Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home-Grown Dramas

Here we are, beginning the shortest month of the year and the Bay area is awash in new arts projects. Just as San Francisco's real estate market often runs counter to what is happening in suburbs across America, the Bay area arts scene continues to thrive.
Three new works conceived by and starring Bay area talents are currently enjoying their local premieres. The first -- a new musical for school kids -- has quite an interesting historical background. Two new films that will be shown as part of the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest capture the quirkiness of San Francisco as well as the power of its neighborhoods in most surprising ways.

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In 1967, a teacher at Palo Alto's Ellwood P. Cubberley High School decided to try an experiment with his history class. Over a five-day period, he convinced students that the chance to feel superior to their classmates was worth giving up some of their freedom to embrace a more disciplined lifestyle. Conformity and groupthink became desirable. Not far behind, violence was lurking in the shadows.

After Ron Jones wrote about his experiment with Fascism in the classroom for the Whole Earth Catalog, Hollywood producer Norman Lear adapted the story for a controversial television drama that won an Emmy award. Subsequently, Todd Strasser's fictional treatment of the teleplay, The Wave, became an international best seller that was translated into 16 languages.

One of the more provocative films at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival was a German entry entitled Die Welle, based on Strasser's book. Here's the trailer:

The success of Die Welle inspired some of the original students who took part in Ron Brown's experiment to revisit their past.

Stephen Spielberg was sufficiently impressed with a new documentary filmed by Philip Neel that he was willing to fund the 2010 release of Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave. Neel's interviews with fellow alumni of Cubberley High School who participated in Mr. Jones's experiment convinced the retired history teacher that his story might be ripe for re-exploration.

Taking a cue from the success of Glee with young audiences, Jones used his original article as the inspiration for a new musical based on his 1967 experience. However, this time around:
  • The show’s script and musical numbers were, for the first time, developed from the actual perspectives of the students who participated in Jones's classroom experiment.
  • San Francisco's Mercy High School co-produced the show with the Marsh Youth Theatre (Mercy provided the choreographer and music director as well as some of the female cast members).
  • The adults who were once students in Jones's history class worked with the actors from the Marsh Youth Theatre to bring the project to fruition. By bringing a sense of their own history and authenticity to the project, they were able to do a tremendous amount of consciousness raising with the teenagers involved in the musical's world premiere.
  • In an age when school bullying has become a nationwide problem, students have developed a musical project that can help them confront how alienation, name calling, intimidation, and the pressure to conform can quickly poison an educational environment.
DeShay (Eileen Young), Robert (Tenaya Nasser-Frederick)
and Eve (Camila Betancourt Ascencio). Photo by: Light@11B

Under Cliff Mayotte's direction, the strongest vocal performances came from Teresa Joy Attridge (Alicia), Eileen Young (DeShay), Madeline Oppelt Perez (Gigi), and Tenaya Nasser-Frederick (Robert). Aaron Rhodes (Boomer), Hail/ey Scandrette (Aileen), Andy Kwan (Doug), Camila Betencourt Ascencio (Eve), George Coker (Norman) and Homero Rosas (EZC) were among the other students appearing in The Wave.

Mark Kenward's performance as the teacher showed how a misguided but intoxicating new sense of power can become dangerous in a classroom setting. The Marsh's David Ford contributed to the piece as dramaturge.

Mr. Jones (Mark Kenward) and his students
Photo by: Light@11B

At the show's world premiere, the house was packed with enthusiastic friends and relatives of the young actors appearing in The Wave. While the two-act musical had a few rocky moments (and occasional acoustical problems), for the most of it went over quite well. With budgets for school arts programs having been slashed and bled dry in recent years, the fact that a school can partner with a professional theatre company on a project like The Wave is a deeply encouraging step in the right direction.

In an age when You Tube is flooded with video clips of high school students performing Broadway musicals, The Wave offers teenaged students a performing vehicle which is much more relevant to their lives -- a musical written about teenagers to be performed by teenagers. Performances have been added which will extend the run of The Wave through February 14 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, this trailer should give you a good sense of how it sounds:

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Have you ever known the kind of lovesick fool who was such a hopelessly naive nebbish and willfully whiny putz that he couldn't even pass the minimum requirements to qualify as a stalker? How you react to that particular kind of self-indulgent, romantically clueless type of personality will determine, to a great extent, what you think of Adam Bronstein's new romantic comedy entitled My Movie Girl (which will receive its local premiere as part of the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest). Bronstein sums up the plot of the movie simply enough:
"Everything Adam knows about love, he learned from the movies. Unfortunately, Adam is no Cary Grant, and the closest he’s come to experiencing true romance was one drunken night with his unrequited love, Kate. But that evening failed to live up to Adam’s expectations. So he casts himself and Kate in a movie recreation of their one night, hoping for a better ending. It’s a total flop, and Adam is forced to cast a new Kate when she no longer wants any part of her part. But re-casting Kate leads to an ending that even Adam never saw coming in this playful comedy about love, movies, and how our love of movies affects how we love."
Adam Bronstein turns the camera on himself

At its heart, My Movie Girl is a film about the follies of unbridled male narcissism trying to pass itself off as unrequited love.
  • This is not the kind of narcissism that sends a politician like John Edwards down a path of self destruction.
  • This is not the kind of narcissism that makes an over-the-top intellectual prig and humorless nerd like The Big Bang Theory's insufferably neurotic physicist, Sheldon Cooper, into a comedy goldmine.
  • This is not the kind of narcissism that causes an athlete like Muhammad Ali to rename himself "The Greatest."
Sadly, this is the kind of puppy dog narcissism that causes a young filmmaker to cast himself as the star of a movie about himself that he is also writing and directing. As a filmmaker, Bronstein was smart enough to put the following caveat in his bio:
"Adam Bronstein is not an actor. He presumed that playing himself in a movie about himself would be simple. He was wrong."
And therein lies the crux of this film's problem. Although Bronstein may look like a discount version of Zach Braff, he is no match for Braff as either an actor, writer, producer, or director. Although Desiree Matthews may look like Tina Fey (and wear a distinct style of eyeglass frames that become the film's primary fetish), her acting skills are noticeably weaker.

Adam (Adam Bronstein) and Kate (Desiree Matthews)

My Movie Girl overflows with the narcissism of misguided choices. The saddest thing about this film is that many segments look gorgeous. Because it has been filmed so beautifully -- and with such a well-intentioned sweetness -- a person may badly want to like Bronstein's film, but not be able to.

The script is obviously written by someone who not only loves movies with a grand and unfettered passion, but loves old movie theatres as well. An adoring parade of images of neon-lit marquees from San Francisco movie theatres (as well as shots of now-defunct local cinemas like the Coronet) can give the viewer that warm-all-over feeling.

The audience is also reminded of former movie houses in the Mission District that have fallen into disrepair, been demolished to make way for new buildings, or currently house bargain stores. Ben Connelly's original score has been carefully crafted by someone who obviously loves genre-specific film scores.

In the end, the viewer will be forced to confront a difficult decision due to the overwhelming narcissism that lies at the core of this project. When faced with such a wealth of obnoxious targets -- and feeling the urge to reach into the film and smack the shit out of Adam Bronstein -- will a person aim for Adam Bronstein the actor, Adam Bronstein the writer, Adam Bronstein the director, or the fictional Adam?

Desperate times require desperate measures. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco is a city with numerous ethnic communities. While those who live here thrive on diversity, the sheer breadth of the city's multiculturalism sometimes blinds us to the individual stories that can be found in each and every neighborhood. In her tender, loving portrait of a quiet, devoted Palestinian Christian who has been saving up for years to bring his family to America, filmmaker Katherine Bruens has come up with a winner.

Corner Store is a very gentle, poignant documentary about Yousef Elhaj, who runs a small convenience store on the corner of Church and 15th Streets. Like many others, I've purchased food there without paying too much attention to whoever was behind the counter. But to those who live along the Church Street corridor (or who own businesses in the neighborhood of Church & Market Streets), Elhaj has been the friendly neighborhood shopkeeper who always greeted them with a smile and took an interest in their personal lives.

Yousef Elhaj’s Church Street Market

Shortly after the Second Intifada, Yousef looked at what was happening in Palestine and decided that if his children were to have any hope for a better life, he would have to follow in his brothers' footsteps. They had offered to set him up with a store in San Francisco and, with a tiny bedroom in the back of the Church Street Market, he has worked there for seven days a week while becoming a fixture in the neighborhood.

Although Yousef's youngest son was barely two years old when he left Palestine, Elhaj has remained in close communication with his family via cell phone. The documetary shows Yousef in San Francisco and follows the financial, political, diplomatic, and personal challenges he faces in order to bring his family to the United States.

When Yousef finally saves up enough money to go visit his wife and children in Palestine, he finds his homeland has changed dramatically in the ten years since he moved to San Francisco. Wondering if perhaps he should let his family stay in the Middle East, he finally decides to stick with the original plan and bring them to live with him in America.

Yousef Elhaj shopping for food at a market in the West Bank.

In her director's statement, Katherine Bruens writes:
"There are two lenses to view this film. At the macro level, Corner Store is a clear and honest immigrant story -- familiar and in many ways symbolic of the American experience -- though especially relevant given the political climate and current events in the West Bank today. At the micro level Corner Store is about one amazing, humble human being and his struggles and triumphs to remain connected to his family.

At its core, Yousef’s story is universal -- his desire is to make the best life possible for himself, his wife, and his children; his connection to his homeland; and his conflict over the best path to take. It is my belief that while we, as people, are naturally concerned about the world around us, the conflicts of government are often abstract, complex, and difficult to understand. It is when we are able to examine the connection between our lives and those who are struggling (through the lens of narrative experience) that we can begin to be aware, and empathize, and consider our own beliefs about different political issues.

With Corner Store, it is my goal to compel viewers to consider their own relationships, cultural assumptions, and understanding of the conflict in the Middle East. Thanks to the beautiful and dramatic footage by Sean Gillane, and Yousef's own thoughtful and provocative words, I worked hard to keep this story and dilemma as accessible as possible, believing that understanding is the first step toward larger social healing.

The film exemplifies how compassion, trust, hard work, and a love of community can create a real and lasting impact, and hope that it will inspire dialogue about the historical events of our time. My greatest desire for Corner Store is that it will inspire the realization that we have more in common than we have dividing us. By extending our passion for justice to one more person, we look past our own lives and the relatively small group of people we feel connected to, and we open the door to extend that passion towards others. In the end, I hope the story will encourage viewers to consider their own assumptions and biases about themselves, their neighborhoods, and their larger community and to contemplate the actions they can take to make a difference in their own lives and in the world around them."
With San Francisco's heavy Hispanic and Asian populations, it's often easy to overlook people who have come here from other parts of the world as they seek relief from sociopolitical and economic oppression. Corner Store helps not only to put a face on one family's modern-day immigration story, it also demonstrates how a quiet person's smile can brighten a neighborhood.

When Yousef travels back to Palestine, there is a marked change in the tone of the film thanks to the soundtrack (much of which was donated to the filmmakers by George Wassouf, a Syrian musician whose music is recognized throughout the Arab world). Wassouf's music captures the vibrancy of the Palestinian culture Elhaj was forced to abandon as well as some of the difficult cultural choices he is making for his children.

Corner Store is tender, loving, and compassionate in showing how -- like so many generations before him -- Elhaj has made difficult sacrifices during his years in San Francisco in order to create a better life for his children. Here's the trailer:

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