Saturday, May 24, 2003

Bat Boy: The Musical at LiveArts (review)

For its final show of the regular season, LiveArts in Charlottesville, VA, has given us the unbelievably weird cult hit Bat Boy: The Musical. It's about a half-man, half-bat who lives in the caves of West Virginia, and it's based on an article from the tabloid Weekly World News. I'll grant that this doesn't sound like the most promising evening's entertainment. But lo and behold, thanks to excellent performances, direction and staging, Bat Boy is the most fun I've had at the theater in a long time. (For those of you who get front-row seats, heed my warning: You will be molested by stuffed animals.)

The hilarious book and pastiche-laden musical score are about as warped as they come. Co-writers Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O'Keefe have taken a tale of rape, incest, bestiality, intolerance, premarital sex, and murder -- in short, all the ingredients of a Sam Shepard play, a John Waters movie, or a Rick Santorum interview -- and turned it into two hours of sick, sick humor. For this alone I am deeply grateful. As a serious play, Bat Boy's message of tolerance ("Hold your Bat Boy," sings the chorus) would have been as unbearable as an after-school special. As camp, it's a hoot. When the half-man, half-bat sings "Let Me Walk Among You" to the townsfolk, it's a heartwarming left-liberal moment straight out of the '60s -- that is, until the lyrics descend into wildly funny non sequiturs, and the audience howls with laughter.

Performances are consistently excellent, even to the smallest roles. As the eponymous Bat Boy, Kristoffer Jones is nothing less than astonishing, striking a perfect balance between silliness and seriousness. His admirable physique and clear light baritone are well-suited to the role, and his solo numbers are not just funny, they're honest-to-God show-stoppers. Jones reveals himself as an actor and performer of professional caliber, and he is far and away the greatest asset of this production. I suspect that before long he'll leave Charlottesville for a larger theater scene. See him now, while you still can.

Alice Reed, as the love of Bat Boy's life, also gives a star-making performance. Her scenes with the Bat Boy are spot-on parodies of every sappy love scene in contemporary musical theater, while her other scenes spoof every social-tolerance melodrama in the book. Yet Reed plays her role with conviction, giving the show at least one foot in normalcy. She takes the thankless cliches of love interest and moral center, and invests them with goofily radiant energy. It doesn't hurt, too, that she gets some of the play's best laugh lines. If Jones gives the play something like a soul, Reed gives it a heart.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, from Chris Patrick's sociopathic Dr. Parker to a scene-stealing turn by Giorgio Litt as Pan. (Yes, it's that Pan. He's responsible for the stuffed animals I mentioned earlier.) Kudos, too, to Tim Van Dyck who throws himself into the role of the town sheriff. Daphne Latham all but impersonates a drag queen in her role as a Stepford housewife with a dark secret. Of course, some actors go one step further and don actual drag: Chris Estey plays tent-revival queen Lorraine and a circuit preacher with equal panache, and Alex Davis contributes plenty of physical comedy as hapless sister Ruthie Taylor.

John Gibson's accomplished direction keeps the staging brisk and fluid even amid considerable technical challenges. Thomas Woltz's set design also merits a special mention, for the way it suggests so much with relatively little: Two movable carts, variously positioned, suggest every location in the show, and also permit some unconventional theatrical effects. This production may not be elaborate, but it's absolutely appropriate.

One final note: Given the actors in drag, the heavily sexual content, and the fact that at least two of the show's three creators are openly Gay, you've probably guessed that the show has a rather obvious subtext. Bat Boy is "different from the others," his way of life (eating blood) is officially condemned in the Bible but he just can't control his impulses, he looks to religion for a "cure" that will make him socially acceptable, and he is repeatedly denounced as an "abomination." Again, the subtext is played mostly for laughs, as if the show were poking fun less at outright intolerance (which is fast becoming a dead issue, even in the heartland), but at the smugness and moral superiority inherent in the very notion of "tolerance" itself. During the opening number, suggestively titled "Hold Me Bat Boy," the chorus describes the show as "the story of a freak who's just like you -- and you -- and you!" Which is to say, everyone's a freak deep down, but some people can hide it better than others. It's a Queer world, after all.

This puts us squarely in the territory of The Rocky Horror Show, another cult musical devoted to freaks, outcasts and bizarre sex acts (not necessarily in that order). But Bat Boy strikes me as much better overall. The writing is less uneven, and the score more intentionally parodic. And miracle of miracles, the show even features a few hummable tunes -- albeit with lyrics so warped that I doubt anyone.will sing them in public.

So count me among the growing numbers of "Batophiles," the official name for fans of Bat Boy. If you like warped humor and self-mocking parody, or if you're a consenting adult who just likes your entertainment adventurous and over-the-top, then run, don't walk, to see this show.

LiveArts' production of Bat Boy: The Musical plays in the Main Space through June 14. Tickets are $15 for weekend evening performances, and $14 for weekdays and matinees.

Friday, May 23, 2003

The Matrix: Revisited

(Caution: Lots more spoilers.)

A loyal reader writes in, asking me to explain what Matrix: Reloaded is trying to say, where it might stand on the ideological spectrum, and (not coincidentally, I think) why he hated the film so much. I touched on some of these issues late in my first post, which was more a review than an analysis. But I'm happy to explore a few of them in greater depth. To this end I set up the post as a standard Q&A. The paragraphs in italics are my reader's, the rest is mine.

Now that Neo and the rest of the crew are aware of their plight I figured that they would wake up as many people as possible and kill the machines.

There is evidence that they plan to do just that. Morpheus mentions at the beginning of the film that Neo has converted more people over six months (since the end of the first film) than the rest of Zion's operatives have in their entire history. Discontent with the Matrix is starting to cascade, and some type of mass liberation will occur in the upcoming Matrix: Revolutions. The question is whether that liberation will occur on terms that are also compatible with individual freedom. I suspect it will not, for reasons which I'm afraid will become painfully clear.

We learn that Neo is a program and that he is supposed to do what he does. How is this possible? If he only existed within the Matrix then he could be a program. But we see him on the ship and in Zion. If he is a program how can he exist in the "real world"? Unless of course the real world is also part of the Matrix.

You've hit the nail on the head. This film contends that everything, real and virtual alike, is part of the Matrix, and the idea that somehow one can go "outside" of said power structure is just wishful thinking. It follows, then, that all of us have been conditioned or socialized -- in short, "programmed" -- to act as we act and perform the functions we perform. To paraphrase the Oracle and the Architect (who basically tell us the same thing), the choices have already been made, and the only thing an individual program can do is understand and accept them. As Jacques Derrida said, everything is "always-already-written."

Thus, we find ourselves in the nightmare world of postmodern anti-humanists like Derrida, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. There is no freedom, there is no free will. There are only power relations in an all-encompassing, metaphysical matrix of control and knowledge. (And people think those pesky postmodernists are difficult to understand!)

The rest of the other people in the movie, the Oracle, the key maker, and the French guy are all programs that refuse to be deleted.

Yet these apparent renegades also fulfill their function within the system. They, too, are mechanisms of control. They, too, are part of that always-already-written script.

If the movie had taken some time to explain what these guys want and why the machines want to destroy Zion, (oh wait they already did it six times before) then maybe I would have the patience to watch all the mindless (but pretty) action.

As the Architect notes, an illusion of rebellion and resistance must be programmed into the overall system. When illusions of resistance and rebellion are untenable (i.e., when people live in a perfect world which they can't affect by their actions), people kill themselves or simply cease to act, and thus become useless to the Matrix. But when that necessary, pre-programmed resistance threatens to escape systemic control, it's time for the machines to crack down and reboot.

This systematic reboot would constitute a revolution from the top down -- literally, in this case, as squidlike robots bore to the center of the earth. This would allow the Matrix to tighten and improve its means of control over its subjects, while simultaneously preventing a revolution from the bottom up (again, in a literal sense).

Now in postmodern radicalism, the American Revolution or the Magna Carta would exemplify a "top-down" revolution, while the French and Bolshevik Revolutions would be "bottom-up" models. All revolutions are ultimately controlled, to be sure, for they, too, are part of the Matrix. But a postmodern would argue that the controls get much tighter, and a lot more dishonest, when said revolution is implemented by the masters. Indeed a revolution implemented by the masters would be so insignificantly incremental that it would hardly be worthy of the name. Better to go big and ugly.

You can guess where all this is going, gentle readers. According to postmodernist thought, the Matrix represents the state of life under not totalitarian despotism, but liberal democracy. In both cases tyranny is a fundamental, metaphysical fact of life, but pure totalitarian states are at least honest about it: You don't have a choice, and no one is going to try to convince you that you do. By contrast, in liberal democracy, you are granted the illusion of freedom, so that absolutely everything you do can be controlled. Fight back if you think you can. (This is the basic argument of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, by the way.)

Still, leave it to French theorist Michel Foucault to go one baby-step further, with his claim that classical liberalism is not equal to, but actually worse than outright dictatorship. You see, the controls of a dictatorship (big scary guys with guns) are external and visible, while controls in a democracy (rule of law and civic virtue) are internal and invisible. Since, in the world of the Matrix, controls are mostly internal and invisible, we're talking about democracy, not despotism.

So for postmodernists, the age-old conflict between Athens (democracy) and Sparta (despotism) is a distinction without a difference. Hence, The Matrix: Reloaded becomes a leftist postmodern allegory against humanism and classical liberalism. In turn, the impending, radical-left revolution from the "bottom up" seems to lie with the figure of Neo as philosopher-king and Messiah -- and like most such revolutions, it will prove basically fascistic in character.

It says something that within the topsy-turvy, pretzel-logic world of radical-left ressentiment, a new fascism would be viewed as preferable to liberal democracy, as long as the right, benevolent people (like uber-leftist Afro-academic Cornel West, who has a cameo in this film) are in charge. But for the rest of us, the Matrix series is squarely on the road to serfdom. Follow, if you must, at your own risk.

Update (3:45 p.m.): A few of you have written me on the incomplete nature of Matrix: Reloaded, contending that it may be unfair to make such sweeping judgments on a film that is only half-finished. I think I said as much myself at the beginning of my previous post on the film. And although I think the Matrix series could still find a compelling rebuttal to fascism and postmodernism, the ideology of the second installment and the title of the third (Revolutions) do not exactly fill me with hope.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Up with Down With Love

Can Hollywood still make a comedy worthy of the name? At the moment, we're stuck with an especially dismal lot: Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, and a host of star vehicles for Kate Hudson and so forth, all of them apparently devoid of wit or originality. The exception is Down With Love, a camp homage to those Doris Day / Rock Hudson comedies of the late 1950s and early '60s. Critics generally haven't been kind to Love, proclaiming it funny but socially irrelevant (as if a comedy needed to be socially relevant!), and box-office mavens have pronounced the film a "disappointment" (read: "flop"). Using Down with Love as counterprogramming to The Matrix: Reloaded might not have been the wisest idea in the world either, especially given that most of its audience -- i.e., grown-ups -- long ago gave up on the cinema in disgust.

But Down with Love delivers in the most important area: It's funny. That it is also very artfully made -- with eye-popping sets and costume design, and a Va-Va-Voom big-band score by Marc Shaiman -- is just icing on the cake. Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger are surprisingly good as the male and female leads, even though McGregor's physical presence suggests Cary Grant more than Rock Hudson, and Zellweger's breathy delivery often evokes Marilyn Monroe rather than Doris Day. Casting David Hyde Pierce in the Tony Randall role was far more obvious, but Pierce steals every scene he's in anyway. Tony Randall himself even shows up for a cameo, and proves that he still has his crackerjack comic timing.

Director Peyton Reed, previously known for the marginal teen flick Bring It On, has never shown this sort of visual flair before. He may be merely treading in the footsteps of classic Hollywood, but I can't fault him for that. There are far worse footsteps to tread in, especially if you're attempting to create lightweight mass entertainment.

Most of the jokes in Down with Love are based on innuendo and misunderstandings, of course. But the chief difference between this film and the comedies that inspired it lies in their respective approaches to the sensitive material. Where an early-'60s sex comedy would struggle to "hide its cookies," so to speak, this film struggles to keep them from falling out all over the kitchen floor (lilac-tiled, of course). The Doris-and-Rock comedies, produced on the eve of feminism and Gay lib, were very subtle, so that if you weren't carefully attuned to the various sexual subtexts (Gay and Straight), you'd miss them altogether. (In The Celluloid Closet, Jay Preston Allen noted that screenwriters called these comedies "D.F. movies" -- which was short for Delayed Fuck.)

Since Down With Love is a more contemporary project, the challenge has been effectively reversed: This film works long and hard (!) to keep its sexual innuendo at least nominally on the level of subtext, even though that subtext is now available to absolutely everyone. This new strategy is hypocritical to be sure, but that's what makes it so much fun. The split-screen shots originally designed to show the stars "together" in bed now suggest the kind of wild, acrobatic sex that could get you arrested in the Commonwealth of Virginia, even if you do it in private. The Gay characters on the margins may still be prissy sissies, but now they're sexualized like everyone else. And the film's basic plot, involving a woman's public advocacy of casual sex over marital love, would have been absolutely unthinkable in the days of the Production Code.

Crispy-conservative carping aside, these differences do connote progress of a sort -- if not for romantic film comedies, then for our culture as a whole. Hiding sex in plain sight is far better than denying it exists, especially if you happen not to be Straight, and the only available alternatives to this barely concealed sexual hypocrisy are to go completely libertine or to submit ourselves to something like Sharia law. Granted, we don't always manage to keep sex on a level where grown-ups can understand what's going on but kids can't. But with a very few exceptions, I think we're managing the challenge about as well as we possibly could, while still allowing consenting adults the sexual freedom they want.

So up with Down With Love. It sputters and wheezes in the last reel, when the feminism gets too heavy-handed to be funny. But aside from that minor quibble, the film is pretty much what it ought to be: a stylish, retro romantic comedy with belly laughs galore. Go see it.

American Idle: It Ain't Over Till the Fat Man Sings

Remember Bomani Jones's featured article in last week, the one that said Ruben Studdard could never win "American Idol" because Americans are just so damned racist? I quote: "History gives me a hunch that Clay Aiken will soon be a millionaire with a recording contract. If for some reason if he's not [sic], it wouldn't just be an upset. It would be unreal." Well, the fat Luther Vandross soundalike beat the geeky Michael Bolton soundalike after all.

Social justice has now been achieved. We have overcome.

I wonder what else is on.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

New to DVD: Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948)

Home Vision Entertainment, the same company that gave us the superlative Criterion Collection, has just released handsome DVD editions of Man of Aran and Louisiana Story, two sound films from Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty. Despite Flaherty's reputation as a "documentary" filmmaker, it's misleading to think of either film as a documentary per se.

All of Flaherty's films are technically fictional because they impose an invented dramatic superstructure on the cultures they depict. Since this structure is flexible and family-centered, easily adapted to changing cultures and conditions, its presence in these films is not necessarily a liability. More problematic by far is the Romantic, anti-modern ideology which Flaherty embeds within the fiction. In the name of authenticity, he stages important events, revives long-discarded traditions, and advises subjects to eschew modern tools such as guns or motors. Sometimes, as in the shark-hunting scenes in Man of Aran, that anti-modern bias places himself, his crew and his subjects in life-threatening peril.

Although Man of Aran and Louisiana Story were made fourteen years apart, they possess a nearly identical plot: A young boy -- the only child of a simple nuclear family -- observes the struggle of man against nature as the adults in his society work to survive and prosper. The boy, of course, is an audience surrogate. As he watches, we watch; as he learns, we learn. Meanwhile, the rest of the story consists of quotidian events within the culture depicted. In Man of Aran, we see the mother build a small potato farm over bare rock, while the father hunts enormous basking sharks in the Atlantic. In Louisiana Story, we see oil drilling from the inside of a derrick (and to this end, Flaherty even captured a gas blowout on film). Regardless of the environment, the central emphasis is always the contrast between adult work and child's play, all within the natural world.

Photography in both films is consistently spectacular; Flaherty was notorious for shooting miles of footage for months on end, all to get a single scene on film. I think I prefer the images of Man of Aran simply for their sheer visceral excitement. (The gigantic waves that overwhelm the Aran Islands are stunning displays of nature's raw power.) But it's a tough call, because Louisiana Story also includes meticulously composed, if somewhat more placid, scenes of wild nature. Granted, the extensive nature footage in Louisiana Story is part of a corporate agenda: Standard Oil funded the film to persuade audiences that oil drilling in the Louisiana bayous would improve the lives of the locals with minimal environmental impact. Flaherty's love of nature and rural life dovetailed nicely with company goals, producing a masterpiece that even made Sight and Sound magazine's first ten-greatest poll back in 1952.

Of course, Flaherty could have focused more on social conditions, especially since the Aran Islands and the Louisiana bayous were both racked by widespread poverty when he filmed them. He could have noted that much of the misery in the Aran Islands resulted from high rents and absentee landlords -- which pretty much sums up the history of Irish subsistence farming, when you think about it. Or he could have mentioned that the bayou family in Louisiana Story probably wouldn't see a dime of their oil money because of corrupt political bosses like Leander Perez, whose illegal land deals robbed Plaquemine Parish of tens of millions of dollars (those are 1960s-era dollars, not adjusted for inflation).

But these things didn't interest Flaherty nearly as much as the basic struggle of humans to survive in an unforgiving environment. From an aesthetic standpoint, I have no problem with that at all. These films are still astonishing, both of their time and very much ahead of it. With his use of nonprofessional actors, his location shooting and emphasis on daily life, I think of Flaherty as a forerunner of what the Italians would call "neorealism," only without urban settings or Communist leanings. Though the result is heavily romanticized, it's always breathtaking to watch.

The new Flaherty DVDs feature plenty of supplementary archival material for budding cineastes. Rent or buy, but by all means see these films.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

M2: The Matrix Unloaded

(Warning: This post contains several big spoilers to both Matrix films.)

It's impossible to evaluate the Wachowski brothers' Matrix: Reloaded on its own terms, because it's only half a film. It ends not with a climax, but with a cliffhanger, and I wonder whether moviegoers are as willing to forego catharsis as the Wachowskis are. (The second-week grosses will tell, I think.) Unlike Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, each installment of which can be viewed as a discrete unit, Matrix: Reloaded is so blatantly incomplete that at best one can say it's very good ... so far.

The film is also exhausting to watch, in part because, like most summer action blockbusters, it is designed as a nonstop assault on the senses. But at least there's something to get exhausted over, and I felt stimulated at least as often as I felt overwhelmed. Even its detractors must concede that Matrix: Reloaded has style to burn. The fifteen-minute virtual freeway battle will probably go down in history as one of the most astonishing action scenes ever committed to film. Still, I was far more impressed by a later scene, in which flash forwards allow us to see the discussion of a plan and its implementation at the same time. This is a terrific way to handle exposition, as long as your audience is up to the challenge of non-linear narrative; for my part, I haven't seen anything like it in American cinema since Soderbergh's Out of Sight.

If any mainstream release this summer attains the status of classic cinema, it will probably be the Matrix sequel.

There are two major differences between the Matrix films and run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbusters. One is that the Matrix series has made a point of imbuing its visuals with an almost tactile reality; few directors convey the temperature of objects as effectively as the Wachowski brothers. The visuals are anything but sleek and sterile: When we see a dance-party-cum-orgy in the bowels of the earth, we can practically smell the sweat; when we see an inner-city basketball court in the virtual world, we can feel the peeling paint on the bench. Even a hallway of doors suggests the mild whiff of fluorescent industrial lighting.

So far I haven't read anyone who has mentioned this quality. The pseudonymous Michael at has come closest, with a brief mention of the Matrix's eroticism. But that eroticism is part and parcel of the film's suggestion of tactility: If you feel desire toward these characters, that's because you believe you can touch them, and eroticism is all about touch. It's fitting that a film which rages against the machine (even as it pushes CGI effects to their limits -- the same damning paradox that afflicts James Cameron and George Lucas) should place special emphasis on the one sensation that virtual reality cannot yet duplicate.

The other difference, which far too many critics have seized upon, is that the Matrix series wants desperately to be philosophical. At best this requires the Wachowski brothers to grapple with complex concepts and emotions. At worst, it allows entire scenes to sink under the weight of ponderous verbiage.

Forget all the stuff you've read about gnosticism, messianic overtones, Cartesian doubts, Buddhism and so forth: The first Matrix film is best described as Plato's parable of the cave with kung-fu fighting. Granted, the flickering shadows projected onto the walls of the cave have been replaced with the more elaborate deception of virtual reality, and the chains and shackles on the cavedwellers have been replaced with machines that harvest humans for body heat. But the basic plot of The Matrix was remarkably similar to Book VII of the Republic: A man within the cave is liberated from his bonds, and leaves the cave to view the sunlit world beyond. Of course I was delighted to see hip, cynical, postmodern audiences responding to ideas straight out of Philosophy 101, but all the same I wasn't surprised. As an allegory of the examined life, the old story about the cave has been unsurpassed for roughly two-and-a-half millennia, and it gladly accomodates any additional freight we can load on it. The Wachowski brothers were smart enough to give Plato a techno twist, but the great philosopher's spirit remained intact.

And there's the rub. Plato never could figure out what to do with the individual once he's safely out of the cave. A provisional solution brings this new philosopher back into the cave, so that he can encourage others in the cave to shake free of their bonds and view the world outside. The idea offers at least a hint of revolution, but on the whole it seems pretty weak to me. It's not enough for one Matrix sequel, let alone two.

So if the guiding spirit of the first film was that proto-humanist Plato, the second film seems more animated by contemporary anti-humanist thinkers. We are now in the nightmare world of Chomsky and Foucault, where choice and free will are irrelevant, perhaps even nonexistent, nullified in the toxic ether of power relations. In Matrix: Reloaded, even the quasi-messianic ubermensch known as "Neo" is revealed as a program, another aspect of the machine, no less circumscribed than everything else. Combine the film's determinism with other free-floating ideas in the series, such as Vernor Vinge's looney-tunes argument on the "singularity" (where intelligent machines take over the world and render humans obsolete, rather like the "Evil-Robot Insurance" sketch on Saturday Night Live), and you have to conclude that this second film articulates a deep, postmodern pessimism about the entire humanist project. To paraphrase George Lucas, the matrix strikes back.

The film ends, appropriately enough, with a comatose hero lying next to a man who has been completely possessed by a computer program. Paralysis and possession -- in short, the inability to think and/or act on one's own -- are, I suspect, the inevitable outcomes of post-humanist philosophy, at least if one is unfortunate enough to embrace it. As Laurence Fishburne (doing his best James Earl Jones impersonation) intones, "That sounds like the thinking of a machine to me."

Here's hoping the Wachowskis find a compelling rebuttal to the machine with Matrix: Revolutions in November.

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