Monday, August 29, 2011

Tempests and Teapots

Some people favor one marketing slogan over another. I have a fondness for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's motto: "True art transcends time."

With the current brouhaha over plans by Diane Paulus (who has the blessing of the estates of George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward) to mess around with the plot and presentation of Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, critics from opposing camps have staked out their territories. Some believe it is permissible to update an opera, write revisions that might provide more backstory, and make certain alterations in staging (i.e. substituting a cane for a goat cart) in order to make an opera more accessible to modern audiences. Others, most notably Stephen Sondheim, assert that there is a blunt line between "re-imagining" a classic and violating someone else's art on the self-righteous presumption that it needs rewriting and you're the one most qualified to do it simply because you said so.

In opera, as well as theatre, this stuff happens all the time.
Whether or not a piece of literature is in the public domain has a lot to do with how easily one can wield "artistic license" like a hatchet (I still shudder at the memory of the African-American Shakespeare Company's production of Othello, in which Iago was transformed into a butch black lesbian who resented the fact that Othello had married a white woman).  If Mozart and Shakespeare are no longer alive to defend their work from predatory influences and acts of creative malfeasance, who can?

Most people assume that Herman Hupfeld's song, As Time Goes By, was written for the 1942 movie, Casablanca. In truth, the song was Written in 1931 for Everybody's Welcome.  When used to gain perspective on updating works of art and literature, its lyrics retain a remarkable clarity.

"This day and age we're living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension.
Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein's theory.
So we must get down to earth at times
Relax relieve the tension

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, 'I love you.'
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by."
Two Bay area theatre companies are currently staging literary classics. One has put a daring new spin on a 400-year-old Shakespearean play; the other is staging a British adaptation of a beloved novel that is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its publication.

In each case, the challenge facing the stage director is how to make the story relevant for a modern audience. Does one cling to the text without the slightest deviation or make substantial cuts and condensations? Does one try to recreate the work's language and the culture of the period in which the original was written or take dramatic liberties while trying to respect the author's intent?

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Written in approximately 1611, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays to follow. The language is dense and the plot quite convoluted. As director Jon Tracy (who recently staged the play for the Marin Shakespeare Company) notes:
"Every time I see The Tempest and meet Prospero, I check out. Prospero's got a plan and really nothing stands in his way. Sure, he grapples with all sorts of fears and guilt (and hey, that's great), but he never has to worry whether or not his revenge will work because, say it with me.... he's a wizard. Dumb!
So I thought I'd change things up a bit. What if we stripped Mr. P of his magic and replaced it with science? What if our Prospero had the same mission, but actually had no idea if his plan would work? All of this led to a lot of research. Out sprang the theories of Tesla and da Vinci. Scientist, illusionist, inventor, this was the story I wanted to tell. From this idea, Prospero's relationships to other characters shifted and whole new perspectives began to emerge -- the product of which is very much The Tempest you know, except that you won't believe what happens next."
Prospero (Robert Parsons) and Caliban (Michael Torres)
arguing in The Tempest (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

In his two works based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey that received their world premieres from the Shotgun Players in 2010 (Of The Earth and In The Wound), Tracy and set designer Nina Ball (who have recently married) displayed a remarkable talent for pulling a whole lot of magic out of thin air.  Ball's versatile wooden wagons reappear in this production The Tempest. Instead of a trio of drumming nurses/goddesses, Tracy has focused his fertile imagination on Shakespeare's desert island with impressive results.

Setting The Tempest in 1901, he has recast Prospero (Robert Parsons) as a frustrated scientist exiled from Milan (pronounced "Millin" in this production) who was once close friends with Caliban (Michael Torres), an indigenous scientist. Together, they built a laboratory which produced the "Ariel coil" which generates, stores, and controls electricity.  Alas, Caliban's lust for Prospero's underaged daughter, Miranda (Sarah Gold), caused a permanent rift between the two men and Caliban is now in chains.

Sarah Gold as Miranda in The Tempest (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

Not only does the Ariel coil provide the electricity for Prospero's inventions, it can power remote periscopes and microphones that monitor the motions of the latest shipwreck survivors to arrive on the island, thus capturing their sounds and images for future use.  For an audience that takes computers for granted, it might seem difficult to make such a concept stageworthy. But think, for a moment:

What if you took six mischievous mimes, dressed them to look like a cross between the Artful Dodger and the early aviators in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, covered their eyes with customized aviator goggles, and trained them to pop in and out of trapdoors for a Shakespearean game of "Whack-a-Mole"?  You'd have a lot of unscripted action being performed by Prospero's six "Qualities" (Silvia Girardi, Maro Guevara, Kimberly Miller, Nesbyth Rieman, Erika Salazar, Jeremy Vik) that could bring a radically new sense of life to a 400-year-old play.

Whether aiming headlights from the set's towers, or tumbling over each other as they disappear through the stage floor, Tracy's "Qualities" do the work of stagehands and circus clowns/mimes. Since they can only move when the Ariel core is switched on, their liveliness is akin to watching balloon figures come to life (their posture deflates and all movement stops as soon as the Ariel core is turned off).  Their fish-mouthed miming of words has an uncanny theatrical impact.

"The Qualities" (Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

Thanks in no small part to the costume design by Abra Berman and sound by Brendan Aanes, this production of The Tempest was so consistently diverting that none of the children present for the matinee I attended seemed to have any trouble paying attention. Some of that may have been helped by Managing Director Leslie Currier's pre-performance explanation of the play's backstory and plot twists.

Supporting roles were taken by Robert Currier (Alonso), Christopher Hammond (Gonzalo), Scott Coopwood (Sebastian), James Hiser (Antonio), Alex Hersler (Ferdinand), Lynne Soffer (Trincula), and Cassidy Brown (Stephano). All in all, this is a theatrically challenging production of The Tempest.

One of the Prospero's mechanical Qualities in The Tempest
(Photo by: Eric Chazankin)

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I wish I could wax as enthusiastic over the adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, which is currently on display at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Conceived by Andy Graham and Roger Parsley and directed by Robert Kelley, this American premiere from TheatreWorks pretty much left me cold.

I can't tell whether Austen's novel (which was adapted for the screen by Ang Lee in 1995 and had television serials made in 1981 and 2008) was poorly adapted for the stage, didn't travel well across "the pond," or had much greater appeal to Jane Austen's devoted readers than it did to the opening night audience in Mountain View.

Elinor (Jennifer Le Blanc) and Marianne Dashwood (Katie Fabel)
in Sense and Sensibility (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

First published in 1881, Sense and Sensibility is very much about the intimate passions of two young women and how their unrequited loves for unobtainable men are eventually resolved. The tale of how Elinor Dashwood (Jennifer Le Blanc) and her younger sister, Marianne (Katie Fabel), are forced to leave their beloved home in Sussex following their father's death and stay with their gossipy Aunt Jennings (Stacy Ross), takes the newly-orphaned women to London and Somersetshire before they return to Barton Cottage in Devonshire to find true love and happiness.

Filled with various forms of female angst and bad behavior by two-faced men, it may just be that Austen's novel is more easily adaptable to the fluidity afforded by film and television than the hard reality of a stage. A clumsy attempt to have actors silhouetted upstage during a key scene in the second act failed to achieve the desired effect.

Elinor (Jennifer Le Blanc), Edward (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and
Marianne (Katie Fabel) in Sense and Sensibility
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Despite the gallant efforts of the play's seven-member ensemble, Sense and Sensibility proved to be a rather tedious and anemic evening of theatre. While I found Jennifer Le Blanc's portrayal of Elinor quite appealing, Katie Fabel's Marianne (as well as her pitch problems while singing) tended to grate on my nerves.

Lucy Littlewood offered some cold and sharp feminine contrast as the manipulative Lucy Steele, with solid supporting performances coming from Thomas Gorrebeeck as Edward Ferrars, Mark Anderson Phillips as Colonel Brandon, and Michael Scott McLean as the dastardly Willoughby. But when the projections used for the background landscapes in Joe Ragey's set become the highlight of one's evening, something is obviously missing.  What should have been a delicious soufflé lacked a sense of stageworthiness.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Organically Speaking

With the economy in the toilet, it's no surprise to read that people are once again bartering for goods and services. As states desperately try to create jobs to replace those shipped overseas by outsourcing, no one should be the least bit surprised to learn that hemp is back in the news.

State Senator Mark Leno recently introduced a bill in Sacramento that would allow hemp farming for products such as hemp milk and food products as well as rope, cloth, canvas, and paper derived from hemp. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, some misinformed law enforcement officers still insist that it is impossible to tell the difference between hemp plants (which are tall, skinny, and planted close together) and marijuana plants (which are more stocky, dense, and planted at least four feet apart).

Of the various types of Cannabis, only Cannabis sativa (left) is
suitable for industrial hemp farming (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When a lobbyist working for the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotics Officers' Association insisted that "You cannot visually tell the difference. It means in every major trafficking prosecution, defense counsel will begin with the argument 'That is not marijuana, it's hemp -- prove it!" he was met with a less than sympathetic response. Leno wryly noted that  "Anyone with the gift of sight can tell the difference between hemp and marijuana."

While Deedee Kirkwood's play, Toke, is dedicated to tales of getting high around the world, has a grand finale celebrating the 2000 Hemp Festival, and is supposedly based on a true story, to call it anything other than a well-intentioned mess would be a disservice to potential ticket buyers. There is a noticeable difference between a stinkweed and a stinky read.

Co-presented by Swirl Media Group and the Berkeley Patients Group, the action in Kirkwood's play bounces between such locales as the Garden of Eden, a Vietnamese opium den, a German commune with an outhouse, and a polyamory workshop. Even though the audience at the performance I attended barely outnumbered the cast of eight actors, the giddy laughter and hearty applause at the end of each scene was a strong indication that some members of the audience were stoned and their friends were part of the production.

The cast of supporting characters includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Pot Fairy (played by Sister Pat n Leather of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence). In her director's note, Patricia Miller writes:
"Our era is defined by pop culture, slang, and signature looks. I live in San Francisco and I do not toke.  So why take on a raw play from an untried writer?  This is a story about America through the quixotic journey of an All American Mom.  
Writer Deedee and her stage avatar, Weedee, cannot be separated.  A big-hearted maverick who can't walk the straight and narrow path no matter how hard she tries, Weedee struggles to conform, to self define, and self accept. A Jewish girl in a WASP sorority, a lone 'Americana' traveling in the world, a lover of Mary Jane hiding in the shadows who finds herself in and through this play, Cannabis is her best friend, her ally, her helper, and ultimately helps her find her authentic voice."
I can't really fault the energetic cast of Toke (headed by Tenaya Hurst as Weedee), who all worked hard to memorize a ghastly, horribly overwritten script and entertain such a sparse audience. According to the show's program notes:
"Deedee Kirkwood perceives her life and work as a Performance Art -- structured, dynamic, ritualized, and continuously improvisational.  As a writer, producer, and artist, Ms. Kirkwood is driven by a sense of purpose that resists categorization, thriving on the intersection of music, personal adventure, and varied perceptions of art. The redemptive power of love and engagement is the overriding theme of both her life and work." 
If only Ms. Kirkwood could tap into the redemptive powers of editing. Toke holds the dubious honor of being second only to Dark Porch Theatre's execrable production of Eleanor ("a pseudohistorical musical comedy set in the afterlife of Eleanor of Aquitaine") in its lust to capture the prize for the most misguided, most ill-conceived, and most incoherent script of the season. What Toke does prove beyond the shadow of a doubt is that a playwright's thoughts -- which may have seemed brilliant while stoned -- most often are not.

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One of the stranger and more eerily disturbing documentaries seen at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival was Detroit Wild City.  Written and directed by Florent Tillon, the film features some wonderful archival footage in addition to battered landscapes and local interviews recorded by the French filmmaker during his visits to Detroit in 2008 and 2009.

Poster art for Detroit Wild City

Formerly hailed  as "the Paris of the Midwest," Detroit's heyday as the home of the American automobile industry has long since come and gone. During the 1980s, while spending Hell Night (the night before Halloween) at the Dearborn Inn, I turned on the local news and learned that only 80 homes were on fire. Since then, the number of abandoned properties (industrial as well as residential) that lie in ruin has increased substantially.

In the past 25 years, Detroit's woes have similarly increased as manufacturers have fled the area, poverty has risen, and Michigan's political landscape has become more polarized. While it would seem that conditions on the ground have nowhere to go but up, optimism is easier to imagine than to find.

An abandoned home in Detroit (Photo by: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Two French photographers (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) have posted an online gallery of poignant photos from their book entitled The Ruins of Detroit. And yet, where Marchand and Meffre smell death and decay, Tillon senses a resurgence of life and opportunity thanks to a small group of artists, squatters, and organic farmers he encountered who are trying to eke out a living in Detroit.

It's an extremely idealistic and uphill battle. According to estimates by The National Institute for Literacy, roughly 47 percent of adults in Detroit -- 200,000 total -- are "functionally illiterate" (meaning that they have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and computational skills). Even more surprisingly, the Detroit Regional Workforce notes that only half of that illiterate population has obtained a high school degree.

While I found Tillon's documentary to be both fascinating and depressing, it was obvious that the filmmaker had a critical blind spot: there was no mention of Detroit's bitter -- and often brutal -- winters (which would hardly favor organic farming). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

The "power of one" is often unavoidable. The numeral one, after all, is the first integer. One is also the term used to designate a person's singularity. Popular slogans such as "One person, one vote" and "One for all and all for one" have become a part of our political landscape.

We often speak of "one shining moment," "one giant step," "winning one for the Gipper," or "one for the record books." However, when things come down to an extremely personal level, the concept of "one" can go in various directions. During his run for the White House (as well as since becoming President of the United States), Barack Obama has cynically been referred to as "The One." In the following video, Harry Nilsson's song, "One," gets the Claymation treatment:

The big finale in Michael Bennett's 1975 show, A Chorus Line, is also entitled "One." In this number, all of the dancers who were chosen during auditions get to appear as anonymous members of a chorus line worshipping the "one" who is that special star.  The following clip, taken from a 1980 television special entitled "Baryshnikov on Broadway," gives Bennett's number the full-blown treatment it deserves, allowing audiences to examine its brilliance from both sides of the footlights.

Sometimes, however, being an individual is not about glamour or loneliness. Sometimes it's about the people who manage to stay under the radar. Whether they need to remain invisible (due to their participation in a witness protection program), prefer not to draw attention to themselves, or are easily overlooked, many of these people provide plenty of source material for writers and filmmakers.

Sometimes self-inflicted loneliness is due to brains rather than brawn. Over the years I've met many people whose intelligence has frightened people much more than it has horses.  Their lack of good looks has insured that they will go unnoticed by the "A" crowd.

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1972, I went on a diet and lost nearly 60 pounds.  One of my roommates confided that he no longer felt afraid to be seen standing next to me (he's now a blowsy drag queen in San Antonio, Texas).  The man I followed out to California snarled "If I'm nervous around you in company, it's because I never know what you're going to say."

Several years later, I wrote a piece for The Advocate about my experience of losing weight and joining a gay gym.  Entitled "In Search of Designer Tits," the article mentioned how fat people are often invisible in gay society (this was before the bear revolution). I also recalled what a shock it had been, once I looked more "acceptable," to realize that people were actually cruising me

* * * * * * * * *
Over the years I've found solace in books like Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto (by Anneli Rufus) and Cruise To Win (by Lenny Giteck). On occasion, I've wondered what kind of movie could be made about a curmudgeonly romantic.

The answer to that question can be found in The Hedgehog, a poignant film adaptation of Muriel Barbery's 2006 novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The action mostly takes place in a Parisian building that houses eight luxury apartments on one of the most elegant streets in the Left Bank. Most of the buildings inhabitants are upper class families with fairly superficial interests.

The Josse family is headed by Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff), a retired politician/bureaucrat whose wife (Anne Brochet) has been on anti-anxiety medications while going to therapy for the past 10 years. Their two daughters are Colombe (Sarah Le Picard), who resents her younger sibling and prefers to dote on her goldfish, and the precocious, 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic).

Poster art for The Hedgehog

Paloma, to put it mildly, is a piece of work. Intelligent, articulate, and artistically gifted, she thinks the adults in her life are vain fools. She has no friends and rarely condescends to speak with her family.

Instead, Paloma spends most of her time filming the goings on in her apartment building for her video diary and making pencil drawings (which evolve into animation sequences in the film). Her disgust with what the future might bring has caused Paloma to set June 16th (her 12th birthday) as the most logical date to commit suicide. While she has considered jumping from her bedroom window, she has also been hoarding and crushing her mother's anxiolytic pills.

Garance Le Guillermic as the precocious and suicidal Paloma

With the intense curiosity of an 11-year-old, Paloma has also let her sister's goldfish swallow one of her mother's pills.  The pet's resulting trip to "toilet heaven" becomes an important turning point later in the film.

Another target of Paloma's curiosity is the building's rather odd janitor, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko).  A frumpy old widow who has worked in the same job for 27 years, Renée does her job well but lacks basic social skills. Nor does she have much patience with the building's rich tenants.
Renée (Josiane Balasko) digs into a copy of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Instead, she prefers to hide in a room filled with books and listen to music in a place where she can read Tolstoy to her big, fat cat (appropriately named Leo). Although she must occasionally prevent one of the local homeless people, Jean-Pierre (Jean-Luc Porraz), from hurting himself, Renée prefers to keep to herself.

Now 54, Renée's take on life is that "to be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age." Her situation changes, however, when a rich, elderly Japanese widower named Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves into the building.

As he is being introduced to Renée by one of the tenants, Ozu quickly catches her use of a phrase from Anna Karenina. When Kakuro invites her to dinner, Renée is as horrified by the thought of having to dress up as she is by the realization that accepting his invitation would force her to cross a distinct class barrier between the building's wealthy tenants and its poor janitor.

Togo Igawa as Kakuro Ozu

Every now and then, the press notes for a film reveal an unexpected gem. I particularly liked the response given by Izawa (who primarily works in Britain) to an interviewer who asked what it was like for him to work with French people.
"Eating a full meal with good wine, served on a nice tablecloth, without ever having to wait in line! On an English shoot, you are always served chili con carne or spaghetti that are way past the al dente cooking time, and with over-cooked vegetables. Once the cook has finished filling your plate, he yells: 'Next!' If we were served meals like yours in the UK, we wouldn't call that a canteen… The five day working week was also a remarkable difference for an old man like me!"
The Hedgehog is very much a character-driven piece, with some touching help from Ariane Ascaride as the building's maid, Manuela. It is the kind of film in which a respect shown for intelligence and a passion for learning stand out in sharp contrast to the selfishness of Paloma's older sister, who thinks nothing of awakening Renée early in the morning with a personal complaint.

Lovingly directed by Mona Achache, The Hedgehog is a perfect film for people who like to read, listen to classical music, and fill their lives with the cultural riches of film, theatre, art, and opera. It's also a natural for cat lovers.

Some reviewers have been quick to compare The Hedgehog to 1971's Harold and Maude, but I think that comparison is severely misguided. Harold and Maude was all about impulsiveness and spontaneity. The Hedgehog is very much about intelligence and deliberation.

Unlike so many heavily amplified action adventure films, Gabriel Yared's delightfully tender score leans more toward solo passages for cello. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Sometimes a person's intelligence can make him too smart for his own good. Think of people like Michael Milliken, Bernard Madoff, and Adolf Eichmann. Each of these men used his formidable brainpower to accomplish impressive, if ethically questionable goals. Only one achieved any kind of measurable rehabilitation.

Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi official who devised and supervised the deportation of Jews from their European ghettos and their transport (via railroad boxcars) to the concentration camps where they were killed. Although he could boast of making the trains run on time, the results of Eichmann's clinical efficiency were nothing to brag about.

Following World War II, when Eichmann was discovered to be living in Buenos Aires, the story of his capture, kidnapping, and transport to Israel (where he stood trial for his war crimes) read like a suspense thriller. Recently screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film FestivalRaymond Ley's television documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death, focuses on the events that led up to the kidnapping which were quickly overshadowed by the huge amount of publicity that accompanied Eichmann's trial. The story also served as the inspiration for the stage and screen versions of Robert Shaw's 1967 novel, The Man in the Glass Booth.

Herbert Knaup as Adolf Eichmann

Like some other Nazis, Eichmann fled to Argentina after World War II. Having lived under a series of assumed names (including Ricardo Klement), he often socialized with former Nazis who were more than happy to keep in touch. After being approached by Willem Sassen (a Dutch journalist who was a former member of the SS), Eichmann agreed to agreed to sit for more than 50 sessions of interviews.

Although he had kept himself hidden in plain sight, the chance to open up to a seemingly trusting journalist gave the former Nazi an opportunity to justify his actions as part of Hitler's regime. The transcripts of those tapes showed Eichmann's insistence that he was merely a cog in the Nazi machine who was following orders and trying to meet the goals that had been set out for him.

In 1956, Eichmann's son, Klaus, fell in love with a pretty young schoolmate named Silvia, whose father (Lothar Hermann) had been imprisoned at Dachau. Although nearly blind, when Hermann's daughter introduced him to her new boyfriend, Hermann suspected the young man might be anti-Semitic.

After contacting the German State Attorney General, Fritz Bauer, Hermann's efforts were stymied by an Israeli Mossad agent who refused to believe that a blind man could have tracked down one of the world's most notorious war criminals.  As a result, Hermann had to use his daughter to verify Eichmann's identity (after the kidnapping Silvia was sent to live in the United States).

Cornelia Kempers and Herbert Knaup as Vera and Adolf Eichmann

Ley's style of fictional documentary is most effective, mixing interviews with people who knew Hermann and his family with reenactments of events in Germany and Buenos Aires that led to Eichmann's capture. During the narrative scenes, he gets strong performances from Herbert Knaup as Eichmann, Ulrich Tukur as Willem Sassen, Judith Engel as Miep Sassen, Axel Milberg as Fritz Bauer, and Michael Hanemann as Lothar Hermann. Henriette Confurius (Silvia) and Johannes Klaußner (Nick) have strong appeal as the young lovers. Here's the trailer:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Second Chances, Unexpected Outcomes

A popular adage among people in recovery warns that "the definition of madness is repeating the same behavior over and over again while hoping to get different results." The real issue at hand is whether or not anyone makes a serious effort to learn from their mistakes.

Judging from the high rate of recidivism, I sincerely doubt it. Listening to how some born-again Christians believe that finding Jesus has absolved them of their past sins similarly strains credulity. As Stephen Colbert is eager to point out, there's truth.  And then there's truthiness.

First published in 1923, Who's Sorry Now? was written by Ted Snyder with lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Although Connie Francis had a big hit recording of the song in 1958, many people forget that it was used in the 1946 Marx Brothers film entitled A Night in Casablanca.

Although written for Ella Fitzgerald in 1953, Cry Me A River was first recorded by Julie London in 1956. The song became a hit recording for Joe Cocker (1970) and Michael Bublé (2009). But for many, Barbra Streisand's interpretation still stands supreme.  The following clip shows Streisand performing in 1967's A Happening in Central Park.

Three films seen this summer paint curious portraits of people who have been wronged. Their narratives and world views could not be more dissimilar. Yet, in each case, the audience sees people who have played fast and loose with their authority unexpectedly finding themselves in the hot seat.

* * * * * * * * *
Two of the films shown during the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival had a powerful dramatic impact. Directed by Michael Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I Am Cuba), 1931's The Nail in the Boot may lure modern audiences into thinking of it as an anti-war film. But what The Nail in the Boot really tackles is the issue of compromised standards in a critical manufacturing chain of supplies.

Originally intended as a military film, The Nail in the Boot's basic message is that sloppy workers are capable of sabotaging a country's national defense (the film's alternative title was The Homeland Is In Danger). Where have similar issues appeared in the news?
  • In 1997, impact tests conducted at the University of Missouri-Rolla that were performed on pieces of steel retrieved from the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic revealed that, when tested at the estimated temperature of the water when the ship struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, the hull's steel plates were nearly 10 times more brittle than modern steel. The chemical composition of the steel showed a high content of sulfur, oxygen, and phosphorus combined with a low level of manganese (all of which can cause steel to be more brittle).
  • In the past 20 years, children's toys containing traces of lead and numerous other products made in China have proven to be made with substandard and often toxic ingredients.
  • Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops have struggled with inadequate body armor that was either poorly designed or made with substandard materials (that allowed a military contractor to turn a larger profit).
As seen in a beautifully restored print from the Georgian National Film Center, Kalatozov's 54-minute movie begins on the battlefield as a soldier is sent to notify headquarters that the troops trapped on an armored train urgently need backup in order to avoid annihilation. Because a nail sticking out of the sole of his boot causes the soldier increasing pain, he fails to deliver the crucial message on time.

An armored train built in Slovakia that was used in World War II

The scene in which the train is destroyed is a breathtaking piece of drama. However, what follows is equally impressive. During a courtroom investigation, the soldier pins the blame squarely where it belongs: on the workers whose sloppiness contributed to his delay.

In the past several years, Stephen Horne has accompanied many screenings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in which his playing has been strongly influenced by the music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. The screening of The Nail in the Boot gave Horne a chance to show a very different side of his skills as an accompanist. Reaching for the heavy artillery in his musical tool bag, he performed the kind of octave-pounding endurance test that could make Sergei Rachmaninoff nervous.

A scene from The Nail in the Boot

Although the filmmaker's mentor, Lev Kuleshov, claimed that "Kalatozov could shoot anything and make it interesting," Stalin's censors were less impressed. They prevented Kalatozov from making any movies during the eight years that followed The Nail in the Boot, claiming that the filmmaker had failed to depict the ideology they wanted to see in what was essentially an agitprop film. The censors required Kalatozov to undergo a period of "forced rehabilitation" during which he was not allowed to direct any of his own projects.

While The Nail in the Boot may not have been appreciated by Russian censors, it stands today as a magnificent and unassailable piece of cinematic art. There's something to be said for that.

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The first film to be produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (following the merger of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures), Victor Sjöström's 1924 triumph, He Who Gets Slapped, was the closing night presentation at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, its screening was a huge success that ended the festival on a high note.

Adapted from a 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev, the film stars Lon Chaney as Paul Beaumont, a scientist who, in one horrible day, gets cheated out of the fruits of his research and the love of his wife (Ruth King) by his wealthy patron, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). If that weren't humiliating enough, the Baron cruelly slaps Beaumont across the face in front of his scientific peers.

Beaumont subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown.  Five years later, he has become a popular circus clown known for his bizarrely masochistic specialty act.  Known only as "HE," the audience wildly cheers his ongoing humiliation each time one of the other clowns slaps him in the face.

Ever the unlucky lover, HE has fallen for the charms of Consuelo, (Norma Shearer) a beautiful young woman who has recently joined the circus. Unaware that she is smitten with one of the troupe's star equestrians, the handsome Bezano (John Gilbert), HE risks everything by opening up his heart and confessing his love to Consuelo. True to form, she slaps his face and laughs at his earnestness.

Quickly covering his emotions, HE stresses that whenever he gets serious he is merely joking. But when HE learns that Consuelo's greedy father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), is hoping to marry her off to a rich suitor in order to restore the family's lost fortune, he is justifiably concerned.  His compassion, however, turns to horror upon learning that the potential suitor is none other than his arch nemesis, Baron Regnard.

Tricaud (Ford Sterling) and HE (Lon Chaney) are two circus clowns
in 1924's He Who Gets Slapped

What follows is a brilliant buildup of suspense as HE decides to exact his revenge on the Baron and the Count (with the help of some hungry circus lions) so that Consuelo and Bezano are free to fall in love. With a magnificent new score composed by Matti Bye and Kristian Holmgren (a co-commission by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Headlands Center for the Arts), He Who Gets Slapped reached the kind of intense climax one rarely finds outside of silent film.

I say this because, back in the silent era, stars like Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd insisted on performing all of their own stunts. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert (whose careers were just beginning when they made He Who Gets Slapped) follow suit on horseback in this film. The thrills felt by the audience have a great deal to do with watching artists taking risks (as opposed to some inherently safe CGI scripting).

As a result, it's difficult to tell which was more thrilling: Chaney's bravura performance, Sjöström's meticulous and artful direction, or the music being performed live by the Matti Bye Ensemble. One thing is for sure: the restored print (Courtesy of the George Eastman House) looked a helluva lot better than this trailer from YouTube:

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Written and directed by Rashaad Ernesto GreenGun Hill Road was the opening night selection for Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Despite a cast that includes three actors I greatly admire, I found it to be a depressing experience that only confirmed my feeling that men who are obsessed with maintaining their reputations as supermacho studs have a toxic impact on their already dangerously dysfunctional families.

As the film opens, Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales) is once more being released from jail. A married Hispanic thug with a substantial record ranging from petty theft to armed robbery, he's looking forward to reuniting with his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), his teenage son, Michael (Harmony Santana), and returning to their apartment in the Bronx.

Although Enrique's jaded parole officer (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) doesn't hold much hope for his prisoner's rehabilitation, Enrique swears he's never coming back. According to Esai Morales, "Enrique is kind of a Biblical ‘Job in the ‘Hood.’ Everything happens to him in the weirdest ways and he tries to fix his son in the most un-artful ways possible.”

Enrique (Esai Morales) is on probation in Gun Hill Road.

After checking in with some of his street buddies, Enrique finally arrives home to an apartment decorated for a welcoming party. His wife seems strangely distant (which instantly makes him wonder if she's been seeing another man during the three years he was in prison).

Michael, however, seems disturbingly different, as if he and his little curly-haired friend can't wait to leave the apartment and go somewhere else. Unbeknownst to Enrique, his son has started to prepare for gender reassignment surgery. Although his mother and Fernando know all about Michael's impending transition, Enrique is as clueless has a violent, hypermasculine thug can be. In his director's statement, Rashaad Ernesto Green writes:
"Fathers like Enrique believe they are acting in the best interests of their children by protecting them from hardship or the ills of society. They don’t always see how their behavior can suffocate their children and prevent them from learning, discovering themselves, and living their own lives. I feel for Enrique. I see him in pain, struggling and trapped within his own mental prison. The Bronx has shaped the way Enrique sees the world, his sense of manhood, and what it means to be a man. Bustling with music and life, from the Yankee caps and Puerto Rican flags blowing in the wind to the cuchifritos and catcalling on every corner, what’s not to love about the Bronx?

But the world is constantly changing, especially the world that exists outside of the Bronx. By making this film, I hope to encourage dialog about an issue in this community that needs to be addressed. It’s happening right now. The old school culture of the Bronx is at war with its youth. The younger spirited generation is much more openminded and accepting of difference than ever before, leaving them at odds with the parents who raised them. I want to explore a side and complexity of the Bronx and Latino life that is rarely seen in films. At the end of the day, Enrique is a beautiful person who loves his child dearly. He just hasn’t been equipped with the tools necessary to break his mental chains. The struggle that exists within Enrique is the same plight that plagues the entire Bronx. And if it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere."
Enrique (Esai Morales) has doubts about the masculinity
of his son, Michael (Harmony Santana), in Gun Hill Road

Gun Hill Road is exceptionally well cast, in part because Esai Morales and Judy Reyes were Green's first choices for the roles of Enrique and Angela (the filmmaker had won three consecutive scholarships from the National Hispanic Foundation For The Arts, which was co-founded by Morales). Finding the right actor to portray Michael proved to be a more daunting challenge. Just two months before production was slated to begin, Green encountered Harmony Santana working at a parade booth in Queens. As the filmmaker recalls:
“We scoured every over-18 club, bar, parade, drag show, and poetry slam in New York for weeks, staying out until 3:00 in the morning or handing out flyers at daytime events in the city. We knew it was not going to be easy to cast such a specific role. We had to find a person to really inhabit this role psychologically."

Harmony Santana as Michael (in drag)
Alas, Fernando (played by the eternally buoyant Robin de Jesus) may be the only character in Gun Hill Road who really enjoys his life.
  • Enrique is a ticking time bomb who can't understand what has happened to his son, much less what Michael's sexual orientation says about his own masculinity.
  • Angela, who is physically and emotionally exhausted, must now give up the other man in her life in order to placate her newly-paroled husband.
  • Michael is struggling to learn how to dress and function as a transsexual, as well as how to handle the amorous advances of horny young men who are fascinated by the freaky appeal of dating a chick with a dick.
There's no denying that Green has put together a well-made film that is very much of its time. Unfortunately, as I watched Gun Hill Road I found myself wishing I could be back on City Island. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gotcha Moments

In today's era of lurid celebrity gossip, rancid tabloid journalism, and maliciously misguided edutainment (such as Fox and Friends), it sometimes helps to look to the past to get a better perspective on life.  With the current revival of Chicago having just surpassed the record set by A Chorus Line for the longest running American musical on Broadway, I was fascinated to watch a video prepared in 2007 for the show's 10th anniversary in which the original star, Gwen Verdon, explained how she got the inspiration to adapt 1942's Roxie Hart for the musical stage.

Even more intriguing were the comments from the show's composer (John Kander) and lyricist (Fred Ebb) when asked to explain Chicago's continued appeal to modern audiences. Their answer was stunning: Despite the doubts of Broadway insiders who felt it was too soon to revive their show, Walter Bobbie's staging of Chicago opened on Broadway during the widespread publicity given to the murder trials of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers.

Perfect timing!

Anthony Weiner may now be old news (his career as a politician is certainly toast), but the kind of "gotcha" questions that forced him to resign from Congress were nothing new. Just witness the following clip of a sketch performed by Judy Garland and Shelley Berman almost 50 years ago:

When faced with hostile questions, a person has to think quickly. Almost as quickly as comedians whose improvisational skills earn them their living

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In 2005, a group of invited guests watched Brian Henson and his colleagues test their improvisational skills with puppets. The show was such a success that a new phenomenon was born, with a successful booking at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2006. What began as Jim Henson's Puppet Improv eventually morphed into a show named Puppet Up! - Uncensored

The show's latest incarnation, Stuffed and Unstrung, opened this week at the Curran Theatre for 10 performances. Although I found the level of amplification nearing my pain threshold, there's no denying that the audience had a rowdy, good time.

Stuffed and Unstrung is an easy show to travel, which makes it ideal for the university circuit and comedy festivals. Aimed squarely at adult audiences, Stuffed and Unstrung runs fast and furious with moments of audience participation balancing out old classics such as 1966's Java.

While much of host Patrick Bristow's audience patter has become somewhat formulaic over the past five years, the show has strong appeal to audiences whose minds easily gravitate to the deeper, darker regions of the mind where Kermit and Miss Piggy hardly ever dared to venture (Michele Bachmann quickly got cast in the puppet version of a James Bond thriller entitled Octowussy).

Puppeteer Brian Henson (Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

What was most interesting for me was finally being able to watch and understand how segments of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street are crafted (I now know how to make a cheerleading puppet perform cartwheels). Most amazing is the rapid-fire work of the puppeteers and the skill with which theycreate a sense of distance and depth for television.

In many ways, watching the puppeteers manipulate puppets as they monitor the effects they've created on television screens placed on the floor below them bears an uncanny resemblance to the way laparoscopic surgery is sometimes performed. The following clip of Brian Henson performing 1967's puppet version of "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face" (which allows audiences to see how the magic is created) was part of the show at the Curran.

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As the third opera gets under way in Richard Wagner's tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, we see the hero, Siegfried, enter pursued by a bear. Thus it was with more than a mild sense of curiosity that I headed toward the opening night of Lauren Gunderson's new feminist play Exit, Pursued By A Bear.

Gunderson's raucous comedy (which first breathed life as part of the Playwrights Foundation's "Rough Readings" series) depicts the ultimate "gotcha" situation: an abusive husband bound to his rotating recliner with duct tape as his newly radicalized wife (helped by her two closest friends) prepares to exact her revenge. As an animal-loving drama student who has been inspired to use her creativity, Nan Carter plans to surround her husband with all the venison steaks he has kept in the freezer, and leave a trail of honey out the front door to attract the bears that roam the local woods in northern Georgia.

Nan Carter (Erin Gilley) and her husband, Kyle (Patrick Jones) in
Lauren Gunderson's new play, Exit, Pursued By A Bear
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

Whereas 1994's Swimming With Sharks showed what happens when an administrative assistant (Frank Whaley) turns the tables on an abusive boss (Kevin Spacey), Gunderson's play is swimming in snark. As directed by Desdemona ChiangExit, Pursued By A Bear is a furiously-paced, no-holds barred attempt to treat a deadly serious topic (domestic abuse) by killing it with comedy instead of kindness.

Kyle Carter (Patrick Jones) likes to shoot the deer that "trespass" on his property. He also likes to drink and occasionally ends up hitting his wife. Although he's not particularly bright, Kyle has always been able to rely on Southern "good 'ole boy" charm when caught in a tight spot.

This time it's not working.  His wife, Nan (Erin Gilley), has resolved never to let Kyle hit her again. A woman who feeds on the wisdom of President Jimmy Carter the same way others try to live by the teachings of Gandhi, Nan has decided to use her recently acquired theatrical knowledge to stage a takedown that can also serve as a learning experience for her husband.

Andrea Snow, Reggie D. White, Erin Gilley and Patrick Jones
in Lauren Gunderson's Exit, Pursued By A Bear
(Photo by: Dave Nowakowski)

Nan's back-up accomplices are Simon (Reggie D. White), her closest, oldest, bestest, finger-snapping gay friend, and Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), her newest, next-bestest, aspiring actress friend who remembers Kyle from his obnoxious behavior when she was pole dancing at a local strip club while using her professional name: Peaches. Gunderson depicts Kyle as meaning well, but unable to conquer his dangerous combination of emotional clumsiness and deeply ingrained male chauvinism.

Gunderson makes sure that, unlike the majority of victims, Nan does not let herself succumb to Kyle's sweet-talking charms and end up staying with her abuser. The playwright also likes to shift rapidly between theatrical styles as her characters step in and out of monologues or act out scenes they have devised to teach Kyle the wickedness of his ways.

Simon (Reggie D. White) shows his support for Nan's revenge
in Exit, Pursued By A Bear (Photo by:  Dave Nowakowski)

All sorts of theatrical gimmicks come into play, including messages for the audience that appear on a television screen or the moment when Nan turns to her duct-taped husband and says "And one more thing: This is what's called a soliloquy!" However, the show's best moments belong to Simon and Sweetheart who, in addition to being devoted friends determined to protect Nan from any further abuse, have issues of their own to deal with.

The Bay area production of Gunderson's play by Crowded Fire Theater was the midpoint of a three-way rolling world premiere that started in April at Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta and finishes in October at ArtsWest in Seattle. Performances of Exit, Pursued By A Bear continue through September 17 at the Boxcar Playhouse (you can order tickets here).  Here's the trailer: