Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mad Women: See Me

When the universe aligns to make an entire weekend's events thematically connected, it's really cool. When that alignment delivers four very satisfying and thematically linked cultural events, well that's proof of the existence of Saraswati, the Indian goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. And when you learn something about yourself though art, that's, for me, a peak experience.

Such was this weekend for me. By chance and design, I saw four first rate productions about women on the verge of nervous breakdowns--all lower case, because that particular movie classic (and musical theater disaster) was not on the docket.

I saw Another Year, the new Mike Leigh film, Rabbit Hole, with Nicole Kidman (nominated for Best Actress), Next to Normal, the traveling production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway show, and The Believers, the art film production by Katy Grannan.

If you like Mike Leigh (Happy Go Lucky, Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, Naked) you may very well like this film, and I liked it very much. It's Mike Leigh light though; meaning that his other films carry a wallop that sneaks up on you like that third shot of tequila. Everything is going fine, you're having an okay time, then suddenly you're on the floor and the room is spinning. No that's the wrong analogy though it does describe the impact of some of his films. But typically his films are more like a holiday dinner with the family--all the usual tensions and discomfort, mixed with a familiar joy and then someone, you know who, that's right, you--or even better, your mother, suddenly makes an announcement: someone's gay, someone's got luekemia, someone's got a secret baby, someone's got a secret life, something. The point is you don't expect it. This film works like that, but the reveal is more subtle and it's not hopeful at all, but it's true, so if you're the one who complains about sugar-coated Hollywood movies and the sappy endings in American films, this one's for you! Now: go see it and please write me an email with these three words: you're not Mary. If you want to see my worst fear go check out Mary. Hey, being single is a choice! Hurrah!

But I swear if being married and having kids means that you may experience the pain of the couple in Rabbit Hole, well, I'll just snuggle up with a warm book for a lifetime of holidays, thank you very much. It's not a spoiler to say that Rabbit Hole is the masterful exploration of a couple coming to terms with the death of their son. We learn that very early. It's a plot point. It's a so what. But the movement of these two individuals--because with tragedy like that there is no group response--through their pain and the dark psychological landscape of grief is fascinating and gripping--meaning that there is some psychological truth and emotional authenticity. Nicole Kidman is great; Aaron Eckhart is passable (but whose idea was it to shave off his body hair?). You won't believe this was directed by the same guy, John Cameron Mitchell, who did Hewig and the Angry Inch, and Shortbus, but there is some logic there: it's in the theme of Parallel Universes: in a different world we are all happier versions of ourselves. The universe aligns to make it so. . . right? True art asks those big questions and then leaves them unanswered.

Next to Normal is touring with part of the original cast. This musical was a big hit in New York and won many Tony awards and nominations. It also won a Pulitzer prize for the book and lyrics. The music is very Rentish and unremarkable, though brilliant at manipulating emotions--which was my only complaint about the show. There is a generic "rock musical" style that's starting: Rent, Spring Awakening, etc. It's fun and compelling, but they can sound a bit alike. Whereas Sondheim. . . well he knew different themes require different sounds. But I quibble. Led by the talented Alice Ripley (hee, hee, that's a pun), the musical tells the story of one family's struggle with bi-polar disorder (with hints of schizophrenia). What a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, you're thinking. Well it is, because again, pain is delicious if it's being acted out on stages by strangers. It's cathartic. Go back to your Literature 101 texts to remind yourself why tragedy is so satisfying: remember sorrow and pity? (Or do the modern equivalent: review the Wikipedia article.) We need to witness this on stage and it becomes a substitute for our own emotions. When we come out the other side, when we survive, we feel catharsis, a purging of the feelings. That's why we often feel so good after a good cry in the movies. I really felt for the family in this show, enjoyed the songs and acting, and brilliant sets. And there's a logic in madness and not-quite-madness, like the husband is suffering. Go see it; it's not in San Francisco very long. It's one of those things that by the time it's gets the attention it deserves, it will be gone.

Finally, do this if you want to be totally hip: go to the Fraenkel Gallery and see the current exhibit, Boulevard, by the brilliant photographer Katy Grannan, then go to the storefront theater gallery at 1453 Valencia (between 25th and 26th) and see her art video installation that loosely accompanies the exhibit. In a little over 9 minutes, she captures somehow the inner lives of three or four of her portrait subjects. It's masterful, because the video installation lives at the intersection of several genres (documentary, photography, portraiture) and themes (exhibitionism, dreams, femininity, street life, aging, impersonation, bravado, self destruction, self creation): in nine minutes! I wasn't bored for a second and I watched it twice and would have stayed longer, but it started to rain, and I was traveling by bicycle with a paper bag full of groceries in the basket. Such is life. As I pedaled home, though, I felt it again: cathartic and light as air. These women who we see everyday: the Marilyn impersonators in Hollywood, the dimestore eccentrics, the ancient ladies in bright red lipstick--they carry a lot of the weight of our collective unconscious. They are doing a spiritual service. I have to say the location itself was also very smart; you hear that it's on Valencia, and you expect it to be in a cool spot. Don't get me wrong, the gentrification of Valencia is radiating in all directions, but right now it kind of stops (or starts) at 24th street. Past that and you're suddenly in gritty Mission proper. Like these brave women: at the edge of cool, and yet comfortable there, thank you very much, because they are therefore in their own stratosphere of cool, you know, the border between cool and crazy, hip yuppie and workaday poor. That's where Saraswati lives, not in the Afterlife.

I came to believe after seeing these four masterworks this weekend, that with grief and mental illness, and with our creativity, should we be brave enough to entertain it (and we all have it, not just the talented--don't confuse the two!) we are all as unique as our DNA. Love might be universal, but love implies "other"--families, lovers, spouses, friends. . .  But grief, anxiety, madness, even the desire to make art or make ourselves art, those are other stories: ultimately we are alone, but there is hope and joy in there if you're brave enough to put out a hand, ask for help, ask to be seen . .

Saturday, January 15, 2011

No picture entry about the best pictures of the year

The Golden Globes are tomorrow night and then the Academy Awards will be on in a bit more than a month.
I wanted to give some very top line impressions of what I think should happen. And predictions . . .
Black Swan, up for best picture, might win, and if it does I may have to throw up. I know that reasonably smart people liked this movie, but I thought it was a fucking travesty. I thought it was Showgirls bad. Laughable. Wretched. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Really, I hated it. I’m not alone, but I’m in the minority. It’s a polarizing movie. And when I tell people who liked it that I didn’t like, they invariably say one thing: Don’t you like Darren Aronofsky? Yeah, I do, and that’s why it’s odd to me that he went down the stony end with this one.
Did you know he also produced The Fighter, also nominated for best picture (Golden Globe)? Now that’s a movie, and very interestingly it’s really about the very same theme: talented young person rising above the influence of psycho-mom to make it big. I LOVED The Fighter. It stayed with me. Christian Bale is the best thing in it—nominated for supporting actor, but he’s better than Wahlberg, who gives an okay performance but is nominated for best actor, Golden Globe; Bale nails the crackhead thing. And the mother, played by Melissa Leo, also nominated. Loved her. Hated her.  Loved to hate her. Amy Adams, also nominated: she’s better as a tough good hearted bitch with a thong an a tattoo than she is as a fairy princess. That’s for sure. And I nominate the ensemble case of the seven sisters for best supporting actress. These sisters—it’s a true story remember, no one could invent these harpies—move and speak, with a spot-on working class Massachusetts accent, as one unit of bad hair, bad manners, and bad teeth. One of the best moments in really terrific movie that is ultimately about brotherly love, not boxing, is when the Amy Adams character almost kicks all of their asses.
True Grit: loved the performance of the little girl, Hailee Steinfeld; she plus Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role plus Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger are terrific in this Coen brothers flick. People say it’s not a typical Coen brothers movie, but one thing it does have is their signature sense of humor.
Acting awards may go to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine—they’re both nominated, and I’ll be routing hard for Gosling. Michelle Williams is an indi/foreign press darling. Blue Valentine is a non-linear story about a woman falling out of love with her husband. And I ask you: how could anyone not love Ryan Gosling? Yes, he plays a big man child in this movie, and yes that would be annoying, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better portrayal of masculinity and sensitivity all wrapped up together so they are one and the same. “Men are more romantic than women,” he says. Yes. I would give it an award for cinematography too. It’s a devastating movie. I cried twice, once when the Ryan Gosling character is moving an old man into a nursing home. Ryan’s character Dean works for a moving company. He takes the time to make everything just right, every momento in place, because he really gets that this guy has had an interesting life, and this is his last stop, and because it was the most brilliant way the filmmaker could show rather than tell the audience that Dean is a caretaker of the most exalted kind (that is, not expecting a damn thing in return).
Two other noteworthy movies, the first nominated, the latter overlooked: The King’s Speech and Somewhere.
The Kings Speech is one of those little gem historical movies that doesn’t hit a false note, not unlike The Queen a few years ago. Like it or not, the royalty motif still plays a big role in our collective subconscious in general, and for Americans, we are still psychically drawn to our national mother: England, her kings and queens especially. In this movie Colin Firth (who I like more and more all the time and whom I’m adopting along with George Clooney as role models on how to age well), plays the accidental King George. His brother was supposed to be king, but he abdicated so he could spend his live with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  Who knew he was a stutterer. And who would have imagined that the drama of his overcoming this affliction would make such good cinema. The Brits make one kind of movie over and over: someone (or a group) works and works to rise from an affliction and then they triumph spectacularly. It’s Billy Elliot; it’s Fancy Boots; it’s Calendar Girls; it’s The Full Monty; it’s Little Voice; it’s Seabiscuit—oh wait that’s American—see we’re still copying them.
Somwhere, Sofia Coppola’s movie, is getting a lot of attention. I liked it, and I like Lost in Translation, but they are more like interest artifacts than really great films. But she’s considered an auteur in the European tradition. American’s want a bit more plot and can handle less style. She has a great eye, and Somewhere goes pretty deep, but I can’t say it moved me.
Also on my wish list, and let this be your guide to rentals / Netflix:
I Am Love—I loved this movie, perhaps, most of all this year.
The Kids are Alight.  Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as lesbian moms. But ignore all that. It’s about family. They’re both nominated for GGs, best actress.
Winter’s Bones. I would love Jennifer Lawrence to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but the competition is so tough with Moore, Williams, Benning, Portman, Kidman, Berry..
Inception: overrated. But nice effects. Nominated for best pic.
The Social Network. If it’s beats Black Swan I’ll be happy. It’s an altogether more honest piece of filmmaking.
Documentaries: good ones this year: Exit Through the Gift Shop and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and Catfish—one of those will win the Oscar, I’m sure of it.
Here are the nominations.
It's late and I'm going to post this without pictures, or it won't get up before the Golden Globes tomorrow night. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shameful if you don't catch Shameless

If you want to try something fun culturally, if you really have enjoyed infrequent blog at all and trust me, you will watch the new series on Showtime called Shameless back to back with an episode of Parenthood. Shameless is the new series (maybe just a pilot right now, but I'm betting it gets picked up, because it's the best new TV since Nurse Jackie) starring William H. Macy, who is, by the one way, the one thing on the show I could without. I love Parenthood. It makes me cry. It's slick. It's Hollywood. It's Berkeley. It's covered elsewhere on this blog. Shameless makes me laugh and the pilot kept me on the edge of my seat.

It's a show about a very LARGE family without a mom and and an alcoholic, absent father (Macy). It's utter chaos, a sort of Eight is Enough for the Great Recession. It's a remake from the British series. Interestingly, it premiered the same night Episodes premiered on Showtime, which is about the bastardization of a British series that's Americanized (like they did to the Office, but you can't say the American version is bad. It's not). I suppose the British version of Shameless is better--that's often the case, at first. Has anyone seen it?

The characters are just introduced in the pilot, and the story revolves around two siblings, the oldest sister, age unclear, but probably 20 or so, who is trying to keep it altogether, for this crumbling family. (All the kids are involved in crime in one way or another. You even wonder about the toddler.)

And it's also about the gay character, Ian, and his next older brother Lip (short for Philip). Ian is the best written young gay character I've seen on TV in. . . forever. This isn't Curt from Glee. This is a tough cookie, ROTC, who works in a Muslim grocery store and is having an affair with the hot, much older, much married owner. There's some great scenes where Lip discovers he's gay and first tries to convert him, then tries to understand, then finally accepts. Nice arc, and all in sixty minutes, unlike real life, where that shit can take sixty years in some families, truth be told.

I haven't posted in a while. If you'll accept these shorter posts, I'll try for more often. You can do me a favor and watch Shameless so we can talk about it. And pass this on to your friends, or better yet, post it on your Facebook.