Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Price Glory?

Once used as a moralistic warning about the need to pay your debts, the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is making a surprising comeback.  So are the rats.   That's because old secrets never die. They just get juicier and, if unprotected, much costlier.  Three events this week brought that point home with startling power.

On Monday night, I attended a lecture at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco by journalist Sharon Waxman, who is currently doing a book tour for her latest piece of work: Loot.  Having lived and worked in the Middle East, Waxman's curiosity was piqued while touring some of Europe's collections of antiquities.  The information offered about some of the art was interesting, to be sure.  But what she really wanted to know was "How did this stuff get here?"  

The "stuff" she refers to includes items like the Elgin Marbles, Egyptian relics, and artifacts looted from Persia, Sparta, and other long lost civilizations.  Waxman's quest first led her to examine the history of museums -- how they started, where they grew, and how they amassed their large collections.  

Her conclusion?  There's a lot that curators are not telling us.

Some of their secrets concern items  that have never been seen by the public because they have been hidden in museum warehouses for many years. Others concern items acquired under questionable circumstances.  

In recent years, the turf wars between international museums (such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art)  and the nations which were the original sources of the art have erupted into major lawsuits demanding that certain pieces of art be returned to their sources.

To hear Waxman discuss the "down-low" world of museum dealings with regard to antiquities is to get a surprising look into how lost pieces of sculpture and art make news.  She describes how a major museum can accidentally destroy a new acquisition by varnishing its surface, as well as what happens when a curator gets handed a perplexing challenge.  In one case, a curator in Los Angeles received word that someone had died and left a collection of rare Mexican artifacts to the museum. Upon examining the art, it became clear that much of it had been stolen.  

The curator wisely decided to contact the Mexican government and negotiate a curious but equitable solution.  Mexico would take back half of the collection.  The American museum would pay for the restoration of the other half and keep it on temporary loan as part of its collection.

Describing how new wealth in the Middle East is leading to a crop of new museums in places like Dubai and Qatar, Waxman pointed out that Egypt's museums suffer terribly from lack of funding and proper maintenance.  In talking with some curators before the opening of one of Qatar's eight new museums, she suggested that, with all of their newfound wealth, they could attempt some kind of joint venture with Egypt's museums. Perhaps, by arranging to help restore some of Egypt's treasures, they could get an opportunity to exhibit some of them on a temporary basis. 

To her utter amazement,  not one of the curators had ever given any thought to such an arrangement (an idea which might be a "given" to Western curators).

In another tale of derring do, Waxman described how a piece of art which had been returned to its source country (after being housed in a major museum for several years), ended up being stolen from its location in a small town. Chock full of tales about intense rivalries between French and British diplomats stationed in the Middle East during the Napoleonic era -- as well as explaining how certain fashions swept through Europe after the discovery of Egyptian tombs and paintings -- Waxman's book promises a most informative gallop through art, archaeology, the museum world, and the black market for antiquities.

* * * * *

The gimmick of a poorly-conceived debt being called due lies behind many a theatrical work.  In an opera like Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, a tortured soul must roam the seven seas until someone else's noble sacrifice allows him to find eternal peace.  Numerous variations on the Faust legend have dealt with people who have sold their soul to the devil for youth, money, fame, and glory.

On Tuesday, I headed over to the Marin Theatre Company for the opening night of Conor McPherson's magical little mystery play, The Seafarer.   Like many good suspense dramas, McPherson's play focuses on a nasty little secret.  

In The Seafarer, the devil arrives on Christmas Eve to collect his winnings on a bet from an almost-forgotten game of cards. While it may be easy for some people to effect a "devil may care" attitude, this is one night when the devil actually does seem to care.  

He wants to collect a man's soul. And, in the process of doing so, he wants to humiliate Sharky (and possibly Sharky's brother, Ivan, as well).  Apparently, the local pickings have been pretty good for the devil because there are enough roaring  drunks in Baldoyle, Ireland who are so determined to win a round of cards that they will promise anything -- their souls, the souls of their neighbors (and their neighbors' children) -- if only they can just win the next hand of poker. 

Although Sharky (Andy Murray) once bet his soul in a card game, he has recently stopped drinking and is trying to take responsibility for his daily actions. His blind brother Richard (Julian Lopez-Morillas) is an unrepentant and extremely obnoxious drunk who is content to wallow in his bodily filth for days on end -- as long as he can get his hands on another drink.  

Although the two men live together in a squalid setting littered with beer bottles, their younger brother, Ivan (Andrew Hurteau) is actually married.  For years, the nearsighted Ivan (who was completely exonerated in the deaths of a local family due to an unexplained fire) has kept remarkably quiet about a hand he once won in a card game.

The Seafarer is essentially a long night of drinking, bragging, and complaining by a group of three brothers with only Sharky trying to keep a sober eye on the proceedings.  When their friend Nicky arrives with a mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Robert Sicular), it soon becomes apparent to Sharky just who Mr. Lockhart is and what he has come for.

The cast of The Seafarer (Photo by Ed Smith)

As a lifelong nondrinker, it's hard for me to relate to the rudely intoxicated, almost adolescent behavior enjoyed by rowdy drunks. Although the audience in Mill Valley was highly entertained by the alcoholic antics in Act I of The Seafarer, most of its humor was lost on me.  

However, no one writes a monologue quite as stunningly as Conor McPherson and, in the second act, he gives the devil his due. Lockhart's eerie description of the true, desolate and lonely nature of hell is a breathtaking piece of writing which can only achieve maximum theatrical impact because Sharky and Lockhart have been left alone on stage.   The rowdier drunks have left the room in a macho attempt to beat up the winos that keep causing trouble in the alley.

Under Jasson Minadakis' taut stage direction, MTC's well-oiled ensemble coaxes the audience through a raucous night of hard and determined Irish drinking.  Giving new truth to the old saying that "the devil is in the details," McPherson's surprise ending combines a sense of poetic justice and myopic wonder with the hard-drinking and patently unbelievable luck of the Irish.

* * * * * * *

A much happier tale of a personal debt waiting to be paid goes on display this weekend when the San Francisco Film Society -- as part of its New Italian Cinema minifestival -- presents the droolingly delicious Lezioni di Cioccolato (Lessons in Chocolate). I call it "droolingly delicious" because it's so easy to drool over the male lead, Luca Argentero.  To be sure, there's a lot of chocolate as well.

Argentero plays Mattia, an arrogant Italian stud who, as a building contractor, is always trying to shortchange clients on the materials he uses, skirt safety regulations, and underpay undocumented laborers. He's a total bastard. A totally gorgeous bastard who undergoes enough of a redemptive transformation that, by the end of the film, he describes himself as "a lying asshole who at least wants to change."

As a result of Mattia's stubborn refusal to erect protective scaffolding at a jobsite, one of his best workers falls from the roof and is severely injured.  Invoking an Egyptian superstition, the worker refuses to talk to the police for four days.  

Kamal (the delightfully bug-eyed Hassani Shapi) was once an accomplished pastry chef in Cairo. Prior to the accident, he had enrolled to take a course in the art of chocolate making -- a course offered by the renowned Perugina chocolate company once every hundred years.    Now, thanks to Mattia's cost-cutting shenanigans, he's stuck in a body cast and there is no way that he can physically take the course.  Unless, of course, something can be worked out.  

A wily Egyptian who knows how to milk lots of entertainment from making his boss suffer, Kamal insists that Mattia take the course under Kamal's name (and teach Kamal how to make chocolate on the side)  or else Kamal will report Mattia to the police.  He insists that Mattia cannot bribe someone else to do the work for him but must take the course himself.

Kamal, however, is not about to stop there.  In order to make the gorgeous, studly contractor look more like a poor undocumented immigrant worker, he strips Mattia of his expensive clothes and pretenses and proceeds to drive him to distraction with one crazy Egyptian tradition after another. Meanwhile, Mattia keeps trying to maintain his business contacts on the golf course. 

Needless to say, Mattia screws everything up.  Although he is rescued by Cecelia, the prettiest woman in the chocolate making class (Violante Placido), he quickly discovers that Cecelia -- who has a bad habit of falling for men who are pathological liars -- has enough emotional baggage to sink an aircraft carrier.  

As Mattia soon learns, in order to make great chocolate -- and create "tiny moments of ecstasy" -- one cannot skimp on quality.  Every trick Mattia has used to succeed in business in the past now works against him.  Once Kamal and Cecelia knock the wind out of his sails, Mattia determines that he might as well try to win the contest for creating a new chocolate treat the hard way: by doing it honestly.

Written by Fabio Bonifacci and directed with a great sense of mischief and elan by Claudio Cupellini, Lessons in Chocolate is a fickle farce that moves at a frantic pace.  You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want more chocolate.  It's all great fun, aided and abetted by a superior cast of clowns.

Although these video clips lack subtitles, you'll get the drift easily enough.  The trailer, which focuses on the movie's many pratfalls, doesn't really let potential audiences in on the true sweetness of the film's story and the redemptive powers of chocolate.

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