Tuesday, June 22, 2010

That's So Craven!

The recent firestorm over Facebook's privacy policies set off loud warnings about third parties gaining access to a subscriber's personal information. What was hinted at by Facebook's 26-year-old founder, Jeff Zuckerberg, is that privacy on the Internet is a dead concept.

Zuckerberg wisely avoided discussion of any issues regarding Facebook subscribers who are under the age of legal consent. Nor did he discuss what happens when precocious, computer-savvy (but immature) minors use information they have gathered online for purposes of personal, political, or emotional blackmail.

Older generations using the Internet often lack the fundamental knowledge and programming skills that their children and younger generations have absorbed with lightning rapidity. By contrast, younger generations, quick to experiment with new software, often find ways to stretch its powers beyond the conventional wisdom.

It's no secret that older Internet users have vastly different concepts of confidentiality and privacy laws. Many younger people regard such restrictions are either ridiculously obsolete or simply not applicable to them. Nowhere has this become more obvious than in the recent use of electronic data to refute the lies of politicians.
  • One doubts that former Republican Congressman Mark Foley had the slightest idea that text messages captured in an electronic cache could come back to haunt him.
  • John McCain's recent protestations that he never claimed to be a "maverick" were quickly demolished with footage from previous newscasts.
  • Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (who is currently running for a seat in the United States Senate) probably never anticipated that it would be so easy for someone to fact check his wildly overinflated claims about his past.
Part of the problem rests with the levels of computer literacy shared by these men. As much as they complain about "Gotcha" politics, they seem clueless about how easy it is to perform an electronic search for a potent string of text or an electronically tagged video clip.
  • In May of 2005, Spokane's virulently anti-gay Mayor Jim West became the target of a sting operation by The Spokesman Review using a chat room on the gay.com website (you can read the transcripts from those chat sessions here). A subsequent special mail-in election marked the first time that a sitting mayor of Spokane had been voted out of office.
  • In January of 2009, shortly after having been elected Mayor of Portland, Oregon, Sam Adams was accused of having been involved in a consensual sexual relationship with Beau Breedlove, a political intern he had been mentoring. Although Adams initially lied about their relationship, he was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing when it was revealed that (a) the relationship did not turn sexual until after the young man had celebrated his 18th birthday, and (b) it was Breedlove who made the sexual overtures.
By a remarkable coincidence, these two Oregon politicians are referenced in two new dramas currently before Bay area audiences. In a third drama, an overwrought teenage girl walks in on her closeted father and his boyfriend while they are having sex in the middle of the night. Her family life is such a mess that, after she taunts her father about his homosexuality -- and he reaches out and slaps her in the face -- she replies:
"I don't care if you're gay. But if you ever hit me again because of your own bullshit, I'll hotwire your truck and drive it right into the wall of the Child Protective Services building."
It's no secret that teens can be rebellious and spiteful creatures. Their newfound sexual power often makes them act impulsively, without thinking about the consequences of what they have done. Boundaries can evaporate in a split second as a teenager flirts with taboo practices, learns how to blackmail adults, and acts out with horrific results.

What makes these three dramas especially intriguing is not the overwhelming dysfunctionality of their characters and family situations. The question of sexual relations between an adult and a minor is depicted in ways that go much deeper than merely flaunting the "ick" factor.

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A new play by Stephen Karam set in present-day Salem, Oregon, focuses on the forensic and musical theatre talents of three high school students who are much too smart for their own good.
Speech and Debate (which is currently receiving its Bay area premiere over at the Aurora Theatre Company) wastes no time showing how eager some teenagers can be to push the envelope as far as they can in any direction in the hope of finding someone's weak spot.
  • Howie (Maro Guevara) has been openly gay since about age 11. A new arrival in town, he is busily flirting with "BiGuy" in a chat room as the evening begins. Out, proud, and finally legal, he hopes to hook up with the older man at midnight in a local park. When "BiGuy" discloses his email address (dramedy@aol.com), Howie is suddenly in possession of a valuable and loaded piece of information.
  • Solomon (Jason Frank) is a wannabe journalist whose father works at a newspaper. Although he sees nothing wrong with stalking his teachers with a tape recorder that he hopes will capture a controversial statement, Solomon (who takes his reporting very seriously) can't understand why none of his teachers will give him any ammunition that could be taken out of context. Solomon's parents are also rabid evangelicals who, after their teenaged son was caught in an unfortunate incident in a men's restroom, shipped Solomon off to a "conversion camp" to remove any trace of homosexual tendencies. Solomon takes his right to know about the private life of a public figure very seriously. He's much less generous with information when it comes to sharing own secrets.
Diwata (Jayne Deely), Solomon (Jason Frank) and
Howie (Maro Guevara) (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Diwata (Jayne Deely) is not just an aspiring songwriter, she's also the very model of a modern major drama queen who has no qualms about hiding in a stall in the men's bathroom at school. When not recording podcasts for her website (which she somehow thinks is, like, totally private) or working on her musicalization of Arthur Miller's 1953 drama, The Crucible, she is plotting her revenge on the drama teacher who failed to cast her as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone in Once Upon A Mattress. Noting that the drama teacher in question has altered the script to remove any references to Lady Larken's illegitimate pregnancy, Diwata is giving serious thought to contacting the people who license the rights to the popular Mary Rodgers musical. Diwata takes herself and her artistic ambitions very seriously.
Solomon (Jason Frank) and Diwata (Jayne Deely)
(Photo by: David Allen)

After Howie posts a message on Diwata's web page suggesting that he may have some dirt on her drama teacher, Solomon tracks down Howie's identity and tries to get him to spill the beans. What follows is a fast-paced chase after the truth which will also determine which teen can maintain the upper hand in the quest for the juiciest secret.

As directed by Robin Stanton, Speech and Debate wastes no time demonstrating that teenagers are at the forefront of sexual experimentation, social networking, and finding creative ways to use electronic data. It's obvious that the sexual knowledge possessed by these three teenagers has far surpassed the school's insistence on limiting any references to controversial parts of human anatomy to the term "bathing suit area."

Howie (Maro Guevara) cruises the Internet in
Speech & Debate (Photo by: David Allen)

Karam (who was President of his high school's Speech and Debate team) is currently at work on a screenplay for Speech and Debate (which has had an astonishing 70 productions since it premiered in 2007 at Roundabout Underground). His writing is fast-paced, razor sharp, and allows his characters to turn on a dime. Or turn on each other on a dime.

With the help of Holli Hornlien (doubling as a teacher and a local newspaper reporter), the three young actors use their body language to broadcast moments of strength, doubt, and vulnerability. I'm always amazed by the cleverness of the sets designed for Aurora's tiny playing area. Eric Sinkkonen's unit set rises to the occasion admirably. Speech and Debate continues through July 18 at the Aurora Theatre Company (you can order tickets here).

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Whereas Speech and Debate begins with the possibility of a high school student hooking up with an older man, The Adults in the Room (which is being screened as part of the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) examines how that teenager might feel 15 years later. Often capturing the creepiness of a Todd Solondz movie, Andrew Blubaugh's first feature film is essentially a movie within a movie.

In 1995, Blubaugh was a curious and lonely fifteen-year-old high school student who began a sexual relationship with Peter (a deeply closeted man nearly twice Andy's age). As he tries to rationalize his relationship with an older man to a schoolmate, Andy states "It's not like he's a pervert -- he went to Harvard."

Fifteen years later the tables have turned. Andy has become a filmmaker and teacher who works with high school students. He may have aged chronologically, but there's no guarantee that he has become a mature adult. As he tries to revisit his previous relationship in a hybrid documentary/narrative film, Andy must navigate a dangerous path through several thorny issues:
  • Even if it is consensual, a sexual relationship between a 30-year-old and a 15-year old still qualifies as statutory rape.
  • While trying to get his students to take risks, Andy is playing with controversial and potentially explosive material that -- even though it is relevant to their age group -- might be considered totally inappropriate for minors in a classroom setting.
  • Admitting that the film he is trying to make is about his own experience in high school could quickly separate Andy from his teaching job.
  • Part of Andy's dilemma revolves around whether or not he should let Peter (his former lover, who is now 45 years old) know about his plans to make a film about the story of their relationship.
  • The way Andy has chosen to re-enact certain moments from his past transforms his character into a much more romantic, photogenic, and idealized youth (played by Calvin McCarthy) than the nerdy, insecure Andy might ever have been.
Andrew Blubaugh and Calvin McCarthy on the set of
The Adults In The Room

There have been countless instances in which teenaged boys fell in love with a mentoring figure with whom they subsequently shared an intense and sexual intergenerational relationship. Letting go, however, is easier said than done (especially when the teenager discovers that he has been replaced with younger, fresher meat).

Blubaugh's film shows the filmmaker still struggling with unresolved feelings for Peter and a suspicion that there is unfinished business between the two men. In order to lend clarity to the process, flashback scenes for The Adults In The Room were shot using Super-16 film stock while the modern day reflections on these events (as well as interviews with authority figures such as sex columnist Dan Savage) were shot in high definition video.

Unfortunately, Blubaugh's device of making a film about a filmmaker making a film about himself quickly becomes cloying and obnoxiously self indulgent. Questions about how a teenager and an older man weather the stresses of their relationship quickly yield to suspicions about a filmmaker's raging ego and nagging insecurities. The fact that Blubaugh often comes across as a young and nebbishy Woody Allen does not elicit much sympathy. Here's the trailer:

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Who knew Newfoundland was such a cesspool of dysfunctional family life? In Grown Up Movie Star human weakness and bad behavior reign supreme. Weighed down by the utter bleakness of small town life, this film almost makes Frozen River seem like a musical. Consider the unhappy cast of characters:
  • Ray (Shawn Doyle) is a washed-up, closeted 40-year-old former hockey player who was dumped by the NHL after he was caught trying to smuggle a pound of marijuana across the Canadian border. Abandoned by his delusional wife (who always thought she could have been a movie star), he has been left alone to care for his two teenage daughters. Noticeably unskilled at parenting, Ray can't even bring himself to be honest about the one light in his life.
  • Laura (Maggie Meyer) is Ray's wife, who leaves him at the beginning of the movie to head for Los Angeles (where she hopes to be discovered when she's not too busy smoking crack or turning tricks).
  • Bill (Andy Jones) is Ray's ex-military and possibly senile father.
  • Stuart (Jonny Harris) is Ray's best friend and "fake uncle" to his daughters. Stuart (who was accidentally crippled when Ray shot him) is now a wheelchair-bound shutterbug who likes to take pictures of young girls in suggestive poses. Is his attempt to fuck Ray's 13-year-old daughter a form of revenge for having being been fucked over by Ray? Hard to say.
  • Ruby (Tatiana Maslany) is Ray's precocious and highly temperamental 13-year-old daughter. On the brink of discovering her sexual powers, she is the moody teenager from hell.
  • Rose (Julia Kennedy) is Ruby's 11-year-old kid sister.
  • Will (Mark O'Brien) is Ruby's friend from school. A new arrival from Colorado, Will and Ruby are clumsily attempting to have sex at a private party when his foreskin gets torn and blood gets all over the shower curtain and bathroom walls.
  • James (Steve Cochrane) is the high school hockey coach who is Ray's "down-low" fuck buddy. He's the kind of loyal friend who is there to help Ray go looking for his daughter in an emergency and get Ray out of jail. He is the sole character in the film who can handle responsibility.
Grown Up Movie Star is a film in which Ruby's explosive personality offers a sharp contrast to her father's reluctance to open up about himself. As writer/director Adriana Maggs stresses "It’s not really that Ray is a gay, professional athlete. It’s that Ray is a small town boy who was a small town hero that messed up, lived a lie, and is now trying to find the freedom to live life on his own terms."

Like many movies about angry teenagers, Grown Up Movie Star (which also screened at the Frameline festival) has a wild quality that can simultaneously fascinate and repulse a viewer. There is some brave writing, some furious acting, and a sense that each and every one of its characters is doomed from the moment they first appear on the screen. Here's the trailer: