Sunday, June 21, 2009

End of Days

Not too many individuals still use a telephone answering service. With voice mail, email, and texting having become the primary methods by which we leave messages for friends and family, fewer people have the need -- or chance -- to become intimately acquainted with the voice of an intermediary who might be taking messages for them. While medical practices still employ live answering services and businesses may outsource some functions to overseas call centers, the market for answering services devoted to personal calls has all but vanished.

In 1956, the hit musical Bells Are Ringing (which was directed and choregraphed by Jerome Robbins with choreographic assistance from Bob Fosse) starred Judy Holliday as Ella, one of the employees at Susanswerphone. One of the hit songs from that show (composed by Jule Styne) had the following lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:
"The party's over, it's time to call it a day.
They've burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.
It's time to wind up the masquerade.
Just make your mind up, the piper must be paid.
The party's over, the candles ficker and dim.
You danced and dreamed through the night,
It seemed to be right just being with him.
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.
Take off your makeup, the party's over.
It's all over, my friend."
Calamitous events often signal the end of an era. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were shocks felt around the world. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Supervisor Harvey Milk certainly made people sit up and take notice of a changing American society.

In Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical, A Little Night Music (1973), an aging courtesan wistfully recalls the days when women used their brains and bodies to acquire great wealth. Here is Regina Resnik singing "Liaisons" from the New York City Opera's 1991 production (with Sally Ann Howes as Desiree and Danielle Ferland as Fredrika).

* * * * * * * *
History is filled with the exploits of famous courtesans such as Thais, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Marie Duplessis and Lola Montez. Proud professional women have been at the center of such novels as John Cleland's groundbreaking Fanny Hill: Or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (written in 1748 while the author was incarcerated in a London debtor's prison), The Lady of the Camellias (published in 1848 by Alexandre Dumas fils), and Emile Zola's Nana (1880).

Jules Massenet based his opera Thais on the tale of the legendary Egyptian courtesan. Verdi's classic, La Traviata, was based on the novel by Dumas fils. In Colette's story about a young Parisian girl, Gigi is being trained by her aunt Alicia to become a courtesan.

This week's release of Chéri stars Rupert Friend in another one of Colette's tales of Parisian romance at the height of the Belle Époque. Like Colette's Gaston LaChaille, Chéri has become a jaded bon vivant at a very early age. The son of a wealthy courtesan who has showered him with everything but love, he has always looked to his godmother, Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) for the kind of wisdom, guidance and nurturing that his own mother, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates) was thoroughly incapable of providing. A life filled with debauchery and being a familiar face at Maxim's has left Chéri, at 19, exhausted, wan, and incredibly bored.

When his mother suggests that her old friend Lea (who has just said good-bye to her latest lover) take Chéri with her to the country, an intergenerational romance blossoms that would make any cougar proud. Chéri's situation is quite rare: Although raised in a world of privilege and luxury, he has always felt like an orphan. Having never had to earn another person's love, he doesn't recognize the value of what he has while spending six years in Lea's bed.

Now physically much more than a boy, he is nevertheless a boy-toy. Until, of course, his narcissistic mother decides that it's time for her to have some grandchildren and arranges for Chéri to be wed to the daughter of another courtesan.

Like many spoiled children, Chéri fails to understand that he can't be married and keep Lea as his mistress. Lea, however, is older, wiser, and knows what lies ahead. With a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, this new film by Stephen Frears glows with a warmth and lustre that matches the end of a glorious era -- a time when women were celebrated for brains as well as beauty, and the last years before World War I brought a crashing end to Colette's Parisian society.

While many will focus on Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Lea, this film is about so much more. It deals with the agony of being trapped in a loveless marriage, the pain of relinquishing one's true love to another, and the reality that time, as it advances, waits for no man or woman. Frears' film includes some wonderful cameos from Bette Bourne as the Baronne, Nichola McAuliffe as Mme. Aldonza, and Frances Tomelty as Lea's maid, Rose. But one of the greatest contributions comes from Alexandre Desplat, whose wonderful original score frames so many moments with a rare sensitivity to person, place, and time. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
Set in 2006 (back in the days when wealth, capitalism and prosperity seemed to have no limits), Chris Mason Johnson's first feature film, The New Twenty, glows with intelligence, craft, fine direction, and the work of an exceptionally strong acting ensemble. It has a keen sense of its precarious moment in history, the generation it represents, and each character's complex emotional handicaps and motivations. As Johnson explains in his director's statement:
"The New Twenty is an ensemble drama about five friends nearing 30 who've remained close since college. Their extended family has outlived its usefulness. It's time to move on. The characters in The New Twenty are ready to move on and grow up, even if they don't know it yet. But leaving that first circle of friends is like leaving family -- it's not always easy. As it happens, their ironic and somewhat tortured self-involvement coincides with what we now see as a particularly ugly chapter in America's financial markets history.

For quite a while our country has encouraged its best and brightest to go into banking and that hasn't turned out so well, to say the least. A title at the head of the film -- 2006 -- locates this narrative in the very recent but very different past. In The New Twenty my characters struggle with life choices that feel empty or cynical, but they either don't have the courage to make a change or don't realize they need to. Perhaps, luckily for them (in their fictional future), the whole financial edifice comes tumbling down just a couple short years after the story ends."
Andrew Wei-Lim and Thomas Sadowski

The key characters in Johnson's drama include:
  • Julie Kim (Nicole Bilderback), a beautiful and intelligent young investment banker who is all too aware that the reason she keeps getting promoted is because having a high-ranking Asian American looks good for her employer's diversity profile.
  • Andrew Hatch (Ryan Locke), Julie's fiancé, a wannabe alpha dog. A database programmer totally lacking in management skills, Andrew is a cocky, manipulative jerk who plays squash with Julie's brother, Tony.
  • Ben (Colin Fickes), a gay slacker who desperately wants to be included in the group's activities but is rightfully regarded by them as a total loser.
  • Tony (Andrew Wei Lim), Julie's gay brother who works in advertising and shares an apartment with her best friend from college.
  • Felix (Thomas Sadowski), Tony's roommate who has a serious drug problem and can never seem to manage a relationship with a woman. Felix likes to claim that "we all suffer from a touch of existential malaise courtesy of late capitalism."
  • Robert (Bill Sage), a middle-aged professor who becomes Tony's boyfriend after they meet in the sauna at the gym. Robert is very shy, HIV positive, doesn't like to talk much, and is definitely not looking for a relationship.
  • Louie (Terry Serpico), an alpha dog venture capitalist who plays squash at the same health club frequented by Andrew and Tony. Louie is a homophobic asshole who wastes no time going after Andrew's fiancée, Julie.
Andrew Wei-Lim and Bill Sage

There were many moments in The New Twenty that made me think of 1983's The Big Chill as a once closely-knit group starts to come apart at the seams. Perhaps most impressive is how Johnson deals with issues of fidelity and male bonding. This may be one of the first movies to deal sensitively with the challenges of consciously entering into a relationship in which one partner is negative and the other is HIV positive. Straight and gay sensitivities do not clash so much as coexist in this film. As Johnson explains:
"In The New Twenty I depict gay/straight friendships between young men that are free of the homosexual panic jokes and unrequited love conflicts that usually dominate the screen. The fact is, gay/straight friendships (minus the drama) are more and more common for young adults, especially the urban and educated. We may not have reached a "post-gay" moment yet (Prop 8, anyone?) but we're getting there. The casual attitude toward gay/straight bonding for characters like those in The New Twenty might be summed up as: what's the big deal?

And yet, despite my insistence on the easygoing nature of this mix, I knew homophobia had to play into my story since our brave new world does have its share of it. Something that runs so deep must leave a trace, but what kind of trace? The answer came in two ways: first through my antagonist, Louie (the older venture capitalist who helps young alpha male Andrew launch his new career and who is blatantly if amusingly homophobic); the second through the more subtle dscomfort my male characters express without necessarily knowing it, through humor. In other words, homosexual panic used to lead to violence. Now it leads to jokes."
The New Twenty took me by surprise with its strength, maturity, and honesty. Like Chéri, it captures a critical moment within a particular subset of society just before everything falls apart. It's one of the few ensemble films I've seen in which the Gaysian male is the most level-headed character, the one most willing to take responsibility for his actions. Here's the trailer:

No comments: