Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Time To Grow Up

Bette Davis is famously quoted for claiming that "Old age ain't no place for sissies." But in truth, being an adult isn't as easy as some people imagined it would be. Grown-up behavior involves such unglamorous tasks as taking responsibility for your actions. It also requires an understanding of why honesty is the best policy. Great minds have been crystal clear on the concept.
  • Mark Twain told people that "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." 
  • Groucho Marx confessed that "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made." 
  • Noel Coward observed that "It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit." 
  • Adlai Stevenson II stated "I will make a bargain with the Republicans. If they will stop telling lies about Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them."
  • Mark Twain also warned that "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

While summer camps and athletic coaches try to instill a sense of fair play and good sportsmanship in adolescents, there are times when we look at today's youth and wonder if the generations who grew up under the old proverb "Spare the rod and spoil the child" were better equipped to embrace certain types of discipline. Today's young Americans include spoiled teenagers who have been reared by helicopter parents, demand trigger warnings while attending college, can have the family lawyer get them off by claiming that they suffer from affluenza, and look up to the Crybaby-in-Chief as a role model.

Part of the problem may well be due to parents who are so engaged with their electronic devices that they can't be bothered to pay attention to the everyday needs of their children. As Matt Ruby wrote in his recent article entitled “Side Hustle” as a Sign of the Apocalypse (Uber and Seamless Ads Reveal How Silicon Valley is Screwing Us):
"These tech companies position themselves as heroes. They talk about changing the world constantly. Yet all they do is churn out technology for rich, white dudes in their 20s/30s who live in big cities and want apps to fill in the blanks for what mommy used to do. They even call it 'mom-tech.' We’re letting our lives be dictated by brogrammers who want to breastfeed forever.

Mommy used to pick me up from soccer practice. A: Uber.
Mommy used to do my laundry. A: Flycleaners.
Mommy used to clean my room. A: Handy.
Mommy used to buy me groceries. A: Blue Apron.
Mommy used to cook me food. A: Seamless."

What happens when failure is not an option and Peter Pan syndrome can't be cured? Not everyone embarks on launching a start-up business.
  • Some young adults move back home to live with their parents. 
  • Others become slackers.
  • Some travel abroad to "find themselves."
  • Others become perpetual students.
  • Many become pathological liars.
Two dramas focus on adults who, given their aspirations, should be doing better. Unfortunately, time is nipping at their heels. The lies they've kept telling themselves are starting to catch up with them. Like it or not, disaster just around the corner.

* * * * * * * * *
Custom Made Theatre welcomed in the New Year with the Bay area premiere of Amy Herzog's drama, Belleville. Directed by M. Graham Smith on a unit set designed by Carlos Aceves, the play contrasts the lifestyles of two sets of expatriates living in a multicultural part of Paris.
  • Alioune (Nicolas Sweeney) is a young father who works as the landlord and building manager for one of his family's properties. A native of Senegal, he learned how to take on responsibility at an early age and was raised in a culture where young people learn to respect their elders and avoid bringing shame upon their relatives. A man who places great value on friendship, Alioune tries to do right by his family and tenants.
  • Amina (Nkechi Emeruwa) is Alioune's wife, a woman who respects her husband's good intentions but keeps him grounded in reality.
Nicolas Sweeney (Alioune) and Nkechi Emeruwa (Amina)
in a scene from Belleville (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

The other couple are two impulsive Americans.
  • Abby (Alisha Ehrlich) developed a serious drinking problem in college and proposed to her husband (instead of having him propose to her) after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Part of Abby's motivation for a quick wedding may have been a strong desire for her mother to be able to see her daughter get married before succumbing to a terminal disease. A more likely reason is that Abby desperately needed someone to take care of her.
  • Zack (Justin Gillman) was in medical school (hoping to specialize in pediatric AIDS work) when Abby proposed. So in love with Abby that he would do anything to make her happy, he responded to his fianceĆ©'s desire to experience Paris by insisting that they move there, where he was certain he could find a job working for Doctors Without Borders.
Justin Gillman (Zack) and Alisha Ehrlich (Abby)
in a scene from Belleville (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

While that may have been their plan, life took them down another path. Following her mother's death, Abby became a phone addict, constantly calling her father from Paris to make sure all was well and telling him all about what his little girl was doing. Although she kept herself busy with small projects, yoga classes, and even learned a little bit of French, she did not really immerse herself in French culture the way many people attempt to do.

Alisha Ehrlich (Abby) and Nicolas Sweeney (Alioune)
in a scene from Belleville (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

When Herzog's play begins, Abby has just returned home from doing some shopping. After putting down her packages, she enters the bedroom and is shocked to discover her husband masturbating in front of his laptop. Shocked by her discovery and curious about why Zack isn't working at the hospital, she begins to sulk.

As Zack is taking a shower, there is a knock at the door. It's Alioune, politely asking to talk with Abby's husband. Unlike their usual friendly conversations while smoking marijuana, Alioune has come to remind Zack that he is four months late on paying the rent. It's time to pay up or leave.

Justin Gillman (Zack) and Nicolas Sweeney (Alioune)
in a scene from Belleville (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Without revealing too many of life's ugly surprises, let's just say that Abby is bummed out that she can't travel back to America to welcome her sister's new baby (which is due shortly before Christmas). It's also possible that she has stopped taking her antidepressants. Meanwhile, Zack is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the elaborate charade upon which their marriage rests. When spoiled expatriates with a noticeable sense of entitlement start to act out, they can quickly morph into a contemporary version of the Ugly American.

Nicolas Sweeney (Alioune), Nkechi Emeruwa (Amina) and Justin
Gillman (Zack) in a scene from Belleville (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

A fairly taut drama, Belleville challenges the audience' empathy quotient as well as its perceptions of who the good guys should be. While Alioune and Amina are obviously the adults in the room, there is no doubt that the narcissistic and extremely needy Abby (as well as her desperately enabling husband) lack the coping skills to solve their own problems. When push comes to shove, they don't merely pose a danger to others, they're total losers.

* * * * * * * * *
Twelve-steppers won't hesitate to remind people that "Denial is not just a river in Egypt." While denial may be what keeps Abby and Zack from confronting their failures in Belleville, it's not as easy for Sidney (Tomas Pais) to ignore his failures in Hunky Dory, a poignant, extremely low-budget film being screened during the 2017 San Francisco Indiefest. Set in and around the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, Hunky Dory's protagonist is a bisexual rock star wannabe whose artistic hopes have failed to materialize.

Tomas Pais stars as Sidney in Hunky Dory

Left with precious little money and the shattered remnants of a glam rock "dilettante lifestyle," Sidney tries to support himself by performing in drag at a local dive bar which at least can offer him an opportunity to savor the adrenaline rush of performing in front of a live audience. Whether his audience is somnolent, bored, or too drunk to move, it's still an audience.

There's just one problem. Sidney has an 11-year-old son who has been living with his ex. When she mysteriously disappears, Sidney must suddenly pick up the day-to-day responsibilities of getting George (Eduoard Holdener) to and from school, feeding him, entertaining him, and being a full-time Dad.

Tomas Pais stars as Sidney in Hunky Dory

Among the various friends that Sidney tries to mooch off are Danny (Jeff Newburg), an ex-felon who is trying to live straight following his release from prison; Justin (Chad Hartigan), a married friend who fucks Sidney at the beginning of the film; and Victoria (Joy Darash), an old friend who paid for many of Sidney's meals back when times were better and is incensed that Sidney would now ask her to reimburse him for the money he once loaned her to cover the cost of a meal.
  • Sometimes Sidney can leave George in the care of his close friend, Diomedes (Chad Borden), a drag queen dying of cancer who accepts the fact that Sidney will frequently raid his medicine cabinet for drugs. 
  • No longer able to afford the services of a lipstick lesbian hooker named Bunny (Nora Rothman), he convinces her to at least help him by babysitting for George while he is performing onstage.
  • When he succumbs to the advances of Glen (Peter van Norden), one of his fans from the dive bar where he performs, Sidney can't even get it up to earn some money.
  • When Sidney finally manages to contact George's paranoid-schizophrenic mother, it's obvious that she has stopped taking her anti-psychotic medications and is clearly delusional.
  • A trip to visit his parents is a total bust.
Sidney (Tomas Pais) comforts his son, George,
(Eduoard Holdener) in a scene from Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory may have been made on a shoestring, but it has some undeniable assets. As directed by Michael Curtis Johnson (who co-wrote the script with his star, Tomas Pais), the father-son bond is warm, genuine, and filled with love and imagination. The luminous work by cinematographer Magela Crosignani gives Hunky Dory a visual richness that stands head and shoulders above many indie films. Writing in Filmmaker magazine, Johnson recalls that:
“After I graduated from the directing program of the American Film Institute, I was financially crippled by student loan debt. I was writing spec scripts that I really didn’t believe in for a spec market that really doesn’t exist anymore, shooting no-budget short films that no one would ever see and struggling to find work in and out of the film industry. I had also gotten married and had two amazing children. I was fulfilled in my personal life, but frustrated with my creative one. My repeated professional disappointments were really starting to affect my personal life. I wondered if I should just focus on being the best dad and husband I could be and put all this childhood nonsense behind me (maybe if I would have made movies in my backyard when I was a kid, I could have gotten it out of my system). Whether it’s parenthood, traveling and/or spending time with the people you love, you shouldn’t put any part of your life on hold for your art. Life is what takes your work to the next level. You don’t give up any part of yourself for your work or your family, you just need to find balance. Being a father has made me a better storyteller and brought focus to my work.” 
Young Eduoard Holdener and Indie filmmaker
Michael Curtis Johnson working on Hunky Dory
"Tomas Pais and I channeled our Los Angeles experiences into a project that took elements from both our lives (like my relationship with my kids and his relationship with his own dad) to create a tale about an unconventional father who can’t grow up and let go of his rock-and-roll dreams. We begged friends and family for funding and favors and set out to tell a tale about a man who walks in LA, struggling with the fear of mediocrity and raising a child while coming of age himself. The film was shot in 11 days on a shoestring budget. We didn’t know just how in over our heads we were when we started production and how lucky we would be to come out on the other side with something that we could be proud of."
The characters in Belleville and Hunky Dory differ in one critical respect. Audiences will find it hard to sympathize with Abby and Zack, who have done everything in their power to ignore reality. With much less of a support system to fall back on, Sidney and his son, George, do a surprisingly effective job of pushing a viewer's empathy button. They may be down and out, but at heart, they're nicer, more optimistic, and much more interesting people.  Here's the trailer: