Monday, April 30, 2012

Talented Newbies

One of the most exciting things for anyone in the arts is to see the fruits of a fresh, young talent blossom into maturity. While the general public may be riveted to shows like American Idol, The X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance? and The Voice, a new crop of filmmakers shows great promise.

What I find particularly impressive is that this new generation of filmmakers has grown up in an era during which computer literacy in multimedia programs is a given. Many started editing graphic images and videos at an early age.

While some have been working with digital cameras for years, they have recently been joined by aspiring filmmakers who use smartphones to record footage. No matter what technology they have at hand, some are shaping an artistic vision which shows greater insight and maturity than most people their age.

No one expects a teenager to suddenly be hailed as the next Mozart, Pablo Picasso, or Martin Scorsese. But, as three films screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival clearly demonstrate, an impressive new generation of filmmakers is starting to deliver some very exciting work.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the student curators from Berkeley High School's Communication Arts and Sciences program who took part in an internship offered by the Pacific Film Archive is a young woman named Fifer Garbesi. While traveling to the small village of Mampong in rural Ghana during the summer of 2010 (as part of group from the Experiment in International Living), she recorded footage of her journey.

The fact that her short film, Osuto, could be edited and accepted into a major international film festival within two years of the teenager's return from Africa is testimony to the professional support film students like Garbesi now receive from nonprofits like the Bay Area Video Coalition and The Factory in Oakland.

* * * * * * * * *
In her recent editorial in The New York Times entitled The Flight From Conversation, psychologist Sherry Turkle mentions "a 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything. [He] says almost wistfully, 'Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.'”

One of the shorts which left the deepest impression on me was the work of 16-year-old Joseph Procopioʼs, a Canadian teenager whose first long-form narrative film demonstrates a surprising level of depth and maturity for a teenager. In the course of 10 minutes, Onion Skin (Procopio's 11th short film) depicts some of the challenges teenagers face in expressing themselves in long form in an age of abbreviated texting and intense peer pressure.

Using actors and a technical crew recruited from seven high schools in the province of Ontario, Procopio's film was mostly filmed at St. Thomas of Villanova College in King City. Onion Skin includes some beautiful scenes shot at Toronto Pearson International Airport. This amateur footage of Ingo Maurer's water sculpture, Earthbound... Unbound 2003, shows what a wonderful backdrop Procopio chose for a scene in which two teenagers tentatively explore their feelings for each other.

* * * * * * * * *
A graduate of the Korean Academy of Film Arts, writer/director Joong-hyun Kim's first feature, Choked, goes a long way toward capturing the sense of futility that hangs over a South Korean family. In Seoul's depressed economy, Hee-Su Park (Hae-Yeon Kil) had been trying to sell a nutritional supplement purported to have helped a post-menopausal Nancy Reagan to start menstruating again. Her friend, Seo-hee Lee (Se-Jin Park), is a single mother who recently got arrested for trying to sell designer knockoffs.

Hee-Su had previously borrowed money from Seo-hee, who now needs it badly. After Hee-su vanishes with all of her family's money, her son, Youn-ho Kwon (Tae-goo Um), tries to pull his life back together. What he would really like to do is find an apartment which could show his fiancée, Se-kyung Hong (Chae-Young Yoon), that he's stable and serious about their future.

Se-kyung (Chae-Young Yoon) and Youn-ho (Tae-goo Um)
are young lovers at the beginning of Choked

Unfortunately, Youn-ho's introduction to Se-kyung's mother doesn't go well.  Nor does his work for a local real estate developer who has hired Youn-ho to force older tenants out of their apartments. After the materialistic Se-kyung breaks off their relationship, Youn-ho gets badly beaten by the son of a man who had a heart attack and died after being attacked by Youn-ho.

Youn-ho (Tae-goo Um) tries unsuccessful to start a new life

In some ways, Choked resembles 1999's Magnolia, in which Paul Thomas Anderson strung together a series of personal dramas for a cluster of Los Angeles-based losers. However, as their financial and emotional problems continue to deepen, none of the characters in Kim's film get any relief.

Nor do frogs rain down from the sky.

That being said, Joong-hyun Kim and his talented cinematographer, Jin-keun Lee, have put together a compelling movie. There were times when I found it difficult to follow exactly which character was falling deeper into debt at any given moment, but there was no questioning the film's appeal and craft (especially for what was essentially a 110-minute-long graduate project for Mr. Kim). As the beleaguered Youn-ho, Tae-goo Um displays a haunting presence as a young man who has no control over his life. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fighting Back Against The Bullies

Harvey Weinstein's recent battle to secure a PG-13 rating for Bully was a classic example of film industry power brokers attacking the messenger instead of heeding the message. Whatever crude language may have been included in the original edit of the film was language being spewed by kids who feel compelled to attack those they perceive as vulnerable targets.

Classic demonstrations of "boys will be boys" behavior were a frequent feature of Malcolm in the Middle, where the testosterone-charged Reese (the oldest of three brothers) loved to pick on younger kids, bully them into doing his homework, and embrace violence as a one-size-fits-all solution.

With today's youth spending so much time playing violent video games -- and action movies aimed at a demographic of teenage boys who like to see things explode and watch people get beaten up -- it should be obvious that poor parenting can't be the only factor contributing to a nation of adolescent thugs.

Whether kids see bullying as a way to prove their superiority, exert their newfound masculinity, or simply as an opportunity for comic relief at someone else's expense, it's important to understand that bullying is nothing new. Even after college hazing rituals have resulted in accidental deaths and numerous gay teens have committed suicide, many parents and school administrators cling to the misguided belief that being the victim of bullying "is all part of growing up.

Herndon Graddick, the new President of GLAAD recalls that:
"It wasn't until I left Alabama for California that I learned that everything I had been taught was essentially bullshit. I got pissed. Kids across the country are making themselves miserable and, frankly, leading themselves to the brink of suicide because of the bullshit they learn from a bigoted society and it's the role of GLAAD to fix that. We're no longer the silent sort of invisible presence in our community. My ambition is for gay people and transgender people to be treated fairly in the media just like anybody else. I think it's finally time for us to grab our power and really use it to make sure that we're not sort of treated as second-class citizens anymore. I think it's time for our community to go on the offensive. We're not going to be the punching bags anymore." 
While Graddick's sentiments are laudable, it's important to understand that bullying isn't restricted to incidents of homophobia. Whether one examines films like 1989's Heathers, 1994's Disclosure, or 2004's Mean Girls, it becomes obvious that girls learn how to manipulate, shame, and gang up on their peers just as maliciously as boys opt for violence as the ideal solution to any challenge.

A tendency to bully others may offer early warning signs about one's likelihood of becoming an abusive spouse and/or co-worker, a pathological liar, and or a professional criminal. Need some examples? Think about the behavior of rabid Republicans, Catholic bishops, and hotheaded celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, Mel Gibson, Grover Norquist, and Rush Limbaugh. Or sit back and enjoy all six seasons of The Sopranos.

From 1782's Les Liaisons Dangereuses to 1954's Lord of the Flies, bullying has been a staple of literature. These days it seems to have formed an unholy alliance with fundamentalist religions.

Despite the tendency of many Americans to think that the whole world revolves around them, the phenomenon of bullying takes place in any society where power games lead to one person attempting to dominate another. Three films recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival show what non-homophobic bullying looks like in other parts of the world.

* * * * * * * * *
In Surveillant (an 18-minute Canadian short by Yan Giroux), a teenager shows up for his first day on the job as a monitor at Montreal's Parc Dufresne. He soon discovers that, to the gang of teenage bullies who stalk the grounds at all hours of day and night, he's little more than fresh meat ripe for an initiation.

As the new employee drives a tractor around the park, mowing the grass and collecting garbage, he continues to be harassed by the park's denizens (who have obviously taken their cues from horror films). Here's the trailer:

In Alfie Barker's five-minute short entitled Assumption, a British minority student discovers that someone has written the word "loser" in his school notebook. Instead of succumbing to intimidation, he calmly and methodically goes to the top floor of a local parking garage, folds the page from his notebook into a paper airplane and sends it flying out into the world below him. The boy's method of coping is simple: turn something hateful into a thing of beauty and send it back into the world.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Tusi Tamasese, The Orator stars Fa'afiaula Sanote as Saili, a Samoan dwarf who, in addition to facing ridicule because of his physique, carries the social stigma of having married a woman who was banished from another village. Saili is currently being bullied by a woman who wants to plant yams near the graves of his parents as well as by the male villagers, who show little respect for him.

Fa'afiaula Sanote stars as Saili in The Orator

After humiliating Saili at his place of work, the men are sent by the villagers to Saili's home to request an ifoga. According to Samoan culture, three elements are necessary to sustain an ifoga (a ritual where the offending party pleads for pardon from the offended party):
  1. A sense of remorse and shame by the perpetrator, 
  2. Accountability by the family and village, and 
  3. Forgiveness by the victim’s family. Traditionally the culprit(s) must kneel while covered in fine mats. Ritual acceptance by the offended party occurs when they approach the ifoga party and pull away the mats.
Saili keeps watch over his dying wife in The Orator

With his wife, Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) in failing health, his unmarried teenage daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia), newly pregnant, and having recently lost his job, Saili’s predicament takes a turn for the worse when, as he is digging his wife’s grave, his obnoxious brother-in-law (Ioata Tanielu Poto) steals Vaaiga’s body during a rainstorm. According to the film's production notes:
"Death has no place in Samoa. Every Samoan who lives his culture speaks to the dead. The dialogue between the living and the dead is the essence of a Samoan spiritual being. It is this dialogue that provides the substance and direction to his life. In order to understand this dialogue, you need to analyze the mythological, the spiritual, cultural, and historical reference points of Samoans. People bury their relatives in the front of their homes so that they still see them, talk to them, and be in their presence."
Poster art for The Orator

Because Saili's size is no match for Poto's might -- and his culture has a highly developed tradition of oratory (prior to the arrival of any missionaries, communication in Samoa was exclusively oral) --  the dwarf must find the emotional strength to become a talking chief, or orator.

Shot on the island of Upolu, Tamasese’s film has a rare visual splendor (thanks in large part to Leon Narbey’s magnificent cinematography). Though the dialogue may be sparse, The Orator is filled with a brooding tension. Tim Prebble’s beautiful score and sound design more than compensate for any lack of scintillating conversation.

The Orator gives a sobering view into how dishonor, dysfunction, and despair exact their toll in a pair of small Samoan villages. Here's the trailer:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dirt Will Be Dished

Everyone has secrets. Whether or not they are willing to share them depends on how acutely embarrassing or confidential they might be. Some like to unearth hidden secrets; others like to share them with a public that could not have been present at a key moment in time.

The world looks very different when seen from a young person's perspective. Over at the San Francisco International Film Festival, a program of shorts entitled Youth Media Mashup has revealed some promising work by aspiring filmmakers.

Created by Brian Birchett, Patrick Manning, and Nick Liem, History In These Streets visits several Oakland addresses that mark important moments in the early days of the Black Panther Party. The film is not only curious for its dedication to researching a forgotten (or purposefully neglected) moment in Oakland's history, but for the makeup and motivations of its creative team.

Ben Kadie's hilarious short, Secret Club, captures a high school student's coming of age with a great deal of adolescent charm.

* * * * * * * * *
The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently presented Rex Reed's musical revue entitled The Man That Got Away. Dedicated to the lyrics Ira Gershwin wrote without his brilliant brother George, the evening’s high points include Reed’s explanation of how, after E. Y. "Yip" Harburg was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Ira Gershwin was quickly drafted to replace his childhood friend and write the lyrics for A Star Is Born).

During his career, Ira (whose first songs were published under the name “Arthur Francis”) worked with such greats as Vincent Youmans, Vernon Duke, Kurt Weill, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, and Jerome Kern. Although the evening featured a talented quartet of veteran performers (Linda Purl, Sally Mayes, Kurt Reichenbach, and and Gregory Harrison), it proved most notable for the two burning talents who were not onstage.

Poster art for The Man That Got Away

Obviously, Reed's revue was dedicated to the songwriting genius of one of them. However, to my mind, the unsung star of the evening was Tedd Firth, whose arrangements glistened with a wit and brilliance to match Ira Gershwin’s lyrics.

Despite a roster of songs ranging from 1934's Life Begins at 8:40 to 1941's Lady in the Dark -- and from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 to a medley of Judy Garland's songs from A Star Is Born -- I found myself most entranced by Gershwin's lyric for a peculiar number from Kurt Weill's short-lived 1945 musical about the famous Italian sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini, entitled The Firebrand of Florence. In the following video clip, Will Roland demonstrates Gershwin's great talent as a songwriter with his rendition of "A Rhyme For Angela."

One of Reed's most interesting recollections had absolutely nothing to do with Ira Gershwin. When That's Entertainment was released as part of MGM's 50th anniversary celebration, Reed and Fred Astaire found themselves seated at the same table at an industry event. Famous for his celebrity interviews, Reed asked Astaire if there was anything he had always wanted to do but not yet experienced. The dance legend gave a simple and honest reply.

Astaire then turned the tables on a startled Reed, who confessed that, like many men and women, he had always dreamed of dancing with Fred Astaire. When the legendary hoofer pointed out that there was still time left, Reed stammered "But, I don't know how to follow." Astaire's response was priceless: "I made 10 movies with Ginger. Believe me, I know how to follow!"

And that's now Rex Reed's dream came true.

Host and raconteur, Rex Reed

A great deal of the evening's style came from the show's music director, Mike Renzi. The following video (from when the show was originally produced at the 92nd Street Y) gives a sense of the musical gems contained in Reed’s homage to Ira Gershwin.

* * * * * * * * *
Nearly 15 years have passed since I first saw Varla Jean Merman perform at Josie's Juice Joint in the Castro. That was back in the day when she was merrily squirting Easy Cheese down her throat while singing songs of love.

Have you ever stopped and wondered how many 6'2" drag queens boast a fierce falsetto, are sponsored by, and star in commercials for Fleet Naturals? Some industries may be ripe for outsourcing, but Varla Jean (the pride of New Orleans) is definitely not one of them.

Varla Jean (a/k/a Jeffery Roberson) returned to the Rrazz Room this month with a new show entitled The Book of Merman. A tireless performer with the energy of Bette Midler and the innuendo of Mae West, Roberson is that rare songstress who can wrap her lips around a "moyl" and a "Shar Pei" in one lyric.

Having mastered the fine art of using Apple's Ocarina app to play the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute on her iPhone, Varla Jean always takes great delight in trying to gross out her audience. Her hilarious videos keep adoring fans distracted during costume changes.

Full of handy tips about mastering the latest technology from Apple, Varla Jean proudly demonstrated how -- whether you're wearing white linen or black leather gloves to a social event -- you can access the data on your iPhone by swiping a frankfurter across its surface. Having progressed from gurgling Easy Cheese to singing directly into a leaf blower (the standing floor fan she had planned to use on her hair just didn't have enough "oomph"), Varla Jean proceeded to wow the rowdy crowd with a new video that showcased her army of bedbugs.

Be honest: How many entertainers are breathless bombshells who can make their properties man come onstage dressed as a giant unraveling foreskin? How many sopranos are accompanied on the piano by former porn star Tom Judson?

The good news is that Varla Jean's new feature-length film, Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads, will be screened at the upcoming Frameline Film Festival in June. I laughed so hard while watching a preview copy that I almost fell off my recumbent exercise bicycle. Here's the trailer:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chicks And Ducks And Geese Better Scurry

As I headed into Grocery Outlet, I passed by a display of lawn furniture under a makeshift display pavilion. A child was gently tapping one of the bells that hung just above his head, making me wonder if the sheep had followed me all the way to Berkeley.

I suppose an explanation is in order.

In recent years I've fallen in love with a rather bucolic type of documentary devoted to farm animals. From the sheep in Brokeback MountainSweetgrass, and Hell Roaring Creek to the cows and goats in Way of Nature and Le Quattro Volte, there is something incredibly peaceful about watching footage that shows herds of animals moving about in search of grass.

Whether one prefers to watch sheep being sheared or luxuriate in the kind of armchair adventure that keeps the viewer a healthy distance from fresh cow pies as they are being made (so that one never has to swat away the flies or be downwind from the stench), I love these films. Some are accompanied by musical scores; others depend on the cacophony created by crowing roosters, barking dogs, braying donkeys, and the bells suspended from the necks of goats, sheep, and cows.

This year's San Francisco International Film Festival features two such documentaries. One is devoted to a pair of professional shepherds who love their work and are proud to carry on a centuries-old tradition. The other focuses on two elderly Swedish sisters who can barely manage to take care of their cows.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by theatre composer and professional trombonistManuel von StürlerWinter Nomads introduced me to a word I'd never heard: transhumance. How the filmmaker became interested in transhumance is a story in and of itself. As Stürler explains:
"After a long trip with my family to the other side of the planet, I heard that an impressive flock of sheep had passed in front of my house (which is located on the outskirts of an urban area). So the following winter I was on the lookout for them. I eventually found them near a small town nearby. It was an incredible encounter: first of all with the extraordinary spectacle of the passing sheep, but particularly with the shepherds, Pascal and Carole. This transhumance adventure captivated me. It was an eye-opener as regards the transformation of the countryside and the "Los-Angelisation" of the Swiss countryside. The idea of making a film was immediately obvious. 
The biblical symbol of the shepherd, just like the return to nature and the Epinal image (traditionalist depiction) that transhumance represents hold an astoundingly powerful fascination. Wherever they go, shepherds attract interest and sympathy. In fact, they are so much in demand that they sometimes hide in a clearing so as not to be disturbed! Shepherds and their flocks are, however, not always welcome. Some farmers, fearing for their crops, are on the defensive for all sorts of reasons and prohibit access to their land.
Transhumance is regulated by the authorities who assign certain areas to the owners of the flocks, but the farmers are under no obligation to accept the sheep on their land. I wanted to highlight the beautiful, natural sounds of the transhumance and was considering not using any music at all. In the end, I did feel the need to include some music to punctuate the film with different phrasings, to mark temporality and to take a little distance."
Carole leads the sheep through the snow over a bridge

