Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Caveman Cometh

Mention Eugene O'Neill's 1946 drama, The Iceman Cometh, to a younger generation and most people will have no idea what an iceman did. Cavemen, however, they know about.

In the past 100 years, Hollywood has delivered plenty of movies that feature prehistoric cavemen. From the earliest days of silent film, cavemen have found their way to the silver screen. Here's Charlie Chaplin in 1914's His Prehistoric Past (the last film Chaplin made for Keystone Studios).

In 1923, Buster Keaton's full-length feature entitled Three Ages included segments devoted to the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age (which was, at that time, also known as The Roaring Twenties).

From One Million Years B.C. (1966) to Encino Man (1992); from The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) to The Flintstones (1994); cavemen have found a place in popular culture. In 1949, when MGM adapted the hit 1944 Broadway musical, On The Town, co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen used New York's famous American Museum of Natural History as a location shoot for a new musical number entitled "Prehistoric Man."

In 1929, Cole Porter's hit musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen, included the song "Find Me A Primitive Man." Peter Bogdanovich restaged the number for Madeline Kahn in 1975's At Long Last Love.

With people now embracing a paleolithic diet, when someone is labeled as being a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon kinda guy, the slur is likely a reference to his mentality and lack of social skills rather than his use of leopard skin to make a fashion statement.

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One of the stranger documentaries to be screened at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival was set in the tiny Bulgarian village of Satovcha, whose 2,000 residents may have radios, computers, and televisions but, thanks to their religious traditions, live in a society based on much more stringent gender roles than one finds in modern cities like London or San Francisco.

In Satovcha, it's definitely a man's world. A world for real men, manly men who make all of the important decisions. If their women don't like what the men decide, that's tough.

Much of the 70-minute film follows a group of village elders who have been meeting every night for the past 45 years to expound on the world's problems (many of which they feel are due to women, who have learned from television how to argue with men). These men are conservative enough to make rightwing nutjobs like Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, and Michelle Bachmann all seem like flaming liberals.

While the local Communist Party leader is strongly in favor of atheism, this group of stubborn old geezers is surprised to hear one of their own suggest that homosexuals should be tolerated. As the filmmaker, Tonislav Hristov, notes
Soul Food Stories isn’t a film about the food itself. Soul food is the ritual of getting together around the table when each one of your friends brings his own spice in the sense of experiencing each other.”

Visiting Satovcha (whose population consists of Orthodox Bulgarians, Muslim Turks, Pomaks, and Evangelist Gypsies) is a bit like stepping back in time. Not quite as far as the stone age, perhaps (some of the villagers use Skype to videochat with their descendants in Los Angeles), but to a kind of patriarchal society which would boggle the minds of many Westerners.

The women of Satovcha (who are seen making a favorite filo pastry called banitsa) pretty much stick to their work in the kitchen. Mostly, they keep most of their opinions to themselves. Although these women have voted to request that the men let them use of the Pensioner's Club for a second day each week, that decision rests with one of the men (who feels that the men of the village have already been generous enough to their women).

The common ground which keeps people talking to each other is the food that they share. Although most of the younger people have left Satovcha and moved to larger cities, what Hristov never suggests in his documentary is that if their women ever stopped feeding them, the men would probably not be able to survive -- with or without their opinions.  Here's the trailer:

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Long before Tony Soprano brought his particular brand of thuggery to television, audiences were grappling with the three low-lifes in David Mamet's angry American Buffalo. The Aurora Theater Company recently mounted a tense production of the play which, in its own perverse way, offers up a silent plea for continuing education for America's bottom feeders. Working on Erik Sinkkonen's depressingly stark unit set, director Barbara Damashek notes:
"American Buffalo is beautifully constructed, cunningly observed, shamelessly theatrical, and wickedly funny. Mythically, the American con artist is a treasured part of our rogues gallery of antiheroes. No contemporary playwright has captured this territory quite as well as Mamet. He's also captured a great American theme: the idea that sales and selling is our hunt."
Teach (James Carpenter), Bobby (Rafael Jordan), and Donny
(Paul Vincent O'Connor) in a scene from American Buffalo
(Photo by: David Allen)

Of the three characters in Mamet's script, none is particularly perceptive or articulate. Nor could the term "upwardly mobile" ever be applied to them. Each is a pathetic loser, a primitive American man trying to claw out a place for himself in Chicago's South Side. If even the pettiest crooks cling to a code of honor, it's because sometimes that's all they've got going for them.

American Buffalo (which premiered at Chicago;s Goodman Theatre in 1975) was Mamet's big professional break as a playwright. Whether his use of street language was praised or condemned, it could not be ignored. Peppered with words like "fuck," "cunt," and "shit," his script offers actors a perversely written kind of sheet music for desperately confused and hopelessly lost souls.

If one were to delete all the expletives from Mamet's play, it would strip the action of its pulse, its rhythms, and its social class (or lack thereof). The coarseness of its language, the clumsy stupidity of its characters, and the squalor in which they struggle to survive are what give the play its muscle. Chicago theatre critic Richard Christiansen once described American Buffalo as:
"...a play about the desperate need of little men to score big, about the rapacious greed of the American capitalist system, about the rhythm and beauty of words in the most common and vulgar street language, about the tragic betrayal of personal relations, about the passing on of tribal wisdom from one generation to the next, and above all, about the need for family as expressed in the search of a younger man for a father figure."
James Carpenter, Paul Vincent O'Connor, and Rafael Jordan
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen) 

Each of Mamet's men is a real piece of work:
  • Donny Dobrow (Paul Vincent O'Connor) runs a junk shop on the South Side where a coin collector recently paid $90 for an American buffalo nickel. Although Donny doesn't know shit about numismatics, he's got enough street smarts to know that the coin was probably worth a lot more than $90. His plan is to break into the purchaser's home, find the nickel and the rest of the man's valuables, and make off with the loot.
  • Bobby (Rafael Jordan) is a quiet, inarticulate, and directionless young man who looks to Donny as a father figure.
  • Walter "Teach" Cole (James Carpenter) is Donny's friend, poker buddy, and occasional co-conspirator. A man who seesaws between being a pathetic whiner and a raging bully, Teach practically reeks of desperation, dysfunction, and despair. 
Donny (Paul Vincent O'Connor) challenges Teach (James Carpenter)
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen)

In a 1997 interview with John Lahr, Mamet explained that:
"American Buffalo is a classically structured tragedy. Drama has to do with circumstance, tragedy has to do with individual choice. The precipitating element of a drama can be a person's sexuality, their wealth, their disease. A tragedy can't be about any of those things. The difference between drama and tragedy is that tragedy has to be the attempt of one specific person to obtain one specific goal. When he either gets it or doesn't get it, we know the play is over and we can go home and put out the baby-sitter. That's why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero -- we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves."
Paul Vincent O'Connor, James Carpenter, and Rafael Jordan
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen) 

The intimacy of the Aurora Theatre Company's playing space (with its horseshoe seating pattern) intensifies the desperation, clumsiness, and inherent stupidity of Mamet's three losers. It also magnifies a bravura performance by James Carpenter as one of the most miserable motherfuckers in Chicago. While Paul Vincent O'Connor and Rafael Jordan hold their own against Carpenter's histrionics, there is absolutely no question about who is the evening's dominant personality.

Performances of American Buffalo continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through July 20 (click here to order tickets).

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