Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Crisis of CAW Values

You won't find CAW syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Nor will you find much documentation about it on the Internet. It's a syndrome I'm beginning to think exists as a new genre of cinema.

Forget about Mumblecore, French New Wave, or emerging Thai filmmakers who can't figure out what they want to say. The CAW syndrome involves a "confused Asian woman" whose ongoing angst inflicts pain and doubt on the characters who surround her (mostly because of her inability or unwillingness to accept reality).

Once you've embraced the fact that this syndrome exists, you'll probably start to notice it in lots of films about Asians and Asian Americans. CAW characters are the polar opposites of the fierce, feminine Asian warriors, Manchurian martinets, and Mongolian matriarchs who leave otherwise macho men quaking in their shoes. The confused Asian woman's predicament is often triggered by an insurmountable language barrier, a general lack of sensitivity, or a perfect storm of cluelessness, stupidity, and denial. Trust me, it's a growing trend.

Three films screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival featured important characters suffering from advanced CAW syndrome. Each film involved some fairly obvious stretches of improvisation, which may have only exacerbated the problems of its confused Asian women.

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Written and directed by Woo Ming Jin, Woman On Fire Looks For Water (which received its North American premiere at the festival) is blessed with not one, not two, but three confused Asian women. While it would be easy to think that the men in the film are the main characters, that would be a foolish mistake.

Ah Fei (Ernest Chong) is a young Malaysian man who earns his living by catching frogs and selling them to the villagers for food. His father, Ah Kau (Chung Kok-Keong), has a small fishing boat and is not long for this world. The third male figure is a wealthy villager who owns a shellfish factory.

In a social setting where people may have trouble expressing themselves (or simply have nothing to say), ardent protestations of love are exceedingly rare. But what about the women?
  • Lily (Foo Fei-Ling) has been Ah Fei's girlfriend for quite a while. When he halfheartedly asks her if she would like to marry him, she tells him he needs to have more money before she will say yes. She also asks him if he would write her a poem.
  • Su Lin (Jerrica Lai) is the daughter of the man who owns the shellfish factory. When she was very young, she had some kind of accident which left one side of her face paralyzed for a while. Now fully recovered, she spends most of her time scooping cockles from the muddy river bed. Her father, seeing Ah Fei's potential has a husband for Su Lin, hires Ah Fei and instructs his daughter to teach him how to catch cockles. However, when Ah Fei explains that he already has a girlfriend whom he is hoping to marry, Su Lin secretly poisons his frogs with fertilizer. After Ah Fei gives the dead frogs away to some of his usual customers, they develop food poisoning.
  • Ah Kau also visits an old woman with whom he was once very much in love, but never had the courage to tell her how he felt. Now that he is dying, he asks her to meet him at dawn down by the river, apparently expecting that she will take care of him until he dies. Surprisingly, the old woman awakens her son in the middle of the night and demands that he drive her down to the jetty, but refuses to explain why.
Shot in the tiny fishing village of Kuala Selangor, Woman On Fire Looks For Water is more notable for its scenes of gutting and cleaning fish, catching cockles, and decapitating frogs with a pair of scissors. The most animated acting comes from Ah Guo as a fat factory manager who is jealous that Ah Fei always brings gifts to Lily but never brings anything for her. When his poisoned frogs prevent the woman's son from winning a competition at school, she lets Ah Fei know how she feels in no uncertain terms.

When Lily (who has worked in a fish salting factory but does not know how to swim) attempts to commit suicide near an exceptionally scenic waterfall, Ah Fei comes to her rescue and their love is reborn. In many ways, the dullness of this film reflects the dullness of its characters. While there are occasionally beautiful shots of nature, not much happens here other than processing fish and cockles.

This is a film about listlessness, lethargy, ennui, and apathy in which the dead fish have some of the most compelling moments. The following clip is about as exciting as it gets:

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Cheol-Mean Whang's new drama Moscow (which also received its North American premiere at the festival) is far more animated than Woman On Fire Looks For Water. However, that doesn't make it any more satisfying as a film. The drama focuses on an uncomfortable reunion between two Korean women who were best friends in grade school but whose lives have drifted apart.
  • Jin-hee (Sung Su-jung) comes from a poor background and was recently laid off from her job as a part-time factory worker. Although initially involved in a labor protest (where she and some friends had embarked on a hunger strike), Jin-hee eventually abandoned the cause. Now a slacker with no sense of direction, she does not know what her future holds.
  • By contrast, Ye-won (Lee Hye-jin) came from a rich family and had the advantage of a college education. Although she studied acting in school, pragmatism won out and Ye-won ended up in an administrative office job. Her lifestyle is clean, crisp, tidy, and tightly structured. She believes wholeheartedly in the corporate world and consumerism.
However, one day she decides to seek out Jin-hee and see what happened to her former best friend. After tracking her down through their former schoolteacher, Ye-won invites the unemployed Jin-hee to come stay with her for a while at her apartment in Seoul. If there was ever a tale of a guest overstaying her welcome, Moscow is it.

At first Jin-Hee is sullen, bored, and lazes around Ye-won's apartment. However, as the two women start to tire of each other's presence, Jin-hee becomes increasingly aggressive. Soon she is starting to wear Ye-won's clothes, hanging out with (and irritating) Ye-won's friends, and auditioning for an acting job that Ye-won lacks the time or motivation to pursue.

Because I studied Anton Chekhov's plays in college (and had not only seen Three Sisters performed onstage but also attended the 1986 world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's operatic adaptation of the work at Opera Columbus), I knew what the two young women were talking about every time they mentioned Moscow and argued over who was better suited to perform the role of Olga or Irina.

However, when I spoke with members of the audience who had no knowledge of Chekhov's play, it was clear that the film left them baffled and more than mildly annoyed. In 1996, Cheol-Mean Whang directed an 83-minute film entitled Fuck Hamlet (portions of which may have been spliced into Moscow for the segment in which the two women attend a friend's performance in a radical interpretation of Hamlet). It really doesn't matter very much.

A weekend hike in the country ends up with the two women getting lost in a blizzard during which their pent-up emotions finally erupt and they manage to settle their differences. While there is no doubt that Moscow has been beautifully filmed (the blizzard scenes are magnificent), whether or not the audience will care is quite another story.

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Mike Ott's latest film, Littlerock (which received its world premiere at the festival), has only one confused Asian woman on board. But the presence of Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), who can barely speak any English, is enough to set this little indie film careening through a small desert town's slackers and lost causes with surprising (and often entertaining) results.

Atsuko and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are on vacation from Japan. Although their plans include visiting San Francisco and Manzanar (where their grandfather's family was apparently kept in the internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II), their rental car has broken down near the tiny desert town of Littlerock, California.

When the noise from a party in the adjoining motel room becomes too much to bear, Rintaro goes next door to complain and ask the people to quiet down. However, he is quickly handed a beer by Cory Lawler (Cory Zacharia), a vapid stoner who thinks he has the potential to become a poet or runway model. During the rare moments when Cory is working at his father's Mexican restaurant (which is essentially run by Francisco (Roberto 'Sanz' Sanchez), he is essentially taking money from the cash register to support his drug habit.

Cory's friend Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes) doesn't hesitate to put the make on Atsuko, who mistakenly believes that this group of losers really likes her. Frustrated with his younger sister's stupidity and obstinacy, Rintaro decides to head up the coast to San Francisco on his own.

Left to her own devices, Atsuko tries to bond with Jordan, fend off Cory's amorous advances, and learn how to fill orders for Mexican food. After Rintaro returns with a replacement rental car, the two eventually find their way to Manzanar and tour the visitor's center.

Littlerock is heavy on improvisation and a bit lean on substance until Atsuko and Rintaro arrive at Manzanar. Yet, in many ways it is more satisfying than Moscow for the simple reason that its characters -- flawed though they may be -- at least know who they are. Special credit goes to Ryan Dillon, whose portrayal of a small town dope dealer has more vigor and initiative than the rest of the town put together. Here's a brief trailer for the film.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Sound and the Glory

Documentaries are not always notable for their soundscapes. Unless, of course, one looks at a particular subset of nature films. In situations where a narrator's voice does not accompany the film, music can make a critical difference in an audience's reaction.

Popular documentaries about nature, such as Planet Earth, Sweetgrass, and most recently Oceans, offer a mix of sounds from those made by wind, ocean, and animals to those created in a recording studio by musicians reading a score. The choices made by their respective filmmakers with regard to which sounds should be incorporated into each film have had a profound effect on the final product.

Three documentaries recently screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival offered peculiar contrasts in how a film can be enhanced by exploring the sounds of nature as well as the nature of sound. Each film is wrapped in a unique acoustical framework. Each documentarian succeeds in capturing a unique feeling, fascination, or fervor in his film.

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The opening moments of a new nature documentary directed by Nina Hedenius can be a bit disconcerting. It's a dark, snowy afternoon on a Swedish farm. Trees, houses and barns are draped in deep layers of snow that bring a quiet hush to the area. As the camera moves silently around the landscape, one begins to wonder if there is something wrong with the film's soundtrack. Or if there is one.

However, as soon as the camera enters one of the farm buildings, the audience hears the familiar sound of cows mooing and embarks on a journey that will follow the natural life of a farm through the four seasons of the year. As Way of Nature progresses, colts and calves will be born, cows will be milked, butter will be churned, and fences mended. The only time human voices are heard are during televised newscasts, a recording of traditional Swedish music, a brief passage of solo singing, and the muffled voices of the farm workers as they go about their work.

As the year progresses, Way of Nature unfolds before the audience like a tone poem in which horses, roosters, and goats are seen doing what comes naturally while the farm's dogs cuddle up beside their humans and monitor their daily chores. Watching intently as eggs are collected, cows receive their cowbells, and livestock is moved from one pasture to another, the dogs never tire of watching the local spectacle. Nor do the flowers or animals ever lose their beauty (the camera's attention to the detail of a rooster's feathers becomes a meditation on the brilliance of nature's art).

I always find it interesting when watching documentaries like Way of Nature to observe the audience's emotional reactions (often quite joyous) as animals behave like animals, unintentionally provoking laughter and satisfaction from onlookers they will never meet. Throughout the film, the constant cacophony of farm life becomes a symphony of bells, baas, and bleats, of groans, grunts, and glissandi, as the animals routinely meet, mate, and munch.

Way of Nature is the kind of documentary that requires enough patience to sit back and watch nature in action, to abandon the pretenses of modern civilization and just listen to the beauty of the beasts. It is the kind of film where man's ego is minimized and the animals dominate (without the slightest need for anthropomorphic cartoon characters). By the time winter skies start to darken and snow once again blankets the farm, the audience feels strangely charmed and reassured about the cycle of life.

Save Way of Nature for one of those special nights when you're cold, lonely, or depressed. Its special magic provides a wonderful and warm tonic for the soul. Here's a brief trailer:

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In his director's note for Yellow Sheep River: The Last Utopia on the Silk Road, Taiwanese filmmaker Liu Suong writes:
"Here in Yellow Sheep River, the endless repetition is the rhythm of life. I witness their way of life, so simple, that only trifles and details are left. It is hard to imagine how dull days are replayed over and over for hundreds of years there in unbelievable sameness. Nevertheless, from this never-ending cycle of living on earth, a kind of harmony emerges from this rhythm, and a unique sense of beauty follows.
The feeling I get from this beauty is very different from that given by lovely objects and grand works of art. I believe that this kind of beauty can be understood on the simplest level. Without the need of language, dialogue, voice-over, story, or the need for dramatic tension, leading and supporting roles, I am sure that one can experience this beauty and, above all, the sense of tranquility that is hidden behind it."
Stunning work by Wang Po-Wen (Suong's director of photography) makes this film so visually gratifying that it's hard to imagine the camera actually capturing such physical beauty. As in Way of Nature, much of Suong's film is devoted to the yearly cycle of agricultural crops and herding livestock.

However, unlike the sheep who got sheared with electric tools in Sweetgrass, the sheep in Suong's film get shorn the old fashioned way. With the exception of a few small tractors, wheat crops are harvested the same way they've been for centuries.

Suong's breathtaking panoramas of the Taiwanese landscape are enhanced by a phenomenal musical score by Chen Kai-Yo that varies between a solo flute, banjo, and full-blown symphony orchestra (with some musical themes that are surprisingly reminiscent of music by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Ferde Grofé).

There are a few small touches of modernity creeping into the Yellow Sheep River, however. My favorite is the local photographer who is seen getting family elders to pose for him. He later Photoshops their images so that it looks as if they had their picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower!

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There are many reasons to fall in love with Pianomania, but the primary one is the fanatic devotion of Stefan Knupfer as he attempts to provide world-class pianists with the exact sound and touch they want from a piano. Knupfer, who is the chief technician for the Austrian branch of Steinway & Sons, is seen throughout the film racing up and down the back stairways of the Vienna Concert House in between acoustical tests and trial tunings on a fleet of grand pianos.

Stefan Knupfer at work

The challenge he faces is a unique one. Whereas many people would be thrilled to achieve 90% of accuracy in their work, Knupfer must satisfy a clientele of international artists whose quest for perfection makes neurosurgery seem like Jackson Pollock's approach to painting.

Working with pianists like Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, and Till Fellner keeps Knupfer intimately involved in the tuning of Steinway pianos for key performances as well as trying to accommodate the peculiar habits of each artist (Lang Lang requires a heavier music bench because of his tendency to throw his body around while performing).

While Knupfer is a master technician, he also has a wicked sense of humor, as demonstrated in this scene with Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo (two classical musicians who have become famous for their comedic classical music cabaret shows).

While much of Pianomania follows a year's preparation for pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's recording of The Art of the Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, momentary crises can range from Lang Lang's need to choose a piano for his upcoming performance -- and the revelation that piano #109 (which Aimard had planned to use during his recording session) is no longer available because it has been sold to an Australian buyer -- to the arrival of a set of piano hammers that are .7 mm too narrow.

Stefan Knupfer checking the sound in the auditorium

As directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Pianomania will tantalize musical purists as well musicians who are, at heart, nerdy engineers. This is a rare chance to see Steinway pianos taken apart and adjusted by someone who is as passionate about their sound as a race car driver's mechanic is about his automobiles. The film also allows audiences the opportunity to see classical musicians (who are usually only photographed under the most formal circumstances) relaxing at work while trying to practice their craft without the presence of an audience as they continue on the lonely quest for the perfect tone.

Whether Knupfer and his artists are trying to recreate the sound of a harpsichord or clavichord in order to be as historically accurate as possible when recording a particular piece of music, their collective acuity makes for a surprisingly entertaining and rewarding film experience. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Turning Points

On January 16, 1964, when Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway, the show's Act II romantic ballad stressed how someone's life can be changed in the blink of an eye. Jerry Herman's lyric for the song reads as follows:
"It only takes a moment
For your eyes to meet and then
Your heart knows in a moment
You will never be alone again.

I held her for an instant
But my arms felt sure and strong.
It only takes a moment
To be loved a whole life long."
Close encounters of the most unexpected kind can rock someone's personal world. A curious twist of fate can bring about a wonderful -- or horrible -- change in one's destiny. On stage and screen, four recent productions celebrated the catalytic effect one moment in time can have on a person's future.

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I've always been a big fan of Ethel Merman's, so I was already predisposed to liking Klea Blackhurst's show about the Merm entitled "Everything The Traffic Will Allow." A life-long fan of the woman who ruled Broadway for four decades, Blackhurst has had great success paying tribute to Merman for one simple reason: she's got the pipes to do it with!

Klea Blackhurst in Everything The Traffic Will Allow

Blackhurst's delight in telling Merman stories starts at the top of the show as she paints a picture for the audience of Merman's legendary breakthrough at the opening night of George & Ira Gershwin's 1930 hit musical, Girl Crazy. Effortlessly stealing the show from Ginger Rogers, Merman launched into "I Got Rhythm" and brought down the house by holding a note at full volume for 16 bars of music.

The folks at 42nd Street Moon decided to bring Blackhurst back to town for a short run of Everything The Traffic Will Allow. Watching her perform Merman's repertoire with gusto is a special treat because of Blackhurst's obvious adoration of the Merm and her ability to belt out songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin with a similar verve. A quiet moment, in which Blackhurst accompanies herself on a ukulele while singing "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" (from the George White Scandals) has a rare charm and wistfulness.

The following clip of Blackhurst performing Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel Blow" (from Anything Goes) on one of Rosie O'Donnell's LGBT cruises not only gives a sense of how much joy Blackhurst gets from the sheer physicality of singing, but also reveals a rare moment of scat singing that was written for Merman's voice.

Blackhurst's show also offered audiences the opportunity to hear some songs made famous by Merman that have faded from the public consciousness. These included "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please" and "I've Still Got My Health" (music and lyrics by Cole Porter, from 1940's Panama Hattie), "Something For The Boys," "Hey, Good Lookin," and "The Leader of A Big Time Band" (from 1943's Something For The Boys, with music by Cole Porter and lyrics by Dorothy Fields), "Just A Moment Ago" (a song by Roger Edens that was inserted into 1956's Happy Hunting after Merman had stopped talking to the show's original composer, Harold Karr) and "World, Take Me Back," a song Jerry Herman originally wrote for Hello, Dolly! when he hoped that Merman would star in his new musical (she eventually introduced the song when she took over the title role at the end of the show's Broadway run).

In 1936, Merman opened opposite Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter's Red, Hot and Blue. Here's a rare clip of the two veterans 30 years later singing a song from Jule Styne's score for Funny Girl:

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Based on a fictional premise, but filmed in the style of a documentary, La Pivellina tells the story of an Italian circus performer (Patrizia Gerardi) who, while searching for her pet dog near a trailer park, discovers a two-year-old girl who has been abandoned and left in a playground swing by her mother. Inside the girl's jacket is a note explaining that the mother is in desperate straits and will come for the child as soon as she can.

Although not necessarily a woman of maternal instincts, Patty brings the child back to her trailer to feed it and make sure it is safe. Her husband (Walter Saabel), who is keenly aware of their meager finances and the added responsibility of caring for a child, would prefer to call the police. But Patty wants to hang on to Asia (Asia Crippa) for a while, hoping that the little girl can eventually be reunited with her mother.

Soon, Asia has worked her way into the hearts of Patty and a young boy (Tairo Caroli) whose father is also a circus worker. When a note finally arrives from Asia's mother detailing when she will come to pick up her daughter, Patty and her friends decide to throw a birthday party for Asia as a farewell. At the end of the film, when the mother fails to show up and Walter is away on a job, Patty is left to determine Asia's fate.

Filmed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, La Pivellina (which is being screened as part of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival) treads a delicate line between a fictional narrative and a documentary style of filmmaking. As Covi explains:
"In Italy, a great many children are abandoned at this age, not just newborns. Unfortunately, it’s a current problem. Asia was almost two years old during the shooting. Our working style is probably the best for shooting with children. For children, we aren’t in any way scary. And kids need time, of course. I spent a great deal of time with her, until she fell asleep in my arms, and then with Patty in the trailer. Afterwards she would go to sleep there all the time. When we picked up the camera or the sound equipment we didn’t change to such an extent that she would have noticed.

Patrizia Gerardi and Asia Crippa

We’ve known Patty for a long time, and we think her voice and behavior resemble that of Anna Magnani, whom we adore. She has an explosive personality, though she did a lot to hold herself back during shooting. Patty was happy to appear in the film. On top of that, we shot in winter (a time when nothing’s happening in the circus business). This was a welcome change of pace during a time that is normally dead for them. We lived with them in their trailer, played cards or dice at night or went to the pizzeria. Circus people who work outdoors don’t have much to do in winter: getting their trailers ready for the summer, rehearsing and improving their acts; otherwise the shoot filled up a period of nothing but waiting time."
La Pivellina won't tear at your heartstrings as much as more manipulative narrative films. But the tragedy of Asia's fate is very real. Having been temporarily taken in by Patty, one wonders what the little girl's future holds in store for her. Here's the trailer:

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Just as Merman had the great good luck to be spotted by producer Vinton Freedley while she was performing at the Brooklyn Paramount, a 16 year old dancer had the good fortune to be spotted by ballet enthusiast Anne Bass in January of 2000 (while she was visiting the Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia). Dance enthusiasts have a keen eye for talent and, even after she returned home to America, Bass couldn't shake the memory of watching Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar perform.

Something about the boy's charisma, natural talent as a dancer, and his ability to communicate with an audience hooked Bass and inspired her to make an extraordinary gesture. Through her contacts at the World Monuments Fund, she was able to send a message to Sy's dance teacher that if the young man was interested in coming to New York to train as a ballet dancer, she would help to underwrite his expenses.

A wealthy woman, Bass understood that this was a huge challenge -- both culturally and personally -- for a 16-year-old boy with no sense of Western dance traditions. When she first noticed Sy, he was basically happy to be dancing with his friends. The last thing on his mind was competing in an international ballet competition.

Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar competing at Varna, Bulgaria
(Photo by: Stoyan Lefedzhiev)

Bass's documentary, Dancing Across Borders, follows Sy's progress from his initial discovery to his arrival in New York and a year's hard work under the guidance of ballet teacher, Olga Kostritzky. It documents his progress through to the semifinals at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria and follows his five years of study at the School of American Ballet in New York and his eventual maturation as a member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

Dancing Across Borders also accompanies Sy on his return to Cambodia to perform ballet as part of a celebration of the rededication of the United State Embassy in Phnomh Penh. Seeing how much he has grown upon his return to his home community to visit his parents and the students at his former school of Khmer dance is especially heartwarming.

While Bass has been active on the boards of directors of several American ballet companies, this was her first attempt at making a documentary. As she explains:
"I did not originally set out to make a film. When Sokvannara (Sy) Sar first came to New York, I photographed and filmed his dance classes in order to be able to send a record of his progress to his mother in Cambodia. I began to see more clearly that, within the facts and the context of Sy’s story -- and his development as a person and as a dancer under the guidance of a remarkable teacher -- there really was a potentially interesting film. I did not know if I would be able to grasp this potential and transform it into a convincing and enjoyable film, but I thought it might be fun to try. Since I was in the privileged position of being able both to make this attempt and to fail at it, I decided to go ahead.

Initially I had assumed that I would simply choose and hire a director to make the film that I envisioned. But it quickly became clear that, given my relationship to Sy, my intense feelings about ballet, and my strong -- even if as yet unformed -- ideas about what the film could be, it was not fair to subject experienced and professional filmmakers to what they might perceive to be the flaws and limitations of my vision and aptitude. So, early in this process, I resolved to do the work myself and, for better or worse, make the film that I wanted to make.

I wanted the film to respect the different levels of the story that I knew were implicit within it. This was very confusing because there were so many directions in which we could have gone. I wanted to avoid too much ballet because I hoped it would be more than a movie for balletomanes. I wanted to honor and express the role of teachers generally, of their dedication, and of the rapport that the best teachers are able to develop with their students. I hoped to draw some attention to Cambodia, its beauty and its heritage, and to the consequences of the lethal destruction that America did so much to catalyze. And I wanted the film to be honest and true to Sy’s character. Although he is often shown in a flattering light, I also wanted to include more of the challenging parts of his nature. I wanted the film to inspire other kids (privileged or very underprivileged) to seize whatever opportunities are in front of them, while still showing that nothing comes without discipline and relentless hard work."
Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar performing with composer Philip Glass
at the Vail International Dance Festival (Photo by: Erin Baiano)

I had a rather strange experience while watching a DVD screener of Dancing Across Borders. A close friend (who is a former ballet dancer) awoke from his nap midway through the film. Upon hearing ballet music, he came into the room where I was watching Bass's film and proceeded to offer a running commentary from the perspective of someone who trained under Alicia Alonso, won the Varna competition at the age of 17, and danced professionally with Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet.

While Dancing Across Borders is a film of many charms, it is hardly your typical documentary about ballet dancers. I especially like the way it shows the cross-cultural impact of dance and music on someone who grew up in a rural Asian landscape. One can see how difficult a path this has been for a young boy like Sy (who started much later than most male ballet dancers and had to learn an entirely new art form and language while adjusting to a completely different culture). Here's the trailer:

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Few things can change one's life as quickly as an automobile accident. The Magic Theater is currently presenting the world premiere of Lydia Stryk's sarcastic comedy, An Accident.

Based on what Stryk learned from her own experience of being run over in a supermarket's parking lot, this two-character play begins with a woman lying unconscious in a hospital bed. An Accident follows the bittersweet relationship that develops between Libby (Arwen Andersen) and the guilt-ridden Anton (Tim Kniffin) after he accidentally mows her down while reaching for some fresh cherries he had just purchased.

Arwen Anderson as Libby

The play is essentially a series of vignettes that begin as Libby's eyes start to flutter open and she struggles to regain her memory as well as physical control of her paralyzed body. A former television producer with a quick and sharp tongue, Libby is not the kind of patient who takes a passive approach to life. Lying in bed with only her eyes and mouth to help her, she is quick to attack, thrust, and parry with the high school history teacher by her bedside.

Curiously, though, whenever Anton manages to provoke Libby and really push her buttons, her anger and frustration help her to make a rehabilitative breakthrough. The scene in which Anton tries to perform a very new-agey healing ritual as Libby eggs him on sexually may shock some with its intensity and brazenness. But Libby's strength has always been her ability to control and manipulate people. As she regains her faculties, the return of that skill is a sure sign that she's healing and getting stronger.

Tim Kniffin as Anton

After directing the epic "...and Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi" for Cutting Ball Theatre (where he is artistic director), Rob Melrose must have found a two-character play like An Accident to be a refreshing change of pace. Barely 80 minutes long, An Accident is beautifully framed by Erik Flatmo's unit set and York Kennedy's sensitive lighting.

Together with the rest of the creative team, Melrose has shaped a stunning dramatic vehicle for Arwen Anderson, who rises to the playwight's challenge with a remarkable combination of vulnerability and bravado. While Tim Kniffin's portrayal of Anton offers a great foil to the intensity of Libby's needs and outbursts, Anderson's performance is the kind of tour de force that Bay area theatregoers won't want to miss. An Accident continues through May 9th at the Magic Theatre (you can order tickets here).

Friday, April 23, 2010

Around The World In Weighty Days

Time came to a standstill for far too many people last week as the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano forced many European airports to shut down. News that Iceland's neighboring Katla volcano could erupt with even greater force has kept millions on edge as they try to return home, deliver air freight, or simply continue their day-to-day affairs.

Some writers have rhapsodized about the possibility of returning to sea and rail as a regular means of transportation. Poetic thoughts, to be sure, but not particularly realistic in a global economy that depends on the ability to move large amounts of people and freight at high speeds through the air.

Things move much more slowly on the ground. Even when a human sprints down the street, he is moving at a snail's pace compared to a Boeing 747's average cruising speed of 652 miles per hour. While documentaries usually record events in real time, narrative films have the option of randomly moving forward or backward in time. In the hands of a gifted storyteller, film can make the audience feel as if time has stood still. In the hands of a less gifted artist, the audience can feel trapped by a filmmaker's inability to get moving.

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Andrei Dascalescu's documentary, Constantin and Elena (which will be screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival) trains its camera on the daily lives of two elderly Romanians who have been married for more than 55 years. Although the couple have a television set and cell phone, their lifestyles are not particularly modern.

Elena, who grew up in a convent where she learned how to write poetry, still weaves rugs and tapestries containing floral images. Over the years, her rugs have become a fixture in most of the homes in their tiny village. She routinely curses the "stupid ducks" who devotedly follow her around their farm.

A World War II veteran, Constantin has had numerous careers. He was a financial inspector in Bucharest when the Communists were in power and later became a plumber. Although he still milks the cows on his farm, he doesn't sing to them the way he used to.

Constantin and Elena

Now in their eighties, Constantin and Elena pass the time by teasing each other and singing old Romanian songs. Following the death of their eldest son, however, they are acutely aware that time is running out for them as well. As endearing as the two may be, Dascalescu's film can often test the audience's patience. Here's the trailer:

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If you really want to test your patience, let me recommend Eugène Green's new film, The Portuguese Nun. A movie whose greatest assets are to be found in the scenes featuring two Fado singers (Camané and Aldina Duarte) and the guitarist José Manuel Neto, this movie might cause one to wonder why these three artists have absolutely nothing to do with the film's plot. The answer is quite simple: The Portuguese Nun is not about Fado music. Nor does it have much else with which to command an audience's attention.

A Parisian film actress, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), has arrived in Lisbon to shoot some scenes for a movie opposite another French actor, Martin Dautand (Adrien Michaux). Julie is very much a free spirit, who has never had a serious relationship in her life. Martin has a wife with whom he would like to have a child, but there is no passion in his marriage.

Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and Adrien Michaux

Soon after arriving in Lisbon, Julie meets Vasco (Francisco Mozos), a street urchin with a ball, and D. Henrique Cunha (Diogo Dória), a suicidal older man who studied to become a cardiologist but who has never practiced medicine. While her director, Denis Verde (Eugène Green), encourages Julie to enjoy a night out on the town, she can't stop wondering why Vasco isn't in school. She's also intrigued by Irma Joana (Ana Moreira), the insomniac nun she spies at church.

By the end of the film, Julie has finished shooting her scenes and convinced the beleaguered mother of three children (Beatriz Batarda) who cares for Vasco that the orphaned boy might be better off moving to Paris with her.

Leonor Baldaque and Adrien Michaux

Watching The Portuguese Nun is a bit like waiting for paint to dry. Green's snooze fest features dialogue so wooden it could make an audio animatron scream out in protest. His tendency to film conversations at a strict right angle -- or have actors stare directly into the camera while reciting their lines as if in a metronomic trance -- is irritating, maddening, and horribly counterproductive.

Filmed in French and Portuguese (with English subtitles), The Portuguese Nun is only worth your time if you are never going to get to Lisbon and can't live without seeing some footage of Portugal's capital city. The following trailer contains one of the more animated scenes in this film. Don't waste your time on 127 minutes of cinematic Metamucil.

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Those looking for a film about South American slackers might want to check out José Manuel Sandoval's entry in the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival entitled You Think You're The Prettiest But You Are The Sluttiest. A rising star in Chile's burgeoning film industry, the 25-year-old Sandoval's piece revolves around the ongoing misfortunes of Javier (Martin Castillo), a 19-year-old loser who suffers from ennui, premature ejaculation, and an ongoing inability to compete with the superior charms of his best friend, Nico (Francisco Braithwaite), a graffiti artist who has no problems scoring with women.

When Javier comes on to drama student Valentina (Camila Le-Bert) by suggesting that she sign a contract to be his girlfriend for two weeks, he discovers that Valentina is much more sexually mature than he is. His amorous adventure is ruined by his usual problem with premature ejaculation. As Javier wanders the streets of Santiago wallowing in self pity, he tries to fend off the advances of a gay man (Jose Miguel Gallardo) by offering the guy money just to leave him alone.

Martin Castillo as Javier

Javier's efforts at getting together with Valentina keep failing, much to the amusement of Nico's girlfriend Francisca (Andrea Riquelme). When Javier tries to engage a depressed man in a bar (Sebastian Brahm) -- whose girlfriend has just left him after receiving a scholarship to Spain and dropped his children off with their grandparents -- Javier's feeble attempt to prove that his life actually sucks more than the other man's ends up with him allowing the other man to pay him for the privilege of punching Javier in the face.

Sebastian Brahm

The next day, as Javier roams about the city, he decides to avenge himself on Nico by defacing one of Nico's street murals with white paint. Soon after, Javier encounters two teen-age thugs (Matias Lopez and Alvaro Ramirez) who bully him into giving up his Discman (which contains the CD filled with music that Valentina had given him).

With nowhere to go but up, Javier tries to befriend a tired old street whore (Grimanesa Jiménez) as he explains that his friends who indulge in sex just for the fun of it are actually much bigger sluts than working prostitutes like her (who have sex because they need the money to live). And, by the way, if she's interested, he has $10 burning a hole in his pocket.

Grimanesa Jiménez and Martin Castillo

As Sandoval explains:
"The film roots itself as an absurd realist street script. Through its use of dialogue, it is able to transform the absurd into a quotidienne that can easily be pictured on a neighboring street corner. It is one of those city movies that deals with a universal theme with the specificity of he who lives through it while never forgetting to establish a point of view in regards to the place that gives context to the story. Intense performances charged with verbal diarrhea-ic dialogues add to the film by creating a world with a strong social and postmodern point of view.

A seemingly naïve film that shies away from the use of spectacle and that is forever fleeing from formalities, the characters build up in such a way that those same elements take on a strong narrative effect. This is possible thanks to the close relationship between the director and the story, since the vision has sprung from that one mind that with a sensibility although, at times, haphazard never ceases to be particular."
Martin Castillo as Javier

Javier's vain boast that "I'm the most post-modern one" does little to generate any audience sympathy for him other than acknowledging the fact that he's a hopeless dork. While Martin Castillo's sleepy eyes and lanky frame give him the kind of nebbishy charm that could make the young Woody Allen seem supremely overconfident, Sandoval's film needs some tightening to make it stay afloat. Here's the trailer:

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If Constantin and Elena, The Portuguese Nun, and You Think You're The Prettiest, But You're the Sluttiest all seem to leave their audiences hungry for a solid narrative, the answer to their prayers can be found in The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinian drama which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Juan José Campanella, this powerful thriller has a winning overlay of political, sexual, and criminal intrigue as meticulously plotted as Pedro Almodovar's recent Broken Embraces.

Spanning a 25-year period of corruption and betrayal in Argentina, Campanella's film begins with the investigation into a brutal murder in 1974 during which Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) was raped and murdered in her home in Buenos Aires.

As a young state prosecution investigator assigned to the case, Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) can't find any clues with which to track down the killer. His assistant, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), is a chronic alcoholic drinking his way through a secure government paycheck who is always advising Esposito to follow the killer's passion. When Esposito's bureaucratic rival, Romano (Mariano Argento), tries to pin the murder on two goofballs, Esposito smells a rat and works to have them released.

One night, while at a sports bar, Sandoval connects some critical dots by identifying the names found in a suspect's letters (he identifies them as players on a major soccer team). When Esposito and his allies manage to corner the suspect -- a man who knew the victim back when they lived in the small town of Chivilcoy -- their attempts to bring Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) to justice take a strange twist.

Esposito's new boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), is a sexy young female judge with an Ivy League education. She takes one look at Gómez and launches into a scathing attack on his masculinity, branding him as impotent and insisting that his dick is probably so tiny that the only way he could get a woman's attention was to kill her.

Enraged by her accusations, Gómez confesses to the murder of Liliana Coloto and pulls out his penis in the middle of the courtroom to prove to Irene that it's a lot bigger than she thinks. A year later, when Gómez is sprung from prison by Romano and becomes a hired thug for the secret police, both Irene and Esposito realize that their lives are at risk.

Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil, and Ricardo Darin

One evening, after Esposito has brought the drunken Sandoval to his home to sober up, he leaves the house to run an errand. Upon his return, he discovers that Sandoval has been gunned down (no doubt by someone who thought he was Esposito). With some help from Irene's family, Esposito goes into exile for a decade, returning to Buenos Aires in 1985 and quietly working until his retirement in 1999.

Now, 25 years after Liliana Coloto's murder, Esposito needs a project to alleviate the boredom of retirement. He visits Irene and informs her of his desire to write a novel based on the Coloto case.

Throughout the past 25 years Coloto's murder has kept haunting him. Early in his investigations, Esposito had met Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), Liliana's lover who kept waiting in train stations hoping to spot her murderer. Haunted by the events of the past 25 years, Esposito tracks Morales down to the small town where he has settled and tried to cope with his grief.

Morales, however, has been hiding a shocker of his own -- the kind of plot twist that makes for a great saga of revenge. Once Esposito learns Morales's secret, he is free to return to Buenos Aires, grab Irene, lock the door to her office, and try to rekindle the flames of a romance they had never had time to pursue once they feared for their lives.

Soledad Villamil, and Ricardo Darin

Campanella's film is gorgeous to watch and fascinating to experience. As he explains in his director's notes:
"Memory fascinates me. The way decisions we made 20 or 30 years ago can affect us today. This could also apply to a nation’s memories. As we now recover our memory of the 1970s as a country, we know that the horror began to take shape before the military dictatorship. The story takes place in that Argentina as the very air thickened, creeping up on and enveloping even the key players.

My aim was to tell this story as a combination: of small beings wandering through a sea of people, among huge structures, lost in the crowd -- and their eyes. The story of that man walking by a hundred meters away at the train station, with five hundred bodies between us and him. What could we learn about him if suddenly, with no cuts, we could see a close up of his eyes? What secrets would they have to tell?

Secrets about a story like this one perhaps: a story about a murder, true, but above all a story about love. A story about love in its purest form. A love that ended when it was only in the bud, with no time even to fade and die.

How could a love like that be lived? What effect would it have on the people involved? What acts of madness could a pair of eyes commit when love is taken away from them?

These are questions the film seeks to ask and which, only in the lives of the characters, perhaps attempts to find answers to. I don’t see this as a 'film noir.' The 'meat,' the main dish, the driving forces behind this movie is an undeclared love that has lasted for years, frustration, and the emptiness felt by the main characters."
The Secret In Their Eyes features some magnificent acting (especially from Soledad Villamil as Irene and Javier Godino as Gómez). This film offers a complex, intelligent, and multi-layered weave of love, intrigue, and revenge. Here's the trailer: