Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Musical Americana

As we approach the July 4th celebrations of Independence Day, many people will anticipate hearing patriotic standards. Among the many folk songs, military marches, popular songs, and traditional anthems that will no doubt be performed by orchestras and choral ensembles around the nation are:
By a curious set of circumstances, the last two weeks of June allowed me a chance to savor a wealth of musical Americana. Even though most of this music fell far outside the usual catalog of patriotic songs, it offered a fascinating perspective on how composers viewed America at various points in the 20th century.

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Over at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera was presenting a new production of Giacomo Puccini's only opera to have had its world premiere in the United States. Based on a play by David Belasco, Girl of the Golden West is set in California's Sierra Madre Mountains, which are much closer to Santa Barbara than the area around Sutter's Mill (the site that inspired the California gold rush). The opera -- which takes place during the winter of 1849-1850 -- premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910. This year marks the opera's centenary and, accordingly, Fanciulla del West will be performed by numerous opera companies.

Nick (Salvatore Licitra) and Minnie (Deborah Voigt)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With sets designed by Maurizio Balò, costumes by Gabriel Berry, and lighting by Duane Schuler, this co-production with Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Opera Royal de Wallonie is visually spectacular. If one isn't blown away by the sheer scale of the sandstone cliffs that dominate the stage, there is always the Act III upstage drop that evokes memories of Albert Bierstadt's magnificent paintings of the American West.

Musically, however, there is a big problem with this production. Under normal circumstances it would take a major effort to drown out soprano Deborah Voigt (who was making her debut in the role of Minnie). However, as he demonstrated during last year's production of Tosca, conductor Nicola Luisotti -- who was named Music Director of the San Francisco last fall -- tends to overwhelm his singers in many parts of the score.

Rance (Roberto Frontali), Minnie (Deborah Voigt), and
Johnson (Salvatore Licitra) (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Puccini's opera is notable for having only two women in the cast: the heroine and her Indian servant, Wowkle (Maya Lahyani). With most of the vocal music spread over a male chorus, there are numerous opportunities for character singers. These were happily filled by Brian Leerhuber (Larkens), Brian Jagde (Joe), David Lomelí (Harry), Matthew O’Neill (Trin), Austin Kness (Handsome), Trevor Scheunemann (Jake Wallace), Steven Cole (Nick), and Timothy Mix (Sonora).

Under Lorenzo Mariani's direction, the male principals included bass Kevin Langan as the Wells Fargo agent (Ashby), baritone Roberto Frontali as Sheriff Jack Rance, and tenor Salvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson (a/k/a the Mexican bandit, Ramerrez). Although chorus director Ian Robertson worked hard to inspire clarity from the male chorus, this was the kind of evening where one exited the Opera House whistling the sets rather than Puccini's score. Nevertheless, I always relish the chance to hear the latest gossip about "Mr. Johnson della Sacramento" and listen to Dick and Minnie make their final exit singing "Addio, mia California!"

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On Monday, June 21, 42nd Street Moon held its annual fundraising event at the Alcazar Theatre. Entitled "Kiss The Boys Goodbye: The Songs of Broadway and Hollywood in the 1940s" the evening featured company regulars Pierce Peter Brandt, Tami Dahbura, Dave Dobrusky, Bill Fahrner, Sarah Kathleen Farrell, Alexandra Kaprielian, Greg MacKellan, Anil Margsahayam, Carly Ozard, Benjamin Pither, Darlene Popovic, Stephanie Rhoads, Jimmy Robertson, and Andrew Willis-Woodward.

Stephanie Rhoads, Greg MacKellan, Sarah Kathleen Farrell
and Andrew Willis-Woodward

For some in the company it was a bittersweet event, a chance to say farewell to several performers who are leaving the Bay area to pursue their musical careers on the East Coast. For the audience, however, the evening offered a chance to hear some rarely performed songs, including such gems as:
  • "I Said No" (written by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser).
  • "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old" (written by Arthur Schwartz, Frank Loesser) and performed to the hilt by Carly Ozard and Darlene Popovic.
  • "Outside of That, I Love You" (an Irving Berlin rarity).
  • "Call Me Mister" (the rarely-heard title song from the Harold Rome musical revue of the same name).
  • "Minnie From Trinidad" (written by Harry Edens).
Darlene Popovic, Greg MacKellan, and Tami Dahbura

With her wonderful sense of comic timing, Darlene Popovic scored a big hit with "South America, Take It Away" while two of the men gave new meaning to "Put The Blame On Mame" (written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher).

Jimmy Robertson and Sarah Kathleen Farrell

Although the evening's finale included an audience sing-along to Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (written by Allie Wruble and Ray Gilbert), one of the sweetest moments was a stripped-down version of "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" (written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon). Here's the mercurial Carmen Miranda in Busby Berkeley's unforgettable production number from 1943's The Gang's All Here:

Special credit should be given to the company's co-founder, Greg MacKellan, for his curatorial skills in digging up great songs from the period. 42nd Street Moon's next season includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum (Stephen Sondheim), Babes in Arms (Rodgers & Hart), Strike Up The Band (George & Ira Gershwin), Silk Stockings (Cole Porter), and Murder For Two (a new murder mystery musical comedy by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair in which two actors portray all the characters while playing a single piano). Here's a preview:

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To help celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Fantasticks, SFPlayhouse is presenting off-Broadway's longest running musical (17,162 performances during its 42 years at the tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse) in a new production with a modern-day twist. As director Bill English explains:
"What if The Fantasticks was set in a time when there was no grass or grain and when the act of trying to remember them was filled with loss and yearning? What if the world suffered some ecological disaster and a troupe of players were traveling across a broken landscape trying to keep hope alive with this beautiful tale of innocence, loss, and renewal? As they perform this ritual (as important to them as it is to the audience), they keep their faith alive.

An eternal story, The Fantasticks calls on us to cherish the essential elements of life. Hopefully, our version will serve as a cautionary tale that can help us protect what we have before we lose it."
Sepideh Moafi and Jeremy Kahn (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Based on a play by Edmond Rostand called The Romancers (Les Romanesques), The Fantasticks holds up remarkably well after a half century. The songs (written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt for a solo piano accompaniment) retain a surprising amount of power, especially "Try To Remember," "Much More," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It," and "They Were You."

Other than a few paramilitary touches (most notable in Nina Ball's set and costume designs and Norman Munoz's hunky portrayal of The Mute), there is little to indicate a postapocalyptic tone to the production. In some minor changes, Luisa's father has undergone a gender change and become her mother. A joke about the pronunciation of the name "El Gallo" has been modified to sound like El Guy-O, El Gal-O, and even El Gay-O, to which the character mischievously answers "Well, maybe sometimes."

Ray Reinhardt, Jeremy Kahn, Yusef Lambert and
Norman Munoz (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

SFPlayhouse's appealing ensemble includes Jeremy Kahn as Matt, Sepideh Moafi as Luisa, Louis Parnell as Matt's father, and Joan Mankin giving a wonderful performance as Luisa's mother. Although Tarek Khan has some weak vocal moments as El Gallo, one could not hope for better comic relief than that offered by Yusef Lambert as Mortimer and 80-year-old veteran actor, Ray Reinhardt, as Henry.

As fresh as the SFPlayhouse production is, there's an element of seeing The Fantasticks again that's like visiting with an old friend you haven't seen in years -- someone who is an important touchstone to an earlier part of your life. Performances of The Fantasticks continue at SFPlayhouse through September 4 (you can order tickets here). It's still utterly charming.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Isn't It Bromantic?

It's not always the athletic bangaramathons that inspire the fondest memories of a relationship. Sometimes it's the way you catch someone looking at you. Or the feel of his breath on your neck in the middle of the night.

Sometimes it's an involuntary wink and smile. Or the way his hand quietly reaches for yours as you are walking together.

Maybe it's his habit of kissing you on the eyes and whispering "I love you so much." Or the feeling of warmth you feel as he rolls over in his sleep, slides his arm around your waist, and holds you tight.

Beyond all the hook-ups and webcam chats, the parties or dinners with friends, it's often the quietest moments that we treasure the most. Sometimes, during such moments, I think of a Cole Porter song that became famous in 1956 following MGM's release of High Society -- a movie musical that starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (in the last film she made before marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco).

Originally written by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse for 1917's hit musical, Oh, Lady! Lady!!, the lyrics for the torch song that wound up in Act II of Show Boat were revised by Oscar Hammerstein II in preparation for the musical's world premiere on December 27, 1927. Whether sung by a man or a woman, those lyrics still hold true today:
"I used to dream that I would discover
The perfect lover someday.
I knew I'd recognize him if ever
He came 'round my way.
I always used to fancy then
He'd be one of the God-like kind of men
With a giant brain and a noble head
Like the heroes bold
In the books I've read.

But along came Bill
Who's not the type at all,
You'd meet him on the street
And never notice him.
His form and face,
His manly grace
Are not the kind that you
Would find in a statue.

And I can't explain,
It's surely not his brain
That makes me thrill
I love him because he's wonderful,
Because he's just my Bill.

He can't play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn't half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn't tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can't explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.

He's just my Bill, an ordinary man,
He hasn't got a thing that I can brag about.
And yet to be
Upon his knee
So comfy and roomy
Seems natural to me.
Oh, I can't explain,
It's surely not his brain
That makes me thrill
I love him because he's, I don't know,
Because he's just my Bill."
One of the biggest challenges facing a filmmaker trying to tell a love story is to find something that will take his film beyond mere formula and overcome an audience's cynicism. Even if one tries to make a film based on a theme that has been done to death, a gifted storyteller can breathe new life into a familiar tale of "boy meets boy, boy gets boy." Consider these standard situations:
  • One man in a same-sex relationship is in the military, the other is not.
  • A gay man has to take a stand against a domineering, self-absorbed mother.
  • A gay man finds himself caught in a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Three films screened at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival rework these familiar formulas with new plot twists and fresh cultural overlays to show how love can triumph on three different continents. Ironically, two feature scenes in which a mother unexpectedly discovers her son in bed with another man.

Despite the markedly different cultures in which easy story takes place, these three films manage to capture the kind of love many gay men yearn for but have so much difficulty finding. Is such love ethereal and unobtainable? Or does it fit around us with the comfort of an old shoe? Is it the type of love that is constantly on display in public situations? Or a quieter kind of tenderness that fosters contentment, security, and inner peace?

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Kim Jo Gwang-Soo's 30-minute short, Just Friends?, is essentially a love story sandwiched between two very happy music videos. In this tender tale, Seok-i (Lee Je-hoon) travels by bus from Seoul to visit his boyfriend Min-su (Seo Ji-hoo), who is serving in the South Korean army.

The plot takes a curious turn when Min-su's mother interrupts their meeting at the barracks and brings both young men home for dinner. When Seok-i discovers that there are no more buses to Seoul that night, the three protagonists end up sleeping together on the floor (their faces covered with moisturizing cream) in a scene unlike any I've ever watched in a romantic comedy. As the filmmaker notes:
"There are many Korean films that give distorted portrayals of gays. I wanted to make a real gay film of 99.9% purity. Through this film, I wanted to give a true view of gays -- not only the gay couples, but the relationships that surround them -- and how they 'unconsciously but inevitably' hurt those around them."
Thankfully, Just Friends? is available on YouTube with English subtitles. Kim Jo Gwang-Soo's romantic comedy has such charm and wit that you can't help but fall in love with its characters. Enjoy!

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A new full-length feature from Tunisia plants a gay love story in the middle of several interesting cultural conflicts. Le Fil (The String) deals with the varied expectations of people who are gay, straight, old, young, wealthy, poor, Catholic, Muslim, in denial, and insane. Written and directed with great insight by Medhi Ben Attia, its main characters include:
  • Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan), a 30-year-old Tunisian who has returned home from studying in France to work as an architect at a firm run by an old friend of the family. Although Malik is gay and has a preference for rough trade, he has always had difficulty standing up to his mother, a very manipulative grande dame.
  • Moncef (Hosni Khaled), the head of the architectural firm where Malik will be working.
  • Siryne (Ramla Ayari), Moncef's very butch daughter who, along with her lesbian lover, wants to have a child. Siryne is considering her childhood friend, Malik, as a potential sperm donor.
  • Malik's grandmother (Nejia Zemni), who wants her grandson to get married and give her a grandchild before she dies.
  • Sara (Claudia Cardinale), a wealthy widower living in a beautiful estate near the beach. Although her late husband, Abdelaziz (Lotfi Dziri), acknowledged that their son was gay, Sara has, for many years, refused to face the truth. When Sara walks into Malik's bedroom without knocking and finds him sleeping with Bilal, she must not only accept the fact that her son is gay, but also accept that she is losing a servant and will have to treat Bilal as an honored guest in her home.
Claudia Cardinale as Sara
  • Bilal (Salim Kechiouche) is a young Arab student who has been doing part-time work for Sara in exchange for room and board. His talents go far beyond gardening.
  • Wafa (Rihab Mejri), Sara's domestic servant. A devout Muslim who is ready to quit her job because her faith tells her that homosexuals are evil, Wafa must also deal with the sudden change in Bilal's status in Sara's house.
  • Frida (Djaouida Vaughan), a close friend of Sara's whose son might also be gay. Frida reminds Sara that she knew about Malik's sexuality years ago but didn't want to accept it.
  • The Madman (Mohamed Graïaa) harasses Malik and Bilal when they are at the beach, threatening to have them arrested for crimes against nature.
Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) and Bilal (Salim Kechiouche)

Although many suggest that the title, Le Fil, refers to Malik's need to cut himself free from his mother's apron strings, the film's title actually refers to something else. In his childhood, whenever he felt pressured, Malik would often imagine himself being wound up in a piece of string. The only way for him to escape was to keep spinning until the string unwound and he was once again free.

At a crucial point in the film, the audience sees a panicky Malik run into a field and start spinning wildly, as if the stress of Sara's unexpected hospitalization is too much for him to bear. Thankfully, Bilal is there to ground him and bring Malik back to reality.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs when Bilal is introduced to Moncef's family. After hearing the young student explain that he had previously had a relationship with an older man, Moncef smiles and says "Then you can teach all of us how to deal with it." It is a lovely moment in which the traditional authority of the older generation is handed over to the youngest with an understanding of who has important knowledge to share.

Poster art for Le Fil

Bilal is, in fact, the catalyst who brings about a surprising amount of social change within Sara's social circle. Not only does he become Malik's lover (as Malik becomes Siryne's husband), during the wedding Sara confesses a bit of her own history to Malik by relating how she shocked Abdelaziz's relatives at their wedding by refusing to sit dutifully with the women instead of with her new husband. That was, of course, back in the days when a French Catholic girl marrying a Tunisian Muslim was deemed scandalous.

Sara also plays an important role in explaining to Malik, Moncef, Siryne, and Bilal why it is important for them to participate in her son's sham wedding. They're all doing this so that the child can have a father and not suffer any stigma of illegitimacy. As the film ends, the audience sees both families relaxing on the beach as Malik and his son play in the water.

The performances in Le Fil are uniformly solid, with Claudia Cardinale showing that she still has plenty of fire in her eyes and heart. As the two young lovers, Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan and Salim Kechiouche are intensely photogenic and refreshingly self-possessed. Topping it all off is a wonderful musical score by Karol Beffa which alternates between popular Arabic music and the astringent tones of a modern ensemble. Here's the trailer:

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A decidedly more lighthearted romance, Is It Just Me? explores the challenges faced by an average looking gay man trying to find true love in an intense meat market like Hollywood. Blaine (Nicholas Downs) writes an advice column for a popular Los Angeles gay newspaper. He is also the polar opposite of his roommate, Cameron (Adam Huss).

Whereas Blaine is the type of gay man who can overintellectualize anything and everything, Cameron is the stereotypical hunky go-go dancer who knows how to get plenty of head. And does so without compunction.

One night, Blaine starts chatting online with someone who sounds too good to be true. During their first telephone call, things just keep getting better and better. Could he have found Prince Charming? Is there someone in Hollywood who is actually compatible with Blaine?

Unfortunately, the chat occurred shortly after Cameron had been using Blaine's computer (and had forgotten to sign off from his favorite gay website). The result? The handsome hunk that's just arrived in Los Angeles from a small town in Texas is falling in love with Blaine's words and thoughts while drooling over Cameron's pictures.

How long will it take for Xander (David Loren) to learn the truth? And when he does, will he be willing to embrace plain Blaine instead of hunky Cameron?

This gimmick has been used in vehicles ranging from Edmond Rostand's play, Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) to Steve Martin's film adaptation, Roxanne (1987) and Q. Allan Brocka's rowdy gay sex farce, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat (2009). Whereas Brocka wasted no time taking the low road, writer/director J. C. Calciano has decided to take the romance between Blaine and Xander much more seriously. To his credit, even the most cynical of audiences will find themselves won over by Calciano's approach.
I especially loved the scene in which Xander and his housemate Ernie (Bruce Gray) are watching a horror film in which Cameron once had a small part. When the credits roll -- revealing that Blaine's name is nowhere to be seen -- Ernie can't stop blubbering over what has essentially been a Grade B piece of schlock.

What words of wisdom pour forth from an old queen whose fart-prone dog is named is Donatella? "It's like Sweeney Todd without the music," sobs Ernie. "Or Angela!"

By the time Is It Just Me? comes to its end, it's impossible to resist the charms of its well-balanced ensemble, particularly David Loren's Xander. Key supporting roles are handled by Michelle Laurent (as Blaine's close friend and running partner) and Bob Rumnock as Blaine's neurotic and often hysterical publisher. Adam Huss is an absolute hoot as Blaine's sexy roommate.

Will Blaine and Xander fall in love and live happily ever after? Only time will tell. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Forbidden Fruits

Once upon a time (and not so very long ago) gay people didn't dare to identify themselves in public, much less speak about their true desires. Can you imagine this scene actually taking place in a film adaptation of Charles Dickens' dark depiction of life in a Victorian workhouse?

As LGBT people in cities across the globe gather to celebrate Gay Pride Weekend, it's important to remember just how far we've come. Those of us who are old enough to remember how Barbara Bush supposedly left a blue candle burning in a White House window (because nobody in her husband's administration was willing to utter the word "AIDS") recognize that President Obama's apparent lack of shame in being seen "palling around with gay activists" offers a vivid reminder of how much America has changed in the past 25 years.

For those who feel that the Obama administration keeps inexcusably dragging its feet with regard to campaign promises made to LGBT supporters, I ask: Could you imagine Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan making a speech like this -- and using the White House's communications machine to broadcast the video worldwide?

As someone with a long history of political activism, Obama is not telling people to shut up and hide. Instead, he's echoing the sentiment expressed by Stephen Sondheim in his 1964 flop, Anyone Can Whistle.

What is it about "the other" that drives men wild? It is the fear that a sexual taboo will lose its capacity to shock? That someone's tastes might be different from the assumed norm? Or that someone, somewhere, somehow will have a good time?

In 1972, when Some Like It Hot was adapted for the musical stage by Peter Stone, Bob Merrill, and Jule Styne, one of the hit songs from Sugar became "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad." Here are the original stars (Robert Morse and Tony Roberts) performing the number at a benefit in Carnegie Hall:

As is to be expected, several films shown at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival dealt with the issue of cultural and sexual taboos. Four of them approached the subject from new and refreshing angles.

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Many years ago, a friend of mine who had been building himself quite a track record as a slut looked me in the eye and said "Of course, I don't do that stuff anymore because I'm married now." His idea of monogamy apparently referred to regular threeways featuring him, his lover, and whatever trick sparked their fancy on a Saturday night.

Fidelity is an iffy topic within many gay relationships, especially when both partners have a history of sexual promiscuity. Quentin Lee's 10-minute short, Little Love, examines what happens when close friends get too friendly.
  • Andy (Michael Massei) is a successful executive with a beautiful home in Los Angeles. Probably in his mid-forties, he is financially secure and relishes his ability to enjoy the finer things in life.
  • Rafael (Derek Efrain Villanueva) is Andy's younger lover, who is beginning to wonder if his life has been taken over by Andy's needs. Handsome, sexy, and occasionally insecure, Rafael finds himself emotionally vulnerable when Andy is out of town on business trips.
  • Markus (Travis Oakden) is a professional colleague of Andy's who is new to Los Angeles. After the two men hit it off, they became close friends as Andy welcomed Markus into his social circle.
  • Roberto (Alfredo Madura) is one of Rafael's close friends, the stereotypical gay bitch who feels a need to do some truth telling.
Derek Efrain Villaneuva and Travis Oakden

One night, while Andy is away on a business trip, Markus and Rafael return to Andy's home happily inebriated after a cozy dinner at a restaurant. Insisting that Markus is too drunk to drive home, Rafael suggests that Markus spend the night. A poolside seduction quickly leads to the bedroom where the two men spend a tender night in each other's arms. Rafael opens up about some of his insecurities and Markus encourages him to move forward with his plans to go to college at Columbia University in New York.

Several weeks later, when Markus arrives for another party at Andy's house, he is met at the door by a visibly angry host who feels that Markus has betrayed him. As Markus prepares to leave, Roberto steps outside to tell Markus that he was the one who told Andy about Rafael's infidelity.

