Saturday, September 10, 2011

Love Never Dies

My family spent the summer of 1956 at Camp Nock-a-Mixon in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. At that time there was no Internet. There was no cable television. Any news of the outside world that managed to penetrate the confines of a co-ed summer camp arrived via radio or newspaper.

Prior to developing a craving for theatre and opera, the two biggest passions in my childhood were dinosaurs and ocean liners. When The New York Times brought us news that, on the night of July 25th, the SS Andrea Doria (the fastest, largest, and most popular ship built in Italy since World War II) had collided with the MS Stockholm and sunk off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, I was horrified.

When the pride of the Italian fleet sank, my mother was startled by my reaction. I wasn't the slightest bit concerned about one of the greatest rescue operations at sea or the fact that more than 50 people had been killed in the collision. As an impressionable nine year old [gay] boy, my only concern was for the loss of a beautiful ship. Some 55 years after that fatal night, the sinking of the Andrea Doria has been memorialized in:

Some 25 years later, after I had followed Chuck Cleaves out to San Francisco, the news that he had finally succeeded in killing himself did not surprise me. But I learned a very important lesson which remained with me throughout the AIDS crisis.

When someone you love dies, your love for that person doesn't die with him. Even if there was some unfinished business between the two of you -- or a less than pleasant history toward the end of your relationship -- what you tend to remember about that person are the things that set your heart afire when you first met.  As Henry Higgins sings in My Fair Lady:
"Her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now.
Like breathing out and breathing in.
I was serenely independent and content before we met.
Surely, I could always be that way again, and yet
I've grown accustomed to the sound of something in the air.
Accustomed to her face."
Perhaps because I come from a family of atheists (my father was a biology teacher), I did not mourn when either of my parents died. Each death had been a long time coming and, like every other creature on earth, was unavoidable. Life went on.

However, two new films show how intensely-driven people cope with a sense of overwhelming grief. Because each of these individuals has an obsessive/creative personality, they chose to pour their frustrations and pent-up energy into their art -- with astonishing results.

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Written by Shiri Artzi and directed by Eytan Fox (The Bubble, Walk on Water, Yossi & Jagger), Mary Lou is the story of a young gay Israeli man whose happiness is shattered in the middle of his 10th birthday party when his mother, Miriam Levi (Maya Dagan), abandons her family. As a young boy, Meir had worshipped his mother (who in turn worshipped the music of Israeli rock star, Svika Pick).

Through thick and thin, as children and adults, Meir (Ido Rosenberg), and his best friend, Shuli (Dana Frider), followed in Miriam's footsteps by expressing all of their emotions through the lyrics of songs written by Svika Pick. Although the two never imagined that anything or anyone could possibly come between them, all it took was the arrival of the handsome Gabi (Alon Levi) on campus to turn their lives upside down and inside out.

While Meir's father, David (Shmuel Vilozni), tries to cope with the humiliation of his wife's unexplained departure, Meir's fertile imagination conjures up a variety of scenarios in which his mother always leaves to become a backup singer for her idol. Unwilling to accept abandonment as a reality, Meir has always wondered how, when, and where he might be reunited with his mother.

Determined to ask Svika Pick (who is one of the judges on Israeli Idol) what he knows about Miriam's whereabouts, Meir manages to steal his way backstage during auditions while a new friend, Uri (Yedidia Vital), creates a distraction with his guitar. Although Meir doesn't get the answers he had hoped for, Uri invites him to come watch him perform that evening.

As Meir soon learns, Uri's stage name is Miss Sunshine, Although rejected by the talent scouts at Israeli Idol, he is one of the stars of The Holy Wigs, a drag troupe consisting of Tziona Patriot (Yuval Edelman), Talula Bonet (Tal Kallai), Kiara Duple (Lior Cohen), and Gallina Port des Bras (Gil Naveh). After bringing Meir home from the performance, Uri arranges for him to become one of the show's backstage dressers.

One night, when Uri fails to show up on time, Meir is forced to go on in his place. In the ensuing months, Meir learns a great deal about himself while performing in drag with his newly-adopted gay family and trying to track down clues about Miriam. Meanwhile, Uri falls for Shlomi (Angel Bonanni), an abusive closeted taxi driver and Shuli's romance with Gabi falls apart. When Gabi, who is just about as butch as an Israeli soldier can be, shows up at the nightclub in search of Shuli, he and Meir meet for the first time since humiliating each other at their graduation party.

Much to Meir's surprise, Gabi shows a mild curiosity about wigs and makeup. After he spends the night, Meir falls deeply in love. Several weeks later, after Tziona has convinced his new star to pour all of his anguish about his mysterious mother into his art, Meir triumphs onstage and ends up sharing his bed with the exhausted Shuli and Gabi. Left alone the following morning, he learns that tragedy has struck.

The Holy Wigs attend the funeral of a fallen sister

Bereft, bothered, and bewildered, he returns home to see his father who, in a breathtaking plot twist, reveals what happened to Miriam (audiences may be shocked by the film's ending). What holds Mary Lou together (in addition to Svika Pick's music) is an astonishingly strong performance by Ido Rosenberg. Whether serving as the film's dark-haired narrator or living and working as a bottle blond drag queen, Rosenberg's Meir is such a sensitive and dynamic character that he quickly captures the audience's heart.

Shuli, Meir, and Gabi spend the night together

Strong support comes from Ze'ev Revach as Jack, Tchiya Danon as Sarah Hajbi, and Svika Pick, who makes a cameo appearance. Mary Lou (which will receive its American premiere at San Francisco's Castro Theatre from September 17-21) is definite cause for celebration.

* * * * * * * * *
In his recent editorial in The New York Times entitled The Question-Driven Life, columnist David Brooks wrote about his encounter with Philip Leakey, a man he describes as "gripped with some sort of compulsive curiosity." Perhaps the best way to prepare yourself for viewing Tiffany Shlain's new film, Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death, and Technology, is to watch her commencement speech to the 2010 graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley.

Early into Shlain's film, she describes having flown to New York to have lunch with an old friend, only to excuse herself during the meal and make a beeline for the ladies' room in order to sneak a peek at her email messages. "What have I become? What kind of person does that make me?" she asks.

In the digital age, that question is the electronic equivalent of asking "Does this dress make me look fat?" Ironically, the answer to Shlain's question could vary depending on the age of the respondent:
  • If the person is less than 15 years old, s/he might mumble "Huh? Did you just say something?"
  • If the person is between 15 and 30, s/he might mutter "Whatever!"
  • If the person is between 30 and 50, s/he might confess that "I understand, I've done the exact same thing."
  • If the person is over 50, s/he might say "An extremely rude and shallow narcissist."
If, however, the respondent is in recovery -- or has close friends who have gone through a 12-step program -- the answer might simply be "You're an addict." And, just like Dame Edna Everage, I say that in a "caring and compassionate way." (Shlain and her family recently adopted a weekly “technology shabbat” starting at sundown each Friday, during which no technology is accessed in their home for 24 hours).

According to BBC News, a 2005 University of London study revealed that:
  • In some ways, multitasking might actually be more addictive than pot.
  • Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in a marijuana smoker.
  • More than half of the people surveyed in that study said they always responded "immediately" or as soon as possible to a piece of email, with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting in order to do so.
While Connected is very much Shlain 's passionate investigation into how today's technology is changing our lives, perceptions, and sense of moral responsibility, it is equally a loving daughter's attempt to ensure that her father's research does not die with him. Leonard Shlain was a popular Bay area surgeon who died of brain cancer on May 11, 2009. He was also the author of four books:
The titles of those books indicate the kind of probing intellectual curiosity that ruled the home of a man whose credo was "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up way too much space." Like many artists, Shlain's curiosity borders on the obsessive. The sheer volume of archival footage in her documentary is evidence of a ferociously inquisitive mind backed by formidable research skills.

In her director's statement, Shlain writes:
"I hope that Connected will help create a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. I believe that by engaging people to talk about connectedness in their own lives and in the world, the ripple effect of these conversations will have far-reaching impact. Appreciating that this is a huge subject, I employ many tactics (humor, animation, archival, and my own personal story) to attempt to untangle what interdependence and connectedness mean in terms of the history of the human species and moving forward. Through this journey, I wield a large magnifying glass to look at some of the absurd and beautiful behaviors of our species and our world. While the core components of humans' desire to be 'connected' have not changed since we first appeared on this planet, I believe a new zeitgeist is emerging through all these new technologies that are making our world smaller and more intertwined, and that that zeitgeist can make the world a better place."

While watching Connected, there are many moments when the sheer volume and velocity of images being thrust at the audience might leave someone feeling as overwhelmed as Keir Dullea's character in the famous hallucinatory sequence near the end of Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it's easy to wonder, from the intensity of this film, if it was edited by a speed freak. But that's what the potent combination of an artist's compulsiveness, obsessiveness, and grief can produce when clearly focused on a goal.

Shlain has put all of her research for this documentary into a three-dimensional software program called Personal Brain and hopes that those who get to view Connected (or have interesting data to add) will augment her findings via the film's website.  While her worldview is shaped by her work, her socioeconomic status, and her intellectual prowess, it's important to remember that millions of people do not enjoy the fruits of her financial, educational, and entrepreneurial status -- or, for that matter, access to the Internet. Here's the trailer:

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