Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Rare and Tasty Treats

After spending many years as a restaurant chef, Anthony Bourdain moved on to additional careers as a writer and television reporter focused on culinary tourism. Part of his mission has been to introduce viewers to a wealth of exotic culinary treats. Not only has his work encouraged dedicated foodies to treat dining as the ultimate adventure, he has shown audiences how people around the world learn to make the most of whatever food is available to them.

One of the reasons I love the menu of cinematic experiences offered at film festivals is that it offers audiences some genuine surprises. Narrative films often put a new twist on an established genre. Documentaries provide educational (and sometimes thrilling) armchair adventures. Some feats of animation boggle the mind with their beauty.

Whether one is exposed to the subtleties of a foreign culture or the brash vitality of an underground social phenomenon, such films broaden one's perspective on life in ways that challenge the mind as well as the soul. Many festivals feature films in which food plays an important role. Two recent experiences presented a fascinating contrast:
  • One film was set in an Asian culture in which a revered chef's creations are treated as deeply personal artistic achievements that depend on a delicate balance of ingredients, spices, and years of experience and experimentation.
  • The other took viewers behind a raucous phenomenon in the African American community as it focused on a bawdy form of entertainment in which the same women who prepare large servings of macaroni and cheese for their church events derive pleasure from heaping helpings of darkly sensuous, big, buff, and beautiful black beefcake. Who could ask for anything more?
Tarik Sanders showing off in a scene from This One's For The Ladies

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A recent article by Helena Andrews-Dyer in The Washington Post (Fans Love It. Critics Don’t. After Tyler Perry, Can Urban Theater Cross Over?) fascinated me with its description of urban theatre as the modern day "chitlin circuit." The article quotes Vy Higginsen (whose 1983 play, "Mama, I Want To Sing!" ran for eight years in Harlem and toured for an additional two and a half years) as saying that “People didn’t think black folks were coming out to see theater, but the heart and soul of any community is in their art."

A scene from This One's For The Ladies

In Andrews-Dyer's article, culture critic Michael Arcenaux explains that a play like Set It Off: Live On Stage " not August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry, but it’s a good time if you know exactly what you’re signing up for. In the same way there is a time for fine dining and then there is a time for the spicy chicken strips combo from Popeyes, that’s how you should go in ready to see Set It Off and plays like it. The audiences get that, which is why the play has done so well.”

One of the women interviewed in This One's For The Ladies makes a similar distinction when she describes the dancers from Chippendales (and the ones depicted in the Magic Mike movies) as "strippers for white women." Gene Graham's rowdy documentary focuses on the kind of erotic dancing that takes place at Dojo (which functions as "a Pre-K/karate school in Newark, New Jersey by day and a male strip joint by night). Every Thursday, twin dancers Tygar and Raw Dawg (founding members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz) emcee erotic dance performances by "hot chocolate men and a lesbian 'dom' dancer named Blaze." Described as a film that was made "for and about black women," Graham calls This One's For The Ladies "a celebration of their lives and their truth."

Just when Graham has hooked the viewer on the sight of black women showering male strippers with dollar bills and happily letting a muscular dancer pretend that he's performing cunnilingus on a woman who is old enough be his mother, This One's For The Ladies veers off in a surprising direction as it digs deeper into the community that supports these shows and explains how stripping can be a way out of poverty. For men who have left a gang, stopped using drugs, or finished serving time in prison, it's one of the few options left for earning a living. As the filmmaker notes:
"Newark, New Jersey has not changed much for working class black residents since the race riots of 1967. In some respects life has gotten worse. But that doesn’t stop hundreds of black women from making their way to Dojo. This film is about sisterhood and community, the freedom and fluidity of female sexuality, life under segregation, economic inequity and racial disparity, the enduring strength of family and a determination to persevere in spite of American society's sustained assault on communities of color."
Sarah Brown and Selina Lawson celebrate their favorite
male dancers in a scene from This One's For The Ladies
"Hilarious, emotional, challenging, and thought provoking, This One's For The Ladies isn't just about male strippers. A real-time history lesson about contemporary black life in America, the film explores sexual and social identity through intimate, eye opening, and often hilarious accounts from women and men who find love and community in the underground world of male exotic dancing. I love Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates and their work is super important. But I also wanted to hear from ordinary black and brown Americans about what's going on for them. We've been bombarded with conversations about the white working class and how they are real Americans. What about the black working class? Are they not true Americans, too? Don't their voices deserve to be heard? I'm tired of having my desires censored by a straight male gaze."
Mr. Capable shows off in a scene from This One's For The Ladies

Graham's documentary is full of surprises that range from the ample display of muscular ass cheeks and hard cocks (belonging to men with stage names like Satan, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Young Rider) to the story of two talented men ("entertainers by birth, hustlers by necessity") who told their mother that if she managed to kick her crack cocaine habit, they would buy her a house with their earnings.

Tygar and Raw Dawg are twin male strippers who are
founding members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz

While some of the women gush like teenage girls while talking about their favorite dancers, they are also seen attending the Million Moms March in Washington, D.C. to honor the memory of loved ones from their community who were lost to the ravages of substance abuse and gun violence. Some of the film's most devoted female fans include:
  • C-Pudding (Selina Lawson), a church lady who loves Satan (the dancer as opposed to the underworld overlord). A teacher and single mother of two children, “she knows the kind of world her son has to face, which is why she turns faith into action on behalf of her family and community.”
  • PoundCake (Sarah Brown). “Together with her husband, Big Daddy, she runs a busy household with four children. PoundCake is classy, sometimes a little nasty, but always a lady who can be gay in a minute. Love never stops flowing from Mrs. Brown’s kitchen.”
  • Michele Moore is “a southern belle from Tennessee who provides speech-language therapy to autistic children. While Michelle just wants to be loved, she’s a white woman caught between two worlds. When her favorite dancer wraps his arms around Michelle and tells the filmmaker that he considers her to be ‘family,’ it’s a genuinely spontaneous and deeply poignant moment captured on camera.
A scene from This One's For The Ladies

The good news is that NEON acquired worldwide rights to Graham's documentary prior to its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Here's a taste of the kind of performance art you'll see in this documentary (which will be screened at the 2018 San Francisco DocFest).

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The joys of Jimami Tofu (seen during CAAMFest 2018) are many and varied, but the subtlety with which co-writers and co-directors Jason Chan and Christian Lee have woven their narrative tapestry often makes it difficult to get a grip on where the story is headed.

David Chan and Christian Lee co-wrote, co-directed,
and appear in Jimami Tofu

Since intersectionality has become a popular buzzword in recent years, try to imagine using this term without regard to sexuality or race, but with its focus on a different set of factors.
  • The action is set within two distinct island cultures: Okinawa and Singapore.
  • Sakumoto (Masane Tsukayama) is an aging chef in a small, seaside town in Okinawa. A generous man with a big heart who has always been extremely loyal to his customers, he has enjoyed serving them for many years. What keeps locals coming back to his restaurant is Sakumoto'ss secret recipe for jimami tofu (a tofu made with peanuts).
  • Yuki (Mari Yamamoto) is a food critic for an upscale travel magazine whose tastes have been impacted by three men with vastly different personalities: her father, a business associate, and the quiet chef with whom she falls in love. As a writer, Yuki has built a reputation for writing scathing restaurant reviews which, unbeknownst to her, have ruined some people's lives. Although she always travels first class and has a seemingly unlimited expense account, she is a lonely woman.
In Jimami Tofu, Nami (Rino Nakasone) and Yuki (Mari Yamamoto)
are childhood friends who grew up in Okinawa
  • Yuki's close childhood friend, Nami (Rino Nakasone) now works in Sakumoto's restaurant as its hostess, manager, and waitress. During the day, she is a freediving enthusiast who hopes to build up her lung capacity to the point where she can enter the Olympics.
  • Ryan (Jason Chan) is a Chinese Singaporean chef who was working in a Tokyo restaurant when a hungry, homesick Yuki came in one night at closing time. They did not "meet cute." After Yuki started to act like a spoiled snob, Ryan he told her she could eat what he served or leave. She kept coming back for more.
Ryan (Jason Chan) plates a dish in a scene from Jimami Tofu

Once Ryan and Yuki fell in love, she was eager to introduce him to her foodie friends. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of trying to "help" Ryan by criticizing his cooking from her "professional" standpoint despite the fact that she couldn't even make toast. Disgusted by her attempt to "fix" him so that he could move up in the culinary world, Ryan ended their affair and spent the next two years licking his wounds. Yuki eventually started to date another man but, one night, when they arrived at a posh restaurant without a reservation, the maitre d' recognized her and refused to seat them. Why? She once wrote a scathing review of a restaurant he owned that caused him to lose his business.

Yuki (Mari Yamamoto) is a haughty food critic in Jimami Tofu

What will confuse many viewers is the creative team's heavy use of flashbacks referring to previous events in Tokyo, Okinawa, and Singapore. As Yuki wanders through Singapore checking out restaurants that specialize in Southeast Asian cuisine, she thinks she sees Ryan in a crowd, but it turns out to have been a hallucination. Meanwhile, the heartsick Ryan has been searching for Yuki in her home town on Okinawa, where he has begged an old chef (Sakumoto) to teach him how to cook traditional Okinawan food.

Sakumoto (Masane Tsukayama) is an Okinawan chef in Jimami Tofu

By the time Sakumoto hands over control of his kitchen to Ryan, the younger man has learned how to balance the tastes of Chinese and Japanese cooking. Meanwhile, he has grown close to Nami, who understands his feelings for Yuki, his despair over their breakup, and is supportive of his talent. 

Poster art for Jimami Tofu

Following Sakumoto's death, Yuki returns home intent on selling the restaurant (which she only sees as an asset that needs to be liquidated). However, Nami finds a way to rally the townspeople and, as Ryan prepares the last meal he will ever cook for Yuki, the humbled critic finally comes to understand that Ryan's responsibility is to keep her father's restaurant alive as a focal point of the community.

Ryan (Jason Chan) and Nami (Rino Nakasone)
start to fall in love in Jimami Tofu

It's obvious that Jimami Tofu has been a labor of love (in addition to co-writing, co-directing, and starring as Ryan, Chan also composed the film's musical score and is credited with its cinematography). The underwater footage showing Nami's freediving is breathtaking; the attention given to capturing a chef's respect for nature's bounty, understanding how food and compassion work together to warm someone's soul, and the emotional wounds of the lovelorn in societies which discourage excessive displays of emotion reminded me of 2008's Departures. One of Jimami Tofu's strongest assets in its quiet ability to seduce a viewer into succumbing to the charms of a film that rests on a foundation of compassionate care, true tenderness, and a holistic sense of humility.

Nami (Rino Nakasone) is a free-diving enthusiast in Jimami Tofu

Supported by a small but irresistible ensemble, Jason Chan gives a beautifully restrained performance as Ryan. Jimami Tofu is the kind of film to savor on a quiet night, free from the distractions of an angry, hate-filled world. Like Departures, it is a film you'll want to watch again in order to catch subtle hints that went unnoticed on first viewing. Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sisters Under The Skin

Though many women refer to each other as "sisters," sisterhood is not always determined by two women's sharing the same genetic makeup.
Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton as the ugly stepsisters
in the Royal Ballet's production of Cinderella

The stars of 1954's White Christmas (Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye) famously took turns performing Irving Berlin's song, "Sisters."

Beginning in 1947, the concept of sister city relationships began to spread around the world. Although Osaka and San Francisco entered into a sister city agreement in 1957, in November of 2017 Osaka severed the 60-year-old relationship to protest a statue erected in San Francisco's Chinatown honoring World War II's victims of human trafficking.

Thankfully, San Francisco still celebrates its sister city relationships with Sydney (1968), Taipei and Assisi (1969), Haifa (1973), Seoul (1975), Shanghai (1979), Manila (1981), Cork (1984), Abidjan (1986), Thessaloniki (1990), Ho Chi Minh City (1995), Paris (1997), Zurich (2003), Caltagirone (2005), Bangalore and Krakow (2009), Amman and Barcelona (2010), and Kiel (2017).

Some women become "soulsisters" because of a shared passion while others bond through shared experiences (working for the same employer, accompanying their children to school, doing volunteer work, etc.). Over the years, some also become experts at pushing each other's buttons.

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One of the films that fascinated me during CAAMFest 2018 was a documentary about Caridad Amaran and Georgina Wong, two octogenarians linked by a curious chapter in Cuban history. During the 1850s, Chinese laborers were brought to Cuba to work in the sugar cane fields as indentured servants. Most were single men who eventually married Cuban women. Julian Fong (who immigrated to Cuba in the 1920s after his family forbade him from performing opera) became Caridad's foster father and mentor. A famous tailor in Havana's Chinatown, Georgina's father encouraged his daughter to learn how to perform the lion dance and taught her the Chinese martial art known as kung fu.

Caridad Amaran's image as a performer in Cantonese
opera is superimposed on a painting of old Havana

S. Louisa Wei's charming documentary, Havana Divas, tells the story of how Caridad and Georgina became active in Cuba's Cantonese opera community. Back in those days there were four Cantonese opera companies in Havana. Caridad started acting with the Shanghai Theatre when she was only eight years old. Both women joined the Kwok-Kwong Opera Troupe in 1939 when they were teenagers and toured throughout the 1940s, performing for Chinese communities scattered around the island. After Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers, many traveling performers were unable to return to their homes in China and spent several years living and working in Chinese communities in Canada, the United States, and Latin America.

Georgina stopped performing in order to enter college (she later became a Cuban diplomat). However, even in her eighties, she has no trouble recalling how tall and handsome the young Fidel Castro looked (Wei's film also contains some wonderful footage that captures Che Guevara's natural charisma). Unfortunately, Havana's Barrio Chino started to decline soon after Castro rose to power in 1959.

Georgina Wong and Caridad Amaran are the stars of Havana Divas

As these two women reminisce about the years they performed onstage, recall how Castro's revolution affected their lives, and discuss the impact that the music of Cantonese opera had on their lives, Havana Divas draws a viewer into a cultural era that has faded away (barely one percent of Cuba's population is now Chinese). As the filmmaker explains:
"I have always been drawn to people who are able to cross borders of art, language, race and culture. It is refreshing to see young people cross borders when they are emboldened by their lack of experience; just as it is touching to see older people cross borders in the name of love and nostalgia. The journey of Caridad and Georgina is what I call a journey of 'love' and what my producer, Law Kar, calls a journey of 'nostalgia.' While I relate to these women through the love they have for their fathers, Law Kar sees how their youth, filled with the song and performance of Cantonese opera, became the impetus for them to 'return' to Hong Kong and Canton."
"When I follow Caridad and Georgina’s journey from Cuba to China, I can’t help but see it as an extension of their love for their late fathers and a testament to what their fathers had left them. Following their journey, I see their splendor on the opera stage slipping away over and over: first with the end of China’s Civil War in 1949 (when many Chinese coolies moved back to China, leaving a diminishing Chinatown), next when Communist leader Fidel Castro assumed power (prompting remaining Chinese Cubans to move to other parts of America), and a third time when they returned to Hong Kong and Canton just in time to witness the decline of Cantonese opera as an art form even in China. A deep sense of nostalgia and pathos permeates their movement through the fading vestiges of the charm of a golden age."
Poster art for Havana Divas

With a soundtrack that mixes Cantonese opera with contemporary Latin music, Havana Divas contains some fascinating footage of both Havana's and San Francisco's Chinese communities in the first half of the 20th century. There is some excellent archival footage of Cantonese opera performers who appeared in New York and Honolulu. However, some of the film's most poignant segments take place in 2014, when Caridad and Georgina travel to China to reconnect with their beloved art form's cultural roots. In one breathtaking sequence, they visit a studio in Foshan where they are dressed in traditional costumes from Cantonese opera and their faces are made up as classic characters. The effect is stunning: the two women suddenly look 50 years younger and ready to step back onstage again.

Georgina Wong and Caridad Amaran dressed in traditional
Cantonese opera costumes for a 2014 photo session in Foshan

Georgina Wong and Caridad Amaran dressed in traditional
Cantonese opera costumes for a 2014 photo session in Foshan

"Last year, I lost my father in a traffic accident. At first, I only felt hurt by the painful knowledge that such a loss is permanent and irreversible. Now, I begin to see that the true color of a fatherly love does not fade. My father taught me music; he taught me to be passionate, to value optimism, and to keep an open and inquisitive mind. These lessons continue to enliven and brighten my life," writes the filmmaker. "What I hope to bring to life in this documentary is not only the legend of these women, but the poignant beauty of love and loss that surrounds our collective feelings for our fathers."

Havana Divas contains many poignant moments as Caridad and Georgina perform the songs they sang as teenagers to new audiences. But there is also a moment of stark reality when the filmmaker asks Caridad if she has any goals. "Goals?" asks Caridad. "I'm 80!" Here's the trailer:
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In recent years, the theatre and film industries have been severely challenged by the #Me Too and #Time's Up movements. One of the burning issues involves women whose careers may have been jeopardized because some of the critical decision makers affecting their futures were misogynistic men. Theresa Rebeck (who has frequently spoken and written about this problem) did a stunning job of depicting how misogyny plays out in an office setting in her 2017 play entitled "What We're Up Against."

With the accelerating churn rate among leadership positions throughout the nation's theatre community, more and more people are watching to see if regional boards of directors and their search committees seek out qualified women and people of color instead of merely reinforcing a pattern of filling such positions with white men. Created by Rebecca Novick, Lia Kozatch, and Evren Odcikin, a spreadsheet tracking American Theatre Leadership Change is hoping to track parity and accountability in job searches. The bottom line will also give insight into which new leaders have a compelling artistic vision.

A perfect example of a controversial drama written by a young female playwright is currently receiving its Bay area premiere from the Shotgun Players. Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel (a graduate of Young Playwrights Inc. and Yale University), Dry Land focuses on two young women on a suburban Florida high school's swim team. Amy (Martha Brigham) is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Having researched her options for getting an abortion, she has run up against unexpected obstacles (such as the need for two credit cards) and the likelihood that her mother would have to be told about the procedure. When asked about her inspiration for Dry Land, Spiegel stated:
“I read an article in The New Republic on the rise of DIY abortions and was really shocked. This article looked at how American abortion rights are being rolled back. Now we have pills that can be bought online. The Internet is really shaping self-abortion methods. In the United States it’s becoming more difficult to obtain a safe abortion. Clinics are disappearing, and young women across America have to resort to these self-abortion means. Dry Land is as much about abortion as it is about female friendship and loneliness. The title of the play is about safety, trying to find that safe place to swim ashore.”
Amy Nowak (Reba) and Martha Brigham (Amy) in a scene from
Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

As Dry Land gets under way, Amy keeps asking her friend Ester (Grace Ng) to punch her in the stomach as hard she can. When constant punching fails to bring immediate results, Amy ends up taking some pills that are supposed to help induce a spontaneous abortion. Although the resulting bloodbath in the middle of the girl's locker room will be a jarring experience for many audience members, I'm pretty sure that the men attending a performance will be more squeamish than the women (which is surprising considering how many men love to watch horror movies filled with gore).

Martha Brigham (Amy) and Grace Ng (Ester) in a scene from
Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

One of the fascinating things about this play is how Spiegel's writing provides a springboard for a skilled director to shape certain dramatic moments. While the bloody scene in which Ester has to help her friend as Amy miscarries will leave a strong impact on audiences, it is followed by a painfully slow and relatively quiet scene as a male janitor enters the locker room, sees a floor covered in blood, and slowly mops up the mess until the room is clean again.

A janitor (Don Wood) cleans up the women's locker room
in a scene from Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

It's easy to see how some artistic directors could consider this play a hard sell to subscribers. Apparently, one man fainted during a performance of Dry Land in London/ A British critic vowed that he would only sit through the abortion scene again at gunpoint. However, Spiegel's reaction to the news was right on point.
“It was important to me that Amy is risky with her sexuality and that she is or has tried to carve out a performative sexual identity for herself that pushes against the idea of female purity. There are so few representations of abortion on stage and screen. It makes sense that it would be shocking to people who have no experience of it. If blood wasn’t part of it, I wouldn’t put it on stage. But it is. I’m glad this man is doing all right, but if it’s shocking to men, you almost certainly have a female friend who has gone through this. You should ask her about it. It’s always a helpful theatrical device to have people in a bodily crisis because it can create an arresting image onstage and become something that is exchanged and negotiated between the two characters. My hope is that if it is shocking to you, it makes you think about what is an extremely common experience across the world. This is not for shock’s sake.”
Martha Brigham as Amy in Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

It would be a terrible mistake to think that Dry Land is all about gore and the anguish of teenage pregnancy. Spiegel has crafted a wonderfully funny scene for Ester when she goes back to visit a friend in her home town and ends up being stuck in the hallway of his college dormitory because Victor's roommate is having sex with someone and has locked him out of the room. As always, Adam Magill does a wonderful job of portraying a young man with limited social skills who has trouble expressing himself.

Adam Magill (Victor) and Grace Ng (Ester) in a scene from
Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Working on Angrette McCloskey's drab locker room set (with excellent sound design by Sara Witsch and lighting by Cassie Barnes), Ariel Craft has done a stunning job of directing an extremely challenging play. It is a testament to the talents of Martha Brigham (Amy) and Grace Ng (Ester) that, at such early stages of their careers, they can deliver such complex and fully-committed performances. As Craft writes in her director's program note:
"Dry Land premiered in New York City when playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was a mere 21 years old. Still on the slippery onramp to adulthood herself, she wrote this play unpacking the expectations that young women live with and the quiet agony of failure. This play questions the limits of fortitude as you face the vast chasm between the person you are today and the person you aspire to be. It encourages you to revise your own sense of self and to allow space for the aspects of your identity that you’d rather not acknowledge. While the play might not provide simple answers, it does provide a challenge: be strong and be flexible, because the road to really knowing yourself is long, and the road to living comfortably and appreciatively in that skin is even longer."
Martha Brigham (Amy) and Grace Ng (Ester) in a scene from
Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)
"The sheer existence of this play, penned by a near-teenager, is a testament to the exquisite thoughtfulness and depth of wisdom to be mined from the mess and melancholy of youth. Watching Dry Land is, for me, an exercise in active listening: discovering myself in the struggles and triumphs of these young women. You may not be a teenage girl (or a competitive swimmer) but the play is about you, too."
Martha Brigham as Amy in Dry Land (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Following its development at New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Summer Theater session (as well as the Ojai Playwrights Conference), in a relatively short time, Dry Land has been staged at the HERE Arts Center, Colt Coeur, Permanent Record Theatre, London's Kings Cross Theatre, Center Theatre Group, TheatreLAB, Kirk Douglas Theatre, and Forum Theatre. There's no doubt that it will become a popular play for small theatre companies and university drama departments.

However, just as the Parkland students have been remarkably effective in confronting politicians who have become the tools of the NRA, there is a very specific audience that needs to see this play. If I had my druthers, I'd like to see Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, every member of Trump's cabinet, and all of those self-righteous conservatives who have voted against women's rights forced to attend a performance of Dry Land surrounded by their wives, daughters, and granddaughters. I think that would be a fabulous consciousness-raising session that could demonstrate how the consequences of their craven political actions have left them with blood on their hands.

Performances of Dry Land continue through June 17 at Shotgun Players (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Tales of Sensory Deprivation

When Akiro Kurosawa's landmark film, Rashomon, was released in 1950, audiences were confronted with a powerful conundrum. Four witnesses to a murder described what they had seen in such a way that none of their recollections matched up. Kurosawa's storytelling technique was so strong that the "Rashomon effect" has since been defined as "the naming of an epistemological framework (or ways of thinking, knowing, and remembering) required for understanding complex and ambiguous situations."

It's no secret that several people can look at the same thing and react very differently. When Kander and Ebb's landmark musical, Cabaret, opened on Broadway in 1966, one of its most startling musical numbers was sung by Joel Grey as the lewd and lascivious Emcee. In Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation, one word in the song "If You Could See Her From My Eyes" (which had been replaced with the term "meeskite" during the Broadway run) was restored to the original lyric.

It is often said that when one of our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and, touch) is impaired, some of the others may be strengthened. But what if that hypothesis is applied to more than just the scientific parameters of a particular sense?
  • A person may be color blind, legally blind, or totally blind, yet many people who are fully sighted can be blinded by prejudice.
  • Some may insist that a "sixth sense" allows them to see things (spirits, ghosts) that others cannot.
  • A person like Harvey Weinstein may view a social situation through the eyes of a sexual predator (as opposed to someone who understands, acknowledges, and respects boundaries).
  • Some people come home from a night on the town claiming to be "blind drunk."
  • In many situations, what a person saw in his youth might differ quite noticeably from his recollection of the same event many years later.

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As part of PlayGround's 2018 Festival of New Works, The Best of PlayGround is a collection of six short plays created over the course of this season's playwriting workshops for the Berkeley company's incubator program for aspiring playwrights. Not surprisingly, three of the works on this year's festival program depict characters who face obvious challenges interpreting what they see.

Written by Erin Marie Panttaja and directed by Jenny McAllister, Factory Girls (which is performed to music by Philip Glass) is a piece of dance theatre perfectly timed to the #Me Too and #Time's Up movements. Three women working on a production line (Melissa Ortiz, JennyAn Nelson, and Floriana Alessandria) perform choreographed movements beginning from the moment they punch in for their shift. Their supervisor (David Stein) is the kind of sexual predator who likes to intimidate his prey by standing too close to them, making suggestive remarks about their clothing, or threatening to have them fired.

David Stein, JennyAn Nelson, Floriana Alessandria, and Melissa
Ortiz in a scene from Factory Girls (Photo by:

When one of the younger, more vulnerable women on the line looks as if she might succumb to the supervisor's crude attempt at seduction, the other two women silently step forward and put their hands on her shoulders in order to present a united front against a man who obviously has no qualms about sexually harassing his subordinates in the workplace

Written by Lauren Gorski and directed by Becca Wolff, Living Conditions begins with Claire (JennyAnn Nelson) interviewing Mike (Chris Morrell) in her living room while another man sits between them with his back to the audience. Mike is a freelancer who specializes in checking out claims by nervous owners fear that their homes may be haunted. However, unlike Noel Coward's eccentric medium in 1941's Blithe Spirit (Madame Arcati), Mike accepts payment by American Express and VISA.

The fun begins when Mike asks Claire for a candle. While Claire is out of the room, Bruce (Ed Berkeley) rises from his chair and begs Mike to help him escape from Claire's house. As soon as Claire returns, Bruce deftly blows out the candle and, when Mike isn't looking, starts to pull some other visual tricks on Claire which might easily be attributed for levitation, a burst of wind, or some ghostly activity.

Chris Morrell (Mike) and JennyAn Nelson (Claire) in a
scene from Living Conditions (Photo by:

Fully aware that Mike can see him (even if Claire cannot), Bruce returns wearing a bloody T-shirt with a meat cleaver hanging from his chest. When Mike casually asks Claire "Who's Bruce?" the tension in the room changes. After the meat cleaver noisily falls from Bruce's shirt to the floor (where it cannot be ignored), Claire slowly reaches for it as Mike asks how she would like to pay for his consultation.

On a lighter note, Nic Sommerfeld's wry comedy, A Giant Story, starts off as an Irish husband and wife argue about why she has come home from the pub at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. Danny (David Stein) doesn't buy the story Lori (Melissa Ortiz) is selling about staying late at work. As tempers flare, she drops hints about having encountered a giant and an elf. After a brief attempt at slut shaming his wife (in which Danny mentions his friend, Colin Quinn), an elaborately dressed creature proudly strides onstage. As it turns out, Quinn is quite the handsome shape shifter!

Each of these short plays has a distinct creep factor which draws the audience into the storyteller's world. Even more enticing is how obviously each one evidences its writer's craft and potential for future work.

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A Shot in the Dark is a popular title that is frequently (but not always) applied to crime stories.
Anthony Ferraro during a wrestling match

The most recent film to use the title is a documentary about a teenage wrestler from New Jersey who is legally blind. Anthony Ferraro has had to deal with some unpleasant setbacks in his youth. After being accepted to a private school (Christian Brothers Academy) by an understanding principal, his fortunes were reversed when the principal died and his replacement rescinded Ferraro's acceptance letter. A crushing experience for a young man who was battling the stigma of "not being normal," Ferraro ended up at a more supportive school (St. John Vianney in Holmdel Township).

From an early age, Anthony had idolized his older brother, Oliver, who had done well on his school's wrestling team. Legally blind since birth, Anthony suffers from congenital amaurosis, a degenerative condition of the retina which allows him to see changes in light and colors. In 2012, one of the wrestling coaches at St. John Vianney (Pat Smith) sent a Facebook message to Chris Suchorsky, a former teammate from the wrestling team at Seton Hall University, that read "Check this out." The link embedded in his message led to a two-minute "sizzle reel" posted on about a blind high school student who also happened to be Pat's star wrestler. At the bottom of the page was a message from Anthony's older brother that read:
"This is my little brother. I want to make a film about him. If you're a camera operator, producer, composer, please contact me. I don't have the resources to make the film."
Although the two men had coached rival wrestling teams after graduating from Seton Hall, Suchorsky and Smith had not spoken for nearly 12 years (during which Suchorsky begun to work in the film industry). "I emailed Oliver and asked what he was doing with the film. He wrote me back and told me that he had produced the sizzle reel a year or so earlier while he was living in New Jersey, but was now living in Los Angeles working as an editor for Hulu. I told him I was interested in the film and to give me a call when he got back in town," states Suchorsky.

Anthony Ferraro with high school wrestling coach, Pat Smith

With the steady support of his parents and coaches (Pat Smith, Tony Caravella, Rob Phillips, and Mike Malinconico), Anthony did exceptionally well on the school's wrestling team. While most of the film covers his training and wrestling matches, it also shows Ferraro practicing guitar and being a fairly typical teenager. His vulnerability becomes especially moving in moments when opposing teams intentionally play to his emotional weak spots or when he feels that he is being discriminated against because of his disability.

Although Anthony had set a goal for himself of winning a New Jersey State Championship before the end of his senior year, the numbers didn't work out in his favor. After graduating from St. John Vianney, he spent two years wrestling for The College of New Jersey, but chose to leave school and give up the sport after suffering a severe concussion. With a strong interest in music, he moved with some friends to Arcata, California in 2015 to start the next phase of his life. His older brother, Oliver (who had been struggling with substance abuse problems) died of an overdose on August 28, 2015.

Anthony Ferraro at a screening of A Shot in the Dark

At present, A Shot in the Dark (which will be screened at the 2018 SFDocFest) is making its way around the film festival circuit in hope of finding a distributor. According to Surchorsky, "If we can't find a distributor by mid 2018, we'll most likely release it independently through Vimeo On-Demand, Netflix, etc." It's fascinating, however, to compare two of the poster designs created by Size Matters for Suchorsky's documentary.

Poster art for A Shot in the Dark

Poster art for A Shot in the Dark

Although made on an extremely small budget, Suchorsky's action-packed documentary is dramatically tight and clearly demonstrates how a student with a physical disability might have a better chance at wrestling (a one-on-one competition) than he might as part of a more team-oriented sport. Here's the trailer.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Up, Up, and Away!

Some people's gaze can signal their mood. Those who are sad or insecure will often look down (perhaps as a way of avoiding direct eye contact). Those who are confident or seeking inspiration will often look up toward the sky. Clouds may seem threatening, lightning may be crackling, but the vastness of the sky always seems to offer hope for new possibilities.

Some people may look upward in search of heavenly guidance while others may spend a lifetime waiting for a chance to point at something in the sky and shout "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman!" In Finian's Rainbow (a hit musical from 1947), Sharon has a lovely song which explains her father's philosophy to the chorus and audience.

Throughout history mankind has watched the behavior of birds and tried to figure out how to fly. In Greek mythology, Icarus used wings fashioned from feathers and wax by his father, Daedalus. But when he ignored his father's warnings about hubris and complacency, Icarus tempted fate by flying until the sun melted the wax that held his wings together. As the artificial wings collapsed, his body fell into the sea and the young man drowned.

The story of Icarus failed to intimidate aspiring aviators. On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina when they achieved a previously unthinkable goal. Their first two successful flights only attained an altitude of 10 feet above the ground (the first covered 120 feet, the second nearly 200 feet). As Orville Wright noted:
"Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two."

The early days of aviation inspired numerous stunts and failures by people who couldn't possibly have imagined a gigantic aircraft like Airbus's wide-bodied double decker, the A380.

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When launched, the RMS Britannia was considered to be a large oceangoing vessel. With paddle wheels on both sides and a two-cylinder coal-burning engine, the 207-foot-long steamer traveled at a cruising speed of 8.5 knots. With a crew of 89 and 115 passengers on board, it sailed from Liverpool on its maiden voyage on July 4, 1840 and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia 12 days and 10 hours later. In maritime history, the Britannia is regarded as the original flagship of the Cunard Steamship Line.

In 1873, when Jules Verne published his adventure novel entitled Around the World in Eighty Days, the world was still enjoying the first fruits of fossil fuels. Nearly 40 years would elapse before the coal-powered RMS Titanic (referred to as "the ship that God himself could not sink") struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

During World War I, aviation changed the way nations did battle with each other. Following World War II, commercial aviation grew by leaps and bounds.
Poster art for Point of No Return

One of the most thrilling documentaries I've seen in a long time will be screened as part of the 2018 San Francisco DocFest festival. Entitled Point of No Return, it documents the efforts of Bertrand Piccard (a psychiatrist who co-piloted Breitling Orbiter during the first nonstop around-the-world balloon flight) and AndrĂ© Borschberg (a Swiss engineer and jet fighter pilot) to build a solar-powered plane capable of staying aloft through day and night; an aircraft that could fly around the world without needing to rely on fossil fuels. With the wingspan of a 747 and the weight of a two-ton automobile (compared to a 560-ton A380), their plane (built from extremely light and fragile materials) tested their willpower in unexpected ways.

With their mission control center based in Monaco, Solar Impulse 2's journey around the world began on March 9, 2015 in Abu Dhabi and encountered all kinds of challenges from weather conditions, thermal damage to its batteries, and unexpected problems with technology. Borschberg's five-day solo flight across the Pacific Ocean from Nagoya, Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii in an unheated and unpressurized cockpit in July of 2015 became a unique kind of endurance test.

A stop in Phoenix, Arizona allowed the expedition's co-pilots to visit a vast desert graveyard for decommissioned jets. Solar Impulse 2 completed its 26,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe when it arrived back in Abu Dhabi on July 26, 2016.

Solar Impulse 2 files over ancient Egypt's pyramids outside Cairo

Many Baby Boomers remember watching Apollo 11's July 20, 1969 moon landing on television. Although today's rocket launches are often taken for granted, what sets Point of No Return apart from other aviation documentaries is its ability to cover the nerve-wracking tensions of the expedition with footage that exquisitely captures the beauty of flight. Because of its need for an unpressurized cockpit, Solar Impulse 2 does not fly high. Nor is it an especially fast plane. Some may think of it as the equivalent of a covered wagon that crossed the American frontier.

Its creators insist that Solar Impulse 2's circumnavigation of the planet is meant to deliver a message that, at some point in the future, solar-powered flight will become a norm rather than the exception. The ability of solar power to make flight without fossil fuels possible will be a healthy step in the direction of environmental progress.

Solar Impulse 2 flying over the Pacific Ocean

Filmmakers Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstader have done a spectacular job of capturing Solar Impulse 2 on land as well as in mid-air through the creative use of helicopters, GoPro cameras, and other techniques which offer viewers a tightly-edited story. Nerve-wracking moments are buffered by breathtaking footage of Solar Impulse 2 slowly traversing the ocean, landing in foreign countries, approaching the San Francisco Bay area, and enchanting audiences around the world (who can watch parts of the expedition in real time on their computers).

Like many documentaries, Point of No Return defines its challenge, focuses on its key characters, and follows an experiment in exquisite detail. Yet few films of this genre leave viewers with a lump in their throat as well as such deep respect for science, teamwork, courage, and man's ability to dream while honoring both the history and poetry of flight. Here's the trailer:

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I may not be one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's biggest fans but, with a few strokes of poetic license (rearranging the order of some lines from one of his most famous lyrics), I can offer a beautiful introduction to another documentary being screened during the 2018 San Francisco DocFest.
"Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind
In this darkness which you know you cannot fight
The darkness of the music of the night.

Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness wakes and stirs imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Hard as lightning, soft as candlelight
Dare you trust the music of the night."
Directed by Sriram Murali, Saving The Dark is an hour-long documentary with a timely message. With increased levels of light pollution from urban areas, it has become increasingly difficult for the average person to be able to look up at the night sky and fully appreciate the glory of the stars which form constellations, much less grandeur of the Milky Way.

In his director's statement, the filmmaker explains that:
Astronomy has been my passion for years and photographing the night skies has been a way for me to express my passion towards astronomy. Most people questioned whether these stars in the photos were real. So, I made a short film entitled Lost in Light to show how light pollution affects the view of the night skies. It became a huge success that was featured on National Geographic, made the news in over 40 countries, and was seen over half a million times. Not only was it used by the National Park Service, schools, and scout clubs for education and outreach purposes, it was screened at film festivals and spurred a conversation about light pollution, its effects, and what we can do to fight it.”
Filmmaker Sriram Murali (Photo by: Tommy Lau)
“Over the years, it has saddened me that we do not care enough about astronomy or the night skies. When I attended the San Francisco Green Film Festival earlier this year, I realized how much people care about environmental issues and was inspired to make my own documentary. This is a non-profit movie, funded by me, done solely on my personal time, and made only for educational purposes. I'm going to have this movie available to everyone to watch for free (it doesn't make sense to charge people when I want to create awareness). I do this out of my passion for astronomy, the night skies, and the drive to make people care more about it.”
In 2015, Su Rynard's documentary entitled The Messenger described how light pollution was interfering with the migration patterns of millions of birds (many of which showed signs of malnutrition when their bodies were found on the ground after they collided with glass skyscrapers). Murali's film delves into some of the research and and resulting policy changes in cities which have switched from high pressure sodium street lamps to those outfitted with cheaper and easier to maintain LED technology.

Not surprisingly, some of the simplest explanations come from groups of astronomy lovers who gather together at campsites far from the lights of the city so they can take in the wonder of the universe. Their insights (combined with Murali's stop-motion time lapse footage of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night) are a winning combination. Here's the trailer: