Thursday, July 31, 2008

Such A Pretty Face

Long before Joan Rivers discovered the benefits of plastic surgery, many young Jewish girls were not only considered to be beautiful, but had a considerable amount of self esteem. A young woman's physical beauty was only part of the total package. Intelligence, wit, and personality brought an extra level of sparkle into play.

Several years ago, when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened the 1936 Molly Picon classic Yidl mitn fidl (which was filmed on location in Poland just before World War II), it was astonishing to see an entire cast of Polish Jews without a single reconstructive rhinoplasty. Look at some of today's highly sanitized beauty pageants and you will notice an astonishing vapidity among the contestants.

To say I was curious about a documentary entitled Miss Universe 1929 -- Lisl Goldarbeiter, A Queen in Wien would be a severe understatement. To my surprise, I got much more than I had bargained for. Using a similar technique to the one he employed in The Danube Exodus, documentarian Péter Forgács spun cinema gold from the amateur movies taken by Maritz (Marci) Tenczer. Along with some archival footage from nearly 100 years ago, Forgacs has imbued the story of a sweet Jewish teenager living in Vienna in the 1920s -- who was crowned Miss Austria and went on to win the 1929 Miss Universe contest in Galveston, Texas -- with a tremendous sense of history.

What makes Lisl Goldarbeiter's triumph so curious is her seeming lack of ego for a major beauty contestant. She turned down an offer from King Vidor to come to Hollywood and, in many clips, seems amused by -- but not desperate for -- the attention she receives. In some ways her beauty comes from her shyness and simplicity. Little makeup. No implants. No contest for today's bottle blonde media whores.

The key to understanding the film lies within the heart of the original filmmaker. It was Tenczer (Goldarbeiter's Hungarian cousin and second husband) who entered Lisl's name in the Miss Universe contest and lovingly filmed her throughout her life. While the documentary -- and comments made by the eldery Tenczer -- memorialize his life-long infatuation with his Viennese cousin, the historic value of the film is equally thrilling. There is some great footage of the streets of Vienna during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s with occasional side trips to Paris, Bratislava, and Galveston. Lovers of antique cars may find themselves drooling at the shots of Lisl and her first husband's eight-cylinder Bugatti. Fashion mavens will love the footage of society balls.

The story of how Tenczer (a certified engineer) survived the war and eventually married the girl of his dreams provides a happy ending which shows love's flame burning brightly despite the hardships imposed by the Germans during World War II and the inevitable passage of time. Equally fascinating is Tulip Time -- The Rise and Fall of the Trio Lescano, a documentary by Marco De Stefanis and Tonino Boniotti which focuses on the Dutch singing trio who settled in Italy and were every bit as famous throughout Europe as the Andrews Sisters were in America.

Where today's musicians consider themselves worthy of a gold record with sales of 50,000, the Trio Lescano could easily sell 350,000 recordings of some songs. The children of a Hungarian circus artist and a Dutch soprano who performed in operettas, the three sisters started out as gymnasts who, even though they could not read music, knew how to pose and move. Soon after being discovered by impresario Carlo Prato at a circus performing outside the city of Verona, they were taught how to memorize new songs. Their innate musicality as circus performers helped them develop a uniquely blended sound which was always in synch and easily marketable.

Not only were the Trio Lescano the darlings of the popular music scene in Europe, Mussolini once danced with one of the sisters and confessed to being one of their biggest fans. That kind of adoration and worship quickly vanished in 1943, when the Trio Lescano's lyrics were labeled anti-fascist, their recording contract cancelled and the sisters revealed to be Jews. Soon they were arrested and held in custody. Following their release the trio sought to rebuild their career in South America but, while performing there, one of the sisters fell in love, married, and decided to leave the group. The film includes interviews with several other European musicians from the 1940s (including one woman who joined the group as a replacement singer).

The documentary neatly traces the rise and fall of Sandra, Giuditta and Caterinetta Leschan, whose careers ended in illness and surprising poverty. The musical score, with songs they made popular from 1938 to 1943, is an absolute delight. In addition to its musical interest, Tulip Time offers lovers of 1940s nostalgia a great look at hair styles and period costumes.

Definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Matter of Craft

Many years ago a friend was attending college in Prescott, Arizona when students were given the opportunity to offer suggestions for new course material. When someone recommended adding dance or ballet classes, one of the stoners in the dorm snorted derisively. "You don't need a class for that stuff -- you just smoke a joint and then get up and do it."

Acting is not as easy as it may look -- even to other actors. Deanna Dunagan (who, at 68, recently won the Tony award for best actress in a play for her searing portrayal of Violet Weston in August: Osage County), confessed that her role was exhausting to perform. Violet, who is onstage for 90 minutes out of a 3-1/2 hour show, must climb up and down 350 steps during the course of each performance. The physical and emotional demands of the role are on a par with Edward Albee's Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And yet Dunagan's replacement in the Broadway cast (while the actress rests up for the play's London engagement) is none other than 80-year-old Estelle Parsons!

When Harvey Fierstein wrote a memorial tribute to Estelle Getty (who died this week at the age of 84), he made a very interesting comment:

"The thing about Estelle was that you could not catch her acting. She was being. If her character was supposed to be angry, Estelle got angry. If her character was broken hearted, the actress was broken hearted. On stage there was simply no deception. It all felt real. Acting opposite her was an absolute pleasure and complete challenge. She demanded the same truth from the rest of us that she was delivering."

For any actor, honing one's craft is a lifelong pursuit (any performance that looks effortless is a triumph of deception). Perhaps the biggest challenge for an actor is performing a one-man show. Often staged with a minimum of costumes, this tour de force leaves an actor at his most vulnerable. When an actor is secure enough in body and mind to let a character completely take over, the art can soar. When an artist is struggling to make the narrative work, the desperately sought-after theatrical magic evaporates into thin air.

Whether simply telling stories about one's past (Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Chazz Palmintieri's A Bronx Tale), or sitting behind a desk for two hours while dazzling an audience with a fiercely intelligent narrative (Mike Daisey), solo performers need a wealth of stage experience, strong material and incredible stamina. Whether one is rapidly switching accents and body language while juggling close to 40 characters (Dan Hoyle) -- or taunting an audience with sass and sequins (Dame Edna) -- in order to get through the evening a solo performer must have supreme confidence in his craft.

When any of these factors is missing, the performance can -- and inevitably will -- suffer. Despite the actress's willingness to re-enact the fall of the World Trade Center's twin towers by holding her massive, pendulous breasts up to eye level and then, one by one, letting gravity take over ("What did you say, Timmy? Is that an airplane?") The Breast of Sherry Glaser often struggled to find its mark. Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking lost plenty of steam as the actress kept stalking the stage in search of an ending.

Two solo acts recently seen in San Francisco could not have been more different. One offered a slick, magnificently confident performance from a veteran of stage and screen. The other showed a work in its early stages of development, roughly hewn and in sore need of directorial assistance.

Having begun his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Roger Rees boasts more than a passing acquaintance with the Bard of Avon. The recipient of Tony, Obie, and Olivier awards for his stage appearances, Rees is also an accomplished stage director. His skill at creating a one-man show is breathtaking in his knowledge of Shakespeare's writing, his research and recall of theatrical lore from past centuries, his willingness to poke fun at popular misconceptions about William Shakespeare and the sheer delight with which he sinks his teeth into telling James Thurber's The Macbeth Murder Mystery.

And yet, in a very strange way, Rees almost makes Shakespeare sound too easy to perform. Having trod many a classical stage during his career, Rees's comfort level with the text -- and his seemingly limitless energy -- could easily intimidate actors half his age. While his execution of some of Shakespeare's greatest monologues is practiced and fierce, I occasionally felt like I was watching a very sophisticated mechanic turn a trick (almost like listening to a facile coloratura soprano toss off trills and roulades that have been so carefully rehearsed that they seem effortless). His performance is a showcase of craft and confidence triumphing over a huge amount of text and memory work.

Sadly, such was not the case at Victoria Doggett's one-woman show, Kiss My Booth, which I recently saw at The Marsh. For those who are unfamiliar with The Marsh, it is a performance workspace at 1062 Valencia where new pieces of performance art are tested, polished, and allowed to have their kinks worked out before live audiences. It has been a testing ground for performers like Charlie Varon, Brian Copeland, Marga Gomez and Josh Kornbluth.

Doggett's piece aims to demonstrate what life is really like for vendors at a trade show. But because much of her material is still trying to find its rhythm, one always feels as if she is pacing herself by numbers. Certain moves are so clearly marked that one can almost hear a metronome ticking in the performer's mind.

The only segment of the show which really takes off -- and during which Doggett seems perfectly at ease with her character -- is her impersonation of Doris, a self-important, gluttonous food critic from "Chicago Bites" magazine who can't seem to score enough samples to satisfy her hunger or fill her pocketbook. If Doggett can bring the rest of the show up to the level of Doris's comfort zone, Kiss My Booth will improve tremendously.

A curious note about voice projection: Roger Rees chose to perform What You Will without any amplification in a 1,025-seat theater. Doggett, performing Kiss My Booth for a group of perhaps 40 people, was outfitted with a battery-powered radio microphone Whether this was for video recording purposes or intended to be part of a trade show demonstrator's costume, the visual did not work to her advantage.

Ann Randolph (a fearless performer who is brazenly confident in her craft) brings Squeezebox back to The Marsh from September 13 to October 5. In the meantime, treat yourself to a guilty pleasure and spend five minutes watching two musical theater legends -- Angela Lansbury and Julie Andrews (with a helping hand from Steve Lawrence) -- demonstrate superior craft and supreme confidence.

Monday, July 28, 2008

To Thine Own Self Be True

Learning about yourself is a curious process. For much of a person's adolescence one definition after another is crammed down a youngster's throat. With the onset of puberty, raging hormones take the questioning process far beyond a tot's annoying way of asking "Why?" ad infinitum.

When one's emerging identity starts to stray from the images and ideas that have been spoon fed to someone since birth, rebellion is sure to ensue. But what happens when there are no easy answers?

I remember all too well how, when I first started coming out, I was relieved just to discover that a word actually existed for what I was. I had received no information from my family or my school about what it meant to be gay. Indeed, after moving to San Francisco a friend told me about a family reunion where his father had started to ask all of their relatives where he had gone wrong, what he had done that could have resulted in his son turning gay. My friend's sister replied "Don't try to take credit for something you didn't do. Everything Michael did he had to learn all by himself."

Self knowledge is very different from self love. It requires patience, introspection, and a willingness to discover, process, and work with uncomfortable truths. Some people spend many years in analysis. Others wander the streets trying to learn life's lessons without professional guidance. But Oscar Hammerstein's lyric from The King And I has aways been "Getting To Know You" -- not "Getting To Know ME!"

An offhanded remark from a total stranger can precipitate a maelstrom of self doubt. Comments like "Does this dress make me look fat?" or "I thought you said you were a top...." can open up an emotional can of worms that was supposed to stay tightly sealed shut. Bay area radio personality Brian Copeland was flipping through some fan mail one day when he read a letter that stated "You don't sound like a genuine black man." That one startling statement led Copeland on a quest to discover (a) what constitutes a genuine black man, (b) what parts of him could be construed as not "genuinely black" and (c) what other prejudices exist against black men which insist on defining them in ways that have no relation whatsoever to the reality of their lives.

I finally got to see Copeland's highly-acclaimed Not A Genuine Black Man when he returned to The Marsh for a series of benefit performances. The longest-running one-man show in San Francisco theater history, Not A Genuine Black Man, packs quite a hefty punch as Copeland takes turns impersonating himself as an impressionable eight-year-old, his feisty, no-nonsense grandmother, his abusive stepfather, his mother (who struggled to raise her children in an almost all-white Bay area suburb in the 1970s), and a host of other memorable characters.

Copeland's story is currently in development for a future television series. All of the material in the play and much, much more, is now available in print with his new book, Not A Genuine Black Man, which is now required reading in many high schools and colleges around the nation. Copeland's book was also recently chosen as a 2009 pick for Silicon Valley Reads (an exciting community reading program co-sponsored by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the Santa Clara County Library, and the San Jose Public Library Foundation).

Buy it. Read it.

If Copeland is obsessed with probing what it means not to be a genuine black man, Oded Lotan is focused on what it means not to be an anatomically complete man. Most men go through life with one favorite playtoy -- their penis. "To cut or not to cut" is the question at the heart of Lotan's provocative new documentary The Quest for the Missing Piece.

With a great sense of humor and compassion, Lotan explores the delicate topic of circumcision, touching on all the religious, social and medical issues surrounding the ancient practice. Noting that circumcision is the most widely performed surgical procedure in the world, he films a Jewish infant being circumcised, a seven year old Arab boy undergoing circumcision, and a young Israeli soldier who goes under the knife so that he will no longer be teased for having a foreskin.

Lotan's inspiration for the film came when he met the man of his dreams and discovered that his partner was uncircumcised. Questions about the fate of his own foreskin quickly arose and took on a life of their own. Lotan interviews family members, rabbis, and mohels as well as young Jewish parents who are willing to buck the norm and refrain from having their children circumcised. It's a fascinating film, beautifully rendered, with lots of humor and pathos. Highly educational and well worth one's time. You can watch the delightful trailer here.

Shortly before news hit the wires that a school in Thailand is offering its students a transexual toilet, I had a chance to watch another controversial documentary on transgenderism being shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. One of the striking similarities between The Question for the Missing Piece and Orna Ben Dor's Mom, I Didn't Kill Your Daughter is the level of involvement and support from the protagonists' families.

It doesn't take long for an audience to understand what makes Lior and Yuval such an exceptional couple. Although bearded, balding, and hairy, Yuval was born as a woman and underwent gender reassignment surgery nearly 17 years ago. Currently involved in a legal struggle to have his gender changed on his passport and other legal documents, Yuval is also in love with Lior, a younger, larger and much more opinionated Israeli who was born on a kibbutz as a girl but has always identified as a male.

Lior, who has starting taking hormones in anticipation of her own gender reassignment surgery, has also recorded a series of video diaries which form a critical part of the documentary. Ben Dor's film follows the two FTMs as they trudge through the legal and physical challenges of becoming the boy/man they always identified as.

Yuval's tenderness in supporting Lior as she transitions from female to male is quite touching to watch, especially since he has first-hand knowledge of what the surgery entails. Lior, however, inhabits a much larger body than Yuval ever did and must face certain surgical considerations that Yuval was spared. As Yuval and Lior's mother await Lior's return from the operating room, the concerned mother's confession of how grateful she is to have Yuval by her side at such an emotional moment is deeply touching.

This is a remarkably brave film, which showcases a lot of personal and political issues that the general public rarely gets to explore in an honest and intelligent format. By the end of the film, as Yuval, Lior and their dog work at growing a family that is "under construction," one can't help but admire their courage in trying to define themselves as they see fit, rather than as a hostile society might choose to pigeonhole them.

That leads, of course, to a critical question for any person with half a brain. How do you want to define your life? Like this?

Or like this.....

Leave No Child Behind

While the Bush administration likes to boast about the No Child Left Behind program created by its incompetent Department of Education, a darker, more predatory context sometimes lurks behind those words. Whether one looks to the cautionary tale of Hansel and Gretel or Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, there is no shortage of stories about children being manipulated, brutalized, and sometimes killed by pederasts and serial killers.

Even if children are taught from an early age not to take candy from strangers -- or get into an unknown driver's car -- sometimes temptation rears its ugly head. Posters on San Francisco MUNI buses remind riders that, all too often, a child's sexual abuser can be a relative, stepfather, or family friend. Something as innocent as a naive desire to please a trusted friend or authority figure can easily shatter a child's life.

Of course, evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Despite an adult's claim that children will be protected from harm, reality sometimes gets in the way. If you don't believe me, just ask any adult who, as an adolescent, was sexually molested by the Catholic priest he expected to be the spiritual guide who would protect him from evil.

Two documentaries screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival deal with the evacuation of large groups of children. In one case, the aim is to deliver children from evil. In the other, large numbers of children are dumped right into the hands of an evil they can hardly imagine.

Talk about dumb luck. After reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , a young, newlywed Jew living in Switzerland felt compelled to do something to help. After approaching several Jewish agencies and telling them that they didn't even have to pay him for his services, he was about to give up when he knocked on the door of a children's support organization. Unbeknownst to the naive 27-year-old British-born Jew, the organization was a front for the Israeli Mossad.

Yehuda Kaveh's documentary, Operation Mural Casablanca 1961, relates how 530 children of Moroccan Jews were smuggled from Casablanca to Switzerland (under the guise of attending a summer camp for needy children) before being resettled in Israel. The success of Operation Mural led to the subsequent emigration of nearly 100,000 Moroccan Jews between 1962 and 1964.

The film follows David Littman and some of his colleagues as they return to Casablanca 45 years following their daring rescue operation. Retracing their steps as they describe the meticulous planning and execution of 1961's top-secret evacuation of Jewish children, they look back on an adventure that made one of Littman's children wonder if her father wasn't a real-life James Bond. Interesting insights include Littman's unexpected success using "group passports" to help large numbers of children leave Casablanca and a description of how the entire operation was almost compromised by the misguided efforts of orthodox Jews in Switzerland -- who were determined to enroll the children in a yeshiva instead of letting them proceed to Israel as originally planned.

Not every story has a happy ending. While many of the Moroccan children who were evacuated by Operation Mural were subsequently reunited with their parents in Israel, the children of Italian Jews who were taken from the Rome ghetto in December 1943 were much less fortunate. Mimmo Calopresti's heart-rending documentary Volevo Solo Vivere (I Only Wanted To Live) (which has Steven Spielberg as its executive director), features interviews with nine elderly Italians who survived Auschwitz.

At the time of their evacuation from Rome these boys and girls ranged from approximately 4 to 20 years in age. They tell of how they survived a series of "selections" in which children were asked if they wanted to go see their mother and, if they said yes, ended up being loaded onto trucks to be killed. Their tales of being put to work in the crematoria at Auschwitz (and having to escort relatives to their death) are truly heartbreaking.

And yet, occasionally a child's unintentional wisdom pokes through. One woman describes how she avoided hanging around kids her own age -- who very competitively fought for any scrap of food. Instead, she stuck with older Jews who were too weak to eat or who quietly sacrificed their food rations for the sake of the young.

Calopresti's film includes plenty of archival footage taken from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History. No matter how many times one has seen this footage, it never loses its power to shock the viewer. Perhaps the most moving passage in the film comes from Milan's Liliana Segre. Watch the trailer which contains her riveting testimony. And then try to comprehend what her childhood was like!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Missed Connections

Actions have consequences. One simple deed can set in motion a string of events which will alter a person's life. For better or worse, the ripple effect which follows that action is what propels countless plots toward their denouement. Looking for an idea for a film? Just ask yourself "What if?"

How many times have you wondered what might have happened if you had done something differently? Or what happened to the person you assumed would react in a certain way, but didn't? All one has to do is log onto the Missed Connections section of Craig's List to enter a maelstrom of good intentions, dashed hopes and unrequited love.

Two films being showcased at this month's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival examine what happens when sudden encounters bring unanticipated results. Written and directed by Jan Schutte (based on three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer), Love Comes Lately follows the confused escapades of an elderly writer whose memory is failing and who has trouble distinguishing between what happens in his dreams and in real life. Why does he keep ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is he an angel of death? Are the women in his life -- or his dreams -- just there to tempt, seduce and then torment him? Why has his life become so confused?

Although Otto Taussig gives a thoroughly competent performance as the aging and befuddled Max Kohn, Schutte fails to keep the plot coherent and on track. Rhea Perlman, Barbara Hershey, Elizabeth Pena and Tovah Feldshuh have strong cameos as the female lovers/demons adding to Kohn's confusion. However, Kohn's bewildered state doesn't provide the dramatic glue to hold this vehicle together, leaving this viewer wondering if these three short stories might have been better left untangled on the printed page, in the medium for which they were originally created.

During June's Frameline 32 film festival, I was deeply touched by Ferzan Ozpetek's beautiful and poignant Saturn in Opposition (2007). A chance to view his earlier Facing Windows (2003) confirms my belief that Ozpetek is not only a master storyteller, but an extremely gifted filmmaker as well. Blessed with a score by Andrea Guerra that gently supports the conflicted emotions of its principal characters, Ozpetek's film deals with a confused old man and the catalytic effect he has on the lives of two bickering young Romans who find him wandering about the eternal city, dazed and confused.

Giovanna's dreams of working in a pastry shop are certainly not being realized while she toils as a bookkeeper for a chicken processing factory. Although a loving and devoted father, Filippo has lost one job after another. The young couple is obviously going through stressful times, with husband and wife working different shifts while trying to raise two young children. Meanwhile, a shy, handsome banker living in the flat across the street has been nurturing a voyeuristic crush on Giovanna.

The winner of four Donatello awards, Facing Windows unravels the unexpected key to a long lost love story as a series of flashbacks and memory lapses help Giovanna and Filippo discover the identity of their mysterious stranger. Clues about the stranger's past slowly emerge until he is finally revealed to be Davide Veroli -- a Jewish pastry-maker whose work was once known throughout Europe, but who is now a confused and aging survivor of a concentration camp.

In his dementia, Veroli has clung to the only name he can remember -- Simone -- which was apparently the name of his male lover (whom he lost to the Nazis while Veroli struggled to save a group of Jewish children during the roundup of Jews from Rome's ghetto on October 16, 1943 ). Meanwhile, the voyeuristic Lorenzo manages to cross paths with Giovanna while she is attempting to bring the addled Veroli to a police station.

With his usual bad timing, Lorenzo receives word that he is being transferred to a branch office on the island of Ischia. As Veroli is reunited with his family, and finds a way to mentor Giovanna in the art of making fine pastry, Giovanna and Lorenzo begin to explore their obvious sexual attraction. The film ends on a curiously introspective note as Giovanna finds a new inner strength and embarks on a voyage of self discovery.

Massimo Girotti offers a touching portrayal of the confused Simone/Davide, with the very sexy Massimo Poggio appearing as his younger counterpart. Filippo Nigro, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and Raoul Bova bring solid characterizations of the young lovers to the screen as Filippo, Giovanna and Lorenzo. Once again, Selma Yirraz portrays a meddling neighbor (Ermine) with great gusto.

Facing Windows makes us examine the morality of our choices by slowly and meticulously allowing us to look into the hearts and souls of those most deeply affected by the results of their actions. Like Saturn in Opposition, it is a masterful piece of cinema framed by an acute sensitivity to life that provides a most satisfying experience for viewers.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Fagelah Factor

On Wednesday, July 23rd, when the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee met to take a new look at the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for the first time in 15 years, things went a little differently than planned. Desperately demonstrating a level of sexual ignorance that would embarrass an Irish setter, Elaine Donnelly -- the erstwhile President of the Center for Military Readiness -- actually managed to shock the Congressional representatives and military veterans in the room with her brazen bias and smarmy stupidity.

"Would you please tell me, Miss Donnelly, why I should give one twit about this woman's sexual orientation, when it didn't interfere one bit with her service?" asked Connecticut's Republican congressman, Chris Shays. Demonstrating a severe case of hoof-in-mouth disease, Donnelly insisted that allowing gays to serve in the military was essentially endorsing "forced cohabitation" in military barracks and transforming the phrase "relax and enjoy it" into military policy.

Donnelly's claim that gays in the military would also lead to an increased spread of HIV caused Arkansas Democratic Congressman Vic Snyder to state: "By this analysis . . . we ought to recruit only lesbians for the military, because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country."

Faced with such a pompous producer of phlegm wearing basic pearls while proudly pontificating on matters about which she is profoundly misinformed -- oh, hell, let's just call Donnelly a stupid bitch and get it over with -- some of the people in the room had to pinch themselves to make sure they weren't dreaming. And yet, in a perverse way, Donnelly's pathetic testimony proved to be a zesty appetizer for Nitzan Giladi's Jerusalem Is Proud To Present.

This documentary, soon to be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, chronicles the political tug of war that occurred when plans for a World Pride celebration in Jerusalem in 2006 caused a religious firestorm of nearly Biblical proportions. On one side of the fence are a courageous young lesbian named Noa, a Palestinian drag performer who must flee Hamas or die, a young Israeli man who was stabbed by a crazed orthodox Jew during a previous gay pride celebration in Tel Aviv, and the owner of a gay bar in Jerusalem who wishes that members of the city's warring tribes could get along on the outside as well they seem to inside his nightclub.

Not only has the openly gay member of the Jerusalem city council received numerous death threats, his elderly mother continues to receive threatening calls from rabidly homophobic Jews. Since many orthodox Jews do not read or watch Israel's mass media, hate messages inciting them to take action against gays are posted by religious fanatics on walls in the holy city. Noa doesn't flinch when ultra-orthodox Jews leave death threats on the answering machine at Jerusalem Open House (which basically serves as the holy city's LGBT community center). With idealism and a strong sense of self-esteem, she is determined to work within the system to secure the rights which belong to every Israeli (straight or gay) by law.

Then, of course, there are the older conservative women who are leafleting against gay pride, the Mayor of Jerusalem (who disappears every time he might be asked an embarrassing question), and an obnoxious orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn -- an oily trombenik who, in ways that might make Jerry Falwell look pure, has made it his self-righteous mission to unite the Christian, Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders of Jerusalem against any kind of gay demonstration in their holy city. Throw in a few farmers whose homophobia places goats on a higher plane than gay Jews, and you have the makings of a fine confrontation.

Is it refreshing to discover that Christians aren't the only people filled with hatred for homosexuals? Somehow, I doubt it. As one watches a group of orthodox Jews terrorizing the openly gay city councilman as he sits in the back of a taxi, one can't help but be saddened by the realization that these Jews are so blinded by their fear, hatred and fury that they can't even realize how closely their behavior resembles that of the very Nazis who persecuted their grandparents' generation.

The Amish may forego electricity, but at least they're not violent.

There are, of course, some flashes of humor. I particularly liked the moment when a young woman asked if she could sit in the Mayor's chair after he had refused to meet with a group of gays during World Pride.

"I'd just love to see his face when you tell him that a lesbian rabbi sat in his chair!" she says.

Such moments of levity, however, are rare when compared to the somber determination with which Noa and her colleagues (who filed suit against several right-wing religious figures and accused them of incitement to murder) must journey to the Supreme Court to reinforce the concept that Israel is a land ruled by law. Originally scheduled for August 6, 2006, Jerusalem's gay parade was postponed until November due to the sudden eruption of war with Lebanon that summer.

If ever you wanted to see footage of orthodox Jews behaving badly, look no further than Giladi's documentary (which won the Movies That Matter Human Rights Award at Amsterdam's 2007 International Documentary Film Festival). It's an extremely powerful piece of film which does a remarkable job of giving equal time to both sides of a controversial story. What you see onscreen, however, will not always be pretty, witty and gay.

Nowhere near as compelling as Jerusalem Is Proud To Present, but an interesting documentary nonetheless, is It Kinda Scares Me, in which filmmaker Tomer Heymann doubles as an drama coach assigned to work with high school juvenile delinquents. Part of his goal is to develop enough interest among these disenfranchised "youths at risk" to keep them off the street until they can graduate and/or get inducted into the Israeli army.

The teenagers are, of course, filled with macho braggadocio. "How hard can it be to write a play?" one of them asks. When asked to write about what he knows, the young thug reaches for the stars:

"My girlfriend's pussy is like a black pistachio. No, wait.... maybe this would be better.... My girlfriend's pussy is like the burnt edges of a puff pastry!"

And thus we learn the value of arts education in secondary schools.

As the experiment progresses, the teenagers slowly begin to deal with basic issues of trust. They soon realize that, while Tomer may be getting all kinds of dirt on them, they know very little about what makes Tomer tick. To even the playing field, the drama coach tells them that he is gay and waits to see how the young men will deal with the news.

The results include moments of anger, denial, curiosity, and a few genuine surprises that rock their adolescent world as they prepare for the premiere of their play. Rest assured, the reputations of such legendary gay playwrights as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Terence McNally, Harvey Fierstein, Christopher Durang and Arthur Laurents will not be threatened by the results.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shtick Around

"A harmless diversion."

"Perfect entertainment for the tired businessman."

Those words used to be box office gold for Broadway producers. While there are many theatergoers who still want their musical theater experiences to be deep, pithy, and socially relevant, there is also an audience that just wants to hear some nice tunes and have themselves a good time.

Ever since it first won over London audiences in 1999, the stage version of Mamma Mia! has been delighting audiences in cities around the globe. A virtually unstoppable money machine, the show is still selling out nearly eight years after opening at New York's Winter Garden Theater (whose last tenant was Cats).

When Mamma Mia! first played San Francisco's Orpheum Theater, I was one of the few people who had a decidedly negative experience with the show. Don't get me wrong: I had great seats, was with a group of good friends, and the audience around me was having a grand old time. As expected, people were dancing in the aisles during the curtain calls. I, on the other hand, was bored and curiously distant. The story didn't grab me, the music didn't thrill me and I absolutely loathed Mark Thompson's unit set (as much as I love stage machinery, there's just so much excitement that can be milked from a turntable).

I was not a happy camper.

I had the exact opposite experience this week while watching the film version of Mamma Mia!. Even though the theater was almost empty and no one was dancing in the aisles, the world-famous jukebox musical featuring ABBA's songs had been transformed into a much more pleasant diversion.

Both the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia! were directed by the same woman, Phyllida Lloyd. So what happened? For one thing, Lloyd found a defining palette of colors for her musical in the rich hues and blues of the Mediterranean. She also had Meryl Streep to anchor the show. And therein lies a huge difference.

Although Louise Pitre was a perfectly serviceable performer as Donna in the stage production of Mamma Mia!, few actresses can match Streep's skill at playing to the camera and letting audiences know that she's having the time of her life. With old pros like Christine Baranski and Julie Walters providing backup, Streep's performance filled the screen with her usual range of boisterous enthusiasm and tender vulnerability. Moments which might have seemed forced onstage were transformed into credible shtick on the big screen. The location shots chosen for the film worked their magic in every scene. I kept looking at the shots of the ocean and thinking: Where have I seen this before? And why is it so much better this time around?"

And then the answer came to me:

The film version of South Pacific (1958) that starred Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi made a hash of the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein musical by trying to experiment with a variety of colored tints. Instead of embracing the natural beauty of the ocean, it completely lost the magic of life on an island in the South Pacific. The richness of the cinematography in Mamma Mia! is a direct result of the director's willingness to take advantage of rolling waves, Mediterranean seascapes, and the sheer seductiveness of a tropical evening on a Greek island.

It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that everyone in the cast from Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard (as Donna's three old flames) on down to Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper (as the young lovers) is having a grand old time making this movie. Quick edits -- which did such a brilliant job of transforming stage musicals like Chicago and Hairspray into fierce, fast-moving musical engines -- have worked similar magic on Mamma Mia!

While other critics have been trying not to gag over the fact that Mamma Mia! finally made it to the giant screen, I must confess to being delighted with the results. This is one of those rare and shining instances where the transformation to the big screen actually improved a musical that had been created for the stage.

Shortly after leaving the AMC Van Ness Cinemas, I entered the Orpheum Theater on Market Street for a preview performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. This delightful confection (which began as a small party among some theater friends in Toronto), kept growing and growing until it became a full-sized Broadway musical. With music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (and an extremely knowing and clever book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar), the show harks back to the spirit of Broadway musicals long gone -- happily reminiscing about the type of saccharine-sweet yet deliciously madcap shows that now provide theatrical fodder for New York's City Center Encores! and San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon.

Terminally silly and with a sole purpose of entertaining its audience, The Drowsy Chaperone breathes new life into a tight group of musical comedy archetypes that could be seen on stages throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, these roles could easily be labeled as Broadway's version of the stock characters populating Italy's famed commedia dell'arte: Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Scaramuccia, Il Dottore, Colombina, Il Capitan, etc.

Under director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's loving care -- and with the perfect gimmick for showcasing this particular genre with a sense of delirious nostalgia -- The Drowsy Chaperone accomplishes its goal with precision, gusto, and the kind of inebriated giddiness that has been missing from our lives for far too long. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Jonathan Crombie as the Man in Chair, Robert Dorfman as Underling, Andrea Chamberlain as Janet, and Mark Ledbetter as Robert Martin. Cliff Bemis, Nancy Opel, and Georgia Engel take camp to new extremes, with an especially strong contribution coming from twins Paul and Peter Riopelle as the two wisecracking gangsters.

If I had to criticize one thing, it would be the severe overamplification in the Orpheum Theater which tends to severely distort the sound (particularly when the full ensemble is performing). This regrettable phenomenon was also noticeable the previous week during the pre-show music for Eddie Izzard's show.

Could it be that the sound engineers at the Orpheum need to get a referral for an audiogram? Is there a doctor in the house?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Best Friends Forever

Thanks to cutting edge technology, a new generation of social networking websites has allowed people to acquire hundreds of "friends" at a shot. However, for those who have worked hard to maintain friendships over many years, today's new definition of a friend is somewhat laughable. How do you compare someone you never met -- but who has posted a link to your online profile -- with someone who has stood by you through thick and thin? How do you compare someone who wants to be on your buddy list (despite never having exchanged a single thought with you) to someone who has held your hand through marriages, divorces, births and funerals?

In his play, The Odd Couple (1965), Neil Simon wrote that "Lovers come and go, but the Friday night poker game is forever." Like many Americans, some of my life-long friendships have been based on common interests such as opera, theater, music and a gay identity. Others started many years ago in summer camp and have continued to flourish. In their new book, Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies, Roger Bennett and Jules Shell probe the intensity of friendships that were developed during those heady eight weeks of summer vacation.

One of my favorite books of all time, Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, follows a friendship through moments that will alternately have you clutching your sides with laughter and bawling like a child. In a similar vein, John Grogan's Marley & Me: Life and Love With The World's Worst Dog (which debuts on movie screens at Christmas) does an incredible job of chronicling the love affair between a man and his truly taxing best friend. I only hope it can hold a candle to an incredible Polish film called Time To Die, which perfectly captures the loving friendship between a 90-year-old woman and her devoted border collie.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Bette Midler's song "Friends" became an odd anthem for the gay community. Many people who had never even considered the possibility of getting married learned what was truly meant by promising to love and honor someone, "for better or for worse, in sickness as in health, till death do us part."

Two lines from this song provide a powerful lens through which to examine two remarkable films as they probe the depth and breadth of what true friendship and unconditional love entail:

"I had some friends, but they're gone, yeah.
Someone came and took them away...."

How a friend takes leave of you varies from one relationship to another. Some friends find a new lover, a new job, or move away and lose touch with everyone in their "previous" life. Some are torn from us as a result of politics, disease and/or an untimely death.

With Frameline acting as co-sponsor, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a rare screening of Mikael (1924), using a print furnished by the Danish Film Institute that was accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano. Starring Benjamin Christensen as the master artist Claude Zoret and -- fresh from his debut in Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) -- the young and extremely handsome Walter Slezak as Zoret's muse and protege, Mikael tells a story that is perhaps best understood by sadder, wiser and older gay men.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's film skillfully captures the piercing loneliness of an aging gay artist as well as his paternal devotion to a handsome young man whom he fully expects will desert him for someone else's love. The idyllic male-male relationship between Zoret and Mikael (which might not even be sexual) is eventually shattered by the arrival of Princess Lucia Zamikoff (Nora Gregor), who requests to have her portrait painted by the master artist. Sensing the sexual aura Mikael exudes -- and with which he has obviously claimed Zoret's heart -- the Princess determines to lure the young man into her clutches.

Even though several of his long-time friends have tried to caution Zoret about Mikael's inappropriate behavior, the artist refuses to tarnish his love for the younger man with such petty doubts. As Mikael spends less and less time with Zoret, the master artist begins to wither and fade until, on his deathbed, his calls for Mikael go unheard by the young stud who is now contentedly being spoiled by the Princess.

This tale of unrequited gay love -- that may have shocked critics in the 1920s -- is far more easily understood by a generation of openly gay men who have acquired economic, artistic and social success but have no one to whom they can bequeath their wealth. I don't know what shocked the critics more: the fact that there were hints of a same-sex infatuation, or the sheer bluntness with which Zoret states that Mikael is to be the sole heir to his fortune and that he has already created a will reflecting his personal commitment.

Any way you slice it, true friendship is accompanied by rights and responsibilities. Why such friendships should be cherished is the subject of a wonderful song composed by Stephen Sondheim for Merrily We Roll Along (1981).

Even seemingly solid friendships can be severely tested. Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (which premiered on Broadway in 1967) asked what happens when your neighbors/best friends arrive on your doorstep -- haunted by some unknown terror -- and ask to move in with you. What do you owe them? How much can they demand of you based on their claim of friendship?

Old friendships accompanied by dangerous memories lie at the core of Emotional Arithmetic, a powerful new Canadian film scheduled for closing night at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. With some films, it takes less than five minutes to telegraph a clear sign to the audience that this movie is going to be a class act from start to finish. Set in eastern Quebec as the fall leaves are turning color, Paolo Barzman's acutely sensitive film features a stellar ensemble cast with Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, Max von Sydow and Roy Depuis lending solid support to Susan Sarandon's star turn as Melanie Winters who, to no one's surprise, is an emotional wreck.

As a child living in Paris, Melanie was separated from her parents (American Jews who, no doubt, died in a concentration camp) and sent to the transit camp at Drancy, just outside of Paris. There she was befriended by a young man, Jakob Bronski, and a shy young boy named Christopher. Bronski is later revealed to have bribed a Nazi guard to take the names of Melanie and Christopher off the list of children slated to be killed at Auschwitz.

Now married to an older man who was one of her university professors, Melanie has spent her adult life keeping track of victims of oppression as news of their existence surfaced around the world. Forty years after her liberation from Drancy Melanie receives word that Jakob Bronski is still alive. Painfully aware that Melanie has stopped taking her antidepressants, her curmudgeonly husband mutters "A storm is coming, not that anyone listens to me......" After inviting Bronski to come visit her in Canada, Melanie goes to meet him at the airport, only to discover that he has Christopher in tow.

Director Barzman (who studied painting and worked with Jean Renoir) uses the vivid hues of the Canadian landscape in autumn to magnificent effect, framing each shot with intense colors to match the turgid emotions roiling about the farm where Melanie lives with her husband, son and grandson. With masterly support from cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Barzman shapes a story of unrequited love, buried memories, horrifying emotional scars, seething passions, crushing frustration and, at long last, forgiveness and acceptance. With the help of his incredibly strong ensemble of actors, Barzman tells his tale with a searing sensitivity that is torched by Sarandon's flaming red hair, blazing passion and emotional instability.

By the end of the film, the storm has passed and Melanie's life-long friendships have survived new and critical torments. After seeing this film, I couldn't help but reflect on how fortunate I am to enjoy some friendships that are now closing in on the half-century mark.

I wonder: How do you equate more than 45 years of soul sharing and intellectual intimacy with an IM from a total stranger who asks "R U there?"

I wish someone could explain that to me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wandering Jews

Each year, as one browses through the program for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, one wonders if films should be divided into a section that deals with Jewish life before the creation of the state of Israel and what life has been like for Jews since the creation of the state of Israel. Following the flight of the Jews from Egypt -- and their 40-year trek through the desert -- from the Holocaust until May 14, 1948, Jews were essentially without a homeland. Sixty years after the state of Israel declared its independence, the Middle East remains a hotbed of seething tensions.

When one thinks about Jews taking a voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, the ship that instantly comes to mind is the famed Cunard superliner. However, it was a riverboat named Queen Elizabeth, traveling up and down the Danube during the 1940s, that played a pivotal role in the lives and deaths of many European Jews.

Directed by Peter Forgacs, The Danube Exodus focuses on the plight of Jews from Poland and Bessarabia who sought to escape from the Nazis by traveling down the Danube River. Using the home movies taken by the ship's captain. Nándor Andrásovits (who was an amateur photographer), Forgacs captures the sense of casual luxury aboard the Erzsébet Királyné in good times, the growing sense of uneasiness aboard a boat filled with Polish Jews trying to make their way to Palestine, and the restless confusion as Bessarabian Jews are transported back up the Danube to occupy previously-evacuated Polish settlements before being sent to concentration camps.

The intimacy of the footage, which captures both the good times (dancing, an on-board wedding and great camaraderie) as well as bad times (what happened when the Erzsébet Királyné remained stuck in international waters as local customs officials succumbed to pressure from the Germans not to let its passengers disembark) is heartbreaking. In an odd way, the amateur touches of Andrásovits's home movies give the audience a perverse, almost voyeuristic, look at history gone wrong. Indeed, when the first boatload of Polish Jews eventually made its way to the Black Sea -- and from there to Palestine -- they were arrested by British authorities soon after they landed.

Forgacs' film (first released in 1999), which documents a slow and increasingly grim picture of river transport up and down the Danube, will certainly have a deep impact on viewers. Its effect is similar to what happens when one cooks a lobster. Rather than throwing the lobster into boiling water which will cause it to react in shock, by slowly raising the temperature of the water one can essentially lull the lobster into a warm and only mildly befuddled death.

By contrast, Paula Weiman-Kelman's documentary Eyes Wide Open focuses on the experiences shared by modern American Jews who visit Israel and discover they must deal with a variety of emotional conflicts. The increasingly militant state of today's Israel offers a less rosy picture than the heady days of the 1960s, when a musical like Jerry Herman's Milk & Honey could seem like such a refreshing breath of sabra life for American audiences.

While some of the tourists interviewed in this documentary are making their first trip to Israel, others are returning yet again to a place which gives them renewed spiritual strength, where they feel free to probe deeper into their identities as Jews. Whether orthodox or secular, straight or gay, they find themselves thrust by circumstances into the Talmudic tradition of asking questions of themselves, of the people around them, and last, but certainly not least, of God.

Emotional conflicts rise to the surface, whether due to the erection of a wall meant to separate Israelis and Palestinians or because of the onset of war with Lebanon. While some tourists are ecstatic to be on Israeli soil, others find themselves torn between a loyalty to Zionism and the plight of the Palestinians. Regardless of where one's emotions lie, it makes the relative safety, luxury and comfort of American Jews a reason for deep reflection.

One of the delights shared by San Franciscans who attend screenings at the Castro Theater is the moment when the theater's organist segues into the song (which has long been a local anthem) composed by Bronislaw Kaper and made famous by Jeannette MacDonald. Bay area filmgoers merrily sing along with the music and clap their hands in rhythm whenever this tune is played on the mighty Wurlitzer organ. But take a moment to read Gus Kahn's lyric aloud:

San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wanderin' one
Saying "I'll wander no more."

Then, just for a minute, stop and think how lucky we are to live in what so many people derisively refer to as a "sanctuary city."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Clowning Around

There's an old saying among actors that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Despite what seems like effortless delivery, many comic moments are far less spontaneous than one might imagine. Years, ago, when I interviewed Carol Channing during one of her extended tours in Hello, Dolly! she told me that what she really loved about long runs was the challenge of re-creating a moment for maximum effect. Having worked closely with a master like Gower Champion, she was acutely sensitive to the fact that if her arm was moved slightly out of position -- or if her voice was not in the proper register -- a joke or gag could miss its mark. Watch Channing in one of her greatest comic creations and you'll see a master artist at work:

While there are lots of ways to generate laughs. most comedy depends on something being out of balance with its expected truth. Inverting the norm, playing against type and resurrecting classic sight gags can go a long way toward making an audience laugh. But the foundation underpinning the laugh usually requires a gimmick, good timing, and stellar execution.

Acting out one's fantasies is always a good way to get a laugh in this town (whether or not it's an intentional one). Two films on the final day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival used this device to great effect. Starring the delightful Colleen Moore (one of America's biggest silent screen stars during the 1920s), Her Wild Oat (1927) embraced the gimmick of a confident, independent girl who fantasizes about living the lifestyle of the idle rich. In a Cinderella-like dream-come-true scenario, Moore's Mary Lou Smith is an orphan "whose father left her a lunch wagon, a dog, and a lot of ambition." Moore ends up masquerading as a European Countess after a gossip columnist friend names her after the soup of the day on a restaurant menu.

The print screened at this year's festival (which had been found two years ago in Prague and lovingly restored) features a wealth of sight gags neatly set up by director Marshall Neilan. Gerald C. Duffy's script contains some very funny jokes. Moore's obvious charisma is nicely matched by Larry Kent as society playboy Philip Latour, and Gwen Lee as a blowsy cabaret girl. Michael Mortilla accompanied the screening on the piano to grand effect.

While Moore drew comic gold from trying to pass as a member of high society, Marion Davies drew laughs aplenty as Patricia Harrington (an attractive young woman who can't seem to escape her older sister's shadow in order to attract a man's attention) in The Patsy (1928). When your mother is being portrayed by a comic genius like Marie Dressler, you have to have some pretty strong acting chops to hold your own on the screen.

Apparently, Davies and Dressler got along just fine, even sparking off each other's pranks. Given half a chance, Davies proved to be quite an athletic showoff (at one point she did a neat acrobatic tumble across a bed). But it was her gift for impersonations that won her notoriety (in addition to being William Randolph Hearst's mistress). At one point she offers flashes of her gift for mimicry. A momentary slowing of her walk and baring of her front teeth offers a quick jab at Mae West (who, in 1927, had spent 10 highly publicized days in jail on Roosevelt Island after being convicted on obscenity and morals charges for having written, directed, produced and starred in a new play named Sex).

But it is during one stunning part of The Patsy that Davies really gets to strut her stuff. Having barged into the home of one of her sister's boyfriends (who is found lying on a couch in a drunken stupor), Davies goes all out trying to get his attention. Noticing the framed portraits of various silent stars on the wall, she uses anything she can get her hands on to impersonate Mae Murray and Pola Negri. But it is when she does her famed impression of Lillian Gish that Davies is at her best. Those four minutes of classic pantomime brought down the house. If you want to see why, just watch this clip from YouTube and see for yourself!

One of the best events for witnessing gay men's fantasies as they struggle to come to life is the annual beauty pageant sponsored by San Francisco's Gay Asian & Pacific Alliance. This year's GAPA Runway Platinum celebrated 20 years of fun and fantasy as various contestants, under the watchful eye of "hostess with the moistess" Tita Aida, vied for the titles of Mr. and Miss GAPA.

Among this years entrants were Whitney Queers ("My hobbies are showering and vomiting. I like to be clean and skinny."), Lusty Lam ("My dream is to become a doctor. If that doesn't work out, then my dream is to be in low-budget porn.") and Chenalyn Chenes ("My hobbies are flossing, looking at the clock, writing my name in bathroom stalls.").

While Runway usually turns into a five-hour affair filled with hilarious camp and tacky bitchiness, every now and then a star is born. Last year, Doncha Vishyuwuzme showed great potential (as you can see from the following YouTube videos).

Doncha returned this year to a crowd of adoring fans and brought down the house. It's hard to describe the insanity of her performances onstage. Just take note that she is in total control, has a character as carefully thought out as Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" man, and is a top-class physical clown (how many drag queens do you know who can do a cartwheel without spilling their drink?).

This year's top honors went to Mister "Saketumi" as Mr. GAPA and Ethnie Cali as Ms. GAPA. Other audience favorites included the hilarious Beyonsoy, Maddox, and newcomers Boy Toyo and Hillary Osama McCain-Obama (H.O.M.O for short), who showed new ways to use Barack Obama as a captive audience and stage prop.

Rest assured, a good time was had by all.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cue The Audience

Think of some of the your favorite movies. Then ask yourself if you can remember anything about the musical scores to those films.

Do the themes from Jaws or Lawrence of Arabia come to mind?

What about Close Encounters the Third Kind?

All of these films have essentially been "branded" by their composers with musical themes or leitmotifs that will make them instantly recognizable around the world.

Don't believe me? Then try listening to the theme from Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood historical epic which has led to great controversy in India because of its message about religious freedom. The Broadway show tune crowd will sit up on the edge of their seats as soon as they hear this music simply because the first four notes are an exact duplicate of Jule Styne's "I Had A Dream" theme for Momma Rose in Gypsy! But, once the sound of tribal drums begins, you'll get a pretty clear idea of how exciting this four-hour Indian film is.

Film franchises that lead to sequels and prequels (such as the Superman, Star Wars, or Jurassic Park brands) often rely on familiar sounds to establish a mood, heighten a moment, and broaden a marketing campaign. But ask yourself this question: Would any of these movies be as effective without their musical score?

The answer is a resounding no. If you were to delete the contributions made to film by composers like Bernard Hermann, Philip Glass, John Williams, and John Barry you'd be left with some very flat visual effects.

Musical cues must be well thought out and precisely rendered in order to achieve the correct effect and move a film's plot forward. Having spent many years reviewing opera and musical theater, I may be more sensitive to a film's musical score than some other viewers. While some audiences are eager to follow the action on the screen, I tend to have a fairly visceral reaction to the musical cuing which accompanies any film.

That's one reason why, each July, I get such enjoyment from attending screenings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Whether accompanied by a single musician on piano, small musical ensembles such as the Baguette Quartette or The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, or a stellar artist like Dennis James on the Castro Theater's mighty Wurlitzer organ, the excitement of having live music accompany a film gives this festival a curious advantage which few other film festivals enjoy.

Prior to the closing night screening of King Vidor's The Patsy (starring the great Marion Davies), one of the festival's favorite organists, Clark Wilson, gave a mini-lecture detailing how musical scores were originally created in the heyday of silent film. Many silent films were accompanied by full orchestras. More often, local pianists had to watch the action and devise accompaniments for three full-length features per week (which might be screened five times a day). As Wilson later learned, the secret trick for musicians attempting to create a soundtrack for silent films was "When in doubt, trill."

One of my favorite contributors to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is an English musician named Stephen Horne. Several years ago he composed and performed a stunningly brilliant score for Anthony Asquith's silent noir masterpiece, A Cottage On Dartmoor (1929). Horne returned this year to accompany William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth as well as several short films. However, Horne's score for Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro (1928) completely blew me away. Performing on flute, piano, and with Horne occasionally plucking the piano wires in order to mimic the sound of Japanese string instruments, this score was a huge asset to what could easily have been a very confusing film.

One can't help but wonder how easily a silent film would hold an audience's attention without a solid musical score. However, after hearing the scores created and performed by Horne for Jujiro and A Cottage On Dartmoor, one yearns for a CD of this composer's music.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

AIDS Activists In Cinema

In the 25+ years since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, one of the business sectors most vociferous in its support of AIDS nonprofits and safe sex education has been the arts. The reason should be obvious. Not only do many gay people work in the arts, as an industry the arts have suffered a tremendous loss of talent as a result of the disease. If there haven't been too many full-length features about artists involved in AIDS prevention, it's probably because most of those artists are now dead.

Last month, the folks at Frameline presented a curious documentary about gay filmmaker Derek Jarman on the last day of their festival. A collaborative effort between Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton, Derek focused not only on the artistic achievements of the filmmaker who brought us such homoerotic feature films as Sebastiane (1976), Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991) and Wittgenstein (1993) -- in addition to numerous music videos -- it also focused on his political activism.

When Jarman became infected with HIV, he turned the camera on himself, documenting the progression of his illness while continuing to work on full-length features and music videos. Much of the narration comes from a long interview that was once conducted with Jarman (as well as comments by Swinton, a close colleague and long-time friend). Although certainly not the most gripping documentary ever made, this film does capture the heady times of a group of young artists (including Jarman, Tilda Swinton, David Hockney and others) as their careers take off and follows them as the disease starts claiming members of their inner circle of friends as well as the community at large.

Credit goes to Jarman, who recognized his status as a film rebel and used his skills and talents to face the disease head on. After all these years of living with AIDS all around us, it is still gut wrenching to witness the initial robust beauty of a young man folllowed by the inevitable physical decay as his body succumbs to AIDS. Because some of the clips in this documentary are from old home movies, the overall quality of the experience takes an unfortunate hit.

Coming up at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is a much more entertaining and decidely in-your-face documentary about AIDS prevention focused on the safe sex education efforts of Pieter Dirk Uys, a South African entertainer who has made it his business to teach children about the dangers of the HIV virus using language they can understand while shaping the experience in a way that educates them without boring them or talking down to them. Most amazing is the fact that the film was the inspiration of a 15-year-old Australian boy who heard Dirk Uys speak to a school group and decided to make this documentary.

For a teenager, it's quite a remarkable piece of film work. Dirk Uys's mother had fled to Capetown from Germany in the 1930s. Although she subsequently committed suicide, Pieter and his sister were encouraged to develop their artistic talents from a very young age.

Growing up as a half-Jewish, half-Afrikaaner anti-apartheid activist, Dirk Uys focused his wit and growing anger on becoming a political satirist. Imagine someone with the bluntness of the late George Carlin, the wardrobe of Ben Schatz and the following of Dame Edna and you get an idea of what kind of social catalyst this man became for South Africans.

The film has surprising charms, including watching Archbishop Desmond Tutu doubling over in laughter as he watches Dirk Uys impersonate him. Dirk Uys's devastating characterization of South Africa's pro-Apartheid former President, P.W. Botha, draws easy laughs from adults and children alike.

What lit the fire in Dirk Uys to make AIDS education his personal cause was South African President Thabo Mbeki's total cluelessness about the disease, especially when Mbeki announced that he didn't know any people who had died of AIDS. On top of that, Mbeki's minister of health, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's medical ignorance (she was eventually forced to resign after claiming that AIDS could be treated with a combination of garlic, lemon, beetroot and African potatoes) only added fuel to the fire of Dirk Uys's outrage. Considering the political massacres in Darfur and Rwanda, many South Africans were shocked when Dirk Uys used the "G" word -- genocide -- to describe the South African government's reaction to the AIDS crisis. In short: "If we don't do anything, then the situation will take care of itself."

Some of the racist attitudes expressed by pro-Apartheid South Africans will remind Americans of the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Those whose lives have been touched by the AIDS crisis will well remember how the U.S. Government tried to avoid even mentioning the word "AIDS" during the Reagan administration (even as close personal friends of the President and his wife --like Roy Cohn -- succumbed to the disease).

Dirk Uys's courage has made him a role model to people like Nelson Mandela, who expresses his admiration for the performer in Darling! The Pieter Dirk Uys Story. But what really strikes the viewer is Dirk Uys's skill with words ("Hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse,") as well as his intense efforts to discover from local health workers what language will be most effective when addressing children in nearby schools.

Strongly recommended!

Homo Saves The Day

Despite all the technological advances which now let us watch movies on DVD players, cell phones, computer monitors and any number of portable electronic devices, sometimes you still need to share a film experience in a theater filled with an enthusiastic audience in order to achieve maximum satisfaction. By a curious coincidence of chronology, I recently saw two movies whose debuts were separated by more than 80 years. Both dealt with issues of loneliness, alienation, and yearning for the seemingly impossible. Both featured rapid action chase sequences. Yet there was no question which film grabbed its audience and came out the winner.

Pixar's new full-length animation feature WALL-E is a triumph of graphic arts technology. But, for all its technical tricks, I found it surprisingly disappointing. Some of that could have been because the minute humans were brought into the action (I'm not referring to the clips from Gene Kelly's version of Hello, Dolly!), the movie headed downhill. If anything, the clips of "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes A Moment" -- which made real human life seem like a quaint relic of the past -- only served to demonstrate what a long way animated figures have to go to really come to life.

Once the humans entered the plot, what started out as a marvelous and touching exploration of artificial intelligence in search of soul merely turned into another space-age chase going back and forth around the galaxy. As much as the audience reveled in Pixar's special effects (which are indeed quite wonderful), a genuine connection with the audience seemed to be lacking. Perhaps it's better to say that the connection was, like all of the action in WALL-E, simulated.

Not real.

Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are full-length animated features. But there is a point where computer-generated special effects cannot hold a candle to the real thing. That became blazingly apparent when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs before the crowd of nearly 1,400 silent film enthusiasts that packed the Castro Theater on Saturday night. The 1928 film's impact on the audience was shockingly different.

Back in 1950, when former silent screen star Gloria Swanson took on the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, her character told the young Joe Gillis that, in the days of silent film "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" That line, which went on to become a legendary cinema quote, was never proven more true than by Conrad Veidt's magnificent performance as Gwynplaine (a circus freak beloved by audiences who, as a child was subjected to a monstrous type of plastic surgery at the hands of a gypsy physician). As a result of Dr. Hardquanonne's surgical abuse, the adult Gwynplaine's face is frozen into the ghastly laugh-like smile which subsequently became the inspiration for the Joker character in Batman comics and movies as well as for the "Smiling Jack" logo of George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park in Coney Island.

The adult Gwynplaine lives with Dea (a blind beauty that he rescued in a snowstorm when he himself was abandoned as a child), Ursus (the man who took pity on them both and now uses them in his traveling sideshow), and Homo, their trusty German shepard. Based on a story by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs offers plenty of opportunity for the kind of period costume spectacle that the silent era loved. Thanks to Hugo's vivid imagination, it has a juicy plot with plenty of strong character roles.

Without doubt, Gwynplaine's desire to be loved by someone who doesn't care about his personal tragedy tugs at the audience's heartstrings the same way that WALL-E's desire to strike a connection with Eve attempts to elicit sympathy. But the fact that Gwynplaine is, in essence, a decent soul trapped in a horrid body makes his story all the more pathetic. His trusty dog loves him. The blind but beautiful Dea loves him. However, he is cursed with low self esteem. Until political machinations in the royal court thrust him into a crisis (following the revelation that Gwynplaine is actually the sole living heir to the estate of Lord ClanCharlie), his life is fairly simple.

When all hell breaks loose, the story accelerates to a climactic chase scene in which Homo saves the day by clamping his fangs around the neck of the villain (Barkilphedro) and drowning him as Gwynplaine, Dea and Ursus make their escape. By that point -- goaded on by Clark Wilson's superb accompaniment on the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer organ -- the audience was on the edge of their seats. Nothing like that happened during the screening of WALL-E I attended. And I doubt it ever will.

Because, as the bitterly aging Norma Desmond insisted, back in her day they had faces.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tribal Survival

Ever since the Jews followed Moses out of Egypt, survival has been a constant challenge. Whether faced with relocation, assimilaton or annihilation, the constant thinning of the tribe is a grave source of concern for Jewish leaders. Two short films soon to be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival put the issue of tribal survival under a piercing lens with results that might startle the average viewer.

While many people are accustomed to the concept of Jews scattering to the four corners of the earth, I doubt many people think of Bombay as having once been host to a flourishing enclave of Jewish life. Sadia Shepard's 36-minute documentary, In Search of the Bene Israel, was inspired by a promise to return to the neighborhood where her grandmother grew up in India and explore what kind of Jewish community remained. The Bene Israel is a tiny community of Indian Jews who believe they are the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel (the persecuted Jews of Galilee) that was rumored to have been shipwrecked on the shores of India nearly 2000 years ago.

At their peak in 1948, the Bene Israel numbered close to 20,000 Jews. Today, there are at best 5,000, with many leaving to build a new life in Israel. Descended from people whose trade involved pressing seeds for oil, the remaining Bene Israel have worked hard to keep their traditions alive in modern India. As Shepard interviews the small population of Jews who remain in Bombay, she learns the basic challenges of pulling together a minyan when many people lack transportation. She also spends time interviewing a young Jewish Indian woman (also a filmmaker), who tries to articulate the difficulty of combining her Jewish and Indian identities.

Shepard follows a young couple as they plan to get married and then move to Israel. Fascinating cultural overlays include the Indian and Jewish traditions of prearranged marriages as well as the sounds of a Klezmer band and Indian sitars, which deliver a stunning musical mesh in the background. Not surprisingly, Hava nagila sounds the same in any country, with any kind of orchestration. This film also offers Jews the rare opportunity of never having to say they're sari.

While Shepard's grandmother had the dubious luxury of watching her community diminish through attrition over a fairly long arc of time, some of the Jewish women facing Hitler's forces could not enjoy such options. Desperate times required desperate measures. For the women who joined the Jewish Partisans, their choice was really a matter of life or death.

Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh, Mitch Braff's 15-minute documentary entitled Every Day The Impossible: Jewish Women In The Partisans is an eye-opening look at a part of the underground resistance to Hitler's forces. The difference is that this film focuses on the role women played in World War II as saboteurs. Whether burning bridges, placing bombs, or blowing up depots, the women who joined the Partisans were fearless -- and with good reason. They could either try to survive or end up being killed by the Nazis. What makes Braff's film so startling are the interviews with elderly Jewish women, most of whom are now in their 70s or 80s. One by one, they describe their wartime efforts with remarkable candor, conviction and with absolutely no regrets. One comments that, as a Jew, she didn't care if she died. But as a soldier, she didn't want to die.

Sex in the ranks is also discussed. Some women were forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive; others recall how a commander was executed after he had been accused of raping some of the women who had volunteered to join the Partisans.

A particularly poignant moment occurs during the film when one of the survivors describes being interrogated by the Germans about what kind of ammunition she and her colleagues had at their disposal. With nothing but brains and daring, these women pulled off a string of minor miracles. I only wish this film could be shown to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help them understand why their feeble old arguments against gays serving in the military are such a total crock of shit!

The struggle to survive a different, and extremely pernicious enemy, was illustrated as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival joined forces with the American Indian Film Institute to present a rare screening of The Silent Enemy (1930) at the Castro Theater on Sunday, July 13. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this film depicts, in fictional terms, the struggles of the Ojibway Indians to find sufficient food to keep them from starving to death during a bleak winter. Combining a documentary-like style with an attempt at ethnographic drama, the film's amazing footage of a cultural landscape that has all but vanished made me feel like I was watching footage of a lost tribe (with the exception of a handful of actors, the filmmakers tried as much as possible to use only aboriginal people in their native settings).

The film begins with a spoken introduction as Chief Yellow Robe (an actual Sioux Indian chief who plays the role of Chetoga, the tribal leader) addresses the audience to explain that everything they will see in the film -- canoes, weapons, clothing, teepees, etc., -- was constructed according to Ojibway traditions. He notes that probably only six people in the film have ever seen a motion picture, but does not mention that many of the Ojibways who appeared in the movie later succumbed to diseases (tuberculosis, flu, pneumonia) they contracted from the white men who made the film.

Although the slide show prior to the feature outlined the dubious achievements of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, his loincloth-clad appearance as Baluk, the hunter, brought a strong masculine presence to the screen which was easily appreciated by the crowd in the Castro Theater. Even if much of the footage had been used for a nature documentary, it would still have made a strong impression. Watching 13-year old George McDougall (as Baluk's son) manage to get two squirming bear cubs into his canoe was one of the many joys of this film.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Musical Flashbacks

Prior to the advent of rock 'n roll, much of the great American songbook was derived from the scores of Broadway and Hollywood musicals. Shows by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter yielded tune after tune that became part of the nation's cultural consciousness.

A musical like Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun might produce 8-10 songs that would go on to become standards. Shows like Pajama Game might produce hits like "Hey, There" and "Steam Heat" while The Music Man could yield "76 Trombones," "Till There Was You," and "Ya Got Trouble."

In the early 1960s, producer Ben Bagley recorded a series of LPs which "revisited" Broadway's aging and/or dead composers to mine hidden treasures from their song collections. This trend continued with Varese Sarabande's Lost In Boston series of recordings (which features songs that were cut from various shows during their out-of-town tryouts).

As a Broadway composer matures and his body of work becomes ripe for academic examination, lost songs can find new audiences. This can happen in several forms: First, there is the musical review. Side by Side by Sondheim, Ain't Misbehavin (featuring the music of Fats Waller), Jerry's Girls (featuring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), Sophisticated Ladies (featuring the music of Duke Ellington), Putting It Together (featuring the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim), The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through The Eyes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward's Sweet Potato, And The World Goes 'Round (music and lyrics of Fred Ebb and John Kander) and Simply Sondheim easily come to mind.

Summer Pops concerts often include themed performances such as this weekend's concert by the San Francisco Symphony featuring the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Sometimes a vocal artist will record a series of songs which focus an interpretive laser beam on a specific composer's work. Think of Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim, Brent Barrett's The Kander and Ebb Album or Sondheim Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall. Hell, legendary cabaret singer Julie Wilson recorded "songbook" albums" devoted entirely to the works of Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen!

Occasionally, tribute concerts to Broadway composers such as the prolific Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Alan Jay Lerner, Harold Rome, Meredith Willson, and Bob Merrill may get brief runs at a specialty showcase like New York's 92nd Street YMHA. The growing riches of YouTube include television clips from the Ed Sullivan Show and other programs that once showcased Broadway talent. But not every songsmith has the box office clout or has become a household name like Leonard Bernstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. A surprising number of composers (of some very successful Broadway musicals) seem to have disappeared from Tin Pan Alley. Teams such as Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, and Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt -- despite producing the scores for such prize-winning musicals as The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, The Fantasticks, My Fair Lady, Camelot, 110 in the Shade, Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello! hardly qualify as household names. Their estates may be raking in royalties, but their music is far from popular.

Then, of course, there are the "jukebox musicals" (in which some sort of plot or through story has been devised that allows songs from a composer's catalogue to be slotted into an evening's entertainment). This genre probably started sometime around Beatlemania and has gone on to include Movin' Out (featuring music and lyrics by Billy Joel), All Shook Up (featuring the music and lyrics of Elvis Presley) and LoveMusik (featuring the music and lyrics of Kurt Weill). Later this month, the ultimate jukebox musical -- Mamma Mia (which features the music of ABBA) -- debuts on the silver screen with Meryl Streep as its newest star.

The latest jukebox musical to hit the boards features the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, Rags, The Baker's Wife, Personals, Children of Eden, Working, and Wicked. With a book by David Stern, Snapshots has been directed by Robert Kelley, the founder and artistic director of Theatreworks.

The plot device is fairly simple: As a woman prepares to leave her husband, he interrupts her as he enters their attic. As they argue, they stumble on a series of snapshots which chronicle their relationship. Thinking back over the years, they realize (through a series of "interactive" musical flashbacks in which four other performers act out scenes from a marriage gone wrong) where they made wrong assumptions, could have taken more initiative, and perhaps placed blame unfairly on their partner for unintended wounds.

The show features some of Schwartz's most popular songs, including Popular, Meadowlark, and Corner of the Sky. As performed by Beth DeVries, Molly Bell, and Courtney Stokes (as Sue at various stages of her life) and Ray Wills, Michael Marcotte and Brian Crum (as Dan at various stages of his life), the presentation is quite lively. There were plenty of moments of hilarity and bitterness to balance out the evening.

The problem I had was that I ended up not really caring about this couple or their problems. As the evening wore on, I found a lot of Schwartz's songs starting to sound alike. And to my shock and consternation, every time a certain musical phrase or snippet of a lyric was heard, I was reminded of a segment of Seth McFarlane's Family Guy entitled "Simpsons Already Did It" (although in this case it was the name Sondheim rather than Simpsons that lit up like a neon sign).

Still, when Meadowlark soars (as it did from the first time Patti LuPone sang it during the San Francisco tryout of The Baker's Wife) it provides a thrilling experience in any concert hall or theater. Though performed with gusto and sensitivity, few of the other songs featured in Snapshots rose to the level of Meadowlark, which is a genuine classic. While the breadth of Schwartz's songbook gets good exposure, I'm not sure that this show will last very long if it ever makes it to Broadway. It does, however, seem like a perfect vehicle for community theaters, college theater departments and dinner theater productions all over America.