Sunday, July 31, 2011

This Time, You REALLY Can't Go Home Again!

How many disasters does it take for the message to sink in?  From Japanese tsunamis to earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, from flooding in South Dakota, to volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, there are times when Mother Nature's plans for your real estate don't match up with yours.

A peculiar brand of American optimism holds that it's easy to recover from any setback. Forget about depression, devastation, and financial ruin. As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers explain in the following clip from 1936's Swing Time, all you have to do is "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again."

From John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, to 1993's Falling Down to the 2011 release of The Company Men to recent news items suggesting that it is futile for people who are unemployed to apply for jobs, the cheery messages from Depression era movie musicals have been replaced by darker, more dour advice.

In 1923 Jimmy Cox wrote a song about a millionaire who had lost his wealth as a result of prohibition. After it was recorded by Bessie Smith in May of 1929. Cox's song became an American standard. Why?  Five months later, Wall Street experienced the great stock market crash of October 1929. Here's the great Alberta Hunter singing "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

Some people perceive change as an enemy rather than an inevitability. Others are so wrapped up in their self-importance that they completely lose perspective. Consider the poor, beleaguered souls in the follow video:

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Based on Judy Pascoe's novel, Our Father Who Art in The Tree, a new film written and directed by Julia Bertuccelli strikes me as ideally suited to penetrate the independent and women's film markets. The story line is stark and simple. Tragedy strikes a rural Australian family (not once, but twice). And although home may be where the heart is, at a certain point it's no longer there and a person must move on in order to survive.

Peter (Aden Young) is a seemingly healthy truck driver who helps to deliver prefabricated homes using a widebody flatbed truck. As he returns home one day, he catches his eight-year-old daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies), and her friend Megan (Zoe Boe), playing beneath a railroad trestle as a train passes overhead.

Reminding Simone that he has told her that she should never play in such a dangerous location, Peter drops Megan off with her father and is just nearing home when he suffers a fatal heart attack. His truck collides with the huge Moreton Bay Fig tree that towers over their house.

Poster art for The Tree

Following her husband's funeral, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), sinks into a major depression, leaving her eldest child, Tim (Christian Byers), to cope with an increasingly unfair level of household responsibilities. In addition to routine bits of reality (like feeding her four children and getting them to school), Dawn must cope with unexpected terrors like a fruit bat that gets stuck in the kitchen toaster or the frogs that come up out of the toilet in the bathroom. A steady stream of news coverage about the devastating floods in Queensland doesn't help to lighten the atmosphere.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Dawn

Meanwhile, the tree's giant roots keep expanding, clogging drainpipes and inspiring Simone to believe that she can hear the her dead father's voice in the sound that the wind makes as it passes through the tree at night. At first, Dawn tries to humor her daughter, who is obviously having trouble accepting Peter's death. Only after she takes a job working for a local plumber does Dawn start to pull herself out of her depression.

Her new employer, George (Martin Csokas). turns out to be a handsome bear of a man with a sympathetic soul. But when a crisis erupts between Dawn and her neighbors (who want to destroy the tree's roots that threaten their property), Simone refuses to cooperate with George's work crew. Forced to choose between her daughter's insistence on protecting the tree and the necessary help from the new man in her life, Dawn reluctantly tells George to call off his work crew.

Martin Csokas as George

Just when it seems like nothing else could possibly go wrong, a huge storm destroys Dawn's house and inflicts severe damage on the tree. With her life completely in shambles, Dawn packs her children into the family car, says farewell to George, and heads down the lonely road toward an uncertain future.

Although Bertuccelli's film seems to take a long time finding its pace (and some of Simone's lines are just a little too precious), The Tree builds to a powerful climax as the storm demolishes any hope of Dawn staying in the same house, fixing the tree, or letting Simone keep on pretending that she can talk to her father.  Reality bites down hard. Here's the trailer:

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Sometimes a person has a unique reason for being unable to go home again. One really good reason is that you've very convincingly faked your own death. I had forgotten that part of Mark Twain's classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, until the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a restored print of William Desmond Taylor's 1920 silent film, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn (Lewis Sergeant) and
Tom Sawyer (Gordon Griffith)

Using a print from the George Eastman House, this screening was co-presented by the California Historical Society and accompanied on the piano by Donald Sosin. For the purposes of the silent film, the story was bookended with scenes of an an elderly Mark Twain receiving a visit from the spirit of Huckleberry Finn (Lewis Sergeant). Among the curious bits of trivia that surround the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn are the following:
  • Paramount Pictures never denied a rumor that the film was shot on location in and around Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain's home town). The truth, however, is that it was shot in the northern California towns of Rio Vista and Pleasanton.
  • Filming took place on the Sacramento River (which substituted for the Mississippi River).
  • George Reed (who played the role of the slave, Jim) was cast by William Desmond Taylor at a time when white actors were still performing in blackface in silent films.
A lobby card for the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn

Some 90 years after Huckleberry Finn was released, it's fascinating to see how Huck's abusive alcoholic father (Frank Lanning) was portrayed at the time. Strong support in secondary roles came from Katherine Griffith  as Widow Douglas, Martha Mattox as Miss Watson, Gordon Griffith as Tom Sawyer, and Edythe Chapman as Aunt Polly.

Although it's been years since I read Mark Twain's novel, watching William Desmond Taylor's film brought back many fond memories. I especially enjoyed the performances by Tom Bates as The King and Orral Humphrey as the Duke (the 1920 silent film, alas, does not include the scene where these two characters are tarred and feathered).  Here's the trailer:

Friday, July 29, 2011

Awkward Situations

Frequently hailed as the first of Cole Porter's "list songs," "Let's Do It" was written for a 1928 Broadway musical entitled "Paris." Over the years, certain lines, deemed to be politically incorrect, have been excised from the song.  These include:
"Chinks do it, Japs do it,
Up in Lapland little Laps do it..."
But more than 80 years after its creation, when taken as a whole, Porter's lyric remains brilliant:
"When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
When the little bluebell
At the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring Ding dong Ding dong
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Starts a tune to the moon up above
It is nature that is all
Simply telling us to fall in love

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

I've heard that lizards and frogs do it
Layin' on a rock
They say that roosters do it
With a doodle and cock

Some Argentines, without means do it
I hear even Boston beans do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

The most refined lady bugs do it
When a gentleman calls
Moths in your rugs they do it
What's the use of moth balls?
The chimpanzees in the zoos do it,
Some courageous kangaroos do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

I'm sure sometimes on the sly you do it
Maybe even you and I might do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love."
With the possible exception of a miserable dwarf named Alberich (remember Alberich?), everyone wants to be loved. Nebbishes, nerds, and engineers want it. So do meeskites and meshugas, geeks and dweebs. While popular mythology insists that it's easy to fall in love at first sight, reality tells us quite another story.

The greatest flirt may be an utterly superficial loser. The most honest and loyal companion a person could hope for (other than a dog) might have no talent for seduction. The title song to Stephen Sondheim's failed 1964 musical, Anyone Can Whistle, describes the challenge faced by a genius who has trouble being a regular person. In the following clip, the great Cleo Laine sings "Anyone Can Whistle"

Some characters whine about their inability to attract a potential lover. Others bemoan their great talent at ruining any chance at romance.

Based on William Gibson's 1958 drama, Two For The Seesaw, the 1973 Broadway musical Seesaw boasted a book by Michael Bennett, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. One of the big numbers for its female lead, Gittel Mosca, was the song "Nobody Does It Like Me." In the following clip, Goldie Hawn puts a delightfully comedic twist on a song originally written for a very angry and frustrated young woman:

Three new dramedies put the search for true love under a curious lens with appealing and often poignant results. Although each takes place in a different country, each is locked to a specific period in its local culture.

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In August 2010, TheatreWorks included a new musical written by Kim RosenstockWill Connolly, and Michael Mitnick in its annual New Works Festival. Less than a year later, the official world premiere of Fly By Night opened the company's 42nd season. To hail Fly By Night as a delightful new chamber musical whose characters all meet curious twists of fate during the great Northeast Blackout of November 9, 1965 would miss a very important point.

Fly By Night is that rare musical whose audience quickly embraces -- and genuinely cares about -- every single one of its characters (including those impersonated by the show's shape-shifting narrator). Each of Rosenstock's six main characters takes huge personal risks and goes through a tremendous emotional arc over the course of the evening. They are:
  • Mr. McClam (James Judy), a recent widower who is struggling to hold on to fond memories of his deceased wife (who introduced him to opera by taking him to a performance of Verdi's La Traviata).
  • Harold (Ian Leonard), Mr. McClam's nebbishy son, an aspiring songwriter who carries around his mother's old guitar to play (when he is not working in a sandwich shop in midtown Manhattan).
  • Crabble (Michael McCormick), Harold's boss at the sandwich shop. A former military air traffic controller, Crabble has bigger dreams than the daily routine of "meat, mustard, cheese, and lettuce."
Harold (Ian Leonard) and Crabble (Michael McCormick)
making sandwiches in Fly By Night (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

  • Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a pretty young woman who leaves North Dakota and heads to Manhattan in hopes of becoming an actress.
  • Joey Storms (Keith Pinto), an aspiring playwright living off his trust fund who hires Daphne to be the star of his new show.
  • Miriam (Kristin Stokes), Daphne's older sister who has been contentedly working as a waitress and living at home with her mother. When Daphne asks her mother if she can take her Dad's old car to New York, her mother insists that Miriam accompany Daphne to New York in order to get her out of the house.
Miriam (Kristin Stokes) has her fortune told by a
mysterious stranger (Wade McCollum) in
Fly By Night (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As directed by Bill Fennelly using the intricate unit set designed by Dane Laffrey (which has been sensitively lit by Paul Toben), Fly By Night quickly establishes several sets of overlapping triangles that seem headed toward a crisis:
  • When Joey (who can't stop rewriting the script for his play) and Daphne continue one of their endless rehearsals at Harold and Daphne's apartment, an already disillusioned Harold walks in on the pair as they kiss while rehearsing their lines.
  • Although they can't seem to communicate with each other, Harold and his father each both end up visiting the diner where Miriam is working as a waitress on the graveyard shift.
  • After Harold and Daphne meet cute, fall in "like" and get engaged, Harold falls head over heels for Miriam and discovers what true love really feels like.

Miriam (Kristin Stokes) and her father (Wade McCollum) practice
counting the stars in the sky above North Dakota (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Filled with solid laughs, genuine pathos, and bittersweet moments of honesty, Fly By Night derives its emotional strength from a group of obviously flawed characters whose neuroses could easily doom them to a miserable existence but who (with one notable exception) stubbornly cling to the belief that things will improve. While each actor has distinct moments in which to shine (narrator Wade McCollum rules the stage in a series of rapidly changing characterizations), it is James Judy's lonely widower whose second act solo becomes the highlight of the evening.

James Judy as Mr. McClam (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

There are many ways in which the size and shape of Fly By Night reminded me of another chamber musical set in New York (2008's A Catered Affair). The big difference, however, is that while A Catered Affair was an artistic success, Fly By Night has a much better chance of becoming both a popular and commercial success.

Fly By Night is an extremely economical show to build that requires only a handful of musicians. Five out of its seven characters can be portrayed by reasonably young actors. Looking beyond its world premiere production, it has a much stronger future in regional theatres and university theatre departments.

If you consider yourself a connoisseur of musical theatre, you won't want to miss it. Performances of Fly By Night continue through August 13 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (you can order tickets here).

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A bit later in the 1960s and on the other side of the world, The Matchmaker deals with a different cluster of emotionally damaged and socially inept souls. Yankele Bride (Adir Miller) is a mysterious Holocaust survivor who makes his living trying to find love for lonely people in Israel. A realist who nevertheless hopes to create happy endings, he cautions each prospective suitor that his job is to give his clients what they need rather than what they want.

Although Yankele pines for Clara (Maya Dagan), a pretty, intelligent Polish Jew who coaches Yankele's prospective suitors in how to present themselves to a potential date, Clara is plagued with nightmares and dental pain resulting from medical experiments performed on her in a German concentration camp.Pretty to look at, she is distinctly damaged goods.

Among their close friends are a group of Jewish dwarfs who met at Josef Mengele’s clinic in Auschwitz and now run a movie theatre in a seedy part of Haifa. One of the dwarfs, Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), is a client of Yankele's.

Yankele and Clara also host late night card games in Clara's apartment for Holocaust survivors who are afraid to sleep because of their nightmares. What little gambling takes place is harmless, even if it is against the law.

One day, after Yankele meets a scrawny Israeli teenager named Arik Burstein, he visits Arik's apartment and discovers that the boy's father is a close friend from "the old country" who also survived the Holocaust. After learning of Arik's passion for detective stories, Yankele hires the teenager to help him spot potential clients.

Yankele (Adir Miller), Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), and Arik (Tuval Shafir)

Although Arik shows great promise at tailing the people Yankele needs to know more about, he is also being pressured on the home front. Tamara (Neta Porat), the very sexy Iraqi-Jewish-American cousin of his best friend Benny (Tom Gal), has the hots for Arik. Strangely, Arik seems not just uninterested, but totally clueless about sex.

Meanwhile, Meir the librarian (Dror Keren) wants to meet a woman who is smaller than him. Although Arik had referred Meir to Yankele as a prospective client, the librarian has completely misunderstood Clara's role as a dating coach and set his heart on her instead of on the Jewish dwarf, Sylvia.

Meir (Dror Keren) and Arik (Tuval Shafir)

Meir's limited social skills and crippling neuroses make it impossible for him to handle Clara's gentle rejection. When Arik accidentally tells him that people are playing cards for money at Clara's apartment, Meir seizes on the illegality of the situation to exact his revenge on Yankele.

Director Avi Nesher weaves the subplot of Israeli youth (whom no one will talk to about the Holocaust) who are trying to come of age with the fact that they are surrounded by much sadder (and not always wiser) adults who are unable to forget the horrors they witnessed and survived in Nazi Germany. This is a film about deeply wounded people struggling to keep their dignity in complex relationships that are nothing like what they may seem to be on the surface.

Refreshing, poignant, and unavoidably tragic, The Matchmaker is a most impressive dramedy. Although there are scenes in which many titles flash by faster than one can read them, the actors have no trouble communicating their situation to the viewer. Here's the trailer:

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Both Fly By Night and The Matchmaker deal with people whose emotions are often crippled by neuroses and inhibitions. But what happens when a romantic lead is so uninhibited that she thinks nothing of running out of the house without any clothes on and crossing Paris stark naked on the Métro in her eagerness to run an errand? Or buying some large crabs for dinner and "liberating" them back to the ocean?

Sara Forestier as the irrepressible Baya Benmahmoud

Written by Michel LeClerc and Bya Kismi (and directed by LeClerc), The Names of Love stars the exuberant Sara Forestier as Baya Benmahmoud, a young Algerian woman who has not just embraced the 1960s motto "Make Love, Not War," but enthusiastically made it her personal credo. Baya takes great delight in using her sexual skills to seduce conservatives and right-wing politicians and, during sex, convert them to more left-leaning philosophies. When Baya crosses paths with Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a shy Jewish socialist who specializes in performing animal autopsies, all hell breaks loose.

LeClerc's film goes to great lengths to explain each lover's family roots, with good reason.
  • Arthur's mother (Michèle Moretti) is a stern Jewish mathematician. His father (Jacques Boudet) is a nuclear physicist who served in Algeria with the French army.
  • Conversely, Baya's mother (Carole Franck), is an aging hippie who strongly opposes nuclear power. Her father (Zinedine Soualem) is a sensitive and talented Algerian artist whose family was massacred by the French. Mohamed is also a regular "Mr. Fix-It" who has little sense of self-worth, but finds great happiness in helping people.
The Names of Love pokes lots of fun at contemporary French culture. Whether pointing out the challenges that arise in Arab-French relationships, from women wearing a hijab, from anti-Semitism or simply from Baya's intoxicating approach to sexual liberation, LeClerc has fashioned a good-hearted romantic comedy that is every bit as rowdy as it is intelligent. To some, Arthur and Baya may seem totally mismatched. But I'm one of those people who strongly believes that opposites attract.

Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya (Sara Forestier
have dinner with Arthur's parents.

The Names of Love won my heart in one particular scene where the hopelessly methodical Arthur is struggling to find a way to do something nice for his totally impulsive girlfriend. Suddenly realizing that helping Baya's father might be the key to her heart, Arthur shows remarkable insight in the way he gently approaches Mohamed and asks him for a favor.

Understanding that Mohamed is much too shy and self-effacing to ever dream of exhibiting his paintings to the public, Arthur frames his request as a desperate plea for help:  someone has stolen a whole bunch of paintings from his offices and he needs Mohamed's help to cover up all the white spaces that were left exposed on the walls where the picture frames previously hung.

Baya (Sara Forestier) and Arthur (Jacques Gamblin)

That tiny subplot may be one of the quieter, gentler moments in The Names of Love but, as far as I'm concerned, it makes the rest of this highly energetic film ever so much more appealing. Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin shine as the two mismatched lovers. The rest of the film is a romp and a frolic. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Frozen in Time

How do we honor the dead artistically? In some cases, we commission artists and architects to erect monuments to the memories of those we have lost. Monuments can range in size from a simple gravestone to an Egyptian pyramid.

Whether one man (Shah Jahan) creates the world's most famous mausoleum (the Taj Mahal) to honor the memory of his beloved wife (Mumtaz Mahal) or a nation designs and erects a structure such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the dead are most often memorialized in marble and stone. From Holocaust memorials to tombs of unknown soldiers, from San Francisco's AIDS Memorial Grove to the memorials honoring those whose lives were lost during the sinking of the RMS Titanic, architects, sculptors, and landscapers have all designed monuments to those who died prematurely.

It's the thought that counts.

What music honors the dead? Siegfried's Funeral March (from Richard Wagner's opera, Gotterdammerung) quickly come to mind. So does Death and Transfiguration, the magnificent orchestral tone poem by Richard Strauss. Here's Audra McDonald singing "My Man's Gone Now" from George Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess.

Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Cherubini, Berlioz, Dvorak, Fauré, Britten, Penderecki and Andrew Lloyd Webber have all composed requiems honoring the dead. Yet sometimes the simplest music speaks the loudest. Here is a clip of the great Ethel Waters singing Irving Berlin's show-stopping Supper Time (which was written for the 1933 Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer).

The music that accompanies a documentary often adds a powerful emotional element to the viewing experience. Two new movies celebrating the dead were recently screened at Bay area film festivals. Each stands on its own as a magnificent piece of documentary film. Their scores, however, were so integral to the viewing experience that it is hard to separate them from the films they enhanced.

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One of the places people least look forward to visiting is a cemetery. It doesn't matter whether they are attending a funeral, unveiling a headstone, or being buried in a graveyard plot, cemeteries don't rank high on most people's lists of places to go and things to be done. In June, however, the Spoon River Project (a new adaptation  by Tom Andolora of Edgar Lee Masters's 1915 Spoon River Anthology) was performed at night in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Written and directed by Britta WauerIn Heaven Underground: The Wiessensee Jewish Cemetery is a marvelously entertaining documentary about a truly historic burial ground. It is as charming and delightful a film as one will ever encounter -- especially among those films aimed at documenting the dead (Wauer's poignant movie recently won the coveted Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival).

Dedicated in 1880, the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery has been in continuous operation under Jewish authority for more than 130 years. With over 115,000 graves sprawled across 100 acres of an urban forest of deciduous trees, it is the largest active Jewish burial ground in Europe. Amazingly, this Berlin cemetery and its archives were left undestroyed during the Nazi regime (perhaps partly because of local superstitions about a golem residing on its grounds).

A quiet part of the Wiessensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin

Today, the Weissensee's visitors range from American and Israeli Jews seeking the graves of long-lost relatives to German ornithologists determined to track the population and lifestyles of the cemetery's resident goshawks.  In her director's statement, Wauer writes:
"It is more than a challenge to fairly handle the fates of more than 115,000 departed souls and their relatives in a film. There is no chance of being comprehensive. A list of famous names, a sequence of lifetime achievements or recounting sad deaths do not make for an interesting film. Yet Weissensee has earned this. The screen should not to be filled with graves, ivy, and gravel, but with people telling of the rich lives that were once led in Berlin. For me it’s a matter of personal connections. The idea was one of pursuing some few fates and letting protagonists who were personally connected to the dead tell the tale. People with memories, feelings, and thoughts are central. They should play the main role in the film and make plain to the viewer what is precious about Weissensee.
Naturally, the era of Nazi dictatorship overshadows all other events. But the film does not want to restrict itself to recounting deaths from those years. To reduce the dead of Weissensee to their sad ends is a falsification. Many of those buried there completed unusual things, achieved something special, or experienced something strange. The film also wants to tell of funny, absurd, and thoughtful moments, and of a great love -- one without a happy ending."

A tree blooms in the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin

In Heaven Underground benefits from a wealth of archival footage showing life in Berlin from the earliest days of moving film up to World War II. A particularly moving section of the film describes how those few Jews who remained in Berlin after World War II were affected by the division of the city and the erection of the Berlin Wall. An English Jew who hoped to visit his family's graves was so afraid of trying to cross into East Berlin that he hired a guide to accompany him on his journey.

Throughout the film, the cemetery's aging& Rabbi William Wolff (who acts like a spry garden gnome) provides humorous insights into the Weissensee's history as well as his own opinions on life, death, and what to expect from a cemetery.

Rabbi William Wolff

But it is the original score by Karim Sebastian Elias that sets so much of the film's tone in critical scenes. With segments that range from mischievous to mournful, from merry to melancholy, Elias's music does such a splendid job of showcasing Weissensee's history and natural beauty that viewers may be shocked to find themselves laughing and smiling throughout a documentary about the final resting place of so many European Jews.

Whether learning how access to a cemetery can give teenage boys equal access to free beer (or how the children whose families lived at the cemetery learned how to compete in sports events during World War II), In Heaven Underground provides astonishing insights into suffering, survival, symbolism, and cinematography. Here's the trailer:

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As the son of a science teacher, there was no way in hell I was going to miss a screening the British Film Institute's newly-restored print of The Great White Silence. Combining film clips and stills taken by Herbert Ponting (the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition's official photographer and cinematographer), this film is so much more than a documentary about history in the making or man's quest to explore the unknown. A century after the fateful expedition, it offers viewers a surprising way of gauging how far we have come thanks to the work of explorers and scientists.

Think, for just a minute, about what primitive navigational tools were available to seagoing explorers like Leif EricsonChristopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and Sir Francis Drake. Then take a moment to appreciate how computer technology has allowed us to put a man on the moon, land robotic vehicles on Mars, and explore the distant reaches of the solar system.

Think about the earliest Arctic and Antarctic explorers who braved the fierce climates on the planet's vast polar ice caps with little more than the stars in the sky and their hand-held compasses to guide them. No radio or GPS devices. None of our current technology.

The Great White Silence explores the history of one of those great treks across polar ice with film that is more than a century old. All one has to do is watch the following footage of the Terra Nova leaving Cardiff, Wales on June 15, 1910 to stand in awe of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's goal of being the first to reach the geographic South Pole.

On November 29, 1910, Scott's expedition set out on its ill-fated race to the South Pole from Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Joining Scott on board the Terra Nova was Herbert Ponting, who is credited with having filmed almost every aspect of the expedition.

While Ponting's footage of seals, Adélie penguins, dog teams, and ponies on ice will instantly charm viewers, the most important images he brought back were those he recorded of the preparations for the trek to the Pole (including trials of the caterpillar-track sledges as well as proper clothing and cooking equipment). In 1924, he re-edited his film and photos into The Great White Silence, using tinting and toning to make some scenes more vivid for viewers.

One of Herbert Ponting's tinted images of
 the Terra Nova in Antarctica

As the official custodian of the expedition's negatives, the British Film Institute National Archive recently used modern photochemical and digital techniques to reintroduce Ponting's sophisticated use of color. The following video clip explains what the process entailed:

In the following video clip (which contains some great shots from the film), the British Film Institute's silent film curator, Bryony Dixon, and composer Simon Fisher Turner discuss how they went about creating a score for Ponting's film.

Simon Fisher Turner's score, however, was not the one performed in San Francisco earlier this month. Following their acclaimed local debut at the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Sweden's Mattie Bye Ensemble (particularly Matti Bye and Kristian Holmgren) was commissioned by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Headlands Center for the Arts to create a new score to accompany the Bay area screening of The Great White Silence.

It's hard to upstage such a riveting documentary, but the music they composed and performed not only honored Ponting's film, but immeasurably deepened its impact. For many, their performance was the highlight of the entire festival.

Although The Great White Silence was released on DVD by the British Film Institute in 1982, this newly restored print -- coupled with such thrilling music -- provided one of those unforgettable, other worldly experiences in silent film. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Quintessential American Sounds

One doesn't necessarily think of the calendar as having much impact on the sounds we hear. Yet who would dare to deny the number of love songs sung on Valentine's Day each February? Or the countless renditions of Richard Wagner's bridal march ("Treulich geführt") from Lohengrin in June?

Not a Sunday goes by without church organists performing liturgical music and many church choirs performing gospel music. Not a day goes by without someone singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend, relative, or co-worker. And who could ignore the timeliness of Christmas carols (or the sounds of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker) that are heard every December?

July casts a spotlight on American music -- and not just because so many Independence Day celebrations include marches by John Philip Sousa and popular songs by George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. Passengers aboard the Disneyland Railroad listen to the third movement of Ferde Grofé's evocative Grand Canyon Suite as their train passes through a diorama. During the month of July, one is bound to hear renditions of such patriotic songs as:
Two Bay area arts organizations recently presented programs devoted to the works of distinctly American composers, men whose music evokes an instantly recognizable sense of American life.

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On July 7, the San Francisco Symphony presented an evening of music by George Gershwin. Kicking off with a soup-ed up overture to 1930's hit Broadway musical, Girl Crazy (which shot Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman, to stardom), the first act included a performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925) with the ebullient pianist, Ian Parker, as guest soloist. It's interesting to note that, in January of 1937, Gershwin performed his concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Six months later he succumbed to a malignant brain tumor at the age of 38.

Pianist Ian Parker

The second act showcased the songwriting talents of the composer and his brother, Ira Gershwin. In their 13 years as a songwriting team, the Gershwin brothers made a huge contribution to the American songbook. With conductor Michael Francis on the podium, Broadway's Laura Benanti sang four Gershwin classics -- "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Our Love Is Here To Stay," "I Got Rhythm," and "Someone To Watch Over Me" -- before performing an encore of "Summertime" from Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess.

Soprano Laura Benanti

A performer of immense appeal, Benanti confessed that the concert marked her first time in San Francisco, her first time singing with a symphony orchestra, as well as her first time singing with people seated behind her. I have no doubt that she will soon be appearing on a regular basis at pops concerts across the nation.

The evening concluded with an exuberant performance of one of Gershwin's most famous orchestral suites, An American in Paris (1928). The breadth of his contributions to American music offered a sobering reminder of the tragedy that this gifted talent died at such an early age.

Composer George Gershwin shortly before his death in 1937

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Meanwhile, down the Peninsula, Broadway by the Bay seems quite happily ensconced in its new home, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. Although hardly as lavish as some of the old Fox movie palaces, the Redwood City auditorium has the kind of intimacy and acoustics that eluded the company in its previous venue, the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. Between the theatre and the San Mateo County History Museum is an old-fashioned town square which was hosting a free outdoor screening of 2002's popular animated feature, Ice Age, on the night I attended a performance of Meredith Willson's 1957 hit, The Music Man.

Professor Harold Hill (Tom Reardon) sings "76 Trombones" in
Broadway By The Bay's production of The Music Man
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

The Music Man holds a very special place in my heart. It was the second Broadway show I attended (the first one was Plain and Fancy), and I remember being thrilled by the opening moments in which clouds of stage fog billowed through a painted scrim depicting an old-fashioned steam locomotive. The show's opening number, "Rock Island," was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. During his recent stint at the Curran Theatre, Hugh Jackman sang the entire number (designed for a chorus of traveling salesmen) all by himself.

With book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, the show is a model of theatrical economy and stagecraft. Scene transitions are quick and easy. Musical numbers neatly move the plot forward. Some of the show's biggest production numbers ("Marian the Librarian" and "Shipoopi") are carried forward by a kind of American optimism that is not just infectious, but painfully absent from our current cultural landscape.

Wilson's score includes foot-tapping numbers such as "76 Trombones" and "The Wells Fargo Wagon" as well as wistful songs of longing like "Goodnight, My Someone,"  "My White Knight," "Will I Ever Tell You" and "Till There Was You."  The traditional appeal of barbershop quartet numbers like "Good Night, Ladies," "Sincere," "It's You," and "Lida Rose" is neatly balanced against novelty numbers like "Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little," "The Sadder But Wiser Girl," and "Gary, Indiana."

Kerie Darner-Moss as Marian Paroo (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

The Music Man is also one of the few shows during which I can always feel hot tears quietly running down my cheeks.  This often happens during specific moments (Winthrop's sudden outburst: "Thithter, thithter, ithn't thith cornet the motht thcrumpthiouth thing you've ever theen?") or during those parts of the script when Willson's dramatic craft become so evident, and his writing so clean, that your realize you'd need a wrecking ball to dent a hole in his show.

Tom Reardon as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

A familiar face to Bay area audiences, Tom Reardon portrayed Harold Hill as a mischievous scamp who had always managed to get by on his looks and charm until a feisty librarian turned the tables on him. As Marian Paroo, Kerie Darner-Moss displayed a strong lyric soprano. Claudia McCarley brought a matronly Irish twang to the role of Mrs. Paroo while Trevor Wright's dancing added grace and humor to the role of Tommy Djilas.

Supporting roles were solidly cast with Mark Alabanza as Marcellus Washburn, Scott Stanley as the anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell; Linda Piccone as the Mayor's wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn; and David Gahagen as her blustering husband. Some of the evening's best musical work came from the barbershop quartet (David Lloyd Pias as Ewart Dunlap, Ryan Baum as Jacey Squires, Mark Waldman as Oliver Hix, and especially bass-baritone David Murphy as Olin Britt).

Using sets and costumes rented from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Lee Ann Payne kept the stage direction nice and brisk, with Attilio Tribuzi putting the pit band through its paces. To suggest that a good time was had by all would be a severe understatement.

Tom Reardon as Professor Harold Hill with
Kerie Darner-Moss as Marian Paroo in The Music Man

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Silents Are Deafening

The parade of film festivals through San Francisco's annual arts calender offers a constant source of entertainment. But if I had to choose one festival above all others, my favorite would undoubtedly be the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The largest silent film festival in the United States, its continued growth is proof of the organization's clearly stated mission, sound executive and artistic management, and willingness to take risks. Having just completed its 2011 festival, the organization is laying plans to  celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.

This organization's health is all the more remarkable in light of major cutbacks, layoffs, and in some tragic cases, the demise of beloved cultural institutions (Opera Pacific, the Baltimore Opera Company) in cities across America. Symphony orchestras in Syracuse, Honolulu, Louisville, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia have recently filed for bankruptcy. All one has to do is look at the shaky financial history of Seattle's Intiman Playhouse and the New York City Opera to understand that no arts organization is too big to fail.

What helps to keep San Francisco's Silent Film Festival so clearly focused is a keen understanding of its devoted audience and the cultural heritage it celebrates.
Silent film organist Dennis James

This was the second year that the festival featured a "Variations on a Theme" seminar in which its participating musicians had a chance to discuss how they approach the task of composing a score to accompany a silent film. As he did last year, organist Dennis James staunchly insisted that if a written score exists for a silent film, that is the only music that should be played with any screening. Others on the panel discussed how scoring a silent film gives them new opportunities to express themselves artistically.

One of the most refreshing additions to the festival took place during the program devoted to Disney's "Laugh-O-Grams." Earlier this month, Donald Sosin had conducted his "Sounds For Silents" workshop at the annual conference of the Music Teachers' Association of California. Of the eight participants in the MTAC workshop, two young Asian-American pianists performed during the festival. In the following video clip (recorded during the 2010 Music Teachers Association of California conference), you can watch Evan Chow working with Philip Kereven in a piano improvisation master class.

Now watch Chow, a year later, as he accompanies a screening of 1922's The Four Musicians of Bremen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

I found the performances by Evan Chow and Joseph Lai of particular interest because, in recent years, I've been so severely disappointed by film festivals that hire rock musicians to accompany silent film. This year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival engaged composer Giovanni Spinelli to accompany F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans on an electric guitar (a brainstorm attributed to Paolo Cherchi Usai, the founder of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation as well as co-founder and co-director of Italy's Pordenone Silent Film Festival. In the following video clip, Spinelli talks about how he went about composing a score for this beloved film classic:

While I give Spinelli credit for trying something new, the results only proved the point I've been trying to make for several years. Rock music is the antithesis of what a silent film needs. It tends to drown out any hope of nuance, suffocate all attempts at subtlety, and lessen (rather than enhance) a silent film's impact.

Not only does an electric guitar have a very limited musical vocabulary (compared to a piano, theater organ, or ensemble), the idea of a silent film being paired with a rock musician -- who can easily be tempted to make as much noise as possible -- is simply counterproductive. A slow, but steady stream of people filed out of the Castro Theatre during the film's first half hour. When the screening concluded, the applause was polite.

When Spinelli spoke at the "Variations on a Theme" program two days later, he confessed that his performance had met with a lot less Sunrise and a lot more He Who Gets Slapped. I personally think the San Francisco Silent Film Festival would be better off trying to nurture talents like Evan Chow as the next generation of silent film accompanists.

Alas, there were several moments during last weekend's festival when I felt as if my head might explode but they had absolutely nothing to do with Spinelli's electric guitar. A little bit of sleep deprivation goes a long, long way. In recent years I've learned that, while watching movies of varying film quality, the effect on my eyes can trigger brief moments of narcolepsy.

The problem is that, especially when watching a black-and-white silent film, I can suddenly find myself in the middle of a technicolor dream on a related topic (which gets extremely confusing). Thankfully, this did not occur during the screening of Winsor McCay's delightful 1921 short entitled Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet.

The big news, of course, was the announcement that next March the San Francisco Silent Film Festival would present four performances of Abel Gance's completely restored Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Each screening of the 5-1/2 hour epic will begin in the afternoon and be shown in four parts with three intermissions (including a dinner break).

To help whet the audience's appetite for this historic event (the first time the completely restored Napoleon will be shown in North America), Academy Award winning film historian Kevin Brownlow gave a detailed lecture about how his early fascination with two 9.5-mm reels from Napoleon that he had purchased at a street market in the 1950s led to the culmination of a life's work in 2000.

For film fanatics, the chance to see Gance's Napoleon in all its glory will be as intoxicating as Richard Wagner's RING cycle is to opera lovers (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Genre Snacking

Recent headlines seem to be dominated by gerunds. From phone hacking to gender swapping, from lip smacking to safe cracking, gerunds seem to be making a comeback. So let me describe what constitutes cinematic genre snacking.

A film critic experiences genre snacking by viewing a variety of movies that represent different types of filmmaking.  From documentary to narrative and mumblecore, from home movies to silent film and animation, genre snacking is the cinematic equivalent of dining at a tapas restaurant.

Genre snacking is also an easy way to unite several films that have absolutely nothing in common and put them in a single column. It's also a great way to justify the cheap and tacky thrills of watching something like this clip from Mega Python vs. Gatoroid:

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Earlier this month I had a chance to attend a screening of General Satellite Corporation's production of Giselle in 3D (as performed by the Mariinsky Ballet in its famous home in St. Petersburg, Russia). Because this was basically a 3D taping of an actual stage performance, there was no chance it could be anywhere as horrific as Andrei Konchalovsky's appalling Nutcracker in 3D (2010).

The promotional blurb for the film claimed that the 3D process would give viewers the best seat in the house.  While 3D certainly helped add a sense of depth to the stage picture in certain moments, during other parts of the film its presence was barely felt.  The experience did, however, bring to mind many personal memories.

When I started attending ballet during my college years, I was often seated in the upper balcony of the New York City Center, the Fourth and Fifth Rings of the New York State Theatre, and the Family Circle of the Metropolitan Opera House as I watched performances by the Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, the Feld Ballets/NYNew York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. I spent most of that time squinting through a pair of 10x50 binoculars that weighed nearly two pounds.

The contrast between what I was able to see through those binoculars and what I was able to see on a large screen this month was nothing short of miraculous. Another reason the sheer size of the 3D visual was such a luxury was that, over the past 20 years. I've had three surgeries on my left eye (in addition to a cataract extraction from my right eye). If reading small print has become nearly impossible, after all these years the intense satisfaction of being able to watch classical ballet on a full-sized movie screen is hard to describe.

I have always adored Adolph Adam's romantic score for Giselle and was frankly astonished at how well I remembered the music after all these years. Natalia Osipova's Giselle and Leonid Sarafanov's Albrecht were a joy to watch. Here's the trailer:

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There are some who might consider Giselle in 3D to be pure documentary. However, soon to be screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is Tomer Heymann's latest film, The Queen Has No Crown, which is a strange hybrid of documentary film mixed with old 8-mm and 16-mm home movies. Heymann's film chronicles several generations of his family, starting with his grandfather's decision to flee Germany in the 1930s. Among the characters the audience sees at different phases of their lives are:
  • Tomer, an Israeli filmmaker who is now openly gay.
  • Zvi, Tomer's father, whose brother was apparently gay and committed suicide (although this is not mentioned in the film).
  • Noa, Tomer's mother, a force to be reckoned with who is bereft that three of her five sons (Ofer, Alon, and Erez) have chosen to live in America.
  • Erez #1, Tomer's twin brother, who wishes Tomer would stop wasting his time making "silly films" and produce more Jewish children. Erez considers his gay brother to be "biologically useless."
  • Erez #2, Tomer's first lover, who eventually breaks up with the filmmaker, which triggers a period of depression.
  • Barak, Tomer's younger brother who, as his business partner, now co-produces his films.
  • Tomer's new Lebanese friend from Dallas (an openly gay Arab who feels more in common with Tomer than he could with any of his more traditional relatives back in Lebanon).
Poster art for The Queen Has No Crown

At the heart of The Queen Has No Crown is the loss of power suffered by Tomer's mother (a fierce Jewish matriarch) and the state of Israel which, in addition to its political upheaval, is trying to cope with an emerging population of openly gay Israelis. To his credit, Heymann shows an uncanny talent for capturing those raw moments of familial vulnerability when a relative's neediness becomes painfully obvious.

In the following 25-minute interview (that was taped at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival for the Teddy Awards), Heymann describes the impact The Queen Has No Crown has had on his family, his friends, and total strangers. It's one of the more candid and fascinating interviews with an openly gay filmmaker who discusses the struggle as a documentarian to keep certain parts of his life offscreen.

In some ways, I found the above interview more interesting than Heymann's film. The trailer which follows is also far more poetic than the feeling one gets from watching so much footage from Heymann's home movies.

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If one peered into the crystal ball, there's a pretty good chance that Terri would seem predestined to sweep the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards.  This poignant new indie film (written by Patrick Dewitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs) captures a painful period of adolescence with remarkable clarity and simplicity. Its small ensemble of unhappy misfits includes:
  • Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an obese teenager who is constantly being teased and bullied at school.
  • James (Creed Bratton), Terri's uncle and sole guardian. James is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and, though barely a teenager, Terri has already been forced to take on the responsibilities of  a caretaker.
  • Chad (Bridger Zadina), one of Terri's more sullen classmates who, in addition to being a chronic troublemaker, is a skinny hypersexual teenager suffering from trichotillomania.
  • Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia), the pretty blonde classmate who wants to hang onto her virginity.
  • Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice), the popular jock who keeps trying to get into Heather's pants.
As Terri's director, Azazel Jacobs, notes:
“The film expresses adolescence in a way that is very recognizable to me. It’s not about a kid who becomes comfortable with himself and starts wearing PJs to school. Terri is someone who is already so comfortable with the fact that he’s never going to be cool that he might as well be comfortable physically by wearing pajamas."

DeWitt's script neatly juxtaposes the anguish of a handful of high school students who can barely figure out how to cope with their day-to-day misery with the misfortunes of three faculty members (who are in as much need of guidance as their students). The frustrated adults who cross Terri's path include:
If the role of Mr. Fitzgerald seems tailor-made to John C. Reilly's talents, his participation in the project is largely due to the fact that his wife, Alison Dickey, is one of the film's co-producers. As Reilly recalls:

"The script reminded me of all the hilarious and ultimately not that helpful guidance counselors I’ve met in my life. I like that there was that relationship between Mr. Fitzgerald and Terri in the film. I also loved the vulnerability that both characters show to each other. When the film starts out, Fitzgerald is very much in the leadership position, but by the end you realize he’s a pretty flawed human being as well. It’s interesting to see that kind of journey in a character.
I remember certain teachers and counselors fondly because, even if they didn’t give me the most amazing advice, it was important to have a grownup who is not your parent take an interest in your life. My high school guidance counselor, Mr. Fitzsimmons, didn’t solve any particular problems for me, but it was just great to have a conversation for 20 minutes or half an hour where the most important thing was my problems and my life.”

While audiences have come to regard Reilly as a great character actor, they'll be surprised by Wysocki's solid screen debut as Terri, the school's sad sack. As Wysocki states: “When I first read the script, I thought, I have this issue and so does everybody else. You don’t have to be a fat kid to not fit in.”

An extremely poignant film, Terri is not the kind of movie you want to spoil for your friends by leaking too many details. It's a modest film that stands very nicely on its own. Here's the trailer:

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During the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival numerous shorts were screened before a worshipful audience One of my favorites was part of the Wild and Weird program that was recently released by Flicker Alley (with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra). Directed by and starring Ernest Servaès, here's 1912's Artheme Swallows His Clarinet:

Among the numerous "orphan films" curated by Dan Streible for this year's festival was this Tribune-American Dream Picture from 1924 gem made by a Bay area filmmaker. Although there is no sound accompanying the following video clip, it's worth watching for the laughs as well as all the vintage automobiles: