Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Soothing Savage Breasts

In his play, The Mourning Bride (1697), William Congreve famously wrote:

"Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound."

Music's strange powers have been used to hypnotize snakes, get the rats to leave Hamelin, and calm the nerves of the dazed and confused passengers who were about to drown as the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean on a cold, starlit night in 1912. Mozart's Magic Flute was able to charm wild beasts, Pan's pipe was sounded throughout Greek mythology. In Wagner's Ring of the NibelungenSiegfried's horn awakened the sleeping giant Fafner, luring him from the safety of his cave while, over in the French repertoire, Lakme's famous Act II "Bell Song" coaxed her secret lover from his hiding place in a crowded Indian bazaar. 

Professor Harold Hill sold musical instruments to the tone-deaf youngsters of River City while, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg blasted his way toward finding a means of intergalactic communication between species using the tones of the diatonic scale. The Phantom of the Opera managed to pump out the "music of the night" each time he fingered his mighty organ.

But tango music played on an accordian in Finland?  More specifically, an accordian being used to drown out the ectastic moans of a hypersexual young woman with Down's syndrome as her wheelchair-bound boyfriend (who thinks he is Clark Kent) performs cunnilingus on her for the very first time?  For that, you'll have to be inside the Castro Theater on January 21st for a screening of Finnish Tango that is part and parcel of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Festival. If you like your comedy black -- as black as Harold and Maude, Eating Raoul, or Something For Everyone -- then this film is for you. 

Nele Winkler and Michael Schumacher in Finnish Tango

After Tommy (the leader of a small band) freaks out and commits suicide by driving a stolen van into a wall at high speed,  one of the surviving musicians drags his trusty accordian from the wreck and finds himself battered, bleeding, and without a future.  He has no funds, nowhere to live, and the rock band whose van he helped steal wants money or blood.  The other surviving musician is furious with Alex (Christopher Bach) because he chose to rescue his accordian first and his friend second.

Homeless and hungry, Alex can't get hired as a musician to save his life. But when he discovers that people would have to hire him if he were certifiably disabled, he acts quickly to forge a new identity as a grief-stricken epileptic on the run from a group home in Berlin. Inquiring after a job with a theater company comprised primarily of disabled and mentally challenged wards of the state, he auditions for them by reenacting his favorite scene from Evil Dead II.

Alex may not get the role, but he does get invited to stay in a group home with an odd assortment of characters.  There is the stuttering, wheelchair-bound Clark (Michael Schumacher), the perpetually horny Marilyn (Nele Winkler), and a crippled, self-pitying suicidal intellectual named Rudolph (Fabian Busch), who could easily show Bud Cort's Harold a few things about how to fake a death scene.  Their "house mother" is a sweet young woman named Lotte (Mira Bartuschek), who easily develops a crush on Alex.

Mira Bartuschek and Christopher Bach

Although Alex must confront a few of his own demons, he quickly realizes that if he keeps playing the disabled card, his physical and financial needs will easily be met. Much merriment ensues (accompanied by hysterics, suicide attempts, and sex between the aforementioned cripple and his lusty retarded girlfriend).  

And, yes, Virignia.  There is also accordian music.

Darkly written by Marcus Hertneck and directed with an almost malevolent glee by Buket Alakus, Finnish Tango is hardly what one would call a feel-good movie.  Its humor is inspired by the disabled, heavily character driven, frequently brutal, and often shockingly hilarious. This is definitely not a good choice for the squeamish or those seeking "family fare." And yet, in its bizarre and twisted way, this film -- thanks in large part to its strong acting ensemble -- proves to be a strangely satisfying indie gem.  

* * * * * * * * 
Less morbid and yet equally fascinating is a documentary about the most frequently performed song in the world: La Paloma. Since its creation sometime around 1863 by Sebastian Iradie, La Paloma has morphed into a popular wedding song in Zanzibar (where it is sung in Swahili), a burial song in Romania, and been requested by the Nazi SS to serenade children on their way to the gas chambers during World War II. 

The simple little habanera that went on to become La Paloma was incorporated by Georges Bizet into Act I of Carmen and, more than 140 years after it was written, is still being sung around in the world in one form or another.  La Paloma has been used as a popular sailor's song in Germany, as a plot point in numerous movies, and recorded in nearly 2,000 different versions. It has been sung by all kinds of artists ranging from the Ghetto Swingers (where it became a staple of Coco Schumann's repertory) to Makame Faki's recording in Zanzibar.

According to Harry Koizumi, it was the guitar-playing Spanish cowboys who brought the song with them to Hawaii after King Kamehameha's herds of cattle became too populous to control. Eugenia Leon has performed it at numerous political rallies in Mexico and, in Sigrid Faltin's intensely-researched documentary, you'll even hear it performed by an ensemble of handheld bell ringers!

Probably the only film you will ever see that contains footage of both Grace Bumbry and Elvis Presley. La Paloma will be screened on Saturday, January 17 at noon at the Castro Theater. Here's the trailer:

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Long Goodbye

As one examines the programs for various film festivals, certain patterns start to emerge. January's Noir City festival features classics of a very specific genre.  February's SFIndie Fest often has a high quotient of sci-fi films.  March's Asian American Film Festival usually contains a heavy dose of Japanese gangster (yakuza) films.  

However, the first film festival of San Francisco's calendar year -- the Goethe Institute's Berlin & Beyond Festival -- usually seems to have a morbid fascination with death and depression.  If the holiday season and a bleak new year weren't enough to break your spirit, have no fear. German filmmakers are eager to sit you down in the Castro Theater and work your very last nerve.

Sometimes Berlin & Beyond comes through with amazing, uplifting films.  Among my favorites in recent years have been To The Limit, Lapislazuli, Sergeant Pepper and Rhythm Is It!. Scheduled for the opening night (January 15)  of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) is a remarkably sensitive and poetic film about loneliness, alienation, death, and depression that will grab you in ways you don't expect.  Written and directed by Doris Dorrie with a rare beauty, Cherry Blossoms will haunt you.

The film starts out innocently enough. Rudi and Trudi are an elderly couple living in rural Bavaria whose grown children have moved to the city and developed very busy lives.  When doctors tell Trudi that her husband has a terminal illness, and suggest that she think about doing something together that the couple might have put off for too long, her thoughts instantly turn toward visiting their son Karl, who now lives in Tokyo.  

Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) has always had a fascination with Japanese culture.  When she was young, she was fascinated with Butoh theater and shadow dance (she still treasures a collection of photos taken of her wildly gesticulating in Butoh makeup).  Her home is decorated with several paintings of Mt. Fuji.  One of her favorite books is Hokusai's One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. 

However, Rudi (Elmar Weppar), is an aging number cruncher for the local Department of Waste Management who follows an unwavering routine.  Rudi is decidedly averse to change. A sudden trip to Berlin to visit their two other children makes them acutely aware that their presence is, at best, an intrusion. Their grandchildren are obsessed with handheld electronic games. Their son and daughter can't wait for them to leave so they can get on with their lives.  Only their daughter's lesbian lover Franzi (Nadja Uhl) can seem to find the time and generosity of spirit to go sightseeing with them (she has no hesitation about taking Trudi to a Butoh dance recital).  

Realizing that time spent with their children is not helping matters, Trudi (who has been nervously keeping an eye on Rudi for signs of his illness) suggests that they take a side trip to the Baltic Sea. Rudi acquiesces but, several mornings later, awakens to discover that his wife has unexpectedly died in her sleep.

With Trudi having spent her life taking care of him, Rudi has no idea what will happen next.  He is startled to learn about Trudi's artistic yearnings from Franzi, a near stranger who, in a very short time gained more insight into Trudi than any of their self-absorbed children ever had. 

Shocked by the realization that his selfishness had stifled his wife's true nature, Rudi flies to Tokyo to visit his son Karl, packing some of Trudi's favorite clothes to accompany him on the trip. Because Rudi has never shown much interest in his children, he's surprised to discover that Karl has essentially followed in his father's footsteps to become a numbers-crunching workaholic with no real emotional attachments.  Communication between the two men is strained, at best. 

Left alone, Rudi occasionally dons Trudi's clothes and cleans his son's apartment. Finally, he gets up the courage to explore Tokyo.  Trips to massage parlors only exacerbate his loneliness, guilt, and the pain of missing his wife. One day, while walking through a public park, he spots a young performance artist wearing the same kind of white makeup that he had seen in Trudi's Butoh pictures.  Upon introducing himself to Yu (Aya Irizuki), he learns that since her mother's death a year ago, Yu has been using dance as a way of staying in touch with her mother's spirit.

Yu is a creature unlike anyone Rudi has ever met. She is essentially homeless, living in a pup tent in a public park, and dragging her possessions around in a suitcase.  Yet she is able to touch Rudi's heart as she explains how cherry blossoms hold a beauty that can never last, that must be savored in the moment.  

The two form an odd friendship and, when Karl can't find the time, Yu agrees to accompany Rudi to Mt. Fuji. While Rudi's death scene (in Butoh makeup by a lakeside with Mt. Fuji in the background) is beautifully staged, its dramatic impact is overshadowed by a subsequent scene in which Yu and Karl stand together in a Tokyo crematorium, gently using chopsticks to transfer Rudi's charred bones to the urn which will contain the old man's ashes.  It is a scene of unspoken tenderness, intimacy, and compassion shared between strangers -- quite the opposite of either Trudi or Rudi's funeral services in Germany.

Cherry Blossoms is a rare achievement which uses the traditions of two radically different cultures to bring peace and understanding to a grieving widower's final days.  Dorrie's film benefits greatly from Claus Bantzer's touching. simply orchestrated, and evocative original score which, together with Hanno Lentz's stunning cinematography, provides a foundation of delicacy, sensitivity, and resolve to Dorrie's overriding artistic vision.

* * * * * * * *

Screening on Monday morning, January 19 is a documentary that, for some, may prove every bit as provocative as its subject.  Nicola Graef's Ich, Immendorff chronicles the last years in the life of one of Germany's leading contemporary artists.  The sheer discipline and organization of Immendorff's mind is inspiring -- not to mention the quality of his work (much of which is done on large canvases).

The Comic Muse With Pug (1995)

Jorg Immendorff, who died in May 2007 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) was fearless in his determination (with the assistance of staff) to keep working  at creating art and meticulously directing installations of exhibits of his art -- even as he became confined to a wheelchair, lost control of his arms and legs, and eventually required assistance from a mobile respirator.  

The nature of this particular disease process is horrifying in that the mind stays clear while paralysis starts to envelop the limbs and torso. Diagnosed in 1998 with ALS, Immendorff did not lose his flair for the outrageous.  In 2000 (at the age of 55) he married a former student who was 30 years younger than him (they had met when she was 17).  

Ohne Title (1996)

Although their daughter (Ida) was born in 2001, two years later Immendorff was busted on charges of possessing cocaine (he was found in a luxury hotel room with seven prostitutes -- and four more en route to the party).  During his trial in July 2004 he admitted to having organized 27 similar orgies between 2001 and 2003.

The film includes numerous interviews with Immendorff's colleagues as well as his mother, and the artist's first and second wives.  What shines through it all is the creative force and sheer tenacity that kept Immendorff going until late in his disease process.  It is a remarkable story -- certainly not the kind of intimate portrait that the public is used to imagining about an outspoken artist determined to keep living his obviously diminished life to the fullest extent possible.

Both of these films had a strange impact on me for very personal reasons.  Several years ago, one of the subcontractors who worked for me as a medical transcriptionist died of Lou Gehrig's disease.  To my total amazement (as well as her husband's shock when he finally connected the dots), Leslie insisted on going down into their basement office and trying to transcribe medical reports as her disease progressed.  She kept transcribing until two weeks before she died.

Cherry Blossoms hit even little closer to home.  For many years my mother had a passion for Japanese art.  My parents traveled to Japan at least twice and the walls in the living room were decorated with Japanese scrolls and multi-paneled prints.  A running gag in our family was my mother's insistence that when her time came to die, we should just carry her up to Mt. Fuji so that she could throw herself into the volcano.  

Alas, she now has advancing Alzheimer's disease.  At this point, I doubt she can remember much, if anything about her love of Japanese art.  This picture (taken in 1957) shows her with Hiroko, a Japanese exchange student who stayed with our family for several weeks when we lived in Brooklyn.  That's me in the middle.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mortality Knocks

Family reunions are not always cheerful events.  While weddings, birthdays and anniversary celebrations often spread joy among friends and family, stress-laden holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are frequently fraught with tension and resentment, arriving with more than their fair share of emotional baggage. A long tradition of Christmas films tries to capture the whimsical (It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer), the farcical (Home Alone, Elf), the overtly cynical (How About You, Bad Santa), and the optimistically spiritual (Miracle on 34th StreetIt's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol) aspects of the holiday.  

One of this year's entries takes the road less traveled by attempting to face reality head on. Directed with great sensitivity by Alfredo De Villa, Nothing Like The Holidays looks at Christmas through the eyes of a Puerto Rican family living in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, where "familia" is everything.  While the Rodriguez clan has great gusto and deep roots in the community, there is also heartbreak, bitterness, frustration, and insensitivity to spare.  

The patriarch, Edy (Alfred Molina), has not told anyone that he is battling cancer.  The matriarch, Anna (Elizabeth Pena), thinks he is cheating on her and wants a divorce.  Youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) has just returned from Iraq bearing physical and psychological scars that cannot cover his regret at having left his former girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) high and dry when he enlisted. Marissa now has a new boyfriend, Fernando (Ramses Jimenez), who is devoted to her child Hector (Alexander Bautista), and is in no mood to pick up where Jesse left off.

Meanwhile, eldest sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) has returned home from Los Angeles. Although the family believes that her acting career is going great guns, Roxanna can barely pay her rent while struggling to land bit parts in lousy television shows.  She's also worried about her former boyfriend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) who, although he now helps out in Edy's popular bodega, has turned into a neighborhood thug determined to settle a deadly score.  

Eldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his very non-Hispanic wife Sarah (Debra Messing) have become career-obsessed New Yorkers who can't seem to find the time to have children. Add in a handful of assorted friends and neighborhood punks (Luis Guzman, Manny Perez, David Fernandez, Claudia Michelle Wallace) and you have a cast of characters that is filled with spunk, carrying a large amount of attitude, and hardly lacking in drama.

While the music, language, and food bring an obviously different flavor to Nothing Like The Holidays, what really sets this film apart from so many other Christmas movies is the constantly lurking presence of death (from war, gangs, and illness) combined with heavy cultural pressure to create new life in the hope of fostering a large family.  The detail work on the interior of the Rodriguez family home realistically shows a house that has been lived in by a large and active family.  Far from the luxurious homes of many soap operas, the furniture here is worn down, clothes have been chosen for comfort against the cold winds of Chicago, and the sad darkness of the wood seen throughout the house (as well as a very important twisted old tree in the front yard) bears testament to the many years of compromise, nagging, resignation, and disappointments that have hung over the Rodriguez family.

Many of the actors in Nothing Like The Holidays are familiar faces (usually seen in supporting roles on stage and in film) who finally get a chance to shine in a tightly-knit ensemble that glows with warmth and humanity.  For once, these talented artists are placed in a majority rather than minority situation and truly given a chance to shine.

* * * * * * * * * *

A shy young Swiss man walks into a nightclub, sees a pretty girl playing a guitar and singing onstage, but can barely summon the courage to speak to her.  When they meet again several days later, she asks him for a huge and mysterious favor that he can't quite understand. 

Unbeknownst to the tongue-tied Emil, Larissa (who has a history of manic-depressive behavior), is about to commit suicide. Sensing the presence of another loner, she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend so that, when her parents learn of her death, they can at least cling to the belief that she had a boyfriend.

By the time Emil screws up the courage to call Larissa and ask her what the hell she was talking about, Larissa is dead and her cell phone rings at her parents' house.  Once Larissa's sister, Nora, answers the phone, Micha Lewinsky's eerie coming-of-age tale is off and running.

Emil (played with beautifully introspective moments by young Philippe Graber) is the kind of sweet and wholesome nebbish who is easily overlooked in a crowd.  Yet, when thrust into a family in mourning, his experiences following his own father's recent death come to the rescue and he becomes a mysterious source of solace. With very few words, Emil comforts total strangers who instantly accept him as the boyfriend of the deceased.  

Only Larissa's father senses that Emil might be acting out a role and taking his cues from whatever tidbits he hears about Larissa.

As Emil spends more time with Larissa's family, he finds himself drawn to Nora (who has always resented living in the shadow of Larissa's spotlight).  Too inexperienced to know whether this is love, lust, or just sheer luck, Emil stumbles from one grieving family moment to another. After a night of heavy drinking, Nora brings him back to her dead sister's apartment.  To everyone's horror, the next morning her parents enter the apartment and discover the two youngsters naked in Larissa's bed.  

It's that kind of movie.

Scheduled to be shown on January 16 at the Castro Theater as part of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, Der Freund (The Friend) is not just the tale of a young man whose life is turned upside down. This is a quiet, intimate film about loneliness, conflicting emotions, and the confusing path to an unexpected tomorrow. With rare delicacy, Lewinsky shows how Larissa's family tries to process the news of her suicide while working through their feelings of guilt, jealousy, sorrow, and rage. Andrea Burgin and Michael Volta offer subtle portraits of the grieving parents, while Johanna Bantzer slowly blossoms as Nora.  

* * * * * * *

Rather than end this piece on a totally depressing note, let us celebrate the fact that a new President will soon enter the White House whose background as a community organizer has taught him what can happen when people feel empowered rather than defeated, a man whose intellectual curiosity -- combined with a calm and thoughtful methodology -- embraces science, diplomacy, and the arts. If the amount of creativity that erupted in home-madeYouTube videos during the past year’s campaign is any indication, America may well be on the cusp of an artistic renaissance that is not driven solely by financial funding, but by how a person’s access to evolving technology allows him to share his thoughts and artistic vision with others. 

Brad Erickson's recent essay entitled Ask Not gives an exciting preview of how the arts (which always serve as a powerful economic engine at the most local levels) may play a key role in President Obama's plans to rebuild America.  In the meantime, as we look toward 2009 with hope and trepidation in our hearts, let us pay tribute to the circle of life in a manner truly befitting the arts:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rattling Their Cages

Most chefs will tell you that the proper way to cook a lobster is not to toss it into a pot of boiling water (which will cause its muscles to tense), but to put it in a pot of cold water, slowly raise the temperature to a simmer, and eventually bring it to a boil.  The slow but steady rise in temperature tends to lull the creature into a sleep-like state so that its muscles relax and do not tighten at the moment of death. Now think, for a minute, of the titles of your favorite daytime soap operas (Days Of Our Lives, As The World TurnsOne Life To Live) and how each title seems to signify the slow drip, drip, drip of time as it vanishes from our lives.

The other night, as I was exiting the Ashby Stage following a production of Macbeth by the Shotgun Players, I was struck by the simplicity of a large piece of art hanging in the hallway. Perhaps 10 feet tall and six feet wide, it was a slate-colored canvas with the word "tomorrow" appearing three times -- once at the top, once in the middle, and once at the bottom of the installation.  The words, of course, refer to Macbeth's final soliloquy in which he states:
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
Some films, though they may follow a narrative arc, often seem to have been structured like continued snapshots of the same scene so that the viewer can examine the breadth of change over an extended period of time.  For better or worse, they help us track the changes taking place in people's lives as time moves on and the environment in which they live is irrevocably altered by circumstances beyond their control.

As the final entry in a series of films about Italian Jews During Fascism, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (with help from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco) recently screened Unfair Competition (Concorrenza Sleale) (2001). In his attempt to show how Jews were affected by Mussolini's Racial Laws (which went into effect 70 years ago on November 17, 1938), filmmaker Ettore Scola concentrated on depicting family life along one block of Rome's Via Ottaviano.  We see streetcars come and go as children head to school, run through the rain, and two neighboring clothing merchants -- one Jewish (Diego Abantantuono) and one Catholic (Sergio Castellitto) -- continue to bicker over who is trying to steal the other's customers, sales techniques, and marketing ideas.

Unfair Competition (Concorrenza Sleale)

Diego Abantantuono and Sergio Castellitto 

As tensions mount and anti-Semitism increases in the neighborhood, the basic mesh of human relationships is torn asunder.  A good-for-nothing family parasite -- who is constantly ridiculed by his Catholic family -- finds a new sense of self-worth upon donning a soldier's uniform (even though his innate clumsiness can't stop him from shooting himself in the foot while trying to clean his gun).  The Catholic merchant's politically conscious brother (Gerard Depardieu) regrets not coming to the aid of a Jewish academic friend who lost his teaching job (and whose dead body was subsequently found under highly suspicious circumstances).  The Jewish merchant's daughter tells her lovesick Catholic boyfriend that they can no longer see each other.  

As Mussolini's bureaucrats continue to tighten their restrictions on Italian Jews (confiscating all radios), we see Jews slowly being stripped of their dignity, shunned by their neighbors, and eventually forced to relocate.  A Jewish watchmaker who believes he can bribe the proper authority so that he can relocate to America leaves the neighborhood convinced of his great, good fortune (only to end up being sent to a labor camp).  

At the center of the film are two young boys who have always played together, done their homework together, built science projects together -- even taken their cod liver oil together -- who discover that,  following the enactment of the Racial Laws, they can no longer attend school together.  Although the film's trailer lacks subtitles, it doesn't take much to figure out what will happen to the Jewish boy.  

The sight of Lele's family huddled in the back of a truck with their piano and other possessions as it disappears from the neighborhood is heartrending, made even more poignant by the confused young Pietruccio (Walter Dragonetti), who stands in the street trying to understand why he will never again see his best friend (Simone Ascani).

In her book, Italian Film In The Shadow of Auschwitz, Millicent Marcus writes:
"Eight years old at the time of the story's events (Scola would have been seven in 1938), Pietruccio is a witness to the persecution of the family of his best friend, Lele Della Rocca, who is Jewish.  Just as important as the voice-over commentary in establishing Pietruccio's role as narrator and focalizer is the final image of Concorrenza sleale -- the spectacle of the boy who stands alone in the street after the eviction of Lele and his family from the neighborhood. As the cart transporting the Della Roccas and all their belongings prepares to leave, there follows a montage of gazes that pairs each member of the exiled family with their counterparts in the family that is entitled to stay. With rigorous symmetry, the camera offers a series of matched closeups, beginning with the exchange of glances between the respective older siblings, then the exchange between the mothers, then between the fathers and, finally, between the two young boys.  As the cart disappears through the gate leading outside the confines of the neighborhood walls, the Della Roccas' expulsion from this haven of italianita into the segregated recess of the ghetto foreshadows the Final Solution for over one thousand of Rome's Jewish population. 
Now, the camera returns to Pietruccio and it remains riveted on the figure of the child for an uncomfortably long time as he stands in solitude, bereft of his bosom buddy, in the deserted street that had been the scene of so much neighborhood life and of the many childhood games that had made of the Pietruccio-Lele friendship a true Utopia. In filming this final sequence, Scola made the strategic decision not to conclude with a freeze-frame of the young boy, but instead to let the camera remain running while the child actor stood awkwardly awaiting a nod and a smile from the director to signal that the scene was over and he could leave the set. Since Scola did not give such a signal, the boy simply stood still in puzzled expectation for the several minutes that the camera continued to roll, creating the sense of considerable disquiet on which the film necessarily ends."

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A more light-hearted approach to futility can be found in Come In and Burn Out, which will be shown at the Castro Theater on January 19 as part of the 2009 Berlin & Beyond Festival. Set in a call center in Cologne (which is being threatened by competition from rival businesses in Poland), Andre Erkau's gentle comedy is based on his personal experiences as a telemarketer. 

As  foreign competition ratchets up the pressure to increase revenue, the operators keep trying to meet their sales goals for marketing DSL packages.  Some of their customers don't have computers, others don't want to be bothered with their phone calls. 

Their team leader, Richard Harms (August Zimer), is so desperately trying to keep his job that he is oblivious to his wife's boredom and frustration at home.  When they invite another couple over for dinner, all he can talk about is sales, sales, sales.  When their guest (whose wife is about to give birth) offers Mrs. Harms a job as a replacement receptionist at his dance studio, Harms is consumed with jealous suspicion.

Marie (Antje Widdra) uses her telemarketing job as a stop-gap measure to bring in some income while she tries to find work as a professional architect.  Another female operator has such low self-esteem that she is convinced she will be the first to be canned. 

Although he may be the firm's top salesman, Adrian Becher (the handsome and utterly charming Johannes Allmayer) is so painfully shy that he can barely muster the courage to speak to a woman. Following his mother's death, he has been living at home with his father and has no social life of his own.  

Meanwhile, the gregarious Sascha (Maximilian Bruckner), who is soon to become a  father, would like to believe that he is only doing telemarketing to supplement his work at a local television studio where, as a glorified errand boy and audience warmer, he dreams of a future in show business. 

Erkau's film captures the bleakness of life in a cube farm where people have scripts to follow but little to say about their personal lives.  As sales goals get pushed higher and higher, the pressure starts to take a toll on the workers.  One by one, they begin to act out and their relationships suffer.  

Come In and Burn Out often feels like an extended episode of The Office  (except for the moment when Harms walks into a storeroom and sees Sascha's naked ass pumping away at Marie as the two telemarketers share a quick fuck during a momentary break from the phone lines).  Tasty buns!

* * * * * * * *

Opening January 2 at the Roxie Film Center is a fascinating documentary written and directed by Luc Schaedler that should be of strong interest to many in the Bay area. Angry Monk: Reflections On Tibet is part historical meditation on the life and times of Gendun Choephel mixed with a hefty amount of travelogue footage about modern day Tibet and India.  Schaedler's charming documentary includes a great deal of historical footage showing scenes from Tibet and India in the early 20th century.

Born in 1903, Gendun Choephel was a bit of an overachiever.  Having developed quite a reputation for his skills at debating other monks, he became a fierce critic of traditional monastic curricula. He had a fondness for making mechanical toys (especially boats) from spare watch parts and, after being expelled from the monastery at Labrang in 1927, traveled to Lhasa  where he began to develop his skills as a portrait painter.

Unlike most Tibetan monks, Choephel traveled extensively, visiting Ceylon and India.  His travel journal, The Golden Surface, may well have been his greatest literary achievement.  His erotic manual (translated into English as Tibetan Arts Of Love: Sex, Orgasm and Spiritual Healings) was based on his many sexual encounters. A man who enjoyed earthly delights (drinking, sex, etc.,) he was quick to recognize the folly of those who couldn't wait to bathe in the supposedly holy waters of the Ganges despite the knowledge that it was filled with the waste products of men and animals.

Claiming that "I am an astute beggar, who spent his life listening," Choephel went on to write White Annals, the first political history of Tibet and translate the Kama Sutra for Tibetans. As late as 1938 he was still trying to prove to his isolated countrymen that the world was not flat.

Imprisoned in 1946, Choephel was released three years later.  After seeing Communist Chinese forces arrive in Lhasa in 1951, he is reputed to have said "Now, we're fucked!"  His death in 1951 was probably due in large part to alcoholism.  

Schaedler's documentary features interviews with Choephel's widow, some of his remaining friends, as well as Tibetan and Indian scholars who are familiar with his writings. Beautifully shot and chock full of rare historical footage, Angry Monk is well worth your time. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blind Ambition

As intense as the 2008 Presidential election may have been, it will be fondly remembered for its wealth of political buffoonery. Sadly enough, what comedy cruelly mocks is sometimes repeated in real life. As if Tina Fey's stunning impersonations on Saturday Night Live were not devastating enough, Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin was roundly roasted in videos posted all over the Internet.

After news broke on December 19th that Levi Johnston's mother had been arrested for manufacturing and possession of illegal substances, most people jumped to the conclusion that -- what with Wasilla being the methamphetamine capital of Alaska -- Bristol Palin's future mother-in-law was probably cooking up some crank.  Ironically, the Johnston matriarch's drug of choice had been eerily identified at the tail end of an hysterically funny online video (originally published on October 3, 2008) entitled Sarah Palin VLOG -- Post Debate.

One can't help but wonder: Does art imitate life? Or does life imitate art?

During her years before the public, many critics have tried to compare Hillary Clinton to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. I've always thought they were way off base. While Hillary is indeed an extremely ambitious woman, she is also smart, has depth, and possesses a complex world view.  If anything, Sarah Palin's personality seems much more in tune with Lady Macbeth: a greedy social climber who is not particularly bright, but when someone needs to be trampled, thrown under the bus or simply gotten out of the way, can be a very effective mechanic. 

Once placed within reach of material gain, Palin knew how to chase after tangible rewards (fashionable clothes for herself, designer suits for the First Dude, underwear and luggage for her children). Unfortunately, Caribou Barbie was never sophisticated enough to look much further than her family's instant gratification.

I've often wondered if the Palins might be like the Macbeths: a nouveau riche suburban couple who, after acquiring an assortment of stylish leather items, were invited by some better-connected friends to join them for a fun night out at a place like the Power Exchange. Titillated by what they saw on their first visit (and thinking that anybody can engage in a bunch of fun power games), they remain all show and no substance, lacking any basic understanding of what true fetishists derive from a leather lifestyle -- not to mention the importance of deciding on a safe word.

Blythe Foster and Craig Marker as the Macbeths
(Photo by Jessica Palopoli)

As a result, when the Macbeths are offered an opportunity to perform a snuff scene, they quickly botch their first big kill (King Duncan). The husband is immediately beset by feelings of guilt. After temporarily taking over (because someone has to make things look right), Lady Macbeth eventually succumbs to an amateur's feelings of guilt and commits suicide.

While I've never really been able to prove my theory, a thrilling new production of the Scottish play by Berkeley's Shotgun Players went a long way toward reaffirming some of my hunches. Director Mark Jackson updated the action to modern times, with the Macbeths portrayed as self-indulgent, greedy, and childless social climbers who know how to work a party scene but are themselves perhaps a bit dull. 

Looking like an extremely butch Carson Kressley, Craig Marker's Macbeth comes across as a clumsy bottom who is constantly being manipulated and humiliated by his wife for not acting like a real man. Although Blythe Foster's hungry Lady Macbeth knows how to employ her sexual charms in the company of powerful men, she really isn't sure what the ultimate prize is supposed to be.  

Blythe Foster as Lady Macbeth (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Put yourself in Mark Jackson's shoes, though. Pretend you're a stage director who has spent the past year studiously preparing a modern-day version of Macbeth when suddenly Sarah Palin gets dumped onto the national scene. Wouldn't you feel as if you had just hit the Shakespearean jackpot? 

In his director's notes for the Shotgun Players' production, Jackson states that:
"Macbeth is about ambition, as we know, and in today's America ambition, even political ambition, is tragically caught up in fame, money, and fashions of all kinds. In the play there is a motif about clothing fitting and not fitting, and the need to put on a good public face. This connects to the fashion show iconography. There is also the motif of children and lineage, and this figured into the casting, which took into strong consideration the age range of the various characters, their relationship to their ages and to their families or lack thereof. With the Macbeths in particular we wanted to emphasize their youth: the impulsiveness and lack of forethought that comes with youth, to give a sense that these kids are in over their heads and eventually flailing, then drowning, in their bloody deeds."
Blythe Foster and Craig Marker as the Macbeths
(Photo by Jessica Palopoli)

The marketing materials for this production further note that: 
"The sex is hot, if always tinged by that faint sense that their questionable fertility leaves them ultimately unable to make a life for themselves. Their ambitions turn toward more material means of self-definition: money, fashion, fame, and power. Macbeth has never looked so good, danced so hard, or killed with such style."
In order to appreciate just how well Jackson has trimmed Shakespeare's play and effectively updated it to modern times, you need to have an idea of what traditionally staged productions of Macbeth often look like. Darkly lit and heavily costumed, they tend to be fairly formal affairs (especially during the famous banquet scene wherein Macbeth is haunted by the sight of Banquo's ghost).   In this scene from a 1972 staging of Verdi's Macbeth at England's Glyndebourne Opera Festival, no amount of acting by Kostas Paskalis (Macbeth) and Josephine Barstow (Lady Macbeth) can lighten the feel of the production design.

Working carefully with lighting designer Jon Tracy, Jackson took a scalpel to the text, his finer cuts doing wonders to speed up the pace of the play.  The three witches (weird sisters) were reduced to a single, mysteriously clairvoyant homeless woman.  Having dispensed with a traditional chorus/ensemble, Jackson staged the gory, blood-soaked appearances of Banquo's ghost so that they took on a much stronger dramatic impact (kudos to Tunuviel Quezada for his imaginative "blood work").  

Jackson was aided immensely by the flexibility of Nina Ball's unit set. In most productions of Macbeth, the chorus holds branches of leaves in front of them to mask their advance for the climactic moment "when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane." Instead, part of the set broke in half to reveal a battering mechanism made of sharpened tree trunks that could be used to break down the doors to Macbeth's castle. Strong support came from Zehra Berkman (a witch, Lady Macduff),  Daniel Duque-Estrada (Banquo), Peter Ruocco (Macduff), and Ryan Tasker (Malcolm). Special credit goes to Dave Maier for his fight choreography.  All in all, this was a thrilling production well worth seeing.  

The Shotgun Players' Macbeth continues through January 18th at the Ashby Stage.  I have a special fondness for this theater because the curving arches which frame the performance space make the audience feel as if they are sitting in the belly of a whale.  And, for those who care, the oatmeal raisin cookies from the nearby Sweet Adeline Bakeshop may well be the best in the Bay area!

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Does Kismet really exist?  If so, Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb may be pinching himself to make sure he isn't dreaming.  A frequent participant in the Playground program, Loeb's First Person Shooter (which was inspired by the possible impact of video games on such tragic school shootings as the massacre at Columbine High School) premiered barely two weeks after the horrifying shoot-out at Virginia Tech in April 2007.  

The man's timing is uncanny.  Loeb's newest play (which was commissioned and developed by Playground at the 2007 Best of Playground Festival) focuses on rough and tumble politics in the state of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party began previews at the SF Playhouse on December 3.  Six days later, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges and became an expletive-encrusted national joke. 

As a playwright about to open a new play about Illinois politics, who could ask for anything more? To appreciate the sheer comedic gold that erupted just four days prior to the world premiere of Loeb's play, take a break to watch this expletive-laden video from our good friends at Red State Update.

Loeb's new play pulls no punches in its depiction of homophobia and corrupt politics in Illinois. Using questions about Abraham Lincoln's sexual orientation as a kickoff point, the play incorporates snarky dance references to popular Broadway musicals (Jerome Robbins' signature finger-snapping choreography for the "Sharks versus Jets" dance in West Side Story, "One" from A Chorus Line, or the infamous Springtime for Hitler number from The Producers), raises suspicions about the "East Coast media elite's" spurious interest in "the trial of the century," and skillfully contrasts them with the harsh and painful realities of being the closeted son of a megalomaniacal politician in order to make numerous salient points with the audience.  

(Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Loeb, who is also Chief Operating Officer of Planet Moon Studios, has structured his play like a video game: the audience gets to choose the sequence of the three scenarios which examine a conflict of egos within Illinois state politics.  Using a skilled ensemble in which every person --regardless of race or gender --  gets a chance to portray Abraham Lincoln, Loeb's script is intelligent, witty, often brilliant and, in one particularly revealing monologue, horribly poignant. There's even some real American apple pie -- and the best use of traveler curtains to create a cornfield this side of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

The catalyst which sends the play into high gear is a third grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) who "outs" President Lincoln in her school's annual Christmas pageant.  When a homophobic Illinois Senator (Tom Kady) reneges on his promise to pave the way for an aspiring black attorney named Regina Lincoln (Velina Brown) to run for Governor, their respective political operatives (Brian Degan Scott and Sarah Mitchel) instantly start brokering favors and inside dirt.  

Meanwhile, an award-winning journalist from the New York Times (Mark Anderson Phillips) arrives on the scene armed with insider knowledge that the Senator's son (the eternally cute Michael Phillis) is not only gay, but is lying to his father (claiming he was beaten up by gay protestors in order to cover up for his secret trips to gay bars in St. Louis in his efforts to get laid).

The mechanics are simple: Viewers are given a chance to examine how the situation plays out from a standpoint of liberty, equality, or justice.  Abe Lincoln pops up at critical moments to drop a few bon mots.  Hypocrisy of every flavor is thrust in everyone's face.  This is all accomplished in a cheerfully user-friendly, character-driven format that provides a ladle full of fructose to help the socially conscious medicine make its way down the audience's throat.

Velina Brown doubles as Esmerelda (a New York fashion photographer determined to destroy the politician's closeted son's cover story about having a girlfriend named Tiffany in Canada). Lorraine Olsen doubles as the politician's clueless wife, who is dying of cancer, but still hopes to do the chicken dance at her son's wedding.  The rest of the ensemble deftly handles lightning-quick transitions between minor roles.

Michael Phillis and Mark Anderson Phillips (Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Using Bill English's intricate puzzle of a unit set, director Chris Smith (the former artistic director of San Francisco's Magic Theater) has set a fast and furious pace for his ensemble.  Seeing the play shortly after the Rick Warren/Barack Obama brouhaha hit the national media, I was amazed at how deftly Loeb's script was able to reflect the day's controversy and effortlessly (if unintentionally) offer a study aid to help the audience reexamine current events.  Not too many plays have that kind of agility and/or ability to roll with the punches (a factor I would attribute to Mr. Loeb's creative experiences in the video gaming industry).

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party (you'll have to see the show to understand the meaning of its title) moves so quickly and contains so much content that, like any good video game, you'll want to see it again to make sure you've covered all the angles.  In today's tightening economy, it's an easily transportable show which can be performed on college campuses as well as in regional theaters.  Its message is relevant, its tone is mischievious and its capacity to provoke serious thought about everything we hold dear is, in a word, magnificent.  Don't miss it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fiddler On The Hoof

Whenever we go out for Chinese food, a friend of mine insists that each person, as he reads the message contained in his fortune cookie, add the words "between the sheets."  

For many years, the question asked of any news emanating from Hollywood was "Will it be good for the Jews?" With that sentiment in mind, I decided to take a quick look at the holiday fare hitting movie theaters this month. The white bread entry (tailor-made for dysfunctional Christian families) is Four Christmases, starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as a yuppie couple who, until this year, had managed to avoid spending Christmas with their four respective families by lying through their pearly-white teeth.  The ethnic entry, Nothing Like The Holidays, gives Christmas a zesty Latino flavor by focusing on a dysfunctional Puerto Rican family's reunion in a Chicago neighborhood.  And what do the Jews get?  

Nazis, Nazis, and more Nazis! 

You think I'm kidding?  The big money is riding on Tom Cruise's frequently delayed Valkyrie, about a group of high-ranking Nazi officers who planned to assassinate Adolf Hitler as a means of gaining control of Germany's military forces. Valkyrie opens in theaters on Christmas Day.  

No symbolism there.......

No. 2 on the list of nostaglic Nazi films is a drama directed by Stephen Daldry.  Based on David Hare's screenplay, The Reader attempts to show how one generation comes to terms with the war crimes of another.  Ralph Fiennes stars as a idealistic young German who, after suffering an acute illness in his teens, enjoyed an intense love affair with an older woman who liked to have him read to her.  Years later, as a law student, he is stunned to see his lusty partner, Hanna (Kate Winslett), show up as a defendant during a trial of Nazi war criminals.

Last, and probably least is a feel-good fable entitled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. which might best be described as the Disneyfication of the Holocaust. The production design by Martin Childs, aided by Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, creates a strong sense of period which will have special appeal to fanciers of antique cars, steam locomotives, and vintage furniture. Sheila Hancock has some poignant moments as the boy's rebellious grandmother. Rupert Friend provides some macho Tom of Finland-style eye candy for uniform fetishists as a butch young Nazi who suddenly disappears after mentioning that he no longer knows where his parents are.

To its credit, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas offers actress Vera Farmiga some beautiful moments as the distressed mother who, after her family moves to a villa in the countryside (not far from where a smokestack belches foul-smelling smoke) comes to realize what her husband's work actually involves. After a tragic misunderstanding, she loses her son because of the young boy's simple yearning to have a friend who is the same age.  And what better place could there be to find an adolescent playmate than the neighborhood concentration camp?

Is it mere coincidence that three films attempting to cast guilt-ridden Nazis in a more sympathetic light are being trotted out before holiday audiences at the exact same time that Republicans are feverishingly trying to whitewash George W. Bush's legacy so that the 43rd President of the United States of America does not end up in the same dark corner of history as such pathetic fucktards as David Berkowitz, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and Jeffrey Dahmer?  

I wonder, and think back to a sunny day, many years ago, when I was tripping my brains out in Disneyland. As I stood on a long, winding line waiting to experience Pirates of the Caribbean, I turned to a friend and asked "Have you seen anyone exit this ride?  For all we know, this could be the fucking ovens!"

After watching The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (in which the Germans all have very curiously proper British accents), I found myself wondering if the creative team behind this attempt to rewrite history and sugar coat it with a syrupy musical score had given any thought to adding an Auschwitz section to the famous It's A Small World ride in Disney's Magic Kingdom. (Take my word: you never want to be stuck on that ride for half an hour!)

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Thankfully, this month the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered some brighter alternatives for the holiday season.  Soprano Roslyn Barak (the cantor for The Congregation Emanuel) headed up the final installment in a series of events celebrating what would have been the 90th birthday of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Barak's presentation, entitled "Lenny's Voice: Bernstein's Humor and Jewish Spirit," described her personal interaction with the maestro with great warmth as well as pointing out certain ways in which Lenny remained "an unrepentant Yid" throughout his years as a cultural ambassador to the world.  

In addition to singing Dinah's big number about a horrible new movie called Trouble in Tahiti, she delighted the audience with some small songs Bernstein had written as presents for friends. Barak discussed the importance to American Jews of Bernstein's refusal to change his name and illustrated how the sound of the shofar provided a recurring theme in Bernstein's compositions (including the opening notes of West Side Story).

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Many people got their first exposure to Klezmer music during the bottle dance created by Jerome Robbins for the wedding scene near the end of Act I in Fiddler on the Roof

Earlier this month, the JCCSF hosted a concert by the Klezmer Conservatory Band. With an audience that included supporters of Klez California, Hankus Netzky's ensemble rocked Kanbar Hall. Selections ranged from classics to slow jazz, with Susan Watts alternating between singing and playing trumpet.  Although Netzky claims that the soul of any Klezmer ensemble is its fiddler, I would have to disagree and point to the mindblowing contribution from Ilene Stahl on clarinet.  Mark Berney scored strongly on coronet, with Jim Guttman on string bass. Here's an old clip from the KCB playing a gig back East.

If you have not yet read Aaron Lansky's thrilling book, Outwitting History, get your hands on a copy of it as soon as possible.  Thanks to his groundbreaking work saving Yiddish literature, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts has also embarked on a mission of saving and digitizing the sheet music that has been found to many Yiddish songs that were almost lost to history.

The resurgence of Klezmer music is cause for joy.  All you have to do is listen to the exuberant music of the shtetl and you'll feel your body wanting to move.  There is a raucousness to many Klezmer arrangements which sets the stage for a rompin', stompin' good time. 

Treat yourself to a 10-minute music break to watch violinist Itzhak Perlman perform with four different Klezmer groups in the following video clip.  As you listen and share their joy in making music, you'll also appreciate how much the improvisational nature of Klezmer music predates the solo riffs heard throughout American jazz.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Free To Be You and Me

I've been extremely lucky.  Self-employed and working out of my home for 30 years, I've been able to set my own deadlines, punch my own time clock, and limit most of my socializing to people I actually want to spend time with.  As a result, I have never felt a need to develop a public persona that was separate from my private persona.  

My life is not compartmentalized. What you see is what you get.

I live in a neighborhood noted for its freedom of expression.  Dolores Park, which I can see from my desk, has become a gathering place for all kinds of protest events, celebrations, and free performances by groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe.  People are not shy about dressing up, playing with gender roles, and having themselves a good time.

Whether you come to Dolores Park to participate in a hula hoop exercise group, walk your dog, sunbathe on the grass or listen to a free concert by the San Francisco Symphony, you will never be bored. Whether you are making use of the tennis courts or have merely chosen to join in the fun when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hold one of their big annual fundraisers (like the Easter Sunday Hunky Jesus Contest), Dolores Park is a grand place to be.

In hot weather, you might see a bevy of nude bicyclists making their way up 18th Street.  This weekend I watched from my desk in amazement as several hundred people dressed in Santa suits gathered in the park as part of the 2008 SF Bay Area Santarchy event (be sure to read their FAQ here). There were male Santas, female Santas, Santas on bicycles, and Santas in wheelchairs.  

With Christmas fast approaching, it's interesting to note how San Francisco deviates from the norm with regard to seasonal entertainment.  Locals get to enjoy events like the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performing their Home For The Holidays concert, choose from several Sing Along Messiah concerts around the Bay, attend the Dance-Along Nutcracker or sing-along screenings of The Sound of Music at the Castro Theater.  Whether you prefer a performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf narrated by Leonard Nimoy, the Lorraine Hansberry Theater's production of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, or Theater Rhinoceros' offerings of The Rhino Christmas Panto and a reading of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. there are plenty of attractions to choose from. 

On December 27th, the Kinsey Sicks return to Herbst Theater for a one-night stand to celebrate their 15th anniversary with a performance of Oy Vey In A Manger. Here are Trixie, Trampolina, Winnie and Rachel (in a clip from their 2003 concert at the Herbst) performing their Dragapella number -- a spoof of the famed Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah.

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Of course, not everyone embraces the Christmas spirit with equal gusto.  A recent New York Times series started off with Theater for Holiday Haters #1: Jackie Hoffman's Scraping The Bottom.  Last week, I finally got to experience The Eight: Reindeer Monologues in a deliciously snarky performance at the Exit Theatre. Written by Jeff Goode, this very merry and wonderfully wicked one-act show explores the seamy underside of life at the North Pole as eight reindeer bitch and moan about work-related issues. 

Not only have there have been productions of Goode's play all over the world, it has inspired some great marketing.  Here's a trailer for a production in Newburyport, Massachusetts:

Here are some outtakes from rehearsals of a production in Auckland, New Zealand:

As directed by Vic Chaney, the San Francisco production was exceptionally strong. Although none of the actors wore fake antlers while performing their monologues, the intensity of each piece was startling, bold and quite refreshing.  A simple, tasteful hanging sculpture of green Christmas lights (designed by Bruce Walters) coupled with Dustin Snyder's sensitive lighting was all that was needed to focus the audience's attention directly on the actors.

From Steven Budd's tough, macho, in-your-face portrayal of Dasher to Stephen Pawley's sadly resigned Donner (the reindeer who offered his son up to Santa, even though he knew it would mean a lifetime of abuse for little Rudolph) --  from Rana Weber's angry Blitzen (ready to expose Santa and his wife as abusive employers who hide behind good press) to Joshua Wynne Hillinger's Comet (a determined Santaphile, unwilling to face the reality of the scandal that had engulfed Santa's reindeer), the cast offered rock-solid performances.

I particularly liked Emily McGowan's Dancer (a ditzy blonde who couldn't understand why she had to be available on December 24th and who worried what would happen if the date conflicted with Hannukah or she became pregnant) as well as Ogie Zulueta's playfully slutty Cupid. Elias Escobedo scored strongly as the media-savvy Hollywood, intent on negotiating every possible perk.  Johanna Parker's Vixen topped off the evening as the reinder who, having been raped by Santa, told her story with a sexy worldliness that revealed how well she understood what the future held in store for her.

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Scheduled for a world premiere on Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a new documentary from Academy Award winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff. The subject of Straightlaced -- How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up is simple and straightforward: Chasnoff talks to straight and gay teenagers about gender issues. As students go shopping for clothes, discuss their schoolmates, and talk about what they feel are misperceptions about themselves and others, they describe the various pressures put on them to dress in certain ways in order to fulfill certain gender expectations.  

A key ingredient of the propaganda used for Proposition 8's campaign was that children might end up being taught about gay marriage in California's schools.  What Chasnoff's documentary demonstrates quite clearly is that schoolchildren are away ahead of their parents when it comes to recognizing the intensely gender-driven marketing aimed at them as well as unspoken signals they might give off by what they wear, who they associate with, and how they speak. 

Many students have reached a level of self-confidence where they will wear what is most comfortable for them and not be intimidated by how others might react.  Some have learned to embrace their transgender classmates, had the courage to file suit against a school whose teachers did not protect children from repeated attacks, and demonstrated the need to honor the memory of a depressed teenager who committed suicide because he did not fit into prescribed gender roles.

As I watched Chasnoff's film I couldn't help but be amazed at how much progress has been made in the ability of these teeangers to articulate their needs and fears.  Back when I was in junior high school, I showed a distinct preference for brightly-colored shirts that might be orange, pink, or purple.  Why? I just liked those colors. They made me happy. I would never have thought that choosing such colors telegraphed any kind of character deficiency or predilection for deviant behavior. 

In fact, those were the days when it was hard for me to find temp work because I had a skill that was traditionally assigned to women. Having studied piano, I was an extremely fast typist (110 words per minute). I got as excited about getting my hands on a Selectric typewriter as other boys did about being chosen for the football team. But in those days, jobs for typists and secretaries were only advertised in the "Help Wanted - Women" employment listings. In order to get hired, I had to accept a substantially lower pay rate than what "male" jobs offered.

How I wish a film like Straightlaced -- How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up had been shown in schools when I was a student!  You can watch the trailer and order tickets for the world premiere/educational campaign launch here.