Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Lurks Beneath

Cunning and intuition are natural talents. But it's what you do with them that really counts. Lying, manipulating, and playing coy are learned behaviors. Whether one uses power for good or for evil, practice makes perfect.

Power users are made, not born. The results of one's efforts might lead to a lifestyle in which one pursues the thrills of sadism and masochism. For those who wish to turn professional, there are plenty of career options in white collar crime, kidnapping, or prestidigitation. Just look at the headlines for proof of the pudding.
  1. Sociologists point to increasing instances in which adolescent crime reflects patterns of behavior learned from long hours of playing violent video games in which killings are acted out by the gamer. 
  2. Pirates are causing chaos off the coast of Somalia. 
  3. A minister's granddaughter (a devoted Sunday school teacher) has been charged wtih the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a little girl. 
  4. Craig's List has become a stalking ground for the depraved.
President Obama's recent release of the torture memos from the Bush administration reveal, in gruesome detail, a perverse mindset running directly through the intelligence community and on up the chain of command to President Bush's desk in the White House. Obsessed with the ability to wield power, this mindset embraced "extralegal" activities as a necessary evil. As The New York Times opined in its lead editorial on April 19, 2009 entitled The Torturer's Manifesto:
"To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity. Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be kept without sleep (11), and what, specifically, he should be told before being locked in a box with an insect — all to stop just short of having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture and abusive treatment of prisoners."
At what point does a person's learned behavior unite with his natural predatory instincts to isolate and savor the thrill of the kill? At one point does a person understand that he has crossed the line from benign entertainment to inherent evil? 

At what point did the folks who were once so eager to restore integrity to our White House turn into the lying psychopaths whose darkest and most sadistic fantasies caused them to embrace torture as a means to justify their ends? How, people wonder, did we end up in this sorry predicament? 

Wasn't anyone paying attention?

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There are numerous reasons to ask Is Anybody There? while watching Michael Caine's latest appearance on the silver screen. But, alas, they are not very kind. While the film's producers may be hoping for a sleeper hit, my suspicion is that this quiet little movie, if seen by any domestic audiences other than passengers trapped on a long flight, will do a splendid job of putting people to sleep.

The protagonist is a 10-year-old boy whose parents run a nursing home for last-gasp seniors. Edward (Bill Milner) has turned into a rather morbid child, who is fascinated with ghosts and likes to hide his tape recorder under a dying resident's bed in the hope that he might capture the moment when a decedent's soul leaves its body. Edward's fascination with the paranormal has left him without any friends at school. After being forced to give up his bedroom to accommodate another decrepit, dying old cash cow, his resentment level toward his parents is nearing the boiling point.

Meanwhile, Edward's parents are so overwhelmed trying to manage their nursing home and avoid financial ruin that they have become tone deaf to his basic emotional needs as a child. It doesn't help one bit that Edward's father has the hots for one of their female employees or that those few residents who are still able to move can provide little in the way of companionship for a desperately lonely adolescent.

Enter Clarence Parkinson (Michael Caine), a bitter, dyspeptic, angry old fart in fierce denial about having reached the end of the line. A former traveling magician, Clarence's wife, Annie, died and left him without the love of his life. When Edward learns about Clarence's supposedly illustrious past -- and expresses an interest in learning the mechanics of magic -- Clarence gets one last chance to do something useful with his sleight of hand techniques.

There have been several great films in which an eccentric geriatric inspired or saved a young lad's life. Hal Ashby's cult success, Harold and Maude, is assuredly the best of the lot  and, last year, Vanessa Redgrave had some beautiful moments in How About You?.  If John Crowley's new film fails to measure up to others in this genre, it is partially because it is so often impossible to wade through the thick British accents. The fact that it is dreadfully dull doesn't help matters, either. 

Unless you're the kind of person who gets an erection at the mere mention of the star's name (if the gimmick worked for Denny Crane, why shouldn't it work for Michael Caine?) -- or someone will do anything for a chance to see the great Rosemary Harris on screen again -- this is one movie you can definitely afford to miss.

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While a person can earn all kinds of advanced educational degrees by which he may become certified as an accountant, lawyer, or physician, very few of the so-called "professional trades" teach the kind of street smarts acquired by hustlers, prostitutes, drug dealers, and con men. One can learn all kinds of tricks from card sharks and shysters, but to truly excel at games of hide the sausage, one needs stamina, impressive equipment (referred to in the past as "a big personality"), and an insatiable market.

In 1999, Aaron Lawrence published his surprisingly candid Suburban Hustler: Stories of A Hi-Tech Callboy, By popular demand, he produced a second book a year later, a down-to-earth textbook for aspiring hustlers entitled The Male Escort's Handbook: Your Guide To Getting Rich The Hard Way. Upon reading it, my immediate reaction was that it was the best book on entrepreneurship for the self-employed I had ever read.

Numerous plays and films have dealt with the potential rewards of male prostitution. Whether they range from the cruel satire of Joe Orton's classic farce (Entertaining Mr. Sloane) to the lush political environment of The Walker (in which Woody Harrelson plays an escort who has gained great popularity in certain parts of Washington, D.C.'s elite society), the basic message is that a hard man is good to find.  

One of the classics of this genre is a neglected masterpiece of black comedy that was directed by Harold Prince in 1970 with a brilliant screenplay by Hugh Wheeler. Starring Angela Lansbury and Michael YorkSomething For Everyone has never been released on DVD. Used copies of the film are available on in VHS format at prices ranging from $50-200. If I had a film lover's fantasy, it would be that the San Francisco Film Society honor Angela Lansbury at its 2010 film festival for the breadth and depth of an amazing film career -- one that has ranged from Gaslight (1944) to The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Nanny McPhee (2005) -- and offer a screening of Something For Everyone for a generation of film enthusiasts that doesn't even know it exists.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center has recently had a fairly decent success with Dave Johnson's sexual thriller, Baptized To The Bone. Set among the poor white trash living in Sand Hills, North Carolina, the plot focuses on three decidedly unhappy and less than brilliant souls.

Gladys (Amy Penney) has been married to a man for the past 25 years whose midlife crisis has caused him to leave his job at a local turkey processing plant and start studying to become a preacher. Earlier in their marriage, she had suffered a stillborn birth. Since then, she has since been unable to conceive and the aspiring preacher has not been a very attentive lover. Desperate to have a child, Gladys has been saving up for fertility treatments. Her husband would prefer to use the $25,000 to closer to God by spending it on his righteous tuition.

Meanwhile, the sexually-frustrated Gladys has been carrying on a torrid affair with Otis, an aspiring theatrical talent who has been trying to write and produce a "gospel poetry opera" for which he never seems to have enough money.  Otis has no qualms about using his sexual powers to get ahead. He also knows just the right tone of voice with which to sweet talk Gladys ("I'm hungry, Momma......")  

Self knowledge can be a wonderful thing and, if Otis is aware of anything, it's that he has something Gladys and many others want.  Although hardly as sizable as the National Endowment for the Arts, during the year Otis spent in New York on a dramatic scholarship, it apparently helped him to pay his bills. It gets hard quickly and could deliver the goods for a lot less than the fertility clinic is charging.

Colin Stuart and Paul Rodrigues (Photo by Lois Tema)

The plot twist is that Otis also had quite an intense little affair with Gladys' husband before he found religion and left the turkey processing plant. With his erotic touch, Otis never fails to arouse a sense of lust in his "Daddyman," even if his prey is desperately trying to put bisexuality behind him and get it on with Jesus. 

Under Ben Randle's directorial guidance, Gladys and her preacherman each raid their joint savings account in an attempt to flee to New York with Otis, where they hope to live happily ever after. That, of course, will never happen as soon as Otis realizes there is lots more money to be had as soon as more sophisticated and more affluent men are given a chance to press his flesh. 

There's no need to sell snake oil when you've got a decent and responsive snake.

* * * * * * * *

Over at Fort Mason's Cowell Auditorium, the San Francisco Lyric Opera unveiled its new production of Verdi's opera, Rigoletto. If ever there was a tale in which payback proved to be a bitch, this would be it.  Based on Victor Hugo's play, Le roi s'amuse, Rigoletto's plot is traditionally set in the 16th century at the court of the lecherous Duke of Mantua. For this production, however, the action was updated to Chicago's gangster society during the Prohibition Era. Thus, the "Duke" became a popular mobster whose henchmen bore names like Baby Face, Tokyo Joe, Gaspipe John, and Billy Adonis.

Director Attila BĂ©res has thought this concept through quite thoroughly and it works extremely well. Instead of costuming Rigoletto as the traditional hunchback, he has conceived the character instead as a paraplegic who might have suffered a spinal cord injury during a gangland shooting. Lurching around the stage on arm braces, Verdi's court jester has good reason to be bitter (he could'a been a contender). His venomous pranks have earned him plenty of enemies in gangster circles and revenge on Rigoletto is a dish best served with his innocent daughter deflowered by his employer, the Duke.

After having spent 25 years attending opera throughout the United States, it's hard to believe that this was the first performance of Rigoletto I had seen in almost two decades. Having sat through plenty of mediocre performances at regional opera companies in cities like Norfolk, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami, I was deeply impressed with the musicianship and artistry that was evident throughout this production. One rarely gets to enjoy a well staged production accompanied by a full orchestra in an intimate 437-seat auditorium like the Cowell Theatre. The immediacy of the sound and closeness to the stage brought a refreshing vitality to the action. 

Artistic Director, Barnaby Palmer

A great deal of credit goes to the company's artistic director, Barnaby Palmer, who conducted the performance with confidence, control, and solid tempi. The cast was headed by bearish baritone David Cox in the title role and tenor Jesus Leon as the Duke of Mantua. While impressive contributions came from basso Sergey Zadvorney (doubling as Monterone and Sparafucile), and Kindra Scharich as Maddalena, it was Rebecca Sjowall, whose solid technique delivered a memorable Gilda. Ms. Sjowall, who received her master's degree in Vocal Performance from UCLA in June of 2008 is definitely a talent to watch.

Rebecca Sjowall (Photo by Kirsten Koromilas)

San Francisco Lyric Opera has apparently decided to postpone its upcoming production of Die Fledermaus and replace it with a benefit concert entitled "Great Moments In Opera" on Saturday, October 24, 2009.  The company's next fully-staged production will be Rossini's popular opera buffa, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in March of 2010.

Prior to the matinee, production manager Bob Scher informed the audience of the company's plans to launch a capital funding drive which will provide San Francisco Lyric Opera with the financial security to establish a reputation as the best regional opera company offering performances at affordable prices. It's an identity which can be easily understood and aimed to meet the needs of a targeted market niche. Judging by the audience's satisfaction level at the performance I attended, the company should have no trouble reaching its stated goal of $1.5 million.

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