Saturday, October 31, 2009

Crimes of The Corporatocracy

Maybe it all started back in 1772, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first began to work on the tragedy of Faust, the supposedly brilliant scholar who sold his soul to the devil for a chance to relive his youth. Even if one considers the modern equivalent -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- there is little doubt that, in games of power, one party plans to dominate another by hook or by crook.

In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore doesn't hesitate to describe capitalism as inherently evil. As he interviews Americans whose lives have been ruined by predatory lending, foreclosures, or simply being powerless pawns in the banking industry's multinational gambling schemes, audiences see human faces put on the victims of globalization.

While microcredit programs like Kiva have helped many to break out of poverty and become successful entrepreneurs, appealing to people's baser instincts by tempting them with mortgages they can't afford, credit default swaps, or "irrationally exuberant" lines of credit, is an easy way to trap consumers in a spiral of debt. Watch carefully as John Hodgeman schools Jon Stewart in the ways of Wall Street.

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Whether one chooses to think in terms of macroeconomics or microeconomics, the use of debt as a financial weapon is becoming clearer in terms of how we perceive the global economy. Whereas 2003's The Corporation did a superb job of showing the ruthlessness with which corporate interests are willing to destroy lives in their pursuit of profits, two new documentaries do a superb job of showing how financial power is used to put the squeeze on impoverished workers as well as political leaders.

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Soon to be screened at the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is a documentary of deceptive visual beauty. I was particularly interested in seeing Iron Eaters because India and Bangladesh have become the final destinations for so many ocean liners and old ships whose final voyages deliver them into the hands of the ship breakers who sell their steel for scrap.

It is to writer/director Shaheen Rill-Diaz's great credit that his film not only exposes the brutal effects of capitalism on some of Bangladesh's poorest workers but that, despite exposing such financial exploitation, so much of his footage is a gorgeous visual treat.

The beaches of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal are where many container ships and oil tankers are broken down by Bangladeshi iron workers who have been forced from their homelands in the north during seasonal floods. Their work requires them to wade through mud that reaches as high as their calves as they pull the heavy cables that will drag the ships closer to the beach.

Often working under conditions that would make an OSHA inspector vomit with disgust, they are sometimes required to carry iron plate on their shoulders when it is still hot from the application of blow torches. Known as the Lohakhor (iron eaters), the men work long, unforgiving hours from which some never recover.

Kholil and Gadu are two peasants from northern Bangladesh who recruit many of their relatives to work for Chittagong's PHP (Peace, Happiness, and Prosperity) Group when the flooding from the rainy season causes famine in the north. Although they are lured to Chittagong with advance payments and promises of easy loans, by the time they leave, they may not even have enough money for the trip home. Shaheen Dill-Riaz lived with the workers for five months in 2005 while filming them at work. As he explains:
"I've known the place where the ships are dismantled since I was a child. It's not far from my home village. We had heard lots of stories about the huge ships and the serious industrial accidents, but those of us on the outside knew next to nothing about the real working conditions in the yards because the workers themselves never talked about what they experienced there. I wanted to know who these people are, who come to us in the south and work for months on starvation wages

Shaheen Dill-Riaz

Getting shooting permission was hard enough. The most important point I had to get across to those in charge was that I was not making a film about environmental pollution (that was their biggest worry). While we were filming, we were faced with the same problems the workers themselves had. At the end of the day, we were observing extremely difficult, and even life-threatening working conditions. We stood barefoot with the workers in the mud, balanced on rotting beams, and went down into the extremely dangerous innards of the ships. I still can't understand to this day why nothing happened to us. Were we really so careful? Or were we just simply lucky."

Instead of forcing workers into debt, those responsible should admit that there is something essentially wrong here. Anyone who has seen these people at work knows that they are paid far too little and that the dangers they face every day could easily be avoided. There are technical solutions that could reduce the life-threatening risks the workers are exposed to -- and there are enough experts who have already approached the yard owners with suggestions for improvement, but these are continually ignored.

We have all obviously resigned ourselves to the fact that our lives are determined by the stock exchanges. So we shouldn't be surprised by the results. For me, Ironeaters shows the consequences of this global attitude.

With this film I wanted to immerse myself in a world which had been closed to me for a very long time. I was curious and I had expected to discover something new. The unbelievable working conditions that the film shows were not the greatest surprise for me but rather the administrative structure, which drives the people into a deadly debt trap. Even more appalling for me was the realization that the attitude of the exploitative system is founded on the basic elements of the economic system in which we all live. Ironeaters shows just how far this can go."
Desperate to earn money with which to support their families between rice harvests, these men work for a pittance. Because they are forced to purchase their food from grocery stores that cooperating with the shipyard owners (who happily extend their workers' credit to a point where the laborers are performing backbreaking work for almost no income), these men become trapped in a stifling debt spiral.

Don't be fooled by some of the arresting images or moments of exquisite cinematography. Despite the protests of the ship breaker's management (who are noticeably well fed and are never seen doing any physical labor), this depiction of capitalism at work is not the slightest bit pretty. Here's the trailer:

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Back in 2001, as Americans reeled from the shock of the attacks on the World Trade Center, many were stunned to hear Osama bin Laden claim that his ultimate goal was to destroy the American economy by driving the United States into bankruptcy.

"Why do they hate us?" cried those who thought their beloved country could do no wrong. One of the films shown at the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival offers a cogent explanation of why many foreign nations dread and resent the United States. It also gives a disturbing insight into why the Bush administration felt it necessary to invade Iraq.

In Apology of an Economic Hitman, author John Perkins (whose 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, details the subversive responsibilities of his former profession), goes into great detail about exactly how corporate interests work with the United States government to force developing nations deeply into debt, to the point where it is impossible for them to repay the loans put forth by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United States Agency for International Development. In his prime, Perkins was involved in the kind of espionage activities that used fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections,
payoffs, extortion, military coups, and murder as part of an undercover effort to create a global American empire following World War II.

John Perkins

This documentary includes several fascinating sequences that, for narrative effect, have been crafted in the style of film noir while exposing some of the financial mechanisms used to keep most of the world in poverty. In his director's note, Stelios Koul explains:
"‘That is a film noir,’ I told myself when I first took knowledge of the economic hit man story. Α sexy femme fatale, corruption, assassinations, no good guys, secret meetings of the empire’s jackals in rooms full of smoke. And then there was the voice-over narration of a protagonist trapped in an unwanted situation, flashbacks to understand the birth of the economic hit man and flashforwards to the looting of Iraq. From low-key lighting and Venetian blinds to Dutch angles, I used the techniques of film noir to make a documentary telling a real story about our present world. Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. But the plot line and the final sequences of the film, when the protagonist apologizes in front of the Ecuadorian people for his actions, give way to optimism: in a world full of cynicism and wars, there is always room for redemption and hope."

After a long internal struggle between his guilt and his fear of the potential repercussions of becoming a whistleblower (Perkins was offered huge sums of money during his career just to keep his mouth shut), he has tried to set the record straight by exposing the kind of economic sabotage America has inflicted on developing countries. Not only does the film contain some surprising old car commercials and a powerful piece of propaganda from Standard Oil), it unmasks some of the really dirty deeds that have been done in the name of democracy. In an email to the film's director, Perkins wrote:
"I'm deeply impressed -- a very powerful and beautifully done film. I think it will be considered a classic, watched for decades to come by anyone interested in the history of the last half of the 20th century. It tells the story of empire -- and the impact on the entire world -- in a compelling, easily understood way. I was shocked by the magnitude of your production and your commitment. …The file footage of (Ecuador’s ex president) Roldos and (Panama’s ex president) Torrijos brought me to tears. I had never seen most of it before. The way you integrated the Ford Motor Company ads with the Baghdad attack and Robert McNamara is masterful, as were the scenes of poverty interspliced with those of opulence. The Standard Oil movie absolutely blew me away. I am honored to have inspired you and your great crew. You are a master!"
Don't expect to see Perkins appearing on Fox and Friends within your lifetime. The material he exposes is provocative and shocking (even Osama bin Laden has made reference to Perkins' writings). As far as I'm concerned, anyone who clearly and concisely explains why Paul Wolfowitz is such a scumbag deserves to be taken seriously. Here's a clip in which the deceptively laid-back former economic hit man explains how big finance really works:

If there were any real justice in the world, every economist, pundit, and politician would be forced to sit through a triple bill of Apology of an Economic Hitman, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Iron Eaters. Together, these three films form a perfect storm of whistle-blowing economic journalism from brave and perceptive documentarians.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Art Of Giving Head

Most people have no idea how much their heads weigh. I do because I learned the hard way. Back in the 1970s, when I first started working from home, I had not bothered to invest in an ergonomic office chair. Instead, I was trying to transcribe while sitting on a rigid kitchen chair that could not be adjusted for height or pitch.

Take my word, you never want to make that mistake. I had no idea how much strain I was placing on my neck muscles thanks to my wildly inappropriate typing posture. As I kept working longer and longer hours trying to meet deadlines for the court reporters whose dictation I was transcribing, the muscles in my neck began to tighten. My back started to go out of alignment and pretty soon the pain became unbearable. Soon, I could barely hold up my head.

Luckily, I friend guided me to a chiropractor whose adjustments helped to get me back in shape. Since then, I have been acutely aware of proper ergonomic precautions with regard to my desk space.

A person only needs to lose the support of his head once to understand that it is like trying to balance a bowling ball on a toothpick. Such painfully-acquired knowledge gives someone a unique perspective for viewing productions of Oscar Wilde's and Richard Strauss's Salome, in which the religious prophet, John the Baptist, is decapitated and his head presented on a silver platter to Judea's teen-aged princess.

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In order to fully appreciate the physical challenges overcome by designer Bruno Schwengl in the San Francisco Opera's new production of Salome (a co-production with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and L'Opéra de Montréal), one needs to have experienced different stagings of Strauss's opera. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen numerous productions of Salome with some great artists heading the cast.
All of these productions embraced a traditional stage layout featuring a removable covering to the cistern containing Jokanaan's dungeon cell. While dramatically accurate, the space needed to accommodate this design always creates a challenge for stage directors. Schwengl's new production, which premiered in June of 2009 at the Loretto Hilton Theatre, had to fit into a tiny theatre with a thrust stage.

By eliminating the presence of the downstage cistern cover and moving Jokanaan's entrances and exits to a darkened upstage wall with a circular opening (that can expand or contract like a camera's shutter), Schwengl immediately gave the opera a more focused performing space. The "tunnel of doom" effect created upstage also facilitated a Grand Guignol approach to presenting Jokanaan's severed head to the audience.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In most productions, the head appears on a silver platter that is propelled upward by the executioner as he rises through a trapdoor in the stage. In San Francisco Opera's new production, the executioner is suddenly seen upstage, holding a cloth sack dripping copious amounts of blood (the fake head is made of latex and holds 32 ounces of fluid). After he presents the severed head to Salome, she must unwrap it from its cloth covering while getting blood all over her costume.

In his director's note from the production's debut at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Seán Curran wrote:
"In moving from choreographer to director, I find myself returning to Martha Graham's famous saying: 'Movement never lies.' As one who is accustomed to moving bodies through space, it is interesting to me that the story of Salome more or less unfolds in real time (a rarity in opera). In this regard, the transition from choreographing to directing is not so radical. The choreographer's challenges of moving performers through space in a way that supports the emotional cadences of the score is equal to the director's challenge of pushing each character forward to tell a story deeply and vividly.

As a concert dance choreographer, my work is driven by music; it has primarily focused on the human condition and the relationships we forge with one another. Most of my dances can be viewed as microcosmic communities that exist within places (both real and fictional) of conflict, anguish, or chaos. I strive to shape my work with a mixture of formal craft and intuitive resonance without being overtly literal, thus making it universal.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

The iconoclasts of modern dance have also provided unlikely, but fitting visual inspiration for the production's set and costumes. Loie Fuller's signature use of sheer, voluminous fabric that highlighted the interplay between movement and light; Ruth St. Denis's fascination with exoticism and Orientalism; Martha Graham's exploration of religious themes and even Isadora Duncan's naturalistic style juxtaposed against the demise in that fateful, freak automobile accident play into Salome's 'Dance of the Seven Veils.' Each of these artists showed a keen disregard for the traditional mores and expectations of women, and we see obvious parallels in Salome's behavior. She is a young woman discovering the power of her body; inflaming the lust of her stepfather, King Herod; provoking jealousy in her mother, Herodias; repulsing the evangelist Jokanaan with her sinful desires, and filling the soldier, Narraboth, with longing.

Packed into less than two hours, Salome is an operatic tour-de-force. The score is often a central character: alternately demure, stealthily moving the story along, and frenzied, mimicking the emotions of the characters through a violent cacophony of sound. Clearly, the opera's subject is sex, and longing; but more than that, it is a story of obsession, jealousy, regret, and horror. As wildly perverse as its story may be, however, and as vocally and instrumentally demanding the score for its deranged, maniacal characters, the opera's most powerful element is the illumination of our base human emotions: the lust and jealousy lurking within all of us. So, I find myself continually meditating on the idea that art should act as a mirror: we see our communities (our hopes, fears, desires, and indeed our very souls) reflected in the work. In Salome, we may not like what we see."
Many moments were obviously crafted with a choreographer's eye to telling a story. This was the first time I ever saw a Jokanaan physically flinch from Salome's touch as if he had received an electric sock. After Jokanaan returned to his dungeon and the circular barrier put back in place, Salome was able to stand spread-eagled against the wall, making it suddenly seem as if the audience was looking down at her as she floated on a piece of wood at the bottom of a deep, dark, and dank well.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A great deal of credit for the production's success goes to Christopher Maravich, whose subtle changes in lighting helped to frame Salome's changing moods as well as her descent into depravity. Although Nadja Michael's performance in the title role may have been stronger physically than it was vocally (her pitch tended to flatten as the evening wore on), her Salome was a complex characterization that knew how to flirt (with both Narraboth and Herod) as well as deal from a position of power.

Nadja Michael and Kim Begley (Photo by: Terrance McCarthy)

Garrett Sorenson (Narraboth), Greer Grimsley (Jokanaan), Kim Begley (Herod) and Irina Mishura (Herodias) all offered strong performances under conductor Nicola Luisotti's baton. This was also the first production I've ever seen in which, instead of wearing costumes inspired by tribal blankets, the Jews actually resembled a group of Yeshiva buchors with payos. As much as I loved the sight of blood dripping from the head of Jokanaan, a perverse part of my brain thought "Gee, I could have had a V8!"

Broc Johnson and Nadja Michael (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

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So much for lopping off someone's head. But what happens when, instead of revenge, someone wants to preserve a beloved's brain matter? In 1988, Peter Dickinson gained great acclaim for his science fiction novel, Eva, in which a 13-year-old girl who had been horribly injured in an accident awoke to the realization that her brain had been transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee.

Alameda's Virago Theatre Company decided to take the concept one step further with the world premiere of a new play by William Bivins entitled The Afterlife of the Mind. Set in a college town between the months of September and January, this play might best be described as a truly fucked up sex farce that could just as easily have been named "Gorilla My Dreams."

The basic plot revolves around the following characters:
  • Harry (George McRae) is a renowned philosopher who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Over the years he has corresponded with Ulrich on matters of the mind.
  • Lydia (Megan Kilian) is a former graduate student of Harry's who abandoned her dissertation in order to become his bibliographer and lover. Deeply in love with Harry's mind, she is desperate to save his soul and intellect. Having completely lost her identity in pursuit of Harry's work, Lydia doesn't want to accept the reality of his death if it means letting go of Harry.
  • Ulrich Hoffsteadler (Dennis McIntyre) is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has occasionally performed illegal surgeries which he refuses to acknowledge on the record. The archetype of a mad scientist, he attempted to perform a brain transplant between a human and a host while living in Uruguay. Unfortunately, the host (a ground sloth) remained curiously unresponsive. Now Ulrich operates out of the back of the bar he owns.
  • Dinah (Tracey Rhys) is Ulrich's sex partner, dominatrix, and personal assistant. Like Lydia, she has delayed her own goals in life in order to help a man whose brilliance she admires. But Dinah, who is full of sass, is itching to move on. The only problem is that she and Ulrich can't keep their hands off each other.
  • Father Jerome (Lol Levy) is a friend of Harry's who has been lusting after Lydia for quite some time.
  • Todd (Elias Escobedo) is a young man with a very healthy body who is suffering from terminal brain cancer.
Harry (George McRae) and Lydia (Megan Killian)

Although dealing with extremely serious issues of death, disability, medical malpractice, and physician's egos, The Afterlife of the Mind moves at a fairly rapid pace. During its frenetic 90 minutes, Lydia convinces Father Jerome to talk to Harry about the possibility of having his brain transplanted by Ulrich into a warm cadaver. When Harry finally relents, Lydia convinces Ulrich to move ahead with the procedure.

Unfortunately, Ulrich fails at getting the host's neuron receptors to link up to Harry's disembodied brain and, with the clock ticking, a life-sustaining environment must be found if Harry's brain is to survive. Faster than you can say "Achtung!" Harry's brain is transplanted into Lydia's womb, which makes her look about seven months pregnant. There it continues to be nourished until Lydia can find a new host.

Lydia then takes to cruising support groups for patients with terminal illnesses, where she meets a handsome young man named Todd. Offering Todd unlimited sex (every way he wants it and whenever he wants it) if he will simply sign a contract agreeing to become a host for Harry's brain, Lydia finally gets her new friend to sign on the dotted line. There's just one hitch: Ulrich insists on examining Harry to determine if he could be a suitable host.

When Ulrich discovers that Harry's cancer has gone into remission, he and Lydia must find a new host for Harry's brain. Ulrich has a brilliant idea, but it could be messy. Lydia would have to feed the new host through a tube 20-30 times a day and change the incontinent host's diapers frequently.

When Lydia reappears (minus the bun that was in her oven), Harry is eager to have sex. But as soon as he gets near Lydia, a threatening growl emanates from the other room, where the new host for Harry's brain is seated in a wheelchair. When Harry discovers that the host is actually a smelly gorilla that Ulrich has taken from the zoo, he panics and flees.

Left alone with the host, Lydia finally decides to leave town. She drives to the Grand Canyon, which she and Harry visited when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Finally, she finds a way to let go of Harry.

Playwright William Bivins

As directed by Laura Lundy-Paine, The Afterlife of the Mind pushed the dramatic envelope as far as it could possibly go. Like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is the kind of theatre that impresses with its intelligence, delights with its daring, entertains with its exuberance, and leaves its audience gasping in disbelief. I strongly recommend that it be performed at medical schools and neurosurgical everywhere!

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As I left the Ashby Stage, one of these long-term memory brain farts erupted and I recalled a production I had seen one Sunday afternoon in 1967 at the Martinique Theatre in Herald Square. Although Gorilla Queen had become quite controversial and received a lot of buzz, I didn't understand the play at all. Now, thanks to the Internet, at least I know why. In his book, Factory Made: Andy Warhol and the Sixties, Steven Watson writes:
"Ronald Tavel attempted a more ambitious play, which was inspired by his brother Harvey's off-hand remark, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to take etiquette lessons from a Gorilla Queen.' Tavel became inspired. 'I didn't take Lady Godiva seriously (I took three weeks on that), but I took Gorilla Queen seriously. I took eight weeks on that. Now I'll show what I can do. Before I was playing with my pinky, now I'll show what I can do.'

He concocted a 73-page epic inspired by King Kong and a Republic 'B movie' called Captive Wild Woman. But John Vaccaro was not ready for such a long script. He liked to take something simple and embellish it, and he had never directed anything longer than 12 pages. So he selected 12 pages from Gorilla Queen (against Ron Tavel's counsel) and the company began rehearsing. 'I always say the writer really doesn't know what he's written,' said Vaccaro.

Ron Tavel did not want his play sliced up to the designs of John Vaccaro, and both Tavel brothers were convinced that the company's new star actor, Charles Ludlam, wanted them to move on so that he could usurp the position of company playwright. In late February, the Tavels parted company with the Ridiculous, paying back the $1,000 that was put in the kitty at the beginning, relinquished the lease on the loft, and the name 'Play-House of the Ridiculous.' It was a clean parting.

Reverend Al Carmines offered Ron Tavel the Easter slot for Gorilla Queen to open at the Judson Poets Theater. Director Larry Kornfeld quickly assembled a cast and the play was produced in the church's choir loft opening in mid-March. Gorilla Queen had an indescribable plot and a screwball exotic Maria Montez vision involving characters that included Claudette Colbert and Clyde Beatty. In its burlesque style of play, Gorilla Queen attacked language. 'It went beyond logic into pre-logic,' said Martin Gottfried, then theater critic for Vogue, who described it as 'an avalanche of words -- restructuring the language, challenging meanings, applying this new dimension to the cause of comedy.'

It was also a hymn to pansexuality. In fairy tale style, the play concludes with a wedding pronouncement that opened the door to the widest pansexuality possible: 'I pronounce you man and wife, or man and man, or ape and man, or queen and woman, or queen and man, or queen and queen, or ape and up and up.' The curtain comes down on an anthem to the many varieties of polymorphous perversity, ending 'If it's got a hole, hump it!'

Gorilla Queen became an unlikely hit and, after it played its last performance in the Judson loft on April Fool's Day, the production moved to a commercial engagement at the Martinique Theater two weeks later. This theater, located at Broadway and 32nd Street was described as 'halfway to Broadway,' and it was widely written about, becoming the first unlikely commercial hit of the Ridiculous theater."
Did you notice a prize piece of trivia as you skimmed through that huge quote? Back in the 1960s, Vogue Magazine had a serious theatre critic on its staff!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Overhyped and Overpriced

Make no mistake: we are drowning in an ocean of hyperbole. In recent years, the media's tendency to hype the importance of every potentially inconsequential event has led to a society in which everything is ranked as superlative, must-see, or demanding one's immediate attention.
  • Despite plenty of proof to the contrary, the media continues to hype the lie that the United States has the greatest healthcare system in the world.
  • By 2002, certain events were already being billed as the "biggest" whatever of the century.
  • Rather than deal with substantial and newsworthy issues of the day, American media can easily be distracted for hours by something as stupid as O. J. Simpson traveling in a white SUV or a shiny balloon purported to be carrying a six-year-old boy.
  • Whipped into a frenzy by corporate interests, subcultures like the Teabaggers are spoiling for a fight, even if they don't really understand what they're fighting for.
  • While Barack Obama attempts to define a strategy for dealing with the mess in Afghanistan, assholes of failure like Dick Cheney keep demanding a quick decision based on faulty, outdated intelligence.
The sad truth is that not everything can be the biggest, the best, the most expensive, or the most critical. Complex problems demand a quieter, more subtle approach. Sometimes the results work out well, sometimes they don't.

Some things (whether they be staged events or even our lives) rarely rise above the hum-drum and mediocre. An act that wows people in one culture may bore people in another. The cachet one expects as a result of financial or social standing in some circles, may not impress in others.

The bottom line? As hard as one might try, you can't always buy love.

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A recent co-production between Stephanie Weisman (Artistic/Executive Director of The Marsh), James Donlon (head of San Francisco's Flying Actor Studio), the Lit Moon World Theater Festival in Santa Barbara, and Theatre Alfredvedvore (an alternative theater company based in Prague) led to the recent presentation of an International Czech Theatre Festival that played at The Marsh. The ultimate goal of this budding new artistic alliance, named the Change & Exchange program, is to provide opportunities for artists connected with The Marsh to tour Central and Eastern Europe under the auspices of New Web (a network for independent theater projects throughout the Czech Republic and its neighbors).

I caught three of the four productions being presented in San Francisco and noticed some striking albeit unfortunate similarities:
  • Although each performance I saw ran about 60 minutes, each was about 30 minutes too long.
  • Although each performance depended on strong skills in mime, clowning, improvisation, and movement, the overall impression from the performances I saw was one of startling dullness.
  • At two of the three performances I attended, the musical accompaniment proved to be far more interesting than the drama that was supposed to hold my attention.
  • While these acts were billed as the kind of exciting, experimental new theatre that isn't seen very often in the United States, they struck me more as the kind of work that might have fascinated university theatre departments during the 1960s.

Steve Capko is Brick Circk

Billed as "classic European clowning from the heart of the rich Prague tradition," Steve Capko's Brick Circk was as lighthearted as one of the bricks he used as a prop. While clowns are not always funny, they're usually entertaining. Capko's act left me cold.

Vojta Svejda in Albert's Fear

Much more interesting was Albert's Fear, which had been directed by James Donlon. Created and performed by Vojta Svejda (with accompaniment by Jiri Mraz and Martin Zpevak on double bass, harmonica, clarinet, and percussion), this piece offers the very talented Svejda a chance to show the full range of his impressive skills as a young, timid boy who is trying to overcome his inhibitions. Whether dreaming that he is a pirate (with an obnoxious parrot on his shoulder), going down to a dark cellar to fetch some potatoes for dinner, or trying to fend off a bully at school, Svejda is an engaging performer whose charms are easily embraced by his audience.

Svejda's acting strength is obvious as his bright blue eyes beg for courage, his mouth produces sounds ranging from spoken text to childlike gibberish, and his deft use of body language shows a solid background in mime. While Albert's Fear tries to bring the audience inside a child's fears and fantasies, it seems more like a 10-minute sketch that has been overblown to fill an hour-long slot at fringe festivals.

In Polaris, Svejda was paired with Jan Beneš-McGradie as two 19th century Arctic explorers who are freezing to death. In some ways, Polaris feels like an artistic interpretation of life on the Pribilof Islands as the two artists mime the movements of adult and baby penguins, curious fish, flying geese, freezing dogs, hungry wolves, and skillfully enact a peculiar tango for walruses while dreaming about how the media will depict their heroism.

Vojta Svejda and Jan Beneš-McGradie in Polaris

As actor Jan Beneš-McGadie notes:
"Our performance style is based on subtle, precise expression which is born out of stillness and the act of waiting. We deal with the tensions between the inner movement of thought and the motionless body in surroundings which never cease to move. Both characters thus embody the surreal imaginings which are brought forth in frozen and starving conditions from their troubled heads."
From the opening moments of the play until the ice collapses beneath them and one of the explorers drowns, both actors work very hard to communicate their futile dreams of making love and coming home to glory (even as they freeze to death in a blizzard). Nominated for a "Total Theatre Award" at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Polaris is a clear example of what can happen when the inherent power of the music chosen to accompany a small act dwarfs the actual drama. This fuzzy video clip from Edinburgh offers a good example:

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Since the 9/11 catastrophe, New York City has experienced a surge in births. While the bulk of these children will end up in New York's public school system, for an elite few the first step on a career path aimed at fame and fortune begins even before they return home from the hospital. As the offspring of wealthy professionals, these children enter a lifestyle filled with love, luxury, often unreasonable expectations, and incredible pressure to succeed.

Whereas an infant can be quite content to play with dirt, drool, or the edge of his diaper, for overachieving parents employed in highly competitive professions, the simple things in life are never enough. Nothing frustrates the wealthy quite as much as being told that their money can't buy the access they so desperately desire for their children. Or that, like everyone else in the room, they are subject to the results of a lottery.

As I watched Nursery University during the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival, I wasn't the only person chuckling at the sight of attorneys and investment bankers (who can easily afford the $20,000 per semester tuition for an exclusive preschool nursery program) desperately jumping through hoops in their efforts to gain admission for their children. But I have a huge chip on my shoulder. I'm a graduate of New York's public school system, I graduated from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and my father, mother, and sister all worked for the New York City school system.

Marc H. Simon's new documentary may be the first to pierce the inner circle of upscale families who are struggling to gain their children admission to such exclusive venues as Mandell School, Chelsea Day School, and Epiphany Community Nursery. If you thought the college admissions racket was ridiculous, the lack of openings available at such exclusive schools is even worse.

The limited enrollment at such schools has not transformed their staff into a gaggle of mean girls who act like snotty sorority sisters during rush season. Instead, it has fostered a mini-industry of professional consultants who can charge as much as $10,000 per child to guide parents through the nightmarish application process. Among the households profiled in Nursery University are:
  • The Pratofiorito Family: Little Juliana's parents want their daughter to have the very best in life. Although Cynthia's Venezuelan roots make her a little more down to earth, Tony's lawyerly obsessiveness with filling out each application with meticulous precision evidences an almost preening neurosis.
  • The Moon Family: Little Jackson's blonde and beautiful mother Heidi is an entrepreneur about to launch a new business. An Ivy League professional married to investment banker Roderick, Heidi finds it hard to believe that money can't buy their darling child admission to the nursery school of their choice.
  • The Slewa Family: Three days before her 57th birthday, Aleta St. James became the oldest mother in America to give birth to twins (Gian and Francesca Slewa) as a result of in vitro fertilization. A New Age energy healer, Aleta's search for the best nursery school for her children is not only complicated by the fact that they are twins, but by the growing realization that Gian may be developmentally delayed.
  • The Sprague-Kapadia Family: Layla's father, Wyatt Sprague, is a former professional rocker. Her mother Sneha is a stay-at-home mom. Having lived a relatively low-key lifestyle for many years in Greenwich Village, they are frustrated by the demands of many of the schools to which they have applied.
  • The Ashton-Ragoonath Family: Kieron's father (Kris Ragoonath) is a former boxing star who is now working as a bartender while studying to become a physical therapist. His mother (Kim Ashton) is the only one of her eight siblings to graduate from college. Although financially challenged, one of Kim's childhood friends (Roxanna Reid, founder of Smart City Kids) is a well-connected professional advisor to some of Manhattan's top private schools.

Jackson Moon plants a kiss on another child

As I watched Nursery University, I wanted to reach out, slap some of the parents and say "Now is not the time for this kind of idiocy. Aim lower." And, as the film progresses, audiences can see Aleta St. James forced to work with a different kind of consultant (one who can help her find a school that works with special needs children). The Sprague-Kapadia family checks out a local preschool nursery that is run as a co-op and is shocked to be welcomed with open arms. After enrolling their child with minimal fuss, Sneha Kapadia is delighted to take her turn as an on-duty parent one day a week.

Juliana Pratofiorito interacts with Wendy Levey
(Director of Epiphany Community Nursery)

One child gets accepted to every single one of the schools to which her parents had submitted applications; another gets rejected (to the utter shock and consternation of her mother). Despite such entreaties as "Who could say no to such a beautiful child?" reality takes a big bite out of some of these people's sense of entitlement.

Beauty, however, rests in the eye of the beholder. For more realistic types, there is much in Nursery University that may border on the obscene. But for others, Simon's documentary may well cater to a niche market seeking privileged parenting porn. Here's the trailer:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Teen Competitions

First, a confession. I'm one of the people wearing rabbit ears in this picture taken Sunday night at the Roxie just before the world premiere of Amy Do's documentary, Rabbit Fever: A Hare-Raising Story.

Like many documentaries (and mockumentaries) about national competitions, Rabbit Fever follows a select group of contestants as they work their way through regional competitions and prepare for the big moment. Few, however, have quite as many contestants to deal with as Rabbit Fever. As its director (who raised rabbits during her childhood) explains:
“When I made my first visit to the 2003 National Convention in Wichita, Kansas, I was blown away by the size of the event. Can you imagine 20,000 rabbits in one showroom? After the initial shock, I started talking to the people there. I admired how much passion and drive they had, especially for a hobby that not a lot of outsiders would understand. What interested me the most was the teenage members.
Most kids their age would probably be hanging out at the mall, watching movies, or playing video games, but instead, these teens were using their free time to study rabbits! What was behind all of this hard work? That’s where I finally found my story: How, who, and what was this title of National Rabbit King and Queen that these kids were striving for so diligently?
Various breeds of competing rabbits
Although the intense competition drives the film forward to its climax, the heart of Rabbit Fever lies within the passion, charm, and sometimes quirkiness of its subjects. You can replace the teens’ love of rabbits with any other hobby or sport, and empathize with their motivation and goals. It’s just another vehicle that young adults use to challenge and express themselves, making Rabbit Fever not only a film about rabbits, but also a very unique coming-of-age story.”
Whereas contest films like Word Wars -- Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit, Best In Show, or Spellbound are usually driven by compelling personalities, Rabbit Fever faces four very peculiar challenges:
  • The numbers don't lie: Although teenagers are competing for the royalty titles, they are easily outnumbered by the population of adult rabbit breeders attending the convention. With an average gestation period of 32 days, it doesn't take long to produce more rabbits for upcoming competitions. With 20,000 rabbits entered in each year's competition, the sheer number of participants stifles the kind of drama inherent in horse and dog shows.
  • Breeding versus bravado: The human participants in Rabbit Fever lack the egomania and eccentricities displayed in films like Pop Star On Ice or Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary. The "royalty contestants" are essentially good kids without much conflict in their lives who have encountered few, if any, financial challenges to attaining their goals.
  • Lack of a big payoff: Although sponsored by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, there is no big financial prize or major trophy to be won. Rabbit breeders enter these competitions largely for their own satisfaction and to share their love of rabbits with other breeders. The awards dinner for royalty contestants is a fairly mild-mannered affair.
  • Cinematic schizophrenia: Because the annual event has, in effect, been split between the contest for "best in show" and who gets to be National Rabbit King or Rabbit Queen, the director has had to juggle two distinct paths to success: one for the animals and one for the humans.
That's not to suggest that Rabbit Fever isn't a well-made documentary. Amy Do spent a huge amount of time and effort photographing rabbits, following the teenagers at competitions, and her film is extremely well put together.

Amy Do filming rabbits

Where the film really does shine is in its delightful animation sequences by Jonathan Ng. While these serve to reinforce the image of rabbits as adorably funny little creatures that have been anthropomorphized as a result of their cuteness, Ng's hilarious artwork only constitutes about 7% of the film's running time. Considering that Amy Do shot more than 150 hours of footage for her documentary, the instant and strong appeal of the animated sequences compared to the rather routine footage of teenagers, rabbits, and talking heads, creates a strange artistic imbalance to an otherwise enjoyable film.

* * * * * * * * * * *
By contrast, Beadie Finzi's ballet documentary, Only When I Dance, is the kind of film that has the audience on the verge of tears throughout most of its 78 minutes as it follows two poor Brazilian ballet students in their quest to escape the slums of Rio de Janiero. The film's producer, Giorgia Lo Savio, stresses that:
"Dance is such an integral part of Brazilian culture and the Brazilians are actually renowned for classical ballet. The Municipal Theatre in Rio (the equivalent of the Royal Opera, London) is huge and Brazil has produced some big international stars. Thiago Soares is currently a principal soloist at the Royal Ballet. However ballet is still seen as an exclusive art form, only accessible to the white, wealthy elite. There is a huge contrast between rich and poor. Ballet is reflective of this divide.

Initially, Irlan’s parents were concerned about his passion because classical ballet is not seen as a suitable career for a boy (especially not one from the favela). We actually had to give up on the first boy that we found because his family was very resentful and ashamed of the fact that he was doing ballet. They didn’t want any part in it. But with Irlan, we arrived at a point when his family had come to terms with it and were very supportive, which is unusual."
Irlan Santos da Silva

The two young dancers (Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy) were discovered by former ballerina Mariza Estrella, who founded the Centro de Dança Rio in 1973 and helped to guide them toward international competitions. While Irlan's talent is obvious, the dark color of Isabela's skin and the fact that, by professional ballet standards, she needs to lose some weight, are factors working against her.

Isabela Coracy

Unlike many ballet documentaries, filming in Rio's favelas was rife with danger. As Lo Savio explains:
"In order to access the favela we had to pay a ‘contribution,’ which was going to be used for the schools. We were a conspicuous presence and, although we had permission to be there, there were certain areas where we were not allowed to film due to the ongoing drug trade. We weren’t allowed to roam freely. Every morning we would be met outside the favela by the ‘associate’ -- the man who liaised with the drug traffickers on our behalf and granted us access. He would come and pick us up in his car (or meet us with his little scooter) and we would follow him. His presence protected us by providing assurance that we had permission to be there."
"Filming in Rio was very tough," confesses Finzi, the director. "You can't just get out of the van and shoot where you want, what you want. The threat of violence, of theft, is huge. The standing joke was, whenever I asked 'Can I shoot that?' the driver would answer 'No, you'll get shot at.' The problem is that the threat is so high and so consistent that you become quite blasé. It is a real effort to remember that, as director, you are responsible for a whole crew and their safety. You are constantly torn between wanting to get a certain shot versus considering whether it is worth taking the personal risk involved in getting it. In the end, we did get through the year but not before a few hair-raising incidents in the favelas."

What sets this documentary apart from so many other ballet films is the genuine struggle of Irlan and Isabela's parents to help their children realize their dreams. The heat of the streets in Rio's Complexo do Alemão is a far cry from the calm of Lausanne, Switzerland, where Irlan's first impression of Europeans is that "Everyone is so polite!" His joy at seeing snowflakes for the first time in his life is matched by the determination visible in his classical and contemporary performances in the following two clips:

Unlike Rabbit Fever, Only When I Dance has the kind of artistic vision, dancer's discipline, compelling characters, and financial urgency that help to shape a great documentary. As director Beadie Finzi notes:
"The key to most good documentaries is capturing a moment of change or transition. This story had some fantastic ingredients: two kids on the cusp of adulthood trying to realize an impossible dream where the difference between success and failure would mean everything. But it was also a tough sell (set in Brazil, shot in Portuguese, a ballet documentary), all pretty niche. However the more I examined the story, the more the universal themes shone through -- themes of race, class, and the sheer determination and love of family -- which I knew could translate to anyone, anywhere."

At first, I was quite intimidated by the language barrier. I had never made a film entirely in a foreign language. But my co-producer, Christina Daniels, was a fantastic collaborator. She was my ears and my mouth. We worked very closely and quietly together on location. I would brief her with questions and she would relay these to the characters. Occasionally I completely misunderstood the sense of a conversation, but most of the time I could follow the debate. In a strange way it taught me to watch in a different way -- to really look at my characters and listen to their inflection. I think I also was able to maintain a little more distance (not a bad thing since I was also shooting and recording sound on location)."
Unlike Bertrand Norman's 2006 documentary, Ballerina (which concentrates on the training of prima ballerinas at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg), Beadie's film is focused squarely on two dancers from poor families who, against all odds, are reaching for the stars. You'll want to have lots of tissues on hand when you see this film.

The good news is that Irlan is now dancing with American Ballet Theatre's studio company, ABT II. In a recent interview, he stated:
"My family and I were very surprised at first that someone wanted to do a documentary about me. We really didn’t quite understand what it would involve. So, in the morning when there were cameras on me getting dressed, going to the bus stop, it was a bit of a shock. One of the favorite parts in the film for me are the scenes where I am seen working so hard on the choreography for the Nijinsky ballet. I remember how hard I worked to prepare that piece for Lausanne. When I saw my hard work captured in the film, it brought tears to my eyes. I only recently watched myself in the film, so it is all very new and strange to me. The film is a very honest representation of what I went through in the last couple of years."
Here's the trailer: