August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.
It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.
Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.
Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.
Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.
“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.
“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.
“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.
March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
The director who won:
And those who didn’t:
On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.
The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:
In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.
What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.
November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.
Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.
Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.
Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.
October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.
In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.
Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.
Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.
September 13, 2016 § 3 Comments
When I visited the Alto Nido, hummingbirds were flying in and out of the windows, the only charming touch in a dwelling that seemed to be both an abandoned DIY renovation and the lair of a mid-level hoarder. The place was on the Franklin side and thus not Gillis’s Ivar side apartment; still, I enjoyed its proximity to hallowed cinematic ground. That is, until the man said, “Guess who died here?–the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, but he was serious.
“Yeah, right here,” he insisted, pointing to an alcove.
I knew this couldn’t be true: if F. Scott Fitzgerald had keeled over at the Alto Nido, someone would have written about it, and no one had. Also, I was pretty sure the location was off the Sunset Strip. As far as the Alto Nido man’s delusions were concerned, this turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I got out fast.
The following year I met a normal-seeming man who lived in an old building on Hayworth Avenue in West Hollywood. Much to my relief, his apartment showed no signs of chaos or hoarding; in fact, it was clean and neat. My first visit went well until he said, “You want to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald died?”
Please don’t say “in my apartment,” I thought fervently.
He pointed to a building up the street. “It’s that one.”
And people say Los Angeles isn’t literary.
He was right about the location, of course. He’d even read Fitzgerald, though not much as I had. But that’s beside the point, which is: what are the chances of my meeting two completely different men in consecutive years whose hook was Fitzgerald’s death spot?
Both men are long gone from my life, mercifully, but I still wonder about it.
September 9, 2016 § 3 Comments
Today the Fitzgerald House is on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s also for sale: $625,000 for 4 bedrooms, 2 baths and 2 half-baths.) As I gazed at it, I was struck by the contrast between the place where Fitzgerald’s career began and the nondescript West Hollywood apartment house where it ended only two decades later. Between those residences were a great many other Fitzgerald residences, including the estate on Long Island where he wroteThe Great Gatsby, apartments in Paris and Rome, a villa in the South of France, and a grand hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, near the sanitorium where his wife Zelda was institutionalized.
As he moved from house to house, Fitzgerald’s career soared and foundered. At the start the Depression in 1929, Fitzgerald’s short story rate at the Saturday Evening Post was $4,000–$40,000 in today’s dollars. He spent as fast as he earned, however, and by 1937 he was laboring in Hollywood as an unsuccessful, albeit highly paid, screenwriter. In 1940, while writing his comeback novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald was felled by his third heart attack in the ground floor apartment of the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his last companion. He was only forty-four but had lived in more houses than most centenarians.
Next time: F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here
Sources: Matthew J. Bruccoli: “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald,” 1994.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald Walking Tour of St. Paul, MN” http://wcaudle.com/fscotwlk.htm