Thursday, February 24, 2011

Working Behind The Scenes

Make no mistake, the culture wars are back. No sooner did Republicans regain control of the U.S House of Representatives than, after giving the briefest lip service to the government's urgent need to create jobs, they fell back on their old bait-and-switch techniques.

Intoxicated by the Tea Party and Fox News Channel's delusional, self-righteous approach to mathematics, these people believe that by making minuscule cuts in the budget (instead of ending massive subsidies to oil companies) they can save America from a fate worse than death: intelligence. Convinced that there is no need to increase revenues (simply done by eliminating the Bush tax cuts), they would rather starve the federal government than let it function in any way that might benefit the poor and middle class.

Proposing such lamebrained budget cuts as eliminating all funds for repairs in the executive residence, Republicans have offered a compelling display of how to cut off your nose to spite your own face. As usual, once those Republican knees started jerking, it didn't take long for "the usual suspects" to end up in the cross hairs. High on the Republican list of how to create jobs were:
As in years past, the group that assumes it owns the high moral ground has once again proven to be thoroughly meanspirited, misogynistic, and mentally challenged in its appalling lack of respect for their fellow Americans. As the saying goes, "Luck will find you, but karma will hunt you down."

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As the San Francisco Opera prepares for this summer's Ring cycle, I wish every politician who has ever attacked the National Endowment for the Arts could have a chance to watch Sing Faster, a documentary filmed 20 years ago when the company was reviving its 1985 production of Wagner's Ring cycle (designed by John Conklin and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff). What they would see are real Americans doing real work as stagehands and who, not so surprisingly, belong to a real union.

Originally photographed in 1990 as a 30-minute film about the sets for Wagner's Ring cycle, the hour-long documentary was not completed until 1998. Filmmaker Jon Else (who submitted 137 funding proposals in the intervening years, did not enter the project as a major opera buff. As he recalls:
"My wife and I had taken our kids to see La Traviata. It was a family matinee, and they left the curtain open during one of the scene changes. It was great. The soprano finished her aria and left the stage. Then all of the sudden 100 workers came out and transformed a palace into a cornfield or a cornfield into a palace -- I can't remember what it was.
I approached the San Francisco Opera to see if we could do a little behind-the-scenes movie about the scene changes, and they said sure. And then we both forgot about it. Then about six months later they called me back and said we're doing the Ring Cycle, do you want to do the Ring Cycle? And I, without thinking, said sure, never having heard the Ring Cycle. I went out and got a recording of it and sat down and listened to it. I thought are they kidding? People actually listen to this shit? I can't imagine people actually paying money to listen to this garbage. And then slowly it began to grow on me. It is certainly an acquired taste. By the time we finished shooting, I was a complete maniac for the Ring Cycle."

Viewers who are devout opera fans -- or were lucky enough to experience this particular production -- will be particularly impressed with the backstage action in high pressure moments during actual set changes (as well as the card games that take place backstage during long periods of singing). Hearing the stagehands' version of the complicated plot -- "Doesn't one of the giants get a chick out of the deal, too?" -- provides some unexpected laughs.

Because the entire film was shot during rehearsals, Else was able to bolt an Arriflex camera to the balcony rail of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Using an intervalometer, the camera was automatically triggered to expose one frame every twenty seconds for two months. The resulting blizzard of images was edited into two fascinating stop-motion sequences. The first compresses two months of set construction into two minutes. The second squeezes the entire 17 hours of Wagner's Ring cycle into one minute.

What Else's documentary really captures is a labor of love for the operatic art form supporting the massive collaborative effort required to mount a Ring cycle. As he explains:
"I've always been really interested in working people. I've done a lot of work. I've worked in factories and I've worked in construction. I'm just fascinated by the work that people do. Old fashioned work. Drive a nail, push a wheelbarrow, work. The thing that attracted me originally was the grandeur of the sets. Then I began to hang out with the guys who did this astonishing work.
I was really struck by two things. One, just the amazing skill and intricacy involved. They're almost like musicians the way they move, the way they choreograph, the way they can have several huge sets moving on the stage at the same time -- all in silence. The second was how well they knew the operas. I don't know why that should have surprised me, but it did. What is easy to miss when you watch the film is that it is in a deafening sound environment. You have a 106-piece orchestra playing full volume and you often have people whispering in the foreground."
Sing Faster is available on Netflix and can also be viewed in six 10-minute segments on YouTube. Here's the first segment:

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If there is one documentary that should be a must-see item on your list of future viewings, it is David Weissman's poignant new film, We Were Here. For those, like myself, who were living in San Francisco before the AIDS crisis began, it offers a remarkable retrospective of three traumatic decades in which a community struggles to cope with a health epidemic that is ravaging its members. But there is so much more to Weissman's film than just death.

We Were Here actually starts off in the mid 1970s, some ten years after the hippie revolution, when "sex, drugs, and rock'n roll" had become the defining template for a generation of Americans high on their newfound sexual freedom.  After the brooding dark days of hippies sporting long hair, it's shocking to be reminded how happy people once looked. Whether partying at street fairs or hanging out on Castro Street, denim-clad hunks with brilliant smiles were luxuriating in a lifestyle that, for the first time in their lives, allowed them to express themselves as they chose fit.

With the first photographs of Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, however, those smiles rapidly disappeared. Healthy-looking men who you saw at the gym one day could be dead within two weeks. With the city still reeling from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk and the mass suicide in Jonestown, San Francisco began a deep slide into a period of perpetual mourning. Weissman's film features emotionally-charged interviews with a handful of survivors:
Weissman's documentary certainly includes some painful moments. For those who lived in San Francisco, it's surprising to see how many of the obituaries that flash by on the screen are for men we once knew. But for the filmmaker, there was a deeper and very personal reason to make this film.

While We Were Here offers stark reminders of the blatant homophobia of the Reagan and Bush administrations, it also documents how San Francisco's lesbian community stepped up to the plate to help with fundraising and blood drives. By the end of the film, viewers will feel inspired by the way San Francisco's community activism set a tone for the rest of the nation. The personal dedication of many volunteers and caregivers who struggled with professional burnout and survivor's guilt will have tears silently running down your cheeks.

As conservatives launch yet another attack on women's reproductive rights, We Were Here stands a striking testament to the human spirit and its desire that all people be treated with compassion and decency. Here's the trailer:

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