Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Wrong Places To Look For Love

People get married for all kinds of reasons. Many of them prove to be wrong. Some people imagine that true love will overcome cultural differences, financial hardships, or can tame their partner's cheatin' heart. Others believe they can overcome their in-laws' objections to the marriage, make someone stop drinking, or prevent their partner's abusive behavior from escalating.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Of course, there are also people who view conquest as a challenge which must be met (but, once achieved, have little or no interest in what comes afterward). Some claim to have met Prince Charming while visiting an after-hours sex club. Others can walk into a bar and instantly be attracted to the one person in the room who will manipulate them in the worst ways imaginable.

People are strange that way.

A series of films viewed this week focused on romantic mistakes that could have, would have, and should have been avoided. But, as Alexander Pope noted in his famous Essay on Criticism (published in 1711): "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

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Mixed-race marriages have always been a source of family angst. In 1948, the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on interracial marriage. I still remember listening to an Armenian friend during the 1970s (whose son was about to marry an Italian girl) bemoan the fact that her grandchildren would be half breeds. Here's Mandy Patinkin singing a song written by Rodgers & Hammerstein for their 1949 musical, South Pacific, which is unfortunately all too relevant to today's world.

And yet here we are, in 2009, with a President who is half Caucasian, half Kenyan, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, studied at Harvard and built his career in Chicago. One of the goals of this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival is to focus on social issues involving the hapa (Asian mixed-race) community. On March 14th, the Center for Asian American Media plans to launch a new interactive web site ( and present a panel discussion about how the complexities of hapa identity are articulated through film, video and digital media.

The festival is also presenting a rare screening of Diamond Head, a 1962 plantation melodrama starring Charlton Heston as the bigoted scion of a powerful Caucasian family which has grown rich in Hawaii. France Nuyen portrays his Hawaiian mistress, Yvette Mimieux his petulant younger sister who is determined to marry Paul Kahana (an aspiring Hawaiian football player portrayed by James Darren), and featuring George Chakiris as Paul's stepbrother, Dr. Dean Kahana.

In families where a great deal of wealth could be inherited by someone of a different race or religion, the future of those inherited financial assets can easily drive a wedge between lovers. Set in 1959, at the time when Hawaii had recently achieved statehood, Diamond Head deals with the prejudices by whites against Asians, by Hawaiians against haoles (Westerners), as well as by pure-blooded Hawaiians against hapas.

Heston portrays the last of the Howland family line, a politically powerful, rich white bigot who has no problem having sex with Hawaiians but balks at embracing a mixed-race male heir when his mistress gets pregnant. Howland's sister-in-law Laura (Elizabeth Allen) is openly prejudiced, making no bones about how she feels with regard to Howland's younger sister, Sloan, getting too close to "those people."

Parts of the film are incredibly cheesy (especially the shots of Mimieux's legs as she stands on the beach) and some of the "Hollywoodized" hula moments are hilarious. But Diamond Head does allow viewers to hold a mirror up to their prejudices and see how things have -- or have not -- changed. As a life-long ocean liner enthusiast, I was thrilled to see some wonderful footage of the S.S. Lurline docking in Honolulu.

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Trying to prevent their children from mixing with "the wrong types" is a phenomenon which spans the globe. In Atul Sabharwal's 19-minute video from India, a father's insistence that his directionless son become a pharmacist backfires in the strangest way.

In Midnight Lost and Found Deepak Dobriyal portrays Arvind, a young pharmacist working alone in an all-night "chemist shop" in Mumbai. Arvind passes the time reading comic books about American superheroes while behind a locked gate and tends to the needs of his store's drive-up customers, who appear in the middle of the night.

When an attractive, outspoken young prostitute (Geetika Tyagi) attempts to buy some condoms from Arvind, his shyness ignites a bond between the two strangers. Over a succession of her late-night condom purchases, he confesses that he has never had an opportunity to use a condom for sex and describes how his hero, Batman, comes to the rescue of innocent people who need help.

When the prostitute fails to appear for several nights in a row, Arvind becomes worried and realizes that he misses her. He is surprised to see the prostitute reappear, bruised and battered, after having been beaten by a client. Her plight woos him from the enforced safety of his business's cage and allows Arvind to become her hero. The result? Arvind meets and befriends the exact type of person his father had hoped to protect him from.

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In Tala, we watch a young girl named Beena (Gayathri Balakumar) finish her Bharatanatyam dance class and dutifully walk home -- only to find her mother in the arms of a family friend.

Can Beena stifle the hurt caused by her mother's extramarital affair? Can she keep such a secret from her father (an overworked Bengali immigrant)? Can she turn her back on her mother? Director Anoar Ahmed does a nice job of framing a young girl's loss of innocence as she awakens to the realities of an unhappy marriage. Eventually, Beena stops sulking as she realizes that life goes on. By the end of Ahmed's 13-minute video, she has moved past her anger at her mother's betrayal.

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In Amit Gupta's 13-minute film, Love Story, viewers are asked to contrast the idyllic home life of a young couple with the back story of how they met and got married. When a child innocently asks her father why he loves her mother, the man remembers how his life changed the very first time he saw his wife. At first, it was a question of whether one can truly fall in love at first sight. However, through a series of not-so-convenient flashbacks, the audience learns exactly how Michael (Anthony Green) wed Sara (Shelley Conn). 

Sara was about to get engaged to Alex (Alan McKenna), who once told Michael that he'll know if he meets the right woman because "that's the person you would do anything for." Let's just say that however macho and primitive the truth behind Michael's near-Neanderthal approach to marriage might seem, it sure ain't pretty.

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Finally, we come to a movie shot in San Francisco which may either seem all too believable or ludicrously unbelievable to San Francisco audiences. Trying to position itself as an unlikely love story (as well as an important discussion about the decline in San Francisco's black population), Medicine for Melancholy is Barry Jenkins' attempt to parlay a one-night stand into a full-length feature with a strong political message.

He didn't convince me. 

What's more, I reacted very similarly to his first full-length feature as I did when I saw Once several years ago at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I remember people talking about how Once was just the deepest, most moving, most romantic piece of film they had seen in years. I felt it was an overly sentimental, wildly unsatisfying and pretentious piece of drek.  

I'd put Medicine for Melancholy in the same category. In his director's notes, Jenkins discusses how several ideas in the back of his mind came to the front burner in March of 2007 following the painful breakup of his first interracial relationship.
"Artistically, the film is an affirmation of so many things. When I say that, I speak not to the quality or merit of the film itself nor our abilities as craftsmen and women, but to the notion that if ever we desire to do something, fuck it: all we have to do is take that first step and do it. I'd completely given up on the prospect of ever making another film, and then Justin Barber threw himself beind me, willed things into action. We weren't many but, damn if we weren't able. Cast and crew included, there were never more than eight of us physically making this film; most times there were six. I'd worked for eight months as a director's assistant on a film whose crew hovered near a hundred people.  Never in the course of production did our eight-person team feel less significant. With the love, support, and participation of my friends, I was able to articulate the confusion robbing me of sleep.  And that... was nothing short of a miracle."
Although Medicine for Melancholy may seem like" nothing short of a miracle" to its creative team, it seemed like something decidedly short of a believable movie to me. For all its holier-than-thou pontificating about how gentrification has decimated San Francisco's African-American population, let's look at the film's two protagonists to see where the fault really lies. 

Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is a young African-American male living in the Tenderloin who has just survived a nasty breakup. He has a love-hate relationship with San Francisco and feels alienated because it's so hard for him to find an African-American woman. He may also be a bit of an asshole.

As the film begins, he wakes up beside a very attractive African-American with no idea of how they met, what they did at the previous night's party, or whether there is any future for them. As they struggle with their respective hangovers and bid an embarrassed farewell to their (Caucasian) host, he keeps trying to find out more about the mystery woman he's slept with.

She's not all that quick to share. Jo' (Tracey Heggins) is quite content to be in a relationship with a Caucasian art curator who is currently traveling overseas on business. Although their large home (which looks like it is in the Marina District) lacks any art on the walls, she leads a comfortable life. She wants to give this wounded puppy of a man (who hasn't showered in at least 24 hours) as little information as possible so he can stop bothering her and leave her alone.

But, as Jo' steps out of a cab, she accidentally leaves her wallet behind, allowing the determined Micah to track her down.  Thus begins a day spent exploring San Francisco on bicycles and on foot, in coffee shops and nightclubs,  through the Yerba Buena Center and the Tenderloin  -- even attending a community meeting where locals like Tommi Avicolli Mecca can agonize over the evils of gentrification. The filmmaker's thumbnail synopsis states that Medicine for Melancholy is:
"A love story of bikes and one-night stands told through two African-American twenty-somethings dealing with issues of class, identity, and the evolving conundrum of being a minority in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco -- a city with the smallest proportional black population of any other major American city."
There's just one catch. This is not a love story. It is a feeble attempt to follow two people who tricked while drunk at a party through the 24 hours that follow. If Jenkins' goal was to leave ambiguous threads dangling from his narrative (why did Jo' take the bicycle that belonged to Micah's ex-girlfriend when she left his apartment?) he might also wonder why anyone should feel a need to care about these two people. 

The bottom line is that neither character is particularly compelling. While the two leads are played by talented actors, the roles they inhabit evoke neither sympathy nor interest (clue: it's not because they're confused young African Americans lost in a big city with a diminishing black population). 

These two people are incredibly b-o-r-i-n-g.

To make matters worse, the director's artistic vision relies on a visual gimmick which, when stretched over 87 minutes, proves to be counterproductive. If you remember Schindler's List, you'll recall how director Steven Spielberg filmed everything in black and white (with the exception of a little girl's red coat). Spielberg's goal was to give a more documentarian feel to his film -- which dealt with a crucial moment in history.

Jenkins has essentially drained the color from San Francisco by having most of his film take on a hazily- lazily grey-sepia effect where occasional bits of muted color show up  on a sweatshirt, a pillow, or part of a carousel horse. If, as a director, you choose to drain the color from one of the most colorful cities in the world, aren't you, in effect, cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Whatever the intended symbolism, the gimmick quickly loses its effectiveness. Is this supposed to symbolize the lack of color/vitality in Micah's life? The absence of a black population in San Francisco? The way San Francisco's urbanscape is becoming as unidentifiable as any other city's modular architectural style? 

If this same narrative had been shot through the eyes of another one of San Francisco's many minorities (Chinese, Hispanic, Gay, Filipino, etc.), would it have been such a listless affair? Would it have been so boring?

I don't think so.

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