Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Questionable Role Models

In her delightfully provocative article entitled Artmaking As Irrevent Research, the Dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts, Carol Becker, makes some fascinating points:
  • Artists will use any form, any discipline, and take ideas from anyone to further their goal of answering the questions they have posed for themselves or calling attention to concerns they feel should be addressed by the society. In this sense, much of their work is inevitably interdisciplinary -- a perfect 21st century model for addressing complex problems.
  • Art schools encourage this type of useful irreverence by pursuing and legitimizing multiple types of consciousness (not just the conscious mind, but also dreams, fantasies, play, imagination, intuition, the unconscious, the metaphoric, the symbolic and visionary); the total possibilities of thought).
  • Business school deans express concern that when their students first arrive they are interesting, but, by the time they leave, many have become homogenized -- wanting the same job and motivated by the same life goals. By contrast, art school students are interesting when they arrive and typically are even more interesting and actualized when they leave, because their research comes from the inside out. The work they are encouraged to do is original to their own person.

Sometimes connecting the dots happens in strange ways. For example, I recently watched two dramas that were radically different in tone and focus:
  • One was a French film about a tragically dysfunctional family whose problems were brought to a head and, in some ways, resolved by the influence of a random stranger.
  • The other was a British dramedy about an aging Peter Pan type of male personality who holds a surprising amount of influence over a group of young men and women who are easily half his age.
There was a connection to be found between these two stories, but it kept eluding me. As I rode around San Francisco on a MUNI bus, I kept thinking about two articles I had recently read that discussed California's current water shortage in surprising ways:
As my mind wandered back to memories of living through California's 1976-1977 drought, I recalled the trepidation I felt while visiting friends that summer in Providence, Rhode Island. These were people who kept an immaculate household. Coming from a climate in which California residents lived by the mantra "If it's yellow, it's mellow; if it's brown, flush it down," I was terrified that I might forget to flush the toilet in their home.

As the bus turned a corner, my mind returned to the present. I remembered my surprise that a recent list of things Californians might do to conserve water mentioned brushing one's teeth, taking shorter showers, and being more attentive when washing dishes and clothes. Surprisingly, it said nothing about flushing toilets.

I quickly realized that, in the nearly 40 years since the drought of 1976-1977, Americans had gotten used to low-flow toilets and sensor-equipped faucets, urinals, and toilets. That's why one of the concepts in Dr. Becker's article caught my attention:
"In science, there is an expectation of risk and recognition of the inevitability of failure. 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better,' said Beckett. Those who educate artists -- who, for the most part, are other artists -- encourage them to move from one question to the next, knowing, as scientists do, that to assume outcomes or answers limits real discovery."
By now, you're probably wondering  what low-flow toilets have to do with the arts and what can they teach us about family dynamics. By realizing how the challenge of conserving water while flushing toilets has essentially been removed from our consciousness by technology, I realized what these two stories had in common.

Although it is never clearly stated in either script, both dramas are about throwaway children. Children who, instead of ending up in NeverLand, have been abandoned by parents who are ill-equipped to provide for their offspring or are too self-involved to cope with a child's needs.

* * * * * * * * *
Benoit Cohen's exquisitely layered film, You'll Be A Man, is full of surprises. The opening scenes show 20-year-old Theo (Jules Sagot), a handsome slacker, applying for a job as a babysitter for 10-year-old Leo (Aurelio Cohen). With his girlfriend, Jeanne (Clara Bonnet), preparing to move away, Theo is directionless and in need of cash.

Jules Sagot as Theo in You'll Be A Man

It doesn't take long for Theo to learn that Leo belongs to an extremely unhappy family. Although, as a child, Leo had a serious accident, its physical consequences have been minor. Since then, his parents have refused to let him play outside of their home. Sullen, withdrawn, and pretty much friendless, Leo is living in an upscale farmhouse that reeks of depression. His only solace comes from reading and occasionally writing poetry.

It's obvious that Leo is suffering more on an emotional and spiritual plane than he is on a physical one. "His parents' reaction has been excessive (because of their fears and neuroses, they plan on him being disabled. I found it interesting to announce at the beginning that this child was disabled and very quickly realize that only the parents regarded him as such," explains the filmmaker. "This story of Leo's disability is used throughout the film without really knowing what type of disability his parents are talking about. I love that this is unspoken; that everything is not necessarily shown or explained."

Poster art for You'll Be A Man

Leo's father (Grégoire Monsaingeon) is a successful businessman who believes that money can solve any problem. The boy's mother (Eleonore Pourriat) has retreated to an attic bedroom where she can hide from life. In essence, the couple have outsourced the care and nurturing of their child so that they can wallow in their own depression and continue to feel guilty about their failure to protect their son.

Sensing Leo's reluctance to have any kind of supervision, the boy and man-boy agree to leave each other alone. Young and impetuous, Theo's irrepressible personality soon starts to break down the family's emotional barriers.

First, Theo finds a way into Leo's heart through the boy's imagination. Then he discovers Leo's mother and starts to breathe life back into her as well. Unfortunately, Leo's father remains emotionally unavailable to his wife, to his child, and is easily threatened by Theo's ability to engage in games of make believe.

Theo (Jules Sagot) and Leo's father (Grégoire Monsaingeon)
in a scene from You'll Be A Man

When Leo's father discovers his son making music with Theo (who is dressed in drag), it pushes the kind of buttons that threaten his masculinity. Not only does he fire Theo, he hires Jeanne to take over babysitting for his son while he and his wife travel out of town to attend a wedding.

Jules Sagot and Aurelio Cohen in You'll Be A Man

Whereas Theo has been devoted to Leo, Jeanne couldn't care about the boy. Instead, she seizes the opportunity to have her friends party at Leo's house while the boy's parents are away. Stoned, drunk, and worn out from a night of revelry, no one notices when Theo kidnaps the boy and takes him on an wild adventure in the family's Porsche.

To a certain extent, the rest of the movie becomes a guessing game about who needs to -- or can -- grow up faster: Leo? Theo? Jeanne? Leo's parents? Cohen's film is filled with delightful surprises and glows with the affectionate relationship that develops between Leo and Theo.

Add in a magnificently layered performance by Eleonore Pourriat as a grieving mother who comes to realize that her son's disability is in her head (rather than in Leo's body) and You'll Be A Man becomes a coming-of-age story of immense appeal.

Jules Sagot and Aurelio Cohen in You'll Be A Man

There are times when You'll Be A Man can easily make one think of 1971's Harold and Maude. As the filmmaker (whose son portrays Leo and whose companion portrays Leo's mother) explains:
"I wanted to show this very special time of the transition from childhood to adolescence, when a child is about to take that first step that will lead to adulthood. It is a magical moment -- a mixture of childish emotions, very tactile relations, and reactions that can sometimes resemble those of adults, but are not yet polluted by fear or doubt. I was excited by what Jules brought to the character of Theo. His duet with Aurélio not only surprised me, I found that, for someone who had never been in front of a camera, he exuded a grace and poetry that exceeded my expectations."
Theo (Jules Sagot) comforts Leo's mother (Eleonore Pourriat)

You'll Be A Man examines the coming-of-age process from a unique perspective. It's impossible to resist Sagot's charm as Theo, his genuine affection for his young charge, his physical attraction to Leo's mother, or his sense of responsibility for the boy's future. Here's the trailer.

* * * * * * * * *
What if Peter Pan hadn't been able to stay young forever?  What if he had grown from an impetuous youth into a daredevil stuntman and settled into a middle-aged lifestyle as a small town drug dealer whose rag-tag band of lost boys had been reduced to a sad and directionless handful of young adults with no purpose in life other than to kick back, drop out, and get high?

Brian Dykstra as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The protagonist in Jez Butterworth's highly acclaimed Jerusalem is the kind of over-the-hill jock who has been coasting on tales from his legendary past for far too long. Having retired to a trailer in a forest in Northern England, he is being hounded by local bureaucrats who want to evict him so they can convert the land on which he's been squatting into a suburban development.

But Johnny "Rooster" Byron has other plans. Though his decrepit body may be a shadow of its former glory (and he's abandoned his wife and child), Rooster's still got the gift of gab and knows how to use it to amuse his followers and disarm and intimidate his enemies. The funny thing about an abundance of blarney is that it can inspire people even when they know that the heroic tales being spun (such as Rooster's encounter with a giant near Stonehenge) are total bullshit.

The San Francisco Playhouse recently presented the West Coast premiere of Jerusalem in a production designed and directed by Bill English. As I watched Brian Dykstra's burly Rooster hold sway over his band of youthful followers, I was reminded of the words of so many gay men I'd chatted with on social media platforms who claimed they were attracted to older men because they wanted a "daddy" or father figure who could "tell them stories."

As one meets Butterworth's cast of characters, one realizes that the stage is being filled by a group of youngsters who have either given up on the future or whose parents long ago gave up on them. Among the free spirits of the forest are:
  • Phaedra (Julia Belanoff), an underage waif dressed as a fairy who has run away from home and is shacking up with Rooster.
  • Lee (Paris Hunter Paul), an able-bodied young man who has decided to seek out a new life in Australia.
  • Tanya Crawley (Riley Krull), a free-spirited woman who, after offering Lee a charity fuck as a farewell present, is surprised to discover that he's not interested.
  • Pea (Devon Simpson), a young girl who hangs around Rooster's trailer for the drugs and party life.
  • Davey (Joshua Schell), a young man who is content to work in a local slaughterhouse.
  • Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor), the most loyal of Rooster's pack and the one drug client who is heavily invested in their friendship.
Lee (Paris Hunter Paul), Johnny Rooster (Brian Dykstra), and
Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor) rally the tribe against the
establishment in Jerusalem (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Others in the cast include:
  • Fawcett (Courtney Welsh), a female bureaucrat who once had an affair with Rooster but is now determined to evict him.
  • Parsons (Aaron Murphy), Fawcett's co-worker who is busily documenting everything with his camera.
  • Wesley (Christopher Reber), Rooster's good-natured but spineless brother.
  • Dawn (Maggie Mason), Rooster's ex-wife.
  • Markey (Calum John), Rooster's young son.
  • Troy (Joe Estlack), Phaedra's violent father who is prone to bullying and might have a history of sexually abusing his daughter.
  • The Professor (Richard Louis James), an elderly friend of Rooster's.
The Professor (Richard Louis James) and Rooster (Brian Dykstra)
share a moment in Jerusalem (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

It's easy to understand the appeal of Jerusalem for, when Butterworth lets loose, his language soars in soliloquies that can transfix an audience and hold them in a theatrical spell. With a fairly large cast (this production required two dialect coaches) and a running time of nearly three hours, Jerusalem presents a substantial challenge to a small company. Unfortunately, Butterworth's play proves to be quite a bit less than the sum of its parts.

I was particularly impressed with the performances by Richard Louis James (The Professor), Paris Hunter Paul (Lee), and Ian Scott McGregor (Ginger). The contrast between the worn-out hulk of Brian Dykstra's Johnny Rooster and the seething violence of Joe Estlack's Troy offered two daunting portraits of mismanaged masculinity.

Performances of Jerusalem continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through March 8th (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer.

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