Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Les Enfants Terrible

They go by a variety of names:

Rug rat. 
Demon spawn. 
Fucking little bastard.

For years, popular comic strips like Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes have celebrated the impish imaginations and fervid rambunctiousness of classic boy brats.  In the movie Home Alone, a precociously malevolent McCaulay Culkin demonstrated how an inventive child's resourcefulness could foil a burglar. In his play, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams repeatedly referred to one character's children as "those little no-neck monsters." 

Fans of Harold and Maude who have always pondered the roots of Harold's obsession with staging his own death might wonder what such a child would be like as an adolescent.  They need look no further than Philippe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear, which received its Bay area premiere this past weekend as part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Barely 10 years old, Leon Dore (Antoine L'Ecuyer) has already staged several suicide attempts. He attempted to hide in a freezer in 1966, nearly drowned himself in a pool in 1967, and, as the movie opens during the summer of 1968, has tried to hang himself from a tree in the back yard. Is Leon genuinely depressed? Is he acting out as a way of drawing attention away from his parents' constant fighting? Or is Leon merely an evil genius experiencing growth pains?

His mother (Suzanne Clement) has always run interference for Leon, reminding him that "If you're going to lie, at least get your story straight. Don't lie badly." His older brother Jerome (Gabrille Maille) just wishes Leon could quit acting out long enough for them to have a normal family life.

When Leon's mother abandons her family and moves to Greece, his father (Daniel Briere), who has been a leading political figure in Quebec, is ill-equipped to manage a household with two young and impressionable boys. Leon, who doesn't hesitate to terrorize his neighbors, shares a creepy kind of friendship with Lea (Catherine Faucher), a young girl who is obviously suffering domestic violence at the hands of her live-in uncle.

In some respects, this film is being marketed very deceptively. This story is about much more than a horrible little brat who likes to destroy anything within reach. It is an anguished portrait of a family experiencing severe emotional trauma that is magnified by each family member's fear of abandonment. This is a family struggling to keep afloat in uncharted emotional territory, a family that lacks the psychological tools to deal with huge doses of grief, abuse, capriciousness, and hostility. 

As the movie progresses, the audience feels much greater sympathy for Leon, Lea, and Jerome (who are, after all, children who did not ask for as much misery as adults have bequeathed them). As much as Leon's exploits may shock and entertain viewers, they're not as funny as the trailer might lead some people to believe.

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Ever since Mark Twain wrote Prince and the Pauper in 1881, creative artists have been fascinated by the use of a doppelganger as a dramatic device.  Filmmaker John Boorman, whose magnificent identity thriller, The Tiger's Tail. was also screened at the festival this weekend, notes that:
"The myth of the doppelganger runs deep in our psyche, that we all have a double somewhere in the world, our other self, our lost twin, whose very existence negates our specialness. Ever since I became the father of twins and watched their mysterious sameness and otherness, I harbored the notion of a film on the subject. The 1975 Children Act in England allowed adopted children to trace their natural parents for the first time. A number of identical twins separated at birth, some in their 50s, met for the first time. A TV documentary eerily recorded how they dressed alike, did similar jobs and married almost identical partners, raising questions as to how pre-programmed we are, how pre-destined our lives."
Boorman's cleverly crafted film stars the bullish Brendan Gleeson as Liam O'Leary, an aggressive real estate developer who has lost interest in his materialistic wife (Kim Cattrall) and is scorned by his son, Connor (played by the actors' real-life son, Briain Gleeson), who prefers to read Marxist manifestos about redestributing the wealth to the people. Liam represents the bullish new wealth of Irish society, a wheeler-dealer who is used to leveraging debt, bribing politicians, and crushing his competition. Although his son tries to remind him that every bit of money he makes comes out of someone else's pocket, Liam remains deaf to the social inequity created by his projects until the night he receives an award as entrepreneur of the year.

Kim Cattrall, Brendan Gleeson and Briain Gleeson

Spooked by the appearance of his "double" as he sits stuck in rush-hour traffic, Liam interprets this omen as a sign that he is soon going to die. As he becomes obsessed with the idea that he might have a double lurking somewhere in the darkness, his behavior becomes more paranoid and irrational. 

The only problem is that Liam's bizarre behavior is totally justified.

It seems that Liam's senile mother was not really his mother, and that his doting older sister Oona (Sinead Cusack) was more than just his sister.  When Oona was barely 15, she got knocked up by Father Moriarty and gave birth to twins. She brought the sicklier twin (Liam) home to be raised by herself and her mother and gave up the stronger twin for adoption. Upon seeing pictures of his heretofore unknown twin brother plastered all over the media as the Irish counterpart to Donald Trump, Liam's long-lost twin has decided to commit the best type of identity theft imaginable.

When one of Liam's assistants looks out of his office window and notices someone on his boss's boat, Liam takes a telescope and realizes that his twin is making love to Liam's mistress, Ursula (Angeline Ball). Soon the twin is screwing Liam's wife, stealing Liam's money, driving Liam off the road and taking over his house until Liam (who has lost his wallet and mobile phone)  ends up in a mental institution.

The Tiger's Tail is a top-notch thriller with a powerful performance by Brendan Gleeson as Liam and his darker-spirited twin. What elevates this film experience far above the normal level of psychological thrillers is the magnificent original score by Stephen McKeon, which offers viewers such a rich aural experience that many could be content to merely listen to a CD of McKeon's music.

In another twist of fate, the company which held the distribution rights to The Tiger's Tail has recently gone under, leaving the film's future in jeopardy. Here's the trailer:

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Last weekend, at the tail end of April's Diva Fest  (which held forth at the Exit Theatre), I attended a workshop reading of a new drama by playwright Lee Kiszonas entitled Capote's Last Frontier. To some of New York's  leading society women, Truman Capote was their enfant terrible, the catty man-boy who stroked their egos and titillated them with gossip. The inspiration for this new play comes from the muddy combination of facts and rumors about the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The indisputable fact is that Capote's book, In Cold Blood -- which described the gruesome murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas by Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith -- gave the author the fame and financial reward he had coveted throughout his career. The rumor is that Capote promised Hickock a large amount of money for his cooperation in spilling the details of the killing.

Kiszonas's drama takes place in 1984, when Capote is nearing the end of his life.  Broke and rejected by all of his previous friends from high society (who scorned him soon after the publication of Answered Prayers), he has dragged home a trick from a local gay bar, a ruggedly handsome Midwesterner who could easily satisfy Truman's penchant for rough trade

The man turns out to be Hickock's son, Robert, who has tracked Capote down and is now demanding the $10,000 he believes his family is owed by the author of In Cold Blood. If Truman doesn't cough up the money, Hickock is prepared to use rope, duct tape, and a shotgun on Capote the same way Robert's father did on the Clutter family.

The play has strong potential, as long as the audience accepts the premise that (a) Robert may be dumber than shit, (b) Robert's father was actually gay, and Capote promised to paint him as a womanizer to cover for him, and (c)  although down on his luck, Truman has not lost his ability to spin a yarn as a way of buying time from his captor. 

The workshop reading was followed by a lively give-and-take between the audience and the playwright.  But, as I listened to the discussion, something kept nagging at the back of my mind. I wasn't sure what it was but I knew what it involved. I had discovered a major plot problem that the playwright will have to fix. 

Let me explain: One of the more treacherous attractions of the Internet is that it has become such a great resource, a research tool that can tempt evil queens and detail Nazis to look things up. If, as a playwright, you choose to create a semifictional piece about a real human being, you have to be careful about how you frame your story. 

Both Friedrich Schiller (the German playwright whose revisionist drama, Mary Stuart, just opened to rave reviews on Broadway) and composer Gaetano Donizetti (whose opera, Maria Stuarda, was based on Schiller's play) created a fictional confrontation between Mary I of Scotland  and England's Queen Elizabeth I.  Although this "confrontation scene" has become a famous part of opera's bel canto literature, the hard truth -- as everyone knows -- is that these two women never met.  Here are Montserrat Caballe as Mary and Bianca Berini as Elizabeth in Act II of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda:

In one of the key moments late in Truman's Last Frontier (which is set  in 1984), Robert confesses that it was actually Tennessee Williams who challenged him to try to get $10,000 from Truman Capote. When Robert  convinces Truman to try reaching Tennessee Williams by phone, Capote dials the number for Williams' Key West residence -- a number he knows by heart. 

There's just one problem: Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983. If, as a playwright, you're going to build a play around such a famous person, you really need to be more attentive when doing your research.

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