Monday, April 12, 2010

Daddy Dearest

Alcohol never played a major role in our family. Neither my mother nor my father were drinkers. On those rare occasions when our Italian neighbor invited my mother over for some of her homemade blackberry brandy, my mother practically had to hold onto our house to make it down the driveway and up the steps to our kitchen.

Although my sister and I knew where the liquor cabinet was, it held absolutely no interest for us. Unlike our peers, who may have been seeking new and inventive ways to score some beer or pot, our minds were focused elsewhere. My sister (a future librarian) was always buried in a book. I knew where all the chocolates were hidden. After a particularly rewarding discovery, I learned about the joys of eating frozen cake.

As a family, we were never subjected to the kind of violent, drunken patriarchy that terrorizes so many homes. There were no raging fights, no alcohol-fueled abuse, and there was certainly never any pressure to "man up." Instead, there were piano lessons and Saturday morning classes in astronomy at the Hayden Planetarium.

Although I later learned that one of the reasons my best friend's parents got divorced was because of Ed's drinking, the kind of defiantly aggressive masculinity enshrined by the military and embraced by the leather subculture never had any appeal for me. The need to act tough, get drunk, or beat someone up has never been part of my lifestyle.

It just isn't me.

That's why dramas that revolve around alcohol and/or domestic violence have always perplexed me. Getting drunk and smashing things never seemed like a really useful methodology. In 1963, when I first experienced Edward Albee's controversial drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I was much too naive to know what it's like to stay up all night drinking.

In 1968, when I saw Mart Crowley's provocative homodrama, The Boys in the Band, it was impossible for me to understand the maliciousness and self-loathing of the characters onstage. I had never known the severe effects alcohol can have on tortured souls (years later, a friend who was in Alcoholics Anonymous informed me that Crowley's play has a lot more to do with alcoholism than it does with being gay).

The inflammatory potential of mixing alcohol with a misguided sense of machismo is front and center in three new dramas currently before Bay area audiences. Each deals with a violent father (a man who is supposedly a heroic figure in his community) who discovers that his son is "different." Each is guaranteed to have a powerful impact on audiences.

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Filmmaker Peter Bratt was strongly influenced by Allan B. Chinnen's book, Beyond the Hero: Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul, in which the author claims that:
"... the hero’s tale is archetypically that of a young man/warrior overcoming various obstacles in order to become a king or a patriarch. Beneath the hero, the warrior, and the patriarch, lays the shaman. In order to access the shaman, the patriarch must transcend his heroic tendencies (pride, control, and violence) by embracing what Jung calls the ‘divine feminine’ -- love, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. Where the hero’s journey is one of outer exploration, the post-hero’s journey is one of inner-exploration and usually comes at mid-life.
As Bratt recalls:
"Before I began La Mission, the consuming thought on my mind was the presence of violence in our daily lives and our almost unconscious acceptance of it. I was drawn to the idea of transformation, and the pain that often goes with it. What will it take on our part, each one of us, to effect real and lasting change? After all, it’s not easy to change, even when we know it’s for our own good. La Mission’s main character offered the perfect vehicle for me to explore this idea."
Several years ago, there were lots of film trailers parked, not far from my apartment, along the perimeter of Dolores Park. Now I know why. After its success at the opening of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, La Mission is finally getting its theatrical release.

Opening night of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival

It's always interesting when you get to watch a movie that has been shot in your neighborhood. Familiar sights draw a knowing chuckle from the audience (digs at MUNI personnel always go over well). Local parks, schools, and houses that get special attention draw a tender kind of appreciation.

There are many things of beauty that get highlighted in this powerful and moving film (the colorful street murals of the Mission District, the subculture of lowrider cars, the ethnic costumes of Mexican dancers, Benjamin Bratt's perky nipples, etc.). More than many features screened at LGBT film festivals, however, La Mission captures the challenges faced by a family that lives at the often painful intersection of multiple minority subcultures.

In La Mission, family isn't defined strictly by blood relations. Family includes your neighbors, your best friends, your co-workers, your A.A. sponsor, your schoolmates -- even your gay boyfriend's mother. Key characters include:
  • Che (Benjamin Bratt), a musclebound, middle-aged, and muy macho bus driver who lives in San Francisco's Mission District. Having grown up in a culture of violence and spent time in jail, Che is trying to live sober and be a good single parent to his teenage son, Jes. His life-long hobby, customizing lowrider cars (which also became a handy reward system for Jesse's scholastic achievements), is nearing a critical deadline as his son approaches graduation from Mission High School.
  • Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) is a fixture in his neighborhood. An intelligent, outgoing, and sensitive young man, he has managed to avoid being inducted into a gang. Unfortunately, he has not yet found a way to tell his supermacho father that he is gay.
  • Rene (Jesse Borrego) is Jesse's uncle who takes the troubled teen into his home after Che beats up his "fag" son up and tells Jesse that he is "dead to him."
  • Jordan (Max Rosenak) is Jesse's white boyfriend who lives in a much nicer part of San Francisco. Although intelligent, confident, and enjoying the full emotional support of his mother, Jordan doesn't understand the value of keeping his politically correct mouth shut when challenged by some homophobic Latino gangsters.
    • Virgil (Edwin Hayna Brown) is Jesse's grandfather. When Jesse ends up in the hospital after a gay bashing, Che brings Virgil to the hospital to perform a traditional Mayan healing ceremony.
    • Lena (Erika Alexander) is Che and Jesse's new neighbor who works at a women's shelter. Because Lena has seen more than her fair share of domestic violence, she is keenly aware that Che's macho charm masks a darker side of his personality.
    This complex, layered film, which successfully shows a young gay man standing up to his father's homophobic ultimatum, follows Che through a period of painful change. As writer/director Peter Bratt explains:
    “Homosexuality is often a taboo subject in many communities of color, which makes it difficult to talk about openly or honestly. On top of this you also have the pressure of being a minority living within a dominant white culture, which I think adds to the sense of alienation that many young gay people of color experience. We have a family member, Eddie, whose struggle was very similar to Jes. Eddie’s father found a letter and discovered that his son was gay. After wrecking Eddie’s car with a bowling ball, he kicked him out of the house and told him ‘You’re dead to me.’ Those exact words are now in the film.

    Later at a party in the Mission, Eddie was stabbed in the head by another Latino young man, simply for being gay. Not ironically, the incident brought Eddie and his father, Joe, closer together. Today, Joe is one of his son’s greatest allies and is always reminding Eddie to ‘never be ashamed of who you are.’ Everything came full circle.

    What’s amazing to me is how powerful the cultural taboo remains in so many communities like the Mission -- communities where ‘coming out’ often means not simply being cut off from your family, but from your community and culture as well. I’m incredibly grateful to the young gay men and women of color who opened up and shared their personal struggles with me. I feel indebted to them and hope they see an aspect of their own story in Jes.”
    Directed by Peter Bratt, starring Benjamin Bratt and with the star's wife, Talisa Soto Bratt in a supporting role, La Mission is very much a family affair. While that closeness has definitely helped with the film's development, the history shared by the two Bratt brothers (who grew up in the Mission District) has kept the film more honest it might have been in different hands.

    Not only did Bratt base the film's protagonist on a person he knew when he was growing up in the Mission District, he even got the man's permission to use his name for the character.
    “Che was a few years older than Benjamin and me. Everyone looked up to him, including us. He's very much like Benjamin's character in the film. He's charming and tough, did some time, works for MUNI, and his body is covered with tattoos that reflect his strong Mexican American pride. He was a member of one of the first lowrider clubs in the Mission District that used to blast their oldies tunes as they cruised up and down the street. The main difference is that he is a single father of two children and doesn't have a son who is gay.

    As a culture, we’re used to celebrating (and eroticizing) male violence and domination. Che is a heroic male who negotiates life by the power of force. Up until now it’s worked well for him. But what happens when violent force no longer yields the result you’re seeking? If you want to be happy, you change -- or at least you try. In order to explore some of the different ideas we hold about masculinity, I purposely took Che, your standard alpha male bad boy, in the opposite direction. I basically took the mythic structure that Chinnen outlines in his book and used it as a template for Che’s post-hero journey -- a journey that allows him to move beyond the hyper-masculine identity which imprisons him.

    When I first described the story to Che, he was nervous about the subject matter and, like the character in the film, wasn't shy about expressing his homophobia. I remember him asking, 'Why does the son have to be a fag? Can't he be a drug dealer or something?' He eventually gave me his blessing to use him as my template, but it took some convincing. Even then, he was uncomfortable with the idea of being associated with anything 'gay.'

    Benjamin Bratt as Che

    Che was our lowrider consultant during production, so he was on the set and involved throughout the process. I'll never forget the first time he saw the finished film. He stood up at the end while the credits were still rolling and walked out of the theater without a word. I thought, 'Uh oh, I really pissed him off.'

    He finally called me about an hour later and was very emotional. He had left the theater because he didn't want people to see him crying. Since then, he's brought his family, his mom, and many friends to see the film. He still gets emotional about it. What started out for him as something potentially uncomfortable is now something he's very proud of. He admits that the process has changed how he sees the 'gay issue.' To his credit, he has even offered to be an advocate for the film when we release it. If you knew Che and the heavy circles he moves in, you would know this is a courageous offering on his part. It makes me respect him all the more.”
    While Benjamin Bratt carries most of the film with his powerful portrayal of Che, he is constantly challenged by strong work from Jeremy Ray Valdez and Erika Alexander. Although the audience never hears Lena or Rene tell Che that he needs to attend a 12-step meeting and try to deal with his demons, the film's overwhelming message is to walk away from violence if you value your life (and the lives of those you love). Here's the trailer:

    * * * * * * * *
    Ironically, a few weeks prior to La Mission's rollout (and just in time for the Easter holiday), another film with a similar theme opened in theatres across the nation. Its initial box office returns (not to mention the potential from spinoff sales) signal a return on investment that the Bratt brothers could never, in their wildest dreams, hope to achieve.
    • The other film features artwork that is as gorgeous as any of the murals showcased in La Mission. Its palette is equally brilliant and stimulating.
    • The other film stresses that violence is not the answer to life's problems. It, too, shows how changing a society's basic principles can result in happier and more productive lives for all.
    • The other film features an angry warrior of a father, prone to manly bouts of drinking and fighting. The Viking chief, Stoik The Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) represents an archetype who has always reacted with anger and aggression instead of logic and love.
    • The other film features a young son (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who is intelligent, intuitive, curious, and caring. The qualities that make the boy so different from his peers threaten his father's rank and honor and make the boy seem like a hopeless failure.
    If this other film were not a full-length feature from a major studio (Dreamworks Animation), there would be no camouflaging the message that the "different" son might just be gay. I mean, really: Even among Vikings, who names their first-born Hiccup?

    The film I'm referring to is, of course, How To Tame Your Dragon. Based on the 2003 children's novel by Cressida Cowell, its screenplay has been written and directed by the team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois.

    Not surprisingly, Dreamworks has brought the film to life so gloriously -- and with such spectacular bursts of imagination -- that I often found myself hoping it would never end. The crowd scenes look so real that I had to pinch myself to remember that this was an animated feature. While much has been written about the contribution of cinematographer Roger Deakins in shaping the film's artistic tone (particularly with regard to light and shadows), his contribution really has to be seen to be appreciated in full.

    The greatest irony is that How To Tame Your Dragon succeeds in delivering its antiwar message much better than James Cameron's overhyped and overproduced cash cow, Avatar. In so many ways, its artwork is more impressive and characters surprisingly more complex. An action-packed 98 minutes of animation (compared to Avatar's bloated 162 minutes of macho posturing), How To Tame Your Dragon tells a remarkably concise story that does a far better job of identifying and staying on its message than Avatar.

    It's also a helluva lot more fun.

    Whereas movies like Avatar aim to satisfy the penile cravings of horny teenagers and sexually frustrated adults with massive displays of weaponry and military destruction, films like How To Tame Your Dragon and 2007's delightful The Water Horse: Legend Of The Deep take aim at a younger audience that is better able to accept positive fantasies delivering untraditional messages.

    Why? A film like How To Tame Your Dragon appeals to the child in all of us. It can communicate a surprisingly sophisticated message about how to live life without resorting to violence as the default solution to all challenges.

    The startling similarities between the real life situations in La Mission and the imaginary ones in How To Tame Your Dragon are not merely surprising, at times they are revelatory. See these two films as close together as possible to understand why. Here's the HD trailer with some more footage:

    * * * * * * * *
    Military culture takes a hit in Alex Park's new play, Macho Bravado, which recently received its world premiere from San Francisco's Asian American Theater Company. Directed by Alan S. Quismorio, the play depicts the downward psychological course of a young Korean American man who grew up in Wyoming as butch as can be. A hotheaded young stud who took great pride in his skills as a rodeo rider, Evan Cho (Michael Uy Kelly) didn't hesitate to get in the face of his future father-in-law, Otto Pronger (Brian O'Connor), a macho Vietnam veteran who tried to bully him out of even thinking about dating his daughter, Lindsey (Mayra Gaeta).

    Lindsey (Mayra Gaeta) and Evan (Michael Uy Kelly)
    (Photo by: Conrad Corpus)

    Unfortunately, the kind of cowboy diplomacy that is second nature to men like Evan and Otto works about as well for them as it did for George W. Bush. Evan gets the girl and enlists in the Army to show everyone what a big man he is. His idea of solid math is that three tours of duty in Iraq make a man so much more masculine than two -- and that a little bit of violence never hurt anybody too much (especially if that man has a crush on your wife).

    Like many cocky young studs, Evan thought he had the world all figured out. Until life threw him a couple of curveballs.
    • Despite repeated attempts to get his wife pregnant, Evan apparently has been cursed with azoospermia.
    • His military exploits in the Middle East yielded a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
    • Shortly after being told that he could never father a child, Evan's wife became pregnant. It didn't take Evan long to figure out that the child was fathered by Lindsey's close friend and former classmate, Justin Kim (Rob Dario).
    Justin Kim (Rob Dario) and Evan Cho (Michael Uy Kelly)
    (Photo by: Conrad Corpus)

    Whereas one might be tempted to think the play's title, Macho Bravado, refers to Evan's bluster, the truth is that it has a lot more to do with Lindsey's attempt to keep up appearances while her husband is overseas. Like many military spouses, Lindsey is plagued with loneliness and self doubt. Like many soldiers, Evan obsesses about his wife's infidelity. As the playwright explains:
    "While Macho Bravado is a work of dramatic fiction, it would be soulless without the veterans and their wives and families who shared with me so much of their personal and, at times, painful stories The earliest versions of the play revolved around Evan, a proud Asian in a cowboy world who manages to bust broncs and ro-day-o better than all the white boys in town. It was a comedy. It was ridiculous. It promptly ended up in a folder on my desktop called 'Purgatory.'

    A year later AATC invited me to present a staged reading of the script. When the play went into this next phase, there was something that surprised me. As much as the play was about Evan (a decorated war veteran), it was also about his wife, Lindsey. They were both survivors, both warriors, both veterans, both underdogs. They both had a bit of macho bravado, which was key to their survival but something they were losing.

    I found this discovery to be extremely exciting and the work took in its first breath. The play, which had hatched as a silly comedy, evolved into the most personal piece I'd written. The characters' strength and courage under impending failure, and their enduring love, greatly humbled me."
    While Park's play has five carefully etched characters, each is noticeably conflicted. Evan is torn apart by his inability to communicate with his wife and the knowledge that her baby is not his. Lindsey is torn between loving Evan and wanting a divorce from her increasingly violent and irrational husband.

    Lindsey's parents have struggled for years with the side effects of Otto's drinking. When Bonnie (Janice Wright) tries to talk her daughter out of an impulsive marriage, Lindsey mistakenly assumes that Bonnie doesn't like Evan. She is unable to comprehend that, after years of seeing Otto come home bruised and battered from another bar fight, her mother just wants Lindsey to have a chance at a better life.

    Justin, the Army physician who once loved Lindsey very deeply (and idolized Evan), now feels little more than pity for the couple. As director Alan S. Quismorio notes:
    "I fall in love with characters who are messy and human, especially when they mean well and when those intentions are booby-trapped by the characters' obsessions. Macho Bravado is bathed with that. Above all, this is a play that is relevant to the men and women who are affected by war, what is won, what is sacrificed. It is a tribute to both the hard-fought battles -- on the field or at home or with their soul and sanity -- and the fortitude where love, peace, and understanding await.

    I was and am fascinated by how Alex's play could be a contemporary chapter out of the Odyssey -- warrior returns, affected and emasculated; his wife transformed, possibly obdurated by his long absence; decisions made; chickens coming home to roost, etc."
    The biggest problem Park's play faces is not the messiness of its characters and their lives, but of its structure. Like many playwrights, Park has attempted to tell the story in a series of flashbacks that careen around the stage as wildly as Evan's boiling emotions. The result weakens both character and plot development, despite the most ardent efforts from AATC's ensemble of actors.

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