Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How Much Communication Is Enough?

How well do two people ever really know each other?
  • In certain professional situations, two people may be so closely focused on mutual goals that their daily routine allows them to get to the point where they can almost read each other's thoughts.
  • In some marriages, two people have grown so close together that they can -- and often annoyingly do -- finish each other's sentences.
  • Some medical transcriptionists are so intimately familiar with the voices and thought processes of certain doctors that they can anticipate what the doctor will say when dictating a report and where he will start fumbling and make a medical error.
  • After long years stuck in a loveless marriage, some couples go through the motions of living together as if they were roommates with very little in common (in their last years, my parents barely spoke to each other and kept their food on separate shelves in the refrigerator).
For those whose paths rarely cross due to geographical constraints, what keeps a relationship real?  Does a flight attendant's furtive fuck during a brief layover contain the seed of a future relationship? Can an epistolary relationship that spans many decades be built on the kind of intellectual intimacy and platonic love one cannot share with a spouse or sexual partner? How many Facebook friends would you rely on to pick you up at the airport?

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In the following TED Talk, Michael Benner describes why someone's "emotional quotient" may be more valuable than their "intelligence quotient" in carving a path to success and happiness.

As LGBT people in the Western world increasingly earn the freedom to marry each other and be seen by society as wholly integrated individuals, it's helpful to get a reality check about what gay life can be like in more repressive societies. One of the films being screened at the Frameline 37 Film Festival is a Korean narrative feature entitled White Night (Baek Ya), which can bring back painful memories of what it was once like to try to connect with someone without giving away too many clues about yourself.

Won-kyu (One Tae-hee) and Tae-jun (Yi Yi-kyoung)
in a scene from White Night

Set in the in the Jongno district of Seoul, LeeSong Hee-il's film takes place on a cold, wintry night as Won-kyu (One Tae-hee), a flight attendant for a German airline, answers a personal ad from Tae-jun (Yi Yi-kyoung), a dispatch courier who moves about Seoul on his motorcycle.

One Tae-hee as Won-kyu in White NIght

At first, it seems like Won-kyu is closeted, self-loathing, and an egotistical jerk with poor communication skills. But as the two men play the kind of cat-and-mouse cruising game one expects to see enacted at a rest stop or in the bushes of a park ("You said you like to go walking...."), it becomes obvious that Won-kyu's bizarre behavior is shaped by past events. When the two men finally end up in bed, he flinches and quickly withdraws as soon as Tae-jun notices the knife wound on Won-kyu's back.

Won-kyu sees himself as a refugee, a gay man who was once beaten up by a group of thugs in a pool hall and felt forced to leave Korea as a result. Tae-jun would just like to enjoy a one-night stand with someone who wants to share his company (as opposed to being forced to jump through so many ridiculous hoops just to touch one each other).

As the director notes: "I wanted to tell a story of one who is leaving and the other who is staying. Tae-jun irritates Won-kyu with his motorcycle continuously. The actor’s eye line is important because it replaces the dialogue in close-up shots."

Yi Yi-kyoung as Tae-jun in White Night

LeeSong Hee-il also points to a kind of gay melancholia that lies at the core of White Night.
"Scandinavia allows gay people to marry and adopt but the suicide rate for them, due to depression, is still high. In Korea, people laugh at the word 'melancholy' but it’s a word for depression. It comes from being outside the traditional family structure, because they are outside the system. I wanted to invalidate the wall between gay and non-gay romance. I just like normal stories. I think gays feel emotions that are within the boundary of universal emotions that everyone feels, so my strategy was to just focus on that. At a certain point, audiences should think that the movie is just a melodrama, just a sad scene --  not a queer movie."
Yi Yi-kyoung as Tae-jun in White Night

Though White Night is beautifully shot and backed by a poignant musical score, Westerners might find themselves wondering why Tae-jun would put up with all the false starts, little games, and duck-and-cover maneuvers presented by Won-kyu in order to get laid (White Night includes one of the strangest foot chases filmed for two gay men). But when it becomes obvious that both men have suffered from overt homophobia (as well as their own internalized homophobia), Tae-jun's hope that they might at least have had one genuine moment in their lives becomes painfully understandable.

Much of the filmmaker's inspiration came from an event in his own life. As he explains in an interview on
"I had a crush on someone for five years. He’d come out of the army on vacation and called me the day before he was supposed to go back in, so we met at Jongno. He’d brought all his luggage, which suggested that he wanted to spend the night with me, but we kept walking around Jongno because I was nervous. He had brought his bags because he was ready, but my mind was soon filled with so many thoughts that we just walked around. When we said goodbye, I knew that we wouldn’t meet again (although we had no hard feelings against each other). And we didn’t."
Though barely 75 minutes in length, there are times when the pace of White Night can be frustratingly slow. Here's the trailer:

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Currently receiving its West Coast premiere from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Sarah Ruhl's new play, Dear Elizabeth, is composed entirely from the letters and poems of two Pulitzer prize-winning poets: Elizabeth Bishop (Mary Beth Fisher) and Robert Lowell.(Tom Nelis). As directed by Les Waters, the evening is an epistolary experience whose caustic wit, personal frustrations, and ruminations on a dead toucan begin to feel like a cozy duet between two sharp minds who may never really be all that happy with their lives.

Mary Beth Fisher as Elizabeth Bishop in Dear Elizabeth
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Born in 1911, Bishop became Poet Laureate of the United States in 1949, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956, won the National Book Award in 1970, and received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. The money she inherited from her father helped to finance her extensive travels (at various points in her life she lived in Key West, Washington, D.C., and Santos, Brazil. She died of a brain aneurysm in Boston in 1979 at the age of 68.

Born in 1917, Lowell family could trace his family's roots back to the voyage of the Mayflower. The recipient of the 1947 and 1974 Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, he became the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and received the 1960 National Book Award following the publication of Life Studies. Throughout his life, Lowell suffered from manic depression (he died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60).

Tom Nelis as Robert Lowell in Dear Elizabeth (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The two poets met at a party in 1947 and kept in touch throughout their lives. Although Ruhl was already a fan of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, while pregnant and confined to bed rest, she was given a book containing the letters Bishop and Lowell wrote to one another. As she explains:
"Letter writing is a form of dialogue with space between the dialogue for life to happen. I found the book impossible to put down even though there is no narrative structure in the usual sense. I found myself so drawn to the people, to their individual minds, and to their relationship. My first thought was just wanting to hear their voices with actors, to hear that language with actors. How can you tell a play without dialogue in the strict sense? How can you imagine the spaces between the letters without inventing dialogue? Language that seemed dramatic to me on the page wasn't necessarily dramatic when read out loud. I wasn't sure whether or not there was a play, so I spent a lot of time at my kitchen table reading the letters out loud with friends."
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis in Dear Elizabeth
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Because the estates of both poets would only grant Ruhl permission to use the exact words written by the poets (without adding anything for embellishment or connective purposes), the challenge facing her as a playwright was primarily structural. There are times when Dear Elizabeth takes wing with affection, admiration, professional curiosity, and genuine concern over a friend's health and relationship issues. Although the audience gets to watch each poet age through a series of costume and wig changes, the strongest memories many people take away from the production have little to do with their poetry or, for that matter, their letters.

Mary Beth Fisher in Dear Elizabeth(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Back in February of 2009, Ruhl worked with Les Waters and set designer Annie Smart when Berkeley Repertory Theatre presented the world premiere of In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), whose final scene elevated Ruhl's script to a much more poetic/romantic level of theatre. For Dear Elizabeth, Annie Smart has created two spectacular coups de theatre.  The dramatic impact of sudden downpours of water (whose symbolism remains quite vague) is eclipsed by the play's final tableau in which pages and notes tied together on strings float down from the flies in a moment of exquisite silence and redemptive grace.

I found those final movements of the play infinitely more satisfying (from a theatrical as well as emotional perspective) than any of the letters whose words had been so beautifully delivered by Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis over the previous two hours. However, I'm afraid that says more about my lack of fascination with the personal and professional lives of these two American poets than it does about the interpersonal charms of Ruhl's new play.

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