Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Keeping Score

One of the unanticipated benefits of web-based services like YouTube and Facebook is that a few zillion hours have been spent by people all over the world watching videos of animals. Whether the star of the video is a family pet or a predator in the wild, what makes most of these videos go viral is not just the visual content but the music which has been added to the experience. Just as different folks appreciate different strokes, what one person might deem pleasant to the ear might cause another to click the "silent" button.

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

Earlier this year, the San Francisco International Film Festival offered a screening of a fascinating new documentary written and directed by Matt Schrader. While Score: A Film Music Documentary takes viewers inside the history, challenges, and process of creating music to accompany a film, many audiences are so engrossed in the action unfolding before them that they remain unaware of the music enhancing their experience. On many occasions, that music plays a key role in shaping their feelings of suspense, warmth, and exhilaration. As Schrader explains:
Film music speaks to us in a language we can understand, but few of us can speak. Like many a cinephile, I remember the stirring rhythms of The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the spine-tingling orchestral finale of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the pounding, adrenaline-pumping awe of The Dark Knight's final ride. These are moments where, almost inexplicably, we as viewers transcend the story we're being told. The music speaks to us in ways we can't intellectually grasp, but in ways our heart still can. These moments prove that the right picture paired with the right sound can create a physical change in our heartbeats, our tear ducts, even our arms and legs. They create chills. Cold shivers. Goose bumps.”
A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

What was the most difficult challenge Schrader faced while filming SCORE? "Scheduling was an immense headache during production. What many people don't know is that most prominent film composers are in extremely high demand, which means their schedules can be booked solid for months at a time while they're trying to brainstorm, write, orchestrate, record and mix," he explains. "We had to wait more than a year for one of our favorite composers, Bear McCreary, because he was working on six television shows and, as it turned out, the uber-secret 10 Cloverfield Lane."

A scene from SCORE: A Film Music Documentary

One of the most surprising facts to emerge from Schrader's documentary is that the musicians who perform during a film's recording session are usually sight-reading the composer's score. While many may bypass SCORE in search of more exciting, political, or historical documentaries, Schrader's film is a must-see for any devoted cinephile.

Although many great film composers (Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Danny Elfman, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini) have been hailed for their contributions to cinematic history, few have received the loving treatment that Seth MacFarlane and his friends have showered on John Williams.

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as much a celebration of silent film as an art form as it has been about the experience of being able to watch a silent film with live accompaniment by talented musicians. Two screenings of beautifully restored films at the 2017 festival could not have done a better job of matching musicians with a film suited to their aesthetic.

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Like many young boys, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. My thirst for sauropod adventures was triggered by trips to the dinosaur halls within the American Museum of Natural History, a growing number of plastic dinosaur toys, the scale model kits manufactured and sold by Revell, and The Rite of Spring segment in 1940's Fantasia.

Although televised screenings of films like 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1954's Godzilla, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1961's Gorgo, and 1962's Reptilicus were met with a combination of reverence and glee, the fact that my father was a high school biology teacher gave me a rare treat. How so? He was able to show me clips from Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 version of The Lost World (the screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel which became a major step forward in stop-motion animation).

Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

With Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, Lewis Stone as Lord John Roxton, and Lloyd Hughes as an ambitious young reporter named Edward Malone, Hoyt's film added a role that could provoke a romantic interest for actress Bessie Love and incorporated a pet monkey named Jocko into the action. The Lost World made cinematic history in two other surprising ways:
  • This was the first feature-length film to be made in the United States (and perhaps the world) that featured model animation as its raison d'etre.
  • In April 1925, aboard an Imperial Airways flight from Paris to London in a wood and fabric-hulled plane that was actually a converted bomber left over from World War I, The Lost World became the first inflight film to be shown to airline passengers despite the fact that the print being screened was made from highly flammable nitrate stock.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

The script for the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel deviated from its source material in several respects:
  • Although the character of the local guide (Zambo) was meant to be a fearless and loyal figure in print, as portrayed by Jules Cowles in blackface, it represents an outdated, racist stereotype to modern audiences who shun the use of the word "darkie" in contemporary language.
  • Instead of the novel’s climactic war between humans and ape-men, the film features the massive eruption of a fiery volcano that belches rivers of lava.
  • The final segment of the film, in which a brontosaurus (instead of a pterodactyl) runs amok in London, paved the way for the finale of 1933's King Kong to make cinematic history.
A scene from 1925's The Lost World

In 1905, American cartoonist Winsor McCay used a brontosaurus in his comic strip entitled Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In 1913, McCay introduced a dinosaur named Bessie into his Little Nemo strip in an episode entitled In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. In 1914, he famously introduced Gertie the Dinosaur to the silver screen.

In his program essay Dennis Harvey explains that:
“In 1915, Willis O’Brien made an 80-second test reel that convinced San Francisco exhibitor Herman Wobber to fund The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. That six-minute clay puppet extravaganza (animating both comedic cavemen and giant critters) was a striking enough novelty to attract distribution from Thomas Edison’s company. Its success prompted a series of hastily produced follow-up shorts, most now lost. O’Brien accepted East Coast producer Herbert M. Dawley’s offer to make another dinosaur film in which Uncle Jack conjures a Dream Valley where hermit Mad Dick (played by O’Brien) leads some adventurers to a site inhabited by prehistoric animals. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, released in 1919, became another acclaimed novelty.”
Poster art for 1919's The Ghost of Slumber Mountain
“O’Brien found a new employer in Watterson R. Rothacker, who was eager to film Doyle’s story with the combination of animation, models, and live action pioneered in Slumber Mountain, but on a much grander scale. By far the most elaborate special-effects feature made to that point, it would be starry and lavish, delayed over production costs (approaching a million dollars), and done under the cloud of copyright claims made by Dawley. The enterprise was a big gamble both for Rothacker (whose company up until that point provided laboratory services and made advertising films) and for First National Pictures, which was absorbed by Warner Bros. three years later. But it paid off in one of the most spectacular successes of the era.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)

Unfortunately, much of Hoyt's film went missing for decades. As Harvey explains:
“The 1925 version was quickly lost, largely because of an unfortunate 1929 agreement to withdraw prints from circulation. For decades the film was available only in worn 16-mm dupes drastically reduced to little more (or sometimes less) than an hour. It seemed unlikely that anything like a complete restoration would ever be possible. Yet beginning about a quarter-century ago, various missing pieces started to surface around the world, principally a near-complete version at the Czech national archive.”
Poster art for Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World (1925)
“Combining elements from 11 sources, the 2016 restoration is no amusingly creaky antique. It’s a beautifully tinted, ambitious, and exciting spectacular that more than holds its own against today’s FX-laden fantasy blockbusters (the CGI era began in earnest with 1993’s Jurassic Park, which owes everything to The Lost World). Though it may not offer 100% of what audiences saw 92 years ago, the restoration is a near-seamless entity whose appeal goes beyond pure nostalgia and remains shockingly in line with modern popular taste.”

The print shown at the Castro Theatre (courtesy of Lobster Films) is about as close as one can come to Hoyt's original and obviously requires a much more compelling soundtrack than the one that accompanies Gertie the Dinosaur. True to form, the Alloy Orchestra provided a hyper-aggressive score which did a superb job of capturing the raw brutality of Conan Doyle's fantasy world ruled over by prehistoric beasts and an angry volcano. Their performance (which knocked the experience right out of the ballpark) was every bit as thrilling as what John Williams created for Jurassic Park. Although the following video does not use the Alloy Orchestra's score, it allows viewers to enjoy the recently restored film.

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While many movie fans can easily name their favorite films, it's harder to get them to talk about the ones that got away -- movies they've always wanted to see but, for one reason or another, were never able to fit into their schedule. Because I spent so many years attending live performances in theatres and opera houses on four continents, I've missed out on many a cinematic treasure that my friends have cherished for years.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In early June, I finally caught up with a legendary film on my bucket list when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a screening of the 27-year-old Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin. My only exposure to this film had been during a college course on world cinema during which our professor turned off the lights, fired up his film projector, and showed us the famous sequence that takes place on the Odessa Steps.

Shown out of context early in the morning (when most students quickly fell back to sleep), it meant nothing. More than half a century after that class, I finally had an opportunity to understand its cinematic (as well as historic) importance and see how it fit into the larger picture of the 1905 mutiny by the crew of a Russian battleship against their officers.

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

It's hard to grasp how Eisenstein managed to commence shooting his film on March 31, 1925 in Leningrad, use the battleship Twelve Apostles (which was based in the port of Odessa) for his naval sequences, and still deliver the completed film in time to meet his end-of-the-year deadline (the script didn't receive final approval until June 4). Eisenstein's first feature film, Strike, premiered on April 28, 1925. Battleship Potemkin's world premiere took place at the famed Bolshoi Theatre on December 21, 1925 at a ceremonial meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Since then, Battleship Potemkin has had a long and impressive history.
  • Eisenstein's spectacular use of montage sequences inspired filmmakers throughout the 20th century.
  • The filmmaker also revolutionized the casting process by seeking out people who (though they might have lacked professional training as actors) looked like the type of working persons he wanted them to portray.
  • Eisenstein's masterpiece was constantly subjected to censorship, cuts, and revised translations that weakened its dramatic and political impact.
  • After seeing Battleship Potemkin, Adolf Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, described Eisenstein's provocative piece as "a marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film."
  • In 1958, Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World's Fair.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  • In 1976, Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman embarked on an attempt to piece together Eisenstein’s intended sequence of shots for the film.
  • In 1986, Enno Patalas also worked on reassembling Battleship Potemkin while working at the Munich Filmmuseum.
  • In 2005, a newly restored version of the film by the Deutsche Kinemathek (made possible by the work of Kleiman and Patalas) debuted at the Berlin Film Festival with the original musical score by Edmund Meisel. This final version of Battleship Potemkin contained all of the material that had been missing after having been removed by German censors in the 1920s.
  • In 2007, a definitive restoration allowed audiences to experience Eisenstein's masterpiece in all its glory.
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In his program essay, Miguel Pendás notes that:
“The intended audiences for Battleship Potemkin were the millions of victorious workers and peasants in 1925, decimated by the recent civil war, in need of the inspired example of their revolutionary predecessors. There was hardly a person in Russia who would not have been deeply moved by the scenes of sailors being forced to bear terrible conditions and yet refusing to shoot their comrades. The use of bold imagery and sparse intertitles ensured that even an illiterate peasant could understand what the film was about. Battleship was a revolution unto itself."
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)
"The film’s reputation spread quickly. There were efforts to show it throughout the world, starting with Germany, which, in 1926, was in the throes of its own deep and bitter class struggle. Fearful of the film’s incendiary potential, German authorities severely censored it. They found the breach of military discipline depicted in the film especially disturbing. The distributor was forced to eliminate nearly 100 feet of film (crippling the film’s message) in order for it to be shown. Censored German versions are what most people outside the USSR saw."

Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Using a print from Kino Lorber, the screening at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble (a Silent Film Festival favorite). While this group has often accompanied depressing Scandinavian films, bleak documentaries, and cryptic ghost stories, one of Matti Bye's great strengths is knowing when to have his musicians stop playing and let a gruesome action sequence unfold onscreen in deadly silence. The ensemble's work accompanying Battleship Potemkin ranged from eerie silences to accompanying the military revolt with a kind of blood-pumping music and throbbing masculinity that befits a crew of angry sailors. Here's the film, in all its glory.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Dance Legends On Screen

Prior to becoming one of America's most famous songwriting teams, Rodgers and Hammerstein were facing some stiff artistic challenges. Oscar Hammerstein II had been involved in a series of artistic failures while Richard Rodgers was struggling with the chronic problems his songwriting partner, lyricist Lorenz Hart, had with depression, alcoholism, and erratic behavior. At one point Hammerstein volunteered that if Hart ever became too sick to work, he would be available to work with Rodgers as a lyricist.

After such a situation became painfully real, Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed up and delivered their first hit musical. On March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre and revolutionized musical comedy as an art form. Thanks to choreographer Agnes DeMille, dance no longer stood separate and apart from the story line. Instead, Laurie's "dream ballet" did a stunning job of moving the plot forward while communicating Laurie's internal fears to the audience. Two years later, DeMille made a similar contribution to Carousel with Louise's ballet.

The difficulty of capturing the thrill of dance for historic purposes was expressed by Hammerstein in a lyric from 1959's The Sound of Music (a musical that did not include a ballet). The lyrics for "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" include the following thoughts:
"Unpredictable as weather, she's as flighty as a feather
She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl

How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!"
As dance gained more dramatic importance in Broadway musicals, the work of choreographers such as Jerome Robbins (who created "The Small House of Uncle Thomas for 1951's The King and I, "The Dance at the Gym" for 1957's West Side Story, and the bottle dance for 1964's Fiddler on the Roof) and Bob Fosse (who created the dances for 1954's The Pajama Game, 1955's Damn Yankees, 1961's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962's Little Me, 1966's Sweet Charity, 1972's Pippin, and 1975's Chicago) became as iconic as a musical's songs. In some cases, their estates insisted that future productions reproduce their original choreography.

  • In 1978, a musical revue directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. Dancin' ran for 1,774 performances.
  • In 1989, Jerome Robbins' Broadway (an anthology of the choreographer's work) opened at the Imperial Theatre and ran for 633 performances.
  • 1in 1996, City Center Encores! presented a semi-staged revival of Chicago which had been choreographed "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking. Nearly 21 years after the production transferred to a Broadway theatre, the revival is still running and will soon pass its 8,600-performance mark.
  • Following Fosse's death in 1987, Reinking helped conceive and recreate his choreography for a musical revue appropriately entitled Fosse, which opened in January of 1999 at the Broadhurst and ran for 1,093 performances.

Founded in 1978 by Lee Theodore, the American Dance Machine worked to keep alive dance numbers created by such choreographers as Joe Layton, Jack Cole, Ron Field, Onna White, Michael Kidd, Gower Champion, Peter Gennaro, Michael Bennett, and Tommy Tune. Alas, not every ballet has been faithfully recorded using labanotation. Nor were sophisticated video and film techniques available to record many live performances during the first half of the 20th century.

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On February 29, 1828, a new opera by French composer Daniel Auber, premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra. While The Dumb Girl of Portici was subsequently hailed as the first work in a new genre of French "grand opera," it played a surprising role in the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and also introduced mime and gesture into opera as important elements of the plot (the heroine of Germaine Delavigne's libretto, Fenella, is a deaf-mute who is portrayed by a dancer). Although rarely performed today, Auber's opera was recorded in 1996 with a cast headed by June Anderson, John Aler, and Alfredo Kraus. Most opera lovers know little more than its overture.

In 1916, a silent film version of The Dumb Girl of Portici was made with the famous dancer, Anna Pavlova, in the title role. According to John Hall (who posted the following video on YouTube):
“[Director] Lois Weber did insert some dancing shots of Pavlova against a black background with a black velvet-clad partner to give invisible support and lifts (Keith Money in Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art describes this, and P. W. Manchester in the insert with the Homage to Pavlova LP references these sequences). It's quite possible that the lakeside background is simply a bit of later matting. These sequences were, it seems, not much to do with the plot [but] more of a safeguard by Weber because it was felt that audiences would want to see AP dancing. Apparently, one of these sequences appeared at the end and represented Fenella ascending to Heaven, with the assistance of the invisible partner. P. W. Manchester clearly recalled these sequences [of] Pavlova floating and leaping against a black background.'”

In June, the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a restored print of Lois Weber's 1916 film (with live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius), which gave its 21st-century audience a chance to witness the charismatic Pavlova's undeniable magnetism as a performer.

Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

If The Dumb Girl of Portici was the only feature film in which Pavlova (who died on January 23, 1931 at the age of 50) ever appeared, it was primarily for financial reasons. The famed ballerina has been quoted as saying "It is now possible for me to appear before 75% of the world's population in two years' time. What more could any ambitious artist desire?" But, as Margarita Landazuri explains in her program essay:
“By mid-1915, Europe was at war, and Pavlova, deeply in debt, had decided to wait out the conflict in the safety of the United States. She scheduled a North American tour, teaming up with impresario Max Rabinoff’s Boston Opera Company. A combined troupe of about 200 people (60 musicians, three conductors, and 70 chorus members as well as the dance company) set off on a nationwide tour. Pavlova needed to come up with $75,000 for her portion of the partnership, and the production costs for each stop came to $35,000. In order to raise the money, the star agreed to appear in a film to be written and directed by Lois Weber that would earn her 50% of its profits (Dumb Girl was just one of ten films Weber directed in 1915). [They] began filming in July 1915 in Chicago, where Pavlova was appearing at an outdoor theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Next door to the theater were the remnants of an old amusement park that had been erected for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the film company built a series of outdoor sets. Filming began in the morning, took a break while the star danced in the matinee, then resumed shooting until she had to leave for the evening show.”
Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

Anna Pavlova in a scene from 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici
“Pavlova plays Masaniello’s young sister Fenella, described in an intertitle as “the lightest slip of thistledown girlhood,” who is seduced and abandoned by a Spanish aristocrat. Pavlova’s role is an acting one, not a dancing one (Fenella is a peasant, not a sprite). That means there’s nothing wispy or ethereal about her. Pavlova’s performance is earthy and robust. Her beauty, intensity, and modernity are on full display, even when she is not the focus of a scene. Because the character is mute, she expresses herself with movement. Director Lois Weber mostly photographs Pavlova full-length, showing the eloquence of her body, although that directorial choice may have been a fortuitous necessity, since the star, then 34 years old, was far from the “girlhood” of the intertitle.”
Anna Pavlova on the set of 1916's The Dumb Girl of Portici

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about The Dumb Girl of Portici. While die-hard cinephiles were much more interested in it because Weber (often hailed as "the most important female director the American film industry has known") had been assigned to shoot a film outside of her usual genre, the action grew increasingly agitated yet strangely tiresome. Known since 1908 as the first American woman to direct a film, Weber had become famous for her work about social issues (1914's The Merchant of Venice, 1915's The Hypocrites, 1916's Shoes and Hop, The Devil's Brew). By contrast, The Dumb Girl of Portici was an old-fashioned historic epic filled with swordfights, cannon, crowds rushing back and forth, and plenty of destruction in the town square.

Thankfully, the screening at the Castro Theatre fulfilled my curiosity about what Pavlova might have been like onstage. Nor was I alone. Upon seeing the restored print of The Dumb Girl of Portici, The New Yorker’s dance critic, Joan Acocella, wrote: “Pavlova was only five feet tall, but here she seems long and tensile. She doesn’t just raise her arms; she stabs the air with them, and splays her fingers like prongs, or tendrils. She is a tendril, too: skinny, bendable, but wild.” Here's the trailer:

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It's hard to believe that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been spreading its magic fairy dust throughout the dance world with delirious abandon for more than four decades. Founded in 1974 by Peter Anastos, Natch Taylor and Antony Bassae, the all-male drag ballet troupe has been garnering belly laughs from audiences who know next to nothing about ballet as well as from ballet aficionados who have a keen appreciation of their technique and the way the Trocks mock the art form's quaint traditions.

Dancers from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Bobbi Jo Hart's endearing documentary entitled Rebels On Pointe does a lot more than review the company's history and relate how, despite numerous losses, it managed to survive the HIV/AIDS epidemic and continue to thrive. Hart takes viewers behind the scenes to witness the hard work that must be done to prepare for a performance as well as the grind of life on the road. As the filmmaker explains:
“The most challenging aspect of filming with the company was trying to stay out of the way of such a fast-moving and incredibly fine-tuned artistic machine while capturing intimate and meaningful moments that help reveal their humanity, physical determination, and artistic brilliance. They have great fun, but they run a very tight and incredibly professional ship. Every detail is deeply examined and every problem analyzed and solved in advance so the show runs so seamlessly Although they are a comedy ballet company, how they run this company is anything but laissez faire. In one year, they had 150 performances in many different countries with an insane traveling schedule and just a skeleton support staff.”
Members of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo relax backstage

Much of the documentary’s strength comes from learning about the challenges some of the dancers face in their private lives. Ballet master Raffaele Morra (who dances as Lariska Dubchenko and Pepe Dufka) is seen visiting his family in Fossano, Italy, where he tries to spend as much time as possible with a father who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Having joined the company in 2001, Morra has been able to teach, coach dancers, set ballets and choreograph some new works. “I was given the opportunity to teach in my last few years of school and have been preparing my exit strategy for quite a long time. I will definitely continue in the direction of teaching and coaching.”

Raffaele Mora seen as Larissa Dumbchenko performing
The Dying Swan with a tutu filled with moulting feathers

Philip Martin-Neilson (who, as a child, was unable to focus on simple tasks, speak, or make eye contact) was diagnosed with a profound case of autism at the age of three. His mother was warned that he might never be able live independently. But today he has much stronger social skills, enjoys talking with people, and tours the world with the Trocks. “Ballet taught me that if I wanted to progress, I had to do it myself from the inside out,” he states. “I used that mindset to help me with my academic classes, to make it easier for myself to understand.”

Philip Martin-Neilson applying his makeup prior to a performance
(Photo by: Antje Landmann)

With the legalization of same-sex marriage, Hart also follows the maturing relationship between Carlos Reneda from Barcelona (who dances as Maria Paranova and Boris Nowitsky) and Chase Johnsey (who grew up in the “super small, redneck town” of Winter Haven, Florida, and dances as Yaktarina Verbosovich and Roland Daulin) as they prepare to wed.

Carlos Renedo and Chase Johnsey in their apartment
(Photo by: Dance Consortium)

Maria Paranova (Carlos Renedo) and Yakatarina Verbosovich
(Chase Johnsey) in costume (Photo by: TROCKS)

Hart's documentary takes on added poignancy when some of the dancers' mothers visit the company on tour. Not only are they embraced by the alternative family which has nurtured their sons, the women are able to compare notes about when their sons were children. In another scene, Robert Carter gets to visit with his family in South Carolina.

A two-DVD set of videos featuring Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been available online for 15 years (and screened on many PBS television stations). Rebels On Pointe (which was featured in the 2017 Frameline Film Festival and is due to be released in September) is a handsome addition to the legacy of the world's funniest and most iconoclastic ballet company. Bobbi Jo Hart's documentary is a must-see for any ballet fan. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Maternal Instincts Gone Wild

Musical comedy fans know that, during its difficult out-of-town tryout in Detroit, the working title for Jerry Herman's most famous musical was Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. Based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 hit, The Matchmaker, the origin story of Hello, Dolly! dates back to a one-act play by John Oxenford entitled A Day Well Spent (1835), which Johann Nestroy developed into a full-length play entitled Einen Jux will er sich machen in 1842.

In 1938 (more than 100 years after Oxenford's one-act farce made its debut), Wilder adapted the story into The Merchant of Yonkers. Some 15 years later, the story took on new life as its focus shifted from The Merchant of Yonkers (Horace Vandergelder) to an enterprising widow who kept herself afloat by meddling in other peoples' affairs.

Following its success at the Edinburgh Festival and in London's West End, The Matchmaker opened on Broadway on December 5, 1955 with Ruth Gordon in the title role. In 1958, a film adaptation starring Shirley Booth was released. Six years later, on January 16, 1964, Carol Channing took the St. James Theatre by storm in Hello, Dolly! The musical's opening scene told audiences what to expect and what kind of woman would guide them on their adventure.

The theatre has a rich history filled with women who were forced to take matters into their own hands. Whether based on such historical characters as Joan of Arc, Anna Leonowens, and Gypsy Rose Lee's incorrigible monster of a stage mother or numerous fictional women like Bertolt Brecht's amoral war profiteer (Mother Courage), some women struggled to eke out a living any way they could -- even if it meant popping pussies into pies!

Some luxuriated in the adoring glances of their children while others became master manipulators.

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When The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago in 1944, it introduced audiences to a desperate single mother struggling to get through the Great Depression while living in a dingy tenement in St. Louis; a woman who spends much of her time onstage nagging her two adult children. For the first time in its 43-year history, the California Shakespeare Theater is staging one of the most famous plays written by Tennessee Williams. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, CalShakes has given his 73-year-old memory play a new look, new sense of vitality, and cast the drama so that it challenges the audience in new and interesting ways.
  • Performed without an intermission, this staging of The Glass Menagerie travels along a more fluid dramatic arc than most traditional (and seemingly realistic) productions.
  • Because the Bruns Amphitheatre is an outdoor venue, Annie Smart's deceptively simple unit set frames the playing area like a diorama, with ramps on either side of the stage that allow Tom and his mother to push pieces of furniture into the Wingfield family's apartment. In other moments, Amanda and Laura sit in areas that would normally be designated as the wings (as in "wing field") of a proscenium stagehouse.
  • Unlike productions set on proscenium stages, the open-air setting on the wide stage at CalShakes abolishes the stifling sense of claustrophobia that usually grips the Wingfield family.
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Sean San Jose (Tom) in a
scene from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As Tom tells the audience: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In this production there may be a hidden meaning to Tom's use of the word "tricks."
  • The actor playing Tom (Sean San José) is called upon to deliver an extremely restless and energetic performance as he hustles around the stage while rearranging furniture and runs out into the audience when exiting the family's apartment.
  • Because it's no longer a secret that Tom is a dramatic representation of Tennessee Williams (and that The Glass Menagerie was written at a time when most gay men led closeted lives), it's perfectly logical to assume that Tom isn't going to late night movies just because he's a cinephile or trying to escape from a suffocating mother who constantly hovers over him. In all likelihood, he's haunting a theatre where gay men cruise the balcony and men's room in search of furtive sexual connections. He may even be collecting "tricks" in his pocket of late night memories of the time he spent in St. Louis.
  • In her program note, dramaturg Philippa Kelly points to the angry reaction of Tom's respectability-obsessed mother upon finding a book by D. H. Lawrence in her home ("I took that horrible novel back to the library -- yes! That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence. I cannot control the output of diseased minds or people who cater to them -- but I won't allow such filth brought into my house! No, no, no, no, no!) and asks: "What is it about the early 20th-century British writer that so revolts Amanda? The whiff of sexual ambiguity? The loving detail with which he describes male bodies? Relationships that flagrantly flaunt class boundaries? Any or all of these could be powerful triggers for a woman whose dreams and ambitious are polished by the gleaming Southern ideals of propriety."
  • When Tom brings a "Gentleman Caller" home for dinner, they make an arm-in-arm entrance down one of the theatre's aisles, walking in a slow-motion strut that highlights their masculine sensuality and perhaps even frames a romantic vision Tom might have of going out on a date with another man (which gives new credence to his assertion that he had absolutely no idea that his friend, Jim, was engaged to be married to a woman).
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Sean San Jose (Tom)
in a scene from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As with Sam Gold's recent Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie that shocked audiences by featuring a disabled actor (Madison Ferris) in the role of Laura, the CalShakes production has cast Phoebe Fico (a playwright, poet, and disability rights activist) as Tom's physically and emotionally crippled sister. Unfortunately, for much of Fico's performance, I found myself wondering why her acting was so lifeless and her voice almost dead. Could it be a lack of professional training as an actor? Or the fact that a flattened affect and voice are frequently symptoms of clinical depression.

Karen Aldridge, Rafael Jordan, and Phoebe Fico in a scene
from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Without doubt, the most important difference in this production lies in the casting of Karen Aldridge in the pivotal role of Amanda. As director Lisa Portes explains:
“All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center -- it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latina director, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. When I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century (early 1900s), so I began to think she could exist as an African-American woman. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always signifies working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in the 1910s is absolutely viable. She came from an elite family in the South, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. That puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in her husband being Mexican because, as described, he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico. The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.”
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller)
in a scene from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“In terms of telling the story, I’m interested in who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. Amanda is dreaming of past glory. Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and they all get along perfectly. Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is. All of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves (Laura has a disability, Tom is gay), but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream. There’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in.”
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura)
in a scene from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Raquel Barreto, lighting by Xavier Pierce, and sound design by Brendan Aanes, this new production asks the audience to relinquish any preconceived notions they might have about The Glass Menagerie and experience this American classic through a radically different prism. Unfortunately, by the time Laura was left alone with her Gentleman Caller and the lighting dimmed so that they seemed isolated in the summer night (Tom has neglected to pay the family's electric bill), the production had lost a great deal of dramatic momentum.

Karen Aldridge's portrayal of Amanda delivered a younger and more vital Amanda than I've ever seen (this is a woman who reacts to her son's "selfishness" with more anger than resignation). Sean San José's frantic Tom was much less wistful and decidedly more defiant than in many productions. Unfortunately, there was precious little magic in the crucial, but mechanically acted scene between Rafael Jordan's Jim (the Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico's Laura. In the end, Tom's sister showed no interest in blowing out her candles, causing one of the most poetic moments in Williams's script to evaporate into the night air.

Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura)
in a scene from The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Glass Menagerie continue through July 30 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Where Amanda Wingfield keeps trying to control her children's lives, Rachel Segall has taken a very different approach to the future by offering her womb as a temporary breeding ground for one of her closest friends from Bates College (class of '91). In The Guys Next Door (which will be screened as part of the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival), Rachel is a happily married social worker in her mid forties with three biological children of her own who has generously offered to serve as a surrogate for a gay couple that wants to raise a family.

Erik Mercer is a self-employed licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in mitigation, whose Italian-American husband, Sandro Sechi, is a language teacher and writer from Sardinia who speaks five languages. By offering her good friends the use of her healthy uterus, Rachel (whose insurance covered the cost of the pregnancy) is not only helping to bring two new lives into the world, she is also helping Erik and Sandro bypass a complicated maze of legal and financial hurdles which could easily bring a gay couple's parenting plans to a sudden halt.

In an era when conservative Republicans would like to strip women of any control of their bodies (especially their reproductive systems), Rachel offers a glowing example of what can happen when a woman chooses an unusual path that will bring joy to others. Between Rachel and Tony Hurley's brood -- and Erik, Sandro, and their two daughters (Rachel Maria and Eleanora) -- these people have a created an extended family whose structure is vastly different from the heteronormative American nuclear family that dominated the cultural landscape back in the 1950s.

While Erik and Sandro are the legal parents of their daughters, their surrogate feels no sense of ownership with regard to the two young girls she has delivered for her gay friends because these children were created using donated eggs. Rachel's biological children (Zeke, Jordy, and Maddie) have borne witness to their mother's surrogate pregnancies and consider Rachel Maria and Eleanora to be part of their world. With the kind of candor typical of a young boy, Zeke casually explained the situation to a stranger one day by saying “You see my mom? She’s pregnant for her gay friends. And it’s not even her egg!”

Sandro, Eleanora, Rachel, Tony, Erik, and Rachel Marie
in the hospital room following Eleanora's birth

Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk's fascinating documentary (which was filmed over a three-year period) begins when Rachel (who lives in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts) is eight months pregnant with Eleanora. Erik and Sandro are busily preparing to leave their Brooklyn apartment (where they have been raising Rachel Maria) and move to Portland, Maine so they can be closer to Erik's family. While Erik's work can keep him on the road for several weeks at a time, Sandro, who is the more domestic partner, can easily work from home.

The Guys Next Door is a fascinating (and often poignant) demonstration of how new definitions of family keep evolving in our modern world. One can't help but be moved by Erik and Sandro's devotion to their daughters, Tony's support of his wife, and Rachel's compassion and generosity. Here's the trailer.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

War Games

I don't usually take conservative pundit Bill Kristol seriously. After all, he has a pretty impressive track record of being wrong on most of his off-the-wall observations and political predictions. Nevertheless, I have to give him credit for his recent Tweet that stated “The speed with which we're recapitulating the decline and fall of Rome is impressive. What took Rome centuries, we're achieving in months.”

Governments rise and fall depending on their ability to keep functioning. When they fall, their collapse may result from corruption, scandal, assassination (Julius Caesar, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Benazir Bhutto), political uprising (historic revolutions in the United States, France, Russia, China, and Cuba), or war (see Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein).

Although history often focuses on political leaders who fell from power, one need only look into the lives of their family and coterie (as well as those who suffered their abuse) to find human interest stories ripe for dramatization. Whether their personal lives became political or politics destroyed their personal lives, history brought many of these people to a tipping point from which there was no turning back.

* * * * * * * * *
While many film festivals include programs of short films, it's rare that a 12-minute short can achieve the status of a genuine tearjerker. Set in Auckland, New Zealand, Francine Zuckerman's film recalls a brief chapter in Sol Filler's life. After World War II, Filler was one of the Jews being processed at the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp who attended a concert during which Leonard Bernstein performed George Gershwin's popular Rhapsody in Blue.

Leonard Bernstein after his performance in Landsberg on May 10, 1948
(Photo courtesy of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)

In 1938, Deb Filler's maternal grandparents fled to New Zealand from Nazi Germany. During World War II, her father (a Polish Jew from Brzozow) managed to survive the horrors of four Nazi concentration camps: Plascow, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt. In a scene set in 1964, a middle-aged Jewish man (Alon Nashman) is showing his daughter (Kira Gelineau) a book which contains picture of the famous musician while describing what an emotional moment it was that day "to witness music written by a Jew being played by a Jew."

Fast forward to 1974 when Filler's 20-year-old daughter (Rebecca Liddiard) enters a concert hall in Auckland as Bernstein (Daniel Kash) is rehearsing Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 for a concert. During a rehearsal break, when she gets an opportunity to thank the conductor on her father's behalf, Bernstein remembers the concert in Landsberg and asks if her father is still alive. Not only he is living in Auckland, he works in a bakery and, because it's Friday, is racing against the clock to finish baking challahs for shabbat. When Deb rushes to the bakery with the news that she has just met her father's idol and that Bernstein has asked her father to come back to the rehearsal with her, an obviously stressed father explains that he can't join her because he's got to finish baking.

Poster art for Mr. Bernstein

Grabbing several challahs in her arms, Deb returns to the concert hall, and delivers the breads to Bernstein while explaining why her father couldn't join them. After smelling the freshly baked challah, Bernstein asks her to sit down on the piano bench. He turns to the orchestra and says "We are now going to play Rhapsody in Blue -- I assume you all know it," and sits down beside her.

As Gershwin's music dominates the soundtrack, there is a flashback to the night of May 10, 1948, when an audience of Jews (some with tears running down their cheeks) listened to Bernstein's performance in Landsberg. Mr. Bernstein is one of the short films that will be screened during the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
During the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival audiences were treated to a rare screening of Heorhii Stabovyi's 1927 film entitled Dva Dni (Two Days) with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. As the first Ukrainian film to be distributed in the United States, Two Days holds a rare place in cinematic history.

Poster art for Dva Dni (Two Days)

Set during the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1921), Stabovyi's 60-minute film begins with the camera following a rich family's desperate efforts to get their belongings into a touring car and flee for their lives as the Bolsheviks draw near. Their loyal doorman, Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi), promises to take care of their mansion and their valuables (which he has helped bury in the garden) until they can return.

Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) walks through his employer's
abandoned mansion in a scene from 1927's Dva Dni (Two Days)

Upon discovering that his young master (Valeriy Hakkebush) has been left behind, Anton hides the boy in his servant's quarters, feeding him and caring for the child as if he were his own son. When the Bolsheviks arrive, they set about transforming the vacated mansion into a barracks for their soldiers. Ironically, one of the soldiers turns out to be Anton's estranged son, Andrii (Sergey Minin), who has nothing but contempt for his father's loyalty to his landlord and employer.

Anton (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) looks down on his estranged son turned
Bolshevik soldier (Sergey Minin) in a scene from Dva Dni (Two Days)

The following day, the boy sees Andrii and his comrades dig up the family valuables and identifies him to a counterintelligence agent. After witnessing Andrii's execution, the grieving Anton joins the returning army in burning down his employer's mansion (which has been his own home for so many years).

Poster art for Two Days

In her program article, Shari Kizirian notes "the depth in the portrayal of the doorman whose struggle with loyalty, integrity, dignity, and love renders moot any political agenda."
"The actor was praised by an American reviewer, who conferred on him what could be considered the highest compliment possible at the time: 'Zamychkovskyi, playing an old servant, delivers an expressively national and impressive portrayal. He resembles Emil Jannings in his thoughtful and detailed acting.' At times he can seem indistinguishable from the downtrodden doorman in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, but director Stabovyi is less inclined to give his actor the full frame in which to emote."
Ivan Zamychkovskyi stars as Anton in 1927's Dva Dni (Two Days)

* * * * * * * * *
How do people act in a crisis when it becomes clear that time is running out for their political regime? Some freeze, others panic and start to act out. Some think about ways to seize an opportunity and grab as much loot as possible while others worry about more practical concerns, like finding an escape route and making their way to safety.

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Abi Morgan's four-character exercise in layered suspense entitled Splendour (which had its premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 2000 and its London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015). Set in an unnamed country, Morgan's play lets the audience speculate on where and when this might be happening (Ukraine? Poland? South Africa?) although a tantalizing red herring in this production is the lead actor's striking resemblance to Ivana Trump.

The four women of Splendour (Photo by: David Allen)

With costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and excellent sound design by Matt Stines, the action takes place on Michael Locher's pristine unit set for a living room in an unnamed presidential palace, where gently-falling snowflakes can be seen through a window while the rest of the immediate world (accompanied by sounds of violence, gunfire, and exploding bombs) seems about to crumble. As the playwright explains:
"I'm always on the lookout for a journey that is complex, multi-faceted, and a woman's. My original idea was to place four women on a border (not only literally on the border of a revolution, but also on the point at which power shifts). It came out of observing a number of strong women who had gone through complex, tough marriages to difficult leaders: the Imelda Marcoses, Hillary Clintons of this world. And the wife of [Nicolae] Ceausescu."
Mia Tagano (Genevieve) and Lorri Holt (Micheleine)
in a scene from Splendour (Photo by: David Allen)

The play's timeline is fairly simple: A British photojournalist (Denmo Ibrahim) arrives at an airport on assignment and discovers that no one has arranged for a car to bring her to the presidential palace where she is to photograph a powerful dictator (who is running suspiciously late). A tough single woman who has worked all over the world, Kathryn does not speak the local language but has developed enough of a sixth sense from past experiences in dangerous situations to grasp that her interpreter, Gilma (Sam Jackson), probably grew up poor, is a skilled kleptomaniac, and a clever (but sloppy) liar.

Sam Jackson (Gilma) and Denmo Ibrahim (Kathryn)
in a scene from Splendour (Photo by: David Allen)

Upon her arrival at the presidential palace, Kathryn is greeted by the dictator's often condescending wife. Micheleine (Lorri Holt) married her husband when they were young and far from wealthy. However, having risen to a previously unimaginable level of power and wealth, she has grown to be a very privileged material girl who is being forced to cope with a string of inconveniences on the maid's day off. The three women are soon joined by Genevieve (Mia Tagano), Micheleine's widowed friend whose son was often rumored to be gay. At a key moment, an exquisite vase gets knocked over and shatters into pieces.

Using a narrative style similar to that of Rashoman (Akiro Kurosawa's classic 1950 film), Morgan keeps repeating this series of events so that the audience can view the action through the eyes of each woman. In each scene, the women voice their inner thoughts to the audience. Some of their bonding seems genuine; other moments are blatantly insincere. An obvious class difference separates Micheleine and Genevieve's behavior and insights from those of Kathryn and Gilma.

Lorri Holt (Micheleine) and Sam Jackson (Gilma) in
a scene from Splendour (Photo by: David Allen)

With political unrest drawing closer to the presidential palace, each woman tries to mask her internal concerns.
  • Is Micheleine's husband dead?
  • Has he left the country without her?
  • What about their grandchild, who lives in the area of town where the most violence is taking place?
  • Why did Genevieve suddenly show up?
  • Is she really as close to Micheleine as the dictator's wife would like to believe?
  • What about total strangers like Kathryn and Gilma? Can they be trusted? Why can't they just do what they were sent here to do and then leave?
Under Barbara Damashek's astute direction, Aurora's ensemble does an exceptional job of helping the audience read between the script's lines and catch any tics which might signal a "tell" for these characters. After all, how is a powerful and pampered woman supposed to interpret what could very well be fake news when the sand is rapidly shifting beneath her expensive designer shoes?

Splendour offers an excellent demonstration of how distinct personalities react under stress. As the pressure begins to mount, the audience starts to question which woman has the most to lose. Someone like Genevieve may try to build alliances while an underdog like Gilma might try to abscond with whatever she can hide in her fashionably voluminous coat. While Lorri Holt does a fine job with Micheleine's self-absorbed desperation and eventual meltdown, it is the more worldly Kathryn who displays the strongest survival skills (Denmo Ibrahim delivers the production's most intricately layered performance).

Mia Tagano, Sam Jackson, Denmo Ibrahim, and Lorri Holt
in a scene from Splendour (Photo by: David Allen)

"Why does Abi Morgan take this unusual, cubist approach to her narrative?" asks the Aurora Theatre Company's artistic director, Tom Ross. "Perhaps it is to immerse the audience in a similar situation to the women onstage, an environment fraught with erratic information and untrustworthy motives in a state of mounting uncertainty. Such conditions remain common around the world today, anywhere power is shifting and people must learn to either accommodate or impede the change."

Performances of Splendour continue through July 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: