Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Forensic Look At Partially-Restored Silent Films

Did you know what dendrochronology is? Neither did I! First used in 1928, the term (according to Merriam-Webster) is defined as "the science of dating events and variations in environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood." I came across the word in a recently-published article in The New York Times entitled A Master Work, the Ghent Altarpiece, Reawakens Stroke by Stroke. In his article, Milan Schreuer describes the scanning technology (macro-X-ray fluorescence analysis or MA-XRF) used on a 15th-century masterpiece as follows:
“Scientists first bombard a painting with high-frequency electromagnetic waves. This leads atoms inside a painting to ionize and emit electromagnetic waves of their own. The scanner then captures these secondary waves and, through an analysis of their energy, momentum, and angle, identifies each different atom and its place in a painting. This allows scientists to construct images of a painting using one chemical element at a time (such as lead, copper, iron, and mercury). By comparing these images, they are able to separate copper-based red pigments in a superficial paint layer, for example, from lead-based white pigments in an underlying layer.”
The Ghent Altarpiece

Just as new stem cell technologies have allowed scientists to work wonders in modern medicine, 2016 has been filled with discoveries of previously-unknown dinosaur species, bizarre creatures that live in the ocean's depths, and species discovered on land that had never been documented. Consider the excitement of the scientists in the following video as they witness the birth of two silkhenge spiders (a species that weaves a uniquely-shaped nest for its newborn.

As thrilling as 2016 has been in the areas of science and social progress, it has been equally alarming with regard to the actions of conservative forces bent on eradicating the hard-earned achievements of those who have fought for knowledge and equality, who strive to encourage logic and empathy.
While some may think of 2016 as yet another annus horribilis, others will remember 2016 as the year in which an anus horribilis was elected to become the 45th President of the United States.

There's an old saying that "timing is everything." However, I doubt that the programmers at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival sensed the potential for a new wave of media censorship when they scheduled two partially restored (and extremely controversial) films for their Day of Silents in early December.

With increased reports of violence stemming from racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and homophobia, SFSFF's screenings of these classics took on much greater relevance than one might have expected prior to the 2016 election. Because each film was essentially missing part or all of its final reel, these screenings also made audiences consider the as-yet unwritten chapters of history that lie at our feet.
  • Both films involve an attempt to blackmail someone for living their lives openly with no qualms about their sexual orientation.
  • Both films demonstrate how the self-loathing of a jealous conservative can have a brutal impact on the lives of total strangers.
  • Both films offer a stern warning about the dangers of living a closeted or sexually repressed  lifestyle.
  • Both films were way ahead of their time and drew sharp criticism from censors.
* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Richard Oswald with cinematography by Max Fassbender, 1919's Different From The Others (Anders als die Andern) is believed to be the oldest surviving film whose lead character is a homosexual. In the film, Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt) is a highly acclaimed violinist who agrees to take on a young student named Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz). Although it doesn't take long for their mutual admiration to grow into a sense of deep devotion and genuine affection, Körner is approached by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel), who attempts to blackmail the musician by exposing young Sivers as a budding homosexual.

Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) and his mentor, Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt)
are approached by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel)
in a scene from 1919's Different From The Others 

Ironically, Körner first met Bolleck at a gay dance hall. As the blackmail scheme continues, the violinist finally decides to report his blackmailer to the authorities. Although Bolleck is sentenced to three years in prison and Körner to only a week's imprisonment, upon being released from jail the musician discovers that his family has shunned him and his career has been ruined. The only path to avoiding a lonely, shameful, and unbearable future is to commit suicide. In his program essay, Dennis Harvey makes the following points:
  • Among champions of greater sexual freedom and tolerance, few people were more prominent in the early 20th century than the Prussian-born physician Magnus Hirschfeld who, in 1896, published a tract defending same-sex love under a pseudonym. In 1897, Hirschfeld (then 31 years old) co-founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Its motto was ‘Through science to justice." Its agenda was to push for greater understanding of sexual minorities and overturn Paragraph 175 (the part of German law that criminalized male homosexual acts as well as other perceived sexual aberrations).
  • On July 6, 1919, Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Research, which offered public education and counseling. That same year Different From The Others (a film Hirschfeld co-wrote and appeared in) was released in German movie theaters. It became the first movie that, rather than ridicule its homosexual characters, took their desire for understanding and fair treatment quite seriously.
  • Oswald's film was sufficiently controversial to lead to rioting and vandalism at some theaters that screened Different From The Others. It took only 15 months for his groundbreaking film to be officially banned by the German government from public screenings. German censorship laws (whose abandonment in the early days of the Weimar Republic had enabled the film to be made) were re-introduced in 1920. 
  • Coincidentally, 1919 witnessed the founding of the nationalistic German Workers’ Party (which later became better known as the Nazis). As National Socialism continued to crush the Weimar Republic, images of the hirsute and bulky Hirschfeld (a bear ahead of his time) were used in Nazi propaganda to illustrate “the most repulsive of all Jewish monsters.”
  • In 1933, soon after the Nazis seized power, Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research was ransacked by Hitler Youth. Whatever materials from its extensive archives of sexual research that managed to escape being destroyed in a public bonfire were subsequently auctioned off. 
Poster art for Different From The Others

