Sunday, June 28, 2009

As Long As It's For A Good Cause

Genocide in Darfur.

A military coup in Honduras.

Street demonstrations in Teheran.

North Korea threatening to launch a missile attack.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. If you don't believe me, just listen to the Merry Minuet (whose lyrics were written by Sheldon Harnick back in 1958 and subsequently made famous by The Kingston Trio):

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the fight for social justice continues. Although some of us who marched in the early days of the gay liberation movement wonder what the next generation will do to advance the cause, it's interesting to stop and think about what used to be.
  • Remember when an undercover agent could arrest a gay man who accepted his offer of a free drink?
  • Remember when gay men coyly identified themselves as a "friend of Dorothy's"?
  • Remember when Ronald Reagan wouldn't even utter the word "AIDS"?
As Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin used to remind us:
Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they'd never end,
We'd sing and dance forever and a day.
We'd live the life we choose,
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
That lyric kept haunting me as I watched Born in '68, which was recently screened as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival). Although some might complain that the film is slow and occasionally dull, I found it a surprisingly gripping experience.

Perhaps that's because, as it covers the 40-year period from 1968 to 2008, it follows the lives of a group of college-age revolutionaries who thought they would save the world. Whether marching in the streets, living in a commune in the French countryside, reveling in the joys of nudity, hippie lifestyles and free love, or dealing with despair, disillusionment and disease, Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's epic is very much a film of our times and for our times -- even if we're not living in France.

The film begins in Paris in May of 1968, when clashes between students and police led to a general strike by workers that nearly brought about the collapse of the French government (then controlled by Charles de Gaulle). We meet Catherine (Laetitia Casta), Yves (Yannick Renier), and Hervé (Yann Trégouët), three college students involved in the demonstrations.

Yann Trégouët, Laetitia Casta and Yannick Renier

As they run for cover, Catherine is struck with severe cramps and menstrual bleeding. Another protester asks for help and, when the police come knocking on the door to Catherine's apartment, she coyly answers their call while clutching a towel over her naked body.

The newcomer, Antoine (Alain Fromager), regales Caroline and her friends with stories about his experiences with communal living in Berkeley and tells them about an empty farmhouse they could all use as a commune. Their goal? To live off the land, be free of oppression, rules, laws and societal taboos. Catherine even manages to coerce her younger, very mainstream brother, Michel (Gaetan Gallier), into joining her and her friends on their great adventure.

They soon discover that the farm desperately needs repairs and that some of their happy tribe are not cut out for country living. Two neighboring farmers, Serge (Marc Citti) and his wife Maryse (Christine Citti), befriend them after Catherine (who has by now given birth to Ludmilla) runs out of milk for her infant.

Life in a commune, however, doesn't mean that people don't need money. Yves eventually takes a job teaching in town while Michel decides he would be more comfortable working on Serge & Maryse's farm. Although an American ex-patriot named Caroline (Kate Moran) remains, Hervé eventually leaves in search of a more revolutionary lifestyle, Antoine heads off in search of new adventure and Yves returns to the city.

Hervé (Yann Trégouët) and Yves (Yannick Renier)

As the years pass, Catherine also gives birth to Boris while Maryse has a son named Christophe. Michel marries Dalila (Fejria Deliba) and they soon welcome a baby boy named Joseph. When Hervé returns on a cold winter day, Catherine quickly learns that he is wanted as a political dissident. Hervé finds a hiding place nearby in the woods, and Michel frequently brings him food to eat. But one day, as soldiers try to track down Hervé, a terrible accident leaves Michel dead. His bloodied body is found by a waterfall by the young Ludmilla, Boris and Christophe.

Time moves on and we find Ludmilla (Sabrina Seyvecou) now an angry young woman, convinced that her mother is trying to manipulate her. Boris has gone off to law school, but on his return, it becomes obvious to Catherine, Serge, and Maryse that Boris (Théo Frilet) and Christophe (Eduoard Collin) -- who have been playmates since they could walk -- now have a much more intimate relationship.

Christophe (Eduoard Collin) and Boris (Théo Frilet)

Ludmilla eventually marries Farivar (Slimane Yefseh) who had slept with Catherine (Ludmilla's mother) when he first arrived at the farm. After the couple move to London, both Christophe and Boris (who have been living together in Paris) test positive for HIV and return to the countryside to tell their parents about their health status. Christophe's T-cell count eventually plummets and, despite the best efforts from his new boyfriend Philippe (Simon Charasson), Christophe dies of AIDS. A year later, thanks to protease inhibitors, Boris has an undetectable viral load and is helping his sister, Ludmilla (who has temporarily separated from Farivar) take care of her child.

Back on the farm, Michel's now fully-grown son, Joseph (Osman Elkharraz), has moved in with Catherine, hoping to specialize in organic farming. Antoine has returned just in time to learn of Catherine's cancer diagnosis and help her through the final stages of her disease.

When Jacques Chirac becomes President in 1995 and France becomes even more conservative, Yves falls into a deep depression. His wife summons Boris and Ludmilla, hoping that his children can bring their father out of his funk. As Yves bemoans the political mistakes he sees his children making, Boris reminds him that they're old enough to make their own mistakes -- and that it's time for him to stop thinking that their lives are ruled by the mistakes made by Yves's generation.

In the final segment, we see Yves being driven around Paris in a taxi, making small talk about politics with the cab driver who, to his astonishment, turns out to be Hervé. The film ends as the two men, now pushing 60, drive past a group of youthful protesters as idealistic as they once were.

There were many things I enjoyed about Born in '68, including the musical score by Philippe Miller and the work of a fine ensemble of actors. As a gay man, however, it was particularly refreshing to see a film in which no one is agonizing about why he is gay, or how he turned gay. Instead, we see two young gay men whose friendship and sexuality have evolved since they were children together. There are no apologies, no regrets, just life in all its complexity. Although the film runs nearly three hours in length, I strongly recommend it as a political epic for our time. It's due out in August on DVD. Here's the trailer:

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A lot has changed since 1968, when supporting a cause meant showing up, protesting, and marching in view of the public. These days, whether for political, social, or medical causes, fundraising is one of the main activities. Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign took full advantage of the Internet's social networking capabilities to build a dynamic volunteer force as well as a potent money machine.

But for many causes, it's a long line of bake sales, bumper stickers, T-shirt sales and charity events in the never-ending quest to increase funding. One of the most popular vehicles in recent years has been the sale of calendars in which people ranging from young, healthy athletes to famous grandmothers have agreed to pose naked for a cause. Working with Australia's McGrath Foundation for cancer research, renowned commercial photographer Pedro Virgil has produced a series of such calenders using stars of the Australian sports scene. With funds going to pay for breast cancer nurses and continued research into prostate cancer, his Gods of Football 2009 calendar has been a major success.

The interesting hook is not just that so many athletes are willing to donate their time and bodies to the cause, but that many of them have been personally affected by a friend or relative's battle with breast cancer. A new DVD entitled Gods of Football 2009: Making of the Calendar takes viewers behind the scenes of the photo shoots that went into the creation of the calendar.

The result is similar to many other non-porn beefcake products: lots of great footage of sweaty, muscled athletic hunks doing fashion shoots with a minimum of diva antics. The men all seem extremely cooperative, happy to lend a hand, and easy to work with. If you'd like to purchase some Aussie eye candy while donating some money to a worthy cause, you can visit their online store here. In the meantime, here's the trailer as an appetizer:

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There are two obviously conflicting causes at the center of Whirlwind, a new gay soap opera destined to become a gay movie of the week that has been directed by Richard LeMay and written, produced and edited by James Brown. One cause is to throw a dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of Craig and Owen, whose restaurant has essentially been the starting place for most of the friendships in the film.

The other cause is one bitter gay man's quest to make sure that no relationship survives. Why? Because the only time he actually cared about another man, the object of his desire ran off with his best friend. The main characters fulfill fairly stereotypical roles, but do so with as much commitment as one could hope for. They are:
  • JD (Desmond Dutcher), a major alcoholic with precious little self-esteem who is always looking for a new career, a new look, a new boyfriend, a new anything as long as it prevents him from dealing with his crippling insecurities.
  • Desmond (Brad Anderson), one of JD's closest friends -- a handsome man into one-night stands who is acutely relationship-phobic and a narcissistic asshole.
  • Mick (Mark Ford), a middle aged black chef whose lover was killed three years ago in an automobile accident. Mick has basically retreated into his shell despite everyone's advice that it's time for him to "get over it" and start dating someone new.
  • Bobby (Alexis Suarez), the responsible muscle hunk who plans carefully, does not want to waste his time or money, and is eager to buy a condominium with his lover.
  • Sean (Bryan West) Bobby's easily distracted lover of three years, who misses the bar scene and likes to party.
  • Louis (Michael Paternostro), a gay chiropractor Desmond picked up in a bar one night who is eager to pursue a relationship.
  • Fiona (Karmine Alers), Bobby's sister who is also an aspiring actress.
  • Renee (Gail Herendeen), Fiona's friend, a major fag-hag who is desperate to find a straight man.
  • Craig (Mick Hilgers), an older gay man about to celebrate his 25th anniversary.
  • Owen (Jim Horvath), Craig's lover of 25 years as well as Fiona and Bobby's uncle.
  • Drake (David A. Rudd), the villain: a selfish gay predator who has never recovered from being dumped by his first boyfriend, Kyle.
  • Adam (Robbie Cain), a friend of Drake's.
  • Wayne (Stephen Smith) another friend of Drake's, who warns him to stop trying to bust up happy relationships that are none of his business.
Much of what happens in Whirlwind is quite predictable and easy on the eyes. The writing, however, is not overly preachy and the characters are well delineated. In some ways, Whirlwind is superior to many of the narrative films that have been screened by Frameline during recent festivals. At the very least, its characters are believable, their motivations genuine, and the drama clean and neatly framed with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Here's the trailer:

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