Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is There Life After Death?

Visitors to Forest Lawn's Glendale cemetery can enjoy an unusual experience with world-famous artistic masterpieces. There they will find exact replicas of Michelangelo's David, Moses, and La Pieta as well as a stained glass recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. Also on display are two of the world's largest paintings: The Crucifixion and The Resurrection.

Years ago, when I toured the facility, I could not stop laughing. The narration accompanying the presentation of The Crucifixion and The Resurrection was enhanced by an old-fashioned planetarium-style lighted arrow used to point out various religious figures in each painting. Referring to the afore-mentioned replicas of famous sculptures, the narrator ponderously intoned that "Michaelangelo created these masterpieces specifically so they could be displayed at Forest Lawn."

Literature and Hollywood have strange ways of expanding a media franchise. Some novels and comic books become powerful and profitable multimedia money machines (Jaws, Superman, Rocky, Pirates of the CaribbeanX-Men, Star TrekBatmanCSI, and Law and Order). Some spawn prequels such as Wicked, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, Prelude To Dune, and Hannibal Rising. Successful spinoffs have included Maude, Flo, Mama's Family, and Frasier.  

Some movies engender spoofs (Galaxy Quest, Soul Plane, and Airplane!) while others get remade for a new generation with a new cast of actors (Ocean's Eleven, The Fly, Sabrina, and Freaky Friday). Occasionally, when a television series gets cancelled, the franchise dies.  

Unless a miracle occurs.

On January 31, 1999, the Fox network premiered Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy.  Although the show developed a dedicated audience, it was subsequently cancelled due to poor ratings. When DVD sales of the first two seasons (accompanied by strong support from fans on the Internet) shocked the industry, Fox changed its tune and brought Family Guy back to life. It doesn't take much to understand the show's appeal.

Since then, the show's creator, Seth MacFarlane has become the highest paid television writer and producer in history.  A new MacFarlane series, American Dad (which lampooned the neocon culture through its hero, the supermacho, dimwitted CIA agent Stan Smith), began airing on May 1, 2005. A third series, The Cleveland Show, is a direct spinoff of Family Guy, and is scheduled to premiere in 2009. Like the creators of South Park and The Simpsons, MacFarlane doesn't hesitate to pack plenty of political dynamite in his cartoons:

Not all movies succeed at the box office. Some are so bad that they go straight to video. Others may gain notoriety as cult films. Movies like Harold and Maude, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Princess Bride. and Fight Club quickly come to mind. The level of post-release interest can take many forms. 

For some, there is an obsessive concentration on trivia related to the film. For others, the personal impact the film had on their lives takes on a whole new dimension of fandom. Fueled by Internet chat rooms, websites, and discussion boards, devoted followers can give a film new life.  

That's exactly what happened to The Big Lebowski, which has been hailed as "the first cult film of the Internet era." Budgeted at $15 million, this Coen Brothers film had its premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Following its release, it took in a paltry $17 million in domestic sales. Ticket receipts were so bad that, after several weeks, the distributor pulled The Big Lebowski from theaters.

Then things started happening that were almost as strange as the movie. In 2000, Steve Palopoli attended a sold-out midnight screening of the film in Los Angeles where members of the audience were quoting the film's dialogue to each other. The first Lebowski Fest, held in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002, drew about 150 participants. Since then, Lebowski Fest has taken on a life of its own, attracting many more people and including a night of unlimited bowling.

A new documentary about Lebowski Fest is being screened as part of this year's San Francisco Independent Film Festival. It's filled with people having fun in Las Vegas and other cities where the Lebowski Fest has been held. Many of the participants have the same dedication, enthusiasm and party-hardy spirit one would expect to find at Comic-Con International or Burning Man.

Don't expect any deep relevations while watching The Achievers. As one of the organizers of Lebowski Fest confesses: "This is like one of my nerdiest dreams coming true." But the film is lots of fun. Whether you enjoy seeing footage of Jeff Bridges perform at a concert, watching participants dressed as bowling pins and camel fuckers, or get a kick out of witnessing a fan known as "The Walrus" discuss what it means to win the film's trivia contest, you'll have yourself a rollicking good time. Eddie Chung's lovable documentary is filled with great silliness, silly greatness, and a depiction of the human spirit in full bloom that one cannot help but enjoy.

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SFPlayhouse had a great success with its Fall 2007 production of John Guare's play, Six Degrees of Separation (written in 1990). I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the company's new production of Guare's Landscape of the Body (written in 1977), but, alas, I cannot. 

I found it to be a crashing bore. 

Much like Guare's Rich and Famous (1974), this play contains many scenes with long monologues that sometimes shine. All too often, however, Guare's writing runs out of steam and the scene collapses. With many scenes stapled together as if in a nightmare, the plot's momentum and the playwright's power as a storyteller quickly fall apart. 

The exact same thing happened when American Conservatory Theatre recently mounted a production of Rich and Famous. My hunch is that the 15-year period between when the two Guare plays staged in San Francisco this year were written and his later success with Six Degrees of Separation were accompanied by tremendous growth in his craft and discipline as a writer.

Most of the characters seen onstage in Landscape of the Body were inspired by people in Guare's life as well as events making news at the time he was living in Greenwich Village.  In the program notes, Anthony Miller states that:
"The idea that one person can lose everything and remain defiant is the essence of Landscape of the Body. It is the notion that even in a turbulent world where everything falls apart, we can find happiness in the poetry of chaos."
Guare may have found happiness in the inspiration he received as a writer in the mid 1970s from the scandals plaguing New Yorkers, but what he didn't find was a viable play. There is a key structural problem to staging Landscape of the Body.

In trying to create a nightmarish scenario for his protagonist, Guare is attempting to capture the dramatic intensity and cinematic rapidity with which scenes flash through one's mind during a dream sequence. The problem is that dramatic time (as experienced in a chaos-ridden dreamscape) involves a much different and infinitely more fluid process than how dramatic events unfold in real time on a physical stage.

Guare's script also has four important roles that must be cast with teenagers.  Any production of Landscape of the Body in which all four of these actors are barely credible onstage is going to implode under its own weight. Otto Pippenger's Donny, Julia Belanoff's Margie and Alexander Szotak's Bert were simply not up to the demands of the script. As JoAnne, Haley Reicher kept making me think of a 12-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker Goth wannabe. 

Otto Pippenger, Haley Reicher and Julia Belanoff 
(Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

Faced with such poor casting choices for the play's minors, director Bill English had to rely on the adults in the cast to hold his production together. However, a variety of flashbacks, unbelievable gimmicks, and messy structural flaws left Guare's concept drama gasping for air. 

Andrew Hurteau and Susi Damilano 
(Photo by Zabrina Tipton)

While Susi Damilano's Betty, Andrew Hurteau's Captain Marvin Holahan, and Gabriel Marin (doing double duty as Raulito and Durwood Peach) brought years of accumulated stage experience to the production, there was little they could do to overcome Guare's lousy writing. As Betty's doomed sister Rosalie, Rana Kangas-Kent sang Guare's songs with a steadfast determination to see the play through to its bitterly confused end.  

This was a most frustrating and unsatisfying theatrical experience. But, as William Shakespeare once wrote: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves if we are underlings."

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