Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Natives Are Restless

In 1937, Harold Rome made an important debut as a songwriter for Pins and Needles. The only hit show ever to be produced by a labor union (and, according to Wikipedia, the only time when a group of unknown non-professionals brought a successful musical to Broadway), Pins and Needles went on to become the longest-running musical on Broadway (1108 performances) until Oklahoma! premiered at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943.

In 1962, when Rome worked on a new Broadway show entitled I Can Get It For You Wholesale, a 25th anniversary recording of Pins and Needles was made featuring such talents as Rose Marie Jun, Jack Carroll, and the rising 21-year-old star of his new musical, Barbra Streisand. Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs from that recording: Sing Me A Song With Social Significance.
"I'm tired of moon-songs of star and of June songs,
They simply make me nap
And ditties romantic drive me nearly frantic
I think they're all full of pap

History's making, nations are quaking
Why sing of stars above
For while we are waiting father time's creating
New things to be singing of

Sing me a song with social significance
All other tunes are taboo
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it!

Sing me a song with social significance
Or you can sing 'til you're blue
Let meaning shine from ev'ry line
Or I won't love you

Sing me of wars and sing me of breadlines
Tell me of front page news
Sing me of strikes and last minute headlines
Dress your observation in syncopation!

Sing me a song with social significance
There's nothing else that will do
It must get hot with what is what
Or I won't love you.

I want a song that's satirical
And putting the mere into miracle
It must be packed with social fact
or I won't love you

Sing me of kings and conf'rences martial
Tell me of mills and mines
Sing me of courts that aren't impartial
What's to be done with 'em tell me in rhythm

Sing me a song with social significance
there's nothing else that will do
It must be tense with common sense
or I won't love you."
As mentioned in my previous post, a special class of full-length documentary feature films deals with issues of social injustice. In many cases, a specific timeline will dictate the film's flow of information. A catalytic event may draw attention to an issue which has been simmering just under the public's radar. As conflicts over land, power, and/or money bring the issue to a boil, lawsuits inevitably ensue. Further media coverage attracts celebrities who are either fully in support of the cause or media whores looking for new photo opportunities. If and when a legal trial reaches its conclusion, there is no guarantee that justice will be done and everyone will live happily ever after.

Three documentaries currently on the festival circuit (or due for imminent release in theaters) deal with issues of social injustice. They demonstrate, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that life is unfair and you don't always get what you want. However, the fact that most of these films began their creative process during the Bush administration and are reaching the public during President Obama's administration adds a peculiar twist to the audience's experience.

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An Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's The Garden does a splendid job of showing how the people, united, can eventually be divided. The history, however, is fascinating.  Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the South Central Farmers created a 14-acre community garden. Tilling the soil and raising crops in the middle of one of California's largest urban areas, these people (mostly Hispanic and African American) suddenly found all of their crops threatened with destruction when the city sold the land back to the real estate developer who was its original owner for less than market price.

If examined as a political melodrama, The Garden is populated by the usual stereotypes of minority struggles.  There are the poor farmers, the community organizer (Rufina Juarez), the underpaid, overworked civil rights attorney (Dan Stormer), and the politician who seems more than willing to sell out the people she represents (Jan Perry). There is a rival community leader  (Juanita Tate, the founder of Concerned Citizens of Central L.A.), who has her own special interests and an obvious villain (real estate developer Ralph Horowitz). 

The Garden shows, in crushing detail, how idealism and justice don't always win in America, especially where large amounts of money are at stake. With time working against the plaintiffs, we see desperate attempts at fundraisers (with cameos by celebrities like Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah), as well as the somewhat futile visits from politicians looking for photo opportunities (Dennis Kucinich, Maxine Waters, and the soon-to-be mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa).

Although the land was bulldozed by Horowitz and the garden destroyed, some good did come out of the struggle. Impoverished minorities were empowered to unite as a community (some banded together to buy a farm in the Central Valley and have since moved there to produce crops). What is most fascinating about The Garden, however, is to see what a difference two short years makes. 

The destruction of South Central's urban farm took place at the height of the Bush administration's callous disregard for the poor. The change in priorities since the Obama administration has taken over the nation's helm is obvious. The Obama administration sees itself as a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" as opposed to a government whose power has been bought and controlled by corporate interests. The Garden (which will be playing at Landmark's Lumiere Theater starting this weekend), offers a valuable lesson plan in community organization as well as the importance of knowing who your opponent is and what he is capable of doing to sabotage your efforts.

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One of the documentaries that created substantial buzz at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (and has just been screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival) is Joe Berlinger's Crude.  This powerful film focuses on the 13-year, $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco in which several indigenous Ecuadorean tribes are suing the oil company over the environmental damage caused by its toxic practices in the Amazon rainforest

Berlinger's film follows a chronological timeline from 1964 (when Texaco first began drilling in Ecuador) to when Ecuadoreans began to develop cancer, leukemia and birth defects as 18 billion gallons of toxic wastes (many times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill) leaked into their soil, fresh water supplies, and local rivers. In what has become a classic David versus Goliath scenario (also known as the "Amazon-Chernobyl case"), Pablo Fajardo -- a local Ecuadorean who was raised in poverty and whose law degree was sponsored through the Catholic church --  and Luis Yanza have managed to bring the full weight of the law and the media to bear on one of the world's largest and richest oil companies. 

The exhausting struggle of Fajardo and his colleagues at Amazon Watch to get justice for the indigenous people of Ecuador triggers memories of Erin Brockovich. The cancerous side effects on local communities may be similar, but the people who live in the Amazon jungle have little in the way of media clout in their own country, much less the United States.

As the film progresses, viewers get a clearer understanding of how every little legal step must be supplemented with media coverage in order to move the lawsuit forward.  In addition to some laughable interviews with Sara McMillan (Chevron's chief environmental scientist) and Chevron's corporate attorneys, viewers are made privy to critical turning points in the lawsuit's progress. When Vanity Fair published a devastating article entitled Jungle Law in its 2007 "Green" issue, Fajardo became an instant celebrity.

His newfound celebrity helped to attract the eye of Ecuador's new president, Rafael Correa, as well as Sting's wife, Trudie Stiler (who visited Ecuador's jungle regions and helped to spread the word internationally about the situation in the Amazon). Fajardo went on to win a CNN "Hero" award and, in 2008, both Fajardo and Yanza received the prestigious Goldman award (the environmental equivalent of a Nobel prize). In his director's statement, Berlinger notes:
"I knew there was an important story to be told, but I quickly realized that if I was going to go through with the extraordinary effort it would take to make a film, I would have to do something different than what might be expected from this kind of environmental story. I wanted to break from the standard formula of an environmental disaster exposé, and create a unique and challenging cinematic experience that brings an audience into a world they probably have never seen before.

In making this film, I felt it was important not just to show the situation and try to point fingers at a culprit, but to pull back and tell this massive -- and massively complicated -- story from a wider and more nuanced viewpoint.  How did this happen in the first place? What are the roles of corporate power, of government, the media, and big money in a case with the long history and such potentially enormous consequences as this one? What does it take to tackle a problem of this magnitude? Is it really as bad as it seems? I knew that to do the story justice and also satisfy my own creative and journalistic impulses, I would have to get beyond simply showing the alleged environmental damage and human suffering and explore the messy, ambiguous process of getting justice in the real world."

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger

"In the real world, things aren't black and white, and this is how I approached this story as well.  An indigenous Amazonian leader doesn't just show up at a Chevron shareholders' meeting and confront the CEO all by himself -- he is coached by a Harvard-educated attorney.  The Ecuadorean plaintiffs can't spend 15 years in court on their own -- they need a high-powered Philadelphia law firm specializing in class action lawsuits to pay for the investigations that Ecuadorean law requires -- and that law firm stands to profit from any judgment.  The attorneys for both the oil company and the plaintiffs compete for media attention, but the spotlight on the case gets brighter when celebrity activitists Trudie Styler and Sting come on board. Yet here, too, I hope the film topples the usual clichés, as Trudie proves herself to be anything but a token "rent-a-celeb," delivering on a promise she makes to help ease the suffering of the people. And while some people may initially perceive the representatives from Chevron as simply being part of a "big bad oil company," they come across as real human beings who make a number of very intriguing legal and scientific claims."
Aguinda vs. Chevron (Fajardo's first  case as an attorney) has proven to be so controversial that the fear of Chevron's clout was still evident at one of the film's screenings at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Photographer Lou Dematteis, whose book Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest has just come out in print thanks to San Francisco's own City Lights Publishers, told the audience how numerous other publishers would not touch his book due to their fears of retribution from Chevron.

When Crude receives its theatrical release, you'll certainly want to see it. As with The Garden, the change in America's national posture from a government run by two thoroughly corrupt oil men to a government led by a former community organizer will give viewers a much keener perspective on the world as it is and as it can and should be.

* * * * * * *

With the Republican party dying on the vine, it's interesting to note how the threat of a gay lifestyle no longer packs quite the demonic punch it had when Karl Rove was acting as Bush's Brain. As more and more openly-gay candidates have run for office, and a steady number of closeted gay politicians have been forced out of the closet, why anyone would choose to remain in the closet remains a mystery.

When I first watched Stephen Colbert make mincemeat out of a newly-elected GOP representative, I found something oddly disquieting about the segment.  Either Aaron Shock was a Republican mimbo or something else was being left out of the picture. Watch the video and see for yourself.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know a District - Illinois' 18th - Aaron Schock
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage Commercial

Needless to say, when Americablog published its article entitled GOP Congressman Aaron Shock Wants You To Know That He's Not Gay. Really. the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell into place. Kirby Dick's new documentary entitled Outrage covers ground that is, alas, all too familiar to gay audiences. While it would be easy to think that only someone who still believes Liberace was straight might learn something from this film, after watching Congressman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) tell the U.S. House of Representatives that to label Matthew Shepard's murder as a hate crime is to give truth to a hoax, I can only shake my head in disbelief and wonder if hatred, ignorance and stupidity might have a genetic component after all.

Dick's documentary features the usual suspects (Congressman Barney Frank, Senator Larry Craig, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey as well as long-time gay activists Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile and Mike Rogers). There are also some candid confessions from men who have had sex with closeted politicians who have extremely hypocritical voting records.

The documentary closely examines the reasons why some politicians try to remain closeted as well as the culpability of the mass media in playing along with their secrets.  Ironically, a key figure missing from this documentary is former Florida Congressman Mark Foley.

Outrage will, no doubt, raise a few eyebrows among the crowd that feels it is still rude to "out" a politician who is working against the very people he seeks sexual favors from. To those whose lives have been directly impacted by such trolls -- or who have grown weary of their bullshit -- there is less news here than one might expect.  I doubt that seeing so many closeted gay politicians in one film will make Outrage a good recruiting tool for the Log Cabin Republicans. Here's the trailer:

That's Edutainment!

In a world in which the masses have gained access to media tools that once belonged to the very few, the need for clarity in messaging has never been greater.  A digital camera, a keen sense of organization, some seed money, and an interesting topic can provide the basic foundation for a feature-length documentary film. But in today's oversaturated media, finding a way to shape and frame one's message requires skill and spice. At some point, any documentarian must answer the same basic questions that have confronted journalists since the beginning of investigative reporting:

And how?

A well-crafted documentary will point viewers toward a "teachable moment" in which the viewer learns something new and important about the world in which he lives. If a documentary is powerful enough, it might even inspire viewers to take action or spread the word about an important cause (global warming, gay marriage, domestic violence) or event.

I received one of those teachable moments this week while riding astride my recumbent stationary bicycle and watching an episode of Jurassic Fight Club. What did I learn? During the age of dinosaurs, oxygen accounted for nearly 31% of the earth's atmosphere (compared to today's lower levels). As a result, everything grew bigger and faster. Plants and animals processed more oxygen, ate more, and tended to be more active for longer periods of time.

Documentary subjects basically fall into two categories. Some concentrate on living creatures (man, animals, plants, etc.,) and can regularly be seen on the Animal Planet channel or in the BBC's breathtaking 2006 series entitled Planet Earth.  Others concentrate on spreading new ideas and finding ways to resolve conflict. These may range from cooking shows to documentaries about social injustice. For most of these documentaries, however, the bottom line is sweet, simple and best expressed in a song from The Wiz (Broadway's 1975 musical reworking of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz):

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Three documentaries seen back-to-back this week at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival tried their best to avoid bad news. Each took a strikingly different artistic approach to its subject. And yet, the weakest of the three documentaries was the one that focused on the industry which shapes and brands corporate messages. Listen to filmmaker Doug Pray discussing his work earlier this year at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival:

Dedicated to the late Hal Riney, Pray's Art & Copy  is most notable for its surprising lack of conflict. There are numerous talking heads discussing famous ad campaigns. Many of their voices drone on as filler footage (cars on a packed freeway) splashes across the screen. Statistics about the number of people employed in the advertising industry and its effect on the economy are periodically thrown into the mix. 

As much as Mr. Pray may not wish for his film to be perceived as a puff piece about the advertising industry, you know what they say: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. (Only someone like Chico Marx would have the insight to ask: "Why a duck?")

Most of the professional creatives (the driving forces behind the world of advertising) who appear in Pray's documentary seem about as passionate as accountants, as inspired as plumbers. That may be because it is very hard to codify the creative process.  What these people are really talking about is what goes into the sausage produced by the advertising industry. They can reminisce about great campaigns or the golden days of Madison Avenue as they try to describe the creative process and the thrill of being at the center of such a provocative industry. But there is little passion in their eyes or body language.

As a result, the people who specialized in media communications as a means of selling product, provided the least interesting material in the three documentaries I saw. Could it be that this film falters because the medium in which these people thrive is an abbreviated format (print ads and 30- or 60-second television spots)? 

The mild-mannered Riney deftly sums up the situation by stressing that, while there are plenty of people who work in advertising, very few are truly exceptional. Tommy Hilfiger confesses that, although some ads changed his career and made him work harder than ever, to this day he is still embarrassed by them.

* * * * * * * *

How do you take a topic which is a total downer and make an appealing film about it? That was the challenge facing Barbara Ettinger once she decided to make a documentary about the dangerous increases in ocean acidification. The fact that she succeeded so magnificently with A Sea Change is a testament to her skills as a filmmaker and her willingness to find the proper framework with which to deliver so much vital information about changes in the earth's atmosphere.

Nobody enjoys being lectured about doomsday scenarios. So Ettinger turned to her friend and colleague, former educator Sven Huseby, for help. After Huseby became fascinated with the topic of ocean acidification they embraced a format that had the retired Huseby trying to explain to his grandson, Elias, the kind of world his generation was leaving behind. From pteropods to dolphins, from sea anemones to salmon, Huseby explores the effect of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the world's oceans on every part of the aquatic food chain, from coral reefs on up to whales.

I'm a sucker for great underwater photography and some of the stock footage used in Ettinger's film is breathtaking. Yet the narrative is shaped in such a way that it raises concern without scolding, and explains the dangerous levels of acidification in today's oceans without being bombastic. The simple interactions between a grandfather and his grandson (whether in conversation or written letters) have such a universal appeal that the audience absorbs the science very easily while grasping how important the documentary's subject matter is for our times. There are also many moments when Elias steals the show just by being a little boy.

* * * * * * * *

If one were to judge a documentary strictly by the level of daring in its format, I'm pretty sure Peter Greenaway's remarkable achievement in Rembrandt's J'Accuse! would undoubtedly win top honors.  Unlike Sister Wendy Beckett (the consecrated virgin whose art history documentaries for the BBC made her internationally famous), Greenaway relishes his double role as a curator and provocateur.

At the outset of his film, Greenaway announces that he is going to solve a murder using 31 specific clues visible in Rembrandt's famous painting, The Night Watch. The number of clues sets up a rigid framework for the film which becomes as ominous as a countdown to liftoff at Cape Canaveral.

Although, as a narrator,  Greenaway may lack the corpulent creepiness of Alfred Hitchcock, as an art historian he is a passionate guide to the drama contained within Rembrandt's painting as well as the back story of how the painting came into existence. Not everyone agrees with Greenaway's opinions and, to be honest, there were times during the screening I attended when the audience burst into laughter at some of his more obsessive comments about the phallic symbolism of a certain weapon and its placement in the painting.

Still, I can't think of a more thrilling way to introduce someone to art history, cultural literacy, and the process of analyzing a crime scene. With its fierce intellectual acuity, historical relevance, and grand sense of purpose, Greenaway's documentary leaves television's CSI franchise gasping for air. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Les Enfants Terrible

They go by a variety of names:

Rug rat. 
Demon spawn. 
Fucking little bastard.

For years, popular comic strips like Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes have celebrated the impish imaginations and fervid rambunctiousness of classic boy brats.  In the movie Home Alone, a precociously malevolent McCaulay Culkin demonstrated how an inventive child's resourcefulness could foil a burglar. In his play, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams repeatedly referred to one character's children as "those little no-neck monsters." 

Fans of Harold and Maude who have always pondered the roots of Harold's obsession with staging his own death might wonder what such a child would be like as an adolescent.  They need look no further than Philippe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear, which received its Bay area premiere this past weekend as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Barely 10 years old, Leon Dore (Antoine L'Ecuyer) has already staged several suicide attempts. He attempted to hide in a freezer in 1966, nearly drowned himself in a pool in 1967, and, as the movie opens during the summer of 1968, has tried to hang himself from a tree in the back yard. Is Leon genuinely depressed? Is he acting out as a way of drawing attention away from his parents' constant fighting? Or is Leon merely an evil genius experiencing growth pains?

His mother (Suzanne Clement) has always run interference for Leon, reminding him that "If you're going to lie, at least get your story straight. Don't lie badly." His older brother Jerome (Gabrille Maille) just wishes Leon could quit acting out long enough for them to have a normal family life.

When Leon's mother abandons her family and moves to Greece, his father (Daniel Briere), who has been a leading political figure in Quebec, is ill-equipped to manage a household with two young and impressionable boys. Leon, who doesn't hesitate to terrorize his neighbors, shares a creepy kind of friendship with Lea (Catherine Faucher), a young girl who is obviously suffering domestic violence at the hands of her live-in uncle.

In some respects, this film is being marketed very deceptively. This story is about much more than a horrible little brat who likes to destroy anything within reach. It is an anguished portrait of a family experiencing severe emotional trauma that is magnified by each family member's fear of abandonment. This is a family struggling to keep afloat in uncharted emotional territory, a family that lacks the psychological tools to deal with huge doses of grief, abuse, capriciousness, and hostility. 

As the movie progresses, the audience feels much greater sympathy for Leon, Lea, and Jerome (who are, after all, children who did not ask for as much misery as adults have bequeathed them). As much as Leon's exploits may shock and entertain viewers, they're not as funny as the trailer might lead some people to believe.

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Ever since Mark Twain wrote Prince and the Pauper in 1881, creative artists have been fascinated by the use of a doppelganger as a dramatic device.  Filmmaker John Boorman, whose magnificent identity thriller, The Tiger's Tail. was also screened at the festival this weekend, notes that:
"The myth of the doppelganger runs deep in our psyche, that we all have a double somewhere in the world, our other self, our lost twin, whose very existence negates our specialness. Ever since I became the father of twins and watched their mysterious sameness and otherness, I harbored the notion of a film on the subject. The 1975 Children Act in England allowed adopted children to trace their natural parents for the first time. A number of identical twins separated at birth, some in their 50s, met for the first time. A TV documentary eerily recorded how they dressed alike, did similar jobs and married almost identical partners, raising questions as to how pre-programmed we are, how pre-destined our lives."
Boorman's cleverly crafted film stars the bullish Brendan Gleeson as Liam O'Leary, an aggressive real estate developer who has lost interest in his materialistic wife (Kim Cattrall) and is scorned by his son, Connor (played by the actors' real-life son, Briain Gleeson), who prefers to read Marxist manifestos about redestributing the wealth to the people. Liam represents the bullish new wealth of Irish society, a wheeler-dealer who is used to leveraging debt, bribing politicians, and crushing his competition. Although his son tries to remind him that every bit of money he makes comes out of someone else's pocket, Liam remains deaf to the social inequity created by his projects until the night he receives an award as entrepreneur of the year.

Kim Cattrall, Brendan Gleeson and Briain Gleeson

Spooked by the appearance of his "double" as he sits stuck in rush-hour traffic, Liam interprets this omen as a sign that he is soon going to die. As he becomes obsessed with the idea that he might have a double lurking somewhere in the darkness, his behavior becomes more paranoid and irrational. 

The only problem is that Liam's bizarre behavior is totally justified.

It seems that Liam's senile mother was not really his mother, and that his doting older sister Oona (Sinead Cusack) was more than just his sister.  When Oona was barely 15, she got knocked up by Father Moriarty and gave birth to twins. She brought the sicklier twin (Liam) home to be raised by herself and her mother and gave up the stronger twin for adoption. Upon seeing pictures of his heretofore unknown twin brother plastered all over the media as the Irish counterpart to Donald Trump, Liam's long-lost twin has decided to commit the best type of identity theft imaginable.

When one of Liam's assistants looks out of his office window and notices someone on his boss's boat, Liam takes a telescope and realizes that his twin is making love to Liam's mistress, Ursula (Angeline Ball). Soon the twin is screwing Liam's wife, stealing Liam's money, driving Liam off the road and taking over his house until Liam (who has lost his wallet and mobile phone)  ends up in a mental institution.

The Tiger's Tail is a top-notch thriller with a powerful performance by Brendan Gleeson as Liam and his darker-spirited twin. What elevates this film experience far above the normal level of psychological thrillers is the magnificent original score by Stephen McKeon, which offers viewers such a rich aural experience that many could be content to merely listen to a CD of McKeon's music.

In another twist of fate, the company which held the distribution rights to The Tiger's Tail has recently gone under, leaving the film's future in jeopardy. Here's the trailer:

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Last weekend, at the tail end of April's Diva Fest  (which held forth at the Exit Theatre), I attended a workshop reading of a new drama by playwright Lee Kiszonas entitled Capote's Last Frontier. To some of New York's  leading society women, Truman Capote was their enfant terrible, the catty man-boy who stroked their egos and titillated them with gossip. The inspiration for this new play comes from the muddy combination of facts and rumors about the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The indisputable fact is that Capote's book, In Cold Blood -- which described the gruesome murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas by Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith -- gave the author the fame and financial reward he had coveted throughout his career. The rumor is that Capote promised Hickock a large amount of money for his cooperation in spilling the details of the killing.

Kiszonas's drama takes place in 1984, when Capote is nearing the end of his life.  Broke and rejected by all of his previous friends from high society (who scorned him soon after the publication of Answered Prayers), he has dragged home a trick from a local gay bar, a ruggedly handsome Midwesterner who could easily satisfy Truman's penchant for rough trade

The man turns out to be Hickock's son, Robert, who has tracked Capote down and is now demanding the $10,000 he believes his family is owed by the author of In Cold Blood. If Truman doesn't cough up the money, Hickock is prepared to use rope, duct tape, and a shotgun on Capote the same way Robert's father did on the Clutter family.

The play has strong potential, as long as the audience accepts the premise that (a) Robert may be dumber than shit, (b) Robert's father was actually gay, and Capote promised to paint him as a womanizer to cover for him, and (c)  although down on his luck, Truman has not lost his ability to spin a yarn as a way of buying time from his captor. 

The workshop reading was followed by a lively give-and-take between the audience and the playwright.  But, as I listened to the discussion, something kept nagging at the back of my mind. I wasn't sure what it was but I knew what it involved. I had discovered a major plot problem that the playwright will have to fix. 

Let me explain: One of the more treacherous attractions of the Internet is that it has become such a great resource, a research tool that can tempt evil queens and detail Nazis to look things up. If, as a playwright, you choose to create a semifictional piece about a real human being, you have to be careful about how you frame your story. 

Both Friedrich Schiller (the German playwright whose revisionist drama, Mary Stuart, just opened to rave reviews on Broadway) and composer Gaetano Donizetti (whose opera, Maria Stuarda, was based on Schiller's play) created a fictional confrontation between Mary I of Scotland  and England's Queen Elizabeth I.  Although this "confrontation scene" has become a famous part of opera's bel canto literature, the hard truth -- as everyone knows -- is that these two women never met.  Here are Montserrat Caballe as Mary and Bianca Berini as Elizabeth in Act II of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda:

In one of the key moments late in Truman's Last Frontier (which is set  in 1984), Robert confesses that it was actually Tennessee Williams who challenged him to try to get $10,000 from Truman Capote. When Robert  convinces Truman to try reaching Tennessee Williams by phone, Capote dials the number for Williams' Key West residence -- a number he knows by heart. 

There's just one problem: Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983. If, as a playwright, you're going to build a play around such a famous person, you really need to be more attentive when doing your research.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Count Your Blessings

A severe economic downturn can have a humbling effect on people. Many of us have been forced to reassess our past, present, and future fortunes. Sometimes, just being able to get out of bed and go to the bathroom in the morning can be cause for celebration. At other times, relinquishing a desperate grip on one's supposed entitlements can cause great pain and confusion.

Two recent articles demonstrated just how out of touch some people are with the school of hard knocks. On March 24th, Jake DeSantis (an executive vice-president of A.I.G.'s financial products unit) published his incendiary op-ed piece -- Dear A.I.G., I Quit! -- in The New York Times. In its May 2009 issue (which turned out to be its last), Conde Nast's Portfolio published the brazen Confessions of a TARP Wife, written by an anonymous author who thought she deserved pity for the financial sacrifices she was making while trying to keep up appearances. If these two authors failed to generate much sympathy for themselves, it could be due to their appalling lack of insight, their tone deafness to the abject pomposity of their whining, and the fatuously supreme lack of insight evidenced by their tacky, self-serving logic.

The irony of their pity party becomes even more bittersweet when one realizes that Wall Street sits less than two miles from Liberty Island. In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, The New Colossus, which was sold at a fundraising auction for the monument that would stand in New York's harbor. Her poem reads as follows:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In 1912, the final lines of that poem were engraved on a bronze plaque that can still be seen on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. On a sad and grungy block of San Francisco's Eddy Street stands another great mother of exiles whose dark green front is nowhere as inspiring as the rusted copper encasing Lady Liberty. Yet many "homeless, tempest-tost" souls are steered to her in search of hope, warmth, and professional help while transitioning from a life spent on the streets to a path that, if they are lucky, may lead to permanent subsidized housing. 

A project of San Francisco's Department of Public Health, the Tenderloin's 90-room Empress Hotel offers supportive housing in an environment where residents have an opportunity to access social and medical services onsite as they struggle to reclaim their lives after suffering incredible hardship. Opened in October of 2003 under the auspices of the Department's Housing and Urban Health (HUH) section, the Empress Hotel is a single-room occupancy (SRO) facility. Many of the residents shown in Allie Light and Irving Saraf's touching new documentary, Empress Hotel, are battling mental illness, alcoholism, addictions to crack, and/or homelessness caused by a series of unfortunate coincidences. 

One woman (Lynn) holds a Master of Arts degree from San Diego State University and a Master of Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  After her skill at making holograms was no longer in commercial demand, she could no longer find work and became homeless.  A former publisher (Paul) had enjoyed an extremely successful career until, he claims, his body was invaded by spirits who took over control of his life.

Rene was working as a music teacher in the New York City public school system. But as soon as her diagnosis of bipolar disorder became known, she lost her job. Other residents of the Empress Hotel are dealing with suicidal ideation, crack addiction, or years trapped in a spiral of explosive anger and domestic violence.  The filmmakers note that: 
"Our two years of filming in the Empress Hotel was also our introduction to San Francisco's Tenderloin, a center of drugs, poverty, and mental illness. We are in our 70s now and so we traveled to the hotel on BART, carrying our camera in a shopping bag. In the Tenderloin, where we repeatedly walked for many months, no panhandlers approached us and no one tried to sell us drugs -- meaning that we looked like every other senior in the area. The hotel tenants trusted us and, for the most part, they enjoyed being filmed. The men and women told their stories well. When Paul moved out of the hotel, we filmed the park where he was sleeping. Standng in the night, in thick fog, we felt how it might be if we, too, were homeless."
Through candid interviews with ten of the Empress Hotel's residents, this documentary provides a much more poignant back story to a person's homelessness than one experiences in most news reports. The film also includes footage from the historic day in November 2005 when, accompanied by San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom, Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall visited the Empress Hotel to talk with its residents in their desire to get a better understanding of homelessness.  

Empress Hotel, which received its world premiere this weekend as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, is a probing, disquieting documentary that showcases one of our nation's greatest shames. Established in 1998, the HUH's Direct Access to Housing program has grown to the point where it is now managing nearly 1,000 beds throughout the city. While the San Francisco Department of Public Health continues in its efforts to help homeless people navigate the rocky road toward safe, subsidized housing (as opposed to shelters), mental illness and behavioral problems -- including medical noncompliance -- present formidable challenges. 

"There is nothing intellectual here, it's all drama," explains the Empress Hotel's manager, Roberta Goodman. "I don’t have anything to offer that’s better than the feeling you get (from what I’m told) the first time you smoke crack -- and everybody’s trying to get back to that first time." 

* * * * * * * * 

In a cruel twist of irony, the Empress Hotel is located a stone's throw from two San Francisco theaters dedicated to new works. Although the Tea Room Theatre has a policy of screening new releases of gay porn every week, it will never receive government funding for the arts. Still, this is the so-called pleasure palace where I once watched a porno film whose director, for lack of anything better, decided to use the overture to Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to underscore a major sex scene (there's no need to pay royalties for music as long as it's in the public domain).

Next door to the Empress Hotel is the Exit Theater, whose four small stages host over 500 performances a year, featuring a wealth of new work ranging from magic shows to cabaret acts, from September's San Francisco Fringe Festival to April's Divafest. This year's Divafest featured a surprisingly entertaining and well-written piece by Lee Kiszonas entitled An Affair of Honor. Based on the real-life exploits of France's Julie D'Aubigny (you owe it to yourself to read up on this incredible woman), Kiszonas' play offered a rare chance for audiences to enjoy swordplay up close in period costume.

Michael Vega, Brian Trybom, Julia Heitner,
and Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor

If the residents of the Empress Hotel are trapped by circumstances over which they have no control, the characters in An Affair Of Honor are trapped in gender roles against their will. Julie is a talented young singer and swordswoman who has much more success getting what she wants when disguised as a man. Philippe is a young nobleman who is quite self-aware as a gay man and has a fetish for cross-dressing. Philippe found his young lover, Georges, working in a stable and basically taught him everything he knows. The only problem is that Georges, who has quite a jealous and possessive nature, hates it when Philippe wears women's clothes.  Nor does he believe that men should fight women in swordplay.

When Julie easily beats Philippe in an impromptu duel, he invites her to join him as he and Georges head to Marseilles. Her appearance onstage draws the amorous attentions of Bette, a young noblewoman whose naievete knows no bounds.

Julia Heitner and Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor

What follows is a grand romantic farce with lots of swordplay and gender confusion. When Philippe and Julie finally agree to a marriage of convenience, they do so with open eyes.  One kiss is all it takes to convince them that, while they may indeed be very fond of each other, there is absolutely no sexual chemistry between them.

An Affair of Honor was smartly directed by Kathryn Wood with the help of fight director Durand Garcia (who teaches Contemporary Theatrical Violence at the Academy of Art University). It is a play which could easily be mounted by college theater departments throughout the country with great success. If I have one piece of constructive criticism, it would be to specify the use of a harpsichord instead of a piano for those  moments that require musical accompaniment.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Lurks Beneath

Cunning and intuition are natural talents. But it's what you do with them that really counts. Lying, manipulating, and playing coy are learned behaviors. Whether one uses power for good or for evil, practice makes perfect.

Power users are made, not born. The results of one's efforts might lead to a lifestyle in which one pursues the thrills of sadism and masochism. For those who wish to turn professional, there are plenty of career options in white collar crime, kidnapping, or prestidigitation. Just look at the headlines for proof of the pudding.
  1. Sociologists point to increasing instances in which adolescent crime reflects patterns of behavior learned from long hours of playing violent video games in which killings are acted out by the gamer. 
  2. Pirates are causing chaos off the coast of Somalia. 
  3. A minister's granddaughter (a devoted Sunday school teacher) has been charged wtih the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a little girl. 
  4. Craig's List has become a stalking ground for the depraved.
President Obama's recent release of the torture memos from the Bush administration reveal, in gruesome detail, a perverse mindset running directly through the intelligence community and on up the chain of command to President Bush's desk in the White House. Obsessed with the ability to wield power, this mindset embraced "extralegal" activities as a necessary evil. As The New York Times opined in its lead editorial on April 19, 2009 entitled The Torturer's Manifesto:
"To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity. Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be kept without sleep (11), and what, specifically, he should be told before being locked in a box with an insect — all to stop just short of having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture and abusive treatment of prisoners."
At what point does a person's learned behavior unite with his natural predatory instincts to isolate and savor the thrill of the kill? At one point does a person understand that he has crossed the line from benign entertainment to inherent evil? 

At what point did the folks who were once so eager to restore integrity to our White House turn into the lying psychopaths whose darkest and most sadistic fantasies caused them to embrace torture as a means to justify their ends? How, people wonder, did we end up in this sorry predicament? 

Wasn't anyone paying attention?

* * * * * * *

There are numerous reasons to ask Is Anybody There? while watching Michael Caine's latest appearance on the silver screen. But, alas, they are not very kind. While the film's producers may be hoping for a sleeper hit, my suspicion is that this quiet little movie, if seen by any domestic audiences other than passengers trapped on a long flight, will do a splendid job of putting people to sleep.

The protagonist is a 10-year-old boy whose parents run a nursing home for last-gasp seniors. Edward (Bill Milner) has turned into a rather morbid child, who is fascinated with ghosts and likes to hide his tape recorder under a dying resident's bed in the hope that he might capture the moment when a decedent's soul leaves its body. Edward's fascination with the paranormal has left him without any friends at school. After being forced to give up his bedroom to accommodate another decrepit, dying old cash cow, his resentment level toward his parents is nearing the boiling point.

Meanwhile, Edward's parents are so overwhelmed trying to manage their nursing home and avoid financial ruin that they have become tone deaf to his basic emotional needs as a child. It doesn't help one bit that Edward's father has the hots for one of their female employees or that those few residents who are still able to move can provide little in the way of companionship for a desperately lonely adolescent.

Enter Clarence Parkinson (Michael Caine), a bitter, dyspeptic, angry old fart in fierce denial about having reached the end of the line. A former traveling magician, Clarence's wife, Annie, died and left him without the love of his life. When Edward learns about Clarence's supposedly illustrious past -- and expresses an interest in learning the mechanics of magic -- Clarence gets one last chance to do something useful with his sleight of hand techniques.

There have been several great films in which an eccentric geriatric inspired or saved a young lad's life. Hal Ashby's cult success, Harold and Maude, is assuredly the best of the lot  and, last year, Vanessa Redgrave had some beautiful moments in How About You?.  If John Crowley's new film fails to measure up to others in this genre, it is partially because it is so often impossible to wade through the thick British accents. The fact that it is dreadfully dull doesn't help matters, either. 

Unless you're the kind of person who gets an erection at the mere mention of the star's name (if the gimmick worked for Denny Crane, why shouldn't it work for Michael Caine?) -- or someone will do anything for a chance to see the great Rosemary Harris on screen again -- this is one movie you can definitely afford to miss.

* * * * * * * *

While a person can earn all kinds of advanced educational degrees by which he may become certified as an accountant, lawyer, or physician, very few of the so-called "professional trades" teach the kind of street smarts acquired by hustlers, prostitutes, drug dealers, and con men. One can learn all kinds of tricks from card sharks and shysters, but to truly excel at games of hide the sausage, one needs stamina, impressive equipment (referred to in the past as "a big personality"), and an insatiable market.

In 1999, Aaron Lawrence published his surprisingly candid Suburban Hustler: Stories of A Hi-Tech Callboy, By popular demand, he produced a second book a year later, a down-to-earth textbook for aspiring hustlers entitled The Male Escort's Handbook: Your Guide To Getting Rich The Hard Way. Upon reading it, my immediate reaction was that it was the best book on entrepreneurship for the self-employed I had ever read.

Numerous plays and films have dealt with the potential rewards of male prostitution. Whether they range from the cruel satire of Joe Orton's classic farce (Entertaining Mr. Sloane) to the lush political environment of The Walker (in which Woody Harrelson plays an escort who has gained great popularity in certain parts of Washington, D.C.'s elite society), the basic message is that a hard man is good to find.  

One of the classics of this genre is a neglected masterpiece of black comedy that was directed by Harold Prince in 1970 with a brilliant screenplay by Hugh Wheeler. Starring Angela Lansbury and Michael YorkSomething For Everyone has never been released on DVD. Used copies of the film are available on in VHS format at prices ranging from $50-200. If I had a film lover's fantasy, it would be that the San Francisco Film Society honor Angela Lansbury at its 2010 film festival for the breadth and depth of an amazing film career -- one that has ranged from Gaslight (1944) to The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Nanny McPhee (2005) -- and offer a screening of Something For Everyone for a generation of film enthusiasts that doesn't even know it exists.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center has recently had a fairly decent success with Dave Johnson's sexual thriller, Baptized To The Bone. Set among the poor white trash living in Sand Hills, North Carolina, the plot focuses on three decidedly unhappy and less than brilliant souls.

Gladys (Amy Penney) has been married to a man for the past 25 years whose midlife crisis has caused him to leave his job at a local turkey processing plant and start studying to become a preacher. Earlier in their marriage, she had suffered a stillborn birth. Since then, she has since been unable to conceive and the aspiring preacher has not been a very attentive lover. Desperate to have a child, Gladys has been saving up for fertility treatments. Her husband would prefer to use the $25,000 to closer to God by spending it on his righteous tuition.

Meanwhile, the sexually-frustrated Gladys has been carrying on a torrid affair with Otis, an aspiring theatrical talent who has been trying to write and produce a "gospel poetry opera" for which he never seems to have enough money.  Otis has no qualms about using his sexual powers to get ahead. He also knows just the right tone of voice with which to sweet talk Gladys ("I'm hungry, Momma......")  

Self knowledge can be a wonderful thing and, if Otis is aware of anything, it's that he has something Gladys and many others want.  Although hardly as sizable as the National Endowment for the Arts, during the year Otis spent in New York on a dramatic scholarship, it apparently helped him to pay his bills. It gets hard quickly and could deliver the goods for a lot less than the fertility clinic is charging.

Colin Stuart and Paul Rodrigues (Photo by Lois Tema)

The plot twist is that Otis also had quite an intense little affair with Gladys' husband before he found religion and left the turkey processing plant. With his erotic touch, Otis never fails to arouse a sense of lust in his "Daddyman," even if his prey is desperately trying to put bisexuality behind him and get it on with Jesus. 

Under Ben Randle's directorial guidance, Gladys and her preacherman each raid their joint savings account in an attempt to flee to New York with Otis, where they hope to live happily ever after. That, of course, will never happen as soon as Otis realizes there is lots more money to be had as soon as more sophisticated and more affluent men are given a chance to press his flesh. 

There's no need to sell snake oil when you've got a decent and responsive snake.

* * * * * * * *

Over at Fort Mason's Cowell Auditorium, the San Francisco Lyric Opera unveiled its new production of Verdi's opera, Rigoletto. If ever there was a tale in which payback proved to be a bitch, this would be it.  Based on Victor Hugo's play, Le roi s'amuse, Rigoletto's plot is traditionally set in the 16th century at the court of the lecherous Duke of Mantua. For this production, however, the action was updated to Chicago's gangster society during the Prohibition Era. Thus, the "Duke" became a popular mobster whose henchmen bore names like Baby Face, Tokyo Joe, Gaspipe John, and Billy Adonis.

Director Attila Béres has thought this concept through quite thoroughly and it works extremely well. Instead of costuming Rigoletto as the traditional hunchback, he has conceived the character instead as a paraplegic who might have suffered a spinal cord injury during a gangland shooting. Lurching around the stage on arm braces, Verdi's court jester has good reason to be bitter (he could'a been a contender). His venomous pranks have earned him plenty of enemies in gangster circles and revenge on Rigoletto is a dish best served with his innocent daughter deflowered by his employer, the Duke.

After having spent 25 years attending opera throughout the United States, it's hard to believe that this was the first performance of Rigoletto I had seen in almost two decades. Having sat through plenty of mediocre performances at regional opera companies in cities like Norfolk, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami, I was deeply impressed with the musicianship and artistry that was evident throughout this production. One rarely gets to enjoy a well staged production accompanied by a full orchestra in an intimate 437-seat auditorium like the Cowell Theatre. The immediacy of the sound and closeness to the stage brought a refreshing vitality to the action. 

Artistic Director, Barnaby Palmer

A great deal of credit goes to the company's artistic director, Barnaby Palmer, who conducted the performance with confidence, control, and solid tempi. The cast was headed by bearish baritone David Cox in the title role and tenor Jesus Leon as the Duke of Mantua. While impressive contributions came from basso Sergey Zadvorney (doubling as Monterone and Sparafucile), and Kindra Scharich as Maddalena, it was Rebecca Sjowall, whose solid technique delivered a memorable Gilda. Ms. Sjowall, who received her master's degree in Vocal Performance from UCLA in June of 2008 is definitely a talent to watch.

Rebecca Sjowall (Photo by Kirsten Koromilas)

San Francisco Lyric Opera has apparently decided to postpone its upcoming production of Die Fledermaus and replace it with a benefit concert entitled "Great Moments In Opera" on Saturday, October 24, 2009.  The company's next fully-staged production will be Rossini's popular opera buffa, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in March of 2010.

Prior to the matinee, production manager Bob Scher informed the audience of the company's plans to launch a capital funding drive which will provide San Francisco Lyric Opera with the financial security to establish a reputation as the best regional opera company offering performances at affordable prices. It's an identity which can be easily understood and aimed to meet the needs of a targeted market niche. Judging by the audience's satisfaction level at the performance I attended, the company should have no trouble reaching its stated goal of $1.5 million.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dancing As Fast As They Can

As one of the most popular art forms created by man, dance has found its way into every culture. From primitive agricultural societies performing pagan fertility rites to Russian ballerinas appearing in classical ballets, from adolescent kids break dancing on sidewalks to Broadway professionals using Bob Fosse's signature "jazz hands," the sheer spectacle of the human body in motion --whether seen live or captured on film -- holds an incredible power to captivate, entertain, and be understood by audiences of every age and nationality. 

This spring's crop of dance films has been extremely rich and rewarding. It has brought us documentaries that focus on choreographers, dance traditions, the delicate act of recreating a moment in dance history, and the use of dance as a form of educational outreach.  When employed in a narrative format, tap dance has highlighted the critical role played by a dance tradition in the fortunes of an emotionally and financially depressed African-American family in Chicago.

* * * * * * * * *

In March, PBS unveiled a long-awaited American Masters segment about the great American dancer/director/choreographer: Jerome Robbins. A legend in his time, Robbins made his mark on Broadway and in ballet circles, as well as in politics (when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)  in the early 1950s, Robbins offered up the names of fellow artists in the hope that, by doing so, he could prevent his bisexuality from becoming a public scandal).

If Judy Kinberg's Something To Dance About suffers from anything at all, it suffers from a wealth of riches. Its subject had such a complex and conflicted life that one could easily have made three separate documentaries about Robbins without ever running out of material. A merciless perfectionist who could lash out and destroy a colleague's self-esteem with clinical precision, Robbins had many admirers who knew enough to steer clear of him when the clouds darkened.

A famous story reveals how once, during a stage rehearsal, as Robbins kept backing away from the cast -- until he finally fell into the orchestra pit -- not one person tried to stop him. When, during its lackluster tryout in Washington, D.C., Robbins was brought in as a show doctor for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the show's star, Zero Mostel, warned that he would work with Robbins but refused to eat with him.  Mostel had suffered the indignities of being blacklisted in Hollywood.  His co-star in Forum, Jack Gilford, had suffered a similar fate (after Robbins had identified Gilford's wife, Madeline, the character actor -- who would later became famous for his Lay's potato chip commercials -- and his wife were also blacklisted).

Kinberg's documentary doesn't skip over the wreckage Robbins left in his wake. People speak freely (now that he's dead) and don't mince words about his creative genius as well as his acid tongue.

Robbins worked with some of the giants of his day -- a virtual catalog of American musical theatre and ballet stars ranging from Stephen Sondheim and Ethel Merman to George Balanchine and Jacques D'Amboise, from Leonard Bernstein and Judy Holliday to Peter Martins and Violette Verdy.  As a result, this documentary is filled with insights from legendary figures from America's cultural landscape. 

Some of the archival footage is stunning. But what makes this documentary so very special is the opportunity to witness Robbins' work unfold onstage as well as in the rehearsal room, to be able to grasp the amazing scope of this man's achievements and, in retrospect, to appreciate his genius at using the vocabulary of dance to punctuate musical and dramatic moments on a stage. If you missed the original screening, you'll want to own or rent this two-hour documentary about a difficult man who truly did become one of America's masters.

* * * * * * * * * *

Several weeks ago, the San Francisco Women's Film Festival dedicated one of its programs to films about dance.  In a breathtakingly beautiful short entitled Baiana, filmmaker Mariya Prokopenko did a splendid job of combining film and dance to challenge an audience. If you would like an extra special treat, I urge you to read the filmmaker's notes on the experience of creating Baiana. 

Although it is only four minutes long, Baiana (which features dancers from Toronto's Ballet Creole, music by body percussion group Barbatuques (MCD/Brazil) and projections by Winston Hacking of Film Fort) is a knockout. A Russian-born filmmaker based in Toronto who has spent most of her professional background in camera and lighting work, Prokopenko notes that:
“The originality of this project lies in combination of influences by classic filmmakers such as Norman McLaren and Carlos Saura and an unconventional approach of photographing dance not as a stand-alone piece of art but as a component of kaleidoscopic image. I felt a powerful desire to make a film that plays with these common themes, but redefines the story of self-discovery in a powerful, kinetic, cinematic way. This film is an opportunity for me as an artist to combine all the non-verbal components and bring the story to the viewer by means of image and sound.”

The other short on the program was basically a teaser designed to bring in funding for a feature documentary entitled Who Is Paco Gomes?  The answer, of course, is that Gomes is a talented Brazilian-American choreographer who commutes between working with dancers in San Francisco and teaching dance to impoverished children living in rural Brazil.

The full-length feature film on this program was an African-American family drama written and directed by Stacie Hawkins entitled The Rise And Fall Of Miss Thang.

Although hardly a great movie (there is some really poor sound editing), this story about a young black woman whose father had been a great tap dancer has its moments. As its protagonist (Dee "Miss Thang" Miller), Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards carries much of the film's weight on her shoulders.  Dee is trying to cope with an unfaithful boyfriend, a depressed mother whose gambling addiction may cost them their home and business, her personal problems with anger management, and her unwillingness to spend the rest of her life as a beautician.

When an old childhood friend recognizes Dee and asks her to join his group of tap-dancing colleagues, she initially balks at the idea.  Although she is unwilling to deal with the emotional issues associated with her father's death, eventually Nicholas (Martin "Tre" Dumas) wins out. The film ends with Dee selling off her family's beauty salon, putting her efforts into producing a tap dance concert, and embracing a new dream.

The big treat this movie offers is a chance to simply watch her feet at work as she taps her way back to life.  If you love tap dance as much as I do, that footage will be worth sitting through the maudlin soap opera that provides the clumsy framework for The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang.

* * * * * * * *

Choreographers create new dances. But they need talented and intuitive dancers to bring their artistic visions to life. For many young girls, enrollment in ballet school helps to fulfill a mother's fantasy.  But for some, it actually leads to a professional career as a classical ballerina.

Bertrand Norman's beautiful 2006 documentary, Ballerina, follows the progress of five young women (Uliana Lopatkina, Evgenia Obraztsova, Alina Somova, Diana Vishneva, and Svetlana Zakharova) as they progress through the Mariinsky Ballet's training school, the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Although this film has not drawn as much attention as perhaps it should, it will undoubtedly be cherished by ballet fans far and wide.  

Whether concentrating on a teenager who has just graduated from ballet academy and entered into the Kirov as one of the youngest members of its corps de ballet, or examining how even one year as a professional performer has brought a new maturity to a young artist, the film is a gem. There is a wealth of class and rehearsal footage interspersed with clips of ballerinas in performance (seen from both the audience and the wings). 

Ballerina features numerous interviews with dancers talking about the challenges of getting back in shape after having a baby as well as learning how to extend their talents to the world of film. There is gorgeous footage of historic theaters, ranging from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersberg to the Palais Garnier in Paris. Underlying it all, there is a wealth of great music ranging from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky and Prokofiev, from Minkus to Bizet to Fauré.

* * * * * * * *

Finally, we come to a film that is destined to become one of the titans of dance documentaries. It will be shown on Sunday evening, April 26 at the Castro Theater as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival and open in local theaters two weeks later. I'm referring, of course, to Every Little Step, which chronicles the casting process for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line

This will undoutedly become one of 2009's "must-see" films for culture vultures, and with good reason. Not only does it examine an invaluable piece of Broadway history, it allows audiences inside the intricacies of the casting process in a way that merely attending a performance of A Chorus Line never did. Chills will go up your spine as you watch Jason Tam nail his audition for the role of Paul.  Here's the trailer: