Sunday, November 29, 2009

All Tied Up

As soon as someone hears the words bondage and discipline, a variety of intensely sadomasochistic images may rush through his mind. He may envision:
However, discipline can have a surprising breadth of meanings:
Two new films play with our understanding of the words "bondage" and "discipline." One is degrading, demoralizing, and extremely disappointing. The other is filled with magic, motivation, movement, and music.

* * * * * * * * * *
There is much about Serious Moonlight that is sinister, scary, and reeks of desperation. And that's just the film's pre-opening publicity campaign! After one has become accustomed to reading between the lines of press releases -- and easily notices gaping holes in interviews that are little more than puff pieces -- one starts to notice red flags.

Dropping.

Everywhere.

As most cinema fans are aware, Adrienne Shelly was a very talented actor, writer, and director who was brutally murdered on November 1, 2006 in an apartment in lower Manhattan that she used as an office. Shelley had written, directed, and played a supporting role in Waitress (which had just been accepted as one of the films to be screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival). The timing of her death, as well as the circumstances surrounding her murder, were grievous, tragic, and deprived the entertainment industry of an important talent.

Although Waitress was well received at Sundance and went on to a successful theatrical release, Shelly left behind several other scripts which her husband, Andy Ostroy, has since been trying to bring to the screen. Following his wife's death, Ostroy also launched the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, whose website states that:
"Those who knew Adrienne knew her as wonderfully funky, spirited, funny, silly, and smart. She believed in spreading love wherever she went. She was a truly kind and beautiful soul, whose infectious smile illuminated everything around her. There was no one else like her.

Adrienne's passion in life was to make movies. She lived for her art; she never compromised her integrity or commitment to her vision. She always strived to help women obtain every opportunity possible to create their mark in film.

It is in the spirit of her passion and vision that The Adrienne Shelly Foundation has been established. We know that Adrienne would like us to do everything possible to help young women pursue their filmmaking dreams, and to assist others in making the same leap from acting to writing and directing as Adrienne had done so successfully.

In carrying out our mission, we've partnered with the industry's finest academic and filmmaking institutions to assist women in this journey with film school scholarships, production grants, finishing funds, and living stipends."
On August 3, 2009, thanks largely to Ostroy's efforts, the Adrienne Shelly Garden, which faces 15 Abingdon Square (the building in which Shelly was murdered) was dedicated to her memory. Ostroy was recently quoted as saying:
“When Waitress came out and was such a success, a lot of reviews referred to it as Adrienne’s ‘last film.’ So, it’s incredibly gratifying to know that audiences will now get to see another Adrienne Shelly story. When we wrapped, as we thanked everyone, I told the cast and crew how happy and proud Adrienne would’ve been, and that we made a film much in the same way she would have. And she would’ve loved that there were so many of the Waitress crew who came together to make Serious Moonlight. It was a true labor of love for so many people.”
I have no doubt that for Ostroy, director Cheryl Hines (who appeared in Waitress with Shelly), and everyone else who worked on Serious Moonlight, it was a very emotional project. But to market this movie as a comedy is nothing less than fraudulent advertising.

There may be some laughs during this movie but, for the most part, it is a very sad and angry story about some pathetically deluded people. This film is chock full of enough violence, sadism, and dysfunctional behavior to propel it into the category of marital and psychological terrorism. Far creepier than 1989's The War of the Roses (which starred Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito), Serious Moonlight focuses on the following four unhappy souls:
  • Louise (Meg Ryan) is a successful Manhattan attorney who is extremely feminine, aggressive, a bit of a control freak, and quite used to getting her way. A compulsive overachiever for whom failure is most definitely not an option, Louise has retained much of her physical beauty during the course of her marriage. Unfortunately, her unbearable narcissism and perfectionism have turned her into a highly successful albeit grandly unrealistic shrew.
  • Ian (Timothy Hutton) is Louise's husband, who is planning to leave her after 13 years of marriage and fly to Paris accompanied by the younger and prettier woman with whom he has fallen in love.
  • Sara (Kristen Bell) is the love object of Ian's midlife crisis: pert, pretty, and appropriately self-absorbed for her age.
  • Todd (Justin Long) is a venal, violent young man from the town near Ian and Louise's country home, who vandalizes their house and proceeds to take Ian, Louise, and Sara hostage. Todd and Louise might also share a nasty little secret.
Justin Long as Todd

The initial impression one gets from watching Serious Moonlight is that this was written and designed to be filmed on a very low budget (most of the action is limited to Louise and Ian's country house, a rural gas station, and the main street of a small town). In order to get the film financed, however, some box office names needed to be recruited for the project.

Having worked for several years as Larry David's wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl Hines (who had directed for television) makes her debut directing a full-length feature with Serious Moonlight. Justin Long is a rising young talent, familiar to the public from his appearances as the Mac guy in commercials for Apple computers. Kristin Bell has a strong following with the youth demographic and Timothy Hutton (the youngest person ever to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) has always been a solid professional.

For much of the film, Hutton remains duct taped to a toilet in his upstairs bathroom. As Hines notes:
“We were shooting rather quickly so it wouldn’t be so taxing on him, but Tim was truly amazing. He wanted to be strapped down, even during takes where he didn’t have to be, just so he could be consistent for the other performers. He was very disciplined about staying in the moment, being that guy who’s in this ridiculous situation, so frustrated because he can’t move physically while being forced to change and deal with things emotionally.”
Facing reality can be a grim task in Hollywood, especially for women over the age of 40. It's a sure sign that bondage and discipline have gone mainstream when one of America's perkiest sweethearts, the ever adorable Meg Ryan, can't keep her hands off the duct tape.
  • There she is, using her remarkable aim to throw a flower pot across the room to knock her husband unconscious.
  • There she is, demanding that he love her again.
  • There she is, begging some trailer trash to keep fondling her tits as she dares Todd to mount her in front of her miserable, cuckolded, bound and gagged husband.
There's just one problem. Meg Ryan is horribly miscast as Louise.

The role calls for an ambitious, aggressive female attorney -- a lethally blonde bitch who firmly believes that the ends justify the means. Louise is the kind of manipulative, castrating cunt who doesn't hesitate to justify torture -- even when her husband (the object of her perverse campaign to revive the love that no longer speaks her name) is planning to leave her for a younger, prettier, and no doubt less annoying woman.

Louise (Meg Ryan) and Sara (Kristen Bell)

I found Meg Ryan simply unbelievable as Louise. Not even the film's final moments (a malicious postscript that raises a deeply disturbing question about Louise's amorality) can make her character credible as anything other than a psychotic, self-absorbed monster who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Should Serious Moonlight be marketed as a domestic farce? A romantic comedy? Not by a long shot.

One must then ask: Was the woman for whom this role is tailor-made unavailable? Did the director not notice her cute little beagle-like nose plastered all over television screens? Did Andy Ostroy fail to recognize the potential of her incessantly loathsome blonde media presence? Her appeal to a rabid audience, a clear demographic?

Did nobody think Liz Cheney could act? Or was no one in Hollywood willing to insure her?

Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton

As devilishly contrived a hostage situation as Serious Moonlight might be, there are times when it feels like it would work much better onstage. Shelly's script captures the ugliest emotions of a wife who grasps that she is being replaced by a younger woman, but is determined to fight for her marriage. Unfortunately, Louise's battle of the bilge is about as credible as Captain Hook's vendetta against Peter Pan (the embodiment of youth).

While no crocodile is chasing after Meg Ryan, the Hollywood clock keeps ticking loudly as the actress nears 50 and tries to redirect her career toward more mature (and decidedly less perky) roles. I doubt Ryan's portrayal of Louise is going to help matters. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * * *
Imagine, for a moment, that you're Gaston Leroux's legendary Phantom of the Opera. But instead of hiding in the sewers of Paris, you've discovered a way to become invisible so that no one will be terrified by your appearance or traumatized by the grotesque face that you've hidden for so many years behind a mask. What would you see as you roamed about the elegant Palais Garnier? How would the place have changed since its debut in 1875?

The answer can easily be found in Frederick Wiseman's exquisite new documentary, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. While Wiseman's editing, direction, and sound design are what shape a great deal of this 158-minute behind-the-scenes exploration of one of the world's great ballet companies, it is impossible to underestimate the contribution of photographer John Davey, whose sensitivity to light, shadow, and theatrical lighting bring so much added texture and life to Wiseman's film. Watch the many still moments in which Davey captures the hidden life within this world-famous arts institution:
  • The play of light and shadow on empty stairways.
  • The eerie catacombs beneath the theater.
  • The baroque grandeur of the auditorium's furnishings.
  • The famous Chagall painting on the auditorium's ceiling.
  • The view from the stage when the theatre is empty (as well as during performance).
  • The views of Paris from the building's roof (as seen at different hours of the day during different seasons of the year).
While most audiences only experience the public spaces of the Palais Garnier while attending a performance, Wiseman's film takes viewers backstage on a tour of some surprising housekeeping details:
  • Vacuuming the individual boxes in the auditorium.
  • Mopping the lobby's marble floors.
  • Following the company's beekeeper to the roof as he empties the hives of their honey.
  • Watching dancers and administrators order lunch in the employee cafeteria.
  • Visiting the costume shops where ballet tutus are built, shirts are colored, sequins are glued to costumes, and the rat heads for a production of Tchaikovsky's famous Nutcracker are repaired.
Whereas most documentaries look to expert talking heads to render commentary on the importance of a business or industry, Wiseman instead lets the company's leaders be seen interacting with the artists:
  • Artistic Director Brigitte Lefevre and chief administrator Olivier Aldeano are seen advising dancers how the company will be negotiating upcoming changes in their retirement plans with the government (both the Paris Opera and the Paris Opera Ballet are on the government payroll). Lefevere is also seen on the phone discussing plans for a memorial service for choreographer Maurice Bejart, who died in 2007.
  • A former dancer who retired at 40 and became artistic director in 1995 (she now oversees 154 dancers, as well as 40 administrative and artistic staff members), Lefevre is also seen meeting with a younger dancer who fears that she may be taking on too much responsibility.
  • The company's top administrators are seen planning a series of special events for an American tour group consisting of major benefactors. Later, they are seen regaling their guests at a special dinner at their other performance venue, the Opera Bastille.
  • A choreographer who is new to the company is seen meeting with Lefevre as they lay a foundation for how they will choose dancers and work together on a new project.
  • The company's legal obligations after purchasing the rights to perform a certain ballet are outlined in a long-range planning session (repertoire must be planned three years in advance).
"A European opera house is like a small city. The bureaucracy is huge," notes Kathryn Bennetts, who is now artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. “Many people hated Brigitte, but at the same time they admired her. You have to be a tough cookie to survive there. Brigitte has a very keen intellect and a great sense of humor. In stressful meetings, when you sometimes think she is going to stand up and scream, she’ll just make a joke and defuse things. But she can snap things into order like a general.”

Wiseman's film includes rehearsal and performance footage from seven ballets:
Many dance documentaries make use of a spoken narration to focus on:
However, what comes across so beautifully in Wiseman's latest ballet documentary is the working environment in which dances are crafted onto dancers' bodies, the blazing intelligence being lavished on an art form, and the process by which a performing tradition is handed down from one generation to another. Under the guidance of ballet master Patrice Bart, we watch students taking class, rehearsal sessions for upcoming productions, as well as footage from live performances. As part of all this, Wiseman effectively captures:
  • The often wordless language used by choreographers to communicate with dancers.
  • A choreographer's eagle-eyed vision as he instructs a dancer how to adjust minute details in the positioning of her body.
  • Candid rehearsal shots which capture alternate dancers who are covering a role as they watch from the sidelines and silently move through the same motions.
  • The process by a which a dancer constantly hones his artistry and interpretative skills through careful observation, assimilation, and the application of his own intelligence and physical technique.
La Danse is not the kind of ballet documentary that tries to impress its audience with the magnificence of ballet as an art form, the historical importance of its legacy, or the brilliance of its performers. Instead, it offers viewers a fly-on-the-wall look at the day-to-day backstage life of a world-class cultural institution whose leadership must constantly remind its artists that, in today's economic climate, they can take absolutely nothing for granted. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Double Bubble, Toil and Trouble

"Do something special,
Anything that's special
Do something special because...
You're more than just a mimic
When you've got a gimmick."
The above lyric was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1959 for the three tired strippers in Gypsy: A Musical Fable. For playwrights and screenwriters, a solid gimmick is what can make or break their plot.
  • William Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, shows what happens when a magical potion makes someone fall in love with the first person they see.
  • In 1961's hit musical, Carnival!, a naive country girl who believes that the puppets she meets in a carnival are real does not understand that a man is manipulating the puppets -- as well as her emotions.
  • In 1963's She Loves Me, two co-workers who despise each other don't realize that they have secretly been exchanging love letters through the mail.
  • In 1965, Peter Shaffer's one-act play, Black Comedy, depicted what happens when the lights go out during an electrical failure in London. The production's gimmick was its reversed lighting scheme. It began in total darkness (for the audience) with disembodied voices carrying on a fairly uninteresting conversation. When the electricity failed, the stage lights came up so that the audience could watch the actors groping their way around the multi-level set.
  • Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark, was written about a blind woman who was being terrorized by an intruder. The gimmick was simple: By turning off the lights in her apartment, the victim was able to gain the upper hand in her fight to survive.
  • Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1979 musical hit, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, focused on the unexpected success of Mrs. Lovett's pie shop once she and her accomplice embarked on a path of murdering innocent people and grinding up their bodies for the stuffing in her meat pies.
In each of these plays, the audience knows a secret that a key character does not. Whether applied to stage or screen, that particular gimmick can lead to three kinds of comedy:
  • In the lowest kind of farce, at least one character must be totally amoral (a person for whom the end always justifies the means).
  • While a mistaken identity or love potion can cause romantic confusion in a mid-level farce, chances are there will be a happy (and perhaps sickeningly sweet) ending.
  • In the highest level of farce, audiences may be confronted with an extremely intricate puzzle, some tough intellectual challenges, and need a greater understanding of numerous obscure references. "Happily ever after" is, by no means, a guaranteed ending.
By sheer coincidence, I had a chance to experience three romantic farces during the past week (one at each level on the comic ladder of morality, writing, and wit). Each comedy aimed for a specific audience and succeeded on its own terms. Each, however, was accompanied by some serious emotional baggage.

* * * * * * * * * * *
After the initial cluster of AIDS dramas, gay-themed entertainment took a sharp turn toward the mainstream with movies aimed at an emerging market of younger LGBT people whose lives revolve around their cell phones, their music and, of course, sex. No longer were plots focused on the angst of coming to terms with one's sexual orientation. After the intensity of Queer As Folk and Six Feet Under, people wanted to party and have some fun.

The results vary widely. Despite the hilarity of Queer Duck, the freshness of Colma: The Musical, the good-natured spirit of Outing Riley, and the biting wit of Merci Docteur Rey, there have also been abysmal misfires like Adam & Steve, Boat Trip, Bam Bam and Celeste, A Four Letter Word, and Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild. Some of these films start off on the LGBT film festival circuit, others go straight to DVD (where they appeal to a strong mail-order market of young gay men and aging chickenhawks).

Fans of Q. Allan Brocka look to his catalog of gay-themed films with a combination of admiration for his biting wit and a reluctance to admit that they laughed at many of his tackier jokes. Brocka made a big splash in 2004 with Eating Out. The sequel, Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, proved to be less impressive.

In 2006, Brocka delivered the semi-serious Boy Culture (an adaptation of Matthew Rettenmund's novel), and a pilot for The Big Gay Sketch Show. He contributed to the story line for 2008's Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom and created and wrote 14 episodes of the popular stop-motion animated sitcom on Logo, Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All The World.

When Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat started to make the rounds at gay film festivals, the reaction varied from hysterical laughter to abject scorn. However, like many new comedies aimed at the young LGBT audience, this is fairly formulaic writing that involves:
  • A cute male twink with low self esteem who yearns for true love.
  • A hunk who either thinks he is straight or looks too good to be true.
  • An obnoxious fag hag.
  • People getting way too drunk for their own good.
  • Plenty of mixed messages, mistaken identities, and sex jokes.
  • One or more sympathetic gay elders.
While Brocka apparently supplied the characters for this film, the screenplay was written by his frequent collaborator, Phillip J. Bartell. As directed by Glenn Gaylord, the plot involves the following characters:
  • Tiffani von der Sloot (Rebekah Kochan) is a bitchy fag hag who runs a nail salon where where she constantly threatens to report her two Asian employees, Pam (Sumalee Montano) and Candy (Cristina Balmores) to the Department of Immigration. As the film opens, Tiffani is at a funeral parlor, where she is lying in an open display coffin while humping hunky priest Ernesto (Maximiliano Torandell). Once they have finished, she straightens herself up so she can sing at the memorial service for one of her friends, a young man who died in an automobile accident while giving his lover a blowjob.
  • Ryan (Michael E.R. Walker) is Tiffani's ex-boyfriend, a straight male stripper with a very hot body who grew weary of Tiffani's nasty streak and moved out of town.
  • Helen (Mink Stole) is the deceased gay man's mother. Helen's gay nephew, Casey, has recently rented an apartment from her.
  • Casey (Daniel Skelton) is a dewey-eyed young twink who falls head over heels for Zack, the gorgeous hunk he meets at a local gay community center where Tiffani has volunteered him to be auctioned off at a fundraiser.
  • Zack (Chris Salvatore) is the sensitive stud with a heart of gold, who has been stuck in a relationship with Lionel, a narcissistic and abusive gay jock.
  • Lionel (John Stallings) is Zack's athletic asshole of a boyfriend. After being dumped by Zack, he promptly seduces Casey (and secretly films the two of them having sex).
  • Tandy (Julia Cho) is Zack's devoted fag hag, who takes an instant dislike to Tiffani's meddling.
  • Harry (Leslie Jordan) is an elderly, good-hearted volunteer at the local gay community center.

When Casey meets Zack, he becomes so tongue-tied and insecure that Tiffani pushes him into creating a fake profile on the Internet. One look at Casey's scrawny body is all Tiffani needs to substitute a very suggestive picture of her ex-boyfriend, Ryan. When Zack sees "Ryan's" picture online and sends him an instant message, Casey responds with his true feelings.


Long story short: Casey and Zack think they're made for each other, but Zack is imagining that Casey looks like Ryan. When Ryan returns to town and bumps into Zack, he gets invited over to Zack's house for dinner. When Zack discovers that Casey lied on his profile and substituted Ryan's picture, he wants nothing to do with either one of them.

