Working Title: It’s Old! It’s New Like You’ve Never Seen!

This week Will Leschber looks back over the closing summer season so we can all then look forward to the fall.

I find myself at that much maligned crossroad. The crossroad of the job hunt. What is it about the dawn of fall that thrusts us into another phase of life whether we want to or not? Is it that we’ve been conditioned to see this time of year this way? Maybe it’s all the back to school shopping we did growing up. Or maybe it’s the habitual feeling that wraps around summer’s end and edges the nervous excitement surrounding something new: New School year, new season to see, new jobs to hunt. Summer is closing and playtime is up.

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The thing about summer is that it’s comfortable. The weather is warm, weddings are in season and vacation is on the horizon. Sure, adult living in the Bay Area may look a little different with heightened workloads and rampant cold fronts, but you get my drift. Also we are fed a wave of comfort food in the form of summer entertainment: remounting of old classics, new installments of franchise favorites, new additions to old genres. I know, I know, so much of this recycled dreck is a fraction of the quality we’d like to see. For every Dark Knight there are twice as many Transformer entries or Amazing Spiderman 2 misfires. That being said, I’d rather focus on the surprise successes. This summer we’ve seen familiar ground retread to spectacular ends. That’s my point, There is comfort in the familiar and also hope that these retellings or new genre entries will aspire to be better than their predecessors.

Along the indie film lines we were treated to familiar genres turned on their heads. My favorites were: a stylistic and ever-cool reclaiming of the vampire genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive; The romantic comedy as you’ve never seen it before with Jenny Slate’s turn as comic misanthrope, peter-pan-adult facing abortion in Obvious Child; And Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel which takes stories within stories to package nostalgia in a superb pseudo-coming of age tale. All of these remind me how good familiar stories can be when told by a superior storyteller. Blockbuster-fare impressed as well. Here are the highlights: The spectacular sequel to an unlikely reboot in The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a rock-em-sock-em adrenaline punch in the under seen sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow, and the new addition to the Marvel Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy. On paper each of these films appear unlikely to succeed with characters ranging from aliens to talking apes to gun-toting raccoons to walking trees to Tom Cruise! But the filmmakers succeed threefold: they have a clear vision of the kind of movie they are, the filmmakers balance tone and pace perfectly and lastly, in the end the final product plays to our familiar taste while providing something new an exciting in the process. Hell, even my favorite theatre experience of the last few months was a classic remounted. Custom Made Theatre’s production of The Crucible reminded me how fresh and powerful an old classic can be.

The best somehow finds a way to merge the new and the familiar. We need both to move forward. It’s enriching. Contrasting ideas can enrich our general point of view. Old ideas slammed against new ones, that’s summer! The old is new again. Now that we’ve taken stock and peered back over the closing summer season, we can prepare to look ahead to fall and all that lies forward. Tune in next time for a fall preview!


And as a post script shout out, I’d like to hail fellow Tpub Blogger Anthony R Miller. In his last blog entry. Anthony said, “I find conversations about the new Planet of the Apes film are just as important and stimulating to me as conversations about the role of regional theatre in America today. I need both dammit.” I agree. Keep talking theatre, keep talking Apes, keep talking my friend. I like what you have to say.

Working Title: Expecting the Dark Prince

This week Will takes a look at the perils of writing familiar characters.

OK writers, it’s writing activity time. Take out your #2 pencils and pick your favorite literary character. Got it? Good. Go! Put yourself in the mindset of this person and then write a new scene or scenario or sequel. Don’t worry about originality. Just write. Get those juices flowing! Back before the turn of the millennium, Mr. Smith, my senior English teacher, said something similar as he charged me with the task of creating a series of journal entries for a character in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I’d like to think I was tapping into the civilized nature of Ralph, the novel’s protagonist, but I might have just been channeling cheeseburgers and speaking as Piggy. Who knows. It’s been awhile. The point is writing in this way allows one to connect to a character and engage in an alternate, personalized way. Instead of being passive readers, we are now active co-owners of the story. This is all good for students, but when does it become an activity for professional writers?

The Aurora Theatre recently mounted David Davalos’ Wittenberg, which tells the story of prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) and his final fall semester at university before returning to Elsinore castle after news of his father’s death. The two sides of his budding mind are molded by the religious, theological teachings of Professor Martin Luther and the seeking philosophy of Doctor Faust. This creates a wonderful stage to hit back and forth the ideas which Hamlet anguishes over in the famous play. Davalos uses our familiarity with the Bard’s work to comedic ends. Famous lines are thrown around in new ways. (Faust: “To be or nor o be” / Hamlet: “Is that the question?”) This is very entertaining on the surface. The inherent problem is that the very thing that gets people in the door also creates a very high bar to live up to. Most comedies set against Hamlet seem trite. It’s a blessing and curse. Wittenberg is aware of that fact and has fun with these weighty characters while still playing with weighty themes. That’s the blessing. I enjoyed ideas and source material more than the overall production. That’s the curse of adaptation.

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Similarly, genre films can create this same curse of expectation. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie. The beauty is that the film exceptionally more than that. Even though Lovers isn’t working with a specific character that most audiences are familiar with, it is working with a certain breed of character. This particular bloody breed is fraught with expectation. Everyone has an idea of what a vampire should be. Just as most theater goers have expectations of the Bard’s dark Danish Prince should be. There is much to be said overall about the quality of this film but for now I’m interested in how it stacks up against audience expectation of the vampire. Jarmusch brings the vampire story back to a place that holds a mirror to humanity instead of existing apart from it.

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My vampiric expectations look something more like Interview with the Vampire rather than Twilight. However all of these stories are playing with similar genre expectations: immortality, sensuality, danger, outsider mentality, super-human power, empowerment, longevity, inspiration, violence, the trappings of existence. The difference here is that Jarmusch takes these tools and turns them into lenses over the human condition. What does it mean to be near-immortal? Do the weight of years enhance our ability to see beauty in the world or only make existence feel all the more heavy? Is creativity richer when you are restricted to the outside fringe of society? How does anger and separation heighten allure? The methodical atmosphere of Lovers rolls over these themes and allows Jarmusch’s characters to appear as tangible and as alive as any human counter part. The film adds up to more than the drawn lines of it’s genre. This is what it looks like when adaptation transcends.

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Adaptation is an essential aspect of artistic creation. It has been and will remain so as long as we continue to create. Occasionally, it seems greater or lesser value is assigned to the discussion of adaptation versus original creation. Which is harder? Which is more important? Ultimately, it’s a fruitless non-discussion. They are different creative endeavors. Black and white rules don’t apply here. (Do they anywhere?) Taking a set of characters and creating a new story around them is just as hard as starting with an entirely blank slate. I’m sure certain sides of this activity come more easily to one writer or another. In the end, do I care whether Hamlet as derived from Amleth or ur-Hamlet? No. The quality of a new creation speaks for itself. With any art, when the piece edges upon transcendence, the familiar can reach into the universal.


Allen, David. Wittenberg. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Jim Jarmusch. Digital image. ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Digital image. ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Working Title: The Same In Our Differences

Will Leschber looks at Anthology entertainment as he spends a “Night on Earth” with the “Trojan Women”.

Last week I was able to take in one of the myriad Olympian Festival shows. I had the pleasure to see the evening entitled “Trojan Women” which showcased eight short plays featuring the women of the Trojan War. Spurned lovers, bereaved queens, war widows: these women fill out the background of a war that is dominated by figures such as Achilles, Hector and Odysseus. The beauty of highlighting these stories is that it gives a voice to figures forgotten. Briseis, Hecuba, Laodike, Andromache, Polyxena, Cruesa, Oenone, Chryseis: this anthology of supporting women creates a rounded picture of the Trojan War and allows a perspective outside the battlefield to draw focus. Anthology stories are particularly good at providing multiple perspectives.

Anthology film while not a genre that we see everyday, it is a memorable one. The lines of definition can blur but for our purposes today we shall say Anthology films are ones that tells multiple stories independent from one another and are usually strung together by theme or subject matter. I think there is an important distinction between Hyperlink films and Anthology films. A Hyperlink film tells multiple stories that cross over or weave together by the end of the film. Magnolia (1999), Traffic (2000), Crash (2004), and Nashville (1975) are examples. However, Anthology stories remain separate while being part of larger film whole. The thematic thread in the Olympian festival evening was the supporting women of the Trojan War and the individual stories colored in the shades of life as such. Anthology films can come from a single filmmaker but often these kinds of films come about through multiple writers/multiple directors that work together to create a larger film outside their uniquely told stories. Some household Anthology films are: Sin City, Four Rooms, Grindhouse, Paris je t’aime, Kentucky Fried Movie, Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone: the Movie, Monthy Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch is one of the kings of the Anthology film. His 1992 effort Night on Earth is one of the best examples of the genre. Here we see five taxi cab stories that unfold at the same time in different cities around the world. The opening credits show a spinning globe which then cross fades to a wall with five newsroom clocks: Los Angeles 7:07 pm, New York 10:07 pm, Paris 4:07 am, Rome 4:07 am, Helsinki 5:07 am.

Zoom in: Los Angeles. Winona Ryder is a rough, tom-boyish cab driver who picks up the pristine casting director, as played by Gena Rowlands. The conversation is informal. Ryder smokes a lot. Differences in age are apparent and how age can alter values. We get a sense of the LA landscape at night as the cab passes monuments of everyday living: LAX, Centinela Hospital, La Brea Blvd, Astro Burgers, etc. The taxi winds up into it’s Beverly Hills destination, and finally Rowlands makes a film role proposal to Ryder. This we expect but the answer is possibly one we do not.

The Clocks roll back as the camera zooms in on the timeline of Ney York City. The Globe spins. New York flashes: A lit Empire State Building at a distance, pay phones tattooed with graffiti, a China Town neighborhood rolled up for the evening. Armin Mueller-Stahl is an east German immigrant who picks up Giancarlo Esposito in his rundown, shabby cab. Since the Mueller-Stahl’s immigrant can’t drive very well, Esposito proposes that he drive the cab to Brooklyn for them. “Its not allowed.” “Yeah, its allowed! This is New York!” They go. The city is seen through the wandering eyes of the newly arrived immigrant and something as common place as the Brooklyn Bridge to street-wise Esposito is filtered with fresh awe. Our cab driver immigrant learns how to drive, he learns how to cuss, he learns how to be a new Yorker. And so do we.

The clocks roll back to restart the half hour we’ve just spent and the globe rolls on to Paris. The moving post cards flash: The dark Metro, side street fruit shops with shades down, plentiful motorbikes parked for the night, the Seine twinkling in copper purples and neon speckled blues. In the Parisian vignette, a French-African cabby picks up a blind passenger and confronts the things about our sense of sight that narrows our field of vision. He can see and she cannot but in seeing that she is blind our French cabby is then trapped in his belief about her abilities or lack there of. Race, sex, nationality, perspective: all are touched upon through this informal smooth interaction between strangers.

Roll the clocks, spin the globe…Rome: The Colosseum, sex, religion, dark streets, old buildings. Roberto Benigni as the cab driver talks to himself in grand style and cracks a parade of jokes. He picks up a priest who needs a late night lift. Even with a passenger in the car, Benigni dominates the conversation as much as he did when alone. Soon the evening turns dark and darkly comic. Religion is sickly in the backseat while a sex-crazed, passionate people are in the drivers seat.

Time speeds back.

Clocks, Globe, Helsinki: Here we get a darker story where three drunk passengers develop a new respect for their cabby when they learn of his tragic past. It seems here in the darker and colder parts of the world, individuals bridge the gaps of connect through shared tragedy. Do we connect the same way in LA or NY? Or do the places we live highlight different aspect of our human condition?

I like to think Jarmusch is saying we are all the same in our differences. We all want to touch the movies in L.A. We are all immigrants in N.Y. We all are blind at times to others around us in Paris. We all joke and talk and focus on our sexual selves as religion remains in the backseat in Rome. And we all sing cold songs in cold times in Helsinki. Just like when we cry with Hecuba and laugh with Oenone, we are all supporting players in the Trojan War.

The SF Olympians festival continues until 11/23 and Night on Earth is available to stream on Hulu-Plus or to rent on / iTunes.