We Lost It At The Movies
luna-id serves Popcorn
By Richard Lord
I think it was Philip Roth who bemoaned - roughly a quarter of a century ago - the fact that it had become nearly impossible to write satire successfully in America. The reason, claimed this master of American fiction, was that American reality had simply outstripped and outpaced the satirical imagination. By the time a writer had spun a work of satire, sent it off to the publishers and seen it released, the evening news would most likely have come up with some quite similar tale, only much more outrageous.
Indeed, can you imagine the plight of a determined satirist trying to top the reality of a George W. Bush in the White House, with “we’re-proud-to-be-cowboys” Dick Cheney one heartbeat away from the Oval Office; how about closet poet Donald Rumsfeld running the Defense show, while schock-TV meister Jerry Springer seriously contemplates a run for the US Senate, where he might just find himself sitting a chair’s throw from Jesse Ventura, former pro wrestler and most recently governor of Minnesota. And just try to out-weird the real-life Michael Jackson in turning out a credible satire of American show business.
But such seemingly insurmountable challenges has not kept some highly talented writers from trying. One of these is Briton Ben Elton, who credits include a number of highly regarded novels and some top-drawer TV series. (“Black Adder’, which periodically graces our screens courtesy of Comedy Central, is perhaps the best known.) Surveying the American landscape (which he could have done from the sanctity of his own home: America turns up on British TV about as often as it does on Singaporean screens), Elton saw much screaming to be satired. Elton acceded to these, with his best-selling novel Popcorn, which Elton himself reconfigured for the stage two years later. The play proved even more successful, winning the 1998 Olivier Award for Best New Play.
But let's face it, Elton certainly lined up some easy targets for himself. The American entertainment industry, the country’s fascination with firearms and violence, the American system of jurisprudence are all monuments of self-parody. The satirical challenge was to outdo the real-life models, preferably in terms of outrageousness. Wisely, Elton decided not to even attempt this daunting task, opting instead to just keep pace with his models. And Elton showed that some beautifully brutal satire can result just by creating a parallel world to the contemporary American scene.
The setting for Popcorn is that enclave of alternative reality known as Hollywood. This is the place where women bear names such as Farrah and Velvet, where someone about to get thrashed can plead with the assailant “Not the nose! It’s new”, where Playboy centrefolds prepare to spread, but only after discussing the promise of a film contract.
But this world is about to undergo a head-on collision with the world of harsh reality many ordinary Americans inhabit. The result is frightening and, in the hands of comic Elton, often hilarious.
The action here centres around Bruce Delamitri, a highly successful film-maker whose cinematic specialty is hard-gore porno-violence flicks, the kind where box office receipts flow in direct ratio to the films’ body counts. Delamitri has become the whipping boy for American right-wing politicians who decry the violent product Hollywood turns out with such skill, even as they themselves diligently pass legislation to keep weapons of mildly mass destruction in the hands of any American resident who feels the urge to possess them.
Delamitri and his films are also the ready targets of American journalists and cultural critics who discern some connection between cinematic orgies of violence and the actual violence plaguing the republic. At play’s opening, press and politicos have worked themselves up into quite a lather because this master of mayhem has snared an Oscar nomination as Best Director.
When Delamitri unexpectedly walks off with the coveted statuette, a firestorm of public consternation starts forming on the horizon. But that’s nothing compared to what’s awaiting Bruce when he arrives back home after the award ceremonies, one arm clutching Oscar, the other a recent Playmate of the Month.
It seems that while Delamitri was off jacking up the fees for his next film, two of his biggest fans have broken into his home and now lie in wait for their idol. Unfortunately for Delamitri, and all those close to him, these two fans are serial killers, the notorious Mall Murderers. We quickly learn that Wayne and Scout are just a young couple bound together by their love for each other and their fondness for killing and maiming perfect strangers who happen to cross them in any way, however slight or unintended. (Just being in the range of their fire sometimes proves sufficient reason for the victims to die.)
Not only do these remorseless killers want to meet the man who has turned out so much of their favourite cinematic fare, they have also included Bruce in a wildly sketched “plan for their own salvation”. (Bruce will declare himself ultimately responsible for their crimes - live on national TV.) The main drama of Popcorn spins out of the question as to whether Bruce will actually participate in this plan and at what price. Eventually, the play’s psychological energy swings into a war of wills and principles between Bruce and Wayne, while the play’s other personae (Scout, Playmate Brooke, along with Bruce’s wife, daughter and shoot-from-the-lip agent) look on as insolent bystanders.
(By the way - has anyone yet pointed out that when fused together, the first names of Popcorn’s two protagonists form Batman’s real name?)
Elton makes this essentially ugly material rather appealing through the use of clever, mostly coruscating dialogue and spikey humour. The characters, crafted from the dramatic equivalents of Pop Art and Hyper-Realism, engage us from start to finish. This, even though Elton occasionally runs roughshod over the rules of solid structuring, drawing out certain debates much longer than advisable. (In fact, the thrust-and-parry on artistic freedom and responsibility against the responsibility of the individual started to slip into tedium when it came around for about the third time.)
Obviously, Elton has not strayed too far from reality in crafting this hellish vision - at least reality as served up by the American mass media. Delamitri bears more than a passing resemblance to Oliver Stone, two-time Oscar winner as Best Director for violence-packed Vietnam epics. Nor is it too much of a stretch to see Delamitri’s Oscar-winning flick “Ordinary Americans”, with its legions of detractors, as based on Stone’s vilified and admired “Natural Born Killers”. And film star wannabe Brooke Lee also has a real-life model in Dorothy Stratton, the former Playmate of the Month who was perhaps on her way to screen stardom when an ex-husband cut short her career by brutally murdering her.
The young sociopath couple have been drawn from all too many real-life models who sought their own form of stardom by taking up sophisticated firearms. Wayne and Scout could have easily been cardboard figures, empty vessels into which Elton poured all the venom their heinous actions call forth. What keeps them interesting here is that he injects them occasionally with humanising quirks, with an allegiance to love and principles that many of us would identify with.
For instance, when Wayne learns that Bruce drives an expensive Italian import, he reacts with offended American pride: “You drive a foreign car, you’re driving over American jobs.” Elsewhere in the play, he and Scout voice other views that would not sound out of place coming form a Bush administration official on some Sunday morning talk show.
(Wayne’s conservative, patriotic views also reflect somber reality. For example, Charles Starkweather, who in late ‘57 - early ‘58 carried out a multistate, 11-victim killing spree with his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, paused in his slaughter to tape a notorious account of his crimes and then added his own political sentiments, which were barely distinguishable from the views held by then President Dwight Eisenhower or the Reverend Billy Graham.)
Popcorn is far being from a great play, but it is damn good theatre. Even when it slows down, it keeps us on edge, wondering when the next sweep upward of this emotional roller coaster ride will come. The production as brought to us by luna-id is likewise damn good theatre, a bundle of energy and flair and chutzpah. Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, assisted by luna-id’s helmsman Christian Huber, has put together a funny, frightening tour-de-force that usually wings us past the script’s weak points. Scott-Blackhall sees that the action proceeds at a near optimal pace, slowly down slightly when the moment calls, accelerating when needed, never wallowing in the violence or lingering too long on a bit that is quite funny as long as we don’t dwell on it too long.
Scott-Blackhall also benefited from a fine cast in realising this dark vision. Top mention comes to the unholy trinity at the centre of the action: Daniel Jenkins as Wayne, Deborah Stych as Scout, and Christian J. Lee as Delamitri. While I at first had reservations about the stagey quality of Wayne and Scout’s Southern accents, they soon became another strong accessory to their stock of gestures, mayhem-laden smiles and menacing body language. Jenkins was especially powerful, commanding his part of the stage whenever he appeared. This pair always has one heavy foot in cliché, but Jenkins and Stych draw us past this to engage more than we ever should with the callous killers.
Lee’s Delamitri provided a solid core to the play after he overcame a little early nervousness expressed in rushed lines and movements. About five minutes in, he had taken control of the character and gave us a Delamitri wallowing in self-pity as the misunderstood artist, someone who honestly felt he was doing some social good. Honestly felt so because he could lie to himself so well. “I come from the generation that cared,” Bruce declares, as a preface to the tortured defense of his film’s violence and acrobatic sexuality. (One camera shot he is especially proud of shows an episode of rough sex “from the vagina’s point of view”.) Lee catches this pillar of self-deception very well, even layering in the remnants of basic decency that make us stay with the guy for all his pride, prurience and pretension.
The supporting roles were more of a mix. Beatrice Chia was altogether superb as Playmate Brooke, in Chia’s hands a voluptuous mountain of sensuality who has been looking for an entry into the film business. Chia has sometimes gone over the top by a mile with such roles in the past, but here she plays it close to perfection. Chia hit the right tone whether she was being ultra-sexy in peeling off her panty hose, hard-headed in pressing her part of the bargain before agreeing to bed down with Delamitri, showing palpable fear at the threats of guns pointed right at her, or trying to lure Scout into betraying Wayne to save her own neck. The one thing Chia needs to work on is the proper pacing of how one bleeds to death.
As Delamitri’s estranged wife Farrah, Carina Jennie Hales was not so accomplished. Of course, Popcorn is a satire, but the material works best if those delivering it take themselves quite seriously. Here, Hales frequently played too broadly, giving over into histrionics more than was healthy for the role. The emotional repertoire that Hales has shown elsewhere would certain have provided some needed material to make her Farrah work more effectively.
Neelam Chugh proved fine as daughter Velvet, a precocious pain in the ass dripping with attitude and a bloated sense of entitlement. I sometimes wished Chugh had been sharper, but she did provide the proper support to the show. As did Sean Yeo is his brief appearances as Bruce’s producer Karl Brezner. Wide-eyed and big-mouthed, this Brezner is a fitting parody of the new breed of Hollywood producer.
Unfortunately, Coral Tong and Ian Tan as the TV reporter and cameraman respectively came off as two subtle even for their minor roles. True, you do not want these characters chewing up the scenery, but neither do you quite want them blending into the wallpaper. A little more personality from both, even in silently carrying out their work, would have made them more sympathetic and added a touching dimension to the production.
Praise for the success of this production also goes to composer-sound designer Darren Ng Tzer Huei and set designer Sebastian Zeng. This time, Zeng’s design was counter-instinctual, not sprawling in Hollywood hyperbole but leaning a bit towards understatement. (That’s ‘understated’ in a Tinseltown context, you understand.) The play’s violence and prurience were expressed in a bold display of reds, the artfully ruffled upholstery even suggesting waves and roses. A huge print of Picasso’s Guernica stood perched on the upper landing, a mute testimony to the culture of violence. At first it struck me that Guernica prints would be seen as just so passé in contemporary Hollywood. But then I thought that Zeng might have been aiming at something bigger as I recalled that over a half century ago this Picasso canvas had itself sparked quite a debate over the role and responsibility of art when confronting overwrought violence.
Hmm? I can even imagine Bruce Delamitri seeing Picasso as a role model, a trailblazer in the saga of the struggling, über-rich artist pursuing his own version of the truth. Wayne, too, would probably see the mangled bodies in the print as a source of inspiration.
That’s entertainment.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003