Sunday, June 28, 2009

As Long As It's For A Good Cause

Genocide in Darfur.

A military coup in Honduras.

Street demonstrations in Teheran.

North Korea threatening to launch a missile attack.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. If you don't believe me, just listen to the Merry Minuet (whose lyrics were written by Sheldon Harnick back in 1958 and subsequently made famous by The Kingston Trio):

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the fight for social justice continues. Although some of us who marched in the early days of the gay liberation movement wonder what the next generation will do to advance the cause, it's interesting to stop and think about what used to be.
  • Remember when an undercover agent could arrest a gay man who accepted his offer of a free drink?
  • Remember when gay men coyly identified themselves as a "friend of Dorothy's"?
  • Remember when Ronald Reagan wouldn't even utter the word "AIDS"?
As Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin used to remind us:
Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they'd never end,
We'd sing and dance forever and a day.
We'd live the life we choose,
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
That lyric kept haunting me as I watched Born in '68, which was recently screened as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival). Although some might complain that the film is slow and occasionally dull, I found it a surprisingly gripping experience.

Perhaps that's because, as it covers the 40-year period from 1968 to 2008, it follows the lives of a group of college-age revolutionaries who thought they would save the world. Whether marching in the streets, living in a commune in the French countryside, reveling in the joys of nudity, hippie lifestyles and free love, or dealing with despair, disillusionment and disease, Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's epic is very much a film of our times and for our times -- even if we're not living in France.

The film begins in Paris in May of 1968, when clashes between students and police led to a general strike by workers that nearly brought about the collapse of the French government (then controlled by Charles de Gaulle). We meet Catherine (Laetitia Casta), Yves (Yannick Renier), and Hervé (Yann Trégouët), three college students involved in the demonstrations.

Yann Trégouët, Laetitia Casta and Yannick Renier

As they run for cover, Catherine is struck with severe cramps and menstrual bleeding. Another protester asks for help and, when the police come knocking on the door to Catherine's apartment, she coyly answers their call while clutching a towel over her naked body.

The newcomer, Antoine (Alain Fromager), regales Caroline and her friends with stories about his experiences with communal living in Berkeley and tells them about an empty farmhouse they could all use as a commune. Their goal? To live off the land, be free of oppression, rules, laws and societal taboos. Catherine even manages to coerce her younger, very mainstream brother, Michel (Gaetan Gallier), into joining her and her friends on their great adventure.

They soon discover that the farm desperately needs repairs and that some of their happy tribe are not cut out for country living. Two neighboring farmers, Serge (Marc Citti) and his wife Maryse (Christine Citti), befriend them after Catherine (who has by now given birth to Ludmilla) runs out of milk for her infant.

Life in a commune, however, doesn't mean that people don't need money. Yves eventually takes a job teaching in town while Michel decides he would be more comfortable working on Serge & Maryse's farm. Although an American ex-patriot named Caroline (Kate Moran) remains, Hervé eventually leaves in search of a more revolutionary lifestyle, Antoine heads off in search of new adventure and Yves returns to the city.

Hervé (Yann Trégouët) and Yves (Yannick Renier)

As the years pass, Catherine also gives birth to Boris while Maryse has a son named Christophe. Michel marries Dalila (Fejria Deliba) and they soon welcome a baby boy named Joseph. When Hervé returns on a cold winter day, Catherine quickly learns that he is wanted as a political dissident. Hervé finds a hiding place nearby in the woods, and Michel frequently brings him food to eat. But one day, as soldiers try to track down Hervé, a terrible accident leaves Michel dead. His bloodied body is found by a waterfall by the young Ludmilla, Boris and Christophe.

Time moves on and we find Ludmilla (Sabrina Seyvecou) now an angry young woman, convinced that her mother is trying to manipulate her. Boris has gone off to law school, but on his return, it becomes obvious to Catherine, Serge, and Maryse that Boris (Théo Frilet) and Christophe (Eduoard Collin) -- who have been playmates since they could walk -- now have a much more intimate relationship.

Christophe (Eduoard Collin) and Boris (Théo Frilet)

Ludmilla eventually marries Farivar (Slimane Yefseh) who had slept with Catherine (Ludmilla's mother) when he first arrived at the farm. After the couple move to London, both Christophe and Boris (who have been living together in Paris) test positive for HIV and return to the countryside to tell their parents about their health status. Christophe's T-cell count eventually plummets and, despite the best efforts from his new boyfriend Philippe (Simon Charasson), Christophe dies of AIDS. A year later, thanks to protease inhibitors, Boris has an undetectable viral load and is helping his sister, Ludmilla (who has temporarily separated from Farivar) take care of her child.

Back on the farm, Michel's now fully-grown son, Joseph (Osman Elkharraz), has moved in with Catherine, hoping to specialize in organic farming. Antoine has returned just in time to learn of Catherine's cancer diagnosis and help her through the final stages of her disease.

When Jacques Chirac becomes President in 1995 and France becomes even more conservative, Yves falls into a deep depression. His wife summons Boris and Ludmilla, hoping that his children can bring their father out of his funk. As Yves bemoans the political mistakes he sees his children making, Boris reminds him that they're old enough to make their own mistakes -- and that it's time for him to stop thinking that their lives are ruled by the mistakes made by Yves's generation.

In the final segment, we see Yves being driven around Paris in a taxi, making small talk about politics with the cab driver who, to his astonishment, turns out to be Hervé. The film ends as the two men, now pushing 60, drive past a group of youthful protesters as idealistic as they once were.

There were many things I enjoyed about Born in '68, including the musical score by Philippe Miller and the work of a fine ensemble of actors. As a gay man, however, it was particularly refreshing to see a film in which no one is agonizing about why he is gay, or how he turned gay. Instead, we see two young gay men whose friendship and sexuality have evolved since they were children together. There are no apologies, no regrets, just life in all its complexity. Although the film runs nearly three hours in length, I strongly recommend it as a political epic for our time. It's due out in August on DVD. Here's the trailer:

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A lot has changed since 1968, when supporting a cause meant showing up, protesting, and marching in view of the public. These days, whether for political, social, or medical causes, fundraising is one of the main activities. Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign took full advantage of the Internet's social networking capabilities to build a dynamic volunteer force as well as a potent money machine.

But for many causes, it's a long line of bake sales, bumper stickers, T-shirt sales and charity events in the never-ending quest to increase funding. One of the most popular vehicles in recent years has been the sale of calendars in which people ranging from young, healthy athletes to famous grandmothers have agreed to pose naked for a cause. Working with Australia's McGrath Foundation for cancer research, renowned commercial photographer Pedro Virgil has produced a series of such calenders using stars of the Australian sports scene. With funds going to pay for breast cancer nurses and continued research into prostate cancer, his Gods of Football 2009 calendar has been a major success.

The interesting hook is not just that so many athletes are willing to donate their time and bodies to the cause, but that many of them have been personally affected by a friend or relative's battle with breast cancer. A new DVD entitled Gods of Football 2009: Making of the Calendar takes viewers behind the scenes of the photo shoots that went into the creation of the calendar.

The result is similar to many other non-porn beefcake products: lots of great footage of sweaty, muscled athletic hunks doing fashion shoots with a minimum of diva antics. The men all seem extremely cooperative, happy to lend a hand, and easy to work with. If you'd like to purchase some Aussie eye candy while donating some money to a worthy cause, you can visit their online store here. In the meantime, here's the trailer as an appetizer:

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There are two obviously conflicting causes at the center of Whirlwind, a new gay soap opera destined to become a gay movie of the week that has been directed by Richard LeMay and written, produced and edited by James Brown. One cause is to throw a dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of Craig and Owen, whose restaurant has essentially been the starting place for most of the friendships in the film.

The other cause is one bitter gay man's quest to make sure that no relationship survives. Why? Because the only time he actually cared about another man, the object of his desire ran off with his best friend. The main characters fulfill fairly stereotypical roles, but do so with as much commitment as one could hope for. They are:
  • JD (Desmond Dutcher), a major alcoholic with precious little self-esteem who is always looking for a new career, a new look, a new boyfriend, a new anything as long as it prevents him from dealing with his crippling insecurities.
  • Desmond (Brad Anderson), one of JD's closest friends -- a handsome man into one-night stands who is acutely relationship-phobic and a narcissistic asshole.
  • Mick (Mark Ford), a middle aged black chef whose lover was killed three years ago in an automobile accident. Mick has basically retreated into his shell despite everyone's advice that it's time for him to "get over it" and start dating someone new.
  • Bobby (Alexis Suarez), the responsible muscle hunk who plans carefully, does not want to waste his time or money, and is eager to buy a condominium with his lover.
  • Sean (Bryan West) Bobby's easily distracted lover of three years, who misses the bar scene and likes to party.
  • Louis (Michael Paternostro), a gay chiropractor Desmond picked up in a bar one night who is eager to pursue a relationship.
  • Fiona (Karmine Alers), Bobby's sister who is also an aspiring actress.
  • Renee (Gail Herendeen), Fiona's friend, a major fag-hag who is desperate to find a straight man.
  • Craig (Mick Hilgers), an older gay man about to celebrate his 25th anniversary.
  • Owen (Jim Horvath), Craig's lover of 25 years as well as Fiona and Bobby's uncle.
  • Drake (David A. Rudd), the villain: a selfish gay predator who has never recovered from being dumped by his first boyfriend, Kyle.
  • Adam (Robbie Cain), a friend of Drake's.
  • Wayne (Stephen Smith) another friend of Drake's, who warns him to stop trying to bust up happy relationships that are none of his business.
Much of what happens in Whirlwind is quite predictable and easy on the eyes. The writing, however, is not overly preachy and the characters are well delineated. In some ways, Whirlwind is superior to many of the narrative films that have been screened by Frameline during recent festivals. At the very least, its characters are believable, their motivations genuine, and the drama clean and neatly framed with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Looking For That Silver Lining

One of the hardest and yet most universal lessons for children to learn is that life is not always fair. Sometimes things take longer than expected, cost more than you budgeted for, and your best-laid plans might not even come to fruition. How a person deals with personal and professional setbacks says a lot about his integrity, his faith in himself, the quality of his relationships, and his outlook on life.

One of the favorite children's books of all time is The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. Since being published in 1930, children around the world who learned how to chant "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" have often developed a better outlook on life than those whose first thought is "Not gonna happen." The blue railroad engine has become such a popular part of our culture that a real-life version frequently tours the nation (you can check its schedule here).

Numerous songs have been sung by musical comedy characters determined not to give up on their dreams. Among the classics are:
Here are Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat performing "Make Butter Out of Cream" from the musical version of Catch Me If You Can (now trying out at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre) -- a song that seems destined to join the above list.

Perhaps the greatest musical number ever written about overcoming adversity is Jule Styne's Everything's Coming Up Roses from Gypsy (1959). Initially popularized by the great Ethel Merman, the song is often performed as an upbeat number. But when seen in its proper dramatic context (as in the following clip), the song offers a horrific display of Madam Rose's refusal to accept defeat.

While a popular adage insists that "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade," some people prefer to make a movie. A series of shorts and feature films recently seen at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) focused on how to wring a good result out of a disastrous turn of events.

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The protagonists in three of the shorts on Frameline's Swiss Treats program all had to find their way around an unexpected obstacle. In 510 Meters Above Sea Level, a 16-minute short by Kerstin Polte, a woman returning home to scatter her father's ashes gets stuck overnight in the tiny Bern airport after missing a connecting flight. She eventually attracts the attention of a female custodial worker who has a habit of hanging out in the observation tower, waiting for something or someone to arrive. During the course of a very long night they get to know each other, learn some new things about themselves, and emerge stronger the next morning as a result of their experience.

In Barbara Seixwe's 17-minute romantic fantasy entitled Dancing To Happiness, a custodial worker (Anna) and an uptight lesbian broker (Helen) discover that they are the only people signed up for a mysterious set of salsa lessons. Can salsa really melt the ice queen? Or will she hide behind the difference in their job levels in order to avoid the kind of intimacy for which she has been starved? Seixwe's short had some nice moments but only really came to life in the finale, when a large ensemble of workers filled a vast atrium with their dancing.

Filippo Filliger's 15-minute short, Comme Une Lettre a la Poste, had a lot more bite and wit. Frustrated that his professor seems to be stealing his work, graduate student Franco tries to find a way to get past this inexplicable obstacle to receiving his degree. With some rowdy encouragement from his straight coworkers at a postal sorting facility, he discovers that his professor has been secretly having regular appointments with a male leather master.

Although Franco and his wife think S&M is all a joke, he's desperate enough to get his degree that he embarks on a plan to turn the tables on his professor. Not only does his professor enjoy the whipping, he recognizes the masked Franco and asks for a repeat appointment. Suddenly, Franco may have a whole new career on his hands!

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Written and directed by Wing Kit Hung, Soundless Wind Chime travels back and forth between Switzerland and Hong Kong as it explores new love, tense love, and the grief that follows the loss of one's love.

Ricky (Yulai Lu) is a young delivery boy/waiter working in a restaurant in Hong Kong. One day, while Ricky is out making a delivery, Pascal (Bernard Bulling) steals his wallet. Without any identification, Ricky quickly gets hauled off to the police station, where he is held until his aunt (Wella Zhang), a local prostitute, can bail him out.

Meanwhile, Pascal (who has grown weary of being sexually abused by his roommate) strikes out on his own, crossing paths once again with Ricky. Recognizing Ricky's face from his identification card in the wallet he stole, he arranges to leave Ricky's wallet for him at the restaurant. The two men eventually become friends when Ricky discovers Pascal, hungry and with no place to stay, and brings him back to the apartment he shares with his aunt.

Although the two men strike up a romance -- and eventually get an apartment of their own -- an accident leaves Pascal dead, his head lying on the cobblestones as spilled milk seems to ooze from his brain. Bereft, bothered, and bewildered, Ricky heads to Switzerland to see if he can find the missing part of his love for Pascal.

While touring Switzerland, he meets an antiques dealer named Marcus (Hannes Lindenblatt) who is kind and gentle, someone with whom Ricky can laugh and yet someone who is strong enough to cry in Ricky's arms. Just when Ricky seems to be finding some love and stability, he receives word that his mother is dying and he must travel to Beijing to take care of her. One day, while Ricky is out working as a taxi driver, Marcus arrives in time to introduce himself to Ricky's mother, see her die, and watch her spirit take leave of her body.

There is much to enjoy in Soundless Wind Chime, although at times its lack of a clear narrative path may be frustrating. Some of Wing Kit Hung's scenes (particularly a rainy day segment in which hundreds of people with multi-hued umbrellas cross a busy Hong Kong intersection) have a lyrical touch; others capture the intricacies of establishing, building, and trying to maintain intimacy in a relationship that has become strained. Here's the trailer:

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Finally, we come to Tina Mabry's agonized look at poverty in the deep South. Mississippi Damned follows a close-knit group of relatives from 1986 to 1998. Most of their hopes and dreams are sabotaged by their extended family's problems with alcohol, gambling, infidelity, and domestic violence.

If I'm correct, the core characters in Mabry's film include:
  • Charlie (Jossie Thacker), an alcoholic woman who miscarries a near-term child and ends up going to jail after stabbing her abusive husband's mistress.
  • Sammy (Malcolm Goodwin), Charlie's son, a short, but promising basketball player who gets sexually exploited by his only fan, Pumpkin (Eugene Long).
  • Delores (Michael Hyatt), Charlie's sister who dies of cancer, mother to Leigh & Kari.
  • Leigh (Chastity Kershal Hammitte), a young bull dyke whose girlfriend, Paula, dumps her and decides to go straight.
  • Kari (Tessa Thompson), Leigh's baby sister, a talented young girl who has always loved playing piano and wants to study music at NYU.
  • Gloria (Anna Biscoe), Kari's single aunt, who has never had children.
  • Paula (Jasmine Burke), Leigh's teenage lesbian lover, who dreams of escaping to Memphis and making a career as a go-go dancer. Lacking the courage to share her life with Leigh in an openly lesbian relationship, Paula takes the easy way out by marrying her boyfriend, Duckett (Vaughan Wilson).
Although there were numerous moments during Mabry's two-hour film when I found it difficult to keep track of who was related to whom, there was no doubt that Mabry had created a memorable set of authentically tragic -- and tragically authentic -- characters. When the action jumps ahead 12 years, it is sometimes difficult to pick up the paths of some plot lines. Nevertheless, this is a powerful, poignant, and deep disturbing film which will make viewers want to count their blessings. Here's the trailer.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Designs for Living

The first time I went on an industrial tour was probably in fourth grade, when our class was taken to the Dannon Yogurt plant in Brooklyn. Since then I've watched jet planes being assembled at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, visited Liberty Orchards to watch them make Aplets & Cotlets candies, toured the inside of Hoover Dam and gone on backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Whether holding my nose as a child while visiting the Armour-Star meat packing plant, visiting the Bureau of Engraving & Printing in the nation's capital to see how money was made, learning how breweries make beer, or visiting a local factory that made teddy bears, I've gotten a pretty good understanding of how things move along an assembly line.

When I discovered a cable TV show called How It's Made, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I learned how everything from pianos to wheelchairs -- from candy canes to Stetson hats -- were made. You can watch a series of video clips from the show here.

Although industrial tours and video presentations do a grand job of entertaining curious minds, they only demonstrate how certain things are put together. This week I got a superb explanation of why certain choices are made in the process of industrial design (thanks to Gary Hustwit's wonderful new documentary Objectified, that was shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

What Objectified does is explain to the viewer how form and function come together in the process of industrial design and how slight variations in a design can make a product more useful to many more people. In a simple example, one designer explains how a standard-issue potato peeler had become a problem for an elderly woman with arthritic hands. The solution was to embed the handle of the potato peeler in a rubberized bicycle handlebar grip so that it could widen the tool's base and allow the woman to grip it firmly while working in her kitchen.

Perhaps the most important insight from this documentary came from the designer who stressed that he is not interested in looking for how a product can best solve the needs of the millions of users who are in the middle or "norm," but rather how it will match the needs of people who are at the extreme ends of the spectrum of needs.

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That message hit home while watching another film a few nights later. Earlier this year, I had reviewed Debra Chasnoff's documentary Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up (in which she examines how gender roles are imposed on children from the very moment they are born with little understanding of whether or not a parent's expectations actually mesh with the child's reality).

In Ready? OK! (a new feature film written and directed by James Vasquez), a young boy with big dreams runs into a brick wall of traditional gender expectations. Joshua Dowd (Lurie Poston) lives in Normal Heights and goes to a private Catholic school. Although he desperately wants to become a cheerleader, the humorless Sister Vivian (Tali Karsan) will have none of it. Only girls can be cheerleaders. Having carefully researched the relevant rules and regulations, when Joshua protests, Sister Vivian reminds him that he's been reading about the rules for public schools, not private schools.

Joshua's mother Andrea (Carrie Preston) is the harried executive assistant to a local television news reporter (Kali Rocha), who has much more attitude than brains or talent. Andrea's mother Emily (Sandra Ellis-Troy) got so tired of her children coming back home to live with her that she finally moved out and found an apartment of her own in the neighborhood, leaving the house to her daughter and grandson.

Andrea's twin brother, Alex (John G. Preston), has been a professional failure for most of his life. Both twins have suffered severe emotional wounds after their father abandoned the family. Among Andrea's neighbors is a gay couple -- one of whom is a tailor named Charlie (Michael Emerson). Because Charlie works out of his home, he is often deputized to keep an eye on Joshua after school lets out. He is also one of the few people who supports the young boy's dream of becoming a cheerleader and treats him like a person instead of an obligation.

Although Joshua is also on the wrestling team, his friends are all girls. His heart lies less with combat and more with team spirit. When Andrea's neuroses get out of hand during a birthday celebration for her son, Alex (who has recently returned home after cleaning out their deceased and long-estranged father's home), finally loses his temper and reminds his sister that the reason she got knocked up in college was because she fell in love with a professor whose first name was the same as their long-absent father's.

It doesn't take long for Andrea to lose her job and for Joshua to be seen wearing a dress (he interpreted his school assignment to dress as someone he admired as a good chance to show his appreciation for Maria von Trapp). Soon, other boys on the wrestling team are making fun of him. One person lets loose with a homophobic taunt and Joshua ends up with a big bruise on his face.

Who will stand up for Joshua? Certainly not the unfeeling Sister Vivian. Nor is it easy for Andrea to hear that some things in life are not all about her. By delivering one of the clearest, most concise messages about letting a child make important choices for himself, Charlie becomes the quiet and unwitting hero of Vasquez's film. While Ready? OK! has many tender moments, it is the scene in which Charlie sets Andrea straight about her responsibilities to her son's future that makes it worth watching. Here's the trailer:

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Last year, Lucia Puenzo's deeply moving feature, XXY, told the story of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite from Buenos Aires who had been living with her parents in a quiet fishing village in Uruguay as she struggled to come to grips with her gender confusion. Because her parents had refused to have their child operated on when Alex was born, at 15 she still had both sets of sexual organs intact.

In Kirsty MacDonald's mind-blowing documentary from New Zealand (Assume Nothing) that was shown during Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), we meet some amazing men and women who have used their own definitions of gender as a major focus for their art. They include:
  • Mani Bruce Mitchell: born more than 50 years ago as a hermaphrodite, who discusses the shame she was always made to feel during her childhood about her body.
  • Shigeyuki Kihara, a Japanese-Samoan performance artist and photographer who identifies as a Fa’afafine (a third gender specific to Samoan culture). Whether performing onstage in Sydney, Australia, or having her work on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kihara sees herself as normal and the rest of the world as needing to catch up. She believes that cisgenderism is the alternative gender identity to transgenderism (and not the other way around).
  • Jack Byrne, a New Zealand transman poet and human rights activist who takes great pride in his skill as both a drag king and drag queen.
  • Rebecca Swan, a red-headed professional photographer whose book of portraits entitled Assume Nothing forces viewers to question their views about gender identity. "Becks" has also become Jack's domestic partner.
  • Ema Lyon, a performance artist who likes to play with androgynous images, describes herself using the gender neutral Maori pronoun “ia” and the indigenous queer term “takataapui.” Happy to be photographed in very masculine clothes and settings, Ema also poses for Swan's camera while pregnant.

What makes this documentary different from so many others is that many of its subjects are artist-activists whose careers have been made by building on their own definitions of gender (rather than being pigeonholed by traditional gender expectations). The fact that many of them are extremely creative talents means that the quality of work seen in MacDonald's film -- including some superb animation sequences -- is often breathtaking.

The heavy influence of Maori, Samoan and Japanese cultures (where third gender or intersex people are fully accepted as a part of the natural spectrum of sexuality) puts Assume Nothing into a class all by itself. This is a documentary with a clear artistic vision that benefits from the vision of some clearly talented artists.

MacDonald's film is dramatically challenging, wildly indulgent, and unflinching in its highly intelligent examination of people whose lives have been shaped in new and unusual ways by their experiences with gender issues. The art seen in this film can easily hold its own against that of a legendary photographer like Robert Mapplethorpe, who also dealt with images of sexual ambiguity. Here's the trailer:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Teachable Moments

They say that knowledge is power. But how do we get that knowledge? For some people, it's by trial and error. For others, it's by rote learning. Some may actually enjoy textbooks but, when it comes to new equipment or software, few take the time to read the manual.

Much of today's education comes in the form of a FAQ sheet (which lists frequently asked questions and answers) or a searchable archive of electronic data. What is missing -- and perhaps what people crave most -- is the personal touch that was, for so many years, associated with teaching, mentoring, and learning.

Recently, while watching Penny Arcade workshop a new show at The Marsh called Old Queen, I was struck by her recollection of how, when she was 14 years old, she would take advantage of every opportunity to sit at a table in a gay bar or coffee shop and listen to older gay men converse. "They knew everything about culture, history, fashion, and theater," she explained. "Just by being able to sit at the table and listen to those old queens, your I.Q. was guaranteed to rise by 20%!"

Her comment made me recall a trip to Los Angeles many years ago with my friend Marvin Feldman. Marvin was much younger than me and, following dinner prior to an opera performance one night, said something that really startled me. "I really enjoy having dinner with you and your friends, but it's not easy for me -- I can't just smoke a joint and then sit there trying to look hot," he confided. "I really have to be on my toes and pay careful attention to what's being said."

A peculiar collection of films and plays seen this week made me wonder about how the teachable moments we experience at the hands of friends and mentors show us new ways to approach seemingly insurmountable problems. As I thought about the critical contributions some people have made to my life through their generous mentoring, the lyrics of an old Beatles song flooded my mind:
"What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song,
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
I get high with a little help from my friends,
Oh, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends.

What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you're on your own?
No, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I'm gonna to try with a little help from my friends

Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love.
Could it be anybody? I want somebody to love.

Would you believe in a love at first sight?
Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time.
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Oh, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends."
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One of America's most prolific playwrights, Terrence McNally is a frequent contributor to the Bay Area theatre scene. His works have been produced on Bay area stages ranging from the War Memorial Opera House (Dead Man Walking) to Theatre Q in Palo Alto (which is currently staging McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart). Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was recently produced by the Marin Theater Company and Exit Theatre. Next season, SFPlayhouse will mount a new production of The Full Monty.

An out and proud gay man, McNally has, for the past several years, had a close relationship with San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center. Under Ed Decker's artistic direction, the company has produced Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Ritz, Corpus Christi and the 2005 world premiere of Crucifixion. Next season NCTC will stage a new production of McNally's Master Class. Unfortunately, the production of Some Men (2006) currently being performed at NCTC is a hit-and-miss affair that often feels like a collection of reheated leftovers and throwaway lines from the playwright's previous efforts.

The cast of Some Men (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Some Men begins and ends as a group of gay men watch a modern gay wedding ceremony and comment on its significance. But McNally's play, which covers about 80 years in the history of gay male relationships in America, jumps back and forth between decades with an annoying amount of confusion. As actors keep jumping in and out of roles -- and back and forth between decades -- it becomes difficult to remember who fell in love with whom, whether the relationship lasted, or if the audience should really care. Thankfully, a few dramatic threads that span the course of the play can be understood.
  • A short, bald, and wealthy Jewish businessman carries on a long-term affair with his Irish chauffeur at the family's estate on Long Island.
  • A frustrated, closeted married man decides to break the code of secrecy with his best friend and visit a NYC bathhouse, where he meets a high school librarian from Staten Island. Years, later, when his lover is away at a professional conference, he wonders what in the world librarians could possibly talk about for an entire week.
  • A young gay man tries to find more information about his uncle Archie (a drag queen who stopped into a piano bar across from the Stonewall Inn on a hot and fateful night in June of 1969).
  • A military officer remains clueless about why a close friend of his deceased son has made such an intense effort to attend the funeral.
  • A new generation of idealistic gay male couples eagerly looks forward to raising children.
NCTC's ensemble was filled with many of the usual suspects (familiar faces who have appeared in numerous productions with the company). These included Dann Howard, Tim Redmond, Brandon Finch, P.A. Cooley, George Patrick Scott, Patrick Michael Dukeman, Scott Cox, Matthew Vierling and Christopher Morrell.

While McNally's play tried to show how gay friendships and extended family ties develop and mature over the years, Some Men was far less satisfying than many of the playwright's other works. There's no doubt that McNally can come up with witty, and often scathing lines. This time around he had too much trouble pulling everything together.

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In recent years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (through its New Jewish Filmmaking Project) and Frameline (through its Generations Film Workshop) have been bringing young filmmakers together with professional mentors on projects that involve interviewing senior members of the community as a way of documenting local history and learning about the historical progress made by those who went before them.

One of the shorts programs currently being presented by Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) is labeled Generations: Youth and Elders Making Movies. In an eight-minute short entitled Rainbow Generations Making Films, we watch outtakes from Frameline's 2009 Generations Workshop in which older mentors work with young LGBT filmmakers as they learn what it takes to produce a film in a relatively short period of time.

Far more provocative, however, is Don't Erase My Memory, a 32-minute short by Ally Action in which young Bay area filmmakers interview their elders to learn about the history of gay America that is almost never included in their school's social studies curriculum. Not only do they learn about famous gay people from Walt Whitman to Alan Turing, they learn about the challenges faced by pioneers like Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who founded The Daughters of Bilitis.

The film includes fascinating interviews with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl (whom many will remember from her appearances as Zelda Gilroy in the 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), lesbian author Jewelle Gomez, Chicana feminist, activist, and author Cherrie Moraga, historian Martin Meeker, and Holy Old Man Bull (Marcus Arana), an investigator for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission who also served as a coordinator for San Francisco's Community United Against Violence.

What I found fascinating about this film was not just hearing older gay people describe how important it is for young gay people to have cultural landmarks and role models to aspire to, but to hear a new generation of LGBT people talk about how hurtful it is to have educators dismiss gay history as unimportant or trivialize their interest in important gay figures in literature, science, politics, and the arts.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was attending Brooklyn College, I took a basic music appreciation course during which a supremely disinterested professor played a recording of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida and then said "Well, that's all you really need to know about opera." As a budding young opera queen who had just started to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, I was shocked and appalled at his dismissive attitude toward a 400-year-old art form. Films like Don't Erase My Memory go a long way to ensuring that gay and lesbian subject matter doesn't get pushed aside as having no relevance to the lives of LGBT students.

Don't Erase My Memory was created in partnership with the Digital Storytelling Institute of ZeroDivide. It is part of a project born from the California Council for the Humanities' program entitled California Stories: How I See It (Insight From The Next Generation). You can watch a brief trailer here and order a copy of the film here.

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There are moments when an accomplished professional can reveal a shortcut that would never have occurred to anyone else. Last week, the San Francisco Symphony offered a semi-staged production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Victorian-era operetta, Iolanthe. Premiered in 1882, this droll political satire has not lost any of its bite. The plot involves the love affair between a young maiden and her boyfriend (who is half mortal and half fairy). While there are plenty of jokes about what it means to be "an influential fairy," perhaps the most cunning stroke of Gilbert's pen can be found in this patch of dialogue near the end of Act II.
"QUEEN OF THE FAIRIES: You have all incurred death; but I can't slaughter the whole company. And yet the law is clear: Every fairy must die who marries a mortal!

LORD CHANCELLOR: Allow me, as an old Equity draftsman, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple -- the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!"
Conducted by George Manahan with a cast that included Joyce Castle (Queen of the Fairies), Sasha Cooke (Iolanthe), Lucas Meachem (Strephon), Sally Matthews (Phyllis), Alfie Boe (Thomas, Earl of Tolloller), Paul Whelan (George, Earl of Mountararat) and Robert Lloyd (Private Willis), the evening occasionally had trouble finding a good sound balance between its amplified and unamplified moments. While the amplification definitely helped Richard Stuart during the Lord Chancellor's patter songs, at other times it threw the performance out of balance.

Matters were hardly helped by Patricia Birch's overly fussy stage direction, which featured a horde of fairies and pages (courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet School). This was defniitely a case where less would have been more. Thankfully, what did manage to shine through were the strength and beauty of Sir Arthur Sullivan's score. Rarely heard in performance these days, Iolanthe sounds quite wonderful when performed with a full symphony orchestra.

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company has a resounding hit on its hands with its new production of Bob Glaudini's comedy, Jack Goes Boating. Beautifully directed by Joy Carlin, with a superb unit set designed by Melpomene Katakolos (and excellent sound design by Chris Houston), the four memorable characters vividly brought to life by Aurora's tightly-knit ensemble include:
  • Clyde (Gabriel Marin), a limousine driver with a good heart even if he is a bit of a lunkhead. Clyde (who means well and is going to night school to improve his life) often fucks things up because deep down in his heart of hearts he fears that his wife thinks he is inferior.
  • Jack (Danny Wolohan) is a fellow limousine driver painfully aware that he is lacking in certain social skills. After Clyde and Lucy set Jack up on a date with Connie, he determines that what would really impress Connie is if he could cook dinner for her. Because Connie has also suggested that, come summer, they might like to go boating in Central Park, Jack is relying on Clyde for swimming lessons. When given a challenge all his own, Jack is a bit of a perfectionist with a passion for rasta music who loves to listen to the song Rivers of Babylon. He is slow, but methodical. Eager to please, but reluctant to offend.
  • Lucy (Amanda Duarte) is Clyde's wife. She works for an embalmer known as "The Professor." and is probably the most intelligent and grounded character in the play. Although Lucy once had an affair with another man, she has put this memory to rest. Unfortunately, her affair continues to haunt Clyde (who, according to Lucy, conveniently likes to forget about his dalliance with a woman from Poughkeepsie).
  • Connie (Beth Wilmurt) is the nervous assistant working under Lucy at the embalming business. Connie's lack of confidence and low self esteem often mask her genuine sweetness.
Danny Wolohan and Beth Wilmurt (Photo by David Allen)

Lurking in the background is Lucy's ex-lover, a pastry chef whose tasty 10-inch dick has earned him the nickname of "The Cannoli." Glaudini's writing is an absolute delight, capturing the stoned conversations between Clyde and Jack with great wit and rhythm. Jack and Connie's nervous, clumsy seduction scene often has the audience roaring with laughter while Clyde's swimming instructions (delivered in hilarious monologues from above the main playing area) are a masterpiece of macho bravado and unwitting innuendo.

Gabriel Marin and Danny Wolohan (Photo by David Allen)

When the dinner party Jack has labored so hard to cater goes horribly wrong -- and a bitter argument erupts between Clyde and Lucy -- Jack and Connie find shelter in each other's arms. The play ends on a wonderfully lyrical note that leaves the audience collectively qvelling for the two lovers.

Although Philip Seymour Hoffman (who starred as Jack in the original off-Broadway production) is making his directorial debut shooting the film version of Jack Goes Boating, don't wait for the movie to come out. This is very much a piece that should be experienced as live theater and the quartet performing Jack Goes Boating for Aurora Theatre Company does a stunning job with the play. Glaudini's drama is an absolute delight with a surprising amount of tenderness between tokes. You can order tickets here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

End of Days

Not too many individuals still use a telephone answering service. With voice mail, email, and texting having become the primary methods by which we leave messages for friends and family, fewer people have the need -- or chance -- to become intimately acquainted with the voice of an intermediary who might be taking messages for them. While medical practices still employ live answering services and businesses may outsource some functions to overseas call centers, the market for answering services devoted to personal calls has all but vanished.

In 1956, the hit musical Bells Are Ringing (which was directed and choregraphed by Jerome Robbins with choreographic assistance from Bob Fosse) starred Judy Holliday as Ella, one of the employees at Susanswerphone. One of the hit songs from that show (composed by Jule Styne) had the following lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:
"The party's over, it's time to call it a day.
They've burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.
It's time to wind up the masquerade.
Just make your mind up, the piper must be paid.
The party's over, the candles ficker and dim.
You danced and dreamed through the night,
It seemed to be right just being with him.
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.
Take off your makeup, the party's over.
It's all over, my friend."
Calamitous events often signal the end of an era. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were shocks felt around the world. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Supervisor Harvey Milk certainly made people sit up and take notice of a changing American society.

In Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical, A Little Night Music (1973), an aging courtesan wistfully recalls the days when women used their brains and bodies to acquire great wealth. Here is Regina Resnik singing "Liaisons" from the New York City Opera's 1991 production (with Sally Ann Howes as Desiree and Danielle Ferland as Fredrika).

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History is filled with the exploits of famous courtesans such as Thais, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Marie Duplessis and Lola Montez. Proud professional women have been at the center of such novels as John Cleland's groundbreaking Fanny Hill: Or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (written in 1748 while the author was incarcerated in a London debtor's prison), The Lady of the Camellias (published in 1848 by Alexandre Dumas fils), and Emile Zola's Nana (1880).

Jules Massenet based his opera Thais on the tale of the legendary Egyptian courtesan. Verdi's classic, La Traviata, was based on the novel by Dumas fils. In Colette's story about a young Parisian girl, Gigi is being trained by her aunt Alicia to become a courtesan.

This week's release of Chéri stars Rupert Friend in another one of Colette's tales of Parisian romance at the height of the Belle Époque. Like Colette's Gaston LaChaille, Chéri has become a jaded bon vivant at a very early age. The son of a wealthy courtesan who has showered him with everything but love, he has always looked to his godmother, Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) for the kind of wisdom, guidance and nurturing that his own mother, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates) was thoroughly incapable of providing. A life filled with debauchery and being a familiar face at Maxim's has left Chéri, at 19, exhausted, wan, and incredibly bored.

When his mother suggests that her old friend Lea (who has just said good-bye to her latest lover) take Chéri with her to the country, an intergenerational romance blossoms that would make any cougar proud. Chéri's situation is quite rare: Although raised in a world of privilege and luxury, he has always felt like an orphan. Having never had to earn another person's love, he doesn't recognize the value of what he has while spending six years in Lea's bed.

Now physically much more than a boy, he is nevertheless a boy-toy. Until, of course, his narcissistic mother decides that it's time for her to have some grandchildren and arranges for Chéri to be wed to the daughter of another courtesan.

Like many spoiled children, Chéri fails to understand that he can't be married and keep Lea as his mistress. Lea, however, is older, wiser, and knows what lies ahead. With a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, this new film by Stephen Frears glows with a warmth and lustre that matches the end of a glorious era -- a time when women were celebrated for brains as well as beauty, and the last years before World War I brought a crashing end to Colette's Parisian society.

While many will focus on Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Lea, this film is about so much more. It deals with the agony of being trapped in a loveless marriage, the pain of relinquishing one's true love to another, and the reality that time, as it advances, waits for no man or woman. Frears' film includes some wonderful cameos from Bette Bourne as the Baronne, Nichola McAuliffe as Mme. Aldonza, and Frances Tomelty as Lea's maid, Rose. But one of the greatest contributions comes from Alexandre Desplat, whose wonderful original score frames so many moments with a rare sensitivity to person, place, and time. Here's the trailer:

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Set in 2006 (back in the days when wealth, capitalism and prosperity seemed to have no limits), Chris Mason Johnson's first feature film, The New Twenty, glows with intelligence, craft, fine direction, and the work of an exceptionally strong acting ensemble. It has a keen sense of its precarious moment in history, the generation it represents, and each character's complex emotional handicaps and motivations. As Johnson explains in his director's statement:
"The New Twenty is an ensemble drama about five friends nearing 30 who've remained close since college. Their extended family has outlived its usefulness. It's time to move on. The characters in The New Twenty are ready to move on and grow up, even if they don't know it yet. But leaving that first circle of friends is like leaving family -- it's not always easy. As it happens, their ironic and somewhat tortured self-involvement coincides with what we now see as a particularly ugly chapter in America's financial markets history.

For quite a while our country has encouraged its best and brightest to go into banking and that hasn't turned out so well, to say the least. A title at the head of the film -- 2006 -- locates this narrative in the very recent but very different past. In The New Twenty my characters struggle with life choices that feel empty or cynical, but they either don't have the courage to make a change or don't realize they need to. Perhaps, luckily for them (in their fictional future), the whole financial edifice comes tumbling down just a couple short years after the story ends."
Andrew Wei-Lim and Thomas Sadowski

The key characters in Johnson's drama include:
  • Julie Kim (Nicole Bilderback), a beautiful and intelligent young investment banker who is all too aware that the reason she keeps getting promoted is because having a high-ranking Asian American looks good for her employer's diversity profile.
  • Andrew Hatch (Ryan Locke), Julie's fiancé, a wannabe alpha dog. A database programmer totally lacking in management skills, Andrew is a cocky, manipulative jerk who plays squash with Julie's brother, Tony.
  • Ben (Colin Fickes), a gay slacker who desperately wants to be included in the group's activities but is rightfully regarded by them as a total loser.
  • Tony (Andrew Wei Lim), Julie's gay brother who works in advertising and shares an apartment with her best friend from college.
  • Felix (Thomas Sadowski), Tony's roommate who has a serious drug problem and can never seem to manage a relationship with a woman. Felix likes to claim that "we all suffer from a touch of existential malaise courtesy of late capitalism."
  • Robert (Bill Sage), a middle-aged professor who becomes Tony's boyfriend after they meet in the sauna at the gym. Robert is very shy, HIV positive, doesn't like to talk much, and is definitely not looking for a relationship.
  • Louie (Terry Serpico), an alpha dog venture capitalist who plays squash at the same health club frequented by Andrew and Tony. Louie is a homophobic asshole who wastes no time going after Andrew's fiancée, Julie.
Andrew Wei-Lim and Bill Sage

There were many moments in The New Twenty that made me think of 1983's The Big Chill as a once closely-knit group starts to come apart at the seams. Perhaps most impressive is how Johnson deals with issues of fidelity and male bonding. This may be one of the first movies to deal sensitively with the challenges of consciously entering into a relationship in which one partner is negative and the other is HIV positive. Straight and gay sensitivities do not clash so much as coexist in this film. As Johnson explains:
"In The New Twenty I depict gay/straight friendships between young men that are free of the homosexual panic jokes and unrequited love conflicts that usually dominate the screen. The fact is, gay/straight friendships (minus the drama) are more and more common for young adults, especially the urban and educated. We may not have reached a "post-gay" moment yet (Prop 8, anyone?) but we're getting there. The casual attitude toward gay/straight bonding for characters like those in The New Twenty might be summed up as: what's the big deal?

And yet, despite my insistence on the easygoing nature of this mix, I knew homophobia had to play into my story since our brave new world does have its share of it. Something that runs so deep must leave a trace, but what kind of trace? The answer came in two ways: first through my antagonist, Louie (the older venture capitalist who helps young alpha male Andrew launch his new career and who is blatantly if amusingly homophobic); the second through the more subtle dscomfort my male characters express without necessarily knowing it, through humor. In other words, homosexual panic used to lead to violence. Now it leads to jokes."
The New Twenty took me by surprise with its strength, maturity, and honesty. Like Chéri, it captures a critical moment within a particular subset of society just before everything falls apart. It's one of the few ensemble films I've seen in which the Gaysian male is the most level-headed character, the one most willing to take responsibility for his actions. Here's the trailer: