Friday, June 4, 2010

Their Examined Lives

Introspection is a strange phenomenon. Often, it's necessary to cut back on a lot of peripheral noise and distractions before one can even begin to look within.

Even as a person switches from "Getting To Know You" to "Getting To Know Me" mode, what he discovers may be difficult to understand or painful to accept. The good news is that a long life yields more subject matter that can be probed, dissected, and examined for deeper meaning. The bad news is..... "Ooh, look at that pretty, shiny thing!"

Self knowledge can be a wonderful thing. It can even yield an unending source of comedy, as demonstrated in this classic video clip starring Lucille Ball and Jack Benny:

I always find it fascinating to hear how people view themselves at various stages of their lives. During the early years of the AIDS crisis, many young gay men stubbornly asked "With a body like this, how could I be sick?"

Most of them died within a year.

My friend Ed Bresnahan once described how, back when he was in his 20s, he dreaded turning 30, but found out that it wasn't so bad. When he was in his 30s, he feared turning 40. That, too, was nowhere as bad as he had imagined. In his fifties, he embraced his age, his physical limitations, and counted his blessings.

Ed's last few years were the happiest of his life.

While many people hope for health and longevity, achieving those two goals requires a lot of work and more than a little bit of luck. How successfully one navigates the path toward old age was demonstrated by three recent experiences -- each of which focused in on different generations.

* * * * * * * * * *
Over at The Marsh, A Festival of New Voices is helping to bring a series of new monologues by Bay area talents to fruition. While the performers vary widely in age and life experience, I found Kenny Yun's new piece -- even at its very first performance before a live audience -- to be especially captivating.

Previously seen performing Lettucetown Lies, The Dream is Yun's next attempt to craft a feature-length monologue about growing up in California as a gay Korean-American. Whether noticing his mother sneak dinner rolls into her purse at an "All-You-Can-Eat buffet," trying to show off at a suburban roller rink, or imitating a grandfather who cannot speak English (but always nods and waves with a smiling face), Yun's performance style enjoys a key asset that many other monologists lack: charm.

His expressive face and tentative body language when describing uncomfortable situations tend to draw Yun's audience in closer as they subconsciously start feeling like they wish they could help him because, at heart, they want him to succeed.

Kenny Yun

Yun deftly enacts moments of cross-generational and cross-cultural clumsiness when trying to explain to his parents that the Internet start-up company where he is working is located in someone's garage ("Why your card no say Vice President of Garage?") or dealing with a status-conscious Asian-American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who derides Yun for not being able to speak Korean. His writing yields scenes that are layered in context, add color to his characters, and imbue his struggles with an odd and genuine tenderness.

Mischievously mocking the career goals embraced by some stereotypical Asian-American families (a dynasty of doctors, the ability to buy an expensive suit when it isn't even on sale), Yun embraces the clumsiness of his generation -- who often suffer from feelings of inadequacy while watching their parents cling to traditions from "the old country." Watch him as he impersonates his Korean father who insists on sitting on the floor of his new house but then tenderly explains why, out of all the women he could have had, he chose to marry Kenny's mother.

As directed by Charlie Varon, The Dream is still very much a work in progress (as he exited the stage, Yun promised his enthusiastic audience that he would get around to writing an ending for the show). Having seen him test new material before an audience before, I find myself fascinated to watch Yun as he refines the voices, characters, and experiences he wants to share with an audience.

Above all else, Kenny Yun is growing as a writer whose talent and potential continue to impress. It will be interesting to revisit The Dream when he has gotten this material more solidly under his belt.

* * * * * * * * * *
What makes a person attractive? Most would argue in favor of looks. But, for many, the answer is confidence. While good looks can inspire confidence, confidence inspires a different kind of look from a stranger. Sometimes, confidence can have a pheromone-like effect on others as people are drawn to a person who knows who he is, likes what he has, and feels good about himself.

For those who lack confidence, the endless struggle to acquire assets they think will compensate for their insecurities can pave the road to hell. A poor self-image makes many a gay men an easy target for advertisers. Some gay men, who had hoped that coming out would free them from their fears, discover that the peer pressure they feel from other gay men can be even more devastating.

In 2009, filmmaker Christopher Hines introduced Frameline audiences to The Butch Factor, his documentary about how issues related to masculinity affect gay men and gay culture. Hines returns to town this month for the world premiere of his follow-up feature, The Adonis Factor, at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

The Adonis Factor boasts a wide variety of talking heads ranging from plastic surgeons, performance artists, and porn producers to yoga instructors, psychotherapists, and fitness trainers. While the vendors have a pretty solid understanding of the market for their products, services, and fantasies, the consumers seen in the film are much more nervous about their identities.
  • A group of young gay men who are palpably fat phobic describe how they shop for clothing and discuss their questionable approach to nutrition.
  • A handsome African American model who added 50 pounds of muscle to his physique describes how, even when he looks in the mirror, he still sees a skinny man.
  • A fitness trainer describes how he originally thought an expensive car (for which he could barely afford the monthly payments) would solidify his image.
  • A skinny performer describes how he came to understand the value of being the person who went to the front of the line outside a nightclub instead of the person who was always left waiting on line.
Hines focuses on the deep psychological need of many gay to run with the herd in the hope that, by basking in the reflected glory of men they admire, other people's beauty will rub off on them (literally and figuratively). In many ways, it's an attempt at sympathetic magic in which, by spending as much of their disposable income as possible on clothes, drugs, cars, Botox, testosterone injections, and skincare products, some of these men hope to become bigger, studlier, and better liked than the scared teenagers they once were.

Others hope that, by hanging out with the so-called "A-Gay" crowd, they will be perceived as belonging to and being accepted by the gay community's social elite. It's a lot like trying to be accepted by the mean girls in high school.

Sadly, it doesn't always work. Men who have invested everything in their appearance often discover that, in times of need, shallow is as shallow does.
  • A handsome man who won the Mr. Hotlanta contest describes how, when he later came down with hepatitis, none of the people he thought were his friends would have anything to do with him.
  • Another man, who loved to attend circuit parties (where he could ingest lots of drugs and dance with all the handsome boys) recalls what it was like to start brushing his teeth one night and watch them all fall out out of his mouth.
  • Others describe how, as their looks started to fade, their so-called friends ditched them in order to align themselves with better-looking men.
While The Adonis Factor features enough beefcake to make sure everyone understands the impact of a beautiful physique -- and goes to great lengths to show the diversity within the gay community by talking to Hispanics, African Americans and Bears (but no Asians!!!!) -- the fear of becoming invisible in the gay community becomes a bit tiresome. Some of the filmmaker's subjects develop a more mature approach to life when they let go of all the superficiality and explore other ways to justify their existence.

One gay San Franciscan (who is probably in his late fifties) describes how he made some new and much younger friends while taking a class. He then explains how he has had to warn some of his peers that walking down Castro Street and expecting to turn the heads of men half their age is a ludicrous proposition.

Those who have never felt like they belonged to certain parts of gay culture may find themselves pitying some of the buff but surprisingly insecure men who appear in The Adonis Factor. An interesting challenge for Hines to explore in his next documentary would be how the concept that "opposites attract" plays out in the gay community.

There are plenty of surprises to be found in the Daddy/Son, chub/chaser and rice queen/potato queen subcultures that could undermine many of the commonly-held assumptions about gay life stressed in The Adonis Factor. While such images can be found in specialty porn and social networking websites, they may be too threatening to gay men whose only focus is keeping up with the latest trends, trying to curry favor with the A-Gays, or struggling to remain part of an ever-changing youth subculture (to which they no longer belong and with which they can no longer compete).

The Adonis Factor will receive its world premiere on June 19th at the Victoria Theatre. How you react to the latest documentary from Mr. Hines may very well depend on who you see when you look in the mirror. In the meantime, I'd recommend watching The Joneses as an appetizer. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Even as we remain in the grip of a culture focused on youth and beauty, there's no denying that this has been a great time for octogenarians.
Instead of playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, how about a quick round of "Four Degrees of Ethel Merman"? I'll start.
  1. Ethel Merman was one of Broadway's biggest stars.
  2. In 1953, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, she co-starred in a nationally broadcast television special with one of Broadway's other big stars: Mary Martin.
  3. Mary Martin was in the original cast of South Pacific, which opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949.
  4. Mary Martin's understudy (and subsequent replacement) in the original cast of South Pacific was a 23-year-old blonde from Des Moines, Iowa named Cloris Leachman.
As Dr. Sheldon Cooper would say: "Bazinga!"

Leachman's exceptionally long and laudable career has won her more Primetime Emmy Awards than any other actress. In addition to winning 1971's Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in The Last Picture Show, she has created such memorable characters as Phyllis Lindstrom (on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis) as well as the unforgettable Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein.

In 2008 Leachman made her debut on Dancing With The Stars at the age of 82. Last year, she published an autobiography co-authored by her ex-husband, George Englund. She has six films due out this year and is planning to co-star in a reality series with her granddaughter on the Fox network.

Leachman's one-woman show is not like most attractions booked into the Rrazz Room. Although she sings a few songs (including "Love Is A Very Light Thing," "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy," and "Pass This Way Again"), shows videos from some of her career highlights, and performs Frédéric Chopin's Minute Waltz on a grand piano, she offers audiences a surprisingly straightforward discussion of what her life upon the wicked stage, silver screen, and television has really been like.

As she describes what it was like to audition for Rodgers & Hammerstein (or to leave Katherine Hepburn stranded onstage during a performance of As You Like It because she missed her cue while primping in front of a mirror), Leachman looks back with a quiet wonder at all of her hard work and good fortune.

Now a great-grandmother, she recalls her mother's advice to "Bluff for a chance to deliver -- and then deliver on your bluff" -- words of wisdom that served her well during her early days in New York when she performed in the The Crucible (Arthur Miller's drama about the Salem witchcraft trials in which she took over the role of Abigail Williams from Madeleine Sherwood), Jean Kerr's comedy, King of Hearts, and A Touch of the Poet (the Eugene O'Neill drama in which she took over the role of Sara Melody from Kim Stanley).

As an artist who has never wanted to be pigeon-holed, Cloris Leachman's one-woman show offers an experience more akin to a visit with a beloved relative. Her posture at the piano was a quick reminder that, as a child, she took her piano lessons seriously. The fact that she is still in demand for film and television roles is a testament to her ability to transition from a Hollywood starlet to a character actress of remarkable depth.

My only regret about Leachman's appearance is that she did not show any clips of her cruel and hilarious appearances as Grandma Ida on Malcolm in the Middle (a characterization which, to my mind, is every bit as outrageous as Frau Blücher). For those who didn't catch the movie New York, I Love You (in which Cloris appeared opposite her old friend from The Actors Studio, Eli Wallach), here is the segment directed by Joshua Marston in which two old actors show film audiences what craft is all about.

No comments: