Friday, March 31, 2006


So--this success story makes me happy. I did a reading and an out of town play thing with Jayne Houdyshell where she played my Mother in like 1999/2000 or something. She's really great, and has been plodding along steadily for over twenty years in regional theatre. It's wonderful she's on the fast track for a Tony in "Well", a play by Lisa Kron, of the Five Lesbian Brothers, who is hysterical herself. Brave Smiles: Another Lesbian Tragedy has to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Glad to see both of these women doing so well. It makes me happy when hard work pays off like that. I hope it comes to LA.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Russians are Coming

I have been wanting to write on these two things for a while, but
haven’t had either the time or the inclination for some reason. Now it feels a little like the horse has left the barn, but I’ll see what comes up.

A few weekends ago, maybe a month now, I had an extremely Russian experience watching both the movie of Dr. Zhivago and seeing a production of the Cherry Orchard in the same weekend. Interesting to me because one presages the events of the other, but both have certain things in common. I will say out the outset that I have a prejudice for Chekhov, so let’s get that out of the way. But then again, who wouldn’t? Like I said, don’t really know what I’m going to say here, but I’ll go ahead and jump in.

Doctor Zhivago. Everyone talks about the love story, but it’s a fascinating movie in that the love story doesn’t click in until half way through the movie. Until then, we are seeing revolution, and how those personal relationships effect out hero, Yurii Zhivago.

Quick summation: it is near the revolution. Zhivago is a well-off
medical student who is engaged to Tonya (a very young Geraldine Chaplin in her first movie role). He crosses paths at a restaurant with Laura, who has come to shoot a callous man (played by Rod Steiger) who is having an affair with both her and her mother. She misses and shoots his hand. Laura leaves and marries a revolutionary (Tom Courtenay) who will later become an inflexible revolutionary leader of the party. He leaves her, Zhivago is pulled off to help in the revolutionary effort, though not a political man, and has to leave his wife and her family.
Laura is the nurse who he serves with. When he returns there are
several families living in the huge family house, and the family
flees. Of course, they flee to a town near where Laura lives. He
initiates an affair, she becomes pregnant; he is pulled off to the war again, and on and on.

Aside from the love story, the historical preservation of the
hairstyles of 1965 and the ingratiating Laura’s theme, what this movie does well for me is explore the mindset of the revolution--the people who Zhivago comes back to, who have a little power for the first time in their lives, and the suspicion with which they view anyone who may have more than they do; the machinations of a system set up to protect itself and the few who create it by using the rhetoric of freedom; the peasant mentality. This last for me is the most interesting—as it is said that the Jews had to wander around in the desert for forty years so that anyone who remembered slavery died before entrance to the promise land, the Russian revolutionaries change their slavish allegiance from a Tsar to a despotic regime. And it’s that sheep mentality that fascinates me—perhaps, drawing a universal here, man is not so much looking for freedom as for someone to tell him what to do. I’m not sure I’m in that camp, but it’s fascinating how people will kill, starve, and torture for an idea if the idea is strong enough.

Do people want to live for an idea larger than themselves (I wouldn’t say selfless, because I don’t think it’s that, they just aren’t always the most selective in how they do it)? I find myself coming back to a conversation I had with a woman in the backseat of a car on the way to Salzburg from Vienna. She was from the Midwest and actually said “I don’t understand these people—if they were coming to take my freedom I would just take my children and leave.” I have a feeling though, if the idea was big enough, say terrorist strikes in the United States, she would be first in line to give them up. There’s not always a warning.

Not really sure where this is headed now, but interesting for me in the film was the transformation of the people at large. And the conscious choice to have Zhivago watch the entire thing passively. And the hairstyles. Ha ha. Actually, the DVD had some great extras—and a great making of featurette—who knew it was done in Spain, and that the house of ice was made of wax? That Pasternak actually had an affair with a woman later in life and modeled the book on his life? Most interesting was a Geraldine Chaplin story about the scene where the protestors in the street sing the Communist anthem. As this was Spain under Franco, people actually heard the singing and thought the revolution had come again. They were happy; the police weren’t. They watched the rest of the filming. Ideas are powerful.

Speaking of, one of the most powerful performances I have seen in a while was given by Alfred Molina recently in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Ahmanson here in LA. I love this play. Molina played Lopakhin, the serf-cum-businessman who ends up buying the Orchard where his father and grandfather were slaves. I love this play—I’ll say it again. Nothing I can say will convey how much, but I’ll go ahead and try. If Zhivago is about larger idea and the play of history in individual lives, The Cherry Orchard is about the little decisions we make, who we are, and how these things conspire to shape our lives. I’ll just abbreviate now—ILTP.

Bit of a short synopsis for those of you not familiar with it: Everyone in the household is excited that Ranevskaya (played by Annette Bening) is returning after being in Paris with her lover. She is awaited by Dunyasha (Jennifer Dundas), a servant who thinks she is delicate like a lady; Lopakhin (Molina), a friend of the family who grew up as a serf there but is now a successful businessman; Gayev (Lothaire Bluteau—best known for Jesus of Montreal-in kind of an odd casting choice); Firs, ancient butler/valet to Gayev; and Varya, the mistress of the house and Ranevskaya’s daughter/foundling. Ranevskaya returns with her daughter Anya and her valet, Yasha, to her beloved house and Orchard, penniless. Lopakhin explains how she must sell the Orchard to let out for summer houses or she will lose it. She says she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Simeonov-Pischik, a neighbor, comes and ask to borrow money from her. She gives it to him. Petya Trofimov, her drowned 7 year-old son’s fromer tutor, is staying at the house as well. The moment of the auction comes closer as Ranevskaya and Gayev still have no way to pay the mortgage. Yasha flirts with Dunyasha, but really wants to go back to Paris. Lopakhin tries to convince Ranevskaya to convert the land. She says she has no money, but gives coins to a passing beggar. Varya berates her. She agrees no more, and then asks to borrow money from a friend. Anya and Trofimov have a romantic/revolutionary moment, as he talks about politics constantly, though still seems to have a little crush on Ranevskaya. The third act is a party, where Ranevskaya talk about how low they have come that they’re inviting the postman and it used to be nobles. Simeonov-Pischik comes in and borrows more money. Varya throws her keys angrily as she protests that she has no money to feed the servants and her mother is loaning others money. She agrees. Everyone is waiting for Lopakhin, Varya and Gayev to returnfrom the auction, as there has been a little money from a rich Aunt. Lopakhin comes in and tells everyone how he has bought the orchard.

Molina doing Lopakhin’s speech is stunning—I even asked a friend if I could see the text of the adaptation, as it felt fuller to me than any other time I had seen it or read it. When he sent it to me, the text was similar to the Lopakhin speech I remembered. It wasn’t the text, it was Molina’s performance. Anger, elation, frustration, rage, compassion, helplessness, ecstasy—I could go on, all of this contained in this small two paragraph speech recounting winning the auction and buying the house where his forefathers were slaves. The elation mixed with the triumphant rage at his father and grandfather having ever been slaves, and his exhortation to Ranesvskaya as she weeps—“Why didn’t you listen to me?” is chilling, and beyond real. Even in the midst of elation, we see what mixed feelings Lopakhin has in taking away something from a friend, but having had to do it before someone else did. And his frustration at her carelessness--and truly how much he loves this woman as well. I like Annette Bening, but she didn't register with me as much as he did. I wanted her to haunt the play as she does with everyone in it, but she didn't quite get there for me.

Of course, the most thrilling scene in the play for me is when Lopakhin is left alone with Varya, specifically to propose to her, and he speaks of nothing, then leaves the room when called. One reviewer noted how whenever marriage to Varya is mentioned in the play, he takes a step backward. You don’t even notice--it's not a huge gesture, but you feel his reluctance. In this production there is a silence after the conversation about nothing, and he steps toward her for the first time, as if to ask a question, and a voice calls him out of the room at that exact moment. Heart-breaking. Varya breaks down, composes herself. Everyone leaves. And Firs, the old butler who lives only to serve Gayev, is left alone in a locked house he can’t escape from. The End. And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderfully comic Yephikodov, the clutz with the squeaky shoes, or Carlotta, the ventriloquist nanny who eats whole cucumbers.

I know there’s a lot to write about this play, critically, but I just have to say ILTP and leave it at that. So a whole lot of plot summary. I liked the production, for the most part. What I most love about theatre is what this play does for me (When it's done well). There is a blank space. It is filled with life; it moves you, challenges you, touches you, and then the stage is empty. And you’re left a little changed, feeling fuller, happier, and slightly melancholy—you see the stage now as a place where something happened, someplace you were completely taken out of yourself, and you miss it a bit now that it’s gone. And it will stay with you for a while. The best theatre does that for me. It’s exhilarating.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Letting Go of God

I just saw Julia Sweeney's brilliant one-woman show, Letting Go of God. There's one more show at the Groundling's on Tuesday. I'd say catch it if you can. It's funny, smart, honest, emotional--I loved it. It's her trek through bible study, new age, buddhism, and trying to find out if God exists, and how she can believe what she grew up with. You can also listen to a half hour of it at This American Life, as they played part of it last year--it's 6/3/05 Episode--Godless America. Go, go, go. One of my favorite lines, to her daughter: "Oh, everyone thinks you're so pretty. I guess you won't have to develop a personality like your Mother did." And this one "So basically Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins." Or when she tells her mother she doesn't believe in God anymore, and her mother responds, "I hope this doesn't mean you're not going to Church!"

As a lifelong spiritual searcher, I found her quest refreshing, not only her honesty, but her willingness to ask questions and deal with the answers when they were difficult. The Deepak Chopra is full of shit section was hysterical. She manages to find the base of confusion, and control in most religions, and still is able to respect the religions themselves, as well as the impulses that drive people to believe. For me the triumph of the show is the compassion with which she is able to look at organized religions and belief systems, asking questions, but never ridiculing those who believe. And I love her discovery of science--that in the end, science for her acknowledges the mystery and the lack of answers in a way that no religion can. That was a surprising and satisfying conclusion to come to. I certainly left not sad about her conclusion, but filled with the true sense of wonder that we are here at all. Wonderful show.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Gay Fiction circa 2006

Ah, the gay fiction boom of the mid-eighties to early nineties. Remember that? Remember all those earnest novels of coming out, moving to the big city, having sex for the first time? I do, as I was doing all of those things. Then Borders and Barnes & Noble had a gay fiction section, and A Different Light closed and became a hardware store. I wonder if we are reading less, or we have less of a need for it. I have mixed feelings about it, being a lifelong reader, but many times disappointed in gay fiction. This has led me to questions: Is it my own homophobia, that I can't take gay fiction seriously? Is it that the books are narrow in scope, and don't seem to connect to the world at large, except as a site of opression? IS it just that I feel I'm reading the same story over and over? All of these may be true, but I am currently excited about a new collection of gay fiction that Stinkylulu sent me, Fresh Men 2, New Voices in Gay Fiction, edited by Donald Weise.

I am not saying anything here said that's not said better by Andrew Holleran in his forward, but I am struck by the difference in the tone of these stories. They are still some seeped in the sadness and melancholy that pervades a lot of gay fiction for me--the desire that is just out of reach, desire attained but still unsatisfactory. I think much of that is the psyche of writers--you're not writing a story because you're thrilled with the way things are. That said, what's striking about this collection (and I've only just dipped in) is the breadth of voice. It's new, and wonderful. The writers aren't even all gay--and the stories aren't either, or should I say that they aren't explicit in the way of previous collections I've read. I've read a story about the death of a lover, another about drinking buddies, about an ambi-sexual drugged-up club kid, and another about a straight man's obsession with his roommates pecs. "Manboobs", it's called, and it made me laugh. Not only is the peotic language intriguing, but the straight protagonist, having just been abandonded by his fiancee, becomes obsessed with his new roommates giant pectorals. Throughout the story he just wants to touch them, and ends up working out to try and get them himself. It's an hysterical story about the body and desire, but from an unexpected source.

I suppose what's fascinating about this collection is the variety of voices, and the difference of experience. Since "gay" has become part of the culture in such a way that people writing can now explore outside of the "gay ghetto", and explore a lived experience in the world at large. It just feels less claustrophibic to me, I guess. And that's a great thing. It's why I like the films of I've seen of Eytan Fox , as he positions his characters in a world at large that feels real and lived. Not everyone is part of a larger opressive culture, they are people to degrees accepting of difference, and trying themselves to figure out a place in the world. This is not to say those feelings of shame, closetedness, self-hatred, aren't with us anymore. In fact. some would argue we are still the butt of the joke in a way that's acceptable, but would be offensive to any other minority. ( I personally feel somewhat being able to take the joke, and give it back, is part of acceptance, as it is on any playground) Those feelings of self-hatred are still with us, and as "gay" becomes more accepted we are in danger of forgetting why we grouped together in the first place. I'm hoping that doesn't happen. But this book gives me hope that gay fiction, instead of disappearing, is just becoming something else. That's exciting.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Yay, Turan!

I don't get the calendar section on line, but here's Kenneth Turan's take on the Oscars. Bravo.

By Kenneth Turan, Times Staff Writer
March 5, 2006

Sometimes you win by losing, and nothing has proved what a powerful, taboo-breaking, necessary film "Brokeback Mountain" was more than its loss Sunday night to "Crash" in the Oscar best picture category.

Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable.

More than any other of the nominated films, "Brokeback Mountain" was the one people told me they really didn't feel like seeing, didn't really get, didn't understand the fuss over. Did I really like it, they wanted to know. Yes, I really did.

In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who've led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed "Brokeback Mountain."

For Hollywood, as a whole laundry list of people announced from the podium Sunday night and a lengthy montage of clips tried to emphasize, is a liberal place, a place that prides itself on its progressive agenda. If this were a year when voters had no other palatable options, they might have taken a deep breath and voted for "Brokeback." This year, however, "Crash" was poised to be the spoiler.

I do not for one minute question the sincerity and integrity of the people who made "Crash," and I do not question their commitment to wanting a more equal society. But I do question the film they've made. It may be true, as producer Cathy Schulman said in accepting the Oscar for best picture, that this was "one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American history," but "Crash" is not an example of that.

I don't care how much trouble "Crash" had getting financing or getting people on board, the reality of this film, the reason it won the best picture Oscar, is that it is, at its core, a standard Hollywood movie, as manipulative and unrealistic as the day is long. And something more.

For "Crash's" biggest asset is its ability to give people a carload of those standard Hollywood satisfactions but make them think they are seeing something groundbreaking and daring. It is, in some ways, a feel-good film about racism, a film you could see and feel like a better person, a film that could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed and your preconceptions reconfirmed.

So for people who were discomfited by "Brokeback Mountain" but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, "Crash" provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what "Brokeback" had to offer. And that's exactly what they did.

"Brokeback," it is worth noting, was in some ways the tamest of the discomforting films available to Oscar voters in various categories. Steven Spielberg's "Munich"; the Palestinian Territories' "Paradise Now," one of the best foreign language nominees; and the documentary nominee "Darwin's Nightmare" offered scenarios that truly shook up people's normal ways of seeing the world. None of them won a thing.

Hollywood, of course, is under no obligation to be a progressive force in the world. It is in the business of entertainment, in the business of making the most dollars it can. Yes, on Oscar night, it likes to pat itself on the back for the good it does in the world, but as Sunday night's ceremony proved, it is easier to congratulate yourself for a job well done in the past than actually do that job in the present.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


I've been posting at another site, so excuse my absence. I will hopefully be writing a tome soon about the Russians. To be Posted here, where such things are posted. :)

Here's a link to the NYTimes article about Runway, and there is slideshow with three of the final designs. I didn't know Heidi's modeling agent said she had the "personality of a German Sausage". Not so nice--but fashion is tough. I realize I watch the show too much when I noticed two typos--he got Zulema's name wrong, and it's the L'Oreal PARIS makeup room. He calls Tim Gunn a heartthrob--I love it!

And here's a spoof memo to the Vatican, complete with a questionaire on how to identify truly committed homosexuals. Hee hee. Part of it:

1. Jesus would have been a bad boyfriend because:

(a) He wasn’t gay or sexual in any way, so the question is disgusting.

(b) He would have cared about everyone, but not enough about you.

(c) He wasn’t really Jewish.