Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Meet The Effervescent Mr. Feel-Good

Tevye the Dairyman liked to warn that "Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave." But lately, the bad news just keeps on coming.

If one thinks of the catastrophes that have erupted so far this year (not counting any references to Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark), it becomes obvious that February 22nd's 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 11th's 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that hit northern Japan, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant (during which millions of gallons of radioactive water were dumped into the ocean) have gotten 2011 off to a rousing start.

Meanwhile, America faces a sagging economy hampered by political infighting.  As union busting conservatives continue to wage class warfare while salivating over the possibility of a government shutdown, it often seems as if the world has spun off its axis and madmen have taken over. Watching the following clip of Penny Marshall (from a mid 1970s appearance on the Captain & Tennille variety show) makes one wonder what it would take to lift people's spirits.

One solution is to spend time with those rare souls whose natural happiness is infectious. I'm not referring to obnoxiously perky optimists whose levels of denial border on toxic insanity. Nor am I referring to the irrational exuberance of the con artists running Wall Street whose turgid bonus packages have become swollen with a newfound sense of financial lust and upscale entitlement.

Instead, I'm referring to those few and lucky people whose genuine ebullience and buoyant personalities keep them afloat through life's darkest moments. At the core of their very being is the great sense of satisfaction they derive from the tiniest blessings that life bestows upon them -- even in the middle of a massive shit storm. The bottom line? These are people love who truly what they do.

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The hugely talented Jason Graae (who recently appeared for two nights at The Rrazz Room) offered audiences an intoxicating reminder of what it is like to be in the presence of a confident, old-fashioned, multifaceted entertainer. Unlike many lounge or cabaret singers, Graae began the evening playing the oboe in a two-piece arrangement of the overture for his new show, "Perfect Hermany." Dedicated to Jerry Herman's song catalog, Graae managed to include (at the very least) the following numbers in his act:
  • From 1961's Milk and Honey: "There's No Reason in the World."
  • From 1964's Hello, Dolly!: "It Only Takes A Moment," "Just Leave Everything To Me" (from the film version of the musical), and an audience singalong of the show's legendary title song, Hello, Dolly!
  • From 1966's Mame: "If He Walked Into My Life" and "Mame."
  • From 1969's Dear World: "One Person" and "I Don't Want to Know."
  • From 1974's Mack and Mabel: "I Won't Send Roses,"  "Wherever He Ain't," "Time Heals Everything," and "I Promise You A Happy Ending."
  • From 1979's The Grand Tour: "Mrs. S. L. Jacobovsky" and "You I Like."
  • And, from 1983's La Cage aux Folles, the song that turned into an LGBT anthem of sorts: "I Am What I Am."
Jason Graae

Accompanied throughout most of the evening by John Boswell (Mr. Graae sat down at the piano to accompany himself for "My Best Girl" from Mame), the spry and wiry performer went out of his way to make his audience happy. Although I've enjoyed several live appearances by Mr. Graae in the past, what struck me on this outing was his insistence on giving the Rrazz Room's small and hugely appreciative audience 150% of what he had to offer.

Onstage, Mr. Graae glows with the irrepressible joy that comes from having himself a wonderful time. Whether donning tap shoes for Mack and Mabel's "Tap Your Troubles Away," crooning a tender love song like The Grand Tour's "Marianne," adding a new layer of camp to Mame's "Bosom Buddies" while thanking the waiter who brought him a drink, or showing how Hello, Dolly!'s rowdy "So Long, Dearie" might sound coming from a bitter, vengeful queen, Graae delivered one Jerry Herman standard after another with a gusto reminiscent of Sammy Davis, Jr.

Sources tell me that Mr. Graae has close ties with the management of San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, a company devoted to performing semi-staged works of "lost musicals." I can't think of a better song-and-dance man to star in a revival of 1962's Little Me or 1968's George M! 

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There are many ways that viewers will enjoy the new documentary Bill Cunningham New York. However, for some people, watching Bill Cunningham --  a photojournalist with impeccable ethics -- may be like discovering an extinct species or stumbling upon a real live version of a mythical creature like a unicorn. One could call Mr. Cunningham any number of things:
  • A cultural anthropologist
  • An urban photographer. 
  • A man with an insatiable zeal for fashion.
  • Someone with a great zest for life
  • A bicycling fanatic. 
  • An arbiter of style.
But the one thing Mr. Cunningham can never be called is a media whore (a term that, sadly enough, has become all-pervasive in today's 24/7 news cycle). It's not that he's shy or obsessively humble. He's just someone who gets an inordinate amount of pleasure from his work. In order to make sure that his art stays pure in a media obsessed with gossip and celebrities, Cunningham refuses any gifts, payment, or favors, insisting that doing so keeps him free.

Now 82 years old, Cunningham's column has appeared in The New York Times as well as in special video segments shot while he bicycles around New York City. In his extensive director’s statement,  filmmaker Richard Press writes:
"When people ask how long it took to make Bill Cunningham New York, I say ten years: Eight to convince Bill to be filmed and two to shoot and edit the film. Had it been any different, Bill wouldn’t have been true to who he is or nearly as interesting a subject to film. My fascination with Bill has always gone beyond the work he actually does. Who he is as a person, how he’s chosen to live his life and his almost religious dedication to his work -- that is where my curiosity initially resided. But how do you make a film about a man who is so private that even the people who have known him for years don’t know anything about him personally?
Bill’s reticence to be filmed set the practical terms for how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew, sound recorder, and boom operator would be impossible. We had to capture him the way he claims to capture his own subjects -- 'discreetly, quietly, and invisibly.' As a result, the movie was made with no crew, relying only on small, handheld consumer cameras so Bill wouldn’t feel intruded upon. It had to be a kind of family affair with people he trusted -- myself; Philip Gefter, the producer; and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer whom Bill knew and liked and who operated one of the cameras.
There would be no scheduling of Bill’s time for the film. We just had to be at the Times with cameras, ready and waiting, the same way Bill goes out onto the street and shoots -- without a preconceived notion of what he’ll find. He says that he lets the street speak to him, and I knew we’d have to take the same approach -- believing that, over time, the man and the story of the film would begin to reveal itself."
"Making the film was a dance. For a year we spent all our time at The New York Times waiting for a moment or a mood that Bill would allow us to capture. I would casually hang out near the desk of John Kurdewan in the Times’ art department where Bill would work on his “On The Street” page. With no fuss I would turn on the camera and film Bill and John working together at the computer. But, then, I would have to wait weeks for Bill to cooperate again. It took a month for Bill to allow me to put a wireless mike on him, and, then, he would only allow it occasionally -- whenever the mood struck. We would leave notes on his desk (his preferred way of communicating) asking to follow him to an evening party, or to trail him riding his bike.
Occasionally Tony and I would just show up on the street where he was shooting or at the lab where he develops his film. Or, even more risky, outside Carnegie Hall, where he lives. I began to sense that even if he wasn’t willing to be filmed at that moment he was developing a respect and appreciation for our dedication to doing our job, and, as a result, he would sometimes reward us -- first by introducing us to his neighbors in Carnegie Hall studios and then, (and almost unheard of for him) allowing us into his apartment.
It began to dawn on me that the process of making the movie paralleled the slow revealing of the man himself and that his relationship with the filmmakers should be a part of telling the story. In looking for a way to do this, I thought of the early Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgwick movies with Chuck Wein as an offscreen presence --  a voice never seen but prodding and provoking -- just as we were doing with Bill.
The sit-down interviews with Bill were conducted with Philip, the producer, and myself, with Tony occasionally chiming in. But in order to turn the filmmakers into a single palpable character, Philip’s voice replaced ours whenever they were heard. This also made the need for any clarification or exposition in any part of the movie easy -- I simply recorded Philip’s voice making a comment or asking a necessary question.
Bill traverses so many disparate layers and overlapping social milieus of New York City. I thought it essential to interview people who not only have a relationship with Bill but who span the spectrum of New York to help tell his story. I tried to lessen the tyranny of the bland talking head by filming each character in the form of a photographic portrait -- one that gives as much visual insight into who they are and how they live or work -- and trying to make each person a character in the film in their own right. In the editing room I approached the movie’s structure less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist surrounded by a menagerie of characters -- kind of early 'Altmanesque' -- seemingly loosely structured -- but with narrative threads that slowly build, so that when taken together -- a portrait emerges and comes into focus. Like one of Bill’s pages --- a collage, adding up to something larger than its parts."

What's amazing about this documentary is how it has captured the infectious spirit of an 82-year-old man who has retained his sense of wonder and innocence (as well as the unbridled joy he gets from capturing images with his camera). After watching Bill Cunningham New York, viewers may feel many things. But one of the most surprising reactions to this film might be that they might feel cleansed from being in the company of a very special kind of artist.

In a way, Bill Cunningham is living proof of the old adage  that "They broke the mold after he was born." Here's the trailer for this utterly endearing and thoroughly captivating documentary:

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