Winter Nomads follows two shepherds who, in November 2010, embark on a four-month transhumance across 600 km near the Swiss-French Alpine border. They are accompanied by three donkeys, four dogs, 800 sheep and occasionally receive visits from the owner of their flock.

Pascal Eguisier was born in Corrèze, France and subsequently settled in Switzerland, where he has worked as a winter transhumance shepherd for 33 years. At 54, he admits to being difficult to work with, but takes great pride in his work. In Pascal's words:
"I've chosen freedom, I travel light, I own nothing, and I have no banker breathing down my neck. My greatest wealth is living in nature, waking up in the morning, and beholding the sky and the Moon. It's a magnificent palace not even kings are entitled to. A shepherd's work can be compared to the connection linking a monk to his monastery. To live with a herd of sheep round the clock for four months, the term priesthood is surely more appropriate! People's curiosity about transhumance sometimes gives us the impression of being museum pieces. This attraction is understandable, though. Seeing a herd of sheep revives the connection with the Earth in some and evokes a biblical theme to others. No doubt, this vision reminds them of their aspiration for a more authentic and meaningful life. But can they renounce material security and superficiality?"
Carole and Pascal take a break while a donkey stands by

At 28, Carole Noblanc is the only woman in Switzerland -- and perhaps all of Europe -- to experience the winter transhumance. A native of Brittany, France, she grew up in Quimper (where she worked as a professional dietitian). Throughout the film she is partial to a dark goat named Irmale (one of her bellwethers) and a puppy named Léon (who looks like he might be part Portuguese water dog).
"I love being surrounded by nature with the sheep, the donkeys and the dogs, and waking up every morning in the middle of the forest in a different landscape each time. In the forest, clothes get rough treatment (you have to wear wool around the fireside because the cinders make holes in synthetic clothes). We also wear capes, which protect us from the cold very well. But after spending all day in the cold, I sometimes just want a bit of peace. I find it difficult to socialize around the fireplace with people who came to share our meal and then go off to sleep in a warm bed."
Carole and Pascal watch the herd

A former butcher, the flock's owner (Jean Paul Peguiron) has spent the past few years raising and selling lambs. At the end of the summer, he buys up animals in the Swiss mountain regions and builds up a large flock (which will get fatter over the course of the transhumance). His business contacts allow him to sell sheep to a variety of retail outlets along the flock's way.

Peguiron stresses that only lambs destined for slaughter participate in the four-month-long transhumance (he is not allowed to take pregnant ewes along with the flock). He is the first to admit that cell phones have made it much easier to interact with his shepherds and customers during a transhumance.

The few moments spent indoors during Winter Nomads occur when Pascal and Carole have a chance to visit with farmers they've gotten to know over the years. What makes this film so appealing, however, is not just the animals or seeing how shepherds guide their flock.

Although the animals and weather dictate the drama, Stürler has a fantastic eye for framing some of his shots. In addition to helping viewers understand the actual work of a professional shepherd, he has provided audiences with a luxurious adventure through the French countryside. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
If Winter Nomads takes a professional approach to tending livestock, Women With Cows is devoted to two Swedish sisters who have tended to cows for their entire lives.
  • Britt loves her cows and has never married.  Now 77 years old and suffering from severe kyphosis, she walks with her head at knee level, her arms swinging by her side. Although she often falls asleep in the barn (and frequently misses the pail when milking the cows), Britt can't imagine life without her best friends. Often, when Inger stops by with some dinner for Britt, the older sister will give her leftovers to her cats.
  • Inger has lost all patience with her older sister. Not only does the 75-year-old Inger resent having to milk the cows by hand when Britt is ill, she thinks Britt's home is a filthy mess.
Britt resting in the barn

Director Peter Gerdehag has done a nice job of combining home movies (which show the sisters when they were young and healthy) with current footage that shows Britt struggling to walk around her farm. During the film, age starts to take its toll on the two women.
  • Inger blacks out while driving.
  • Britt's leg infection lands her in a hospital.

Women With Cows is not a feel-good film, but rather a classic lesson in the need to let go. As much as Inger wants to sell off the cows, Britt can't bear to part with her beloved animals. The scene which is a real eye-opener involves watching how a bull that has been sold is put down and, after being loaded into a garbage truck-like conveyance, is hauled off to a meat processing plant.

Despite the beauty of rural Sweden throughout the year, Women With Cows shows why farming is best left in the hands of healthy people rather than delusional sentimentalists. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Around The World In Weighty Ways

When Godfrey Reggio's wordless documentary, Koyanisqaatsi: Life Out of Balance, was first released in 1982, much more attention was focused on Philip Glass's score and Ron Fricke's cinematography than the ecological message contained in the film. Since then, the globalization of catastrophic news, combined with cable media's need to incite and spread fear whenever possible has given man a keener perspective on how puny he is when pitted against the force of nature.
Unfortunately, man's ability to fuck things up also finds its way into the news. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused a major environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the leak was capped, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil were contaminating one of the world's largest food sources. Two years later, this report from Al Jazeera English is cause for concern.

* * * * * * * * *
On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan and shocked the world. 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.

However, as the crisis surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility gained greater clarity, it was difficult to assess the impact of the radioactive pollution emanating from the damaged reactor. Samples of marine life and wreckage from the tsunami were measured for radioactivity. Some even predicted that northern Japan would become a dead zone for decades to come.

Isamu Hirabayashi's breathtaking six-minute animation short entitled 663114 puts a fascinating twist on the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami, and the core meltdown at the nuclear plant. With a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Osaka-based sound producer Takashi Watanabe663114 will be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film's tagline states that "a 66-year cicada has been waiting a long time and understandably has a lot on its mind as it creeps up your wall to do God knows what."

A frame from 663114 shows a cicada being threatened
by the powerful waves of an approaching tsunami

Hirabayashi (a Japanese filmmaker who directs TV commercials for his living) turned to a more traditional form of Japanese art in his quest to express his feelings about the radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The numbers contained in the title of his film (663114) have a dark significance:
  • The first two digits (66) stand for the 66 years that have elapsed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The next three digits (311) stand for the date of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
  • The final digit (4) refers to the number of nuclear reactors that were affected in the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
As Hirabayashi's animated cicada attempts to crawl up a tree, the narrator explains that:
"Once every 66 years,
I emerge from the ground, leave offspring and die.
Before mating,
I shed my hard shell at the risk of my life.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
The soil of this country is very fit for us to live in.
It is free of strong pesticides and there are no land mines.
The water is delicious so the sap is delicious as well.
I will climb as high as I can.
Aiming higher and higher.
It is our natural instinct.
To survive and leave offspring.
Since the moment of shedding skin is life risking.
We choose a tree that is tall, sturdy and won’t shake that much.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
Through the various hardships."

In 663114, the dark waves of the tsunami are frightening and yet, when the cicada reemerges from the wreckage and radiation, it has undergone a severe mutation which has given it wings of rare beauty. Hirabayashi's short is an exquisite example of how art can explain nature with a depth and poetry that live footage of a disaster can never match.

* * * * * * * * *
In 2002, a French documentary described a satellite spy system that put George Orwell's predictions of totalitarianism in 1984 to shame. According to the film's descriptive material:
"Echelon is a nickname for a conglomerate of five countries that have developed an information-sharing policy. The United States, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand have all acknowledged that they effectively spy on each other in an effort to get around laws that prevent countries from spying on their own citizens. This intelligence sharing partnership has prevented numerous terrorist attacks worldwide and has aided the U.S. in its recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 'Echelon: The Most Secret Spy System' explores the technological aspects of the partnership, which include encryption and hi-tech satellite communication. The show explores the history of listening in on other countries' communications and explains some of the situations in which it's been controversial. A rare interview with NSA Director Michael Hayden discusses the NSA's role in combating terrorism and the importance of the Echelon partnership to that role. Former spies discuss what they heard when they were ordered to listen in on supposedly private conversations. Finally, the show concludes with a discussion of what role Echelon will play in the ever-changing war on terror."
Although much of the film's narration is in French, you can watch Echelon by clicking on this link. The 90-minute film is a perfect warm-up act to a recent article in Wired magazine entitled The NSA Is Building The Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), which details how fresh advances in cracking encryption codes are creating new frontiers in data mining.

When I read about such programs, I often wonder if the old saying "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink!" should be upgraded to "Data, data, everywhere, and not much time to think." A curious black-and-white short that appeared with 663114 on the Shanimation program at the San Francisco International Film Festival shows how data can be used to create a powerful piece of art.

Filmmakers Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt used data collected from the CARISMA radio array as a geomagnetic storm occurred in the Earth's upper atmosphere and interpreted it as audio. The film's sound is the tweeting and rumbling caused by incoming solar wind that was captured at a frequency of 20 hertz.

* * * * * * * * *
Last year, when Tiffany Shlain premiered her documentary entitled Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death, and Technology, she described how her family had adopted a weekly "technology sabbath" in which they unplugged from all their communication devices for 24 hours.

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled Where Have All The Neurotics Gone?Benedict Carey noted:
"Recent studies have found that, among college students, neuroticism levels have increased by as much as 20 percent. Are young people today really more anxious and troubled — more neurotic — than their parents were at the same age? Many parents undoubtedly think so (college was a long time ago), and some researchers do, too. But another way to read those numbers is not as a measure of mental makeup but of cultural change. People of all ages today, and most especially young people, are awash in self-confession, not only in the reality-show of pop culture but in the increasingly public availability of almost every waking thought, through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. If chronic Facebook or Twitter posting is not an exercise in neurosis, then nothing is."
Based on Ronald Wright's bestseller A Short History of Progress, a new documentary entitled Surviving Progress asks viewers to take a good hard look at the price we pay for all of our technological advances. Whether focusing on the crises created by deforestation and overpopulation -- or the role mercenary banks have played in saddling emerging countries with debt and concentrating wealth in the financial class -- this new film by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks is, at the very least, gorgeous to watch.

Poster art for Surviving Progress

Whether visiting a chimpanzee research lab in New Iberia, Louisiana or exploring the Amazon rainforest, Surviving Progress takes a cynical look at the damage man keeps inflicting on his environment and wonders how much longer we have before the law of diminishing returns starts to work against us.

Time spent with Chen Ming, a Chinese man who is giving guided automobile tours to China's nouveau riche (many of whom do not yet know how to drive) is contrasted with Enio Beata, a Brazilian sawmill owner who states that “The people responsible for destroying the Amazon are the big farmers, the international corporations. The biggest farmers are senators, deputies, colonels. They’re the ones destroying the Amazon forest. Them. Not us.”

As the No Impact Project's representative, Colin Beavan, explains: “Before I go around trying to change other people, maybe I should look at myself and change myself and keep my side of the street clean.”

In many ways, Surviving Progress is a logical successor to Koyanisqaatsi and 2003's The Corporation. Its perspective is provocative, its data disturbing and yet, because of how beautifully it has been filmed, viewers might find themselves tuning out the talking heads to concentrate on the documentary's lush visuals. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Stiff Dick Knows No Conscience

The recent brouhaha that erupted after Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut was a stern reminder of the double standard in the way male and female sexual appetites are judged. In medieval times, the notorious droit de seigneur (which forms a key plot point in Mozart's 1786 opera, The Marriage of Figaro) allowed lords to deflower the maiden daughters of their serfs.

While cherry picking was an eagerly embraced privilege among the nobility, the lower classes had to settle for more ordinary forms of carnal satisfaction. From Don Juan to Barney Stinson, predatory men with insatiable sexual appetites have been a staple of literature.

Opera fans may revel in renditions of La donna è mobile ("Woman is fickle") from Giuseppe Verdi's 1851 opera, Rigoletto, or the gypsy's seductive Habanera from Georges Bizet's popular Carmen (1875), but it was Mozart and his librettistLorenzo Da Ponte, who immortalized the toll of male narcissism in Leporello's famous "catalog aria." Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished) had its world premiere on October 29, 1787 in Prague. In the following video from a 1988 performance at The Royal Opera, the Don (Thomas Allen) makes another clean escape while Leporello (Stafford Dean) explains the cruel facts of his libidinous boss's lifestyle to Donna Elvira (Kiri Te Kanawa).

A series of paintings from 1732-1733 by the English artist, William Hogarth, entitled A Rake's Progress, served to inspire composer Igor Stravinsky. His opera, The Rake's Progress, had its world premiere on September 11, 1951 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding was published on February 28, 1749. After many years of success as a novel, it received a beautiful screen adaptation in 1963 with Albert Finney in the title role.

In 1890, Oscar Wilde scandalized readers with The Picture of Dorian Gray (if you click here you can watch a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury singing "Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird" to Hurd Hatfield's handsome Dorian Gray).

The pursuit of limitless casual sex took on a new face in the early years of the Gay Liberation movement:
Soon to be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Another Bullet Dodged is a 13-minute short by Landon Zakheim in which two lovers meet to solve an urgent problem. Vincent Cardinale plays a laid back young man who is driving through the rain while trying to placate someone over the phone. Upon arriving at his destination, his friend (played by Jennifer Landon), snarls "I can't believe you're late for your own son's abortion!"

Demonstrating little sense of responsibility or empathy, the man doesn't win any points for his behavior in the clinic's waiting room or when he brings his friend back home to her apartment. After her abortion, he has to be shamed into spending some time with her (the filmmaker likes to describe Cardinale's character as "a wolf in sheep's clothing who thinks he is a sheep").

By the end of the film, Cardinale's wolf has arrived at a friend's party, eager to make a fresh conquest. It's a story as old as the hills, which will be repeated with endless permutations. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
In a letter he wrote to Arthur Schnitzler in 1922 (on the occasion of the playwright's 60th birthday), Sigmund Freud confessed that:
"I believe that at bottom you are a depth psychologist, one supremely unbiased, honest, and unafraid to tell the truth about human beings. Whenever I became absorbed in one of your beautiful creations, I seemed invariably to find beneath their poetic surface the same suppositions, interests, and conclusions that I had thought were my own. I had the impression that you knew through intuition (though actually as the result of your own deep introspection)  everything I had to discover by laborious work on other people." 

Wikipedia reports that:
"In addition to his plays and fiction, Schnitzler meticulously kept a diary from the age of 17 until two days before his death. The manuscript, which runs to almost 8,000 pages, is most notable for Schnitzler's casual descriptions of sexual conquests — he was often in relationships with several women at once, and for a period of some years he kept a record of every orgasm. Collections of Schnitzler's letters have also been published. Schnitzler's works were called 'Jewish filth' by Adolf Hitler and were banned by the Nazis in Austria and Germany. In 1933, when Joseph Goebbels organized book burnings in Berlin and other cities, Schnitzler's works were thrown into flames along with those of other Jews, including Einstein, Marx, Kafka, Freud and Stefan Zweig."
Although Schnitzler died in 1931, his grandson (Michael) was born in Berkeley in 1944. When the Aurora Theatre Company announced that it would present the world premiere of a new translation of Schnitzler's short plays under the title of Anatol, I was eager to see what they would be like.

Although I had walked past the Shubert Theatre on numerous occasions when the 1961 musical by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz entitled The Gay Life was its tenant, I never got to see the show. Based on Schnitzler's "Anatol" plays, The Gay Life (which starred Walter Chiari, Barbara Cook, Elizabeth Allen, and Jules Munshin) has a lovely score and I have always enjoyed hearing Cook's gleaming lyric soprano sing "Who Can?" and "Magic Moment."

Tim Kniffin and Mike Ryan in a scene from Anatol
Photo by: David Allen 

Written in 1893, the "Anatol" plays were Schnitzler's first dramas. Margret Schaefer's new translation makes it crystal clear that, for all of his upper class privilege, Anatol von Huber remains:
  • A pompous fool. 
  • A preening and immature narcissist.
  • A severely insecure twit. 
  • An utterly bourgeois romantic sentimentalist.
  • An insufferably jealous playboy.
  • A self-avowed frivolous melancholic.
Shortly after Mike Ryan appeared onstage, I noticed his physical resemblance to Kelsey Grammar.  But it wasn't until he was facing away from me (and I could only hear his voice as he spoke Schnitzler's words) that I realized how much Anatol sounds like a 110-year-old prototype for Frasier Crane.

Although the final play -- in which Max tries to convince Anatol that he must leave his mistress behind in order to be on time for his own wedding -- caps off the evening with style, my favorite play -- in which a ballerina turns the tables on Anatol -- is entitled "The Last Supper." Announcing that (even though she will miss all the delicious champagne, oysters, and sacher torte) she is dumping him for another man, the woman is blissfully unaware that, during their dinner, Anatol has been waiting for an opportunity to inform her that she is being cast aside for another woman!

Mike Ryan, Delia MacDougall, and Tim Kniffin
in a scene from Anatol (Photo by: David Allen)

Barbara Oliver has directed this production with a keen sense of the battle between the sexes. With Tim Kniffin as the protagonist's jaded friend, Max, Barbara Oliver has cast Delia MacDougall as six different women who are among Anatol's many lovers.

Anna Oliver has done a clever job of dressing MacDougall so that each one of Anatol's girlfriends can look different with a minimum of fuss. As the show's costume designer explains:
"The objective challenge was how do I get this one person into six different looks without creating a drag anchor on the action. The way I did that was to create a base costume which is based on a 1900s silhouette.  Pieces come on and off to indicate times of day. Hair is really important!"
Making clever use of the small turntable built into John Iacovelli's trim unit set, Barbara Oliver moves the action all over late 19th century Vienna, stopping in restaurants and various living rooms to showcase Anatol's problems with the opposite sex.

A little bit of Anatol von Huber's ego goes a long, long way, which is why Tim Kniffin's Max and Delia MacDougall's gallery of feisty women enjoy much more sympathy from the audience. Performances of Anatol continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 13 (click here to order tickets).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

You Can't Fix Stupid

The word "stupid" first entered the English language in 1541. Today, T-shirts proclaiming "I'm With Stupid" are proudly worn by thousands of people. According to Wikipedia:
"The modern English word 'stupid' has a broad range of application, from being slow of mind (indicating a lack of intelligence, care or reason), dullness of feeling or sensation (torpidity, senseless, insensitivity), or lacking interest or point (vexing, exasperating). It can either infer a congenital lack of capacity for reasoning, or a temporary state of daze or slow-mindedness. An idiot, dolt, or dullard is a mentally deficient person, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. A dunce is an idiot who is specifically incapable of learning. An idiot differs from a fool (who is unwise) and an ignoramus (who is uneducated/an ignorant), neither of which refers to someone with low intelligence.
Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for mental retardation based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to seven years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years. The term "idiot" was used to refer to people having an IQ below 30. IQ, or intelligence quotient, was originally determined by dividing a person's mental age, as determined by standardized tests, by their actual age. The concept of mental age has fallen into disfavor, though, and IQ is now determined on the basis of statistical distributions."
In his essay entitled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Carlo Maria Cippola stressed that "A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process." But in the three decades since the intentional dumbing down of America began, an astonishing transformation has taken place.

Cultural illiteracy and willful ignorance (as displayed by people like Sarah Palin and Congressman Allen West) have become points of pride rather than embarrassment. The Farrelly brothers (creators of Dumb and Dumber and their newly-released tribute to The Three Stooges) have made millions from their glorification of idiots on the silver screen. So, for that matter, has Adam Sandler.

In a recent "must-read" article entitled The "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" Gambit, Robert J. Elisberg criticized Senator Chuck Grassley for pandering to the lowest common denominator. Never one to leave a political turd unpolished and unthrown, Stephen Colbert picked up on Grassley's recent Tweets and hit them out of the ballpark in the following segment from The Colbert Report:

Words commonly used to describe people who are genuinely stupid include airheaded, birdbrained, boneheaded, brain dead, brainless, bubbleheaded, chuckleheaded, dense, dimwitted, doltish, dull, dumb, emptyheaded, half-witted, knuckleheaded, lamebrained, lunkheaded, mindless, oafish, pinheaded, simple, slow-witted, softheaded, thickheaded, vacuous, weakminded and witless. Nevertheless, in 1994, audiences were captivated by a movie whose protagonist had an IQ of only 75. Here's the trailer for Forrest Gump:

Two new productions revolve around people who are stupid in the oldest and truest sense of the word. In each case, the playwright has created characters who are warm, human, and who inhabit adult bodies. Unfortunately, their minds and personalities have never really progressed past childhood.

* * * * * * * * *
One reason I was looking forward to seeing Of Mice and Men in a fully-staged production was that, prior to this year, my only experience with it had been a 1983 New York City Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's operatic treatment of John Steinbeck's novel. Lovingly directed by Robert Kelley (in a handsome production designed Tom Langguth), the folks at TheatreWorks have done a bang-up job of bringing this beloved California story to life.

Tom Langguth's set model for Of Mice and Men

The story focuses on a pair of migrant workers who have been friends since childhood. George (Jos Viramontes) is an average man who has grown used to working as a farmhand. Like many bindlestiffs, he's often dreamed of owning his own land -- a dream which is complicated by the constant misdeeds of his companion, Lennie (AJ Meijer). In an interview with The New York Times, Steinbeck confessed that:
"I was a bindlestiff (migrant worker) myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks."

George (Jos Viramontes) and Lenny (AJ Meijer) rest by the river
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While George may joke that Lennie got kicked in the head by a horse when he was young, the sad truth is that Lennie has developed into a gentle giant who doesn't know his strength; a grown man with the mind of a child. Lennie likes soft furry things -- like bunnies, mice, and puppies --  but accidentally keeps killing them whenever they start to struggle in his strong hands. An unfortunate situation when they were working on a farm in Weed, California caused the two men to flee for their lives after Lennie became obsessed with the feel of a young woman's velvet skirt.

No matter how carefully George drills Lennie in what to do (and what not to say), Lennie's poor memory and unpredictable behavior keep getting him in trouble. After being provoked by Curley (Harold Pierce), the frustrated Lennie's determination not to speak gets him in even bigger trouble. Things only get worse when Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to strike up a conversation with him and invites Lennie to pet her soft, blonde hair.

Curley's wife (Lena Hart) tries to get friendly with Lenny (AJ Meijer)
in Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Under Kelley's direction, the TheatreWorks ensemble turned in a beautiful performance as men who knew enough to avoid the ranch owner's lonely wife. As George, Jos Veramontes was a patient and protective George; as the old farmhand Candy, Gary Martinez agreed have his mangy old dog put down. While Slim (Chad Deverman) attempted to keep peace in the bunkhouse. Michael Ray Wisely did double duty as Carlson and the Boss. Charles Branklyn was appropriately irascible as Crooks, the only black man on the premises.

Charles Branklyn and AJ Meijer in a scene from
Of Mice and Men (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Any production (legit or operatic) of Steinbeck's work rests, in large part, on the shoulders of the man portraying Lennie.  At 6'2" and 210 pounds, AJ Meijer delivered a performance of such childlike beauty and naive strength that the audience completely embraced his enthusiasm for petting a puppy, his innocent fantasy about tending to a collection of rabbits, and the fearsome volatility of his emotions. Because Meijer is tall, lean and able to be convincingly clumsy without appearing bloated or fat, his Lennie is an especially poignant performance to treasure -- a gifted portrait by a very gifted young artist.

It's interesting to note that Steinbeck wrote the stage adaptation of his novel, which he then turned over to the play's director, playwright George S. Kaufman, for editing. Of Mice and Men had its world premiere in San Francisco on May 21, 1937 before moving to New York that November. As I sat watching the TheatreWorks production, I was amazed at how easily the scene in which Curley's wife and Lennie are alone in the barn cried out for operatic treatment.

In the following clips from Opera Australia, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey discusses some of the challenges posed by the role of Lennie (and sings the duet "An' we'll live off the fat of the land" with baritone Barry Ryan):

Of Mice and Men continues at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through April 29 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Over at Fort MasonMagic Theatre is presenting the American premiere of Any Given Day, two short dramas by Scottish playwright Linda McLean which are linked together by one character. Billed as "a story about the moment when  everything changes," McLean's work benefits immensely from the contribution of Deborah Sussel as a dialect coach.

Like the Steinbeck piece, Any Given Day features an oversized, developmentally disabled adult. Although Sadie (Amy Kossow) knows that she's really fat, her childlike behavior often makes one wonder if she sleeps in a giant crib. Terrified by a young man who keeps throwing stones at her window, she doesn't like to answer the phone and lives in a richly detailed fantasy world.

Amy Kossow as Sadie (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

When Sadie's partner tries to explain how long he will be gone on an errand, he explains time to her as a function of how long it takes her to get from one place to another on the local city bus. When she gets fearful and starts to sulk, Bill (Christopher McHale) knows how to tease her depression away until Sadie is once more making jokes about herself and acting like a kitten distracted by a shiny object.

Although Sadie is as good-natured as an Irish setter, she worries about what will happen if Bill dies before she does and whether Bill's niece, Jackie, will still come to visit her after he's gone. The immediate issue at hand, however, is that there is no bread in their apartment and they need some in order to make toast for Jackie, who is due to arrive later that day.

Bill (Christopher McHale) and Sadie (Amy Kossow) enjoy
a cup of tea in Any Given Day (Photo by; Jennifer Reiley)

While, at first glance, it may seem as if Bill and Sadie are two clowns from the Theatre of the Absurd, it soon becomes obvious that they are two developmentally disabled adults who have been forced into an independent living situation in public housing.  Bill may be capable of functioning at a higher level than Sadie (his delight at keeping her in good spirits is almost palpable), but their horizons are severely limited by their diminished intellect.

When Bill leaves the apartment to get some bread from the grocery store, Sadie happily sits down and pretends she is riding the bus in order to gauge the passage of time. But a series of unexpected events suddenly turns her world upside down as a young thug (Patrick Alparone) gets through to her on the phone and enters the apartment with malicious intent.

After a shocking turn of events, director Jon Tracy choreographs one of the most interesting set changes I've seen in years.  As Sadie and Bill's apartment is slowly wheeled offstage, the audience listens to the pouring rain and watches as some new furniture is wheeled into position. Several stagehands enter, carrying tables and chairs into view as they set up the second scene. As light is added, a thin, middle-aged woman is seen, quietly sweeping bits and pieces from the stage floor into a dustpan.

It is a beautifully engineered dramatic transition. As the lights come up, the audience discovers that the woman  (Stacy Ross) is not a stagehand, but is actually Bill's niece, Jackie. It's a dark and stormy night on the other side of Glasgow, there are no customers left in the bar, and Dave (James Carpenter) is trying to convince Jackie to leave work early with him and allow herself to have some fun.

That's easier said than done. Jackie is a morose soul, a recovering alcoholic who is estranged from her adult son. Once, when she grew tired of listening to his pissing and moaning about what a bad day he had had, Jackie lashed out at him and told her son only to call her when he's had a good day.

She hasn't heard from him since.

Now, as Jackie nurses her wounds and describes her visits to Bill and Sadie, she is shocked when Bill informs her that her son called earlier during their shift and asked Dave to give his mother a simple message. "Just tell my Mum that today is a good day."

Dave (James Carpenter) and Jackie (Stacy Ross) in a
scene from Any Given Day (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Dave, of course, has no idea why that message should hit Jackie like a ton of bricks. But after some discussion, she finally gives in to his pleading to spend some time with him, leaves a phone message for Bill and Sadie saying that there's been a change of plans and she won't be coming to visit them that day, and agrees to go for a walk with her boss.

McLean's writing is spare and, in Act I, borders on the nonsensical. Although Act II contains a conversation about vaginas that Eve Ensler would envy, when the mood turns serious, Jackie needs few words to communicate her internal anguish.

The playwright includes very little in the script indicating stage directions, which has given Tracy and his ensemble a wonderful opportunity to deepen their characters and pace their delivery.  The contrast between Sadie and Bill's childlike playfulness and Jackie's brooding self doubt plays out beautifully in 80 minutes of deeply moving drama. A sure sign of the opening night performance's impact was that, following the curtain calls, much of the audience remained seated in stunned silence.

James Carpenter as Dave (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

There is much to admire about Magic Theatre's production, starting with the set design by Michael Locher. I was particularly taken with Amy Kossow's performance as Sadie and Stacy Ross's brooding Jackie. Although Christopher McHale and James Carpenter give touching performances, the spotlight is really on the two women. Performances of Any Given Day continue through March 22 (click here to order tickets).