Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Boundary Issues

In her wonderful book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, author Anneli Rufus explains how and why loners march to a different drummer than the larger herd or mob (who often seem delighted to embrace conformity without question). "Group think was a survival tactic when sieges and plagues threatened the futures of clans and cultures," she writes. "Now it's an evolutionary remnant that we are free to discard."

Recently, during the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, two films were screened which tried to demonstrate how aloneness and solitude are not the same things as being lonely. For many people like myself, solitude is a blessing. It's a chance to spend time by and with yourself in peace and quiet, without some drama queen holding court or a lot of excessive and unwanted noise giving you a headache.

In Matt Schuman's delightfully droll short film entitled Me Time, a handsome young man named Steve (Steve Siddell) decides that it's time to get rid of a whole bunch of friends. Tired of having to buy birthday, wedding, and anniversary gifts for (or spend time with) people he no longer cares about, he systematically goes through his address book informing people of his decision to cut them out of his life.

The reactions of his friends range from shock to anger, from confusion to defiance. When his best friend Sam (Horatio Sanz) decides to return the favor -- thus giving Steve a taste of his own medicine -- Steve takes Sam's rejection in stride. Then, as he sinks back into an easy chair, he luxuriates in the freedom to enjoy time that he must share with no one but himself. And, of course, his television.

Steve Siddell and Horatio Sanz

As someone who enjoys spending a lot of time alone, I adored Schuman's short. It tackles a subject many are afraid to approach: the superiority of time spent alone to time spent with boring people. Me Time is a concise and brilliantly executed indie gem.

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Equally fascinating was a full-length animated feature based on J. R. Ackerly's book, My Dog Tulip (1956). According to Wikipedia, the book was:
"...an account of living with his dog Queenie (an Alsatian bitch). Eventually his relationship with Queenie becomes all-consuming and pushes aside most of his human relationships. The dog's name was changed to Tulip when the editors of Commentary, who had purchased an excerpt, became concerned that using the dog's real name might encourage jokes about Ackerley's sexuality."
Ackerley, who lived an openly gay lifestyle back in the 1950s and 1960s, described Queenie as the great love of his life. Throughout the film, one gets the sense that Ackerly's disdain for his annoying sister and the people he meets through Tulip is due to far more than just being single and never having found "that special friend."

Directed and animated by the husband and wife team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, the film is narrated by Christopher Plummer (as Ackerly) with supporting roles voiced by Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini, Brian Murray, Paul Hecht, and Euan Morton. Visually, the film is a joy from start to finish. Rude and crude, it bubbles over with moments of scatological joy and the kind of unrestrained sexuality embraced by dogs all over the world.

The Fierlingers' style of animation has its special charms. As Paul Fierlinger dryly explains in his director's statement:
"My Dog Tulip is made of 116,640 frames. I draw every second frame (or shoot each drawing twice) which makes 12 original frames for each second of projection time. Therefore 12 x 60 = 720 drawings per minute x 81 minutes = 58,320 drawings. We work 7 days a week, including holy days. I draw for 12 to 16 hrs every day. Sandra paints for 6 to 12 hours. Now to be realistic, some frames are hold frames (where there is no motion). A few frames get recycled in so-called cycled animation (which I use very little of).

On the other hand, many frames are made up of several drawings. Wherever more than one character appears in a scene, each one is drawn on its individual layer and counts as an individual drawing. Lastly, one should count all the drawings that went into roughing out each scene, the discarded drawings that went out with scenes finished but never used in the film, and the many occasions when I almost completed the animation in quite a few scenes, only to discard these and start afresh.

I have never bothered to count the hold frames and the compounded amount of individual drawings and the discarded frames, but it seems safe to guess that Sandra and I drew and painted about 60,000 drawings that went into the final picture. The film is made of about 460 scenes and some scenes use more than one background. So it is safe to say that Sandra had to make about 600 individual background paintings.

It took us 2 ½ years to draw and paint My Dog Tulip but three years to complete the entire project from the first pre-production day to the last post-production day. We never left our country or home with the exception of about four recording day trips to New York City. No paper was used in the production of this film and no dogs were harmed."
You don't have to be a dog lover to be easily won over by My Dog Tulip. However, I should warn you that resistance is futile (the musical score by John Avarese is a constant source of delight). This is a film best shared with friends. Here's the trailer.

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People with deep emotional scars often find it difficult to let someone new into their life. Some put a lot of energy into coating themselves with psychological armor. Others simply recognize and accept their vulnerability and try to minimize any further losses.

While marriage, divorce, and the death of a loved one are accompanied by an assortment of joys and sorrows, adoption is a particularly painful subject for women who have been forced to give up a child at birth. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Mother and Child looks at four generations of women whose lives have been and continue to be severely impacted by the issue of adoption.

While Garcia's contribution to the film is enormous (and meticulously supported by Ed Shearmur's musical score and Xavier Pérez Grobet's cinematography), what makes this film so special is a cast of magnificent actors at the very top of their game. Although hardly an ensemble effort, the ability of each actor to explore the complex layers of a character shines throughout Garcia's film with the beauty of a oil portrait painted by one of the old Dutch masters.

Elegantly plotted in the style of some of Robert Altman's best films, at 125 minutes in length Mother and Child never sags or loses the audience's total involvement. Much of this is due to the feeling that mature adults (cast and crew alike) have so carefully refined this package that not a single moment seems false or contrived. Among the characters in Garcia's tightly-woven tapestry are:
  • Nora (Eileen Ryan), a woman in her eighties. Filled with regret about how her decisions have impacted her daughter's life, Nora is ready and eager to die.
  • Sofia (Elpidio Carillo), Nora's maid who, in the time she has spent with her employer, has become Nora's confidante and learned some things that Nora was never able to tell her own daughter.
  • Cristi (Simone Lopez), Sofia's sweet, wide-eyed little girl. Sofia's childlike charm is one of the few things that can bring a smile to Nora's face. Nora has even given Cristi a family heirloom that once belonged to Nora's mother.
  • Karen (Annette Bening), Nora's bitter ice queen of a daughter. When Karen was 14, she got knocked up and was forced to give up her baby girl for adoption. Since that day she has never stopped wondering what her daughter's life was like. A control freak with very strong boundary issues, Karen is a tough nut to crack.
  • Tom (David Morse), the father of Karen's child (who has grown up to become a very bland banker). He thinks about Karen all the time.
  • Paco (Jimmy Smits), a new physical therapist at the rehabilitation clinic where Karen works. After his wife's death, Paco moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. A solid, masculine force who is not afraid of Karen's icy veneer, Paco is the Prince Charming who wakes her from her frigid sleep.
  • Amanda (Elizabeth Pena), Paco's daughter who urges Karen to take the steps necessary to put her soul at peace.
Karen (Annette Bening) and Paco (Jimmy Smits)
  • Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), Karen's grown daughter, who is now in her late thirties. A successful attorney and forceful, determined single woman, Elizabeth takes what she wants with an almost predatory instinct. Though she has taken jobs in other cities, she has always returned to Los Angeles. She has pretty much given up on finding her birth mother ("If her fucking royal highness were really interested in finding me, how hard could it be?") Ironically, Elizabeth is as much a control freak as her birth mother. Although she had her fallopian tubes tied at a Mexican clinic when she was 17 years old, Elizabeth manages to become pregnant shortly after starting an affair with Paul. Her diagnosis of placenta previa means that there could be complications with the birth.
  • Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of a law firm. After hiring Elizabeth, he is quickly bedded by his new star attorney. A widower who was extremely close to his wife, Paul eventually backs out of the affair with Elizabeth when he senses that he is getting too deeply involved.
  • Tracy (Carla Gallo), one of Elizabeth's neighbors in her new apartment building.
  • Steven (Marc Blucas), Tracy's husband who is quickly and easily seduced by the man-eating Elizabeth.
  • Violet (Brittany Robertson), a young blind woman living in Elizabeth's apartment complex.
  • Dr. Eleanor Stone (Amy Brenneman), Elizabeth's well-meaning gynecologist whose good-natured attempts to help her new patient often cause Elizabeth's temper to erupt.
Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) and Elizabeth (Naomi Watts)
  • Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), a Catholic nun who supervises an adoption agency.
  • Lucy (Kerry Washington), a young African American businesswoman who has been unable to conceive and is determined to adopt a child.
  • Joseph (David Ramsey), Lucy's husband who wants a child but would prefer that it be a one he had fathered.
  • Ada (S. Epatha Merkerson), Lucy's meddling mother who often helps out at her daughter's bakery.
  • Ray (Shareeka Epps), a young, strong-willed African American woman (six months pregnant) who is interviewing Lucy and Joseph as potential adoptive parents.
  • Leticia (Lisa Gay Hamilton), Ray's mother, who is strongly advocating that Ray keep her baby.
Ray (Shareeka Epps) and Lucy (Kerry Washington)

In his director's statement, Garcia writes:
"I don’t know how actors work. I have never acted myself (beyond a couple of school plays) nor studied acting. I have only a daydreamer’s idea of the kind of things actors must do to develop roles -- the conversations they might have with themselves, the unnerving realizations that may come as they search in a character’s soul for themselves. Annette Bening speaks of the screenplay, of the repercussions of any action, of the roots of Karen’s emotions, with such clear-headed authority that it’s fascinating for me to stand on the set and learn about characters that I thought I had written. That’s a mesmerizing part of the process: to discover that’s how Karen moves and that’s how she talks and dresses and laughs and lives. Sometimes I want to ask Annette how she came to map such a remarkably precise and moving journey for Karen’s feelings, to find such compassionate understanding for her prickliness and frustration. Sometimes I don’t want to ask her at all. I don’t want to see the secret compartment where the rabbit is hidden.

Annette Bening as Karen

We ask a lot of actors: to stand in front of others and undress and display their skin for a character -- the beauty but also the bruises, the abrasions, the goose bumps -- the landscape of flesh exposed to direct sunlight. Nakedness like that is the stuff of a nightmare to me. Often, when actors do and say the things that I wrote, I cringe and retract in the shadows behind the camera, hoping that no one will look at me at that moment and realize that Karen/Annette and Elizabeth/Naomi and Lucy/Kerry and Paul/Sam and Paco/Jimmy are so close to me that I’m blushing with shame. Thanks to actors I can indulge my dreams of storytelling and of living other lives. How else am I going to learn what it’s like to be another human being?"
Mother and Child is so skillfully crafted that you will probably find yourself wanting to see the film more than once. I was fortunate enough to attend two press screenings and, each time, came away in awe of the layered acting by Bening, Smits, Watts, Washington, and the rest of the film's extremely talented cast.

While some might be quick to dismiss Mother and Child as pure chick flick material, Garcia's ode to motherhood will undoubtedly become one of 2010's must-see films (expect another Academy Award nomination -- and possible win -- for Annette Bening). Here's the trailer: