Friday, January 20, 2012

Hanging On For Dear Life

No doubt you've had this experience: You read a description of an upcoming show and think "That sounds really interesting."  Or perhaps the buzz on a foreign film making the rounds of the festival circuit sounds extremely promising.

When you finally get to attend a performance or screening of the work in question you discover that it's a bit of a dud (kind of like the guy who was praised far and wide for his endowment but turned out to be a soulless bore who expected you to do all the work).

Two new tales of gender oppression come wrapped in the allure of exotic locations, feminist struggles, and subcultures which are rarely experienced by the audience at large. And yet, for all the care and loving which so obviously went into their creation, I found them to be surprisingly tedious.

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Often, when reference is made to the Two-Spirit people of Native American cultures, visions come to mind of Richard Amory's groundbreaking Song of the Loon or the male berdache who prefers cooking and domestic chores over hunting for food. The following clip from the film adaptation of Amory's erotic novel predates Brokeback Mountain by 35 years.

While a sufficient amount of one-handed fiction about hunky Indian braves getting it on in the wilderness can be found throughout gay literature (the sequels to Amory's 1966 classic inspired "Ricardo Armory" to write a parody novel which was subsequently transformed into a porn film entitled Fruit of the Loon), one rarely encounters stories about lesbian life among indigenous peoples.

Cover art for Fruit of the Loon by "Ricardo Armory"

In his essay entitled Adult Novels of Men in the Womanless World - Gay Pulp Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, David Seubert writes:
"Greenleaf published an edition of Jean Genet's novels and many novels by prolific author and B movie director Ed Wood including Orgy of the Dead, but their most famous gay titles are perhaps Richard Amory [Richard Love]'s Loon Songs trilogy. Song of the Loon (1966), Song of Aaron (1967), and Listen, the Loon Sings... (1968) were widely read gay softcore. They were even so popular that Fruit of the Loon (1968), a fourth title by "Ricardo Armory" that parodied the series capitalized on the success of the previous three. Described by Angelo D'Arcangelo as a gay Last of the Mohicans, the series is a harmonious fantasy of love between the Native Americans and the white men, and has more literary merit than the average pulp. The big furry mountain men in these books would now be called 'bears' in the gay community and the Loon Trilogy may have had a lot to do with popularizing the 'bear lifestyle.' Again, all the characters seem to be gay, and everyone is identifiable by their membership in the supposed Native American organization, the Loon Society. Gentleness, compassion, and harmony are central to these books, flying in the face of the two stereotypes common in other books: either the 'bitchy queen' or the suicidal neurotic. They are surprisingly gentle books, and though they can get a bit syrupy at times, they show little of the terror and self-hatred of the exploitation books from ten years earlier."

The back cover from Fruit of the Loon

Cherrie Moraga's newest play, New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again, tells the story of Vero (Dena Martinez), an indigenous woman celebrating her 52nd birthday who must undergo a spiritual cleansing in order to move forward in life. Having been molested by her stepfather when she was a child, raped by a man at 17, and struggled to survive as a lesbian in a male-dominated society, Vero is haunted by a coyote (Adelina Anthony) and visited by an itinerant healer (Robert Owens-Greygrass) during a long light of tribal rituals.

Robert Owens-Greygrass and Dena Martinez in Cherrie Moraga's
New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again (Photo by: Charlie Villyard)

Much of New Fire feels like an extensively researched museum diorama rather than a staged drama. Video screens on each side of the stage are used to introduce the audience to certain key rituals and, alternatively, show gatherings of indigenous people in California. If Moraga's script had half as much dramatic power as the re-staging of indigenous rituals, New Fire might be a far more interesting evening of theatre.

As seen on opening night, New Fire's real strengths lie in the music of Stephen Luis Cervantes and the choreography by Alleluia Panis. While the show's running time is 95 minutes, the performance often feels as long as Gotterdammerung. At numerous moments during New Fire I found myself quietly wishing for more cowbell.

Vero (Dena Martinez) undergoes a spiritual cleansing ritual in Cherrie Moraga's
New Fire -- To Put Things Right Again (Photo by: Charlie Villyard)

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An intense domestic drama written, directed, and produced by Asghar Farhadi is getting lots of buzz on the festival circuit and starting to rack up awards. Frankly, I don't get it.

What makes A Separation so compelling to many people is that the film was shot in Iran, a society that is very much invisible to Western audiences. Because Iran is also a country undergoing tremendous social upheaval, the film is being seen as a breakthrough in Middle Eastern cinema. I won't say that all the fuss over A Separation is much ado about nothing -- just that this film is severely overrated.

Farhadi's film focuses on two severely stressed-out Iranian families. The first lives a fairly comfortable lifestyle and could be categorized as modern, middle class, secular professionals. The husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), is a male chauvinist whose live-in father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Nader's wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants them to leave Iran so that their 14-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), can have better opportunities in life.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his demented father
(Ali-Asghar Shahbazi ) go for a walk

As the film opens, Nader and Simin are appearing before a judge. Simin wants a divorce, but Nader  (who wants his daughter to stay with him) will only agree to a separation. Soon after Simin packs her belongings and leaves to live with her parents, it becomes obvious that Nader is totally unequipped to manage the care of his demented, incontinent father.

The second family is poor, extremely religious, and clings to a more traditional set of family values (that includes domestic violence).  The easily provoked Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) is so severely in debt that his creditors have sent him to prison on numerous occasions. When Houjat answers Nader's ad for domestic help, the two men act as if the situation has been completely resolved between them. But when Houjat is unable to fulfill his responsibilities, his wife (Sareh Bayat) steps in to take his place.

Razieh arrives at Nader's apartment with her young daughter, Someiyah (Kimia Hosseini), in tow and quickly starts to feel overwhelmed by the task awaiting her. When Nader's father soils the bed, she calls a religious help line to ask if she is permitted to clean him and wash his body. Meanwhile, Someiyah amuses herself with the valve on the old man's oxygen tank. The child's dark, questioning eyes take in everything happening around her.

 Someiyah (Kimia Hooseini) and her mother
Razieh (Sareh Bayat) walk down a busy street

As tempers flare, Nader accuses Razieh of stealing from him and tries to push her out of his apartment. When she returns to protest his accusations, Nader pushes harder and Razieh falls down the stairs.

Soon afterwards, Razieh suffers a miscarriage. Houjat accuses Nader of murder, Nader insists that he had no knowledge Razieh was pregnant, and a bitter chaos descends on both families.

As Nader and Simin try to figure out what the future might hold for their family, Simin (who is involved in some kind of social work), learns Razieh's deep, dark secret. Together, the two women must find a way to prevent their husbands from going to jail and/or trying to kill each other.

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are an
Iranian couple whose marriage is falling apart in A Separation

I did not find any of this film's acting, direction, or cinematography to be exceptional. If the same script had been filmed in a Latino culture with an equally oppressive level of macho behavior (arrogance, condescension, lying, violence, denial, stalking, stupidity, etc.) the story would hold up just as well.

The bottom line is that the children of any conflicted marriage suffer more than their self-involved parents imagine. And, in A Separation, nobody wins. Everybody loses. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

ohara said...

Thanks to share that information with us,Cultural Landscape is important now days.