Friday, June 29, 2012

Haute Auteur

Aging is accompanied by endless moments of change and redefinition. When I moved to San Francisco in 1972 and people asked me what I did, I responded like a born-and-bred New Yorker by giving them my job description. I soon learned that, at least in San Francisco, people were more interested in my passions, what drugs I liked, and what I did in bed.

About 15 years later I was relaxing on a beach near San Diego when I overheard some college students discussing their future plans. "Well, my parents are in their fifties now, so they probably won't be around much longer, which means I'll inherit some money and can just hang out."

I doubt they could have understood that the so-called "golden years" are not always all they're cracked up to be. Little could they have imagined the bitter truths depicted in films like 1986's Cocoon or Sari Gilman's poignant documentary, Kings Point (which will be screened during the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival).

Like many people, the computer allows me access to a world which didn't exist for my parents; a world that is far more interactive than watching network television. Computers have also made it possible for me to be my own boss for much of the past 35 years and work from home.

Several years ago a friend asked me when I planned to retire. As someone who has worked at home for nearly four decades, my first response was "And do what? Go to another room?"

As I approach my 65th birthday I have a great deal to be thankful for. After enrolling in Medicare, my monthly health insurance premiums dropped by $900. This week's Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act was equally good news. But one of the most important things for me is that I have a creative outlet which I can enjoy for as long as I remain coherent.

I never set out to be a writer but, while living in Rhode Island, a friend suggested that I try putting my thoughts down on paper. Things changed after I moved to California and was offered an opportunity to write. Although my earning capacity from working as a medical and legal transcriptionist was far greater than my potential income from writing:
  • In 1977 I began a 15-year stint writing the opera column (Tales of TessiTura) for the Bay Area Reporter.
  • In 1981 I started freelancing to  magazines.
  • Over the next decade I became a contributing editor to Amtrak Express, PEOPLExpressions (the inflight magazine for PeoplExpress Airlines), and National Editor for Opera Monthly magazine.
  • From 1999-2003 I wrote the "Transcription Trends" column in For The Record Magazine.
  • I subsequently created an on-line text entitled Dictation Therapy For Doctors.
  • Although I wasn't quite sure what I would do with a blog, In November of 2007, I launched My Cultural Landscape. I've since published more than 1,000 columns.
  • In July, 2010 I started writing for the arts section of The Huffington Post where, in addition to contributing to their monthly Haiku Reviews, I've posted nearly 200 articles.
At 65, things are better than I ever thought they would be. I spend much of my time attending theatre, opera, watching films, reading, and writing. For artists, craftsmen, writers and conductors, age poses few restrictions on their ability to express themselves. For certain other art forms, however, aging can be a huge challenge.

Some actors move into teaching, doing voiceover work, directing, and, if they are lucky, making a specialty out of character roles. Some dancers may branch out into fitness training, choreography, and other professions.

Even as their creative powers attain a depth and maturity which youth cannot offer, few can ignore the fact that their biological clocks keep ticking. Two recent productions showcased the work of mature artists who are acutely aware of their age. One is a dancer turned choreographer and teacher. The other is a famous comedian who became one of the world's most beloved filmmakers.

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For years, Joe Goode has been creating haunting introspective dance dramas about contemporary culture. Not only do his dancers speak, they challenge audiences to think about their lives and the consequences of their decisions. In the program notes for his newest piece, Goode writes:
"To make something, to build something, is not just exerting the force of your skill and intelligence upon the world. It is also a process of looking inward, of gaining new perspective, of inhabiting your life in a more deliberate way. My dance-making finally matured into something juicy and satisfying when I approached it as a survival technique. The only way I could navigate this dizzying swirl of life was to carve out some small space that felt real and honest and over which I had some modicum of control. It wasn’t so much about having 'something to say,' but more about acknowledging what frightened me and how ill equipped I was to handle things like human cruelty or bigotry or even my own sexuality.
Much of human existence seemed like a pretty precarious affair. I wanted to put forward 'real' feelings and express, even if only in a small and momentary way, the truth of what I felt about living in this fragile human state. I wasn’t trying to invent a system for art making. Quite the contrary, I was just trying to get through the night. I discovered that I was changed by the noise I had made; that by blurting out my immediate feeling I had stumbled onto a revelation. In an unfeeling world, to feel something, indeed, to craft something out of 'felt' materials, could be an act of redemption."
A moment from Joe Goode's When We Fall Apart

In When We Fall Apart, Goode seeks to compare his own aging process with the sagging realities faced by his friends. Video of the choreographer wearing a series of pathetic wigs as he narrates stories of imploded dreams and diminished horizons creates a narrative path for his dancers as they explore the idealism of youth diminished by the sadness of deteriorating relationships and the tiredness of one’s increasingly decrepit body.

The finale, in which Goode sits at a desk as a huge piece of scenery collapses around him, is a shocking testament to the inevitability that awaits each and every one of us. Goode's message is clearly articulated in his writing:
"Why would we choose to make a dance? To construct or author something that exists as a formal entity and can be shared with the public? The answer I have come up with is simple. Don’t make a dance you don’t need to make. Don’t make one that doesn’t teach you something or propel you towards some greater understanding of your world.
Don’t make a performance that you don’t need to make. Make art about where you are right now. Maybe you are in a place of indecision, or loss, or exuberance over a new relationship. Any of those places are good places to start. Go into the studio and ask what do I need to learn? What questions are up for me right now? Excavate your life. Live through your work and try to learn about living through your work. Dance as a personal essay."
A moment from Joe Goode's When We Fall Apart

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For more than 40 years, Blackglama's marketing campaign has asked the public "What Becomes A Legend Most?' In the case of Woody Allen, that's a difficult question to answer.

Having begun his career as a comedy writer and stand-up comedian, Woody Allen gained early fame in nightclubs and television. I first saw him perform onstage at the Morosco Theatre in 1967 in his comedy entitled Don't Drink The Water (which featured a wonderful performance by the great Lou Jacobi). Later that year, after filming scenes for Casino Royale, he made a special appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line?

Since then, Allen has become a comedy legend, a revered filmmaker, and an accomplished jazz clarinetist whose adoring fans treasure most of his movies. Fans and comics alike take great joy in mimicking his stutter, his hypochondriasis, and his characterization of the paranoid Jew with low (or no) self-esteem.

Recently screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival, Ashley Christian's Petunia is an obvious homage to Woody Allen's New York-centric style of filmmaking, angst, and humor. What better way to show your devotion to all things related to Woody Allen than by getting him to appear with you in a documentary about himself?

Allen is the subject of a short film by Masha Vasyukova entitled Woody Before Allen. Vasyukova's premise is simple: Since Allen Stewart Konigsberg changed his name to Woody Allen -- and the city of Konigsberg changed its name to Kaliningrad -- what better way to honor both city and cinematic legend than to tie them together in a documentary!

To do so, Masha makes it her mission to erect a statue of Woody Allen at a cinema in Kaliningrad and travels to New York to review the designs submitted for the competition. When, at the end of the film, the statue is unveiled, it bears the following quote from her hero: "All people know the same truth, our lives consist of how we choose to distort it." Here's the trailer:

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At 76, Woody Allen could certainly afford to hang it up but, like many aging artists, he can't accept the fact that there should be any reason for him to stop making films. In recent years, some of his movies have been far better than others.

My own personal theory is that, after he reached a certain age, Woody Allen's films started to improve when he stopped appearing in them. Allen cast John Cusack as a Woody Allen type of stuttering schlemiel in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, picked Owen Wilson to impersonate him in 2011's Midnight in Paris, and has now chosen Jesse Eisenberg as the heir apparent in his latest film.

Whereas Midnight in Paris was absolutely brilliant, To Rome With Love has the noticeable sogginess of a crock pot dish inspired by what was starting to age in its creator's artistic cupboard and refrigerator. Skillfully made, filled with many wonderful lines, it nevertheless sags under the weight of leftover plot lines that got pulled out of storage and thrown together to stretch a script out to 100 minutes.

Not only does Allen appear in To Rome With Love as an opera director who can't accept the thought of having "retired" from the profession, he has gathered a winning group of great comic actors (Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni) for his story. Perhaps the best measure of the film's weakness is how quickly it got spoofed (compare the film's trailer to its sendup from the folks at Funny or Die.

Rather than reveal Allen's best lines, let me just say that Penélope Cruz can steal any movie without even trying. While some critics are busily bemoaning the appearance of Roberto Benigni in a perfectly good subplot about what happens when the media descends on an unknown person and curses them with instant fame, I was actually more intrigued by the subplot in which Allen tries to push the shy Italian man (whose son is planning to get married to Allen's daughter) into a career he never wanted.

Using the old cliché that someone who sings well in the shower isn't really capable of singing a lead role in an operatic performance, I have to thank Allen for at least casting the role of Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo, with a genuine operatic singer (Fabio Armiliato). The grotesque faces Armiliato makes while warming up will also come as no surprise to vocal coaches. While many viewers will merely be tickled by the joke, they're lucky to get a chance to hear what an operatic tenor sounds like without amplification.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Boys To Men

During the Q&A session following a screening of Elliot Loves at the Frameline 36 Film Festival, filmmaker Gary Terracino described one of the unusual challenges he faced while trying to finish his film. The role of Elliot is played by two actors. Fabio Costaprado portrays Elliot at age 21. Quentin Araujo portrays the nine-year-old Elliot.

Quentin Araujo and Fabio Castoprado during the filming of Elliot Loves

Terracino had been filming various scenes while raising money to pay his actors (Elliot Loves was made on a shoestring budget of approximately $39,000). One day he got a call from Araujo's father, who warned Terracino that he would have to act quickly. Why? Quentin was starting to hit puberty. In just one week he grew an inch taller. By the time Terracino finished his film, Quentin had grown six inches in height and was taller than the filmmaker.

While many movies are devoted to coming of age stories, some look at a young man's transition through a more specific lens than others. The physical transformation that comes from puberty is unpredictable (as evidenced by Araujo's rapid growth). Even though an adolescent may quickly acquire secondary sex characteristics as a result of puberty, emotional maturity and intellectual growth can still be a long way off.

Three short films focusing on boys experiencing important turning points in their lives focus on the emotional and intellectual challenges no one assumed these young men would face.

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Viewers watching Wonderland: Boy Cheerleaders, a new short that is part of a BBC2 television series, aren't the only ones who will be thinking of 2000's surprise hit, Billy Elliot. The boys in South Leeds who have been recruited into the DAZL Diamonds are part of a larger citywide effort entitled Dance Action Zone Leeds. whose goals are:
  • Primary: To improve health and well-being of disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people aged 3-25 years through dance activities across Leeds.
  • Secondary: To improve the health and well-being of the wider community of Leeds through dance activity.
Their blond-haired DAZL Diamonds coach, Ian (who can be seen down front in the following video clip), is convinced that boys can do just as good a job at cheerleading as girls can. What he quickly learns is that young boys can be every bit as petulant, disruptive, unmotivated, and uncooperative as young girls.

For some of these boys, cheerleading is just another school activity they have to survive in order to keep peace at home. When the team goes to a regional competition, their lack of discipline means that camping out in a hotel room without their mother to check up on them is an opportunity to stay up all night. The next morning, some of them are in no shape to perform.

For the single mothers of some of these boys (few of them have fathers living at home), cheerleading offers a type of discipline that could pay off with their studies and the rest of their lives. While most of the boys may be reluctant to show their enthusiasm, it's easy to spot the one member of the team who is deadly serious about becoming a cheerleader.

There is a wonderful moment in Wonderland: Boy Cheerleaders when a young boy screws up his face with intense concentration as he prepares to begin his cheerleading routine. It's no surprise that, because of his discipline and potential, Harvey is later taken to an audition at a ballet school.

Much of this documentary may be unintelligible to American audiences because of the thick accents of the boys, their coaches, and their mothers. But it's especially worth watching for the sequence in which the girls cheerleading coach tries to teach the boys how to use facial expressions. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Lisa Cohen, B-Boy tells the odd tale of a modern contender. As Cohen explains in her director's statement:
"The idea for B-Boy came to me when I reconnected with an old friend at our college reunion. Her son, Eli, was approaching his bar mitzvah day, and sounded like the kind of 13-year-old boy I’d expect him to be -- outgoing, kind, smart -- just like his mother. None of what she said sounded out of the ordinary. Until she started talking about break-dancing. Eli wasn’t just some kid showing off now and then at other kids’ bar mitzvah receptions. He was a member of United Outkast, a break-dancing crew comprised of inner city kids who were all at least 10 years older than he was, and who competed in battles all over the country.
The more Eli’s mother told me about his involvement with United Outkast -- how they spotted him dancing and asked him to join their crew, accepted him as part of their 'family' and about how Eli’s break dancing introduced him to a culture he never would have been a part of, the more curious I became about how Eli was able to manage his two worlds. Was he able to bring them together or did he keep them separate? What life lessons did each culture offer him as he entered his early teens? Did one culture pose a conflict to the other? What I found, after four trips to the East Coast to shoot interviews, the bar mitzvah, and two breakdancing battles, was that Eli was able to cross boundaries and bring seemingly disparate worlds together with a grace and maturity that was far beyond his years."
All too often, as boys pass certain milestones (being bar-mitzvahed, entering high school, graduating and heading off to college), their "second family" consists entirely of their peers. While gay men and lesbians often have to create extended families to supplement what their parents can (or may not be willing to) do for them, B-Boy clearly demonstrates the value of having a straight young man be adopted into an artistic family (his breakdancing crew) in which not everyone is his own age.

I'm particularly sensitive to this issue because, when I started attending opera in 1966, I was introduced to a crazy world of people whose lives were driven by their passion for an art form. From 16-year-old music students like Jay to 88-year-old Mrs. McKnight (who was scalping tickets to help pay for her rent), their love of opera was a common denominator that defied any barriers of age, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Watching Eli's dance friends share in his bar mitzvah celebration offers a life lesson in why it's important to find friends beyond the traditional circles of classmates and blood relatives. Here's the trailer:

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One of the more curious shorts screened at the recent Frameline 36 Film Festival captured that wonderful spark of discovery when a closeted gay boy learns that he's not the only one in the world who might be queer. When William's parents invite some new friends over for dinner, Friday night suddenly becomes much more interesting than his family's usual Shabbat Dinner.

Both sets of parents are actively involved in professional circles as well as fundraising activities for their temple. With their sons at the awkward age where attention is no longer focused on preparing them for their bar mitzvah, once dinner is over the boys excuse themselves and retreat to William's room, leaving their parents to discuss "adult stuff." But William (Chris London) has a secret and, to his surprise, so does the handsome young Virgo Bernstein-Cohen (Dan Shaked).

What director Michael Morgenstern has so nicely captured in his deceptively layered short film is the awkward tentativeness with which William and Virgo offer up coded tidbits of critical information that hint at their sexual orientation. By the time these two get around to exploring what it's like to kiss another man, it's obvious that future Fridays will bring continued shabbat blessings. And what sweeter dessert could one enjoy than two nice Jewish boys?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Time For A Makeover

On October 18, 1966, when the opening night curtain came down on the third act of a new musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerome Coopersmith, the high point of the evening was obvious. The Apple Tree's first act had been inspired by Mark Twain's excerpts from The Diaries of Adam and Eve. The show's second act was based on Frank R. Stockton's 1882 short story entitled The Lady or the Tiger?

The third act, however, was based on Jules Feiffer's hilarious reworking of the Cinderella legend: Passionella. Directed by Mike Nichols (with costumes designed by Tony Walton), Passionella contained one of the quickest and greatest costume changes in Broadway history: the moment in which Barbara Harris transitioned from a soot-smeared chimney sweep into a glamorous, Marilyn Monroe type of sex symbol.

The song "Oh, To Be A Movie Star" gave Harris a chance to show off her amazing vocal range and great comedic skills. In the following clip from the 1967 Tony Awards show, she is seen performing with Larry Blyden.

Once upon a time, getting a makeover was a rarified dream for a plain Jane who was routinely ignored by family and friends. In today's rapidly trending fashion world, young people who idolize pop stars like Madonna and Lady Gaga constantly strive to reinvent themselves. Two new films put a refreshing spin on their reimaging efforts.

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In many families, the firstborn child (especially if it is a son) can do no wrong. Even if he grows up to be a selfish, spoiled brat who is used to having everyone clean up the wreckage left in his wake, he remains the apple of his parents' eyes. Written by Wendy Kout and directed by Brad LeongDorfman stars Sara Rue as Deb Dorfman, the awkward second child in a severely dysfuntional Jewish family living in the San Fernando Valley.

Sara Rue as Deb Dorfman

As the film opens, Deb's recently widowed father (Elliott Gould) is in a deep depression. Burt's only solace comes from watching the television shows his wife once loved. Otherwise, he is oblivious to his children's needs.

Burt's son, Daniel (Jonathan Chase), owns an accounting firm which employs Deb as its office administrator. The family has assumed that Dan would always take care of his little sister. The ugly truth is that Deb is always having to take care of her incompetent older brother.

Whenever Deb asks Dan for a raise, he tries to buy her off with gadgets like a new printer. Meanwhile, Dan's wife, Leann (Keri Lynn Pratt), can feel her biological clock ticking away and keeps her husband on a short leash for whenever her ovulation offers the couple "a window of opportunity." No matter how much Dan and Leanne try to use costumes and role playing to spice up their lovemaking, there ain't no bun in Leanne's oven.

One of Dan's clients is his best friend from high school, Jay Cleary (Johann Urb), a freelancing journalist with an ego to match the size of his trendy new downtown loft apartment. Deb (who snorts like a pig whenever she laughs) has always had a crush on Jay, who relies on her for long-distance pep talks when he is on assignment and to run his errands while he is out of town.

Deb is the perfect doormat for a handsome, straight freelancer.

When Jay lands a six-day assignment covering a story in Kabul, Deb seizes the opportunity to escape from her depressive father, her clueless brother, and housesit for Jay's cat, Elmer, while decorating the loft. Soon after picking up the key, she encounters a handsome gay artist who goes by the name of Cookie (Haaz Sleiman) and two dominatrix/models who work out of a nearby apartment.

Chelsea (Hayley Marie Norman) and Vronka (Sophie Monk)

Finding themselves in need of a new accountant, Chelsea (Hayley Marie Norman) and Vronka (Sophie Monk) volunteer to give Deb a much-needed makeover. Turning to Cookie for help moving Jay's furniture and hanging his artwork, Deb starts to realize that she's entitled to have more men in her life than just jet-setting Jay, her irresponsible brother. and her deeply depressed Dad.

Poster art for Dorfman

As Deb starts to find a new image for herself, her new friends keep urging her to spread her wings and take risks. In many ways, Dorfman becomes a modern take on Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Ugly Duckling in which an overlooked, underappreciated girl from the San Fernando Valley discovers that she has a chance to bloom in the new, revitalized downtown area of Los Angeles.

Just as Mary Tyler Moore bravely tossed her hat into the air in downtown Minneapolis, Deb learns how to ride the L.A. Metro, eat shabu-shabu, walk past the Angels Flight Railway, marvel at the architecture of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and take in the beauty and excitement of the Los Angeles Flower Market.

Not only does Cookie help bring Deb out of her shell, he manages to snap Burt out of his depression while Chelsea and Vronka snap their whips at Deb's brother, Dan. Deb also wises up to the fact that Jay is someone who uses people.

Even if Cookie claims to be gay or bisexual, he's a far more considerate friend and a much better companion than Jay. Although it's never clearly explained in the movie, the audience is witnessing the beginning of a beautiful new fag/hag relationship.

Deb (Sara Rue) with Cookie (Haaz Sleiman)

Sara Rue and Haaz Sleiman develop a nice chemistry while Hayley Marie Norman and Sophie Monk score strongly as the two hookers. Catherine Hicks has a nice cameo as a mature bartender who gives Elliot Gould her phone number and Kelen Coleman is appealing as Molly, Deb's co-worker who is getting married.

Part of Dorfman has been designed as a tour of the revitalized Los Angeles downtown (the movie's website includes a list of links to places showcased in the film). And there are many moments when one gets the feeling that Sara Rue is auditioning to become the next Drew Barrymore. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Dorfman, a smart, sassy, entertaining new film. Here's the trailer:

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In his 1826 work, The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin first laid out the concept that "you are what you eat." In 1964, Marshall MacLuhan stressed that "The medium is the message." Those who wonder what the long-term effect of reality television will be on the youth of America need look no further than Chris Crocker, the devoted fan of Britney Spears whose "Leave Britney Alone" video went viral, launching him on a path to virtual stardom.

A new HBO documentary directed by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch examines Crocker's sudden fame, his use of YouTube as a creative outlet and marketing tool, and the reality of his life. While some people reacted to Crocker's videos with a mixture of shock and awe, there's much more to him than meets the eye.

Having grown up as a Southern sissy in the small town of Bristol, Tennessee, Crocker was a constant target of bullying and humiliation. His mother (who gave birth to Chris when she was only 14) had problems with substance abuse and enlisted in the military, leaving Chris's Pentecostal grandparents to raise her child, feed Chris, and keep him safe.

Generations of gay men who grew up in small towns, surrounded by people who hated them, have spent a collective fortune on therapy. But all Crocker needs is a digital camera, a computer, and his YouTube account to act out and vent his frustrations. Whether dancing in front of the camera, shopping at Walmart in drag, or showing off his newly-buffed body, the camera offers him unconditional love.

Chris Crocker in Me@The Zoo

With more than 1,000 videos posted to YouTube and millions of fans who can't wait to see his next piece of performance art, Crocker can tap into a never-ending source of adulation without the need for a phalanx of bodyguards. In addition to the money he makes from ads that accompany his YouTube videos, as an aspiring singer/songwriter he's got a built-in audience waiting for him to drop a new number on iTunes.

Me@The Zoo shows a new generation of computer-literate people discovering how digital multimedia allows them to become as many different characters as they wish while broadcasting their fantasies to the world. Without any need for backup singers, choreographers, or arena tours, they can post videos of whatever they like, whenever they like, and steer their future in any direction they like.

The bold new phenomenon of the self-empowered, self-producing, self-branding, and self-therapeutic entrepreneur reminds me of a Fred Ebb lyric from the 1975 hit musical, Chicago:
“One thing I know, and I've always known
I am my own best friend.
Baby's alive, but baby's alone,
And baby's her own best friend.

Many's the guy who told me he cares
But they were scratchin' my back
'Cause I was scratchin' theirs.

And trusting to luck, that's only for fools
I play in a game, where I make the rules.
And rule number one, from here to the end is
I am my own best friend.

Three musketeers who never say die
Are standing here this minute: Me, myself, and I.
If life is a school, I'll pass every test
If life is a game, I'll play it the best.
'Cause I won't give in and I'll never bend,
And I am my own best friend!”
After his attempt to get a reality show built around him fell through, Crocker was able to quickly pivot to writing more songs and transforming himself from an effeminate waif into a young man with a more muscular physique. He keeps reinventing himself to entertain his fans as well as for his own enjoyment. In the following interview Chris discusses what the future might hold.

While Me@The Zoo has some raw moments, the film also contains poignant segments in which Crocker must be the shoulder for his young mother to lean on and in which he becomes the adult in the room when she can barely function.

At 25, this young man enjoys a peculiar kind of stardom that has very much been crafted and managed on his own terms. From full-blown sissy to the man of the house, there are quite a lot of people residing within Chris Crocker. Those who don't like him don't have to watch him. And those who hate him have been duly warned:

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Viewing Life Through New Lenses

Those who undergo cataract extraction are usually stunned by what they experience in the two days immediately following their surgery. Images that once seemed blurry and dim (as if looking through a frosted window) take on a clear, crisp boldness. Colors are suddenly so much more intense that the transition becomes an exhilarating and revelatory moment in their lives.

Just as ophthalmologic surgeons implant an intraocular lens into a patient's eye to replace a damaged natural lens, filmmakers allow audiences to view life through new lenses that can refocus and clarify their understanding of the world in which they live. When the luxurious splendor of a cinematographer's work surpasses a filmmaker's artistic vision, the results can be breathtaking.

Two movies recently screened for local audiences were marked by their physical beauty, their filmmaker's ability to "think outside the box," and the leisurely grace with which their stories unfurled. Neither film was designed to compete with Hollywood's blockbusters. And yet, in their own peculiar way, each film has a clarity of concept that larger films often lack -- and that might be best appreciated by a niche audience.

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As I sat watching a screener from the San Francisco International Film Festival for ¡Vivan las antipodas! I found myself becoming almost giddy with awe. Imagine a narrative-free documentary in which the anthropological depth and natural beauty of a film created for the National Geographic Channel is combined with the subversive anti-gravitational thrill of a carnival ride. Then fasten your seatbelt and settle back to enjoy a grand cinematic adventure.

Sunset in Entre Rios, Argentina

Many a child has wondered what he might find if he dug a hole straight through to the other side of the Earth. Some have even tried standing on their heads to see what their lives would look like if lived "upside down."

Director Victor Kossakovsky has followed through on this fantasy by contrasting the geographic and cultural landscapes to be found in four sets of antipodes. The lethargy and ennui of a tiny enclave in the province of Entre Rios, Argentina offers a shocking contrast to the manic pace of life in Shanghai, China.

The skylines of two antipodes

Strange rock formations in Spain capture the camera’s imagination while, on the other side of the planet, New Zealanders carve up a beached whale with chainsaws so they can use a tractor to drag its carrion across the beach to a newly bull-dozed grave.

A dead whale lies on a New Zealand beach

Whether focusing on the elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, and lions near a dusty village in Botswana or the red-hot lava erupting from the famed Kilauea volcano on the big island of Hawaii, Kossakovsky’s camera finds rare moments of natural beauty while teasing the audience with music from each location’s antipode. He also uses his imagination to anchor visuals from two antipodes along a horizontal axis and then rotate his camera until the audience finds itself on the other side of the planet.

A landscape's reflection is caught in the surface of a lake

¡Vivan las antipodas! has a rare cinematic beauty which is thrillingly brought to life by Alexander Popov’s magnificent score. It is one of the few films I've ever watched where, as the final credits appeared, I gasped with the realization that even the last note of music had been perfectly chosen. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Richard LeMayNaked As We Came (which was just screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival) gives new meaning to the old question "Am I my brother's keeper?" As demonstrated in his previous films (Whirlwind, Children of God), LeMay likes to take his time unraveling a snarled web of relationships to guide viewers to a hidden and perhaps taboo truth.

Elliot (Ryan Vigilant) and Ted (Benjamin Weaver) in a scene
set in one of Lilly's greenhouses in Naked As We Came

Naked As We Came is no exception, focusing on a handful of severely conflicted characters:
  • Lilly (Lué  McWilliams) was once a strikingly beautiful woman who had a scandalous affair with a Senator, the true love of her life. Of course, his career could not allow their love affair to become public knowledge and so Lilly was forced to disappear for a while. She eventually married a man who turned out to love money far more than his wife. As the film opens, the Senator is about to become President, Lilly's second husband is long gone and, in between tokes of medical marijuana, Lilly is dying of cancer. Since being diagnosed, Lilly has tried to make up for various mistakes in her life. Having carefully planned her demise, the last thing she needs is a visit from her angry, confused children. However, once they show up, she is anxious to encourage them to pursue their dreams.
  • Ted Kingsley (Benjamin Weaver) is the handsome young gay man who has been living with Lilly for the past two years while tending to her garden, her orchids, cooking for her, and cleaning her home. An accomplished author whose first novel made it onto The New York Times Best Seller list, Ted's background is a bit of a mystery (although Lilly has told him all about the Senator). For some reason, Lilly had sent a copy of Ted's novel to her son.
Ryan Vigilant as Elliot
  • Elliot (Ryan Vigilant) is Lilly's hypersensitive gay son, a handsome young man lacking direction whose emotional insecurity has led to a chronic need for someone to look after him. Ever since his father's death, Elliot and his sister have been managing the family business (a chain of laundromats). It's hard to tell which grates more on Elliot's nerves: his job or his bitchy sister.
  • Laura (Karmine Alers) is Lilly's obnoxious daughter. A bitter control freak who can't face the truth about why her husband left her, Laura carries a lifetime of anger on her shoulders. With the subtlety of a steamroller, she enters her mother's home ready to command a major rescue operation without realizing that she is two years too late. Among Laura's numerous personal tragedies is the fact that, although she has a beautiful voice, she never pursued a singing career.
  • Jeff (Sturgis Adams) is Laura's estranged husband, who arrives after receiving a call from Elliot informing him that Lilly has died.
Lué McWilliams is the dying Lilly

From the opening of the film, there is no question that Lilly is about to die. Whether or not she can clean up any of the mess she made as a wife, mother, and lover remains to be seen. Her closeness to Ted instantly raises Laura's hackles. To make matters worse, Laura discovers that Ted and Elliot have slept together following the two siblings' long drive from New York City.

Filled with bitter recriminations, wounded egos, and conflicting memories, there are many moments in which Naked As We Came seems like it could deteriorate into a really cheesy movie of the week. However, thanks to the potent combination of Vitaly Bokser's sumptuous cinematography, the original musical score by Adonis Tsilimparis, Richard LeMay's angry script, and his sensitive direction of an extremely tight ensemble, the film shines with an unexpected candor.

Whether or not the ending comes as a surprise really doesn't matter. Naked As We Came is a class act (with plenty of eye candy) which revels in some rather remarkable plot twists. Here's the trailer:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

It's all well and fine to complain about the younger generation's limited span of attention. But with today's media trying to tempt us with a relentless barrage of tweets, twats, and twits with tits, no matter which way we turn new distractions lie before us.

Certain distractions can be hugely addictive. Has YouTube become the new porn? Can X-Tube ever really satisfy the masses?

I'll be the first to confess that my two biggest YouTube weaknesses are opera videos and mystery guest segments from What's My Line? But occasionally, a juicy and distinctly odd treasure gets thrown my way and I'm off on another adventure down the rabbit hole. Consider this clip from Cecil B. DeMille's 1932, pre-Code epic, The Sign of the Cross. It's got everything you could hope for: dwarves, Amazons, and Charles Laughton as the Emperor Nero, with a singularly devoted gay boy-toy!

Half a century ago, the ad agency handling Lays Potato Chips account came up with a brilliant marketing slogan: "Bet You Can't Eat Just One." The same applies to video clips of bizarre commercials:

* * * * * * * * *
A series of shorts recently shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Frameline 36 Film Festival merit attention for their wit and creativity. Those concerned with body image will take great delight in Four Pounds, the story of how a nervous actor (played Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall) who has just been cast in a role, summons all of his will power to conquer the battle of the bulge.

Of course, if you look closely, you'll notice Thompson appearing in a variety of roles.

Based on the popular, long running, gay comic strip by Michael Derry, Troy: Naked Boy Behind Bars, Sing! is an  animated satire of gaysploitation entertainment. As Troy MacDougall (a young, out-and-proud gay actor) prepares to take on the lead in the world premiere of a new musical entitled Naked Boys Behind Bars, Sing! he falls head over heels in love with the dimwitted stud who has been cast opposite him. Hot and hunky Nick may claim to be straight, but Troy's roommate, Rigo, has his doubts.

Plenty of people make the mistake of looking for love in all the wrong places. But how can they learn how to succeed without really trying? In 7 Deadly Kisses, director Sammaria Simanjuntak, goes to great lengths to explain the seven deadly types of kisses (ranging from fish kiss to dragon kiss) that may or may not lead to love. Practice, of course, makes perfect. So when two young male trainees are finished with their lessons, they end up with surprising results on their final examination:

* * * * * * * * *
Having reached the terrible age when new and confusing desires can drive a teenager crazy, Eddie develops a crush on his athletic neighbor. In 33 Teeth (a sweet short by Evan Roberts), Eddie accidentally spies on Chad as the hunky jock steps out of the shower with a red comb. Soon Eddie has two new teeth and Chad can't figure out how his comb got damaged. In his director's statement, Roberts confesses that:
"Like some gay kids, I was the last to know I was a homo. In 10th grade, I rolled with a small group of guy friends. One night we were playing basketball and the subject of measuring your dick came up. It was a divisive topic. Some had, some hadn't, some didn't feel the need. My not-so-secret crush had the most memorable answer. I was the only one who heard him say under his breath: 'Well, I measured with a comb once.'

These seven words set my synapses afire. What could that possibly even mean? Who does that? What would a comb even tell you? How long was that damn comb? It left a lot to the imagination and inspired day dreams about hanging out at his house where I would excuse myself to use the bathroom. Once inside, I would frantically search in every drawer and on every shelf for this erotic totem, but to no avail. A travel comb? Barber comb? Rat tail? Wide tooth? Tortoise shell with a handle? What am I working with here?

Through the main character of 33 Teeth, I was finally able to vandalize his bathroom and find out. The most important goal for 33 Teeth was to make an aspirational story for the 10th grade me, and for other 10th grade gay kids. I didn't grow up with lots of positive queer characters in the media. I know I would have appreciated watching a film with characters deeply familiar to me. Why 33? I was 33 when I made it. I like that 33 looks like two E's backwards. But someone pointed out that we each have 32 teeth in our mouth, and that 33rd tooth in this story represents a rite of passage -- a different kind of wisdom tooth. I like to think Eddie comes to face his desires in a way I wasn't prepared to when I was his age."

What about tension-laden events, like a high school prom? In Gloria LaMorte's sexy short, a sexy young Latino in the South Bronx tries to get up the courage to go after the man of his dreams. The following clip contains some behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Crush.

Sometimes, filmmakers go for the old bait-and-switch tactic. In the rollicking animated short from Australia entitled The Confession of Father John Thomas, Miss Beaver Eater (a brave soul living in the heart of the Australian outback) making a startling confession about her filthiest fantasies to her spiritual advisor.

Meanwhile, a curious short from Argentinian director Alexis Dos Santos entitled Random Strangers finds a young man and woman on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean baring their souls to each other during a series of online chat sessions. Although Rocky and Lulu each have dreams and complain about their current situation, neither is fully disclosed about the truth of their existence.

You can enjoy Random Strangers in its entirety in the following clip. However, I strongly recommend watching it in full screen mode:

The bottom line? A cynic may warn someone not to blow smoke up his ass. But I don't think there's a hipster or emo kid around who can pull off this public display of affection!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Archives

Whenever news reports surface about an archaeological dig (or construction site) that has revealed previously-hidden parts of a buried civilization, people start to fantasize about what life must have been like back in the day. Whether they dream about daily life in ancient Sumeria or what things might have been like in Atlantis (before it slid into the ocean), the ghosts of civilizations past hold a special place in our collective imagination.

From Sir James George Frazer's epic research for The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion to Margaret Mead's work as a cultural anthropologist investigating attitudes toward sex in Oceanian, Australasian, and South Asian cultures, curiosity about tribal life and urban subcultures is occasionally met by a frightening lack of documentation.

Perhaps that's why a well-intentioned but clumsy documentary being screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival is such a frustrating exercise in exploring local LGBT history. To understand the cultural significance of Submerged Queer Spaces, one must first examine what gay life in San Francisco is like today in order to comprehend what has been lost.
  • Founded in 1971, the Bay Area Reporter is one of the oldest and largest continually published LGBT newspapers in the United States.
  • Many LGBT people own businesses and real estate within the Bay area.
  • Most local politicians go out of their way to gain support from the LGBT community.
  • Now more than 35 years old, the Golden Gate Business Association offers support and networking opportunities for LGBT-owned businesses.
  • LGBT tourism has become an important force in the local economy (after more than 40 years, San Francisco's annual LGBT Pride celebration is billed as "the largest gathering of LGBT people and allies in the nation).
  • Although gay men have always sought each other out in parks and gay bars, gay websites and applications like Grindr, Blendr, and Mister have proven to be much more efficient for purposes of hooking up.
  • Strong evidence of corporate support for the LGBT community can be seen at street fairs and community events.
  • Whether one attends the Dyke March, the Folsom Street Fair, or encounters naked men walking around the Castro, visibility is no longer an issue.

As filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky explains:
"Submerged Queer Spaces examines queer history through an approach of urban archaeology. As San Francisco grew and gentrified, communities changed significantly post-World War II, shifted, and were displaced. Bars, restaurants, parks, alleys, bathhouses, and other gathering spots of the queer community were remodeled, repurposed, rebuilt, or destroyed. Many of the spaces examined in the early part of the film are bars (which were the primary places where queer people were able to socialize and build community). In the 1950s and 1960s, gay watering holes abound in North Beach and the Tenderloin. Soon after, Polk Street is lined with some cleverly named gay bars and eateries. The film whisks us to the former sites of these queer spaces with archival images placed over the current location and then slowly fades away, revealing its present day exterior."

In his attempt to mix the oral histories taken from older members of San Francisco's LGBT community with the city's architectural history, Dubowsky has tried to capture a vanishing past. Sometimes (when discussing the importance of places like Fe-Be's to the leather community or listening to a lesbian reminisce about having dated Janis Joplin years before she became famous) Submerged Urban Spaces has a certain kind of charm.

Too often, however, Dubowsky's shaky camera technique and poor attention to acoustics during his interviews are counterproductive. Titles float on and off the screen with the kind of instability one associates with trying to read a message from an old-fashioned Magic 8-Ball.

Dubowsky's fascination with a building's original fixtures (a fire alarm, vent, drain pipe,  or evidence of an attachment for a commercial sign) proved baffling to me. His godawful original musical score invoked painful memories of the soundtracks from early porn movies.

* * * * * * * * *
Infinitely more satisfying is a quiet little independent film that was screened at the San Francisco International Film FestivalJulia Murat’s first full-length feature film, Found Memories, is set in the tiny Brazilian village of Jotuomba where a small group of senior citizens remain isolated from the world at large. As the filmmaker recalls:
"The original idea of the film did come from an image, but not a photo. In 1999 I was shooting, as an assistant director on my mother’s film, Brave New Land, when I came across a cemetery that had been closed out, in the small village of Forte Coimbra (Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil). Its inhabitants, when they died, had to be buried in another city, a seven-hour boat ride away. This image fascinated me since then I wanted to write a story about an old woman who wanted to die, but could not since her village’s cemetery had been closed down."

A film whose beauty often lies in unspoken communications and softly lit spaces, Found Memories explores a tiny jungle enclave free of the technology that dominates our modern world. When a young, inquisitive photographer named Rita (Lisa E. Favero) arrives and asks if she can photograph the 11 remaining residents of the village, she soon finds herself bonding with Madalena (Sonia Guedes), the old woman who bakes bread every morning, and Antonio (Luiz Serra), who runs the local coffee shop.

Part of Rita's technique is to use a primitive camera to create long-exposure portraits, which she develops in the darkroom she has set up. Whatever one's level of skill as a photographer or filmmaker, one will want to see Found Memories just to bask in the sensual luxury of its natural light and watch as Rita meticulously sets up her interior shots.

"We worked in extreme conditions: exterior day sequences or night sequences that should look lit by a gas lamp. The total lack of artificial light in the scenes was a defining factor on the final aesthetics of the film. One or two vibrant yet weak light spots coming from the open flame. A light that was very contrasted with almost no details in the dark areas," recalls Murat. "Lucio Bonelli, the film cinematographer who has worked on Lisandro Alonso’s films, said that we started the research for the film with Rembrandt and, by the time we were in post-production, we had ended up with Caravaggio."

The script of Found Memories offers audiences a strange combination of documentary and magical realism. Beautiful performances come from the small ensemble cast, especially Sonia Guedes as the grumpy old baker. As Murat explains:
"Sônia Guedes (Maddalena) and Luiz Serra (Antônio) are award-winning actors from São Paulo’s theater scene who studied a classical style of interpretation at the EAD (Dramatic Arts School) in the 1950s and 1960s. During rehearsals, Sônia would always tell stories about her classes in EAD when her interpretation teacher would demand that each syllable of each word be understood by the person sitting on the last chair of the theater. During the process Sônia and Serra had a lot of doubts on the type of acting we were searching for in the film. Most of the time they felt as if they were not acting at all and were surprised when we told them that this was exactly what we were looking for."
Although Found Memories demands a lot of patience from its audience, Murat's film proves to be a work of exquisite beauty. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

News, News, News Has A, Has A, Kind Of Mystery

I'm often fascinated by what I discover from the juxtaposition of two productions which would normally never cross paths. My most recent pairing involved back-to-back performances of two works hailed as landmarks of musical theatre at their premieres. Their similarities include the following:
  • Each production deals with news events that were literally "ripped from the headlines."
  • Each production showcases the music of contemporary composers with huge followings who are also residents of the San Francisco Bay area.
  • Each production uses amplified sound and lots of video.
  • Each production focuses on a small set of characters with monstrous egos.
  • Each production contains coarse language from contemporary street vernacular.
While their similarities are evident, their differences are a bit more subtle. I judge this, in part, based on how I felt after each show.

Following one performance, the evening's music kept playing in my head for days -- a phenomenon I hadn't felt since last summer's performances of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera. After the other performance I heard nothing, felt, nothing, and only wished for silence.

A bit shell shocked by the event, I found myself thinking about Stephen Sondheim's lyrics to a song from 1973's A Little Night Music entitled "Liaisons."
"What once was a rare champagne
Is now just an amiable hock,
What once was a villa, at least, is 'digs.'
What once was a gown with train
Is now just a simple little frock,
What once was a sumptuous feast is figs.
No, not even figs. Raisins!

Where is style?
Where is skill?
Where is forethought?
Where's discretion of the heart?
Where's passion in the art?
Where's craft?

In a world where the kings are employers,
Where the amateur prevails and delicacy fails to pay.
In a world where the princes are lawyers,
What can anyone expect except to recollect liaisons."
* * * * * * * * *
From her 1937 debut as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore to her final performance during the closing night gala at the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, the beloved Croatian soprano, Zinka Milanov, had a career spanning nearly 30 years at the Metropolitan Opera. According to various operatic legends, a fan once told the soprano that her voice "was like pure silver." Without missing a beat, Mme. Milanov replied "Gold, dahlink, gold."

In addition to starring in productions of La Gioconda, Andrea Chenier, Don Giovanni, Norma, Tosca, and Cavalleria Rusticana, Milanov was best known for her interpretation of Verdi's heroines in such operas as Aida, Ernani, Simon Boccanegra, Otello, Un Ballo en Maschera, Il Trovatore, and La Forza del Destino.

Like most smart singers, Mme. Zinka knew her limits. When an adoring fan suggested that she tackle a specific role (perhaps the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier), Milanov had the wisdom and humility to reply "Is not my fach."

Before discussing Green Day's musical, American Idiot (whose national tour is currently onstage at the Orpheum), I want to make full disclosure about certain issues:
  • I did not see the show's world premiere production at the Berkeley Rep in 2009.
  • Having listened to singers perform for the past 50 years in all kinds of venues, I prefer the sound of an unamplified human voice to one that is strongly miked.
  • While many theatres offer electronic sound enhancement systems for people who are hearing impaired, I strongly believe that if music has been amplified to levels that require some people to listen to it through earplugs, the resultant sound distortion is counterproductive.
  • Because I don't see much value in making an audience succumb to sonic shock syndrome, punk rock has never been my "fach."
Scott J. Campbell (Tunny), Van Hughes (Johnny), and Jake
Epstein (Will) in American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

There's no denying the fact that, on opening night at the Orpheum, the theatre was filled with excited Green Day fans (since its release on September 21, 2004, the group's American Idiot concept album has sold more than 14 million copies internationally). A film version of the musical is supposedly in the works.

Green Day's music definitely has its own voice. With its high-voltage, high energy style of performance, American Idiot offers audiences a 90-minute onslaught of white-knuckle noise accompanied by enough frequent strobe lighting to induce seizures.

As a frenzied, megawatt musical temper tantrum, American Idiot is a loud, proud, outcry of disillusioned, alienated American youth. And yet, I found the entire explosive spectacle (for which Michael Mayer wrote the book and directed the show) to be quite underwhelming. Nor was I particularly impressed by Steven Hoggett's choreography.

This is certainly not the fault of the talented lead performers (Van Hughes, Joshua Kobak, Jake Epstein, Scott J. Campbell, and Gabrielle McClinton), who gave plenty of energy to the show's opening night performance. But, as our good friend Macbeth once noted:
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
Van Hughes (Johnny) and Joshua Kobak (St. Jimmy) in
American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

The idiot in this case is a product of suburban malaise driven by raging hormones and the festering anger of a youth culture sick and tired of hearing themselves referred to as slackers, failures, and fuck-ups. But as Johnny learns, if the shoe fits...

Out of curiosity, I did some research to see how American Idiot ranks against other shows in its genre and came up with some interesting results.  After its Broadway premiere on April 20, 2010 at the St. James Theatre, American Idiot ran for 421 performances  (during which Billie Joe Armstrong, Melissa Etheridge, and Davey Havok stepped into the role of St. Jimmy to help boost ticket sales). The show closed on April 24, 2011. Although nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical, the only Tonys the show took home were for best scenic design for a musical (Christine Jones) and best lighting design for a musical (Kevin Adams).

Since American Idiot is essentially a rock concert strung together with a meager plot and intense production values, I thought I'd check to see how it stood up against jukebox musicals:
  • Mamma Mia! (which opened on Broadway in 2001) has logged more than 4,400 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre and is still going strong.
  • Jersey Boys, which opened on Broadway in 2005, won four Tony awards (including Best Musical) and is still playing at the August Wilson Theatre, where it has clocked more than 2,700 performances to date.
  • American Idiot lasted just over a year on Broadway, for a total of 421 performances.
Suppose we compare American Idiot to some of Broadway's hit rock musicals:
  • The 1968 production of Hair (which had a major impact on youth culture around the world) ran for 1,750 performances. The recent revival directed by Diane Paulus ran for 519 performances.
  • 1971's Grease ran for 3,388 performances on Broadway and is still delighting audiences far and wide.
  • The Who's Tommy, which opened on Broadway in April of 1993 and ran for 899 performances (also at the St. James), won five Tony awards.
  • Rent ran for 5,124 performances, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four out of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated.
  • In 2006, Spring Awakening opened to rave reviews, ran for 888 performances and won eight of the 11 Tony awards for which it was nominated. It has since been produced by numerous regional theatre companies.
  • 2009's Next To Normal ran for 733 performances, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and took home three of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated.
  • American Idiot lasted just over a year on Broadway, for a total of 421 performances.

What's the missing ingredient? Why didn't American Idiot have a longer run? The answer is really quite simple and has nothing to do with punk rock.

Although the touring cast of American Idiot boasts some nice sweaty biceps and tight, high glutes, there isn't a single character onstage that anyone cares about.
  • The angry young drop-outs in Hair who were rebelling against their parents' generation? At least their mothers didn't lend them the money for bus fare into the city.
  • Disillusioned teenagers shooting up drugs? This is not news.
  • The use of raunchy language in a musical? Peppering the word "fuck" throughout a script may help it sound authentic, but its overuse quickly makes the word lose its impact. Besides, The Book of Mormon (which won nine out of the 14 Tonys for which it was nominated) has people singing "I've got maggots in my scrotum!" and "Fuck, you God, in the mouth, ass, and cunt!" 
  • The aerial ballet? That's been a staple of Cirque du Soleil shows for years.
  • The repeated attempts to shock the audience, including some energetic simulated fucking on a center-stage mattress? Porn went mainstream a long time ago.
Gabrielle McClinton (Whatsername) and Van Hughes (Johnny)
in American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

One of the sad facts faced by touring shows visiting San Francisco is that the sound engineering in the Orpheum Theatre often jacks up the amplification to a level that skirts the pain threshold. The irony, of course, is that, if the amplification in Brian Ronan's sound design were to be cut by anywhere from 50-80%, the audience would be astonished by the strength of Green Day's music and the power of Armstrong's lyrics. Try listening to some YouTube clips of their songs (when it doesn't sound as if you're standing next to a jet engine).

* * * * * * * * *
Speaking of jet engines, let's turn our attention to the San Francisco Opera's new production of Nixon in China which, thanks to the creative team at the Vancouver Opera, has brought an incredible new sense of vitality to the John Adams/Alice Goodman opera.

Brian Mulligan as Richard Nixon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Under David Gockley's leadership, the Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Nixon in China on October 22, 1987 was accompanied by the biggest media orgasm to accompany an opera's debut since the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home in Lincoln Center and opened its 1966-1967 season with the world premiere of Samuel Barber's new opera, Antony and Cleopatra.
As opera maven Matthew Epstein astutely noted:
"Each nation experiences a century in which there is a sudden, incredible explosion of creativity -- a period which usually coincides with tremendous decadence in society. French opera reached its greatest heights during the decadence of French romanticism. Russian opera was at its greatest during the decadence of the Czar's regime. Italian opera had its greatest moments during the Risorgimento -- just before the Italian state entered its Fascist period. At this very moment, the United States is just ripe for opera to become a contemporary art form."
When I attended two performances of Nixon in China in Houston, Peter Sellars had forbidden the use of Supertitles. At its world premiere the opera was performed in two long acts.

I saw two more performances of Nixon in China (and part of a rehearsal) when HGO brought its production to the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1988. Because the stage in the 3,000-seat Edinburgh Playhouse was much smaller than that of the Brown Theatre in Houston, Sellars was forced to move some of the action out onto a stage apron (which was actually part of the orchestra lift). This made parts of Nixon in China feel like a cross between agitprop theatre and a play by Bertolt Brecht.

I next saw the work at the Los Angeles Opera in September 1990, which was the first time that Nixon in China was performed with Supertitles and divided into three acts instead of two. Last week was the first time I had seen the opera in 22 years. A lot has happened in the interim.
  • Nixon in China has since been mounted in 18 venues in the United States ranging from the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera House to the intimate confines of the 987-seat Loretto-Hilton Theatre with its three-quarter round seating. It has also been produced in 18 theatres outside the United States.
  • John Adams has emerged as an important voice in American opera (The Death of Klinghoffer, I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky, El NinoDoctor Atomic, and A Flowering Tree).
  • In 2010, San Francisco celebrated the 30th anniversary of its "sister city" relationship with Shanghai.
  • Today, China and the United States are the world's dominant superpowers.
  • With the exception of 89-year-old  Henry Kissinger (who was recently frisked by the TSA while in a wheelchair), all of the opera's protagonists have been dead for more than 15 years. With these characters no longer fearsome politicians (but merely ghosts of the past), Alice Goodman's libretto has taken on a much more poetic and lyrical feeling.
  • Because the audience no longer feels antagonized by the main characters, they can be viewed as mythological remnants of the past or parts of a dream.
  • Thanks to the growth in telecasts of live performance over the PBS network, in baseball parks, and movie theatres, audience development is on the rise.
Michael Schwab's poster art for Nixon in China

Due to incredible advances in computer technology, the theatrical elements of opera have undergone a revolution in design and production techniques. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the scene in which the Nixons arrive at the Peking airport.

This clip from the original production shows a cut-out of Air Force One (the Boeing 707 Nixon dubbed "The Spirit of '76) being lowered from the flies (the cast features James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Carolann Page as Pat Nixon, Sanford Sylvan as Chou EnLai, and Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger).

The first few seconds of the trailer from the Vancouver Opera's production show how animation has transformed the impact of the plane's arrival onstage (in this production the role of Nixon was sung by Robert Orth).

Computerized graphic design also makes it possible for someone like Erhard Rom to play visual tricks on the audience. One piece of scenery shows a series of portraits in which Richard Nixon's face morphs into the face of Mao Tse-tung. In another attempt to demonstrate how China and America can seem like opposite ends of the earth, Rom has designed the following scenic drop:

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Opera

On a quick side note: If you find the above image fascinating, I heartily recommend a new movie called Vivan Las Antipodas, which was screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. Watch the following trailer and you'll understand why:

As set designer, Rom has included many more vertical elements than were seen in the original production.
  • In Act 1, Scene 1, Air Force One's nose cone, left wing, and left tailplane dominate the stage.
  • In Act 2, Scene 2, Mao Tse-Tung negotiates a tall staircase.
  • During Act 1's banquet scene, Chou EnLai and Richard Nixon address the dinner guests from a giant dais.
The Act I banquet scene (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • In Act 2, video is projected onto the placards carried by protestors. Pat Nixon's tour of pig farms and public parks gives a tremendous sense of depth to the stage (not to mention wonder and exhaustion to the character).
  • The careful integration of Christopher Maravich's lighting design with projections designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis creates a multi-layered, gauzy, almost dream-like effect for many of the visuals.
Chou En-Lai (Chen-Ye Yuan), Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova), and
Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan) in a scene from Nixon in China
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • Video footage taken of Maria Kanyova during rehearsal is projected behind her as Pat Nixon sings her "This is prophetic" aria.
  • The triangular periaktoi designed by Erhard Rom prove to be a powerfully effective device from ancient Greek theatre that lets the ghosts of history create the illusion of greater stage depth and historical distance.
A moment from Act 3 of Nixon in China (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In his director's note, Michael Cavanagh writes:
"How does art illustrate, reflect, or embellish history, with particular respect for Nixon's visit to China?  How do we, as contemporary audiences, benefit from seeing this particular story told in music? Every painting, sculpture, dance, or story offers a peek into another time and place. Historians often look to a culture's artistic inventory for insights into the everyday life or epic events of another era. While historians are condemned for taking liberties; an artist often feels an obligation to do so. Incongruously, this can make an artistic rendition of an event more honest than a so-called factual account.
We shouldn't think of a piece like Nixon in China as a window to another time, but as a kaleidoscope. Each member of the storytelling team -- librettist, composer, director, designers, performers, and conductor -- act like prisms, splitting the 'truth' into impressionistic shards. Their aim is to access the private, inner voices of the people involved (not just their public ones)."
Brian Mulligan as Richard Nixon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The production being used by the San Francisco Opera received its premiere at the Vancouver Opera on March 13, 2010 and was also presented by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in March of 2012.
  • Under Michael Cavanagh's direction, the Nixons become far more animated and athletic than in the original staging.
  • The brilliant use of projections allows the audience to see Air Force One flying through the mist and then banking toward Peking as Nixon sits at a window, looking down from the sky.
  • As the banquet scene devolves into a drunken party, we get to see the protagonists acting as the party people they would like to believe they are (rather than as the political stiffs they might actually be in the physical moment).
  • Act 3 becomes a surreal and introspective dreamscape as the Nixons, Mao Tse-tung, and Madame Mao look back on their lives while Chou EnLai ponders the future.
Madame Mao (Hye Jung Lee) and Mao Tse-tung (Simon O'Neill)
in Act III of Nixon in China (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Nixon In China requires some heavy lifting from the chorus, which was impressively prepared by Ian Robertson. Conductor Lawrence Renes captured the fierce driving rhythmic force of the opera's score as well as its wistful, jazzy moments while giving strong support to his principals.

Brian Mulligan's portrayal of Nixon was like an excited businessman on the make instead of the taciturn crook who would be forced to resign from office two years later in disgrace. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan shone as Chou En-lai. As is to be expected, soprano Hye Jung Lee brought down the house with Chiang Ch'ing's Act 2, Scene 2 showstopper, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung."

Others in the cast included Patrick Carlizzi as Henry KissingerMaria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, and Simon O'Neill as Mao Tse-tung with Ginger Costa-Jackson, Buffy Baggott, and Nicole Birkland as the three "Mao-ettes." Dancers Chiharu Shibata and Bryan Ketron starred in Madame Mao's revolutionary ballet entitled "The Red Detachment of Women."

An interesting piece of trivia about Nixon in China's world premiere in Houston: Madame Mao's line "We'll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!" was deleted because the opera was being videotaped for a delayed broadcast over the PBS network. Here's the trailer: