There are many ways in which people learn that size isn’t everything.
- Some people gorge themselves on free food or booze, only to puke their guts out or suffer a severe hangover.
- Others discover that the gas guzzler they purchased because it made them feel more powerful was costing them an arm and a leg each time they pulled up to a gas pump.
- Some people come to the painful realization that the hot jock, cheerleader, or most popular student they have a crush on has a much deeper passion for the image they see in a mirror than they could ever have for another human being.
- Others learn (the hard way) that an opera containing several famous and beloved arias contains a lot of extremely boring “filler” music.
It took me a long time to understand that my attention span was directly related to the amount of personal fulfillment I derived from a project. Whereas some people eagerly devour novels lasting 400–500 pages, I’m much more comfortable with short stories, opinion pieces, and news articles. Whereas some people enjoy the schmoozing that accompanies an association’s awards dinner, I wish the catering staff would bring out the dessert so I could go home and skip the long speeches.
The years I spent transcribing medical reports taught me a very interesting lesson. Since most dictations were less than five minutes long, it meant that I could convert more reports from speech to text in one day than if I had been editing a complex textbook. Being able to finish a history and physical, surgical note, or discharge summary brought a moment of finality which allowed me to move on to the next project (in some cases, the ensuing sense of relief was similar to taking a huge dump).
When I started blogging, I realized that I had found the perfect format for my writing. I did not have to worry about the long and tedious process of bringing a book to market, the relevant costs and disappointments accompanying the journey, or the fact that there may not even be an audience for the book I had in mind. Nor did I have to worry about funding a marketing campaign, planning a book tour, or witnessing several years of blood, sweat, and tears end up on the remainder pile within weeks of publication.
So when a friend at the gym said “I want Stephen Sondheim to create one more masterpiece for me before he dies,” I was able to ignore the fatuousness of his fantasy since the man obviously had no idea what it takes to create a musical, much less a masterpiece. I’ve since become increasingly comfortable with the idea that many artists enjoy shorter projects because a key part of the creative process is formulating ideas that will lead to more projects.
For some creatives, the long arc of the universe is the biggest and greatest challenge they can imagine. For others, smaller (and perhaps more time-sensitive) projects bring a steady supply of satisfaction. Some artists can be paralyzed by the size and scope of their challenge; others prefer a steady diet of pleasure and rewards that are short and sweet.
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Every now and then, a publicity blurb for a new film raises expectations which can make a viewer feel like he’s just been snookered by some kind of “ bait and switch” marketing. Take the case of a new British film entitled Benjamin (written and directed by Simon Amstell), which will be screened during the 2019 Frameline Film Festival. Here’s the blurb:
“In this uproarious comedy set in hipster London, an up-and-coming indie filmmaker feels the pressure to live up to his early-career promise as he scrambles to finish his (possibly very bad) second film — sending his self-confidence into a nosedive. But when awkward Benjamin (Colin Morgan) meets and falls for an enchanting French musician, he finds his insecurities may torpedo his one chance at happiness. Like its title character, Benjamin is funny, charming, and bittersweetly romantic.”
I beg to differ. In fact, I wonder how well Benjamin will score with American audiences since its biggest obstacle is the title character (who has a thick Irish accent and a tendency to mumble his way through moments of self-pity, self-doubt, and self-sabotage).
Seven years after his first film was embraced by the press and public, Benjamin is suffering from writer’s block (among other things) while trying to finish his second film (entitled “No Self”) without making it seem so artsy and pretentious that people won’t be able to stop gagging. He has enough self-awareness to confess that “I don’t know who I am if this isn’t good.” But, like many introverted artistic talents, he suffers from impostor syndrome as well as an often crippling level of social ineptitude.
Benjamin’s closest friends include his producer, Tessa (Anna Chancellor), his tart-tongued publicist, Billie (Jessica Raine), and his writing partner, Stephen (Joel Fry) who, following a one-night stand with Billie, has developed a hopeless crush on a woman who obviously has no further interest in him. Why not? Stephen may have been in the right place at the right time, but Billie already has a boyfriend named Harry (Jack Rowan), the actor who starred in Benjamin’s first film.
Then, one night, Benjamin locks eyes with Noah (Phenix Brossard), a charming and talented French music student, singer-songwriter-composer, and vegan who is about to graduate from the prestigious Guild Hall School of Music and Drama. Not only does Noah know where to find a vegan dumpling shop after his band finishes performing, he is far more comfortable with himself, his body, and his talent. Because music is such an integral part of his life, composing bits and snatches which can later be woven into songs (or larger pieces of music) comes to Noah quite easily — and with much less torture than Benjamin’s struggle to create a second film.
A perfect example of how opposites attract can be seen when Noah and Benjamin stare into each other’s eyes as they share a bath, with Benjamin already worrying about whether he’ll fuck things up. Benjamin’s insecurities aren’t helped by the appearance of his ex-boyfriend, Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), during a restaurant scene in which Benjamin and Noah are dining with Noah’s parents. A quick-witted, sharp-tongued black man with an obvious talent for reading people to filth, Paul doesn’t mince words in mixed company or, for that matter, when Benjamin steps outside the restaurant with him in an effort to defuse the situation.
While Benjamin’s self-absorption underlies most of the movie, Stephen’s devastating crash-and-burn failure at an open mic night leads Benjamin to panic when Stephen repeatedly fails to answer his phone calls.
A great deal of Benjamin leaves a viewer wondering if the lead character will ever be able to break out of his self-pity long enough to get back to working on his film. Just when things with his new boyfriend seem to be going well, Noah announces that, having graduated, he’ll returning to Paris in a week. As Benjamin agonizes over his best chance at happiness evaporating into thin air, Noah asks “Why not come with me?” Why not, indeed.
I strongly suspect that Colin Morgan’s mumbling portrayal of Benjamin may not travel well across the Atlantic. At a certain point, I simply found the film tedious. Here’s the trailer:
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I first saw Once during the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival. Written and directed by John Carney and filmed on a shoestring budget of approximately $160,000, the movie starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as two Dubliners down on their luck. The Guy was a busker who (when he wasn’t playing guitar and performing his songs on Grafton Street) repaired vacuum cleaners at his father’s appliance shop. The Girl was a Czech immigrant who sold flowers and played piano in a music store.
At its heart, Once might seem like a meet-cute love story. Deep down, however, it is the tale of one musician’s ability to recognize the manifestation of another musician’s insecurities bubbling to the surface and help him overcome his doubts and self-loathing in order to achieve his personal and professional goals. Following its theatrical release, Once won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. The movie’s hit song, “ Falling Slowly,” won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The stage adaptation of Once had its world premiere in 2011 in a 100-seat venue at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The show opened on Broadway in 2012, where it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won eight (including Best Musical). As with the original film, the stage version of Once (which does a splendid job of reaping a great deal more entertainment from a small amount of source material than the film did) has developed a loyal international following.
As someone who was severely underwhelmed by the movie, I was both surprised and delighted when the musical’s national tour arrived at the 1,667-seat Curran Theatre in June of 2014 and returned to San Francisco the following year for a brief run at the 2,203-seat Orpheum Theatre. The songs by Hansard and Irglová (especially “Leave,” “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”) hold a powerful grip on the audience. Thankfully, the show’s Oscar-winning hit song, “Falling Slowly” no longer feels like the cloying ear worm it did in the film.
Working on a unit set designed by Brian Watson (with lighting by Michael Palumbo and music direction by Eryn Allen), 42nd Street Moon is currently presenting the “regional premiere” of Once in the tiny, 196-seat Gateway Theatre (which offers a markedly different experience from seeing the musical in venues with nearly 10 times the Gateway’s seating capacity). As directed and choreographed by Cindy Goldfield — who also designed the costumes — the show takes on a much greater vibrancy and intimacy simply by being closer to the audience. As Goldfield explains:
“This is the kind of show that gets inside you and rattles you with recognition. In addition to the themes of immigration and cross-cultural migration, we watch the two characters connect and find a shared passion and sensibility. While doing so, we remember our own version of this universal heartache. This is driven home by the presence, witnessing, and participation of the ensemble. Not only are they there to create the gorgeous sound and add the various characters that populate the world of the play, they are also an intrinsic part of the experience….while the actors themselves experience the recognition of just missing out on the ‘real thing.’ As John Carney (the director of the original source material film of the same name which stars the composers of the music, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova) commented, ‘It’s the ones who are gone who haunt you for the rest of your life. Instead of saying, ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you,’ they just disappear.’”
Over the years, I’ve found the stage adaptation of Once to be a vastly improved experience which gives audiences a much warmer feeling for Ireland’s pub culture (proving that live theatre can sometimes be a much more welcoming medium for a dangerously thin love story than a low-budget film). Experiencing the immediacy of Once in a tiny theatre delivers a qualitative difference akin to the breadth a single digit on the Richter scale.
Colin Thomson draws sympathy from the audience as the Guy’s soft-hearted father, with Matt Davis scoring points as a bank officer with musical aspirations, and Rob Ready charming the audience as Billy (the manager of the music store where the Girl plays the piano). Among the ensemble, I was particularly impressed by Ben Euphrat as the pugnacious Svec, Devin Renée Kelly as Reza, Brady Morales Woolery as Andrej (the burger boy who anticipates being promoted to a managerial position), and Ariela Morgenstern as the Girl’s mother, Baruška. Appearing in smaller roles are Bryan Munar as Eamon, Christina Owens as the Guy’s Ex-Girlfriend, and Myra Chachkin as the Emcee.
The bulk of the evening rests on the sturdy shoulders of Corbin Mayer and Olivia Clari Nice, who deliver immensely appealing portraits of the two musicians who fall in love and slowly come to realize that tending to the responsibilities of their previous relationships is more important than consummating their current romance. Both artists have strong charisma, solid voices, and excel in their roles, with Ms. Nice adding a particularly dry and blunt kind of humor to the evening as “a very serious Czech.”
Performances of Once continue through June 30 at the Gateway Theatre (click here for tickets).
Originally published at https://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com.