Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Have Yourself A Merry Midlife Crisis

Midlife crises come in many flavors. Some people buy new cars or acquire new trophy wives. Others make a dramatic change in their career path, hoping to pursue their real passion (rather than try to fulfill their parents' expectations) or falling back into safe mode when the going gets tough.

My own midlife crisis came after 15 years of trying to build a career as a free-lance arts writer. Although I made some major inroads and had good name recognition, by the early 1990s I also found myself head over heels in credit card debt and lacking any stable source of income. Unless I made a dramatic change, I could end up homeless. That meant one thing and one thing only: The life of a struggling writer would have to be put on hold.

When I was young, a close friend who was a gym teacher told me that "whenever you got into trouble, those fat little fingers of yours are going to save your ass." He was referring to my typing speed and the fact that I loved typing as much as he loved sports. But he was right.

In the midst of my midlife crisis (unresolved stress is a great way to lose 45 pounds while grinding your teeth), I found my way back into medical transcription, a profession where clients often pay their bills on time. A few years ago, when a close friend suggested that I start a blog, he reopened a door I thought had been shut forever.

The happy result is that, while I still earn income from a small transcription service, I get my satisfaction from writing this blog and contributing to the arts section of The Huffington Post. There is no price which can compensate for having such a creative outlet. For anyone still wondering what the impact will be of AOL acquiring The Huffington Post, let me recommend Frank Schaeffer's superb "Open Letter To Arianna Huffington."

As most people know, Ms. Huffington has gone through almost as many career changes as a cat has lives. Once a devout Republican, she experienced a political enlightenment during the 1990s and even ran for Governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Throughout her career, whether it be her 1981 biography of Maria Callas or giving voice to Arianna the Bear on The Cleveland Show, she has kept writing. The author of 13 books and innumerable articles and blogposts, Huffington has recently been hailed as one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in history.

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Alas, not every woman has such luck changing horses in midstream. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, Holly Hughes was a cutting-edge artist. In February of 1990, the solo performance peer panel at the National Endowment for the Arts unanimously recommended funding for 18 artists, including Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Hughes (who became known as the infamous NEA Four).

By June of that year, Congress had passed a so-called decency clause which stated that the NEA must consider not just artistic merit but "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public." LGBT artists and audiences were not at that time considered to be part of the American public by such arch conservatives as the odious pustule named Jesse Helms, who labeled Hughes "a garbage artist."

By February of 1992, John Frohnmayer had been forced to resign as head of the National Endowment for the Arts. In March of 1993, the Clinton administration appealed the federal court's decision, striking down the "decency clause" and in June of 1993 the NEA settled out of court with the four artists whose grants had been denied in 1990.
Holly Hughes (Photo by: Lisa Guido)

Since then, the lesbian once described as "hell on heels" by The Village Voice has settled down in her home state of Michigan. Hughes is now employed as an associate professor at the University of Michigan with appointments in Art and Design, Theatre and Drama, and Women's Studies.  At 55, she and her girlfriend (lesbian anthropologist Esther Newton) have nine dogs. The promotional blurb for her new show at The Marsh reads as follows:

"The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony) is a new solo performance piece written and performed by 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Holly Hughes and directed by Dan Hurlin. A blend of autobiography, animal behavior, and bald faced lies, the show is a comic/poetic meditation on a midlife crisis in the key of canine. After several years as a self-described "professional homosexual" spent preaching to the perverted and getting in the craw of the religious right, Hughes disbands her one (wo)man dog and pony show, takes a real job at a prestigious university, acquiring a small pack of dogs, and must ask herself: 'What is the sound of one lesbian clapping?'"
The answer can be summed up in one simple word:  B-O-R-I-N-G.

Hughes starts off reassuring the audience that her new show will not be all about lesbians and lesbian politics but, rather, about dogs and their relationships to people. The following brief clip offers an appetizer to what sounds like it could be an interesting piece of theatre.

Given that her new monologue only lasts 55 minutes, it's surprising to see it crash and burn so early into the performance. Hughes introduces a badly-shot hand-held video someone took of her as she tried to take her dog through the "agility" course at an American Kennel Club event.

My first piece of advice: If you plan to use video in your show, aim for better production values than The Blair Witch Project.

What follows is a painfully roundabout discussion about why women who are not are attracted to cats develop a thing for dogs (obviously ignoring the horse set) and how dogs have taken over  control of her household. The writing seems as if it had been assembled using random thoughts on index cards which  left Hughes struggling to find a way to glue the material together and point her show toward the finish line.

Only when she launches into a segment about how humans think they are the ones who own and lead their dogs around (when it's really the dogs who own and lead their well-trained humans around) does Hughes unwittingly reveal the show's biggest problem:  It's not the dogs who have been tamed and domesticated, it's the artist.

As I left The Marsh, I couldn't help thinking about the final moments in Act II of Puccini's opera, Tosca.  Having stabbed Rome's sadistic chief of police to death, the great singer Floria Tosca looks down at Baron Scarpia's body with a mixture of shock and scorn and quietly mutters "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma! (and before him trembled all of Rome").

The following video clip is from Brian Large's 1992 site-specific production of Tosca.  Watch as Tosca (Catherine Malfitano) kills Scarpia (Ruggero Raimondi) in one of the rooms of Rome's Palazzo Farnese.

Sadly, the most interesting thing about The Dog and Pony Show was the pair of shiny banana yellow vinyl stiletto heels in which Hughes clumped her way around the stage. Her show ended not with a bang, but with barely even a whimper.

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Many a script has been written about characters who are prostitutes. From Mrs. Warren's Profession  and La Traviata to Midnight Cowboy and Cabaret, from Klute and The Threepenny Opera to Thais and The Life, male and female prostitutes have been shown as they struggle to leave the oldest profession in the world. 

The first thing to understand about Jeanne Labrune's new drama, Special Treatment, is that this film is nowhere as sweet and sentimental as 1990's Pretty Woman, a film directed by Gary Marshall that starred Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, and Hector Elizondo.

Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged Parisian prostitute who graduated from university with a degree in art history. She has been an upscale prostitute for enough years to have become quite proficient at treating what she does as a business. Whether it means catering to the fancies of a pedophilic client (Jean-François Wolff) or protecting herself from a client who turns violent (Gilles Cohen), she keeps a firm hand on the proceedings.

Over the years, Alice has learned how run her operation with the clinical detachment of  a hospital technician. Adjoining hotel rooms are kept clean and tidy, with appropriate wardrobes to match each client's sexual fantasy.

Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert) with one of her clients.

Although, by this point in her life, Alice has become emotionally numb to the demands of her work, she knows how to meet potential clients in a hotel bar while dressed simply enough to allow them to confess their hidden desires and secret fetishes without feeling threatened. With that knowledge, Alice casually recites a price list that is as simple for clients to understand as a drop-down menu. The details of their financial responsibilities are explained with the same clinical detail as the items to be checked off by an event planner. Terms of service are outlined in simpler details than any software program's user agreement.

Alice's girlfriend, Juliette (Sabila Moussadek), is a fellow hooker who understands Alice's frustrations and always offers a sheltering port in any storm. As she discusses her clients with Juliette, Alice can readily extrapolate how many sessions it will take with a certain client to earn a chandelier or some other objet d'art  she desires. Not only does Alice know how to protect herself if a client gets violent, she understands that the time has come to get a new life.

As part of her methodology, Alice has been thinking about seeing a psychiatrist who might help her gain the emotional strength to leave her clients behind and get a real job. Like several of the psychiatrists she interviews, Alice only takes on new clients through trusted referrals and reserves the right to refuse anyone her services.

Isabelle Huppert as Alice Bergerac

Meanwhile, Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) is an uptight, repressed psychoanalyst whose marriage to another therapist (Valérie Dréville) is on the rocks. Not only does the couple spend all of their days listening to other people's complaints (they both work out of their home), they've fallen into a rut of being unable to communicate with each other. When Hélène kicks Xavier out of their home for his lack of attentiveness, he ends up staying in a hotel and, through a friend's referral, seeking out Alice's services.

Like Alice, Xavier has grown bored with his regular clients --  who include a manic depressive patient (Didier Bezace) who realizes that his therapist may be just as fucked up as he is, and a middle aged man (Frédéric Longbois)who shows up for his sessions in drag.

While neither Alice nor Xavier take cold calls, they each have needs. Special Treatment has a cagey way of demonstrating the strong similarities between the professional protocol of a prostitute and a therapist and doesn't hesitate to ask which pathway is built on a greater amount of bullshit. At one point Alice is referred to a psychiatrist played by Richard Debuisne (who co-wrote the film's script). He refuses to treat her, but not for the reason she imagines (Alice thinks he doesn't want to take money earned from her prostitution). 

Isabelle Huppert as Alice dressing for a client

What the therapist has clearly sensed is that Alice is already strong enough to transition out of prostitution and does not really need his help. Livid at his refusal of services, Alice tracks him down at the clinic where he works. It turns out to be a hospital ward for the mentally ill. 

After spending some time with a patient named Bruno (Karim Leklou), Alice realizes she can move ahead without the help of a therapist. After Dr. Cassagne refers her to an art auctioneer, Alice lands a new job and a new life while Xavier arranges to meet his wife in a hotel bar, modeling his rendezvous for a reconciliation on Alice's technique for meeting new clients.

Labrune's film takes its time as it shows the parallel lives led by the prostitute and the psychoanalyst. Sometimes it may feel too slow, at other times it's difficult to imagine how the film will resolve. But it's an intelligent approach to a difficult topic -- how people facing midlife crises can reinvent themselves and embark on a new path. Isabelle Huppert, as always, is superb. Here's the trailer:

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