Thursday, June 25, 2015

Other Families' Values

2015 may well go down in history as the year that traditional family values (which frequently hide behind the purported threat of an imaginary "War Against Christians") finally got exposed for the perversions of its loudest proponents' hypocrisy.

Franklin Graham consistently rages against having the so-called gay agenda crammed down his throat. But as a life-long atheist, I wonder how Graham would react if confronted with the number of Americans who are sick and tired of having Christianity crammed down their throats.

World cinema often provides a startling contrast to America's pathological religious hysteria by simply removing Christianity from the equation or letting its characters act like true Christians. Two recent screenings for Bay area audiences were remarkable for demonstrating the humanity of true family values (as practiced in other cultures) in ways that American conservatives might find difficult to comprehend.

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In 2013, filmmaker Josh Kim's 10-minute short entitled Draft Day was screened as part of the Frameline Film Festival. Kim returned to San Francisco for Frameline 39 with an expanded version of his short, an 80-minute full-length feature entitled How To Win At Checkers (Every Time). Kim's new movie (his debut as the director of a full-length feature film) is based on two short stories (At The Café Lovely and Draft Day) from Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

Poster art for How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)

Unlike the United States Armed Forces, in Thailand all men who turn 21 must participate in an annual draft lottery which determines whether or not they will be inducted into the military. The young man who draws a red card is required to serve two years in the military; anyone who draws a black card is exempted from military service. As the filmmaker explains:
"Before coming to Thailand, I had never actually seen this process before. And while I was writing, it was still unclear what the rules were regarding MTF transgenders. So in 2013, I made a short documentary, called Draft Day, which followed two transgender women on the day of their own draft. This research helped immensely and provided a strong reference for our team as we had to recreate our own draft for the film."

Kim's new film begins on the morning of the lottery as 21-year-old Oat (Toni Rakkaen) remembers how, as a child, he had tried to save his older brother, Ek (Thira “Um” Chutikul), from being drafted. Ek helped to support himself, his younger brother (Ingkarat “Ryu” Damrongsakkul), his stepsister Kwan (Warattha Kaew-on), and the Auntie (Vatanya “Jim” Thamdee) who helped to raise the two brothers after they had been orphaned.

Ek's two closest companions are Kitty (Natarat “Nut” Lakha), a smart and sexy ladyboy, and Jai (Arthur “Jin” Navarat), a lighter-skinned young man from an upper middle class family. Ek's boyfriend since high school, Jai has always been welcomed as a member of Ek's family whenever he is invited to stay for dinner.

Ek (Thira “Um” Chutikul) lets Oat (Ingkarat “Ryu” Damrongsakkul)
drive his motorcycle in  How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)

Like many youngsters, Oat idolized his older brother and (even though his feet could barely reach the pedals) longed for the day when Ek would let him drive his motorcycle. On Oat's birthday, when Ek treats his kid brother to the exotic treat of a cheeseburger at a fast food restaurant (bad choice), it is the first time that Oat encounters Junior (Anawat “Boat” Patanawanichkul), the bratty son of a local drug lord.

In his child-like innocence, Oat has no way of knowing that his older brother earns the money that supports their family by working in a brothel run by Junior's father. That discovery proves to be a powerful coming-of-age moment for the little boy.  In his director's statement, Kim writes that:
"The relationship between siblings, more so even than that between parents and children, is one of the most important and long-lasting relationships that a person could have in his or her lifetime. The stories in the book Sightseeing (by Rattawut Lapcharoensap) exposed me to a world that I had never experienced. Yet, the characters were people that I could easily relate to -- especially the two brothers in the short story At the Café Lovely. The dynamic between the siblings deepened my understanding of how poverty, politics, and the loss of innocence can make or break such a precious bond. And while my brother never took me on a night out like the one in the story did, maybe this was for the better -- for the things I never saw and the desperate things I never learned to do -- at such a young age."
Oat (Ingkarat “Ryu” Damrongsakkul) and his older brother Ek
(Thira “Um” Chutikul) in How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)

The other conflict at the heart of Kim's film is the fact that, coming from a poor family, Ek has no options available to him when facing the draft lottery. His boyfriend, Jai, on the other hand, has a wealthy father who is able to bribe Junior's father so that Jai be exempted from military service. What that does to the intense level of trust between Ek, Jai, and Oat lies at the crux of How To Win At Checkers (Every Time).

What happens to Ek after he enters the military provides the harshest coming-of-age lesson for his 11-year-old brother. Ingkarat “Ryu” Damrongsakkul delivers a remarkable performance for such a young actor. Here's the trailer:

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A child's aggrieved frustrations (and his need to learn the importance of forgiveness) lie at the core of 1925's Visages d'Enfants, which was shown at the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival with live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, and accordion. Directed by Jacques Feyder, the story takes place in the small village of Saint-Luc in the Haut-Valais region of the Swiss Alps (where differences in social class don't seem to exist and people are more concerned with the real challenges of their day-to-day lives).

Poster art for Visages d'Enfants

Early in the film, the villagers are seen attending the funeral of the Mayor's wife (Suzy Vernon), who has left behind two confused children: 10-year-old Jean (Jean Forest), and his five-year-old sister, Pierrette (Pierrette Houyez). Their grief-stricken father, Pierre Amsler (Victor Vina), suddenly finds himself without a partner to care for his two children.

Jean (Jean Forest) and his father (Victor Vina) visit
his mother's grave in a scene from Visages d'Enfants

After a reasonable period of mourning, Pierre decides to marry a local widow named Jeanne Dutois (Rachel Devirys), whose daughter, Arlette (Arlette Peyran), will add another child to his family. But it becomes obvious that Jean is having adjustment problems following his mother 's death. The boy's sullen behavior prompts his father to send him on a trip with the local priest, Canon Taillier (Henri Duval), who is also Jean's godfather.

While they are away, the priest explains to Jean that his father will be getting married to another woman. Upon their return home, Jean finds Jeanne and Arlette comfortably settled in his home. To add insult to injury, he learns that Arlette and Pierrette have taken over his old bedroom and he has been forced to move into a smaller room.

Jean (Jean Forest) and Arlette (Arlette Peyran)
glare at each other in a scene from Visages d'Enfants

Jean's increasingly hostile behavior is not limited to the "You're not my real mother and you never will be" variety. He and Arlette quickly become bitter enemies. Jean refuses to let Arlette join in the fun when he and Pierrette are playing games. When his stepmother uses the material from one of his deceased mother's favorite dresses to make new clothes for the two girls, Jean takes out a pair of scissors and destroys what's left of his mother's dress.

And the boy certainly knows how to hold a grudge. On a cold, winter day, when the family is traveling across the snow on a sled, Jean seizes an opportunity to throw Arlette's favorite doll into a snowdrift. That night he tells Arlette that she should go out and try to find the missing doll.

After becoming lost in the snow, Arlette seeks refuge in a small chapel on the mountain. When an avalanche buries the chapel and Arlette fails to return home, a rescue party is formed by the villagers.

After the young girl is found, Jean's guilt and self-loathing continue to fester. Having apologized to his father, he writes a letter informing the family that he is leaving their village and heads for a nearby stream, intent on drowning himself.

Jeanne (Rachel Devirys) talks to her daughter and
stepdaughter in a scene from Visages d'Enfants

When Arlette and Pierrette inform Jeanne of Jean's departure, she rushes down to the stream and manages to save her stepson's life in the nick of time. Realizing that Jeanne really does care for him, Jean finally stops trying to sabotage his father's second marriage and starts to grow up.

During the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Jean Forest made quite an impression during a screening of 1926's Gribiche. Although precious little footage from Visages d'Enfants is available online, this brief clip gives viewers a sample of his intensity and his ability to communicate internal thoughts.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Not Since Nineveh

Many conservatives wish they could turn the clock back to a happier time, a more wholesome era like the 1950s.
The 1950s was also a decade in which the film industry went berserk with religious epics and historical spectacles set in ancient Mediterranean lands. Whether one considers Quo Vadis (1951), Sins of Rome (1953), The Robe (1953), Attila (1954), Theodora, Slave Empress (1954), Ulysses (1954), Alexander The Great (1956), Helen of Troy (1958), Hercules (1958), Hercules Unchained (1959), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), or 1960's The Loves of Hercules (which starred Mickey Hargitay and Jayne Mansfield), there's little doubt that the sword and sandal genre has a huge following.

Some spectacles, like Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 treatment of The Ten Commandments gained great notoriety for their special effects. Others achieved unintentionally great moments of camp.

In 1955, Land of the Pharaohs (featuring Joan Collins as an evil Egyptian Princess) ended with a phenomenal Rube Goldberg-like sequence that sealed the Pharaoh's tomb.

When George Forrest and Robert Wright adapted the music from Alexander Borodin's 1890 opera, Prince Igor, they used the famous Polovtsian Dances for much of the musical's score. In the following clip, Dolores Gray performs Lalume's big production number in the 1955 film adaptation of Kismet.

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The closing night attraction of the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a screening of 1925's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ starring Ramon Navarro as Judah Ben-Hur. Based on Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the contract drawn up with Wallace's heir for the novel's screen rights stipulated that audiences could not view the face of the King of the Jews anywhere in the film.

Thus, a very white hand could be seen reaching out to offer a thirsty Judah Ben-Hur a sip of water. Late in the film, as Christ is dragging his cross through the crowd, parts of his robe were all that could be seen of him.

Produced by Louis B. Mayer and directed by Fred Niblo (following Charles Brabin's failed attempt to shoot the film in Italy), the film is noted for its thrilling chariot race in which its two male leads, Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, drove their own chariots.

Messala (Francis X. Bushman) and Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro)
face off in a scene from 1925's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Most of Ben-Hur was filmed in Culver City, with the chariot race filmed on a gigantic Circus Maximus set (built near the intersection of Venice Boulevard and La Cienega) whose construction required 800 men working continuously for four solid months. It took decades for 1925's Ben-Hur (the most expensive film of the silent era) to recoup its initial investment of nearly $4 million.

Poster art for 1925's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Using the restored film's prerecorded score by composer Carl Davis (which heavily relies on a Wagnerian leitmotif from 1882's Parsifal), Ben-Hur was introduced by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow (who worked on its restoration in 1987). Here's Brownlow accepting his Academy Honorary Award in 2010 (the first time such an award was ever given in recognition of an artist's work in film preservation).

1925's Ben-Hur was filmed long before the invention of computer-generated imagery (CGI). With Brownlow narrating, the following clip includes comments from some of the film's assistant directors and cameramen, who describe the visual tricks used to create and film the great chariot race.

As thrilling as the film's sets (and its experimental color film sequences) may have been, Ben-Hur was also a triumph of costume design. Check out these shots of Carmel Myers in a stunning outfit designed for the character of Iras (Messala's mistress).

Carmel Myers as Iras in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Carmel Myers as Iras in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Carmel Myers as Iras in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Carmel Myers as Iras in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Carmel Myers as Iras in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

As someone with a passion for maritime history, I was thrilled by the use of a custom-made fleet of triremes (Roman galleys with three banks of slaves manning the oars) for the naval battle sequence.

Even more exciting, however, was the shackled piece of muscle pudding below decks whose naked body must have been a source of inspiration for the galley slaves to row harder. Much harder.

In addition to Christ and the chariot race, Ben-Hur also includes a furious sea battle and a valley filled with lepers. The film begins with a radiant vision of Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary. Among Judah's family are Claire McDowell as his mother, Kathleen Key as Tirzah (his sister), May McAvoy as Esther (his wife), Dale Fuller as Amrah (his maid), and Nigel De Brulier as Simonides (his slave).

Ramon Navarro (Judah) and May McAvoy (Esther)
in a scene from Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Mitchell Lewis (Sheik Ilderim), Frank Currier (Quintus Arrius) Charles Belcher (Balthazar), and Winter Hall (Joseph of Nazareth) were notable in supporting roles. The film, however, remains a triumph for Navarro in the title role.

Unfortunately, the beloved film star was murdered on October 30, 1968 by two brothers who, as revealed by Scotty Bowers in his tell-all book (Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars), suffocated Navarro with a lead dildo given to him 45 years prior by Rudolph Valentino.

Ramon Navarro in a scene from Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

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Less than a week after the screening of Ben-Hur, the San Francisco Opera opened its 2015 summer season with a smashing production of The Trojans, a rarely-performed opera by Hector Berlioz which, although composed between 1856 and 1858, did not receive its first "uncut" performance until a century after Berlioz had completed the work.

Act II's set for Carthage in The Trojans (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

There's a good reason why the costs and planning of David McVicar's impressive production necessitated a cooperative effort between the San Francisco Opera, The Royal Opera in London, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Vienna Staatsoper. As Speight Jenkins (the former head of the Seattle Opera) explains:
"To this day The Trojans is only performed by opera houses with great resources and by a leader who believes that this great work is worth the time and funds to bring it to the public. San Francisco Opera presented a very abridged version of the opera in the 1960s. The Metropolitan Opera ventured a production in 1973, and whenever the opera is performed, it is a significant happening. The problem is not the length (though overtime figures into every opera manager’s thinking), but the forces of dance, chorus, the number of principals, the sheer demands of the mythic story."
The Trojan Horse is brought within the walls of Troy
in The Trojans (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
"For instance, one cannot really present the opera properly without a Trojan Horse, one that is large enough to house a lot of Greeks, and there are multiple technical problems in Carthage, such as “The Royal Hunt and Storm” (one of the great musical joys of the piece but one that demands all the elaborate action of a French pantomime opera of the 18th century). Berlioz described his opera as a Virgilian opera on the Shakespearean plan. Because he loved Shakespeare as much as Virgil, the composer managed to include in this opera not only plenty of soliloquies (arias), massive choral scenes (the chorus is onstage and active for three-quarters of the opera, a figure almost surely not equaled in any opera in repertory today), great poetry, and even comic relief."
The horrified Cassandra (Anna Caterina Antonacci) watches her
prophecy come true in The Trojans (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Shortly before the performance I attended began, it was announced that tenor Corey Bix would be substituting for an indisposed Bryan Hymel in the key role of Aeneas. That, plus the fact that this production of The Trojans is nearly five hours in length (and I was feeling a bit tired) slightly diminished my overall enjoyment of the performance.

Dido (Susan Graham) prepares to die atop a pyre in a
climactic scene from The Trojans  (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

However, there was no mistaking the fact that some grand singing was taking place. Leading the company were Anna Caterina Antonacci as the ill-fated Cassandra; Susan Graham as the Carthaginian queen (Dido), and Sasha Cooke as Dido's sister, Anna. Brian Mulligan scored strongly as Cassandra's husband (Coroebus) as did Christian van Horn in the role of Narbal.

Sasha Cooke portrayed Dido's sister, Anna,
 in The Trojans (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

In addition to Ms. Graham, current artists and alumni of the Merola Opera Program who did exceptional work included Philip Skinner as King Priam, Philip Horst as Pantheus, René Barbera as Iopas, Nian Wang as Ascanius, Chong Wang (doubling as Hylas and Helenus) as well as Anthony Reed and Matthew Stump in a variety of cameo roles, Special credit goes to San Francisco Opera's veteran chorus director, Ian Robertson.

The company's former music director, Donald Runnicles, returned to the Bay area to conduct The Trojans with director Leah Hausman guiding the cast through Berlioz's trip around the Mediterranean from Troy (located in modern Turkey) to Carthage (located where Tunisia now stands) and onward to Italy with an occasional reference to Libya. I was fascinated by Es Devlin's mammoth sets, including her concept for the Trojan Horse and the magnificent vision of Hannibal that she conjured up for the final act.

If I have one criticism, it would be that I found the costume designs by Moritz Junge to be a bit jarring. For some reason, Junge had the Trojan men clad in mid-19th century costumes more appropriate to the time of the opera's premiere. However, considering the vast scope of this production, that's a minor complaint.

The evening was a monumental triumph, particularly for the velvet-voiced Susan Graham as Dido. Here's some footage from the San Francisco Opera's production of The Trojans.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Unrealistic Urban Affairs

In 1970, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth rattled fans of the traditional Broadway musical with something new and daring that sought to capture the numerous frustrations of life in a major metropolis. Not only did Sondheim's score have a new and fresh sound, Jonathan Tunick's brilliant orchestrations even included noticeable parts for a tambourine and a recording of a telephone's busy signal.

With the exception of his protagonist and an itinerant stewardess, Furth's characters were mostly married couples experiencing challenges to their relationships while insisting that their token single friend should find someone to settle down with. But in a city filled with millions of people (and hundreds more arriving each day), the permutations of chance encounters seemed endlessly tantalizing to some and emotionally exhausting to others.

A decade later Furth and Sondheim teamed up once more for Merrily We Roll Along, which focused on the changing dynamics between three friends over the course of their lives. Based on a 1934 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the plot was notable for the way the story evolved in reverse chronology. One of its key themes was the value of old friends in one's life.

Whether one's relationship is with a friend or a spouse, time doesn't always heal everything. Some couples break up because of a partner's extramarital affair(s); in other situations, people who consider themselves best friends forever are shocked to discover that some topics (and pieces of personal information) are strictly off-limits. Regardless of the city in which one lives, certain truths keep reasserting themselves.
  • It's possible for a married man with children to discover that he might be bisexual or gay.
  • There's a big difference between sharing a juicy bit of gossip and being a relentlessly nosy bitch.
  • Hooking up with professional colleagues can be fun, but tricky.
  • Whether closeted or paranoid, some people try to compartmentalize the way they share their affection and personal information with friends and loved ones.
  • Some people fear getting close to others if such friendships could lead to an invasion of their privacy.
  • It's easy to become paralyzed by depression.

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One of the films screened at the Frameline 39 Film Festival was Claudio Marcone's tale of confused bisexuality entitled In The Grayscale. Set in Santiago, Chile, the story revolves around 35-year-old Bruno (Francisco Celhay), a successful, free-lance architect with an impressive portfolio, a wife, and a little boy. Bruno would seem to have it all: family, material possessions, his own business, and yet there's something about him that is still unresolved.

Poster art for In The Grayscale

Upon landing a major assignment from a real estate developer (Marcial Tagle) who wants to build a monument which will become known throughout the city, Bruno goes looking for inspiration. To help him find a concept, the developer puts Bruno in touch with 29-year-old Fer (Emilio Edwards), a history teacher with a strong cultural sense of architectural history who is openly and unapologetically gay.

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) relax
in Fer's apartment in a scene from In The Grayscale

Whereas Bruno is someone who keeps his feelings close to his chest (and has trouble expressing himself emotionally), Fer is a man of few, if any secrets. Fer, however, does have some strict rules about dating. He prefers to date men who self-identify as gay and are single. He does not like to date married men like Bruno (who are conflicted about their sexuality).

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) share
an intimate moment in a scene from In The Grayscale

Nevertheless, as Fer guides Bruno around the city (and eventually to his apartment) there is an obvious sexual attraction between the two men. The fact that Bruno's wife, Soledad (Daniela Ramirez), has been left in the dark about the reason Bruno needs time by himself -- and Bruno's son, Diego (Matias Torres), can't understand why his father doesn't want to come home at night -- keeps causing the kind of internal stress that Bruno is ill-equipped to handle.

Written by Rodrigo Antonio Norero, In The Grayscale makes no bones about the fact that Bruno enjoys gay sex. He just doesn't know how to integrate it into his life as something more than a physical release.  Fer, on the other hand, has no interest in that kind of bisexual bullshit. When Fer pulls back and breaks up with Bruno, the architect retreats to his home, his wife, and his son. Sexually curious, but emotionally a coward.

Fer (Emilio Edwards) and Bruno (Francisco Celhay) share
an intimate moment in a scene from In The Grayscale

What's refreshing about In The Grayscale is that, with the exception of his devoted and nonjudgmental grandfather (Sergio Hernandez), none of the people intimately involved with Bruno are willing to put up with much of his bisexually compartmentalized bullshit. Soledad's gentle confrontation with her husband is a prime moment of truth telling. After watching so many gay characters on screen who act like codependent housewives, it's a special delight to see the forcefulness with which Fer tells Bruno to take his moody indecisiveness and shove it. Here's the trailer:

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To inaugurate its exciting new performance space (the renovated Strand Theatre on Market Street), American Conservatory Theater is presenting the West Coast premiere of a timely play by Caryl Churchill entitled Love and Information. Due to the play's unique structure (or lack thereof), a lot of it has to do with how people go about sharing and/or withholding information from their friends, co-workers, and family.

Director Casey Stangl has worked with an ensemble of six men (Joel Bernard, Anthony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Joe Holt, Rafael Jordan, Leo Marks) and six women (Cindy Goldfield, Christina Liang, Sharon Lockwood, Dominique Salerno, Mia Tagano, Shona Tucker) to create a living tapestry of poignant vignettes that are neatly framed by Robert Brill's beautifully efficient unit set and Lap Chi Chu's evocative lighting designs. Think of one of those mosaic tricks in which, when seen up close, a portrait of the Mona Lisa turns out to be a collection of hundreds of tiny portraits arranged to replicate the colors and patterns of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting and you'll get a sense of the breadth and depth of the tangled web Churchill has woven.

Thanks to C. Andrew Mayer's sound design and the projections designed by the ever remarkable Micah J. Stieglitz, ACT's creative team has crafted an atmosphere of stunning theatrical fluidity. Upon entering the auditorium, the audience sees itself mirrored on a huge screen overlooking the stage. Throughout the show's 100 minutes that screen becomes one of the most flexible and dynamic elements of the production, instantly repositioning the actors from Union Square to an art gallery, from a restaurant to a BART platform (amid numerous locations in and around San Francisco).

The ensemble as a group of commuters riding mass transit in
a vignette from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Considering the ways in which Churchill has (and has not) structured her 57 vignettes, this mixing of easily recognizable sites with hit-and-miss personal interactions creates a series of character-driven snapshots for the audience (which can initially seem confusing until one realizes that none of these vignettes are related).
  • A character may cross the stage or make some random gestures without uttering a sound during a transition separating two vignettes.
  • Most of the vignettes (which range in length from five seconds to five minuets)  are limited to dialogue between two characters.
  • Few, if any, of the characters have names.
  • With the exception of one character (played by Sharon Lockwood) who appears in a series of one-line scenes entitled Depression, none of the characters in any particular vignette are related to any of the other characters seen during the play.
  • Although the playwright has divided the evening into seven distinct sections, she has given the artistic team the freedom to choose how they wish to structure the vignettes within each section.
  • Because Churchill's script has no stage directions or character descriptions, the people being portrayed are neither gender nor age specific. As a result, it makes perfect sense for a reunion dinner shared by two ex-lovers in a city like San Francisco to involve two gay men.
Dan Hiatt and Anthony Fusco as two ex-lovers in a vignette
from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As director Casey Stangl explains:
“Churchill has a keen sense of the need for humans to connect with each other and to our past, present, and future, as well as how technology threatens that. But she also sees great poignancy in humanity’s stubborn need to connect and form relationships with each other, which is hard-wired into our DNA. There is definitely a sensibility to the writing, a subtlety of things left unsaid, a humor that is underplayed. Although there is no overt sentimentality, I think that it’s in there, as well.  The more you dig into each scene, a scenario starts to automatically suggest itself.”
Shona Tucker and Sharon Lockwood in a vignette 
from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“There’s not one specific story we’re telling; the play has a radical form in which several individual narratives add up to something larger that reveals how we live and what it means to be a human on this planet right now. Some of the scenes are clearly comic. Some are clearly serious. There are quite a few that could be played either way, depending on how you interpret them.  We also have as much diversity as we could muster in terms of age, gender, skin color, body type, and personality so that the cast reflects a spectrum of humanity. Because there are so many different themes and ideas, the play will resonate differently with different people.”
Joe Holt and Rafael Jordan appear in a vignette
from Love and Information  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

ACT's artistic director, Carey Perloff, has been quite outspoken about her hopes that the location of the Strand Theatre (smack in the center of the Mid Market redevelopment project that is now populated with lots of tech workers) will help to attract a new generation of theatregoers to ACT. Because of the ephemeral nature of Love and Information's storytelling style, Churchill's play is an ideal choice to entertain people who surround themselves with the latest technology and may suffer from limited spans of attention.

Cindy Goldfield and Dominique Salerno appear in a
vignette from Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In many ways, the vignettes Churchill has created for Love and Information remind one of a writer who has obsessively written down tiny bits of overheard dialogue, observations of quirky interactions, and thoughts about love, friendship, and the importance of personal information over the years with the hope that someday, somehow, she would be able to weave that material into a collection of writings. Or perhaps a novel. Or perhaps a play about contemporary society.

Shona Tucker and Rafael Jordan in a vignette from
Love and Information (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Based on the warm reception given to her new play, Churchill has found herself a happy multimedia marriage between playwriting and technology. Performances of Love and Information continue through August 9 at the Strand Theatre (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Big Girls Don't Cry

In the late 1960s a new brand of cigarettes was introduced by Philip Morris International. A spinoff of the popular Benson & Hedges brand, its marketing was aimed at female smokers enjoying a new sense of liberation. For better or worse, the advertising slogan for Virginia Slims insisted that "You've Come A Long Way, Baby."

Although the late 1960s saw the Women's Liberation movement gaining media penetration and political momentum, in truth the women's suffrage movement had been brewing since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Not only did the Roaring Twenties lead to a greater sense of personal freedom for American women, thousands of single women moved into the workplace (even if they remained at home, living with their parents). For many, the dream was to marry a man who could give them financial security, a nice home, and children.

That dream persisted for decades (when I attended Brooklyn College during the 1960s there were plenty of women majoring in art and English whose primary goal was to find a husband). Since that time, women have become an important part of the professional work force, often outnumbering men in recent graduating classes from medical schools.

At the 2015 Tony Awards, composer Jeanine Tesori's acceptance speech included the following statement:
"As a young woman I didn't realize I could have a career in music until 1981. I saw the magnificent Linda Twine conduct Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music and that was my 'Ring of Keys' moment which, by the way is not a song of love. It's a song of identification because, for girls, you have to see it to be it. I'm so proud to be standing here with Lisa Kron. We stand on the shoulders of other women who have come before us: Mary Rodgers, Tania Leon, Linda Twine."
Perhaps that's why it's now a bittersweet treat to listen to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as they sing "Big Girls Don't Cry."

The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival included two programs which cast an interesting light on women in the work force during the 1920s. One feature (on loan from the Swedish Film Institute) focused on a quartet of women living as roommates while struggling to get by on low wages. By contrast, a beautifully restored pre-code American film captured the gaiety and exuberance of the flapper era.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Per Lindberg, 1923's  Norrtullsligan (Northgate League) was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Set in a working-class district of Stockholm, the story (which centered around a quartet of "pink collar" women) was adapted from a serialized novel written by Elin Wägner.

An office in Stockholm is filled with "pink collar"
typists in a scene from Norrtullsligan

The narration is by Tora Teje, who stars as Pegg, a secretary/clerk to a local businessman played by Egil Eide. As the film begins, Pegg wonders how she managed, in one year's time, to transition from a near suicidal 25-year-old office worker into a happily married woman.

Among the women who share an apartment are with Pegg are 18-year-old Baby (No Tidblad), Eva (Renée Björling), and the cynical Emmy (Linnéa Hillberg). Putte (Lauritz Falk), the young boy living with them whom many assume is Pegg's illegitimate son, is actually her kid brother.

Pegg's roommates relax after work in Norrtullsligan

Although their little group offers an haven from the domineering presence of male employers and boorish dates (the underage Putte doesn't count as a grown man), it's hard for Pegg to leave her financial concerns at the door or ignore her feelings of revulsion every time her manager (a well meaning but desperately lonely and socially clumsy man) makes sexual advances at work.

Poster art for Norrtullsligan

Even with three roommates (who are all employed as clerks), Pegg has trouble making ends meet. When her employer refuses to give her an advance on her wages, she appeals to her wealthy aunt (Stina Berg), when she and Putte are invited to lunch with their cousin Cousin Görel (Tollie Zellman) and his mother. In her program note, Shari Kizirian writes:
"[The film portrays] the challenges these young women face as they jostle alongside other rats in the modern race: Men and Other Misfortunes. The misfortunes are familiar as they still menace us today: sexual harassment, prejudice against single-parenting, the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and an unforgiving capitalism that pits poor against poor in a wealth-rules-all world."
Stina Berg portrayed Pegg's wealthy aunt in Norrtullsligan

Eventually, the group of roommates starts to get pulled apart by social pressures. Baby gets engaged to notary (Nils Asther) while Eve becomes engaged to another man (Gabriel Alw).  Even Cousin Görel is engaged to be married to a young man (Olav Riego), leaving Pegg on the brink of becoming an old maid stuck with the responsibility of caring for her younger brother.

At this point, the film suddenly lurches in another direction. Pegg's aunt invites the younger woman to join her on a vacation to the Riviera but, unbeknownst to her friends and family, Pegg has finally succumbed to her boss's pleas and accepted an engagement ring from him. Her husband-to-be deftly informs the older woman that Pegg won't be available to join her in the Riviera because she will already be there, enjoying her honeymoon.

Pegg (Tora Teje) and her manager (Egil Eide)
in his office in a scene from Norrtullsligan

According to Wikipedia, screenwriter Hjalmar Bergman gave Norrttulsligan a happy ending that was quite  inconsistent with the tone of Elin Wagner's novel. Although this was most likely done for commercial reasons, the new, Cinderella-ish ending (which seemed trite to some critics) did not meet with unanimous approval.

* * * * * * * * *
The somber, somewhat depressing tone of Norrttulsligan was adequately compensated for with a rare screening of the vivacious Colleen Moore's last silent film, Why Be Good? (1929). Directed by William A. Seiter with live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this high-spirited flapper-era romance showed off Moore's impressive chops as a dancer and comedian.

Colleen Moore in Why Be Good?

Among the film's many delights are some sets designed with a heavy Art Deco touch, a cameo appearance by a young Jean Harlow, and a decadent nightclub called "The Boiler Room" where the huge oven doors above the crowd open up to reveal several female dancers positioned to look like they're being roasted on rotisserie spits.

Moore stars as Pert Kelly, a top salesgirl whose father (John St. Polis) is a conservative old prude, but whose mother (Bodil Rosing) encourages her daughter to enjoy the new freedoms which were unavailable to her back when she was young and sexy. An attractive young woman with an exuberant personality, Pert has no trouble winning Charleston contests and partying with her friends although, underneath it all, she remains "a good girl."

Mrs. Kelly (Bodil Rosing) comforts her daughter, Pert
(Colleen Moore) in a scene from 1929's Why Be Good?

When the slimy Jimmy Alexander (Louis Natheaux) tries to take advantage of Pert's good looks and newfound celebrity, Moore's character displays lots of tricks that will keep a would-be Lothario at a safe distance. Having just spotted a real dreamboat -- in the form of Winthrop Peabody, Jr. (Neil Hamilton) -- making his way across the dance floor, Pert knows how to aim higher than a sleazeball like the self-proclaimed "sheik."

Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore) and Jimmy Alexander
(Louis Natheaux) hit the dance floor in Why Be Good?

What Pert has no way of knowing is that the handsome young man who is flirting with her is about to start work as the new Head of Personnel at the department store where she works. Before Winthrop Jr. left a party at his apartment celebrating his last day as an unemployed playboy, he was cautioned by his father, Winthrop Peabody, Sr. (Edward Martindel), not to date any of the girls at work.

But Winthrop and Pert are having a great time dancing and partying with Winthrop's friends, Tom (Eddie Clayton) and Jerry (Lincoln Stedman). When they finally drop Pert off at her parents' home, Winthrop insists on a follow-up date the next night.

Pert's late arrival at work the next morning causes her to be sent to  the Personnel Department where, on his first day at work, Winthrop fires her. How they reunite and fall in love is filled with lots of wonderful sight gags, tart remarks, feminist sass, and surprising confrontations which eventually put Winthrop's father in his place. The best moment occurs when Winthrop Jr., trying to prove that Pert is "a good girl," takes her to a roadhouse where he rents a room to see if their evening will turn sexual. When she refuses to go along with the setup, she tells him "You men! You insist on a girl being just what you want -- and then you bawl her for being it!"

Newlyweds Winthrop Peabody, Jr. (Neil Hamilton) and his wife,
 Pert (Colleen Moore), anticipate a happy future in Why Be Good?

Why Be Good? is blessed with a mercurial star, a plot written with a great sense of humor, some wonderful dancing, and a wardrobe of exquisite costumes designed by Max Rée. Yet it is one of the very few of the almost 50 films Moore appeared in that remains viewable. In her program note, Marilyn Ferdinand explains that:
"The recovery of Why Be Good? is a story of two people coming together in the right place at the right time. In 1994, Ron Hutchinson, founder of The Vitaphone Project, presented a program of restored Vitaphone short films at New York’s Film Forum. In his opening remarks, he brought the audience up to date on activities of the organization formed in 1991 to locate soundtrack disks for early Vitaphone and other talkie shorts and features and reunite them, if possible, with their films."
Poster art for Why Be Good?
"Writing about the occasion, Hutchinson recalled, “I casually mentioned that I recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore’s Why Be Good? I said something to the effect that ‘unfortunately, this is a lost film.’ Film historian Joseph Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center [a now-closed repository of the New York Public Library system], was a friend of Colleen Moore and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out ‘No it’s not! I know where it is!’ The full house at Film Forum cheered.' Those cheers were premature, however. It was not until 2012 that Cineteca Italiana di Milano, which housed the print, returned it to the United States for restoration. It was synched with the jazzy Vitaphone soundtrack, which is available on the Warner Bros. DVD. "
A beautifully restored version of Why Be Good? is now available on DVD (click here to order a copy). In what has to be one of the cruelist ironies, the only footage released to YouTube does not include Colleen Moore. If you're looking for a delightful silent film (with the original Vitaphone soundtrack), it's well worth the money. Here's the clip.