Thursday, December 31, 2009

FILM: Nine

For New Years Eve, we caught Nine, which is a bunch of musical numbers set into a parodic parade of clichés about Italian men and Italian film. While I've never seen the original Fellini films that inspired the Broadway musical on which this film is based, Fellini is so seminal I feel as though I have. Who isn't familiar with the idea of the Italian man who adores his mother and loves his wife while loving other women on the side too, without seeing any problem with that, because, well, women are just so beautiful? I don't know how much of this actually was Fellini versus how much he invented his film persona, and how much La Dolce Vita inspired versus reflected a whole generation of Italian men. But it's that idea that is played with throughout this film, as the filmmaker-within-the-film, Guido Contini, wanders (both in his imagination and in real life) from one woman to another who has been significant in his life, each with their own musical number. At first, the film might seem to be idolizing Contini's status as a filmmaker of national heroic status, and excusing his treatment of the women in his life, but it soon becomes clear that Contini is a charicature of his own self-image, and as various minor characters gently impugn him, he starts to become aware of his own emptiness. Of course, it doesn't fully come clear to him until his wife leaves him. Who'd have thought that this Fellini-inspired film would turn out to be a subtle morality tale, quietly urging the superiority of conventional morals over La Dolce Vita. But that's all a soft-pedaled undercurrent, in what is otherwise a scaffolding of excuse for a series of musical numbers with great visual impact performed by a range of stars including Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Fergie, Marion Cotillard, Judi Densch, and Sophia Loren. The parodies are visual as well as thematic, with fun cliché shots of women in billowing dresses, Italian fountains, charming Italian moonlit streets, and it's a delight to watch as well as listen to all the numbers. There's also amusing homage to the cliché relationship of Italians to their Roman Catholic church, revering it while being faithless, kind of the same way they relate to their wives. Guido, at one point, goes to a bishop for guidance, and asks the bishop if he believes in God. At another point, a priest confesses that even though Contini's films are officially banned by the church as immoral, they all love them. The early ones, anyway. Contini's fans are always telling poor Guido how much they loved his early works. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a brilliant perfomance as Guido, showing once again how he just completely transforms himself into his characters. And the constellation of female co-stars surrounding him are all luminous. This parade of parody and numbers was a diverting way to welcome the new year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

FILM: A Single Man

While everyone has been raving about the amazingly beautiful computer graphics of Avatar, we decided instead to see a smaller film of exquisite visual beauty that didn't require 3D glasses to appreciate. A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford's debut as a film director, is an intensely subjective and impressionistic film about a man contemplating suicide after the loss of his lover. The Christopher Isherwood novel that it was adapted from would not seem to lend itself easily to film, since nearly all of the action is internal. Externally, everything takes place in one apparently ordinary day: a man goes to work, teaches a class, goes to the bank, and has dinner with a friend. Internally, the man has all sorts of memories triggered, fits of imagination, and other wanderings of the mind as he contemplates his planned last day on earth. Tom Ford's designer eye vividly "makes it work", employing techniques, like extreme close-ups and enhanced sounds, more typical of music videos and perfume commercials, creating a sumptuously cinematic expression of this unlikely source material. The internality begins from the opening scene, of a man suspended or barely moving under water, which we soon learn is the main character's feeling of heartbreak and loss as sinking and drowning. I don't think I've seen as subjective a film since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. When the man's attention is focused somewhere, the camera zooms in on it, and when the man's mind wanders, we follow it. The flashbacks give us enough brushstrokes to sketch the back story, but they are not lengthy excuses to shovel in some plot, they are very organic, the actual memories of the man on that day. They are very natural, the way that when you've lost someone, certain objects or experiences will prompt a memory of them. There's a very touching scene when he sees a dog in a car that is the same breed of dog that he and his lover had shared. He flashes back to a brief memory of his lover telling him about something funny the dog had done, while in the present moment trying not to get too emotional with this stranger's dog. Colin Firth is masterful in his performance as George, the bereaved English professor, showing outward British restraint while struggling with strong emotions inside, a brilliantly nuanced veneer of control with tears dangerously close to the surface. Julianne Moore also gives a great turn as his longtime friend and unrequited lover, and Nicholas Hoult is both haunting and tenderly charming in his role as a student who's attracted to George. But the real star here is the designer/director, who had a brilliant and beautiful vision for realizing this film, and whom, I suspect, executed it with the same meticulous attention to detail as seen in the main character, who neatly lays out the clothes he wants to be buried in and leaves a note instructing which knot should be used to tie his tie. Ford's visual symphony of subjectivity is enhanced by its sumptuous immersion in its place and time: Santa Monica, 1962. The property master for this film must have had quite a time finding all the period phones, clocks, hi-fis, cigarettes, and even the bottle of particular single malt whisky that George drank (North Port, which hasn't been made since 1983). Santa Monica 1962 was of course Isherwood's world, and we both noted that Don Bachardy, Isherwood's lifelong lover, was listed as a consultant in the credits. There were certainly glimmers of their real life in the story, and in the texture of this film, which I think Isherwood would have appreciated. An impressionistic film about suicide could easily veer into the maudlin, but Ford avoids that trap. Instead, the film inspires reflection on life with a clarity that reminded me of a Hemingway novel. Isherwood's story is thoughtful without being depressing, and Ford's carefully crafted view inside the main character's mind, combined with George's reserved personality, provides the right amount of detachment to keep it poignant but not ponderous, and ultimately a film of great beauty.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

FILM: Sherlock Holmes

I thoroughly enjoyed the new Sherlock Holmes movie, which was a bit like a Victorian version of Indiana Jones. Some folks may sniff that this Holmes, who is as physically action-packed as James Bond, is not being true to the "real" Sherlock Holmes, but those folks are basing their vision of the deerstalker-capped cerebral detective on all the old films and not so much on the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. I found Robert Downey Jr.'s realization of the character to be as genuine as it was mold-breaking. His portrayal of Holmes as a robust fighter, a savant with encyclopedic knowledge but sometimes thick social skills, master of disguise and diversion, and an occasionally reckless experimenter with all sorts of chemistry (including drugs), was all spot-on. And Jude Law made a great Doctor Watson, loyal friend, roommate, and partner in crime-fighting. This Watson was a bit smarter than the one in the books, but I think it made him more interesting, and the script's subplot of Watson becoming engaged to be married and moving out added an intriguing dimension to the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The main storyline was smartly conceived and action-packed, keeping you wondering how Holmes will crack this case. Some clues are presented along the way, but as with the original stories, while it's possible to guess at the denouement, you're never given enough to figure it all out yourself, you're only given enough to see how it all fits once the solution is presented. The plot is complicated by having a variety of players in addition to the main villain, including a cameo Professor Moriarty, and Holmes' great love and nemesis Irene Adler, smartly played by Rachel McAdams. Moriarty's goals are a lingering question until the end, and Irene Adler's motives and allegiances are intentionally and intriguingly ambiguous. The film nicely conveys the gritty feel of an industrial age late Victorian London, capturing the time and place. And director Guy Ritchie gives some tantalizing flashes of insight into Holmes' methods through "flash inwards", moments when the film jumps inside Holmes' head, and we see some past action that he has surmised from a clue, or we see some imminent action that he's anticipating. It's a creative cinematic technique that serves this film well. This was as much fun and almost as much action as a James Bond film. It leaves well-placed for a sequel if it does well, and that would be fine by me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Remembering Denny: Now Cracks a Noble Heart

Good friends stand out in our best memories, having shared our happiest moments. Our best friends are those who were also there in less happy times, who stood by us with a strong shoulder when we needed support. But the greatest friends are those who planted seeds inside us, causing us to grow and blossom in new directions, not only enriching the quality of our lives, but altering their course. We are lucky who know even one or two such great friends in a lifetime, and I was so lucky to have known Dennis. He was my gay "big brother", my partner in the great Shakespeare quest, fellow traveler across three continents, my opera and classical music mentor, enthusiast of fine dining and cooking, fellow cyclist and snowboarder, rock solid shoulder to cry on when needed, the greatest friend and a huge part of who I am today.

I first met Dennis on a sunny Sunday morning, Jan 6, 1991. He was the Vice President and Ride Coordinator for Different Spokes, a gay and lesbian bicycling club, and he was leading a 30-mile bike ride that day, the first of a series designed to get us in shape for the Solvang Century, a 100-mile ride in March. Denny's confidence and encouragement, not to mention his playful charm and dazzing smile, motivated me not only to do the whole series of rides, but to plunge into the bike club in a big way, eventually becoming an officer myself.

As we got to know each other, we quickly learned we had much more in common than cycling. I was enthralled by his wide-ranging and passionate interests, from cooking to music, from art to film to history. How often do you meet a friend who, when you say "Hey, they're doing an authentic staging of an ancient Greek tragedy outdoors at the Getty Villa", he says "Awesome! Let's go!". He was a consumate companion for a Shakespeare history play, because he knew his English history cold, and could fill me in on all the backstory of who's allied with whom because this one's grandfather got cheated by that one's uncle in the royal succession. And Denny's knowledge of music was vast and intense. I thought I knew classical music, but his contagious passion blew my mind open to whole new vistas, from opera to medieval chant, from Monteverdi to Shostakovich (not to mention jazz crooners and dance club mixes).

I learned so much from Dennis, and even when I was able to teach him new things, he would engage voraciously and take them to a whole new level. I taught him to snowboard, but he was the one who lead us into the snowboard park when Bear Mountain first put one in, and soon the two of us were hurtling ourselves off of ramps and into the air, alongside kids half our age. I took Dennis to his first Shakespeare play, but he was the one who came up with the idea of the quest. Standing on the steps of Royce Hall after we'd seen our second Shakespeare play, exhiliarated by the language, the drama, and the galvanic performance, I said, "So, you're really liking Shakespeare? We should see some more." Denny gave me an enthusiastic look, and said "Let's see them all! How many do you think there are? 20? 50? I'll find out. Let's make it a mission, a life quest!" So for the 14 years that followed, we sought out Shakespeare in theatres large and small around town, and even made trips to San Diego, Oregon, and New York to find the more obscure plays, until a few years ago when we made our triumphal pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to complete the quest.

Denny had a genius for making things extraordinary. Anyone who's been to the Hollywood Bowl with him knows this. The pre-Bowl picnic was always an extravagant affair, and while lots of people bring picnics to the Bowl, the other picnickers would look on in awe as the tablecloth, the dinner service, the stemware, flowers, wine, and exquisite cuisine were spread out. And we had a number of decadent trips up to San Francisco to see the opera and dine at great restaurants. San Francisco is a dressier opera crowd than LA, so we often went up in black tie and tuxedos, which suited the classic beaux arts beauty of the SF Opera house. I remember one time we were flying up for a Friday night performance, and we were going to have to go straight to the opera from the airport, so we flew in our tuxes, and Denny was going to bring something to eat on the way up. I thought we'd just have sandwiches or something, but once we'd boarded (and this was before 9/11 of course), Denny pulls out his carry-on bag and, to the amazement of the flight attendants and surrounding passengers, starts unpacking cheese and pâté and caviar and wine. "Well, you didn't think we were going to eat peanuts, did you?"

With Denny, even the ordinary could be extraordinary. I remember going over to his place one night for a "casual" dinner before I knew him really well. I thought maybe pasta or something. But I show up, and he's got prosciutto-wrapped melon for us to munch on, while I watch him pressing fresh sage leaves into veal medallions for saltimbocca, which he then flipped in the sautée pan with his signature flourish. Another casual evening, we had seen an afternoon movie in Westwood and were driving back to his place, when he says let's go catch the sunset at the beach. So we pull down to Santa Monica Beach, and watch what turned out to be one of the most spectacular sunsets either of us had ever seen, with red and orange and pink and gold, and I swear there was even a bit of green patina in it. And while we're sitting in his car, awestruck by this visual symphony, the most perfectly glorious music is playing, what sounds like choirs of angels singing in the perfect musical expression of this extraordinary sunset. After the sun went down, and we're driving back, I asked him "What was that music?" "Oh, you like it? That's John Rutter's Requiem. He writes some beautiful sacred choral music." So, not only an amazing sunset, but another expansion of my musical education. Just a casual Sunday with Dennis.

When we first met, I was just starting to venture out as a gay man, yet to have my first boyfriend, having no local gay friends, and making my first tentative forays into the gay community. As Dennis and I became friends, he took me under his wing like a gay "big brother", and held my hand as he introduced me to the world of West Hollywood, dance clubs, and circuit parties. I was intimidated by all the beautiful boys, never feeling like I belonged, but Denny was supremely self-confident and would plunge in anywhere. In a dance club, he immersed himself in the music, the lights, the freedom of motion, and the throbbing mass of bodies all moving to the same beat. His exhiliaration was contagious, and a bit of his confidence rubbed off on me when I was with him. Sometimes we'd dance together and other times we'd foray in independent directions. But like the great friend he was, he'd always give me a prod when I needed one -- "just go up to that guy!" -- and he'd just hang with me when I needed that. I felt secure knowing my loyal friend was always looking out for me.

Denny was fearless. Not just in dance clubs or on the ski slopes, but throughout his life. When we were in France, he confidently drove our car along the windy corniche above Monaco, with its dangerous corners and steep cliffs. "Uh, Denny, aren't you worried, isn't this about where Princess Grace went off the road?" "Yeah, I think so, this is great!" He wasn't intimidated by Paris at rush hour either, even when we had to plunge into the notorious Place d'Etoile, a free-for-all where twelve major streets come together. He just grinned with delight as we went around it several times. When we were in Australia, he held my hand while gently laughing at me as I faced my fear of heights, first when we climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, along cables and catwalks over rushing cars and the harbor hundreds of feet below, and later when we rapelled down an 80' waterfall where the only way down the canyon was to grab a rope and step backwards over the edge of the falls.

If I had to pick a single photo to represent our 18+ years of friendship, I know the one. It is Denny meeting me at the finish line of the AIDS Ride, pouring champagne over my head. I have just finished a 565-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, having raised over $3000 for AIDS care and services, a feat both physical and financial that a few years earlier I could not have imagined myself doing. I would not have ever done it without the seeds of change planted in my life by Denny -- the motivation to participate actively in the bike club, the inspiration for leadership in community organizations, and most of all the encouragement for reaching beyond my limits. So there he was, my faithful friend, cheering me on across the finish line, and playfully greeting me with a bottle of champagne, shaken up and sprayed all over me. I love his puckish grin in that photo, presiding over this moment of accomplishment, the fruition of seeds he planted, pouring champagne on my head, and pouring his benediction on my life.

Early on, I knew that Denny was a keeper. We'd talk sometimes about sitting together on the porch of some old folks home, looking back on a lifetime of friendship and adventure. We knew that we would be friends our whole lifetimes. I just thought it would be longer. We must remind ourselves, a life should be measured not by its length but by its depth. Every play we saw together, every castle explored, every bike ride through oak-studded California canyons, every ski run riding our boards like we were flying and dancing on the snow, every night spent dancing till dawn, every elaborate meal, and every extraordinary sunset with Dennis was a gift and a treasure. Dennis lived. He lived more life in his 54 years than many live in a much longer span.

They say you should end these things with a quote, and I would be remiss if I didn't read some Shakespeare. Denny read Shakespeare at my wedding, so I should read some Shakespeare here. In the final act of Hamlet, the prince is finally resolved to face his fate, and his loyal friend Horatio is giving him one last chance to change his mind. You don't have to face this, Horatio tells Hamlet, you can duck out the back, and I'll cover for you. But Hamlet says:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?
So off Hamlet goes to meet his fate. A few flowery lines, a sword fight, and a bit of poison later, Hamlet, along with several others, are dying or dead. Hamlet asks his faithful friend to live on to tell his story, and then dies at his feet. Horatio says:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.