Thursday, February 26, 2009

High Anxiety

I have very little patience with drama queens. Having listened to a few too many "Oh, poor me" soliloquies, I've taken to interrupting the narration to ask the person caught up in all that sturm und drang to look down at his feet and tell me if he sees a pool of blood. 

Unless he does, I can skip the histrionics.

I prefer to have the drama in my life visible onstage and onscreen. Unfortunately, some people can't live without trying to draw attention to themselves. 

I once had a friend who was a notoriously pushy bottom. Although a highly intelligent middle-aged man, his dysfunctional family background made him much needier than his intellect could ever admit. On the day he asked me for my opinion about a trivial matter that had been blown way out of proportion by his  personal brand of paranoia, I told him that he should stop acting like such a drama queen.

He was mortally offended and soon severed our relationship. Needless to say, I survived.

Perhaps that's because one of the most important lessons I learned during a 15-year period when I led a frequent flyer lifestyle was that change is the only constant. You can spend many long and lonely hours pacing back and forth in airport lounges, stuck in a conga line of aircraft inching down a runway, or waiting for an airport shuttle to show up. But no matter how carefully you plan, there will be numerous delays, thunderstorms, and cancelled flights. 

Some people think that traveling to other cities is filled with exotic experiences, social opportunites, and glamour. The truth is that much of it boils down to a lifestyle of "hurry up and wait." There is an endless cycle of waiting and watching, watching and waiting, as time passes and people move in and out of your life. You can either get caught up in the anxiety of the moment or try to coast through life by letting some of the stress roll off your back.

* * * * * * *

As part of its lead-up to the 2009 JCC Maccabi Games, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (in collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) recently screened several films about Jews in sports. Atlhough the two narrative films in the series had a strong element of athletic competition, their stories had a lot more to do with the kind of high anxiety faced by certain Jews.

Set in London in the 1960s, Paul Morrison's Wondrous Oblivion uses the lure of British-style cricket to coax a shy, young Jewish boy out of his shell.  Born to a pair of Holocaust survivors, young David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is an avid cricket fan with a large collection of cards featuring his favorite players. He is also the kid that nobody wants to have on the school team (David has been relegated/ostracized to the lonely position of keeping score at cricket matches).

When a Jamaican family moves in next door to the Wisemans, the neighborhood comes alive with gossip. Some of the more racist neighbors (especially Carol Macready's Mrs. Wilson) make no bones about telling David's mother Ruth (Emily Woof) how they feel about having blacks in the neighborhood -- not to mention the Jamaican ska music that keeps blaring from the Samuels household. David, however, is fascinated by his new neighbors, especially after he sees Mr. Samuels (Delroy Lindo) building a backyard net cage in which he can teach his daughters how to play cricket. 

Soon David has his own personal cricket coach and is learning how to assert himself with the team coach. His workaholic father (Stanley Townsend) is too busy to notice that his wife (who married at a very early age)  is developing a crush on their new neighbor. Once David and Ruth start to become friends with their new Jamaican neighbors, it doesn't take long before Mr. Wiseman starts to find anonymous notes threatening his family. 

When the Wisemans throw a birthday party for David -- and invite members of the school's cricket team over to their house -- their son is so high on the thrill of finally being accepted by his classmates that he turns away the eldest Samuels girl when she comes by with a birthday present for him. Although, in David's mind, it's mostly an issue of having an all-boys party at which he is the focus of attention, the girl quickly interprets the rejection as being tinged with racism.

The sudden chill in the air between the Wiseman and Samuels families is solidified when the Wisemans announce plans to move to a larger house in another suburb. When Mrs. Wilson's white supremacist grandson (Chris Geere) torches the Samuels residence, the community must confront its seething undercurrent of racism.

Although I found the film a bit slow, Morrison does a nice job of balancing his narrative with archival footage of historic cricket matches and showing how one minority starts to learn about another. While Delroy Lindo offers a strong masculine presence, it is Emily Woof's radiant performance as a lonely young wife who is starved for affection that nearly steals the film.

* * * * * * *

Flash forward to 1970 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Sao Paolo. The entire population of Brazil is obsessed with soccer when 12-year-old Mauro's home life undergoes a sudden turn of events. His father, Daniel, is a leftist activist who must suddenly go underground in order to avoid arrest. Mauro's parents call Daniel's father, Motel (an elderly barber), and insist that they must deliver Mauro (Michel Joelsas) to him immediately. They leave the boy in front of the old man's apartment building (telling them that if anyone asks about them they're "on vacation"), without knowing Motel has suddenly died of a heart attack.

