Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Puttin' On The Glitz

Gender illusionists have long found their homes in the entertainment industry. From Japan's Noh theatre (where men perform both male and female roles) to the Elizabethan Renaissance theatre (where, because women were forbidden by law to perform onstage, female roles were usually played by 13- to 19-year-old boys), drag has been a constant source of entertainment.
When one considers the careers of performers like Alexis Arquette, Charles Busch, Candy Darling, Nong Thoom, Charles Pierce, Craig Russell, and Pieter Dirk Uys, it becomes obvious that these actors have found a way to put their talents and sexual orientation to good use. Whether one thinks about a professional comedian like Eddie Izzard or a political activist like Sylvia Rivera (who was a founding member of New York's Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), these people don't hesitate to use makeup and clothing to challenge the status quo.

Although most people know the lyrics to Jerry Herman's song, "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles, they often forget that, with the following lyrics, the exact same song is used as the show's opening number for the Les Cagelles:
"We are what we are and what we are is an illusion.
We love how it feels
Putting on heels causing confusion.
We face life
Though it's sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter;
Face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter.
Look under our frocks: Girdles and jocks,
Proving we are what we are!

We are what we are -- half a brassiere, half a suspender.
Half real and half fluff,
You'll find it tough guessing our gender.
So, just (whistling)
If we please you that's the way to show us.
Just (whistling)
'Cause you'll love us once you get to know us.
Look under our glitz: Muscles and tits,
Proving we are what we are!"
Some performers in recent generations have chosen not to limit their cross dressing to the stage. Whether one considers such personalities as Donna Sachet, Dame Edna, or The Lady Bunny, each of these actors has done a splendid job of creating a brand for audience consumption.

Two new films being screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival capture the androgynous appeal and "in-your-face" performances seen in very different cultures.  While the film that is a documentary is a fairly sedate affair, the narrative film pulses with the kind of energy that could make Rob Marshall's 2002 film adaptation of Chicago, Bill Condon's 2006 screen version of Dreamgirls, and Adam Shankman's 2007 movie musical treatment of Hairspray almost seem listless by comparison.

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Born in Nagasaki in 1935, Akihiro Miwa has had a rather amazing career as a singer, actor, author of 20 books, composer, film star, and drag queen. In his new documentary entitled Miwa: A Japanese Icon (which had its world premiere at the Frameline festival), writer/director Pascal-Alex Vincent follows his subject's career path from a young man of decidedly androgynous appeal to a popular celebrity and political activist.

Akihiro Miwa as a young man

Originally known for his work as a cabaret singer (the artist appeared in the same nightclub for 40 years), Miwa developed a particular taste for songs made famous by Edith Piaf. In 1957, his first hit song ("Meke Meke") was rife with profane language that had never been used by Japanese recording artists. For a while, he was one of Yukio Mishima's lovers.

Miwa's film career often had him appearing as femmes fatale. He composed the theme song and starred in 1968's Black Lizard (directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who also directed Miwa in Black Rose Mansion). More recently he has performed voice work for animé films such as Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle.

Exquisitely dressed, with a large cross hanging from his neck, Miwa looks back on a 50-year career with amused detachment. Film clips of his stage performances show an extremely melodramatic actor who knew how to milk a moment for all it was worth. Miwa recalls one film director who told him that he was perfect in every way, but had one tragic flaw. When Miwa (who was quite impressed with his own beauty) asked what that flaw could be, the director replied "You're not in love with me."

When an interviewer asks Miwa (who appears onstage as a woman but dresses as a man at home) whether he prefers to be called "he" or "she," the performer offers a refreshing response. Explaining that the Japanese language does not use gender specific pronouns, he describes how the suffixes "san" and "sama" belong to a code of Japanese honorifics which recognize a person's honor and position in society.

As he reminisces about his long history of political activism, Miwa describes how he handled early critics who did not want him to "tarnish" his performing career by appearing in drag. He simply thought about what Jesus would have done and told his critics "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Miwa: A Japanese Icon features footage from some of the performer's concerts which, although they could easily make one think Lady Gaga was working on a bare bones budget, are almost alarming to Western ears. Lavishly produced, with Miwa decked out in a series of fabulous costumes, there is no escaping the fact that because of his fierce vibrato, his singing conjures up images of a backstage cat fight between Renata ScottoMaria Callas and Ethel Merman at the tail end of their respective careers. The following video clip offers a prime example:

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Written by Glenn Gaylord and directed by Sheldon LarryLeave It On The Floor is the most successfully realized contemporary movie musical since H.P. Mendoza's independent film entitled Colma: The Musical (2007). Originally inspired by the underground ballroom scene depicted in 1990's documentary, Paris is Burning, Larry's film is set in South Los Angeles. In the film, a drag queen named Christina Allure is played by Lady Red Couture (who stands 6'7" without heels).

Three of the male dancers in Leave It On The Floor

The plot is like a modern day equivalent to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Bradley Darnell Lyle (Ephraim Sykes) is a black teenager with an abusive mother (Metra Dee). When Brad tells Deondra that he's gay, she throws him out of their home and leaves him to fend for himself. While at a convenience store, he makes eye contact with an androgynous figure named Carter (Andre Myers). Each promptly picks the other's pocket.

Deondra (Metra Dee) meets her son
Brad (Ephraim Sykes) at the jail.

Carter, however, is a member of the House of Eminence, which is ruled by Queef Latina (Miss Barbie-Q). Among her charges are Princess Eminence (Phillip Evelyn), and Duke Eminence (Cameron Koa). A former champion of the drag ball scene, Queef Latina is waiting for her man, Caldwell Jones (Demarkes Dogan) to be released from prison. She is in no mood for Princess to get the hots for a cute young thing like Brad. Nor does she need an extra mouth to feed or another "child" to care for.

Phillip Evelyn as Princess Eminence

Although this film was made on a small budget, Sheldon Larry smartly called on his current and former students for help. As the director explains:
"No studio or large production company would ever have invested in a ballroom musical! So, to get it made, I needed to evolve a production paradigm for creating quality work with limited resources. I have worked as adjunct faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for the last three years and that experience has opened my heart and my eyes to the talent and passion of our next generation of performers and film makers. Leave It on the Floor has been made by others and myself in fleet-footed, penny-pinching partnership. The cast (all newcomers), and crew of mostly present and past USC students (hand in hand with a number of energetic professionals) were all fed, paid and/or offered some deferred payment. But together with my student producers we have always been extremely hard-nosed and dollar-conscious as we weighed the myriad of production decisions from both a creative and financial perspective. The experience became a teaching opportunity for me to engage USC students to participate and learn in both the 'show' as well as the 'business' trenches alongside of me. What we have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Where there is a passion to make a film, there is now -- with today’s technologies and bullheaded commitment -- truly a way."
One of the film's finest assets is its musical score by Kimberly Burse. Songs such as "Loser's List," "Black Love," and "My Lament" will have a strong appeal to young audiences. Set in a bowling alley, a production number entitled "Knock Them Mothaf*kk**'s Down" bursts with the kind of angry energy that shocked Broadway theatergoers when West Side Story opened in 1957.

A shot taken in the bowling alley during
"Knock The Motherf**ka's Down."

In his production notes, the filmmaker stresses that:
"It was all-important to create the world with as much truth and celebration as we could. With names like House of Garcon, House of Chanel, House of Allure, these kids compete for trophies and sometimes money at monthly galas, each one sponsored by a different house. With a different theme and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually-charged entertainments which rarely get started before 2 am. In dance, too, these kids are on the cutting edge. They battle with free-style improvisation using moves that  are a cross between hip-hop, break dancing, Brazilian capoeira and a knife fight.
Fights sometimes do break out as well. At one ball I attended, proceedings ended prematurely when a house member actually pulled a gun. A contestant had been 'chopped' (eliminated). He didn’t like a judge’s decision, and so he threw himself across the judges’ table. House members started fighting rival house members, a gun came out and the police flew in!
The music is house and hip hop. There are runway categories for 'sex sirens' and 'butch queens' to walk in drag. In addition, there are a number of 'realness' categories, including 'executive realness,' and 'schoolboy realness.' For these categories, entrants must come dressed to 'pass' -- as a Wall Street businessman in a three piece suit or as a student with requisite baggy jeans, backpacks, and schoolbooks."

Dancers on the runway in Leave It On The Floor
"Cultural attitudes of the last twenty years have seen a growing recognition and acceptance of homosexuality. Moreover, particularly in Los Angeles, the expanding obsession of the popular culture with fame, wealth, music, fashion,  and media has both shaped the ball scene and has strongly been shaped by it. In houses with names like House of Chanel, Allure, Glamazonians, Xtravaganza, Klein, and Mizrahi, the ball kids in Leave It on the Floor more than nod to their fascination with contemporary style, affluence, and fashion. Their cutting-edge music, their unique costume and fashion design, their innovative style, original choreography and even their own hip language (that ball kids are creating every day)  go on to become the new-now-next of popular culture tomorrow. A few ball kids are beginning to cross over to the mainstream and find paying work as dancers or designers. Some of the fantasy designs that Lady Gaga regularly sports these days seem completely connected to what one regularly sees in the ball scene."

There's also plenty of beefcake on display in Leave It On The Floor

This film addresses the phenomenon of gay kids who have been thrown out of their family's homes and managed to find their way into an alternate family structure. In a poignant scene in 2008's Departures, a Japanese mortician gently asks a grieving father whether he wants the body of his transsexual son to be made up as a man or as a woman.

In Leave It On The Floor, the funeral of Eppie Durall (James Alsop), who has been killed in an automobile accident, turns into a  showdown between a young man's blood relations and the members of the House of Eminence in a fierce production number entitled "His Name Is Shawn." The filmmaker explains the dueling loyalties as follows:

"Kids, once invited to join a house, renounce their surname and take on their house name. Brad meets the motley members of Eminence house. They use the family terms like 'parent,'  'mother,' 'son,'  'daughter,' and 'sister' to describe the powerful relationships they have built together. Eminence House is run by 'Mama' Queef Latina, a 30-something powerhouse who once had legendary status as a category winner. Queef, like her real-life counterparts, rules the house with love and authority: scolding, counseling, and watching out for the welfare of her children. 
In our film, Eminence House is actually bricks and mortar. The clan occupies a rundown rental house in a marginal neighborhood where the 'outcasts, freaks, and the temporarily displaced' of the group share dormitory bedrooms housing as many as five. The house exists as a safe environment where the members socialize, help each other with family or job issues, counsel each other on crushes, health, and sex, plan the balls, and prepare their costumes or choreography for the monthly events."

Roxy Wood is one of the glam house mothers
in Leave It On The Floor

If you're the kind of person who thinks you might not enjoy a film about drag queens, house music, and underground ball scenes, throw your inhibitions out the window. Leave It On The Floor demands to be seen for Frank Gatson, Jr.'s high energy choreography, its fabulous costume designs, and Kimberly Burse's kickass score. The winning combination of Sheldon Larry's direction and Tom Camarda's cinematography will blow your socks off. Here's the trailer:

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