Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Tomato Man Cometh

There aren't too many films I would recommend for a bucolic escape from city life, but The Grocer's Son is certainly one of them. Directed by Eric Guirado with a keen eye to showing the contrasts between urban and rural lifestyles, The Grocer's Son depicts the emotional transformation of 30-year-old Antoine from a detached, bored and dispassionate urbanite into a maturing man who rediscovers his roots during a family emergency.

Like many young men, Antoine couldn't wait to leave the small town in Provence where his parents run the general store (and his father deliveries groceries to outlying homes using the family's van). Living in a dumpy apartment where most of his possessions have never even been unpacked, he works as a waiter and occasionally hangs out with his friend Hassan. Although Antoine has a quiet crush on his neighbor Claire (who is cramming for her entrance exams to a school in Spain), he hasn't gotten up the nerve to make a move.

When Antoine's father ends up in the hospital, the family must regroup and figure out how to look after the father while keeping the business afloat. After quitting his job at the restaurant, Antoine decides to return home to help out his mother. Bringing Claire (the delightful Clotilde Hesme) with him on the pretext that a change in environment might help her with her studies, he returns home to Provence.

Unfortunately, most of the small family-owned businesses in his town have been bought out by foreign investors. As Antoine takes over his father's grocery route, he encounters many people who knew him when he was a young boy, but who are now showing signs of senility and increased infirmity. "This place smells of death," he groans.

Guirado's film follows Antoine's development over the course of the summer, gently exploring the nooks and crannies of dysfunctional family relationships, exposing a long-lasting brotherly feud, and showing the effect of Antoine's brusque personality on the people he encounters. The transformation from arrogant schmuck to a young man who learns that the gift of giving is also the gift of learning how to receive help from others is a slow and quiet one. Whether helping the increasingly confused Pere Clement (Paul Crauchet) with his chickens or trying to argue with a deaf client who can never figure out what the price of goods is, Nicolas Cazale's sexy, brooding Antoine eventually awakens to the possibility of resuming a country life.

Sparring with the cantankerous Lucienne (Liliane Rovere) -- "Your hair is red today -- are you expecting a storm?" -- he slowly comes to appreciate the lonely needs and quirky temperaments of aging eccentrics whose only source of human contact is the arrival of their traveling grocer. With strong supporting performances from Jeanne Goupil (Antoine's mother), Daniel Duval (Antoine's father) and Stephan Guerin Tillie (Antoine's brother), Guirardo has fashioned a very tender and loving film in which the charms of the elderly slowly break through Antoine's emotional armor and light a fire of fondness in his heart.

It's rare that current events would affect how one views such an intimate and personal film as The Grocer's Son. Nevertheless, the rising price of gas keeps nagging at the back of the viewer's mind as Antoine drives his family's grocery van back and forth across the hills of Provence to deliver three tomatoes to one widow and some flour to another (with no appreciable profit margin). While the sheer physical beauty of the region steals the show, Nicolas Cazale ain't exactly hard on the eyes, either.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Send In The Clown

We see it all the time. A legendary film gets scheduled for a remake (The Women, My Fair Lady) because a director wants to mess with a classic, a star needs a new vehicle, or studio executives smell money. All too often, a new film designed to capitalize on a tried-and-true formula implodes under the weight of a lack of inspiration. And then, out of left field, a newcomer hits one out of the ballpark with such strength and surety that it leaves your head spinning.

When I first saw Ping Pong Playa at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the audience in the Clay Theater was having such a good time that some jokes were drowned out by laughter. At a recent press screening, Jessica Yu's film held up magnificently.

There's nothing all that new about the story of a family whose No. 1 son can do no wrong and whose No. 2 son is a bit of a fuckup. You know how it goes. When No. 1 son gets injured, No. 2 son is called upon to save the family's honor. Can the black sheep of the family do it? Can No. 2 son rise above his basic sloth, stupidity and incompetence to save the day?

"Been there, done that," you're probably thinking. That only means you haven't encountered the feverish imagination of Jimmy Tsai, the film's dynamic star and gifted co-author, whose Opium Pandamonium website demands your attention. Tsai's trash-talking, Chinese gangsta "C-Dub" character first surfaced in a series of ads he created for his Venom Sportswear clothing line which features "clothing for the bad-ass motherfuckin' Asian American athlete with an attitude that yo' mama wouldn't approve." Trust me, it's worth spending a half hour of your time exploring the Venom Sportswear website just to watch Tsai's hilarious commercials aimed at basketball and poker enthusiasts.

By imbuing a classic plot line with an Asian-American sensitivity, Tsai and Yu have created a comedic vehicle which moves so fast -- and with such rapid-paced fury -- that it could leave Judd Apatow panting and breathless in its wake. Ping Pong Playa also marks the film debut of a rising comedy star which, when you consider that Tsai's day job has been as Director of Finance and Development for Cherry Sky Films, only makes his triumph that much more delicious.

Still, you don't get a good film without solid direction (Jessica Yu), clean, cutthroat editing (Zene Baker), and a cast of talented deadpan comedians. In addition to to MadTV's Stephanie Weir, Ping Pong Playa reunites the team of Peter Paige and Scott Lowell (who played Emmett Honeycutt and Ted Schmidt on Queer As Folk) as two gay ping pong players from West Covina who are trying to muscle in on the Wang family's franchise and appeal to Anglophiles with delusions of grandeur. These two gifted actors haven't lost any of their comedic chops.

Khary Payton scores strongly as C-Dub's fast-talking friend, J.P. Money. Jim Lau offers paternal backup as C-Dub's father while Roger Fan plays No. 1 son with a sense of having been the family favorite throughout his life. However, three young kids who become C-Dub's acolytes nearly steal the film. Andrew Vo plays Felix, whose sexy, supersmart sister Jennifer (Smith Cho) captivates C-Dub's mind. Javin Reid is a joy as Prabakar, the Indian boy genius with no physical coordination and a complete lack of social skills. As a tubby Chinese boy who keeps shoving food in his face and shouting "Boo-yah!" Kevin Chung he is pure comedic gold.

Watching the trailer for Ping Pong Playa below will only give you a hint of the amount of fun and laughter this movie has in store for you. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Nazis, Nipples & Nudes, Oh My!

How can you resist a movie in which a businessman lines the floor of his hotel room with large bills so he can savor the beauty of the money he has earned selling salami slicers?

How can you resist a movie which includes a royal feast featuring the recipe for a stuffed camel?

How can you resist a movie in which a critical sex scene involves a young woman who can only focus on the portrait of Adolf Hitler on her bedroom wall while her not-fully-German husband (who resembles a blond Martin Short) keeps pumping away in his attempt to produce an Aryan wunderkind?

Surrender, Dorothy. You can't!

From the opening credits of Jiri Menzel's I Served The King of England (which are underscored by sounds of musical mischief) to its bittersweet ending, it's hard not to be entranced, enchanted and engrossed by this sweetly tenderhearted film based on Bohumil Hrabal's novel. Using a pattern of flashbacks, Menzel allows us to contrast the resigned reality of the older Jan Dite (who has been released from jail after serving 15 years in a communist Czech prison) with the lighthearted ambition, wonder and sheer pluck of the young Jan Dite who, although short and not particularly bright, aspired to become a millionaire and buy his own hotel.

The way we choose to remember certain events in our lives is usually much more appealing than the way things actually happened. In Menzel's lovely fantasies, young Dite keeps succeeding because he is so short, sweet, and, in his own peculiar way, sensual. Scenes of seduction are often accompanied by lushly erotic music from the repertoire of classical ballet (in particular, Leo Delibes' Coppelia). Scenes which worship the wonder of food are underlined by waltzes as the camera makes love to the food with a Busby Berkeley-like synchronicity (warning: do not see this film on an empty stomach). Even the scene in which the short, tuxedo-clad Dite carries a tray filled with large glasses of milk to feed the statuesque, naked Aryan beauties at a sex spa is underwritten with a wry sense of wonder and delight.

As the young Dite, the delightful Ivan Barnev discovers the powerful effect he can have over the richest people simply by dropping a handful of coins. As the older Dite (Ivan Barnev) reflects back on his accomplishments while flirting with a younger woman, there is a sadder but wiser recognition of what is really important in life.

Throughout the film the audience is treated to the architectural riches of Prague as well as the gentility of Czech life before the arrival of the Nazis. Filled with moments of sly humor, while beautifully framing "the way things were," I Served The King Of England is a joy from start to finish. Beautifully showcased by Jaromir Sofr's loving cinematography and Ales Brezina's jazzy musical score, Menzel's film is a triumph of period cinema. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rhapsody in Brown

America's cultural myopia tends to hog the spotlight during election season. From now until Election Day, you can expect to hear lots of racial innuendo about whether Barack Obama is black enough (or not) as well as plenty of suggestions that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he might really be a stealth Muslim.

What fascinates me is how, in discussions of race, the American political scene remains obsessively focused on black and brown-skinned people (providing, of course, that the people with brown skins are Mexican). Precious little visibility is given to brown-skinned Americans whose ancestors came from the Middle East, India, or Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.) Or whose families are Muslim or Hindu.

Gay men and women who don't fit the commercialized Judeo-Christian demographic often remain invisible -- even within the gay community. In the Bay area, groups like GAPA and Trikone offer invaluable social support networks. But in other parts of the world, carving out a positive gay identity within a repressive, homophobic culture is fraught with challenges.

Occasionally described as a companion piece to Sandi Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d (2001), Parvez Sharma's A Jihad For Love travels to 12 countries to interview gay Muslims and explore their struggles for freedom. Along the way, it raises interesting questions about Islamic history and interpretation of the Qu'ran. Throughout the film, the "wisdom" offered to gay people is to get married and obey Allah's commands if they want their sexual orientation to go away. Alas, that is not always possible.

Although the film itself suffers because some of the people interviewed felt it necessary to hide their faces, Sharma's documentary delivers a wealth of information about the Islamic world that most Americans would never be able to access. A South African imam who is gay tries to explain that, in describing the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Qu'ran described male rape -- not male love -- as an abomination. Several years after having been exiled from his community for revealing himself to be gay, he is invited back to address a group of South African social workers who, as Muslims, are obviously having problems coping with gay issues.

One of the Egyptian men who was arrested during police raids on Cairo's Queen Boat on May 11, 2001 describes how he survived being raped in prison and eventually managed to flee Egypt and build a new life for himself in Paris. Two Iranian men who fled to Turkey describe how the Iranian police got their hands on a video of their wedding as they struggle to find a copy of the video for documentation in their plea for political asylum (Turkey does not have any laws against homosexuality).

A sobering look into the lifestyles of gay Muslims, Sharma's documentary describes a religious holiday in Pakistan which still celebrates a historic love between two men, (one Muslim and one Hindu). Later in the film, a young gay man looks back and realizes that he was always taught that Allah is a god of fear, rather than a god of love. Jihad for Love also follows the travails of a lesbian couple who must split their time between Paris and Cairo because they cannot be open about their love -- and two Iranian gay men who manage to escape to Turkey and eventually gain asylum in Canada. Upon touching down in Toronto, one of them comments "Today is my new birthday."

As part of the New Works Festival 2008, Theater Rhinoceros recently presented Snehal Desai's one-man show entitled Finding Ways To Prove You're NOT An Al-Queda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the gIndian). Desai is an Indian-American who grew up in the small town of Surprise, Nebraska (population 44) where he readily confesses that he didn't get beaten up because he was Hindu, but because he was a faggot. Unlike the gay Muslims who are struggling to escape from their culture, Desai's monologue deals with the challenges he faces as he heads to India to meet his extensive family and explain to them why he is not married.

Making his entrance from a "Patel bag" (a beat-up, duct-taped old suitcase) that has been left onstage, Desai warms up his audience with stories of his youth and tales of the pressure put upon young Indians by overzealous parents trying to arrange a successful marriage. Recalling a trip to London where he had his first sexual encounter with another Indian man, he remembers his surprise at being asked if he wanted to join his friend in prayer the following morning. "How am I supposed to pray before a Hindu shrine that's 3-1/2 feet away from where we both enjoyed fellatio an hour ago?"

Photo by Erik Pearson

Describing how he got stopped on BART on his way to the theater, Desai (who founded the Yale Southasian Theater Collective) recites some of the less than brilliant suggestions he has received from friends trying to help him avoid being targeted as a terrorist whenever he boards a plane.

"Always carry a swastika with you."

"Ship yourself via UPS but don’t wear the brown uniform or else you’ll blend in."

"Go to the airport with a Sikh and watch HIM get arrested."

An extremely likeable performer, Desai doesn't just stick to jokes about his family and Hindu culture. In an extremely poignant segment, he describes being introduced to a potential bride who told him the tragic story of her past. As a young girl from a poor family, she had always told people that she carried her honor with her. Her parents had always stressed that while they may be poor, at least they had their honor.

While in high school, the young woman realized she was a lesbian and developed a big gay crush on her best friend. After she had cut her hair short and started to wear pants, her family was so mortified that they held an intervention during which the girl was held down by two of her aunts while a local man raped her. Afterwards, her father told her that at least the family had its honor back. The young woman sadly replied that there was no honor to be had, all they had left was their poverty.

In another segment, Desai describes how he felt his greatest moment of freedom in India, rather than in the United States. Having grown up in a culture where people are constantly being put down, and having traveled to India where people are constantly judged by their wealth and societal status, he found himself standing on the roof of a house during an annual kite festival, sharing the simple joy of flying a kite with hundreds of other participants. At that moment he realized that everyone was looking up at the sky -- not down on each other -- and, for the first time in years, he felt genuinely happy and free.

Desai still needs to iron some of the kinks out of his monologue and get its rhythms down pat. But, in the meantime, his show offers a solid hour of entertainment with material you won't get from mainstream comics. Whether one is Muslim or Hindu, finding the courage to come out to one's family is fraught with prejudices that often transcend cultural boundaries. Just witness this clip from British television:

Friday, August 15, 2008

Absurdist Adventures

Have you ever felt as if your life were getting a little bit too strange? That you couldn't communicate with people? That you were living in The Twilight Zone?

It happens more often than you think. Sometimes real life gets too close for comfort. Sometimes science fiction gets too close to real life. As someone who has always had a very active imagination, I learned how to cope with my hyperactive dream life many years ago while watching a Grade Z thriller.

In this film, the detective found himself chasing down a criminal who, strangely enough, kept leaving clues for the detective in his dreams. As the detective alternated between his sleep state and his awake state, he kept finding more and more clues which could help him solve the case --but never got a chance to nab the murderer.

Why not?

In one of his dreams, he was shot and killed by an assassin. That night -- in real life -- the detective died in his sleep.

Sometimes you really do have to pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming. However, if you're a triple threat talent like Scott Prendergast, you reach out and continue to pinch your audience to remind them exactly whose nightmare it is that they find so damned entertaining.

Prendergast is the author, director and star of Kabluey, a small indie gem that is so much better than Sideways (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Juno (2007) that it's a shame it hasn't had a stronger theatrical run. The buzz along the festival circuit was that Kabluey was an odd film, but a very sweet one. I found it to be remarkably intelligent, achingly funny, and full of strange, but wonderful insights into the empty evils of corporate collapse in the era and the soul-scorching shallowness of suburban life.

Prendergast plays Salman, a total loser who is called into action when his depressed and overstressed sister-in-law (Lisa Kudrow) realizes that if she doesn't go back to work, she'll lose the family's healthcare benefits while her husband is off fighting in Iraq. Unemployed after a string of hilarious work-related disasters, Salman arrives to take care of Leslie's two horrifically obnoxious rug rats from hell, (Landon Henninger and Cameron Wofford) who don't waste any time in expressing total contempt for their hopeless and pathetic uncle.

Realizing that Salman is not helping matters, Leslie sends him out on an interview that leads to a job as a corporate mascot for a failed company named BluNexion. Although I won't give away any more plot points, you really want to get your hands on a copy of this film as soon as it goes to DVD. It is one of those quiet gems that not only has wit and heart, but ends on a rare note of -- dare I say it -- decency. Kabluey gives Prendergast an impressive directing debut with his first full-length feature as well as a great starring role that showcases his comedic talent. The film boasts some hilarious moments from Chris Parnell, Teri Garr, and the always great Conchata Ferrell.

If you think life sucks on earth today, you should take a little trip into the future with the Crowded Fire Theater Company's production of The Listener. Directed by Kent Nicholson, this new play by Liz Duffy Adams has settled in at Berkeley's Ashby Stage for the second half of its six-week run.

If you thought Pixar's Wall-E was a triumph of recycled junk, you need to see Melpomene Katakalos' brilliant set for Junk City, Planet Earth (which is filled with the detritus of our pop/tech culture). Nicholson has cleverly used the set for The Listener to create one of the best stage entrances I've seen in 50 years of theatergoing.

In Adams' play, most of the earth's inhabitants have long since fled to the moon (now called "Nearth"). Only a handful of confused humans remains behind. Arriving back on earth to see what remains, John is captured by two low-level grunts who scavenge through junk to find items which can be identified by The Namer. Jelli and Smak communicate in a futuristic slang which obviously sets them below Namer and Listener in rank. Their discovery of John provokes plenty of violence, confusion, and possessiveness which, as it boils to the surface of Junk City, tests the faith and wisdom of both Listener and Namer.

Photo: Melpomene Katakalos

The Listener slyly examines the challenges of communication, the roots of knowledge, the shaky underpinnings of perceived truths, the inherent dangers of trust, and the power of intellect in a primitive society. Created and performed by a tightly knit and fiercely secure ensemble, the performance I attended featured Juliet Tanner in the title role, Michael Sommers as Namer and Cole Alexander Smith as John. Rami Margron and Michael Moran excelled as the energetic Jelli and Smak.

Photo: Melpomene Katakalos

Attending a performance of The Listener on the night of a full moon only enhanced the theatricality of Adams' writing. Check it out.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Against All Odds

As we examine America's celebrity-crazed culture, it's interesting to see what passes for heroism. Was forging documents designed to lead America into an unnecessary war in the Middle East an act of courage or treason? Was Kirstie Alley really all that brave when she wangled a contract from Showtime to star in a mockumentary about her efforts to lose weight? Did President Bush make a grave sacrifice, putting his own life at risk, by giving up golf? The people responsible for these acts are not what anyone in their right mind would describe as "profiles in courage."

That's why, when confronted with the real thing, the shock of recognition is so startling. Winning a sales contract does not make you a hero. Eating your vegetables does not make you a hero. Conquering the unknowable -- resisting tyranny when there is no need to put your own life at risk -- these are the challenges which make men heroes.

Two films recently seen merit the "Brass Balls" award for focusing a spotlight on heroes with major cojones. James Marsh's breathtaking documentary, Man on Wire, revisits Philippe Petit's aerial stunt on August 7, 1974, when the French wire walker illegally rigged a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center's twin towers and, with great skill, spent nearly 45 minutes walking back and forth, dancing, kneeling, and even lying down on the wire before abandoning his perch some 1,350 feet above the sidewalk.

Even though this documentary's story is told entirely in flashback by Petit (who celebrated his 60th birthday this week) and his co-conspirators, it plays out like a grand international thriller. Aided by Michael Nyman's solid musical score (I particularly liked the mischievious use of Edvard Grieg's "In The Hall of the Mountain King"), this film leaves audiences in awe of Petit's acrobatic skill, his laser-like focus, and his playful personality. It also explores -- in a surprisingly intelligent and articulate way -- the effect that one person's instant celebrity can have on his relationships and how, having achieved the seemingly impossible, one needs to readjust one's future goals.

Although obsessed with the World Trade Center from the very first moment he saw a picture of it, Petit's remarkable achievement demonstrates what can happen when bravery is supported by careful -- nearly maniacal -- planning with multiple chances to pull back, rethink things, and refine one's approach. Quite the opposite happens in Alberto Negrin's Perlasca: An Italian Hero, which was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Based on a true story, this film relives the amazing chain of events through which Giorgio Perlasca (an Italian businessman and veteran of three wars who had been a devout supporter of Fascism) managed to save nearly 5,000 Jews by impersonating the Spanish consul general to Hungary. Unlike Petit, who was racing against time (but always had the option to abort his adventure), Perlasca's tough business tactics and quick thinking allowed him to bluff his way through numerous confrontations with the Nazis. Not only did he outwit the Nazis who planned to burn down Budapest's Jewish ghetto, without knowing who he was confronting, he once even stared down Adolf Eichmann.

With a clear understanding of the difference between the return on investment of an utterly futile -- albeit polite -- diplomatic letter of protest and the ability to achieve instant, real-time results with hard cash, Perlasca asks "If I can pay for cattle, why can't I pay for humans?" as he tries to determine which Nazi can most easily be bribed.

Portrayed with a bull-headed athletic strength by Luca Zingaretti, Perlasca's incredible chutzpah propels the plot forward with a rapidly accelerating momentum. In a period of 45 days from December 1, 1944 to January 16, 1945, this Italian saved several thousand Jews with his quick thinking and creative smuggling techniques (all fueled by a genuine sense of moral outrage). One of the more remarkable facts about Perlasca's story is that, following World War II, he returned home to Padua where he lived in relative obscurity until found by a group of Hungarian Jews in 1987.

Jerome Anger lends strong support as a timid Jewish diplomatic attache who admires Perlasca's bravado but can't bring himself to act with such fearlessness. Mathilda May is the beautiful Hungarian countess who helps Perlasca in key moments and eventually stops trying to deny her Jewish heritage. Gyorgy Cserhamli is appropriately threatening as Bleiber, a Nazi officer whose path keeps crossing Perlasca's, and Zoltan Bezeredy appears as the corrupt minister Vajna.

Strongly aided by Ennio Morricone's powerful score, this film (which was created for Italian television in 2002) easily outpaces and outshines Steven Spielberg's black-and-white Holocaust epic Schindler's List (1993). At the end of the film, there is some archival footage of Perlasca being interviewed for the Italian media. I don't know if it is available on DVD, but if and when you can find a copy of this film, grab it and make it your own. You can watch the trailer below:

It's all too easy to watch today's news and listen to lots of political blather in which people make grandiose statements but take no action. Whether one frets about the crises in Darfur and Somalia or the scandalous dereliction of duty by members of the United States Congress, we don't see many heroes in today's world. Giorgio Perlasca -- who was not even Jewish -- was the real thing.

We desperately need more people like him.

Going Organic

In recent years I've spent quite a few thrilling evenings in small theaters scattered around the Bay area. In most of these situations, a small nonprofit theater company's creative team has been clearly focused on artistic quality rather than size or spectacle. In venues ranging from Potrero Hill's Thick House to Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theater -- from Berkeley's Ashby Stage to the New Conservatory Theater Company's three tiny subterranean theaters -- I've witnessed some amazing performances.

Unlike the commercial theater, where profit is a driving force, resident nonprofit theater companies often serve as incubators for new works of art. In most cases, the people involved in these organizations have day jobs which support their artistic desires. Their ability to birth a new dramatic piece over a period of time by workshopping, refining, rehearsing, and eventually testing it before live audiences allows them not only to find the piece's artistic truth but to make the creative process their own.

While many repertory companies include one or two new works in each season, some of those pieces have been developed and workshopped in other cities before being mounted for a local audience. One of the Bay area's best kept secrets is a small theatrical company whose mission is to create bold new plays which challenge its audiences but can still be shared with the community at affordable prices. After attending several productions by the Central Works Theater Ensemble, I continue to be amazed by the intelligence of their work, the solidity of their craft, and the level of artistic integrity which drives their creative process.

Performances by this group take place in an extremely intimate setting at the Berkeley City Club which, like Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate, was designed by Julia Morgan. With the audience surrounding the small performing area (which is probably no larger than your bedroom) in an arena seating pattern, I doubt you could find a more intimate theatrical experience.

The trick to working in such a small space -- where the actors are exposed on all sides -- is that the artistic product has to be rock solid. The company often finds inspiration for new works in classics of the theatrical literature. Shakespeare's King Lear served as a springboard for Every Inch A King. The current offering, Midsummer/4 takes the gimmick of a hallucinatory potion (famously used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and updates it to show what can happen when two men and two women (who have ended up at a friend's unused summer estate), imbibe too heavily from an extremely potent bottle of absinthe that is rumored to have mystical powers.

Mind-altering substances are a frequent plot device, but capturing the speech patterns of people who are tripping their brains out is not an easy trick for any dramatist. Written by Gary Graves, skillfully directed by Jan Zvaifler, and with sound designed most effectively by Gregory Scharpen, Midsummer/4 takes its audience on a 95-minute psychological roller coaster. Graves (who also did the lighting design) scores strongly here by capturing the false starts, interruptions, and extreme emotional flipflops of people (whose inhibitions have evaporated under the influence of a powerful stimulant) and turning them into surprisingly tight and effective dialog. This piece, which has been carefully molded by the ensemble, has no extra fat on it.

Set in and around the main hall of the Sierra Nevada's Palace House, the play follows a long hard night with Dex (an arrogant, macho salesperson), Lawrence (a dorky grad student), Lena (a confused blonde with low self esteem) and Raissa (a semi-famous author who used to come to Palace House as a child). The basic setup is simple. Raissa and Lena are supposedly best friends who had planned to spend a weekend in the country together. Having recently met Dex at an "eye-gazing" event, Lena has invited him along for the weekend before asking Raissa's permission. Dex, being a bit of an asshole, has invited his friend Lawrence along without asking Lena's permission. As the play progresses we not only learn that Lawrence went to college with Lena, but that he may be one of the few people who has actually read and understood Raissa's book.

As the absinthe works its insidious magic, the characters are stripped of their delusions, freed of their inhibitions, left to wander in the woods, subjected to paranoid fears of paranormal phenomena, and eventually dumped back into a dramatically altered reality known to many as the "Christ, was I drunk last night!" syndrome.

One couldn't ask for a more confident and tightly-knit ensemble, with Arwen Anderson as Lena, Armond E. Dorsey as Dex, John Patrick Moore as Lawrence, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (a frequent performer with Lamplighters and 42nd Street Moon) as Raissa. Like other productions by CWTE, Midsummer/4 gains its strength -- in ways too numerous to count -- from the collaborative effort of the group.

If you're interested in theater which has been organically developed (as opposed to something sent out on a national tour), I can't recommend the Central Works Theater Ensemble strongly enough. It's a unique kind of theatrical experience designed to challenge and involve the audience, rather than just entertain them with a lot of glitter and noise.

The strength of the CWTE experience was sadly reinforced by an execrable staging of Terence McNally's Bad Habits by Square MaMa several nights later. This play is obviously not one of McNally's better efforts. In the director's notes, Randy Warren takes credit for having combined the two published versions of the play from 1974 and 1990. "This new version makes use of the new material while protecting the 'edge' of the original," he claims.

I can tell you that the first act of this production had no edge whatsoever (nor was anyone sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to see what would happen next). How bad could it have been? The first act alone could have been subtitled The Never Ending Story. Most of the heavy lifting (both physical and dramatic) was performed by a motorized wheelchair.

However, as someone who always looks for some redeeming value in a night at the theater I will confess to having learned two things at this performance: With Mr. Warren replacing one of the originally scheduled actors as Dr. Pepper, I discovered that a blisteringly bad director can also be a terribly untalented actor. Warren's strong facial resemblance to a conservative pundit of dubious renown offered me the perverse good fortune of seeing what neocon columnist William Kristol would look like in a wheelchair.

With the understanding that charity begins at home, I left the theater at intermission.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Size Isn't Everything

In the cold, winter months of 1966-1967, two blocks of prime real estate in New York's theater district witnessed an amazing game of hopscotch. When David Merrick decided not to open the eagerly anticipated musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, had a book by Edward Albee, and boasted music and lyrics by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl, Carnival, Take Me Along, New Girl In Town), the Majestic Theater suddenly found itself without a tenant. With an estimated seating capacity of 1610, the Majestic was then one of Broadway's largest theaters and, potentially, one of the biggest revenue producers for the Shubert Organization (its current occupant, The Phantom of the Opera, has been there for 20 years).

Nine weeks after Merrick shuttered Breakfast at Tiffany's (which, by all accounts, was dead on arrival), Fiddler on the Roof moved from the 1435-seat Imperial to the Majestic. Within two weeks Cabaret (also directed and produced by Harold Prince) was transferred from the 1218-seat Broadhurst to the larger Imperial. Keeping in mind that this all took place long before anyone had a personal computer to help strategize planning, moving two successful Broadway musicals was an immense challenge for Prince's office -- as well as for the Shubert Organization.

Needless to say, both shows continued to generate handsome profit margins (Cabaret ended its original run at the 1761-seat Broadway Theater). But, as the old saying goes, size isn't everything. Ultimately, it's what you do with what you've got that matters.

Sometimes a play which has been seen in larger venues shows new strengths when performed in a more intimate setting. Two-piano versions of large musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella have been staged with resounding success. The SF Playhouse's production of Cabaret offers another shining example of taking a shrink-to-fit approach to what was originally a rather large Broadway musical.

Cabaret is a perfect candidate for this treatment. Both the original production and the 1998 touring revival (which played San Francisco's Curran Theater with Michael C. Hall in the role of the Emcee), were mounted on proscenium stages that kept the audience at a safe distance. SF Playhouse's new production of Kander & Ebb's now 42-year-old masterpiece eliminates any sense of false security by turning the first two rows into nightclub seating and letting the performers roam and interact with the audience. Kim Tolman's intricate unit set does wonders to focus the audience's attention on the delicacy of the show's relationships while showing how easily their fragile equilibrium is threatened by the growing influence of the Nazis. The scenes which take place at the Kit Kat Klub fare even better, as the genuine rattiness of the place lets the audience share in the kind of willful escapism that chooses to ignore outside events.

I was especially curious to see this production of Cabaret after having seen the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story at the Frameline LGBT film festival. In that film, Don Bachardy explains why he and Christopher Isherwood (who wrote I Am A Camera -- the novel upon which Cabaret is based) felt that Liza Minelli was the wrong person to play Sally Bowles in the movie of Cabaret. Sally is, after all, a perpetual loser who bounces from one affair to another without gaining any traction. Whereas other characters in the show have some prescience about what the rise of the Nazis might bring, Sally is much more concerned with being liked, loved, and applauded. An extremely capable performer, Lauren English nailed her musical numbers while showing Sally, in her offstage moments, to be so pigheadedly sure of her luck that she couldn't possibly understand how she is her own worst enemy.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Casting for this production was quite solid, with Brian Yates Sharber as an energetic Emcee, Louis Parnell as a over-eager Herr Schultz, and Karen Grassle as the cynical Frau Schneider. Several performers (including the Emcee) doubled as musicians in the Kit Kat Band. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Bobby Bryce and Norman Munoz as the Kit Kat Boys.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Bill English's stage direction helped tighten the drama by crafting certain intimate moments in a way that might not have been possible on a much larger stage. I was most impressed by Daniel Krueger's portrayal of Cliff -- which may well be the best I've seen. Krueger's eagerly expressive face captures the wide-eyed excitement of a naif who has landed in a snake pit. His growing realization of the need to leave Berlin -- and what will happen to those who stay behind, anchored the show in a way I've never really seen.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Monday, August 11, 2008

Military Issue

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Although the United Negro College Fund used that motto for many years as a successful fundraising tool, too many young minds get confused, fried, and destroyed these days, resulting in a terrible loss of human potential.

Back when I registered with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, I was subjected to an interview to see if I was sincere in my beliefs. "What would you do if we put a gun in your hand and told you to shoot?" asked a member of my draft board.

"I'd turn around and shoot you," I replied.

The look of shock on his face was memorable. "But I'm on your side," he sputtered. "We're the good guys."

"Once you're dead, you're as useless as any other dead body," was my response. On the day I failed my draft physical, I walked out of Fort Hamilton a free man. While I may not have been physically fit (the army medic was most impressed with my raging high blood pressure), I remember being acutely grateful that the military had failed to get their filthy hands on my brain. That was a long time ago. At the recent revival of Hair in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, they made an announcement explaining that the actors were burning their draft cards at the end of Act I (no doubt for those theatergoers who had only known about a volunteer military).

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in July of 1972, I was visited by a young man I had known while living in Providence, Rhode Island. Steve used to hang out at Prospect Terrace with a group of gay men and, although a talented art student from the Rhode Island School of Design, was not always comfortable with his sexual orientation. He knew he was gay and didn't have any doubts about his attraction to men. But, having been raised in an extremely religious and homophobic Baptist family, he had completely bought into the concept that being gay made him the devil's spawn.

When I first met Steve he had such a sweet personality and showed great potential. But when he enlisted in the Navy -- hoping they could make a real man out of him -- things went horriby wrong. By the time he visited me in San Francisco Steve was a paranoid ghost of his previous self.

In the past two years the media has grown wise to the fact that veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not only suffering from shattered limbs and faces, some of their minds have been destroyed as well (in ways that clinicians dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder have yet to understand). The Marsh recently played host to Liza Raynal's one-woman show, American Joe, in which she probes her conflicting emotions of loving her younger brother Joe (who is currently serving in Afghanistan) and hating the macho jerk he has become since entering boot camp.

During the course of her monologue, Raynal impersonates her mother, her brother, a variety of army personnel and some of the military families who have seen their sons and brothers descend into mental illness after numerous deployments to the Middle East. The Youtube video used to advertise American Joe is posted below so that you can experience the intensity of Raynal's performance. While there are plenty of laughs in her show, but they are drenched with the tears and sadness of many a proud military family.

If Raynal is focused on the deterioration of her brother's mental capacity on his way into the army, Yoav Shamir's documentary, Flipping Out, examines what happens to Israeli soldiers who have completed their three years of military duty. Many take their exit bonus and travel to the Himalayan foothills of northern India where staying stoned and partying loudly has become an acceptable post-military lifestyle.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone can handle their drugs equally well. Many ex-soldiers become psychotic, suffer delusions of grandeur, and need to be rescued from a lifestyle that may prove even more dangerous than being in the army. A small group of social workers, rabbis, and guidance counselors funded by the state of Israel's drug rehabilitation services try to help these people decompress and get medical help when necessary. Aided by a former Mossad agent (Hilik Magnus) who is often hired to track down and return these lost souls to their families, they try to look after the nearly 2,000 new soldiers who flip out each year.

Shamir's documentary, which was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, could hardly be called an uplifting experience. Sometimes reality bites. Witnessing its sadder side effects in film format doesn't make it feel any better.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

In September 2005, while touring the relief efforts at Houston's Astrodome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former First Lady Barbara Bush famously remarked:

"Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we're going to move to Houston. What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Before being booted from John McCain's campaign team, the smug and loathsome Phil Gramm (another clueless Texan) recently characterized Americans as "a nation of whiners," telling people that their economic woes were all in their minds.

This week veteran newswoman Cokie Roberts criticized Barack Obama's vacationing in Hawaii (where his sister lives) with the following pearls of wisdom:
"I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be at Myrtle Beach and if he’s going to take a vacation at this time. I just think this is not the time to do that."

Such statements are a fatuous luxury coming from a vantage point of accumulated wealth. Not everyone can enjoy such a pampered perspective.

"So far this year Hawaii has had 2.596 million domestic visitors," dryly notes Oliver Willis . "I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that that number is far smaller than the amount of people who visited the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine (how many of you have a "family compound"?), or the amount of people who vacationed at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas (I don't know about you, but the Willis family does not have a ranch, not even in southern Maryland or in the rural areas of Jamaica), and 2.5 million is way way more than the amount of visitors to Camp McCain, where a professional staff saw to the needs of the assembled journalists (themselves often on the receiving end of an elite lifestyle far beyond the average middle class American)."

In a summer travel season during which many trips have been replaced by creatively-engineered "stayvacations," more and more Americans are finding themselves just one paycheck away from financial ruin. Few of them will need to see Courtney Hunt's harrowing new film Frozen River, to experience the kind of anxiety felt by Melissa Leo's character.

Ray Eddy's no-good gambling addict of a husband has run off again (taking the money she had saved for the first payment on their new double-wide, three-bedroom trailer home with him). Left with two young sons, no food in the house, and bill collectors eager to repossess the family's big screen TV, Ray is facing desperate times. With Christmas just a few weeks away she has nothing to put under the tree for her children, can't get promoted to a manager's position at the dollar discount store where she works and, for lack of a better term, is up shit's creek.

Make that a frozen creek.

On second thought, make that a frozen river.

Hunt's low-budget thriller -- which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival -- is a taut narrative which follows the increasingly desperate Ray as she ends up helping a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) smuggle illegal aliens into the United States during the brief period when the St. Lawrence River is so thickly frozen that the ice can even support the weight of a semi-trailer.

As the two women transport Asians and Pakistanis from the Canadian province of Quebec, through a Mohawk reservation, into upper New York State, they make Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise seem like a sun-drenched all expenses paid vacation. Predictably, the one last trip Ray needs to take in order to accumulate enough money to pay for the double-wide is the one where things go horribly wrong.

For her first feature film, Hunt has pulled off a major indie success, anchored by Leo's solid portrayal of Ray as a woman determined to do anything for the sake of her children. Shot in the dead of winter, it will make you very happy to walk out into the sunlight and count your blessings.

Sometimes even people who count their blessings have the rug pulled out from under them. During the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Slawomir Grunberg's documentary Saved By Deportation shed light on a little known aspect of World War II. In 1940, Stalin ordered the deportation of 200,000 Polish Jews from their homes in Russian-occupied Eastern Poland. Stripped of their belongings, many were sent to labor camps in Siberia and other Russian outposts where they struggled to survive the fierce winter and hold onto their dignity.

Because the Russians in these areas had no concept of what a Jew was, the deportees were welcomed without prejudice and put to work. Despite the brutality of their surroundings, many survived until their release. To their horror, upon returning to Poland, they found themselves reviled, spat upon, and in some instances killed by the Poles who had been left behind.

Grunberg's film doesn't just document the flight/plight of the Polish Jews who ended up in Russian encampments. It follows the journey of an elderly Jewish couple from Brooklyn (Asher and Shyfra Scharf) as they retrace their travels -- some 60 years later -- from Lvov, Poland to the southern Siberian town of Chelyabinsk, where Asher worked in a coal mine. Although the mine has been abandoned, Russian families are still living in the dilapidated barracks in which he and his family struggled to survive until their release in 1941.

In Khujand (formerly Leninabad), Tajikistan, they visit the neighborhood where they lived from 1941 to 1945. In Samarkand, they visit the home where they were married in 1945. As they retrace their steps -- without ever hiding their identities as orthodox Jews -- they are welcomed by Muslim communities as they were 60 years ago, with warmth, respect and overly generous hospitality.

Several other Polish survivors contribute memories of being transported to work camps near the Arctic Circle -- as well as their ongoing battles against bed bugs, typhus and other diseases. As one witnesses the cozy warmth of the Scharf's home in Brooklyn and contrasts it with the conditions they survived in Chelyabinsk, one wonders what would happen if the families of George Bush, Phil Gramm and Cokie Roberts were ever subjected to such daunting challenges.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Suffer The Children

From a child's point of view, life is decidedly unfair. Other children get to play with toys that remain out of your reach. Other children get rewarded when you don't. Other children intimidate and bully you.

The adults who are supposed to be there to protect you never seem to understand.

Whether real or imagined, the slightest insult can burrow into a child's psyche, finding a hidden fortress of previously stored hurts that can undermine his self esteem for years to come. Some wounds lie dormant and never surface. Others continue to nag at a child's insecurities, making him feel as if the entire world has been rigged against him and life will always be a struggle.

Some children hear -- and end up believing -- such terrible messages that it's no wonder they cross their arms and sob "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm gonna go eat worms."

What do you do if you're a nerdy little British Jew with thick glasses who is constantly being bullied by your older brother and is never picked for any of the teams at school?

What do you do when you're an asthmatic social reject, your father is a depressed eccentric shlub with failure written all over his face, no one has time to listen to you, and the rabbi coaching you for your bar mitzvah is blind?

You wake up every day wondering if things could possibly get worse. And the answer is always the same.

Yes, they can.

How much worse? After constantly being told that the day of your bar mitzvah is the day when all eyes will be upon you -- when you will be the most special person in the world -- you discover that the date that was chosen for your bar mitzvah falls on the same day as the final soccer match of the World Cup (which England is hosting). No matter how strongly honed your skills may be at planning menus, mixing cocktails, and laying out seating arrangements, there's no way you can compete with one of the biggest sports events of the decade.

Paul Weiland's touching autobiographical feature, Sixty Six (which recently received its Northern California premiere as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) is a bit of a sleeper. Thanks to Dan Lundin's loving cinematography (which has rendered many sequences to look like home movies), this charming film offers a successful blend of personal narrative mixed with archival footage of the actual World Cup event held at Wimbley Stadium in July 1966.

Although the archival sports footage and the film's finale are happily triumphant, most of this movie focuses on the frustrations and exasperations of trying to control your life when you're 12 years old and have absolutely no power over the events shaping your day-to-day existence. Weiland captures all of this with a surprising tenderness and psychological acuity interspersed with moments of biting personal regret (particularly when Bernie's parents watch the film footage from his older brother's bar mitzvah and realize how consistently they have pushed aside their younger son).

While the film has many moments which tug at the heart, there are plenty of laughs as well. The rubbery-faced Eddie Marsan triumphs as Bernie's sad sack father while Helena Bonham Carter is surprisingly effective as his confused, beehived wife. As young Bernie Rubens, Gregg Sulkin perfectly embodies the dorky, confused Jewish adolescent so many of us could not wait to leave behind. Strong cameos come from Peter Serafinowicz as Bernie's outgoing uncle, Stephen Rea as Dr. Barrie, and Richard Katz as the blind Rabbi Linov. Well worth renting.

Perhaps the greatest fear of any parent is for their child to be snatched away from them. In another film which boasts exceptional art design and cinematography, Jochen Alexander Freydank's Toyland tells the tale of a young German boy who has been best friends with a Jewish boy in his apartment building. Sworn blood brothers, the two children love to practice piano together. Not understanding the code words his parents have used to describe what is happening to the Jewish families around them, Heinrich is eagerly looking forward to a trip to Toyland. When his friend's family is rounded up in 1942 to be sent to the camps, Heinrich eagerly follows them with his little suitcase in one hand and his teddy bear in the other.

Upon returning home to an empty house, his mother panics and goes in search of her little boy. After finally convincing the police that she is not Jewish, she manages to retrieve Heinrich from the cattle car where he has been standing silently with his Jewish friends and his beloved music teacher, wearing a jacket which has been embroidered with a yellow star marking him as a Jew.

This surprisingly powerful 13-minute film, which was included in the Jews in Shorts program, is a gem that grabs the audience by the throat and forces it to see, through a child's innocent eyes, how important friendship can be. The film ends with a beautiful shot looking down at a piano keyboard as two sets of wrinkled, liver-spotted hands make music together once more.

Freydank notes that "Shooting Toyland was one of the most rewarding experiences in my film life, with a team completely devoted to this project, working with actors who were excited to do this film because they really wanted this film to be made."

If you are ever fortunate enough to see this short, you'll know why.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Into The Woods

Even though I spent many summers at a YMCA camp, my idea of roughing it is a Hilton. Sticks and stones won't break my bones, but they're not much fun to sleep on. Trail mix is the only part of hiking that interests me. Campfires are best remembered for sticky, gooey marshmallows that were roasted on the end of a stick. Tents and sleeping bags hold absolutely no allure for this certified city boy.

I'm also afraid of heights. When I moved to San Francisco in 1972, my roommate insisted that we take a trip to Mount Tamalpais for its great views of the Bay area. As we walked along the mountain trail, hawks lazily circled over Marin County far below us. Chuck thought it was hilarious that I was paralyzed by a fear of looking down. Meanwhile, Red (his terminally stupid but lovable Irish Setter) kept running back and forth near the edge of the drop-off, the dog's tail spinning like a propeller while his tongue dangled in ecstasy.

Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

That may be why I was so taken by one of the pieces in the Jews in Shorts program that was screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival There can be little doubt in my mind that "To jump or not to jump, oy what a question!" was the inspiration for Zohar Levi's sweet and touching Chronicle of a Jump. In her film, Levi focuses her camera on a young man who wants to prove his machismo to his girlfriend (and himself) by jumping from a small cliff into the water below. As he nervously approaches the edge of the cliff, backs off, and keeps trying to get up the courage to jump, his girlfriend waits on a nearby promontory, reading and eating while waiting for him to gather his nerves.

After his courage fails him, the young man jumps from a much lower height, swims back to his girlfriend and crabbily suggests that they pack up and leave the campsite. He's obviously afraid of heights.

Or is he?

At the moment one would think this film would end, the camera pans over to the cliff and shows one person after another happily jumping into the water as the young man launches into an impassioned voiceover in which he explains that all we really fear is the fear of the unknown. It's not the height we fear, nor is it the water which awaits us. It's the two seconds of falling which can turn our blood to ice. If we can conquer our fear of falling, we can conquer anything.

Back in June, when I traveled to New York to attend my nephew's wedding, I enjoyed a return visit to the American Museum of Natural History. Due to a painful flare of sciatica, I ended up spending more time than I had planned in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. At the time, I could never have imagined how useful that half hour would become. Seven weeks later, I found myself en route to Martinez for a performance of the world premiere production of Sacagawea by the The Willows Theatre Company.

With book and lyrics by Mary Bracken Phillips, and music by Craig Bohmler (who already has seven musicals, three operas, numerous choral works and quite a few songs to his credit), this show takes its inspiration from the young Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition through the Rockies to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805. Phillips and Bohmler (who have already had Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical produced by the Willows Theatre Company) plan to create several more shows based on important characters from the history of the Pacific Northwest.

One of the challenges facing the creative team of a show like Sacagawea is the sheer amount of exposition that must be crammed into the book. Their heroine's story is long, detailed, and the show is historically faithful in its depiction of her experiences with Lewis & Clark's expedition. I particularly liked the way Bohmler used the sounds of drumming and bird calls for the musical bridges that accompanied set changes. However, listening to the messages from the Great White Father of the Americas (Thomas Jefferson) induced cringes of Caucasian shame. With an extremely flexible unit set designed by Peter Crompton and strong lighting from Robert Anderson, Sacagawea sat well on the stage of the Alhambra Performing Arts Center.

Strong performances came from Ryan Drummond as Meriwether Lewis, Morgan Smith as William Clark, Jennifer Paz as Sacagawea, and Joti Gore as Clark's black slave, York. While the show could benefit from a stronger cast and stage director, this was a fairly solid achievement for a community theater group.

Unfortunately, the mischievous thoughts that course through the mind of an aging Broadway show-tune queen as he is confronted with new material do not always jibe with what is happening onstage. Many moments of dialogue sparked memories from old Broadway musicals.

In Act I, as Sacagawea and Clark tried to wrestle with the meaning of the word "funny," I found myself thinking back to Jule Styne's Gypsy (1959):
"Funny, you're a stranger in town here.
Come from a different place.
Funny, I'm a stranger myself here.
Small world, isn't it?"

As an illicit romance continued to build between Clark and Sacagawea, I couldn't help thinking of Yip Harburg's lyric for "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow (1947). When Lewis (who had been nicknamed "Frown" by Sacagawea) suggested that his colleagues only teach the young Shoshone woman "happy words," I instantly thought of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Happy Talk" from South Pacific (1949). It didn't take much to spark the memory of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946), with Ethel Merman belting:

"Some Indian summer's day
Without a care.
I may run away'
With Big Chief Son of a Bear!"
Later, as the expedition scavenged for food, I began to hear the lilting strains of Meredith Willson's "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" from Here's Love (1963) -- a musical based on the film Miracle on 34th Street in which the composer included his 1951 hit song "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas."

As the exhausted expedition neared the Pacific Coast, I enjoyed fond memories of Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz's "Why Don't You See Seattle" from Jennie (1963). An historically accurate scene in which Sacagawea gives up her blue-beaded Indian belt so that Lewis & Clark can trade it for a seal fur to bring to President Thomas Jefferson instantly brought to mind a classic lyric from Rodgers & Hart's Garrick Gaieties (1925):

"We'll have Manhattan,
The Bronx and Staten Island, too."
A critical decision (which, more than 200 years ago marked the first time in American history that a woman and a black man were allowed to vote) had one character after another opting to spend the winter on the "South Side" (of the Columbia River). I kept waiting for the chorus to break into a bent V-shape and start singing "Hello, Barack!"

History relates that for three years following the expedition, Sacagawea and her husband, the fur trader Charbonneau, lived among the Hidatsa Indians before accepting Clark's invitation to settle in St. Louis in 1809.

The best -- and most unintentional laugh -- resulted from a moment of sound distortion toward the end of the show. As one of the actors described what had happened to various characters, my friend and I both thought we heard him refer to one character as "still being at war with the Hadassahs." Elliott doubled over in laughter as he visualized a busload of angry but well-coifed Jewish matrons beating the Indian staff at a casino with their pocketbooks while demanding more quarters for the slot machines.

While Sacagawea may not have been Drums along the Martinez, a relatively good time was had by all.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Quick Hits

Usually, when one sits through a festival's program of short films, 30% of the films will be good, 30% uninteresting and the rest barely average. Much to my surprise, the Jews in Shorts program offered by this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was remarkably strong. Rather than try to tie them together in any particular theme, I'm just going to give some quick impressions of a few films on the program -- all of which are definitely worth watching.

* * * * *

Lauren Shweder Biel's 888-Go-Kosher offers a peek inside the daily routine of New York City's only "rapid-response koshering service." She interviews Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic (who founded the nonprofit Go Kosher America) as she follows him on a house call. Lebovic's new client is a young woman who has just moved into a new apartment. Describing how, while attending an orthodox Jewish wedding, she was so impressed by the sense of community and love for tradition that it made her want to be a better Jew, the young wife talks about how keeping a kosher kitchen seemed like the most obvious next step for her. Demonstrating how dishes and silverware are purified in a mikvah, Rabbi Lebovic offers viewers a charming piece of orthodox edutainment.

* * * * *

Neil Needleman's A Trip to Prague describes how he ended up finding the love of his life. On returning home from a European sojourn to one of their favorite cities, Neil's parents were killed in an accident in which their taxi (driven by a drunk driver), skidded off the road. A freelance commercial graphic artist who had taken on some badly needed work, Neil was unable to pick his parents up at the airport that day. A young Jew with guilt? How could you possibly think such a thing!

On a subsequent flight to Europe to discover why his parents were so in love with Prague, Neil meets a nice Jewish couple headed to the same destination. During the course of their travels, Mr. Goldstein keeps insisting: "You know what a nice Jewish boy needs most? A nice Jewish girl! Let me show you a picture of my daughter, Irene, who is a successful lawyer and extremely eligible."

Mr. Goldstein's efforts to make a shiddach never stop. As they head back to the United States, Neil finally confesses that he is gay and would therefore not have any romantic interest in the Goldsteins' daughter.

Without missing a beat, Mr. Goldstein replies "You know what a nice Jewish boy who is gay needs most in life? Another nice Jewish boy who is gay! Let me show you a picture of my son Gary, who is gay!"

The urge to meddle on behalf of their children cannot be beaten out of Jewish parents. What gives this short film its charm is that the narration is illustrated with Needleman's pen and ink sketches from his trip to Prague. Watch the film's trailer for a sample of his art.

* * * * *

Lior Geller's 22-minute thriller Roads has the gritty tension of most films which deal with the drug trade. The difference here is that the main runner, Ismayil, is a street-smart 13 year old Arab boy living in an Israeli slum. When Ahmed (the most powerful drug dealer in Lod) tries to recruit Ismayil's younger brother into the business, Ismayil rebels and runs for freedom. While his confused brother refuses to let go of the baby lamb he has been cradling in his arms, the two boys commander the car owned by Daniel (a traumatized Israeli ex-soldier who is one of Ismayil's regular customers).

Ismayil's street instincts tell him that if two Arab boys get shot and killed no one will blink an eye. But if a Jew gets shot, it will make headlines. The boys make a thrilling escape in this wild ride through the drug-infested streets of Lod while Daniel finds a way out of his grief and agony. The strong cast includes Waseem Nur Habshi, Haled Mayer Marwat, Mahmud Mura and Osama Rabaya, with Daniel Chernish as the wasted Jew. Watch the trailer for a taste of the action.

* * * * *

Nadav Aronowitz's Home Made Hero tells what happens to a cab driver whose fantasy of starring in an action film almost comes true. A handsome, likeable young man, the protagonist picks up a fare who turns out to be a casting director. At the last minute, one of her actors has become unavailable for a shoot, so she tries to audition the cab driver for a speaking role. While this could be a great opportunity for the cab driver to become an actor, he cavalierly insists that he'd only be interested in an action film, not in anything romantic.

No sooner does the casting director exit his cab than a furiously jealous female soldier steps in, points her rifle at him, and hijacks his life. If you think jealous astronauts are crazy, this woman's fury is powerfully deranged.

* * * * *

Andras Salamon has packed more pathos into his five-minute silent film entitled Tell Your Children than many filmmakers accomplish in a full-length feature. Re-enacting the mass murder of Jews that took place by the Arrow Cross on the banks of the Danube River in January of 1945, his film encapsulates the life of a traumatized young girl who managed to swim to safety.

In a brilliant sequence shot from curb level, Salamon shows the passage of time through the changing fashions of women's dresses until the young girl has finally become an old woman, lugging a small wheeled suitcase, as a gang of youths threaten her and douse her with fluids.

An extremely powerful short, Tell Your Children will leave viewers shaken and stirred.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Art Isn't Easy

Many people take a product-based approach toward art. Is it something they can purchase? Will it accumulate in value over time? If they buy more expensive seats will they have a better artistic experience? For many consumers, collecting art (whether in the form of paintings, sculptures, CDs, or DVDs) becomes a life-long pursuit.

However, for the people who actually create the art, process always trumps product. The artistic process involves constantly searching to hone and refine one's craft, improve one's performance, build trust in one's instinct and add greater depth to one's interpretation. I remember once sitting in on a rehearsal of Richard Strauss's Salome that was not going smoothly. At a designated break, the soprano singing the title role slumped down in a chair and muttered "Jesus Christ! I'm gonna have to earn every fucking cent of this fee!"

For hundreds of years artists and craftspeople have shared their secrets with younger generations who will eventually replace them. For some, the knowledge of how to perfect or refine their art comes too late in life -- at a time when the body can no longer produce the desired results. This is an especially poignant catch-22 for singers and dancers whose bodies pass their prime long before the brain starts to diminish in strength.

There's an old saying that "Those who can't do, teach." But learning about art is not the same thing as teaching art. Many performing artists conduct master classes in the cities in which they perform throughout the concert season. Most of the master classes held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are not only open to the public, but are free.

Conducted by world-renowned artists such as Stephen Hough and Peter Frankl, these classes are a joy to attend. During such sessions one witnesses veterans coaxing new sounds and stronger interpretations from younger artists. One also benefits from the sharing of knowledge accumulated throughout a lifetime of performing around the world. Occasionally one gets to watch someone with a natural teaching talent who can communicate, tersely and gracefully, the changes he would like to see effected.

One of the common goals of a master class is to help young musicians understand how to interpret a musical score. While the instructor may add valuable historical perspectives about the composer, the instrument, and the era in which the piece was created, much of the focus is on improving the young artist's musical sensitivity and basic technique. Watch this 10-minute video of pianist Maria Joao Pires teaching a master class and you will be fascinated by what you see. Rather than the formal body language seen in most symphonic concerts, she is trying to encourage students to loosen up their bodies so that they can learn how to breathe with the music as they play it. As is often the case, this master class is a multilingual affair.

While teaching students how to play an instrument such as a piano or cello involves the use of an inanimate third object, for singers and dancers the instrument in question is their own body. A lifetime of learning -- and paying careful attention to how the body works -- goes into transmitting tips and tricks to young artists that can help them overcome performance obstacles. Here are two legendary opera singers -- soprano Birgit Nilsson and tenor Alfredo Kraus --working with young singers to help them improve their technique.

Notice that the language used by the instructors will vary from moment to moment and may sometimes simply consist of grunts and gestures aimed at showing a young artist how to produce a particular sound.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened Tomer Heymann's fascinating dance documentary, Out of Focus, which examines the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin who, from 1990 to 2003, served as Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Company (which was founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva De Rothschild). Although Naharin is at first a reluctant inteviewee, Heymann places him in the dance studio where the choreographer can be seen working with dancers as well as criticizing them from the sidelines while being interviewed. This technique offers a much different insight into a choreographer's instinct than most dance films.

Naharin's style of dance, which he refers to as "Gaga," is less formal than ballet. Throughout the film the audience witnesses him coax his dancers to find new interpretive strengths in their movement. The vocabulary he uses to communicate with his dancers is fascinating, especially when he tries to ask them to incorporate the sensation of a hiccup into the excitement they are trying to create. Describing his work for the Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt once wrote "If you could hold one of Ohad Naharin's dances in your hand, it would feel smooth. Think of a polished stone. It looks like a piece of secret sculpture, but hurl it and it becomes a weapon."

At 55, and with constant back pain from an old injury, Naharin surprises the interviewer with his lack of jealousy. The only thing he envies about the younger dancers is that they are not in pain, he insists. He's much more interested in helping his dancers push through boundaries and break free of restrictions, whether physical or interpretive. If anything, this film reminds viewers what America's children are missing as a result of the cutbacks in arts education in secondary schools. Naharin certainly employs a very different style of coaching or teaching than one finds in contact sports.

A most rewarding documentary, Out of Focus will easily be appreciated by anyone with an interest in the performing arts. What one sees is very different from a regular dance performance. The screen is filled with artists stretching, searching, and struggling to refine their craft. Sometimes Naharin's challenges take his dancers by surprise. In one instance, he asks them to squat above their partners' faces so that they are positioned an inch above the partner's nose. "You should be able to smell....." he cautions them, with a sense of impish glee.

If you want to watch great artists teaching, there are plenty of snippets of master classes available on YouTube. If you have two hours to spare, go for the best: watch this two-hour master class in the art of interpreting song conducted by the legendary Barbara Cook. It's a fascinating teaching experience filled with lungs, love and laughter.

All My Sons

One of the first rules for aspiring documentarians is to take a cold hard look at their budget. After thinking as creatively as possible about how and where to get stuff for free, they usually end up heading in the direction of their families in search of funding, friendship and fodder for their film projects. This is exactly what happened to Nathanel Goldman Amirav who, along with Uri Appenzeller, co-directed My Father's Palestinian Slave, a fascinating documentary that was screened at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Upon arriving in Israel to attend film school at Hebrew University, 19-year-old Nathanel (who is of Israeli and Swedish descent) discovered one hell of a story in his father's back yard. His father (long-time Israeli peace activist Moshe Amirav), had developed an unusual friendship with a young Palestinian laborer who had been part of a group of workers doing repairs on Moshe's home. Noticing that Morad was the most diligent and intelligent of the workers, Moshe decided to see what he could do to help the young Arab.

Help, of course, comes in many forms. Since very few Israelis seem to be interested in doing the kind of landscaping work that involves lifting and moving heavy stones (which the athletic Morad excels at), Moshe is happy to pay the young man a decent wage which goes much further than anything Morad could make in his own village. Taking pride in the fact that, unlike other employers, his generosity extends to feeding Morad and letting Morad shower in his home, Moshe feels as if he is helping to make a substantial difference in his young friend's life.

As it turns out, Morad is disgusted with the restrictions of living in an Arab society. At 25, he has never had sex, has no freedom to travel, and cannot escape the financial, educational, and physical restrictions imposed on him by his culture. In order to get to Moshe's house, he must walk for three hours from his village before trying to sneak across the border between East and West Jerusalem. On nights when he is working for Moshe, Morad shares an underground hideout with other undocumented Palestinians who sleep in illegal, cramped quarters where mice run free and, if found, the Palestinians would be subject to arrest.

Given half a chance, Morad would gladly convert to Judaism so that he could live in Israel and enjoy its freedoms. Alas, the rabbi Moshe consults is not in such a rush. Nor are the Israeli authorities Moshe approaches in the hope of wangling a political favor which would cut through bureaucratic red tape. Although Morad wants to make a life for himself through honest work(and not be pegged as a potential terrorist), the cards are not stacked in his favor.

As Moshe explains to his son how privileged Nathanel is in terms of his freedom to travel, choose a career, and do anything he wishes, he contrasts Nathanel's life to the rigors and hardships faced by Morad. Stressing that he loves his son unequivocally, Moshe notes that considering all of the advantages Nathanel enjoys, Morad -- whose needs are much greater -- probably benefits much more from his help.

With the keen, questioning eye of an aspiring documentarian, Nathanel (who also becomes a friend of Morad's) quickly notices that his father holds all of the power chips in his relationship with the young Palestinian. Why not let Morad sleep in the studio whenever he works in the garden, he asks. When Moshe replies that doing so could arouse suspicion among the neighbors and get him in trouble -- possibly even arrested -- Nathanel calls him on the carpet for his hypocrisy. Asking his father how he thinks he is helping Morad by forcing him to sleep under conditions which are so dangerous to his health, Nathanel takes one big step toward correcting his father's shortsightedness and helping Morad in the process.

By the end of the film Morad has purchased a new home in his village, Nathanel is headed back to Sweden, and no one seems to have found a way to help Morad break down the walls erected by warring ideologies that refuse to yield to the concept of peace between Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, the three men have built friendships which foster a greater appreciation for what they have as well as an understanding of how they can try to help each other.

One of the documentaries I watched this week was part of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days series on FX. Spurlock, whose Supersize Me won him instant fame, has found a bankable format for bringing hour-long documentaries to television audiences. He finds people with strongly opposing belief systems and has one side live with the other for 30 days to see what they can learn from each other.

In 30 Days: Same Sex Parenting, Spurlock takes a Mormon mother from Orange County who is extremely outspoken in her views against gay marriage and/or adoption and plants her in the home of two gay men in Ypsilanti, Michigan. To describe this woman as a belligerent cow with a religious agenda would be a severe understatement. This is someone who has done a stellar job of ingesting and regurgitating her church's blatant homophobia.

Soon after her arrival in Michigan, Kati (who is a substitute teacher back home in Fullerton, California), begins to issue scathing judgments about everything she sees that contradicts Mormon dogma. When asked to participate in social events like going to church, attending a barbecue, or meeting with gay people who are trying to help change Michigan's adoption laws, she wastes no time in insulting her hosts and condemning their lifestyles.

However, when the gay people Kati meets politely push back and confront her on her bad behavior, she quickly starts playing victim, becomes all teary-eyed and gets very angry, stressing that "I'm just expressing my views based on my religion. Why can't I do that? How can you people be so mean to me?" Although her over-the-top behavior is genuinely appalling, the camera also catches Kati in candid moments as she sulks and pouts about not getting her way. It's a sight to behold -- and not a very pretty one.

This is one of the first times I've actually seen this kind of passive-aggressive religious behavior captured in real life onscreen (as opposed to having been written into a drama). It's an ugly spectacle and I'll admit to having had nightmares from watching this documentary. The irony is not only that Kati herself was adopted as a child, but that this woman has no idea -- nor is she really interested in learning about -- how privileged and prejudiced she is.

Even though Kati is horrified to learn about the living conditions of children who have been forced to grow up in group homes -- and breaks into tears when driven through a broken-down Detroit neighborhood where several group homes are located -- she refuses to budge in order to let unwanted children escape the foster care system in order to have a better life if doing so means letting them be adopted by a same sex couple.

By contrast, her hosts Dennis and Thomas Patrick (who are both professional educators), prove to be caring and conscientious parents. To her consternation and utter disgust, they remind one of their sons as he leaves for his first day of school that his teachers and friends know that he has two daddies, but that some of the children he will meet at school do not know this. They caution the young boy that he doesn't have to explain his home situation to anyone if he feels uncomfortable doing so.

Gay men and women who have successfully navigated the hurdles of becoming "intentional parents" will knowingly wince at some of the more painful moments in this documentary. But I'm pretty sure they will take pride in the moment when one of the gay men in the community reminds Kati that many straight people have proven to be terrible parents.