Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tripping The Noir Fantastic

One might think, after the folks at the Castro had offered Rialto's Best of British Noir and the Roxie Theater had screened 22 films during its Best of Columbia Noir minifestival, that Bay area noir fans would be temporarily sated. One might think they could wait until January 22, 2010 (the opening night of Noir City 8 at the Castro) for their next fix.

One would, of course, be utterly and horribly wrong. Terribly, woefully and horrendously wrong.

Soon after September's noir festivals sent their films back to the vaults and swept up the last bits of popcorn from the floors of their theatres, two new attractions were unveiled that will undoubtedly titillate Bay area noir fans. These are not strictly noir classics -- not by a long shot. Instead, these are two genre-bending mixups that play with noir, make fun of noir, take noir out for a bumpy ride, and do an absolutely splendid job of giving noir the giggles.

This is noir for folks who don't want to take their noir too seriously. Call it "noir on the rocks, with a twist and a spritz."

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If you have even the slightest acquaintance with Larry Blamire's work, you know that he is the author of I Didn't Know You Came With Raisins and Tales of the Callamo Mountains. No doubt you are aware that he is the delightfully demented auteur behind such loving spoofs of Grade-B movies as The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, The Trail of the Screaming Forehead and the upcoming Steam Wars.

Soon to be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival is Blamire's latest opus, a loving tribute to the 1930s "dark house horror flicks" entitled Dark and Stormy Night. As with his previous films, Blamire embraces and celebrates every cliché of the genre, giving his characters unforgettable lines like "I fell into the night and it swallowed me, like a child swallows Jujubes." Among the characters in Blamire's deliciously loony romp are:
  • Happy Codburn (Dan Conroy), the cabbie who drives over a creaky bridge to deliver a cheapskate fare to the Cavinder estate "in the middle of nowhere."
  • 8 o'clock Faraday (Daniel Roebuck), the cabbie's passenger, a penny-pinching gossip reporter from the Sentinel who is eager to crash the reading of Sinas Cavinder's will.
  • Billy Tuesday (Jennifer Blaire) a sassy female reporter from the Sentinel who is Faraday's rival for the big scoop.
  • Jeens (Bruce French), Sinas Cavinder's haughty butler.
  • Jane Hovenham (Trish Geiger), the Cavinder estate's maid, who might just be up to no good.
  • Archie Folde (Robert Deveau), Cavinder's insane cook who doesn't always pay careful attention as he ominously wields his meat cleaver.
  • Ray Vestinhaus (Larry Blamire), a rather odd man who claims to have been driving by in the neighborhood when his car suddenly broke down by accident and he just happened to arrive in time for the reading of the will (oops!). Vestinhaus also wonders if it matters that the only bridge to the island where the Cavinder estate is located collapsed just after he drove over it.
  • Jack Tugdon (Jim Beaver), a rough man with a dark past who was the safari guide for the recently deceased Sinas Cavinder during four of the worst days of his life.
  • Burling Famish, Jr. (Brian Howe), the man who -- one way or another-- expects to inherit the vast Cavinder fortune.
  • Pristy Famish (Christine Romeo), the vapid, aging golddigger wife of Burling Famish, Jr.
  • Lord Partfine (Andrew Parks), a societal dandy and crashing bore who is a friend of the Famishes.
  • Mrs. Hausenstout (played by 90-year-0ld Betty Garrett), a sweet old woman who may have shown up for the reading of the wrong person's will.
  • Kogar (Bob Burns), her pet gorilla.
  • Mrs. Cupcupboard (Alison Martin), a fashionable but demented medium who often speaks in gibberish.
  • Gunny Gunny (Marvin Kaplin), the disembodied spirit who communicates with Mrs. Cupcupboard during her seances.
  • Seyton Ethelquake (James Karen), an easily frightened and confused old man.
  • Sabasha Fanmoore (Fay Masterson), the female ward who will supposedly inherit the bulk of the Cavinder fortune but who, in reality, is an escaped nutcase from the local mental institution.
  • Thessaly (Susan McConnell), the insane niece of Sinas Cavinder who has been locked up in the attic for many years.
  • Dr. Van Von Vandervon (H. M. Wynant), a local physician with exceptionally bad timing.
To spill any of the hysterically funny details of Blamire's film could ruin the fun. Let's just say that the lights keep going out, people keep getting killed, secret panels keep opening, phantoms and ghosts wreak havoc while the rain keeps coming down in torrents, and every cliché of the "dark house' genre gets beaten to a bloody and hilarious pulp.

Dark and Stormy Night benefits immensely from Christopher Caliendo's original musical score, Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein's lovingly tacky cinematography, and Jason Garner's delicious art direction. Here's the trailer:

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Meanwhile, American Conservatory Theatre opened its 2009-2010 season by importing the Kneehigh Theatre's delightful multimedia/multigenre production of Brief Encounter (based on Noel Coward's 1936 play, Still Life, and its subsequent cinematic treatment directed by David Lean, 1945's Brief Encounter). As in the film, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is used to symbolize the feverish emotions being repressed by Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Milo Twomey) as their chance meeting in a train station develops into a prim British love affair.

Milo Twomey and Hannah Yelland
(Photo by: Kevin Byrne)

Providing a vaudevillian type of counterpart to their torrid emotions are the lusty shenanigans of railroad ticket inspector Fred (Joseph Alessi) and Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), the flirtatious proprietor of the station's café. They are joined by two lower-class café employees: Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin).

Stuart McLoughlin and Beverly Rudd
(Photo by: Kevin Byrne)

While that might not sound like much on paper, it's important to remember that 70 years ago adultery was far more scandalous than it is today. Unlike modern defenders of traditional marriage and family values (who have no qualms about hiring prostitutes or engaging in extramarital affairs), British society was far more repressed. As director Emma Rice notes:
"In the language of folktales, in order to find out one's true self, it is often vital that there is a near-death experience before our heroes and heroines can begin to heal and to reform. In Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, our heroines are unconscious, almost dead for long periods of time. In Brief Encounter our lovers also die spiritually when they part. "I never want to feel anything again," says Laura. This deep depression is an essential part of the process of change. It is something to be endured, understood, and then moved away from. The end of the affair is not the end of hope or of love. It is part of the process of change. Alec will travel and see the world in a wider context. Laura will have to reimagine herself, not just as a 'respectable wife and mother' but as a person in her own right."
According to film historian James Robertson, Brief Encounter "was the first film that dealt with middle-aged love outside the confines of marriage." Although the British Board of Film Censors gave Brief Encounter its seal of approval, the Irish censorship board was less generous toward the film's depiction of adultery.

Rice's stage production is a marvel of theatrical craft that merges film noir with low comedy, contrasting moments of intensely repressed passion (symbolized by waves crashing along the seashore) with hilarious theatrical stunts that include the use of dustmops tricked out as yappy little dogs.

One of the key elements of the production is its use of music -- not just of the Rachmaninoff -- but of Noel Coward's songs as well. At the beginning of the second act, a quiet rendition of "Go Slow, Johny" (from the 1961 musical Sail Away) accompanied on a lone ukelele becomes one of those magical moments in the theater that tugs at one's heartstrings and takes one's breath away with the simplicity of its staging. Here are Coward's lyrics to the song -- a masterpiece of composition:
“Go slow, Johnny,
Maybe she'll come to her senses
If you'll give her a chance.
People's feelings are sensitive plants,
Try not to trample the soil and spoil romance.
Go slow, Johnny,
No sense in rushing your fences,
Till you know that you know
Your stars are bright for you,
Right for you,
Mark their courses,
Hold your horses,
Speak low, Johnny,
Tip toe, Johnny,
Go slow, Johnny,
Go slow.

Go slow, Johnny,
Slow goes it,
Wait a bit, Johnny,
There's no need to stampede.
Don't forget if you wish to succeed
One truth had better be faced,
More haste less speed.
Watch those road signs,
They'll indicate a bit, Johnny,
Which direction to go,
Rely on time and tact,
Face the fact
You're no Brando,
Speak low, Johnny,
Tip toe, Johnny,
Go slow, Johnny,
Go slow,
Go slow, Johnny,
Go slow!”
Milo Twomey and Hannah Yelland
(Photo by: Kevin Byrne)

Rice's favorite song in the show is Coward's A Room With A View, originally written in 1927. In the Noel Coward Songbook, Coward notes that:
"When I was singing it in the American production of This Year of Grace, the late Alexander Woollcott took a black hatred to it. The last couplet sent him into torrents of vituperation. He implored me to banish the number from the show. When I refused to pander to his wicked prejudices, he decided to make a more formal protest. One evening, he sat in a stage box with a group of ramshackle companions, including Harpo Marx, and when I began to sing the verse, they all, with one accord, ostentatiously opened newspapers and read them. With what I still consider to be great presence of mind, I sang the last couplet in baby talk, whereupon Woollcott gave a dreadful scream and, making sounds only too indicative of rising nausea, staggered from the box."
The brilliance of Rice's production comes from the ways in which she mixes media and genre in a dramatic version of fusion cuisine. Audiences get to watch live actors emerge from their seats on the main floor and literally walk into a film. Laura's thoughts of committing suicide are brilliantly framed as she stands on a stage bridge above the ongoing film of a train passing beneath her.

Old stage tricks (using puppets for children) take on a fascinating new life as audiences begin to savor the clash between the furiously repressed love shared by Alec and Laura and the farcical goings on in the railroad cafe. Throughout it all, Beverly Rudd's comic and robust performance as Beryl (and a handful of minor characters) steals the show. Brief Encounter continues at A.C.T. through October 11 and should not be missed. Here's a teaser:

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