Friday, June 18, 2010

Frightening The Horses

For some historians, April 19, 1775 stands out as the day when a man in Concord, Massachusetts fired "the shot heard 'round the world." On June 28, 1914, another bullet had a similar impact when Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.

Acts of aggression often send cultural shocks coursing through a region, a nation, or around the world.
Other cultural shocks may take longer but are sometimes more subversive. Why? Frequently, they cause people to question long-held assumptions about how the world works.
For creative artists, new forms of expression -- or the introduction of a major talent -- can deliver an electric shock to an audience or become downright scandalous.
  • Ethel Merman's October 14, 1930 Broadway debut in Girl Crazy was a night that changed musical theatre history.
  • When Hair moved to Broadway on April 29, 1968, the sight of young actors with healthy bodies proudly standing naked before an uptight audience marked a turning point for American theatre.
  • In 1998, playwright Terrence McNally received death threats when word spread that his latest drama, Corpus Christi, portrayed Jesus and the Apostles as gay men.
Some moments of artistic daring have caused such scandal and controversy that it's easy to wish one could have been present at the exact moment history was made. Three new films don't just "go there," they do it with a sense of style and splendor that is downright intoxicating.

Each film deals with revolutionary spirits whose creativity has inspired millions. That these artists found their voices on different continents and in wildly different circumstances makes little difference. It's their thoughts that count.

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There are many reasons to see Jan Kounen's lush and gorgeously filmed Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (not the least of which is the opportunity to bask in the visual riches of Marie-Hélène Sulmani's production design, David Ungaro's cinematography, and a wealth of costumes designed by Chattoune and Fab).

Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis

But for me, the biggest thrill was the chance to see a recreation of the furor that erupted at the world premiere of Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet, The Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913.

Barely a year after the sinking of the Titanic, this event shocked, offended, and revolted Parisians seated in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. One reason that James Cameron's award-winning 1997 film, Titanic, was so exciting for fans of the famous ocean liner was that he used the original blueprints for his models and set designs. Because so much has been written about the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, it's fascinating to hear how the director describes his preparation for filming its recreation:
"The scandal was like no other, and therefore very much talked about. Statements made at the time helped us with the dialogue. I had to study the music in order to know at which precise moment each instrument was played so we could synchronize audience, musicians and dancers. We had more than 1,000 extras, 25 dancers, 70 musicians and four choreographic tableaux. It was a monumental jigsaw puzzle.

We had to take everything apart quickly every evening and put it all back together each morning as there was a nightly performance taking place in the theatre. We were very lucky that it all worked out. The dancers had rehearsed a lot. The theatre was full of extras. The theatre staff became very passionate about our project. They were really helpful. It was the most complex scene I’ve ever had to shoot because I had such little time (only three days in the theatre and four in the studio).

First we had the historical facts, which we wanted to respect as much as we could. We took the liberty of having Coco Chanel walk into the theatre with Misia even though that is not how it happened. We also used slightly fewer dancers, but all the rest is historically accurate. For example, Vaslav Nijinsky did jump on stage to shout the tempo to his dancers who couldn’t hear the orchestra amidst the roaring of the audience.

We rehearsed with the sets in the mornings. Then the actors were made up while I’d prepare the outline based on the acting. Then we shot. It was impossible to do that with the The Rite of Spring. We had a limited time in the Champs-Elysées Theatre, so we had to recreate some scenes in the studio.

It took us three weeks to prepare this scene. I shot the dancers' rehearsals on video. With Anny Danché, the editor, we made an animatic using other films, filmed rehearsals, and videos of the The Rite of Spring concerts, to help with the timing and the drama. Finally I made a complete storyboard of the sequence. We then took the pieces of the jigsaw apart to shoot by groups of shots."
If there is such a thing as cinephilic premature ejaculation, I think it's fair to say that I climaxed early into Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Although the bulk of the film is concentrated on the great love affair between the fashion designer and composer, the deteriorating physical health of Stravinsky's wife and children, and the creation of the classic perfume, Chanel No. 5, I was already satisfied.

Elena Morozova as Catherine Stravinsky

There are indeed some beautifully performances by Anna Mouglalis as Chanel, Mads Mikkelsen as Stravinsky, and Elena Morozova as Catherine Stravinsky. Excellent work also comes from Grigori Manoukov as Serge Diaghilev, Marek Kossakowsky as Vaslav Nijinsky, and Jerome Pillement as Pierre Monteux. While Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel gave excellent artistic and historic support, the filmmaker's attempt to capture the intellectual as well as physical attraction between his two protagonists is summed up very nicely with these words:
"I tried to describe the rapport between an artist and his -- or her -- work, between personality, psychology and creation; the artist’s ability to transcend the dramatic events of his life but also his obsession and the sacrifice that he makes of his life for the sake of his art."
Go for the opening night of The Rite of Spring. Stay for sumptuous eye candy throughout the rest of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (which includes a delightful stroll among dinosaur skeletons). Here's the trailer:

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Soon to receive its American premiere at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is a delightful documentary by Manfred Hoschek and Sigrid Svejkal entitled Die Schwestern (The Sisters). Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence by Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, the film focuses on the efforts of the Sisters in three cities: San Francisco and Berlin (two world capitals of decadence) and Montevideo, Uruguay, where conservative religious forces still have a tight grip on the culture.

Starting out at the Life Ball in Vienna, Die Schwestern offers a master class in face painting as well as a timely retrospective of how a group of gay men, battling the fear and illness rampant in their community as their friends succumbed to Kaposi's sarcoma and other AIDS-related illnesses (such as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) began to publish user-friendly brochures about how to have safe sex in addition to distributing free condoms and raising money for AIDS charities.

Perhaps it's because the Sisters have been so visible in San Francisco that it's easy to forget the impact they have had in cities around the world. A younger generation of Sisters now looks upon joining the order as one way of overcoming their shyness or feelings of inadequacy. Although footage includes the famous Hunky Jesus Contest in Dolores Park (with kudos going to the winner, Brokeback Jesus), as Sister Roma (There's No Place Like Rome!) explains, a lot of the Sisters' work is about paying karma forward, expiating guilt, and getting people to have a damned good time while supporting a worthy cause.

Die Schwestern offers a magnificently filmed tour of San Francisco as well as an eye-popping parade of costumes. Most of all, it's a lot of fun built on 30 years of hard work that evidences the triumph of the human spirit.

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What do you do when when the the Art Gallery of Alberta commissions a short film from you to be used as part of their grand reopening celebration? If you've got two very butch men blowing smoke out of papier maché horse's heads while wearing traditional tutus, you make a short called Figs In Motion.

Starring Norman Omar and Nickelas Johnson (who become six ballerinas and several horses), Figs In Motion is intended as a sendup of the classical ballet images that were painted by Edgar Degas and photographed by Eadweard Muybridge. With the screen divided into three equal panels, the two dancers are lit in such a way that it almost seems as if the audience is watching archival footage from the early 20th century.

Trevor Anderson and Aaron Munson refer to their two male leads as creating "a bestial, impromptu corps de ballet." With original music composed by Bryce Kulak and performed by The Wet Secrets, this eight minute short pretty much has to be seen to be believed.

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In November of 1971 (when San Francisco's famed drag troupe, The Cockettes, flew to the East Coast to make their New York debut performing Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Pearls Over Shanghai), Rex Reed insisted that "Having no talent is not enough." Such a statement could never have been made about Dzi Croquettes, a Brazilian theatre collective that was bursting with talent, political sass, and had a unique performance style that made Brazilian audiences fall head over heels in love with the performers. Some of Dzi Croquettes fell heels over head in love as well.

Billed as a drag family consisting of the father (Lennie Dale), the mother (Wagner Ribeiro), the daughters (Claudette, Lotinha, Cilinha, Lenita Dale-A-Pata, Paoletti), the aunts (Bacia Atlantica, Rose, Rainha), the nieces (Cio, Old City London), and the maid (Eloina) Dzi Croquettes started to draw attention while Brazil's government was still a fierce and violent dictatorship. Although Dzi Croquettes was occasionally banned, censored, and some of its members spent time in jail on drug charges, they helped to breathe new life into Brazil's underground gay movement at about the same time that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were getting started in San Francisco.

Using the languages of counter-culture theatre, modern dance, androgyny, cabaret, drag, and political activism, they showed a rare bravery that endeared them to audiences at home and abroad. After being befriended by Liza Minelli (who is interviewed in the film), they became the toast of Paris, drawing such celebrities as Mick Jagger, Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif, and Maurice Béjart to their performances. In her final days, the legendary Josephine Baker informed the owner of the Bobino (where she had just opened up in a musical revue celebrating her 50 years in show business) that when she died, she wanted him to replace her with Dzi Croquettes.

Directed by Raphael Alvarez and Tatiana Issa (whose father, Américo, worked backstage with Dzi Croquettes from 1970-1978), Dzi Croquettes unearths some superb archival footage. The documentary also features interviews with the troupe's devoted fans and survivors (some Croquettes succumbed to AIDS, some were murdered).

As one of interviewees states, "When Gays die, they become glitter." Dzi Croquettes will be screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 21 at 11:00 a.m. There's lots of great dancing, some really hot male bodies, and some wonderful Brazilian music. Try not to miss it!

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