Saturday, August 7, 2010

Misfits and Provocateurs

Today's media encourages people to express themselves, stand up for who they are, go for their dreams, and never lose hope. But for an unfortunate number of people, following the media's advice can be catastrophic.
  • The exhibitionist who wants to "express himself" is subject to arrest for public indecency.
  • The pedophile who wants to "stand up for who he is" still has to face societal sanctions.
  • The graffiti artist who defaces someone else's property may be liable for damages and compensation.
  • The arsonist who wants to "go for his dream" can find himself in hot water.
  • People who never lose hope are often shunned as fools. 
What happens to lone voices who refuse to compromise their dreams? Why not ask people like David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh, Amelia Earhart, Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and Bobby Kennedy? Although their names live on in history, they are no longer around to answer more questions.

Some of these people embraced noble causes and were murdered for their optimism. Others embraced horrific goals and killed innocent souls. For better or worse, each of these individuals forced people to think about issues most us would prefer to sweep under the rug.

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If one thinks of misfits, dysfunctional souls, and people who never feel normal, few filmmakers can match the daring of Todd Solondz when it comes exploring the coexistence of depravity and depression in suburbia. Solondz burst onto the indie scene in 1995 with Welcome To The Dollhouse, which was followed by Happiness (1998), Storytelling (2001), and Palindromes (2004).

Populated by a roster of severely troubled (and often clueless) characters, Solondz's films push people's buttons because they tackle deeply troubling issues (pedophilia, incest, rape, child abuse, abortion, and suicide). While such phenomena all take place in suburbia, people rarely want to discuss them.Allison Janney, who is featured in Solondz's latest effort, Life During Wartime, notes that:
“Todd has a great way of dealing with subject matter like this. He doesn’t make jokes or comments. No matter how funny the scene reads on paper, he wants you to play it absolutely serious. Nobody is trying to be funny in his movies, so then the comedy can come from the bizarre things that his characters say and do. The situations can make you feel guilty about laughing, but you just do. I love humor that makes me laugh in spite of the situation and nobody does that better than Todd.”
Poster art for Life During Wartime

The characters we meet in Life During Wartime include:
  • Mona Jordan (Renée Taylor), an elderly Jewish woman whose husband dumped her after 40 years of marriage. Now living in Florida, her heavily tanned and wrinkled breasts cannot conceal Mona's total distrust of men. All three of Mona's daughters have been betrayed in one way or another by the men in their lives. Misery seems to run in their family.
  • Helen Jordan (Ally Sheedy), Mona's oldest daughter, who is now living in Los Angeles.
  • Joy Jordan (Shirley Henderson) Mona's youngest daughter, who is thinking of separating from her husband (a former criminal).
  • Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), Joy's husband, who has never kicked his habit of making obscene phone calls to women.
  • Andy (Paul Reubens), Joy's former suitor, who committed suicide. His ghost keeps returning to haunt her.

  • Trish Jordan/Maplewood (Allison Janney), a middle class housewife who relocated to Florida after her husband was convicted of being a pedophile. Mona's middle daughter is trying to raise her three children on her own, even if it means overmedicating her daughter, Chloe. Having recently met a man, she makes the mistake of telling her son Timmy how wonderful this new man makes her feel..
  • Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds), Trish's ex-husband. A former psychiatrist, Bill was sent to prison after he drugged and raped several young boys who were his son's classmates. Recently released from prison, he breaks into Trish's home in order to find out how to contact his oldest son.
  • Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), the new man in Trish's life. Harvey is every bit as normal as Trish hopes he could be. His son, however, is a real piece of work.
  • Billy Maplewood (Chris Marquette), Trish's oldest son, who has left home for college. Billy still misses his father.
  • Timmy Maplewood (Dylan Riley Snyder), Trish's confused middle child. Timmy is preparing for his bar mitzvah and struggling to understand what it means to be a man. Confused by his mother's description of how the new man in her life "makes her wet" -- and convinced that he would never want another person inside of him -- Timmy has, for many years, been told that his father is dead. But when Bill is released from prison, Timmy learns that his father is actually a pedophile. Timmy mistakes Harvey's attempt to comfort him as a predatory move and hysterically screams for help.
  • Chloe (Emma Hinz), Trish's young daughter. Chloe recently ran out of Ritalin and is now using Mommy's Klonopin, instead. She takes her vegetarianism a little too seriously.
  • Mark Wiener (Rich Pecci), Harvey's bizarre, anti-social son. A systems analyst with no sense of humor, Mark is convinced that China will soon take over the world.
  • Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), a horny cougar who spots Bill Maplewood in a bar shortly after he has been released from prison. Jacqueline cuts right to the chase: "I'm really good at reading people," she says. "I see a man and he's alone...and he's straight...and that's good enough for me."
Few people can match Solondz at handling black comedy on the screen. While his characters may alternately entertain or horrify audiences, people will never have a neutral reaction to any of these people. The cast is uniformly excellent. Here's the trailer:

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During the recent Bay Area Playwrights Festival, I attended a staged reading of a powerful new piece by Jeanne Drennan that deals with xenophobia in a neighborhood of Brussels with a growing Muslim population. Perhaps because so much of the news about racial tension in Europe has come out of the French media, people may still imagine Belgium to be free of strife. The cast of characters includes:
  • Nathalie, a journalist who writes about food for a controversial news outlet. A political columnist who was one of her close colleagues was recently taken hostage and beheaded by Islamic terrorists. As a food writer, Nathalie's first impulse is to use food to break the tension in any crisis. She also has an annoying tendency to think that another person's tragedy is really all about her.
  • David, Nathalie's teenage son. David likes to go skateboarding on the ramps near the local mosque. He is also a talented young artist. Frustrated with the way the adults are reacting to the changing demographics of the neighborhood, he paints a large mural which can't fail to provoke a reaction  from the various factions of his community.
  • Nasar, an elderly Arab who acts as caretaker for the mosque. He has frequently complained about David's skateboarding, claiming that it is disrespectful to the mosque and its worshippers. However, when David breaks his leg in a skateboarding accident, it is Nasar who takes the boy to the hospital. Nasar has read the political writings of Nathalie's late friend and tries to make a peace offering to Nathalie by giving her some of his family's recipes.
  • Eduard Hassan is the attorney for the mosque. He ends up becoming friends with Nathalie after David's mural on the wall of the building owned by Nathalie's family causes a crisis to erupt. Hassan (whose teenaged son, Yusef, has become surprisingly religious) reminds Nathalie that David has succeeded where so many others have failed for centuries: he has essentially redrawn the map of Europe and the Mediterranean.
  • Dominika, a sexy, penniless Polish immigrant with a big mouth. Dominika arrives on Nathalie's doorstep unannounced, claiming to be a distant relative of the woman who hid Nathalie's mother from the Nazis during World War II.  In a tense moment, she ends up having sex with Nathalie's underage son, David.
Playwright Jeanne Drennan
Drennan's play arrives onstage with bases loaded (her script tries to examine each person's investment in the growing tensions within Nathalie's family and neighborhood). As directed by Evren Odcikin, Atlas of Longing hit on some very interesting themes:
  • At what point has one family repaid its personal debt to another?
  • Does a journalist who writes culturally insensitive and downright inflammatory pieces about a particular demographic "get what he deserves" when he is taken hostage and decapitated?
  • If a friend suffers a horrible personal loss, how does a narcissist resist the urge to turn the tragic news into a story about herself?
  • When your child creates an extremely provocative and dangerous piece of public art, should you still congratulate him on his creativity?
  • Is the way to a wounded community's heart through its stomach?
  • At what point does the Islamic call to prayer (Adhan) become an intrusion into the lives of non-Muslims?
  • Does the party that owns a building have the right to paint it with a mural bound to antagonize the community in which the building stands?
  • Do graffiti artists have the right to cover up another artist's mural with their own work?
  • How much courage does it take to find the gray areas between issues that have vehemently been painted as black and white?
  • Can't we all just get along?
While I found Drennan's play quite intriguing -- and certainly look forward to seeing a fully-staged production of Atlas of Longing -- I was startled by some of the questions raised by the audience during the "talk back" that followed the performance. One almost sensed that people were having difficulty understanding why, if a character wasn't an American or a Jew, they would have a negative reaction to graffiti stating "Death to Israel" and "Death to America." My own hunch is that people have no idea where Belgium is on the map of Europe.

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One of the sweeter films shown at the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a 1926 comedy entitled The Strongman. Directed by Frank Capra (in his feature film debut), the film stars Harry Langdon in one of his classic roles as an innocent schlemiel.

Whereas Charlie Chaplin became world famous for his characterization of The Tramp, Langdon was beloved for his variations on the character known as "The Little Elf." Often referred to as a "man child" or "baby-faced actor," Langdon was the kind of performer for whom pacing was the key to comedy. He could milk a comedic moment with the best of them, managing to look like a total naif when he most certainly was not.

Poster art for The Strongman
The Strongman starts off in the trenches of Europe during World War I. Paul (Harry Langdon) is a Belgian soldier who has become pen pals with an American girl named Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner). Although Mary has sent him a picture of her, she has never told him that she's blind.

When the war ends, Paul heads for America. Just before landing at Ellis Island, he hooks up with a circus performer named Zandow The Great (Arthur Thalasso), who performs physical stunts with barbells and a human cannon. Zandow hires Paul as an assistant and soon they're getting bookings.

While in New York, Paul keeps searching for the Mary Brown who wrote him so many beautiful letters. He meets all kinds of women by that name, including the hard-boiled Lily of Broadway (Gertrude Astor), who hides some stolen money in Paul's jacket pocket and then has to go through all kinds of contortions to retrieve it.

While traveling in a small coach, Paul comes down with a cold. In a classic comic bit, he makes the mistake of smearing his chest with Limburger cheese instead of a medication resembling Vicks VapoRub. Eventually, Paul ends up in the small town of Clovervale, where he finally meets the Mary Brown who was his pen pal. She's a beautiful woman, even if her blindness prevents her from seeing Paul.

Paul (Harry Langdon) and Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner) in The Strongman
Cloverdale, however, is in the middle of a power struggle between Mike McDevitt (Robert McKim), the owner of the local saloon, and a pastor nicknamed Holy Joe (William V. Mong), who is trying to rid the town of gambling and sin. On the night that Zandow The Great is supposed to perform at McDevitt's establishment, he is suddenly "indisposed." Paul is forced to do Zandow's show -- in clothes that are far too large for him -- and the movie's finale is a triumph of physical comedy that literally brings down the house!

Langdon's clowning easily puts him in the same ranks as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  His feigned innocence makes his pranks and stunts even more enjoyable. The screening was accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano. Perhaps the best news of all is that the entire film is available on YouTube. Here's part 1:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Joy often comes after sorrow, like morning after night.. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .