Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Lies That Bind

George Washington may have told his father that he could not tell a lie. But many others have achieved great success through prevarication. Indeed, some people have spent so much effort trying to run away from a lie (and then attempted to clobber it to death) that it almost seems like an exercise in futility.

Who could ever forget President Bill Clinton testifying that "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."  Or the pious solemnity with which Vice President Cheney told the media that "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Some people (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck) develop reputations as pathological liars. Others tell small lies to themselves or try to run away from the wreckage left in the wake of their tiny falsehoods. Those who develop a convenient style of lying, however, rarely choose to embrace the truth. For them, the truth has become so artfully stretched, twisted, and embellished that it no longer resembles reality.

Many a great mind has shared his thoughts about lying:
  • Robert Louis Stevenson opined that "The cruelest lies are often told in silence. A man may have sat in a room for hours and not opened his mouth, and yet come out of that room a disloyal friend or a vile calumniator."
  • Abraham Lincoln once said that "No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar." 
  • Quentin Crisp confessed that "Of course I lie to people. But I lie altruistically -- for our mutual good. The lie is the basic building block of good manners. That may seem mildly shocking to a moralist, but then what isn t?"
  • Mark Twain claimed that "One of the striking differences between a cat and a lie is that the cat has only nine lives."
  • Alexander Haig insisted "That's not a lie, it's a terminological inexactitude. Also, a tactical misrepresentation."
  • Helen Rowland declared that "Telling lies is a fault in a boy, an art in a lover, an accomplishment in a bachelor, and second-nature in a married man."
  • Karl Rove is reputed to have told journalist Ron Suskind that "guys like me were in what we call the reality-based community, which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. ... That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
  • Anatole France suggested that "Without lies, humanity would perish of despair and boredom."
  • Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton wrote "When the world has got hold of a lie, it is astonishing how hard it is to kill it. You beat it over the head, till it seems to have given up the ghost, and behold! the next day it is as healthy as ever."
  • Oscar Wilde insisted that "As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognize the liar by his rich rhythmic utterance, and in neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice must precede perfection."
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Oscar Wilde was notorious for his wit, wisdom, and provocative writing. In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Wilde's protagonist essentially sells his soul in order to retain his youthful beauty. Dorian only learns that his wish has been granted upon looking at a portrait of himself that had been painted by his close friend, Basil Hallward.

With each act of hedonism and cruelty, Hallward's portrait has become increasingly disfigured until it reflects the ugliness of Gray's soul while Gray manages to retain the physical beauty of his youth. At the end of the novel, after Gray has temporarily repented of his bad behavior, he goes to examine the portrait and see if it has started to look any nicer. Instead, he finds it looking more hideous than ever.

Picking up the pallet knife he used to kill Hallward (the artist who painted the portrait), Dorian stabs the painting, effectively killing himself. When the police discover his body, they notice that it is horridly aged and deformed. Miraculously, Hallward's painting has returned to its original status, depicting Dorian as the handsome youth he was when he posed for Hallward.

Basil Hallward (Jef Valentine ) and Dorian Gray (Aaron Martinsen) in
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Since receiving his Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley in 1987, John Fisher has been actively involved in writing, directing, and producing theatre. As a stage director (Moby Dick: The Musical; Medea: The Musical) he has developed a reputation for gleefully wretched excess. As someone who adapts the works of others -- Titus Andronicus (William Shakespeare), A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) -- he has often demonstrated insight, wit, and a solid knowledge of theatrical craft. According to his press notes:
"Oscar Wilde's electrifying novel comes to the stage in this dynamic world premiere adaptation. Using words, movement, and music, this new performance keeps Wilde's story in its own time but highlights the relevance of his fable to our own. Wilde's story of vanity, ambition, and lust rocked his world with its frank portrayal of the lives of artists and libertines. This production will utilize a cinematic and 'surprise element' technique in its narrative, creating a dreamscape of possibility even as it tells Wilde's story.  This story remains potent today in exploring the limits and delimits of desire and ambition. In the tradition of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wilde's story even challenges the limits of corporality. Just as the body is mutable, the storytelling will be mutable.  This sexy, shocking production is at once mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and terrifying parable."
Fisher's big weakness has always been editing, which has made his adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (with which Theatre Rhinoceros opened its new season) almost insufferable despite the production's otherwise solid assets. Stripping the Eureka Theatre of any unnecessary scenery, Fisher had his actors running up and down the aisles, over and across the stage, commenting from the auditorium, and doing everything in their power to keep the audience on its toes.

Mae West once commented that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." Such was not the case with Fisher's adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which could be seen drowning under the weight of its own verbosity.

John Fisher as Lord Harry Watton in
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Fisher -- who also appeared as Lord Henry Wotton --  has never really grasped the validity of the "less is more" concept. He gave his supporting cast (Stephen Chun, Celia Maurice, Adam Simpson, and Maryssa Wanlass) plenty of stage business throughout the evening. Unfortunately, this only served to make them seem like deformed zombies roaming the streets of Victorian London in search of a Sweeney Todd production.

Like many plays produced at Theatre Rhinoceros, the audience was treated to some full frontal nudity when Dorian Gray (Aaron Martinsen) stripped off his clothes to embark on a career of hedonism.While Mr. Martinsen's large, ripe testicles rose and fell with impressive dramatic acuity, the same cannot be said for Fisher's overwritten script. Despite the best intentions, Fisher's adaptation made the audience feel like travelers trapped on a plane that had been marooned on the tarmac while a flight attendant read to them over the loudspeaker.

What could have (and should have) been a taut, 90-minute drama was transformed into a bloated three-hour marathon that made Oscar Wilde's writing seem downright tedious. Performances of The Portrait of Dorian Gray continue through September 19 at the Eureka Theatre.

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The first thing to understand when approaching a new film directed by Rachel Perkins is simple: Just because Bran Nue Dae is a rambunctious road trip Australian musical does not mean it's anything like 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Based on a 1990 stage musical written by Jimmy Chi and his band, Kuckles, Bran Nue Dae is the first Aboriginal musical. One of its main songs features the following lyrics:
"There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
And watch you take my precious land away.
For nothing gives me greater joy
Than to watch you fill each girl and boy
With superficial existential shit.

Now you may think I'm cheeky
But I'd be satisfied
To rebuild your convict ships
And sail you on the tide.

There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
And dream of just what heaven must be like.
Where moth and rust do not corrupt
When I die I know I'll be going up,
Cos you know that I've had my hell on earth."

As the film begins, the summer of 1969 is coming to an end in the tiny town of Broome, Western Australia. Established as a "pearling" port in the 1870s, Broome became a melting pot for Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian,  Filipino, and Greek immigrants who intermarried with the local community.of indigenous Australians. A person was allowed multiple identities (someone could be Aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese, and Scottish all at the same time). The Catholic Church (in particular, the German Pallottine missionaries) had an enormous influence on the lives of Aboriginal people in Northwestern Australia.The Pallottines also ran boarding schools for Aboriginal students in Perth, where promising students were sent to be educated.

Young Willie (Rocky McKenzie) has been fishing with his friends and contentedly hanging out with his girlfriend Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). Willlie's shyness has made it difficult for him to prevent Rosie from falling under the spell of Lester (Dan Sultan), a local musician.

Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) and Lester (Dan Sultan) in Bran Nue Dae

When he is forced to return to the Catholic boarding school in Perth that Theresa (Ningali Lawford), Willie's hyperreligious mother, struggles to afford, the young man rebels against the crushing authority of Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) and runs away from school.

Rocky Mckenzie is Willie in Bran Nue Dae
Willie may be a Mama's boy, but what he really wants is to leave the city and get back to the simple life in Broome. As he wanders around Perth at night, he comes across a group of homeless men warming themselves by a fire. Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) promises to take him back to Broome and cons two young hippies into driving them there (a distance of nearly 1,400 miles). Needless to say, Father Benedictus is in hot pursuit.

Long story short: Uncle Tadpole, Father Benedictus, and Willie's mother have all been concealing certain critical events from their past. Willie comes of age, finds a new sense of family, and everyone ends up singing by the seashore.

Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Gringo ) and Annie (Missy Higgins )
While Bran Nue Dae may not be the greatest movie you'll see this year, its score is extremely interesting. According to the production notes:
"Singer/songwriter Jimmy Chi was influenced by the Gregorian chants of Latin High Mass, as well as his boyhood memories of sitting with Aboriginal people in the bush on the edge of town and sharing in the traditional stories that were danced and sung. All these influences were overlaid by the reggae music of the 70s and the political themes carried by the popular music of the era to create the eclectic musical style of the Kuckles and the distinctive songs of the musical.
The Broome sound grew out of the town’s rich musical heritage. Broome's Filipino pearl divers were renowned for their musical skills (the town once had its own ‘Manila-man’ orchestra). The Malays and Indonesians played and sang kroncong, a style of folk ballad using ukuleles and mandolins, derived from the music of the early Portuguese traders. These influences mixed with the Hawaiian craze of the 30s and 40s, with harmonica and slack key guitar. Broome was also on the bush circuit for Australian country & western singers like Slim Dusty, Buddy Williams, Chad Morgan, and Tex Morton
As singer/songwriter David Bridie (who has worked extensively with Indigenous musicians all around the South Pacific region) explains: 'The 'Broome sound’ is, in many ways, a natural fit for a musical because it’s grass roots, straight out, straight up, with bright ukuleles and a lot of harmony."
Midway through Bran Nue Dae it's easy to start guessing how the story's loose ends will get tied up. While Geoffrey Rush spends most of his time storming around as Father Benedictus, there are appealing performances from Missy Higgins as Annie, Tom Budge as Slippery (her German boyfriend), Magda Szubanski as Roadhouse Betty, and Deborah Mailman as Roxanne. Here's the trailer:

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As part of its new NY-SF International Children's Film Festival, on Saturday, September 24 the San Francisco Film Society will be screening Little White Lies at the Landmark Embarcadero Theater.

Marcus H. Rose Mueller's film entitled Little White Lies is based on a 1948 novel by Anna Maria Jokl entitled Die Perlmutterfarbe (The Pearly). Set in Bavaria during the 1930s, the plot concerns a young student, Alexander (Markus Kroj), who has entered a drawing contest at his school. Among Alexander's closest friends are Mole (Dominik Novak) and Lotte (Zoe Mannhardt)

Lotte (Zoe Mannhardt ) and Alexander (Marcus Kroj )
Although Torsten Breuer's cinematography makes this a gorgeous film to watch, to my mind, Little White Lies has a few too many subplots battling for the viewer's attention.
  • Alexander has been led to believe that his father is a sailor who is always at sea. As his mother finally explains, his father was a selfish asshole who had no interest in raising a family.
  • At one point, Alexander borrows a valuable book from one of his classmates, B-Karli (Paul Beck). After an accident damages the book, he burns it rather than confess to B-Karli (who is severely punished at home) what really happened.
  • A new student named Gruber (Benedict Host) arrives at school and immediately has a divisive effect on the students. Gruber essentially breaks the boys into two rival gangs and becomes the leader of the ELDSA group (which prophetically identifies its members by the brown scarves they all wear).
  • Alexander has been yearning for some of the pastries in a local bakery, but doesn't have enough money for them. He eventually embezzles the money for the pastries from the money he controls as treasurer of one of the gangs.
  • Alexander and his friends have also broken into an abandoned factory where one of his classmates claims to have invented a "lie detector machine" (which essentially tickles its victims into submission).

While Little White Lies does deal with issues such as bullying, alienation, gangs, broken families, and the consequences of lying, it is being marketed primarily as a children's fantasy-adventure story. Between the rapid use of titles and a plot that often became difficult to follow (I still don't understand why the male students are dressed in shorts in the middle of the winter), I found myself repeatedly losing interest in the story. Here's the trailer:

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