After realizing that Casey and Zack are indeed made for each other, Tiffani and Ryan have to figure out a way to get the two men back together. While there are some good moments of farce, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat specializes in the kind of "truly tasteless" comedy that is lewd, crude, and unbelievably rude.

Older gays may be turned off by the script's completely lack of decency or depth, but younger gays who are easily titillated by gossip, superficiality, and shallow relationships, will probably enjoy it immensely. As the trailer indicates, subtlety won't be found anywhere on the menu for Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat:


* * * * * *
While some critics trashed Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat, it is a well-funded, well-focused, and well-filmed farce that moves at a fairly rapid clip and knows where it's going. Even if the humor seems somewhat tacky and juvenile, its editing is solid, its comic moments are neatly set up, and no one on the creative team has any delusions about creating "high art." It is an extremely commercial product.

Far less raunchy and, noticeably less well crafted, Be Mine is a romantic comedy that focuses on a shy gay college student who never kissed another man. In addition to the protagonist as the twink/insecure mess, add in a screaming black queen, a scene in a hot tub, and voila!

Another gay romantic comedy for the bubblegum and iPod generation.


Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, Be Mine often makes one think of a soufflé that didn't quite rise the way the recipe suggested. Whereas Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat left no insult unearned, Be Mine lives no cliché of cuteness unturned. Nor is it helped by the fact that the director's confusing use of flashbacks is an unnecessary plot device.

Mayson (Dan Selon) is the kind of shy gay man whose lack of self esteem and social skills keep him from meeting guys. Half as old as The 40 Year Old Virgin, he has made it to his senior year in college without ever having kissed another man. His best friend and devoted fag hag, Robyn (Kendra Thomas), notices Mayson eying a hunk in the school library and decides to give her friend an extra push.

When the two head to a local coffee shop, Mayson (who has a passion for chocolate scones) is dismayed to learn that the last chocolate scone has just been sold. Guess who bought it! None other than Reiley the hunk (Jared Welch) who, though charming, has a propensity for telling little white lies.

Because it's Valentine's Day and Mayson has no one to kiss, Robyn invites him to a party being thrown by their mutual friend Eric (Eric Taylor), a screaming black queen who mysteriously lives in a huge house in Long Beach and whose party seems to include mostly white people and, of course, a friend bearing gifts of marijuana.

Who should magically show up at Eric's party but Reiley! And Mayson!

Directed by Dave Padilla, Be Mine proves to be a minor piece of pretty vapid fluff. The principals all end up in the hot tub at Eric's party while rumor spreads like wildfire that Reiley knocked up (and then dumped) his girlfriend. Mayson gets much too drunk and passes out, only to find that his Prince Charming spent the night in the same bed with him. And guess what! Reiley fed him some pieces of the last chocolate scone to soak up the alcohol so Mayson won't have such a terrible hangover.

As with Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat, there's plenty of eye candy and bitchy dialogue, but not too much depth. This is probably a good movie for a closeted young man or someone who didn't renew his subscription to Tiger Beat Magazine and is looking for true love. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * * * *
Moving much further up the ladder of farce, we arrive at David Greenspan's intricately plotted She Stoops To Comedy, which is currently receiving its West Coast premiere at SFPlayhouse. Audiences with a strong sense of theatre history will get much more out of this play than anyone who wanders in off the street.

The title refers to Oliver Goldsmith's comedy, She Stoops To Conquer, which was first performed in 1773. Elements of the plot mirror Shakespeare's As You Like It and the film of The Guardsman (which was based on a play by Ferenc Molnar). With references to the legendary husband-wife theatrical duo of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the romantic powers of the Forest of Arden, Charles Ludlam's brilliant The Mystery of Irma Vep, and some juicy character digs that find double meaning in the field of paleontology, Greenspan's farce presents audiences with the depth of character one expects from Tony Kushner, the enigmatic questions raised by Edward Albee, the fierce intellect of Tom Stoppard, and the cattiness of a life spent backstage in a sea of neuroses.

"I'm mimicking the old Elizabethan convention in which a young actor would play Rosalind, who then disguises herself as a man, so in the character's disguise, the actor would look more like himself,'' the playwright once explained to The New York Times. As SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English, notes:
"Exploring the elusive nature of identity, David Greenspan goes the Elizabethan device of cross-gender casting one further to explore the contemporary playing field of gender. She Stoops to Comedy riffs eloquently on the challenge of knowing one's self, twisting theatrical form as if to ask 'What is life? What is identity? What is reality? What is man? What is woman? Who in their right mind knows?' And yet, in the midst of this existential uncertain, there is love, tenderness, and beauty."
Defty directed by Mark Rucker, the plot revolves around the following characters:
  • Alexandra Page (Liam Vincent) is a lesbian actress who fears that her lover, Sally Clawson (also an actress) is being unfaithful. Upon hearing that a famed Canadian actor has had to leave the cast of a regional production of As You Like It, Alexandra gets up in male drag and auditions for the role of Orlando.
  • Kay Fein (Amy Resnick) is a close friend of Alexandra's who has built careers as both a paleontologist and a theatrical lighting designer.
Liam Vincent and Amy Resnick (Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)
  • Sally Clawson (Alison Rose) is Alexandra's lover, who is currently rehearsing the role of Rosalind in a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It.
  • Hal Stewart (Cole Alexander Smith) is a film director who has never really worked in theatre but has agreed to direct a production of As You Like It for a small community theatre owned by an old friend.
  • Eve Addaman (Carly Cioffi) is Hal's girlfriend and assistant. A former dancer, she knows much more about working on the stage than Hal could ever hope to learn.
  • Jayne Summerhouse (Amy Resnick) is a lesbian actress who has always had a crush on Sally.
  • Simon Lanquish (Scott Capurro) is a close friend of Jayne Summerhouse and an extremely lonely, middle-aged gay man.
Liam Vincent and Scott Capurro (Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)

If paranoia and schizophrenia whet your whistle, this is the play for you! Between the playwright's constantly shifting reference points and his blunt use of letting his characters point out impending plot devices to the audience ("It has to be an efficiency apartment so that there can be a garbage disposal in the last scene"), there is more than enough to keep one's mind occupied.

Not only does Liam Vincent appear before the audience as a male, he plays a lesbian (Alexandra) who must dress up as a male to perform as Orlando. Amy Resnick does double duty as two lesbians -- Kay Fein and Jayne Summerhouse -- who wonder if they have ever been in a scene together. Late in the play, when Fein and Summerhouse (who were once lovers) get into an argument, Resnick's dexterity in jumping back and forth between the two characters reminds one of Faye Dunaway's famous line from Roman Polanski's 1974 film, Chinatown: "She's my sister. She's my daughter. She's my sister and my daughter!"

Double entendres run rampant through Greenspan's script (there is no way of knowing whether the character Jayne Summerhouse is a pun on the term "summer house" or a coy reference to actress Jane Summerhays). While much of the plot's focus is on Alexandra's exploits while disguised as "Harry/Hairy," the highlight of the evening is a magnificently crafted drunken monologue for Simon Lanquish who, in examining the various permutations of what it means to be a middle aged faggot, repeatedly asks "Do we really need a play about that gay man?"

Liam Vincent, Scott Capurro, Sally Clawson
(Photo by: Matthew Vuolo)

As directed by Mark Rucker, Scott Capurro (who is noted for the dripping sarcasm of his stand-up comedy) nails this monologue with a sadly besotted sense of poetry and timing that is heartbreaking. Greenspan's play is filled with oddities, not the least of which is that the playwright has given two secondary characters the best monologues of the evening.

While She Stoops To Comedy has many solid laughs, the intellectual challenges it poses with regard to love, fidelity, gender perception (and just how much you really know about your partner) will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. The production runs through January 8th. You can purchase tickets here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Old Music, New Voices

Search engines are such fun! Sometimes, when you start to research a topic, the results of a search reveal unexpected and often remarkable connections. It's even better than playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!

Let me show you how it works. The legendary Barbara Cook is coming to town next week and will be appearing on Friday, December 4 at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Last Sunday, in a glowing tribute to Cook in the Sunday New York Times, music critic Charles Isherwood wrote:
"DRG Records, which also records jazz and world music, recently brought out a boxed set called The Essential Barbara Cook Collection. It arrived just as I was catching up on episodes of Glee. Uploading the set on my iPod and immersing myself in Ms. Cook's artistry reminded me of what is missing from the campy production numbers in Glee: the human touch. When the kids in the club break into song, their voices become oddly disembodied, just one element among many to be manipulated by technicians in a thick layer of sound. Serious suspension of disbelief is required to believe that the songs are being performed live in a high school classroom — or by actual human beings at all — rather than manufactured and polished in a plush digital sound studio. Glee trades in soapy fantasy, of course, and the souped-up production makes the show’s retro pop mimic the slick sounds of contemporary charts.
But when you hear Ms. Cook rendering selections from the theater songbook in concert performances from the past decade or two, you realize how meaningful and rich in emotional power the art of popular singing can be. It doesn’t have to be pure sugar candy, forgotten as soon as it’s dissolved."
As I searched for the lyrics to one of Cook's theme songs ("Sing A Song With Me"), I was surprised that they were not available online. However, I did find a wonderful surprise: A video clip of Pert Kelton appearing in the 1933 movie The Bowery, which opened with her singing Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay (written by Henry J. Sayers and introduced in 1891) and closed to the sounds of a hit song written in 1895 -- The Band Played On -- written by Charles B. Ward with lyrics by John F. Palmer.



Here's where the fun starts:
What is the glue that unites these three performances?
As one considers the assets on display during these three performances, one soon realizes that they span a musical history of some 220 years in which generation after generation of musicians have studied the songs written by these composers, learned how to apply their artistic talents to interpreting their music and, if they are lucky enough, been blessed to receive the guidance and insight of older, more experienced singers who have come before them. World-class artists such as Barbara Cook (who has conducted numerous master classes) and Sheri Greenawald (who, after a substantial international career in Europe and North America, is now guiding the young singers in the San Francisco Opera Center) help them understand the craft of song interpretation while guiding them in the mechanics of being a professional singer.

As multiple generations of singers tackle an astounding literature of music written for the human voice, audiences can experience styles ranging from classical opera to ragtime, from jazz to Broadway show tunes. During each performance, they have an opportunity to appreciate an artist's physical prowess, musical sensitivity, intellectual acuity, emotional depth, and legacy of performing diverse repertoire under ever-changing circumstances.

* * * * * * * * *
Conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano tries to cram nearly 60 songs by Irving Berlin into one evening by arranging them to reflect the eras of Berlin's career. With Justin Fischer on the piano (keeping pace with a synthesized soundtrack), the show progresses through the following segments:
Along the way there are some curious surprises. I was particularly taken by this lyric for Pack Up Your Sins from one of Berlin's Music Box Revues in the 1920s:
"Pack up your sins and go to the devil in Hades
You'll meet the finest of gentlemen and the finest of ladies
They'd rather be down below than up above
Hades is full of thousands of
Joneses and Browns, O'Hoolihans, Cohens and Bradys
You'll hear a heavenly tune that went to the devil
Because the jazz bands
They started pickin' it
Then put a trick in it
A jazzy kick in it
They've got a couple of old reformers in Heaven
Making them go to bed at eleven
Pack up your sins and go to the devil
And you'll never have to go to bed at all

If you care to dwell where the weather is hot
H-E-double-L is a wonderful spot
If you need a rest and you're all out of sorts
Hades is the best of the winter resorts
Paradise doesn't compare
All the nice people are there
They come there from ev'rywhere
Just to revel with Mister Devil
Nothing on his mind but a couple of horns
Satan is waitin' with his jazz band
And his band came from Alabam' with a melody hot
No one gives a damn if it's music or not
Satan's melody makes you want to dance forever
And you never have to go to bed at all."
I Love A Piano features numerous costume changes for its ensemble of six singers. Belter Haley Swindal easily outshone Jackey Good and Crystal Kellogg with regard to both comic and vocal chops. Of the three men, I particularly enjoyed the work of young Ryan Lammer and Joshua Woodie. The last of Berlin's songs to be included in this production was "Old Fashioned Wedding," which he wrote for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun at Lincoln Center.

It's too bad the show's creators neglected Berlin's last musical, Mr. President (1962), in which Nanette Fabray sang "Let's Go Back To The Waltz." Perry Como made a hit recording of "Empty Pockets Filled With Love," whose beautiful lyrics are as follows:
"Empty pockets but a heart full of love
A heart full of love for you.
Cash not any, not one red penny
But kisses many for you

Empty pockets but a heart beating fast
As fast as the stars above.
Please say that you'll get by with just a guy
With empty pockets filled with love.

You can't eat love, you can't drink love,
You can't wear love like you would a gown.
I trust love, but just love
Won't pay for caviar,
Won't buy that motor car
Or a house in town.

You can't spend love, you can't lend love
You must end love when the chips are down.
Love flies out the window when there's nothing to eat
Nothing to drink, nothing to wear but a frown
And the chips are down."
This show affords a rare chance to hear some of the songs Berlin wrote for a series of wartime shows, including 1918's Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. Berlin also liked to play around with musical counterpoint. Two of his hit songs written in this fashion were the aforementioned Old Fashioned Wedding and You're Just In Love (from 1950's Call Me Madam). A special treat for me was to hear both these songs sung as counterpoint to each other (showing how all four voices followed the same beat and architecture).

Suppertime (which was introduced to audiences by Ethel Waters in the 1993 musical revue, As Thousands Cheer) was given a standard torch song treatment by Ms. Swindal. There was no way the audience at the JCCSF would have been aware that the song was originally written as a woman's reaction to the news of her husband's lynching.

Irving Berlin

If I have one regret about I Love A Piano, it involves its frenetic pacing and overdirection. It seems as if stage directors, perhaps because they don't trust Berlin's more lyrical instincts, always want to keep his music running fast and perky. This sometimes gives the impression of having the CliffsNotes version of a songwriter's catalog crammed down the audience's throat. With Berlin's prodigious output, there is an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.

As I sat in the JCC's Kanbar Hall, noticing the unrelenting perkiness with which I Love A Piano was being performed, I started to feel as if I was watching a performance on a cruise ship. I had a similar sensation several years ago while watching the stage version of Berlin's White Christmas at the Curran Theatre (that production is now being revived in New York for the holiday season). Upon checking the cast's credits, I was not surprised to see quite a bit of experience performing on cruise ships and in theme parks, where the goal is to put a smile on people's faces and keep 'em happy.

* * * * * * *
As the old saying goes: "Different strokes for different folks." Several things about Sunday night's concert by the 2009 Adler Fellows gave the performance immense appeal. Instead of having to sing over the orchestra from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, the performance was held in Herbst Theatre, where the orchestra barely fit on the stage. With the singers forced out onto a stage apron well beyond the proscenium arch, their fresh, young voices could be heard to maximum effect.

Unlike the performance at Kanbar Hall, none of the singers wore microphones, nor was their sound being electronically engineered. While the current season of So You Think You Can Dance is memorable for the presence of three tap dancers, the 2009 Adler Fellows feature a rare bumper crop of tenors.

Alek Shrader opened with a lovely rendition of Tamino's "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon" from The Magic Flute and subsequently shared the duet "All' idea di quel metallo" from the first act of Rossini's Barber of Seville with baritone Austin Kness. Andrew Bidlack scored comic points with "Allegro io son" from Donizetti's rarely-performed Rita and David Lomeli scored strongly with Edgardo's "Tombe degli avi miei. Fra poco a me ricovero" from Act II of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor."

2009 Adler Fellows (Photo by: Kristen Loken Anstey)

Other highlights included Leah Crocetto singing Matilda's aria, "Selva opaca" from Rossini's Guglielmo Tell, and Tamara Wapinsky singing "Es gibt ein Reich" from Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Leah Crocetto and David Lomeli brought down the house at the end of first act with "O soave fanciulla" from Act I of Puccini's La Boheme.

Whereas the final bars of this duet are usually sung offstage (with the audience wondering if the tenor and soprano will be able to hold onto the final notes), on this occasion the duet ended with two healthy young voices nailing it in full view of the audience. Quite understandably, the crowd went wild.

Perkiness isn't everything.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Epic Failures

Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest, of having plenty of food to eat and a feeling of security. But what happens when dark omens appear on the horizon? What happens when the old paradigm dissolves and is replaced by a totally different landscape?

Whether in war, finance, or politics, the arrogance of man knows no bounds. Some people become so obsessed with winning at any cost that they fail to sense the soil shifting beneath them. Some become so resistant to change that they can no longer think outside the box.

History and literature are filled with dark omens.
Unfortunately, not everyone heard what they wanted to hear. According to Wikipedia:
"In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. In an alternative version, she spent a night at Apollo's temple, at which time the temple snakes licked her ears clean so that she was able to hear the future. This is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, though sometimes it brings an ability to understand the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. However, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions.
She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy, where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the tragic condition of humankind. While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her."
Today's seers are often religious zealots awaiting the Rapture, conspiracy theorists anticipating doom, or bean counters who use computerized simulations to predict possible outcomes. In an increasing number of scenarios, the final result may be simple and straightforward, but nevertheless shocking.

No one wins. Everyone loses.

This was demonstrated in computer simulations during 1983's WarGames, after a teenage computer hacker named David (Matthew Broderick) challenged a government computer to a game of Global Thermonuclear War. The same message is delivered near the end of John Woo's sumptuously designed new war spectacle, Red Cliff, which opens in theatres on Thanksgiving Day.

* * * * * * *
The first thing to understand about Red Cliff is that it is a pyromaniac's wet dream. If you attend the film with someone who likes to play with matches, he will probably be writhing in ecstasy by the time the final credits start to roll. Second, any script in which an injured warrior who has just been bandaged by his wife says "You wrapped me up like a rice ball" is going to find itself a soft spot in my heart.

Most important, however, is the fact that although Red Cliff is filled with bloody battle scenes and mass carnage, it is a profoundly anti-war film. The villain (who has tried to conquer all of China in order to satisfy his megalomania), suffers a miserable failure. Surprisingly, the audience actually gets to witness the villain analyzing his past victories and wondering what could have possibly gone wrong.

Woo's film ends on a note of peace and friendship between the strategists for two rival warlords whose united forces have defeated the villain's much larger army. Based on The Romance of The Three Kingdoms (written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century), the main characters in Red Cliff are as follows:
  • General Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is a ruthless and power hungry Prime Minister who seeks to conquer all the warring factions of China. When his navy has problems with seasickness, his commanders develop a plan to lock his ships together so that they won't pitch and roll. When his army is stricken with typhoid fever, he sends the infectious corpses across the river in one of the earliest known uses of biological warfare.
  • Liu Bei (You Yong) is a warlord in the north who, while trying to protect a large population of refugees in the early part of the film, suffers a crushing defeat at the hands of Cao Cao's brutal and massive army. Liu Bei is forced to retreat.
  • Sun Quan (Chang Chen) is a warlord in the south, whose territory is high on Cao Cao's list of desired conquests.
  • Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is Liu Bei's military strategist. A man of exceptional intelligence who has studied nature, history, and the philosophy of war, Zhuge Liang knows that the only hope for Lui Bei's survival is to form an alliance with his rival warlord, Sun Quan. His use of the ancient tortoise formation as a combat tactic helps to win the decisive battle of Red Cliff.
  • Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is Sun Quan's Grand Viceroy, a trusted advisor and revered war hero.
  • Xiao Qiao (Chi-ling Lin) is Zhou Yu's quiet, obedient, pregnant, and extremely intelligent wife -- a woman who has more than one trick up her sleeve. A long time ago, when she posed for an artist, her beauty captured the heart of Cao Cao (who expects that, after vanquishing Sun Quan, he will inherit Xiao Qiao as a trophy of war).
  • Sun Shiangxiang (Wei Zhao) is Zhou Yu's younger sister, who considers herself as strong and warlike as any of Sun Quan's soldiers. After disguising herself, she manages to infiltrate General Cao Cao's army as a spy and send back valuable information via carrier pigeon.
An underlying theme in Red Cliff is the ultimate advantage of brains over brawn. Whether employing the eight trigrams formation in land battle, launching an espionage operation, or trusting his years of environmental studies, Zhuge Liang's intellectual strength helps him devise winning strategies that can be implemented by Zhou Yu's soldiers.

Zhou Yu's wife and sister use their own style of intelligence, artifice, and art to deliver invaluable information back to Zhou Yu and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to stall for time as Sun Quan's forces wait for the wind to change direction. In his director's statement, John Woo notes:
"We have all seen Hollywood’s epic blockbusters. We, as an audience, are deeply moved by the grand imagery and heart-pounding sound achieved through modern technologies. The world’s audiences have also enjoyed the various genres of Chinese cinema, including kung-fu, action, and drama. However, Chinese historical epics are rarely depicted with the scale and technique that is found in Hollywood blockbusters. Chinese cinema contains much of our cultural heritage, including the spirit of the martial arts. Using the medium of cinema, we are able to express our ideals and culture through different layers. These thoughts led me to make a film about the heroes of the Three Kingdoms outside of the martial arts genre. It is a film I had long dreamed of making, ever since I read about the heroes from that glorious time in history.

The story of Red Cliff took place 1,800 years ago in China. It was a battle bearing significant historical importance. Through the widely told tales of the battle, we learned of the great intelligence and bravery of the ancient people of China who, though gravely outnumbered, managed to defeat their enemies. I believe, that by working with our talented teams and utilizing recent technological advances, we are able to create this epic tale in a film on the same scale as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Through on-location filming and post-production special effects, we recreated the realism of the ancient battlefield. Such visual spectacle has never been seen on the Chinese screen. My goal is for this film to rise above cultural and historical barriers, so that the Western audience feels as if they are watching an Asian Troy while the Eastern audience can discover new perspectives on a familiar story. I also wanted to prove that here in China we are capable of creating an epic film of the same caliber as a Hollywood production."
While Red Cliff is filled with battle scenes, the emotional and intellectual characteristics of its heroes differ markedly from those found in Western war films. According to Woo:
"For me, the most attractive aspects of Romance of the Three Kingdoms are not the supernatural characters idealized by the novel, but the true heroism the characters show. The world has many kinds of heroes, but I like heroes that are real and human. I see many similarities between my idea of what a hero should be and the characters of Three Kingdoms.

I genuinely believe that human emotion is universal and not bound by culture. The same values of virtue, morality, and friendship are praised in the West just as they are in the East. Though these feelings are expressed in different ways, deep inside we all essentially share the same emotions. With this in mind, I disregarded a great deal of the details in the book when I made Red Cliff.

Takeshi Kineshiro as Zhuge Liang

I truly wished to make a film that could be enjoyed by audiences all over the world. Inside my heart, film knows no boundary. While audiences in the East love many great movies from the West, Western audiences also appreciate the splendid culture of the East. Therefore, I genuinely hope that when you watch Red Cliff you do not look at it as a Chinese film or a Hollywood film, but as a global film."

Because Woo was adamant about remaining as faithful as possible to historical details, Oscar-winning production and costume designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and his team did an enormous amount of research on architecture, costumes, ships, weaponry, and other props specific to the film’s setting. As Yip notes:

"We had to reconstruct these huge historical images and imbue them with a dynamic rhythm to make them come alive. I approached Red Cliff in two different ways. First, I wanted to do things on a huge scale with great atmosphere, similar to classical Chinese painting. Second, I wanted to make everything very detailed and accurate and spent a great deal of time looking at every known artifact from the Warring States period. These details enlivened the design, and many are also symbolic of the period. The Han dynasty is known, on the one hand, for its large scale and imposing manner, but also for its elegant details. We paid special attention to accurately recreating those details.

Fengyi Zhang as General Cao Cao

We consulted with many history experts specializing in different fields, including construction, military affairs, the legal system, weapons, clothes, and the lifestyles of the people of the time, including both peasants and aristocrats. I also personally traveled to Japan to meet with experts there on the Warring States period, where I found additional information on the ways to make armor and ancient weapons, which was extremely helpful."

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Zhou Yu

The following collage of costume sketches, marketing posters, and photos offers a better chance to appreciate some of Yip's production design (as well as Red Cliff's musical score) than most of the action-packed trailers and clips from the film:


Some interesting facts to keep in mind about Woo's lush visual feast and gripping military epic:
  • Red Cliff was first immortalized in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Although written over 700 years ago, the novel is still widely read all over Asia and has spawned more than a dozen video games and numerous comic books. When making a movie about the Three Kingdoms, one has to include important military figures, such as generals Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu (who is worshipped as a god in many Asian countries).
  • Although the precise location of Red Cliff’s battlefield has been the subject of both popular and academic debates, it has never been conclusively established.
  • The course and length of the Yangtze River have changed drastically since 208 AD and the names of the key locations have changed throughout the years. In 1998, the city of Puqi in Hubei Province was renamed Chibi City (Red Cliff City), in a direct attempt to tie the location to the historical battlefield. Assuming that was the real location of the Battle of Red Cliff, the amount of river traffic made it impossible for Woo to film there. The local geography was also vastly different from what the filmmaker had imagined for his movie.
  • The scene of Zhuge Liang’s “borrowing of the enemy’s arrows with the straw boats” was taken directly from the novel.
  • The huge art department for the production of Red Cliff at one point consisted of more than 1,000 designers, carpenters, construction workers, seamstresses, prop men and shipbuilders.
  • The battle of San Jiang Kuo required more than 1,000 foot soldiers, 300 horses, 300 horsemen, and more than 700 crew members.
  • The planning for the naval battle segment of the film took more than a year and required that 18 full-scale ships be built on location (due to their size, it would have been too difficult to transport them to the reservoir where filming took place). The construction of the ships took eight months (from October 2006 to May 2007) and the largest ship was more than 125 feet long. At the same time, four large floating docks were built on the same site. Many boats were built in a nearby shipyard and transported to the reservoir. The remaining 2,000 ships were created digitally.
  • A studio executive in the United States suggested combining several generals on the allies’ side into one person (an idea which, for Western audiences, would have been like combining President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Great Britain's Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and France's President Charles de Gaulle into one person when making a movie about World War II).
  • Woo created two versions of Red Cliff: a two-part, five-hour version for Asian audiences and a single 2-1/2 hour version for Western audiences.

Red Cliff delivers fully on its promise of spectacle, history, and epic scale. After nearly 2-1/2 hours of battle scenes that never grow tedious, it's fascinating to look back on Woo's film and note some of its more artistic touches.

Western audiences that have grown accustomed to ultra-machismo, testosterone-laden war epics might may be surprised at how a cleverly prolonged tea ceremony can have major strategic consequences. The concept of a military strategist who understands the signs and symptoms of changing weather (as opposed to overzealous military types who can't wait for battle to commence) may seem alien to audiences that prefer their heroes to shoot first and ask questions later.

One should not think for a moment that there isn't plenty of combat in Woo's film. The film's final message (that in huge conflicts, no army truly wins -- and that it is better to be allies and friends rather than bitter enemies) may disappoint teenagers who have grown addicted to violent video games. But for the older, sadder, and wiser members of the audience, the only thing missing at the end of Woo's film was a long and passionate kiss between Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro before Zhuge Liang heads home with a cute new pony. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * * *
During a visit to my doctor several years ago, I mentioned that I did not expect to live into my 80s or 90s. He promptly asked if I would be willing to be examined for depression and, having nothing else to do that week, I agreed.

I did, however, remind my doctor that there is a very big difference between being clinically depressed and being profoundly lazy (I have no doubt which characteristic describes me to a tee). My interview with the Kaiser psychiatrist went very smoothly and he agreed that I was not at all depressed.

Although I'm not necessarily a gloom-and-doom type of person, anyone who knows me understands that my nearly infantile optimism is balanced by a strong cynical streak. I stressed to the psychiatrist that I had a nasty suspicion that, between global warming, unstable financial markets, and some ugly political realities, a time might soon arrive when many Americans could no longer afford to keep on living.

Mind you, this was before the Enron debacle, before the subprime mortgage crisis, before President George W. Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and before Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election. While there is now greater hope that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 may be able to stop some of the bleeding, far too many people have been willing to trivialize the massive shit storm President Obama inherited from the previous administration.

During the years when I was trying to support myself as a freelance writer, I learned to give up a lot of the creature comforts and personal accessories that are frequently deemed necessary by people who simply can't stop shopping. When Enron imploded and its employees lost their retirement savings, I began to realize that I would not be alone in the coming years as people saw their buying power evaporate into thin air.

When last year's financial crisis struck, I was extremely grateful that I don't have a car to maintain, children to support, or a McMansion that might be subject to foreclosure. Having finally paid off a huge amount of credit card debt, I had learned to live a much simpler life.

Still, nothing can send frissons of terror through one's nervous system like the threat of watching the world (as we have known it) disappear into a black hole. I'm not talking about the hysterical rantings of a media clown like Glenn Beck. I'm talking about monetary systems, physical infrastructure, and entire transportation systems grinding to a halt because nobody can afford anything anymore.

As I watched a new documentary entitled Collapse (in which Michael Ruppert functions as a modern-day Cassandra), I was neither shocked nor horrified by his predictions. A former police investigator and freelance journalist, Ruppert is the man who, in 1977, revealed that the CIA was extensively involved in illegal drug trafficking. His book, Crossing The Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil, was published in 2004. Ruppert also claims to have helped to break the story on the military coverup of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire.

Ruppert's theories are based on the fact that we have already passed the point of peak oil and are heading toward a level of consumption that is simply unsustainable. If assessed honestly, the math should be simple enough to understand: The world's supply of petroleum has now hit the point where it is ruled by the law of diminishing returns. No amount publicity or "feel good" spin can change that.

Over the years, Ruppert has tried to warn Congress and lots of other people about the financial crisis that is about to reshape America's future. Unfortunately, he has run into even more resistance than former Vice President Al Gore. Just like Evilene in The Wiz, the theme song for many Americans is "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."


The question then becomes: Is Chris Smith's documentary a film you should see?
  • Obviously, it lacks the slick CGI special effects that brought Roland Emmerich's popular disaster movie, 2012 (which had a production budget of $200 million) nearly $242 million in domestic and international box office revenues in its first six days before the public.
  • Nor does Collapse have a pounding score designed to drive terror into your heart.
  • Instead, it offers audiences a heaping dose of icy cold fear wrapped in a pile of inconvenient truths.
Visually, this is not a great film to watch. Much of the archival footage is quite old (and probably all the filmmaker could afford to acquire on a very low budget). However, I did enjoy watching footage of the R.M.S. Titanic leaving Southampton on its ill-fated maiden voyage in April of 1912.

Most of this movie is little more than an interview with a very intelligent curmudgeon, underwritten with music that sounds like, but has probably not been composed by Philip Glass.

Some critics are suggesting that Chris Smith's Collapse is a far more important documentary than Michael Moore's infuriating, albeit highly entertaining Capitalism: A Love Story. I would offer a different comparison.

If you want thrills and chills accompanied by fake heroism, heart-stopping music, and fabulous visuals, go see 2012. However, if you truly want to get the shit scared out of you, go see Collapse. Smith's "little film that could" has zero entertainment value. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Here's the trailer: