Thursday, July 21, 2016

Till Death Do Us Part

Despite some people's delusions about being able to live forever, the sad truth is that, sooner or later, everyone dies. No one has ever beaten the system. No matter how many times the cast of Les Misérables sings "One Day More," everyone knows that Act I is about to end.

A recent meme bouncing around people's Facebook feeds states "Go ahead: Eat Healthy, Get Plenty of Sleep, Keep Exercising, Drink Lots of Water -- You're Still Going To Die!" For many people, the inevitably of their demise raises disturbing questions about unfinished business.
  • Some fear that they will never have a chance to reconcile with someone who is about to kick the bucket.
  • Others fear that all their years of hard work will vanish in a puff of smoke. 
In Digging Ditches in Fresno (a short play by Isaac Ontiveros that was included in the Best of Playground 20 Festival of New Works by New Writers), Maria Rosa, Sr. (Stephanie Prentice) lays dying in a hospital bed. A former nurse and nursing supervisor whose dedication to caring for others has often eclipsed other opportunities in her life, she is now being cared for by her daughter, Maria Rosa, Jr. (Rinabeth Apostol), who followed her mother into the nursing profession. Both women are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, as can be seen in this brief video clip.

Although its running time is barely 10 minutes in length, Digging Ditches in Fresno offers a quiet nod of thanks to those who have always been so tied to their work that they could barely allow themselves time to rest and recharge themselves. It also offers audiences a tidy exercise in counting one's blessings on the way out the door (and, perhaps, granting one's children enough leeway to allow themselves the freedoms their parents never had time to enjoy).

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Recently screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival, a poignant short film by Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken focuses on the final days of a long-term relationship between two former athletes, Bertil (Jan Malmsjö) and Roland (Stein Winge). It's a cold February day in the Hedmark district of East Norway when the quiet 65-year-old Roland, a former champion skier who won lots of medals in his youth, bids farewell to his colleagues as he retires from the logging mill where he has worked for many years.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

The camera soon shifts its focus to the isolated farmhouse Roland shares with his 79-year-old lover (and former coach), who is obviously the more domestic partner in their relationship. Bertil is first seen through the kitchen window, dancing and waving a towel in the air while drying a skillet. After Roland compliments him at dinner on his pork chops, Bertil surprises him with a pair of airplane tickets to La Paz, Bolivia so that Roland can visit his granddaughter, Gabriella. There's just one problem: The doctor has warned Bertil that he is too ill to fly.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

Well aware that Bertil's days are limited, the two men try to pass the time quietly by snuggling on the couch and watching old videotapes of Roland's skiing triumphs. Following Bertil's death, Roland is approached during the church service by Bertil's estranged daughter, Hanna (Alma Flygel Owren), who introduces him to Bertil's granddaughter.

Alma Flygel Owren (Hanna) in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

After inviting the two women over for coffee, Roland shows Hanna the album of clippings about his skiing triumphs as she explains that Bertil had cut off all contact with his wife and daughter when Hanna was 14 (her only memory of her father was that he loved to wear purple socks). Roland tries to console her by stating that, perhaps if Bertil had had more courage, he would have enjoyed knowing her.

Roland (Stein Winge) and Bertil (Jan Malmsjö)
in a scene from Thanks for Dancing

Thanks for Dancing shows an aspect of gay life that often remains hidden in a youth and sex-obsessed culture. Although more and more films are starting to show gay seniors in loving relationships, Dahlsbakken's tender short offers a touching portrait of two elderly gay men who are still very much in love as they face the moment when "death do us part." Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Piotr J. LewandowskiJonathan (which was also screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival) easily impresses the viewer with Jeremy Rouse's gorgeous cinematography and the handsome looks of its lead actor (Jannis Niewöhner), who portrays a 24-year-old whose best friend is about to move to Berlin in order to start a new life in the big city. However, as the viewer sees Jonathan running through the rain and trying to find someone in the woods near his home, it soon becomes evident that the man he is seeking is not well. Not well at all.

The dying Burghardt (André Hennicke) and his devoted
son (Jannis Niewöhner) in a scene from Jonathan

Jonathan's emotionally distant father, Burghardt (André Hennicke), is dying of cancer and probably wishing he could take some of their family's secrets with him to the grave. Those secrets have long been eating at Jonathan's soul as he tries to understand the lack of communication within his family. Although he has learned how to take care of the animals on their farm (and works hard to prove his mettle each day), his aunt Martha (Barbara Auer) is a brusque, tight-lipped woman who prefers to soothe her emotional wounds with liquor.

When a nurse is assigned to their family to help care for Burghardt, Jonathan is fascinated by the presence of someone close to his age and soon starts to have a casual affair with Anka (Julia Koschitz). Much as he thinks he loves her, Jonathan sometimes resents the attention Anka pays to his father, as well as her ability to understand matters about which he remains clueless. Among these is the fact that Burghardt has lived a closeted life for many years.

Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) holds the dying Burghardt
(André Hennicke) in his arms in a scene from Jonathan

One day a stranger arrives at the farm, looking for Burghardt. Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) is greeted with hostility by Martha, who is shocked that he would even dare to show his face. But Ron seems intent on staying around, especially after Burghardt gets admitted to the hospital. Even after Ron explains to Jonathan that he and Burghardt were once lovers, Jonathan's youth, naiveté, ego, possessiveness, and sense of responsibility for the care of his father make him act like an angry teenager.

Although Jonathan has always understood that, after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Burghardt took care of her throughout her terminal illness, he has trouble understanding why, as Burghardt's son, he doesn't necessarily have priority over Ron in his father's eyes. Even after the brooding young man (who has broken up with Anka) follows Ron and Burghardt to a seaside setting in northern Germany, he still can't understand why the two men want to be alone together.

As Burghardt's condition continues to deteriorate, Ron and Jonathan finally reach an understanding. Burghardt's sister even manages to overcome her bitterness in order to come to the hospital and bid her dying gay brother farewell. While some viewers may have started watching Jonathan with an expectation that this would be a rural coming out story about some hot-and-hunky young man, they find themselves wrapped up in a very different kind of family crisis in which a decidedly straight man must acknowledge and accept his dying father's homosexuality as well as the place that a former lover still holds in his father's heart.

Martha (Barbara Auer) and Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) visit the
dying Burghardt (André Hennicke) in a scene from Jonathan

It would be foolish to react to Jonathan as if one had fallen for a bait-and-switch narrative. In a cinematic genre which frequently focuses on stories of young LGBT people coming out, Lewandowski's first feature film is devoted to easing a dying man out of his guilt-ridden closet and into a coffin while there is still some time left for forgiveness, grace, and understanding. It's a deeply touching film, made especially beautiful by Rouse's cinematography and Lewandowski's sensitivity as a young writer and director to the difficult choices made by an older generation of gay men. Here's the trailer:

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