Monday, March 29, 2010

Going Green

A few weeks ago I was feeling rather smug about a tiny detail. I had gotten through St. Patrick's Day without wearing or drinking anything green. Then my sweet little bubble burst.

I realized that I had started my day by swallowing four dark green Spirulina pills. I looked out the window and realized that the median all along Dolores Street was covered with green grass. While riding the 22 Fillmore bus over to a screening at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival I started thinking about a tune from Rodgers & Hammerstein's first big hit, Oklahoma! (which was based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow The Lilacs). That coupon from Burger King that I redeemed brought me a burger garnished with lettuce.

Curses! Foiled again!

In recent years, as more and more attempts to adapt sustainable energy technology have created incentives for "going green," a new consciousness has been spreading about renewable energy, plant life, and the joys to be found in nature. Three new films offer viewers a chance to reconsider the many ways in which the color and concept of green influence our daily lives.

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A little bit of pollen goes a long way. At least that's the premise of Greg Pak's 16-minute short entitled Mr. Green. One of the most intriguing films to be found on the Futurestates website, Mr. Green takes place in the not too distant future when flood waters have overrun Venice and New York City's famous Canal Street has become a canal.

Global warming has passed the tipping point. Whereas environmentalists used to bombard the White House with emails insisting that something be done about climate change, most people now realize that nothing can be done to reverse the situation.

Well, maybe not everybody.

Dr. Gloria Holtzer (Betty Gilpin), who used to work for Greenpoint Industries until her research funding was cut off by the government, has a way to save the world. To accomplish her goal, she has targeted her old classmate from graduate school, Undersecretary for the Department of Global Warming, Mason Park (Tim Kang), as the man who will deliver an environmental miracle.

Tim Kang as Mason Park

What Mason doesn't know is that Holtzer's environmental technology company has found a way to bring man back to his roots. Literally! (as Vice President Joe Biden would say). Using germ warfare technology for good instead of evil, she "seeds" Mason in what may well be one of the most erotically charged environmental films you will ever see.

There is a delicious tinge of soft porn in the way Pak's camera zooms in on Mason's face as he reconnects with the power of vegetation -- or on the facial features of the President of the United States (played by Ron Scott, an actor whose profile bears a striking resemblance to Barack Obama) as he slowly drinks a glass of water with a quiet, masculine elegance.

Tim Kang as Mason Park

Although Pak describes Mr. Green as a cinematic parable about change (both personal and political), I doubt environmental activists like Al Gore or Van Jones ever thought about framing their arguments about global warming around the look of sheer ecstasy a man can feel while reconnecting with the forces of nature. If you'd like to see a scientifically challenging, wonderfully intelligent, and subliminally erotic film about ecological heroism, you can watch Mr. Green in its entirety here.

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Known far and wide as the Emerald Isle, Ireland has long been associated with the color of green. From its lush forests to its use of the shamrock as a national symbol (the shamrock also appears on the tailfins of all the planes in the AerLingus fleet), there's plenty of green to be found in the land of leprechauns.

A delightful new full-length animation feature, The Secret of Kells, is awash in plenty of green. Among its many delights are a cat with one blue eye and one green eye and what may well be the silliest goose in the world. The enchanting musical score by Bruno Calais is a major asset.

Moore's film follows the coming of age of Brendan, a young redhead in medieval times who must repel the Viking invaders and conquer a mighty serpent in order to find the magic crystal that will complete the famed Book of Kells. Brendan comes under the tutelage of the revered illuminator, Brother Aidan, who understands and appreciates the young boy's potential far more than Brendan's humorless uncle, the overbearing Abbott Cellach.

To help complete the magical book, Brendan must overcome his deep, childhood fears by embarking on a personal quest through an enchanted, but forbidden forest that is the home to a dangerous group of mythical creatures. Aisling, a mysterious young wolf-girl, helps Brendan overcome the challenges that lie in wait for him. Upon his final return home, we see Brendan as a grown man with much more confidence.

Moore has a refreshing approach to depicting animals which, when combined with his breathtaking palette, leads to many moments of visual delight. In describing some of the distinctly Celtic artwork found in The Secret of Kells, Moore notes that:
"We do use the Celtic cross; in fact the layout of Kells is based on it. I believe the Celtic cross shows the merging of pagan worship of the Sun God Lugh and the new Christian faith. The circle that holds the arms of the cross can be seen as the overlaying of the old gods on the new faith.

The stone circle where Brendan meets Aisling is another common sight in the Irish landscape. Often called fairy forts, they are probably the remains of a pre-Christian religion. In folklore it’s often said that they are entrances to the fairy world. It seemed an appropriate place for Brendan to encounter Aisling. The stone he meets her at in the center of the fairy ring is the Turoe stone.

Before the Euro we had Book of Kells designs on our coins, our bank notes. Every Irish pub has Celtic knotwork on its walls, and the tattoos are everywhere! Irish craftspeople often incorporate knotwork and symbols from our manuscript tradition into their work as well. I remember a French artist, who came to work on the film, taking a photo of a manhole cover that had some Gaelic writing on it which was spelled in a Book of Kells style font. He was amazed how it was everywhere, and yet we hardly notice it. It’s everywhere here, almost to the point where I suspect people do not appreciate it."

The film’s simple plot and premise is based on fact: illuminated medieval manuscripts (including the Book of Kells (Dublin, Trinity College Library, ca. 800 AD) really do exist. Local legends also feature prominently in the story. According to Moore:
"In school we learnt about Pangur Ban, the cat in our film. Pangur was a cat that lived with an Irish monk who wrote a poem in tribute to Pangur on the side of one of the manuscripts he was transcribing."
Because The Secret of Kells had not had much distribution in the United States by the time of the Academy Awards ceremony earlier this month, the film may not be known by the masses. It is, however, an indie gem of rare beauty. Here's the trailer:

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It's hard to believe that, at 90 years of age, one of the founders of the modern dance movement is still performing. But what quickly becomes apparent in Ruedi Gerber's moving new documentary entitled Breath Made Visible is that, for Anna Halprin, dance is life.

As Halprin (who has created 150 full-length dance theater works that are extensively documented in photographs, books, and on film) explains:
“I have an enduring love for dance and its power to teach, inspire, heal and transform. I’ve spent a lifetime of passion and devotion probing the nature of dance and asking why it is so important as a life force. I find great excitement in sharing my deep love of dance with ordinary and diverse people. Their unique creativity inspires me to make dances that grow out of our lives. I want to integrate life and art so that as our art expands, our life deepens -- and as our life deepens, our art expands.

I continue to believe in the shining potential set forth by all of this work -- in its evolution from rebellion to expansion to community to healing and back again to the natural world. I believe if more of us could contact the natural world in a directly experiential way, this would alter the way we treat our environment, ourselves, and one another.

Anna Halprin, still going strong in her eightie

Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint. Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I had cancer, I lived my art for my life. I've always said dance is the breath made visible. That covers about everything because once you stop breathing and the breath is no longer visible, you stop moving."
While numerous dance documentaries are available on DVD, few cast off the toe shoes and dig their feet into the soil with quite the earthiness of Gerber's new film. Stunningly candid, Breath Made Visible takes audiences into the heart and mind of a woman who has never stopped using dance as a means of communication -- or as a method of teaching people of all ages how to get in touch with their bodies.

Back in 1955, Halprin established the world-famous San Francisco Dancers Workshop, which included John Graham and A.A. Leath. The group caused a major controversy in Sweden (and a scandal in the United States) with their use of full nudity in certain performance pieces. Halprin broke down interracial barriers in the 1960s by founding the first multicultural dance company in the wake of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Halprin's pioneering work in using the expressive arts as a healing tool has led her to work with cancer patients, AIDS patients, and the elderly to guide them through the use of dance as a method of healing and becoming whole. Her grief over her husband's physical deterioration led to the creation of a powerful performance piece entitled Intensive Care: Reflections on Death and Dying which can be viewed in its entirety in the following video clip:

Throughout her long career, Halprin has worked hard to foster the integration of arts and education throughout life. As one watches Breath Made Visible, one becomes acutely aware of the tragic repercussions of eliminating arts programs from so many schools throughout America. As Gerber explains:
"This project is not a dance film, but a film about what is important in life and how we can cope with it. It is ultimately about our values and how we can stay authentic to ourselves and experience life in the 21st century. This film shows not only how Anna's unique story unfolds from her ground breaking performances of the 1950s and 1960s to her solo performances today, but also how her life and work illustrate the true meaning of dance, and its power to not only help us cope with our lives, but to transform them as well and remain truthful to ourselves.

Anna Halprin teaching a class on her deck in Marin

When I met Anna for the first time in 1982, she was no longer performing publicly. She was in the middle of developing dance as a healing art and inspiring new directions in the art and dance therapy world. At the time, I was working as a professional stage actor in German state theaters. I saw her as a performance artist who, through movement, was researching the intersection of theater and dance with real life.

Ruedi Gerber and Anna Halprin at the film's Swiss premiere

Although some of my friends in the 1980s labeled her as “New Age,” it struck me how she was constantly pushing the limits of theater and life and that she was way ahead of her time, constantly instigating creativity in others. Over the next twenty years, Anna and I only had sporadic contact until February 2002, when I caught her at the Joyce Theater.

I was so happy and surprised to see her in the headlines of the New York Times! I could not believe that she was in her 80s and was coming full circle and returning to the stage! As the piece developed, I noticed that many people in the audience had tears streaming down their faces. And I, too, suddenly felt myself deeply moved by this 82 year-young woman. In a world of poseurs and surface-level stylistic directions, it was a great relief to find myself in the presence of someone whom I believed to be absolutely authentic and whose message was so universal.

I wondered why more people outside the dance performance and art therapy community didn’t know about her. This show made me want to create a film that would affect an audience the way Anna’s performances do. In 2005, Anna asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on a film called Seniors Rocking, a dance piece she choreographed to empower the elderly and to break down the stereotypes of aging. The performance included 50 participants between the ages of 65 and 100 performing in rocking chairs next to a lagoon.

An aerial shot of Seniors Rocking

Her concept for the film was to expand the performance to include the participants’ personal histories and, through these stories, explore the question: 'What is the most important thing in life?' She was searching for stories from the heart and messages that the participants might leave behind as a legacy for their children, grandchildren, and friends."
Breath Made Visible is a remarkable experience, made all the more powerful by Mario Grigorov's stunning musical score. It offers audiences a master class in how to make art personal to one's life while embracing the life process as well as the process of dying through the lens of a passionate artist. You can't watch this film without feeling inspired. Here's the trailer:

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