Sunday, May 24, 2009

Instrumental Decisions

In 1978, when Jon Sims formed the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, he used a powerful marketing tool to get openly gay participants to sign up and join his group. Sims knew that many gay men and women had played a musical instrument in their high school marching band. Whether it had been a trumpet, clarinet, or sousaphone, the responsibilities of adult life -- and of pursuing a professional career -- had forced many to put their instruments back in the closet. Some people had not touched their [musical] instruments in years.

Sims sensed that they missed performing as much as they missed practicing and learning new music. His hunch paid off and became the catalyst that launched gay marching bands and choruses in cities across America. 

Although I played piano in my youth (and had the ability to hear a piece of music and then play it "by ear"), I lacked the discipline or interest to pursue a career as a professional musician. The last piano teacher from  whom I took lessons was Rose Corigliano, the mother of composer John Corigliano. 

Many of her students were already enrolled in Juilliard and practicing piano eight hours a day. My lack of concentration, discipline, or any desire to practice so much was evident --  not just to my piano teacher but, more painfully, to myself. While my parents might have thought (or hoped) that I had a talent worth nourishing, I did not. I was much more attracted to a typewriter's keyboard. To this day, it is easier for me to express myself with words than with music.

Watching one's musical hopes evaporate into thin air is a key plot twist in two foreign films of note.  In The Good Life, a young Chilean clarinetist fails to get the job after he auditions to perform in a local orchestra. In Departures, a professional cellist's life is thrown into chaos when the orchestra that employs him goes bankrupt and its owner announces that the ensemble is going out of business.

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Andrés Wood'sThe Good Life (seen recently at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival) is, in many ways, patterned like the kind of cinematic jigsaw puzzles that made Robert Altman such a great storyteller. A small group of conflicted characters battle setbacks in their personal and professional lives that are frustrating, humiliating, and have complex consequences. Although their paths rarely intersect, as the film progresses we witness a patchwork of life in Santiago, Chile wherein the unexpected becomes the norm. 

Teresa (Aline Kuppenheim) is a middle-aged sex therapist who tries to encourage reluctant prostitutes to practice safe sex by using condoms. She loves her job, is extremely empathic, and tries to help the women on the street through outreach programs. She is totally unprepared, however, to cope with her 15-year-old daughter Paula's unexpected pregnancy or the fact that Paula (Manuela Martelli) first approached her father with the news instead of her mother. Teresa's growing realization that her estranged husband Jorge (Alfredo Castro) has been frequenting bordellos and possibly putting his health at risk is not making her happy, either.

Edmundo (Roberto Farias) is a middle-aged male beautician trying to cash in on the BoTox craze. When he tries to get a loan so that he can purchase a car, the only asset he has to offer as collateral is the apartment that belongs to his domineering mother (Belgica Castro). Although Edmundo is more than willing to seduce a homely bank officer named Esmerelda (Manuela Oyarzun) in the hope of getting his loan, she eventually realizes what a loser he is and dumps him. 

In the meantime, the cemetery where Edmundo's father has been buried for so many years has initiated a new pricing plan. Either Edmundo will have to fork over a huge amount of money to pay for a contractual upgrade or else his father's remains will be transferred to a common grave. The scene in which he tries to identify his father's bones is about as dark as black humor can get.

In another part of town Patricia (Paula Sotelo) is a prostitute who is down on her luck, obviously ill, and desperately trying to provide for her young child. Ridiculed and ostracized by the other girls working the streets of Santiago, she dies a lonely death that leaves her hungry child home alone, waiting to be discovered in their apartment.

Mario (Eduardo Paxeco) is a 25-year-old Chilean who is part Mapuche Indian. Although he studied music in Germany -- where his former lover gave him a beautiful and expensive clarinet as a gift -- he is now living in near poverty in a tiny garret in Santiago. Mario keeps his girlfriend's picture inside his clarinet case and, in moments of loneliness, occasionally places an overseas call to her. When his audition is largely ignored by the orchestra's judges (who are preoccupied with their lunches), he follows through on a referral to a job in a military band. 

In order to survive, Mario must trade in his long hair for a buzzcut, play music he scorns, and hope for the day when he might be hired by a professional orchestra that plays classical music. His friend Lucas (Francisco Acuna) wishes Mario would just lighten up and try to enjoy life. But when Mario's fellow riders on a city bus call on the musician (who is wearing his marching uniform) to help a woman whose purse has just been snatched, he accidentally leaves his clarinet case on board the bus.

The delicate ways in which the stories of these characters just miss each other (like proverbial ships passing in the night) is the complex weave that holds Wood's movie together. No one ends up getting what they want, but life in Santiago -- in all its petty and often disappointing detail -- continues. Here's the trailer:

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There aren't too many occasions when, as you watch a film's credits roll by on the screen, you find yourself wiping away a stream of tears as you silently admire a movie's quiet humility, the story's simplicity, and perhaps most of all, its overall artistic integrity. There are no CGI effects or car chases in Departures (which won last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film). Nor is there any political intrigue, domestic violence, or a diva-like meltdown. 

This is a film about learning how to respect the dead and the frequently scorned craftsmen who help souls make the transition to whatever the next phase of their existence might be. It has some surprisingly ribald moments of humor, human weakness, and emotional truth. Above all it has some astonishingly moving performances and great storytelling. If you tried to rework Six Feet Under for a Japanese audience you would be hard put to meet the challenge of addressing the Japanese culture's rituals surrounding a loved one's death with so much dignity, kindness, and respect for the deceased.

Writer Kundo Koyama and director Yojiro Takita have done such a stunning job of telling this story that its 130 minutes pass by in a flash. They are immensely helped by Takeshi Hamada's cinematography and Joe Hisaishi's haunting original score. This is a film of such remarkable insight and deft artistry that you cannot watch it without being profoundly moved. Bring lots of tissues -- you'll definitely need them.

Masahiro Motoki portrays a young cellist named Daigo Kobayashi, who has been living in Tokyo. When his career is cut short because the orchestra with which he performs has gone bankrupt, he must find a new career path. With no means of future support, he decides to return to his birthplace --  a small town where he can at least live rent-free in his late mother's home.  Daigo's wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) is surprisingly agreeable to his new idea and does not resist her husband's decision to leave their sophisticated urban lifestyle. After selling his expensive cello, the couple head for Japan's countryside where life is slower, simpler, and poses some new and unexpected challenges.

As Daigo scans the classified ads looking for a job, he notices a listing for "Departures." Unaware that the ad contains a typographical error (it should have read "The Departeds"), he interviews for a position at a small business whose source of income is nothing like the travel agency he had imagined. 

For many years the owner, Ikuei Sasaki, has worked with local undertakers to prepare dead bodies for their entry into the next life. Sasaki is a Nokanshi, the gentle gatekeeper (somewhat like a Western mortician) who makes sure a corpse is ready to be placed in a coffin according to Japanese ritual. 

Although Daigo is initially horrified and repulsed by what he sees, Sasaki courts him with generous cash bonuses and a hint that this job may have something to do with his ultimate fate. As a professional performer, Kobayashi takes to the ritual element of his new job like a duck to water. When Mika finds out what his work entails, she is mortified by the shame of making money off the dead and returns to Tokyo. 

Only when Mika returns to inform her husband that she is pregnant does she begin to understand what Daigo's work entails -- as well as the honor and dignity involved in performing a task that no one in his right mind would choose as a profession. When Kobayashi must prepare the body of a close family friend, his wife gains a new and deeper understanding of the man she married. Late in the film, when news reaches Kobayashi that his long-estranged father has been found dead in a coastal fishing village, he must overcome his bitterness toward the man and make sure the situation is handled with care. 

Departures has a small cast of extremely memorable characters brought to life by a wonderfully disciplined ensemble.  Among them are the old woman who knew Daigo as a child (who has kept running the community bathhouse long after her husband died) and her aging boyfriend who, unbeknownst to Kobayashi, is a long-time employee at the local crematorium. 

Departures has some beautiful writing -- especially the scene in which Sasaki explains to Daigo how the living must eat the dead in order to survive. There are moments of exquisite tenderness and sensitivity; in particular, when Kobayashi and Sasaki must ask a grieving family if they want the body of their dead transsexual son to be made up as a man or woman. Viewers become so absorbed in Masahiro Motoki's breathtaking performance as Kobayashi and the stoic portrayal of his new employer and mentor by Tsutomo Yamazaki that it almost feels as if this deadly serious movie is floating on a cloud of holistic grace and dramatic elegance. Here's the trailer:

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Finally, a word about a thrilling concert I attended down at the Boxcar Theatre last week. An Evening of Percussion featured three graduates from the University of Michigan (Jay Bordeleau, Eric Klein, and Christian Foster Howes) performing on everything from marimba to drums, vibraphone, gongs, and PVC pipe with some extra chanting, mugging, electronic sound effects and heavy breathing that resembled a frustrated donkey. Howes (seen below) recently composed and performed the music for the Boxcar Theatre's production of Where The Sidewalk Ends

Christian Foster Howes -- Photo by Peter Lui

The three men performed on the multilevel set for Crowded Fire's production of Wreckage. While you don't often see someone playing drums in a sandbox, the set and lighting added a welcome theatricality to the evening. Watching all three musicians work together on a marimba was fascinating. The music they performed offered challenging and intriguing soundscapes that were far more accessible than many pieces of "new music" I've encountered in the past.

This was apparently the first time these three musicians had performed together in seven years.  One hopes that this multi-talented ensemble (which I like to refer to as Three Men and a Marimba) gets more exposure in the Bay area and continues to thrive. They offer a fascinating sound, an appealing stage presence, an eclectic repertoire, and deserve to reach a much wider audience.

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