Friday, June 19, 2009

The Search For Self Continues

As a person grows and matures, the ego develops (in large part due to how it is reflected by others). Someone with a healthy ego has usually enjoyed a steady supply of positive feedback from family, friends, and peers. Someone filled with self-doubt and self-loathing? Perhaps not so much.

Whether or not one's parents are suitable role models, most people grow up with traditional benchmarks by which they can measure their progress in life. Certain symbols of achievement (a driver's license, graduation, marriage) have been visible to them for most of their lives. Other symbols may take years to become apparent -- not so much because people have been told that these achievements are critical for them, but because they have had so little information with which to evaluate their self-worth.

Thus, one finds the naif hoping that he will find true love on his first date (or thinking that "saving himself" for his wedding night will make him an exemplary lover). Some parents insist that their son's bar mitzvah be every bit as -- if not even more -- ostentatious than his friend's. A never-ending parade of Bridezillas go to extreme costs to make "the most important day of their life" become a financial liability that could easily make the burden of paying off a student loan seem like a mere trifle.

For some people, however, certain factors propel them toward greater introspection in order to figure out why they can't relate to the standard markers. Are there ethnic factors which cause them to look at life through a darkly tinted lens? Have they been looking for love in all the wrong places? Or does the only thing that might make them feel "whole" involve confronting deeply personal challenges that will take them into uncharted territories from which there is no turning back?

Finding the courage just to be oneself, without apologizing to anyone, is easier said than done. Finding the information which can explain what makes you different can be even more frustrating. Perhaps the quest for self knowledge is best expressed in this clip of Lorna Luft singing during a London tribute to her friend and mentor, Sammy Davis, Jr.

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Several months ago I had a chance to watch Kenny Yun in a workshop performance of his one-man show entitled Lettucetown Lies. Yun has been polishing his act since then and recently started a two-week run of performances at The Marsh.

The sweetness of Yun's personality, combined with his description of what it was like to be the only gay Korean among a group of deadbeat Caucasian highschoolers in Salinas, offers audiences plenty of fun. Whether describing his mother's constant insistence that he eat something, his father's disgust that he dances like a girl, his secret desire for an Easy-Bake oven, or his lust for legendary Greek heroes like Perseus, Yun's story easily sets him apart from the mainstream.

Blowing up heads of lettuce with firecrackers, helping a girl in his class draw less attention to her hare lip by teasing her hair into a giant bouffant, and copping a feel off one of his friends during a camping trip may not be standard fare for monologuists. But that's part of what makes Kenny Yun's story his own. I still find his recollection of attending summer camp in Korea (and slowly realizing that his new friend/guide might also be gay) to be one of the most poignant parts of Yun's show. You can get a sense of Kenny's easy, laid-back charm in the following clip:

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Readers may remember an advertising campaign that featured the great Ella Fitzgerald with the tag line "Is it real or is it Memorex?" The delicate intersection between real life and art could not be demonstrated any better than with the release of Pedro, a beautifully-crafted new biopic due out on DVD from WolfeVideo in July. With a powerful screenplay written by Dustin Lance Black (whose work continues to impress), the film relives the life and death of AIDS activist, Pedro Zamora.

In an era when studios are eagerly combing through their vaults to cannibalize old movies for new ideas (or to produce "remakes" of classic films with today's generation of up-and-coming stars), MTV found itself in a unique situation. Zamora was one of the key figures in The Real World: San Francisco. He died of AIDS on November 11, 1994, the day after the final segment of the reality show had aired on national television.

Zamora's AIDS diagnosis led to a short career as an AIDS activist (something for which he had had no preparation). His communication skills and disarming honesty helped Zamora capture the attention of young people who had received little or no information about the realities of living with AIDS.

Having produced the reality TV series that featured the first HIV+ gay man to be seen on national television, MTV had plenty of archival material to rely on in developing a biopic about Zamora. The fact that this movie can still be so deeply moving after 30 years of an epidemic, more than two million deaths, and more than 33 million people around the world living with AIDS, is a testament to the strength of Zamora's story and the high quality of this project.

Special credit goes to director Nick Oceano for a beautifully directed film, anchored by the superb performance of young Alex Loynaz as Pedro. While there are strong contributions from DaJuan Johnson as Pedro's lover, Sean Sasser, and Hale Appleman as his friend, Judd,
it is Justina Machado (who played Vanessa Diaz in Six Feet Under) who nearly steals the film with a performance of incredible depth and radiance as Pedro's sister, Mily. Pedro, which is well worth your time, has been broken down into serial segments available on MTV's website, where it is introduced by President Bill Clinton. Here's the opening segment:

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One of the most poignant documentaries I've see in recent years will be shown on Wednesday June 24 at the Castro Theater as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival). Unlike many gay documentaries (which deal with the history of political and social discrimination against LGBT people), Prodigal Sons focuses on a single family's unique challenges.

On the surface, Montana's McKerrow family looked like it had everything going for it. The father was a much-loved doctor practicing medicine in the state capital of Helena. After having difficulty conceiving a child, he and his wife decided to adopt a little boy. No sooner did Marc arrive in their home than his adoptive mother got pregnant with the first of two beautiful sons. I doubt this picture of the three children could fail to bring a smile to anyone's face. They look perfectly adorable.

This picture, taken from the family album, seems equally noncontroversial.

That is, of course, until one questions the effect of genetics on a nuclear family. The two sons born to Mrs. McKerrow both turned out to be gay. A strapping young quarterback, Paul McKerrow was the tall, blond, athletic captain of the football team who was also class president. Although his peers named Paul the person most likely to succeed, none of them knew that he was dogged by a nagging secret.

After leaving Montana, Paul underwent gender reassignment surgery and has been living and working successfully in New York. Paul became Kimberly Reed, the filmmaker/editor who decided to focus her lens on a trip back to Montana to attend a 20-year high school reunion.

Life plays strange tricks on people. Reed's documentary turns out to be about so much more than the challenges she has faced as a transgender person. Her older (adopted) brother Marc suffered an automobile accident many years ago which has resulted in a form of mental illness that can make him extremely antagonistic if he is not on his medications.

Held back for a year in elementary school, and having never graduated from high school, Marc has always been haunted by his inability to compete with his athletic brother (who ended up in the same grade and became a star quarterback). As a result, Marc has been battling the ghost of his long-lost brother, Paul McKerrow, for years. Their high school reunion reignites the flames of doubt that Kim refers to as "the ghost of the man Marc could never be and Kim never wanted to be."

Kim and Marc's younger brother Todd (who is also gay) now lives in San Diego. But when the family reunites at their mother Carol's home, tensions quickly flare. If the sibling rivalry were not enough to strain family relations, Marc's feeling that he has been cheated out of his life (due to the combination of having a different genetic history and having suffered brain damage in an automobile accident) is a wound that simply will not heal. His history becomes even more complicated with the discovery that he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

A trip to Croatia to visit Oja Kodar (who was the soul-mate of the great actor for the last 24 years of his life) helps to give Marc a better sense of self. However, once Marc and Kim return to America, his mental illness starts to become unmanageable and an eruption of domestic violence leads to his institutionalization. In her director's statement, Reed explains that:
"I started out making a film about my adopted brother's journey to discover his new lineage. It was undeniably a great story, a real-life fairy tale. I also felt guilty that life had been easy for me but not for Marc. I imagined that by celebrating his amazing tale I could ease his pain and maybe heal our relationship. I thought I'd be making a film about the second chapter in our lives. Little did I know we weren't done with the first.

Anyone who has met Marc will tell you that you can't tell his story without telling mine. Our rivalry growing up was the most important dynamic in his life and remains so to this day. So I knew I'd end up in this film, but I had no idea it would become the personal journey it did.

When you change your sex, you get tremendous pressure to bury your past, to let it disappear like the "M" that used to be on your driver's license. If you pass well in your new gender, the pressure is even stronger, especially from other transgender people who see passing as the Holy Grail. Returning to your past, much less reveling in it, is unthinkable. Before making this film, I shared that view.

But as the film evolved, and Marc and I began to have a relationship again, he was the only one who wouldn't let me get away with forgetting my past. I wanted Marc to let my male past die -- as I had -- but he had enshrined this history and even insisted on cherishing remnants of it. As much as I resisted this, I couldn't ignore the kernel of truth in what he was saying: I had to stop renouncing my history.

I started out believing this film was about Marc's quest for identity, but it was about my own. I thought my transition was complete, but instead Marc taught me I was only halfway, and that I had to somehow resurrect the first half of my life I had buried alive. This freed me to return home and reclaim my past. Though my situation is rare, everyone I know who has a sibling relates to the dynamic between Marc and me, and to my desire for my family to recognize who I've become instead of who I was when I left home.

Prodigal Sons has a deep reserve of high-octane dramatic fuel, but the film is so much more than its astonishing characters or the explosive moments we caught on camera. What sets this film apart is its exploration of the universal truths every family grapples with. In the end, this film is quite simply about love, and how one family faces challenges and triumphs that no one would have ever imagined."
The challenges Kim faces as a transgender almost seem small compared to the need for her to be the deciding force in her family following her father's death -- and occasionally the only one who is still able or willing to communicate with Marc after he enters a mental facility. Reed's documentary will unnerve you, astound you, and leave you overwhelmed with compassion for Kim and her mother.

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Compared to these three gripping real-life stories, Shamim Sarif's attempt to create a romantic comedy for lipstick lesbians entitled I Can't Think Straight (which will be shown on Monday, June 22 at the Castro Theater) comes off as a decidedly lame fantasy.

A romantic comedy that is neither particularly romantic nor comedic, it seems stilted, contrived, overacted, and totally unconvincing. Instead of a sprinkling of wit, the audience gets lectures on everything from religious tolerance to family traditions thrown at them with a trowel.

Beautifully photographed, and featuring an extremely photogenic cast, Sarif's film focuses on two budding lesbians living in London. Tala (Lisa Ray) is a Palestinian Christian whose wealthy family now lives in Jordan. Her mother, Reema (Antonia Frering) is a Cruella de Vil style anti-Semitic bitch whose servant (Nina Wadia) takes great delight in spitting in the drinks she serves her employer.

Tala's father, Omar (Dalip Tahil) just wants his daughter to be happy, but is losing patience with (a) Tala's unwillingness to settle down and have a family, and (b) Tala's peculiar talent for breaking off her three previous engagements at the last minute ("They should have cancellation insurance for weddings -- that stuff would sell itself!"). Tala's fourth fiance, Hani (Daud Shah) is handsome enough, but there is little chemistry between them.

Tala's two adult sisters are spoiled brats. Lamia (Anya Lahiri) only wants to go shopping and is bored to tears whenever her sister insists on going to a museum. Zina (Kimberly Jaraj )gets along well enough with her handsome boyfriend Kareem (Sam Vincenti), but gets along so much better with her gay cousin Sami (Ishwar Maharaj) who is visiting from New York. That girl has great potential to become a major Palestinian fag hag.

One of Tala's friends, Ali (Rez Kempton) has been dating a British-Indian woman named Leyla (Sheetal Sheth), who comes from a Muslim family, is a bit idealistic, and dreams of becoming a writer. Leyla is also a self-professed clutz. Leyla's father Sam (Ernest Ignatius) just wants his daughter to go into the family business and sell long-term life insurance. The hysterical behavior and unrealistic expectations of her mother (Siddiqua Akhtar) would make any daughter insane.

Leyla's sister Yasmine (Amber Rose Revah) has noticed the K.D. Lang CD in Leyla's bedroom along with certain books that might appeal to budding lesbians. When Tala and Leyla spontaneously go off to spend a weekend together at Oxford, Yasmine is able to figure things out with much greater clarity than her incipiently sapphic sister.

The problem with Sarif's movie is that it is filled with caricatures instead of characters. Her script resorts to tired old lines like "But some of my best friends are Lebanese!" instead of creating any genuine moments that could grab the audience. When push comes to shove it's hard to care about or believe in any of her characters. Here's the trailer:

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