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 . .

1 comment:

Jeff Osteen said...

I'm exhausted...sounds like a busy weekend!