Monday, June 13, 2011

Sticking Out Like A Sore Thumb

Nonconformity can be a real bitch. Some artists (Tiny Tim, Andy Warhol, Quentin Crisp, Barbra Streisand, Liberace, Eddie Izzard Lady Gaga) have built their careers on flamboyant displays of what makes them unique. But for the average person who can't fit in with the crowd, nonconformity can feel like a curse. In his opening number for this year's Tony Awards, Neal Patrick Harris tried to assure straight people that you don't have to be gay to love Broadway:

For some people, the struggle to conform proves to be useless. The cruelty of cluelessness can lead to a crushing sense of loneliness and abandonment. The following clip is of a comedy number entitled "Nobody Makes A Pass At Me" that was written by Harold Rome for the 1937 musical review Pins and Needles.

* * * * * * * * *
My coming out process was the opposite of what happens for most gay men. I used to joke that I got a score of 100% on the written examination and failed the laboratory test. For many years, I thought I was the only gay man who could never get laid. I later found out I was not alone.

Part of my problem was a lack of aggressiveness. Instead of being obsessed with sex (like most young men), I was obsessed with opera and theatre. The ability to do a decent impersonation of Carol Channing never got me laid.

In the four decades since the Stonewall Revolution, Americans have developed a much greater awareness of the spectrum of sexuality. How I wish I had been able to read Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto (by Anneli Rufus) when I was coming out. Or been able to understand the finer points of extroversion and introversion and how they related to my own personality. That information could have saved me a lot of grief in the first half of my life.

I first read about asexuality when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, The article was probably published in The Village Voice. I distinctly remember thinking "Maybe I should write to the author and invite him for a weekend of doing nothing."

An important new documentary about human sexuality will receive its world premiere on Saturday, June 18 at 1:30 p.m. at the Roxie Theater as part of Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.  Directed by Angela Tucker(a)sexual tackles an issue that has confused and irritated people for years.

As the alphabet soup of the sexual revolution has grown from LGBT to include Two-Spirit Native Americans, those who are questioning their sexuality, and a host of people with sexual fetishes (chubby chasers, furries, plushies, etc.,) one group has been struggling to identify their sexual orientation. Or, more specifically, their lack of desire to have sex with anyone. While these people have felt more comfortable identifying with the "queer" or LGBT movement, those who are proudly proclaiming their sexual orientation often have trouble relating to people who have no interest in sex.

This goes way beyond a preference for chocolate or a good book. With talking heads ranging from sex advice columnist Dan Savage to David Jay (the founder and webmaster of The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), Tucker's film offers plenty of food for thought.

Asexual activist and founder of AVEN, David Jay

If a person is asexual, does that mean he can't be romantic? Or will one good experience free his sexual energy and make him identify as straight or gay? According to David Jay, AVEN now has more than 26,000 registered members and is helping people to better understand what makes them tick -- or not. In her director's statement, Tucker writes:
"Jamie Foxx’s song 'Unpredictable' is on constant rotation on MTV. The video opens with him smoking a fat Cuban cigar flocked by gorgeous, scantily clad women. He sings about his strategy on how he is going to spice things up in the bedroom. He is going to show them things they have never done before. In a cameo appearance, Ludacris claims he is going to bring some excitement to these ladies’ lives. He’ll be their Tylenol. Take him before they go to sleep. The video sells a lifestyle where opulence and sex are paramount. Foxx ends the song with, 'Some say that sex is overrated but they just ain’t doin’ it right.'
Like many other music videos and images in pop culture, Foxx’s message is located squarely within the conventional wisdom that 'sex sells.' But apparently, this is not always the case. What if sexual desire does not register for you at all? How do you find a place for yourself in a world that seems to be propelled by sexual energy? You know you are in the minority, but deep in your heart, you simply don’t respond the way others do. You feel weird -- you don’t fit in. 
Well, welcome to the plight of 1% of the population. Welcome to the plight of the asexual. As a young filmmaker, I was drawn to filmmaking by groundbreaking films about identity such as Kathe Sandler’s A Question of Color and Marlon Riggs’ Black Is … Black Ain’t. Both films look at how prejudice and intolerance divide and separate and how, in order for us to be united as a people, we all must reconcile ourselves to each other, to our differences. Their forms of storytelling were innovative in exploring larger societal problems through personal stories.
As an African-American woman, issues surrounding inclusion and belonging have always been an interest of mine. After reading an article in The New York Times, I began having conversations with people about asexuality and more so, what they thought of this as a growing social movement. I realized what a hot and controversial topic asexuality is. People would often say to me, 'There is something wrong with these people,'  'They are repressed. That is not an identity.' I noticed that many of the same arguments that were being made against asexuality paralleled those made against the GLBT community in the ‘60s & ‘70s. People’s resistance to asexuality shows an overall resistance to tolerating things we do not understand. I knew that this was the genesis of a film. (A)sexual is a window into a subculture that people know very little about, a subculture that is growing."
(A)sexuality brings up some very interesting questions about intimacy, romance, loneliness, and whether there might be a genetic link between Asperger's syndrome and asexuality. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
How I wish that stupid asshole, Tracy Morgan, had had a chance to watch a brilliant new short about homophobia in the black community before he made a hateful fool of himself in Nashville last week. Written and co-directed by Melissa Osborne, Change takes place in a tough section of South Los Angeles on the day before and day after the 2008 Presidential election. A class of students is asked to read aloud their essays about how they would have voted and why.

Among the students called to the front of the class are the obviously gay Ivan (Jesse James Rice) and Jamie (Sean McClam), a black teenager who, unlike some of his homies, studies hard and hopes to go to college. Later, when one of his classmates talks about spray painting Ivan's home with some graffiti, Jamie urges his friends to wait until after the election. In case you hadn't guessed, Jamie's got a secret.

Poster art for Change

Later that night, Jamie's family -- including his Grandma (H. Chris Brown) -- nervously watches the election returns and rejoices at the news that Barack Obama has become the first African American to be elected President. When Jamie's father smugly exults in the passage of Proposition 8, Jamie keeps his mouth shut.

H. Chris Brown as Grandma

The next morning, as he is heading to school, Jamie gets an alarming text message, abandons his skateboard and runs like a bat out of hell toward Ivan's house, which has been tagged with the words "Fucking Fag." As he tries to comfort Ivan, his homies come down the street, shocked at the realization that their wonder boy is gay. The film ends with a classic gay bashing. In her director's statement, Osborne writes:
"Shocked by the irony on the morning of Nov 5th 2008, when I realized that a state that had voted for the first African American to take the highest office had also voted to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples, I set about writing Change. From a personal perspective -– I have a black mother and gay brother -– so the events of the past 24 hours settled inside me as a nagging disappointment about the world in which we live. I wondered how it must have felt from the point of view of a teenager -– someone young and vulnerable who is supposed to be learning from us older and ‘wiser’ adults who are already able to vote. What must we have taught them that day? 
When my co-director, Jeff McCutcheon, and I set about planning the shoot we were inspired by television such as Friday Night Lights and films like The Wrestler and observed their very real and naturalist style. It was important to convey the idea that this story could have happened.  We also used locations that were authentic and chose to shoot in areas such as Baldwin Hills and Compton, CA. During post-production we heard the wonderful news that Federal Judge Vaughn Walker had ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. We know that the fight against Prop 8 still has a long way to go but we hope we have made a film that surpasses that one proposition; a film that explores how subtle and insidious the specter of discrimination is for everyone: black, white, gay straight, male, female, American or non-American, today and tomorrow.
Ironically, the protest scene -- where our extras brandished signs promoting Prop 8 -- was where I felt the most comfortable. Cars drove past and beeped and supported us, not knowing what the true intent of our work was. When a child of about 12 asked me if we were for or against Prop 8, I instinctively lied and said we were for it. I was secretly pleased when he said he disagreed with me. On the last day of shooting we shot the final scene with our two lead male actors sitting on the sidewalk, holding hands. A car drove into our shooting space and stopped whilst men leaned out of the window and hurled abuse at our actors. We were all shaken but continued anyway, knowing that this film had something important to say."

Jamie (Sean McClam) and Ivan (Jesse James Rice) on the
morning after California voters passed Proposition 8

For a 24-minute short, Change packs a mighty wallop. Not only has it has been beautifully co-directed by Osborne and McCutcheon, the drama is supported by Oliver Goodwill's magnificent original score. This film takes viewers into one of the last places they were thinking about on election night -- a middle class African American home with a closeted teenager. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Some nonconformists are easily identifiable. Others never hang around long enough to be counted. Whether it's the gypsy in their soul or the sense that they've worn out their welcome, some people seem to vanish into thin air as soon as people think they've started to get to know them. One of the songs in Lerner & Loewe's 1951 musical, Paint Your Wagon, is entitled "I Was Born Under a Wand'rin' Star." In the following clip, Dwayne Croft sings the plaintive "Joey, Joey, Joey" from Frank Loesser's 1956 hit musical, The Most Happy Fella.

This famous sequence from 1966's television special, Color Me Barbra, was filmed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One of the most breathtaking effects I ever saw in a Broadway musical was devised by scenic and lighting designer Robert Randolph for 1966's Sweet Charity. Using two black panels that moved horizontally (working in tandem with a black drape that moved vertically) Randoph created a changing, diagonally-defined space (similar to the way a camera's diaphragm opens and closes to form an aperture) to frame Gwen Verdon's body silhouetted in a classic Bob Fosse pose as she stood in front of a scrim awash in purple lights.

Puppeteer/set designer Basil Twist uses a similar technique to mask dancers entering and exiting the stage as he delivers a thrilling cascade of dramatic images in Joe Goode's new piece of dance theatre entitled The Rambler.  Together with Mr. Goode, Twist has crafted a storytelling technique that is remarkably elegant in its simplicity and astonishing efficient in its execution.

Photo by: R. J. Muna

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Joe Goode Performance Group is currently presenting the world premiere of this fascinating 80-minute piece at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Noting that much of the inspiration for The Rambler comes from a period in his life when he did a lot of hitchhiking, Goode explains in his program note that:
"The Rambler is the classic story of the journey. Not the kind of journey that comes out of a mission or a goal, but the result of a restless, peripatetic soul who can't stay put.  At his best, the rambler is acting out of discomfort with the status quo, he is a renegade (think of all of those  Clint Eastwood westerns).  But perhaps it is also true that the rambler is on a quest for self knowledge (Clint Eastwood meets Siddhartha?).
What wisdom can rambling actually provide? It seems to me that the rambler is a keen and detached observer, someone who passes through, rather than becoming 'part of' the thing he observes.  If rambling can embody some aspect of detachment, might it also illustrate some weakness, some innate incapacity for 'sticking to it' and toeing the line?
Any way you look at it, the rambler is a romantic figure -- the wanderer who finds no perfect solace in any place or person, the rugged individual who wanders off into the sunset with no forwarding address.  Is it particularly American, this proclivity for moving on to the next and the next and the next?  If so, what are we hoping to find?"

Patricia West (an African American member of Goode's ensemble) muses that, in American culture, a rambler is often perceived as a privileged white male and asks "What if I want to be a rambler?" And, as always, Goode's wry sense of humor finds its way into his dance theatre pieces. As he introduced The Rambler, the choreographer read a poem he had once written entitled "Dancers Shouldn't Talk."
"Dancers shouldn’t talk.
Dancers should never talk.
They shouldn’t talk while they’re dancing.
They shouldn’t talk before they dance.
They shouldn’t talk after they dance.
They should never talk.
Don’t talk, dancers.
Don’t talk."

Photo by: R. J. Muna

More than anything, The Rambler is a solid piece of entertainment. Whether clad in blue jeans and T-shirts or wearing a brilliant pyramid-inspired costume designed by Wendy Sparks, Goode's ensemble chants as they dance and takes wing as they sing with a versatility that makes their long hours of rehearsal yield many seemingly-spontaneous moments.

As a conceptual team, Goode and Twist make such effective use of old theatrical tricks that even a fog machine can seem innovative and, as the lights fade, make the dance evocative of an unspoken yearning. Performances of The Rambler continue through June 18 at the Novellus Theatre (you can order tickets here).

No comments: