple and bizarre. A thoroughly disagreeable man who is rude, crude, and cursed with an eternally bad attitude, grows a pair of angel's wings. His attempts to remove them fail horribly. When other people see what he's got, their lust to make money off his situation knows no bounds. As his wings transform others by exposing their greed, this  idiot-turned-angel finds himself forced into situations in which, against all his natural instincts, he ends up performing good deeds.

While Idiots and Angels addresses many of the least admirable character traits found in human beings, it doesn't spend a lot of time searching for overt symbolism or ways to analyze its dark and smarmy plotline. Instead of spoken dialogue, Plymptom has created a fascinating soundscape to support the otherworldliness of his animation. His audio art ranges from dissatisfied grunts to cheerful bird calls, from buzz saws to funky jazz. 

Plymptom's grotesquely sarcastic art explodes across the screen like a finely-sketched nightmare, a noir-like combination of slapstick and Grand Guignol that takes rapid twists, makes sudden transitions, and pulls the floor of logical expectations right out from beneath the viewer's intellect time and time again. This is not an easy experience to describe with words. Seeing is believing.

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How many dysfunctional families have made it to the silver screen? Whether crafted as comedies or tragedies, films ranging from The Subject Was Roses to My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Meet the Fockers, from Mommie Dearest to Monster-in-Law to Dolores Claiborne,  from Liar, Liar to Little Children to Flirting With Disaster usually contain enough bitter resentment, festering familial frustration and untapped bile to make it through 80 minutes with plenty of anger and tension to spare. A new entry, filmed in San Francisco, makes an impressive addition to the category of premarital trauma-drama that stems from "the family secret that will never die."

Daron Jennings is Mark Foster, a straight man who has been living with Erika (Lizzie Ross) for two years in a San Francisco flat near Twin Peaks.  He wants to marry Erika (who is prone to panic attacks), but suffers from a fear of commitment and is paralyzed by a brutal family secret that he just can't bring himself to discuss. Mark's business executive brother, Hal (Josh Hutchinson) is an egotistical asshole married to Beth (Heather Mathieson), a manipulative and materialistic blonde bitch who may, in fact, be screwing one of their neighbors. 

Want to guess who's coming to dinner?  

None other than Gretchen (the superb Bettina Devin), a former stewardess with an enormous reservoir of frigid fake charm, an annoying habit of taking pictures with her digital flash camera, and the ability to reduce her two sons to bitterly feuding and hopelessly resentful children merely by crossing the California state border. Once married to a philandering pilot with a drinking problem, Gretchen's divorce caused a major scandal 15 years ago from which her sons have never really recovered. Mark has always sided with Gretchen and been protective of his mother. Hal has always sided with his deceased father while maintaining a bitter working truce with his control freak of a mother.

Written and directed by John Bowden (and based on his three-act play, The Big Mouth)The Full Picture is an astonishingly well-written family drama with more than enough seething resentment to fill everyone's plate. The cast of mostly unknown actors does a stunning job of etching Mark's indecisiveness, Erika's insecurities, Hal's immaturity and Beth's duplicity with the delicate sting of paper cuts. 

But it is Gretchen, the mother from hell, who is a real piece of work. Unlike the blowsy Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Gretchen doesn't take wild, drunken swings at people. Oh, no, not this gal. Although capable of feigning total innocence, Gretchen's years of offering service with a forced sincerity at 30,000 feet have taught her how to slice someone to shreds with surgical precision and then daintily dab her victim's open wounds with lemon juice.

It's easy to see how, having orginally written and staged this story as a play, Bowden has had plenty of time to get inside each character and exploit their strengths and weaknesses.  If you're the kind of person who likes to keep score during family showdowns, you can start with three emasculating women, two sets of rapidly shriveling testicles, one wedding ring that was a family heirloom, God knows how many painful secrets, and a burnt roast. Who needs a partridge in a pear tree?

The Full Picture benefits immensely from Mark De Gli Antoni's wryly mischievious original musical score and Cliff Traiman's astonishingly rich cinematography. This is a film that is written with great insight, directed with a knowing eye, and acted by a gifted ensemble. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Use Your Imagination

Back in the early 1960s, when his administration was being compared to Camelot,  President John F Kennedy remarked:
"I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."
On September 29, 1965 -- nearly two years after Kennedy's assassination -- President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law. Originally conceived during the Eisenhower Administration, the Kennedy Center for the Arts officially opened its doors to the public on September 8, 1971.  

Think, for a minute,  about the "tools of the trade" that we now take for granted, but which were not yet available to artists and arts administrators at that time.  No one owned a personal computer that could put WYSIWYG word processing programs with scalable fonts at their fingertips. There were no computer-based graphics programs, no ways to manipulate pixels, no ways to resize photos, and no means by which one could transmit files to remote stations for printing or media distribution. No one had the ability to use spreadsheets to estimate costs or run "what if?" calculations. No one had relational databases they could use for target marketing to subscribers as well as single ticket buyers. 

There were no websites, no email and no cell phones.

What little information or expertise was available about the various artistic disciplines was not easily shared. Professional service organizations such as Dance USAOpera America, and the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) were still working with index cards and Rolodexes

Since that time school arts programs have withered and died, anti-intellectualism has flourished, and America has suffered a severe "dumbing down" of its educational system as well as its cultural assets. Although grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities  have proven less controversial, for the past three decades the National Endowment for the Arts has been reduced to an underfunded political punching bag. 

Now, think of how the arts function as a powerful economic engine at the most local levels. Think of how today's electronics have transformed creativity. Think of what happened on January 15, 2009, when a passenger on a ferry used his cell phone to send the first picture to the world of USAir's downed flight #1549, an Airbus A320 afloat in the Hudson River, via Twitter. If you have trouble understanding the power of art, think about what this picture says to the man on the street:

Then think about what might take root if, instead of entering a culture that celebrates violence and destruction, America's children could grow up in a world that encourages and nurtures their creativity. A world that gives them a sense of owning their creative output. A world in which broadband is available to every child in every community. A world where schools are fully equipped with computers that can stimulate a child's creativity in its crucial nascent stages.

Think about what might happen if, instead of entering the armed forces as a career choice of last resort (simply because there are no other economic opportunities on the horizon), children from any part of America could grow up with sufficient computer skills to not only create art, but understand how to bring their creative output to market and manage the business of growing their art. Whether you think about such possibilities for writers, sculptors, musicians, photographers,  dancers, painters, or any other kind of creative artist, the impact on the global economy could be astonishing.

With billions of dollars having been flushed down Wall Street's financial toilets (with absolutely no accountability whatsoever from Henry Paulson or Ben Bernanke) and even more money being targeted at saving America's ailing auto industry, is it any wonder that famed "turnaround king" Michael Kaiser wants to know: Where's A Bailout For the Arts?  

The buzz continues to spread. Quincy Jones has been urging President Obama to create a new cabinet-level post for a Secretary of the Arts.

Art therapist Cathy Malchiodi discusses the concept of a Secretary for the Arts in Psychology Today.  A diarist on Daily Kos has issued a Call For A National Arts Summit.  

Just think of what a Secretary of the Arts could do for the nation's collective spirit.  Think of what that office could do for the nation's children.  Think of what that cabinet level position could do for the nation's artists and its economy.  Then, while you're thinking about all that, think about the role that art (from the creation of the Obama logo to the dissemination of Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster)  played in the success of Barack Obama's campaign to become the President of the United States of America.  

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Several years ago, Jeff Ross screened Popaganda: The Art And Crimes of Ron English.  A wonderful documentary about the power of taking art to the streets, this documentary gives audiences a hunger for more of the kind of political and social activism that has helped to make English famous.

English returns to town next month as part of this year's SFIndie Fest with a riveting and rollicking new documentary entitled Abraham Obama: A Subversive Journey Through Art and Politics.  Director Kevin Chapados follows English and his merry band of street artists (including Shepard Fairey, David Choe, Sam Flores and Mr. Brainwash) as they create murals on blank building walls and plaster English's provocative image of Abraham Obama all over America.  

As one of the people in the film notes, "Obama seems to get it. He sticks up for artists, so we'll stick up for him." To understand Obama's importance to the hip hop generation, I urge you to read Jermaine Dupri's touching piece from The Huffington Post entitled President Obama's First Big Move: Making People Care.

Abraham Obama goes to the heart of two key factors that helped Obama win the election: image and branding. While the film includes interviews with numerous people attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado-- from the Reverend Al Sharpton to award-winning documentarian Morgan Spurlock, from a Denver art critic to a clueless media hack from World Wrestling Entertainment -- perhaps the most pertinent quote about the power of art comes from a letter Obama wrote to Shepard Fairey:
"Your art, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign, has the ability to encourage Americans to question the status quo." 
Abraham Obama will be shown on February 15 and 18 at the Roxie Cinema. Don't miss it!

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The term "triple threat man" was first used in the sports world to describe Bradbury Robinson, a St. Louis University athlete who, in 1906, threw the first legal forward pass in the history of American football.  Fifty years later the same term was used to describe the type of talent Jerome Robbins was seeking for the cast of a new musical named West Side Story which would require performers who could sing, dance, and act. Until that time, the casts of most Broadway musicals were divided into separate groups of singers, dancers, and actors. Because Robbins was in the process of creating a new style of musical, he needed "triple threat" performers.

A talented actor, producer, and playwright (as well as author of the on-line graphic novel, InFlux)Michael Phillis is rapidly evolving into a triple threat artist. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Phillis has been seen around the Bay area performing with groups such as the New Conservatory Theatre Center, California Shakespeare Theater, and SFPlayhouse

Having written three full-length plays (Finding Mrs. Miller, D*Face, and Wish We Were Here), Phillis is now breaking in his latest creation: a one-man show entitled Dolls. 

When seen in an early preview at the New Conservatory Theater Center, Dolls struck me as a surprisingly mature piece of writing.  As directed by Andrew Nance, Phillis uses very few props other than his voice and obvious physical agility. Whether impersonating a Southern Belle of a porcelain doll, an action figure commando doll, or a series of cloned "off brand" dolls (who all tend to speak like a caricature of Keanu Reeves), his characterizations have depth, breadth, and a life of their own. It's a fascinating and highly original monologue that is well worth your attention.

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Written and recorded in 1971, John Lennon's song Imagine has become an anthem for everything up to and including world peace. But look at what an inspiration it has provided. 

Barack Obama imagined what could be done if ordinary people, rather than special interests, were the backbone of his campaign. His campaign manager, David Plouffe, and chief strategist, David Axelrod, didn't hesitate to imagine what could be achieved with today's social networking tools and by encouraging volunteers to use their imagination in the field.  Former skateboarder and acclaimed contemporary artist Shepard Fairey imagined all those posters of Barack Obama (an original was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is now part of its permanent collection). 

Michael Phillis imagined all those dolls coming to life in a one-man show.  People have been unleashing their imaginations for more than two decades at northern Nevada's Burning Man Festival. Scott Weaver imagined this amazing interactive sculpture of San Francisco.

Just think what could happen if, as "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people," the United States of America imagined the positive side effects of unleashing the intellectual, spiritual, physical, and economic power of all its artists -- and then took a more determined approach to nurturing their collective powers of imagination.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do

"If you're so smart, how can you be so damned stupid?"

That's the question I often want to ask people in the medical field whose Christian faith gets in the way of their understanding the basic facts of biology and evolution. After all, if you've studied anatomy, you should have some idea about what makes one species differ from another. If you can greedily pump fossil fuels into your family's SUV you should have some idea of what a fossil is, how it was created, and what you can learn from its history. If you can use computers and other scientific instruments capable of calculating large numbers, you should have some understanding that the world was not made in seven days, that Adam and Eve did not arrive fully formed in the Garden of Eden and that the snake had to come from somewhere

Like many people, I am thrilled to finally have a President who believes in, embraces, and supports science -- a man who is crystal clear on the concept of evolution. Not Creationism, not Intelligent Design. but evolution -- the process of natural selection described in Charles Darwin's groundbreaking On the Origin of Species which, since it was first published in 1859, has become the basis for the branch of scientific study known as evolutionary biology.

I suppose I should admit to an obvious bias in this area. I come from a family of atheists. My father taught biology and general science in New York City's public school system. Still, I wasn't the only person in the audience at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday night who was thrilled by the performance given by members of L.A. Theatre Works of The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. Adapted by Peter Goodchild from the actual transcripts of the famous Scopes trial (which took place from July 7-21, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee), the performance was a breath of fresh air after eight long years of forced idiocy from the Religious Right. 

Directed by Brendon Fox and starring 80-year-old Ed Asner as William Jennings BryanJohn Heard as Clarence Darrow, Matthew Patrick Davis as John Thomas Scopes, and with Shannon Cochran narrating, this performance of an old-fashioned script-in-hand radio drama crackled with electricity.  While it was riveting to watch such a curious moment in our history come to life on the stage of Kanbar Hall, it was thrilling to watch Asner -- as an aging Baptist blowhard -- wallow in Bryan's fatuous ignorance and religious condescension until he looked like a very smug and self-righteous idiot. The fact that the Judge in the Scopes trial insisted on addressing the prosecuting and defense attorneys as "Colonel" only added to the play's charm.

To understand the evening's powerful grip on the auidence, listen to Lou Harry describe what L.A. Theater Works is all about:

This performance was part of a series of lectures being presented by the JCCSF to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth. Two more programs are scheduled for this spring. On March 24, anthropologist and historian Richard Milner will talk about Darwin's evolution as a naturalist.  Two nights later, Milner will appear in his one-man show: Charles Darwin: Live and In Concert.  You can order tickets online or by calling the JCCSF's box office at (415) 292-1233. Here's a teaser for your enjoyment:

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If you're the kind of person who likes to whisper "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" to yourself -- or who lies in bed thinking about how much you'd love to stroke a big pussy, then Robyn Bliley's poignant documentary about Circus Rosaire is just the treat for you. Sadly sweet and sweetly sad, this film explores the lifestyle of a circus family that see its audiences dwindling, its income evaporating, and its beloved trainers and animals aging and dying off.  

The Rosaires have been entertaining audiences around the world for more than 50 years. Nine generations of the family have worked in various parts of circus life (whether as circus performers, animal trainers, stagehands, or ticket sellers). As animal rights activitists continue to have a severe impact on circuses -- and groups like Cirque du Soleil continue to redefine the art form -- the Rosaires find themselves at the end of a long and (sometimes less than glorious) life on the road. 

Intensely devoted to their animals, the Rosaire family tends to an aging population of lions, tigers, bears, dogs, goats and other creatures. One of the Rosaire women has the the only surviving chimpanzee act in the industry. With economic times being what they are, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may be the only circus outfit that will survive the current recession. 

As the Rosaires formulate a plan to stop touring, settle down, and convert their animal acts to an educational animal sanctuary, the film captures the loving last gasp of a show business tradition that is quickly following vaudeville into oblivion. There are many poignant moments in this film (including the Rosaire family's tearful funeral for a beloved chimpanzee).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rebels With A Cause

In the days since President Obama was inaugurated, many people have slowly been coming to grips with the realization that America has reached an important tipping point in race relations. With an African American President in the White House, major changes are happening in American media. More and more advertising is featuring minority faces.  More pundits have had to rethink their usual stances. More faces of successful, intelligent African Americans in leadership positions are filling the news. First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion choices are becoming a constant source of news and gossip.

Yet, all one had to do was listen to the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery's droll benediction on Inauguration Day to realize what a long and painful road it has been to reach this point -- not just for blacks -- but for all Americans.
"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."
While August Wilson is famous for his 100-year "Pittsburgh cycle" or "Century cycle" of plays set in the African American Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, South Africa's Athol Fugard has had an even more prodigious output. A dramatist who used his country's racial tensions as an inspiration for putting the lives of ordinary people onstage, Fugard has continually used his plays to explain how what is personal becomes political and, conversely, how what is political can take on immense personal significance.

Some playwrights have an exceptional gift for capturing the music that permeates a culture's language. In his 53 years as a playwright, Fugard has developed great skill at bringing to life cultural situations punctuated by the markedly different dialects of a population living atop a cauldron of racial unrest. The power of his ability to create stage magic with words permeates the Marin Theatre Company's new production of Fugard's 22nd play -- My Children! My Africa! -- with such thrilling intensity that you sometimes have to pinch yourself to make sure you're hearing things correctly.  

As directed by Josh Costello on Eric Sinkonnen's sparse yet haunting unit set, the play is set in the mid 1980s, as South Africa hurtles toward that historic day in February 1990 when, speaking before the South African Parliament, President F. W. de Klerk announced his plans to repeal discriminatory laws and end the ban on rival political parties as part of ending his nation's culture of apartheid.

As the play begins, Isabel (a young white student on the debate team of her all-white school) is engaged in a shouting match with Thami (a young black student on the debate team of the hosting all-black school) under the supervision of Thami's debate coach, Mr. M. Although she is very friendly with her family's black servants, Isabel has never really had any exposure to blacks outside of her very privileged -- and very segregated -- social universe. Startled and intoxicated by the stimulating debate she has just experienced with Thami, Isabel remains stunningly naive in her amazement that the black students at Thami's school  did not greet her with a sense of gratitude, treated her as an equal, and that she liked how it felt.

When Mr. M visits Isabel at her school and proposes that she and Thami join forces to form an interracial debate team in the regional competitions, Isabel is much more excited by the idea than Thami (who has always simply been told what to do by his teacher).  As eagerly as Isabel and Mr. M are anticipating the competition, Thami's alliance with a group of young political "comrades" comes with a much more urgent set of priorities for a young black man in Camdeboo, a small South African town where racial unrest is close to the boiling point.

L. Peter Callender as Mr. M. (Photo: Ed Smith)

Caught in the middle of current events is Mr. M who, at 57, is a firm believer that words are more powerful than brute strength -- that an ability to express one's thoughts can be much more useful than throwing rocks or inciting an angry mob. As a young man, he was thrilled by the ability of books and learning to transport him to places in his mind to which he could never travel in real life. Throughout his career as a teacher, Mr. M has struggled to fight the oppressive racial dictates of the Bantu Education Act in his very own personal way. He has devoted his entire adult life to teaching young blacks so that some day they will have the intelligence and wherewithal to work from within the system to help end apartheid. In Thami, he sees a young man with the kind of exceptional intelligence that might allow him to rise above the hopelessness which cripples so many of black youths.

As devoted as he may be to his students, Mr. M is still a conscientious teacher. When he senses trouble is about to erupt in his district, he goes to the local police and offers up the names and addresses of potential political instigators. As tensions mount and Thami drops out of debate practice, Isabel struggles to get Thami to explain to her why he's no longer interested in pursuing the regional competition. 

Fugard's powerful play is set against the seething passions of the mid 1980s -- the  beginning of the end of apartheid -- a time when black South Africans suffered from horrible persecution, violent riots, and when idealism often took a beating. Underlying the plot's linear momentum is an introspective battle for all three characters to protect one's desire and ability to be a friend, to fulfill one's intellectual promise, to be an effective mentor from another generation and different political tradition, and to come to terms with an unspoken love.

Laura Morache, L. Peter Callender, Lloyd Roberson
(Photo: Ed Smith)

When Mr. M is denounced as an informer during a meeting of the "comrades," Thami tries to defend his teacher's reputation. But when Mr. M finally confesses to Thami that he has, indeed, been an informant and explains why, Thami is helpless to prevent the crowd from murdering his teacher and burning down the school in which Mr. M taught for so many years.

My Children! My Africa! stands out as a play in which each of its three characters travels a tremendous emotional distance. Fugard's writing contains some exquisite monologues which, by themselves, are worth the price of admission. Under Costello's tight direction, each member of the tightly-knit ensemble is given plenty of opportunities to shine as an actor while basking in the richness of Fugard's language.  Special credit goes to  MTC's dramaturg, Margot Melcon, for researching the evocative clips of South African music which frame each scene.

Fugard's inspiration for My Children! My Africa! came from a newspaper article he read in the early 1980s about a black schoolteacher trying to cope with the violent unrest in his district. In an article he wrote for The New York Times shortly before the play's world premiere in 1989, Fugard stated "That item just tapped me on the shoulder. Life serves me up appointments that I've got to keep, and if I don't, my soul is in trouble."

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Is Bob Byington the bastard love child of John Waters and Christopher Guest? That's the question that will haunt you after seeing RSO.  

Do you love deadpan mockumentaries like Waiting for GuffmanBest In Show, and A Mighty Wind? Are you a big fan of  snarky, anti-establishment John Waters films like Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Pecker, and Serial Mom that are filled with inappropriate sexual references and attacks on the status quo? Do you have a wicked taste for the prurient delights found in Todd Solondz's films -- Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling -- where the envelope of impropriety can't be pushed any further?

Then trust me, you're going to fall head over heels in love with RSO [Registered Sex Offender], which will be screened next month as part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF IndieFest). Imagine a documentary crew that is so exasperated and repulsed by its unrepentantly cynical and unremittingly vulgar subject that it finally gives up on producing a film about him. Imagine a registered sex offender whose combination of sarcasm, intelligence, and stubbornness undermines the efforts of every mindless parole officer and aspiring therapist who tries to contribute to his rehabilitation. 

Then think of the smart-ass slacker who knows exactly which questions to answer honestly to guarantee that he won't get a job. Think of every determined horndog/porn connoisseur you've met (straight or gay) who can't stop drooling at the mere possibilities evoked by the words, thoughts, and images that fill his day. Think of the class reject who went through his senior year with a 24-hour boner and you've met the protagonist of this film.

It takes about 30 seconds before you realize that RSO will offer a thoroughly scandalous, no-holds barred experience in which absolutely nothing is sacred. Watch the trailer below for a tantalizing appetizer to a mockumentary whose tagline is:

"A film that will touch you...inappropriately."

I tip my hat to Byington and his talented cast of professionals and nonactors who have managed to shoot a contemporary sex comedy about one of the most repugnant issues in our society and yet still keep a straight face throughout the process. Special credit goes to the slouching, snarky Gabriel McIver as the protagonist, to Kristen Tucker as his girlfriend, Tina, and to film editor Peggy Chen for her inspired choices.  

Shot in handheld HD format with a cast of relatively unknown talents, RSO is put together with a lot more precision and intelligence than many big budget affairs.  Listen to Robert Byington, Kristen Tucker, and Kevin Corrigan discuss their "process" in the clip below (recorded at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas) and then do yourself a big favor.  

Purchase a DVD screener of [Registered Sex Offender] here for $10 so that you can have the guilty pleasure of watching it in private and laughing your head off when no one else is looking. Byington's bitingly droll mockumentary is guaranteed to give you new and piercing insights into the culture of the penal, parole, and rehabilitation systems of the State of Texas.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Utter Joy of Wretched Excess

For me, it all began in Stewart's Ice Cream Parlor in the small town of Corinth, New York.  One summer, when my family was vacationing at nearby Lake Luzerne, my parents took us to a place where you could make your own ice cream sundae. The joy of going to Stewart's was not just that you could pile as much glop on top of the ice cream as the dish could hold. In those days, no one cared whether or not you ate it all.

Years later, I was introduced to my first smorgasbord at the Scandia Restaurant in the heart of New York's theater district. Precocious glutton that I was, I knocked off seven plates of food before my parents rolled me down the street to the John Golden Theater for a performance of the ground-breaking hit, "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May."

Anyone who has visited my abode knows that it is decorated in a style best described as wretched excess. When I moved into this apartment in 1974, I was working as a medical transcriptionist during the swing shift at St. Luke's Hospital.  One night, I asked the ditzy queen who worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit if he had any spare urine specimen jars in which I could store nails, screws, and other bits of hardware. Larry dutifully explained that, because they contained medical waste products, those bottles had to be carefully disposed of but suggested that I try some of the discarded Similac jars instead. Then he asked the magic question.

"Do you want them with or without the nipples?"

Foolish child. Some wooden slats, some Elmer's glue, and the Hallway of Nipples was born. After too many nipples started falling off the walls and doorway frames, I was eventually forced to redecorate.  My office now sits in the Angela Lansbury room.  Just past the Beverly Sills Hallway Memorial is a room devoted to vintage ocean liners from the first half of the 20th century. The bathroom and kitchen are filled with beefcake (it's just amazing what you can do with an Inkjet printer and several hundred cheap picture frames from the Mission District's "dollar" stores). 

My apartment is like a theme park for the madman on Dolores Street. The front window, with its collection of owl figurines, gets constant hoots of attention from children of all ages and has even been mentioned in a book about walking tours of San Francisco. One day, as I was sitting at my desk, a heard a little boy exclaim to his parents "I think that place is haunted!"

Thus, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely loved Harrod Blank's hilarious documentary, Automorphosis, that will be shown next month at SFIndie Fest. You could not find a more delightful pick-me-up than this sublimely over-the-top tribute to individualism, to acting out your fantasies, and to the joyous results of not holding back when the creative urge strikes.

You haven't lived until you've seen someone driving around in a hamburgermobile, a shark car, or a Cathedracar that would make Morticia Addams green with envy. What makes Blank's documentary so much fun is that he has focused not just on the art cars, but on their creators as well.

Thus, you get to meet the person who used copper pennies to decorate an art car after wearing a sheath of copper pennies made his arthritis disappear.  You meet a woman whose throat cancer spurred her to express herself as an artist, as well as the man who created the amazing Big Horn mobile. Whether you are watching a car decorated with singing fish and lobsters or someone driving around in a horizontal Madonna made from license plates, seeing is believing.

When my sister and I were kids, our parents told us that the family had a very special puzzle that could only be used on days when we were sick. That puzzle was passed down to my niece and nephew when they were young and still holds a special place in all of our hearts. 

You may be too old to qualify for a day with the sick puzzle.  But if you can't get to a screening at SFIndie Fest, I'd strongly advise you to either rent Automorphosis from Netflix or purchase a copy of the DVD.  Let it cheer you up when you're sick. Invite friends over for a screening party. Watch it when you have insomnia. Revisit it when you're down in the dumps. Here's a sample of the craziness you will enjoy:

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One of the joys of attending a film festival is learning about relatively obscure pieces of cinematic history. Shortly after the 1927 debut of the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue (The Jazz Singer), Fritz Pfleumer's invention of magnetic tape in 1928 led to the introduction of sound dubbing in the movie industry during the early 1930s.  During the intervening years, however, many films were shot in multiple formats in order to accommodate new technology as well as make them available to foreign markets.

During the silent film era, it had been fairly easy to adapt a film for foreign audiences by simply changing the language of any text that was flashed on the screen.  With the advent of talkies, however, American English did not easily translate into other cultures. One of the largest markets for American film was Germany, as Stefan Droessler (Director of the Film Museum Munich) explained during a thrilling presentation entitled Hollywood Speaks German that was part of this year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.

Droessler outlined how each major Hollywood studio went about shooting alternate versions of their films for foreign markets. Some found actors already in Hollywood (Edward G. Robinson, Greta Garbo) who were fluent in German.  Others imported German actors specifically for these reshoots or built satellite studios (one near Paris) where the film could be reshot with local talent.

Although very little remains in film archives, some clips are priceless -- especially the ones of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy filming the same comic routine in English, German, and Spanish. Because they were fluent in neither German nor Spanish, they had to learn the script phonetically on the set. 

In another demonstration, Droessler screened clips of Buster Keaton performing a scene in 1931's Parlor, Bedroom and Bath with a very tall German actress, as well as the English version with Charlotte Greenwood. Having only seen Greenwood in movie musicals (The Gang's All Here, Down Argentine Way, Oklahoma!), it was thrilling to watch her flex her comedic muscles. See for yourself:

Notes published on IMDB about The Big Trail (which starred a young John Wayne in his first leading role) relate that: 
"Incredibly, five different versions of this film were shot simultaneously. (1) a 70mm version in the Grandeur process for exhibition in the biggest movie palaces; (2) a standard 35mm version for general release; (3) a 35mm alternate French language version La Piste des géants (1931), (4) a 35 mm alternate Spanish language version La Gran jornada (1931), and (5) a 35 mm alternate German language version Die Große Fahrt (1931). The three alternate language versions were shot with (mostly) different casts."
As he screened this picture, showing the five actors who appeared in the lead role (John Wayne is in the center), Droessler noted that the man who starred in the Spanish version wore the tightest costume of all five heroes.

Droessler also pointed out how in some translations, the context of a filmed moment could be changed by showing how, in The Big Trail, the German version had specific references to German immigrants settling America.  The hero's reference to two criminals which described them as "skunks" had been changed to "vultures" for German audiences.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, some of the clips Droessler used to illustrate his lecture can be shared in this blog posting.  In this version of a scene from Anna Christie (in the English version shot in 1930 with Marie Dressler as Marty), Greta Garbo is directed by Clarence Brown.

In the German version, shot in 1931 and directed by Jacques Feyder (with Salka Viertel as Marty), Garbo had more influence over the choice of costume, director, and even some text. Although shot on the same set with the same cinematographer, there was a different crew, a German translation and more smoking.  As the only actor to appear in both the English and German versions, Garbo is reported to have much preferred the German version of the film.

One of the first examples cited by Droessler, however, has no clips available on YouTube but proved to be of special interest to me. One of the great Broadway musicals of the 1950s was The Most Happy Fella, for which Frank Loesser composed a nearly operatic score that contained such hits as "Standing on the Corner Watching All The Girls Go By" and "Big D." Based on Sidney Howard's 1924 play, They Knew What They Wanted, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Howard's play tells the story of an older Italian man living in Napa who owns a vineyard and desperately wants to marry a younger woman. 

In 1940, Garson Kanin directed a film version of They Knew What They Wanted starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton in which Karl Malden made his film debut in a minor role. What I did not know was that Sidney Howard had also written the screenplay for an earlier adaptation, A Lady To Love,  which was filmed in 1930 starring Edward G. Robinson as Tony and silent screen star Vilma Banky -- who spoke with a fairly thick accent -- as Lena (Amy).

Using clips from the English and German versions, we were able to hear Robinson acting with a heavy-duty old world Italian accent with German subtitles and then see him do the same performance in German with English subtitles. As Droessler noted, the censors prevented American audiences from hearing that Lena was pregnant, whereas the German version was quite clear about that crucial plot point.

As a reminder of how one piece of literature can morph into a variety of interpretations, here's a clip of baritone Christopher Holloway singing the famous "Joey, Joey" solo from Frank Loesser's score for The Most Happy Fella

Monday, January 19, 2009

Searching For A Pulse

The strangest thing happened this weekend. On consecutive nights I attended two performances which could, at best, be described as anemic. During each performance I found my body shifting, my attention drifting, and my mind struggling to identify what could possibly be wrong. Was the theater too warm? Was my blood sugar too high? Was I tired? Was the rest of the audience strangely quiet? Something was definitely out of whack.

Both productions were revivals of period pieces. Both plays were supposed to be famous for their rapier wit and satirical bite. Both plays began with a discussion of their protagonist's involvement in failed productions of other plays (a bad omen and yet an invaluable starting point to analyze two less-than-satisfying theatrical experiences).

* * * * * * *

There's a curious mystique about Ben Hecht & Charles McArthur's Twentieth Century. Based on a play by Charles Bruce Milholland, it originally opened on Broadway in 1932 (where it ran for 152 performances). In 1934, the screen version -- starring John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe and Carole Lombard as Lily Garland -- swept the nation off its feet and helped define the term "screwball comedy."

A 1950 Broadway revival starring Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson ran for 233 performances. In 1978, a musical version of the play starring John Collum and Madeline Kahn (with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) opened on Broadway. Directed by Hal Prince -- with a nearly operatic score by Cy Coleman -- On The Twentieth Century did less for its original stars than it did for the careers of understudy Judy Kaye (who took over the role of Lily Garland from Madeline Kahn) and Kevin Kline, whose over-the-top performance as Lily's lover, Bruce Granit, won him the 1978 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, the 1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in A Musical, and essentially launched his acting career into the stratosphere. For the musical version, the gender of the religious fanatic was switched from male to female to create a star turn for the legendary Imogene Coca.

In 2004, New York's Roundabout Theater Company produced a limited run (84 performances) of Twentieth Century starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in a revised version of the play by Ken Ludwig. Although Anne Heche was warmly greeted by the critics, the rest of the production was not. One must be willing to question the myth of Twentieth Century's appeal in order to understand why Saturday's opening night performance at Theatreworks (using Ken Ludwig's new version) left me feeling so sadly underwhelmed.

Marketing campaigns for both the straight play (Twentieth Century) and its musical version (On The Twentieth Century) have relied on selling the glamour of train travel in the 1930s, the period's Art Deco style, and the concept of a battle of the sexes between two oversized Hollywood egos. While it's easy to sell the "sizzle" of Twentieth Century, delivering its "steak" offers a much more difficult challenge.

When I saw the musical version on Broadway in 1978 -- and again in a 2003 production starring Mark Jacoby, Judy Blazer and JoAnne Worley at the now-defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose -- I found it strangely disappointing (as if a lot of very talented people had bestowed a great deal of love and talent on a favorite grandchild who could never live up to their expectations). As I watched the play unfold on the stage of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts this weekend I realized that (a) what may have been riotously funny 75 years ago was much less amusing to modern audiences, (b) the performance I was watching kept failing to hit its mark, and (c) part of Twentieth Century's undeniable success may lie in film director Howard Hawks' close-ups, which lose their impact when the play is performed onstage.

Over the years I've learned that opening nights -- where expectations are higher than usual --often end up becoming a glorified dress rehearsal. Lines get flubbed (at one point Saturday night someone referred to an airplane rather than a train) and the cast may be concentrating so hard that it simply cannot find its comedic rhythm. In some moments, the set seemed to be strangely underlit by lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt. Robert Kelley's stage direction, while fully functional, failed to ignite any magic.

Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Although the cast, headed by Dan Hiatt as Oscar Jaffe, Rebecca Dines as Lily Garland, Suzanne Gordner as Ida Webb, and Bob Greene as Owen O'Malley worked hard, they couldn't get this legendary comedy off the ground for the entire first act. Geno Carvalho failed to project as Lily's agent/lover. Gerry Hiken's portrayal of the religious fanatic, Matthew Clark, was lovable at best.

Act II fared better as sparks began to fly between Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland. But the true mark that something was desperately wrong with this production was to be found in a tiny design detail. Set designer Andrea Bechert's unit set depicting multiple compartments of the 20th Century Limited was all a director could hope for in terms of clearly-delineated playing areas. But each time the secondary design elements in back of the train sprung into action (to create the sensation of a train pulling in and out of various stations), the effect completely stole the show. That's when you know that a play has been boring you and that something is terribly wrong with the performance you're watching. 

How ironic that Bechert's brilliantly designed and magnificently executed concept for incidental dramatic transitions brought more life to Twentieth Century than any of the actors onstage. It made me wonder if, like Stephen King's terrifying and yet unforgettable Christine, the 20th Century Limited might have had an agenda all its own.

* * * * * *
On Sunday night, a performance of John Guare's play, Rich and Famous, at the American Conservatory Theater was equally puzzling. Film director Louis Malle, who wrote a forward to a collection of Guare's plays, claims that:
"Guare practices a humor that is synonymous with lucidity, exploding genre and cliches, taking us to the core of human suffering: the awareness of corruption in our own bodies, death circling in. We try to fight it all by creating various mythologies, and it is Guare's peculiar aptitude for exposing these grandiose lies of ours that makes his work so magical."
First produced in 1974, Rich and Famous is set in New York during the 1970s and resembles the "bad dream" style of Charlie Kaufman's recent film entitled Synecdoche, New York. Bing Ringling is an inept playwright who finally manages to get a script (his 844th) produced in some hole of an off-Broadway theater. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, he finds himself hurtling through a nightmarish sequence of nonsensical encounters involving his girlfriend, his childhood schoolmate Tybalt Dunleavy, his parents, an insane theatrical producer,  a theatrical madman named Anatol Torah (a composite of three talented titans Guare had worked with in his early years: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Joseph Papp) and a singularly untalented black actor named Aphro (short for Aphrodite).

Brooks Ashmanskas and Gregory Wallace (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Like a lot of bad dreams, there is some wonderful material to be found in Rich and Famous, most notably Mary Birdsong's portrayal of Veronica Gulpp-Vestige (an insane producer who has decided to make Bing Ringling's play her first official "flop"). Stephen DeRosa provides vivid characterizations of the insanely flamboyant Anatol Torah, the Hollywood legend Tybalt Dunleavy (a victim of his own celebrity who has already sold the rights to his suicide), and the playwright's father. 

Mary Birdsong (Photo by Kevin Berne)

While Guare's one-act play is structured like a vaudevillian nightmare for four talented performers, it suffers from one big problem.  In addition to some brilliant stretches of writing, it is weighed down by a fatal amount of drek. Not only do large parts of Rich and Famous seem hopelessly dated and overwrought, despite the best efforts of the talented cast and director John Rando, certain bits of stage business cross the footlights with the levity of a stale fart. 

Sadly, at the performance I attended, drek triumphed over all.