Saturday, June 27, 2009

Looking For That Silver Lining

One of the hardest and yet most universal lessons for children to learn is that life is not always fair. Sometimes things take longer than expected, cost more than you budgeted for, and your best-laid plans might not even come to fruition. How a person deals with personal and professional setbacks says a lot about his integrity, his faith in himself, the quality of his relationships, and his outlook on life.

One of the favorite children's books of all time is The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. Since being published in 1930, children around the world who learned how to chant "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" have often developed a better outlook on life than those whose first thought is "Not gonna happen." The blue railroad engine has become such a popular part of our culture that a real-life version frequently tours the nation (you can check its schedule here).

Numerous songs have been sung by musical comedy characters determined not to give up on their dreams. Among the classics are:
Here are Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat performing "Make Butter Out of Cream" from the musical version of Catch Me If You Can (now trying out at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre) -- a song that seems destined to join the above list.

Perhaps the greatest musical number ever written about overcoming adversity is Jule Styne's Everything's Coming Up Roses from Gypsy (1959). Initially popularized by the great Ethel Merman, the song is often performed as an upbeat number. But when seen in its proper dramatic context (as in the following clip), the song offers a horrific display of Madam Rose's refusal to accept defeat.

While a popular adage insists that "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade," some people prefer to make a movie. A series of shorts and feature films recently seen at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) focused on how to wring a good result out of a disastrous turn of events.

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The protagonists in three of the shorts on Frameline's Swiss Treats program all had to find their way around an unexpected obstacle. In 510 Meters Above Sea Level, a 16-minute short by Kerstin Polte, a woman returning home to scatter her father's ashes gets stuck overnight in the tiny Bern airport after missing a connecting flight. She eventually attracts the attention of a female custodial worker who has a habit of hanging out in the observation tower, waiting for something or someone to arrive. During the course of a very long night they get to know each other, learn some new things about themselves, and emerge stronger the next morning as a result of their experience.

In Barbara Seixwe's 17-minute romantic fantasy entitled Dancing To Happiness, a custodial worker (Anna) and an uptight lesbian broker (Helen) discover that they are the only people signed up for a mysterious set of salsa lessons. Can salsa really melt the ice queen? Or will she hide behind the difference in their job levels in order to avoid the kind of intimacy for which she has been starved? Seixwe's short had some nice moments but only really came to life in the finale, when a large ensemble of workers filled a vast atrium with their dancing.

Filippo Filliger's 15-minute short, Comme Une Lettre a la Poste, had a lot more bite and wit. Frustrated that his professor seems to be stealing his work, graduate student Franco tries to find a way to get past this inexplicable obstacle to receiving his degree. With some rowdy encouragement from his straight coworkers at a postal sorting facility, he discovers that his professor has been secretly having regular appointments with a male leather master.

Although Franco and his wife think S&M is all a joke, he's desperate enough to get his degree that he embarks on a plan to turn the tables on his professor. Not only does his professor enjoy the whipping, he recognizes the masked Franco and asks for a repeat appointment. Suddenly, Franco may have a whole new career on his hands!

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Written and directed by Wing Kit Hung, Soundless Wind Chime travels back and forth between Switzerland and Hong Kong as it explores new love, tense love, and the grief that follows the loss of one's love.

Ricky (Yulai Lu) is a young delivery boy/waiter working in a restaurant in Hong Kong. One day, while Ricky is out making a delivery, Pascal (Bernard Bulling) steals his wallet. Without any identification, Ricky quickly gets hauled off to the police station, where he is held until his aunt (Wella Zhang), a local prostitute, can bail him out.

Meanwhile, Pascal (who has grown weary of being sexually abused by his roommate) strikes out on his own, crossing paths once again with Ricky. Recognizing Ricky's face from his identification card in the wallet he stole, he arranges to leave Ricky's wallet for him at the restaurant. The two men eventually become friends when Ricky discovers Pascal, hungry and with no place to stay, and brings him back to the apartment he shares with his aunt.

Although the two men strike up a romance -- and eventually get an apartment of their own -- an accident leaves Pascal dead, his head lying on the cobblestones as spilled milk seems to ooze from his brain. Bereft, bothered, and bewildered, Ricky heads to Switzerland to see if he can find the missing part of his love for Pascal.

While touring Switzerland, he meets an antiques dealer named Marcus (Hannes Lindenblatt) who is kind and gentle, someone with whom Ricky can laugh and yet someone who is strong enough to cry in Ricky's arms. Just when Ricky seems to be finding some love and stability, he receives word that his mother is dying and he must travel to Beijing to take care of her. One day, while Ricky is out working as a taxi driver, Marcus arrives in time to introduce himself to Ricky's mother, see her die, and watch her spirit take leave of her body.

There is much to enjoy in Soundless Wind Chime, although at times its lack of a clear narrative path may be frustrating. Some of Wing Kit Hung's scenes (particularly a rainy day segment in which hundreds of people with multi-hued umbrellas cross a busy Hong Kong intersection) have a lyrical touch; others capture the intricacies of establishing, building, and trying to maintain intimacy in a relationship that has become strained. Here's the trailer:

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Finally, we come to Tina Mabry's agonized look at poverty in the deep South. Mississippi Damned follows a close-knit group of relatives from 1986 to 1998. Most of their hopes and dreams are sabotaged by their extended family's problems with alcohol, gambling, infidelity, and domestic violence.

If I'm correct, the core characters in Mabry's film include:
  • Charlie (Jossie Thacker), an alcoholic woman who miscarries a near-term child and ends up going to jail after stabbing her abusive husband's mistress.
  • Sammy (Malcolm Goodwin), Charlie's son, a short, but promising basketball player who gets sexually exploited by his only fan, Pumpkin (Eugene Long).
  • Delores (Michael Hyatt), Charlie's sister who dies of cancer, mother to Leigh & Kari.
  • Leigh (Chastity Kershal Hammitte), a young bull dyke whose girlfriend, Paula, dumps her and decides to go straight.
  • Kari (Tessa Thompson), Leigh's baby sister, a talented young girl who has always loved playing piano and wants to study music at NYU.
  • Gloria (Anna Biscoe), Kari's single aunt, who has never had children.
  • Paula (Jasmine Burke), Leigh's teenage lesbian lover, who dreams of escaping to Memphis and making a career as a go-go dancer. Lacking the courage to share her life with Leigh in an openly lesbian relationship, Paula takes the easy way out by marrying her boyfriend, Duckett (Vaughan Wilson).
Although there were numerous moments during Mabry's two-hour film when I found it difficult to keep track of who was related to whom, there was no doubt that Mabry had created a memorable set of authentically tragic -- and tragically authentic -- characters. When the action jumps ahead 12 years, it is sometimes difficult to pick up the paths of some plot lines. Nevertheless, this is a powerful, poignant, and deep disturbing film which will make viewers want to count their blessings. Here's the trailer.

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