Friday, September 24, 2010

Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them

Unlike many students, I did not pack up and leave home to move to a campus dorm after graduating from Midwood High School. Instead, I attended Brooklyn College, which was located right across the street from the school I had just left. I rode the same bus to school, experienced the same weather conditions, and lived in the same house where I had spent most of my adolescence and teen years.

However, during my senior year of college, my father asked me to do him a favor and leave home.My parents' marriage was undergoing severe stress as my mother went through another one of her long periods of clinical depression. My father (who was quite worried about how the bitter silence in our home might affect me) suggested that I find a furnished room near the campus that I could rent until I graduated.

Many families face a period of forced separation (or alienation) where the moment's urgency can best be summed up  with the words "This is going to hurt me a whole lot more than it's going to hurt you."  While the room I rented was no less depressing than our home, a growing sense of emotional independence made it easier for me to seize a job opportunity that came my way in the fall of 1969.

Having spent several summers working at a sailing camp in Wakefield, Rhode Island, I leapt at an opportunity to move to Rhode Island and take over a clerical position at the Greater Providence YMCA. The three years I spent in New England were, in essence, an incubatory period until I moved to San Francisco on my 25th birthday in 1972.

I was extremely lucky that, when I left New York, I moved to an area where I knew nearly 400 families from my work during the summer months. As a result, I was often invited into people's homes for holiday dinners and social gatherings. For many others, leaving their families can be a much more wrenching emotional experience, with sacrifices all around.

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Anyone who complains about the service on San Francisco's MUNI system should be forced to sit through a screening of The Last Train HomeLixin Fan's gritty documentary follows a family of Chinese migrant workers during the annual Chinese New Year migration when 130 million people leave China's factories and cities to return home to their families

Once you experience this film, you'll have a keener understanding of why China is leading other international superpowers in its race to build a network of high-speed rail lines to serve its huge population. The crowded conditions on its current trains -- as a transit system is swamped by homebound humans (who resemble hordes of lemmings or salmon in their desperation to return home) -- make MUNI Metro look like a chauffeured private limousine. As the filmmaker explains:
"The migration of the peasant work force started in the early 1980s, when the country first opened its economy. The influx of foreign investment created numerous factory towns in the southern coastal regions. A soaring demand for labor lured millions out of their farmland to work in factories. With the loosening of the country’s long-standing household registration system, people started to move around to find opportunities to better their lives. Today, even after decades of work, low wages and the lack of rights prevents them from bringing their families from the villages to the cities.
China has set a goal to urbanize half of its 1.3 billion population by 2020, and 70% by 2050. The Spring Festival problem is more related to social policies than the transportation system. The fact is, no matter how many roads you build, it’s just impossible to transport such a large amount of passengers all at once in one direction. A more rational solution is the implementation of labor law, granting the migrant workers the social care and support they deserve, and allowing their families to move to the cities." 
While The Last Train Home includes some breathtaking footage of rural Chinese landscapes, the majority of the film focuses on the stress endured by millions of Chinese migrant workers as they try to secure a train ticket, make it onto the train, and endure a round trip experience that would make America's airline passengers think twice about complaining about the quality of service they receive. There are poignant scenes between parents who almost never have a chance to see their children and rebellious teenagers who only want the latest fashions or electronic toys. Above all, there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness as people endure a debilitating migration that brings little happiness but, for largely cultural reasons, cannot be avoided. Here's the trailer:

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By contrast, Oliver Stone's new film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deals with a population so wealthy that it would seem as if it had the world at its fingertips. Wealthy hedge fund traders, aspiring stockbrokers, and those who consider themselves to be the modern captains of the financial services industry suffer a rude setback when the market for credit default swaps suddenly tanks and their wealth evaporates.

Beyond that, the sequel to 1987's Wall Street is one of those movies whose production notes are often more interesting than the film itself. Referring to a scene in which a charity benefit dinner is attended by New York’s high society (and designed to illustrate the height of big money on Wall Street), production designer Kristi Zea recalls that “Oliver wanted the gala to be like the party on the Titanic before it sank."

As the filmmaker himself explains:
“What shocked me was that this exponentially-growing accumulation of wealth kept going into the 1990s and 2000s. The numbers grew and grew, so the millions of dollars became billions of dollars and the greed of Gordon Gekko was swamped by the greed of the banks. By 2008, no more Gordon Gekkos were possible. That character, that kind of buccaneer, was now gone, replaced by institutions that had once formerly been regulated. In the past, a bank was a bank, and an insurance company was an insurance company. In 2008, that all changed. The firewalls between these functions were destroyed by the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s.”
As he continued to research how things had changed in financial circles, Stone found himself greeted like a cultural hero by many Wall Street types (a welcome which gave him incredible access to an insider's view of trading). Parts of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps were filmed on trading floors at the Royal Bank of Canada at the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, Creditex in midtown Manhattan, and Knight Capital in Jersey City, New Jersey. The society benefit dinner was actually filmed in the Great Hall of the former Cunard Building at 25 Broadway, which Zea describes as "a classical space with towering Roman arches."

I couldn't agree more. As an adolescent who was obsessed with ocean liners, I made several pilgrimages to the Cunard Building to ogle the scale models of ocean liners in their front hallway. Those were the days when I would ride my bicycle from Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood over to the Narrows and take a ferry to Staten Island, where I would then connect to one of the Staten Island ferries that crossed New York Harbor to the South Ferry terminal adjacent to Battery Park.

Stone's cast and crew were surprised by what they learned. Josh Brolin (who had once worked as a day trader) recalls that:
“I went to the floor and talked to [traders], and the great thing about going to the floor was how it exists now. Because everything’s communicated digitally, it can get boring down on the floor for them. So I got to hear all the stories of how it used to be, when these guys were knee-deep in paper, and writing down all the orders and looking at the calls and the puts and options. They said you could feel the buzz.”
Shia LeBeouf discovered that, not only has technology changed the business of investing, it has made the financial world more insular as well.
“They have these private Twitter accounts and they send information around that way. For example, someone can tweet that a certain institution is going to jump two basis points that day. You just don’t get that immediacy in a newspaper. By the time you read it in the paper, the information is old news.”
And production designer Kristi Zea recalls:
"I really wanted to find the largest, biggest, most outstanding looking trading floors we could find. But the trading floors have changed dramatically since Wall Street. The technological advances that have been made are amazing in terms of the speed of the transactions and the need for quick, immediate decisions and what the computer has done to the financial world. I was amazed when I started scouting locations to see the number of people who are actually in this field, trading daily.”

Oliver Stone spends a great deal of time shooting the facades of Manhattan's glass towers as he tries to show what new money has bought. Ironically, the film has a strangely off-putting effect on the audience.

Many of the dramatic clashes set at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, on trading floors (and in scenes where people discover that their money no longer has the same buying power they have grown to expect), pale in comparison to what has befallen America's middle class. The self-indulgent games of power brokers seem as childish as the complaints recently expressed to President Obama during a town hall meeting by a hedge fund manager who felt that he -- and Wall Street in general -- were getting whacked like a pinata by the government.

The result is a film that -- for all the family drama that has been built around Gordon Gekko's release from prison, his rehabilitation in the public's eye (through a book tour), and his strained relations with his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) -- is surprisingly dull and hollow. A great movie, this most certainly is not.

For all the timeliness of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the film's most rewarding moments are certainly not the ones you might expect. There is unanticipated exhilaration and joy to be found in watching 94-year-old Eli Wallach and 78-year-old Sylvia Miles steal the movie away from "youngsters" like Michael DouglasSusan Sarandon, and Frank Langella and the even younger generation of talented "little pishers" like Shia LeBeouf, Josh Brolin, and Carey Mulligan.  Here's the trailer:

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Over at Fort Mason Center, the Magic Theatre presented the West Coast premiere of The Brothers Size (the second installment in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister plays). Although I had been quite underwhelmed by In The Red and Brown Water when I saw the first part of McCraney's trilogy at Marin Theatre Company, director Octavio Solis scored a home run with Magic Theatre's production of The Brothers Size.

Much to my relief, the playwright's use of spoken stage directions is noticeably diminished in this play and, as such, worked to much greater effect. McCraney's writing is far more poetic, muscular, and masculine in this play and it reeks of his experience growing up in the Miami projects (according to the program notes, the first reading of the play took place in a courtyard in the projects).

Oshoosi Size (Tobie Windham) and Ogun Size (Joshua Elijah Reese)
in The Brothers Size. (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

The Brothers Size has a cast of three black men:
  • Ogun Size (Joshua Elijah Reese) is the responsible older brother who works as a car mechanic. As a young man, Ogun frequently shouldered the blame for his younger brother's bad behavior. As a grown man, he has stayed employed, never spent time in jail and, despite being abandoned by his wife (Oya), has managed to keep his life on an even keel. When push comes to shove, Ogun must decide whether or not he can be his brother's keeper.
  • Oshoosi Size (Tobie Windham) is Ogun's irresponsible kid brother who has just been released from prison. Oshoosi doesn't want to talk to his older brother about things that happened to him while he was incarcerated. At the same time, he needs some wheels so he can go out and get laid.
  • Elegba (Alex Ubokudom) is Oshoosi's close friend and the man with whom Oshoosi most likely had a "down-low" sexual relationship while the two men were in prison.
Alex Ubokudom as Elegba (Photo by:  Jennifer Reiley)

In The Brothers Size, the relationship between Ogun and Oshoosi comes to a head after Oshoosi  has an unfortunate run in with the police, who find some cocaine hidden in Elegba's gym bag when they inspect the trunk of their car. Up until then, Ogun had been trying to get Oshoosi motivated to get a job and start living a straight life.

However, with the police on Oshoosi's trail, there is precious little time for the two brothers to come to grips with what it means to be a blood brother, a spiritual brother, and (in the case of Oshoosi's relationship with Elegba) a gay brother. This is a play in which male anguish holds hands with macho bravado and in which each brother's sense of shame is brought out into the open. The necessary sacrifice that Ogun soon realizes is unavoidable is for him to encourage Oshoosi to flee to Mexico and for Ogun to deny his kid brother's very existence.

In a 2008 interview in the Sunday Times of London, McCraney stated:

"Essex Hemphill has this saying, 'Two black men loving one another is a revolutionary act.' He didn't say 'two black gay men,' he just said 'two black men.' It's something we don't see. I wanted to put it on stage -- these men, in all forms of color, trying to figure out how to love themselves and each other".
The Brothers Size offers three forceful portrayals of black men struggling to reconcile their needs with their responsibilities. It is a powerful piece of theatre, beautifully performed by a tightly-knit ensemble. Performances continue at the Magic Theatre through October 17. You can order tickets here.

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