Sunday, October 11, 2009

All Aboard The Bullshit Express

A lie can have an infuriating shelf life. Whether it's a small lie told by someone who didn't want to hurt another person's feelings or a huge, carefully constructed lie aimed to bring down an opponent, bearing false witness has become a lifestyle for some.

More than a lifestyle. For many Americans, it has become an addiction.

Al Franken titled one of his books Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At the Right. A new movie from Ricky Gervais is entitled The Invention of Lying. Both demonstrate, for better or worse, how lies can be used to accomplish one's goals.

It takes a lot of energy and ingenuity to keep a lie from deflating. In the meantime scurrilous fools like Orly Taitz and Glenn Beck can build a following, raise tons of money, and try to convince people that they are credible human beings.

A successful lie can bring its creator great applause, publicity and wealth. The result? An overwhelming desire to float another lie to see if it can reap similar rewards. Then another. And another.

Some might call it a pathology. Others might call it televangelism. If you don't believe me, think about how some of these lies have played out in the public arena:
Lies are powerful tools for shaping an argument. But for those caught in a web of substance abuse or compulsive sex, the question that must be asked is not just whether a person is coping with an unhealthy addiction. One must ask what that addiction actually involves.

While many insist that people lie to hide their addictions, I often wonder if their chemical and sexual addictions are secondary triggers masking a larger addiction to deceit. Why should someone continue to lie? Let's not kid ourselves.
  • Telling a lie is so easy.
  • Telling a lie can be fun.
  • Telling a lie is convenient.
  • Telling a lie can be immensely profitable.
  • Telling a lie can give someone a false sense of power or superiority.
  • Telling a lie often gets results that would elude someone who told the truth.
  • Telling a lie might mean that you don't have to face an ugly truth about yourself.
Here's Jerry Ohrbach (who, 1975, created the role of Billy Flynn in the John Kander & Fred Ebb musical Chicago) performing "Razzle Dazzle" in a rare clip from the old Mike Douglas Show.


Some whopping lies provide the plot points for three deceit-filled exercises currently before the public. In each situation, lies -- big and small -- are the catalysts that shape people's characters as well as the philosophies they have devised to allow them to continue living their lies. As integral as lying is to their arguments, the sad truth is that without that basic lie, none of these projects could have come to fruition.

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I'm easily tempted by pictures of dinosaurs (or dinosaur replicas). But, as a life-long atheist whose father taught biology and general science, I can only react with contempt to Michael Gitlin's clumsily made and extremely dishonest film, The Earth Is Young, which will be screened as part of the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival. According to Gitlin's promotional materials:
"The Earth Is Young takes as its starting point a series of interviews conducted with Young Earth Creationists, who find evidence of a six-day, six-thousand-year old creation in their reading of the fossil and geological record. The film frames these encounters with depictions of the slow and patient work of young paleontologists and the strange, shimmering life in a drop of pond water, both of which point toward a world far older and more complex, if no less fantastic. Bordering on a kind of science-fiction film, The Earth Is Young is an essay about the nature of science, and about the tools, both physical and ideological, with which one builds a model of the world."

In simpler terms, this film is based on a huge crock of Creationist shit! Trying to measure earth's history along a timeline determined by the supposed fall of man from the Garden of Eden or the great flood is not just ridiculous, it's an insult to the intelligence of any genuine scientist.

As one listens to one of Gitlin's interviewees describe how he found human footprints right next to dinosaur footprints -- proving to him beyond any shadow of a doubt that man and dinosaurs co-existed (as they do in some museums devoted to Creationism) -- it's hard to tolerate such idiocy. As always, the stark reality of nature trumps the self-righteous delusional thinking of moronic Christian fundamentalists who try to justify Creationist theories by falsely basing their research on a wobbly foundation of outrageous lies.

The fact that Gitlin was able to make this film at all has much more to do with his ability to fundraise and write a decent grant proposal than the veracity of the so-called "Biblical" truths his interviewees adhere to with such fatuous airs of authority. The film is not helped one bit by its appallingly bad editing or the fact that Gitlin often films his interviewees when they are wildly out of focus.

Is this supposed to be symbolism? Perhaps if you're a creationist wingnut. To my mind, it's just bad filmmaking using a lousy script based on a series of perversely dishonest lies.

The sole redeeming feature of The Earth Is Young is its footage of paramecia and other microorganisms as seen through a microscope. Don't even waste your time on this pathetically conceived, miserably executed, and tragically sad excuse for a documentary.

* * * * * * * *
The truth is not always pretty, nor is life fair. As a result, when someone knows how to stretch the truth and lay on the charm, it's easy to distract skeptics from nagging inconsistencies. With a screenplay by Nick Hornby based on Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education starts off on a very idealistic and romantic path. Lone Scherfig's beautifully directed film, however, soon becomes an exercise in showing how easy it is for a good liar to seduce and manipulate gullible people.

Does he do it for the sheer fun of it? Or because he's just good at it. Do the people warning the object of his affections get trampled in the process? You bet'cha!

As the sophisticated, conniving David, Peter Sarsgaard whisks young Jenny (Carey Mulligan) away to a world of nightclubs, concerts, museums, upscale restaurants, and all the things a sheltered Catholic schoolgirl could dream about, Jenny's blustering father (Alfred Molina) attempts to offer some resistance. But David knows exactly how to charm Jack and his wife (Cara Seymour) until they are eating out of his deceptive little hands.

Whether one thinks of Auntie Mame or Travels With My Aunt, the character of the eccentric indulgent older person is a familiar one in film and literature. While Sarsgaard's David may be a handsome devil, the devil's work is to be found in the details and truths that have been ruthlessly omitted from his little narrative until Jenny gets slammed into a brick wall of truth.

Danny (Dominic Cooper) and David (Peter Sarsgaard)

Dazzled by the real-life glamour she is tasting -- and intoxicated with the power of her new sophisticated lifestyle and potential spouse -- Jenny is quick to confront her teacher (Olivia Williams) and the school's headmistress (Emma Thompson) with the drab results of their proper and pragmatic life choices. When the huge lie that undermines David's cheeky adventures is exposed, the girl is quick enough to understand that, delicious as the experience has been, the fantasy she was so happily living must come to an immediate halt.

Cara Seymour, Alfred Molina and Carey Mulligan

The big issue here is what kind of price one can afford to pay for an education. Is it a human, experiential price? Or a meticulously financed formal education that will pay lousy dividends to a young girl in a pre-feminist society.

While many have been lauding Carey Mulligan's portrayal of Jenny and hailing her resemblance to Audrey Hepburn (a fairly easy trick executed by the folks in wardrobe and makeup), I found Rosamund Pike's portrayal of Helen far more compelling. Not only does Helen know and accept the fact that she is stupid, she understands how David and his best friend Danny (Dominic Cooper) underwrite their dashing escapades.

Helen (Rosamund Pike) and Danny (Dominic Cooper)

Even though Helen can't understand why Jenny would want to speak French fluently -- or waste time reading a book -- she is unhesitatingly generous in helping the young girl primp and prepare for a night out on the town. Helen also drops helpful hints about how Jenny can get David to pay for new clothes.

Danny, to his credit, has a little bit of a conscience. After her world falls apart, it's interesting to see how Jenny turns to Danny and Helen for comfort and advice. Even when she is reminded that, in retrospect, "You could have objected, but you didn't," Danny and Helen treat Jenny like a human being as opposed to a new toy.

An Education is an extremely well-paced film that takes both Jenny and the audience for an intoxicating ride before the truth rears its ugly head. Set in the early 1960s, it's noteworthy for its preponderance of cigarette smoking as well as some wonderful pieces of costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Definitely worth your time. Here's the trailer:


* * * * * * * *
If lies can have a powerful effect on people, what happens when someone asks a direct question that cuts right through to a delicate truth? Can there be a simple "yes" or "no" answer to such questions? That depends largely upon the person to whom the question has been addressed.

First Day of School, which is currently receiving its world premiere production at SFPlayhouse, examines that exact conundrum. What happens when two mature adults are suddenly confronted with an unexpected opportunity to act on their fantasies?

"Would you like to start having sex with other people?" is the question posed by David (Bill English) and Susan (Zehra Berkman) upon realizing that -- after having rearranged their busy calendars around the first day of school and with both kids now in class -- they have the rest of the day free. It's obviously a matter they've given deep thought to and discussed between themselves (Dan Savage would be so proud). But after having spent at least five years picking up and dropping off their children, jockeying for their kids to get into classes with favored teachers, and subconsciously competing with their suburban neighbors, they're not quite sure where to begin.

Bill English and Zehra Berkman (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

Instead of poking around Craig's List or trying to hook up with someone on the Internet, they decide to try the next best thing: asking their friends -- point blank -- if they would like to have sex with them. What follows is Billy Aronson's delightful new sex farce. Like many such comedies (No Sex Please, We're British) this is a play about people who can talk about anything (and they most certainly do) except sex.

As directed by Chris Smith, First Day of School is not just a farce about doors slamming as people run in and out of bedrooms. This is about people being forced to confront their biggest fears and their best fantasies. This is a bittersweet comedy in which each character's nervousness, insecurity, and sexual panic results in long and often hilarious soliloquies. As his characters attempt to wrap themselves in a protective shield of words, words -- and more words -- their body language constantly betrays a desperate hunger for physical contact, emotional intimacy, and hardcore sex.

Susan would certainly like to get her hands on Peter's (Jackson Davis) juicy ass. If Kim (Marcia Pizzo) could stop sublimating her animal urges through committee reports, fundraising projects, and trying to score brownie points for her children, she would really like to overcome her prudishness and get banged until the cows come home.

Marcia Pizzo and Bill English (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

Meanwhile, the very stern and controlled Alice (Stacy Ross) would be more than happy to let down her hair if she weren't concerned about various accessories and didn't feel like she had to compete with Kim for David's attention. Simply put, this is a group of control freaks who, if they are ever going to "go wild," need to learn how to just shut up and fuck. In his director's statement, Smith notes that:
"It is both demanding and exhilarating in equal measure to work on a play like this, much less a world premiere. But in the hands of a talented ensemble and inspired design team -- and this company sure has 'chops' (as they say in jazz clubs complimenting musicians with skill) -- it has also been a joy. Using propulsive arias, syncopated dialogues, darkly comic figures, and expansive choruses, Billy orchestrates words with precision, imagination, and power. In his hands language becomes music. Rhythm and structure reveal meaning -- even when it is hidden from the characters themselves. Dynamic tempo shifts allow the dizzy, comic absurdity to spin and the repressed, volcanic passions to erupt. Even the awkward silences speak volumes."
Stacy Ross, Jackson Davis and Marcia Pizzo
(Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

As with Same Time, Next Year, once the initial sex has been consummated, the participants all agree to keep meeting each year on the first day of school. Unfortunately, some want to analyze their last encounter instead of heading off to the bedroom. Others simply can't stop talking.

When, after four years, the arrangements become too much of a burden -- and their babysitter (Torie Laher) and her adolescent boyfriend (Myles Landberg) are trying to get it on in their basement -- David and Sarah decide to take back control of their lives and quietly agree to stop having sex with other people.

The cast of First Day Of School (Photo by: Zabrina Tipton)

In many ways, First Day of School reminds one of Alan Ayckbourn's comedies about sexual frustration (Bedroom Farce, The Norman Conquests). Aronson's writing is at times so deft and musical that it's stunning to watch his characters as they struggle with their internal conflicts. Everything they have done over the past years has prepared them not to give in to the thing they want the most.

Bill English has designed a delightful unit set that easily accommodates the script's needs. I particularly enjoyed watching Stacy Ross, Jackson Davis and Marcia Pizzo (all of whom start off as very tightly wound suburbanites that couldn't possibly think about doing what Susan and David have suggested) as they become unglued, unhinged, and increasingly unapologetic about their lust.

With a unit set and a cast of seven, First Day of School is an extremely economical play to produce that should do well in regional theatres as well as with community theatre groups. The audience at SFPlayhouse certain enjoyed watching Aronson's characters dance around all the lies and excuses they had been feeding themselves for so many years in order to avoid satisfying their carnal needs.

I once had an extremely promiscuous roommate who liked to tease people who over-intellectualized what was wrong with their lives by reminding them that "The reason you're not getting any is precisely the reason you're not getting any." As I left the theatre, the one thought which kept sticking in my mind was how my reaction to First Day of School had been tempered by the fact that I'm a gay man who has been out of the closet for 40 years.

Once a person stops constructing such elaborate defenses to avoid having sex, when given the opportunity the answer becomes fairly simple.

1 comment:

jacqueline said...

Wow, you so missed the point of Gitlin's film.