Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Your Cheatin' Heart

Fifty years is an important milestone for many people. Among those celebrating their 50th birthday in 2016 are prizefighter Mike Tyson, news reporter Soledad O'Brien, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, British Prime Minister David Cameron, opera singer Cecilia Bartoli, and supermodel Cindy Crawford. Hollywood celebrities turning 50 include Stephen Baldwin, Janet Jackson, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, Adam Sandler, and J. J. Abrams.

Of equal importance, 1966 witnessed the deaths of such cultural icons as Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Sophie Tucker, William Frawley, Ed Wynn, Montgomery Clift, Lenny Bruce, Gertrude Berg, Elizabeth Arden, Margaret Sanger, and Walt Disney. This year, historians have been busily celebrating the semicentennial anniversaries of important events which transpired in 1966.

Among the less famous cultural moments that year was the debut of The Newlywed Game on July 11, with Bob Eubanks as its genial host. A game show which was devised to test how well married couples know each other, The Newlywed Game became notorious for some of the hilarious gaffes made by its contestants.

In the 50 years since the launch of The Newlywed Game, its format has become a popular activity on gay cruises, shows featuring celebrity couples (both gay and straight), and parties among old friends.

Lots of people claim to know a friend's quirks and preferences upside down and in and out. After enough years, some people even develop the habit of finishing another person's sentences. When Cy Coleman's 1962 musical, Little Me, opened on Broadway, Bob Fosse staged a number for Swen Swenson (who was nominated for the Best Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical) that could have been put to use by the Chippendales male strippers, a franchise which debuted in 1979. In his review in The New York Times, Howard Taubman praised the number's "steel-like dance of courtship, noting that "Mr. Swenson's furiously volatile propositioning of Belle in 'I've Got Your Number' proclaims him a performer on the way up."

How one gets to know the intimate details of a person's life has changed dramatically with the recent onslaught of artificial intelligence technology. In Patricia Cotter's short play entitled I'm Really Sorry About This (which was presented as part of the annual Best of Playground Festival at Thick House), audiences get a painful reminder of how much data they give up through their use of computers and handheld electronic devices.

As directed by Tracy Ward, Cotter's play stars Morgan J. Booker as Julia, a stressed-out wife who picks up her iPhone while driving and asks Siri (Stephanie Prentice) to send a message to her husband, Robert (Douglas Giorgis). Rather than simply obey a command, Siri starts to ask probing questions about Julia's married life, which only add more stress to her day. Soon, the way Siri pronounces Julia's name becomes insinuating and hurtful, causing Julia to switch her phone settings to a male version of Siri (Nican Robinsroblem.

Cotter's play deftly demonstrates how artificial intelligence "learns" from the data it receives. Whether that information reveals when (and how often) a person dials a specific phone number or what's lurking in a web browser's history, all that data can be crunched and analyzed to form clusters of information that may seem ridiculous to the user yet can form strategic links. While Cotter's script induces plenty of laughter in the audience, it also makes people acutely aware of their potential vulnerability to electronic manipulation. Buyer beware!

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Two of my favorite songs beautifully capture the angst of those who survive the School of Hard Knocks. Written by Stephen Sondheim for 1971's Follies (and introduced by Yvonne DeCarlo), "I'm Still Here" has become an anthem for people who were able to move on with their lives.

Composed by Harold Arlen (with lyrics by Ira Gershwin), "The Man That Got Away" was made famous by Judy Garland in 1954's A Star Is Born. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the American Film Institute honored Garland's powerful performance by declaring it to be "the 11th greatest song in American cinema history."

Whether one considers such numbers to be battle hymns of the walking wounded or torch songs inspired by broken hearts, they've had a curious legacy. Although many women have sung these songs in performance, many gay men have sung them as they licked their emotional wounds while driving through traffic or sitting alone at home. Is there a market for movies about the wounded egos of those who have been humped and dumped? You bet there is!

Billed as "an ex-love story," the first thing to be said about Tim Kirkman's new film, Lazy Eye, is that it looks gorgeous. Gabe Mayhan's cinematography captures the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert as well as the fluidity of movement as seen from the bottom of a swimming pool.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean) and Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

Dean (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is a middle-aged graphic artist in Los Angeles who, as the film begins, is being examined by an ophthalmologist for amblyopia. His lazy eye syndrome has been getting worse, mostly because he never did the exercises he was supposed to perform. As a result, Dean is going to have to start wearing progressive lenses.

As a middle-aged gay man who knows how to throw himself a pity party, it doesn't take long for Dean's whining to kick into gear.  Two events, however, trigger a minor crisis.
  • One of the firm's better clients rejects his design for a film poster. While it's not unusual for a client to change its mind, or not really know what it wants, Dean's reflex is to start in on his usual sob story about how no one respects his high artistic standards and clients are never brave enough to do something that will really make an impression because they're too stupid to know when they're being given good professional advice. His boss reminds him that this steady client pays a lot of their bills and instructs him to make the requested changes.
  • In the midst of this aggravation at work, Dean receives an email from Alex Coffina (Aaron Costa Ganis), the handsome hunk with whom Dean had a torrid summer affair 15 years ago in New York. His first reaction to Alex's query "Do you remember me?" is "Of course, I remember you. You fucking broke my heart!"
Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex) and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

Curiosity, temptation, and a sense of unfinished business can do a lot to rattle a gay man's nerves. As they continue to trade emails, Dean invites Alex to spend a few days with him at his vacation house in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Dean makes no mention of the fact that he has a husband, who is away on a film shoot in Australia.

If Dean heads for the desert with a shitload of emotional baggage and a chip on his shoulder, Alex arrives with a very different set of life experiences. He left New York (and Dean) because he fell in love with someone else: a man who became his lover and eventually died. Alex now has enough financial security to live comfortably without having to work. One day he remembered how Dean had turned him on to NPR back when they were dating and decided to track him down.

After Alex arrives from New Orleans, their initial embrace quickly leads to a long overdue sexual reunion. But as each man's past gets hauled out for examination and explanations, questions lead to defensiveness; protestations of love lead to recriminations. With each day, there's another symbolically-heavy dead mouse floating in Dean's swimming pool.

The basic question posed by Kirkman's script is: If two narcissistic middle-aged bears who were once lovers have a series of hissy fits in the desert, should anyone really care? Perhaps, if Dean and Alex were more sympathetic characters, that might be the case. But they're not.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dean) and Aaron Costa Ganis (Alex)
in a scene from Tim Kirkman's film, Lazy Eye

It's likely that this relationship began the old-fashioned way, by fucking first and asking questions later. For these two men to reunite with the wistful idea that they might get back together again is one of those gay fantasies that sounds great in theory but usually collapses under the weight of reality. Physical intimacy and lust are rarely enough to keep a relationship alive.

That's not meant in any way to fault the work of Aaron Costa Ganis and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, two extremely capable actors who do a solid job with Kirkman's script. Michaela Watkins also has some nice moments as Dean's friend, Mel. Here's the trailer:

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