Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where The Boyz Are

This year's Memorial Day weekend marked two tipping points in America's cultural landscape:
  • On Friday, both the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee laid the political groundwork to start the repeal of 1993's pernicious Don't Ask, Don't Tell legislation. The timing of this congressional activity (just prior to the traditional Memorial Day festivities) marks the beginning of a greater awareness that heterosexuals aren't the only members of the military who keep Americans safe. Conservatives who like to puff out their chests and somberly harrumph about the heroes who sacrificed their lives for this nation will have to start coping with the knowledge that they owe equal thanks to the many lesbians and gay men who died while in service to their country. These people are "real Americans," too.
  • Michael Patrick King's latest effort, Sex and the City 2, opened to some of most scathing reviews of the year. Not only did Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha get taken to task for their shallow consumerism, whiny egocentrism, and stunning insensitivity to Muslim cultures, a new and surprising line of criticism began to emerge.
Writing about the movie's many faults in, critic Thomas Rogers explained Why "Sex and the City" Is Bad For The Gays:
"Over the past decade, television portrayals of gay men have cracked open into something far more nuanced. But much like the female heroines' designer fetishes, the gay characters in Sex and the City are still trapped in some very glittery late-'90s amber. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a glitzy, kitschy wedding, or a gay man who loves fashion, but the problem is the fact that, in the Sex and the City universe, that's the only form of gayness that exists. It's a culture, unbeknownst to many straight Americans, that has long since disappeared from the life of the vast majority of gay men. For people my age (who came of age in the 1990s) the mainstreaming of gay culture meant pushing away from clichéd ideas of gayness and finding new icons. Not Liza, but Ellen. Not show tunes, but indie rock. Liza's much-buzzed about Beyoncé "Single Ladies" cover perfectly encapsulates the mixture of misguided camp and pathos that plagues most of the film."
Although numerous military sagas have been filmed with titles like For The Boys (1991), Band of Brothers (2001), and We Were Soldiers (2002), it didn't take long for 1998's Saving Private Ryan to inspire a parody entitled Saving Ryan's Privates. Released in 2002, Shaving Ryan's Privates was a documentary about porn films that parodied Hollywood classics, boasting such memorable titles as Throbin Hood (starring Ron Jeremy as Friar Fuck, Randy Spears as Sheriff Naughty Ham, and Ron Vogel as Little Dong), When Harry Ate Sally, and Drive This, Miss Daisy.

In today's world, a comedian like Kathy Griffin doesn't hesitate to ask her audience "Where are my gays?" When Griffin traveled to the Middle East to entertain the troops in Iraq, she was accompanied by Michael McDonald, whose characterization of Stuart Larkin on MADtv had captured the hearts of military men and women (regardless of their sexual orientation).

The transition from closeted entertainers such as Liberace and Rock Hudson to shows that routinely feature gay characters (such as Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, Modern Family, and Glee) has been a long time coming. In his 1943 hit musical, Something For The Boys, famed -- and closeted -- songwriter Cole Porter gave Ethel Merman a title song whose lyrics take on new meaning in light of today's transformed military:
"I’m always doing something,
Something for the boys.
I’m always doing something
For the lads, if it adds to their joy.
So don’t tell me it’s a wrong thing
If I’m out with ‘em nightly till three.
'Cause I’m always doing something for the boys
Or they’re doing something for me!

Back in the days of gifty giving
When all God’s daddies had greens.
I was oh so busy living
Beyond several gentlemen’s means.
I didn’t care much where I fluttered
Long as my bank roll was buttered.
But now my life’s completely cluttered
With soldiers, sailors,
Not to speak of those big Marines.

'Cause I’m always doing something,
Something for the boys.
I’m always doing something
For the lads, if it adds to their joy.
So don’t tell me it's a wrong thing
If I flop on some corporal’s knee.
'Cause I’m always doing something for the boys
Or they’re doing something for me!"
In 1960, when Where The Boys Are was released, the movie's title song became a big hit for Connie Francis. I doubt she could have imagined such an over-the-top interpretation as the one performed by the late Michael Callen:

Nor, for that matter, could she have anticipated the popular song getting parodied by Ben Schatz and Irwin Keller for their 1999 Kinsey Sicks album entitled Boyz To Girlz:
"Where the goys are, someone waits for me.
Blond hair that glows, a tiny nose,
A strangely quiet family.
Where the goys are can be a mystery
I found church pews are filled with Jews
Who want goys in the sack religiously.

In a room with a million Hebrews
I'll find my gentile valentine.
While all the Jews are crowding 'round the food,
He'll be at the table with the wine!

My conscience scolds me, I date so guiltily.
But where the goys are, forbidden joys are
Big cowboys are waiting there for me.

My parents told me: Keep waiting faithfully.
But where the goys are, forbidden joys are,
Blond sex toys are waiting there for me!"
When Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, opened off Broadway in 1968, one of the gems to pop out of Emory's mouth was the line "Oh, Mary. It takes a fairy to make something pretty." The ability of gay men to lend an extra bit of camp and magic to the proceedings is best captured in this video clip recorded during a gay cruise when three dancers from a touring company of West Side Story flawlessly performed two musical numbers from the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls (this clip could easily have been titled "We Three Queens of Orient Are..."):

* * * * * * * * * * * *
New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting a musical revue entitled Boys Will Be Boys. Barely 90 minutes in length, it feels surprisingly long, remarkably dated, and may inspire audiences to keep checking their watches.

In some ways, Boys Will Be Boys is a perfect match for New Conservatory's subscription base which, like the San Francisco Opera's, has become largely geriatric. The unavoidable feeling that I had already experienced this style of rewriting show tunes (and adding in lots of gay references to the lyrics) was not helped by the fact that others have traveled this road with far better results.

The cast of Boys Will Be Boys (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Mae West famously advised audiences that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." There were times during Boys Will Be Boys when I felt like I was back on an RSVP cruise, listening to gay bingo patter ("K72 -- as in Kristin Chenowith looks like she's 27 but she's really 72!").

Unfortunately, too much gay mediocrity quickly loses its bite. In that acute arena of musical theatre where "You Gotta Have A Gimmick," if the gimmick starts to sag, one can encounter "Trouble" in more places than River City.

The framework for Boys Will Be Boys is similar to the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show" routine. In this instance, Ishmael Gonzalez has been suffering from Gay Attention Deficit Disorder ("a condition that renders some gay men unable to stay focused on any trend for more than a few weeks"). Five of his devoted friends decide to create and tour with a cabaret-style fundraiser called "Around The World in 80 Gays."

As I listened to the show's songs my smile started to fade and I began to feel like I was trapped in a fading Catskills resort for old queens who like to wallow in the ghettoization of gay culture and reminisce about the good old days when people coyly introduced themselves as "a friend of Dorothy."

Brian J. Patterson and Price Troche, Jr. (Photo by: Lois Tema)

But as someone who grew up on Broadway show tunes and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, I was particularly interested in the way the songs for Boys Will Be Boys had been constructed. The most common ways to write parodies of Broadway show tunes are:
  • Keep the original melody and rhythm, but change the lyrics to include as many gay references and as much innuendo as possible. Singer/songwriter Tom Orr has frequently excelled at this technique in shows ranging from "Dirty Little Showtunes" to "I Feel A Thong Coming On."
  • Write what Stephen Sondheim calls a "list song," in which you try to cram as many references to a particular topic as possible into your lyric.
In Boys Will Be Boys, the songwriting team has opted for a heavy-handed combination of the last three approaches. The lyrics to their song "Someplace Obscene" (a spoof of "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors) read as follows:
"My new boyfriend's a copper.
But his tastes are not always proper.
When we climb into bed, he becomes a real pig.
Still, I've found an attraction
To the lure of his boarish action.
So just hand me a fork
‘Cause my hunger for pork is real big.

Some handcuffs of my own,
A vest with real chain link.
I bought some chaps this afternoon.
They're naugahyde, I think.
We've cock rings and a collar
And a few toys in between.
Amyl nitrite fills our lair
Someplace obscene.

He trims his thick mustache.
I love to shave his head.
He bulges in his uniform
Both in and out of bed.
By night he is my king of beasts.
By day he's just a queen
With a fetish that we share
For Vaseline.

Between my nightly spankings
And the "Yes, Sirs" with salutes,
I kiss the ground he walks on
And his huge… tremendous… twelve-inch… boots.

I'm his submissive bitch.
He's Daddy, he knows best.
He grabs the gloves and Crisco
You can fill in all the rest.
Our love reads like a story from
Tom of Finland magazine.
I may be sore;
Still, I'll explore
Someplace obscene."
Poster art for Boys Will Be Boys

While the music written by Kenneth Kacmar (and performed with light-handed grace by G. Scott Lacey on the piano) is perfectly acceptable, most of the lyrics and dialogue by Joe Miloscia suffer from overkill. Irving Berlin's "An Old Fashioned Wedding" (written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun) gets transformed into "A Gay-Fashioned Wedding." Some of his lyrics almost seem desperate, as evidenced in Miloscia's frenetic reworking of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for Gypsy's "Some People":
"Some boys only get their thrills
Sniffing powders and popping pills.
That’s okay for some gay boys
Who need help to survive.
Those boys only get their kicks
Sipping cocktails and turning tricks.
That’s living for some gay boys
Who won’t see forty-five.

But I ain’t that kinda guy.
I’m tired of all the Met-Rx I’ve had to swallow,
All the disco I’ve had to play,
All the fashions I’ve had to follow.
Startin’ today, I’m kickin’ the “K”.

Some boys are the height of vain
Built the biceps but not the brain.
That's sexy for some sissies
For rough, tough, buff missies to be.
But some gay boys ain't me.

I had a dream
I saw it without poppers.
All about parties not on the circuit,
Give it a chance; you know you should shirk it.
I had a dream,
Just as real as could be, Mary.
South Beach fell into the sea, Mary
Madonna sinking as she vogues.

Trust me girls, forget Fire Island.
Let the Pines slip into the ocean.
Don’t buy any more Barbra Streisand.
Set a limit to your devotion.
Cut Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Dump the Dolce. Ditch the Gabbana.

Oh, what a dream
A fabulous dream, baby.
And in it I helped some eighty young bucks, baby.
I helped them all, baby
All eighty young bucks, baby!

(You’re not getting STDs from them ‘hos!)

That’s right. I’m gonna get me one good man.
Yeah, I’ll get him, and get myself out!

Good-bye to D.K.N.Y.
Good riddance to all the losers I’ve had to ‘ho through.
All the Daddies I’ve had to lay,
All the twinkies I’ve given blow to.
Chelsea boys, get outta my way!

Some gay boys may get ahead
With their butts up, face down in bed.
That’s pumping for some sonnies
Those trim, dim, gym bunnies, I can see.
Well, they can thrust and squat.
But not me!!"
Brian J. Patterson and Stephanie Temple (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The danger inherent in attempting to parody the work of great lyricists is that, by comparison, the parodist can be exposed as a lesser talent. In some cases, a much lesser talent. While New Conservatory's cast delivered an energetic performance, much of the show felt like it belonged in a wax museum.

Under Andrew Nance's direction, the ensemble of five worked hard to put the material over with as much enthusiasm as possible. As the resident fag hag, Stephanie Temple (who also did the choreography) purported to fall in love with the lone straight man who joined the group because he just wanted to be able to sing.

Timothy Barnes and Christopher M. Nelson sang the more lyrical ballads, but the show came to life primarily when Brian J. Patterson and Price Troche, Jr. were performing. Patterson's beautifully sculpted biceps provided a continued source of visual relief.

* * * * * * * * *
Thankfully, two of the films featured on the Fun In Boys' Shorts program at the upcoming Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival do a splendid job of upending old stereotypes of gay men. Written and directed by Kevin Patrick Kelly, Gay Baby focuses on a young heterosexual couple who, after watching an ultrasound, are informed that their soon-to-be baby boy is gay.

After Dr. Feldman (Richard Riehle) shows Maggie (Beth Shea) and Bryan (Larry Sullivan) an image of their son's rainbow-patterned strands of genetic material, Bryan starts to panic about what it will mean to have a gay son. Later, as they end up shopping for baby supplies, Bryan's fears are mollified by a charming, young, and very gay sales clerk named Kyle (Tye Olsen).

The surprise ending to Gay Baby will lift the audience's hearts as the shop's owners point to Kyle as an example of a young gay man being "all that he can be."

* * * * * * * * *
Mention should also be made of Go-Go Reject, which will undoubtedly delight fans of Jack McBrayer (who plays the wide-eyed page, Kenneth Parcell, on 30 Rock). Written by Heath Daniels (who bears an uncanny resemblance to McBrayer and stars as Daniel Ferguson), Go-Go Reject is guaranteed to put a smile on people's faces.

Directed by Michael J. Saul, this hilarious short tells the story of a young man with a performing arts dream. The only problem is that, whereas most go-go boys are hired on the basis of their hunkiness, Daniel is a bit on the skinny side. Despite his best efforts to get a job dancing as a gay go-go boy, his lack of muscle mass means that one door after gets slammed in his face by cynical, jaded bar owners like Tanner (Michael Estime) and Anthony Mojo (Drew Droege).

With the loving support of his roommate (Matthew Bridges), an exotic dancer named Cesar (Korken Alexander) who thinks Daniel's kind of cute, and an encouraging word from a young male ballet student (Andy Scott Harris), Daniel comes up with the perfect gimmick to make his dream come true: a specialty night for skinny dancers!

This 20-minute short is a lovely and endearing romp, made even more hilarious by Iva Turner's deadpan performance as Becky (contrary to what you think, that's not Mink Stole up on the silver screen). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Better Dad Than Dead

In September, 1963 I purchased a theater ticket purely on the basis of a play's title. The fact that it starred the great British actress Hermione Gingold, was directed by Jerome Robbins, and was the first play written by Arthur Kopit didn't matter to me at all.

Although it only ran for only 47 performances at the Morosco Theatre, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition marked the Broadway debut of a 23-year-old actor named Sam Waterston. Even though I didn't understand any of Kopit's script, the presence of several dancing bellboys made it a rollicking addition to the Theatre of the Absurd. Its three main characters were:
  • Madame Rosepettle, a flamboyant widow who travels around the world with her husband's corpse (which she routinely hangs in the closets of her hotel rooms). In order to save her son from the evils of the outside world, Madame keeps him locked up in his room on the premise that doing so will help keep his skin as fresh as the newly-fallen snow.
  • Jonathan, Madame Rosepettle's basket case of a son, who suffers from a severe stutter and (when he is not babbling on and on about his collections of stamps, coins, and books) tends to the feeding of Madame Rosepettle's venus flytrap plants.
  • Rosalie, a voluptuous young tart who attempts to seduce Jonathan.
By the time the final curtain comes down:
  • The corpse of Jonathan's father has fallen out of the closet and onto the bed where Rosalie lies, waiting to seduce the confused young man.
  • The venus flytrap has been hacked to pieces by Jonathan.
  • After Madame Rosepettle's pet piranha eats the ax Jonathan used to kill the venus flytrap, Jonathan proceeds to kill the piranha.
  • In a final fit of rage, Jonathan strangles Rosalie to death.
So much for traditional family values!

Could Jonathan have retained his sanity with a strong father figure in his life? That's the kind of intriguing, testosterone-driven theorem that has inspired many a screenplay. In today's world of sperm donors, deadbeat dads, and baby daddies, it's often hard to imagine a father who stays involved in his children's lives.

How well a father holds up emotionally when a firm, commanding presence is needed depends on the man's internal compass. The fathers in two recent films found themselves caught in desperate circumstances.

One chose a bullet. The other reached out for help.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
It really doesn't count as a spoiler to discuss the fact that the protagonist in Father of My Children commits suicide midway through the film. Based on the true story of what happened to French film producer Humbert Balsan, this adaptation of his predicament by Mia Hansen-Love has a personal connection in its back story.

Hansen-Love met Balsan in early 2004 (he hung himself in his office in February of 2005). Her character is transformed into Arthur Malkavian (Igor Hansen-Love), an aspiring filmmaker whom Grégoire Canvel (Louis Do de Lencquaisang) would like to help, if only his life wasn't falling apart.

Like Balsan, Canvel's professional life is rapidly crumbling before his very eyes. He is deeply in debt to the film lab he has used for many years. His production company, Moon Films, is on the verge of bankruptcy. To make matters worse, a director whose film he is underwriting just cashed a large check prematurely.

In the first half of the film, the audience witnesses Canvel desperately trying to buy time while jockeying between cell phones. Despite the best efforts of his assistants, Valérie (Sandrine Dumas) and Bérénice (Dominique Frot), there is no way to prevent his film production company from being forced to liquidate.

When Grégoire spends the weekend at his country home with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and his three daughters -- Clémence (Alice de Lencquaisang), Valentine (Alice Gautier), and Billie (Manelle Driss) -- he is a happy family man who adores his children. But when the pressure becomes too much he kills himself, leaving Sylvia to pick up the mess he has left in his wake.

A happy moment with the Canvel family

As director Mia Hansen-Love recalls:
"[Humbert] wanted to produce my first film. His enthusiasm and trust were decisive for me in All Is Forgiven. I didn't write this movie out of gratitude, but because of Humbert Balsan's personality. He had an exceptional warmth, elegance, and aura. His energy, passion for films, and sensitivity -- which I took to be an invincible inner beauty -- are what made me write the movie.

Of course, there is also his suicide. The feelings of failure and despair that it reveals are overwhelming, but that doesn't replace the rest. It doesn't become the only truth. I wanted the film to express the paradox of contradictory movements within the same person, the conflict that can occur between light and darkness, strength and vulnerability, the desire to live and the urge to die.

Alice Gautier, Louis Do de Lencquaisang, and Manelle Driss

It occurred to me that a film about a producer could be a film about work, commitment, love and life. For a producer, chasing after funding can become alienating and lead to a dilemma (I'm referring here to producers who aim to produce the work of artists). On the one hand, there's a noble, ambitious vision of their trade; and on the other, huge loneliness, and economic and moral suffocation due to the constant pressure that comes from taking risks in a context that is relatively unfavorable economically and culturally."
The filmmaker chose to schedule Canvel's suicide exactly midway through her film in order to show how the producer's wife, children, and support staff all cope with the tragedy. Sylvia has little time for grieving as she tries to comfort her children and figure out how to liquidate her husband's assets and shut down his film production company. Although helped by one of Canvel's oldest friends, Serge (Eric Elmosnino), and given some kind words about her late husband by one of the more eccentric artists he supported (Magne Brekke), Sylvia must figure out how to provide for her daughters and plan for the future. As Hanson-Love explains:
"From the very beginning, I had this idea that Grégoire would die in the middle of the film. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not something I’ve done because it was a cool idea or whatever. To me it has to do with deep questions: What is it that remains from a man who has built so much, after his death? How does his soul survive? Through his personal relationships and links to his family? Or does it survive through the work he’s done?
Louis Do Lencquaisang as Grégoire Canvel

To me, this question is crucial and appears very clearly in the last scene of the film when the girls go to the office and the mother says, 'His soul will survive through the films' and the daughters say, 'Not only through his films, but through us also.' This question is very interesting to me, and the title of the film has this ambiguity. To me, the 'childen' are the films, or the filmmakers. The first part of the film is really more like an action film; it’s got a lot of speed and hyperactivity and energy. The second part really deals with mourning. And for some people, it’s a very abrupt change. Yet, as the film comes to a conclusion, it brings these two halves back together."
An interesting subplot involves the discovery by Grégoire's teenage daughter, Clémence, that her father had once had a son with someone other than her mother. Father Of My Children ends on a bittersweet note as Sylvia and her three daughters drive through Paris in a taxicab.

As a teary-eyed Clémence stares out the window, unsure of whether the family will move to Italy or remain in Paris, a recording of Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera dominates the film's end. Familiar to people who grew up in the 1950s, the lyrics (by Ray Evans) read as follows:
"When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother: What will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be.

When I was young, I fell in love.
I asked my sweetheart: What lies ahead?
Will we have rainbows day after day?
Here's what my sweetheart said:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be.

Now I have children of my own.
They ask their mother: What will I be?
Will I be handsome? Will I be rich?
I tell them tenderly:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be."
Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) with one of her daughters

With a running time of 110 minutes, Father Of My Children doesn't ever drag or lose steam. It simply lays out the pressures in one man's life while accepting the fact that -- despite an extremely supportive family and professional staff -- Grégoire could no longer envision a future. The result? Life goes on without him. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
While subtitles make Father Of My Children easy to understand, the same cannot be said about Looking For Eric. Although spoken in English, the heavy Manchester accents, some muffled sound, and the tendency of a key actor to mumble his lines conspire to make it nearly impossible to understand large stretches of dialogue.

As the film opens, the audience sees the protagonist driving in the wrong direction around a traffic rotary in the midst of some kind of personal crisis. Director Ken Loach explains:
"Eric Bishop is an intelligent man who suffers from panic attacks. It's really interfered with his ability to stay in a relationship. His response is to just put his head in the sand, go out with the lads, go to the games, have a drink, and not deal with it.
The consequence is his first marriage broke down. He then married someone else who developed a drinking problem. She had two sons by different fathers. When she finally went off the rails, he was left with these two lads.
Because, at heart, he's a very generous person, when they were younger he had a reasonable relationship with them. But as they've become teenagers, they do what other teenagers do: if they see a weakness, they exploit it. They destroy him. He's left with a big house that he can't manage and, of course, chaos breeds chaos. He can barely hold his job together."
Steve Evets as Eric Bishop

It's surprising that Looking For Eric, although written for the screen, unravels like a three-act play. In the first third, the audience sees Eric barely able to cope at work, unhinged by a chance encounter with his ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop), and being taken for granted by his teenage sons, Ryan and Jess. In the second act, Eric gets inspired by his soccer hero, Eric Cantona, who magically appears in his bedroom to give him some coach-like advice aimed at inspiring Eric to repair his rapidly deteriorating home situation.

Eric Bishop gets advice from his idol, Eric Cantona

While the two Erics wax nostalgic about some great goals scored when Cantona was an international star playing for the Manchester United Football Club, Cantona tries to give his student a basic plan for developng enough confidence to be able to talk to Lily and get his eldest stepson, Ryan (Gerard Kearns), out of trouble. Cantona's best line?
"I like this woman -- she has balls."
Steve Evets and Eric Cantona in training

The third and final act involves Eric's revenge on the thug who has threatened his family and caused his home to be raided by armed guards during what should have been a peaceful dinner. Inspired to seek out help from his fellow soccer fans, Eric and his chums charter three buses and, with all of them wearing Eric Cantona masks, proceed to humiliate the young thug in an orgy of violence and macho retaliation. John Henshaw (whose character in the film is named Meatballs) describes Looking For Eric as follows:
"Without getting preachy, society's broken down now. We don't have the extended family, with aunties and uncles and grandmas and all the rest of it looking after the kids like they did in the old days. Everybody keeps themselves to themselves. It's very rare to see a gang of lads together. I think the last bastions of communal friendship are the workplace and the football -- the game. They bring people together.
This movie is about mates mucking together. It's working class men making the effort for one of their mates. The primary instinct is 'If you kick him, you kick us' (which is great)."
What's not so great are the film's financial prospects with American audiences. Although Cantona's huge following abroad will, no doubt, bring in strong box office receipts from European markets, American audiences are not that heavily into soccer (as opposed to American football). There may be far fewer who are devoted fans of Eric Cantona. Most won't be able to understand a good deal of what is said in the film.

It's obvious from the press materials that screenwriter Paul Laverty, director Ken Loach, and their palindromic star, Steve Evets, are all huge soccer fans who have idolized Cantona. Perhaps blinded by their devotion to a sports hero (and their enthusiasm for the sport), they have made a film that might be a bit too authentic.

Having cast Looking For Eric primarily with actors from Manchester, their characters' accents may be correct and their enthusiasm for the sport palpable. But what most American audiences will see is a thinly-veiled attempt to build a story around the availability of a sports idol.

In Loach's eyes:
"The movie is about friendship and about coming to terms with who you are. It's a film against individualism (we're stronger as a gang than we are on our own). You can be pretentious about this, but it is about the solidarity of friends which is epitomized in a crowd of football supporters (but also where you work, and the people you work alongside).

Although that seems an almost trite observation, it's still not the spirit of the age. Or it hasn't been the spirit of the age for the last 30 years, where people are your competitors, not your comrades."
Loach's film includes numerous archival clips of Cantona scoring seemingly impossible goals during his heyday as a star athlete. Actors Stefan Gumbs (Jess) and Lucy-Jo Hudson (Sam) do some nice work as two of Eric's children. Stephanie Bishop shines as Eric's ex-wife Lily, a youngish grandmother who is trying to keep her life on a stable footing.

How much enjoyment you'll get from Looking For Eric depends, in large part, on how big a soccer fan you are. Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 24, 2010

What Just Happened?

Rand Paul's recent victory in the Kentucky Republican primary has been a gold mine for comedians. After his political honeymoon crashed and burned during an interview with Rachel Maddow, the zingers started to light up the sky like fireworks on the 4th of July (or the way BP is grooving to the motion of the ocean).
  • Bill Maher was quick to stress that: "The bat doesn't fall far from the shit."
  • In one of his diaries on DailyKos, Jeff Leiber postulated that "If Rand Paul and Sarah Palin got married... the 'No Gimp, Kike, Retards Served' sign could once again be proudly placed in the front windows of all the Wal-Marts in America -- just like the Founding Fathers intended."
  • Not to be left out, Andy Borowitz noted that "Paul’s surging popularity among morons is bad news for Palin, who previously had a lock on that important constituency. If Palin is going to stay competitive with Paul, she’s going to have to start dumbing down her message.”
Now that the Clown Prince of the Tea Party Movement has so clumsily reached for the spotlight, where does that leave the Queen of the Wingnuts? Will Palin go into full-blown Tonya Harding mode? Or will her rabid fans desert her for someone even dumber and in deeper denial than Caribou Barbie (be sure to read Richard Greener's brilliant essay from The Huffington Post entitled Rand Paul's Transparent Hypocrisy: He's A Doctor!).

Not only do I think Sarah Palin has jumped the shark, my guess is that she will soon start to seem as desperate for attention as corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle (1964's legendary flop musical written by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents). Just read the lyrics from one of Cora's big musical numbers and you'll understand why:
"Hi! Hey! Wait, voters!
I see flags, I hear bells
There's a parade in town.
I see crowds, I hear yells
There's a parade in town.
I hear drums in the air
I see clowns in the square
I see marchers marching,
Tossing hats at the sky.

Did you hear? Did you see?
Was a parade in town?
Were there drums without me?
Was a parade in town?
Well, they're out of step,
The flutes are squeaky,
The banners are frayed.
Any parade in town without me
Must be a second class parade!

So.... Ha!

Did you hear? Did you see?
Was a parade in town?
Were there drums without me?
Was a parade in town?
Cause I'm dressed at last,
At my best,
And my banners are high
Tell me while I was getting ready
Did a parade go by?"
Although it has received numerous revivals in concert format, Anyone Can Whistle was a bit too experimental for audiences back in 1964. Two challenging new plays with styles ranging from the Theatre of the Absurd to the "Theatre of What The Fuck?" are currently delighting Bay area audiences. Each has a fascination all its own.

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Jenny Schwartz's dazzling play, God's Ear (which just received its heady regional premiere from the Shotgun Players) gets off to an anxious start as a confused and terrified mother tries to process the fact that, following a drowning accident, there is no hope for her son to survive. Ricocheting between denial, disbelief, desperation, and exhaustion, Mel (Beth Wilmurt) and her husband Ted (Ryan O'Donnell) try to wrap their minds around an unimaginable family tragedy. That's where the fun begins.

Ryan O'Donnell and Beth Wilmurt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Beautifully directed by choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, God's Ear takes off on a rapid-fire ride through every cliché our society has developed so that people can rely on euphemisms instead of dealing with the cold hard truth. Sometimes her riffs have a hip-hop rhythm. At other times they feel like arias of linguistic pus oozing from a freshly-lanced boil. In one of her frustrated outbursts, the confused but determined Mel insists:
"And we'll cross that bridge.
And bridge that gap.
And bear that cross.
And cross that T.
And part that sea.
And act that part.
And turn that leaf.
And turn that cheek...."
Beth Wilmurt as Mel (Photo by: Pak Han)

As Schwartz explains:
"I am always thinking about the chasm between what we are thinking and feeling, and what we are able and willing to express through words. Along these lines, I'm endlessly fascinated with our unavoidable reliance on cliché as well as our unconscious adherence to socially prescribed modes of behavior. I'm interested in the way we express ourselves using regurgitated and borrowed language, both privately and publicly. On the one hand, I find our use of cliché sad, annoying, and infuriating while. on the other hand, I see tremendous beauty and hilarity in this strange shared language that we pass on and on and on.

With God's Ear, I wanted to deal with the subjects of grief and estrangement in a way that felt honest and emotionally connected; the barrage of language that makes up the play is fueled by and grounded in the characters' emotions and intentions. Mel experiences a great deal of fury as she expresses her feelings and experiences through language and finds herself with no other vehicle than cliché.

Although the play's plot and language -- as well as some of its characters -- are absurd and not realistic, the actors have absolutely approached their characters and the text in ways that are real and connected while attending to the text's strict rhythm and musicality. While I am incredibly exacting and precise with regard to the sounds of the words, I leave the play's physical world entirely up to the director and designers."
Lisa Clark's wonderfully inventive set (which uses every part of the Ashby Stage's free space) reminds me of an attraction I used to enjoy at George C. Tilyou's famed Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Ticketholders would climb a flight of stairs to a platform where they could make their way down a giant slide. They landed on a surface that contained a series of rotating turntables. The challenge was for them to make their way across multiple spinning surfaces to the ride's exit. Many quickly fell down. Most crawled to the exit on their hands and knees. According to Coney Island Dreams:
"Steeplechase installed a number of devices designed to give patrons the opportunity to play the fool. In addition to its various rides, Steeplechase provided 'stunts' designed to catch people off guard. Visitors entering the park from the ocean side had to pass through the 'Barrel of Fun,' a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact.

Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play. The 'Wedding Ring,' a great wooden circle suspended from a center pole, applied the principle of a playground swing to a ride that accommodated up to seventy customers at once. Similarly, the human 'Roulette Wheel,' which like a gigantic toy delighted both riders and spectators, set passengers whirling and sprawling out from its center by centrifugal force.

Equally important, Steeplechase attempted to satisfy the pleasure people derived from seeing others made foolish. Erstwhile victims were encouraged to sit in the 'Laughing Gallery' and act as spectators for those who followed. In this way, a major attraction of Steeplechase was simply the sanctioned opportunity to witness the wholesale violation of dominant social proprieties. Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation -- conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating -- became richly entertaining. The laughter of participants and spectators testified to their sense of release."
Hurtling through an abyss of confusion, hurt, loss, and anxiety, Mel's thoughts collide and ricochet like bumper cars of the mind. What should she tell her daughter Lanie (Nika Ezell Pappas), who dreams of becoming Helen Keller when she is not busily perfecting a six-year-old child's annoyingly repetitive use of the word "Why"?

Meanwhile, a man-hungry barfly named Lenora (Zehra Berkman) seems to be stalking Ted in airport lounges on his business trips. When he tries to call home, Mel turns her phone receiver upside down to poor herself a drink as she struggles to find a way to communicate with her increasingly remote husband.

Schwartz's script features frequent visits from the Tooth Fairy (Melinda Meeng). In a bravura display of double casting, Keith Pinto appears as a bearded flight attendant in drag and a G.I. Joe action figure come to life who possesses exceptional beatboxing skills.

Lenora (Zehra Berkman) and Ted (Ryan O'Donnell)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

In many ways, God's Ear is like a roller coaster ride through the dark caverns of doubt and the deeper recesses of an overly stressed imagination. As soon as one realizes that it's best to simply let go of the safety bar and sit back and enjoy the ride, it becomes easier to get inside Mel's anxiety, Ted's confusion, Lanie's neediness, and the nonsensical strings of clichés spewing from the actors' mouths as the magic of Schwartz's writing takes hold.

Nika Ezell Pappas as Lanie (Photo by: Pak Han)

In her program notes, director/choreographer Erika Chong Shuch writes:
"This world we live in is crazy, irrational, and sporadic. I think that sometimes, in making theatre, we forget that we can do anything. We forget that our own human imaginations have this beautiful way of making meaning out of fragments, and that the meaning we each create for ourselves is the result of a unique life. I want to make the kind of theatre that provides enough information for you to follow along -- but not enough information to dictate a prescribed response.

Jenny Schwartz has given us a play that calls on our innate intelligence by asking us to connect disparate pieces of information within a funny and terrible journey. She has given us an opportunity to activate our own imaginations within a sturdy structure. Live theatre is a crazy and amazing thing. I hope it never dies.

This play is like a treasure box with hidden compartments, where unending jewels fall through our fingers with every encounter. Jenny gives us a densely layered world that so accurately gets at the heart of something truly unimaginable (and she doesn't do this by presenting a world that is clear or dramatic or rational). The world she opens up to us is one in which no one says what they feel and yet, through the avoidance of full, clear emotional disclosures, we get closer to the guts of what it actually feels like to be overwhelmed with grief.

When the fine folks at Shotgun introduced this play to me as a possible world to bring to life I could not have been more thrilled. I immediately felt such a strange hunger for this material -- an immediate rush of images that has not stopped since the initial reading. God's Ear feels so darn honest because it's about what we say when we're running from an unbearable weight."
Ryan O'Donnell as Ted (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

God's Ear may remind some people of rapidly shifting dreams that seem to make no sense. In an odd way, it reminded me of Eric Overmyer's brilliant play On The Verge (Or The Geography of Yearning), in which three female explorers travel through time and across "Terra Incognita." For those who enjoy language, nonsense, have a taste for the absurd, and relish a wild theatrical ride, Schwartz's play continues through June 20 at the Ashby Stage (you can order tickets here). Highly recommended!

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Theatregoers who left the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's new production of In The Wake wondering why so much of playwright Lisa Kron's tiresome polemics landed on the stage floor with a dull thud should head over to SFPlayhouse, where The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry received its world premiere Saturday night as part of the company's Sandbox Lab for New Works. Unlike the self-indulgent rants Kron fashioned for her liberal protagonist, playwright William Bivins understands how to let his would-be political hero spout just enough theory of social science to let the audience in on the joke without making them want to shut down the lecture.

Ascuncion "Assy" Boyle (played by the ever intense Chad Deverman) is a young man on a mission. Having spent many hours in the Albuquerque Public Library researching his thesis on pig farming, his dream is to buy the area's largest pig farm back from its soon to be bankrupt owner, get rid of all the fertilizer and waste products that have been seeping into the local drinking water, and transform the land into a desert park which he will then donate to the community.

Chad Deverman as Assy Boyle (Photo by: Nina Ball)

Living in near poverty, Assy has been trying to manage the Lazy Eight Motel (whose windows are sealed with duct tape to keep out the overwhelming stench of pig shit). With a banner of Lenin looking down on his office, the proud idealist is bursting with the righteousness of Communist theory and an ardent zeal to return power to the people.

Assy's first step in bringing social justice to town? Getting the banker's slutty wife Lola (Madeline H.D. Brown) to handcuff herself to the bed in one of his motel rooms so he can lure her husband into his trap. Ever the purist, Assy won't let the man-hungry Lola get any sexual gratification until she understands the social theory behind his plans.

As you might guess, Assy's got a lot of 'splainin to do.

It seems that Lola's husband, Charles Masterson (Keith Burkland), was once romantically involved with Assy's mother. As a little boy, Assy sat outside the motel room where Lola is now dripping moist and watched through the window as Charles beat his mother with a belt.

As a grown man, Assy blames Charles for his mother's death but prides himself on being a pacifist who only wants social justice. What Assy really wants is revenge.

With only three characters onstage, Bivins has constructed a remarkably sly dramedy that demonstrates how the strategic use of agronomics as a political and philosophical weapon can be enhanced by sexual politics and a man's willingness to take a bite out of an opponent's face. As directed by Bill English, The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry draws sizable laughs from an ongoing series of plot twists as the ardent Communist becomes a greedy capitalist, the cynical, dishonest banker becomes a free-spirited wanderer in touch with his feelings, and the material girl remains a material girl.

Lola (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Assy (Chad Deverman)
(Photo by: Nina Ball)

Expect a love triangle whose participants keep fighting over a gun, a half-hearted offer of some pork rinds, and a bartender who refuses to serve any kind of drunk other than his own concoction (appropriately named "The Son of a Bitch"). But whatever you do, make sure not to underestimate the intellectual prowess of a horny trailer trash blonde who can calculate return on investment faster than her studly boyfriend can regurgitate social theory.

Chad Deverman, Madeline H.D. Brown and Keith Burkland form a tight ensemble of wily desert rats who can shift political positions with astonishing ease. The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry continues through June 12th in SFPlayhouse's intimate Sandbox (which seats approximately 50 people). You can order tickets here.

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In 2003, a 16-minute short by the hugely talented and more than mildly twisted Canadian writer/director, Jamie Travis -- who might very well be the bastard love child of John Waters and Todd Solondz -- captivated audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Why The Anderson Children Didn't Come To Dinner was subsequently screened at more than 60 film festivals and hailed as "sumptuously visualized" and "darkly hilarious."

In 2007, a 13-minute short by Travis was included in Frameline's "Fun In Boys Shorts" program. The Saddest Boy In The World (the second installment in Travis's trilogy about innocent children at risk in dysfunctional suburbia) left the audience in the Castro Theatre shocked and awed as little Timothy Higgins clarified the numerous reasons he had decided to commit suicide on his ninth birthday. Here's one of the film's delicious mini-trailers:

The final installment in this trilogy was screened during the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. Like its predecessors, L'Armoire is a beautifully realized piece which takes the audience to places it never expected to go. As the film moves backward in time, trying through hypnosis to discover clues to the disappearance of Aaron's best friend, Tony, the audience learns how an innocent game of Hide and Seek went horribly wrong.

And the role played by the mysterious armoire in Aaron's house.

William Cuddy as Aaron

Not only does Travis have a great flare for storytelling, his brilliant use of child-like innocence (framed by Alfredo Santa Ana's musical score) give this short a polish worthy of Tim Burton. William Cuddy (who scored strongly in Breakfast With Scot) gives a beautiful performance as Aaron, with Ricardo Hoyos making several eerie reappearances as Tony. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Till Death Do Us Part

Life is tough, then you die. One may wonder when it will happen -- or even how it will happen -- but no one doubts that at some point in time death is inevitable.

It will happen.

No matter how many times people are confronted with the cold, hard fact of their mortality, some really don't want to accept the idea that death is unavoidable. Due to the insidiousness with which religion has warped their perceptions, some insist that every effort be made to sustain a dying relation's life for as long as possible. Others may pray for a miracle.

These people refuse to accept the fact that the odds are stacked against them. No one has ever beaten the system and no one ever will. While many a melodramatic tear has been wrung from a well-written death scene, some people actually look forward to dying.
  • For some, death is seen as a way out, a relief from the pressure to keep on living.
  • For others, death seems like the only solution to their woes.
  • Some people make peace with the idea of dying because they are steadily losing their battle with a terminal disease.
  • Others look forward to death as a way of tying up loose ends and making a clean exit (the public's demand for the right to a physician-assisted suicide in extreme cases led to the 1994 passage of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act).
  • In 2006, Eric Steel's haunting documentary, The Bridge, examined why so many people have ended their lives by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Best known as the theme song from the movie and television series M*A*S*H, Mike Altman's lyrics to "Suicide Is Painless" (music by Johnny Mandel) read as follows:
"Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.

I try to find a way to make
All our little joys relate
Without that ever-present hate
But now I know that it's too late, and...

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say.

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
And to another give my seat
For that's the only painless feat.

The sword of time will pierce our skins.
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows it grin, but...

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
'Is it to be or not to be'
And I replied, 'Oh, why ask me?'

'Cause suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.
...and you can do the same thing if you choose."

A handful of films screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival focused on people who opt for suicide, long to be released from life's misery, or simply accept death as the natural consequence of having been born. Whether in narrative or documentary format, each film explores the reasons why someone might embrace death rather than fleeing the inevitability of its grasp.

* * * * * * * * *
Jay Rosenblatt's 26-minute-long black-and-white documentary entitled The Darkness of Day is, in effect, a meditation/montage about suicide made by a filmmaker whose family has experienced more than one intentional death. Rosenblatt uses discarded 16-mm footage that he feels captures "the sadness, the isolation, and the desire to escape" that had previously been recorded in various contexts on film.

Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt

As the narrator reads from a journal kept by a man who committed suicide in 1990 (the brother of one of Rosenblatt’s friends), the filmmaker tries to evoke a sense of compassion in the audience while exploring what has made suicide such a repulsive thought to so many people and yet the perfect solution to others. The diarist's words are simple and to the point:
"I cannot bear, even once more, to wake to sorrow. I do not fear death. I fear the empty hours of life that would otherwise lie ahead -- a life that seems to me the worst fate for a person on this earth. "
Rosenblatt's film examines a mix of intentional deaths, ranging from those of celebrities (Ernest Hemingway) to the double suicide of an elderly American couple. Mention is made of the teenage girl who jumped directly into the lava flow at Mount Mihara on the Japanese island of Izu Oshima.

Not only did her suicide spawn more than a thousand imitations (in 1936 alone, more than 600 people leaped to their deaths at this site), it helped to transform Izu Oshima into a popular tourist attraction. No doubt due to its fatality-driven fame, Mount Mihara subsequently became the location where Godzilla was imprisoned by the Japanese government in Godzilla 1985.

* * * * * * * * *
The man I followed to California in 1972 committed suicide several years later. Chuck Cleaves was one of those gay men who, after swallowing a lot of drugs at the Folsom Street Barracks during the 1970s (he had a particular fondness for PCP), convinced himself that there was no reason for a gay man to want to live past the age of 30. Having worked as an orderly in the Kaiser Hospital Emergency Room, he knew exactly how to inject an air bubble into one of his veins.

When a former roommate called to tell me that Chuck "had finally succeeded," there was no need to explain what he was talking about. With some people, suicide is never a question of "if" but rather "when." Assisted suicide does not always mean holding a pillow down over someone's head. Sometimes it can be as simple as leaving them alone for long enough to get the job done.

The programmer who introduced Domaine to the audience at the San Francisco International Film Festival couldn't stop gushing about what an impact the film had made on her when she saw it at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. As a result, I was curious to see what could possibly have moved her so deeply. The movie that she claimed she would remember for the rest of her life struck me as far less impressive than many other melodramas.

That may be because, having lived in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, I've gotten used to the fact that many people jump off bridges, overdose on drugs, and give up on the 12-step programs designed to help them cope with their substance abuse problems. For some people, living sober can be a real bitch!

Plenty of films have been made about alcoholics who drink themselves to death. Patric Chiha's drama, however, crosses over into the "doomed diva" school of faghaggery, as a handful of people watch a beloved friend disappear into a bottle. The main characters include:
  • Nadia (Béatrice Dalle), a mathematician who is obsessed with order but whose alcoholism leads her, irretrievably, to chaos.
  • Samir (Alain Libolt), one of Nadia's closest and most loyal friends.
  • John (Raphael Bouvet), one of Nadia's more flamboyant friends (whose specialty is going to gay bars in drag and performing onstage as Joan Crawford).
  • Jeanne (Tatiana Vialle), Nadia's younger sister, who tries to warn her headstrong son that his aunt's much-touted originality is really an illusion. As strong-willed as Nadia may seem, there is no doubt in Jeanne's mind that Nadia has always been the black sheep of their family.
  • Pierre (Isaie Sultan), Jeanne's teenage son who, instead of spending time with his high school classmates, prefers to go for brisk walks through the parks of Bordeaux with his charismatic, chain-smoking, and hypercritical aunt.
  • Fabrice (Manuel Marmier), the young man who cruises Pierre on a city bus and breaks Nadia's stranglehold on Pierre's attention.
Unlike such lighthearted fare as Auntie Mame and Travels With My Aunt, Chiha's first full-length feature is focused on the changing dynamic between a gay teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and his flamboyant, self-centered diva of an alcoholic aunt. Whereas Augusta Bertram and Mame Dennis are life forces that broaden the horizons of their impressionable, wide-eyed nephews, Nadia is an extremely selfish woman whose neediness could easily suffocate Pierre (an appropriate title for this film could just as easily have been Travails With My Aunt).

Nadia and and her nephew have developed an extremely strong bond (though still in his teens, Pierre has become his aunt's closest confidant and taken on the role of the handsome gay man who advises Nadia on which outfit and accessories to wear). No stranger to gay bars, Nadia doesn't hesitate to take her nephew out dancing with her and "the boys."

As Chiha notes:
"On the first day of auditions, I asked the young men to listen to some music under headphones and do whatever they felt. Surprisingly, Isaie was the only one who danced (in his own very personal way). I felt that the way he moved was essential for the role of Pierre. At the time of filming, Isaie was truly between two ages -- he was both a child and a man. During the shoot, he underwent the same transformation as Pierre. He matured, grew hair, made a place for himself amongst a crew of adults, and became the leading role. The exchange of roles between Nadia and Pierre is the story of the film."
Isaie Sultan as Pierre

Chiha also stresses that Nadia's fascination with the mathematical theories of Kurt Gödel was a carefully made choice.
"Gödel revolutionized mathematics by showing that the world of mathematics is necessarily incomplete. Nadia is on that same path. Initially, she believes in the possibility of a structure. She believes the world can be organized or defined. But, in the end, she understands she's been wrong about that. The world is, and will remain, chaos. She can't find the formula because the formula cannot be found.

Béatrice Dalle as Nadia

The main reason I chose Gödel is because he went crazy (Einstein would take him on daily walks through the Princeton campus). I'm interested in how she comes to understand that there's no solution, no magic formula. The source of her profound melancholy is that she comes to realize that words only add confusion to thoughts and feelings. She says it clearly in the film: 'Words are disorder.'"
As the film progresses, Nadia's drinking continues to spiral out of control. When Pierre finds himself spending more time with Fabrice (his first boyfriend), Nadia becomes noticeably jealous. As she becomes more depressed, it becomes obvious that she's been selling off her dresses to support her drinking. By the time Nadia finds the courage to enter a rehabilitation clinic in Austria named Domaine, Pierre has become repulsed by her behavior and is barely speaking to his aunt.

However, after several months, he decides to visit her in Austria. Arriving in the dead of winter, he finds Nadia sober, depressed, going through the miserably banal motions of daily life, and desperate for a drink. When Pierre arranges her to take Nadia off the grounds for a day, he is warned by the clinic's director that he will be responsible for his aunt's health and that, due to the fragility of her liver, one drink will kill her.

Pierre (Isaie Sultan) and Nadia (Béatrice Dalle)

In a key scene, Pierre overhears Nadia's confession to another patient that she wishes to die. Later, when Pierre takes her for a day excursion away from Domaine's grounds, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, Nadia orders herself some booze.

Whether out of love, helplessness, or disgust, Pierre does nothing to stop her from drinking it. Late that night, as they walk through a snow-covered forest, Nadia falls to the ground and calls out for help. Knowing the end is near, Pierre doesn't move. As Chiha sees the situation:
"It's more an abandonment or symbolic murder. Pierre is cruel in the sense that he chooses himself instead of Nadia. Nadia is cruel because she gives a young man a mission he cannot accomplish: that of saving her."
While Chiha's story is beautifully captured on film (and despite a powerful performance by Béatrice Dalle) it's hard to feel much sympathy for Nadia. What I found much more interesting was how Pierre's emerging gayness was a total nonissue for his family. Here's the trailer:

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Start by thinking of the provocative new film written and directed by Joao Pedro Rodrigues as the antithesis of 1978's La Cage aux Folles, its 1983 adaptation for the musical stage by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, and 1996's Americanized film version, The Birdcage (which starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams). To Die Like A Man is much grittier, portrays a much deeper emotional pain for a gay parent, and challenges its audience to deal with more wrenching and life-threatening issues.

Think of this film as a Portuguese reworking of Romeo and Juliet in which -- instead of revolving around two star-crossed lovers from warring families -- the forbidden love is shared by Tonia (Fernando Santos), a popular but aging and increasingly blowsy drag queen/entertainer whose leaking silicone implants have started to poison her body, and her much younger, drug-addicted male lover Rosário (Alexander David), who has been urging Tonia to undergo gender reassignment surgery. As the great Margo Channing once said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

Fernando Santos as Tonia

To Die Like A Man was partly inspired by the real-life story of Centurio Joaquim de Almeida (who performed in Lisbon nightclubs using the stage name Ruth Bryden). As filmmaker Joao Pedro Rodrigues explains:
"A dazzling icon of Lisbon’s night life, Tonia, at the peak of her career in the late 1980s, discarded her double identity and clothed herself in her 'artistic character,' beginning a series of plastic surgery operations which turned her socially into a woman. Tonia gradually let fall all traces of her original male identity which, for her, represented everything she could not control (discrimination against her same-sex orientation, the male gender which she deplored in her body, the name of the family which rejected her, and the paternity of a son who was the outcome of a teenage heterosexual relationship).

Tonia (Fernando Santos) with her pet dog, Augostina

Tonia changes her appearance but never actually changes her sex. Against her will and her most immediate and urgent truth, her deepest conscience speaks: her religious convictions do not allow her to complete the transformation. This is a film about war. About a world at war (a war against the self). But it is also a love story, about the love between Tonia and her young friend, Rosário."
Tonia's no fool. She knows that some of the younger drag queens at the club where she has been a star for many years would love to push her out of the lineup. A temperamental and justifiably paranoid diva, she even contemplates abandoning show business. But, as a deeply religious drag queen, she struggles with the knowledge that even though she wants to be the woman her Rosário desires, she can never become that woman in God's eyes.

Tonia's competitor Jenny (Jenni La Rue)

Not only does Tonia have a good-hearted habit of picking up stray dogs like Augostina and hustlers like Rosário, she also has a very angry son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), who has recently gone AWOL from the military and tracked her down. Sexually confused (after having anal sex with another soldier, he murdered the man with a bullet in his head) and filled with rage at having been abandoned by Tonia when he was just a child, Zé Maria has no compunctions about tearing up Tonia's house, ruining her aquarium, and bringing a lot more stress into Tonia's life (which is already filled to the brim with homodrama). The fact that Tonia seems to love her dog, Augostina, more than any human does not help matters at all.

One of Zé Maria's acts of defiance against his biological father

To get away from all her troubles, Tonia convinces Rosário to take her on a road trip to visit his brother. When they become lost -- and Tonia's newest stray dog refuses to return to their car -- the couple find themselves in an enchanted forest where they meet the strange Maria Bakker (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her even stranger friend/maid, Paula (Miguel Loureiro). Maria Bakker may be a real piece of work, but she's a far cry from the witch encountered by Hansel and Gretel when they got lost in the Black Forest. As the filmmaker explains:
"It was on finding Casa Susanna, a book of anonymous photographs I discovered by chance in a flea market, that I found the key to materialize the fiction I wanted to write. These photographs are a 'family album,' shots of the home life of a certain Susanna, a professional drag artist (whose visiting card was found together with the photos) who organized meetings in the 1960s with his men friends in a country house where they all donned female clothes and probably acted out at weekends the average middle-class American housewives’ tasks, far from society’s bigoted gaze, and thus building up a kind of Eden of tolerance and freedom of speech.

Maria Bakker (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida) and Paula (Miguel Loureiro)

These photographs, which remind me so much of the melancholy of William Eggleston’s images and of Edward Hopper’s solitary women, led me to the second major movement of the film: Tonia and Rosário’s outing to the countryside. During this 'partie de campagne,' they get lost in the forest, eventually to meet the enigmatic Maria Bakker, whose function here is as a double and a counterpoint to the character of Tonia. Tonia faces up to fate, understanding that the journey she has embarked on is much longer and has no return. Her body eaten up with disease is the most obvious and tragic evidence of this. As a result, Maria Bakker’s forest is not so much the enchanted forest of the fairy tales, but rather a dark and impenetrable forest."
The film takes its title from Tonia's request to her son, Zé Maria, that he promise to dress her in a suit for her funeral so that she can die like a man. What Tonia does not anticipate is Rosário's suicidal response to her death, which is every bit as moving as the final moments of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Throw in a demonstration (using origami techniques) of how male genitalia are surgically converted to female genitalia during a sex change operation, some mystical floating points of light in an enchanted forest, and the special effects by Antonio Gavinho (who manages to simulate brownish diseased pus oozing from Tonia's diseased nipple) and it's easy to forgive the film's excessive length of 138 minutes.

Despite many weak points (and a need to trim at least 20 minutes), To Die Like A Man has a unique voice and is willing to take big risks. Fernando Gomes (as the club owner, Teixiera) and Cindy Scrash (as Tonia's friend, Irene) appear in supporting roles. If the audience finds itself caring more about Tonia and Rosário than they might have expected, it is in large part due to the screenwriter/director's research into the private lives of certain figures in Lisbon's drag community.
"Some of the people I met during my research served as models for building up my characters and, eventually, some became my characters. It was a slow and sometimes difficult job to get close to them, but one which allowed me to write this story while thinking of real bodies, of actual flesh-and-blood people. I know how they walk, how they gaze, how they speak. They are not abstract images written on a piece of paper. They breathe the air that surrounds us.

I firmly believe that it would have been impossible to make this film without the emotion and the generosity of these persons. However, as I wrote the screenplay, I felt the film had to turn its back on the relentlessness of tragedy and find another point of view that would allow me to stand back from the actual real-life stories."
Like life, To Die Like A Man is at times long and messy. But when it hits its mark, the film soars with surprising visual strength and genuine poignancy. Here's the trailer: