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

No comments: