Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lost Causes

Sometimes, a thought which seemed like a brilliant idea turns out not to be so brilliant after all. Whether such an idea materializes as a full-length film or a stage play, what seemed incredibly appealing at the moment of conception --and perhaps on the written page as well -- arrives with a crashing thud in its final format.

On certain occasions, the mistake takes place in the audience. Back in November of 1980, I was informed that I needed to have all four of my wisdom teeth removed. Approaching the situation with the brilliant strategic vision of an opera queen, I reasoned that since the the surgery would be over by mid afternoon, I might as well get myself a ticket for that night's performance of Richard Wagner's five-hour opera, Tristan und Isolde (which was being conducted by Kurt Herbert Adler).

Having failed to anticipate how my body would feel after several hours in a dentist's chair, I'll confess that making it through that performance was one of my longest and most uncomfortable slogs through a night at the opera. While my body longed to be home in bed, my brain wouldn't let me leave until Gwyneth Jones had sung Isolde's Liebestod and the final curtain had come down.

That experience came back to haunt me this week. Following several days of dental pain occasioned by symptoms of an impending root canal problem, I ended up suddenly having a tooth removed just hours before I was supposed to attend a performance. Hearing my dentist gasp "Wow, that tooth is a big motherfucker!" did not worry me. At that point, all I wanted was to be free from pain.

Unlike my 1980 experience following the removal of my wisdom teeth, I was so relieved to be released from pain that not even a particularly bad play could dim my spirits. That evening I felt almost alarmingly serene.

* * * * * * * * * *
Set in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest, Treefall takes place sometime in the future, "years after a series of ecological events of civilization-altering proportions." In his program note, New Conservatory Theatre Center's Artistic Director, Ed Decker, writes:
"I like dangerous plays. Stories that challenge our expectations, purport new understanding, and toy with our emotions. Treefall by Henry Murray is such a  play -- a chilling yet thoughtful exploration of human nature and gender roles.
I can still recall the day I received Henry's script in the mail.  I opened it intending to just take a quick look. I happened to peruse the first page. After the stage setting description and just a few lines of dialogue, I was hooked. I stopped everything. I was doing and read it straight through. I called Henry immediately and told him I wanted to, no simply had to do his play at NCTC.
At the time, another Bay Area theatre was also considering it for their season, so Henry told me that it may not even be available for us to produce.  Undeterred, I asked Henry if I could come down to Los Angeles to discuss the play with him. I was truly taken with this script and if nothing else, wanted to just sit together to talk about all of the big ideas and catalytic events in his story.
Over coffee, we had a lengthy and spirited conversation about his poignant tale of three young boys who struggle to grow into men in a world that provides no example of how to do that.  At our meeting, I told Henry that I knew a brilliant young director who'd be perfect for the San Francisco production of Treefall and that I'd like to bring them together should plans at the other interested theatre not pan out. Lucky for all of us, the winds of destiny blew in our direction. You are about to see a stunning new American play."
Bug (Corinna Robkin) and August (Josh Schell) in Treefall
Photo by: Lois Tema

I can't imagine what Ed Decker saw in Henry Murray's script. What I saw was a stunningly bad new American play, so pretentiously conceived and amateurishly written as to make one hope and pray that the playwright does not give up his day job. Murray's four post-apocalyptic characters are:
  • Flynn (Evan Johnson), an adolescent young man who is trying to imitate some distant memory of family life (perhaps from what he once read in a copy of Peter Pan). Flynn may be young, but he's already figured out a way to rape his best friend and assume the power role of the "Daddy."
  • August (Josh Schell), after having been sodomized by Flynn, has been forced to wear an apron and pretend to be the "Mommy" of the household. August, however, is discovering that he has markedly heterosexual urges.
  • Craig (Sal Mattos), an obnoxious and extremely confused young boy who, when not playing with his doll, tries to be manipulative, seductive, and overtly theatrical. Alas, Craig only succeeds in being a tragic pain in the ass.
  • Bug (Corinne Robkin), the young girl found in an abandoned storeroom. The big shocker --  that Bug is actually a girl -- comes when she turns around (just prior to intermission) and reveals that her pants are soaked with blood.

Craig (Sal Mattos), Bug (Corinne Robkin), and Flynn (Evan Johnson)
in Treefall (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The ominous earthquake-like sounds that signify yet another falling tree may have some deeply symbolic meaning to Mr. Murray. Or, perhaps they are simply meant to inspire fear. I tip my hat to the four actors for their commitment to this most unfortunate project (which was directed by Ben Randle). Treefall is the kind of theatrical credit an actor is wise to omit from his resume.

Ironically, Treefall (which is easily one of the worst plays I've encountered in four decades of theatregoing) reminded me of a long-forgotten musical that lasted for nine performances at the Winter Garden Theatre back in 1962. With book and lyrics by James Lipton (of Inside the Actors Studio fame), it was directed by Sidney Lumet and choreographed by Ron Field. Its cast included such wonderful performers as Tom Bosley, Martin Balsam, Nicole Barth, Bert Convy, Dorothy Loudon, and Phil Leeds.

The show's title?  Nowhere To Go But Up!

* * * * * * * * * * *
There are, apparently, some people who have fallen head over heels in love with The Happy Poet (a small scale indie film that has been written, directed, edited, and produced by Paul Gordon). I am not one of them.

Gordon stars as Bill, an idealist with no personality whatsoever, who decides to open up an organic food stand using an old hot dog cart. An out of work poet with no business skills, he quickly attracts the attention of Curtis (Chris Doubek), an aging slacker who keeps showing up for free handouts and Donnie (Jonny Mars) a small time dope peddler who sees an organic food stand as the perfect cover for his deliveries.

Filmed in an around Austin, Texas, The Happy Poet's dubious assets include a lead character with no charisma and a deadly monotone, an extremely weak script, and some veggie chips. Thankfully, no one has tried to claim credit for the minimalist use of a piano. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *

Opening on February 4 at the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas is a film whose cinematic beauty is matched by the surreal predicament of its characters. There is a handsome, young resistance fighter named Fuad (Saleh Bakhri), a taxi driver who gets lost in a downpour, and a young boy who, each time he returns from visiting his aunt, dutifully dumps her left-over lentils in the garbage. In his director's note, Elia Suleiman explains that:
"The Time That Remains is a semi-autobiographical film in four episodes about a family (my family) from 1948 until recent times. The film is inspired by my father’s private diaries, starting from when he was a resistance fighter in 1948, and by my mother’s letters to family members who were forced to leave the country. Combined with my intimate memories of them and with them, the film attempts to portray the daily life of those Palestinians who remained and were labeled 'Israeli-Arabs' living as a minority in their own homeland."

"Originally, the film was meant to take place in two different parts of the world. But once I had completed the writing, I realized that the story should not expand horizontally but vertically, not superficially but at a deep level. I chose to concentrate on one location and to devote myself to a meditative research on tiny moments of the story; to give them a real depth and a weight that would allow me to make them universal. While writing, you tend to feel insecure and to rely on a strong theme, a story with strong, clear landmarks you can cling to. But then you realize that taking risks is an integral part of the creative process. Poetry is about a moment of trembling. You reach that moment or you don’t, but you can’t prepare for it or provoke it. This became very clear to me as I was shooting the first part of the film set in Nazareth, in 1948."

"My films are inspired by my everyday life. When you live in a sensitive area like my country, politics are simply a part of life. It happens that Palestine has been subject to overexposure in the media which has left it open to ideologues on the Left and the Right. I felt my challenge was to deviate from this simplistic approach by making a film in which there is no history lesson to be learned. I focused on moments of intimacy of a family, hoping for nothing more than to give pleasure to the audience and to achieve a certain cinematic truth. If I reach this goal, the film becomes universal and the world itself becomes Palestine."

While there are many portions of The Time That Remains that can easily confuse a viewer, there is no doubting its visual beauty or the appeal of the popular Arabic music often heard in the background. There are moments of great poignancy (a senile grandmother watching a fireworks display) as well as constant displays of military idiocy. This is, however, the kind of film that will either have you totally engrossed by its strangeness or checking your watch to see how much time remains until The Time That Remains is over. Here's the trailer:

No comments: