Friday, November 21, 2008

Finding One's Own True Self

Every parent wants to believe that his child is a genius.  But a unique set of challenges awaits the parents of those children who are indeed exceptionally gifted. Although an exceptional child may be a math whiz, excel at chess, or have extraordinary athletic strength, he may also lack the basic social skills needed to function in society.  For parents of exceptional children, the identification of what makes their child so unique (combined with the proper care and nurturing of that child's talent) can become a lonely, frustrating experience.

From television's Smallville (which chronicles the high school years of the young Clark Kent) to Billy Elliott, from movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer to Akeelah and the Bee, the growth and maturation of the exceptional child has proven to be a goldmine for scriptwriters. Three of my favorite films about exceptional children are:

Beautiful Boxer:  Ekachai Uekrongtham's magnificent sports film is based on the true story of Nong Toom, Thailand's famous transgender kickboxer who,  even as a young child, exhibited signs of being fully in touch with his feminine as well as masculine characteristics. 

Vitus: Fredi Murer's enthralling film about a Swiss child piano prodigy who begins to study encyclopedias at the age of five is one of those rare films that celebrates prepubescent intelligence.  Equally adept at math and music (with a mental acuity far beyond what most grade-school educators can begin to teach), the young Vitus -- who desperately wishes to enjoy a normal childhood --  uses his fierce intellect to take control of his life.

Hom Rong (Overture):  In Ittisoontom Vichailak's poignant feature film based on the life of Luang Pradit Pairoh, the camera follows the career of a small child who learns the fiendishly difficult ra-nad ek (Thai xylophone) and goes on to become the most revered master of traditional Thai music. 

Last week I had the great good fortune to add another movie to my list of favorites as I watched King Siri, which was recently shown as part of the Third I South Asian Film Festival. This thoroughly captivating feature film from Sri Lanka (written and directed by Somaratne Dissanayake and performed in Sinhalese with English subtitles), has to be one of the most breathtaking films made about a gifted child in years.  Much of this is due to the phenomenal work of cinematographer Channa Deshapriya, a true camera artist.  Equal credit should go to the work of its scrawny young star, Kokila Jayasuriya.

Sirimal (an impoverished 11-year-old boy from a remote Sri Lankan village), exhibits such a rare level of intelligence that he achieves the highest grade on a nation-wide school examination. His illiterate parents have never watched television, do not read newspapers, and lead very simple lives. 

When Sirimal is sent off to one of the nation's top private schools in Colombo, his dramatic talent makes him a key player in another competition.  Meanwhile, he must protect himself from the bullying of a fat rich kid who  (despite his total lack of talent and underhanded power grabs) assumes that his size and wealth entitle him to play King Siri in the school play.

Everything about this movie -- the music, cinematography, plot, and acting -- is so refreshing that one cannot help but feel elated when, through a strange twist of fate, Sirimal finds his true calling in life. Although the trailer lacks any subtitles, you'll easily get a sense of the visual riches to be found in this thoroughly enchanting film.


While the onset of puberty can derail many a child prodigy's career, the raging hormones which signal the body's awakening sexuality can also trigger questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. Many gay people, as they wrestle with new challenges to their identity, discover that they have little information at their disposal with which to understand the changes they are undergoing. Depending on their culture, some are totally unaware of their gayness. Because of their religion, others may be forbidden from even thinking such thoughts.

Although Western influences tried to wipe out a great deal of Indian culture -- including any references to the two-spirited people who were believed to be comprised of both male and female spirits  --today's two-spirited Native Americans self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersexed, and transgender men and women.  

During the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival I had a chance to enjoy Deb-we-win Ge-am-aan, Our Place in the Circle (Lorne Olson's documentary short from Canada in which the filmmaker explored his spiritual journey toward a greater awareness of what it means to be a two-spirited person in an Aboriginal society). Working with a Canadian theater company to develop authentic costumes for tribal ceremonies, Olson's film has some hilarious highs (as well as some more somber, introspective moments) as he looks into himself and his past to discover what it means to be a two-spirited person in today's world.

For those who subscribe to Logo (one of the gay cable channels), Noah's Arc has become quite the guilty pleasure.  Try to imagine a combination of Sex and the City and Martha Stewart Living populated by a quartet of African American drama queens with attitude to spare.  Then smother it with Velveeta and soul food and you have the beginnings of Tyler Perry's worst nightmare.

It took me a long time to find the dramatic key to understanding Noah's Arc, but I think I finally got it last week while watching the full-length movie  (Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom) spawned by the television series.

Like Candace Bushnell's  Sex and the City, the protagonist of Noah's Arc is a fierce clothes horse with a strong independent streak whose close friends and love affairs provide fodder for the ongoing soap opera that is his life.  However, unlike Carrie Bradshaw, Noah's physical appeal is distinctly androgynous -- easily crossing back and forth between masculine and feminine fashion statements.  

As embodied by the alluring Darryl Stephens, Noah presents audiences with a much more complex gay man than they may be used to dealing with.  Instead of a clown like Will & Grace's Jack McFarland, he is an intelligent scriptwriter who is also a mess of conflicting emotions.  

His friends include Christian Vincent as Ricky (the unrepentant muscular slut); Doug Spearman as Chance (the darkly brooding intellectual who, along with his partner of 10 years, is trying to raise a child), Rodney Chester as Alex (the over-the-top drama queen whose patient and devoted lover is a beefy hunk employed by a Los Angeles AIDS Clinic), and Jensen Atwood as Wade (the boyfriend who thought he was straight until he met Noah and changed his tune).

There is a curious quality of writing in episodes of Noah's Arc that embraces every cliche and stereotype while battling to educate its audience about black gay men.  Many moments don't ring true -- either because the plot frequently seems like a ridiculous construct or because the characters aren't always believable.  

But as I watched Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom, I began to understand the curious hold that Noah has over all of his friends and lovers.  It's not just his complex sensuality or his outrageous wardrobe choices.  It's that Noah the adult was probably an exceptional child and is intensely loved by all because of exactly those qualities which, as a gay man, make him a more complex creation.   The people around him gain strength from Noah's ability to integrate opposing parts of his personality into one package and be comfortable with who he is.

There are plenty of cringe-inducing moments in Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom (which follows Noah and his friends to Martha's Vineyard for Noah and Wade's wintry wedding). And yet, all of the script's tackiness and cheesy unbelievability magically falls to the wayside as soon as a preacher states "By the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce you husband and husband."  

That's something that has been missing from the world of cinema for a long, long time.  The shock of seeing it onscreen makes it worth sitting through the rest of the movie.  

After examining the challenges faced by Thai kickboxers and percussionists, Swiss pianists, Sri Lankan child actors, and a quartet of black drama queens from Los Angeles, the entire arc of an exceptional child's life and career was neatly summed up with a special showing of Reaching For The Note. As part of the 90th birthday celebration of Leonard Bernstein's life, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered a free screening of this stunning 1997 PBS documentary.

Bernstein's life lasted just a little more than twice as long as Mozart's. From the time he started taking piano lessons at the age of 10 until his death three months after celebrating 50 years of conducting, Bernstein was a creative force of massive contradictions.  An artist who was truly a musical titan, Lenny struggled between his dual identities as a conductor/composer, Broadway/classical creative artist as well as trying to balance the heterosexual and homosexual parts of his psyche.

Famous for his Broadway musicals (On the Town, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), his operas (Trouble in Tahiti, A Quiet Place), orchestral, choral and chamber music, he was also known worldwide for his passionate conducting, brilliant lectures, and intense devotion to the state of Israel.  One of the greatest forces in international music during the 20th century, he helped to reintroduce Gustav Mahler's music to the public and worked with everyone from Sergei Koussevitzky to Aaron Copland, from Stephen Sondheim to Maria Callas.  

His huge, fierce appetite for life (often lived to the limits of exhaustion) never prevented him from working with young musicians, lecturing for anyone who would listen, or embracing the wonders of the universe.  Ironically, for all of his genius, Bernstein could not sing.  Blessed with a wealth of interview and archival footage, the PBS documentary offers a rare opportunity to examine the entire arc in the life of a creative genius -- from exceptional child through to Bernstein's death at the age of 72.  

It is a life well lived which, even today, leaves audiences in awe of the artist as well as the man.

1 comment:

Ask the Ace said...

Perhaps we should move into the city and join you for the film festivals. Ah, but our house has barely any worth and SF's real estate market is not as low. Thank you for your keen eye and analysis.