Thursday, February 24, 2011

Working Behind The Scenes

Make no mistake, the culture wars are back. No sooner did Republicans regain control of the U.S House of Representatives than, after giving the briefest lip service to the government's urgent need to create jobs, they fell back on their old bait-and-switch techniques.

Intoxicated by the Tea Party and Fox News Channel's delusional, self-righteous approach to mathematics, these people believe that by making minuscule cuts in the budget (instead of ending massive subsidies to oil companies) they can save America from a fate worse than death: intelligence. Convinced that there is no need to increase revenues (simply done by eliminating the Bush tax cuts), they would rather starve the federal government than let it function in any way that might benefit the poor and middle class.

Proposing such lamebrained budget cuts as eliminating all funds for repairs in the executive residence, Republicans have offered a compelling display of how to cut off your nose to spite your own face. As usual, once those Republican knees started jerking, it didn't take long for "the usual suspects" to end up in the cross hairs. High on the Republican list of how to create jobs were:
As in years past, the group that assumes it owns the high moral ground has once again proven to be thoroughly meanspirited, misogynistic, and mentally challenged in its appalling lack of respect for their fellow Americans. As the saying goes, "Luck will find you, but karma will hunt you down."

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As the San Francisco Opera prepares for this summer's Ring cycle, I wish every politician who has ever attacked the National Endowment for the Arts could have a chance to watch Sing Faster, a documentary filmed 20 years ago when the company was reviving its 1985 production of Wagner's Ring cycle (designed by John Conklin and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff). What they would see are real Americans doing real work as stagehands and who, not so surprisingly, belong to a real union.

Originally photographed in 1990 as a 30-minute film about the sets for Wagner's Ring cycle, the hour-long documentary was not completed until 1998. Filmmaker Jon Else (who submitted 137 funding proposals in the intervening years, did not enter the project as a major opera buff. As he recalls:
"My wife and I had taken our kids to see La Traviata. It was a family matinee, and they left the curtain open during one of the scene changes. It was great. The soprano finished her aria and left the stage. Then all of the sudden 100 workers came out and transformed a palace into a cornfield or a cornfield into a palace -- I can't remember what it was.
I approached the San Francisco Opera to see if we could do a little behind-the-scenes movie about the scene changes, and they said sure. And then we both forgot about it. Then about six months later they called me back and said we're doing the Ring Cycle, do you want to do the Ring Cycle? And I, without thinking, said sure, never having heard the Ring Cycle. I went out and got a recording of it and sat down and listened to it. I thought are they kidding? People actually listen to this shit? I can't imagine people actually paying money to listen to this garbage. And then slowly it began to grow on me. It is certainly an acquired taste. By the time we finished shooting, I was a complete maniac for the Ring Cycle."

Viewers who are devout opera fans -- or were lucky enough to experience this particular production -- will be particularly impressed with the backstage action in high pressure moments during actual set changes (as well as the card games that take place backstage during long periods of singing). Hearing the stagehands' version of the complicated plot -- "Doesn't one of the giants get a chick out of the deal, too?" -- provides some unexpected laughs.

Because the entire film was shot during rehearsals, Else was able to bolt an Arriflex camera to the balcony rail of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Using an intervalometer, the camera was automatically triggered to expose one frame every twenty seconds for two months. The resulting blizzard of images was edited into two fascinating stop-motion sequences. The first compresses two months of set construction into two minutes. The second squeezes the entire 17 hours of Wagner's Ring cycle into one minute.

What Else's documentary really captures is a labor of love for the operatic art form supporting the massive collaborative effort required to mount a Ring cycle. As he explains:
"I've always been really interested in working people. I've done a lot of work. I've worked in factories and I've worked in construction. I'm just fascinated by the work that people do. Old fashioned work. Drive a nail, push a wheelbarrow, work. The thing that attracted me originally was the grandeur of the sets. Then I began to hang out with the guys who did this astonishing work.
I was really struck by two things. One, just the amazing skill and intricacy involved. They're almost like musicians the way they move, the way they choreograph, the way they can have several huge sets moving on the stage at the same time -- all in silence. The second was how well they knew the operas. I don't know why that should have surprised me, but it did. What is easy to miss when you watch the film is that it is in a deafening sound environment. You have a 106-piece orchestra playing full volume and you often have people whispering in the foreground."
Sing Faster is available on Netflix and can also be viewed in six 10-minute segments on YouTube. Here's the first segment:

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If there is one documentary that should be a must-see item on your list of future viewings, it is David Weissman's poignant new film, We Were Here. For those, like myself, who were living in San Francisco before the AIDS crisis began, it offers a remarkable retrospective of three traumatic decades in which a community struggles to cope with a health epidemic that is ravaging its members. But there is so much more to Weissman's film than just death.

We Were Here actually starts off in the mid 1970s, some ten years after the hippie revolution, when "sex, drugs, and rock'n roll" had become the defining template for a generation of Americans high on their newfound sexual freedom.  After the brooding dark days of hippies sporting long hair, it's shocking to be reminded how happy people once looked. Whether partying at street fairs or hanging out on Castro Street, denim-clad hunks with brilliant smiles were luxuriating in a lifestyle that, for the first time in their lives, allowed them to express themselves as they chose fit.

With the first photographs of Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, however, those smiles rapidly disappeared. Healthy-looking men who you saw at the gym one day could be dead within two weeks. With the city still reeling from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk and the mass suicide in Jonestown, San Francisco began a deep slide into a period of perpetual mourning. Weissman's film features emotionally-charged interviews with a handful of survivors:
Weissman's documentary certainly includes some painful moments. For those who lived in San Francisco, it's surprising to see how many of the obituaries that flash by on the screen are for men we once knew. But for the filmmaker, there was a deeper and very personal reason to make this film.

While We Were Here offers stark reminders of the blatant homophobia of the Reagan and Bush administrations, it also documents how San Francisco's lesbian community stepped up to the plate to help with fundraising and blood drives. By the end of the film, viewers will feel inspired by the way San Francisco's community activism set a tone for the rest of the nation. The personal dedication of many volunteers and caregivers who struggled with professional burnout and survivor's guilt will have tears silently running down your cheeks.

As conservatives launch yet another attack on women's reproductive rights, We Were Here stands a striking testament to the human spirit and its desire that all people be treated with compassion and decency. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Maestro, If You Please!

With the San Francisco Silent Film Festival having expanded to four days in mid-July, something happened last week that added an extra level of satisfaction excitement for Bay area silent film fans. As the centerpiece of its annual winter event, the festival presented the 1926 version of La Boheme that was directed by King Vidor with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert as the romantic leads.

Later in the week, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra screened Harold Lloyd's 40-minute Now or Never with a new score especially commissioned for the event. While both films thoroughly entertained their respective audiences, the two events were equally interesting for their musicological innovations.

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While most of us are familiar with the score to Giacomo Puccini's popular opera, La Boheme, we often take it for granted because Puccini's music is now in the public domain. That's why it's important to consider the historic timeline leading up to the 1926 silent film.
  • Written by Henri Murger (and first published in 1851), Scenes de la vie de boheme has become the source material for numerous musical works up to and including 1996's Rent.
  • Puccini's opera had its world premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896. The performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
  • The following year, on May 6, 1897, Ruggero Leoncavallo's version of the story (also titled La Boheme) had its world premiere in Venice at the famed Teatro la Fenice.
  • A 1916 silent film version of La boheme starred Alice Brady.
  • In 1926, MGM's new version starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, directed by King Vidor received its world premiere. However, because Puccini's operatic score was still under copyright, his music could not be used to accompany the 1926 silent film.

Co-presented by the San Francisco Opera, the film was accompanied by Dennis James (a long-time favorite  with local audiences who toured with Gish during the 1980s, by which time he was able to incorporate many of Puccini's themes into his organ accompaniment). Gish reportedly told the young Mr. James that his work had finally allowed audiences to see the film as it was intended to be seen by its creative team.As pianist and cultural historian Peter Mintun once noted:
"Theatre organist Dennis James is one of the only living musicians who understands what is musically, historically, and cinematically appropriate for silent films. Dennis James' choice of music (some of which is original) subconsciously guides the listener into many moods: tension, bliss, excitement, despair, terror, and hilarity. He is able to accomplish this while remaining correct for the period of the film. In other words, if Mr. James' performance had been played when the film was first exhibited, it would have been considered contemporary. He would never attempt to modernize the feeling of the period by creating a score that would clash."
There were, of course, certain moments in the movie which inspired more laughter than pathos. The garret where Rodolphe and Marcello live (as well as the expansive attic rented by Mimi) had amazing amounts of floor space for such impoverished tenants. Mimi's final slog back to the garret (after collapsing at work) was notable for the many ways in which Gish's body was dragged around the streets of Paris.
Rodolphe (John Gilbert) and Mimi (Lillian Gish) in La Boheme

It was fascinating to hear how Mr. James incorporated parts of Puccini's score into his accompaniment. The following clip (with very different music) is from the middle of the film, when Mimi and Rodolphe head into the countryside on a picnic. With or without Puccini's music, the film's basic romanticism shines through.

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Another musician familiar to San Francisco Silent Film Festival audiences is Donald Sosin who, on Saturday, February 12, accompanied three Chaplin shorts at the piano. Later that week, Sosin popped up in several venues, where his newly-commissioned score for the Harold Lloyd film enjoyed its world premiere. Directed by Hal Roach and Fred C. Newmeyer, Now or Never (1921) co-starred  Mildred Davis as the object of Lloyd's affection.

Harold Lloyd

In his program notes, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's music director, Benjamin Simon, explained how such a curious commission came about:
"This program is built around the unusual instrumentation of Stravinsky’s Octet (1923), scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones. The program opens with a late-Renaissance canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli featuring our four brass players. UC Berkeley professor Cindy Cox has composed a new piece for the same octet and silent film composer Donald Sosin has written a new score for Harold Lloyd’s 1921 Now or Never (which will be screened during our performance)." 
It's interesting to note that, unlike the San Francisco Film Society (which continues to commission rock groups to accompany silent film screenings), the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra approached a composer with a solid background in accompanying silent film, gave him a distinct set of parameters to work with, and got a much better result.

The following clip --  which shows Simon conducting his eight-member ensemble as the film plays out on a screen above them -- offers one of the rare chances to see a chamber music conductor wearing headphones while he conducts his musicians (Simon was actually listening to a carefully timed track of how the music should be paced for maximum impact).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pretty Pithy Pity Parties

In today's socioeconomic crisis, it's easy enough to feel sorry for yourself. All you have to do is look at a person's decreased purchasing power, rising food costs, and the ominous clouds gathering on the political horizon to realize that things can and probably will get worse.

Much worse.

Whether one reads George Lakoff's article on Huffington Post entitled What Conservatives Really Want, Kaili Joy Gray's article on DailyKos entitled House Republicans: Contraception OK for Horses, Not Women, or MoveOn.Org's mind-boggling list of the Top 10 Shocking Attacks From the GOP's War on Women, one can't help but be amazed at the venal viciousness of these self-righteous Republicans. Thankfully, some people are not afraid to call out schoolyard bullies and  challenge them to take ownership of their hate, hypocrisy, and cowardice. Here's Congressman Anthony Weiner rising to the moment:

One of the common traits of bullies is their ability to dish it out but start blubbering and playing victim as soon as anyone gives them a taste of their own medicine. So, just for a moment, suppose we meditate on what might happen if:
Hell's bells, I'm feeling better already! But at least I'm smart enough to know that my little experiment in spiteful thinking will offer no comfort to people who are in genuine physical, financial, and emotional pain.

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On August 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge (an eight-lane steel-truss arch bridge) collapsed during rush hour in Minneapolis. The bridge, which reportedly carried 140,000 vehicles a day, was judged to have a design fault and a replacement bridge that was built soon after opened on September 18, 2008. Nevertheless, 13 people were killed and 145 injured in the catastrophe, which plays a key role in a new play by Allison Moore.

Currently onstage at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, Collapse (which received a reading as part of Aurora's 2010 Global Age Project series) is receiving a "rolling world premiere" thanks to the participation of the National New Play Network (the Curious Theatre Company in Denver will also be staging the play). Considering the rabid zeal of conservatives as they try to dismantle any and all social safety nets, Collapse will have strong appeal to anyone who has been hit hard by the economic downfall, by personal tragedy, or is currently in some sort of 12-step recovery program. The play's four characters are:
  • David (Gabriel Marin), one of the lucky people who survived the collapse of the I35W bridge. Depressed, drinking steadily, and lacking any kind of motivation, David's post-traumatic stress disorder is not helping his marriage at all.
  • Hannah (Carrie Paff), David's wife who, shortly after the bridge collapse, suffered a miscarriage. A high-strung attorney who fears being downsized from her law firm, Hannah has been trying to get David to attend a support group for people with PTSD and think about trying to conceive another child. While the past year has been quite difficult for her emotionally, Hannah's professional lawyer/micromanaging bitch instincts prevent her from focusing on her genuine loneliness.
  • Susan (Amy Resnick), Hannah's self-absorbed sister who has just arrived unexpectedly from Los Angeles and thrives on chaos. Having lost her job and been evicted from her apartment, Susan never bothered to call ahead to see if it would be okay to crash with Hannah and David. In fact, the only way she could afford her airfare was to agree to deliver a mysterious package to someone in Minneapolis.
  • Ted (Aldo Billingslea), a 51-year-old African American who graduated from the University of Georgia (Go Bulldogs!) and is being sued for sexual harassment. Although physically impotent, Ted still attends meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous. Has fate set him on a collision course with Hannah?
David (Gabriel Marin) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) listen to
Susan (Amy Resnick) Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Jessica Heidt, Collapse wavers between hopelessness and helplessness, offering its audience bittersweet moments of mistaken identity and scenes of genuine pathos. While the unit set designed by Melpomene Katakalos neatly allows the emasculated David to try confronting his fears by climbing up the bridge that collapsed under him, Moore's play suffers from one key weakness. Although one can empathize with the alcohol-numbed David (who nearly drowned following the bridge's collapse), it's hard to feel anything for hard-nosed Hannah or her selfish sister Susan. While I found Aldo Billingslea's performance as Ted quite appealing, by the evening's end he became just one more pathetic and dysfunctional character lost in a world of desperately confused souls.

Ted (Aldo Billingslea) and Hannah (Carrie Paff)
Photo by: David Allen

Perhaps that's both the problem and the answer. Many people assume that when things go wrong in their lives, the situation can somehow be fixed. At the end of the play, as David and Hannah try to start over again, they do so with the growing realization that there are no guarantees for their future as a couple -- and that everything they assumed could be taken care of might not materialize in real life. Performances of Collapse continue through March 6 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (you can order tickets here).

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Working its way around the Pacific Rim, the bus-and-truck tour of Avenue Q that recently performed in Tokyo, Anchorage, and Vancouver touched down at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre en route to Los Angeles. Buoyed by a cheerfully talented young cast eager to spread the message that "It Sucks To Be Me," the only major change in the show has been to change the line "George Bush is for now" to read "Glenn Beck is for now."

Directed by Jason Moore, Avenue Q features a delightfully sassy book by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. As always, the puppets conceived and designed by Rick Lyon remain the stars of the show.

The cast of Avenue Q is divided between the humans and their furry monster counterparts. Brian (Tim Kornblum) is an out-of-work aspiring comedian living with Christmas Eve (Lisa Helmi Johanson), a Japanese American woman who, unable to get hired to work in a Chinese restaurant, finds her way into helping people solve their problems. The running joke of the show is the character of former child actor Gary Coleman (performed with flair by Anita Welch).

The talented puppeteers in this company include Ashley Eileen Bucknam (Kate Monster and Lucy), Michael Liscio, Jr. (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear), and Kerri Brackin (Mrs. T. Bear, and others). However, it is David Colston Corris (Princeton, Rod) whose radiant charm wins over the audience and quickly has everyone eating out of his hand(s).

Daniel Colston Corris with Princeton

One of the great strengths of Avenue Q has been how successfully its creative team was able to adapt the Sesame Street format to become a springboard for mocking every aspect of our society. Whether in songs like "If You Were Gay"  or "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," Avenue Q delivers age-appropriate messages for Sesame Street viewers who have grown pubic hair, gone to college, and been laid off from their jobs.

Songs like "The More You Ruv Someone" and "The Internet Is For Porn" leave the audience doubled over in laughter. The wild sex scene between Princeton and Kate Monster ("You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want When You're Makin' Love") never fails to bring down the house. Special segments used to promote the show (like the following "celebrity interview" with Trekkie Monster) hold a brilliant mirror up to the more vapid parts of our culture.

What I have always found fascinating about Avenue Q is how, in a short seven years, its characters (who are now familiar to audiences around the world) have embedded themselves firmly into popular culture. What could be greater proof of their acceptance than watching two monsters from the London production of Avenue Q perform one of the hit songs from another Broadway musical?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Killer Klowns

One of the joys of watching a great comic at work is his mastery of the material he has crafted for himself. Whether one is a performance artist or a stand-up comic, whether one is working with movement or text, a great performer's confidence in his craft allows him to take risks when they are required by unexpected events and/or improvise when an opportunity suddenly presents itself.

Last weekend, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's annual winter event, the opening program was devoted to three Charlie Chaplin shorts. While all three films were accompanied by Donald Sosin, the program offered an unusual opportunity to appreciate Chaplin's athletic strengths (a factor in his work which is often overshadowed by his comedic skills).

In 1916, Chaplin was paid by the Mutual Film Corporation to produce a series of two-reel silent films. The sixth film in the series, The Pawnshop, showed Chaplin executing some breathtakingly precise stunts with ladders (on both the vertical and horizontal planes). In the final film of the series, The Adventurer (1917), Chaplin plays an escaped convict who ends up saving a woman who is drowning (the film gives audiences a hint at Chaplin's excellent swimming and diving skills).

However, it is The Rink (1916) in which Chaplin truly shines as a restaurant waiter who goes roller skating on his lunch break. Chaplin had apparently developed his roller skating skills while in vaudeville and used them to great effect in The Rink. Thankfully, the entire film can be viewed in the following three clips:

While there's no question that watching The Rink on the giant screen in the Castro Theatre with a live piano accompaniment is much more satisfying than seeing the clip on a computer screen, one of YouTube's greatest gifts is the ability to stop the action, "rewind" the film and watch how carefully each comic setup has been executed.

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Perhaps, as a writer, I'm a little more attuned to watching the way a comic sets up a gag. On opening night of his brief run in Neverlution at the Marines Memorial Club, Christopher Titus demonstrated what makes him such a strong stand-up comedian. First and foremost is the fact that he writes his own material.

Although Titus makes numerous references to the fact that he is a product of the State of California's public school system, he's not dumb. His writing is tightly crafted, honed to perfection, and delivered with the musical timing and confidence that comes from thoroughly knowing and owning his material.

Now in his mid-40s, divorced, and the father of two young children, Titus has a lot to say about:
  • The wussification of America since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • The fact that America's youth are turning into "Generation Douche."
  • The idiocy of awarding trophies to everyone, even if someone only receives the award for participating in an event rather than excelling at anything.
  • The problems with growing up fat (Titus was a fat brat whose father referred to him as the Hindenburg) and seeing today's youth grow into mini-blimps.
  • The lack of discipline in an age where parents who spoil their children are unable to recognize a five-year-old's skills as a budding terrorist.
  • The potential value to society of extending the window for late-term abortions until someone is 22 years old.
Christopher Titus

More than anything, Christopher Titus (who, as an actor, had a small role in Killer Klowns From Outer Space) has always been a superb storyteller.  Those familiar with his stories about being raised in a horribly dysfunctional family -- three seasons of Titus (the sitcom based on his home life) are available on DVD -- or his stand-up appearances on Comedy Central know the sting of his rapier-sharp wit.

Using his experience during a visit to the DMV as an outline for Neverlution's riffs on where Americans went wrong in the past decade, the comedian delivers nearly two hours of rock-solid, rapidfire material in which no cow is sacred and no spoiled child's behind is left behind. In the following interview, Titus talks about his new show and what's happening in his life. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Turn Left At Crazy And Just Keep Going

In the landmark 1959 hit musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Rose Hovick's daughters sing a refrain meant to reassure the audience that all is well:
"Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and some new tricks
I'm very versatile.
And if you're real good
I'll make you feel good
I want your spirits to climb.
So let me entertain you
And we'll have a real good time, yes sir!
We'll have a real good time."
Sometimes, while watching a film or stage production that seems like it's about to careen out of control, I find myself faced with a curious choice. I could continue to view what's unfolding in front of me from a traditional, linear perspective or let go and see where the director is going. I could get all caught up obsessing over problems with continuity and meaning, or I could simply choose to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

With certain movies (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Tropical Malady, Mulholland Drive) I was at a loss to see what so many other people loved about the film. With others (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Across The Universe, Fig Trees) I discovered that, by letting go, I was able to transcend any reservations and soar on the wings of a radical directorial concept.

Art that refuses to play by the rules (whatever one may think those rules are) is meant to stimulate the audience and challenge them to take risks. A director who can cajole an audience out of its comfort zone and take it far beyond the status quo is a force to be reckoned with.

Two new dramedies test the audience's limits in dramatic and delightful ways. In each case, the viewer leaves the theatre far richer for the experience than if he had chosen not to follow the director down the path less traveled.

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In Gregg Araki's new sex farce/thriller entitled KaboomThomas Dekker plays Smith, a hunky young college hipster who has a crush on his very straight roommate. Thor (Chris Zylka), who occasionally haunts Smith's sexual fantasies,  is an extremely hunky and very horny blond surfer dude determined to master the art of autofellatio.

Thor (Chris Zylka)  obviously needs some sexual relief

In his waking hours, Smith is best friends with Stella (Haley Bennett), a wise-cracking lesbian art student who is having problems breaking up with the creepily obsessive/possessive Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida). After he meets an enticing young sex kitten named London (Juno Temple) at a campus party and eats the hallucinogenic cookie she has given him, Smith begins to have haunting visions of a mysterious red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte) who is being chased by a gang of men wearing animal masks.

Smith has recently been haunted by a recurring nightmare which is somehow related to the fact that he's about to celebrate his 19th birthday. To make matters even more complicated, he has starting to receive strange text messages about being "the chosen son." 

Smith (Thomas Dekker) is having a very strange 19th birthday

It's a bizarre way to celebrate your birthday, especially when your mother (Kelly Lynch) is an endangered narcissist  who refuses to divulge a very dark family secret and your father may be planning to blow up the planet as part of an international conspiracy that would freeze Glenn Beck's blood. Even if the muscular Thor tends to disappear at the oddest moments, a lot of people are suddenly taking a strange interest in Smith's well-being. Among them are:
  • Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), the bisexual stud whom London delivers as Smith's 19th birthday present during a bondage scene.
  • Hunter (Jason Olive) the hot and hunky married man who seduces Smith at a nude beach.
  • The Messiah (James Duval), Smith's weird, drugged out dorm assistant.
In his director's statement, Araki writes:
"At a film festival a few years ago, John Waters presented me with an award for Mysterious Skin. While chatting backstage, he looked me in the eye and said 'Y’know, Mysterious Skin is great and all but I really want to see you make another old school Gregg Araki movie.' I kind of laughed in response. But in truth, I was flattered that a bona fide icon like him would even care about what kind of movies I was making. As it turns out, I actually had been working on a script that was more of a cult type movie like The Doom Generation and Nowhere -- two old films of mine that fans I meet at festivals and on the street are always naming as their favorites. Not that this is meant in any way to distance myself from the last two movies I made (Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face).
Although I didn’t write their original stories, I love those movies dearly and am incredibly proud of both of them. My films really are like my children and I don’t consider those two any less mine than anything I’ve ever done. There is, however, something intrinsically more personal and 'me' about the movies that originated in my head -- in particular that batch of small, very 'free' and unhinged movies I made in the mid-90s, the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy of Totallly F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere
Not wanting to go back and repeat myself or certainly to regress artistically in any way, I was nonetheless excited about doing something as unbridled and crazy as those earlier movies made when I was more naive and perhaps more idealistic about cinema and life in general. My starting point for Kaboom was a kind of nostalgia for those carefree days of blind youth and absolute uncertainty -- when you’re a freshman in college, you don’t know who you are or what you’re going to be, your future’s totally unwritten and everything in life is a question mark. The world feels so overwhelming and every choice you make, every relationship you have seems impossible and somehow doomed for catastrophe. It’s a time of change, chaos, big adventures, and even bigger emotions. Oftentimes, you feel like you might not even survive it. But in retrospect, you look back and realize those were some of the best days of your life."

"Beyond this idea percolating in my head, I knew that I’d always wanted to make an enigmatic and sprawling mystery like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I was a very impressionable college student when that series turned American TV upside down. It truly rocked my world, impacting not only my work but my overall sensibility and entire life. As has been well-documented, I have always been very heavily influenced by postpunk, alternative music culture and there was something very punk rock about Twin Peaks and its profound challenging of the mainstream culture. It was fearlessly and unequivocally its own thing; it didn’t care about what was expected or acceptable or even on some level, comprehensible. There was a brazen purity to it that was thrilling and new and incredibly inspiring. While I know there’s no way to create anything that can touch or compare to something so important and groundbreaking, Kaboom aspires to that show’s free spirit -- unfettered by the restraints and demands of the commercial marketplace. It just wants to be its own thing, exist on its own terms, and vibrate at its own anomalous frequency."
Kaboom gives viewers a rocket adventure through an ambisexual college student's daily life, with the basic message being that if the world is going to end tomorrow, you might as well fuck your brains out in the meantime. Araki's free-wheeling script has a rag-tag feel to it, but the action is backed by solid filmmaking technique. What's more, Smith enjoys a sexual freedom that would be the envy of James Bond.

Kaboom is a whole lot of sloppy, crazy fun. Half science fiction, half college sex romp, Araki's film is guaranteed to entertain. Here's the trailer:

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Lewis Carroll's famous nonsense poem, Jabberwocky, reads as follows:
"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."
Like it or not, even nonsense has its place in literature. I tip my hat to young Aaron Henne, who recently wrote and directed an adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, The Castle (first published in 1926). According to Wikipedia:
"The Castle is a novel by Franz Kafka. In it a protagonist, known only as K., struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle who govern the village for unknown reasons. Kafka died before finishing the work, but suggested it would end with the Land Surveyor dying in the village; the castle notifying him on his death bed that his 'legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there.' Dark and at times surreal, The Castle is about alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal."

Marissa Keltie, Theo Black, and Sylvia Kratins
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Known for its organic process of developing a play over a period of about four months, Central Works recently staged the world premiere of Henne's "A Man's Home...." as part of its New Play Program, 2010-2012. While chatting with Mr. Henne after the performance and asking how the hell he was able to adapt The Castle for a dramatic presentation, he gleefully pointed out that Kafka's novel ends in mid sentence.

Watching "A Man's Home..." unravel in the tiny confines of the Berkeley City Club, I was struck by:
  • Henne's staggering directorial talent.
  • The total commitment of his four-actor ensemble.
  • The brilliant debut of young Theo Black as Kafka's confused land surveyor.
  • Gregory Scharpen's extraordinary sound design.
  • The stunning acuity of the show's lighting as designed by Gary Graves.
Joe Jordan (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

I then reminded myself that this is the norm for Central Works, a teeny-tiny Bay area nonprofit theatre company whose artistic standards are so much higher than those of most larger arts organizations. While I have often sung the company's praises, the experience of watching a new play unfold that is at times almost unintelligible -- and yet not caring a whit about the story's continuity or plot twists -- is a sign that the Central Works creative team has genuinely earned the trust of its audience.

Mr. Black's performance was, quite simply, breathtaking. Joe Jordan (who had impressed me when he appeared with the Sacred Fools Theater Company at a recent San Francisco Fringe Festival) offered the perfect foil to Mr. Black's youthful land surveyor. Appearing in numerous supporting roles were Sylvia Kratins and Marissa Keltie.

Theo Black and Marissa Keltie (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

As with so many Central Works productions I've written about, "A Man's Home..."  is the kind of production that you simply cannot afford to miss if you consider yourself a serious theatregoer. You might not understand an ounce of what Kafka is saying, but the performances are so riveting that the actors will have you on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes. Performances continue through March 13 at the Berkeley City Club (you can order tickets here). Meanwhile, keep an eye out for Mr. Henne's work in the future. He's a truly remarkable talent.

Playwright/director Aaron Henne

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Timing Is Everything

Mark Twain once claimed that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." That statement was roundly reinforced during the recent uprising in Egypt when, during an Internet and media blackout, it was hard to tell what was happening at any given moment.

I was having my own problem keeping up with the news. A hard drive crash (combined with having cancelled my cable subscription several months ago) meant that whatever bits and pieces of news I heard were completely outdated by the time they reached my ears. Being stuck in a media vacuum only made Arianna Huffington's description of Rupert Murdoch's new iPad news app, "The Daily," even more insightful. "The whole point of the Internet is that it's not daily, it's immediacy," stressed Huffington.

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Many of us take the speed of our daily communications for granted. However, as part of its annual winter event last Saturday, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a screening of a 1928 silent film by Marcel L'Herbier that offered a sharp contrast between how financial transactions within stock exchanges were once enacted and the lightning speed at which computers now drive global transactions.

Written by Emile Zola in 1891, L'Argent (Money)  had been inspired by the 1862 collapse of France's Union Générale (whose stock had risen 600% over three years without sufficient capital to match even a third of its value). L'Herbier's film adaptation of Zola's novel was updated to take place during the late 1920s, when stock exchanges were operating in a state of semi-euphoria and the first passenger airplane (a 12-seat Ford Trimotor) was making news.

Obsessed with the cost of the film, L'Herbier had no way of knowing that a mere 10 months after L'Argent's public debut in January of 1929, Wall Street would crash and the industrialized world's economy would be shattered by the Great Depression.

Poster art for 1928's silent film, L'Argent

L'Argent is basically a story about greed -- the kind of greed that is only magnified by one's ability to participate in financial speculation. Saccard (Pierre Alcover) and Gunderman (Alfred Abel) are rival bankers determined to conquer the market at any cost. Their speculative power plays are on a level unimaginable to ordinary investors like La Méchain (Yvette Guilbert), old woman who likes to buy distressed stocks when they are almost worthless. Caught in Saccard's web of greedy speculation are:
  • Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), an aviator determined to break the world's record by flying nonstop from Paris to Guyana in the West Indies.
  • Line Hamelin (Mary Glory), the aviator's naive wife, whom Saccard lusts after and easily manipulates.
  • Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm), Saccard's ex-lover who is now working as a spy on behalf of Saccard's rival, Gunderman.
In order to make his film as realistic as possible, L'Herbier rented the Paris Stock Exchange over a three-day holiday and filled it with nearly 2,000 extras. The scene in which Jacques Hamelin's plane took off was filmed at Le Bourget airport. According to Wikipedia:
"For his principal cameraman L'Herbier chose Jules Kruger, who had devised the elaborate camerawork of Abel Gance's Napoléon. Within the huge spaces of the sets they employed unusually active movements for the camera whose virtuosity makes them highly visible to the spectator. At Saccard's party the camera glides back and forth above the guests; in the bank scenes it moves alongside and among the crowds. Most strikingly of all, in the scenes at the Bourse, a vertical shot from the high ceiling down to the "corbeille" (dealers' enclosure) makes the scene resemble the teeming activity of ants; and an automatic camera then creates a dizzying effect as it spirals down towards the floor. The result is a sense of dynamic exploration of the spaces contrasting with the monumental appearance of the sets."
Although today's DVD releases often include documentary footage about the making of the film, L'Argent holds the distinction of being the first feature to have had its production process documented on film. In the following video from Jean Dréville's 40-minute Autour de L'Argent, you can see how L'Herbier was experimenting with ways to get his camera as mobile as possible:

Although L'Argent clocks in at 165 minutes, it offers audiences a visual feast. Many of the larger sets have wonderful touches of Art Deco. Some of the costumes worn by 18-year-old Brigitte Helm are classics from the 1920s.

Saturday's screening at the Castro Theatre was introduced by San Francisco's new Consul General of France, Romain Serman. The film was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which did some of their finest work to date. I was especially impressed with their use of two salad spinners (filled with various objects) to simulate the sound of a single-engine aircraft's motor and propeller.

Frank Rich recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled "At Last, Bernie Madoff Gives Back," in which he stated that the current moment couldn't be better for another person to get into the game on Wall Street. The final moments of L'Herbier's film make a similar statement, showing how predictably cyclic financial speculation has become. The following video clip contains some wonderful moments from the film (which is available on DVD).

* * * * * * * * * *
Marshall McLuhan famously claimed that "The medium is the message." Witnessing how unscripted references to a new medium can spin  theatrical gold out of old material, one gets a rare lesson in how a talented stage director can update a 30-year-old musical revue while changing much of its dramatic subtext.  When Craig Lucas was in the original cast of 1979's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim mentioned that he had some unperformed songs that had either been cut from his previous shows during their out-of-town tryouts or simply never made it to the stage.

Like Gioachino Rossini, who often threw away material that didn't fit into an upcoming operatic premiere (or recycled it later in his career), the second-tier songs hidden away in Sondheim's musical trunk may be a whole lot better than many finished pieces by lesser talents. In 1980, when The Production Company commissioned Lucas to create a musical revue, he got Sondheim's blessing to use 17 of the songwriter's unperformed pieces (a previous revue entitled Side By Side By Sondheim had opened on Broadway on April 18, 1977 and run for 384 performances).

Stephen Sondheim

Working with director Norman René, Lucas fashioned a script about two people (male and female) who found themselves alone on a Saturday night. Some songs -- "Saturday Night" and "So Many People" (from 1954's Saturday Night) and "Your Eyes Are Blue" (from 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum) as well as the "There Won't Be Trumpets" (from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle) are already familiar from recordings. Others, especially from 1971's Follies ("Little White House," "Who Could Be Blue," "Uptown, Downtown," "It Wasn't Meant to Happen," and the achingly romantic "All Things Bright and Beautiful") are welcome treats.

The show received its San Francisco premiere in 1989. A decade later, actor Steve Gideon proposed a version of the show to be sung by two men. With Sondheim's approval, Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles premiered an all-male version of Marry Me A Little in October of 1999. As Gideon told The New York Times: "The concept of romantic love is so much a part of gay culture, I thought, why not put two men in it? I never thought Sondheim would allow us to do it."

Caleb Haven Draper and Bill Fahrner in Marry Me A Little
Photo by: Kent Taylor

Fast forward through another decade and John Fisher (whose career has been marked by great moments of wretched excess) has used his over-fertile imagination to smashing effect in restaging Marry Me A Little for Theatre Rhinoceros. Always an astute observer of the gay culture in which he lives and thrives, Fisher has layered a myriad of nuances into the body language of each character.

Whether such moments involve dressing to go out on a date, reacting to someone else's promises of a rosy future, or one man noticing his boyfriend cruising a passerby while supposedly engaged in an intimate conversation in a restaurant or cafe, Fisher has hit a home run with this production. With Caleb Haven Draper as Ben and Bill Fahrner as Mark, he has two naturally engaging leads.

Fahrner (a familiar figure from 42nd Street Moon productions) finally gets to show off the upper range of his healthy tenor voice. And, having seen Yvonne DeCarlo's understated delivery of "Boy, Can That Boy Foxtrot!" in the early days of the Boston tryout of Follies at the Colonial Theatre, I can tell you that Fisher's highly sexualized staging of the song (including an athletically enthusiastic under-the-bedcovers blowjob) is a helluva lot more fun.

Caleb Haven Draper and Bill Fahrner in Marry Me A Little
Photo by:  Kent Taylor

Placing the action in San Francisco from 2000-2008, Fisher uses video to provide political context, with footage of Harvey Milk appearing as Fahrner belts "There Won't Be Trumpets." Later in the show, a video stream of shots from demonstrations against Proposition 8 adds a strong cultural and political charge to the expectations of gay men trying to find and maintain a relationship.

Back when Lucas first crafted Marry Me A Little I doubt he could have imagined the impact today's technology -- especially an app like Grindr -- could have on gay lifestyles. More than anything, Fisher has brilliantly made use of our newfound ability to communicate electronically through instant text messaging and chat room flirts (as well as one's ability to suffer humiliating interruptions from a cell phone or beeper).

Several numbers that were dropped from 1973's A Little Night Music ("Two Fairy Tales" and "Silly People") continue to charm, although "BANG!" (originally written as a duet for Desirée and the Count) was a wise omission from the final version of the show. A charming song which I had never heard ("The Girls of Summer") had apparently been written for a promotional ad for a 1956 play by N. Richard Nash). It is a  magnificent piece of lyrical writing. Also written in 1956 is a grand comedy duet entitled "Pour Le Sport."

Last summer, the Williamstown Theatre Festival staged an all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics). The following slide show from that production looks like it was a lot of fun and something that Fisher might want to consider for a future staging at Theatre Rhinoceros.

If there is one Sondheim song (not included in Marry Me A Little) that is ripe for reinterpretation at a gay fundraiser, it would be the show's comic duet "Impossible." I'm convinced that this number could bring down the house if sung in the context of two men involved a daddy/son relationship who catch each other flirting with some hunk who shows great potential for a three-way!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Have Yourself A Merry Midlife Crisis

Midlife crises come in many flavors. Some people buy new cars or acquire new trophy wives. Others make a dramatic change in their career path, hoping to pursue their real passion (rather than try to fulfill their parents' expectations) or falling back into safe mode when the going gets tough.

My own midlife crisis came after 15 years of trying to build a career as a free-lance arts writer. Although I made some major inroads and had good name recognition, by the early 1990s I also found myself head over heels in credit card debt and lacking any stable source of income. Unless I made a dramatic change, I could end up homeless. That meant one thing and one thing only: The life of a struggling writer would have to be put on hold.

When I was young, a close friend who was a gym teacher told me that "whenever you got into trouble, those fat little fingers of yours are going to save your ass." He was referring to my typing speed and the fact that I loved typing as much as he loved sports. But he was right.

In the midst of my midlife crisis (unresolved stress is a great way to lose 45 pounds while grinding your teeth), I found my way back into medical transcription, a profession where clients often pay their bills on time. A few years ago, when a close friend suggested that I start a blog, he reopened a door I thought had been shut forever.

The happy result is that, while I still earn income from a small transcription service, I get my satisfaction from writing this blog and contributing to the arts section of The Huffington Post. There is no price which can compensate for having such a creative outlet. For anyone still wondering what the impact will be of AOL acquiring The Huffington Post, let me recommend Frank Schaeffer's superb "Open Letter To Arianna Huffington."

As most people know, Ms. Huffington has gone through almost as many career changes as a cat has lives. Once a devout Republican, she experienced a political enlightenment during the 1990s and even ran for Governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Throughout her career, whether it be her 1981 biography of Maria Callas or giving voice to Arianna the Bear on The Cleveland Show, she has kept writing. The author of 13 books and innumerable articles and blogposts, Huffington has recently been hailed as one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in history.

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Alas, not every woman has such luck changing horses in midstream. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, Holly Hughes was a cutting-edge artist. In February of 1990, the solo performance peer panel at the National Endowment for the Arts unanimously recommended funding for 18 artists, including Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Hughes (who became known as the infamous NEA Four).

By June of that year, Congress had passed a so-called decency clause which stated that the NEA must consider not just artistic merit but "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public." LGBT artists and audiences were not at that time considered to be part of the American public by such arch conservatives as the odious pustule named Jesse Helms, who labeled Hughes "a garbage artist."

By February of 1992, John Frohnmayer had been forced to resign as head of the National Endowment for the Arts. In March of 1993, the Clinton administration appealed the federal court's decision, striking down the "decency clause" and in June of 1993 the NEA settled out of court with the four artists whose grants had been denied in 1990.
Holly Hughes (Photo by: Lisa Guido)

Since then, the lesbian once described as "hell on heels" by The Village Voice has settled down in her home state of Michigan. Hughes is now employed as an associate professor at the University of Michigan with appointments in Art and Design, Theatre and Drama, and Women's Studies.  At 55, she and her girlfriend (lesbian anthropologist Esther Newton) have nine dogs. The promotional blurb for her new show at The Marsh reads as follows:

"The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony) is a new solo performance piece written and performed by 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Holly Hughes and directed by Dan Hurlin. A blend of autobiography, animal behavior, and bald faced lies, the show is a comic/poetic meditation on a midlife crisis in the key of canine. After several years as a self-described "professional homosexual" spent preaching to the perverted and getting in the craw of the religious right, Hughes disbands her one (wo)man dog and pony show, takes a real job at a prestigious university, acquiring a small pack of dogs, and must ask herself: 'What is the sound of one lesbian clapping?'"
The answer can be summed up in one simple word:  B-O-R-I-N-G.

Hughes starts off reassuring the audience that her new show will not be all about lesbians and lesbian politics but, rather, about dogs and their relationships to people. The following brief clip offers an appetizer to what sounds like it could be an interesting piece of theatre.

Given that her new monologue only lasts 55 minutes, it's surprising to see it crash and burn so early into the performance. Hughes introduces a badly-shot hand-held video someone took of her as she tried to take her dog through the "agility" course at an American Kennel Club event.

My first piece of advice: If you plan to use video in your show, aim for better production values than The Blair Witch Project.

What follows is a painfully roundabout discussion about why women who are not are attracted to cats develop a thing for dogs (obviously ignoring the horse set) and how dogs have taken over  control of her household. The writing seems as if it had been assembled using random thoughts on index cards which  left Hughes struggling to find a way to glue the material together and point her show toward the finish line.

Only when she launches into a segment about how humans think they are the ones who own and lead their dogs around (when it's really the dogs who own and lead their well-trained humans around) does Hughes unwittingly reveal the show's biggest problem:  It's not the dogs who have been tamed and domesticated, it's the artist.

As I left The Marsh, I couldn't help thinking about the final moments in Act II of Puccini's opera, Tosca.  Having stabbed Rome's sadistic chief of police to death, the great singer Floria Tosca looks down at Baron Scarpia's body with a mixture of shock and scorn and quietly mutters "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma! (and before him trembled all of Rome").

The following video clip is from Brian Large's 1992 site-specific production of Tosca.  Watch as Tosca (Catherine Malfitano) kills Scarpia (Ruggero Raimondi) in one of the rooms of Rome's Palazzo Farnese.

Sadly, the most interesting thing about The Dog and Pony Show was the pair of shiny banana yellow vinyl stiletto heels in which Hughes clumped her way around the stage. Her show ended not with a bang, but with barely even a whimper.

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Many a script has been written about characters who are prostitutes. From Mrs. Warren's Profession  and La Traviata to Midnight Cowboy and Cabaret, from Klute and The Threepenny Opera to Thais and The Life, male and female prostitutes have been shown as they struggle to leave the oldest profession in the world. 

The first thing to understand about Jeanne Labrune's new drama, Special Treatment, is that this film is nowhere as sweet and sentimental as 1990's Pretty Woman, a film directed by Gary Marshall that starred Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, and Hector Elizondo.

Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged Parisian prostitute who graduated from university with a degree in art history. She has been an upscale prostitute for enough years to have become quite proficient at treating what she does as a business. Whether it means catering to the fancies of a pedophilic client (Jean-François Wolff) or protecting herself from a client who turns violent (Gilles Cohen), she keeps a firm hand on the proceedings.

Over the years, Alice has learned how run her operation with the clinical detachment of  a hospital technician. Adjoining hotel rooms are kept clean and tidy, with appropriate wardrobes to match each client's sexual fantasy.

Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert) with one of her clients.

Although, by this point in her life, Alice has become emotionally numb to the demands of her work, she knows how to meet potential clients in a hotel bar while dressed simply enough to allow them to confess their hidden desires and secret fetishes without feeling threatened. With that knowledge, Alice casually recites a price list that is as simple for clients to understand as a drop-down menu. The details of their financial responsibilities are explained with the same clinical detail as the items to be checked off by an event planner. Terms of service are outlined in simpler details than any software program's user agreement.

Alice's girlfriend, Juliette (Sabila Moussadek), is a fellow hooker who understands Alice's frustrations and always offers a sheltering port in any storm. As she discusses her clients with Juliette, Alice can readily extrapolate how many sessions it will take with a certain client to earn a chandelier or some other objet d'art  she desires. Not only does Alice know how to protect herself if a client gets violent, she understands that the time has come to get a new life.

As part of her methodology, Alice has been thinking about seeing a psychiatrist who might help her gain the emotional strength to leave her clients behind and get a real job. Like several of the psychiatrists she interviews, Alice only takes on new clients through trusted referrals and reserves the right to refuse anyone her services.

Isabelle Huppert as Alice Bergerac

Meanwhile, Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) is an uptight, repressed psychoanalyst whose marriage to another therapist (Valérie Dréville) is on the rocks. Not only does the couple spend all of their days listening to other people's complaints (they both work out of their home), they've fallen into a rut of being unable to communicate with each other. When Hélène kicks Xavier out of their home for his lack of attentiveness, he ends up staying in a hotel and, through a friend's referral, seeking out Alice's services.

Like Alice, Xavier has grown bored with his regular clients --  who include a manic depressive patient (Didier Bezace) who realizes that his therapist may be just as fucked up as he is, and a middle aged man (Frédéric Longbois)who shows up for his sessions in drag.

While neither Alice nor Xavier take cold calls, they each have needs. Special Treatment has a cagey way of demonstrating the strong similarities between the professional protocol of a prostitute and a therapist and doesn't hesitate to ask which pathway is built on a greater amount of bullshit. At one point Alice is referred to a psychiatrist played by Richard Debuisne (who co-wrote the film's script). He refuses to treat her, but not for the reason she imagines (Alice thinks he doesn't want to take money earned from her prostitution). 

Isabelle Huppert as Alice dressing for a client

What the therapist has clearly sensed is that Alice is already strong enough to transition out of prostitution and does not really need his help. Livid at his refusal of services, Alice tracks him down at the clinic where he works. It turns out to be a hospital ward for the mentally ill. 

After spending some time with a patient named Bruno (Karim Leklou), Alice realizes she can move ahead without the help of a therapist. After Dr. Cassagne refers her to an art auctioneer, Alice lands a new job and a new life while Xavier arranges to meet his wife in a hotel bar, modeling his rendezvous for a reconciliation on Alice's technique for meeting new clients.

Labrune's film takes its time as it shows the parallel lives led by the prostitute and the psychoanalyst. Sometimes it may feel too slow, at other times it's difficult to imagine how the film will resolve. But it's an intelligent approach to a difficult topic -- how people facing midlife crises can reinvent themselves and embark on a new path. Isabelle Huppert, as always, is superb. Here's the trailer: