Monday, April 18, 2011

Straight to Hell

When caught in (or imagining) what hell looks like, the creativity of some artists can easily run amok.

Oddly enough, one man's hell can be another's form of heaven. In his 2008 essay entitled "One Man's Meat," writer Bernard Welt recalled that:
"Some twenty years ago, Boyd McDonald began publishing out of his apartment a journal of men's true, prodigiously explicit accounts of homosexual sex, entitled Straight to Hell -- a.k.a. The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts, a.k.a. The New York Review of Cocksucking, and later -- amid an alphabet soup of mainstream publications like GQ, W and HG -- archly and elegantly styled S.T.H. Eventually McDonald, who died in 1993 at the age of 68, edited the anonymous autobiographical letters to S.T.H. into more than a dozen books with titles such as Meat, Filth, Flesh, and Raunch. All were bestsellers in gay bookstores, somewhat to the embarrassment of the gay literati."

"McDonald developed a distinctive manner of titling his contributors' stories to parody the news items so trenchantly that the editor's statement is made even before the author begins to speak: 'Baptist Boys Do It, As It Were, In Church,' 'Typical 'Straight' Admits Weakness for Friend's Tongue.' 'Youth Leaves Damp Underpants for Host to Sniff,' 'The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Armpit-Sniffing.'"
The idea that one is experiencing hell on earth can lead to some interesting artistic output. Shortly after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a Japanese animator produced the following video as a way of explaining nuclear radiation to children who were confused and frightened by the recent events:

Founded in 1977, Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation was so successful that, in 1990, it added The Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation to its list of attractions. Two shorts being screened at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival can probably trace their politically incorrect roots to those early "Sick and Twisted" festivals.

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The External World by David O'Reilly is so jaw-droppingly rude that at some point there is nothing left to do but surrender to its idiotic charms. Key plot points include:
  • A piano teacher who keeps hitting his student in the head with a dead fish.
  • A guy with a cigarette lighter who accidentally keeps blowing up cars.
  • The Frisbee of Misguided Paternal Advice.
  • A stern warning to "Give up now before we release the lesbians."
  • A banana peel that jumps up and down on the head of the blind man who tripped on it.
  • An animated character who shits delicious blue ice cream for his friend to eat.
  • A family that saws off a character's head at the dinner table.
  • A cartoon character who takes a shower in a bathtub where a teenager has just committed suicide by slitting his wrists.
  • A scalpel warehouse with a sign in the window that reads "Free puppy with each new order."

Yes, folks, it's that kind of a film. If the above trailer doesn't scare you off, you can watch this sick, twisted, and hilarious 17-minute film in its entirety by clicking here. You'll have no trouble understanding why O'Reilly won the 2011 award for animation at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

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Can an animated short serve as a documentary? According to Hyuk Kim's new film, A Purple Man, the answer is a resounding yes. The filmmaker apparently served time in a prison somewhere in North Korea where he was subjected to torture. Upon his release/escape, he managed to cross the border into South Korea and was able to defect.

Now a free man, the Purple Man is at first thrilled to discover restaurant buffets where he can eat as many hard boiled eggs as he likes. But soon he finds himself employed in a factory with an abusive boss as the price of food continues to rise. In a short time, Hyuk Kim realizes that he has only left one version of hell to find himself in another. Although the titles whiz by quickly in this trailer, it gives viewers a sense of the film's animation style.

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Last month, Tom Moon published a fascinating piece in the San Francisco Bay Times about introversion. The American Conservatory Theatre's presentation of The Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre's multimedia production of No Exit gives new meaning to the old saying that "hell is other people."

Conceived and directed by Kim Collier with a unit set set designed by Jay Gower TaylorJean-Paul Sartre's existential play was originally presented in 1944 while Paris was still under Nazi occupation. Collier and her creative team have revamped the play to make stunning use of today's video technology and challenge the audience's traditional approach to theatre. In her director's notes, Collier explains that:
"For this production we have turned Sartre’s original design inside out. We took the play’s minor character, the Valet, who normally spends most of the play offstage, and made his domain the “live” space between the room and the audience. By closing off the fourth wall and creating theatrical space around the hotel room that traditionally defined the play’s perimeter, we widened the frame and are exploring a possible exit to Sartre’s existential masterpiece. In thinking about this piece, I did not set out to create a live film; rather the form emerged from the desire to fulfill the play’s demands and truly lock up the three characters together."

The Valet keeps an eye on Cradeau in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
Photo by: Michael Julian Berz

"The problem then to solve was: How can the audience see the play? This led us to using live video feed, which itself was an extension of an ongoing investigation of ours into the relationship between theater and film. When breaking down the filming style and positions of cameras, I felt it was really important to deal with the specifics of the medium. I moved towards a very unfilmic approach. Instead of mimicking what good films do -- such as cutting between characters and action -- I spread the film out and projected each shot side by side. Each character is given their space/frame, like the chairs that Sartre gives them in the room. Then, as we do in theater, we are able to reveal the dynamics and power plays between people by moving the characters into each other’s screens. The result, I hope, is a growing sense of stasis and a desire for movement and release from the 'gaze of the other.'”

As the play begins, a mysterious Valet (Jonathon Young) welcomes the dead Cradeau (Andy Thompson) to his hotel, which is actually a theatrical version of hell. Subsequent guests include Inez (Laara Sadiq) and Estelle (Lucia Frangione). There are many moments of anguish, confusion, fear, and comedy (at one point I thought I was watching Sharon McNight in a remake of some old lesbian pulp film).

Inez, Estelle, and Cradeau find themselves trapped in a
hellish hotel room in Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit 
(Photo by: Michael Julian Berz)

There is much to admire in Collier's production, whose real stars are lighting designer John Webber, sound designer Brian Linds, and video designer Andy Thompson. While I found myself partial to Jonathon Young's Valet, as the evening progressed I found some of Thompson's giant videos and Webber's blinding headlamps tiring my eyes. That's a small price to pay, however, for such a compelling piece of theatre. Here's the trailer:

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