Friday, February 04, 2005
Last week, a GLBT publication from the Lone Star State uncovered what should be cause for scandal. According to the Houston Voice, the toll-free "National Youth Crisis Hotline", which receives publicity from state and federal governments as a legitimate youth-counseling service, has in fact been directing gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning teens to the nation's leading "ex-Gay" group, Exodus International. Apparently, counselors on this so-called "teen crisis" line routinely describe gay people as "sinners" -- a position that, according to most professional psychologists, can drive fragile young minds to deadly despair.
When a hotline volunteer was asked how he would feel if a Gay teen were to commit suicide after dialing the number, he reportedly offered a chilling reply: "Sometimes the devil makes things happen."
The frightening thing is that before one young man in Houston spoke out about the fraudulent hotline, no one knew this was happening. So it's not only possible, but probable, that this worst-case scenario has played out many times by now. Alas, we'll never know just how many.
At least the readers of fearless blogger Pam Spaulding have managed to trace the poison to its source. The National Youth Crisis Hotline is run under the auspices of San Diego's evangelical-fundamentalist Horizons Christian Fellowship (whose pastor, Mike MacIntosh serves as chaplain to the San Diego PD and the San Diego Sheriff's Department, among other honoraria). Horizons also runs a preschool, a Christian academy, a "Bible Institute" and a "School of Evangelism." One imagines that those last two organizations could keep this particular Trojan Horse well-stocked with unqualified student volunteers.
As far as I know, Horizons does not receive government funding for its "faith-based" approach to youth counseling, but most state and federal publications list the "National Youth Crisis Hotline" as a valid resource for kids in trouble. Perhaps it's time our tax dollars stopped promoting this as a civic program or public service, and started treating it as a deliberately deceptive religious ministry.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
In theaters throughout Virginia, you can practically hear the closet doors creaking: From Fallen from Proust, a world premiere "comedy" at Arlington's Signature Theatre, to a production of Steve Martin's The Underpants at Charlottesville's LiveArts, repressed sexuality is the order of the day. Perhaps the arts are responding to the puritanical mood of the Virginia General Assembly, or perhaps they're simply noting a slight chill in the air since Bush was re-elected. But only one of them -- paradoxically, the oldest of the three -- feels truly fresh or interesting. In the hands of the American Century Theater, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy loses its musty melodramatics, and becomes even tougher and more challenging than it was half a century ago.
Fallen from Proust: Willed and Graceless
Norman Allen, author of Signature Theatre's Fallen from Proust (and, I'm informed, longtime companion to artistic director Eric Schaeffer), claims that "These are characters that I care about deeply. I've enjoyed spending the last few years in their company."
I pity Mr. Allen. Fallen from Proust is only seventy-five minutes long (not counting a fifteen-minute intermission), but even so, I felt I had spent too much time with these characters. I didn't found them boring, exactly. I hated them. I wished that the earth would open up and swallow them.
Since the play takes place in sight of San Francisco, a major earthquake would not be out of the question. Alas, Allen's four-character, one-set play contents itself with the most pedestrian of sitcom premises: "Willed and Graceless," as it were. Our main character is Michelle (Hope Lambert), a neurotic social worker -- as if there were any other kind in theater. Bored with her life, and anxious for her yuppie-scum fiance Gary (Damon Buttons) to "pop the question," she begins to hang out with Gary's homosexual roommate Roger (Michael Glenn). (A Gay man named "Roger" should be the subject of a good deal more mirth than this play manages to provide.) Soon, Roger is avowing his love for Michelle, Gary is making wild passes at Roger, and a hustler with a heart of gold (Daniel Frith) arrives from New York City with even more surprising revelations.
Much confusion ensues, though not hilarity. The play's funniest gag involves an all-purpose remote control, which sends the entire apartment spinning into chaos. Allen seems to have lifted this idea from the old Doris-and-Rock classic Pillow Talk. For a comedy involving such allegedly cutting-edge subjects as bisexuality, street hustlers, and Gay Republicans in San Francisco, the material is disturbingly innocuous.
The cast tries valiantly to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse -- or at least into something that isn't so obviously a sow's ear. Lambert plays Michelle as a quivering puddle of sentimentality, and is about as alluring as a week's worth of laundry. Glenn's fey, uptight Roger begins the play on solid ground, but the script eventually requires his character to act in a completely nonsensical fashion. Frith displays expert comic timing and an on-again/off-again Noo Yawk accent as the hustler. The play's best performance belongs to Buttons, who infuses Gary with a potent mixture of bravado and lechery. But for all his efforts, the character is still a stock sitcom villain.
James Kronzer's set is the best thing about this production: An oval-shaped living room with warm, Mediterranean colors and plush leather furniture creates the subtlest and most inviting of thrust stages. Signature's Fallen from Proust runs until February 20, not that there's any reason you should care.
Tea and Sympathy: New Life for an Old Play
By now, the basic plot of Robert Anderson's 1954 Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy has become a teen-movie cliche: Sensitive young boy sleeps with older woman to prove his bona fide heterosexuality. The play itself has a notorious and undeserved reputation for homophobia (which Vincente Minnelli's perfunctory film version did nothing to squelch), and most directors suspect that Anderson's tears-and-flapdoodle emotionalism will move sophisticated audiences to snickers and giggles. Worst of all, the play's most famous line ("Years from now, when you speak of this -- and you will -- be kind") has become a snide in-joke among theater folk.
Now the American Century Theater, which specializes in seldom-seen plays from the early to mid twentieth century, has breathed new life into Anderson's much-maligned chestnut. This production will probably go down in their annals as ill-timed, since snow and ice have forced the company to cancel several sold-out weekend performances. ("That means real money," the company's publicity director told a friend of mine.) But it's still one of the most harrowing evenings you're likely to spend in a theater, thanks to uniformly excellent performances from a talented cast, and some taut direction from Steven Scott Mazzola.
In their hands, Anderson's half-century old examination of Gay-baiting and bullying in a boys' school becomes surprisingly relevant. High-school actor Joe Baker is ideally cast as everyman Tom Lee; Carl Randolph and Sheri S. Herren are effectively restrained as an aloof teacher and his lonely wife. The most remarkable performance, however, belongs to William Aitken, as Tom's father: In Herb Lee, Anderson created a character whose moral values are so thoroughly twisted that he'd rather see his son expelled from school -- or dead -- than tainted with the suspicion of homosexuality. Aitken's hail-fellow-well-met demeanor (and his close friendship with his son's teachers) brings out Anderson's most scalding criticism of Gay-bashing: These kids are being manipulated into acts of thuggery by authority figures, including but not limited to their own parents.
Luckily, Anderson's play goes far beyond the obvious truism that Gay-baiting is bad. It asks why Gay teenagers -- or for that matter, teenagers believed to be Gay -- are subjected to such treatment, and it explores, without facile irony, the complicated nature of love and friendship for teens and adults alike. Done well, it can make for one of the richest, most harrowing and moving evenings you're likely to spend in a theater. And this production is done exceptionally well.
But don't take my word for it. My theater-critic friend brought an eighteen-year-old college student to see this play, so that he could get a reaction from someone closer to the protagonist's age. This Gay teenager -- who, like most of his generation, has never experienced "the closet" for himself -- deemed Tea and Sympathy "the best play I've ever seen." He's seen quite a bit of theater for someone his age, so I'd say his judgment carries some weight.
ACT's production of Tea and Sympathy runs until February 5. If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, by all means see this play -- and if you have thoughtful teenagers (whether Gay or Straight), be sure to bring them along. Click here for tickets and information.
Update (2/11): I've corrected an error in the earlier review. I reported that ACT was community theater, but I should have said that ACT is a professional troupe. Many thanks to the Tea and Sympathy cast member who spotted the goof.
I believe that, as a matter of policy, actors shouldn't read theater reviews. Critics write for audiences, not actors, and what we have to say might not coincide with what a performer needs to hear. Still, I'm very grateful for those actors and playwrights who have read this blog and offered their comments.
The Underpants: The Closet Door Creaks
Finally, almost as an afterthought, I'll give a nod to the latest production from my favorite community-theater group, Charlottesville's own LiveArts. The Underpants is Steve Martin's adaptation of a turn-of-the-century German sex comedy. The play creaks more than it crackles, but at least its bon mots live up to expectations: They're like a Philosophy 101 class taught by Bob Hope. Director Bonnie Pedersen enlivens the proceedings further with knockabout staging, leading to a perfectly frothy if meaningless evening.
The cast gives the flimsy material that all-important "hard sell." Doug Schneider and Catherine Ogden shine as the male and female leads; Grace Jordan gives a smart turn as a nosy next-door neighbor, and Michael Horan is appropriately over-the-top as a bad poet and wannabe bohemian. But the real standout is LiveArts newcomer Michael Volpendesta, playing a Jewish barber struggling to hide both his ethnicity and his desire for Ogden. Volpendestra's dry delivery and rubber-legged antics can send an audience (and sometimes, several members of the cast) into helpless spasms of laughter.
Between guffaws, the playwright struggles to make some penetrating observations about gender roles, sexual freedom and the transitory nature of fame. Unfortunately, they fall flat, so there's little in Martin's Underpants but hot air. LiveArts' staging, on the other hand, comes awfully close to perfection. From J. Taylor's remarkable, multi-level set to Amy Goffman's sly period costumes, everything is so professional that you won't believe you're watching community theater.
The Underpants ends February 5. Click here for more information.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Rick Sincere offers a modest proposal for tonight's State of the Union address: Instead of dipping their index fingers in ink, members of Congress can make their general attitude toward their fellow Americans known by dyeing their middle fingers purple. If the Republicans won't do this, at least the Democrats could. That way, when Bush makes a point about greater freedom abroad or at home, Congress can really let that eagle soar like she's never soared before.
Me, I'd be satisfied if Bush could lay off the Gay-baiting, say something conservative, and actually mean it this time.
Update (2/3): Last night, Bush told the nation, "The road of providence is uneven and unpredictable, yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom."
Of course, if you're Gay it probably leads to Canada.
The good news is that Bush promised fiscal responsibility (something he's never been much concerned with in the past) and even offered a concrete plan to privatize Social Security. Whether he means any of this is anyone's guess, though there are a few encouraging signs. His proposal to eliminate 150 wasteful or ineffective federal programs is both welcome and long-overdue.
At the same time, however, Bush promised more money for alternative-energy boondoggles (hydrogen cars, anyone?), inner-city churches (with enough federal money, pastors can keep kids out of gangs!), and educational bureaucracies (bigger Pell Grants for everyone!). Will we truly see a reduction in government from this administration, or will Bush merely shift our money around? Stay tuned, gentle readers.
There was yet another plug for the Federal Marriage Amendment, alas. Compared to last year, it felt like a formality, though it was still enough to earn Andrew Sullivan's righteous indignation. Since the Commonwealth of Virginia declared war against its Gay and Lesbian population, I've grown numb to anti-Gay rhetoric. I'm pleased to see that Sullivan's capacity for outrage remains intact.
Still, this portion of Bush's speech showed any Gay or Lesbian person in America that the man who wants to bring liberty and equality to the whole world will put the kibosh on both of them if they so much as touch our bedroom door. Memo to the President: You can't spread freedom if you don't believe in it.
Here's an original thought: Maybe the reason sixty million Americans voted for Bush this November was that they weren't seeing enough arthouse movies! Well, that's what New Republic film critic Stanley Kaufmann claims, anyway:
For me, a chilling sign of the gravity of this cultural situation comes from the recent presidential election. Political experts tell us that Bush got his majority from what is called the heartland, that the two coasts were more favorable to Kerry. As one who still gapes at the re-election on moral values of a man who led us into a war because of mass-destructive weapons that do not exist, I can't help feeling that at the root of the political thud is a blankness that culture could lighten. The factual ignorance [...] would be less likely in a public of greater sophistication.
Critics like Kaufmann -- or for that matter, Roger Ebert -- seem to believe that "more cultured" means "more enlightened," which, of course, means "more left-wing." This attitude is common enough among the Left, but it doesn't really explain people like me. It's safe to say that I get more than my fair share of art, theater, classical and jazz music, and obscure foreign films (many of which are never mentioned on my blog). Yet for some strange reason, the more art I'm exposed to, the more conservative I seem to get.
Why, then, do critics--at least on some magazines and newspapers--continue to review films that will probably not reach wide audiences? For myself, it is partly because, as a democrat, I believe that the rights of the minority must be respected, including the filmgoing minority. It would be an offense to that minority, whether or not they knew it, to omit reviews, positive or otherwise, of films that are part of contemporary culture and of value to their cultural conspectus. [...] I don't think that seriously intended films will save this sorry world, but I do think that their absence, even ignorance that they exist, would make it sorrier.
I suppose you thought we critic types reviewed obscure movies just to prove we're better than everybody else. But don't worry, gentle reader: A good critic needs no proof, only conviction. Kaufmann, for example, already knows he's better than the barbarians who voted for Bush. Why, to hear him talk, you'd wonder how those poor, benighted souls managed to lift their knuckles off the ground to mark the ballot. Pity them -- or better yet, pity him.
Film critics, it seems, are particularly liable to assign a talismanic quality to culture that it can't really possess -- perhaps because, unlike theater, art or literature critics, their readers can still encounter this aspect of culture for themselves. They believe that if other people are exposed to the power of their particular fetish -- be it Cassavetes, Ozu, or some other arthouse/repertory darling -- those people will come to see the entire world from a superior perspective (which happens, of course, to coincide with the critic's own). If these critics take their delusions far enough, they start believing they can actually affect the course of world events simply by writing the right sort of film reviews -- the kind that encourage people to see Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance. In the end, their pretensions to influence make about as much sense as the belief that oncoming hurricanes can be diverted through ritual sacrifice to the weather goddess.
No matter how much pundits, propagandists, and partisan hacks may try to impress art to the service of politics, I'm not sure that art can actually do the job. Politics is a collective activity, while encounters with art seem to occur on a more atomized, individual level. Unlike a political candidate, I don't give a deadly dull movie extra points for conservative ideology, or necessarily attack a movie for being left-wing, or even outright socialist, if it has something in it worth my attention. I suspect that most people, when they encounter art, feel much the same way. We're not inclined to see culture as merely a confirmation of this or that ideology; rather, we'll use it as an opportunity to examine some new wrinkle in what philosophers have called "the human condition."
Alas, the level of unpredictability in this process would make even Heisenberg blush. What made Kaufmann a staunch Democrat seems to make me just as staunch a Republican, and what makes Roger Ebert a left-liberal will make Terry Teachout moderately conservative. So in the end, we may all have to content ourselves with the notion that whatever our politics, we are at least somewhat better off as individuals for our encounters with good (or great) art.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Spoiler Warning: It's impossible to discuss Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby without giving away the plot. If you haven't seen it yet, you should skip this article. Click here to jump to yesterday's post.
As a director, Clint Eastwood may be the closest thing American cinema has to Kurosawa in his prime. Now, in his seventies, the old Western-movie icon is finally receiving his due as a legitimate auteur. He has helmed three unquestionably great films (Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, and Mystic River), along with two others which are every bit as good, and which I suspect will be no less highly regarded in his career (A Perfect World, Bridges of Madison County). Now that I've had the chance to see Eastwood's latest film, Million Dollar Baby, I have to report that Eastwood's pantheon remains unchanged. Million Dollar Baby is well-made, but it doesn't rank with his best.
Eastwood himself appears as the film's protagonist, an over-the-hill boxing trainer. Hilary Swank (who hasn't been spotted ringside since The Next Karate Kid) plays his latest protegee, a boxer with the unfortunate tendency to KO her opponents in the first round a la Mike Tyson. The film also features Morgan Freeman, who is rapidly becoming our generation's answer to Dooley Wilson: Like Sam the piano man, Freeman serves as a sort of "male wife" to the White protagonist. Not only does he occupy the moral center of Million Dollar Baby, he narrates, too. So if this movie has a message, you can bet Freeman will rub your face in it.
Did I say IF this movie has a moral? Oh, don't worry about that, gentle reader: This picture has morals coming out its ears. Million Dollar Baby may look like a modest, introspective boxing picture, but at its shriveled little heart it's an exercise in puritanical self-flagellation. Audiences may respect its dour mood, but only a true film snob could pretend to love it.
That's not to say that the film doesn't have its incidental pleasures. The boxing scenes, for example, feature some of the toughest, most bruising action since Scorsese's Raging Bull. Quick cuts, handheld cameras, and harsh lighting place the audience in the middle of the action without glamorizing it overmuch. In these brief sequences, Million Dollar Baby generates momentum and excitement, qualities sadly missing from the rest of the picture. But Eastwood will insist that audiences pay for their fun, so he tacks on an extended third act that manages to humiliate and degrade almost all of the characters we've grown to love -- except, of course, for Freeman, who emerges untarnished.
Here's the inevitable spoiler: At the climactic world-championship bout, Swank's boxer receives an illegal sucker punch that leaves her paralyzed from the neck down. I didn't buy this twist for one minute, in part because Swank never allows her character's debilitating condition to spoil her teen-idol good looks. Even though she suffers from bedsores (and eventually gangrene), her hair, her makeup, and her teeth generally remain flawless. Swank must be the prettiest little vegetable in the rehab ward.
But to make sure the audience suffers along with the heroine, Eastwood stages the final act at a glacial crawl. I think he's aiming for something like a transcendental style, in which long, static shots induce a meditative mood. To his credit, in a few scenes he comes near the mark -- certainly nearer than Paul Schrader ever has. But the action is far too mawkish, the morality too cut-and-dried, for his transcendental strategy to work overall. Eastwood's attempt to portray stoicism contorts his face into something like the Old Man of the Mountain, in a grisly (and grizzled) parody of his Dirty Harry days. And Swank's over-emotive performance is such a blatant piece of Oscar bait that I couldn't help feeling reeled in. (Swank's Academy nomination proves once again that Oscar loves to see pretty girls in ugly situations. Call it a fetish.)
With a breathing tube in her neck, and the memory of her glory days fading fast, Swank begs Eastwood to end her pain. After either too much hemming and hawing, or not nearly enough, he obliges -- and according to Freeman's narration, which leaves no moral question unanswered, we're supposed to agree with his choice, or at least respect it. (I think we end up rooting for death, because we realize that if Eastwood doesn't pull that plug, the movie can never end.) A better film would have presented this decision in far more ambiguous terms: Instead of telling us what a human being ought to do, it would pose the question and allow us to make up our own minds.
Freeman, in particular, gives two tidy speeches that resolve the right-to-die issue with such persuasive moral clarity that I wondered why he didn't do the deed himself. The answer, I fear, is that Freeman is a Black guy in a White man's movie. It's not his place to advance the plot, not while he has toilets to scrub, floors to mop and consciences to guide. Yet it's Freeman who effectively orders Eastwood to commit what many will see as an ugly act of murder -- perhaps, in its way, the most brutal act in the film -- and his halo doesn't even flicker while he gives the command.
Whether or not the decision itself is justifiable, the film's covert manipulation and insidious propagandizing are not. The F.X. Toole short story (from the collection Rope Burns), upon which the film is faithfully based, allows this boxing trainer to make the same decision, but does not include any attempt to justify his action before the fact. Instead of mindlessly parroting right-to-die rhetoric, the story paints the negative consequences of even the most well-intentioned murder. Toole writes that the trainer leaves "with his shoes in his hand but without his soul," an indelible phrase which the film omits.
In the end, I don't think Million Dollar Baby will change anyone's opinion of Eastwood, least of all my own. It is well-directed, well-acted, stylish but never overbearing, and as respectable as NPR in the afternoon. Sometimes it's even moving. Still, coming on the heels of the majestic Mystic River, it feels like a major step down.
Monday, January 31, 2005
At the 8 p.m. Gatlin Brothers/Pam Tillis show, held every other night in the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theater, Larry Gatlin informs an audience of senior citizens that in Branson, "Christmas starts when the Andy Williams billboard says it starts."
If you understood that last sentence, gentle reader, you've probably been to Branson, Missouri, which bills itself "America's entertainment capital." Once an undistinguished small town near the Missouri-Arkansas state line, Branson has exploded into a sprawling metropolis of lakefront condos, live theaters, theme parks, water parks, novelty museums, shops, hotels, strip malls, outlet malls, hotels, motels.
Aside from a large outlet store for the Stone Hill Winery, that Champagne Theater is one of the few open references to an alcoholic beverage you're likely to find in or near the town -- which is sort of a shame, because a good stiff drink (or several) would make it much easier to take. Mystery writer Donald Westlake, who set Baby, Would I Lie? in Branson, once wrote that from the air, it looks like God blasted and blighted the whole earth, but left a long, snaky trail of development behind, just to remind him why he was so pissed off in the first place. It's no coincidence that Branson's main road, state highway 76, is known as "The Strip."
This may be the leading vacation destination for senior citizens in the United States. Most arrive in buses, on prepackaged tours which herd them around town: Motel, theater, Shoney's, shopping, theater, Golden Corral, theater, hotel. These people are Branson's bread and butter, and for the most part they've come to see the stars and acts they knew in their prime: Jim Stafford, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Moe Bandy, a few decaying holdouts from the old Lawrence Welk show, Yakov Smirnoff, the Gatlins, Ray Stevens. Mickey Rooney does two shows a day with his wife Jan at the Americana Theater: It's billed as an evening of reminiscences. But the most famous performer in Branson is undoubtedly Shoji Tabuchi, a Japanese violinist who peddles a mixture of generic folk fiddling, canned country favorites, painful stand-up comedy and inept stage effects. Everyone who goes to Branson wants to see Shoji -- except me. I saw his show over a decade ago, was not impressed, and never returned.
Branson has its share of newer, younger acts -- depending on how you define "younger." Roy Rogers, Jr. moved the family museum of cowboy memorabilia from California to the west end of Branson, where he performs a morning show of western swing and "family memories." There are several 1950s nostalgia shows and country-music revues, featuring college-aged singers. The seniors I talked to were never impressed by these shows; they didn't come to Branson to see a bunch of kids. But the Haygood Family and the Lowe Family shows feature children, some in their early grade-school years, compelled to fiddle, sing, and play like sullen little seals before a house full of nonplussed wrinklies. After seeing the Haygoods a few years ago (before they acquired a theater near the La Quinta Inn), I got the distinct impression that a good therapist could make a killing off any one of them once they grew up.
Not that any of this registers with the tour-bus crowd. In Branson, the lion's share of "music shows" consists of people who can no longer sing, performing to people who can no longer hear. So it was with some trepidation that I took my mother -- whose hearing is quite keen, thank you -- to experience Christmas, Branson style.
For Andy Williams, Christmas may be "the most lucrative time of the year." Every November, he comes out of mothballs like a musty holiday tablecloth, so that he can perform his Christmas show at the "Moon River Theater." Apparently, Williams owns the theater and the Radisson hotel next door. When we arrived there, only a few minutes before the show started, a security guard in the parking lot told us we could park anywhere we liked, "because Andy owns it all anyway."
At thirty-nine dollars apiece, tickets to the Andy Williams show are the most expensive in town. It's quite popular with most visitors, even though (or perhaps because) Andy himself is in his late seventies.
(more, much more to come)
Sunday, January 30, 2005
Today, Iraq held its first free election in more than half a century. No one who listened to the mainstream American media --let alone Europe's state-run news outlets, or the terror-friendly folks at Al-Jazeera -- would have guessed they would be successful. Once again, Bush is two steps ahead of his critics.
We've heard numerous statements from the Left and the Right, informing us that Iraq simply wasn't ready for democracy. But check out this photo, featuring interim president Ghazi al-Yawar at a local polling place. This may be the most defiant gesture anyone has ever made with his index finger.
Lest we forget: Only yesterday, the American Left was predicting massive failure and civil war in Iraq. Whoopsie!
Update (2/5): Uh-oh. It looks like those "freedom-loving" Iraqi voters have elected a Shi'ite theocracy with close ties to Iran. Now that the country has had its free election, its prospects for freedom are grimmer than ever. The pessimists and doom-sayers may yet be vindicated.
In the Republic of Rwanda, the displacement of the Tutsi ruling class emboldened the majority of Hutus to embark on a campaign of genocide. Will Iraqi Shi'as do the same to the old Sunni elites?
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