Thursday, April 28, 2011

Breathing New Life Into Old Art

For those whose circumstances made it impossible to get an advanced degree in art history, there are plenty of programs now available on television and DVD. Sister Wendy Beckett has narrated numerous documentaries on art. The History Channel and PBS have also done yeoman's service in making art history available to the general public.

Many film fans flock to festivals to get a leg up on movies that are soon to be released. Some are attracted to specific genres of film (horror, gore, romance, action, etc.). Over the years I've learned that many film festivals offer an invaluable service to culture vultures -- a service of which far too few are aware.

A film festival is where audiences are most likely to encounter the latest documentaries about art history. While some filmmakers like to focus in on a specific artist's work, others find their inspiration in tracking how certain pieces of art have traveled from one collection to another. In 2007, the San Francisco Film Society presented the Bay area premiere of The Rape of Europa, a stunning documentary exposing how Adolf Hitler (himself a failed artist) looted the art collections of European Jews and, as German forces invaded one country after another, sought to seize some of the world's greatest works of art.

At the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Festival, I was intrigued by the political and financial shenanigans exposed in The Art of the Steal. Don Argott's documentary about the fight to gain control of the famous Barnes art collection (whose 9,000 pieces of art include 181 works by Pierre-August Renoir, 69 painted by Paul Cézanne, 60 works by Henri Matisse, 44 works by Pablo Picasso and 14 paintings by Amedeo Modigliani) is a must-see for art lovers.

Less than a month before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College on October 26, 1963, where he made the following remarks:
“It is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society -- in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
In recent years, the San Francisco International Film Festival has consistently included documentaries about art history in their programming. In 2005, Sumiko Haneda's exquisite Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa completely blew me away. Roger Garcia wrote the following description of the film for the festival's program guide:
"This extraordinary film presents Japanese classical scroll painting as never before. The Yamanaka Tokiwa comprises twelve scrolls painted by Matabei Iwasa some 400 years ago. It tells the then-famous puppet theater story of Lady Tokiwa, who is murdered by bandits in Yamanaka on her way to visit her samurai son. Learning of her fate from her ghost, the son sets out to avenge her death. With a newly composed joruri score (ballad singing with shamisen accompaniment), Sumiko Haneda has created a stirring cinematic work from a static painting that is one of Japan’s cultural treasures. The camera reveals details unseen by the naked eye; close-ups reveal background detail of everyday life in Edo-era Japan, while Eisensteinian montage delivers action-packed scenes of attack and swordplay. We learn that although the tale was for the mass market, it resonated deeply with Iwasa, whose father was a samurai and whose mother was executed after a failed rebellion."

A panel from one of the scrolls of the Yamanaka Tokiwa

At the 2008 San Francisco International Film festival, Peter Greenaway's dramatic film entitled Rembrandt’s J’accuse took a forensic approach toward analyzing an historic piece of art in a style that might best be described as "CSI: Art History."

This year, the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is featuring three new documentaries which examine historic works of art. Having only seen two of them, I found it curious that one would be marketed as a 3D film which, because of its director's international fame, will get a tremendous amount of publicity. The other, by a relatively unknown filmmaker, will get nowhere near the publicity it so richly deserves.

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On December 18, 1994, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet began to explore a cave in southern France that revealed a stunning collection of wall paintings by prehistoric man. Subsequently named in honor of one of the three explorers, the Chauvet cave is considered by many anthropologists to contain the first evidence of human art in the form of cave paintings

Scientists have since reached the conclusion that humans did not inhabit the cave. Rather, it was often a shelter for cave bears (and had absolutely nothing to do with the release of 1986's popular  film, The Clan of the Cave Bear). Using radiocarbon dating techniques, it has even been determined that a drawing of a reindeer that was started by one person may have been completed by someone else 5,000 years later!

Although the cave's existence has been known for more than 16 years, scientists have carefully laid down walkways in an effort to prevent any unnecessary damage to its soft clay floor (the cave had been sealed shut by a rock slide at least 20,000 years ago). This is not the kind of site that can be opened to the public. Indeed, there is now talk about building a visitor center that would include a simulation of the cave and its prehistoric paintings.

Paintings of horses in the Chauvet cave

The artwork discovered in the cave consists mostly of paintings of wild animals: bears, lions, rhinoceri, buffalo, and woolly mammoths. The paintings of horses are remarkably skilled, especially for someone using the crudest of artistic tools.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fascinating documentary by Werner Herzog which was filmed under the most curious circumstances. The two questions that instantly come to mind while watching the film are:
  1. How did Herzog get permission to make the film?
  2. Why did he choose to film in digital 3D?
I have no way of answering the second question. However, in recent interviews, Herzog has confessed to being fascinated by cave paintings since he was a child.

He spent nearly a year trying to get permission to film from France's Ministry of Culture, the regional government in southern France, and the collective of scientists working in the Chauvet cave. His proposal was simple:  If the  French government would let him film the cave as an employee, he would only ask for a fee of one euro. In return, he would donate the film (with all noncommercial rights) to France.

Herzog's film crew in the Chauvet cave

Herzog's 90-minute film (which contains interviews with scientists, art historians, etc.) also includes some beautiful vistas of the valley created by the Ardèche River. While some of the interviews offer wonderful background material on the prehistoric environment in Southern France, there are certain moments within the cave (the "heartbeat" scene, in particular) which ring false.

Film fans should be able to keep themselves occupied debating whether or not it was worthwhile for Herzog to shoot the film in digital 3D (at this point in his career he doesn't really have to prove himself to anyone). The film's one notable drawback is that it tends to get a bit repetitious in the second half as Herzog shows footage of the same drawings over and over again.

I don't think people who see the film in 2D will suffer any great artistic loss.  The real art is on the walls of the Chauvet cave and any opportunity to see it is a spectacular gift from Herzog and France. Here's the trailer:

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In 2007, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco mounted an exhibition entitled Princes, Palaces, and Passion: The Art of the Mewar Kingdom. Billed as a collection of artwork from the kingdom of Mewar (located in northwestern Rajasthan), the exhibition featured quite a few Indian miniatures. Eager to see the new exhibit, I hauled my ass down to the Asian Art Museum and received a rather unpleasant reality check.

Over the course of the previous decade I had undergone three surgeries on my left eye. A steady stream of allergies (coupled with the fact that I live right across the street from Dolores Park) meant that my eyes were constantly blurry or tearing. Those two factors (along with my bifocals) made it almost impossible for me to clearly see -- much less appreciate -- the miniatures painted by famous Indian artists.

A beautiful new documentary by Amit Dutta concentrates on the work of the artist Nainsukh. But instead of an academic lecture about the artist and his work, Dutta's film seeks to reenact many of the moments captured by Nainsukh in his miniatures and, in doing so, let the viewer imagine what was in the artist's mind at the time.

Dancers recreate a scene from one of Nainsukh's miniature paintings

The one drawback to Nainsukh is that it takes about 30 minutes before viewers catch on to how the action in the film is aimed to reproduce some of the artist's miniature paintings.  Once a viewer hooks into the symmetry in the film's structure, all that's required is to sit back and enjoy the film's visual splendor. But first, a little bit of historical perspective is in order.  According to the film's production notes:
"Nainsukh (born in Guler c. 1710, died 1778 ), the greatest of 18th century Indian Miniature painters, son of the respected Pandit Seu and younger brother of Manaku, deviated from his family workshop style because of his interest for Mughal naturalism. At the age of 39, Nainsukh followed the call of Raja Zorawar Singh to his castle in Jasrota. Here, Nainsukh served him and, after his untimely death, his young son Raja Balwant Singh as retained artist. These two dandy-like, non-ruling Rajput princes were connoisseurs who enjoyed spending their limited fortunes on colorful guests with a fastidious taste for music, dance and theatrical performances."

A painting comes to life in Nainsukh

"Nainsukh participated in their artistic amusements as an 'organizing observer' and as the chronicler of their predilections by dozens of pictures, which are a clear proof of his closeness to this hillnobility’s life-style -- a world he depicted with sympathy and respect. Involved in some court intrigue and probably incapable to repay some heavy debts to a miscreant court priest, Raja Balwant Singh was forced to leave Jasrota, and Nainsukh accompanied him in exile, where the prince died three years later. It was Nainsukh, who participated in the death rites for his long-time patron, as is recorded in the pilgrim’s register at Haridwar with an entry made by Nainsukh, embellished also with a fine drawing dated June 1763."

One of the scenes from Nainsukh's paintings that is brought to life in the film.

In his director's note, Amit Dutta writes:
"Inspired by the paintings and biography of Nainsukh, this film is shot in the same region where the artist had lived and worked. The actors are local people and include the direct descendants of Nainsukh. The story is from my homeland and I speak the same dialect. The artist himself is played by Manish Soni, one of the finest contemporary miniature painters in India. Nainsukh was realised with the collaboration of the scholar Dr. Eberhard Fischer who has been more than a producer."

Dutta's film has no discernible dialogue. Instead, it is often accompanied by a cacophony of bird calls and mooing cows. And yet, the amplified sounds of nature only enrich the experience of seeing Nainsukh's art come to life. Whether the actors are getting into the necessary positions to mimic the slaying of a tiger or dance for a prince, the film is so visually rich and acoustically stimulating that its beauty can often take the viewer's breath away.

A miniature portrait painted by the artist Nainsukh.

I wish it were possible to show some of the reenactments in the film but, alas, no trailer is available at present. Take my word that Dutta's documentary will overwhelm you with a rare and exorbitant beauty and thrill you with its vibrancy as it brings Nainsukh's art to life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Animal Crackups In My Soup

Animal behavior is a constant source of wonder to humans. Whether one is playing with a pet or scuba diving, riding a horse or studying the activity in an ant farm, animals never fail to inspire, amuse, and entertain us.

From wildlife documentaries to such beloved characters such as Donald DuckGarfield, Snoopy, and Bucky Katt, artists have tried to capture the spontaneity of animals in print and on film, in the wild as well as in their wildest fantasies. English animator Simon Tofield has done so with remarkable wit and simplicity, as demonstrated in the following three shorts:

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Over at  the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, three charming animated shorts take anthropomorphism to some interesting extremes. Yvette Edery's Jillian Dillon is about a hippoplatypus whose platypus mother lays eggs and whose hippopotamus father eats watercress.

Frequently teased by other animals, Jillian Dillon saves the day in this five-minute short that uses handmade puppets and song to put a fresh spin on the old Ugly Duckling theme. Here's a brief trailer:

Going further into anthropomorphism, Kelly Wilson and Neil Wrischnik's short, The Snowman, depicts what happens when a snowman loses his carrot nose within range of a family of hungry rabbits. What makes this short so charming is its solid story line, the magnificent animation (especially for the rabbits) and the way Dan Zank's impressive original score provides the perfect foundation for the action. You can watch a brief excerpt here.

Finally, we come to Ormie, a four-minute short by Rob Silvestri (who recently worked on Gnomeo & Juliet) that is every bit as delightful as the old Roadrunner cartoons. Ormie is pig who has spied some chocolate chip cookies resting in a jar on top of a refrigerator. Ormie will go to any extreme (no matter how ridiculous) to get the cookie that has become his latest obsession.

Ormie recently won the award for Best Short at the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children and Youth.  Just one glimpse of Ormie should tell you why Silvestri's short is so much fun!

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Having recently sat through press screenings for a couple of soon-to-be-released stinkers, I was more than a little surprised at the hostility that greeted Francis Lawrence's film adaptation of Sara Gruen's historical novel, Water for Elephants. Take, for example, Marshall Fine's comments:

"Watching a movie like Water for Elephants, knowing that it's not only based on a novel, but on a best-selling novel that was all the rage for book clubs, makes me wonder about the book -- specifically, how bad is it? Having seen this movie, I can't imagine reading Water for Elephants. Indeed, it makes me think less of the people who have. And I can't imagine anyone who read the book being able to stomach this snore of a movie."

I used to encounter this kind of condescending vitriol emanating from dyspeptic opera queens and music critics -- like the one from Texas who (prior to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic) told me that he would have to get really drunk in order to survive another rendition of that music. I eventually learned that their acid-tinged sniping offered a truer comment on the misery of their own lives than any performance they were describing.

Although I didn't read Gruen's novel, I had myself quite a lovely time watching Water for Elephants which (horror of horrors) actually has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Granted, it's not a perfect movie. Nor would I characterize it as a chick flick. But this film  has many things going for it, including a compelling story, some wonderful cinematography, and an impressive musical score by James Newton Howard. While the circus animals and steam locomotives (Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum #610 and McCloud Railway #18) help to beef up the ambiance, there is much more in this film that will please an audience eager for an old-fashioned romance.

Set during the Great Depression (when the use of homemade Prohibition-era substitutes for booze often led to paralysis and death), Water for Elephants contains more honest atmospheric grittiness than I have seen in some overly pretentious attempts at cinematic high art.

Christoph Waltz as August Rosenbluth

And, in its own peculiar way, Water for Elephants has some strong parallels to 1997's Titanic. Swap out a doomed ocean liner for a struggling circus, an unhappy woman engaged to a selfish socialite for an unhappy woman  in an abusive relationship with a mean drunk, and then add in an unlikely young hero who arrives on the scene with surprisingly little emotional baggage and ends up in a tuxedo. Have your narrator be the last living survivor of an historic tragedy and, voila!  Cheap melodrama.

What both movies do share is a tense romantic triangle set against a supercharged and somewhat exotic atmosphere.  The basics of Sara Gruen's story are easy to enough comprehend. Young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his final examination from Cornell University's school of veterinary medicine when he is taken from the classroom and told that his parents have just been killed in an automobile accident.

Informed that his father's veterinary practice and home are worthless, Jankowski sets out on his own and hops a train which belongs to a traveling circus. The owner of the Benzini Brothers circus is August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), a jealous alcoholic with a penchant for throwing people off a moving train when they can no longer carry their weight with his circus.  August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is the ice queen he groomed to become the circus's star attraction.

Unfortunately, Marlena's prized white horse, Silver Star, is in terrible pain. Marlena thinks it's due to an abscess in the horse's right front hoof. Jankowski quickly identifies it as a terminal case of laminitis.

Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon) with the ailing Silver Star

Soon, Jankowski is under the tutelage of veteran carnie Camel (Jim Norton) and Kinko, a circus dwarf whose real name is Walter (Mark Povinelli). Sparks soon start to fly between Marlena and the young veterinarian. In a stroke of fictional genius, it turns out that August's latest purchase, a bull elephant named Rosie, understands commands spoken in Polish. Who knew?

Robert Pattinson as the young Jacob Jankowski

Water for Elephants begins and ends with two charming sequences featuring veteran actor Hal Holbrook as the 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski. If you're not a teenaged girl who screamed for Robert Pattinson in the Twilight series of vampire films, you'll find him to be a capable romantic lead. There were, however, moments when I had to pinch myself to make sure that Reese Witherspoon's body had not been taken over by Kristin Chenowith.

The strongest performance in the film comes from Christoph Waltz as August, a character of immense charm, frightening jealousy, and horrid brutality. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Show Them The Money

If asked what financial challenge they associated with the month of April, many people would point to the mid-month deadline for filing their tax returns. April, alas, was a month of tough love on the budget front.
  • In an ugly game of political chicken, Republicans in Congress threatened to shut down the government.
  • Founded in 1972, the Intiman Theatre in Seattle canceled the rest of its season, laid off its staff, and  shut down for the remainder of 2011.
  • The 111-year-old Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major metropolitan orchestra to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
That's the bad news.  The good news is that April also includes National Arts Advocacy Week in Washington, when arts administrators and celebrities from the arts descend on the nation's capitol to lobby for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In the following clip, actor Kevin Spacey (who also serves as artistic director of the Old Vic in London), gives the speech he had intended to deliver to a House Appropriations on Interior and Related Industries subcommittee before that hearing was cancelled.

Spacey's eloquence is matched by actor Hill Harper's comments on how fear mongering is currently being used by conservatives to prevent people from supporting the arts:

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Over the years, audiences have become familiar with the "Let's Put On A Show" plot line.  Whether one thinks of 1937's Babes in Arms, 1954's White Christmas, 1985's Nunsense, or 1997's The Full Monty, performers have always been willing to chip in so that the show could go on.

One should never, however, underestimate the impact that seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts can have on a small nonprofit arts organization.  Directed by Chil Kong, a delightful new movie entitled The Mikado Project does a beautiful job of showing just how important that kind of seed money and validation can be.

I first read about The Mikado Project in one of Jeff Yang's delightful "Asian Pop" columns entitled "Yes we Ken?" As someone who grew up on Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, I quickly clicked through to The Mikado Project's website, which led me one step further to the website for the mythical Angry Buddha Theater Company. It was there that I discovered the hilarious posters for productions of:
  • Killing Me Soft Lee
  • Cat On A Hot Pagoda Roof
  • The Merry Wives of WuShu
  • The Cherry Blossom Orchard
  • The Merchant of Malaysia
  • The Aiya Couple
  • Sweet Nightingale of Youth
  • The Vietcong Monologues
Once I saw the following pieces of poster art, I was hooked!

As it turns out, Kong's film is loosely based on a play written by Ken Narasaki and Doris Baizley that was first staged in May of 2007.  It focuses on a struggling Asian-American theater company (whose artistic output has been mostly works of "protest theatre") that is now in danger of losing its funding from the NEA.

The company's artistic director (Allen C. Liu) is tired of coping with overflowing toilets and can barely pay the theatre's rent (or afford to print programs). Too exhausted to consider staging a production of A Streetcar Named Manzanar, he understands that, even though Angry Buddha is an Asian-American theatre company, only white people buy theatre tickets. On top of all that, Lance has to deal with a hornet's nest of diva-like personalities:
  • Cheryl (Erin Quill) got pushed around by some older Caucasians when she played Yum Yum at the age of six. Now an angry young activist with an acute case of political correctness, she is none too pleased about being asked to grovel and act submissive because Lance  is determined to give audiences what they want.
  • Viola (Tamlyn Tomita) is an extremely attractive woman who is horrified at being asked to play the role of an old maid (the elderly, ugly Katisha).
  • Ben (Ryun Yu) is the insecure, egotistical actor who has been Viola's on-again, off-again boyfriend.
  • Sam (Rizwan Manji) is the theatre's shy tech person.
  • Dennis (Gerald McCullouch) is the group's music director who has grown weary of all the squabbles within the company.
  • Yuri (Yuri Tag) is a talented young dancer/choreographer who, in her desperation to lose 15 pounds, faints during a key rehearsal.
  • Teddy (Raymond J. Lee) is a young actor who has only worked in film. An aspiring rapper, he quickly transforms Nanki Poo's first aria, "A Wandering Minstrel I," into a slick hip hop number which he performs in a hoodie.
  • Jace (David Lee McInnis) is a former member of the group who made it into a TV series. "He who cannot be named" has recently been dropped by his agent and now wants to star in Angry Buddha's production of The Mikado. Jace also thinks it would just be a super idea to update Gilbert &  Sullivan's operetta (which was first performed in 1885) to the 1940s and set it in the Japanese-American internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho.
  • Mrs. O'Malley (Freda Foh Shen) is Cheryl's mother, who has patiently sat by as her daughter dropped out of law school and refused to get married. Her family's restaurant has always provided the catering for the Angry Buddha's opening night parties.
Because many a stage director has tried to put a new twist on The Mikado, a little history might be helpful. Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operetta premiered at the Savoy Theater in London on March 14, 1885. The Swing Mikado opened in Chicago in 1938 with an all-black cast and choreography that included "The Truck" and the Cakewalk (this production was subsequently produced at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco).

On March 23, 1939, The Hot Mikado opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in a jazz/swing version with an all-black cast, starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. On April 29, 1960, Groucho Marx played Ko-Ko opposite Helen Traubel's Katisha in a television production of The Mikado for The Bell Telephone Hour. Here they are singing "Tit Willow" and "There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast."

1962 brought the debut of The Cool Mikado, a British film starring Frankie Howerd, Lionel Blair and Stubby Kaye that transformed the operetta into a comic gangster story in contemporary Japan. In 1975, The Black Mikado was set on a Caribbean island. In 1986, a new version of Hot Mikado premiered in Washington, D.C.

Over the years I've seen many productions of The Mikado by companies ranging in size from San Francisco's Lamplighters to the New York City Opera. I've seen The Mikado performed by the D'Oyly Carte Company and enjoyed Jonathan Miller's interpretation created for the English National Opera (which placed the action in a British seaside resort). My favorite production is the one I saw performed by the Australian Opera in 1985 at the Sydney Opera House, in which director Virginia Lumsden set the action in a London department store (the delightful DVD of this production, filmed in 1987, can be rented from Netflix).

In all those many years of loving Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, I never once thought about how Asian Americans might react to The Mikado. As the film's creative team explains:
"The Mikado has long been the bastion of Caucasians who have tended to ignore its history as a commentary on Victorian social mores, and focus more on acting stereotypes and poking fun at Asians and Asian features. Without intending to, The Mikado has since become one of the worst examples of racism towards another people on stage. Yet it continues to thrive, even in our new politically astute culture.
The story was set in Japan (considered an exotic land to the British during that era), and the 'foreign-ness' allowed Gilbert to satirize British politics. Names such as Nanki Poo and Yum Yum -- who reside in the mythical town of Titipu -- and elaborate costumes that bear little resemblance to feudal Japan, were meant to lambaste Victorian England. The result, however,  has been one of cultural insensitivity to Asians and Asian Americans, no different than the prosthetic Asian eye makeup and 'yellow face' donned by Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon." 
One of the things that fascinated me while watching The Mikado Project was how shrewdly Sullivan's music had been adapted to be used as incidental music in many scenes. The ensemble cast has strong appeal, with some of the most enjoyable work coming from Raymond J. Lee as Teddy/Nanki Poo. Quan Phung (the film's Executive Producer) wisely stresses that:
"We are using the story of this Asian American theater company in the same way Gilbert &  Sullivan used a Japanese story to comment on their society. Hopefully, we can laugh at ourselves while shedding light on the challenges facing Asian American actors -- or any actor of color in Hollywood today.”
The Mikado Project offers viewers a tender, mocking backstage look at the dynamics of community theatre  (its director spent several years as one of the artistic directors of the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles). He explains that:
“This film came out of my personal experiences. We had 10 years of introspection about the landscape of Asian Americans in arts and cinema. The one thing I know for sure is that our history is evolving and my goal was to create an entertaining story. This film is a valentine to the various generations of Asian American artists and the small theater companies around the country that continue to operate in this economic climate. For me, musical comedy was the best way to go to address anything we had to say about being Asian American or The Mikado.”
Devout Savoyard fans need not worry about any sacred cows being slaughtered.  If anything, most will relish the chance to rethink The Mikado through a radically different lens. Here's the the trailer:

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In the following clip, actor Alec Baldwin describes the vital connections between the arts, government funding, and the commercial business world. He also stresses the spiritual component of the arts that, for centuries, has such a deep impact on people's lives.


Like nonprofits, independent filmmakers struggle to raise money for their art. Ever since 2004 (when he burst on the scene with his hit documentary, Super Size Me), filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has used his curiosity and probing lens to delve into controversial issues. Beginning in 2005, his reality TV documentary series, 30 Days, followed Spurlock and his colleagues as they tried to put people in the shoes (and life situations) of those they feared the most. Although the FX channel cancelled the show after three seasons, it was recently picked up by Planet Green.

Spurlock's gift is his ability to transform difficult learning experiences into a highly marketable form of edutainment. In his lengthy director's notes, Morgan explains the genesis of his latest documentary:
"It was two years ago when we first got the idea to make POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It began with a conversation between me and my producing partner and co-writer, Jeremy Chilnick, where we talked about the TV show Heroes and their less than subtle inclusion of the Nissan Rogue into the show‘s storyline. We then started talking about all the big summer movies, from Transformers to Iron Man to James Bond, and about how all those product placements were more than just advertisements for products. They were tools that made these movies’ footprints and awareness even bigger. These co-promotions helped turn them into blockbusters. And we wondered if a little movie, even a documentary, had the same type of partnerships and co-promotion opportunities, could it have a bigger presence? Would it have the same influence? Could a doc reach the same level of awareness and marketability of a summer blockbuster? Would it be a doc-buster?
Brands are everywhere these days. It seems like I can‘t go to any event these days without someone sponsoring it. Sporting events, concerts, anything. So why not a movie? Better yet, why not a movie that examines the whole phenomenon that is actually paid for by the companies themselves? That was the jumping off point."

"Now, product placement isn‘t a new phenomenon. In the 1800s, Jules Verne sold the naming rights to shipping companies in Around the World in 80 Days. In the early days of film,  Thomas Edison put ads for his own products in his movies. But television has always been its own animal. When it first began, shows were actually paid for and written by the advertisers, and the whole purpose was to sell a product. (Let‘s not forget that soap operas were created by soap companies for the sole purpose of selling more soap to moms!) But as the popularity of film and television grew, the power of the advertisers diminished. It became about star power. It became about the content of the shows and the creativity of their creators. Over the last few decades though, that power has slowly been chipped away as more and more  networks and outlets are competing for the same ad dollars and the same eyeballs. And so, the advertisers began to have power again -- not only to get the air time they wanted -- but with the ability to dictate the content.
And so, here we are once again as we were in the beginning, with the birth of a new film and TV revolution (actually the TiVo revolution), at the crossroads of money, power, influence, distribution, and creativity. I wanted this film to explore the give and take that happens when you play the game -- or at least what happens when you try. I think the film will open a lot of people’s eyes to the unbelievable conversations and situations that happen behind closed doors every day in the entertainment and advertising businesses. It doesn‘t matter if you‘re a writer, director, producer, or musician -- you are affected by this on some level, but not nearly as much as the consumer."
Morgan Spurlock with consumer activist Ralph Nader
"In the middle of the thousands of hours of commercials and advertisements that we all see in our lifetime, there is an invisible curtain that makes us think this is the norm -- that it‘s the way it should be. The movie documents both the absurdity and pervasiveness of product placement in our daily lives. I saw my role on this film as both a filmmaker and an anthropologist. I needed to be careful that I did not become part of the punch line or part of the campaign. I had set out to see how important advertising is in our daily lives. Maintaining that perspective was the only way I could get the movie made. I also wanted to maintain a healthy respect for all of the sponsors, what their goals are, and meanwhile remain the third eye observing it all. I think this film does a great job of pulling that curtain back in a way we've never seen. After people watch this film, I think they will start to look at everything a little differently, especially the way they are marketed and advertised to every single day of their lives."

Morgan Spurlock holds up one of his sponsor's products

What Spurlock has done is taken a great idea and tricked it out so that his audience is in on the joke from the beginning. As a result, his film often resembles a video game chock full of pop-up product placements. 

Whether working with JetBlue, Hyatt Hotels, Ban Deodorant or perhaps his favorite sponsor -- Mane'n Tail -- Spurlock is more than eager to share the crazy roller-coaster ride he has disguised as a learning experience (of note: all of the film's sponsors are given space in the production notes to describe their products and corporate philosophies).  Spurlock shrewdly uses classical music selections that have long been in the public domain (such as the themes from Sergei Prokoviev's beloved "Peter and the Wolf" and Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") to add a grand sense of merriment to the proceedings.

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock

Audiences will find it almost impossible to resist the multiple charms of Spurlock's film, which is exactly the outcome desired by the filmmaker and his sponsors. The following 19-minute clip is of Spurlock's recent TED talk. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Altered Landscapes of the Mind

Once upon a time -- and not so very long -- people used to joke about gay men who liked to torture straight couples by breaking into their homes and rearranging the furniture. But with all the technology we now have at our disposal (not to mention the mind-altering substances that have become so easily obtainable) why would anyone limit himself to rearranging furniture? Why not rearrange the world in which we live?
  • Do you hate gravity?  Get rid of it.
  • Do blue skies creep you out? A simple tweak with a graphics program can change them to a blazing orange hue.
  • Do you worry that a certain dress makes you look fat? Change the world into a chubby chaser's paradise in which fit and skinny people are to be pitied rather than admired.
Two wonderfully inventive animated shorts that will be shown at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival demonstrate amazing ways to rethink the world as we know it. Each is brief, brilliantly conceived, and magnificently executed.

In Get With The Program Jennifer Drummond Deutrom has created a vision of the future in which:
"Complacent inhabitants devise ways to adapt to the constant demands of the techno dystopia they have created. High-tech addiction, constant surveillance, data harvesting, body transformation, resource depletion, and mindless entertainment are just part of the daily grind for these one-eyed apathetic creatures."

Although Deutrom's film is not yet available on YouTube, you can watch a brief trailer here. However, in the 2-1/2 minutes it takes to watch Patrick Jean's Pixels, you can see the world change before your very eyes:

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Radical changes in the world as we know it lie at the heart of J.C. Lee's trilogy. The second installment, entitled Into The Clear Blue Sky, recently received its world premiere from Sleepwalkers Theatre. Most of the play takes place in post-apocalyptic New Jersey in a world whose glaciers have melted and whose beliefs have been turned upside down. The main characters are:
  • Mika (Dina Percia), an aggressive, fearless young woman who has obviously been influenced by the legendary Xena, Warrior Princess. Unafraid of cannibalistic Canadians, mutant dogs, and giant seahorses, Mika has set out on a quest to find her father, a scientist who built himself a silver rocket in which he blasted off from earth and headed for the moon.
  • Kale (Eric Kerr) is Mika's older brother who, despite her vigorous rejections, still loves her. Kale is determined to follow Mika to the ends of the earth, if necessary, and bring her home.
  • Margaret (Pamela Smith), Kale and Mika's mother. A woman who knows how to administer tough love when it is needed, Margaret has struggled to cope with empty nest syndrome after being left behind by her husband and two grown children.
  • The Husband/Scientist (Christopher Nelson), a father-mentor figure who, after Mika arrives on the moon, offers her a solution that might rid her of the blackness of her hands.
  • Cody (Adrian Anchondo), the impractical love-smitten boy next door who has always worshipped Kale and would do anything to be a part of his life. A confused combination of a frustrated poet, an infatuated young gay man who was once teased for looking like a transgender version of Chita Rivera, and a wannabe warrior who cannot swim, Cody is a mass of emotional contradictions boiling over with unrequited love.

Adrian Achondo as Cody (Photo by: Mercedes Dorame)

As directed by Ben Randle, Into The Clear Blue Sky benefits from the powerful sound design by Colin Trevor and Christian Mejia's lighting design (it's amazing what you can do with three flashlights). What shines above all is the quality of Lee's writing, which can quickly jump from being desperately poetic to delivering hilarious one-liners and a stunning transformation that captures the essence of theatrical magic.

Performances of Into The Clear Blue Sky continue at the Phoenix Theatre through April 30 (you can order tickets here). The final installment in Lee's trilogy, The Nature Line, runs from August 4-27.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

French Connections

If there's one thing I enjoy, it's a film that exceeds my expectations. Such films are not as plentiful as one might imagine. In today's entertainment industry, the movies that gain the public's attention often feature major stars. The release of such films is usually accompanied by massive publicity campaigns.

Sometimes, however, one encounters a foreign film with limited funds for American distribution (Vitus), an indie film of exceptional merit (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle), a surprisingly well-made documentary (Pianomania), or a full-length animated feature (Sita Sings The Blues) that could never hope to compete with the economic clout and marketing engines that support PixarDisney, and DreamWorks Animation releases.

Where does one find such films?
Bay area audiences will soon be introduced to two wonderful French films that seem to be flying under the radar. One is being released in art houses, the other will be shown at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival during a screening aimed at families and children. Both films are cinematic treasures that should be added to your Netflix queue.

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Historical dramas hold a special place in my heart. For one thing, they offer a wonderful chance to explore historical periods that have long since passed. Many also take us into foreign cultures whose customs and costumes have an exotic appeal. From Lawrence of ArabiaBecket and Russian Ark to Red Cliff, Jodhaa Akbar and The Lion In Winter, historical dramas can be thrilling cinematic adventures. Or they can become bloated, expensive turds like 1963's Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison) or Ridley Scott's appalling 2010 reimagining of Robin Hood (with Russell Crowe in the title role).

A new film directed by Bertrand Tavernier, however, presents a rare treat. Because The Princess of Montpensier is based on a little known novel by Madame de La Fayette from a largely undocumented period of French history, audiences can approach this film -- which has no major Hollywood celebrities in the cast -- with a clean slate. As Didier Le Fur (the recipient of the 2009 Pierre Gaxotte Award who specializes in 16th century history) explains in the film's lengthy production notes:
"La Princesse de Montpensier was originally published anonymously in 1662 -- probably because informed observers recognized in this tale of passion the story of another liaison, between Henrietta of England (the wife of Louis XIV’s brother) and the Comte de Guiche. Nonetheless, in her first novel, Madame de la Fayette took care to cover her tracks. She set the story not at the court of the Sun King but a century earlier in the reign of Charles IX, against the backdrop of a country torn apart by the French Wars of Religion. All the characters had truly existed, even if the author changed some of their names. All that she made up was the love story: a very young woman, Marie de Mézières, who has only respect for her husband Philippe de Montpensier, but secretly loves another man, Henri, Duc de Guise. For a time, she believes that the distance between them and the company of the loyal Comte de Chabannes will remove temptation. But fate brings Guise to her door and her virtue is powerless to resist.
Betrayal by the man she loves and the disaffection of her husband are her punishments. As for Chabannes, the discreet confidant and perfect friend, he eventually sacrifices himself for the woman with whom he, too, has fallen passionately in love. Although Madame de la Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves has often been adapted for the screen, the same is not true of La Princesse de Montpensier. It straggled in the wake of La Princesse de Clèves in terms of book sales and impact on the collective imagination. When 19th century readers rediscovered a period, which under Bourbon rule had been renowned for its moral depravity, the court of Henri II (the focal point of the action in La Princesse de Clèves) seemed more glorious and more representative of the image they had of the 16th century than that of his second son, Charles IX, which recalled recent wounds that had not yet healed. By capturing the splendor and prosperity of a country at the peak of its glory, illuminated by renaissance talents, Clèves represented the objective to aim for. Set in a time of division, intolerance and massacres, Montpensier depicted a past to be forgotten and a future to be avoided. In the 19th century, La Princesse de Clèves was reprinted 28 times, La Princesse de Montpensier not at all."

Poster art for The Princess of Montpensier

"Although the 20th century went some way to repairing this injustice, it did so very late. Even so, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Cosmos’s decision to adapt this short novel did not stem from the desire to restore a forgotten minor masterpiece to its rightful place, and even less from the idea of using a historical setting to deal with contemporary issues, as Madame de la Fayette undoubtedly had to avoid censure. By choosing this text, they sought first and foremost to tell a story of passion and love in both its most personal and universal forms. To make things easy, or artificially modern, they could have set the story in the present day. They chose not to adulterate it, but this choice implied depicting a relatively unknown period without the film becoming a history lesson.
La Princesse de Montpensier is anything but a history lesson. Tavernier and Cosmos deliberately shied away from dates and political events that contributed little or nothing to the story. Charles IX never appears and Catherine de Medici, his mother, has only one scene. The film does not set out with the wild and self-defeating ambition of retelling The Wars of Religion. Although there are skirmishes and battles, they are there to illustrate the characters’ personalities and reflect on their passions. Nor is The Princess of Montpensier a costume drama, with all the negative images associated with that genre -- lavish sets and ornate costumes failing to hide the weaknesses of the script. The strength of Madame de la Fayette’s story, to which Tavernier and Cosmos remain very faithful, speaks for itself.
Nonetheless, the period had to be reconstructed and made visible. Tavernier and Cosmos achieved this by writing several scenes which discreetly, without interfering with the story, help create the impression of making contact with a way of life, a daily reality. Scenes like Marie de Mézières’ wedding banquet and wedding night, the death of the wild boar, the Duc d’Anjou’s bedtime ceremony at Champigny, the hawker passing through and Marie learning to write, efficiently underpin the portrayal of a society with its habits, pleasures, constraints, curiosities and violence. The weight of the sets never obstructs our view, the hose and farthingales don’t handicap the characters, but they offer us the spectacle of a world that the history books often hesitate to reconstitute and that Madame de la Fayette does not extensively describe, either. A color here, a hint of a scent there, a noise farther away, a gesture or a posture somewhere else -- a swathe of subtle, multi-faceted messages which, beyond the strength of the characters, story and production, strangely and satisfyingly convince us that it’s possible to capture on film the essence of a period dating back over four centuries."
What makes The Princess of Montpensier so fascinating is that, even in a time of war, the film is not about endless battle but about people who must use their intelligence in order to survive the brutal instincts of less sophisticated rivals. Throughout the film, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry) must subdue her personal doubts and fears while wrestling with her attraction to three rich and handsome men:
  • Her childhood love, de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), is all bullying brawn but is not particularly strong in the brains department.
  • Although basically a warrior, the man she is forced to marry, Prince Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), is virtuous and true.
  • Played by Raphaël Personnaz, the Duc d'Anjou (the future King Henri III) is a man of greater intellectual strength than either de Montpensier or de Guise (who are quick to draw their swords when challenged). As Tavernier notes, "Anjou was a brilliant general with an inquiring, intelligent mind. Somebody once said he would have been a great king if he had lived in a better period."
The Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) amd Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel )

However, it is Philippe's mentor, the Comte de Chabannes, whom Tavernier considers to be the spine of the film.
"He’s the emotional catalyst and allows us to glimpse the different aspects of Marie. He reminds me of the great heroes of some of the literature of the time: he’s simultaneously a teacher and warrior, mathematician and philosopher, fighting intolerance in all its forms. To understand his humanism and commitment to peace, we need to see him confronted with the brutality of war. Lambert Wilson possesses every facet of the character and it is through his eyes that we understand the heartrending decisions facing Marie. I clearly take Marie’s side. She is torn between her education and what is expected of her on the one hand, and her passion and desire on the other. She refuses to be the submissive wife. She wants to educate herself and embrace the world. Her desire to learn empowers her and allows her to resist."

Princesse Marie (Mélanie Thierry) and Chabannes (Lambert Wilson)

Tavernier's co-screenwriter, Jean Cosmos recalls that:
"My only ally, an intermediary between the periods, theirs and ours, was François de Chabannes, twice the age of the others, more enlightened in the modern sense since he betrayed both fundamentalisms, and, in terms of reading and thought, on a higher plane although of lower rank. It was through him that Bertrand and I, following on from François Rousseau, who blazed the trail, found the linguistic and behavioral equivalents. It was through him that we adapted ourselves to the story, especially as his hopeless love brought us unerringly back to Marie, a prisoner of her caste, education, and codes of respectability, and of her appetite for light and liberty."
Mélanie Thierry as The Princess of Montpensier

Although The Princess de Montpensier has a running time of nearly 140 minutes, there is never a dull moment. This is partly due to the skill with which Tavernier has avoided many of the standard clichés of historical costume dramas.  The film's musical score is an added blessing. As Tavernier explains:
"I didn’t want to reconstruct a period, just capture its soul. For example, I didn’t want any pseudo 16th century music. Although Philippe Sarde drew his inspiration from composers of the time, such as Roland de Lassus, we ensured the arrangements and harmonies were very modern by using a lot of percussion. In fact, we ended up with a completely original formation made up of three baroque musicians, four trombones, seven double basses and cellos, and five percussionists. And no violins!"
There is so much to enjoy and appreciate in this film, from the costumes and wall tapestries to the sword fights and romance (not to mention all those magnificent horses). Here's the trailer:

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On a much lighter note (and set in modern times), is a full-length hand-drawn animation feature by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol which will steal your heart in minutes. A Cat In Paris has it all: intrigue, a six-year-old girl whose father was killed by a mobster, the Colossus of Nairobi come to life, and a visit to the zoo. There's also a cat burglar named Nico who, unbeknownst to Zoe, shares a close relationship with her cat, Dino.

Zoe gives Dino a hug in A Cat In Paris

Ever since her father was murdered, Zoe has stopped talking. At night, when Dino goes out on the prowl,  he likes to tease the local dog, join his friend Nico on some wild adventures, and return home with a dead lizard to present to Zoe as a gift. One day, Dino brings home a valuable bracelet that was recently stolen from a jewelry collection.

When Zoe attempts to follow Dino on his nightly adventures, she lands in a heap of trouble that draws her mother (a police commissioner) into the clutches of the evil Victor Costa (who murdered Zoe's father).

Dino perches atop a gargoyle in A Cat In Paris

A Cat in Paris is blessed with a great story, sublime animation, a delightful sense of humor, and a magnificent score by Serge Besset.  You won't want to miss it. Here's the trailer: