Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE OTHER CITY: An AIDS Epidemic in D.C.

The Other City is an American documentary directed by Susan Koch and was released in 2010. The documentary crew follows individuals in Washington D.C. who suffer from HIV or AIDS, revealing that at least 3% (perhaps up to 5%) of the Washington D.C. population is infected with HIV or AIDS. The title comes from the notion that tourists see the pristine White House, the cherry blossoms, and the proud Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, but rarely see the “other” city, the one riddled with poverty and disease. The heart-wrenching stories of a young infected mother battling the system just trying to find a place to live with her children, the young white man who dies in an AIDS home surrounded by family, and a man who is trying to help, by providing clean needles in exchange for dirty ones. All of these stories show strife, but they also show how the system that is in place that is suppose to help these individuals is actually doing anything but. The film advocates awareness by opening the viewers’ eyes to a problem that no one seems to be discussing in our nation’s capital, the symbol for the United States of America.

Susan Koch and her documentary filmmaking crew express concern for the nation’s capital. This film is no-doubt an advocacy film (rather than a complete cinema verite without an agenda) in that it is strongly skewed to make a point. The point is that no one is talking about this issue. Like the “other” part of the city, the issue gets swept aside and ignored. And now that the problem has reached epidemic levels, action is needed. The film’s message is that the issues that are swept under the rug come back and are worse because we have ignored them in their infancies. The film criticizes the fact that since Washington D.C. is separate from the states so the delineation of a state governance and federal governance is murky compared to other regions, thus bureaucratic red tape is even more pronounced. It also implies that the government’s lack of action has brought this problem to its full height. Regardless of whether or not the audience agrees with these specific concerns, no one can deny (based on the facts presented in the film) that HIV and AIDS is an issue in Washington D.C. And the theme of The Other City is a clear vehicle for their message of hidden issues within a society.
The film uses personal stories to effectively relate a larger issue to the viewers. And a strategy it uses is diversity amongst the subjects. In The Other City, J’Mia, a single mother of three, is suffering with AIDS, but that is nothing to her struggle, searching for housing. The crew follows J’Mia and discovers that some of the subsidized housing (designed for situations like J’Mia’s) will be a two-year wait, or else are already filled. Again, this shows the magnitude of the issue. And then there is Jose, a young Hispanic man who is HIV positive. He has turned his struggles into advocacy by reaching out to Hispanic-dominated schools to teach teens about HIV and safe sex. But even different still is the staff of an AIDS hospice, Joseph’s House, a place where people can come, free of charge, if they, according to the workers, “don’t have a place to die.” The film follows the funding issues this organization goes through as their grants may not be renewed, another example of how the system is failing to help. And then there’s Ron, a former addict and current AIDS victim, who runs a program where for each dirty needle a person gives anonymously, new needles are given to him. This controversial program (some feel it is propagating drug use, when really it is just trying to advocate health) was outlawed in Washington D.C. for some time, but has now been instated (though without much funding – Ron works out of a van). These diverse subjects cover a wealth of demographics, showing the magnitude of the problem.

The film makes great use out of one particular filmic device: intertitles. These titles and text placed below the film’s action on the screen and interspersed throughout the film serve multiple purposes. Practically, they delineate characters to make the plot lines easier to follow, but they also contribute to the advocacy goal of the film. For instance, intertitles are used to present facts about the social issue. In The Other City, the intertitles drop such cold-hard facts like 3-5% are infected with HIV or AIDS or that Obama’s administration was the first to create an AIDS strategy for the United States (while we’ve required an AIDS strategy for the countries we give aid to for years). When, where and how these intertitles appear is based on the auteur of the film, but can change how the scene is perceived. The effect garners sympathy for the subjects. These intertitles in the film contribute to an overall pessimistic note, asking for change and reform for their respective causes.

The film uses another convention: speaking to both those directly affected by these issues, and representatives of those who may have propagated them. In The Other City, the film shows Representative Todd Tiahrt (a Republican from Kansas) claiming he didn’t make people use dirty needles or have sex with infected people and thus it is not his fault that this epidemic has spread. Conversely, there’s Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman from Washington D.C. who says in the film, “failure to have needle exchange allowed the disease to be silently passed through the population, for that the Congress of the United States is chiefly responsible.” A trait of advocacy films is showing where the problem began, so showing the government’s role in this issue signals to the viewer that more should have been done. Again, this use of a government official helps to advocate change as they lend some validity to the filmmakers’ statements.Documentaries are often difficult to edit and have difficulties finding an audience. For The Other City the filmmakers chose to interweave the stories of the subjects, intermixed with hard facts. This editing style suits the advocacy film genre well as the viewer sees the larger idea (with the facts) but also sees the faces involved (with the subjects’ stories). In a Q&A with the director, Koch explained that there were more stories filmed, that just couldn’t make the cut. She reiterated that finding the story within the footage and working to create a cohesive film with enough intrigue and climax is key for documentaries. And as far as finding an audience, the film has done well at film festivals. The Other City premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now receiving limited theatrical openings in select cities (Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles). The film’s still racy topic of HIV and AIDS undoubtedly contains references to sex, drug use, and homosexuality, which can be too controversial for some viewers and thus it is harder to find an audience.

The documentary The Other City is a fascinating look at a Washington D.C. most of us never see. The heart and soul of the film lies in the subjects who bravely face not only the disease, but also the stigma attached to it in a society where the system in place that is suppose to help is only a hindrance. The film is a tearjerker but only because you know that the disease is preventable and that no one educated or reformed the city, instead the disease slowly became an epidemic. The film is an excellent example of advocacy filmmaking and really stirs an audience not just for change in the way AIDS is spreading, but how our government handles the disease. The cold-hard facts, the lives of those affected, and the families struggling with this disease leaves the iconic symbols of the United States’s capital a bit more tarnished in my eyes.

Friday, December 3, 2010


An example of sarcastic and witty comedy using outside knowledge to create a community is the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma as a film: Clueless. Dripping with irony, the entire film has a sarcastic tone, though the characters may not speak sarcastically. While on the surface this film seems to be just a teen comedy loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel, but it actually defines a generation.

Through its pop culture references (using a slang-driven language) and its exaggerated storyline (Cher is comedically held up at gunpoint and then ends up romantically entangled with her stepbrother), the film uses its style to reach out to a generation. Though the Jane Austen references are mostly in the characters and plot, there will be a group of viewers who form a community based on understanding these references.

However, most of the other viewers will form a different community. This community will be based on the generational aspects and pop culture references that require inside knowledge to fully understand. Through the language (i.e. slang: “That’s like so five years ago,” “Check it,” and “As If!”), the clothing (bare midriffs, platform shoes, the 90’s Seattle grunge look), and the music (“Rolling With My Homies” by Coolio, references to Nine Inch Nails and The Cranberries), this film creates an in-crowd feel because some viewers (older generations) will not understand these references. Sitting and watching this film with my parents a few years ago ended up being a futile effort since I found a deep connection to it and laughed consistently, but they didn’t. They are not of the generation who would appreciate this mix of literary history, pop culture, and generational nostalgia. The film thus creates a generation-specific community. The message here is about understanding and participating in your generation’s community through understanding inside jokes and references. Each generation will have a defining style and Clueless epitomizes this. Best of all, the film reminds us that it is okay to stand-alone as a generation and rebel from the previous generations, a requirement for society to progress.

Friday, August 27, 2010


"He brought a knife to school. It's just a butter knife,
but you know what they say, it's a gateway knife."
-Lisa Kudrow in EASY A

I had the pleasure to screen EASY A starring Emma Stone, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow, Amanda Bynes, and Penn Badgley on August 26th, weeks before it's theatrical release. Then, with a Q&A with writer Burt V. Royal was afforded an opportunity to hear first hand about the making of this film.

EASY A is an enjoyable teen comedy about a girl (Emma Stone) who through some lies tries to amp up her non-existent reputation. However, in this film which is loosely, LOOSELY, based on Hawthorne's classic piece of romantic literature, THE SCARLET LETTER, Stone ends up with a branded scarlet "A" on her chest. Soon her lies and reputation snowball out of control. And she is left alone to deal with the aftermath. But, she rises above it and finds a way to regain control of her life. Awww.

Yes, it ends in a happy, wrapped up sort of way, but the real surprise, is how clever it can be. The writing itself is typical teenage girl-fare, but it is the intertextuality that really makes this movie soar. Intertextuality (the use of references from other films within a film) is blatant in this film. John Hughes serves as the godfather of the piece in that every major 1980's teen movie is highlighted. And with his death in 2009, this movie serves as a memorial to the late and great, as it is doubtful that the any of the current generation of directors could say that they were not influenced by him. In fact, many say that the 1980's was when the teen film really took off. And EASY A no doubt sees those films as predecessors to itself. With numerous references to 16 CANDLES, FERRIS BUELLER, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and SAY ANYTHING, any movie buff will have fun finding these clues embedded into EASY A.

Some may say that the ending when the couple ride off into the proverbial sunset is too cliche, I agree, but must add that that is the point. The movie sets up these other movie references and finally has a major payout at the end. The whole point of those many references is for that last moment and while it is cliche, it pokes a bit of fun at it, too.

Royal (the writer) was a joy to listen to as he described the two-year process to make this film. This is his first feature that made its way to the silver screen, though his play, DOG SEES GOD (about the Peanuts gang all grown up) has won numerous awards. He never planned for this to be an adaptation to THE SCARLET LETTER, but merely wanted that to be the jumping off point. He looks forward to using other pieces of literature to inspire films. Best of all, he speaks highly of the films director, Will Gluck, and felt very involved throughout the whole process (an unusual prospect for a screenwriter). Best quote of the evening regarding his relationship with director Gluck? When asked if he felt that this was his baby and he now had to let go of to the director, he sighed and said, "Yes, but it takes two to make a baby."

You like teen comedies.
You like Emma Stone.
You are prepared to see THE SCARLET LETTER destroyed in a harmless, funny way.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The Wooster Group is an avant-garde theatre group in New York.

"For more than thirty years, The Wooster Group has cultivated new forms and techniques of theatrical expression reflective of and responsive to our evolving culture, while sustaining a consistent ensemble and maintaining a flexible repertory. Wooster Group theatre pieces are constructed as assemblages of juxtaposed elements: radical staging of both modern and classic texts, found materials, films and videos, dance and movement, multi-track scoring, and an architectonic approach to theatre design" (

They perform all around the globe, but call home in a warehouse on Wooster Street in NY called The Performing Garage. They have done such works as HAMLET, VIEUX CARRE, and LA DIDONE. However, some of their most interesting works have grown out of found texts. For instance, the original work, NORTH ATLANTIC by James Strahs in 1982 was made specifically for The Wooster Group. The company has remounted the show in 1984, 1999, and 2009-2010.

NORTH ATLANTIC was presented in Los Angeles Feb. 10th - 21st, 2010. I was fortunate enough to finally be able to see this New York-based company. After having written numerous papers on them (as they are the foremost multimedia theatre company, a particular interest of mine) and ravaging their youtube channel, it was amazing to see them live. The show was at REDCAT theatre which is part of the Disney/CalArts Theatre in downtown LA.

The show had Oscar winner Frances McDormand (FARGO, MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, BURN AFTER READING) leading the ensemble cast. The show's promotional material describes it as taking "a satiric look at the role of the military and the growing influence of technology in American culture during the late Cold War period. Following an international peacekeeping force on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic during a top-secret mission, this nostalgia piece brings the analog (pre-digital) 1980s to life through slang, song, and dance."

The nostalgia was totally present in this hip ensemble show. The set was absolutely incredible (designed by Jim Clayburgh). There was a small playing space in the down stage plane of the proscenium stage, and then there was a railing running from stage left to right upstage of the empty plane. Just upstage of this railing was a platform that ran the width of the stage but could only have been a foot or so in width itself. Then just upstage of that was a raked platform on hydraulics. The pitch of this changed during the course of the show. This allowed for a somewhat level playing space along with a steep platform that the characters could either slide down or else climb up with ropes that suddenly appeared from no where. It was so incredibly versatile and exactly what the show required.

I would highly recommend the group to anyone who wants to see some unusual theatre. Bear in mind that their style is not linear. Though it certainly doesn't fit the traditional view on what theatre is and what theatre can be, it is certainly a valid choice.

The show was incredible. Though it is the type of show that leaves you wondering what the hell you've just seen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Broadway Tours: MARY POPPINS Pops Off The Stage.

Disney's MARY POPPINS comes off New York's Broadway to tour the country. Better bring the umbrella cause boy is it taking the country by storm!

The musical is an adaptation of not only the Disney classic starring the ever endearing Julie Andrews and the comic genius Dick Van Dyke, but also the original book. This is key to note because this musical adaptation is a bit darker and more somber than the 1964 Disney movie.
That being said, there is plenty of lightness and fun to this production. The scenes that stand out the most are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the Chimney Sweep scene. Mostly what comes out of all of this is how impressive the dancing and choreography is. Supercal. is incredibly fast to the point of sheer exhaustion (good thing the intermission is directly after!). And the technical ability of the dancers for the Chimney Sweep is really impressive.

I personally know the Asst. Dance Captain for the touring production through my own dance connections. Her name is Kelly Jacobs and she is an incredible dancer, so I knew before walking into the theatre (the Ahmanson in downtown LA) that the dancing would be worth it alone. After the show she gave us a backstage tour, much to my delight.

Kelly Jacobs and I backstage at LA's Ahmanson Theatre.

However, like with all good Disney musicals, the most important aspect is the spectacle. And boy, did it deliver. Not only is the world of the magical Mary Poppins fully complete with the magic carpet bag, moving up staircase banisters, and that mystical umbrella, but Disney took it to a new level. Little effects of making Bert's paintings come to life still stunned the theatre veteran.

But then the mega-effects made it feel like you really were on Broadway, not in LA's downtown district. Two major spectacles completed the show. The first was the end moment when (*Spoiler Alert!*) Mary is flown with her umbrella not just up over the heads of the actors on stage, but over the audience and is flown to be eye level with not just the first balcony, but the SECOND balcony. This is absolutely incredible. I was eye to eye with her only being 5 feet away (on the first balcony). She then exits through the cat walk and RUNS down to make it for the curtain call--but of course, she's last to bow so that gives her enough time.

The second, and perhaps more amazing spectacle occurred during the infamous Chimney Sweep scene. Bert (attached with wires) starts to walk up the wall of the stage left proscenium. He then continues to round the corner until he is directly above center stage with his feet on the proscenium arch and his head downstage. He is completely upside down. Amazing. But, then, he taps. Yes, taps. Upside down, over a hundred feet up in the air. Tapping. And he is not just tapping his toe. No, sir. He is tapping an amazing tap solo that Savion Glover would be proud of. Then after he finishes with a flourish--still upside down, mind you--he starts walking down the stage right proscenium wall. Incredible. I heard it was performed on Conan, but I cannot imagine that it had as great an impact as it did on the stage. Absolutely incredible.
Good Job, Disney.
My recommendation? If you can, go see it. Yes, it is for children. Yes, the children in it are whiny, kinda obnoxious and have fake British accents. Yes, it is Disney. And yes, for those theatre-snobs out there it has a lot of spectacle. But you know what? It's really good spectacle.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Culture Clash is a production company that focus on new and inventive works that mash up different cultures in a way that gives a higher clarity about society. Their newest work is PALESTINE, NEW MEXICO playing at the Mark Taper Forum (presented by Center Theatre Group) in Los Angeles, CA.

The play follows a young female army captain who has traveled to a reservation in New Mexico to deliver a letter from a fallen soldier, Ray Little Sky. Ray's father (to which the letter was addressed) is the Chief of the Native American Reservation. The course of the play deals with such themes surrounding the cultures of Native Americans, Middle Eastern Indians, Chicanos, Jews, and Christians. This seems to be a lot to take in in an 80 minute play. And while each was definitely represented, it sometimes lacked focus. The plot furthers when we find that Ray was a soldier who had sympathies for the various religious backgrounds met in the war. He would allow prisoners to pray when the call to pray was heard. This behavior led some to believe that he was a traitor to the American people. But really, Ray was attempting to make peace. He calls on fellow Native American soldier, Swarez to help. Ray shows, in an act of peaceful diplomacy, that while Swarez and Ray are from warring tribes, they too can get along. This is probably the most interesting moment, but is somewhat overshadowed by the peyote scene that takes the audience into the captain's trippy trip (complete with a giant cactus). An interesting plot, but a bit unfocused at times.

The comedy between the three older vets was by far the best moment in the show. This slapstick scene really brought in a multi-generational aspects while making fun. But the overall best performance definitely goes to the captain, Kirsten Potter. She was strong, yet feminine which is difficult to do as an army officer. Then notably, the chief was played by Russell Means (from Disney's POCAHONTAS) who was fantastically regal. Overall the show was solid, but was a bit rushed in my opinion and took on a lot of issues for one short play. But definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER: A Trifecta of Funny.

In the HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER episode that aired Monday January 11th, 2010, entitled Girls Vs. The Suit, three new additions keep the episode fresh and funny. While the general premise (Ted Mosby is on his quest to find his wife, but tells the story from the future to his children, and we still don't know who he marries and it's season 5) remains the same, these new additions to this episode helped to keep the audience hooked. A major issue for this series is the fact that the general premise is constantly being teased out and the audience is constantly being teased, too. This can be frustrating and annoying as it constantly reminds the audience that something very important is being withheld. But, that said, the characters are fully fleshed out. So, these new additions that made January 11th's episode even more amazing? See below.

1) Rachel Bilson. Not only is she a fresh, funny face which adds to the cast, but her character is key. Her bubbly personality is perfect for the character which is...Ted's wife's roommate! This is one of the examples of the show teasing us with the final goal: meeting Ted's wife. Bilson really shows depth and maturity in this small role on the well-known sitcom. She clearly has grown up since her time as the ditz on THE O.C. So while Bilson's appearance was minor, she really brings the cast new freshness and her character is a key part of the premise of the show.

2) Tim Gunn. Anyone who knows anything about fashion knows Tim Gunn. So while I am pleasantly surprised by his appearance, it reminded me about how the business works. The fact that Gunn's show PROJET RUNWAY was beginning it's 7th season later that week, the coincidence is really more of a publicity ploy. He appeared as Neil Patrick Harris's personal tailor (this is particularly funny as the fact that Barney, NPH's character, is rarely seen out of a suit, and it is an on-going joke). So while Gunn's acting was nothing too impressive, his out-of-place-ness really worked to bring the scene to a new comedy high. Plus, the show made the conscious choice to acknowledge the real world. This means that the characters in the sitcom know who Tim Gunn is, and perhaps even watch PROJECT RUNWAY. (And on a personal note. I was thrilled as I have met Gunn and think he is just the sweetest person ever).

3) Musical Number. This may be the highlight of the entire episode (and arguably in the whole series). Barney (NPH) goes into a dream-like sequence where he is the star of a broadway show about suits. He sings about the importance of suits, even as though he is singing a triumphant love song to these suits. This is perfect for NPH as he has performed in CABARET and RENT on Broadway. So needless to say, he has every right to bust out a Broadway-style piece. The show-stopper number is a musical-lover's dream. It references SINGIN' IN THE RAIN with the iconic lightpost hang. It pays homage to FAME with his large bravado performance dancing on a cab. And mostly all of the musical number moments are in there: the jazz square, the jazz hands and yes, the kickline. This was an epic full-length number that needs to be re-watched on youtube.