Monday, July 24, 2017

Staunch Women

For all their bullying, bloviating, and bravado, many men are surprisingly weak. In the past, they would boast about their brawn without making much effort to develop their brains. Today we have the "bro" culture, which tends to feed the puffed-up egos of man-boy jocks and nerds whose worldview takes pride in "locker room talk" and often reeks of misogyny.

The pompous and patronizing attitudes that scorned females as hysterical and wives as "the little woman" were memorialized in these songs taken from 1956's My Fair Lady, 1964's Hello, Dolly, 1935's Jumbo, and 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

When one examines the constant malfunctioning of the Trump administration (as well as the sheer dickishness of such comic book villains as Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Steve Bannon), it becomes obvious that powerful men addicted to privilege are often enabled by sycophants desperately trying to protect the fragile egos of vainglorious snowflakes who can easily become rattled in the presence of strong women (Jeff Sessions got all flustered and had a "Mercy me!" meltdown when former prosecutor turned Senator Kamala Harris started to grill him during a Congressional hearing).

Women who are not afraid to speak their minds (Elizabeth Warren, Ana Navarro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Patti LuPone) are not easily subdued. Many in the media took special delight in pointing out that it was three female Republican senators (Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Maine's Susan Collins, and West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito) who neatly sabotaged McConnell's recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

While many men seem to think that brute strength and the ability to blow things up proves they are stronger than women, the hard truth is that women are often better at thinking on their feet, strategizing for the long term, and making difficult decisions in times of crisis. Don't believe me? Ask any female nurse who has had to rescue a patient from a male physician's poor choices and lack of attention.

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Hailed throughout her life as one of cinema's great beauties, Hedy Lamarr is famous for claiming that “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Her early years on screen were dominated by the controversy over her nude scene in 1933's Ecstasy (filmed when she was only 19 years old).

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1939's Lady of the Tropics

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1941's Ziegfeld Girl

Whether portraying a tropical temptress in 1942's White Cargo or appearing as an ethereal vision in 1944's The Heavenly Body, Lamarr was often seen as a sex symbol.

Hedy Lamarr in costume for 1942's White Cargo

Hedy Lamarr in a scene from 1944's The Heavenly Body

In 1949, when Lamarr costarred opposite Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, Edith Head's lavish costumes framed Hedy's body in a way that clearly communicated the seductive powers for which her character had become famous.

Hedy Lamarr co-starred in 1949's Samson and Delilah

Hedy Lamarr co-starred in 1949's Samson and Delilah

In 1957, when the actress appeared as a mystery guest on What's My Line? (a popular panel show), once her identity was revealed, the celebrities on the panel serenaded her with the popular Rodgers & Hart song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." But there was so much more to Hedy Lamarr's life. To be sure, there was plenty of tabloid coverage related to her affairs, marriages, and difficulty on the set. But Lamarr had a secondary career which many people knew nothing about.
In honor of Hedy Lamarr's 101st birthday, Google published a Google Doodle which celebrated her onscreen achievements as well as her work as an inventor.

The 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival features a new documentary written and directed by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story which follows the life of this ravishingly beautiful, formidably intelligent, and highly motivated woman. With Susan Sarandon as its Executive Producer, the film includes interviews with Lamarr's children as well as some fascinating insights from Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Here's the trailer:

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Benjamin Franklin is famous for claiming that "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Since tax season is over, let's talk about death.
  • For some people death comes early; for others it comes late in life.
  • For some people, death results from a sudden and unexpected event (an automobile accident, heart attack, murder, drug overdose) while, for others, it may mark the sad resolution to a lingering terminal illness.
  • Although some people will do anything to hold on so they can live for "just one more day," others are tired of living and more than willing to quit the planet. They have their reasons.
Religious dogma (wherein suicide is regarded as a sin) often dominates discussions about whether or not people have the right to take their own lives. In most cases, the law is not on their side.
There's just one hitch. In an era when more and more elderly patients struggle with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia in a society that refuses to deal rationally with mental illness, it's much harder for patients who understand that their mental powers are diminishing to take action than it is for people with easily visible physical symptoms.

As part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, CentralWorks is presenting the Bay area premiere of Winter, a sobering drama about a family that wants to hold on "just a little bit longer" while they continue to ignore the inconvenient truth about what is happening to the woman who has cared for them throughout much of their lives. Inspired by bioethicist Margaret Pabst Battin’s short story (Robeck) in Ending Life: Ethics & the Way We Die, Julie Jensen's one-act play takes place shortly before Thanksgiving as a family gathers to celebrate and cope with their aging parents.

Annis (Phoebe Moyer) and Robeck (Randall Nakano) are extremely intelligent golden agers who have spent much of their professional lives performing research in academia. Although they long ago agreed on a plan to die together when one of them became unable to lead a fulfilling life, Robeck keeps trivializing his wife's concerns. Annis understands all too well that she is having problems with memory and is terrified by what may lie ahead for her. Unfortunately, her husband is like an absent-minded professor determined to complete his research against all odds.

Randall Nakano (Robeck) and Phoebe Moyer (Annis)
in a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Having given the matter plenty of thought, Annis is determined to rise to the occasion while she can. After mapping out a game plan and amassing a reasonable stash of pills, she must recruit someone who will drive her to her final destination so that she can die in peace.
  • Her eldest son, Roddy (John Patrick Moore), has traveled the furthest and, in a rather authoritative way, committed himself to using the Thanksgiving weekend to pack up and ship his parents off to some kind of assisted living facility where they can adjust to a downsized lifestyle.
  • Her youngest son, Evan (Steve Budd), is more concerned with listening to his parents and trying to respect their wishes.
  • Her granddaughter, LD (Julie Kuwabara), may be less mature than Roddy and Evan but is obviously more malleable than the men in the family.
Steve Budd (Evan) and Julie Kuwabara (LD) in
a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As the playwright explains:
“When I was ten, my uncle killed himself with a gun. On purpose. He had kids. Dirt poor. I couldn’t help but think his kids were probably better off, because my uncle could not stop drinking. But I had a more complicated response to the whole subject of suicide and a bigger sense of one’s obligation to others. Then I saw Marsha Norman’s play, ‘night, Mother, and thought there had never been a better play about a better subject. I loved Jessie’s matter-of-fact manner. I loved her reasons being her reasons, and there needn’t be more. Personal freedom triumphant, and beautifully written! Now I’ve written Winter and, for me, the two arguments come together. Annis insists on her right to choose and acts on a profound sense of obligation to her family. She wants to leave before she loses her dignity. Wouldn’t we all want that?”
Phoebe Moyer (Annis) and Julie Kurabawa (LD) in a scene from Winter
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)
“Since I first started working on this play, a cousin of mine lived for five years without her memory, her talents, her humor, her words. Her time was as empty as her look. Although her children were caring and diligent, what was left of my cousin’s life defined burden. Can I say she would not have wanted that? Of course I can. She was not allowed to leave before she lost her dignity. This is a very important subject. I wondered about it when my mother was deep into dementia, and I wonder still as I watch the struggles of others. At what point do we lose dignity or become a burden? And most important of all, how do we know when it’s the right time? As Annis says, ‘We must leave before the last possible minute, or else we lose the capacity to make it happen.’”
John Patrick Moore (Roddy) and Steve Budd (Evan)
in a scene from Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With sound design by Gregory Scharpen, Winter has been directed and lit with loving care by Gary Graves. While Randall Nakano, John Patrick Moore, Steve Budd, and Julie Kuwabara do commendable work in supporting roles, the bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of Phoebe Moyer, a veteran Bay area artist who does an excellent job communicating Annis's vulnerability, practicality, sense of urgency, and determination to take control of her demise. For anyone getting on in years (or who knows someone struggling with a form of mental illness), Jensen's play will trigger plenty of thoughts about the future. Having just turned 70 (and with a history of Alzheimer's in my family), it certainly did for me.

Phoebe Moyer stars as Annis in Winter (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Performances of Winter continue through August 13 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

Friday, July 21, 2017

There Won't Be Strumpets

Where do new musicals come from? Some are inspired by historical events (Titanic, Pacific Overtures, 1776, Triangle, Assassins, Newsies) while others (Rent, Miss Saigon, Aida) are adaptations of popular operas. Some are tested in dramatic incubators (such as the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's annual Festival of New Musicals, and the New Works Festival run by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) while others (A Chorus Line) evolved from people sharing their work experiences.

From Les Misérables, The King and I, and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to The Pajama Game, Cabaret, and My Fair Lady, some have been inspired by popular books and plays. Others (Cinderella, Into the Woods, Striking 12) have found their source material in short stories and fairy tales.

Some musicals are built around historical figures and outsized personalities (War Paint, Call Me Madam, The Scottsboro Boys, Barnum, Ben Franklin in Paris, Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson, Hamilton, Martin Guerre, Gypsy, and Fiorello!) while others are built around beloved characters from popular literature (Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, Little Me, I Remember Mama).

For many years, composers, choreographers, and stage directors were inspired by movies they loved. Their unwavering passion led to stage adaptations of films ranging from The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, and Sunset Boulevard to 42nd Street, Hairspray, Grey Gardens, and The Full Monty.

Mostly due to the economical power of the Disney empire, full-length animated features from The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, Toy Story, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have developed new lives as musical theatre cash cows. Upcoming projects for screen-to-stage transformations include The Jungle Book, Hercules, Pinocchio, and Frozen.

Despite the vast popularity of comic strips, graphic novels, and children's books, such forms of literature have had far less success leaping from the page to the stage. From Li'l Abner, Annie, It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, and Doonesbury to The Addams Family, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and Snoopy! The Musical, cartoons seem to create a unique set of challenges.

In 2016, a new musical by Andrew Lippa and Jules Feiffer entitled The Man in the Ceiling was workshopped at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (a fully-staged production received its world premiere last month from the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor). Even a great artist like Maurice Sendak (who designed sets and costumes for numerous opera and ballet productions) had mixed success bringing his books into other formats. Sendak's most popular children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, has been transformed into a one-act opera (with a score by Oliver Knussen) and a full-length feature film directed by Spike Jonze. His 1980 musical entitled Really Rosie (with music by Carole King) will be revived by Encores! Off-Center in early August.

I recently had a chance to attend performances of two musicals inspired by the artwork of exceptional cartoonists. One was based on the work of a little-known Japanese-American manga artist; the other was a mash-up tribute to some of the fantastic characters created by one of America's most beloved children's book authors.

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Many new parents are keen to incorporate memories from their childhood of favorite interactions they had with their parents into the care and feeding of their own newborns. If one were to identify their two main sources of children's entertainment, the results would undoubtedly be Walt Disney Studios and Dr. Seuss. Born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisl had a prolific career as a cartoonist and author of children's books. Not only did he live until the ripe old age of 87, his books were translated into more than 20 languages, resulting in sales of more than 600 million copies worldwide.

Vinh Nguyen as The Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

While Dr. Seuss's characters have done well in animated television shows and spin-off products, their path to successful stage musicals has been a rather limited one. In November of 1994, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical received its world premiere from the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Since then, the show has been a resounding seasonal hit at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego as well as other regional theatre companies. Although seasonal tours have delighted audiences in numerous cities, the show is rarely performed during the first ten months of the year.

Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant
in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

In 2000, a new musical crafted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty attempted to combine 1940's Horton Hatches the Egg and 1954's Horton Hears A Who! with 1958's Miss Gertrude McFuzz while incorporating the title character from 1957's The Cat in the Hat into the script. Originally directed by Frank Galati (with choreography by Kathleen Marshall), Seussical the Musical received mixed reviews upon its Broadway opening. Despite the efforts of Rosie O'Donnell, the show closed after 198 performances. Two factors which may have contributed to the show's relatively short run could have been its ticket prices, its inability to fill the Richard Rodgers Theatre's 1,319 seats on weeknights, and its narrative structure.

Jenny Angell and Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville and his wife
in a scene from Seussical The Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Bay Area Musicals recently unveiled an ambitious new production of Seussical the Musical directed by Rachel Robinson and choreographed by Matthew McCoy with scenery designed by Stewart Lyle and costumes by Ellen Howes. Despite a committed cast led by Vinh Nguyen as the Cat in the Hat and Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant, the energetic performance suffered from what some might call a wealth of riches but what the Yiddish word ongepotchket translates as "too much of everything all at the same time."

Ariela Morgenstern as Mayzie LaBird in
Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Others in the cast included Andrea Dennison-Laufer as Gertrude McFuzz, Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville, Jenny Angell as the Mayor's wife, and Kennedy Williams as Jojo. Under David Aaron Brown's musical direction, the strongest vocal contributions came from Ariela Morgenstern as the vain and brassy Mayzie LaBird as well as Katrina McGraw as a Sour Kangaroo with a fierce vocal belt.

Katrina McGraw as the Sour Kangaroo in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I must admit to being taken aback during intermission when I overheard two critics wondering whether anyone still reads Dr. Seuss's books. To my mind, the saddest thing about Seussical the Musical is that, with a score packed solid with 28 songs, this show was obviously a labor of love for the songwriting team of Ahrens & Flaherty (whose stage musicals include Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island, Ragtime, and Anastasia as well as such notable failures as My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and Rocky).

Kennedy Williams as Jojo in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I'll say this for the cast and crew of BAM's production: They certainly gave their all for this show. Performances of Seussical the Musical continue through August 5 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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When one thinks about 1964's Fiddler on the Roof, 1986's Rags, and 1998's Ragtime, it's clear that these shows depict the immigrant experience as they shine a light on the migration of Jews from the Old World (Russia and eastern Europe) to the shores of the New World (where streets are purported to be paved with gold). Each show's opening number -- "Tradition," "I Remember," and "Ragtime" -- signifies an impending cultural shift for an ethnic minority whose travels and travails became a familiar part of 20th-century American history.

Cover art for the CD of Rags

But what happens when everything gets turned upside down and, instead of making an Atlantic crossing, characters journey across the Pacific Ocean? What if questions about their health send them to Angel Island instead of Ellis Island? What if, instead of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms, the protagonists are single Japanese men seeking exciting opportunities in the New World? That's a whole different story with unfamiliar cultural markers.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and
Sean Fenton (Fred) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Instead of being inspired by his family's history, in 2012 Min Kahng was browsing through a used bookstore in downtown Berkeley when he discovered Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's appealing cartoons in a book named Manga Yonin Shosei (whose title was translated by Frederik L. Schodt) as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924). As Kahng explains:
“The spine of the book caught my attention. When I pulled it out, I saw that the book was from the early 20th century and was written by a Japanese artist, but the drawings didn’t have stereotypical Asian portrayals of their characters (no slanted eyes, no buck teeth) which would have been the norm for a cartoon artist of that day. Because this was a Japanese artist, he wasn’t using those stereotypes. Plus, the story took place in the Bay area. The Japanese title is actually closer to The Four Students than The Four Immigrants because Kiyama was referring to someone in the schoolboy situation (a house servant who takes classes in the evening). ”
A cartoon by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama shows a young Japanese man
pursuing a woman near the Palace of Fine Arts during the 1915
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco
“It’s important to note that usually, when we think of the immigrant story, we think of how hard their lives must have been in these other countries. But the emphasis here is on four immigrants who were coming to America as pioneers. They weren’t fleeing a war of any kind or grave situation. They were coming to learn English, to study, and to learn Western commerce. They were coming with ambition, with hope. We start with four bright-eyed, hopeful, cartoonish young men who, by the end of the show are much more fleshed out as real human beings with real perspectives on America. I was searching for an analogous theatrical style to the comic strip style, in other words, early 20th century cartoonish. Immediately, vaudeville popped into my mind. Although vaudeville is very broad, you think of highly stylized acting, songs that are catchy and crowd pleasing, and jokes that depend on bantering back and forth. The women are a source of a lot of humor in the show.”

Cover art for Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's Manga Yonin Shosei

The happy result is Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, which recently received a joyous world premiere produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. With musical styles that reflect the era of vaudeville and ragtime, its infectious spirit is outlined in a song appropriately entitled "Optimism." Gleefully directed by Leslie Martinson, the opening night performance was a delicious experience that was greeted by a cheering and well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

Hansel Tan, Phil Wong, James Seol, Sean Fenton
and Kerry Keiko Carnahan in a scene from
The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The action focuses on four young Japanese men eager to seek their fortunes in America. When they find themselves in desperate need of cash, an elder at the Young Men's Buddhist Association (Bukkyo Seinekai) steers them toward temporary work in schoolboy positions.
  • Fred (Sean Fenton) is a practical young man whose sole ambition is to buy some land and become a farmer. He is far and away the most focused and fortunate of the group.
  • Henry (James Seol) is an aspiring artist with dreams of doing great work who ends up making a living by painting portraits. In his spare moments he is constantly sketching cartoons which depict his friends struggling to gain a foothold in their new country.
  • Charlie (Hansel Tan) is an idealist and philosopher who struggles to reconcile his new identity and political dreams with the brutal realities of life.
  • Frank (Phil Wong) is the quartet's lovable doofus who hopes to build a business selling shoes.
Phil Wong (Frank), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and Sean Fenton (Fred)
in a scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What strikes one immediately about this exciting new musical is its buoyant spirit and charm. Even when confronted with the fear of bringing shame to their families back home in Japan, rejection by members of the Anti-Asiatic League (as well as potential girlfriends), financial insecurity, attacks by white vigilantes, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 and the 1917 Immigration Act, these four young men find strength in the brotherhood formed during their difficult voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Sean Fenton (Fred), and
Hansel Tan (Charlie) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With musical direction by William Liberatore, choreography by Dottie Lester-White, projections by Katherine Freer, and cartoon-like scenic elements designed by Andrew Boyce, Min Kahng's book, music, and lyrics keep the pace moving at a lively gallop from start to finish. This is very much a quick-change ensemble show, with Hansel Tan, Sean Fenton, and James Seol as the three most ambitious men and Phil Wong constantly winning laughs as the sad sack, stooge, and straight man in many gags. Rinabeth Apostol, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata take on numerous roles while Kerry Keiko Carnahan garners the most laughs with her portrayals of eccentric matrons and Fred's domineering mail-order bride.

Kerry Keiko Carnahan and James Seol in a scene
from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Among the musical numbers in Kahng's ebullient score, I especially enjoyed "Go Home," "Money Ain't So Bad," "Remarkable," "Honolulu Hula," and the poignant "Furusato." For Robert Kelley (the founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley who recently announced his plans to retire after 50 years at the company’s helm) the show’s appeal was obvious from his first encounter with Min Kahng.
“Reflecting the vast waves of immigration that reached American shores in the late 19th and early 20th century, The Four immigrants is a West Coast companion piece to Rags, our recent saga of immigration to the East Coast from Eastern Europe. Though set in the same era, each offers a different perspective on the immigration experience: while European immigrants were often marginalized because of their poverty, religion, or country of origin, immigrants from Asia were discriminated against because of their race. Despite such obstacles, both sides of the country offered newcomers a compelling enticement: a chance to realize the American dream of freedom, security, and success in a brand new world.”
Catherine Gloria, Lindsay Hirata, Rinabeth Apostol, and
Kerry Keiko Carnahan appear as four mail-order brides in a
scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“This show embodied every core value that has guided the company for 47 years: embracing diversity, fostering innovation, advocating new work, exploring the confluence of music and drama, and celebrating the human spirit. The musical was both humorous and profound, structurally unique yet entirely engaging. And it was about us. Set primarily in San Francisco, it explored the potential and the prejudice that faced immigrants in our own community a century ago; perhaps more importantly, it asked us to consider all that has and hasn’t changed for immigrants since then.”

While there is much to admire in Min Kahng's new musical, I tip my hat to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for nurturing a new musical which requires a cast of eight Asian-American actors. This show offers an excellent vehicle for introducing audiences to an often ignored chapter in American history and will, no doubt, introduce them to numerous talented performers in years to come. The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 6 (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Keeping Score

One of the unanticipated benefits of web-based services like YouTube and Facebook is that a few zillion hours have been spent by people all over the world watching videos of animals. Whether the star of the video is a family pet or a predator in the wild, what makes most of these videos go viral is not just the visual content but the music which has been added to the experience. Just as different folks appreciate different strokes, what one person might deem pleasant to the ear might cause another to click the "silent" button.

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

Earlier this year, the San Francisco International Film Festival offered a screening of a fascinating new documentary written and directed by Matt Schrader. While Score: A Film Music Documentary takes viewers inside the history, challenges, and process of creating music to accompany a film, many audiences are so engrossed in the action unfolding before them that they remain unaware of the music enhancing their experience. On many occasions, that music plays a key role in shaping their feelings of suspense, warmth, and exhilaration. As Schrader explains:
Film music speaks to us in a language we can understand, but few of us can speak. Like many a cinephile, I remember the stirring rhythms of The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the spine-tingling orchestral finale of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the pounding, adrenaline-pumping awe of The Dark Knight's final ride. These are moments where, almost inexplicably, we as viewers transcend the story we're being told. The music speaks to us in ways we can't intellectually grasp, but in ways our heart still can. These moments prove that the right picture paired with the right sound can create a physical change in our heartbeats, our tear ducts, even our arms and legs. They create chills. Cold shivers. Goose bumps.”
A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

What was the most difficult challenge Schrader faced while filming SCORE? "Scheduling was an immense headache during production. What many people don't know is that most prominent film composers are in extremely high demand, which means their schedules can be booked solid for months at a time while they're trying to brainstorm, write, orchestrate, record and mix," he explains. "We had to wait more than a year for one of our favorite composers, Bear McCreary, because he was working on six television shows and, as it turned out, the uber-secret 10 Cloverfield Lane."

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

One of the most surprising facts to emerge from Schrader's documentary is that the musicians who perform during a film's recording session are usually sight-reading the composer's score. While many may bypass SCORE in search of more exciting, political, or historical documentaries, Schrader's film is a must-see for any devoted cinephile.

Although many great film composers (Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Danny Elfman, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini) have been hailed for their contributions to cinematic history, few have received the loving treatment that Seth MacFarlane and his friends have showered on John Williams.

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as much a celebration of silent film as an art form as it has been about the experience of being able to watch a silent film with live accompaniment by talented musicians. Two screenings of beautifully restored films at the 2017 festival could not have done a better job of matching musicians with a film suited to their aesthetic.

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Like many young boys, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. My thirst for sauropod adventures was triggered by trips to the dinosaur halls within the American Museum of Natural History, a growing number of plastic dinosaur toys, the scale model kits manufactured and sold by Revell, and The Rite of Spring segment in 1940's Fantasia.

Although televised screenings of films like 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1954's Godzilla, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1961's Gorgo, and 1962's Reptilicus were met with a combination of reverence and glee, the fact that my father was a high school biology teacher gave me a rare treat. How so? He was able to show me clips from Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 version of The Lost World (the screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel which became a major step forward in stop-motion animation).

Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

With Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, Lewis Stone as Lord John Roxton, and Lloyd Hughes as an ambitious young reporter named Edward Malone, Hoyt's film added a role that could provoke a romantic interest for actress Bessie Love and incorporated a pet monkey named Jocko into the action. The Lost World made cinematic history in two other surprising ways:
  • This was the first feature-length film to be made in the United States (and perhaps the world) that featured model animation as its raison d'etre.
  • In April 1925, aboard an Imperial Airways flight from Paris to London in a wood and fabric-hulled plane that was actually a converted bomber left over from World War I, The Lost World became the first inflight film to be shown to airline passengers despite the fact that the print being screened was made from highly flammable nitrate stock.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

The script for the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel deviated from its source material in several respects:
  • Although the character of the local guide (Zambo) was meant to be a fearless and loyal figure in print, as portrayed by Jules Cowles in blackface, it represents an outdated, racist stereotype to modern audiences who shun the use of the word "darkie" in contemporary language.
  • Instead of the novel’s climactic war between humans and ape-men, the film features the massive eruption of a fiery volcano that belches rivers of lava.
  • The final segment of the film, in which a brontosaurus (instead of a pterodactyl) runs amok in London, paved the way for the finale of 1933's King Kong to make cinematic history.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

In 1905, American cartoonist Winsor McCay used a brontosaurus in his comic strip entitled Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In 1913, McCay introduced a dinosaur named Bessie into his Little Nemo strip in an episode entitled In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. In 1914, he famously introduced Gertie the Dinosaur to the silver screen.

In his program essay Dennis Harvey explains that:
“In 1915, Willis O’Brien made an 80-second test reel that convinced San Francisco exhibitor Herman Wobber to fund The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. That six-minute clay puppet extravaganza (animating both comedic cavemen and giant critters) was a striking enough novelty to attract distribution from Thomas Edison’s company. Its success prompted a series of hastily produced follow-up shorts, most now lost. O’Brien accepted East Coast producer Herbert M. Dawley’s offer to make another dinosaur film in which Uncle Jack conjures a Dream Valley where hermit Mad Dick (played by O’Brien) leads some adventurers to a site inhabited by prehistoric animals. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, released in 1919, became another acclaimed novelty.”
Poster art for 1919's The Ghost of Slumber Mountain
“O’Brien found a new employer in Watterson R. Rothacker, who was eager to film Doyle’s story with the combination of animation, models, and live action pioneered in Slumber Mountain, but on a much grander scale. By far the most elaborate special-effects feature made to that point, it would be starry and lavish, delayed over production costs (approaching a million dollars), and done under the cloud of copyright claims made by Dawley. The enterprise was a big gamble both for Rothacker (whose company up until that point provided laboratory services and made advertising films) and for First National Pictures, which was absorbed by Warner Bros. three years later. But it paid off in one of the most spectacular successes of the era.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

Unfortunately, much of Hoyt's film went missing for decades. As Harvey explains:
“The 1925 version was quickly lost, largely because of an unfortunate 1929 agreement to withdraw prints from circulation. For decades the film was available only in worn 16-mm dupes drastically reduced to little more (or sometimes less) than an hour. It seemed unlikely that anything like a complete restoration would ever be possible. Yet beginning about a quarter-century ago, various missing pieces started to surface around the world, principally a near-complete version at the Czech national archive.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)
“Combining elements from 11 sources, the 2016 restoration is no amusingly creaky antique. It’s a beautifully tinted, ambitious, and exciting spectacular that more than holds its own against today’s FX-laden fantasy blockbusters (the CGI era began in earnest with 1993’s Jurassic Park, which owes everything to The Lost World). Though it may not offer 100% of what audiences saw 92 years ago, the restoration is a near-seamless entity whose appeal goes beyond pure nostalgia and remains shockingly in line with modern popular taste.”

The print shown at the Castro Theatre (courtesy of Lobster Films) is about as close as one can come to Hoyt's original and obviously requires a much more compelling soundtrack than the one that accompanies Gertie the Dinosaur. True to form, the Alloy Orchestra provided a hyper-aggressive score which did a superb job of capturing the raw brutality of Conan Doyle's fantasy world ruled over by prehistoric beasts and an angry volcano. Their performance (which knocked the experience right out of the ballpark) was every bit as thrilling as what John Williams created for Jurassic Park. Although the following video does not use the Alloy Orchestra's score, it allows viewers to enjoy the recently restored film.

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While many movie fans can easily name their favorite films, it's harder to get them to talk about the ones that got away -- movies they've always wanted to see but, for one reason or another, were never able to fit into their schedule. Because I spent so many years attending live performances in theatres and opera houses on four continents, I've missed out on many a cinematic treasure that my friends have cherished for years.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In early June, I finally caught up with a legendary film on my bucket list when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a screening of the 27-year-old Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin. My only exposure to this film had been during a college course on world cinema during which our professor turned off the lights, fired up his film projector, and showed us the famous sequence that takes place on the Odessa Steps.

Shown out of context early in the morning (when most students quickly fell back to sleep), it meant nothing. More than half a century after that class, I finally had an opportunity to understand its cinematic (as well as historic) importance and see how it fit into the larger picture of the 1905 mutiny by the crew of a Russian battleship against their officers.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

It's hard to grasp how Eisenstein managed to commence shooting his film on March 31, 1925 in Leningrad, use the battleship Twelve Apostles (which was based in the port of Odessa) for his naval sequences, and still deliver the completed film in time to meet his end-of-the-year deadline (the script didn't receive final approval until June 4). Eisenstein's first feature film, Strike, premiered on April 28, 1925. Battleship Potemkin's world premiere took place at the famed Bolshoi Theatre on December 21, 1925 at a ceremonial meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Since then, Battleship Potemkin has had a long and impressive history.
  • Eisenstein's spectacular use of montage sequences inspired filmmakers throughout the 20th century.
  • The filmmaker also revolutionized the casting process by seeking out people who (though they might have lacked professional training as actors) looked like the type of working persons he wanted them to portray.
  • Eisenstein's masterpiece was constantly subjected to censorship, cuts, and revised translations that weakened its dramatic and political impact.
  • After seeing Battleship Potemkin, Adolf Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, described Eisenstein's provocative piece as "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."
  • In 1958, Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World's Fair.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  • In 1976, Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman embarked on an attempt to piece together Eisenstein’s intended sequence of shots for the film.
  • In 1986, Enno Patalas also worked on reassembling Battleship Potemkin while working at the Munich Filmmuseum.
  • In 2005, a newly restored version of the film by the Deutsche Kinemathek (made possible by the work of Kleiman and Patalas) debuted at the Berlin Film Festival with the original musical score by Edmund Meisel. This final version of Battleship Potemkin contained all of the material that had been missing after having been removed by German censors in the 1920s.
  • In 2007, a definitive restoration allowed audiences to experience Eisenstein's masterpiece in all its glory.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In his program essay, Miguel Pendás notes that:
“The intended audiences for Battleship Potemkin were the millions of victorious workers and peasants in 1925, decimated by the recent civil war, in need of the inspired example of their revolutionary predecessors. There was hardly a person in Russia who would not have been deeply moved by the scenes of sailors being forced to bear terrible conditions and yet refusing to shoot their comrades. The use of bold imagery and sparse intertitles ensured that even an illiterate peasant could understand what the film was about. Battleship was a revolution unto itself."
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
"The film’s reputation spread quickly. There were efforts to show it throughout the world, starting with Germany, which, in 1926, was in the throes of its own deep and bitter class struggle. Fearful of the film’s incendiary potential, German authorities severely censored it. They found the breach of military discipline depicted in the film especially disturbing. The distributor was forced to eliminate nearly 100 feet of film (crippling the film’s message) in order for it to be shown. Censored German versions are what most people outside the USSR saw."

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Using a print from Kino Lorber, the screening at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble (a Silent Film Festival favorite). While this group has often accompanied depressing Scandinavian films, bleak documentaries, and cryptic ghost stories, one of Matti Bye's great strengths is knowing when to have his musicians stop playing and let a gruesome action sequence unfold onscreen in deadly silence. The ensemble's work accompanying Battleship Potemkin ranged from eerie silences to accompanying the military revolt with a kind of blood-pumping music and throbbing masculinity that befits a crew of angry sailors. Here's the film, in all its glory.