While Little Love doesn't tell a story that is particularly new, the narrative is well framed by Quentin Lee (whose feature film, The People I've Slept With, scored strongly with audiences at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival earlier this year). Should anyone be surprised that, when Andy's away, his lover and best friend will play? I think not. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Michael Mew, Peking Turkey shows what happens when Chris (Mark Louie), a Chinese-Canadian man living in Montreal, brings his boyfriend Pierre (Bruno Baronet) home to Vancouver for Christmas to meet his family and inform his parents that the two men plan to get married.

Much of the film's charm comes from its multiculturalism (the cast performs in English, French, and Chinese). This version even has German subtitles. Enjoy!

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Some straight men are so cocksure of themselves that they remain oblivious to the faultiness of their logic. Marco Berger's Plan B is an Argentinian film in which an extremely macho culture allows straight men to cuddle, exchange gifts, and sleep together without giving much thought to the inherent sexuality of the situation.

Lucas Ferraro and Manuel Vignau

When the scruffy slackerish Bruno (Manuel Vignau) gets dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Mercedes Quinteros), he vows to get her back by any means necessary-- even though she has already found herself a new boyfriend. Laura has dropped a few hints that Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) might be bisexual but, as far as Bruno is concerned, all's fair in love and self-love.

When Bruno describes his plan to his friend Javier (Ariel Nunez de Croce), it all sounds perfectly logical. At first, things seem to be going better than he could have hoped for. Bruno finds an excuse to bump into Pablo at the gym, where he starts a conversation about a popular television drama (similar to Lost) that turns out to be Pablo's favorite.

One thing leads to another and, because Laura refuses to watch Pablo's favorite television show, Bruno gets invited over to Pablo's apartment where they can watch the show together. As time passes and the two men continue to smoke dope and watch television, they start bonding in ways they never imagined. Then things veer off in an unexpected direction.

Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and Bruno (Manuel Vignau)

At a party one night, a woman who knows both men starts teasing them about how close they have become. Eager to play along with the idea, Bruno starts acting as if he and Pablo are lovers. When the woman dares them to make out in front of her, a tentative kiss starts to open up deeper feelings. Soon Bruno finds himself telling his new best friend that he doesn't want to share Pablo with anyone.

What I really like about Berger's film is that it takes its own sweet time allowing Bruno and Pablo to discover how they feel about each other. Unlike many gay films, where the sex would come first (followed by a lot of emotional distress), Plan B allows both men to fall in love with each other very slowly -- coming to see each other not as sexual objects, but as the person with whom they feel they can share the greatest amount of emotional intimacy on a day-to-day basis.

Plan B's laid-back approach to male bonding may be helped by the fact that none of the characters seems to have a job. When there's little else to do but smoke dope, go to the gym, watch television, and sleep in each other's arms, brotherly love seems like the most natural result. Here's the trailer:

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For many gay men, the ultimate fantasy involves sex between identical twins. Milo and Elijah Peters (two identical twins whose videos have become a gold mine for Bel Ami Studios) proudly describe their relationship as follows: "My brother is my boyfriend and I am his boyfriend. He is my life blood. He is my only love."

While the Peters twins have delighted porn fans around the world, the fact that they are two identical twins in a loving sexual relationship was enough to send writer Thomas Rogers off the deep end in an article he wrote for entitled Gay Porn's Most Shocking Taboo. What really seems to have upset Rogers more than anything else is not the fact that the Peters twins make porn. It's the fact that they celebrate their love so shamelessly.

While a loving sexual relationship between half brothers might not generate quite the same kind of publicity as if they were identical twins, a new Brazilian movie written and directed by Aluisio Abranches is so beautifully plotted and lovingly filmed that it easily qualifies as the best gay incest movie of the year (even if its two stars are only half brothers).

From Beginning To End also depicts the most wholesome love story you are ever likely to see on the silver screen. As Abranches explains:
"I had very loving parents. I grew up with two sisters, but no brother. I grew up trying to understand why we all had this fear about homosexuality. I thought I would understand that with age, but this is not always the case. I understand that everyone does not see things the same way I do. Perhaps having dealt with the subject in this way makes the film more provocative.

I wanted to talk about homosexuality as a loving (and not as a different) form of love.
So I decided to tell this story of love between two brothers who deal with these two subjects. I have not treated the subject of the film as if it were a taboo (homosexuality nowadays is no longer considered a taboo, even though there is still intolerance). The fact that Francisco and Thomás are brothers makes it impossible for two men to procreate (and thus avoids allusions to the legend that people from the same blood that can create monsters)."
Francisco (Lucas Cotrim) and Thomás (Gabriel Kaufmann)

As the film opens, we see two male adolescents doing what most kids their age do -- teasing each other. At the ripe old age of 11, Francisco (Lucas Cotrim) obviously has the upper hand as he threatens to kill his six-year-old brother's teddy bear. Thomás (Gabriel Kaufmann) is screaming to get his stuffed doll back and resenting his brother's unfair advantage.

Cut to the two boys taking their evening bath together and being admonished by the family maid, Rosa (Louise Cardoso), for making such a mess in the bathroom. While the two boys have the same mother (Júlia Lemmertz), they have different fathers. Francisco's father, Pedro (Jean Pierre Noher) still lives in Argentina while Thomás's father, Alexandre (Fábio Assunção) is an academic who now lives with the boys and their mother in Brazil.

Fábio Assunção, Gabriel Kaufmann, and Lucas Cotrim

Although the boys may fight during the day, their closeness does not cause any concern for their mother, who is a physician. Julietta tells Francisco that if he ever has questions about things in life that he doesn't understand, he should feel free to ask her about anything. The tenderness and spontaneity between the two brothers seems perfectly natural to her (even when they fall asleep in the same bed with Francisco's arm protectively wrapped around his kid brother).

Small gestures, however, show that the two boys are growing closer than usual. One night, when Alexandre attempts to punish his son for bad behavior, Francisco steps between them and announces that he will assume any responsibility for disciplining his stepbrother. During a Christmas visit to Pedro's family in Argentina, the effusive Thomás innocently kisses Francisco on both cheeks in front of all the relatives.

Time passes. After Pedro and Julietta die, the boys reappear as adults mourning the death of their mother. By this point, the 25-year-old Francisco (João Gabriel Vasconcellos) has become a doctor. At 20, Thomás (Rafael Cardoso) is training to become a competitive swimmer.

Alexandre has moved out, leaving the two young men to live alone in the house where they grew up. Returning home from their mother's funeral, the two stepbrothers finally consummate a love that has been building for years.

Francisco (João Gabriel Vasconcellos) and Thomás (Rafael Cardoso)

While intensely sensual and erotic, their lovemaking is neither seductive nor exploitative. The passion that erupts between the two brothers is a natural and genuine extension of all their years of physical contact. The following teaser offers plenty of eye candy:

Once their relationship turns sexual, the love between the two brothers continues to deepen. No one seems to have a problem with their public displays of intimacy. In one beautiful shot, Francisco and Thomás are seen rising from the blue waters of a popular beach with the ghost of their mother happily between them. But then the swim coach who has been working with Thomás delivers a piece of news that could shatter his domestic bliss.

Thomás (Rafael Cardoso) and Francisco (João Gabriel Vasconcellos)

Thomás has been invited to train in Moscow with Brazil's Olympic swim team. Although the offer presents the opportunity of a lifetime, it also means that the two men will be separated for the first time in their lives. Francisco insists that his younger brother accept the invitation and swears they will find ways to keep their love alive over a distance of nearly 7,000 miles.

Francisco (João Gabriel Vasconcellos) and Thomás (Rafael Cardoso)

Although Francisco tries to socialize and meet people, when he brings a young woman (Mausi Martínez) home from a nightclub, she points to his wedding ring and asks if spending the night together is really what he wishes to do. What follows is one of the hunkiest Skype sessions you'll ever see as the younger brother's big pecs fill with emotion and longing for Francisco (who, alas, is halfway around the world). As Abranches notes:
"It was very difficult to find investors for the film. Although most have said the problem was incest (my shrink said that technically it's not incest because the two brothers cannot procreate), I truly believe that homosexuality leads to further rejection and frightening. I often quote George Bernard Shaw when I talk about my film: 'You see things and ask 'why?' but I dream of things that do not exist and I ask 'Why not?'."
Francisco (João Gabriel Vasconcellos) and Thomás (Rafael Cardoso)

From Beginning To End takes audiences on a magnificent emotional journey. Filled with love, thrillingl to watch, and emotionally fulfilling in ways not often found in modern cinema, it is an indie gem of the first order. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Caged Bird Sings

Marriages often lose their spark. While men may spend less time agonizing over a loss of passion or caring in their relationship, for many women the lack of economic power or the freedom to simply be themselves can be a suffocating experience. The woman who seems to have everything at her fingertips (but who remains curiously unhappy) was first memorialized in a song written by Arthur J. Lamb to music composed by Harry von Tilzer.

A Bird In A Gilded Cage became one of the hit songs of 1900, selling more than two million copies of sheet music. Even after women got the vote and made huge advances in the work force, its sentiments still ring true today.

When people think of the Statue of Liberty, they often recall the famous poem by Emma Lazarus that is engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted within its base. Its message was clearly aimed at immigrants arriving in search of a better life, filled with opportunity in the land whose streets were supposedly paved with gold.

Few, however, think of The New Colossus in terms of describing a desperate woman's hunger for love and freedom. If you re-read the poem through the eyes of a battered woman, or someone who has fled a loveless marriage, Lazarus's sonnet takes on a whole new meaning:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The abused, neglected, or trophy wife can be found in every civilization. In books, movies, theatre, and opera, the woman who feels trapped by her circumstances is a vital dramatic force. When considered as a genre, two films recently seen at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival and one of Richard Wagner's most famous operas help to put the stifled, submissive woman's predicament in a startling perspective.

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I doubt you could find a more unhappy soul in all of opera than Wagner's Sieglinde. When the audience meets her in Act I of Die Walkure, they quickly learn that she was torn from the loving arms of her mother and twin brother and forced into a loveless marriage with Hunding. Isolated, humiliated, hungry for love, it's no wonder she's been mixing herbs and berries just in case she ever needs to slip her husband a sleeping potion which might allow her to escape.

The San Francisco Opera recently debuted its second installment in a new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are so many wonderful innovations and insights in this new staging that, even after having seen a variety of Die Walkure productions since 1967, it was almost like experiencing the opera for the first time.

Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Siegmund (Christopher Ventris)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Aside from being cast with six remarkably strong singers in the principal roles, this new production showcases just how far opera producers have been able to stretch the Ring through the creative use of computer technology and the interpretative gifts of insightful stage directors. Let's not be shy about this: working with projection designer Jan Hartley, stage director Francesca Zambello has found new ways to bring life to many orchestral passages, starting with Siegmund's frantic dash through the woods until he comes upon Hunding's house. The transition from earth to Valhalla and back (through the use of blurred images of skyscrapers, clouds, and "golden cars" on freeways) is a breathtaking accomplishment in moving the plot forward.

I was also deeply impressed with Michael Yeargan's set designs, which:
  • Give the Act I transformation of Hunding's hut into a bold, moonlit landscape a new level of lyrical beauty to match Wagner's score,
  • Transform Valhalla into Wotan's conference room in a skyscraper that literally scrapes the sky,
  • Reposition Siegmund's death to a rumble scene beneath a highway overpass (Wagner goes all West Side Story!),
  • Allow the Valkyries to parachute across the stage with the bodies of dead heroes they are escorting to Valhalla, and
  • Deliver a magic fire scene that could thrill any arsonist.
Mark Delavan as Wotan (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One of the trademarks of Zambello's work over the years has been to find the tiniest moments which can deliver critical insights into her characters. Whether one notices how she has Fricka caress Brunnhilde's cheek with the kind of insincere maternalism one would expect from Cinderella's wicked stepmother -- or has Brunnhilde give Wotan a very butch and loving punch on his shoulder to boost his spirits -- Zambello continually finds new and very simple ways to add underlying touches to a situation which strengthen the dramatic bonds between characters.

Brunnehilde (Nina Stemme) and Wotan (Mark Delavan)
Photo by: Terrence McCarthy

Special mention should be made of Mark McCullough's lighting and Catherine Zuber's costumes, which help to frame this new Ring in ways that stress its humanity. No Ring, however, can survive without a strong conductor on the podium and Donald Runnicles coaxed some wonderful sounds out of both the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and his soloists. Although an announcement was made prior to the performance that soprano Nina Stemme (Brunnhilde) was suffering from a bronchial infection, one would never known from the richness of her tone and the dramatic forcefulness of her performance.

Christopher Ventris brought more lyricism to Siegmund's music than I've heard in quite some time. As Hunding, Raymond Aceto displayed a huge voice and threatening character. While Mark Delavan is still growing into the role of Wotan, he is making formidable progress with the music as well as the characterization.

Fricka (Janina Beachle) and Wotan (Mark Delavan)
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Sublimely strong performances came from Eve-Maria Westbroek (possibly the best Sieglinde I've heard since Leonie Rysanek owned the role) and Janina Baechle as Fricka. Both women made smashing San Francisco Opera debuts, deserving every ounce of acclaim at the final curtain.

An interesting measurement of the performance's caliber: When I saw my first performance of Die Walkure back at the Metropoliitan Opera in the famous production that was conducted and directed by Herbert von Karajan on Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's sets, Supertitles had not yet been invented. Wotan's lengthy monologue in Act II was enough to put anyone to sleep. (For the record, the cast for that production included Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Thomas Stewart, Christa Ludwig, and Gundula Janowitz.)

Since them, I've seen Rings sung in English and German, with Supertitles in English and Danish (!) on sets modeled after Arthur Rackham's famous drawings to those resembling the District of Columbia's underground Metro system. Thanks to the current levels of technology Supertitles, Jan Hartley's wondrous visual enhancements, the strength of Donald Runnicles' conducting, and a wealth of human touches by Francesca Zambello, this performance of Die Walkure sped by in a flash, making me wish it possible to come back the following night and experience it all over again.

It was also a glorious night of singing. This Ring is a co-production between the San Francisco Opera and the Washington National Opera. I can't wait to see it again as part of 2011's full Ring cycle (click here for more information).

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Actor/producer Tilda Swinton and filmmaker Luca Guadagnino have been involved in a labor of love for the past decade, a film which I first saw at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival and found to be even better at a subsequent press screening. I Am Love is not for the casual filmgoer or someone hoping to see the latest box office hit. A little over two hours, this is much more sophisticated fare aimed at those with brains and hearts, rather than the crowd that simply likes to see things explode.

To be sure, there are plenty of explosions throughout I Am Love. But they're all internal, hidden behind the eyes and fiercely kept under control in the privileged life within a wealthy Italian dynasty whose father figure has finally decided to retire. After having built a business that survived World War II, Edoardo Recchi, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) has decided to put the family business in Milan in the hands of his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti). Although Edo's younger brother Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro) and his father have no problems selling the business, Edo is acutely protective of the family name and its legacy.

Within the Recchi household a loyal staff of servants has kept the estate running like clockwork. Even with Tancredi's daughter, Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) off at school in London -- where, in addition to developing her photographic skills, she has come out as a lesbian -- and her devoted maid, Ida (Maria Paiato) fussing over her, Tancredi's wife, Emma (Tilda Swinton), is merely going through the motions of being a wife and mother.

Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi

A former Russian beauty whose father was an art conservator, Emma married into money. Even if her mother-in-law, Allegra (Marisa Berenson) can be difficult at times, there is little to rock Emma's world until she meets the young man who beat her son Edo in a horse race. Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) has no pretenses, is a brilliant chef, and feeds Emma what Swinton jokingly referred to in one interview as a plateful of "prawnography."

But with the family business undergoing changes, her son engaged to a young woman named Eva (Diane Fleri), and the possibility that she will soon be confronting empty nest syndrome, Emma is the kind of woman who feels herself drying up from lack of use. A sudden twist of fate which has her falling in love with her son's new business partner leads to the make-it-or-break-it moment when Emma must choose between more boring years with Tancredi or an exciting new love that has no guarantees.

The first time I saw this film I had to wrestle with the kind of problem that comes from knowing too much music. When the film was introduced, a great deal was made about how this was the first time composer John Adams had let his music be used for a film. As it became obvious that much of the soundtrack had been lifted directly from Nixon in China (including Pat Nixon's aria about being homesick for California), I found it increasingly hard to concentrate. At the second viewing, I had no such problem and could simply sit back and luxuriate in a film that is so beautifully crafted as to prove a constant source of shock and awe.

Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi

I Am Love is wonderfully introspective, lusciously vibrant, and filmed so beautifully that you will want to see it more than once. Adams' music, which instantly captures a sense industrial wealth with its chugging momentum, beautifully captures the tug-of-war within Emma's heart as she starts to yearn for a life she can't possibly enjoy with her husband of nearly 30 years.

What Guadagnino has been able to do is build a wonderful sense of intimacy in the widest of open spaces while capturing internal thoughts and flickers of recognition with an astounding level of emotional truth. Throughout the film, Flavio Parenti's Edo, Edoardo Gabbriellini's Antonio, and Alba Rohrwacher's Elisabetta glow with the optimism and vitality that accompany youth. But it is Tilda Swinton, whose radiance and beauty cannot be extinguished, who carries the film from start to finish in a magnificent performance that will thrill anyone who sees I Am Love. Here's the trailer:

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When Nozomi (Bae Doona) sets about creating a more satisfying life for herself in Hirokazu Kore-eda's new fantasy, Air Doll, she is nowhere as repressed or frustrated as Sieglinde and Emma Recchi. Nozomi is a Japanese blow-up doll, the kind of surrogate used for sex and companionship by lonely Japanese men who can't have a real relationship.

Nozomi as an air doll

What makes Air Doll so stunningly different is what happens when Nozomi magically comes to life and goes wandering around Tokyo. Kore-eda has a vivid memory of his first encounter with Yoshiie Goda's manga comic, The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, when it was was published by Shogakukan in February, 2000:
"I distinctly remember how much I was moved by this manga. This doll, inflated by the man she loves, walks around town at night and says to herself 'My empty body is filled with his breath. I may never be able to inflate myself on my own. Even if that means the end of my life, I don't care.'

I think the idea of being made whole by someone else's breath is a very intimate way to interact and receive satisfaction. The contrast between the human trying to fulfil himself, and the doll being fulfilled by someone else is so intriguing for me. When I read the scene where the inflatable doll sheds a tear, loses the air inside her, and gets filled with the breath of the person she is in love with, I found it very erotic. I found the scene very cinematic as well. I had never shot anything like that before, and I wanted to try. This is sex through one's breath, and I believed I could express this cinematically and metaphorically."
Poster Art for Air Doll

It doesn't take much for a viewer to willingly suspend disbelief as Nozomi goes wandering around town. Never mind how she gets in and out of the apartment where Hideo (Itsuji Itao) bathes her every night. Or how quickly she learns the ropes when she gets a job working in a video store with Junichi (Arata).

As Nozomi, Korean actress Bae Doona has such a goofy, doll-like quality that it's impossible not to want to believe that she has become human. The problem, of course, is that she essentially mirrors the society around her. Not knowing how things work in real life, she is prone to innocent mistakes. As Kore-eda explains:

"This film may appear to be a love story, but what lies deep down below are the questions about human nature: Can people fulfill their own emptiness? What is the meaning of life? What is a human being? In this film, I want the characters to connect with each other through the 'air doll.' Through this 'connection' people grow up and change. This is a reflection of my view of the world and its people: The truth and beauty of life lies in this kind of growth and change. The doll is determined to live her own life to the fullest even if death awaits at the end. 'I am sad and happy at the same time,' she says. How we feel about our lives, I believe, is inherent in these words: it is the truth about our 'sad and happy' lives.

All the characters in this film are lonely, regardless of their gender. For the female characters, the keywords are 'emptiness' and 'absence.' I came up with female characters from different generations in order to contrast with the doll’s aging process, and depict their emptiness in a dramatic manner. For example, one girl tries to fulfill her emptiness by eating, while the doll can’t eat. Another woman is afraid of aging, but the doll decides to enjoy her life and embraces growing older by abandoning her [air] pump.

For the male characters, those are 'substitution' and 'perversion.' The male characters don’t go straight to what they desire, but instead look for alternative solutions. These perverse men yearn for death, not life. These are the people I tried to portray. In other words, the film is about the loneliness of urban life, for both men and women."

Air Doll takes an unexpected turn when Nozomi backs into a sharp object and begins to deflate. As the always understanding Junichi starts to blow air through the valve into her body, a strange new realization of the power of life and emotion starts to fill Nozomi. Wanting to return the favor, she stabs Junichi -- only to discover that, as a real human being, he doesn't have a valve.

After discovering that Hideo has bought himself a replacement doll, the increasingly curious Nozomi takes a side trip to visit the doll manufacturer, Sonoda (Odagiri Jo). By this point, Air Doll is in a fascinating world all its own.

Odagiri Jo as Sonoda

Air Doll gives audience a new and refreshingly different way of examining what happens when the air seeps out of a relationship. While not a perfect film, it soars in many moments thanks to Bae Doona's exquisitely frail, ethereal, and doll-like beauty. Here's the trailer: