Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fit To Print

With the invention of movable type in China sometime around 1040 A.D., mankind took a giant step forward in the publishing world. No longer did manuscripts have to be painstakingly copied by hand. Nor would the publishing process be limited to scrolls made from rice paper and papyrus.

Sometime around 1230 A.D., the first printing system using metal movable type was developed in Korea.  The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg sometime around 1440 A.D. signaled the dawn of a new era in communication.

During the 1970s, the development of word processing programs that had graphics capabilities and featured on-screen editing meant that printed communication was no longer dependent on typewriters. Floppy disks, email, and the Internet soon opened up a new frontier of electronic publishing which eliminated many of the previous costs associated with ink, paper, and distribution.

Physical changes in the publishing process, however, are not the same as the question of what content gets disseminated to the masses. Often considered the newspaper of record, the motto of The New York Times has always been "All The News That's Fit To Print."

In the early days of the gay rights movement, it became obvious that the mainstream media had no intention of publishing any positive news about homosexuals. In many ways, the birth of the gay press was due to a radical shift in philosophy.

Infuriated by the lack of coverage in The New York Times, gay activists adopted a new slogan: "If you don't like the news you're reading, make your own." In today's celebrity-obsessed culture, things that would never have received serious consideration by the Gray Lady (photos of a celebrity's exposed crotch as she exited a limousine, digital snapshots of a Congressman's genitals, proud announcements that a female celebrity is showing a "baby bump") have become standard fare.

In a tight economy, any opportunity to boost web traffic or increase advertising revenues may take precedence over journalistic integrity. That is, of course, assuming that such a thing as journalistic integrity still exists.

Two new documentaries deal quite specifically with the question of what constitutes news, whether or not a story deserves publication and, if so, when and how it should be published.  Each touches on issues of privacy and practicality, examining editorial and economic decisions that could have severe consequences. Each offers a fascinating look at how history is made.

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Ever since 1996, when Craigslist moved to a web-based platform that offered free classified ads, newspapers and magazines have watched their advertising revenue evaporate into thin air. Classified ads that were once a reliable source of income for print media quickly migrated to websites that delivered faster and more efficient results with greater cost efficiency.  The rise of the blogosphere led to new outlets for frustrated citizen journalists, many of whom were willing to write for free.

Traditional business models for news organizations quickly became obsolete as display ads started to vanish from print publications. A shining example? Ads for new cars. Twenty years go those ads would have been a staple of any magazine or newspaper. Now, automobile manufacturers have built extensive websites that can offer consumers much more detailed information enhanced by streaming video at a substantial savings in price.

In addition to the cost savings, new media allows corporations to track visitors to their websites and interact with them through email, Facebook, and a host of other options. The battle between "old media" and "new media" has become a constant source of infotainment.

In the past year Arianna Huffington (co-founder of The Huffington Post) and Bill Keller (then Executive Editor of The New York Times) have locked horns over the differences in their respective business models. On February 7, 2011 (when AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million) the battle between old and new media intensified.

With distribution costs rising, some of its top writers (Frank Rich, Bob Herbert) leaving, and print circulation falling, The New York Times had never seemed so vulnerable. A spoof of the newspaper's final edition (written by the same people responsible for the creation of Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian) included the following send-up of Page One: Inside the New York Times (a new documentary by Andrew Rossi that was a big hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival).

Rossi's documentary doesn't pull any punches as it shows the tough decisions made to lay off employees as The New York Times battles the WikiLeaks phenomenon, decreasing ad revenues, and the decision to start charging a monthly online subscription fee to people who read the electronic edition of The New York Times.

Breaking news is a tough industry where reporters must be able to work their sources, meet deadlines, verify facts, and try to remain profitable. In the time since its January 2011 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the new AOL-Huffington Post has reported more web traffic than The New York Times, Bill Keller has relinquished his position as Executive Editor to his successor, Jill Abramson, and, as it aims to rival The Onion, The Final Edition has morphed into The New Fox Times.

New York Times media columnist David Carr with his editor, Bruce Headlam

While some might think the star of the film is media columnist David Carr, whose abrasive personality and huge ego offer the film's greatest entertainment value, the true star of Page One: Inside The New York Times is the rapidly evolving power of new media to diminish and threaten the very existence of a once stable and ethically unchallenged news institution. Rossi's documentary is alternately riveting, depressing, arrogant, and alarming. Here's the trailer:

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Last fall, when the Berkeley Rep staged the West Coast premiere of Rinne Groff's drama, Compulsion, audiences were drawn into a psychodrama involving Meyer Levin's attempts to dramatize the diary left behind by Anne Frank. While Levin had received written permission from Anne's father to proceed with the project, the character of Otto Frank did not appear onstage in Groff's drama.

One gets a much deeper understanding of the man's personal agonies in Otto Frank, Father of Anne, a touching documentary by David de Jongh that will be screened at the upcoming 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In his director’s statement, de Jongh writes:
"Otto Frank, Father of Anne, paints the portrait of a benign, broken yet resilient man. After losing his two daughters and his wife he finds comfort in making his daughter’s diary famous. The film shows his tireless efforts in managing this success, and the dilemmas and criticism Otto Frank has to face because of his efforts. The story is told by carefully combining interviews, documents, stock footage, beautifully shot images of, amongst others, Poland, and a selection from the ten thousands of letters Frank wrote and received. Ultimately, the film takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the depths of Otto Frank’s soul."

Otto Frank in later years

This documentary helps to educate viewers about many facts that faded into the background once the stage and film adaptations of Anne Frank's diary captured the hearts of millions. Otto Frank came from a wealth family of assimilated German Jews. He even served as an officer in the Imperial German army during World War I.  De Jongh's film examines charges that Otto tried to edit some of Anne's writings (especially those relating to sexuality) and how some of the events that took place in the family's hiding place along with the characterizations of the Van Daan family were altered to make the property more commercially appealing to audiences.

When Anne's diary was found and returned to Otto Frank, he wrestled with the choice of keeping its contents to himself or publishing it so that his daughter's words could live on. De Jongh's documentary depicts Otto as a man deeply wounded by the guilt of surviving his wife and children. Even after he remarried, Frank and his second wife lived a spartan lifestyle.

Otto Frank, Father of Anne gives audiences fascinating insights into life in the Frank family both before and after World War II. The following clip contains the only known film footage of Anne Frank as she looks down from her apartment window in Amsterdam on July 22, 1941, at a young bride and groom on their way to get married.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The "Other" Discovery Channel

Some people sarcastically refer to California as "the land of fruits and nuts." With all due respect to the state's almond orchards, garlic fields, and avocado groves, a never-ending stream of aspiring talents (whose unrealistic expectations of making it big in the entertainment industry have been fueled by gossip rags, tabloid media, doting parents, and tenured college professors) arrives in Los Angeles throughout the year.

Unlike Peggy Sawyer (the heroine of Busby Berkeley's 1933 film, 42nd Street), few of these people carry a pair of tap shoes in their suitcase. Many come armed with toned torsos, newly-acquired film editing skills, emotional baggage, inflated egos, and a history of waiting tables or working in retail while racing from life coaches and yoga sessions to auditions and acting classes.

Keenly aware of the need to be fully prepared for the moment when their big break might come, these people are constantly trying to improve their craft. Occasionally, little bits of reality get in the way of their progress. In the trailer for his movie Callback: The Unmaking of Bloodstain, writer/director Eric M. Wolfson does a splendid job of hinting at what might possibly go wrong soon after an aspiring actor arrives in Hollywood.

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Recently screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film FestivalGoing Down in La-La Land follows the path of a sweet young man who arrives on his best friend's doorstep and discovers that an earnest desire to be a legitimate actor is not what lands you a good job in Hollywood. Written and directed by Caspar Andreas, this film shows how easily a lack of income can lead to stardom in one of the San Fernando Valley's porn factories rather than a recurring role on television.

Based on the novel by Andy Zeffer, Going Down In La-La Land has the grittiness one would expect from any story about debt, dick, dirt, and disillusionment in Hollywood. Adam Zeller (Matthew Ludwinski) seems to have more skill at acquiring parking tickets than steady employment. Although his BFF, Candy (Allison Lane), has been trying to get hired as an actress (to no avail) -- and Adam's job as a talent agency's receptionist is a dead end -- it isn't until Adam makes eye contact with a sexy photographer named Nick (also played by Caspar Andreas) that things really start to happen.

With Nick's help, Adam lands a desk job with a small-time porn producer (John Schile) in the valley who assures him that if he's ever interested in working in front of the camera, plenty of opportunities await. With a little coaxing from Nick, Adam soon learns that he's got that certain something that a niche market wants: a twinkle in his eye combined with a great set of abs.

With Nick's help, Adam's first modeling session leads to an escorting gig with a Hollywood mogul which, a few parking tickets later, finds Adam being directed by Missy (Bruce Vilanch) in a porn shoot.

Adam (Matthew Ludwinski ) and Missy (Bruce Vilanch) on the set

Adam soon discovers that he can make much more money as a highly-paid escort to his boss's wealthy clients. When one of them turns out to be the closeted star of a popular sitcom, a most improbable kind of romance starts to blossom between the two men. John (Michael Medico) has a beautiful home, substantial wealth, and is more than willing to hire Adam as his "assistant" so they can spend more time together.

Adam (Matthew Ludwinski) and John (Michael Medico)

Meanwhile, Nick's growing drug habit frightens Adam, who yearns for a legitimate acting career and harbors some very old-fashioned concepts about how a date should stay with the person he invited to a Hollywood party (rather than using his dick as a networking tool). Hurt by Nick's utter lack of sensitivity, Adam flees the party, hoping to find comfort in John's loving arms.

Unfortunately, John's oldest and best female friend in the entertainment industry has acted as his "beard" at Hollywood events for many years. Although they started out together many years ago, Zinnea (Judy Tenuta), has become a hateful has been with the venomous sting of a cobra and the kind of contact list  which brings publicists to the brink of orgasm. When Adam loses patience with Zinnea's rudeness and reads her the riot act, she retaliates with surgical skill by outing John. Meanwhile, Candy is busily ordering around a new BDSM slave in order to earn rent money.

It doesn't take long for Adam's an emotional meltdown to lead to a suicide attempt when he comes across a rerun of John's sitcom on television. What follows is not the usual death of an innocent in Tinseltown, but rather a clinical assessment of who matters more to a recently closeted actor: his beard or his boyfriend.

Matt Ludwinski as Adam

Caspar Andreas has directed his cast with a knowing eye toward the grit that lies beneath Hollywood's glitz. Ludwinski combines his obvious physical appeal with a character that wants to retain his integrity as an openly gay man; a striking contrast to Jesse Archer's tightly wound portrayal of Adam's first boss (a bitter queen struggling to stay sober).  As the sexy photographer who becomes increasingly addicted to crystal methamphetamine, Andreas is starts off as smoothly seductive enabler and ends up a haggard, strung-out  shadow of his former self. Judy Tenuta scores some great reptilian moments as the evil Zinnea.

Well shot, nicely paced, and based on some of Zeller's real-life experiences, Going Down In La-La Land offers an insider's warts-and-all look at what really motivates people in Hollywood. Here's the trailer:

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Many a film has featured a character who gets a magical chance to travel back in time and correct a mistake that had tragic or, at the very least, unfortunate consequences. While scriptwriters often try to create such stories about conflicted people, it's rare to see a movie in which an older filmmaker gets a chance to go back and change his life at a moment when he naively made an incredibly selfish and stupid move.

That's the basic gimmick behind J.T. Tepnapa's Judas Kiss, which received its West Coast premiere at the recent Frameline festival. The protagonist is a cynical, washed up, middle-aged filmmaker named Zach Wells (Charlie David), who once won a contest for best student film by cheating. Having betrayed his closest friends, he then went to Hollywood expecting to get rich and famous on his own timetable.

Things didn't quite work out the way he had hoped they would. In fact, Zach's middle-aged friend, Topher Shadoe (Troy Fischnaller) is the student Zach beat by entering Judas Kiss in their school's film competition. Topher has also become a major Hollywood force as the producer and director of horror films.

Poster art for Judas Kiss

Does that sound complicated? Keep in mind that Zach Wells isn't Zach's real name. And when Topher is forced to cancel an appearance as a guest judge at a student film competition, he insists that Zach step in for him at the last minute.

Upon arriving at Keystone University's campus, Zach is greeted by Old Man Welds (Dale Bowers), a mysterious man with a white beard who keeps telling to use this opportunity to set things right. He is also greeted by Mrs. Blossom (Laura Kenny), the head of the school's film department who remembers him, perhaps a bit too well.

On his first night on campus Zach goes to the local gay bar, picks up a handsome young man and spends the night with him. When his sex partner from the previous night appears as one of the filmmakers who has entered the contest, Zach is visibly upset.

Upon learning that the young man's name is Danny Reyes, Zach starts to freak out. To make matters worse, Danny (Richard Harmon) is screening the same film (Judas Kiss) that Zach once entered into a film competition.

Danny is filled with ambition and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead -- even if that means sucking up to Shane Lyons (Timo Descamps), the rich, spoiled, and predatory brat who has been promising him the world. Even when one of Danny's closest friends, young Chris Wachowsky (Brent Corrigan), explains how he had been Shane's "flavor of the month" during the previous school year, Danny's ambition knows no bounds.

If a gay airline existed, Judas Kiss would probably be its ideal inflight movie. It's a nice piece of melodrama suitable for a popcorn night with friends. Although there is nice supporting work from Genevieve Buechner (Samantha) and Julia Morizawa (Abbey) -- and sufficient eye candy to satisfy a gay audience -- the film's two big weaknesses are its awkward, over-earnest script and the inability to build any audience sympathy for Zach Wells. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

For The Sheer Pleasure of Their Company

Most friendships are based on shared interests. Whether it's a love of opera, bird watching, or maritime history, the peculiar passions one shares with others usually provide the glue with which to build a broader, deeper friendship. But not always.

Several years ago I encountered a man with similar artistic interests who was at many of the performances I attended. Having once locked horns with him in a seminar about how gay men dealt with the aging process, I had no desire to pursue a deeper friendship. In discussing the situation with a friend I finally came to the conclusion that the real problem I had with Mr. X was that I received absolutely no pleasure from being in his presence.

Unfortunately, some people have a vampiric talent for draining the energy from a room. The key to dealing with such people is to simply accept the fact that if there is someone whose company you don't enjoy, you don't have to spend time with them just for the sake of being nice. It's okay to take a pass.

Conversely, when you come across people whose intelligence, wit, and quirky charm are irresistible, they offer a stiff reminder of what's been missing from your life. Time spent in their presence only keeps you wanting more.

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As I travel around San Francisco on public transportation (or even while I'm walking down the street), I'm often amused by how many people are dependent upon electronic devices to keep themselves entertained. There's already too much music going on in my head to need ear buds and people watching is a constant source of free drama (especially if you ride the #14 Mission bus).

What would happen if all the electronic devices these people now rely on were suddenly disabled or confiscated. What could they do to amuse themselves?

For a glorious example of the resourcefulness of the human mind, I recommend a viewing of The Trip, which started off as a BBC sitcom and was rapidly recycled into a feature film. Partially improvised, the film stars actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing onscreen versions of themselves under the direction of Michael Winterbottom.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip

It would be criminally wrong to suggest that this film is simply another road trip movie. Why? Because it's filled with moments in which its two stars dig into their professional tool boxes of gags, twitches, impersonations, vocal tricks, and improvisational skills to help pass the time as they travel around Northern England. The following poster is one of the ads selected for the film's marketing campaign:

Poster art for The Trip

The catch is simple. Steve has landed a writing gig from The Observer to review 10 top-level restaurants outside of London. It's not because he's a brilliant food critic. His original plan was to take his American girlfriend, Mischa (who considers herself to be a serious foodie), along on the trip to impress her.

Mischa, however, wants some alone time in their relationship and has returned to America. After several other friends (who are probably smart enough to avoid 10 days in the company of such an extremely lonely fussbudget) decline Steve's offer to accompany him on his wildly indulgent haute cuisine spree, he calls on Rob, a former colleague. If the following "alternative" poster for the film resembles the ancient Greek gods of comedy and tragedy, it perfectly captures the difference in the two men's personalities.
  • Steve lives alone in a London apartment, doesn't get along particularly well with his estranged son, and has a tendency toward loneliness and depression. He's also waiting to hear from his Hollywood agent about the possibility of being cast in a new television series, which would mean spending the next seven years in Los Angeles.
  • Rob is an emotionally secure actor with a fulfilling family life who is surprisingly content with his status quo. A Welshman with a exceptional talent for accents, he doesn't need the kind of constant ego stroking that Steve (like many insecure actors) so desperately craves.
A poster for The Trip that mimics the ancient gods of comedy and tragedy

This is not the kind of road trip where conversation dies off quickly. Both men are skilled and highly competitive actors with lots of trivia and tricks to keep their minds busy (not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of film). Watch the following clips and marvel at their dexterity.

In between all of the bickering and vocal impressions, Winterbottom keeps the foodies in the audience roundly entertained with his footage of food preparation, presentation, and the combination of high art and pretentiousness that can accompany fine dining.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip

While the course of the movie is easily dictated by the number of restaurants to be visited, Winterbottom takes his stars on several amusing side trips (including a visit to Coogan's parents). In two remarkable sequences, Winterbottom positions Coogan as a man who is desperately seeking a moment of peace and solace (only to have it ruined by a hiker who won't shut up) and, conversely, as a man who is incapable of letting someone else enjoy a moment of solitude.

The Trip is a deceptively shrewd film that captures a rare kind of intellectual intimacy as well as the aching loneliness of an insecure actor. It's one of the few films that I've wanted to see again as soon as the final credits started to roll.  Here's the trailer:

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Down in Mountain ViewTheatreWorks recently offered the regional premiere of the delightful [title of show]. Whereas Rodgers and Hart's 1937 hit, Babes in Arms, started the trend of musicals in which a group of gung-ho kids get together to put on a show (whether for a good cause or merely to satisfy their own needs), Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's smartly written show instead chronicles the birth of [title of show]'s concept and the various stops they took along the road to its Broadway premiere.

[title of show] begins when two gay men decide to write a musical. In order to keep themselves creating (and avoid "procrastibating"), Hunter and Jeff use the deadline for submitting a new piece to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival as their motivation. Along the way, they get help from their two friends, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.

As part of their creative process, the original team also started a popular video blog entitled The [title of show] Show. In the following clip, they indulge their fantasies about who should take over their roles in subsequent productions (be sure to watch for a hilarious cameo appearance at the very end of the clip):

While the four actors appeared in the show's off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre and its on-Broadway run at the Lyceum Theatre, regional productions have started to sprout up with new actors in the cast. As directed by Meredith McDonough, the TheatreWorks cast included Ian Leonard as Jeff, Jamison Stern (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jason Bateman) as Hunter, Laura Jordan as Susan, and the vocally gifted Farah Alvin as Heidi (it's rare to hear a young voice so beautifully placed, supported, and focused with laser-like precision). William Liberatore (the company's musical director) took on the role of "sometimes Larry" (the onstage accompanist).

Hunter (Jamison Stern), Heidi (Farah Alvin), Jeff (Ian Leonard) and
Susan (Laura Jordan) in [Title of Show] (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While [title of show] is created by, aimed at, and often panders to musical theatre geeks, the song about Jeff's collection of Playbills brought back some unexpected memories for me. (Not only had I seen Barbara Cook appear onstage in a bikini in 1964's Something More!, I had forgotten how Broadway producers often used a blurry shot of midtown traffic for the cover of their show's Playbills).

Jeff (Ian Leonard) and Hunter (Jamison Stern) in [Title of Show]
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

[title of show] is filled with a sense of gay humor as well as a perverse delight in its self-referencing moments. Ultimately, however, what really sells the show is the charm of its four-member ensemble (who seduce and win over their audience with an effectiveness that completely eludes Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City). Even though the TheatreWorks production concluded its run this weekend, I hope to see another production of [title of show] at some point in the future. In the meantime, enjoy this special Christmas edition of The [title of show] Show:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tests of Faith

While in college, I was fortunate enough to take a course in Indo-European myths and legends that helped explain man's use of religion as a tool for coping with events beyond his ken. In an odd way, studying primitive fertility rites helped develop an appreciation of people who claim that any tragedy --  be it a devastating earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a bad hand in a poker game -- is a reflection of God's will. Modern culture is filled with people who claim to be following God's orders.
  • George W. Bush and Michele Bachmann claim that God told them to run for political office.  
  • Others claim that God told them to drown their children.
  • Many an athlete has claimed his winning touchdown or home run was made possible by God's guiding hand.
  • Recently, some elected officials have claimed that only God can balance their budgets or solve the droughts and floods that have plagued their region.
Literature is filled with stories of people whose faith has been tested by illness, war, murder, and natural disasters. However, considering how many people give deference to God's wisdom, compassion, and omnipotence, he sure does seem to fuck things up a lot. Could it be that (despite the claims of so many born-again Christians) God is really a big, fat, black lesbian in the sky with a grudge against mankind?

In his critique of Elements of the Philosophy of Right by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that:
"Religious distress is, at the same time, the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions."
Karl Heinrich Marx

As an avid theatergoer, I have attended many a performance in which God was written into the script. With so much being written and performed about God, how does an arts critic raised in a family of Jewish atheists approach the subject matter?

As fiction and folklore, perhaps. But never as fact.

As a result of not being "a true believer," I'm often able to react more clinically to intensely melodramatic stage offerings whose plots rely on "come-to-Jesus" moments of salvation. Not believing in God certainly made it easier for me to see televangelists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as cheesy self-righteous grifters rather than representatives of all that is sacred and holy.

In today's rabidly conservative culture, the easiest bullshit meter with which to assess any politician is how often s/he refers to God during campaign speeches. But what about questions of faith as they are portrayed onstage? Faced with a crisis of faith that comes framed by a proscenium arch, it helps to remember that, just like the Bible, these are works of fiction.
All of these works may provide audiences with great entertainment, but they are works of dramatic fiction, not reality. When push comes to shove, one man's faith is another's fantasy.

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The world premiere of Tiny Alice took place on December 29, 1964 at the Billy Rose Theatre with a cast headed by John Gielgud and Irene Worth. Since then, audiences have been confused, baffled, perplexed, and occasionally entertained by Edward Albee's thriller about Catholicism, greed, faith, and con men.

I've had a strange history with some of Albee's most famous plays. I saw the original production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when I was much too young to understand what was happening onstage (the fact that I came from a family where no one drank certainly didn't help matters). It wasn't until many years later (after knowing some gay alcoholics) that I acquired a deeper understanding of how alcohol works with self-loathing to warp someone's personality.

Lawyer (Rod Gnapp) and Miss Alice (Carrie Paff) in the
Marin Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's
 Tiny Alice (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Two years later, when I saw the original production of Tiny Alice, I had no idea how ill equipped I was to follow any of the mysteries unfolding before me. Although eager to experience a great actor like Gielgud holding forth with a monstrous final monologue, the fact that I was raised in a family of Jewish atheists left me clueless about all of Albee's intricate digs at Catholicism (a deep appreciation of his script is enhanced by an intimate knowledge of the New Testament).

The Marin Theatre Company recently staged a forceful production of Tiny Alice that generated far more laughs than I remember from the first time I saw this play. I'm also older, wiser, and a lot more cynical about organized religion. However, some things struck me as particularly interesting.

When Tiny Alice first premiered, audiences knew very little about pedophilic priests and corrupt Cardinals. No one dared to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church operated like a Ponzi scheme and that the men at the top were active participants in bilking lesser Catholics out of their money. Yet Albee makes it surprisingly clear how greedy and immoral Church leaders can be as soon as money is involved.

I was also stunned to see how, as Brother Julian is desperately trying to find his true moment of faith, the Cardinal is the first character in the play to essentially "take the money and run," deserting the man it had initially recruited with a promise of spiritual fulfillment.

Brother Julian (Andrew Hurteau) with Miss Alice (Carrie Paff)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

As directed by Jasson Minadakis, MTC's production seems like a cat and mouse game in which everyone except Brother Julian (the sacrificial lamb) gets to pull the strings. There is an appropriately aggressive and slimy Lawyer (Rod Gnapp) eager to settle a score with his old classmate who has since become a corrupt Cardinal (Richard Farrell). The mysterious role of Butler was beautifully portrayed by Mark Anderson Phillips, who occasionally looked like a fish gasping for either clarification or air.

The costumes designed by Fumiko Bielefieldt for Miss Alice (Carrie Paff) help to frame her as a temptress who, when push comes to shove, is all about business. J. B. Wilson's set (especially his model of Tiny Alice's castle) delivered an appropriately eerie atmosphere for Albee's spider web as it tightened its grip on the soul of Brother Julian (Andrew Hurteau).

Some might think of Tiny Alice as a dark comedy (much like Friedrich Durrenmatt's play, The Visit) involving power plays and a subversive attack on organized religion.  Others may regard Albee's script as a test of faith the playwright delivers to audiences to see if they are willing to give more than mere lip service to the concept of what a real act of faith demands.

In this day and age it might be difficult to understand how controversial Albee's play was at its premiere back in 1964. But there can be no denying the beauty of his writing, the daring strokes with which he attacked the church's motivations, or the complex characters he created to challenge his audience.

I'm grateful to Minadakis for producing and staging Tiny Alice (which is rarely seen onstage), thus giving me a chance to understand how much of Albee's writing went right over my teenaged head when I first saw this play.  It's a fascinating script (Julian's final monologue has since been trimmed by Albee) with far more lust, humor, and greed than I recalled.

Live and learn.

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Based on the fake memoir of Belle Poitrine (as told to Patrick Dennis, the author of Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade), Little Me opened on Broadway on November 17, 1962 with a book by Neil Simon, choreography by Bob Fosse, and music by Cy ColemanCarolyn Leigh's lyric for one of the heroine's songs, "Poor Little Hollywood Star," reads as follows:
"Once you were an ordinary average little girl from Illinois.
Once it was an ordinary average little life, and what a joy.
Sudden success caught you, I guess,
High on its glittering bough.
Blithe and merry ordinary average little girl,
Where are you now?
Carefully dressed, carefully coached,
Diamond-braceleted, emerald-broached,
Just to be loved from afar,
Poor little Hollywood star.
One of the rare, one of the great,
Everyone's idol, but nobody's mate,
Poor little fairy tale queen,
How do you fill the void
Under that celluloid sheen?
Smile for your fans, live for your art,
What if nobody gives that for your heart?
This is the very last stop,
Where can you go from the top?
So never relax, never give in,
Hold in those longings and stick out that chin.
Loved and adored as you are,
Your melancholy would
Seem just a trifle bizarre
In this jolly wood.
Poor little, shiny, secure little Hollywood star."
If there is one entertainer who, in recent years, has had her faith tested, that would be country music singer Chely Wright. A new documentary about Wright's path toward coming out as a lesbian in one of the most homophobic segments of the entertainment industry (Nashville) was recently screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Now nearing 40, Wright's hit songs (Shut Up and Drive and Single White Female) were only part of her success story. In 1995, she was named Top New Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. In May of 2010 Wright came out of the closet in her autobiography, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer.

Country Western singer Chely Wright

There are moments in Wish Me Away that are painful to watch, but not for the reasons one might expect. Wright has always been an extremely photogenic artist. Seeing her in several of her video diaries as a haggard, haunted woman with bags under her eyes from the sleepless nights caused by the stress of her approaching self-imposed deadline for coming out is a stark reminder of the pain gay people suffer as a result of the bigotry they encounter from those they have always trusted. As Wright recently explained:

"I like analogies; perhaps it's the songwriter in me. So if you'll indulge me, I'll offer this one. I liken the notion that we (the LGBT community) are a Godless people to a scenario on a grade school playground. Remember when you were in third grade, when it was time to choose teams for a game of kickball during recess and all of the favored, obvious players were chosen first? This left the same players to be chosen last -- or to never even get a chance to kick or take the field -- essentially giving a message to that kid: 'You're never going to get to play. You're not good enough. You don't belong.'
Remember that happening to the same kid over and over? Well, eventually that kid would stop hoping to be chosen for either team. And eventually that kid would probably develop an aversion, perhaps even a life-long, deep loathing for the game of kickball. It's a protective mechanism that humans employ to preserve the most tender parts of their psyche.
That's what it feels like for an LGBT kid in a place of worship. That kid is repeatedly given the message that he or she will never, ever, fit in and be acceptable to God or to the congregation. Why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of spiritual rejection and spiritual violence on a weekly basis? Why would that LGBT kid grow up to seek out the same type of negative messaging as an adult?"
Directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, Wish Me Away is a deeply moving film which may also break important new ground in today's celebrity gossip culture. As the recent media storm involving Anthony Weiner demonstrated, some celebrities can be their own worst enemies. Many an entertainment industry publicist has had his or her hands full just trying to keep their clients from tweeting away their careers.

What Wish Me Away demonstrates is how a celebrity who has made the decision to come out of the closet can seek out the advice of publicists and, by taking that advice to heart, control the process by which the public learns she is gay. Doing so may require much more advance planning and strategy, but it can save an artist the heartbreak of being forced to do damage control after being outed against her will. 

Chely Wright in concert

The extraordinary access given to this film's directors throughout Wright's entire coming-out process is extremely rare. However, the result is a model lesson in the risky process of rebranding an artist through a series of carefully planned media appearances that resemble nothing less than a new product roll-out.

Wright has stated on numerous occasions that she hopes her coming out will help the despondent teenager who, like she did, might put a gun in his or her mouth while contemplating suicide. Her autobiography -- and this film -- might also help define a new path for artists and celebrities who have chosen to lead an integrated rather than compartmentalized lifestyle with regard to their sexual orientation.

Since coming out, Wright has not exactly been embraced by the country music community. But with enough money in the bank, and the support of most of her family and relations, she can at least look forward to a new life in which she doesn't have to lie about herself anymore.

Wish Me Away leaves no doubt that Wright is a sensitive, intelligent, and emotionally vulnerable woman. I don't doubt that this documentary will inspire many young LGBT men and women as they struggle to reconcile their personal truths with the teachings of their religion. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Puttin' On The Glitz

Gender illusionists have long found their homes in the entertainment industry. From Japan's Noh theatre (where men perform both male and female roles) to the Elizabethan Renaissance theatre (where, because women were forbidden by law to perform onstage, female roles were usually played by 13- to 19-year-old boys), drag has been a constant source of entertainment.
When one considers the careers of performers like Alexis Arquette, Charles Busch, Candy Darling, Nong Thoom, Charles Pierce, Craig Russell, and Pieter Dirk Uys, it becomes obvious that these actors have found a way to put their talents and sexual orientation to good use. Whether one thinks about a professional comedian like Eddie Izzard or a political activist like Sylvia Rivera (who was a founding member of New York's Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), these people don't hesitate to use makeup and clothing to challenge the status quo.

Although most people know the lyrics to Jerry Herman's song, "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles, they often forget that, with the following lyrics, the exact same song is used as the show's opening number for the Les Cagelles:
"We are what we are and what we are is an illusion.
We love how it feels
Putting on heels causing confusion.
We face life
Though it's sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter;
Face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter.
Look under our frocks: Girdles and jocks,
Proving we are what we are!

We are what we are -- half a brassiere, half a suspender.
Half real and half fluff,
You'll find it tough guessing our gender.
So, just (whistling)
If we please you that's the way to show us.
Just (whistling)
'Cause you'll love us once you get to know us.
Look under our glitz: Muscles and tits,
Proving we are what we are!"
Some performers in recent generations have chosen not to limit their cross dressing to the stage. Whether one considers such personalities as Donna Sachet, Dame Edna, or The Lady Bunny, each of these actors has done a splendid job of creating a brand for audience consumption.

Two new films being screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival capture the androgynous appeal and "in-your-face" performances seen in very different cultures.  While the film that is a documentary is a fairly sedate affair, the narrative film pulses with the kind of energy that could make Rob Marshall's 2002 film adaptation of Chicago, Bill Condon's 2006 screen version of Dreamgirls, and Adam Shankman's 2007 movie musical treatment of Hairspray almost seem listless by comparison.

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Born in Nagasaki in 1935, Akihiro Miwa has had a rather amazing career as a singer, actor, author of 20 books, composer, film star, and drag queen. In his new documentary entitled Miwa: A Japanese Icon (which had its world premiere at the Frameline festival), writer/director Pascal-Alex Vincent follows his subject's career path from a young man of decidedly androgynous appeal to a popular celebrity and political activist.

Akihiro Miwa as a young man

Originally known for his work as a cabaret singer (the artist appeared in the same nightclub for 40 years), Miwa developed a particular taste for songs made famous by Edith Piaf. In 1957, his first hit song ("Meke Meke") was rife with profane language that had never been used by Japanese recording artists. For a while, he was one of Yukio Mishima's lovers.

Miwa's film career often had him appearing as femmes fatale. He composed the theme song and starred in 1968's Black Lizard (directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who also directed Miwa in Black Rose Mansion). More recently he has performed voice work for animé films such as Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle.

Exquisitely dressed, with a large cross hanging from his neck, Miwa looks back on a 50-year career with amused detachment. Film clips of his stage performances show an extremely melodramatic actor who knew how to milk a moment for all it was worth. Miwa recalls one film director who told him that he was perfect in every way, but had one tragic flaw. When Miwa (who was quite impressed with his own beauty) asked what that flaw could be, the director replied "You're not in love with me."

When an interviewer asks Miwa (who appears onstage as a woman but dresses as a man at home) whether he prefers to be called "he" or "she," the performer offers a refreshing response. Explaining that the Japanese language does not use gender specific pronouns, he describes how the suffixes "san" and "sama" belong to a code of Japanese honorifics which recognize a person's honor and position in society.

As he reminisces about his long history of political activism, Miwa describes how he handled early critics who did not want him to "tarnish" his performing career by appearing in drag. He simply thought about what Jesus would have done and told his critics "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Miwa: A Japanese Icon features footage from some of the performer's concerts which, although they could easily make one think Lady Gaga was working on a bare bones budget, are almost alarming to Western ears. Lavishly produced, with Miwa decked out in a series of fabulous costumes, there is no escaping the fact that because of his fierce vibrato, his singing conjures up images of a backstage cat fight between Renata ScottoMaria Callas and Ethel Merman at the tail end of their respective careers. The following video clip offers a prime example:

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Written by Glenn Gaylord and directed by Sheldon LarryLeave It On The Floor is the most successfully realized contemporary movie musical since H.P. Mendoza's independent film entitled Colma: The Musical (2007). Originally inspired by the underground ballroom scene depicted in 1990's documentary, Paris is Burning, Larry's film is set in South Los Angeles. In the film, a drag queen named Christina Allure is played by Lady Red Couture (who stands 6'7" without heels).

Three of the male dancers in Leave It On The Floor

The plot is like a modern day equivalent to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Bradley Darnell Lyle (Ephraim Sykes) is a black teenager with an abusive mother (Metra Dee). When Brad tells Deondra that he's gay, she throws him out of their home and leaves him to fend for himself. While at a convenience store, he makes eye contact with an androgynous figure named Carter (Andre Myers). Each promptly picks the other's pocket.

Deondra (Metra Dee) meets her son
Brad (Ephraim Sykes) at the jail.

Carter, however, is a member of the House of Eminence, which is ruled by Queef Latina (Miss Barbie-Q). Among her charges are Princess Eminence (Phillip Evelyn), and Duke Eminence (Cameron Koa). A former champion of the drag ball scene, Queef Latina is waiting for her man, Caldwell Jones (Demarkes Dogan) to be released from prison. She is in no mood for Princess to get the hots for a cute young thing like Brad. Nor does she need an extra mouth to feed or another "child" to care for.

Phillip Evelyn as Princess Eminence

Although this film was made on a small budget, Sheldon Larry smartly called on his current and former students for help. As the director explains:
"No studio or large production company would ever have invested in a ballroom musical! So, to get it made, I needed to evolve a production paradigm for creating quality work with limited resources. I have worked as adjunct faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for the last three years and that experience has opened my heart and my eyes to the talent and passion of our next generation of performers and film makers. Leave It on the Floor has been made by others and myself in fleet-footed, penny-pinching partnership. The cast (all newcomers), and crew of mostly present and past USC students (hand in hand with a number of energetic professionals) were all fed, paid and/or offered some deferred payment. But together with my student producers we have always been extremely hard-nosed and dollar-conscious as we weighed the myriad of production decisions from both a creative and financial perspective. The experience became a teaching opportunity for me to engage USC students to participate and learn in both the 'show' as well as the 'business' trenches alongside of me. What we have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Where there is a passion to make a film, there is now -- with today’s technologies and bullheaded commitment -- truly a way."
One of the film's finest assets is its musical score by Kimberly Burse. Songs such as "Loser's List," "Black Love," and "My Lament" will have a strong appeal to young audiences. Set in a bowling alley, a production number entitled "Knock Them Mothaf*kk**'s Down" bursts with the kind of angry energy that shocked Broadway theatergoers when West Side Story opened in 1957.

A shot taken in the bowling alley during
"Knock The Motherf**ka's Down."

In his production notes, the filmmaker stresses that:
"It was all-important to create the world with as much truth and celebration as we could. With names like House of Garcon, House of Chanel, House of Allure, these kids compete for trophies and sometimes money at monthly galas, each one sponsored by a different house. With a different theme and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually-charged entertainments which rarely get started before 2 am. In dance, too, these kids are on the cutting edge. They battle with free-style improvisation using moves that  are a cross between hip-hop, break dancing, Brazilian capoeira and a knife fight.
Fights sometimes do break out as well. At one ball I attended, proceedings ended prematurely when a house member actually pulled a gun. A contestant had been 'chopped' (eliminated). He didn’t like a judge’s decision, and so he threw himself across the judges’ table. House members started fighting rival house members, a gun came out and the police flew in!
The music is house and hip hop. There are runway categories for 'sex sirens' and 'butch queens' to walk in drag. In addition, there are a number of 'realness' categories, including 'executive realness,' and 'schoolboy realness.' For these categories, entrants must come dressed to 'pass' -- as a Wall Street businessman in a three piece suit or as a student with requisite baggy jeans, backpacks, and schoolbooks."

Dancers on the runway in Leave It On The Floor
"Cultural attitudes of the last twenty years have seen a growing recognition and acceptance of homosexuality. Moreover, particularly in Los Angeles, the expanding obsession of the popular culture with fame, wealth, music, fashion,  and media has both shaped the ball scene and has strongly been shaped by it. In houses with names like House of Chanel, Allure, Glamazonians, Xtravaganza, Klein, and Mizrahi, the ball kids in Leave It on the Floor more than nod to their fascination with contemporary style, affluence, and fashion. Their cutting-edge music, their unique costume and fashion design, their innovative style, original choreography and even their own hip language (that ball kids are creating every day)  go on to become the new-now-next of popular culture tomorrow. A few ball kids are beginning to cross over to the mainstream and find paying work as dancers or designers. Some of the fantasy designs that Lady Gaga regularly sports these days seem completely connected to what one regularly sees in the ball scene."

There's also plenty of beefcake on display in Leave It On The Floor

This film addresses the phenomenon of gay kids who have been thrown out of their family's homes and managed to find their way into an alternate family structure. In a poignant scene in 2008's Departures, a Japanese mortician gently asks a grieving father whether he wants the body of his transsexual son to be made up as a man or as a woman.

In Leave It On The Floor, the funeral of Eppie Durall (James Alsop), who has been killed in an automobile accident, turns into a  showdown between a young man's blood relations and the members of the House of Eminence in a fierce production number entitled "His Name Is Shawn." The filmmaker explains the dueling loyalties as follows:

"Kids, once invited to join a house, renounce their surname and take on their house name. Brad meets the motley members of Eminence house. They use the family terms like 'parent,'  'mother,' 'son,'  'daughter,' and 'sister' to describe the powerful relationships they have built together. Eminence House is run by 'Mama' Queef Latina, a 30-something powerhouse who once had legendary status as a category winner. Queef, like her real-life counterparts, rules the house with love and authority: scolding, counseling, and watching out for the welfare of her children. 
In our film, Eminence House is actually bricks and mortar. The clan occupies a rundown rental house in a marginal neighborhood where the 'outcasts, freaks, and the temporarily displaced' of the group share dormitory bedrooms housing as many as five. The house exists as a safe environment where the members socialize, help each other with family or job issues, counsel each other on crushes, health, and sex, plan the balls, and prepare their costumes or choreography for the monthly events."

Roxy Wood is one of the glam house mothers
in Leave It On The Floor

If you're the kind of person who thinks you might not enjoy a film about drag queens, house music, and underground ball scenes, throw your inhibitions out the window. Leave It On The Floor demands to be seen for Frank Gatson, Jr.'s high energy choreography, its fabulous costume designs, and Kimberly Burse's kickass score. The winning combination of Sheldon Larry's direction and Tom Camarda's cinematography will blow your socks off. Here's the trailer: