Friday, August 31, 2012

It Only Takes A Moment

It's a good thing that certain concepts only flash through my mind when I'm asleep. Sometimes an overload of strange news stories and powerful photographs combine with exceptionally bad timing. My dreams create plenty of images that could easily shock and awe.

Let me give you an example. You may have read that Rosie O'Donnell and Michelle Rounds were married in New York on June 9. You may also have heard the bizarre story of Solly, a three-ton, four-year-old South African hippopotamus who, after being chased away from his herd by some dominant males, wandered into the Monate Conservation Lodge and went for a dip in its swimming pool.

Normally, Solly's tragic death might be the end of the story. But, in the early morning hours, I started dreaming about Rosie O'Donnell wearing a black swimsuit and doing balancing tricks by the side of a swimming pool. The only problem was that, with her body transformed into that of a baby hippo, O'Donnell couldn't understand why the producers didn't want her to continue taping the show.

Thankfully, this image will never make its way to broadcast television (if all goes well, I'll have plenty of other dreams to push it from my memory). But many a story has been built on how someone's life was drastically changed in the blink of an eye. In the Act I finale of The Mikado, Katisha sings:
"The hour of gladness
Is dead and gone;
In silent sadness
I live alone!
The hope I cherished
All lifeless lies,
And all has perished,
All has perished
Save love, which never dies.
Which never dies!"
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The concept of a broken school system is nothing new. Nor is watching a young teacher’s idealism get crushed by an uncaring bureaucracy. However, when a student’s artistic potential is shattered while his classmates run roughshod over a caring new teacher, you get a film like Broken, set in the low-income Parisian suburb of Certigny (which is heavily populated by families who immigrated from northern and western Africa).

It's the first day of school for Anna Kagan (Anaïs Demoustier), a young, white, Jewish teacher whose professional training did not prepare her to deal with a room full of restless, cynical teenagers who have grown weary of condescending teachers. As Anna tries to assert herself in the classroom while teaching history and geography, she proves to be no match for the overaged, oversized class bully named Moussa (Barnabé Magou), whose prime targets are the small, blond Kevin (Paul Bartel) and his French-Palestinian friend, Lakdar Abdane (Samy Seghir).

A talented young artist, the 15-year-old Lakdar's home life is a shambles.
  • His father (Djemel Barek) is poor, strict, and sees no value in his son's artistic potential. 
  • Lakdar's older brother, Slimane (Azdine Keloua), has just returned from prison, where his mind was filled with Islamic teachings and hatred for people of French origin.
  • One of Lakdar's hands was recently crippled after an overworked emergency room physician applied a plaster cast too tightly, resulting in paralysis of Lakdar's most valued hand: the hand he used for drawing.
Recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Alain Tasma’s poignant film (which was made for French television) captures the steady evaporation of hope as teachers quit their jobs, surgeons admit their mistakes, and two teenage boys embark on a poorly-conceived plan of revenge which brings tragedy to all. When Lakdar sees the doctor (whose mistake ruined his hand) buying groceries, he and Kevin follow the man home. After Kevin's online research reveals that David Haddad is Jewish, Lakdar formulates a plan to kidnap the doctor's kid brother, Sydney (Théo Fernandez).

Kevin (Paul Bartel) and Lakdar (Samy Seghir) ride through
the streets of Certigny on Kevin's scooter in Broken

Once Lakdar and Kevin have taken Sydney to their hideout and bound and gagged him, they send the doctor a photo of the boy holding a sign that says: "I am a Jew, I will pay for Palestinian children." When Sydney's health takes a precarious turn for the worse and Lakdar starts to lose his grip on reality, Kevin rats his friend out to the police.

Meanwhile, things have only gotten worse for Anna Kagan and the rest of the teachers, who are facing severe cutbacks at school. Kagan's attempt to find Lakdar (who has stopped attending classes) and reach out to him fails to save the young boy from his self-destructive impulses. By the end of the film, Kagan has quit her job, Kevin is under police custody, and Lakdar's body lies on the sidewalk below his apartment balcony.

Sensitively directed by Tasma, there are times when Broken's dual story lines may seem to have forgotten each other. The performances by Samy Seghir and Paul Bartel, however, will tear at your heart.

Poster art for Broken (Fracture)

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Many a drama has been built around a gathering of the clan (family and/or extended family). From The Last of Sheila to August: Osage County, from The Big Chill to Steel Magnolias, the cast of characters have been friends and/or frenemies for many years and know most of each other's intimate secrets. If one of their group has not died at the outset of the story, you can bet someone will be dead by the time the final credits start to roll.

All of these works extol the camaraderie shared by a small circle of characters. All were written for an ensemble of skilled actors. All rest on the type of relationships celebrated in songs like:
In the following video clip from the 2011 Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris and the cast from the New York Philharmonic's concert performance of  Sondheim's 1970 musical, Company, perform "Side By Side."

The latest entry in this particular genre is Little White Lies, a two and a half hour film written and directed by Gillaume Canet which begins with Ludovic (Jean Dujardin), a middle-aged party boy, finishing off a night of drinking, dancing, snorting coke and carousing with friends before heading home on his scooter as dawn breaks over Paris. An unfortunate collision with a large truck sends Ludovic into emergency surgery and, as his life hangs in limbo, his friends come to visit him in the hospital. They include:
  • Marie (Marion Cotillard), Ludovic's free-spirited, former girlfriend.
  • Max Cantara (François Cluzet), a severely uptight hotel and restaurant owner who, in addition to being the oldest and wealthiest man in his circle of friends, is a pathetically insecure and insufferable control freak.
  • Véronique (Valérie Bonneton), Max's long-suffering wife.
  • Eric (Gilles Lellouche), a small-time television actor who is about to get dumped by his girlfriend, Léa (an opera singer). Whenever Eric's romantic life takes a hit, he selfishly turns to Marie in search of sexual favors with absolutely no understanding that her only interest in him is as a friend.
Marion Cotillard as Marie in Little White Lies

Also present at the hospital are:
  • Vincent Ribaud (Benoît Magimel), Max's chiropractor and the devoted father of two children.
  • Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), Vincent's confused and sexually frustrated wife.
  • Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), a hopelessly lovesick man who, until very recently, was in an 11-year relationship and persists in boring his friends to tears with the pathetic details of his attempts to reunite with Juliette (Anne Marivin).

Rather than Ludovic's precarious medical condition, the big question on everyone's mind is whether they should stay in Paris or postpone their annual vacation at Max's beach house in Cap Ferrat. Opting for the seashore, they all pack up and head south.

Vincent (Benoit Magimel) can't seem to shake his man crush on Max

Unfortunately, a great deal of tension and repressed emotion keeps undermining their vacation.
  • Prior to leaving Paris, Vincent finally got up the courage to tell Max that he'd been wrestling with an uncontrollable man crush on his best friend (who is also his son's godfather). Although both men are firmly convinced of their heterosexuality, Max did not react well to Vincent's confession.
  • Upon arriving at Cap Ferrat, Max learns that his old enemies (a group of noisy squirrels) have once again found their way into the walls of his summer home. Their chirping noises, combined with Vincent's "bromantic" stares, drive the petulant Max to ridiculously homophobic temper tantrums and destructive behavior.
  • Claiming that they want to go into Bordeaux for a while, Antoine and Eric borrow Max's car and drive back to Paris, where they each try to reconcile with their old girlfriends. Eric even stops by the hospital, where he pays an awkward visit to Ludo, selfishly asking his battered friend for relationship advice.
  • The group is notably shaken when one of Marie's recent flames, a sexy, handsome musician named Franck (Maxim Nucci), calls to tell Marie that he is in the neighborhood and invites himself over to spend the night with her. Although the married men make jokes about Franck, they are clearly threatened by his overt sexuality and free-wheeling lifestyle.
Maxim Nucci plays Franck, Marie's sexy, dope-smoking musician

As tempers flare, Vincent packs his family into the car and drives back to Paris, where he learns that Ludo died alone in his hospital room while his friends were all indulging themselves (and their egos) down at the seashore.

Jean-Louis (Joel Dupuch), the oyster farmer who has known the group since they first started vacationing at Cap Ferrat, is not impressed by Max's wealth or the little while lies his friends tell themselves in order to avoid taking responsibility for their selfish actions. As Ludovic's friends gather for his funeral, Jean-Louis drives up from Cap Ferrat with a bag full of beach sand to dump on top of Ludo's coffin after it is lowered into his grave.

Beautifully acted, Little White Lies is of particular interest for the way Max and Vincent try to deal with their conflicting emotions about each other. The musical score (which largely consists of popular American songs interjected at largely inappropriate moments) is annoying beyond belief. Canet's cast, however, is a group of top-notch actors who entertain, amuse, and will no doubt irritate some viewers with the characters they have been asked to portray. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Many an artist, when asked to identify one of their favorite works, claims that their greatest achievement over the course of a long and notable career has been their children. To audiences who are in awe of that person's talent, that remark may seem surprising, perhaps even a cop-out.  But for the artist, their child is the cornerstone of their day-to-day life.

That sentiment in no way negates their formidable artistic gifts. From sculptors to singers, from composers to clowns, these people have spent decades working to hone their craft.

Three oddly disparate evenings demonstrated how a simple ray of light can pierce through the gloom and deliver a sense of joy in the darkest hours.
  • One focused on the beginning of a new life, showing a woman blessed with a new child to love, cherish, and care for.
  • One embraced a modern miracle, demonstrating how a temporary flash of brilliance can become the catalyst for future happiness.
  • One demonstrated the power of a mature artist in the final stages of her career, a beloved performer who has spent a lifetime loving, caring for, and sharing a very special  natural gift.
Like the famous gospel song, each of these evenings demonstrated the power of "This Little Light of Mine." One was waiting to be born and loved, the second restored hope and brought a sense of joy to a barren couple. The third had given audiences a beacon of beauty for many, many years.

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Currently onstage at The Shotgun Players is Precious Little, a curious dramedy by Madeleine George that has been deftly directed by Marissa Wolf (the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company). In George's play, Brodie (Zehra Berkman) is a middle-aged woman with a growing sense of self-awareness as she wrestles with medical personnel who don’t know what to do with an intelligent pregnant lesbian.

Poster art for Precious Little

A linguistics researcher with an acutely scientific approach to her work, Brodie is confronted by several challenges at a major turning point in her life:
  • Pregnant at the age of 42, an amniocentesis has revealed the possibility that her child will be born with an unspecified genetic abnormality.
  • Faced with medical personnel who have not been trained to deal with an informed patient, Brodie encounters an unexpected challenge communicating in her own language.
  • Her young lover (a grad student who, though she may be a cunning linguist capable of transcribing interviews about rare foreign languages, does not really want to help Brodie raise a child) may be thinking about ending their relationship. 
  • Cleva, an elderly woman who is one of the last people still fluent in the dying language of Kari, has been becoming more agitated as each of her sessions with Brodie triggers repressed memories from her troubled youth.
  • A gorilla at the local zoo, who supposedly responds to a more extensive vocabulary than most primates, has a special surprise in store for a lesbian intellectual who has run up against a wall of clinical coldness. To the confused Brodie's astonishment, the ape teaches her that unconditional love does not require language.
Brodie (Zehra Berkman) meets with Cleva (Nancy Carlin) and her
daughter (Rami Margron) in Precious Little (Photo by: Pak Han)

As someone who specializes in the finer points of linguistics, Brodie is rarely at a loss for words. But the inconclusive results of her amniocentesis force the woman to confront the curiously vague language of uncertainty (a clinically-correct and calculated word structure that may be designed to avoid scaring patients with harsh realities while minimizing the possibility of legal action). In her director's note, Marissa Wolf writes:
"When human language cannot contain the vast, roiling possibilities of connection and loss in her life, Brodie must carve out space for a new language, a new creation myth inside a terrain unreachable by human speech. When this brilliant and sharp-edged linguist (who believes wholly in the primacy of the human language above all other forms of communication) is pushed to the brink of her known world, standing in the chilly breeze of the unknown, we witness her need for a new understanding, not only of language, but of herself. It is here, inside this terrifying and exhilarating world of new language, that Precious Little wrestles with the choices women face surrounding career, childbearing, and amniocentesis. In the face of our precious little choices, the possibility of communion out beyond human language may offer us the grace we need to survive."
Rami Margron imitates children at the zoo as they watch a
gorilla (Nancy Carlin) in Precious Little (Photo by: Pak Han)

Zehra Berkman stars as Brodie, while Nancy Carlin portrays the ape, an embryo seen in a sonogram, and the confused, elderly Cleva. The most versatile performance of the evening comes from Rami Margron, who alternates between Cleva’s exhausted daughter, Brodie’s zoo-fixated lover, and a clueless OBGYN interviewer. Margron also delivers a priceless aria mimicking the parade of zoogoers fascinated by the gorilla. Performances of Precious Little continue at the Ashby Stage through September 9 (click here to order tickets).

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A new Disney film might strike some viewers as overly manipulative, but I found The Odd Life of Timothy Green to have a curious and powerful charm. Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Cindy (Jennifer Garner), are an attractive young couple whose dreams of having a child have been stymied by infertility. Their most recent piece of bad news (a rejection from a local adoption agency) triggers an emotional meltdown which is deftly defused by Jim's attempt to cheer up his wife by playing a game in which they imagine the characteristics of their ideal child.

As they polish off a bottle of wine, Jim and Cindy write each of their ideas on a piece of paper and then place their notes in a handsome, hand-crafted wooden box. After burying the box in their back yard, they head upstairs to bed.

That night, a miraculous storm drenches their land. Loud thunderclaps awaken the couple and they discover a dirt-covered boy sitting in their kitchen who calls them "Mom" and "Dad" and introduces himself as Timothy (the only boy's name they had included in their list of potential baby names). Unlike other children his age, Timothy has green leaves sprouting from his lower legs.

CJ James and Jennifer Garner in The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Before Jim and Cindy can even grasp the enormity of what has happened, their relatives arrive for a picnic. With everyone in the community aware of the problem Cindy has had getting pregnant, how should she introduce a brand new child who has materialized out of thin air? A brand new child who is decidedly "different" from her nieces and nephews?

Although written as a fable, The Odd Life of Timothy Green offers viewers plenty of options for interpretation. Timothy could be seen as a gifted child, an LGBT child, or a child whose birth defect could lead to a shortened life. Are his parents overprotective out of fear? Shame? Or from the shock of having the child of their dreams suddenly enter their lives?

CJ James and Odeya Rush in The Odd Life of Timothy Green

While Timothy (CJ Adams) displays surprisingly mature insights into the lives of people around him, his newfound parents have plenty of their own emotional baggage to explore. Whether it involves Jim's Daddy issues or Cindy's resentment of her sister's easy successes, there are lots of learning lessons in store (all of which have been sensitively framed by director by Peter Hedges).

Ironically, it is the local teenage outcast, Joni Jerome (Odeya Rush), who bonds with Timothy.  Born with a large port wine stain on her right shoulder, Joni is an artistic young woman who easily relates to Timothy's "otherness" and assures him that he's not the only child who is "different."

The Odd Life of Timothy Green features some nice cameos by Lin-Manuel MirandaM. Emmet Walsh, and Lois Smith. Diane Wiest scores strongly as Bernice Crudstuff (Cindy's ill-tempered boss at the Pencil Museum). Even though some bicycling images evoke memories of 1982's E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is quite irresistible. Here's the trailer:

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The first Broadway show my parents took me to see was 1955's Plain and Fancy. Set in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, the show contrasted the lifestyles of supposedly sophisticated New Yorkers with the simpler and more humble Amish lifestyle. What impressed me the most was seeing an automobile drive across the stage. Had I known better, I would have paid more attention to the soprano singing the role of Hilda Miller.

The following year, Barbara Cook lit up the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's operetta, Candide, while singing Cunegonde's fiendishly difficult aria, "Glitter and Be Gay". In 1957, Cook co-starred opposite Robert Preston as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. In 1963, I had the great fortune of seeing her in two performance of She Loves Me, the Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical that become a cult phenomenon.

Although I missed her performances as Liesl Brandel in The Gay Life, Molly Tobin in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, and Anna Leonowens in The King and I, I did manage to catch Barbara Cook as Magnolia Hawks in Show Boat, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Carol Deems in the ill-fated Sammy Fain musical, Something More!

Cook's sweet, lyrical soprano led to her being typecast as an ingenue (a role she joyously mocked in David Zippel's irreverent "The Ingenue Song"). What many people took for granted was the lustrous sheen and vocal health of Cook's voice. Watch her appearance opposite Keith Andes in this clip from a 1956 television production of Harold Arlen's 1944 musical, Bloomer Girl.

Known worldwide for her interpretation of songs written by Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin,  Rodgers and HammersteinMeredith WillsonJule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, the recipient of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors has been featured in 18 original Broadway cast and studio cast albums, 21 solo CDs, and two made-for-television productions (Bloomer Girl and Babes in Toyland).

The concept of maintaining one's vocal health is a life-long concern for most singers. Some, like Maria Callas and Renata Scotto, discover that, by the time they have developed the knowledge and experience to know how to interpret music and breathe life into a lyric, their voice may have started to develop a fearsome vibrato or strident wobble. Some (like Alice Ripley) leave their voice in tatters; others turn to directing or coaching.

Few lyric sopranos are still performing before adoring audiences at the age of 85 with their voice in relatively good health. Those who have witnessed Barbara Cook teach a master class have watched her help young singers reach for the truth in a lyric and imbue a song with genuine emotion. An artist of great self awareness, Cook doesn't hesitate to comment on changes in the way she has sung a song like Stephen Sondheim's Losing My Mind over the years.

Many singers who are a fraction of Barbara Cook’s age wish they could sing with the wisdom, phrasing, and musical intuition of an artist whose voice has maintained its sweetness and purity for many years. Listen to her (at the age of 73) singing "Ice Cream" during a 2000 concert in Melbourne, Australia.

As she nears her 85th birthday, Cook's new show, “Let’s Fall In Love,” is built on songs she has never sung before, ranging from Hoagy Carmichael’sThe Nearness of You” to the Dan Hicks classic, “I Don’t Want Love.” Blessed with some great arrangements by Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, Cook’s artistry links “House of the Rising Sun” with “Bye Bye Blackbird” in an astonishing new way. She brings unbridled passion to “Georgia On My Mind” and her delicious sense of mischief to “Makin’ Whoopee” (a song made popular by Eddie Cantor) in 1928.

In her show, Cook lavishes her voice on Ram Ramirez’sLover Man” and Ben Oakland’s “If I Love Again” in ways that will leave younger artists in awe. Ending her performance at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room with the purest and simplest rendition of John Lennon’sImagine” you will ever hear, Barbara Cook showed the audience that she can still perform the American songbook with a grace, authority, and authenticity possessed by no one else. An avowed YouTube addict, she also gave her fans some handy tips on hidden treasures.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Filmmaker In The Family

The standard advice for aspiring authors is to "write what you know." For a peculiar subset of documentarians, however, having a camera at their disposal gives them license to pry into what they don't know. Or, in some cases, what their parents never wanted them to know.

As I watched several documentaries during the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I was struck by the dogged determination of filmmakers who wanted answers from an older generation about what happened to their family and, of equal importance, why certain events happened. A curious dynamic occurs in each film as the older generation opens up (not necessarily because they are eager to talk about events long gone by, but because they feel unable to refuse a request for an honest look at history from those who came after them).

The reason this type of documentary is more frequently found at Jewish film festivals is simple. Whether one looks at the flight from ancient Egypt, the pogroms that occurred during the late stages of the Russia Empire, or the Holocaust, Jewish families have often been forced to leave their homes and flee for their lives. The homes that were left behind, the loves that were never fulfilled, and the mysteries that were never resolved are all shrouded in an unbearable sense of loss.

While viewers can sense the uneasiness of elders being put on the spot by young, somewhat self-righteous filmmakers, what these aspiring documentarians usually discover are examples of human weakness in moments of distress -- when there was little or no time to think about the future.

Sometimes the future was horrifying, sometimes it was meant for someone else to enjoy. As the old saying goes: "Life's a bitch and then you die."

* * * * * * * * *
Arnon Goldfinger's documentary, The Flat, finds its story in an event that confronts many families: having to clean out the home of a recently deceased relative. While getting rid of pots and pans requires few wrenching decisions, dealing with old photo albums, letters that have not been read in decades, and works of art that have been in the family for years can open new wounds and rub salt in old, long-forgotten ones.

In Goldfinger's case, the death of his grandmother opened a shocking can of worms. After leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930s, his grandparents settled into an apartment in Tel Aviv. Kurt and Gerda Tuchler kept their apartment furnished very much as they had in Berlin, with bookshelves filled with German literature, fox furs, and tchotchkes that evoked memories of happier times.

Because Goldfinger's grandparents had never discussed what happened during World War II with their children, there was a sizable information gap in the family history. Although willing to indulge her son in his research, Arnon's mother, Hannah, had no emotional attachment to a past about which she knew nothing. Even after his shocking discovery, her eagerness to delve further into the family's history was minimal.

The film -- and the personal investigation into his family's past that Goldfinger documents -- was inspired by hints of an unsolvable mystery. As the filmmaker explains:
"My mother never told us about her childhood, her education, or the world in which she was raised. Now I know that she, too, was rarely told things by her parents. In keeping in accordance with the yekkeh [German Jew] tradition, the parent-child relationship was based on separation and distance. And this is how we were raised. Like a tree that does not even think about the importance of its roots. If my grandparents had not been so good at keeping things, there is a good chance that I would not have changed my view of their lives as superficial and dull. 'The flat' has always been there. I visited it from as far back as I can remember; the heavy European furniture, the paintings, the porcelain collectibles -– it was like a well-preserved installation from another world. But it was only after my grandmother’s death that I realized that the flat contained a treasure -– one that could illuminate the present as well as the past.

I have never gone through anyone else’s pockets, or opened up someone’s secret drawer. Moreover, I have never even opened a letter that was not addressed to me. Yet all of a sudden, and against my will, these norms of proper yekkeh etiquette melted away, and I found myself unable to relinquish even the smallest piece of paper. Forces that were stronger than me compelled me back to the many piles of papers in the hope of finding more and more information to help shed light on the connections and clues to the story that was rapidly unfolding."
Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger

Like a deep-sea treasure hunt, what Goldfinger and his mother discovered in a box of documents was almost beyond their comprehension. First was a bunch of newspaper clippings, including a 1934 front-page article from a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, entitled "A Nazi Goes to Palestine." Mixed in with the clippings were some papers on which both a swastika and a Star of David had been drawn.

The article identified Leopold Von Mildenstein (a member of the Nazi Party who eventually became a senior SS officer and worked closely with Adolf Eichmann). The man who had been von Mildenstein's guide during his tour of Palestine was none other than Goldfinger's grandfather.

Pictures and letters that were saved by Greta Tuchler

Goldfinger discovered that, not only were his grandparents friends with the man who gave Eichmann the idea to export Germany's Jews to Palestine, after World War II ended, the Tuchlers and von Mildensteins resumed their friendship and would often vacation together. Goldfinger's research led him to von Mildenstein's daughter, whom he interviewed on camera as they perused some of the memorabilia from her family.

Kurt and Gerda Tuchler in later years

The Flat gives audiences a chance to watch what happens as two sets of adults unravel a past that was unknown to their families. As the filmmaker explains:
"On the surface, my film seems to be trying to find the answers to one family’s mysteries. We find ourselves in a conflict between our familial heritage and our personal identity; a conflict between forces that are pulling us forward and those who call upon us to pause and look back for a moment. It is a struggle between a yearning to understand our story of origin and the desire to get rid of all that, and to just take a blank piece of paper and write our own history. This is a film which attempts to endow your family history (even if it is not a simple history) with a meaning that is significant to you. It is also an investigative expedition into the depths of denial and forgetfulness. Yet, at the same time, it is a film about human friendship that crosses enemy lines and a love -- from which you cannot shake free -- for the fatherland."
As one watches The Flat it will be easy to feel annoyed at the filmmaker's tenacity, astonished by his discovery, and fascinated by what happens when he arranges to meet von Mildenstein's daughter. The Flat is a far cry from the standard Holocaust documentary. Here's the trailer:

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When interviewing guests on Inside The Actors Studio, James Lipton frequently noted that one of the most profound influences on anyone's life seemed to be the separation or divorce of one's parents when a child was very young. Gypsy Davy tries to untangle the many loves of flamenco guitarist David Serva and the bizarre way in which one of his estranged daughters was drawn back into his messy (but intensely musical) life.

As filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones recalls:
"After 30 years of not knowing what to do with a man I didn’t really know, and didn’t especially like -- but the only one in the whole wide world who would ever be my father ('whose goyish name and pale genes I carry') -- the time had come to break the impasse. And so, I set out to know (and like) David Serva Jones. It was an unspoken deal, the kind where we both knew that this was also my 'compensation' (he says as much in the film).

But how do you tell the story of a man who has spent most of his life onstage? Well, if you’re his abandoned daughter, from behind the scenes, of course. And so, from the outset, a few things were clear. This would not be, could not be, a portrait of an accomplished artist (and accomplished, he is). The feminist in me wants to say: 'Behind every great man there’s an even greater woman' but another version, 'Behind every great man there’s a woman rolling her eyes' feels more apt. The eye-roller was me. However, all eye-rolling women are stuck somewhere in their teens, and one of my motivations for making this film was to no longer be 'a 30-year old bitch armed with a camera and ready to shoot.'"

Hailed by Guitar Player magazine as one of the world’s top flamenco guitarists, Berkeley native David Jones began playing blues, bluegrass, and folk music until, at age 16, he discovered flamenco music in some Mission District bars. Over the next few years, he performed in North Beach nightclubs, entertained audiences in Greenwich Village, and assisted composer Mitch Leigh and the stage guitarist in the 1965 and 1992 Broadway productions of Man of La Mancha.

In her first treatment for the film, Jones wrote that “Gypsy Davy will not be another hunt-down-the-absent-father movie because the fact that Jones abandoned me as a baby is not the overriding factor that lends meaning to either of our lives." As she elaborates:
"I went on a crusade of transference, visiting everybody else’s pain but mine. I sat down with (almost) each and every woman and child, and, with one exception, they all cried. I cried with them, and for them. When I visited all my father’s women and children, calling them in as character witnesses, I didn’t want them to testify merely as his 'victims'; we are also 'partners-in-crime.' David Serva Jones, like any man, myth, legend, does not exist without the people who co-constructed and thus empowered him. If he came and saw and conquered, we were conquerable. Without assuming a 'blame-the-victim' approach, I see his women, our mothers, and to some extent us, his children, as holding our share of responsibility for the collective saga. This 'agency' is also informed by a feminist approach to storytelling."
While Gypsy Davy is awash in some wonderful music-making, the film's attempts to detail the impact this man had on his women and children veer dangerously close to an angry daughter's attempt to get back at her father and have the final word. In doing so, however, Jones succeeds in painting an remarkably honest portrait of a man whose first love (and most jealous mistress) is his music.

The women and children who follow Serva around may nurture his soul, but they are not guitars. Although her relationship with her biological father may still be difficult, Jones is clear about Serva's contribution to flamenco music:
"My father’s claim to fame is the art of accompaniment. In flamenco, a good guitarist doesn’t take center stage, he sets the mood wherein the primary performer, be it the bailaor/a (dancer) or cantaor/a (singer), can best 'do their thing.' When David Serva Jones went native as a flamenco guitarist, he did so with the objective of fitting in, not standing out or upstaging anyone. In the politics of cultural appropriation, my father’s life and musical career is an homage to this centuries-old Gypsy-Jewish-Moorish art and a tribute to its masters."

* * * * * * * * *
While The Flat and Gypsy Davy can, at times, be quite depressing, How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire is far lighter fare thanks, in large part, to the goofy ebullience of its director, Daniel Edelstyn, whose father died when Daniel was only three years old. Growing up in a non-Jewish household in Northern Ireland, he only heard snippets about his grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich.

Daniel Edelstyn's grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich

A whole new world opened up to Edelstyn after he discovered his grandmother's journals in the attic of his family's home. As he explains:
"The pre-Bolshevik Revolution Ukraine was populated by increasingly desperate dashing French officers and swooning young women in the first throes of adulthood. Amongst this melée were my relatives –- chief of these Maroussia Zorokovich, writer, dancer, painter and romantic. In reading my grandmother's journals, I was immediately whisked away into a world full of atmosphere, drama, and cataclysmic events unfolding in rapid succession against a décor of chandeliers, ballrooms, and elegant drawing rooms soon to be destroyed. I determined to resurrect the life and times which exerted such a powerful influence over me, and in doing so have created a sort of time travelling vehicle reconnecting me to my roots and happening upon the family's vodka empire -- still (just) in business.

The film combines three narrative techniques: the authentic documentary action of me trying to re-establish a vodka empire, the investigation of my family's history set against the great historical events of the 20th century, and the re-creation of the world and life of Maroussia. I needed an engineer and partner on the adventure and didn’t have to look far. My wife, Hilary Powell, is an artist who created powerful visions of Maroussia’s world based on her writings. In making this film I discovered not just the truth about my past, but also have unwittingly stumbled on my future.

Daniel Edelstyn's wife, artist Hilary Powell

Whereas Fiddler on the Roof and other stories about pre-revolutionary Jews often focus on a life of poverty in a traditional Shtetl, the Zorokovich family was part of the Jewish merchant class. As a result, Maroussia was well educated, came from an affluent family that mixed with the aristocracy, and was able to pursue her artistic passions.

What makes Edelstyn's first full-length feature film so fascinating is the parallel tracking of the story.
  • In one track, the filmmaker uses archival footage which captures the frenzy of the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • In another path, Hilary Powell impersonates Edelstyn's grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich.
  • In a third track, Edelstyn travels to the tiny town in the Ukraine where he discovers his great grandfather's distillery is still producing vodka, but is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
  • In a fourth track, Edelstyn tries to find a way to re-brand his great grandfather's vodka as 1917 Zorokovich Vodka and introduce it into the cutthroat market for British drinkers.
Throughout the film there is a delightful mixture of historic footage, romantic re-enactments, whimsical animation, and the harsh reality of modern life in the Ukraine. There are times when the filmmaker's naiveté about the business world is like watching a hipster who has entered a den of wolves.

Ultimately, Edelstyn's determination to find a way to align his past, present, and future makes How To Re-Establish a Vodka Empire a highly entertaining film. Andrew Skeet's original score is a total delight. Here's the trailer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Women Who Haunt Us

From the sirens of the silver screen to the fierce feminists who helped change the world, many a proud woman has left her mark on civilization. From Cleopatra to Golda Meier, from Elizabeth I to Margaret Thatcher, from Indira Gandhi to Benazir Bhutto, women have made impressive use of political power.

For better or worse, famous political wives such as Madame Mao, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy have strongly influenced their husband's decisions. Whether their personal dramas followed them onscreen or offstage, women like Joan CrawfordJudy Garland, and Maria Callas left a lasting mark on popular culture. Think of some other determined women who helped redefine their gender's rights and capabilities.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death, it's also important to remember sex symbols like Helen of Troy (whose face was supposed to have launched a thousand ships), Lillian Russell, Jean Harlow, and Elizabeth TaylorClara Bow may have been known as the "It" girl, but the wit and wisdom of Mae West still brings a smile to our faces.

What do these women have in common? They're all dead, and yet they continue to haunt us from the grave.

* * * * * * * * *
Written in 1941 by Noel Coward, Blithe Spirit was successfully adapted for the silver screen in 1945 with a cast headed by Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond, and Constance Cummings. In 1964, the ghostly romp was transformed into a Broadway musical directed by Noel Coward. High Spirits starred Beatrice Lillie, Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Louise Troy. The young Christopher Walken was one of the show's dancers.

This summer, the California Shakespeare Theater is performing Coward's play with a cast mostly recruited from the American Conservatory Theatre. Having only seen High Spirits in the past, I was especially looking forward to this production (I always find it fascinating to see how a musical's songs were inspired by moments or lines in the original play).

Under the crisp direction of Mark Rucker, Blithe Spirit (which Coward claimed to have written over the course of five days while on vacation) has lost absolutely none of its ability to charm and convulse an audience with laughter. Annie Smart's handsome, expansive set is beautifully rigged for the play's final moments (during which all hell breaks loose).

As Charles Condomine, Anthony Fusco was a devilishly dapper mystery writer hoping do gain some insight into the language of spiritualists by inviting the village kook, Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano), to a dinner party which is to be followed by a séance. As the play begins, the Condomines are merrily congratulating themselves on being more mature than younger lovers, even if Ruth likes to bully her husband and tries to nail him with questions that border on the old "Does this dress make me look  fat?" trick.

Charles Condomine (Anthony Fusco) and his wife, Ruth (Rene Augesen)
in Act I of Blithe Spirit (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

After Dr. Bradman (Kevin Rolston) and his wife (Melissa Smith) arrive, the only other person visible to the audience is Edith (Rebekah Brockman), the Condomines' easily agitated maid whose determination and speed (habits acquired during her stint in the Royal Navy) are decidedly at odds with the relaxed pace of life in suburban Kent (often referred to as "The Garden of England").

Edith (Rebekah Brockman) tries to slow down for Mrs. Condomine
(Rene Augesen) in Blithe Spirit (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Both Charles and his spouse, Ruth (Rene Augesen), are on their second marriages. Keenly aware of the compromises one makes during the second lap around the relationship racetrack, they are thrown for a loop when Madame Arcati (who prefers not to eat red meat before a séance) manages to summon up the ghost of Charles's first wife, Elvira (Jessica Kitchens). For those who can see her, Elvira is very much a sight for sore eyes.

Charles Condomine (Anthony Fusco) is reunited with the ghost
of his former wife, Elvira (Jessica Kitchen) in Blithe Spirit
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Elvira always had a knack for causing trouble. Moody, mischievous, and magnificently mercurial, she was the embodiment of vanity, flirtatiousness, lust, and temptation while alive.

Because Elvira's ghost is only visible to Charles, Ruth is quick to take umbrage at her husband's perceived insults. But all Charles is really doing is trying to maintain a conversation with his first wife's ghost while his second wife pouts and sulks over his supposed insensitivity.

Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano) tries to communicate with
Elvira (Jessica Kitchen) in Blithe Spirit (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Elvira has, of course, returned on a mission to bring Charles back to the "other side" where she's built herself an army of famous and quite fascinating friends. Here's Tammy Grimes singing "Home Sweet Heaven" from the original Broadway cast album of High Spirits.

With so many of today's new plays being carefully workshopped prior to their world premieres, it's hard to believe that Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in five days during World War II. The play initially ran for 1,997 performances and has been a steady source of entertainment for 70 years!

Madame Arcati (Dominique Lozano) prepares to go into a
trance in Blithe Spirit (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

There is such beauty and craft in the structure of Coward's script that it often seems to be more of a study in how jealousy and insecurity can ruin a marriage than an attempt to get an audience to lighten up with regard to how they deal with death. California Shakespeare Theatre's production is a first-rate gem. Performances of Blithe Spirit continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through September 2 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Last month's screening of Pandora's Box by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a special treat for me. Over the years, I’ve never really been able to appreciate Alban Berg’s 1937 opera, Lulu (a work that many friends have raved about which has always left me cold).

Franz Lederer and Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box

Whether it was the spectacular musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s stunning direction, Gunther Krampf’s photography, or the incandescent performance by Louise Brooks, something finally clicked and I was able to appreciate the tragedy of Lulu for the first time in my life. Not only was I able to remember all the characters from previous outings in various opera houses, I found myself transfixed by the acting of Franz Lederer (Alwa), Carl Goetz (Shigolch), Alice Roberts (Countess Geschwitz), and Gustav Diessl (Jack the Ripper).

Poster art for Pandora's Box

Frank Wedekind's amoral temptress drives men and women to distraction with an unearthly magnetism that triggers every obsessive instinct they possess. And yet, as Lulu walks away from one bruised lover and steps over yet another dead body, she remains oblivious to the power she exerts over the hearts and minds of her admirers.

Alice Roberts and Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box

* * * * * * * * *
As long as we're talking about women who haunt us, mention should be made of The Kinsey Sicks, the indefatigable dragapella quartet currently performing Electile Dysfunction at The Rrazz Room before heading to Tampa to terrorize those delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention who failed to score time with Lisa Ann (the star of "Who's Naylin Palin?").

While the Kinsey Sicks have their work cut out for them, there's just so much these girls can do. There's a good chance that Trixie, Rachel, Winnie, and Trampolina will be forced to massage lots of throbbing numbers at the Republican Convention in order to achieve multiple orgasmic tax releases. They can try to appeal to moderates by singing "Love Child: Politician Edition" or attempt to woo the genuine crazies with their rendition of "Vote for Me (I Wasn't Born in Kenya)."

Sure, they can try to woo faithful conservatives with their new song "Eliminate the Schools" (sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Three Little Maids") and remind Tea Party delegates that no one helped the Kinsey Sicks build their performing career (they did it "Yahweh").

While I'm sure that Rachel will have no problem grabbing Paul Ryan by his ears and barking out orders to him, it's hard to tell which song will be best suited for greeting the Republican nominees:

What's interesting about Electile Dysfunction (which was commissioned by Theatre J in Washington, D.C.) is how it revives some old Kinsey standards ("BP is Creepy," and "Sell the Poor") while giving new life to some of their greatest hits. Using "He's A Sheep-Fucking Guy" for a curtain call never fails to bring down the house.

Winnie informs me that the Kinseys will return to San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on December 22 for their traditional "Oy Vey in a Manger" holiday show before embarking on their 20th anniversary tour. If Ann Romney still thinks that it's her turn to inhabit the White House, she's got another think coming!

The Kinsey Sicks check out their new digs

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Circus of Life

Time flies when you're having fun. It's hard to believe that half a century has passed since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum debuted at the Alvin Theatre on May 8, 1962.

Directed by George Abbott (who was then 75 years old), this was the first major Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Filled with solid gags written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, the show's plot was based on a series of short plays by the ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)

Last year, as part of its Hidden Classics series, San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater offered a reading of Miles Gloriosus (which, along with Pseudolus and Mostellaria, provided the inspiration for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Though the play's set-ups and jokes may be more than 2,000 years old, they remain remarkably resilient to the passage of time.

The basic material (mistaken identity, sexual innuendo, young lovers frustrated by the older generation) is as old as the hills. Sexual jokes about dirty old men have been a staple of Italy's commedia dell'arte as well as the baggy pants comedians who worked in burlesque and vaudeville.

Domina (Rebecca Faiola) and Senex (Jesse Caldwell) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

One of the factors which contributed to Forum's great success was the fact that most of the actors involved in the original production had been exposed to low comedy throughout their lives. Some had even worked in vaudeville. For Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine, Raymond Walburn, and David Burns, Forum's low-down dirty jokes were familiar territory.

Hysterium (John Tichenor) and Erronius (Stu Klitsner) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Woodminster Summer Musicals recently revived A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as part of its 2012 season with a cast headed by Trente Morant as Pseudolus. The opening night performance hit a few bumps as lead actors went up on their lines. I was surprised to notice a key passage of the overture missing (as well as "Pretty Little Picture," which is rarely performed).

Directed by Joel Schlader, the performance was quite enjoyable (this show is so brilliantly constructed that it is almost foolproof). Megan Gallup and Tyler Costin were most appealing as the young (virginal) lovers. While Calvin Smith (Miles Gloriosus), Stu Klitsner (Erronius), Kelly Houston (Marcus Lycus), and Jesse Caldwell (Senex) were obviously enjoying themselves, it soon became obvious that only two of the actors onstage really understood the style required for this show.

Hysterium (John Tichenor) and Domina (Rebecca Faiola) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

John Tichenor's Hysterium and Rebecca Faiola's Domina offered hilarious renderings of classic comic characters. Much to my surprise, Trente Morant's Pseudolus seemed more intent on acting like an adorable puppy rather than an aggressive slave who will go to any lengths to secure his freedom.

The oddest thing was the feeling that, because Woodminster is essentially a "family friendly" production company, Schlader's staging was aimed to please an audience used to television sit-coms rather than old-fashioned bawdiness. A Forum whose Pseudolus doesn't command his audience's attention (and who misses some great comedic opportunities) is a weak leader for what should be a brutally funny farce.

Senex (Jesse Caldwell), Hysterium (John Tichenor), Lycus
(Kelly Houston) and Pseudolus (Trente Morant) perform
"Everybody Ought To Have A Maid" (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

In 2010, the Williamstown Theatre Festival staged an all-male version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Christopher Fitzgerald as Pseudolus. How I'd love to see THAT production staged somewhere in the Bay area!

* * * * * * * * *
Sometime around 1955, my best friend and his father took me with them to the circus. Those were not great times for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Movies and television had stolen a large part of the circus's traditional audience and some of its "freak show" attractions (hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, deformed animals with genetic mutations) had started to lose their appeal.

Just look at how times have changed:
Madame Gustika of the Duckbill Tribe as photographed on
April 12, 1930 while smoking a pipe with an extended
mouthpiece to fit the contours of her lips

I don't remember much about our trip to the old Madison Square Garden

During the past quarter century, traditional circuses have frequently been targeted by animal rights protesters. Audience market share has increasingly been captured by Cirque du Soleil's growing empire of worldwide entertainment aimed at more upscale audiences.

In recent years I've grown increasingly curious about how a traditional circus like Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey has embraced new stage technologies. A chance to attend a recent performance of its Dragons show at Oakland's Oracle Arena proved to be fascinating. A series of LED-based digital display boards are lowered at frequent intervals to block the audience's view and distract people as stagehands arrange the floor for upcoming acts (such as live animals).

First, let me say that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus still lives up to its reputation as "The Greatest Show On Earth." As you can see in the following rehearsal footage, many of the smaller dragons and floats are actually built around what looks like a Segway PT that has been tricked out for circus routines. In the following video clip, director/choreographer Shanda Sawyer discusses some of the challenges she faced in building a show around the theme of "Dragons."

With Johnathon Lee Iverson acting as Ringmaster (and Paulo dos Santos as his sidekick), traditional acrobatic acts such as Troupe Scala (from the Cuban National Circus School), the Shaolin Troupe, and The Flying Caceras continue to amaze audiences. Act I's Cossacks act had some impressive horseback riding tricks that the public will never see Ann Romney perform.

Animal trainer Alexander Lacey has a stunning act that mixes big cats (lions and tigers) together in one steel cage.

As astounding as Lacey's act may be, I was more amazed watching the Panfilov Circus Family. Click here to witness their astonishing "trained housecats" act.

By the time the 90-minute-long first act reached its conclusion, I found myself wondering if there was anything left for Ringling Brothers to trot out onto the arena floor. After all, how do you top an Asian elephant leaning back on a large stool and merrily flashing her mammoth mammaries at you?

I  had never thought of the circus as a show destined to delight rice queens. But Dragons has plenty of Asian beefcake on display, led by the show's Kung Fu Kings, Junjie Sun and Guojing Qin.

Overall impressions? Cirque du Soleil's shows are built upon a foundation of better music and greater artistry. Some of the Cirque shows are also starting to experiment with new ways to incorporate film into the basic set design.

However, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus has a raw vitality which derives from its motorcycle acts, the sheer size of its playing field, the natural appeal of its animal acts, and the Ringmaster's constant attempts to draw the audience into the performance.

Perhaps the strangest moment for me came while listening to the Ringmaster challenge his audience (children of all ages) to SCREAM their heads off. It made me realize that, back when I was a kid, we were never encouraged to scream. Here's the trailer: