Saturday, June 2, 2012

Living Life On Their Own Terms

During his 1968 campaign for the Presidency, Robert F. Kennedy became famous for his statement that "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why'? I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not'?" In 1971 I met a man who, although in no way comparable to RFK, taught me the value of taking risks.

Not only did Chuck like to shock people, he made a habit of pushing back against the conventional wisdom. He didn't hesitate to look a person in the face and read them their beads (an old gay slang term for telling someone off). He certainly knew how to make a grand entrance and an equally memorable exit.

Had he been so inclined, Chuck could have been a really rude stand-up comedian. But when I met him he was simply a small town queer with a fast mind and a big mouth who was desperate to leave home and settle in a bigger pond. Convinced that a gay man's life would not be worth living after his 30th birthday ("By that time you've done everything worthwhile you're ever going to do"), he committed suicide before turning 35.

Chuck Cleaves in 1973

During the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, two short films reminded me of Chuck's refusal to live the kind of "polite" lifestyle his parents had planned for him. Aquadettes (by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper) is set in an Orange County retirement community where a group of elderly women like to practice synchronized swimming as a way of exercising.

One of its residents, Margo Bouer, is a retired psychotherapist and psychiatric nurse who had been subjected to electro-convulsive treatments and psychiatric hospitalization as a child. Pegged as a juvenile delinquent, she escaped from her dysfunctional family and found ways to survive in an adult world.

Margo always feared having her past exposed (even after she had established herself as a professional in the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalytic therapy). Now in her twilight years, her multiple sclerosis has made it necessary for her to rely on medical marijuana to ease her chronic nausea.

As I watched Aquadettes, I was grateful to see a new public face for users of medical marijuana. I also wondered how Chuck (who never missed an opportunity to light up a joint) would have felt about the newfound legitimacy of his favorite recreational drug.

* * * * * * * * *
For those who have been told they have a life-threatening disease, the temptation may be to give up hope and wait to die. But for eight-year-old Mack, there is no looking back. Born with dextrocardia (a condition in which the heart is located on the right instead of the left side of the chest), Mack's doctors didn't expect him to live.

Bursting with enthusiasm and grit, this determined, athletic Dutch boy has surprised everyone by racing in motocross competitions and filling a room with his trophies and ribbons. In Willem Baptist's impressive short, I'm Never Afraid! the audience watches Mack and his father prepare for another race, go to the doctor's office, and listens to Mack's sister (who lives in constant fear of going into anaphylactic shock).

Baptist's film is an inspiration for those who think that everyone in the whole wide world is conspiring against them (or who would give up on life too easily). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Imagine yourself in the following situation: You're a filthy rich white man who lives in a vast Paris apartment filled with expensive works of art. You have a private jet and used to travel in the same circles as people like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump until a tragic paragliding accident left you stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

To make matters worse, your beautiful wife died without ever having produced any children. You may be rich, smart, and handsome, but you'll never be the poster boy for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Philippe (Francois Cruzet) seems bored at
a birthday party given in his honor.

Despite the attention of your devoted employees, you're now a quadriplegic with a bratty adopted teenage daughter. As you go through the motions of hiring another home healthcare worker to help watch over you it becomes obvious that most of the job applicants are tedious asskissers who would bore you to tears.

Suddenly, a tall black man of Senegalese origin storms into the room, walks right up to your secretary, slaps a piece of paper down on her desk and tells her he needs a signature on it so that he can prove that he went out on a job interview. You're immediately curious about who this person is and what he might be able to do to spice up your life.

In The Intouchables (a delicious farce written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano that was screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival), François Cluzet stars as Philippe, the wealthy quadriplegic who is bored out of his mind. When he sees how his assistant, Yvonne (Anne Le Ny), reacts to the bold entrance by Driss (Omar Sy), he instructs her to have Driss return the following morning to pick up his signed document.

Anne Le Ny (Yvonne), Francois Cluzet (Philippe) and
Omar Sy (Driss) in a scene from The Intouchables

Times have been rough on Driss (who has a prison record and was recently thrown out of his family's apartment by his mother). In addition to worrying about his younger brother, Adama (Cyril Mendy), who is hanging out with some thugs, Driss can't believe he's being asked to move into Philippe's apartment on a trial basis, where he is expected to live in the lap of luxury while helping to care for his crippled employer.

In the eyes of Philippe's friends and employees, Driss is the last person who should be hired. But Philippe isn't interested in having a bland toady by his bedside. Although he favors chamber music (Driss prefers Earth, Wind & Fire), the two men start to bond as they adjust to their strengths and weaknesses.

Driss (Omary Sy) shows Philippe (Francois Cluzet)
the benefits of using marijuana for medicinal purposes

Driss, who turns out to be a talented artist, surprises Philippe (who sells Driss's paintings to a fellow art collector for an exorbitant price). Although Driss constantly tries to work his charms on Philippe's red-headed female employee, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), he can't quite figure out why he's not her type.

What Driss is very good at doing, however, is putting Philippe's adopted daughter, Elisa (Alba Gaia Kraghede Bellugi) in her place and coercing Philippe to make live contact with a romantic penpal named Eleonore (Dorothée Brière), who lives in Dunkirk.

When Driss finally leaves Philippe's employ, he tells Yvonne to call him in an emergency, which is how the movie begins. To reveal much more about Driss and Philippe's shenanigans might ruin the movie. Let's just say that The Intouchables has one of the funniest shaving scenes you will ever see.

Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet in a snowbound
scene from The Intouchables

The Intouchables is, in its own way, a master class in the art of breaking out of a rut and struggling to realize your potential with whatever strength you have left. It also shows what happens when an outsized personality enters your life like a hurricane and rocks your world.

I remember that feeling all too well. I met Chuck while I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. Life was getting dull and I could see myself heading for a dead end when this intoxicating presence crossed my path. When he left to move to San Francisco, it felt as if the sky had turned unbearably gray. In order to avoid drowning in an eddy of emptiness, I followed Chuck to California the following summer.

The Intouchables is about learning how to grab life by the balls (even when depression and a physical disability make happiness seem unattainable). In his role as a quadriplegic, Cluzet proves to be a strong physical comedian who is matched every step along the way by Sy's physical energy and oversized personality. Based on a true story (not only did Philippe end up marrying Eleonore and having children, both men remain friends to this day) The Intouchables will keep you laughing for two solid hours. Here's the trailer:

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