With no parents to turn to (and his grandfather dead), Mauro ends up in the care of one of Motel's neighbors, an elderly orthodox Jew named Shlomo (Germano Haiut). Cao Hamburger's The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is a pained coming of age story in which Mauro keeps watching and waiting for his parents' return (his father had promised that they would be back in time for the eagerly anticipated World Cup match against Mexico). In the meantime, Mauro must establish some kind of working truce with Shlomo, who has no desire to help raise a child.

Hannah (Daniela Piepszyk), a precocious young girl living in the same building, eventually breaks through Mauro's self-imposed isolation and introduces him to some other boys in the neighborhood. Eventually, a gaggle of elderly Jewish women take turns inviting Mauro to lunch and he befriends some of the soccer fans at the local diner, including the waitress Irene (Liliana Castro), and her hunky mulatto boyfriend Edgar (Rodrigo dos Santos). Edgar is also the goalkeeper on a local soccer team that includes an intense, politically active student from the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paolo named Italo,  who seems to have some knowledge of Daniel's missing father.

As World Cup fever grips the nation (and Daniel's father fails to return), Shlomo, Italo (Caio Blat), and Mauro's friends from the neighborhood continue to feed and shelter the boy, with no real sense of what his future holds in store. 

But when Italo gets roughed up during a government raid on activist headquarters, Mauro finds him beaten and bleeding, hiding out in the apartment building. The police follow Italo's trail to Shlomo, who is taken in for questioning. Shlomo explains that Mauro's mother was not involved in political activism, which leads to her eventual release. After her poignant reunion with her son, the film ends with Mauro wondering how, in one day, he started a new life as an exile.

* * * * * *

Twenty years later, a different kind of anxiety is brewing in Riyosuke Hashiguchi's Japan. In a surprisingly effective narrative, Hashiguchi (whose 2001 film Hush! I greatly admired), has found a remarkably subtle actor for his protagonist in All Around Us, which will be presented next month as part of the 2009 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.

Lily Franky stars as Kanao, a slightly-built, unassuming and very laidback young man who has been repairing shoesg in a small cobbler's shop. When a friend recruits him to become a sketch artist in Tokyo's criminal court system, Kanao enters a world filled with grisly murder trials, newsroom intrigue, reporters racing from the courtroom to announce the latest verdict, and serial killers who are still trying to humiliate witnesses. He is asked to sketch embezzlers and people who are consumed with grief (as well as serial murderers who have eaten the bodies of their victims).

As an artist, however, he views the courtroom proceedings through a very different eye. Listening to an irate madam accuse a prostitute of cheating her of her earnings, he can't suppress a child-like smile. Noticing small details (such as a witness's hands or shoes), his sketches strike a slightly different tone from those of the other, more cynical and hardened courtroom artists.

His wife (and college girlfriend) comes from a family which views Kanao as a bit of a fool. Whereas most of Shoko's family is focused on material wealth and real estate, Kanao is quite happy sketching courtroom scenes and teaching young artists how to draw the human body. When Shoko (Tae Kimura) miscarries and learns that she may never be able to have a child, the woman who was a rabid control freak sinks into a deep depression, fearing that she has failed her husband and her marriage. 

Unlike other men, Kanao stands quietly by her side, trying to prevent his wife from drowning in her sorrows. What eventually brings Shoko back to life is a chance to work as an artist again. Commissioned to draw a series of ceiling panels, she starts to flourish as she adds color to the canvas, to her cheeks, and to her life.

As Hashiguchi's camera follows this couple through a less-than-perfect marriage, Kanao documents some of Japan's more scandalous trials through his sketches. When Shoko learns that her estranged father (a former famous baseball player) is dying of cancer, the couple travel to Nagoya to visit "the old man" in the hospital.

As always, Kanao keeps drawing sketches of the people he sees, including a beautiful portrait of Shoko's father. Upon returning to Tokyo, where he shows his sketches at a family dinner, Kanao realizes that her family is much more invested in having the old man die rather than showing any concern about his happiness or, for that matter, Shoko. 

Then Kanao's mother-in-law drops a bombshell, explaining that she was the one who cheated on her marriage (and not Shoko's father).  She thanks Kanao for being so good to her family, recognizing in him the kind of slow, steady and faithful masculine devotion which burned in her husband so long ago.

This very long and intimate film (140 minutes) takes a while to gain dramatic momentum. But once it does, the viewer follows Shoko on her remarkable course of rebirth and rediscovery. It touches on a theme very close to my heart -- the healing power of the artistic process -- while being blessed by Shoko's paintings of various flowers and Kanao's incredibly insightful portrait sketches. Slowly and quietly, Kanao and Shoko approach middle age as their marriage regains its vitality and they once again become best friends. 

No comments: