Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Best Friends Forever

Thanks to cutting edge technology, a new generation of social networking websites has allowed people to acquire hundreds of "friends" at a shot. However, for those who have worked hard to maintain friendships over many years, today's new definition of a friend is somewhat laughable. How do you compare someone you never met -- but who has posted a link to your online profile -- with someone who has stood by you through thick and thin? How do you compare someone who wants to be on your buddy list (despite never having exchanged a single thought with you) to someone who has held your hand through marriages, divorces, births and funerals?

In his play, The Odd Couple (1965), Neil Simon wrote that "Lovers come and go, but the Friday night poker game is forever." Like many Americans, some of my life-long friendships have been based on common interests such as opera, theater, music and a gay identity. Others started many years ago in summer camp and have continued to flourish. In their new book, Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies, Roger Bennett and Jules Shell probe the intensity of friendships that were developed during those heady eight weeks of summer vacation.

One of my favorite books of all time, Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, follows a friendship through moments that will alternately have you clutching your sides with laughter and bawling like a child. In a similar vein, John Grogan's Marley & Me: Life and Love With The World's Worst Dog (which debuts on movie screens at Christmas) does an incredible job of chronicling the love affair between a man and his truly taxing best friend. I only hope it can hold a candle to an incredible Polish film called Time To Die, which perfectly captures the loving friendship between a 90-year-old woman and her devoted border collie.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Bette Midler's song "Friends" became an odd anthem for the gay community. Many people who had never even considered the possibility of getting married learned what was truly meant by promising to love and honor someone, "for better or for worse, in sickness as in health, till death do us part."

Two lines from this song provide a powerful lens through which to examine two remarkable films as they probe the depth and breadth of what true friendship and unconditional love entail:

"I had some friends, but they're gone, yeah.
Someone came and took them away...."

How a friend takes leave of you varies from one relationship to another. Some friends find a new lover, a new job, or move away and lose touch with everyone in their "previous" life. Some are torn from us as a result of politics, disease and/or an untimely death.

With Frameline acting as co-sponsor, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a rare screening of Mikael (1924), using a print furnished by the Danish Film Institute that was accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano. Starring Benjamin Christensen as the master artist Claude Zoret and -- fresh from his debut in Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) -- the young and extremely handsome Walter Slezak as Zoret's muse and protege, Mikael tells a story that is perhaps best understood by sadder, wiser and older gay men.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's film skillfully captures the piercing loneliness of an aging gay artist as well as his paternal devotion to a handsome young man whom he fully expects will desert him for someone else's love. The idyllic male-male relationship between Zoret and Mikael (which might not even be sexual) is eventually shattered by the arrival of Princess Lucia Zamikoff (Nora Gregor), who requests to have her portrait painted by the master artist. Sensing the sexual aura Mikael exudes -- and with which he has obviously claimed Zoret's heart -- the Princess determines to lure the young man into her clutches.

Even though several of his long-time friends have tried to caution Zoret about Mikael's inappropriate behavior, the artist refuses to tarnish his love for the younger man with such petty doubts. As Mikael spends less and less time with Zoret, the master artist begins to wither and fade until, on his deathbed, his calls for Mikael go unheard by the young stud who is now contentedly being spoiled by the Princess.

This tale of unrequited gay love -- that may have shocked critics in the 1920s -- is far more easily understood by a generation of openly gay men who have acquired economic, artistic and social success but have no one to whom they can bequeath their wealth. I don't know what shocked the critics more: the fact that there were hints of a same-sex infatuation, or the sheer bluntness with which Zoret states that Mikael is to be the sole heir to his fortune and that he has already created a will reflecting his personal commitment.

Any way you slice it, true friendship is accompanied by rights and responsibilities. Why such friendships should be cherished is the subject of a wonderful song composed by Stephen Sondheim for Merrily We Roll Along (1981).

Even seemingly solid friendships can be severely tested. Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (which premiered on Broadway in 1967) asked what happens when your neighbors/best friends arrive on your doorstep -- haunted by some unknown terror -- and ask to move in with you. What do you owe them? How much can they demand of you based on their claim of friendship?

Old friendships accompanied by dangerous memories lie at the core of Emotional Arithmetic, a powerful new Canadian film scheduled for closing night at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. With some films, it takes less than five minutes to telegraph a clear sign to the audience that this movie is going to be a class act from start to finish. Set in eastern Quebec as the fall leaves are turning color, Paolo Barzman's acutely sensitive film features a stellar ensemble cast with Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, Max von Sydow and Roy Depuis lending solid support to Susan Sarandon's star turn as Melanie Winters who, to no one's surprise, is an emotional wreck.

As a child living in Paris, Melanie was separated from her parents (American Jews who, no doubt, died in a concentration camp) and sent to the transit camp at Drancy, just outside of Paris. There she was befriended by a young man, Jakob Bronski, and a shy young boy named Christopher. Bronski is later revealed to have bribed a Nazi guard to take the names of Melanie and Christopher off the list of children slated to be killed at Auschwitz.

Now married to an older man who was one of her university professors, Melanie has spent her adult life keeping track of victims of oppression as news of their existence surfaced around the world. Forty years after her liberation from Drancy Melanie receives word that Jakob Bronski is still alive. Painfully aware that Melanie has stopped taking her antidepressants, her curmudgeonly husband mutters "A storm is coming, not that anyone listens to me......" After inviting Bronski to come visit her in Canada, Melanie goes to meet him at the airport, only to discover that he has Christopher in tow.

Director Barzman (who studied painting and worked with Jean Renoir) uses the vivid hues of the Canadian landscape in autumn to magnificent effect, framing each shot with intense colors to match the turgid emotions roiling about the farm where Melanie lives with her husband, son and grandson. With masterly support from cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Barzman shapes a story of unrequited love, buried memories, horrifying emotional scars, seething passions, crushing frustration and, at long last, forgiveness and acceptance. With the help of his incredibly strong ensemble of actors, Barzman tells his tale with a searing sensitivity that is torched by Sarandon's flaming red hair, blazing passion and emotional instability.

By the end of the film, the storm has passed and Melanie's life-long friendships have survived new and critical torments. After seeing this film, I couldn't help but reflect on how fortunate I am to enjoy some friendships that are now closing in on the half-century mark.

I wonder: How do you equate more than 45 years of soul sharing and intellectual intimacy with an IM from a total stranger who asks "R U there?"

I wish someone could explain that to me.

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