Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tepid Is As Tepid Does

Not every project delivers the anticipated results. Like many a recipe, what sounds good on paper can arrive undercooked, overcooked, tasting strange, or looking remarkably unappetizing.

It might not be the fault of the carefully-selected ingredients. Oven temperature and timing are critical elements in creating a successful dish.

Sometimes a hidden factor may sabotage an artistic project's success. It may be something very basic that lies at the core of the concept or it may be something so acutely specific and intentional that no one stopped to question its importance.

Whenever I run across one of these disappointments (or curiosities) I try to ask myself why the film or drama in question didn't work for me. It could be that I'm not reacting the way others would react. It's also possible that I might be seeing a critical flaw that others have chosen to ignore.

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In the case of Jack Goes Boating, the answer is so obvious it's almost painful. One would expect that Philip Seymour Hoffman's film adaptation of Robert Glaudini's 2007 play would be a sure thing (especially considering that Hoffman, John Ortiz, and Daphne Rubin-Vega were all part of the original cast).

What could possibly have gone wrong? Transferring the play to the large screen allowed Hoffman (in his debut as a feature film director) to take the action outside and show the grungy reality of his character's lives. Doing so robbed the property of much of its lyricism, which blossomed so beautifully in a live performance.

In particular, Hoffman's characterization of Jack as a somewhat boring shlub who wants to improve himself fails to connect with the audience. In large part, this is due to Hoffman's sensationally bovine performance. Frequent extended closeups of him staring vacantly into the camera do little to help the audience empathize with Jack.

What could possibly have gone wrong with a play that resonated so well with audiences? The answer is surprisingly simple. In adapting Glaudini's poignant dramedy for the screen, Hoffman was forced to take an extremely literal approach to the material. Doing so eliminated all of the inherent magic of the theatre that bolstered the play in live performance.

Poster art for Jack Goes Boating

One of my keenest memories of last year's production of Jack Goes Boating at the Aurora Theatre Company was how beautifully it drew the audience into the action -- especially in the scenes where Clyde is trying to teach Jack how to swim. In the theatre, the writing glowed with an aura of dramatic magic. On the screen, the play's poetic vulnerability evaporated into thin air.

The reason theatre audiences want Jack to succeed in courting Connie is because they sense his determination to impress her, to break free of his life as a limousine driver, and to actually move up in the world. That desire becomes more communicable in live performance, where the audience is willing to give of themselves because of the physical proximity to an actor and the shared sense of claustrophobia in Clyde and Lucy's apartment. By trying to spoon feed everything to the audience, the movie sadly misses its mark. Here's the trailer:

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James Franco's fans will probably scream when they see Howl. I yawned and thought back to the joys of a  short film I saw several years ago at the 2008 Frameline LGBT Film Festival entitled Allen Ginsberg Gives Great Head. In Singaporean filmmaker X'Ho's 15-minute film a rebellious and very sexy gay Asian man uses Ginsberg's poetry (combined with his own very personal act of masturbation) to make a strong political statement against oppressive governments which rob people of their identity.

By contrast, much of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's new film feels like a chapter of Law and Order (Literary Censorship Edition). Howl is ostensibly composed of two separate films. In the first, the audience listens to James Franco talking to the camera as Allen Ginsberg. In the second, the audience follows the censorship trial that erupted in San Francisco over Ginsberg's controversial poem (which, in terms of cinematic drama, can barely hold a candle to Milos Forman's 1996 film, The People Versus Larry Flynt).

Poster art for HOWL

While Franco is always an interesting actor, I doubt this gig required more than few days' work from a man who is a notorious multitasker in real life. There are some scenes in which Ginsberg snuggles with his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). The two men also take pictures of each other on the streets of Manhattan.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl
John Hamm cuts an impressive courtroom figure as Ginsberg's defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich. The film boasts nice cameos from Mary Louise Parker as Gail Potter, Jeff Daniels as Professor David Kirk, and Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn. What rivets one's attention to the screen, however, is the actual footage of Ginsberg that appears at the end of the film.

In the final analysis, what struck me as the most impressive thing about Howl was its acute attention to showcasing period eyeglass frames from the 1950s. Here's the trailer:

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Of all the monologues I saw at the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, I think the most challenging one for me to wrap my head around may well have been a one-man show by Manuel Simons. Ostensibly another coming-out story, Queer in the U.S.A. made me acutely aware of my age, the different role models for gay men of my generation, and that coming out remains a difficult process for each person grappling with his sexual identity.

The protagonist in this one-man show is Johnny, a confused New Jersey teen who worships Bruce Springsteen but has been found lying unconscious in a toilet stall at school. Because his singing voice has yet to settle into the lower registers, Johnny has been kicked out of his high school glee club and told to seek help from a voice coach in Manhattan who often works with effeminate men.

Or, as one of his teachers barks, "Face it, you're a little bit light in your shoes!"

The vocal coach Johnny meets specializes in teaching actors how to master the art of appearing and sounding straight, rather than lapsing into suspiciously feminine behavior. Following his coach's advice that a good place to let go of one's anxieties is at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Johnny encounters a woman posing as a Hungarian immigrant/gypsy, who invites him to her store for some tea.

Manuel Simons (Photo by: Benjamin Heller)
Almost all of the items in Helga's store are cheap imitations of the original, but people still like to buy them. Her merchandise may be crap, but Helga's son, George, is the real thing: a butch, young gay man who can't wait to plant a kiss on Johnny's lips.

After George and Johnny spend a night together, Johnny becomes so excited to hear his voice dropping into the lower registers that he runs out to find his vocal coach while George is shopping for breakfast items. When Johnny returns a week later with the good news, George is pissed and no longer interested in seeing him.

Along the way, George reveals that Helga was really born in the United States but has been carrying on some kind of family legend in tribute to her late father. Meanwhile, Johnny has been having a recurring nightmare in which he meets Bruce Springsteen in an airport in the Midwest and gets to sit next to him on a plane. As thrilled as he is to meet his idol, Johnny can't find the words to articulate his intense fascination with Springsteen's crotch as the plane heads for a crash landing.

Mr. Simons has an impressive vocal instrument, which he can take from a robust baritone to a powerful falsetto. But it wasn't until several hours after seeing Queer in the U.S.A. that I realized what seemed so off balance to me.

In addition to the fact that, physically, Simons made me think of a teenaged Bruce Vilanch, many generations of budding young faggots grew up idolizing Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Maria Callas, Madonna, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin. Because they were so fearful of coming out, there were no male entertainers one could look to who possessed quite the same kind of diva power or the ability to inspire.

Perhaps Elton John or Paul Reubens. But Springsteen?

While there is much to admire in his performance, Manuel Simons offers a very different coming out story from what the gay media usually provides. Here's a sampler of his work (note that in his one-man show, Simons does not use most of these costumes).


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