Monday, August 22, 2011

Second Chances, Unexpected Outcomes

A popular adage among people in recovery warns that "the definition of madness is repeating the same behavior over and over again while hoping to get different results." The real issue at hand is whether or not anyone makes a serious effort to learn from their mistakes.

Judging from the high rate of recidivism, I sincerely doubt it. Listening to how some born-again Christians believe that finding Jesus has absolved them of their past sins similarly strains credulity. As Stephen Colbert is eager to point out, there's truth.  And then there's truthiness.

First published in 1923, Who's Sorry Now? was written by Ted Snyder with lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Although Connie Francis had a big hit recording of the song in 1958, many people forget that it was used in the 1946 Marx Brothers film entitled A Night in Casablanca.

Although written for Ella Fitzgerald in 1953, Cry Me A River was first recorded by Julie London in 1956. The song became a hit recording for Joe Cocker (1970) and Michael Bublé (2009). But for many, Barbra Streisand's interpretation still stands supreme.  The following clip shows Streisand performing in 1967's A Happening in Central Park.

Three films seen this summer paint curious portraits of people who have been wronged. Their narratives and world views could not be more dissimilar. Yet, in each case, the audience sees people who have played fast and loose with their authority unexpectedly finding themselves in the hot seat.

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Two of the films shown during the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival had a powerful dramatic impact. Directed by Michael Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I Am Cuba), 1931's The Nail in the Boot may lure modern audiences into thinking of it as an anti-war film. But what The Nail in the Boot really tackles is the issue of compromised standards in a critical manufacturing chain of supplies.

Originally intended as a military film, The Nail in the Boot's basic message is that sloppy workers are capable of sabotaging a country's national defense (the film's alternative title was The Homeland Is In Danger). Where have similar issues appeared in the news?
  • In 1997, impact tests conducted at the University of Missouri-Rolla that were performed on pieces of steel retrieved from the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic revealed that, when tested at the estimated temperature of the water when the ship struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, the hull's steel plates were nearly 10 times more brittle than modern steel. The chemical composition of the steel showed a high content of sulfur, oxygen, and phosphorus combined with a low level of manganese (all of which can cause steel to be more brittle).
  • In the past 20 years, children's toys containing traces of lead and numerous other products made in China have proven to be made with substandard and often toxic ingredients.
  • Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops have struggled with inadequate body armor that was either poorly designed or made with substandard materials (that allowed a military contractor to turn a larger profit).
As seen in a beautifully restored print from the Georgian National Film Center, Kalatozov's 54-minute movie begins on the battlefield as a soldier is sent to notify headquarters that the troops trapped on an armored train urgently need backup in order to avoid annihilation. Because a nail sticking out of the sole of his boot causes the soldier increasing pain, he fails to deliver the crucial message on time.

An armored train built in Slovakia that was used in World War II

The scene in which the train is destroyed is a breathtaking piece of drama. However, what follows is equally impressive. During a courtroom investigation, the soldier pins the blame squarely where it belongs: on the workers whose sloppiness contributed to his delay.

In the past several years, Stephen Horne has accompanied many screenings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in which his playing has been strongly influenced by the music of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. The screening of The Nail in the Boot gave Horne a chance to show a very different side of his skills as an accompanist. Reaching for the heavy artillery in his musical tool bag, he performed the kind of octave-pounding endurance test that could make Sergei Rachmaninoff nervous.

A scene from The Nail in the Boot

Although the filmmaker's mentor, Lev Kuleshov, claimed that "Kalatozov could shoot anything and make it interesting," Stalin's censors were less impressed. They prevented Kalatozov from making any movies during the eight years that followed The Nail in the Boot, claiming that the filmmaker had failed to depict the ideology they wanted to see in what was essentially an agitprop film. The censors required Kalatozov to undergo a period of "forced rehabilitation" during which he was not allowed to direct any of his own projects.

While The Nail in the Boot may not have been appreciated by Russian censors, it stands today as a magnificent and unassailable piece of cinematic art. There's something to be said for that.

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The first film to be produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (following the merger of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures), Victor Sjöström's 1924 triumph, He Who Gets Slapped, was the closing night presentation at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, its screening was a huge success that ended the festival on a high note.

Adapted from a 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev, the film stars Lon Chaney as Paul Beaumont, a scientist who, in one horrible day, gets cheated out of the fruits of his research and the love of his wife (Ruth King) by his wealthy patron, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). If that weren't humiliating enough, the Baron cruelly slaps Beaumont across the face in front of his scientific peers.

Beaumont subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown.  Five years later, he has become a popular circus clown known for his bizarrely masochistic specialty act.  Known only as "HE," the audience wildly cheers his ongoing humiliation each time one of the other clowns slaps him in the face.

Ever the unlucky lover, HE has fallen for the charms of Consuelo, (Norma Shearer) a beautiful young woman who has recently joined the circus. Unaware that she is smitten with one of the troupe's star equestrians, the handsome Bezano (John Gilbert), HE risks everything by opening up his heart and confessing his love to Consuelo. True to form, she slaps his face and laughs at his earnestness.

Quickly covering his emotions, HE stresses that whenever he gets serious he is merely joking. But when HE learns that Consuelo's greedy father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), is hoping to marry her off to a rich suitor in order to restore the family's lost fortune, he is justifiably concerned.  His compassion, however, turns to horror upon learning that the potential suitor is none other than his arch nemesis, Baron Regnard.

Tricaud (Ford Sterling) and HE (Lon Chaney) are two circus clowns
in 1924's He Who Gets Slapped

What follows is a brilliant buildup of suspense as HE decides to exact his revenge on the Baron and the Count (with the help of some hungry circus lions) so that Consuelo and Bezano are free to fall in love. With a magnificent new score composed by Matti Bye and Kristian Holmgren (a co-commission by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Headlands Center for the Arts), He Who Gets Slapped reached the kind of intense climax one rarely finds outside of silent film.

I say this because, back in the silent era, stars like Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd insisted on performing all of their own stunts. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert (whose careers were just beginning when they made He Who Gets Slapped) follow suit on horseback in this film. The thrills felt by the audience have a great deal to do with watching artists taking risks (as opposed to some inherently safe CGI scripting).

As a result, it's difficult to tell which was more thrilling: Chaney's bravura performance, Sjöström's meticulous and artful direction, or the music being performed live by the Matti Bye Ensemble. One thing is for sure: the restored print (Courtesy of the George Eastman House) looked a helluva lot better than this trailer from YouTube:

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Written and directed by Rashaad Ernesto GreenGun Hill Road was the opening night selection for Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Despite a cast that includes three actors I greatly admire, I found it to be a depressing experience that only confirmed my feeling that men who are obsessed with maintaining their reputations as supermacho studs have a toxic impact on their already dangerously dysfunctional families.

As the film opens, Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales) is once more being released from jail. A married Hispanic thug with a substantial record ranging from petty theft to armed robbery, he's looking forward to reuniting with his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), his teenage son, Michael (Harmony Santana), and returning to their apartment in the Bronx.

Although Enrique's jaded parole officer (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) doesn't hold much hope for his prisoner's rehabilitation, Enrique swears he's never coming back. According to Esai Morales, "Enrique is kind of a Biblical ‘Job in the ‘Hood.’ Everything happens to him in the weirdest ways and he tries to fix his son in the most un-artful ways possible.”

Enrique (Esai Morales) is on probation in Gun Hill Road.

After checking in with some of his street buddies, Enrique finally arrives home to an apartment decorated for a welcoming party. His wife seems strangely distant (which instantly makes him wonder if she's been seeing another man during the three years he was in prison).

Michael, however, seems disturbingly different, as if he and his little curly-haired friend can't wait to leave the apartment and go somewhere else. Unbeknownst to Enrique, his son has started to prepare for gender reassignment surgery. Although his mother and Fernando know all about Michael's impending transition, Enrique is as clueless has a violent, hypermasculine thug can be. In his director's statement, Rashaad Ernesto Green writes:
"Fathers like Enrique believe they are acting in the best interests of their children by protecting them from hardship or the ills of society. They don’t always see how their behavior can suffocate their children and prevent them from learning, discovering themselves, and living their own lives. I feel for Enrique. I see him in pain, struggling and trapped within his own mental prison. The Bronx has shaped the way Enrique sees the world, his sense of manhood, and what it means to be a man. Bustling with music and life, from the Yankee caps and Puerto Rican flags blowing in the wind to the cuchifritos and catcalling on every corner, what’s not to love about the Bronx?

But the world is constantly changing, especially the world that exists outside of the Bronx. By making this film, I hope to encourage dialog about an issue in this community that needs to be addressed. It’s happening right now. The old school culture of the Bronx is at war with its youth. The younger spirited generation is much more openminded and accepting of difference than ever before, leaving them at odds with the parents who raised them. I want to explore a side and complexity of the Bronx and Latino life that is rarely seen in films. At the end of the day, Enrique is a beautiful person who loves his child dearly. He just hasn’t been equipped with the tools necessary to break his mental chains. The struggle that exists within Enrique is the same plight that plagues the entire Bronx. And if it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere."
Enrique (Esai Morales) has doubts about the masculinity
of his son, Michael (Harmony Santana), in Gun Hill Road

Gun Hill Road is exceptionally well cast, in part because Esai Morales and Judy Reyes were Green's first choices for the roles of Enrique and Angela (the filmmaker had won three consecutive scholarships from the National Hispanic Foundation For The Arts, which was co-founded by Morales). Finding the right actor to portray Michael proved to be a more daunting challenge. Just two months before production was slated to begin, Green encountered Harmony Santana working at a parade booth in Queens. As the filmmaker recalls:
“We scoured every over-18 club, bar, parade, drag show, and poetry slam in New York for weeks, staying out until 3:00 in the morning or handing out flyers at daytime events in the city. We knew it was not going to be easy to cast such a specific role. We had to find a person to really inhabit this role psychologically."

Harmony Santana as Michael (in drag)
Alas, Fernando (played by the eternally buoyant Robin de Jesus) may be the only character in Gun Hill Road who really enjoys his life.
  • Enrique is a ticking time bomb who can't understand what has happened to his son, much less what Michael's sexual orientation says about his own masculinity.
  • Angela, who is physically and emotionally exhausted, must now give up the other man in her life in order to placate her newly-paroled husband.
  • Michael is struggling to learn how to dress and function as a transsexual, as well as how to handle the amorous advances of horny young men who are fascinated by the freaky appeal of dating a chick with a dick.
There's no denying that Green has put together a well-made film that is very much of its time. Unfortunately, as I watched Gun Hill Road I found myself wishing I could be back on City Island. Here's the trailer:

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