Sunday, November 15, 2009

Idiom's Delight

Many people falsely assume that improvisation only refers to sketch comedy. After years of watching aspiring stand-up comedians learn their craft in groups like Chicago's The Second City, iO Chicago, and The Upright Citizens Brigade (or The Groundlings in Los Angeles), they assume that improvisation is strictly limited to the nightclub part of the entertainment industry.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, I visited the Minnesota Opera where the late Wesley Balk had trained an ensemble of apprentice singers to improvise at each performance of The Newest Little Opera in the World. Improv is now a powerful management technique used in corporate retreats and sensitivity training.

Founded in New York in 2001, Improv Everywhere has a goal of creating nonthreatening pranks or missions meant to spread chaos and joy. In their annual No Pants Subway Ride, people board the subway claiming to have accidentally forgotten to wear pants that day.

Here's one of their most famous missions: Frozen Grand Central.

Whether a person is a writer, hiker, athlete, performer, or on vacation, he must constantly improvise in order to get through the day. Improvisation may start with the simple process of putting one foot in front of another. But by using avoiding routine, responding to one's imagination, and taking risks, one's increasing ability to improvise can open up a world of opportunities.

Comedy shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Spontaneous Broadway are not the only outlets for improvisation. Consider the following:

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Some musicians can only work from a printed score. Others (particularly drummers and jazz musicians) can take an idea and run with it, often creating a stylized riff on a known theme. I'm convinced that musical improvisation is a gift.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently presented a concert by The Lerner Moguilevsky Duo, two Argentinian musicians who have been performing together for 28 years. Although much of their music incorporates traditional sounds of Klezmer music, they are careful to inform audiences that they never play any piece the same way because, for them, to do so would be boring.

The duo has composed music for film, theatre, and dance projects and appeared at numerous music festivals. Their four CDs (Shtil, Basavilbaso, Sobreviviente, and Klezmer en Buenos Aires) combine musical elements from Argentinian folk music, jazz, contemporary music, and tango.

Although their roots may lie in Klezmer, many of their compositions tend toward jazz and what might be called world music. C├ęsar Lerner performs primarily on piano, accordion, and percussion. His partner, Marcelo Moguilevsky, is a surprisingly high-pitched whistler who performs on piano as well as a wide variety of woodwind instruments (clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, wooden pipes, duduk, harmonica, and bagpipes) in addition to singing.

Their concert was fascinating, not just because of its improvisational nature, but also because of their versatility as musicians (watching Moguilevsky play two recorders simultaneously offers a real treat). The following clip offers a taste of their style:

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An accordion proves to be a surprisingly helpful tool for luring homeless children away from a life of drugs, prostitution, and crime in a new film by Marco Pontecorvo. Pa-Ra-Dat relives what happened when a French-Algerian clown from the Annie Fratellini circus school, Miloud Oukili traveled from Paris to Bucharest in 1992. Only three years had passed since the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu from power.

Filmmaker Marco Pontecorvo with Miloud Oukili

To his horror and great sadness, Oukili found large numbers of street children (boskettari) living in the city's sewers, sniffing glue out of plastic bags, and struggling to cope with the violence, pedophilia, drugs, rape, and poverty that defined their lives. While attempting to gain their trust, the Parisian went to such extremes as sleeping in the sewers with the children, trying to teach them about self respect, and working with local social workers to try to find a way of reaching out to a subset of children that Romanian society was content to let wallow in shit.

Oukili's success in creating a children's circus company with the boskettari helped prove to corrupt police officers, jaded social workers, and callous diplomats that the street children, like everyone else, were human beings. After their initial success performing in Bucharest's main square, Parada became the name of the established circus company that still travels around Europe with its own show, carrying a message of friendship, solidarity and hope.

Established in 1996, the Parada Foundation is now a Romanian NGO whose mission is to support homeless children, young people, and families, through its social and educational programs. However, “the thousand children who have been saved are nothing compared to the thousands still living on the streets who know nothing of joy or hope,” insists Oukili.

Pontecorvo's first feature film stars Jalil Lespert as Miloud (who was in his early twenties when he traveled to Bucharest). Due to funding problems, it took seven years to complete Pa-ra-da. Given the director's relative lack of experience, a documentary-style approach was thought to be the ideal solution for telling the story (Pontecorvo confesses his cast and crew literally followed Oukili's footsteps). The movie was shot on location, using some of the exact spots (such as Bucharest's train station) where Miloud had worked.

The film rests largely on the shoulders of Jalil Lespert, whose portrayal of Miloud shows a clown with a conscience who inspires a friendly social worker (Patricie Juiff) -- as well as the street children themselves -- to believe that Bucharest's homeless kids are entitled to a better life. Miloud arranges for the children to buy food instead of glue, gain entry to a public bathhouse, and get hot food from a soup kitchen. As he begins to sense which children have a gift for mimicry, juggling, and who can draw, he encourages them to develop their artistic talents while trapped in a brutal, soul-crushing lifestyle.

This is not a "feel-good" movie in which everyone ends up smiling and covered in flowers. One young girl is raped by the authorities. Another, who dreamed of becoming a dancer (Andreea Perminov), is beaten to death after escaping from an orphanage. A young man who had been a leader for a group of street children dies of an overdose while asleep on a park bench. An angry, immature, pregnant 13-year-old girl named Tea ( Cristina Nita) gives birth to an infant without understanding why she can't take her baby to live with her in the city's sewers.

Throughout the film there is the constant threat of police action and a never-ending parade of Romanians of every age sniffing glue. Among the children who shine are Robert George Vileanu as Cristi (a young boy who likes to draw but is afraid of heights), and Florin Precup as Vlad, a friend of Tea's who has just run away from his home in the country and arrived in Bucharest.

While the poverty and lifestyle of Bucharest's street children could depress anybody, this is the kind of film that shows exactly why "bleeding heart liberals" are needed in the world. As Pontecorvo explains:
"I was looking for a story that would hit me in the pit of my stomach. It's enough to go to the suburbs of Paris or any other great metropolis to find children whose childhood has been denied (you don't have to go to Bucharest). But, from a cinematic point of view, it was like a modern fairy tale with a happy ending, with thousands of children being saved. This spirit made the story important because no one likes to see their dirty laundry aired in public. I didn't want to finish with a happy ending. While I wanted people to be hopeful, I also wanted people to see that there is another reality. It puts your feet on the ground.”
More than many other films, Pa-ra-da demonstrates the importance of art, magic, laughter, and hope in pointing an impoverished child toward a brighter future. Here's the trailer:

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Claudio Giovannesi's new film, The House in the Clouds, follows a quirky course as two Italian brothers try to figure out what to do when the floor is literally pulled out from under them. Lorenzo (Emanuele Bosi) is a 22-year-old jazz musician about to head off to New York to perform a series of club dates.

His older brother, Michele (Adriano Giannini) is a 33-year-old dog breeder with limited social skills who, according to Lorenzo, "can only live with dogs."For years, they have assumed that their father (Emilio Bonucci) was dead. But when a home inspector comes to check out their house for a new owner, they discover that their father (who is living in Morocco) has sold the house -- sight unseen -- to a friend who is a restaurant owner (Paolo Sassanelli).

When the two brothers travel to Marrakech in search of the new owner and their father, they discover that their old man is just as charming and irresponsible as ever. An artist who is full of improbable dreams (converting a hospital in Senegal to a resort or offering hot-air balloon rides above the Saharan dunes), Dario never lacks for new business ideas. He's just not particularly good at making them happen -- or turning a profit. Although beloved by his friends, and living with a beautiful and much younger Moroccan woman named Amina (Manuela Sparta), at 56 Dario Raggi is not the most practical of men.

As he enjoys a chance to get to know his two sons (now that they are adults), his childlike impracticality continues to drive them crazy. Lorenzo, the musician, is open to new experiences, making new friends, playing with Amina's daughter Fatima, and exploring the wonders of Marrakech. Michele, however, can barely control his anger and resentment.

One of the film's biggest assets is its musical score, which combines some smooth jazz with Moroccan rap. There are moments of exquisite visual beauty, especially the scene in which the brothers wake up in their father's battered Citroen, parked on the edge of the Sahara Desert, only to find their father missing. As they follow his footsteps up the side of a sand dune, a nearly magical vision unfolds before them as a hot air balloon rises beyond the crest with their unpredictable father in its gondola.

Every time their Dario throws another kink into their plans, Lorenzo and Michele are forced to use their wits to cope with the constantly changing landscape around them. When Amina finally tells Dario that she cannot marry him because he is little more than a child a heart, the old man is saddened, but soon becomes easily distracted by a new idea. As his two sons try to catch up with him, he sails off in his hot air balloon, his happy house in the clouds. Here's the trailer:

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