Monday, June 30, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Sunday, June 29, 2008

With so many headlines focusing on the recent legalization of same sex marriage in California --and the importance of protecting gay families -- it's important to note that not all gay families acquire children because the couple had any interest in parenting. Sometimes children are thrust upon a gay couple as a result of tragedy or the ineptitude of stupid, selfish heterosexuals who should not breed. In the closing weekend of the Frameline 32 festival, three such films zeroed in on this peculiar situation, two with comic intent, the third exploring a decidedly more poignant incident.

As part of Friday's Worldly Affairs program of shorts, Daniel Ribiero's You, Me and Him tugged at the audience's heartstrings most effectively. The film starts off as a gay couple living in Sao Paolo, Brazil, discusses their plans for the future. Danilo and Marcos are eagerly anticipating a vacation to celebrate their anniversary and have finally made the decision to move in together. No sooner have their carefully laid plans been articulated than they are shattered by the horrible news that Danilo's brother and sister-in-law have been killed in an accident. Left behind is Danilo's sensitive, newly-orphaned young nephew, Lucas.

With all three lives in chaos, the various pleas for attention from Lucas (who not only wants to sleep with his uncle, but keep his shoes on while in bed) and Marcos (who doesn't want to lose his lover) tug at Danilo's heart and soul. Written and directed with a remarkable sensitivity to the process of healing deep emotional wounds, Ribiero's film is a little gem that could easily have been overwhelmed by another director. Ribiero shows how the physical tenderness between the two men must make way to embrace Lucas and allow him to become a part of their newly-redefined family. As the child's needs take precedence over those of the adult gay men, the three souls struggle for cohesion, acceptance, and unity in their new and unexpected family unit.

While Lucas is confused, delicate, and desperately trying to understand the changes in his life, Andy (an obnoxious young and unmanageable girl), has no qualms about terrorizing her parents. When her mother desperately reaches out to her brother and his lover for help, the two gay men arrive at Andy's house only to be confronted by a hostile brat relentlessly demanding to know the meaning of the word "fellatio." In Babysitting Andy, director Pat Mills mines unexpected comic gold from the confrontation between two wheelchair-bound gay men and the tomboy from hell. The hilarious ending brought down the house.

Closing night of the Frameline 32 festival was devoted to Laurie Lynd's Breakfast With Scot, which had received a great deal of buzz on the festival circuit. The kind of gay film that could only come from Canada, Breakfast With Scot shows what happens when two "straight-acting, straight-appearing" gay men (think Log Cabin Republicans) have their macho routine shattered by the unexpected arrival of a precious 11-year-old boy who is far more interested in glitter than hockey. With Thomas Cavanagh as a former professional hockey player turned sportscaster and Ben Shenkman as his attorney boyfriend, Lynd's film has the odd, sterilized feel of a Lifetime movie. No skin is shown, personal displays of affection are nowhere to be seen, and a final kiss between the two men is saved for the end of the film. It's all so neat and tidy that you'd think Martha Stewart had starched and ironed these two gay men into respectability with a 500-thread count.

Enter the kid.

As a young flamboyant boy whose mother has died from a drug overdose, Scot is delivered by Child Services as the gay couple awaits news of the arrival of the dead mother's former boyfriend (who, although named as the child's guardian, is an irresponsible asshole busily chasing women in Rio). The film does a good job of showing how totally lacking in parenting skills (as well as the ability to demonstrate any kind of tenderness) the sportscaster is. Shenkman's character tries to make sure the boy's needs are met with a kind of clinical attention to detail rather than emotions.

Young Noah Bernett shines as Scot, who arrives in a perfectly fitted out gay home with a much greater knowledge of how to match ensembles and apply makeup than either of the two adult gay men. What becomes obvious in this and the two short films mentioned above is the ease with which a child can accept an adult's homosexuality, and even the truth behind a tragedy -- if only the adult could stop acting like an idiot.

Strong performances come from Colin Cunningham as the worthless guardian Billy, Benz Antoine as a sports media executive, and Kathryn Haggis as one of the gay couple's neighbors. Dylan Everett and Alexander Franks make strong contributions as two of Scot's classmates. As much as I wanted to like this film, I found it strangely lacking in warmth, depth, or soul. While the laughs played out extremely well, Breakfast with Scot was devoid of the basic humanity that imbued Brazil's You, Me and Him with its glowing emotional integrity.

Next: Who Likes Short Shorts?

Frameline 32 -- Saturday, June 28, 2008

Documentaries fill up an important part of each year's Frameline festival and, on Saturday. I got to experience three gems. Two were from China, the third focused on a performing arts group near and dear to Bay area audiences.

With mainland China experiencing rapid industrial growth, the number of young Chinese who have left the family farm and moved to large cities keeps growing. Filmed by Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, Tongzhi in Love interviews several young Chinese men who have carved out an urban gay lifestyle for themselves in Beijing. Still somewhat closeted, and unable to reveal their truths to their families, they discuss how they would feel about ruining the happiness of their parents' lives on the farm by revealing that they are gay. Their choices come under criticism from one gay man who feels that refusing to get married and have children who will carry on the family name is a slap in the face to Chinese culture and its tradition of "family piety."

Although some of their stories may seem very familiar to Westerners who have come out and left home to embrace a gay lifestyle in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, when set against the background of a massive nation struggling to reinvent itself and drag its citizens into the 21st century, this documentary takes on an added level of pathos.

Far more troubling, if not downright heartbreaking, is The Blood of Yingzhou District, which won the 2007 Academy Award for best short documentary. Focused on the challenges posed by orphans who were left behind after their parents died of AIDS, Ruby Yang's documentary explores the clash between age-old traditions of caring for one's neighbors and relatives in rural China and -- some 25 years after the onset of the AIDS epidemic -- the risk of being ostracized if news spreads that someone has touched a person with AIDS.

For those of us who survived the earliest years of the epidemic it is unbelievably sad to witness how innocent children are victimized by the fear of the disease among their fellow villagers. Occasionally, a child may end up in the care of a couple who both have AIDS, but hope is a slim and fleeting commodity.

Of much greater local interest was Ken Bielenberg's Almost Infamous: On The Road With The Kinsey Sicks. Those of us who have watched the Kinseys grow and thrive over the years often forget how much hard work has gone into their success. This new documentary does a better job than most behind-the-scenes show biz tales of exploring the frustrations, disappointments, and idiotic challenges faced by creative performers who try to remain true to their artistic vision.

Much of the film is devoted to the Kinseys' extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton, which turned out to be a very mixed blessing. One sees the hard work done in the background as the dragapella quartet focuses on intense rehearsals, voice lessons, learning how to accept criticism from other members of the group, and the general exhaustion of trying to make it all happen. What shines through is the fierce intelligence, dedication, musicality, talent and spiritual strength of Kinseys Ben Schatz, Irwin Keller, Chris Diller, and Greg Manabat.

Bielenberg's documentary offers a bit more introspection than one would expect as the Kinseys reflect on the sacrifices they have made in order to continue their careers as performers; the backstabbing they must tolerate from people who want to reshape their act so that drag queens can be reduced to mere clowns, and the petty financial insults suffered at the hands of giant corporations who have no intention of making life easy for them. The film also captures the difficulty of not letting outside forces try to define you in ways which are counter to the artistic truth you have struggled so long and hard to create.

While musicologist Joseph Kernan once described Puccini's Tosca as "that shabby little shocker" Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! almost gives shabby a good name. It seems tragic that far more viewers will watch Todd Stephens' inane farce (and that it will make tons more money) than any of above-named documentaries. This execrable piece of drek -- which could make the worst Adam Sandler movie look like Lawrence of Arabia -- aims for the lowest possible common denominator and easily overshoots its goal.

The film has lots of frenetic action as four gay twits try to get some action for their gay twats while attemptng to find true love. One cannot say that the film lacks talent, for lead Jonah Blechman does get to demonstrate some solid ballet technique during a musical production number dedicated to the joys of discovering golden showers. (That song really should have been called "Singing In The Drain.")

Suffocating under the weight of its own shtick while navigating Fort Lauderdale during gay spring break, the film's sight gags are rife with giant plastic crabs, wet and wild dildos, horny teenagers, posturing drag queens, rimming accidents, and a gossip columnist who "gets religion." Pop personalities RuPaul, The Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and Perez Hilton appear in critical roles.

While there are those who would bemoan the presence of a such a film in Frameline's festival lineup (just as some always rue the presence of drag queens, leathermen and "Dykes on Bikes" in Pride celebrations around the world), the audience for Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! is definitely a part of the larger gay landscape and, as usual, money talks.

The next installment in the series (Gays In Space!) promises to be both witless and weightless. Trust me, I can wait.

Next: Sunday, June 29, 2008

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Friday, June 27, 2008

As Frameline 32 headed into its big Gay Pride weekend, the festival's programmers rolled out the big guns in the festival's schedule. It's rare enough to experience two really good films in one day. It's bizarrely uplifting and transformative to experience two truly great films one right after another.

Tom Gustafson's breathtakinging new movie musical, Were The World Mine, accomplishes something that happens once every 25-50 years. It takes the magic of Shakespeare's writing and uses dramatic material that is as old as the hills to inspire a new generation by showing how remarkably relevant Shakespeare can be to today's youth. Written sometime around 1595, A Midsummer Night's Dream has received all kinds of stagings and interpretations for more than four centuries. In May, the Shorenstein-Hays-Nederlander organization presented an All-India version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Curran Theater.

On Friday afternoon the Castro's organist performed the famous wedding March from Felix Mendelssohn's Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (written in 1824) on the theater's mighty Wurlitzer organ to cheers from an audience high on the newly established legality of same-sex marriage in the state of California. For this audience (as well as others who will be lucky enough to see this movie once it receives theatrical/DVD release), Were The World Mine handsomely does for A Midsummer Night's Dream what West Side Story did for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Although this new interpretation lacks a traditional Bottom, there are plenty of talented and hunky young prep school boys who are eager to please. The appealing Tanner Cohen stars as Timothy, a local gay student who is constantly bullied by his classmates at a privileged prep school. Under the coy guidance of Ms. Tebbit (the delightful Wendy Robie), Timothy lands the role of Puck in an all-male production of Shakespeare's comedy.

Fiercely defending the drama department against the ignorance embodied in the school's football coach, Ms. Tebbit acts as a master puppeteer who guides her students through the artistic process of learning lines, rehearsing scenes, and eventually performing and understanding the effect of a great work of art. After being advised to try singing his lines as a way to commit them to memory, Timothy latches on to the power of Shakespeare's poetic meter as well as the hidden meaning of the Bard's words. In the process, he unearths the secret formula to the love potion used in Shakespeare's play. What follows proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the course of true love never does run smooth.

That's because Timothy has a little trick up his sleeve that not even Ms. Tebbit knows about. After decoding the recipe to Shakespeare's love potion, he has plucked himself a potent pansy whose magical moisture now has the same effect on local townspeople as it did in Shakespeare's play. Having witnessed the effect of its intoxicating nectar on a supposedly straight friend (who is now swooning over Timothy), the young queerboy sets about helping people overcome their prejudices and inhibitions to fall in love with those they would never consider to be a suitable match. Armed with the knowledge of exactly how he might change people's lives, Timothy does his best to turn the town gay.

With a cast of mostly unknown actors, Gustafson elicits strong supporting performances from Jill Larsen as Nora and Brad Bukauskas as the sexy football star, Cole. Special honors go to Kira Kelly for her cinematography, Jessica Fogle for her musical score, and co-author Cory James Kruekeberg for his delicious production design. This is a film to put on your must-see list. Don't miss it!

Equally inspirational, although in a totally different manner, was Chris and Don: A Love Story, a film by Tina Mascara and and Guido Santi which will soon be in theatres. Focused on the 34-year love affair between writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy, this loving documentary offers something rarely seen by gay audiences: a fully documented long-term relationship between two gay men.

Theirs was a very special affair. With an age difference of 30 years between them, Isherwood scandalized Hollywood when he latched onto the teenage Bachardy. And yet the two proved to be fiercely complementary souls. The wealth of home movies in this documentary (beginning in the mid 1950s) allows audiences to see a pathbreaking openly gay couple pass through various phases of their relationship and continue on until the end, where Bachardy keeps painting daily portraits of Isherwood as his lover slowly succumbs to cancer. Poignant insights come from Leslie Caron, Liza Minelli and other friends and acquaintances. But it is the charming animation sequences, which capture the chosen animal identities of each partner (a horse for Isherwood, a pussycat for Bachardy) that add so much sweetness to this film.

Bachardy, still alive, rebellious and thriving, narrates and appears in large parts of the documentary, giving testimony to the impact Isherwood had on his life as well as their closeted colleagues in Hollywood. One cannot help but sit back in amazement at how fortunate Bachardy was to enter the sphere of the sophisticated and wealthy Isherwood at such a young age (16) and have him as a mentor, lover, and spiritual partner for so many years.

Next: Saturday, June 28, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Thursday, June 26, 2008

Back in the glory days of black and white television (when personalities like Pinky Lee, Howdy Doody, and Kukla, Fran & Ollie reigned supreme), one of the most popular programs starred Raymond Burr as defense attorney Perry Mason. Based on the mystery novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, this popular series was a predecessor to such television stalwarts as Murder, She Wrote, Diagnosis: Murder, and Law & Order.

Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Gardner's Perry Mason had a remarkable gift for solving crimes. Every week, as I watched the plot unravel, I could never guess whodunit. These days I still have trouble figuring out who the villain is.

However, in the past 25 years, a new crop of talented mystery writers have been pumping out novels in which the protagonist is a gay man. Whether one savors the heroes created by Mark Richard Zubro in his "Paul Turner" and "Tom & Scott" mystery series, by R. D. Zimmerman in his "Todd Mills" mystery series, or the novels written by San Francisco author Krandall Kraus (I strongly recommend The Assassination of George W. Bush: A Love Story), gay murder mysteries open up a whole new realm of personality traits, nasty secrets and motives for revenge.

Richard Stevenson, whose "Don Strachey" mystery series was picked up by Here! TV was one of the driving forces behind Frameline's On The Other Hand, Death: A Don Strachey Mystery. Shot in Vancouver over an 11-day period in which frequent changes in weather caused noticeable questions of dramatic continuity, Ron Oliver's film is well produced, occasionally campy, and just cheesy enough to satisfy this viewer. With Margot Kidder (Superman's former Lois Lane) as an aging lesbian high school guidance counselor in upstate New York who is one of the targets of homophobic vandalism, the plot includes a gay teenager who could be suicidal, a lover's sexy ex-boyfriend, and several other disgruntled types who could all be murder suspects. Nelson Wong offers comic backup as Strachey's administrative assistant who longs to get some field work under his belt (one looks forward to seeing Mr. Wong's performance as Gala Monsoon in Trans Neptune: or The Fall of Pandora, Drag Queen Cosmonaut, whose North American distribution rights have apparently been acquired by Frameline). On The Other Hand Death also offers a solid plug for The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for gay and questioning teens.

An interesting side note: Raymond Burr, who starred in Perry Mason and, later in his career, in Ironside, is famous for having lived as a closeted homosexual throughout his career. The likeable Chad Allen (who stars as Don Strachey) is famous for having come out and eventually resurrected his career. Allen once told ABC's 20/20 that, after a tabloid magazine published a picture of him kissing another man in 1996, his career came to a crashing halt. "I never stopped working from the time I was five years old," he claimed. "I came out, and it stopped. The year after Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman was over, I couldn't get an audition for a pilot for the same network I worked six years in a top-ten television series for."

When Allen starred in 2005's End of the Spear, fundamentalist Christians who initially supported the film, flipped out when they discovered that an out gay man was portraying a Christian missionary in a piece of fiction. Insisting that the idea of having a gay man play the role of a Christian missionary was equivalent to letting Madonna portray the Virgin Mary, the Rev. Jason Janz encouraged fundamentalist Christians to boycott the film.

I kid you not.

Some people have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction -- even in porn. This was made evident by the audience's mixed reaction to Julian Hernandez's erotic treat Bramadero, which was included in the Worldly Affairs program of shorts. Starring Sergio Almazan and Christhian Rodriguez as two hunky gay men who prowl the urban jungle of Mexico City, the film begins with a confusing cat-and-mouse game as the two men cruise each other atop the newly-erected skeleton of a potential skyscraper. They circle each other in movements which mimic primitive ape-like displays of territorial jungle dominance. Eventually, after squeezing and tasting the goods, they get down to sexual matters.

What follows is 15 minutes of tender, beautifully photographed sexual play set against a background of hard metal and industrial noise. Although the brutal conclusion, in which one man turns violent and strangles the other, is a definite downer, one must remember that violence is a constant force of life -- and death -- in the animal kingdom (the praying mantis starts to devour its prey while the other insect is still alive).

Minus the kind of wretched dialogue one used to find in gay porn, I found Bamadero to be quite a satisfying little adventure in erotic filmmaking. Of course, my favorite porn quote is a line from 1981's Centurions of Rome ("The Emperor wants to fuck you NOW!") which ranks a close second to Tony Curtis's legendary "Yonder lies the village of my muddah" from 1960's Spartacus.

When push comes to shove (with a condom, of course), Bramadero was beautifully shot and looked magnificent on the giant screen of the Castro Theater. Hernandez's short film easily earned the Frameline award for "Best Use Of A Construction Site." It also made me wish that Lionel Bart's lyrics to Oliver had read "Porn, Glorious Porn! Hot Sausage and Custard....."

Next: Friday, June 27, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nobody likes to feel trapped. But situations in which people must conquer their enemies or overcome societal hurdles provide the core conflict critical to many a movie plot. For lesbians and gay men, the conflict often stems from their limited freedom to express themselves or simply exist in a society which is determined to ignore, disenfranchise or destroy them. Prejudice is difficult to overcome. It is easy for anyone to feel powerless against societal oppression.

Shami Sarif has adapted her award-winning novel into a screenplay and directed the cinematic version of The World Unseen with a strong hand. Set in South Africa during the early days of apartheid, her film reminds us of the ugliness of racial hatred seen not only in South Africa but in the American South as well. Watching the film makes the viewer wish such behavior had never existed and reminds one how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

The are many things for white men to fear in Sarif's film: strong, independent women who wear pants, empowered black and Indian workers, and wives who question the amount of sexist crap they must tolerate in an unhappy marriage. While the breathtaking Sheetal Sheth glows in the central role of Amina, Sarif has assembled a remarkably strong supporting cast, with solid characterizations by David Dennis as Jacob (Amina's business partner), Grethe Fox as the local post office manager, and Colin Moss as a belligerent policeman. As the object of Amina's affections, Lisa Ray's Miriam shows a slow awakening to the possibilities of putting her own needs above her husband's dictates.

One often encounters the phrase "lush cinematography" in film reviews, but Michael Downie's visual framing of the story and his artistic contribution to the film's overall look cannot be underestimated. Downie was helped tremendously by Tanya von Tonder's loving attention to period detail in sets and costumes.

While The World Unseen captures the frustration of being trapped in a world that knows all too well what it wants to do to you, Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo's much-acclaimed XXY presents the world with a challenge it has little information on how to deal with: a 15-year-old hermaphrodite trapped in a body which is beginning to develop through the later phases of puberty. Although raised as a girl, Alex is starting to respond to her body's conflicting urges. Her pain and confusion are telegraphed to the audience in a truly remarkable performance by young Ines Flores (who can anticipate a major career as an actress).

The challenges presented in this film are not just situational. Alex's mother has sprung a surprise visit by a plastic surgeon on the family. The surgeon's young, confused son (already showing potential as a major bottom), stirs feelings of dominance in Alex that are difficult for the two of them to understand. Because she is reaching an age where corrective surgery might be appropriate, the clock keeps ticking remorselessly. What no one seems to be considering is Alex's desire to remain the way she was born -- even if it means retaining both male and female sexual organs.

A deeply introspective film, XXY presents a challenge to any audience accustomed to having tough decisions spoon fed to them. It also offers audiences a rare chance to see concerned, conscientious and caring parenting in which a couple faced with an incredible challenge try to do their best to help a child who is without peer. Watching Puenzo's film is like slowly witnessing mini-explosions go off in people's minds as Alex finds the most acceptance from two young friends who take her just as she is.

I was particularly struck by the performances of Ricardo Darin as Alex's father, Kraken (who, in one scene, seeks out a mature hermaphrodite to find out what life was like after corrective surgery), Luciano Nobile as Alex's friend Vando, and young Martin Piroyansky as the surgeon's shy son Alvaro, who confronts his father's homophobia in a beautifully written and poignantly-directed scene. This is a slow and quiet film which keeps much of its anger and confusion beneath the surface. It takes patience and will test your limits. But I think it is an experience well worth any cinemaphile's time.

If only the same could be said for Japan, Japan, a horrible Israeli mishmash which could not be saved by the inclusion of some tired Jewish mother jokes, a bit of luscious Asian porn and a short clip from a Japanese bukkake party. In his director's statement, Lior Shamriz writes: "I intentionally went to shoot this movie without a completed script, but not because of an urge to toy with a camera in front of improvising actors. I wanted to see what happens when a fictional story is structured as a documentary one would be.... I planned the shooting as if I was planning the scenes I would have liked to have in a documentary about the daily life of such a young man, leaving the structure of the film for the editing process. After constructing on paper the surroundings of the hero, I went to shoot his encounters and relationships on different points of time over an imaginary year. Every such scene was fictionalized as an independent episode, with its own suitable film technique, should it be scripted, improvised or a real event visited by the hero/actor."

Oddly enough, the Israeli filmmaker's statement reminded me of a famous scene from Leonard Gershe's Butterflies Are Free in which, after being lectured by an angry artist who boasts of trying to capture all of the agony and pain of real life in his work, Eileen Heckart (in her wonderfully acerbic voice) replies: "Let me tell you something, young man. Diarrhea is a part of real life, but I wouldn't pay for it as entertainment!"

Feeling trapped in a movie theater is nothing like being trapped in a hermaphroditic body or a repressive South African society. Quite a few people picked themselves up and voted with their feet. After sitting through nearly 80% of the film I, too, walked out of Shamriz's film. Directly across the street from the Castro Theater, In-Jean-Ious had a window display which included a T-shirt that summed up the Japan, Japan experience with remarkable acuity.

Its bold letters stated "I shaved my balls for THIS?"

Next: Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Monday, June 23, 2008

Let's face facts: in the late 1960s there weren't too many reference sources available about gay life. That's why I've always considered myself to be extremely fortunate with regard to my gay identity. I came out in my late teens and, although not sexually active for several years, was able to spend a lot of time on understanding, accepting and embracing my sexual identity. In some ways, I was just relieved to finally have a word with which to describe myself.

The great blessing I received is that I never ever felt compelled to compartmentalize my life between gay and straight issues, activities, or passions. I was able to live an integrated lifestyle wherein I was simply one person. Whatever labels might have been used to describe me (gay, Jewish, atheist, Democrat, obese) were all wrapped up in one package, indivisible. Later in life, as I discovered that I was more of a loner than a joiner, I carved out a career path which essentially let me freelance. I remained my own boss, kept my own schedule, planned my own life, set my own goals, and never had to hide the essence of who I was in order to move ahead in a homophobic corporate environment.

I was reminded of my good fortune while watching two vastly different programs on Monday at the Frameline 32 film festival. One was devoted to films about the"two-spirits" people from various Native American cultures. The other program was a feature film about a British advertising executive who kept trying to keep his life carefully compartmentalized (without much luck).

A compactly crafted short film, Two Spirits, One Journey demonstrated the clash between two young Native Americans. Luke (Alex Meraz) knows, understands, accepts who he is and is determined to "get off the res" and go someplace where he can be himself. His boyfriend Chris (embodied by Patrick David -- a prime piece of beefcake), is too weak to resist the pressures of local Native American women who keep trying to lure him into a relationship. Written by Shawn Imitates Dog and performed in both English and Lakota, this short film captures every bit of the pain of being afraid to leave the safety of one's traditional comfort zone and the alarming self-awareness that staying put will no doubt suffocate your soul for the rest of your life. Not unexpectedly, it was the muscle hunk who ended up being the coward, while the lanky Luke got up the guts to head for Hollywood where he could breathe free. Before going, however, he visited his grandmother who, in a quietly moving scene, assured him that striking out on his own was part of his fate. This short film was beautifully directed by Chad Richman and the award-winning Arthur Allen Seidelman.

What is so interesting about these Native American stories is how they relate to the role of the berdache in tribal culture. An outreach tool created by the Fred Martinez Project, Two Spirits is a documentary which strives to show how modern Native Americans are reclaiming the heritage of the two-spirited person who embodies both male and female characteristics and yet is exclusively neither . Part of their goal has been to take back their heritage since the two-spirited people were an integral part of tribal life before European influences reached American shores.

Capping off the program was a full-length documentary entitled Byron Chief-Moon: Grey Horse Rider, which examines the life and creative work of Blackfoot dancer, actor and choreographer Byron Chief-Moon. With great sensitivity the film explores his roles as a two-spirit person, an adoptive parent of three children, and allows friends, relatives and professional colleagues to describe what a role model he has been in the communities in which he has lived and worked. The tribal ceremony in which he was given a new name and taught its importance was quite touching.

Unlike the old-fashioned feather-and-leather spectaculars familiar to most Americans from Hollywood Westerns or musicals like Annie Get Your Gun, this documentary goes to great lengths to explain the role of traditional dance in Native American cultures as a way of relating to and expressing the spiritual ties to the land and animals in one's environment. Watching Byron Chief-Moon work on choreographing various pieces with Caucasian Canadian choreographers (as well as solo pieces in which he explores his own creativity), one gains deeper insight into the creative force or artistic vision which sets so many gay, lesbian and two-spirited people apart from their heterosexual colleagues.

By contrast, Ian Poitier's comedy-romance Oh Happy Day explores what happens when a closeted black advertising executive enjoys a hot one-night stand following an awards ceremony in London only to arrive at work on Monday morning and discover that Mr. Right Now is the agency's newest client and that he has just been handed the client's account to manage.

Poitier does a fine job of examining a variety of prejudices and sensitivities and how they all overlap. There is black versus white, British versus American, religious versus nonreligious, heterosexual versus homosexual, closeted versus openly gay and, last but certainly not least, the question of whether or not one should mix business with pleasure.

Although nicely filmed and directed, much of Oh Happy Day is quite predictable. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Billington's portrayal of David, the American businessman who makes the transition from one-night stand to important client. As the ad exec, Christopher Colquhoun didn't impress me as much, being easily outperformed by Julie Saunders as his wife, Jasmine, Hazel Palmer as Miss Eartha, Blanche Williams as Rose, and Percy Duke as a bitchy ex-boyfriend.

While good for a movie-of-the-week type rental, Oh Happy Day is a rather modest story, nicely told and smartly packaged. It is a tale told about an advertising executive who realizes he's been an idiot in the way he has tried to micromanage his relationships.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Next: Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If only.
If only we lived in a more tolerant world.
If only people weren't so mean to us.
If only this.
If only that.

Life is full of "if only" sentiments largely because too many people have been cheated out of their dreams. Three films seen on Wednesday at the Frameline 32 film festival highlighted the past insults and humiliations of their protagonists as well as pointing the way toward possibly better solutions.

As part of the restrospective honoring Michael Lumpkin's departure after 25 years at the head of Frameline, the festival included a screening of John Greyson's Lilies, first seen at the festival in 1997. A beautifully crafted Canadian film which uses a cast of prison inmates to act out a homoerotic love story ended by a tragic accident from long ago, Lilies uses the play-within-a-play device to elicit a confession from the local bishop (who ironically arrives at a Canadian prison in 1952 thinking he is going to be offering confession to someone else).

With the tables turned, viewers learn how the bishop -- who once had a crush on the younger Simone (the doomed inmate now choreographing this revengeful showdown) -- falsely accused the handsome youth of being responsible for the death of Simone's teenaged lover, Vallier. Greyson's movie thrills, entertains, titillates and challenges the viewer to follow the action's complex weave through the film, the play, and the play within a play until its shocking denouement.

With the complexity of Dangerous Liaisons, the seething resentment of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and magnificent cinematography by Daniel Jobin, Michel Marc Bouchard's screenplay (based on his play Les fleurettes), is enhanced by beautiful performances from Brent Carver as the mad Countess de Tilly, Danny Gilmore as the earnest and lovestruck Vallier, and Jason Cadieux as the incredibly sexy young Simone. The film holds up remarkably well, offering viewers a rich, dramatic catharsis for an aching, old wound.

Difficult decisions come late in life for Jack (Bob Hoskins), a British curmudgeon with a drinking problem whose wife has just died. Wallowing in self-pity and resisting the advances of former friends, Jack's giant sulk is interrupted by the appearance of Florrie, a young girl who has moved in next door and, like any child, has no interest whatsoever in Jack's silly adult standards or barriers to friendship. She's curious about the homing pigeons Jack raises and needs new friends.

Across the street from Jack lives an aging Frenchwoman (played with great sensitivity by Josiane Balasko) who is full of surprises. Stephanie drives bullet trains, loves to drop off samples of her cooking, and was once a handsome young soldier in the French army. Her romantic exploits are usually undermined by her reluctance to tell a date about her long-ago sex-change operation.

Add Jack's estranged and very angry son, a local hoodlum or two, and some gossipy neighbors who see Jack teaching Florrie how to ride a bike and assume that he is a pedophile, and you have the basic ingredients of Jan Dunn's Ruby Blue, an intimate neighborhood drama which takes its own sweet time unfolding as people meddle in the lives of others, jump to wrong conclusions, and royally fuck things up. Well crafted, if a trifle long, Dunn's film takes its time developing character and plot twists as it works its way toward redemption, forgiveness, and a happy ending. What makes the film shine is the chance to watch two mature actors at the top of their game, using their craft and intuition to tell a story with remarkable sensitivity.

Sensitivity is something that we could all use more of according to the creative team behind Stewart Wade's Tru Loved. This highly entertaining film deals with the issues regarding sexual identity and bullying that are faced by teens in school who are just trying to get from one day to the next while pushing past the prejudices of meddling parents, the influence of their raging hormones, and the presence of teachers and supposed friends who just happen to be homophobic assholes. The cast includes a variety of familiar faces including Bruce Vilanch and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from Star Trek). The film has received strong support from the Gay/Straight Alliance Network and, if all goes well, will soon be seen in several hundred schools throughout California.

Having moved from San Francisco to a conservative community with her two lesbian parents, Tru (short for Gertrude) is struggling to make friends in her new school. A handsome and very confused young African American member of the school's football team named Lodell (Matthew Thompson) takes a shine to her with the intent of using her as his beard. Tru (the very appealing Najarra Townsend) likes him and needs a friend, but has little patience with his closeted antics. Instead, with the help of the school's drama teacher (the always sparkling Marcia Wallace), Tru teams up with a constantly bullied young gay student (Tye Olson) to form the school's new Gay/Straight Alliance.

Lodell's homophobic Coach Wesley (Vernon Wells) and pussyhound teammate/best friend Manuel (Joseph Julian Sorai) do their Neanderthal best to make people's lives miserable. Their efforts are eventually foiled when Tru's parents (Cynda Williams and Alexandra Paul) decide to have a commitment ceremony and invite everyone they have met in their new community.

As a teaching tool, Tru Loved uses humor and youth to help foster greater understanding about sexual identity, coming out, and gaining the courage to just be yourself. I particularly love the moment when Jane Lynch turns to the supposedly closeted Alec Mapa and says "I'm your best friend so I'm going to try to say this as nicely as I can: If you were doused in kerosene and someone lit a match, you couldn't be more flaming!" The film's creators, however, missed a wonderful opportunity at the big wedding scene when the school's football coach and his pet goon crash the party. Having already had Dave Kopay tell Lodell that it's okay to be gay and play football, they could have simply had Kopay introduce himself to the football coach and, without even getting up in the coach's face, reach out to shake his hand and introduce himself. A missed opportunity, but the rest of the film is satisfying enough to be very popular on the MTV/Logo or Here! TV circuit.

Next: Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Sunday, June 22, 2008

Matters of life and death held the focus of three films seen on Sunday, June 22nd at the Frameline 32 festival. For many gay people there are three critical rites of passage: the moment you were born, the moment you realized you were gay, and the moment when you finally came out. A new documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (happily financed by HBO) does a delicious job of exploring the moment when gay men and lesbians realized they were gay.

When they first started filming interviews for When I Knew, the documentarians (who have been frequent guests at Frameline) were overwhelmed not only by the wealth of material they were accumulating, but also by the immense challenge of how to present it. What debuted on the screen of the Castro Theater was essentially a preview of the final project, which has since been broadened to include a website where anyone can submit their own video explaining the moment when they sensed, knew, understood, embraced, or finally accepted their sexual identity.

Bailey & Barbato's skill at mining personal home movies, old photo clips, and stock footage to tell this uniquely gay story yields astonishingly cheerful and life-affirming results. Whether focused on one young man explaining how he realized he was gay while watching The Life and Times of Grizzly_Adams on television, another recalling the thrill of seeing naked African pygmies on TV, or the lesbian who nervously tried to tell her mother she was gay only to hear "I already know and I really want to watch this program!" -- the simple evidence of people realizing their identity proves so powerful as to leave the audience drunk with discovery, high on honesty, and thrilled to hear such simple truths. I'm sure many in the audience can recall a time when such a film would have been beyond their wildest imagination.

I can't wait to see the final product.

A much more sobering (and occasionally depressing) documentary is Michael Jacoby's Ten More Good Years, which examines the plight of gay elders as they attempt to live out their last years in dignity. The film painfully explains how people who may have been in long-term relationships can be left stranded, stripped of all dignity, and even forced to live in a homeless shelter after a partner dies and the survivor is left without the normal Social Security benefits which would accrue to a heterosexual survivor. For those who are single, watching this documentary is a clarion wake-up call to both young and old lesbians and gay men about the challenges that await them in a future which is neither medically, socially, nor financially friendly to their needs. What shines through with blazing clarity, however, is the indominatable spirit of some of the film's participants, most noticeably James Bidgood (a graphic artist famous for his erotic contributions to the covers of beefcake magazines like Muscleboy back the 1960s) and a proud, outspoken black transsexual who not only explains how entertainers paid outside the traditional tax system now lack Social Security benefits, but who clearly and emphatically outlines the challenges faced by trans people who, in their hour of need, must take time out from their own problems to educate ignorant physicians and other medical care providers about how to do their job.

Back in the early days of Wired Magazine, its artistic director favored the use of odd color combinations for text and backgrounds. No matter how thrilling a lime green font may have looked against a canary yellow background on a computer screen, the result for most of Wired's readers was that the text a writer had struggled so hard to create became basically unreadable. Thus, a magazine claiming to report on the cutting edge of technology failed miserably at communicating with its audience.

Sometimes what looks and feels great while being edited on a computer monitor doesn't have the same impact in a theatrical screening. Too many pregnant pauses can deliver a stillborn movie. Curious editing choices are what, I fear, may have severely handicapped Sunday's presentation of Ciao at the Castro Theater. Based on a solid plot premise, this would-be love story was beautifully shot and boasts excellent sound work. Unfortunately, the film suffers tremendously in its execution from the director's lack of artistic vision and/or limited budget.

In an odd way, I found myself sitting in the audience feeling like George Bernard Shaw's Alfred P. Doolittle, who famously said "I'm waitin' to tell you, I'm wantin' to tell you, I'm wishin' to tell you....." . Why? Because Ciao presents such a curious challenge to a reviewer that I'm going to attempt to dissect some of its very specific problems. Co-authored by Yen Tan (who directed) and the extremely hunky Alessandro Calza (who co-stars as Andrea), Ciao was meticulously planned with a Spartan or Zen-like precision. Planning, however, is not everything. Especially in filmmaking.

One of the hardest lessons for creative people to learn is not when to add more, but when to cut away from one's own work. Often, the most painful cuts are those that involve an effect which is very close to the artist's heart -- something he likes/loves to use and which may be deemed a critical component of the effect he is trying to create. In this situation, less would definitely have been more. Many of the director's shots, though well lit, were lined up in such a way that the camera's lack of movement made one wonder if Mr. Tan was primarily a still photographer who preferred to work with a tripod rather than let the inherent motion of his characters breathe life into his film. The only times one had a sense of camera movement were during airport scenes or when the director was filming from a moving automobile.

Where to make cuts in this film was painfully obvious to this viewer. Mr. Tan holds onto some shots for about 7-10 seconds too long. He does this repeatedly, often clinging to a still shot for far too long after his actors have left the screen. This technique is effective once. Maybe twice, if a filmmaker is lucky. However, further use/abuse of this gimmick devolves into an annoying indulgence which hampers the forward momentum of the film.

In one particular sequence Tan had the camera focused on a door frame as characters moved out of the room. He left the camera running with no sound until the two actors returned to the screen. This kind of dead time on film left me wondering whether the director's obviously conscious choice was a clumsy attempt at cinema verite, indicated a fear of moving his camera, or was the result of a a distinct laziness of artistic vision. I have the strange suspicion that Mr. Tan would be shocked to see how much 10 minutes of judicious film cuts could improve the overall impact of Ciao.

A script which might have read very well on the printed page suffered from lifeless line readings that suffocated any spontaneity. As a result, the life force of the story was nearly dead on arrival. This could have been avoided with the use of more skilled actors or a less austere approach to the film by the director (whose vision suffered greatly from the cruel and symmetrical rigidity of rectangles).

Calza was obviously the stronger of the two leads, in both performance and audience appeal. Adam Neal Smith delivered a monochromatic performance as Jeff, a financial planner with little personality. Of note, Smith, who is a member of The Ethels (a Los Angeles-based band), also composed the score for a devilishly brilliant indie film named Callback -- which Frameline's programmers would be wise to schedule into next year's festival.

Next: Monday, June 23, 2008

Frameline 32 - Saturday, June 21, 2008

Now accepted as an archetype of queer cinema, the triumphant drag queen's role as a catalytic hero(ine) first achieved acceptance with the masses in 1959 when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis joined Marilyn Monroe in an all-girl jazz band in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, Since then, audiences have been challenged by a series of drag protagonists who, in little more than 30 seconds, telegraph a strict message to moviegoers: "Whether or not you like drag, you are going to love ME!"

Noted drag queen Craig Russell starred in 1977's Outrageous, to be followed a year later by the thunderous success of La Cage aux Folles. In 1988, Harvey Fierstein brought his Tony-award winning performance as Arnold Beckhoff to the silver screen in Torch Song Trilogy. I still cherish the memory of attending the American premiere of 1994 dragspectacular The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Castro Theater, where audiences kept stomping and cheering for 20 minutes to show their approval of Stephan Elliott's groundbreaking film as well as the over-the-top performances by Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce. The following year witnessed Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo embarking on a drag road trip inspired by Douglas Carter Beane's script for To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Then, in 1996, Nathan Lane squared off against Robin Williams in The Birdcage (an Americanized version of La Cage aux Folles) directed by the legendary Mike Nichols.

This year's Frameline festival introduced a new and truly fierce display by a drag queen whose tidal wave of a personality (complete with issues and sequins) is a life force to be reckoned with. Humberto Busto's star turn as the protagonist in Manuela y Manuel anchors a tightly crafted farce directed by Raul Marchand Sanchez, whose film is populated with outrageous stereotypes that include:

  • The meddling, Bible-thumping landlady,

  • The hysterical drag queen and her bitchy rival,

  • the conservative family whose homophobic patriarch likes to frequent drag shows...

I'm sure you get the picture.

The film's plot device is simple: in order to help his best friend, Coca, (who has gotten knocked up after a one-night stand), Manuel must butch it up and marry Coca to prevent her family from ostracizing her. If you thought Nathan Lane trying to learn how to act masculine was a great comic film turn, try to imagine all that and soooo much more done at hyperspeed, in a military uniform, backwards, upside down, and accompanied by hysterical outbursts from a confused and angry Puerto Rican drag queen who can't refuse a friend's plea for help. Busto's bravura performance endears him to the audience while amazing viewers with the actor's lightning dexterity.

Strong supporting performances came from Marian Pabon as Manuela's rival drag queen, Faraona, Luz Maria Rondon as the meddling Dona Rosa, and Elena Iguina as the pregnant Coca. Jose Ignacio Valenzuela's script is handled with meticulous care under Sanchez's direction with lush cinematography by Sonel Valezquez, great drag costumes by Rafi Mercado, and superb art direction by Mailara Santana. This is one drag experience you won't want to miss -- and one which is best shared with friends.

The cult of personality received quite a different treatment in a new documentary from Jeffrey Schwartz entitled Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon. Devoted to the life of legendary porn star, Jack Wrangler, the film offers one of the few opportunities (other than the recent documentary about Peter Berlin) to see a legend of erotic film in his 60s who is alive, happy, healthy, and still living a productive life. Wrangler, who was noted for always being able to perform/deliver a money shot on cue during his career in gay and straight skinflicks, proves to have a charming personality and is someone who can easily laugh at himself and the path his life has taken.

Wrangler was one of the first porn stars to embrace the concept of "branding" by pushing such products as the Accu-Jac, Jac-Cream, and making public appearances before gay audiences (who were surprised to see him do stand-up comedy instead of stripping). More entertaining than most documentaries, the film does a solid job of showing how someone who thought he was quite untalented and nothing special (much like Gypsy Rose Lee) found a market niche for himself as a performer, developed it, and went on to greater, previously unimagined exploits and international fame. Needless to say, many very familiar images burned into the brains of gay men during the 1970s flash by throughout the documentary.

Gay celebrities such as Bruce Vilanch, Marc Shaiman and Chi Chi La Rue offer some very funny insights into how important Wrangler's image was to them as younger gay men and explain how his work helped to shape the direction of the adult gay film industry. The documentary also explores Wrangler's additional careers as a legitimate theater director, mentor to young actors, and tabloid sensation following his courtship and marriage to pop singer Margaret Whiting. Of particular interest is the story of how Wrangler finally made peace with Whiting's overly-protective daughter.

A program of gay Asian shorts entitled From Singapore to Seoul and L.A. had three standouts. In X'Ho's Allen Ginsberg Gives Great Head, a rebellious and very sexy gay man in Singapore uses Ginsberg's poetry (combined with his own very personal act of masturbation) to make a strong political point against oppressive governments which rob people of their identity. In Edward Gunawan's Laundromat, two young lovers who can't stop bickering learn an interesting lesson from an older gay man who has recently lost his partner of 20 years. Finally, Josh Kim's The Postcard proved to be an hilarious crowd pleaser in which a female Korean postal clerk misinterprets the actions of a male customer who is trying to catch the attention of his male mail carrier by sending postcards with flirtatious messages to himself. It's a 15-minute gem which had the audience howling with laughter.

Next: Sunday, June 22, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Friday, June 20, 2008

The first full day of screenings for Frameline’s 32nd San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival started off hot and continued that way. The city was experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures in the mid to high 90s. As a result the Castro Theater felt more like a sauna than a cool place to escape from the troubles of the day. Happily, the heat did not stop crowds of enthusiastic film lovers who packed the auditorium for a noon screening and continued to attend films throughout the day.

Attending a film festival is often a bit like selecting random treats in a tapas bar. What one person chooses to savor may differ from another’s choices. Sometimes the specific order in which one experiences certain selections can bring new insights to the ongoing queer cinema experience. With certain "gay classics" being screened in tribute to Frameline's outgoing Executive Director, Michael Lumpkin, one could not overlook the dramatic changes in queer filmmaking as a result of (a) technological advances, (b) the mass affordability of the basic tools of today's digital media, and (c) the results of nearly 30 years of Communications Departments at colleges, universities and art schools around the world producing out and aspiring filmmakers with new frames of reference and LGBT stories to tell.

On this first Friday of the festival it was fascinating to contrast the strengths and weaknesses of two first feature films. Originally screened by Frameline in 1986, Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche serves as an interesting marker in one's awareness of how much gay cinema has evolved in the past quarter century. Filmed in black and white with the kind of shaky technique which can easily induce a disturbingly uncomfortable narcolepsy in filmgoers, Van Sant's film captures the eager, almost giddy infatuation of a gay man attracted to rough street trade in the body of 16-year-old illegal alien from Mexico who possesses a winning smile and brooding, sometimes impish personality.

Alas, hindsight can change what once seemed like a groundbreaking film experience into something a whole lot less magical (to quote the legendary Googie Gomez: "Camelot? That show was a piece of chit!") What Mala Noche offered this viewer was a stark reminder of the days when gay men were desperately fixated on unobtainable "trade," street hustlers -- and the lack of self esteem that often accompanied their unrequited passions. One need only scan Van Sant's filmography to trace his evolution as a filmmaker (he is currently working on
Milk, some of which was filmed in the Castro District earlier this year with Sean Penn starring as the late Harvey Milk) to see how much he has grown since this first feature film.

Contrast Van Sant's shaky first feature with the slickness of Jesse Rosen's The Art of Being Straight and you can see the polished work of someone who cut his chops as a television production assistant on Jake In Progress and other series where he could learn his craft on top-of-the-line equipment surrounded by working professionals. Rosen's likeable film features an appealing young cast inhabiting a group of well-defined characters trying to gain control of their lives in Los Angeles. Rosen also stars as the lead character, John (an aspiring amateur photographer who is not quite sure of his sexual identity but eventually learns that the best way to avoid having to label himself is to just keep his mouth shut and let his friends hog the spotlight for themselves).

Rosen's script and character development are tightly crafted and the film is beautifully shot. The only qualm I had was the abruptness of the film's ending -- which was startling and could certainly have been crafted with more grace. Otherwise, this is an impressive triple-threat debut for Rosen, whose strengths shine through as a convincing actor, gifted scriptwriter and skilled director.

Later that evening, Saturn In Opposition proved to be a film of great tenderness and depth, very European in its depiction of the intimate relationships between a group of friends who suddenly lose one of the driving personalities in their tightly-knit gang. Ferzan Ozpetek's poignant film takes its dramatic time where others might rush for sharper contrasts, more frequent confrontations, and more action. Yet its relaxed pace serves to highlight the complex emotions of its inhabitants.

I particularly liked Pierfrancesco Favino's Davide (who reminded me of a very introspective Javier Bardem) and Serra Yilmaz as the meddling Neval. Compared to the characters in Mala Noche and The Art of Being Straight, Ozpetek's cluster of friends is older, richer, wiser, sadder, and certainly more world weary (with the exception of one alarmingly precocious and manipulative little girl). This film is more of an acquired taste for people who like to take their time exploring the delicate strands which unite old friends and the fragility of the mesh that has been built up between them over the years -- only to be shattered by one person's unexpected death.

A program of shorts entitled The Young and Evil proved to be a mixed bag. As with many short films, there was a decided lack of artistic vision. I particularly liked Randy Casperson's Dolls (winner of a film competition at Columbia College) and the innocence of Benedict Campbell's Lloyd Neck. Rikki Beadle-Blair's Souljah and Julian Breece's powerful depiction of an angry black teen's attempt to seduce an older HIV+ man into giving him the virus (The Young and the Evil) were strong, well defined efforts.

While Nick Oceano's The Cousin and Maxime Desmons's Baggage were sincere attempts with sparks of humor, they failed to hit their mark. Two other shorts, Mario Galarreta's Alonso's Deadline, and Jim Martin's Mars were rather pointless films which, at best, served to add 14 minutes of filler to the program.

Next: Saturday, June 21, 2008