Friday, December 4, 2009

Keeping Up Appearances

How well do your friends and family know you? I mean, the real you? How honest have you been with the people in your life?
  • Do you tell them everything you do? Everything you think?
  • Do they know who you trust and confide in?
  • Do they know the passions that grip you? Or do they cling to an obsolete image of you that nobody is willing to shatter?
  • Do they refuse to let go of how cute you were as a child? Or how sweet and charming you were before you grew pubic hair?
  • Do you tell them the hard truth or only what you think they want to hear?
  • Do you compartmentalize your life so that one group of friends never meets another?
  • How do you spend holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas?
Perhaps you're the kind of person who prefers to think that he really is his online avatar. Perhaps you think no one in real life knows who you are in cyberspace. If you've been horrifyingly blunt about who you are and what you stand for, the people you know can't say that you never told them the truth.

What you've told them may not have been what they wanted to hear. But, at the very least, you did tell them.

If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who struggles to avoid confrontation, you may have concocted a neat little fantasy version of yourself that reads like a great ad on Craigslist (but has little truth behind it). In these days of Internet profiles, social networking sites, and sexting one's privates to friends, where does one draw the line between the public eye and the private "I"? Consider this tip on basic etiquette from James Lipton:

Can people get so taken with the image they have created for themselves that they lose touch with reality? Is the artifice a person creates for public consumption a true expression of how he should be perceived? Or, more likely, a delusionally deceptive exercise in self-destructive behavior?

When forced to choose between one's true self and the persona one has created for public consumption, it's important to remember that even the most carefully crafted public image cannot compensate for one's internalized feelings of guilt and/or inadequacy. In the long run, the emotional armor one must shoulder to maintain the charade of success may not be worth the effort.

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Comedians have a rare gift for cutting through multiple levels of cultural bullshit and zeroing in on inconvenient truths. What many people are surprised to discover is that comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert often conduct some of the best interviews on television.


Largely because of their fearlessness as performers. When combined with their comedic instincts, depth of perception, and the fact that they actually did their homework before interviewing someone, their innate curiosity can manifest itself in surprisingly sincere ways.

Add Chris Rock to the list of comedians who, when embarking on a fact-finding mission, isn't afraid to ask tough questions. His recent documentary, Good Hair, shows a new side of Chris Rock (the concerned father of two young black girls who has reason to worry about their self image).

Rock was performing a stand-up comedy gig in Atlanta nearly 15 years ago when he noticed that most of the people at his hotel were attending the annual Bronner Bros. Hair Show. Although he had been around hairdressers for his entire life, he was shocked to discover that, in a tradition dating back to the early 1950s, more than 100,000 hairstylists, barbers, and hair care consumers descend on Atlanta each year to learn what's new in the world of black hair care.

When Rock's five-year-old daughter asked him why she didn't have "good hair," he remembered the Bronner Bros. Hair Show and set out to investigate the curious role that hair plays in a black woman's self image. Watching Rock discuss the significance of good hair with someone like Maya Angelou is a priceless experience because of the two personalities at play and the unlikely topic that has brought them together.

The comedian's research for this documentary led him to some startling facts. Upon learning about the active chemical ingredient(sodium hydroxide) in the hair straightening agents used by African Americans, Rock had trouble grasping the amount of pain so many men and women are willing to tolerate just for the sake of having good hair.

Not only was Rock astonished by the cost of wigs, braids, and weaves, he was flabbergasted to learn what women will sacrifice in order to have good hair. As he visits beauty salons in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and Birmingham to talk with black women about their hair, he gets quite an education.

Following his initial period of research, Rock and his writers decided to film at the Bronner Bros. Hair Show in February 2007. During the previous summer, as the contestants for the 2007 Hair Battle Royale were finalized, the filmmakers spent time with each of the following entrants:
  • Jason Griggers of Atlanta (a skinny, young white stylist who undergoes Botox injections so that he will look fabulous during the contest)
  • Freddie J from Dallas (a woman with some rather strange ideas about performance art that include trying to cut someone's hair while underwater).
  • Derek J of Atlanta (a black hairstylist who skirts the rule that only 10 people can be onstage at any one time during his presentation by having a marching band come through the audience).
  • Tanya Crumel and Kevin Kirk of Birmingham's Pedestals Salon (two well-meaning business partners who have put their faith in God, hoping that he will help them win the contest).
Tanya Crumel cutting hair while hanging upside down

While there are plenty of overproduced moments from the Bronner Bros. show in Atlanta, Rock scores strongest in his simple, no-bullshit conversations with ordinary men and women about hair. His conversations with black men are especially revealing.

Rock is stunned to discover how many black men are afraid to touch a black woman's hair. Actor/musician Ice-T notes how crazy it feels that women will let him "touch their fake titties, but not their fake hair." Rock's skill in getting men to open up can be seen in this video clip:

Perhaps the biggest irony for Rock is that so much of the human hair used in wigs and weaves comes from India (where women voluntarily have their heads shaved for religious purposes without necessarily knowing that their hair is helping to support a multimillion dollar industry in other parts of the world). Each year, more than 10 million people in India sacrifice their hair in a religious ceremony called tonsuring.

Nearly 85% of India's population has tonsured their hair at least twice in their lifetime. After the hair from India is cut, processed, and sold to international dealers, it is sold to domestic hair dealers in the United States (who in turn sell it to their clients at hair shows and in hair salons).

At one point in the film, an attractive African-American woman who is a fashion model explains that, by keeping her hair natural, she is severely limiting her personal as well as professional opportunities. When Rock tries to sell some nappy black hair to a Korean hair vendor, he is told that no one will buy it -- that his hair is essentially worthless to people in the hair industry.

Throughout the film, it is not Rock's star power that keeps the documentary afloat so much as his intense interest in the subject, his shocked disbelief, and his genuine charm. This is one documentary that will take you by surprise with its candor, insight, and brazen spectacle.

As someone who has never paid much attention to his hair (and considers shaving his head once a month to be sufficient hair care), Good Hair offers an armchair adventure into a world I could never know first hand. As a documentary, Good Hair is surprisingly educational, grandly entertaining (there are moments when it's almost like watching professional wrestling), and highly recommended. Here's the trailer:

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Keeping channels of communication open within a family is easier said than done. Many parents are afraid to bring up sensitive topics with their children for fear of alienating them. Today's children also have a peculiar technological advantage when it comes to building electronic firewalls around sensitive information that might let their parents know more about their lives.

Some choose to carefully release only those bits of information they think the other party will want to hear. Others, as in this cartoon by Seth MacFarlane, are confronted with more frustrating challenges:

My initial reaction to Everybody's Fine was to wonder how many people would be drawn to such a depressing film about a family's inability to communicate (especially during the holiday season, when stress and depression are at their peak). But then I started to think about the number of families that keep telling each other lies in their desperate attempts to avoid facing unhappy truths. I thought about parents who wish their children would just level with them. Or even pick up a phone and call.

I thought about my own family.

For many years, my mother's bouts of depression went hand-in-hand with the silent treatment. In those periods when she was talking to members of our family, we often had to walk on eggshells to be sure we didn't say anything that could trigger another one of her "moods."

Later in life, when she was talkative (but only heard what she really wanted to hear), I got into the habit of mentioning things about my life that she never asked about. These were common topics for most families -- such as who my friends were or what we did together -- but subjects which usually hold no interest for straight relatives of a gay adult.

As Everybody's Fine opens, Frank (Robert DeNiro) is a widower whose recent loss of his wife has left him in a fairly lonely rut. As with many families, his wife was the lifeline to their children (who always told her everything). However, once she died, so did a lot of communication between the family's two generations.

When all of his children suddenly cancel out of a planned family get-together, Frank decides to travel around the country (against his doctor's advice) and drop in unannounced on each of them. Little does he suspect what his kids are trying to keep hidden from their father.

His youngest son, David, is a struggling artist who has recently taken off for Mexico. The reason no one has heard from him is because, when caught in a potential drug bust, David swallowed a large batch of pills and died of an overdose. When Frank tries to visit David at his son's apartment in lower Manhattan, there is no answer. The next day Frank heads west to visit his oldest daughter, Amy (Kate Beckinsale), at her expensive home in the suburbs of Chicago.

Kate Beckinsale and Robert DeNiro

As a parent, it doesn't take long for Frank to realize that something is not right. A successful advertising executive, Amy is overly nervous. Her husband (Damian Young) and son (Lucian Maisel) are obviously not getting along. Amy also seems desperate not to talk about David with her father. When she takes Frank to Union Station to put him on the train to Denver, a strangely coincidental meeting with a handsome young man who is, in effect, Amy's new lover (James Frain), rings false.

Sam Rockwell and Robert DeNiro

Hoping to spend some time with his son, Robert (Sam Rockwell), Frank walks in on a rehearsal of the symphony orchestra for which Robert plays tympani and percussion. Having always thought that Robert was a conductor and composer, he's surprised to see his son merely playing drums. Unfortunately, Robert is just as nervous as Amy about having his father around and makes a weak excuse about why he won't be able to spend any time with Frank.

On his way to Las Vegas, Frank gets a ride from a female trucker (Melissa Leo) headed to Reno, where he gets mugged by a bitter homeless youth (Brendon Sexton III) who stomps on one of Frank's pill containers, thereby pulverizing a key medication. When Frank calls his physician back East, he can't bring himself to admit that he's been traveling against doctor's orders.

Robert DeNiro and Drew Barrymore

By the time Frank arrives in Las Vegas, his youngest daughter, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), has set up an elaborate ruse to convince her father that, instead of working as a cocktail waitress, she is a successful dancer living in a grandiose apartment who is only "helping" to take care of a friend's baby as a favor. But Frank soon discovers the fraud and, as he starts to weaken without his medication, decides to fly home as soon as possible.

Frank's mid-air heart attack during some turbulence brings the family back together, as the father stresses that he wants to hear the bad news as well as the good news from his children. As he learns of David's death, and his children begin to open up about their other problems, the lines of communication are restored. The film ends with the surviving family members sharing the Christmas holiday at Frank's residence -- even if his wife and David cannot be present.

While all of the supporting actors deliver solid performances, it is DeNiro's quiet strength as the Everyman/father figure that anchors the movie. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, Everybody's Fine captures a lonely widower's angst at being constantly kept out of the loop and worrying that he might have leaned too hard on his children while encouraging them to pursue their dreams. Like many fathers, Frank keeps hoping that his children are happy with the lives they lead.

They say that misery loves company. If you're looking for a bittersweet family movie to ease you through the holidays by sharing another family's pain and loneliness, Everybody's Fine may be just the film for you. There is a quiet sense of sorrow and loss that runs through its narrative -- emotions to which parents of grown children can easily relate. Whether or not this film will inspire children to open up to their parents about the reality of their lives is anyone's guess, but this much I can guarantee. You'll be amazed at the availability of pay phones in this film. Here's the trailer:

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If, like the late Clara Peller, you've found yourself looking around at seasonal decorations and asking "Where's the beef?" look no further than 42nd Street Moon's revival of Cole Porter's 1935 Broadway musical, Jubilee (the original cast featured a talented young actor named Montgomery Clift). You'll be happy to witness some prime muscle pudding strutting across the stage of the Eureka Theatre. The show ain't bad, either.

Seen frequently on Bay area stages, Carmichael Blankenship is offering plenty of eye candy with his portrayal of Mowgli/Charles Rausmiller (a spoof of Johnny Weissmuller) that will keep hearts -- and a few other body parts -- throbbing). Blankenship is the epitome of a triple-threat performer who can act, dance, and sing with great flair -- in addition to provoking wanton thoughts of what he might do with a banana.

Carmichael Blankenship as Mowgli (Photo by: David Allen)

The action takes place in a mythical European kingdom whose royal family, in a desperate attempt to escape the boredom of their royal duties, throw caution to the wind and pursue their dreams while the throne is under threat of a mysterious revolution. The King wants to develop his magic act. The Queen wants to go to the movies to see matinee idol Charles Rausmiller. The Princess wants to break out of her stuffy existence and her brother, the Prince, is head over heels in love with a nightclub singer.

The show was written while Cole Porter and Moss Hart sailed around the world on a 1934 luxury cruise aboard the Cunard Line's popular steamship, RMS Franconia. Jubilee contains lots of inside jokes about the pair's contemporaries. The character of Eric Dare is modeled on Noel Coward, Eva Standing is a cartoon of Elsa Maxwell. Some of the songs ("The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree," "What A Nice Municipal Park," ) were inspired by their experiences in exotic ports of call.

Cunard's RMS Franconia on a world cruise in the 1930s

Other songs include comic numbers like "When Me, Mowgli, Love" and "My Most Intimate Friend" as well as Begin The Beguine and the charming "Me and Marie." Here's some rare video of Ella Fitzgerald singing Just One of Those Things during a 1957 concert at Amsterdam's legendary Concertgebouw.

The cast for 42nd Street Moon's revival of Jubilee included Michael Patrick Gaffney as the King and Megan Cavanagh as his newly energized Queen (who would really rather be called "Butch"). Zack Thomas Wilde scored strongly as Eric Dare -- the world-famous playwright so in love with himself that it wouldn't be fair for him to try to love anyone else.

Carmichael Blankenship, Megan Cavanagh and Peter Budinger
(Photo by: David Allen)

As Princess Diana, Juliet Heller made nice work of Porter's lyrical "Why Shouldn't I?" while Alison Ewing and Andrew Willis-Woodward offered a tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with their rendition of "Begin The Beguine." Benjamin Pither shone in a variety of small roles while Derek Travis Collard portrayed the Prime Minister (nicknamed "Fruity") with appropriate condescension.

Andrew Willis-Woodward and Alison Ewing
(Photo by: David Allen)

Special kudos go to director Greg MacKellan and choreographer Tom Segal (who provided some of the most appealing dance numbers this company has ever performed). There's a delightful innocence and goofiness to the merriment in Jubilee that can offer a perfect tonic for the holiday season. The show continues through December 13th (order tickets here).

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