With live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on piano, December's screening of Different From The Others attracted a large audience to the Castro Theatre. While the historical importance of the film was obvious, the fact that the final reel is lost forever remains a major point of frustration. As Dennis Harvey explains:
“Thought entirely lost for many decades, then recovered just in fragmentary form, Different From The Others remains a less-than-complete artifact. A sole surviving partial print of Hirschfeld’s Different From The Others at Gosfilmofond in Moscow allowed its rediscovery as a forgotten milestone in LGBTQ culture. The Outfest UCLA Legacy Project’s new restoration, incorporating materials from numerous sources, is the most comprehensive version available in at least 80 years. But even it is missing whole characters, subplots, and scenes, including a set piece (glimpsed only in a surviving still) in which the protagonist imagines Da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Ludwig II, Oscar Wilde, and other historical figures who suffered for their sexual orientation. Intertitles fill in many gaps left by footage unlikely ever to be found (the Nazis made a point of destroying all the prints they could lay their hands on after they came into power in 1933).”
Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) weeps at the funeral of his mentor, Paul Körner
(Conrad Veidt), in a scene from 1919's Different From The Others

* * * * * * * * *
Late in 1916, W. Somerset Maugham was traveling through the South Pacific on board the SS Sonoma when the ship stopped at the territorial capital of American Samoa (Pago Pago). Among his fellow travelers were a medical missionary and his wife and a woman from San Francisco. Those three passengers became the inspiration for Maugham's short story entitled Rain, which was originally published in April 1921 under the title of Miss Thompson. Today, the boarding house in Malaloa where Maugham stayed is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and known as the Sadie Thompson Inn.

Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

With a climate resembling a tropical rainforest, Pago Pago is subject to frequent showers. In primitive societies, rain is often regarded as an important part of the crop cycle and a symbol of fertility. There can be little doubt that the legend of Sadie Thompson has inspired the fertile imaginations of numerous creative artists.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's recent screening of Sadie Thompson was preceded by a special treat. To the surprise of many people in the audience, Bevan Dufty (who had represented the Castro District during his two terms as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) was introduced as Gloria Swanson's stepson. Dufty regaled the audience with memories of time spent with Miss Swanson in her later years.

Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson in a scene from Sadie Thompson

What many people forget is that Swanson was an extremely savvy woman who chose the cast for her silent film and was not afraid to take on the censors. In her program note, Farran Smith Nehme explains that:
“The film was being produced under United Artists, where Swanson had her own production unit. Studio head Joe Schenck called Swanson on the carpet for being behind schedule and over budget, and, as Swanson recalled in her book, got an earful of his old friend’s frustration: 'When Irving Thalberg reshoots a third of a picture, you call him a genius. When Sam Goldwyn does it, he’s maintaining his reputation for quality. But when I do it, you treat me like a silly female who can’t balance her checkbook after a shopping spree.' Rather than have Schenck pick up the costs and wind up beholden to him, Swanson sold her house in Croton-on-Hudson. The last print was discovered in Mary Pickford’s collection, and nitrate decomposition had already claimed its last reel. In the late 1980s Kino International reconstructed the final scenes using a montage of stills, and damage is visible in other scenes as well.”
Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

Although Swanson is also famous for her performance as Norma Desmond in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, most cinema fans consider her portrayal of the fun-loving Sadie Thompson to be the finest performance of her film career. With Donald Sosin again providing live musical accompaniment on the piano, Swanson's performance began with that famous incandescent smile and confident strut and ended up with Sadie an insecure ghost of her former brassy self. Raoul Walsh demonstrated a goofy masculine charm as Sergeant Tim O'Hara and Lionel Barrymore didn't hesitate to chew the scenery as the film's villain.

Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

One doesn't often think about missing footage while watching a film, but as Different From The Others and Sadie Thompson neared their final reels, the obvious breaks in the story (and, in some moments, evidence of nitrate deterioration) brought an extra layer of sadness to the event. Each film had a wonderful plot, some great actors, and historical importance. Perhaps some of us have become spoiled by the wave of digital restoration bringing new life to silent films. As much as we want to see "lost" films in all their glory, sometimes that experience remains maddeningly just out of our reach.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The "Meh" Factor

Many people start using the word "factor" in middle school as they learn about multiplicationdivision, and begin to get acquainted with algebra. As they grow, the word begins to be applied to different parts of their life.
Another, more insidious phenomenon, has become all too familiar in recent years. Whether the "meh" factor signals a lack of enthusiasm, political apathy, or audience fatigue, it's a fairly good indicator that something (or someone) is not living up to their hype or the audience's expectations.

Curiously, "meh" seems to have found its way into our vernacular with the same kind of generic passivity as "whatever." Whether used as a lazy adjective or a listless expletive, according to Wikipedia the origin of "meh" is unknown.
"Some have speculated that the term's origin is Yiddish because of its similarity to the interjection 'feh,' which appears in the 1936 Yiddish song Yidl Mitn Fidl. In Alexander Harkavy's 'Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary' the word is treated as a bleating or baa sound. Hooray for Yiddish by Leo Rosten uses the word 'mnyeh,' which is speculated to be an early variant of 'meh.' 'Meh's' popularity surged after its use on The Simpsons. It was first used in the 1994 episode 'Sideshow Bob Roberts' when a librarian reacts to Lisa's surprise that voting records are not classified."

Wikipedia also informs us that:
"Meh (/mɛ/) is an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom. It may also mean 'be it as it may.' It is often regarded as a verbal shrug of the shoulders. The use of the term 'meh' shows that the speaker is apathetic, uninterested, or indifferent to the question or subject at hand. It is occasionally used as an adjective, meaning something is mediocre or unremarkable. Also considered a non-committal response, 'meh' can be used when disregarding a question or to refer to something they have no opinion or emotions about. In expressing an opinion, it means the speaker's opinion is that of apathy. However, some may respond with 'meh' simply to avoid creating an opinion on the matter at all."
* * * * * * * * *
Although Mae West famously purred "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," the "meh" factor can become an occupational hazard for theatre critics who, over the course of a calendar year, may review more than a hundred performances. The sheer mathematics of the process produces a bell curve which reflects the normal distribution of values (ranging perhaps from 1 to 10 or "godawful" to "faaaab-u-lous"). As a result, some productions, though they may deliver reasonably acceptable performances, might fail to inspire or impress a reviewer.

I recently attended such a performance and was surprised by how I felt upon leaving the theatre. While there was a definite "meh" quality to the experience, I had a hard time pinpointing the cause. Let me explain.

Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron appear in
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

Now in her mid-fifties, Sandra Tsing Loh has become a familiar voice on radio. After graduating from the California Institute of Technology with a major in physics, she became an art professor at the University of California, Irvine before embarking on a career as a writer, performance artist, and media personality. A frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, she has published six books with titles as diverse as Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles and Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! In the period between writing The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones and the book's publication, Philip Himberg (the artistic director of the Sundance Institute's Theatre Program) invited Loh to participate in a laboratory being held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art where she was given a chance to work with dramaturg Janice Paran and Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Associate Director, Lisa Peterson.

“I’m a humor monologist rather than an actor, and instead of listening and reacting in the moment to another actor, I’ll just wait for them to stop speaking so I can speak,” confesses Loh. "Monologists don’t think about scene partners! The other characters are the audience; your timing is based on their reaction. So when monologists go into the acting world, they tend to cut people off.”

“I’d done many solo pieces in my 30s and early 40s. Then I had a midlife blowup and left theatre for a few years. I came back to it as a 51 year old in this midlife moment and realized at that point (in terms of turning the book into a play) that I didn’t know how to do it in my earlier mode of solo performance. I’d done six different solo pieces and I felt I’d just done them every which way, but I literally had no idea how to transform this book into a theatre piece," she recalls. "Lisa has been very precise in the direction, so there are all these internal determinations of when the action is going out to the audience and when it’s going inward, which is fun to perform.”

With a strong emphasis on the challenges women face as a result of menopause and other aspects of the aging process, the stage version of The Madwoman in the Volvo premiered at South Coast Repertory in January of 2016. The show had its Bay area premiere  this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre on a handsome unit set designed by Rachel Hauck with costumes by Candice Cain and lighting designed by Geoff Korf.

Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in a scene from
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

Unlike her previous monologues, this outing matches Loh with two other actresses (Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt); a move which proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Whereas, as a monologist, Loh is used to telling her own story, Aaron and Holt are accomplished character actors who, rather effortlessly, manage to steal the show. That leaves Loh center stage, flogging some old material along with her writing from the book version of the Madwoman in the Volvo. One can't help but suspect that the written word may be a stronger form of communication for her than reshaping her most recent book into a piece of entertainment that is shared with two other actors.

As Loh describes her adventures with two friends from her women's writers group as they travel to Burning Man, the audience learns about a subsequent affair with her agent, the end of her marriage, her frustrations dealing with menopause, and slowly begins to lose patience with her narration. I have no doubt that cutting 15 minutes off the running time of this show would help Loh tighten the power of her storytelling. In its current state, The Madwoman in the Volvo is surprisingly underwhelming and rates a genuine "meh."

Sandra Tsing Loh and Caroline Aaron in a scene from
The Madwoman in the Volvo (Photo by: Debora Robinson)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Russian With Percussion

Once upon a time I had a roommate who was allergic to nuance. It was during the onset of the disco craze and, like many gay men, he had been seduced by the thumpa-thumpa-thump sound that had taken over bars and dance clubs across the country. With so many of his experiences enhanced by drugs (Chuck liked to take a hit off of a bottle of poppers before gunning the accelerator to drive my car up a steep hill), he liked his music loud. Very, very loud.

One day, I arrived home to find him seated on the floor in front of the stereo, listening intently to the prelude to La Traviata. Very loudly. This is music that Verdi composed to communicate Violetta's fragility in her dying days. While it includes several themes that appear later in the opera, it is not meant to be played at full volume.

When I asked Chuck why he had the volume cranked up so high, he responded "If I'm going to learn something about opera, I REALLY NEED TO HEAR IT!" Unfortunately, he committed suicide nearly 30 years before David Cox's article entitled The People Who Dive With Whales That Could Eat Them Alive appeared on the website for BBC News. In his article, Cox explained that:
"Sperm whale vocalizations have long fascinated scientists for one reason in particular. They are almost inconceivably loud. While normal human speech takes place between 60 and 65 decibels (dB), sperm whale clicks, described as such because we hear them as 'tak-tak-tak,' can reach as high as 235dB. In contrast, a loud rock concert is around 115dB and the sound of a jet engine is roughly 140dB. Quite simply, sperm whales are the loudest animals on the planet. Such is the power of their clicks that whales can comfortably transmit information to others from hundreds of miles away, and even across vast oceans. A sound of 180dB is enough to cause drastic cell death in your ears, but the most powerful sperm whale clicks will not merely deafen you: they can vibrate the fragile human body to pieces. In one incident in 2011, a calf began jostling Fabrice Schnöller with its nose. He held up his hand to gently move the whale away, and felt a sudden hot pain through his arm. Such was the power of the clicks coming from the calf that his hand was paralyzed for several hours."

My attention to decibel levels was prompted by the recent Day of Silents presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. With six programs, the musical accompaniment was split between pianist Donald Sosin and the formidable sounds of the Alloy Orchestra (an ensemble whose percussive style is especially appropriate for films involving oppression, industrialization, terror, and suspense).

Now celebrating 25 years of accompanying silent film, the Alloy Orchestra has become a favorite ensemble for film festivals. With more than 1,000 performances to their credit, the three-man ensemble (Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur, and Roger C. Miller) has visited a dozen countries while helping to revitalize the classic medium of silent film accompaniment. When the Alloy Orchestra is really cooking, the experience can be like listening to an angry passage by Philip Glass or John Adams while stoked on five cans of Red Bull. As their website boasts:
“The Alloy Orchestra began its notorious reign of silent film terror with an original score for Metropolis in 1991 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts. In the intervening years, the group has written scores for 30 feature length film presentations, typically premiering their new scores at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, or the New York Film Festival."
"We thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources. Our combination of electronic synthesizers, 'found' percussion (which can often be seen hanging from the 'rack of junk'), and more traditional instruments (clarinet, accordion, and musical saw) allows us astonishing flexibility. We can conjure up a French symphony or a simple German bar band of the 1920s. The group can make the audience think it is being attacked by tigers, contacted by radio signals from Mars, or swept up in the Russian Revolution."

* * * * * * * * *
The Alloy Orchestra was the perfect choice to accompany a screening of Sergei Eisenstein's first full-length feature, Strike (1925). Set in 1903, the film's six sections depict an angry uprising by oppressed workers in pre-revolutionary Russia who have been systematically exploited by a small group of factory owners who seem like caricatures of fat and wealthy bankers and capitalists.While 2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it's important to remember that Eisenstein's film premiered only eight years and two months after the revolution began!

One of the capitalists in Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1925)

Strike's leading characters were portrayed by members of the Proletcult Theatre. Although the action shown is often violent and depressing (crowds being attacked with fire hoses, a man on horseback dropping a baby from the third floor of a building, cattle being slaughtered), there is no denying Eisenstein's early strengths in editing as well as moving large crowds of extras. The contribution of cinematographer Eduard Tisse adds extra symbolic weight to many shots and sequences.

A scene from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, Strike

In this 94-minute film (which was screened using a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum), it's easy to feel as if the action is an endless series of sequences in which angry workers run from one side of the screen to the other. Throw in some horse-drawn fire engines, heavy machinery, and a genuine struggle between the haves and have-nots, and Strike can take on a surprising relevance to today's union-busting workplace. In many scenes, the artistry with which Eisenstein's film gains its cumulative impact (amplified by the pounding accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra) turns a screening of Strike into one of those "What the fuck just happened?" cinematic experiences.

In his program essay, Michael Atkinson describes Eisenstein (who made Strike when he was just 26 years old) as having once been regarded as cinema’s most formidable intellectual. However, Atkinson also notes that:
Strike was the film that launched Soviet political filmmaking and the idea that montage was both a uniquely cinematic thrill tool and a formidable instrument for propaganda. One of the questions regarding Eisenstein today comes down to whether or not he was successful in subverting the state-mandated straitjacket with his extraordinary visual voodoo. Everyone abandons dialectics sooner or later and, as the years and donnybrooks with the heads-of-state went by (Eisenstein was not only gay but rather more passionate about his artistic profile than his role as a propagandist), the filmmaker became entranced more by byzantine compositions than the ability to motivate the masses.” 
Poster art for 1925's Strike
“Free of historical intents, contexts, or effects, Fascist art is usually heartbreaking in its naïveté, but Eisenstein’s movies seem embittered and angry, as if revolutionary discontent unconsciously expressed the artist’s outraged feeling that of all the nations in all the eras for the artist to be born into, it had to be this one. Look at Strike’s grotesque villains and backstabbing narrative gambits (a spy secretly photographing a protester with a camera shaped like a pocket-watch) as a retro comic-book saga of good and evil and suddenly the chill over Soviet tactics fades and you have pure grade-A pulp.”
A montage of faces from Sergei i Eisenstein's 1925 silent film, Strike

There are moments in the film when one can start to experience visual fatigue as Eisenstein's crowds run back and forth. However, there is no escaping Strike's political message or its gathering momentum. The quote from Lenin with which Strike opens could have been ripped from a speech by Bernie Sanders.
"The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity."
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1925)

The following video allows readers to watch Strike in its entirety, but without the Alloy Orchestra's thrilling accompaniment.

* * * * * * * * *
In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has taken care to program films which star the great Emil Jannings. Following in the footsteps of The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Varieté (1925), and Faust (1926), December's Day of Silents featured a screening of Josef von Sternberg's 1928 silent film, The Last Command.

Emil Jannings in a scene from The Last Command (1928)

From 1901-1915 Jannings appeared with regional German theatre companies until he joined the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, where he found steady employment under Max Reinhardt's direction. Early silent films included The Eyes of the Mummy (1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919). As his career grew, he developed a specialty for portraying oversized tragic characters who suffered severe personal and/or professional humiliation that often resulted in their fall from a position of authority.

Physically, Jannings was an actor with an extremely powerful presence onscreen who often appeared larger than life. He became the first screen artist to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (1929). Although he made several movies following the transition from silent film to talkies (including 1930's The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich), his participation in Nazi propaganda films left him unemployable after World War II.

Emil Jannings in a scene from The Last Command (1928)

In The Last Command, Jannings plays an exiled Russian general who, following the Russian Revolution, must struggle to find work as an extra in the growing Hollywood film industry. When he was in power, he was on a first-name basis with the Czar and could make or break the lives of the people whose fate rested in his hands. One of those was a revolutionary named Lev Andreyev (William Powell), who also ended up in Hollywood. Unlike Jannings's character, Andreyev became a successful film director.

While searching for an actor to portray a Russian general in one of his films, Andreyev comes across the headshot for his former foe and casts him as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander. With Evelyn Brent as Andreyev's former love interest (who ends up falling in love with Jannings's brutal military officer), the film offers Jannings another magnificent opportunity to display his skill at portraying a confused and weakened powerhouse of a man who has been reduced to poverty as he struggles to hold onto his wits.

In her program note, Shari Kizirian explains that:
“Held back from release because of its uncomplimentary take on Hollywood and America’s ambiguous relationship with the ten-year-old Bolshevik government, The Last Command got into theaters after a green light from Paramount stockholder Otto Kahn, who made a good call. The film reportedly broke the record at New York’s first-run Rialto Theater when it opened there in January.”
Poster art forThe Last Command
“Sternberg wrote about the presence of Russians on his set in his 1965 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, while getting in a jab about his difficult leading man: ‘I fortified my image of the Russian Revolution by including in my cast of extra players an assortment of Russian ex-admirals and generals, a dozen Cossacks, two former members of the Duma (all victims of the Bolsheviks), and, in particular, an expert on borscht by the name of Koblianski. These men, especially one Cossack general who insisted on keeping my car spotless, viewed Jannings’s effort to be Russian with such disdain that I had to order them to conceal it, whereas Jannings openly showed his contempt for their effort to be Russian on every occasion.”
Evelyn Brent as Natalia Dabrova in The Last Command (1928)

The following clip demonstrates how important it is to find the right musical accompaniment for a silent film. Although two different approaches can be heard, neither comes close to the driving urgency of the Alloy Orchestra's score.

The scene in which Jannings is seen in the studio's wardrobe department, trying to get into his costume and struggling to explain that a certain Imperial decoration would never be worn in the position the director has chosen, is heartbreaking. His demented death scene on the set of Andreyev's film is shattering to watch, especially when the depth of his character's personal tragedy is amplified by the stunning performance from the Alloy Orchestra. Here's the full film.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Untold Stories In Times of War

While Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical, Hamilton, has broken ground in many ways, the show's use of non-traditional casting may make the most indelible impression on audiences simply because of its visual impact. Although the creative team's initial goal may have been to bring America's Founding Fathers to life using the faces and bodies of people of color who make up today's racially diverse population, as Leslie Odom, Jr. (whose portrayal of Aaron Burr won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical) stated, "It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it. We are saying we have the right to tell it, too."

In some ways, Hamilton has been riding the crest of a new wave of African-American playwrights and dramaturgy about the contributions of African Americans to our nation's history and culture.
Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore
in a scene from Safe House (Photo by: David Allen) 

Under Jon Tracy's artistic guidance, TheatreFIRST has redefined itself as a community resource aimed at producing new works that share stories from artists within the San Francisco Bay Area's theatre community. Whereas some companies might set their goals on performing established plays, TheatreFIRST has embarked on an ambitious and challenging season of four world premieres.

Written by Cleavon Smith, Stephanie Prentice, and Reggie D. White (with dramaturgy by Maryam Obaidullah Baig), Vs. takes place during the American Revolutionary War in and around what now constitutes Monmouth County, New Jersey. The drama explores some lesser known parts of slavery's American history with particular emphasis on the relationships between Quakers and their slaves and how some black men reacted when the British offered them their freedom in exchange for their willingness to fight against the American rebels.

KT Masala (Martha), Edward Ewell (Tye) and Tierra Allen (Tilly)
 in a scene from Vs. (Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

In order to help audiences understand the history behind Vs., TheatreFIRST's resident dramaturg, Kim Tran, explains that:
  • John Murray (the Fourth Earl of Dunmore) was the last royal governor of Virginia. In 1775 he formed the Ethiopian Regiment from 800 men who had escaped slavery. Because the British army was severely understaffed, freed slaves provided a way to perpetrate economic and ideological warfare. The regiment was not formed with the intention of liberation for the enslaved, but with aspirations to restore the British Crown (slaves did not unequivocally join or disavow the regiment). Ultimately, some 100,000 African Americans escaped, died, or were killed during the American Revolution; many who fought with the Loyalists were sold back into slavery.
  • With options few and far between for enslaved Americans who sought freedom, Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment became an attractive source of employment despite its limitations. One of their most prominent leaders was a runaway slave known as Colonel Tye. Emblazoned on their uniforms was the motto, "Liberty to Slaves." 
  • Magnanimity among slave owners was rare; it frequently reinforced slavery by providing slaves with incentives to behave and work hard. By 1776, there were approximately 6,000 slaves in New Jersey and half a million in the United States. 
  • Quakers, called the Society of Friends, eventually found slavery to be immoral. While some (but not all) supported and even participated in abolition, Quakers primarily wanted to eradicate slavery, but not racism. Freed slaves were not warmly invited into Quaker congregations. 
  • A common sentiment was that slaves were fit for freedom, but not for friendship. A Quaker abolitionist from a free black family in Philadelphia named Sarah Mapps Douglass argued publicly that many more blacks would attend Quaker meetings if they were not asked to sit on the segregated back bench and treated with coldness. It wasn't until 1947 that all Quaker schools in the United States admitted black pupils.
Juliet Heller as Sarah Corliss in a scene 
from Vs(Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

The protagonist of Vs. is a slave with a birth name of Titus Cornelius who is known to family and friends as Tye (Edward Ewell). While his sister, Tilly (Tierra Allen), was born as a free woman of color, educated, and now teaches some of the children in their community, Tye's reading skills are still at the level of sounding out words one by one. Even without being literate, Tye senses that his best hope is to flee Monmouth County and head north to New York, where greater opportunities await him.

While Tye's mother, Martha (KT Masala), understands her son and has no desire to stand in his way, Tilly wishes he would remain with them until the Quaker family to which he is beholden grants him his freedom. After Tye flees the farm, Sarah Corliss (Juliet Heller), tries to act friendlier than usual to Martha and Tilly. Her efforts are icily rebuffed by Tye's relatives, who understand that there is no real hope for friendship with the Corliss family.

Edward Ewell appears as Tye in Vs.

As Tye's continued absence creates more work for Mr. Corliss, Sarah's frustrations begin to mount. During a fierce confrontation after Martha and Tilly reject some food Sarah has brought them as a gift, it becomes obvious that there is no love lost between these women. Later, during a tense scene between the two black women, Martha explains why she was never able to save enough money to purchase Tye's freedom from his owner, Mr. Corliss.

Meanwhile, Tye's travels have brought him in contact with Salem (Cameron Matthews), a young man who is willing to fight for whichever side will feed and pay him. The two black men eventually join up with the British and, as they approach Monmouth County, Tye finally realizes that his goal is not just to burn down the Corliss farm, but to kill Mr. Corliss.

Edward Ewell and Cameron Matthews in a
scene from Vs. (Photo by: Andrew Schmidt) 

As with the company's first world premiere, Bagyo, the choice of material leads to a curious imbalance. Rather than working with proven scripts, the company is putting its emphasis on the birthing process for new works. After two productions, it's pretty obvious that certain areas of running a small theatre company (dramaturgy, lighting, sound design, scenery, costumes, and community outreach) are on solid ground. Most of the acting has been impressive.

In the case of Vs., Rotimi Agbabiaka's stage direction is a model of efficiency and dramatic strength. As with many new plays, Vs. demonstrates a surplus of earnestness but needs more work with regard to its script and musical elements. I expect these areas will pull together as the company develops a rhythm for creating new work. The talent is there. It just needs time to mature, blossom, and continue to be nurtured.

* * * * * * * * *
Productions from the Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall, England, have been regular guests at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For this year's holiday show, the company is presenting 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a play with music adapted by Emma Rice with Michael (War Horse) Morpurgo from one of his children's books. As directed by the ever-inventive Rice, theatre fans may well wonder who in their right mind would begin a play's title with a strange number like 946. For the answer, one needs to learn about a painful piece of American history that has been conveniently forgotten: 946 American soldiers lost their lives during Exercise Tiger, the military training operation held near the seaside village of Slapton that preceded the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach in Normandy.

In her program article entitled Fighting for the Double V: Black Soldiers in World War II, Sarah Rose Leonard explains that:
  • At the beginning of World War II, fewer than 4,000 black soldiers were in the military. Only 12 had become officers. 
  • In 1941, pressure from the NAACP and threats of a march on Washington, D.C. led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 (which prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry).  
  • In 1942, the black newspaper, Pittsburgh Courier, launched the Double V campaign. The Double V (referring to the “V for Victory” sign) encompassed the Allied slogan “Victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny,” but added a second victory for African Americans fighting abroad and on the home front
  • The Double V campaign  was created in response to a letter to the editor from James G. Thompson, a young cafeteria worker who wrote that “Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: Should I sacrifice my life to live half American? Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending?"
  • Before training for Exercise Tiger began, the only American ground troops in the midlands of England were all-black units who supported the Air Force
  • By 1945, more than 1.2 million black Americans had served in the military. The United States Armed Forces were finally desegregated in 1948.
Ncuti Gatwa (Adi) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

In the course of his research, Morpurgo came across a surprising human interest story:
"In 1943, three million Americans came over here, ready for the liberation of Europe (which was to be the following year in June 1944). Britain was pretty wobbly in that stage and the Americans brought all this optimism and wonderful music and a positive way of being. And they had stuff -- chocolate, stockings, and things that were difficult to get hold of. When working on the piece I discovered that many of the U.S. GIs found the British way of life rather primitive. In the rural areas where many were posted, few had refrigerators. Many U.S. soldiers found us 'backward.' Some of the black GIs recognized similarities in the living conditions, the hardships endured, and the poverty. Very real and deep friendships were made at this time and there is lots of very touching verbatim evidence to support this. These young black soldiers really were taken into the heart of the British countryside."
The cast of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
(Photo by: Steve Tanner)

How does one attempt to balance issues of racial discrimination, forced relocation, the painful losses of war, and a tragic military miscalculation with a coming-of-age story for a young girl? In Rice's case, the answer involves hauling out every theatrical device at her disposal and letting the audience see the story unfold through the eyes of a bratty young girl whose cat has run away from home.

Katy Owen as Lily Tregenza in a scene from
946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

While all kinds of wartime statistics can be woven into the storytelling (along with music which reflects the period), having adults pretend to be children (or get dressed up in drag) goes a long way to throwing the standard narrative off balance. Toss in some bicycles, puppets, sympathetic African American soldiers, the depiction of a major maritime battle using toy boats and washtubs, and the production starts to coalesce around a surprisingly feel-good story.

As with many Kneehigh productions, the cast members take on numerous responsibilities that range from being the band's blues singer (Akpore Uzoh) to reappearing late in the show as the elderly version of one of the black soldiers from World War II; from dancing up a storm while dressed in a military uniform (Nandi Bhebhe) to manipulating a cat puppet. An actor like Chris Jared can take on such varied roles as the local Vicar, Lily's Dad (when he returns home from the war), and the present-day Grandad just as easily as Mike Shepherd can alternate between portraying Grandma Present and Grandad Past.

Mike Shepard (Grandad) and Katy Owen (Lily) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

Whether driving a mock tractor across the stage or racing around with a set of handlebars and a giant headlight to simulate a motorcycle, the members of Rice's ensemble never fail to disarm the audience. In one moment, Ewan Wardrop can perform a delightful Savoyard turn as Lord Something-or-Others before showing up in drag as Mrs. Turner, a club singer who has come to visit her nerdy son, Barry (Adam Sopp), who was sent to live on a farm in Slapton while his mother entertained the troops.

Ncuti Gatwa doubles as the young black soldier named Adi (and subsequently reappears as Adi's grandson, a medical student). Other parts of the story fall to Emma Darlow as the widowed Madame Bounine (a French schoolteacher who frequently rides her bicycle with her underwear visible to all) and Lily's Mum (Kyla Goodey), who finds herself fiercely attracted to a handsome black soldier while her husband is away in the military.

Adebayo Bolaji (Blues Man) and Katy Owen (Lily) in a scene from
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

As seen in flashback, much of the story focuses around the character of Lily Tregenza (Katy Owen), a young girl who must put up with the sudden insertion of Barry into her life and her never-ending quest to retrieve her cat, Mr. Tips. Even with bombs falling nearby, Lily rarely loses her focus on Mr. Tips. All in all, it's a very "tickety-boo" affair.

This Kneehigh production has been blessed with Lez Brotherston's ingenious set and costume designs, Malcolm Rippeth's lighting, and Simon Baker's highly atmospheric sound design. "Seeing big events through a small lens can make them easier to grasp and often more powerful," stresses Emma Rice. "Facts and figures can become just that, faceless statistics. But through the gaze of an animal or child, we feel our own humanity bubble. We drop our guard, the chinks in our armor open a little, and we let things in that we try to hold at bay."

Performances of The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 15 (click here for tickets).