Friday, March 24, 2017

Orale! This Zoot Suit Still Fits

 Zoot Suit first appeared at  L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum back in 1978. It was a revelation. For the first time a mainstream Los Angeles stage was presenting a slice of local history that laid bare official L.A.’s casual discrimination against young men of Latino heritage. This largely true story of the World War II-era Sleepy Lagoon murder case, as written and directed by Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, was strong stuff.  But that hardly meant it was a grim evening of theatre. Valdez’s direction (encouraged by Center Theatre Group’s invaluable artistic director, Gordon Davidson) played up the color, the music, and the general exuberance of L.A.’s Mexican-American community. Audiences, whatever their own ethnic background, were mesmerized.

So successful was Zoot Suit that it moved east, for a 1979 Broadway run. There were only 41 performances, though star Edward James Olmos would be nominated for a featured-actor Tony. (The sense at the time was that Broadway audiences were not really ready for a plunge into the world of the Chicano. I’d love to see what Lin-Manuel Miranda could do with this material!) Eventually, in 1982, a film version would appear, with Olmos again as the play’s showiest figure, and established actors Charles Aidman and Tyne Daly taking on the roles of two sympathetic Anglos who fight the conviction of Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) for a murder he didn’t commit. Though this miscarriage of justice is the story’s center, Olmos’s character is what makes it unforgettable. He plays El Pachuco, a sort of fantasy tough-guy who mediates between Reyna and the audience, sardonically attacking Anglo culture and showing off the flamboyant up-yours spirit of the zoot-suiter. Reveling in a Spanglish vocabulary, he represents the anger of an underclass that uses defiant poses and fancy threads to differentiate itself from the white man’s world.

In celebration of the Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary (and in fond tribute to the late Gordon Davidson), the Mark Taper is now once again hosting Zoot Suit. This new production, headed by Mexican-born Oscar nominee Demián Bichir, is probably even more colorful and more musically oriented than the long-ago one I remember. On the night I attend, the packed house adored it, and the run is completely sold out. Happily, the responses from the audience to some of Spanish-language throwaway lines hinted that Latin Americans were (for a change) well represented in the Taper audience. I must admit that for me the play’s twists and turns were slightly less galvanizing than what  I recall. I suspect this is because the injustice shown on the stage is more of a given now than it was back in 1978. Still, some of the rhetoric among the play’s police and judicial figures, with its basic assumption that most Latinos are rapists and murderers, seemed all too well connected with the language we hear on today’s nightly news. This is hardly a play whose themes seem outdated or irrelevant.

Zoot Suit put Edward James Olmos on the map. Since then, of course, he’s been a Hollywood stalwart, Oscar-nominated for his leading role in Stand and Deliver, and a featured player in such classics as Blade Runner. While the original Zoot Suit was being staged, I (as an L.A. Times theatre writer) was introduced to Olmos. He was friendly and warm, but the role of El Pachuco had such a hold on me that I instinctively shied away. I also take a moment to salute one of the original Zoot Suit players, my college-era colleague, Angela Moya, who went on to have a nice little acting career. Angela, where are you now?

A Postscript: Edward James Olmos’ Oscar-nominated role was that of super-teacher Jaime Escalante. I just discovered, on a letter that came in today’s mail, that the U.S. Post Office has issued a Jaime Escalante stamp. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“Beauty and the Beast” Goes Gaily Where Others Fear to Tread

The big rumor out of Hollywood is that this weekend’s box office champion, the (mostly) live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, contains a gay character. Le Fou, the fawning sidekick of the vainglorious Gaston, is said to reveal (via Josh Gad’s performance) a not-exactly-manly crush on this obnoxious local hunk. From the clips I’ve seen, there’s nothing especially distinctive in what Gad does on screen, outside of the usual Disney hijinks. Still, his momentary wink in a musical number was apparently enough to set off gaydar across the globe. I’m told the Russian government considered an outright ban, but settled for imposing an age limit on those who could see the film without adult supervision. There’s a theatre in small-town Alabama that has declined to show Beauty and the Beast altogether. And the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia  demanded, but didn’t get, Disney’s promise to cut the offending moment. When the company founded by Walt Disney to showcase Mickey Mouse and a bunch of animated fairy tales is suddenly accused of violating common social norms, we’re in a whole new world. (Oh wait – that was a song from Aladdin.)

Not that Hollywood, throughout its history, has completed avoided gay characters. But for decades, partly because of MPAA restrictions, homosexuality showed up only furtively on screen, often via comic-relief characters like the fluttery tailor who measures James Cagney in Public Enemy. By the Sixties, changing times allowed for the rise of the “dark, dirty secret” film, in which a twisted psyche—like that of Brando’s tormented military man in Reflections of a Golden Eye—is ultimately explained in terms of repressed homosexual urges. In the 1967 camp classic, Valley of the Dolls, a limp-wristed fashion designer character named Ted Casablanca appears to be gay, though the script seems unable to decide whether this is indeed so. In any case, his ambiguous status prompts an unforgettable line from tough-gal Neely (played by Patty Duke in full Judy Garland burn-out mode): “He’s not a fag, and I’m just the dame to prove it.” No wonder a gay man of my acquaintance calls Valley of the Dolls “my favorite bad movie of all time.”

Gay men have long tended to be enthusiastic moviegoers. In his pioneering work, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo explains that “the movies were where one learned to pass for straight, where one learned the boundaries of what America would accept as normal.” But a whole new era seemed to dawn in 2005 when Brokeback Mountain presented two attractive leading men—rugged cowboy types—who fell deeply and hopelessly in love. Admittedly, not everyone was comfortable with this subject matter. It may not have been accidental that the two lead actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, were both unequivocally hetero. And, though favored to win the Best Picture Oscar, Brokeback Mountain lost out on this honor to the far less artful Crash.

In any case, though I applaud any trend toward widening social possibilities on film, I can’t get very excited about a Disney sidekick who may seem to evince stereotypically gay mannerisms. The issue’s looming large for me, because I’ve just seen the Broadway Tony Award winner for best musical of 2015, Fun Home. Here’s a creative adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, about a daughter who accepts her own lesbianism while at the same time coming to realize that her father is a deeply closeted gay man. It’s a heartbreaking story, although it is presented in a way that is not short of humor. And it knows how to push its gay characters well beyond stereotype. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Revisiting “The Band’s Visit”: Musicians Without Borders

With the U.S. debating the terms on which foreign visitors can enter the country and Washington D.C. making an apparent shift in its policy toward Israel and Palestine, I sat down to watch a ten-year-old Israeli film called The Band’s Visit. It, like so many of our news stories of late, focuses on what happens to those who cross international borders. The Band’s Visit tells the fictive story of a small Egyptian band, officially the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The eight men, in their elaborate formal uniforms, fly to Tel Aviv for a cultural exchange, but get far more than they bargained for. I’d long heard of this film, but  didn’t anticipate that it is less a political statement or a satire of bungling bureaucracy than a gentle reminder that people are people, no matter their point of origin.

The film begins with a prime example of cross-cultural misunderstanding. After its arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, the proud little band discovers there’s no liaison present to smooth its way to its performance venue. One band member, the group’s foremost Romeo, is delegated to inquire at an airport information desk. Speaking in mangled English, he asks the Israeli receptionist about transportation options. The men end up on a public bus that drops them at a town in the middle of nowhere. Yes, this is Beit Hatikva, but no one is expecting the band’s arrival. Eventually, the problem becomes clear. Arabic languages lack a “P” sound, and regularly substitute a “B.” The bandsman apparently inquiring about Beit Hatikva (“House of Hope”) actually needed directions to Petah Tikva (“Opening of Hope”), a well-established industrial city just outside of Tel Aviv. 

Anyway, it’s almost nightfall, and the men are going to need food and a place to sleep. The denizens of Beit Hatikva are a hard-scrabble bunch, most of them marked by dreams that have gone awry. But, led by the big-hearted Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) who owns the seedy local café, they open their own homes to the band members. The film cuts between several of these home-stays, which variously include an amusing trip to a roller-skating rink, an awkward dinner with a deeply stressed young married couple, and a revealing conversation between the proud but sad leader of the troupe and the earthy Dina, who feels she has squandered her own chances for happiness. Nothing earth-shattering happens, but before the night is out everyone knows everyone a bit better. And just a small amount of magic has made some drab  lives slightly more endurable.

Then comes morning, and the eight musicians set off for their proper destination, where their mutual love of music is at last on full display.

The Band’s Visit, a popular film both in Israel and abroad, was selected to represent Israel in the competition for the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. One problem, though: in the interest of realism, the Egyptian characters speak Arabic together, while the Israelis speak Hebrew. When members of the two groups need to communicate across national lines, English is their lingua franca. Since more than 50% of the film’s dialogue is in English, the Academy disqualified it from the Foreign Language Film category. A shame, truly.

Less shame than tragedy is the death in 2016 of the beautiful and soulful actress Ronit Elkabetz, who succumbed to cancer at age 51. The star of many Israeli films, she last played the very different role of an Orthodox Jewish wife denied a divorce by her husband in 2014’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem.  She also co-wrote and co-directed. Her passing is a huge loss.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dueling Spielbergs

Steven Spielberg can never be accused of lacking versatility. In the course of directing 56 films (and producing three times that number), he has explored virtually every genre. He’s made classic family movies (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), action-adventure thrillers (Raiders of the Lost Ark), blood-and-guts war stories (Saving Private Ryan), and thought-provoking science fiction flicks (AI Artificial Intelligence). Over a fifty-year career, he’s tried his hand at serious historical drama (Amistad, Lincoln) and off-beat whimsy (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can). He’s been gutsy enough to tackle the intimate story of a black woman (The Color Purple), and ambitious enough to take on the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. This latter film, of course, has had global repercussions and has led to Spielberg’s establishment of the highly respected Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, through which the personal stories of Hitler’s victims are being carefully preserved.  

No question that Steven Spielberg has a strong sense of social responsibility. In some ways he comes across as a grown-up Boy Scout. Still, like some Boy Scouts I know, he enjoys scary tales told around a campfire in the dark. Remember when Jaws persuaded all of us to avoid the ocean? Yes, some Hollywood wag labeled this 1975 Spielberg fright-fest a Roger Corman film on a big budget, but it certainly did the trick, scaring the pants off of us while creating the whole idea of a summer blockbuster. And Spielberg’s genius for crowd-pleasing by way of crowd-scaring was certainly on display in 1993, when dinosaurs ran amok in Jurassic Park. This fascination with the scary – and even the demonic – shows up in 1982’s Poltergeist, which Spielberg co-wrote and produced but didn’t direct. (Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, did the honors, in the same year that Spielberg himself helmed E.T..) Poltergeist, in which sinister forces appear via a family’s TV screen, clearly reflects Spielberg’s own childhood obsession with his own parents’ new television set.

So it makes perfect sense that Spielberg’s big Hollywood breakthrough came by way of television. It all began with a short story by Richard Matheson, who (in the course of a long career) wrote screenplays for such Roger Corman classics as House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. Matheson was reportedly moved to write this story, which first appeared in Playboy, after he was tailgated by a trucker on what turned out to be the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. Matheson himself adapted “Duel” for the screen, and the result was a 1971 TV movie (later released as a feature film) that jumpstarted Spielberg’s career.

Steven Spielberg (somewhat alone among the great directors of his generation) never worked for Roger Corman. Still, Duel can be considered Cormanesque. It was made on a very low budget, along the highways and back roads of Southern California. Plot and characterization are subordinate to the fast-paced action on the screen; dialogue barely exists. At base, this is the story of a middle-aged middle-class Angeleno (Dennis Weaver) who’s driving his bright red Plymouth Valiant to some sort of appointment in the hinterlands. Suddenly he’s being threatened at every turn by a monstrously lethal Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. Its driver is barely visible, but the rusted-out truck (which takes on demonic characteristics as the film advances) clearly seems out to get him, and damn the consequences! The filmmaking is bravura, and Duel ended up turning Spielberg into the next big thing, allowing him to dream up bigger and costlier scares as his career advanced.

Who knows what scary critters will be next on his agenda?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hollywood Flunks the Bechdel Test

So how did you celebrate International Women’s Day? For those not in the know, it’s observed in countries around the world every March 8. Though International Women’s Day had its origins (back in 1909) among leftwing working women in New York City, it was enthusiastically adopted within the Soviet bloc in 1917, following the Russian Revolution. In 1975, the United Nations formally recognized it as a day on which to honor women and the international movement against sexism. And in SoCal it’s gradually starting to become a time for protest marches and rallies.

Me? I spent the day thinking about the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Whazzat? Well, it all started with cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace. Bechdel, who has recently been represented on Broadway by the Tony-winning musical, Fun Home, for years published a feisty comic strip titled “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Back in 1985, one of her strips, using an idea she credits to Liz Wallace, showed a woman insisting, “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it.  Who, two, talk to each other about, three, something other than a man.”

Out of that germ of an idea came the so-called Bechdel Test, as a way to judge which movies can boast a valid recognition of the female gender. When applied to contemporary Hollywood, the results can be startling. Naturally, most superhero movies don’t pass the test. But neither do a fair share of prestige pictures.This becomes clear when we look at the nine movies nominated as candidates for the Best Picture Oscar. Only one, Hidden Figures, truly adopts a female perspective. Both Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water are pretty much female-free. La La Land has an early scene featuring Mia and her three roommates, but what’s on their minds is going to a party and meeting guys. Lion, Fences, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight do contain meaty female roles, but these women exist in support of a very central male whose problems dominate the film. Then there’s Arrival, in which (as in Jackie and Florence Foster Jenkins) the main character is decidedly female, but she’s the focus of a story in which she’s played off against a pretty much all-male establishment. (Unless, of course, Arrival’s aliens are girls.)

A few nights ago I was lucky enough to attend an American Cinematheque screening of a classic from 1952, High Noon. Though Golden Age of Hollywood movies often featured the clash of two powerful women (think All About Eve), High Noon perfectly illustrates what the Bechdel Test is all about. It contains a terrific scene between two strong and diametrically opposed women: blonde and beautiful Amy (Grace Kelly) and dark and sultry Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). The former projects dewy-eyed innocence; the latter bitter experience. But what exactly do they discuss? The plight of Sheriff Will Kane, the character played by Gary Cooper, who is the newly-wedded husband of Amy and has clearly been around the block with Helen.   

Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home is currently having a triumphant run in L.A., is the author of not one but two graphic memoirs, autobiographical comic-strip-style books in which she reveals the secrets of her family tree through both carefully chosen words and vivid drawings. Bechdel’s great subject is her relationship—as a daughter and a lesbian—to her difficult, complicated parents. Her interaction with her mother, her female lovers, and her female shrinks are an essential part of the mix. I’d say she passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.