Friday, November 30, 2012

Fighting Back Against the 1%

The onset of the holiday shopping season brings a surge in annual appeals for donations to nonprofit arts organizations and charities. Many newspapers feature stories meant to inspire readers during their "Season of Giving" while community food banks and clothing drives head into their most stressful time of the year.

The past few months have brutally demonstrated the income gap among Americans. Mitt Romney's infamously callous remarks about the 47% offered a stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic mindsets. His out-of-touch approach to the reality of many Americans' lives may have hit a peak when he tried to relabel a campaign event as a Hurricane Sandy relief effort (whose insincerity and misguided planning delivered little more than a clumsy photo-op while placing untimely and unnecessary pressure on Red Cross workers in Ohio).

The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy offered a defining example of how some people confuse the words "charity" and "gift." The Yes Men published a brilliant piece in The Huffington Post entitled What Is A Gift? which should be required reading for all.

News that the Occupy Movement had launched a Rolling Jubilee campaign to purchase debt for pennies on the dollar and retire it (rather than letting collection agencies harass people in their efforts to earn predatory profits from their vulture-like investments) brought hope of a new paradigm. Paul Ford's piece in New York Magazine entitled Big Problems, Little Solutions: For the New Occupy, Size Is Everything offered a fascinating insight into how social media might redefine the concepts of charitable giving and emergency relief.

The bottom line guiding such efforts is the requirement for people to put aside their political agendas and personal greed in order to "do the right thing." It's a concept that resonates with President Obama (a former community organizer) but seems to make no sense at all to people like Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Two new productions take unique approaches to dramatizing the plight of the single man who, like David, is trying to fight the oppressive tactics of a corporate Goliath. What makes these efforts fascinating is that each is actually building upon a pre-existing work in order to make its point to new audiences.

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When I was a kid, my father (a science teacher) built a crude radio that would allow me to eavesdrop on amateur broadcasts. On some nights, I would listen to dramatizations about crooks and robbers who might lurking in our neighborhood. Although I often went to bed terrified about potential criminals entering our house, the noisiest intruders in the vicinity of our driveway were a bunch of horny, hungry cats who would occasionally manage to tip over a trash can.

My first encounter with the concept of a radio play was the 1979 Broadway production of The 1940s Radio Hour with a cast that included Dee Dee Bridgewater and Mary-Cleere Haran. Set in December 1942, the action took place in a tiny radio station (New York's WOV) that was taping a holiday musical broadcast for the troops overseas.

The score includes an appealing mix of pop songs from the period ("Blues in the Night," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "That Old Black Magic"), Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as well as several sung commercials for Pepsi-ColaThe 1940s Radio Hour is a perfect holiday vehicle for regional and community theatres in need an alternative to A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker.

In 2006, director Robert Altman transformed Garrison Keillor's popular A Prairie Home Companion into a feature film with a cast that included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones and a young Lindsay Lohan as a woman who likes to write about suicide.

For its holiday show, Marin Theatre Company is staging Joe Landry's adaptation of Frank Capra's beloved script (It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play). When the movie was first screened in December of 1946, its premiere was scheduled to make it eligible for the upcoming Academy Awards rather than as a holiday-themed treat. Owing to some curious financial negotiations, after the copyright expired and the film entered into the public domain, television stations embraced it as a low-cost programming option for the Christmas holidays.

As a result of its familiarity to television viewers, It's A Wonderful Life ranks high on the America Film Institute's list of the 100 most inspiring movies of all time. In 1990, the United States Library of Congress selected Capra's film for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Shortly after the film's release it was adapted for radio (first premiering on the Lux Radio Theatre on March 10, 1947). Capra's script was subsequently performed on air for The Screen Guild Theatre on December 29, 1947 (which did another live broadcast on March 15, 1951).

According to Wikipedia, James Stewart and Donna Reed recreated their film roles in all three radio broadcasts. Stewart also portrayed George Bailey in a May 8, 1949 radio adaptation for the Screen Director's Playhouse.

The message contained in the film is a simple and universal one which becomes all the more timely in light of the Occupy Sandy  phenomenon.  As Margot Melcon writes in her program notes:
"Our society rarely recognizes those who are morally rich or extraordinarily kind. We are distracted by measurable achievements -- the hyperbole of best or most of anything.  We often fail even (and maybe especially) to give ourselves credit for the things we do for our families or community. The enduring message of It's A Wonderful Life is that, should you choose to see them, there are measures in life that show very clearly how each one of us is a great success.

In this story, the hero doesn't learn the truth and then go on to achieve great things. The truth of his realization is that he has already achieved great things. For the first time in his life, George recognizes his worth as an individual and sees himself clearly.  He is given the gift of knowing that, as he has showed up in the lives of others, so will they show up for him in his in a time of need."

Gabriel Marin as actor Jake Laurents portraying George Bailey in
It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (Photo by: Ed Smith)

For those who cherish the film version of It's A Wonderful Life, experiencing the story as part of a radio play may initially be quite jarring. In his script notes, Joe Landry explains how the concept of adapting Capra's work into a radio play was born:
"Bringing Frank Capra's classic film to the stage began almost 20 years ago when longtime friend and teacher, Frances Kondziela, asked me to pen an adaptation for her high school ensemble. After the premiere of this original incarnation, the piece was produced by TheatreWorks in New Milford, CT, and was then chosen for its first professional production at the legendary Westport Country Playhouse. When the budget of this (still full-scale, literally putting the film on stage) production skyrocketed and was dropped from the slate, the concept of staging the piece as a live radio play of the period was born. This radio play adaptation was originally mounted at Stamford Center for the Arts in 1996 and has been performed there since with great success. It was at Stamford that the play was fine tuned and took shape as the piece published here. Through word of mouth alone, productions have since taken place around the country, including the noted Chicago premiere at American Theatre Company."
As Freddie Fillmore, Michael Gene Sullivan offered some nice warm-up exercises for the audience to get them used to the "Applause" signs and loosen them up in advance of the broadcast. The other actors include Sarah Overman as Sally Applewhite, Carrie Paff as Lana Sherwood, Patrick Kelly Jones as Harry "Jazzbo"Heywood, and Gabriel Marin as Jake Laurents.

The real joy for the audience is watching how radio actors (especially Sullivan and Jones) must perform a multitude of roles during the course of the broadcast while providing foley (sound) effects to augment the drama.  In essence, the actors are doing double duty, triple duty, and sometimes multiple tasks in order to recreate the story for those who might be listening at home.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Patrick Kelly Jones, Carrie Paff, and
Sarah Overman in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

For a modern audience used to having any kind of video at their disposal on a wide variety of wireless devices, watching this all take place in the format of a radio play might feel like a hyperactive segment of The Twilight Zone. For director Jon Tracy's ensemble, it requires a huge amount of concentration while providing the actors with a great opportunity to demonstrate their versatility.

What I found most interesting was how my perception of the evening changed after intermission. Much of Act I was overtly gimmicky (which is required by the situation) and occasionally tedious.  But I'll be damned if in Act II, as George Bailey's fortunes started to sink, I didn't feel a melodramatic lump forming in my throat and find myself touched by the humanity of It's A Wonderful Life.

While that's a testament to the strength of Joe Landry's adaptation and Jon Tracy's stage direction, more than anything else it's a tribute to the timeliness of Frank Capra's story about a decent man whose good works are almost erased by a greedy mortgage speculator (does anyone want to talk about homes that are currently underwater as a result of credit-default swaps?).

Gabriel Marin and Sarah Overman in It's A Wonderful Life:
A Live Radio Play
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

Michael Gene Sullivan and Patrick Kelly Jones had a blast doing rapid transitions between numerous characters, but the evening's true emotional anchor was Gabriel Marin's warm and endearing portrait of actor Jake Laurents portraying Capra's George Bailey. Sarah Overman shone as George's tender and dutiful wife, Mary. Things may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but thanks to MTC's holiday show, they're looking up in Bedford Falls.

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George Bailey's confrontation with the villainous Henry Potter is mere piffle when compared to the real-life harassment of Swedish documentarian Fredrik Gertten by a multinational corporation's publicists and lawyers.

In 2009, Gertten was the filmmaker and executive producer of Bananas!* (a documentary about a lawsuit filed by attorney Juan "Accidentes" Dominguez against Dole Food Company, Inc. on behalf of 12 Nicaraguan banana workers who claimed that a banned pesticide used by Dole on its crops had left them sterile). When Gertten was invited to screen Bananas!* in competition at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole unleashed a barrage of dirty tricks and intimidation tactics (including threats to sue the festival's board members) that were not only aimed at forcing Gertten to withdraw his film from competition, but to never show it to the public.

Realizing that there was a developing story to be documented, Gertten arranged to be met upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport by a film crew in case he was served with legal papers. What was especially galling for him was that no one from Dole had even viewed his film (you can watch Bananas!* online in its entirety here). They had only watched the trailer.

As the situation grew more offensive and ridiculous, Gertten's film crew kept recording events as they transpired. The resulting follow-up documentary (Big Boys Gone Bananas!*) is like watching an evil empire trying to trample an individual in order to deny him his freedom of speech. As Gertten explains:
"Today, independent documentary films are more important than ever. These films are the last bastions of truth telling. Traditional media outlets have less money for investigative reporting. Many are owned by corporate entities that have an influence on the news and its presentation and distribution. All of which means that documentary filmmakers have an even harder job to seek the truth and will continue to meet more opposition as we continue to tell these stories of corporations doing bad things.We need to keep making our films and telling these stories.

I have worked as a journalist and filmmaker for 25 years. Being sued by a multinational corporate giant like Dole Foods is no PR-stunt and is no fun, but it is interesting! You learn a lot and, if you survive, you certainly have a story to tell. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* was a film I needed to make. The experience of being the subject of an attack from a major corporation such as this gave me a deeper understanding of society and media. In Big Boys Gone Bananas!* I am trying to understand how Dole Foods did what they did. The questions kept coming: Why were they so successful in the U.S. in controlling the story in the media and blocking the film for almost two years?"
Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten
"The film is also about corporate scare tactics and instilling fear in the little guys. How do people react when they can feel the raw forces of money and power coming against a filmmaker? In my situation, some people moved away for us and left us alone to fight this battle. Perhaps they believed Dole had a point (or maybe it was just a battle they could not afford to take on). We were fortunate there were those who showed passion and solidarity with us. For example, each of the European broadcasters involved in showing Bananas!* decided to broadcast the film regardless of the fact that we had a lawsuit pending in the U.S. That was a good feeling. In Sweden, consumers and activists pushed the supermarkets to boycott Dole Foods (the boycott actually did not happen). Instead, the supermarkets demanded Dole withdraw the lawsuit.

There is no doubt that what we experienced in making Bananas!* and what is documented in this current film Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will not stop. I hope that Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will open up a debate on what and how the powerful corporations do and are able to do by way of controlling the media and instilling fear amongst the little people. Going through this experience always made me wonder: How free is freedom of speech and how free is freedom of the press?"
In the following interview at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Gertten describes some of his misadventures with Dole and warns about the insidious influence of the public relations industry on today's media.

Viewers of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* will have no trouble spotting the moments of payback in Gertten's documentary that could give Michael Moore an orgasm. I particularly enjoyed the lead-up to Gertten's October 9, 2009 screening of Bananas!* in a meeting room packed with members of the Swedish parliament after which Luciano Astudillo (a member of Parliament representing the City of Malmo) told reporters:
“We have repeatedly defended free speech when governments repress its citizens, but it’s equally important to react when companies try to restrict free speech through their financial muscles.”

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