Monday, January 18, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Losers

One of the most frequent putdowns we hear (from adults as well as children) is that someone in their daily life is a loser. They may be accusing someone of being professionally, financially, or socially inept. Or sometimes just plain fugly.

It's often easy to spot the people easily labeled as losers by noticing their habits. Traits which quickly become evident include:
  • Lack of direction.
  • Lack of maturity.
  • Lack of curiosity.
  • Lack of discipline.
  • Lack of hygiene.
  • Lack of stability.
  • Lack of a steady cash flow.
  • Lack of good posture.
While it may be easy to imagine creating a drama around a character who is a loser, it's often harder to do than one imagines.
  • If the loser has nowhere to go but up -- and is incapable of achieving any kind of dramatic reinvention -- the playwright has very little wiggle room.
  • If the loser only gains interest as a reflection of the people around him, what happens to the narrative when the loser is left alone?
  • If the loser is a person who fails to capture an audience's interest or sympathy, how does a playwright or screenwriter crank out 90 minutes of story?
  • If the loser's life lacks dramatic conflict, how is the audience supposed to care about what happens to him?
  • Last, but not least, if the loser is indeed going to undergo some kind of transformation and end up a glorified figure, will there be enough losers willing or able to buy tickets to see the show and make it a hit?
All of these questions kept running through my head as I watched three dramas unfold before me this week. Each focused on people whose basic immaturity was probably their worst enemy. Each strained for credibility. Only one drama, however, managed to hit its mark.

* * * * * * * * *
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the Boxcar Theatre's production of The Mark Ten's Fantastic Parade. The publicity blurb read:
"An ailing 1960s pop band decides to stop touring and hit the recording studio. Trying every means at their disposal to create a masterpiece, they use all the latest off the wall musical technology -- plungers, basketballs, teakettles, tap shoes, and other 'instruments.' As brilliance eludes them, an indiscernible go-go girl provides the album's true, unaccredited genius."
Nick Dickson, Robert Campbell, Sam Leichter, Victor Palo
(Photo by: Maria Breaux)

Upon entering the theater, Patricia Gillespie's sparse rainbow-colored set (which evoked memories of Peter Max's palette and the early days of hallucinogenic-inspired art) made me eager to see what was in store. Maria Breaux's play started on a fairly high note as a quartet of energetic young men, dodging the screaming adulation of their young female fans decided to take a break from touring. The main characters seemed like they would have strong dramatic potential:
  • Stu Robertson (Vincent Palo) is a young British moppet -- reminiscent of Micky Dolenz of The Monkees -- who has captured the hearts of squealing teenage girls. Although he looks like he might still be waiting for some pubic hairs to appear on his body, he's high on success and convinced that the world is his oyster. Pretty, narcissistic, and more than a little naive, Stu has a lot to learn about life.
  • Lewis Smith (Sam Leichter) plays lead guitar and delivers the band's beefcake quotient. Eager to be liked but not particularly bright, he is easily manipulated.
  • Harvey McLean (Robert Campbell) sings and plays bass guitar for the group. Most of the time he is in an advanced state of incoherence, babbling gibberish and functioning as little more than an easily distracted stoned clown. When Harvey is lured off to Bavaria, his departure from the band sets in motion a downward spiral for the remaining ensemble.
  • Dave Matson (Nick Dickson) is the band's tall and lanky drummer.
  • Petal (Sarah Korda) begins the evening as a screaming fan in white vinyl go-go boots who will do anything to get an autograph from her idol, Lewis Smith. As time moves on, however, the band members who thought Petal was coming on to them discover that she is actually a highly dysfunctional lesbian.
  • Cindy (Rachel Rajput) is Petal's girlfriend, a strong-willed woman with delusions of grandeur who considers herself to be a professional musician. Claiming that she desires neither money nor fame, but just wants to be in on a historical moment, Cindy has no qualms breaking into the recording studio where the Mark Ten hope to record their first concept album. Cindy has more balls than all of the young men in Mark Ten put together.
Victor Palo, Nick Dickson, Sam Leichter, Robert Campbell
(Photo by: Maria Breaux)

The key plot twists in The Mark Ten's Fantastic Parade involve:
  • The successful efforts of two girls to infiltrate an all-male atmosphere.
  • The random comings and goings of the band's manager, a music professor named Norton (Paul Stout) who is a classically trained musician with aspirations of popular fame.
  • The departure of Harvey to Europe (and his lederhosen-clad return with a new sense of spirituality).
  • A special sound chamber in which unearthly feelings are found and explored.
  • The increasingly dominant role of the two women in creating the Mark Ten's concept album.
  • The addition of LSD to the creative process, the missing ingredient which brings about a complete transformation for the band and takes its music to a new level.
Sam Leichter,Nick Dickson, Victor Palo, Robert Campbell
(Photo by: Maria Breaux)

Anyone who has attended a production at Boxcar Theatre knows that the performing space is so small that members of the audience are rarely more than 15 feet away from the actors. Thus, I was surprised when, shortly after the second act began, I started to hear the middle-aged Asian-American man behind me surreptitiously playing a video game on his handheld device. I had to wonder:
  • Was he unaware that this was the play's opening night?
  • Was he just being rude?
  • Or was he so bored with this horribly amateurish play that he was desperate to kill time until the performance ended?
The show's basic flashback proved to be quite ineffective. While the cast (particularly the two women) worked very hard to put The Mark Ten's Fantastic Parade over to the audience, this was one of those rare productions that started on a real high note and soon began to collapse under its own weight. For all of Katja River's energetic stage direction, by the end of the evening (when the cast started running around in a circle) things were looking pretty desperate.

It's a lucky thing I didn't glance at the program until after the show. In her program notes, playwright Maria Breaux wrote:
"Why would a brown woman write a play about white dudes? We can't do that. (Okay, except for maybe Lorraine Hansberry, or Sarah Jones, or Anna Deavere Smith, or ...). And a lesbian at that? Against regulations! Well, The Beatles were white dudes who saved my 1980s teenage life. So did the 1960s and its music, long before 'retro' was cool. And shame on me -- 1960s music was not, in the least, all about white dudes, but all about eclecticism. You wouldn't find a contemporary mainstream radio station playing a rap song, followed by Indie, R&B, and country.

Obama backlash notwithstanding, there is something to that old peace, love, and yes, hope thing. Most folks link such 60s musical rebellion to San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, but before this came Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, home to famous peaceniks like John Phillips and David Crosby, plus non-tabloid names like Arthur Lee. Okay, okay, so these guys served jail time for violence, but they had their moment, didn't they?? (Charles Manson who?) And sure, we have the list of 28-year-olds who croaked, but did we ever really wanna see Jimi Hendrix in the We Are The World video, anyway? That golden age of musical liberation was indeed 'one big YES!'

So keep peace/love/hope/unbridled creativity alive, and know that a lesbian of color can write about whatever the hell she wants. I'd even vote that way in an election."
If I could offer one bit of professional advice to Breaux it would be that no one in the audience will know or care that she is a lesbian of color if all she can deliver is a script of flaccid mediocrity. The fact that Breaux's labored, anemic, and meandering second act ended at exactly 10:00 o'clock made me wonder whether she had, in effect, been writing up to a certain length (one could easily cut a half hour from her script without sustaining any losses). Save your money.

* * * * * * * * * *
There is so much that filmmakers Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner got right in their film Wah Do Dem (What They Do), that it's a shame the film is a bit of a letdown. The two (who have been friends since grade school) started thinking about how they could make a movie when Chace won a free cruise. Using that opportunity as the springboard for a story line, they created the character of Max (Sean Bones), a young slacker who won a free cruise and was looking forward to sharing the experience with his girlfriend (Norah Jones). That is, until she dumped him two days before their scheduled departure. As Fleischner explains:
"We were excited about contrasting cultures and their different environments. Coming from Brooklyn, we decided to follow a character who represents Brooklyn's familiar demographic of young, creative, privileged people. With the exception of Max, our protagonist -- who goes on the trip -- all the characters in this movie come from the locations where their scenes play out. None of the actors come from training, and many speak only patois, so we relied on improvisation and a very collaborative directing style in order to get our scenes to feel natural.
The only way to pull this movie off was to be resourceful, quick on our toes, and open to changing our strategy in the face of changing circumstances. It was a great exercise in learning to let go of trying to have control over anything except the camera and communication with the team of collaborators. With each step there were so many unknowns that we needed to embrace spontaneity and accept the organic development of our shoot. I like thinking about this movie as a group art show where Ben and I were the curators. We brought talented people together, put them in interesting places, recorded it, and refined it into a piece of time."
When none of his friends can get away from their jobs to accompany him on a Caribbean cruise, Max decides to go it alone, anticipating that his love of music will be enough to turn the cruise into a positive experience. Leaving his trusty skateboard at home, he embarks on a cruise filled with seniors and soon feels like a fish out of water.

Max (Sean Bones) sets sail from New York

There's no question that Wah Do Dem (which is the opening night selection for this year's San Francisco Indie Film Fest) looks great. Its filmmakers have done an excellent job of capturing the beauty of the Caribbean, whether they are shooting underwater footage or watching a tropical sunset from the ship's deck. Whether filming the sterile architecture of a cruise ship or the lush jungle foliage of Jamaica, the dramatic contrasts between the false luxury on board ship and the abject poverty of the natives on land need no explanation. They are what they are.

Max, however, has quite another problem. Lost in a sea of seniors, with almost no one on board that he can relate to, he drops in on a so-called "at sea art auction" and ends up partying with some crew members. But as he orders room service and eats in solitude, walks the lonely corridors of a ship at sea, and tries to engage in some of the planned activities on deck, he begins to feel more and more alone.

Upon debarking in Jamaica, Max tries to get away from the tourist industry by accepting a ride from a local man who promises to take him to a secret beach. No sooner is he on dry land than things start to go horribly wrong, largely because Max makes some really stupid choices.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Max is either incredibly gullible or has had no experience traveling in a foreign culture. When his clothes, passport, and money are stolen and the ship sails without him, he must find a way to get to the American embassy in Kingston.

As the camera follows the pale-skinned youth on his island adventure, the audience sees a young man (still depressed that his girlfriend has dumped him) who is simply not paying attention to the inherent dangers of his surroundings. It's hard to imagine a New Yorker with such a total lack of street smarts. As the film ends -- with Max on a New York City subway car on his way home from the airport -- it's hard to feel much sympathy for him. Did his holiday turn into a mini-hell? No doubt about that. Was it mostly his own fault? You betcha!

Wah Do Dem was made at a very special moment in time. While Max is on his vacation, Barack Obama wins the 2008 Presidential election. At numerous times in the film, Max catches glimpses of the news coverage of Obama's win and the thrill felt by the Jamaicans as they watch a black man become the most powerful person in the world.

Many moments in the film were improvised and, while Sean Bones handles those moments extremely well, you'll want to keep your eyes on Mark Gibbs. As a fast-talking, knife-brandishing Jamaican youth (who just wants some breakfast and is convinced that Max can provide him with a meal), Gibbs makes an auspicious debut for a nonactor. As co-director Ben Chace notes:
"I think of great musicians like The Congos, who appear in Wah Do Dem, at its spiritual apex, who play “Culture” music with all these elements rooted in Africa. The nyabinghi drumming sessions – like the scene we portrayed in our movie – are not about authorship or who is steering the rhythm one way or another. It's more like a group attempt to tap into a timeless cultural thing or a feeling that is deeper than any one drummer. That’s why it’s so beautiful.
Certainly some rasta chants sound better than others, because some drummers are more skilled or experienced and can listen to the group sound and know exactly where to put the sound of their own voice and drum. The Congos obviously are wizards in this respect. But I feel a similar dynamic exists with filmmaking, and especially the kind of filmmaking we undertook with Wah Do Dem.
Sam and I had ideas about where the story would go and how it would get there, but the real feel and energy of the movie came out of the people and places with whom we worked. As the directors of the film we were less the 'auteurs' in the classical sense, and more like the bass drummer and the falsetto singer at the binghi session, keeping the pulse moving and steering the swell and fall of music to a certain extent, but only as much as two pieces can in a group of many parts.
For me as a young filmmaker, this was the most important thing I learned making Wah Do Dem -- that is, the best you can do (at least with this kind of project, where we are trying to describe something that we, as leaders of the project, do not fully understand ourselves) is feel out your surroundings and listen to what others are doing so you can best place your drum and voice in trying to locate the rhythm and harmony in the roots of the components you have at your disposal. On that level it was a great project, and one that I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to have been a part of."
From a technical standpoint, Wah Do Dem is a very well-crafted film. How any one person will react to Max's predicament is an entirely subjective matter. Here's the trailer.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back in February of 2009, when the San Francisco Indie Film Fest screened RSO (Registered Sex Offender), I was blown away by the sheer chutzpah of Bob Byington's mockumentary. Take one look at this picture of Byington and you know he's a trouble maker. I'm guessing that he could well become the next John Waters.

Set in Austin, Texas, Harmony and Me revolves around a young lyricist (Justin Rice) who comes from a totally dysfunctional family. Like Registered Sex Offender, Byington's latest film is blessed with some crackling dialogue. There aren't too many movies where, as an employee struggles to find something nice to say about his deceased employer at the graveside service, he starts off by admitting that he didn't know the dead man very well and then, for no particular reason, says, "Oh, and he was a pedophile."

Lindsay Nakashima as Bride, Margie Beegle as Mom,
Bob Byington as Jim, Justin Rice as Harmony

Harmony's girlfriend has just dumped him, he's lost his job, and he's trying to learn how to play piano from a man with dubious teaching credentials. Allergic to chocolate, deeply depressed, and boring his friends to death with the story of his recent breakup, Harmony is also forced to beg his older brother for financial help.

When he can't stand it anymore, Harmony bites into a chocolate candy, knowing full well that he will end up in the Emergency Room. The scene in his hospital room is a type of black comedy that is rare and razor-sharp.

Justin Rice as Harmony

Rice is hilarious as a sad sack slacker schlemiel. Compared to Harmony, The Big Bang Theory's horniest physicist, Howard Wolowitz, is actually on a par with George Clooney. Under Byington's direction, the rest of the cast gets maximum black comedy mileage simply by playing their scenes straight.

The sicker and more twisted your sense of humor is, the more you'll enjoy the sullen self absorption of Harmony and Me. The fact that Harmony's redemption comes from being transformed into a male meter maid should give you some idea of the acidity of Byington's wit. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have one of the actors in the The Mark Ten listed as Victor Panos in the photos. His name is actually Vincent Palo.