Saturday, March 31, 2012

Adults Behaving Badly

In his delightful book, Marley & Me: Live  and Love with the World's Worst Dog, John Grogan takes readers through the life cycle of his pet Labrador retriever, who enters his home as an oversized puppy, develops the destructive power of an enthusiastic tornado, and eventually becomes old, tired, and nearly deaf.  In his declining years, Marley (who once couldn't wait to give chase to anything that moved) can barely muster the strength to lift his weary eyelids to peer at whatever is crossing his path.

We've all seen dogs like this.  They sit in front of parks and cafés as children run and scream around them. When they dream, they whimper and move their feet as if chasing a rabbit in their sleep.  But they are past their prime and everyone knows it.

For many men who have reached the age of retirement, the mind may still be chasing sex (even if the body long ago lost the energy to muster pursuit). Many years ago, I was standing in front of Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles as I eavesdropped on a conversation between several elderly men.

Suddenly, a healthy, shirtless young jock came jogging down the street clad in shiny silver running shorts. When he saw the runner's semi-engorged cock merrily bobbing up in down in his shorts, one of the old men turned to his friend and said "If I looked like that, Saul, do you think I'd still be standing here talking to the two of you about my blood pressure medications?"

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Following on the heels of his success with Mid-August Lunch (2008), actor/writer/filmmaker Gianni Di Gregorio has just released The Salt of Life, in which his character is once again at the mercy of a selfish, vain mother (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni) who thinks nothing of asking Gianni to come over and jiggle her television set to improve the picture.

Gianni Di Gregorio visits his mother (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni)
and her friends in The Salt of Life

Having been forced into retirement, Gianni is now a faithful househusband to his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) who is still working, his daughter (Teresa Di Gregorio), and Teresa's slacker boyfriend, Michelangelo (Michelangelo Ciminale). Because he is a generous soul, Gianni doesn't hesitate to walk his sexy young neighbor's St. Bernard whenever he has to run an errand, or cook dinner when necessary.

While other men his age are still cruising women and trying to find themselves a mistress, Gianni is too busy trying to help people -- and tend to his mother's needs -- to have the strength to pursue an affair. He's also reached the age where attractive women no longer see him as a viable sexual partner.

A reunion with an old flame (Valeria Cavalli) brings back fond memories of days gone by. Some of the women in his life adore Gianni as a grandfatherly figure; others admire his cooking and sweet personality.

After sipping a drink that had been spiked with drugs, Gianni and
his neighbor's St. Bernard roam the streets in The Salt of Life.

"In Italy, it’s the men who try to pretend that they never get old," explains Di Gregorio. "In my experience the women are more realistic and can deal with that situation far better. They are more rooted in reality while men (even 20 years after the fact) still prefer to think that they are young."

Although an old friend (Alfonso Santagata) is eager to send Gianni to a prostitute (and even force feeds him a Viagra-like stimulant), Gianni is too tired and distracted to perform. Later, when Alfonso tries to set up a double date with the gorgeous Squizzato twins, Gianni shows no interest.

Although Di Gregorio hadn't planned to make a sequel to Mid-August Lunch, he was apparently coaxed into doing so. While The Salt of Life has some sweet moments, much of the film seems to be struggling to find its ending. When Gianni is finally surrounded by adoring, sexy, women, it's the only logical way something like this could happen: in a tired old man's dreams. Here's the trailer:

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Unlike Gianni Di Gregorio, the four characters in God of Carnage are still full of piss and vinegar. The dramatic event which brings two couples together (one son beat up the other couple's son in a playground scuffle; the victim -- who came home with two broken teeth -- called the other boy a snitch) simply serves as the foundation for an evening of farce and recriminations unleashed by the talented French playwright, Yasmina Reza.

As directed by Rick Lombardo, the San Jose Rep's co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company takes place on a handsome unit set designed by Kent Dorsey. All four parents begin the evening as middle-aged adults whose earned wealth, professional status, and feigned empathy should allow them to deal with their children's fight quite rationally.

Unfortunately, any pretense at adult behavior quickly gives way to snarling accusations and seething resentment as the adults connect with the very worst personality traits of their inner children.
  • Alan Raleigh (Benjamin Evett) is an obnoxious lawyer who has become a slave to his cell phone.  Although disinterested in having sex with his wife, he has no problem boasting that his son has turned into an adolescent thug. His glibness (bolstered by his smarmy ability to use technology and public relations as professional weapons on behalf of his pharmaceutical client) have earned him the scorn of his sex-starved wife. 
  • Annette Raleigh (Joey Parsons) is a wealth manager who has perfected a veneer of professional behavior. Although Alan may refer to his wife as "Woof-woof," Annette is not someone to be trifled with. Push her buttons too hard and she goes from zero a raging bitch in a split second. 
Benjamin Evett and Joey Parsons in a scene
from God of Carnage (Photo by: Tim Fuller)
  • Michael Novak (Bob Sorenson) is a hardware salesman who has no interest in pretentious behavior, material acquisitions, the arts, or the finer points of baking clafoutis. Like Alan, he had his own gang in school and is damned proud of that fact.
  • Veronica Novak (Amy Resnick) is the kind of helicopter mother who tries so hard to do what she perceives to be politically correct. Put some rum in her, however, and she becomes hell on wheels.
Amy Resnick, Bob Sorenson, and  Benjamin Evett in a
tense moment from God of Carnage (Photo by: Tim Fuller)

God of Carnage begins with two sets of parents squaring off against each other and soon devolves into an age-old battle of the sexes and the two women bond with each other and the men find similar strength in numbers.  Reza's play requires an ensemble that can skillfully transition from a polite comedy of manners filled with people making snotty remarks about each other into a physical brawl in which supposedly mature adults degenerate into screaming brats whose behavior would embarrass their children.

Bob Sorenson, Joey Parsons, and Benjamin Evett in a
scene from God of Carnage (Photo by: Tim Fuller)

While the four actors work well together as an ensemble, I was especially taken by Benjamin Evett's loathsome lawyer and Joey Parsons (whose talent at physical comedy transforms her from a tightly-wound, somewhat submissive wife to an avenging antelope). God of Carnage continues through April 15 at  San Jose Rep (click here to order tickets). In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Friday, March 30, 2012

Arrested Development

"Ask me if I care."

I first heard that statement from a teenager who had been invited to lend a hand to something outside his usual sphere of interest. This young man (who had a reputation for being blunt, but honest) had been raised to view everything from the perspective of "What's in it for me?"  His challenge was spoken with a noticeable air of defiance.

That incident happened back in a time when teenagers were eagerly forming rather than extinguishing their dreams, when ambition and hope had yet to become dirty words. It took place during a period when young people did not respond to any and all questions with a bitter, sarcastic "Whatever!"

It happened long before so many American youth became slackers.

Last weekend, while attending the West Coast premiere of Annie Baker's play, The Aliens, at the SFPlayhouse, I heard those words again: "Ask me if I care." This time, however, they came from a 30-something college dropout whose apathy and defeatism were evident in his slumped posture, lengthy silences and -- despite an obviously keen intellect -- his reluctance to engage.

Jasper (Peter O'Connor) and KJ (Haynes Thigpen) in The Aliens
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Baker's play takes place in the back yard of the Green Sheep Café in the small town of Shirley, Vermont over the course of a summer. Its three characters are:
  • Jasper (Peter O'Connor), a failed novelist who is thinking of visiting a friend who lives on a wind farm. A nervous smoker who just broke up with his girlfriend, he's protective of his former bandmate, KJ, to the point of making sure that KJ doesn't slip and have a drink while celebrating the Fourth of July.
  • KJ (Haynes Thigpen), the son of a New Age therapist who was pursuing a double major in  mathematics and philosophy until he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. Although he can easily get lost in exploring the various permutations of calculitic equations like "If P is this and Q is that, then......," he is much more interested in brewing an hallucinogenic type of mushroom tea whose strongest ingredient is psilocybin. Now that he is, once again living, with his mother, any sense of urgency has evaporated from KJ's daily routine. His long silences are occasionally interrupted by brief periods of singing to himself. Unfortunately, when KJ drinks alcohol, he stops taking his medications.
  • Evan Shelmerdine (Brian Miskell), a high school senior who has just started working as a busboy. Although scheduled to take a week off to spend some time as a counselor-in-training at a Jewish "band camp," Evan begins the summer as a reluctant virgin in the awkward phase between having achieved puberty but having no sexual experiences to brag about. His speech pattern is mostly monosyllabic, with a vocabulary that focuses on such noncommittal words as "yeah," "um," and cool." As he prepares to speak, Evan's head often moves cautiously forward, like a chicken that has spotted a seed of self confidence in its path. However, all it takes is one nagging phone call from his mother to transform Evan from a seemingly spineless teenager into a determined young man with a clear sense of boundaries.
Brian Miskell as Evan Shelmerdine  in The Aliens
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

One of the hardest things for an actor to do onstage is nothing. Some people are great at it (in 1982, when Leonie Rysanek made her role debut as Ortrud in the San Francisco Opera's revival of Lohengrin, audiences were transfixed by her foreboding silence and menacing presence for much of Act I). Others struggle to break the spell and jump on a line. As the playwright explains:
"I worship at the church of theatre. It's where I go to experience ritual and take stock of my life. There are some really good TV shows and movies out there, but for the most part, it's crap to keep people distracted at home so they don't have to think about their lives and the choices they've made. There's a lot of silence in real life and that isn't represented in most so-called naturalistic theatre."
KJ tries to brew some hallucinogenic tea in The Aliens
Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli

Under the careful direction of Lila Neugebauer, the cast of The Aliens paces its pauses with such nonchalance that it seems as if style of recent Mumblecore films (which emphasize naturalism in dialogue) has taken over the stage. When TJ launches into a lonely aria about a childhood event -- in which he repeats the word "ladder" as if practicing a Philip Glass exercise in modulation -- the audience can easily find itself challenged by the temptation to count how many times he says the word "ladder" (more than 80), the desire to savor his emotional detachment, or to wonder about the depths of his depression. As SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English (who designed the evening's set) notes:
"The Aliens reminds us a little of Chekhov's hidden plot, of Beckett's minimalist wordplay, and of course, of Pinter's tension-filled pauses. But Annie Baker has a truly original and prophetic voice, writing big ideas from tiny moments. I am spellbound by her deep empathy for the quiet struggles of ordinary folk, her ability to capture the essence of being alive in minute moments and silences, and her extraordinary ability to transform a tiny slice of life into a vibrant landscape. As we hurtle by on some urgent mission, we would be unlikely to give any of these characters the time of day. But with the lens of Baker's compassionate gaze fixing our attention on them, we recognize the universality of their struggles. Their stillness makes us study them carefully as their silences speak volumes."
KJ (Haynes Thigpen), Jasper (Peter O'Connor) and Evan (Brian Miskell)
in a scene from The Aliens (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Underplaying a role is much more difficult than emoting onstage with broad gestures. To his credit, Brian Miskell's portrait of Evan Shelmerdine is imbued with a rare, lackluster type of truth and beauty. Watching Miskell as he tries to appear cool and relaxed while self-consciously lighting one of his first cigarettes is a study in body language and dramatic pacing.

Although, going by the spoken word, The Aliens may have one of the shortest scripts on record, this SFPlayhouse production transforms Baker's play into a tender coming-of-age experience in which an impressionable teen finds the most unlikely of mentors in two directionless 30-something slackers: one, a burned out shlub with a sparkler, and the other a failed writer who, though he idolizes Charles Bukowski, has made the sorry mistake of calling his ex-girlfriend a cunt. Here's the trailer:

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Over at the Curran Theatre, another two-act, three-character play is entertaining local audiences. Pinter's first commercial success (as well as his most studied script) is passing through town in a production of The Caretaker that was originally directed by Christopher Morahan in 2009 at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. This Theatre Royal Bath production will soon travel to Columbus, Ohio and then on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Jonathan Pryce and Alan Cox in The Caretaker
Photo by: Shane Reid

When The Caretaker first came to America in 1961, I saw the original Broadway cast (Donald Pleasance, Alan Bates, and Robert Shaw) at the Lyceum Theatre.  At the time, I was much too naive to understand what was going on (although I was hardly the only member of the audience to be thoroughly confused by Pinter's script). Set in a rundown house in London, The Caretaker focuses on three strange men with exceptionally poor communication skills:
  • Davies (Jonathan Pryce) is a homeless bum who has been rescued from a fight by Aston, a kindly man who brings Davies back to his dilapidated room and offers him shelter for the night. Davies hates foreigners, blacks, and young people, smells terrible, and makes strange noises in his sleep.
  • Aston (Alan Cox) is a man in his early thirties whose personality was altered by electroconvulsive therapy while he was a patient in a mental institution.
  • Mick (Alex Hassell) is Aston's younger brother who looks after the building and has impressive dreams for his future.
Jonathan Pryce and Alex Hassell in The Caretaker
Photo by:Shane Reid

If The Caretaker gets off to a rocky start with American audiences, it is largely because most of the geographical references to London neighborhoods mean nothing. It can also take a while for American audiences to get used to the actors' British accents.

Pinter's play becomes increasingly comical and obtuse during the first half of the performance. While Davies is obviously someone with delusions of grandeur, it isn't until Aston's poignant soliloquy about the time he spent in a mental institution that the audience gets any insight into the relationship between the two brothers.

Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker (Photo by: Helen Warner)

While Pinter's play provides a star vehicle for Jonathan Pryce, the tone of any performance (at least to my mind) is determined by how Mick is portrayed. What little memory I have of the original production is that the character was oddly menacing in a thuggish sort of way.

In this production, however, Alex Hassell's Mick seems quite a bit more mischievous and mercurial -- a young man with a panther-like agility who, as long as he is saddled with his brother's hopeless situation and the responsibility of maintaining a decaying house, seems eager to keep himself amused.

Alex Hassell and Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker
Photo by: Shane Reid

In researching Pinter's play, I was surprised to discover that a woman (Miriam Karlin) had played Davies in a 1990 production of The Caretaker at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Wales. That got me wondering what Pinter's peculiar drama about isolation and alienation might be like if cast with Elaine Stritch as Davies, Callista Gingrich as Aston, and Katy Perry as Mick! I also managed to find these two fascinating clips from the making of the 1963 film adaptation.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Battle Hymns of the Republic

I had a dream. It wasn't a prophetic dream, like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. Nor was it a nightmare. Instead, it was a rather stupid dream in which some Republican jackass kept demanding that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival produce a certificate of authenticity before Congress could allow it to screen Kevin Brownlow's definitive restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 silent film, Napoleon.

I was lucky enough to be in the Castro Theatre last July when Brownlow (who received an Academy Honorary Award in 2010 for a lifetime devoted to film preservation) gave a lecture on Gance's Napoleon, followed by the announcement that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival would present his complete restoration of the film with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony. The following clip from 1980 shows a 42-year-old Brownlow explaining what makes Napoleon such a landmark of silent film.

At the time of the Silent Film Festival's announcement, no one could have predicted that The Artist would be nominated for 10 Academy Awards and win the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Costume Design (Mark Bridges) and Best Original Score (Ludovic Bource). I was especially pleased that Bource was recognized for his musical contribution to The Artist for, with many silent films, music is a driving force behind the experience.

As I sat inside Oakland's Paramount Theatre for the dress rehearsal for Napoleon, I was greeted with a ritual sound that I have loved since childhood. It's a sound that can only be heard live, in a theatre or rehearsal room. It's the sound of an orchestra warming up.

When Brownlow's first restoration of Napoleon was shown in 1980, two musical scores for the film were commissioned. Because I never saw the 1980 release, I did not hear the music composed by Carmine Coppola (who had composed the scores for Apocalypse Now and The Godfather series) for American audiences.  The following video review of the 1980 release shows some of Gance's groundbreaking cinematic techniques.

I was curious to discover what made Carl Davis's score so preferable to Coppola's. What I realized over the course of the next eight hours was that nearly 80% of Davis's score is taken from Beethoven's Third Symphony (The Eroica), the storm scene from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (The Pastorale) and some of his ballet music from The Creatures of Prometheus. Add in a hurdy gurdy, the French national anthem ("La Marseillaise"), some excerpt's from Tchaikovsky's popular Marche Slav, a tinkle of Mozart, and a Corsican folk tune that bore an uncanny resemblance to "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" and the only thing missing is a theme worthy of a great hero.

"What next?" I wondered.  "Perhaps a piece of Mahler? I'll drink to that!"  But none were Mahler.

Instead, Davis followed in the footsteps of Richard Wagner, who attached numerous leitmotifs in his 19-hour tetralogyDer Ring des Nibelungen, to its characters, curses, swords, rings, castles, and dramatic themes. In the following video clip, Davis his explains the process which led him to create his theme for Napoleon and the eagle.

What makes Napoleon such a great film? There are times when not knowing your limits -- and refusing to accept the limited horizons of others -- can be the defining strength of someone with a unique artistic vision. As I watched Napoleon unfold on the giant screen, I couldn’t stop thinking about Norma Desmond’s great line from Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!”

Albert Diuedonné as Napoleon

Gance cast his late 18th-century epic with character actors whose physical imperfections and honking noses fill the giant screen with a primal energy one rarely finds in modern cinema.  Today's bland, BoToxed faces can't compete with the total lack of comprehension that clouds the face of Marie Antoinette (Suzanne Bianchetti).

Jean-Paul Marat (Antonin Artaud) lies dead in his bath.

Many of the battle scenes in Napoleon are thrilling, but at times I found myself more impressed with the those set in the National Assembly. I also found myself amused by certain personal associations with characters from the French Revolution who appear in the film.
Nevertheless, 5-/12 hours of gorgeously -- and appropriately tricolored -- tinted film covering the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror is bound to have some weak points. I found large parts of Act III (which centers on Napoleon's relationship with Joséphine) to be quite tedious. In the back of my mind, I kept hearing Anna Russell's description of what happened to the warrior maiden, Brunnehilde, after she met Siegfried ("Love certainly took the ginger out of her!").

The sheer size and scope of Gance's film makes one wonder if this about someone with a Napoleon complex or the portrayal of a complex Napoleon. Most silent film fans can’t wait to see the final 20 minutes of the film (when Napoleon explodes onto three huge screens for Gance's famed triptych). This coincided with the sequence when the theatre's organ joined forces with the Oakland East Bay Symphony to acoustically anchor an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Look Back In Wonder

In 1956, when John D. Rockefeller III became the first President of Lincoln Center, America's arts scene was at a crucial turning point. Conceived as part of a major urban renewal plan by Robert Moses, the nation's first performing arts complex would rise in an area previously dominated by tenement buildings filled with low-income ethnic populations. On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for Lincoln Center.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the ground-breaking
ceremony for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Cities don't embark on creating major cultural hubs without some idea of what kind of culture is available to fill them. By themselves, some of New York's cultural institutions at the time were struggling with aging facilities that could not accommodate much growth.
The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House

Following World War II, a new American Renaissance in opera, dance, and musical theatre began to blossom as more and more  Broadway and movie musicals, operas, and ballets were set in American locations with American composers and lyricists telling distinctly American stories. Consider the seminal period from 1950-1962:

When viewed against this very fertile background of arts activity, two new productions take on special meaning.

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Ballet fans will want to get their hands on a copy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a thrilling new documentary by Bob Hercules that chronicles the history of the Joffrey Ballet since its founding in 1956 by two gay men who, at the time, were lovers. This powerful film explains how the company that so dramatically redefined the landscape of American ballet managed to resuscitate itself from being hit with one fiscal crisis after another.

Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film features interviews with such legendary dancers from the Joffrey’s past as Dermot Burke, Gary Christ, Helgi Tomasson, Christian Holder, Trinette Singleton, and Kevin Mackenzie (as well as choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dance critic Anna Kisselgoff). Paul Sutherland and Brunilda Ruiz recall what it was like to be performing in the Soviet Union in November 1963 (a month after the Joffrey became the first dance company to perform at the White House) when news reached the company that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Whether through its choreography or its bookings, the Joffrey was constantly breaking new ground. According to Wikipedia:
"The Joffrey was the first dance company to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multimedia, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first American company to perform a rock ballet in Russia (bringing with it the first American rock band ever to perform in Russia), the first and only dance company to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it (Robert Altman’s 2003 film, The Company)."
The company's co-founders were brilliant choreographers with a brilliant sense of theatricality. Robert Joffrey broke new ground with Astarte, which used rock music and multimedia to stunning effect. The sheer brilliance of Gerald Arpino can be seen in these clips from The Clowns, Trinity, and Light Rain.

Because I spent many nights watching the Joffrey deliver thrilling performances of exciting new works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and other great American choreographers, I was thrilled to see video clips from such exciting works as Deuce Coupe and Suite Saint-Saens. The only thing missing was any mention of Robert Blankshine, who can be seen in the following clip of Viva Vivaldi (recorded during the company's May 1, 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show).

In 1980, when the San Francisco Symphony moved into its new home in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the company was able to expand its performing schedule. The San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet quickly grabbed the vacant time slots left on the War Memorial Opera House's calendar. The sad result is that beloved dance companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet no longer perform in San Francisco. Their absence is a great, great loss.

Watching Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance offers a stiff reminder of what we've been missing. Here's the trailer:

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My grandmother, Ida Schreibman, approached life with a simple philosophy: "If I'm going to be miserable, the whole world can be miserable!" Written by John Logan and beautifully directed by Les Waters, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new production of Red proves that all it takes is one bitter old Jew with a monstrous ego to light up a stage.

David Chandler stars as Mark Rothko, the famous abstract expressionist who, in 1958, received a $35,000 commission from architect Philip Johnson to create a set of murals that would be displayed in the famous Four Seasons Restaurant inside Manhattan's new Seagram Building. For any artist, this would have been a golden opportunity.

However, while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Rothko confessed a desire to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days."

Upon returning from their trip to Europe, Rothko and his wife visited the Four Seasons and found it to be insufferably pretentious.  The artist's decision to return the cash advance for his paintings (an act of sheer chutzpah which incensed the art world) provides the inspiration for Logan's play.  However, instead of Rothko's wife providing the voice of conscience which prompts the artist to return his commission, it is the passion and perceptions of his young assistant, Ken (John Brummer), that spur Rothko to action.

Ken (John Brummer) and Mark Rothko (David Chandler) examine a
painting in Red (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Chandler does a beautiful job of capturing Rothko’s cantankerous egomania, it is Brummer who triumphs by infusing some genuine humanity and a sense of decency into their working relationship. Although Ken measures his words carefully, when he explodes with accusations that Rothko can’t stand the fact that younger artists are pushing him out of the spotlight -- the same way Rothko did to the cubists and other artists who were popular when he was on his way up -- he pierces Rothko’s carefully calculated suit of intellectual armor with stunning accuracy.

Marc Brummer and David Chandler paint a large canvas in Red
Photo by: Kevin Berne

I have great admiration for John Logan's writing (he recently wrote the screenplay for the Ralph Fiennes film of Coriolanus). The production sits nicely in the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage auditorium (where, minus the usual elevated platform, the audience feels as if it is actually sitting inside Rothko's studio).  Performances of Red continue through April 29 (click here to order tickets).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

When Patience Becomes An Artistic Necessity

What do science museums have in common with animation? They give people insight into structure and possibility. One reason I've always loved industrial tours is that they give people a chance to witness the actual mechanics of various manufacturing processes, whether they involve brewing beer or constructing airplanes.

In January 2001, a series of documentary shorts created for television transformed the industrial tour into an armchair adventure. How It's Made showed audiences around the world the processes which led to fully-formed guitars, plastic bags and kayaks as well as bubblegum, solar panels, and helicopters. In the following segment, viewers learn how a hammock is made.

How does one get from standing in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History and looking up at a life-sized model of a 94-foot long blue whale to creating an animation sequence for Monstro the Whale? It takes lots of talent -- and even more patience.

The 94-foot-long model of a blue whale on display
at the American Museum of Natural History

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I'm always fascinated by the imagination that goes into various forms of animation. Whether the creative energy is used to produce entertainment or edutainment, the results are often astonishing. Consider A Drop's Life, a short video made for D.C. Water to publicize its Clean Rivers Project.

Claymation has become a favorite tool for marketing campaigns such as the one created for the California Raisins. But the stop motion work of Nick Park (the creator of the popular Wallace and Gromit series) has taken the art of working with Plasticine to incredible levels. Consider the following two clips from Creature Comforts and Shaun The Sheep:

In the following clip, Andy Symanowski, one of the key animators for Aardman Animations, explains some of the finer points of creating a new 3D full-length animated feature (The Pirates!) which is scheduled for release this spring.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the most topical uses of stop motion has been Q. Allan Brocka's hilarious Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All The World.

Whereas Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the creators of South Park) have always been able to react quickly to breaking news events, their speed is helped by the fact that they are primarily working in two dimensions with paper cut-outs. A show like Rick & Steve requires miniature sets and puppets for each character, as explained in the following video.

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My recent curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes of a stop animation film was triggered by watching a delightful eight-minute long short by Kangmin Kim that was shown at both the Sundance and San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festivals. In 38-39̊ C, a man enters a public bathhouse and, as the intense heat and steam lull him to sleep, begins to dream of his relationship with his father.

Steam fills the bathhouse in Kangmin Kim's short film

Using paper cut-outs, Kim fills his protagonist's dreams with memories of dead relatives and strange men that he and his father used to see on their trips to the bathhouse.

Some of the paper cut-outs used by Kangmin Kim in his film

Some of the film was created using mechanical dolls created specifically for scenes in a miniature bathhouse.

The following teaser gives a brief glimpse into the color palette used by Kim for his film:

As the young filmmaker explains:
“I think of myself as a designer, not an artist. When I watch P.C. animation, I feel really different. Something about it doesn’t feel alive. Since this was a two-year project, I had to do everything. During the day I drank tea and listened to music. At night, I went to the set and just played with my characters all night.  Once I had the camera in front of the set, I let my inspiration manage the process. 
This movie did not have a storyboard at all. I just drew in my sketchbook for inspiration until I had done the set. Since this was the final tyro movie in my life, I didn’t wish to have any limitations. Instead, I longed for the assembly to feel the emotions from images, not plot. I admire the hardness of stop motion because it takes objects from actual life. Characters were not critical to me; the bathhouse was more important.”
You can watch Kim at work and get a sense of his artistic vision in the following clip:

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While many traditions in the world of animation are stylistic ones that have been handed down from one generation of artists to another, sometimes animators take great fun in turning tradition upside down and inside out.  Consider the following example:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Searching for a Balance With Nature and Self

When Pacific Overtures opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre on January 11, 1976, some people were completely taken by surprise. Directed by Hal Prince in the style of Kabuki theatre, the show's book (by John Weidman) tried to describe the westernization of Japan (an island nation) with musical numbers composed by Stephen Sondheim that used the pentatonic scale.

For people whose theatrical ideas about Japan came primarily from Gilbert & Sullivan's 1885 operetta, The Mikado, or Puccini's 1904 adaptation of Madama Butterfly, the transition which came late in Act II was genuinely shocking. Although the video quality is poor, if you watch these two clips from a telecast of the original Broadway production, the final scene starts at 3:10 on the first clip.

Audiences attending a performance of Pacific Overtures are frequently shocked by the transition from traditional costumes familiar to them from scrolls and drawings to an aggressive, modern Japan that aimed to rebuild itself in the wake of World War II and become a major international economic power. But think of the kind of resilience a culture must have to recover from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and a long history of earthquakes.

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The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 has a curious distinction. Not only was the event the most thoroughly documented disaster in history, many of the observers, survivors (and even some of the victims) filmed the destruction as it happened before their horrified eyes.

Two boats resting on land after the March 11, 2011 tsunami

A poignant new documentary by Lucy Walker fills in some of the cultural complexities that were not covered by American media. Not only does Walker use footage of the tsunami's destruction, she adds subtitles that allow those who don't speak Japanese to understand what people were screaming. Thus, as the water rises and homes crumble like toothpicks, the viewer understands that one voice is screaming in grief for his grandmother, who has undoubtedly just been killed.

Wreckage and debris following the tsunami

In another scene from The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossoms, observers on a hill watch people from a nursing home struggle to climb to higher ground. Some make it to safety, others don't. One man describes how he lost his best friend because the other man had just bought a new car and went back to the auto, hoping to move it to higher ground. The water was too fast for him and he died in the raging waters.

Martin's film was nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short  Subject). But in so many ways, the graphic design for the film's poster says everything about the film that you need to know.

Poster art for The Tsunami and the Cheery Blossom

What Martin's film stresses was that the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan a month before the start of the traditional cherry blossom season (a fact was completely ignored by the mass media). The arrival of cherry blossoms is a cherished moment in Japanese culture that contains a message of new life, renewal, optimism, and the persistence of nature.

Japanese girls dressed in kimonos examine cherry blossoms

Because cherry blossoms only last for a brief period of time, their fragility offers a delicate yearly reminder that all life is temporary and there are no guarantees of longevity.  The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is a remarkable film which captures the scope of last year's disaster, the devastating economic and personal effect on the Japanese people, and the philosophical approach they take to such events. Here's the trailer:

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Few food documentaries have received such extensive coverage as Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the debut feature film by Daniel Gelb (whose father went from heading the American division of Sony Classical Records to becoming the General Director of the Metropolitan Opera). During his family's numerous trips to Japan, Daniel fell in love with sushi.  "I always felt that sushi is the most visually creative food and the sushi chef is the ultimate showman.”

Filmmaker Daniel Gelb

As he toured Tokyo's leading sushi restaurants with food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, Gelb was introduced to Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old shokunin who is considered to be the greatest sushi chef in the world. Jiro's legacy is so huge that many wonder if his oldest son will be able to live up to Jiro's high standards.

Tuna being tested for freshness at a Tokyo fish market

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is nicely balanced between telling the story of a remote and complex father (whose youngest son once wanted to know the identity of the strange man who had spent the night with his mother) and capturing the fine art of making sushi and photographing it in the immediacy of its freshness. It is also filled with surprises -- like watching how someone gets a live octopus into a plastic bag!

With the oceans being depleted of fish stocks, there are days when certain items are simply unavailable. Those who only think of sushi as a means to a higher profit margin will be astonished to witness the intensity of Jiro's quest to find the best ingredients, learn how to appreciate and perfect the process of cooking rice, and his ability to hone in on the culinary magic of fresh sushi.  Gelb is quick to stress the huge difference Jiro's method of preparing rice makes in the taste of his sushi:
"A lot of sushi restaurants in the United States (even the high-end ones) still overlook the rice. Jiro's rice is a little more vinegary than we might be used to and it's more body temperature. They cook it at very high pressure, which allows the rice to be fluffy but, at the same time, each grain retains its shape. When you eat it, you get this wonderful blend between the fish and the rice. Jiro's mastered the process so that it ends up tasting like something completely new."
For some people, making sushi is akin to an art form. For shokunin like Jiro, it involves a love of one's craft and a life-long dedication to striving to achieve perfection.

Sushi as fine art

The film also captures many cultural differences in the ways that Japanese and Americans view their work. When a reporter asks Jiro's oldest son if he resents the fact that his younger brother, Takashi, has his own restaurant, Yoshikazu (who has always worked for his father and is now in his early fifties) looks up in astonishment and explains that, in Japan, the oldest son is expected to follow in his father's footsteps.

While devout foodies may find themselves hovering on the brink of orgasm as they watch the film, what makes Jiro Dreams of Sushi so special is the way Gelb frames tiny moments which transform this documentary into a much more personalized exploration.

Although the Gelb family has had a long involvement in the world of classical music, the filmmaker credits food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto (who plays a prominent role in the movie) with the concept of likening Jiro's approach to serving sushi to the experience of listening to a classical concerto.

In many parts of the film, however, the devil is in the details:
  • Aspiring sushi chefs are willing to serve under Jiro as apprentices for ten years before embarking on their own careers.
  • One apprentice relates how he cried with joy on the day his tamago preparation finally met with Jiro's approval.
  • Jiro's son, Yoshikazu, pedals to and from the fish market (where he personally tests the fish he will buy) each day on his bicycle.
  • One of Jiro's vendors refuses to sell his rice to a huge client on the grounds that only Jiro knows how to cook it properly.
  • Jiro's restaurant was the first of its kind to receive a three-star Michelin review. 
  • Even though people make reservations months in advance to dine at Sukiyabashi Jiro (which is located on a Tokyo subway station and only seats ten people at its counter), many confess to being intimidated by Jiro's stern presence behind the counter.
  • Jiro (who is left-handed) always watches to see how someone picks up his first piece of sushi. If he notices that a customer is also left-handed, he will alter the position of the sushi on future plates so that it is more convenient for a left-handed person.
  • Jiro serves smaller portions to female diners.
  • At 85 years old, Jiro sees no reason to retire.
Jiro Ono and his son,Yoshikazu, with their apprentices

For many Americans, the Japanese work ethic described in the film would be unthinkable. For food lovers, the quality of preparation and presentation in Jiro's restaurant is simply breathtaking. For a feature film debut, Mr. Gelb has done himself proud. Here's the trailer: