Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nearly Departed

"C'mon, folks," whined the stand-up comic. "I'm dying up here on this stage!"

Easier said than done. While most of us hope to enjoy a death with dignity, not everyone enjoys such a fate. People die in accidents every day. Some get murdered, others die a long and lingering death due to a terminal illness. Those who choose to control the circumstances of their deaths as much as possible are often remembered in history books and great works of literature.
Whether these people were desperate, sloppy, or merely tired of living, they took their own lives on their own timeline. But what happens when a person's funeral plans border on farce? What happens when an attempted suicide goes ridiculously wrong?

Should we send in the clowns? Or are they already there?

Three dramas focused on morbid anticipation  recently played before Bay area audiences. Each had its own approach to the subject, yet each took care to acknowledge that no one escapes death -- unless they have extraordinary timing and incredible luck!

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Throughout the year, a handful of Bay area theatre companies offer staged readings of works in progress.  Readings and workshops have become a standardized part of the dramatic incubation process -- a chance for playwrights to hear how their words sound when spoken by voices other than their own. These readings bring two very important sets of contributors into the dramatic arena:
  • Actors (working with a stage director) who start to put their imprint on the text.
  • Audience members who can offer constructive feedback on where the playwright needs to tighten things up, make certain facts clearer, or rework some text for greater impact.
The results of these readings can often be seen in subsequent seasons.
Last week I attended a staged reading of a provocative one-act play during the 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival. The promotional blurb for The Expiration Date reads as follows:
"A midnight storm, a deserted house. Four mysterious women. Premeditation. Is this homicide? Or the death of feminism? At first glance, what appears to be the perfect lesbian pulp novel reveals itself as a hilarious and heartbreaking story for our times as two couples -- separated by a generation -- clash over helium, oysters, and matters of life and death."
Playwright Steven M. Salzman
As directed by Jill MacLean, Steven M. Salzman's dramedy revolves around four women wrestling with the moral imperatives of assisted suicide:
  • Zoe is a young lesbian who is more than a little ditsy. Not only does she seem to think the world revolves around her needs, she has arrived at an empty house in New Mexico where she had once been told she would always be welcome. There's just one problem: Although Zoe found the extra house key in its usual hiding place, she's entered the wrong house.
  • Andrea is Zoe's new and very horny girlfriend. A budding law student with a fierce streak of cynicism, Andrea has a tendency to cite case law whether or not anyone wants to hear what she has to say.
  • Charlotte once had one of the most brilliant legal minds in America. Now nearing 70, she is obviously struggling with the onset of dementia. A self-made woman, she has chosen to commit suicide while she is still relatively coherent.
  • Lois has been Charlotte's partner for many years. Although she fully supports Charlotte's decision to die with dignity, it's possible that Lois is not quite fully on board with being roped into becoming an accomplice to a criminal act.
Salzman has done a superb job of weaving together three themes that rarely share the same stage:
  • The personal anguish of losing one's mind.
  • The varying approaches to assisted suicide taken by people of different generations. 
  • The emotional torment for long-term same-sex couples who cannot claim any of the legal benefits of marriage. 
The Expiration Date is a solid dramedy that boasts four strongly-written roles for women. I look forward to seeing a fully-staged production of Salzman's new play.

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Anyone who receives news that an old friend has died is bound to give their own mortality a second thought. But for an eccentric hermit like Felix Bush, the news of his friend's death provokes a crisis of sorts. Not only does he feel the need to start preparing for his own demise, he wants to hold a funeral party so he can listen to people tell stories about him while he is still alive.

Based on a true story about a wily old coot in Roane County, Tennessee named Felix Breazeale, Get Low is a movie that inspires a rare kind of shock and awe among its viewers. It's shocking to realize that this is director Aaron Schneider's first feature film. And all one can do is sit back in awe as  veteran actors deliver a master class in how to make dramatic craft look absolutely effortless.

The younger crowd might find it difficult to sit through this 100-minute film. Why? There are no car chases, explosions, or fast edits. Most of the cast moves slowly because they're old. The action is set in a time and place where few people owned automobiles.

Most of the locals walked. The stubborn ones rode a mule.

Robert Duvall as Felix Bush
Other than a few rambunctious children, there are very few young adults in the cast of Get Low. Consider what they're up against:
  • Felix Bush (80-year-old Robert Duvall) is a wild-looking man who lives alone and has a graveyard for his dogs. Communication is not his strong point (although he seems to have an uncanny talent for getting people to do what he wants them to do). A master woodworker, Felix is surprisingly strong for his age and feared by most people in the community. In order to attract a large audience to his "funeral party," he decides to raffle off his property. (According to historical reports, 12,000 "mourners" from 14 states showed up on June 26, 1938 to pay their respects and see if they had purchased the winning lottery ticket).
  • Maddie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) had an unrequited love for Felix in her youth. Now a widow, she has returned to town and is surprised to see the remnants of Felix under a frightening beard.
  • Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) is the funeral director in a small town where no one seems to die. When Felix approaches him about staging a "funeral party," Frank quickly decides that any business is better than no business at all.
  • Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) is an old friend of Felix's who knows what happened on the night Maddie's sister died in a fire. He urges Felix to tell Mattie the truth so that he can die in peace.
Bill Murray as Frank Quinn
The only other principal character is Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), Frank Quinn's assistant who is barely half as old as any of the principal characters. A young father, Buddy's inherent optimism and promise of a bright future offer the perfect foil to a group of cynical elders with far more life experience.

A great deal of Get Low's charm lies in its style of storytelling (the screenplay was written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell). Clues to understanding the mystery that is Felix Bush are slowly revealed and framed with meticulous precision. Aided by David Boyd's cinematography and the original music composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, the cast of old pros performs flawlessly.

I first saw Get Low just prior to the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. A second press screening only deepened my impression that Schneider's film is a model of cinematic writing, directing, and acting. Here's the trailer:

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Closing night of the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was devoted to a rare screening of 1924's L'Heureuse Mort, a French farce created by a team of Russian emigrés living in Paris. Directed by Serge Nadejdine, the screenplay was supposedly based on a novel by Countess Baillehache.

Nicolas Rimsky stars as Théodore Larue, a Parisian playwright of such minimal talent that his latest effort closes on opening night. With his reputation shattered, Larue and his wife Lucie (Suzanne Bianchetti) decide to take a vacation in the south of France, where he is reunited with his old school chum, Captain Mouche (Pierre Labry).

Mouche suggests that nothing offers a better cure for depression than some time spent at sea. He persuades the playwright to join him on his yacht where the frail Larue soon becomes seasick, falls overboard, and is presumed lost at sea.

By a stroke of luck, Larue survives and washes ashore.  Upon passing a newsstand, he discovers that he has attained far greater renown in death than he ever did in life. To his utter consternation, Larue is being hailed far and wide as France's greatest dramatist. Lucie (who is now in control of some valuable literary property)  soon becomes the target of Fayot (René Maupré), a literary agent eager to make a quick killing.

The only problem is that the playwright is not dead. Larue returns home, masquerading as his brother Anselme (who had moved to the colonies and taken a Senagelese wife) and witnesses his own funeral. Now that he has a beard, no one even recognizes him.
Pierre Labry as Captain Mouche and Nicholas Rimsky as Théodore Larue
While disguised as Anselme, Larue starts churning out a new series of "posthumous" works that can only add to his literary value and potential wealth. With the playwright's statue being erected in the town square, what could possibly go wrong with his scheme?

Perhaps the appearance of Larue's brother Anselme and his Senagalese wife!

L'Heureuse Mort ended the festival on a high note, thanks in no small part to the live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden. Among the film's highlights are a scene in which Lucie tries to reenact her husband's watery death before a gathering of elite snobs from Parisian literary circles. An animated sequence featuring a duel between Larue and Fayot also drew quite a few laughs.

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