Please also read Patti Smith's beautiful remembrance of her friend.
I have been struggling to accept that Sam Shepard is gone. I never met him, but his fierce dreamscapes, the theater he conjured from the detritus of the American West, were profoundly meaningful to me as I came of age, another son of the West wondering where, and how, the myths had gone. For those of us who were exposed to his theater in the Bay Area of the 70's-80's, or who (like me, in college), have had a chance to perform those hallucinatory--yet somehow emotionally precise--raving monologues and stripped-bare showdowns before an audience, his theatrical voice was a mysterious revelation, an incantation, gushing from some ineffable psychic wound that made his work deeply human. A shaman is gone, but the crack that he opened in the language, and our imagination, remains.
Please also read Patti Smith's beautiful remembrance of her friend.
Earlier this week I delivered the following introductory remarks to Frameline's retrospective screening of Looking for Langston by Isaac Julien. I thought I'd share them here.
When Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture this year, it occurred to us on the programming team that it was an extraordinary breakthrough for LGBT film…but also that this film did not emerge fully blown, out of a vacuum. It is a direct descendant of a long line of fierce and poetic depictions of black queer lives, running back through artists like Patrik-Ian Polk, Cheryl Dunye and Marlon Riggs, to the filmmaker whose work we will see today. To help us and our audiences take some measure of the progress and current state of art-making for LGBTQ filmmakers of color, we’ve put together a special multi-film program called “Barriers and Breakthroughs: Illuminating Filmmakers of Color Before and Beyond Moonlight” – 14 films and 2 panels that together help paint a picture of the past achievements and current opportunities and challenges facing artists working across multiple racial and sexual identities.
We kick things off today by going to the source: what is arguably the first black queer film by a black queer filmmaker: Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, today presented in a beautiful new digitally restored format.
Isaac Julien, who received the 2002 Frameline Award for his pioneering filmmaking, is a hard-to-categorize British visual artist: filmmaker, installation artist, video poet, trickster, who often addresses the intersections of histories, migrations, identities, and sexualities in his visual assemblages. Queen Elizabeth herself seems wise to his talents: just this week she used her annual Birthday Honours to name him a Commander of the British Empire – pretty heady stuff for the son of Caribbean immigrants from the island of St. Lucia, who grew up in the gritty East End of London quite far removed from Europe’s high-art circles.
His breakout film in 1989 is the work we are going to see today, Looking for Langston, a meditation on the Harlem Renaissance, the poet Langston Hughes, and both the legacy and the future of Black queer desire. Isaac had been moved and inspired on a visit to New York in 1987 to think about these matters not only because he was steeping himself in Harlem Renaissance poetry and photography—work created by artists many of whom were gay or bisexual, closeted and out—but also because his visit happened to coincide with the funeral of James Baldwin, which he witnessed with his partner Mark Nash. He returned to London and fashioned this dreamlike, theatricalized film scenario: part funeral, part club rave, part homage and part imagined love story - using images and sounds that leap across decades to create a dense intertextual pattern that is suffused with wit and passion. The passion is there from the start: the first voice you hear is that of Toni Morrison in her eulogy for James Baldwin….but the wit is right there too—as the camera floats through a stylized 1920’s funeral home, the body in the casket is none other than Isaac Julien.
The film is all about Looking—not just “Looking for” some kernels of truth about the elusive essence of Langston Hughes, but also "Looking at": the film is a luscious celebration of the black queer gaze. And you can spell that last word any way you want.
On its release, the film fought off an attempt by the Langston Hughes estate to block the use of several of the poems used in it—in fact at its first festival screening in New York, someone had to stand by the projector and push a mute button every time Hughes’ poetry was read in order for the festival to avert a court injunction. But over the years most of those wrinkles were ironed out. The layered audio track is worth paying close attention to—featuring not only Hughes’ words but the rapturous poetry of Essex Hemphill and Bruce Nugent, and wonderful period music as well as contemporary songs written by Bay Area composer Blackberri.
Today the film stands as a milestone – or more accurately the Rosetta Stone – for what queer filmmaking could be. As the film scholar B. Ruby Rich mentions in her Frameline catalog note, given the context of both the triumph of Moonlight and our current threatening political climate, this may be “the most essential film revival of 2017.”
We’ll precede it with Isaac Julien’s rarely screened short film The Attendant, completed just a few years after Looking for Langston. Here the setting is also a kind of theatrical tableau – this time in a museum, where a middle-aged Black gallery guard locks eyes with a beautiful white boy—played, by the way, by John Wilson, who also appears as a fetching object of desire in Looking for Langston. This loaded moment in the museum sets off a witty sequence of erotic and symbolic encounters that manage to reference everything from the history of British slavery to Tom of Finland. Writing in the New York Times, Holland Cotter observed that “the film presents a complex sexual and racial dynamic of dominance and submission and a poignant sense of loss, which serves as a reminder that the piece, [like Looking for Langston,] was made at the height of the AIDS epidemic.“
We are really grateful to Isaac Julien and his gallery team in London for making these films available, as well as to Brian Freeman for first suggesting this timely program. Isaac is traveling to South Africa and not able to be here, but noted in an email to me that it was a special honor to bring these films to Frameline, since even though they have appeared in San Francisco before, they have actually never played here officially as part of the Frameline festival – and have never been seen at all in these digital restorations.
I'm a bit late with this round-up but want to point out a few don't-miss screenings at the upcoming festival, which opened Thursday June 15 and runs through June 25, featuring 147 films from 19 countries. It seems that this year (my fourth as Senior Programmer), LGBTQ film has leapt to new levels of sophistication, so the program feels especially strong from a cinematic standpoint. (I say this not to take any enhanced credit for the quality of the program; in fact I played a somewhat smaller role for Frameline this year because I was finishing my Jacques Pépin documentary.) For a sense of what might be happening in the zeitgeist for LGBTQ film, check out the programming team's thoughts in David Lewis' insightful article from last week's San Francisco Chronicle. Now on to a few picks for Frameline41.
World Cinema - a smorgasbord...
A striking, haunting drama set during a coming-of-age initiation ceremony among South Africa's Xhosa community, where notions of masculinity collide with forbidden affections. Sensitively written and performed.
God's Own Country
Set on a rugged Yorkshire sheep farm, this tale of a love that begins to take root between a sullen lad and the new Romanian farmhand is a slow burn, featuring muddy (torrid) frolicking and memorable scenes of animal husbandry. What's not to like? Director Francis Lee in person at the Castro!
I Dream in Another Language
Deep in a Mexican rain forest, a handsome anthropologist travels to a remote village to record the last two remaining speakers of a dying indigenous language, only to find the the two men refuse to speak to each other. His quest takes him on mystical, spiritual and wonderful journey into the past.
Against the Law
I was fascinated and appalled to learn the tragic history of the persecution of gay men in the UK during the 50s and 60s. This drama recounts the story of one man, Peter Wildeblood, and skillfully interweaves documentary testimony as well.
Among the docs, hidden histories and biographies galore
A marvelous, archivally rich and revelatory look at the fierce, iconoclastic Mexican torch singer Chavela Vargas. Pedro Almodóvar may have re-discovered her in 1990s, but here her whole messy and thrilling life gets its due.
The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin
While yes, it's an unabashed valentine to the city of San Francisco and the charms and openness that attracted its favorite son to live and write here, it's also a poignant look back at the last four decades of gay and lesbian life in America, through a novelist's eye. Well-crafted and told. It was our opening night screening (sold out) but just added an encore screening by popular demand.
The Lavender Scare
A gripping account of the decades-long effort at the highest levels of U.S. leadership to rid the U.S. government of homosexuals starting with the Cold War--and the battle for justice led by civil rights pioneer Frank Kameny. Filmmaker Josh Howard & author David Johnson in person.
Fab US Features
The incomparable Alan Cumming will be here to receive the 2017 Frameline Award and bask in what I know will be a thunderous reception to his beautiful performance as a man of a certain age trying to bridge a gap between generations. Wilson Cruz also expected in the house!
The festival boasts some terrific South Asian-themed films this year. Jennifer Reeder's delightful feature traces a budding romance between a Pakistani-American lawyer and a former female lucha libre wrestler...while she also negotiates bringing her traditional mother around to a more modern acceptance of 21st century love. (Mom is played wonderfully by the veteran actress Shabana Azmi, who starred in Deepa Mehta's controversial Fire some 20 years ago!)
A celebration of being your true oddball self, this is a fun, music-filled, affirming--but not trivial--coming-of-age story set in a high school, where the resident gender-expansive "freak" has a few lessons to teach the mean kids. Starring the wonderful Alex Lawther (who played young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) with a memorable turn by Bette Midler as his boozy mom, and cameos from Laverne Cox, John McEnroe and Abigail Breslin.
"Only at a Film Festival" - some offbeat picks
Looking for Langston
A new digital re-mastering of Isaac Julien's 1989 classic meditation on the Harlem Renaissance and queer black desire--an especially timely reminder that the poetic, boundary-crossing Moonlight has deep and fierce precedents. A perfect set-up for attending our panels focusing on opportunities and challenges facing LGBTQ filmmakers of color.
Don't be fooled by the apparent grimness of the topic (it's the story of a quadruple amputee) - this is a unique, uplifting, wry and funny documentary about resilience and the quirks of the human spirit.
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
The longest title in the festival and definitely the longest film (clocking in at just over 3 hours), this is a cinephile's must-see. In a fictional re-imagining of the iconoclastic political activism that led to Canada's 2012 "Maple Spring" (think "Occupy" on steroids), the film deploys a brilliant arsenal of cinematic styles to ask some pretty deep questions about what real change demands. It critiques youthful rebellion while also eviscerating the status quo. Epic in every way. Bring a cushion.
For the last 3 years I've been asked by friends and strangers to give my insider "favorites" among the films I've had a hand in programming at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. Alert: any programmer worth his/her salt doesn't talk about "favorites," because we've worked too hard to winnow down a huge number of films to a very competitive few, and we want you to see them all! That said, with 155 films this year from 24 countries - including films about LGBTQ life in countries and cultures we rarely hear about, including China, Cuba, Myanmar, and the Canadian Inuit - I understand the temptation to request something of a cheat sheet.
But rather than calling these "favorites," I am simply calling out here those screenings I personally am especially looking forward to, whether for selfish reasons (e.g., a shorts program I am proud of) or because of special guests, or simply a beautiful film that should be seen on the big screen.
A reminder that the festival runs June 16-26, including a full week in the East Bay. And if a film you made, or are excited to see, isn't listed below, it's not because I don't love it. It's that I don't have room on this blog to reproduce the entire Frameline40 website!
Quirky comedies, sexy dramas
Among the 21 first-time features in this year's festival, Tom Brown's quirky comedy centers on the foibles of a lovelorn San Francisco man--a longtime HIV survivor--and his maddening interactions with a Kafkaesque health insurance bureaucracy. A wonderful cast including James Roday, Danny Glover, Robin Weigert and Khandi Alexander give a special shine to the Lower Haight and other out-of-the-way corners of the city. Look for a good showing of cast and crew at the world premiere.
Paris 05:59 - Theo & Hugo
After a jaw-dropping erotic first scene that would earn an X-rating if it hadn't been shot in free-wheeling Paris, this story of two guys' first encounter turns a surprising corner, as the guys head out on bikes into the dawn streets of Paris to discover who each other really is. Sexy, romantic, bold and very well executed.
Turn back the clock to the heady days of second-wave feminism in this 1970s romance set (once again!) in la belle France - what is it with the French and their incredibly sexy dramas? Here our heroines are grounded farm girl Delphine and firebrand bisexual Carole (Cécile de France).
Oh la la.
The picture-perfect lives of a Viennese couple take a disturbing turn that makes them question everything they thought they knew about themselves. This psychologically compelling portrait is pretty unforgettable - maybe that's why it won this year's Teddy Award in Berlin for best feature.
Feature dramas: Youth in focus
2016 brings a strong slate of international films telling stories centered on the experiences of young people. In the new normal, these kids aren't necessarily battling parents and society over being gay. In a more accepting world, the complications of their lives are diverse and nuanced.
This exquisite new feature from French auteur André Téchiné looks at the rivalrous relationship between two teenagers living in a remote village in the French Pyrenees. The cinematography and landscapes are breathtaking (see it at the Castro!), and the story is an insightful foray into the turmoil of adolescence.
Three misfit high school girls in Sweden discover a magical plant that allows them to be transformed for short periods, werewolf-like, into boys...and they make the most of their adventure. This brilliantly realized fantastic tale has elements of both horror and humor, and ultimately is a quite poignant depiction of three young women's different experiences of gender identity.
Told from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old girl, Rara is the story of two moms in Chile who are raising their daughters while trying to shield them from both the judgments of their conservative town and the custody battle that is brewing with an ex-husband. Well written, acted and made.
Documentaries: Social Justice Issues to the Fore!
Our Opening Night film is an exuberant and politically engaged look at the current ballroom scene in New York City, centering on the lives and inspiring fierceness of talented voguers who are mainly queer and trans youth of color. Think of it as a savvy, contemporary update of Paris Is Burning for the age of #BlackLivesMatter.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
A powerful film telling the nightmarish story of four Latina lesbians wrongly convicted of a terrible crime during the insanity of the "Satanic ritual abuse" scare of the 90's. It's good filmmaking and compelling stories, and best of all - all four subjects will be here in person!
Growing Up Coy
We couldn't have known, when programming this film, that the issue of transgender people's rights to use a bathroom would become a nationwide hot button. The touching story of the Mathis family's battle to protect their delightful young child's basic rights is not only an excellent film--it follows a simple Colorado family as they get caught in a national media glare--but it can now be seen as a bellwether for our current controversy. If you want to put a human face on the issue, come to the screening, where you will also meet the courageous mom and little Coy herself.
Documentaries: Non-Fiction Revelations
Strike a Pose
At first glance, it's the thrilling behind-the-scenes story of the 7 young dancers plucked from obscurity in 1990 by Madonna to become her posse for the Blonde Ambition tour and the groundbreaking documentary Truth or Dare. But it is so much more: it's about fleeting fame, secrecy, resilience, trying to grow into maturity and surviving your own demons. Best of all: 5 of the dancers will be in attendance.
Inside the Chinese Closet
An intimate and fascinating portrait of two young Chinese professionals--one a gay man, the other a lesbian--as they face societal and family pressures to find a sham marriage and provide their parents with grandchildren. It's deeply insightful into a different culture, in the way only a great observational doc can be.
Women He's Undressed
An inventive biography of one of Hollywood's greatest costume designers, Orry-Kelly, who not only created indelible images dressing the casts of Casablanca, Auntie Mame and Some Like It Hot...but he was Cary Grant's secret lover (shhh....we're not supposed to know that). This is a delightful and dishy film by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career.)
Who's Gonna Love Me Now?
Among my favorite people from many years of directing the SF Jewish Film Festival are the sibling filmmaking team of Barak and Tomer Heymann (Paper Dolls, The Queen Has No Crown). Their new film follows an Israeli man, Saar Maoz, a long-term HIV survivor living in London, as he considers reconnecting with his estranged family back on a conservative kibbutz. The surprising turns and revelations throughout the film are very rewarding. The subject will be here, too!
Short but not small
We have 15 different shorts programs this year, including the usual classics Fun in Boys Shorts, Fun in Girls Shorts, Worldly Affairs and Only in San Francisco. But I also had a lot of fun curating two new offbeat programs:
We Need to Talk
An eclectic mix of five short films, all catalyzed by someone having to disclose something. Gives the lie to the old canard that guys just don't--or won't--talk.
Oh the Horror!
Those of you who are familiar with me know that I am not especially a fan-boy for genre flicks, and horror movies usually make me shut my eyes and cringe. But the short films in the creepshow category I came across this year - including some really funny ones - demanded to be seen.
And lest we forget...
It's Frameline's 40th anniversary, so there are some terrific retrospective screenings of films like Tongues Untied and The Celluloid Closet that have had a social impact and paved the way for the new crop of social justice documentaries. There's a fun program - Flashback 1977 - remembering Frameline's founding year (though my Lowell High School graduation will not be memorialized, I'm afraid). And I am moderating a panel on social justice documentaries as well: LGBTQ Films as an Agent of Social Change - Then & Now.
And I hope you all come out to meet (or get introduced to) the legendary Bob Hawk, recipient of the Frameline Award this year and mentor-muse-"film-whisperer" to generations of queer indie filmmakers. We'll be showing the new film about his life, Film Hawk.
World premiere. Closing night. Cast in attendance.
Our lives and city on the big screen.
This will be a blast.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Beirut, Kenya, Sinai, Israel/Palestine, and catastrophic climate change, I start to feel overwhelmed by despair. What possible good can come of the field I have chosen to learn and dedicate my working life to? Who am I kidding? Film, theater, arts, literature...these may nourish the soul, but in a broken world, these efforts seem futile at best, indulgent at worst.
And then a story comes to light. Just an anecdote, really, and about someone I have had only passing knowledge of: Mother Teresa, of all people. The following story happened long ago to Morgan Jenness, a very talented theater colleague of my partner Brian. I share it--in her words--for all of us, especially artists, who may be filled with self-doubt or hopelessness in times like these:
"When I was in my very early 20's I decided that theater was not really what I should be doing - I had seen a photo of Mother Teresa holding a very tiny baby - the two smiling/beaming at each other and it struck me like lightning that this is what I should do - go to India, find her, own only a sari and a bucket and go around picking up and caring for the sick and dying.
"So I was working temp jobs, trying to raise money to go to India and in the midst of this Mother Teresa makes a surprise trip to NYC. I call all the places she had been, call her convent in the Bronx, trying to find out how I can meet her. Someone at my job suggests I call the Indian Consulate, and when I do the man tells me that she will actually be there for a talk in about 45 minutes or so.
"I dash out of the job - saying goodbyes to all - call my friend Max to try to meet me and head up - the building is in the east 60's off Central Park as I recall...I get there and Mother Teresa has not arrived and the guard will not let me in. While I wait, two cars pull up...out of one exits a flock of nuns, and out of the other tiny Mother Teresa between two tall men. They come down the sidewalk towards me - jumping foot to foot - and she nods to the guard to let me in. My friend Max arrives and I grab her hand and we both follow Mother Teresa, the tall men, and flock of nuns up the stairs trailing behind like the duckling Ping in the Chinese folk tale.
"Max and I stand at the back of a large ballroom filled with beautiful Indian people, women in gorgeous saris, feeling out of place. Mother Teresa speaks eloquently about her work - at one point a man says, 'They say that rather than give a man a fish, one should teach him how to fish.' She says 'most of these people are not strong enough and need to be given what they need..but I will make a deal with you, I will give them a fish and when they are strong enough you can teach them how.' Booya.
"She is funny, she is tough and I am hearing angels of purpose singing in my head. At the end of the talk she is about to be taken into a smaller room and I think now or never. I fling myself at her, she takes my hand in both her hands and looks up at me (she is TINY) First I think - wow, she looks like Elizabeth Swados, and then I am caught by her eyes - which are just like burning coals. I tell her I want to come to India and pick up dying people and she asks you feel you need to do this, and I say yes and she looks at me and says no, you can not come.
"The angels stop singing. I have been rejected at first glance by Mother Teresa. She says, 'When you are so filled with love for these people that you cannot stand to be away from them for another second then you can come' and I get it - it's not about me. She asks what I do - I mumble about theater and singing...nonsense. She says, 'There are many famines. In my country there is a great famine of the body, and in your country there is a great famine of the spirit....that is what must be fed.' And she pats my hand and spins around and enters the room...I stand there and Max has to come up and take me away ....and I still carry those words with me today."
Earlier this year, I and my film programming colleagues at Frameline—the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival—met to begin the always agonizing process of selecting our favorites from several hundred new films submitted by filmmakers from around the world, to assemble a representative snapshot of our cinematic moment.
There are a few obvious trends that we could spot immediately: strong narratives from Latin America with gay male or transgender protagonists (In the Grayscale, Mariposa, Carmín Tropical, among many others); fascinating stories emerging from areas like the Balkans, which have rarely produced queer work (Sworn Virgin, Love Island, Xenia); a spate of bracing documentaries about North American athletes, created in the wake of Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and the Sochi Olympics (Game Face, Out to Win, To Russia with Love).
But there’s one development that has taken me a bit longer to identify as it isn’t as clear-cut. Call it the Year of the Bad Queer.
Some of the most memorable North American narrative films of the past year have featured GLBT protagonists—not side characters, but principals—who are deeply, irredeemably flawed. I’m not talking about the traditional flaws of antiheroes—quirks and oddities, suspect motives, disarmingly human failings. I’m talking about polarizing, problematic, occasionally awful people who happen to be gay. Their journey is at the center of the film, so we are asked to care about their fate, but their behavior is offensive, they are morally impoverished, mean, vain, passive-aggressive, violent, immature, or, in more technical language, generally fucked up.
Some examples of the Bad Queer phenomenon would include the following, all of them quite accomplished films with theatrical distribution deals in place or at least a lot of festival accolades and buzz.
• The title character of Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael—based on the true story of Michael Glatze, played by James Franco—goes from being a committed gay youth activist to a homophobic evangelical preacher intent on hurting the community he once loved.
• The screenplay of Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby is almost sadistically constructed so that its central character—a garden-variety Brooklyn performance artist, played by Silva himself—transforms (spoiler alert) from likable prospective gay dad in the first half to brutally violent criminal in the second.
• In her feature debut, writer-director-star Desirée Akhavan creates in Appropriate Behavior a central character, Shirin, who’s best described as a lesbian, Iranian-American version of Hannah Horvath from Girls—socially awkward, narcissistic, immature for her years, and incapable of taking responsibility for her failings.
• In Joey Kuhn’s debut feature Those People, the film’s most volatile, charismatic gay character is Sebastian Blackworth, a self-absorbed, manipulative, Upper East Side socialite who may have abetted his swindling father’s crimes (think Bernie Madoff).
• Lily Tomlin’s title character in Paul Weitz’ Grandma, while admittedly a fierce and admirable advocate for her pregnant granddaughter, is mean, self-pitying, occasionally violent, and a self-described “asshole.”
• The irreverent Canadian black comedy Guidance is about a self-loathing, alcoholic former child star who’s in denial about his homosexuality and, in career desperation, lies his way into a job as a high school guidance counselor, offering the children vodka shots and such affirmations as “I want you to be an inspiration to all the other sluts.”
Rather than be appalled by this newly hatched cast of fuck-ups or lament the scarcity of queer heroes, I think we should see this trend as reassuring—precisely because these films refuse to repeat the tropes of two decades of GLBT protagonists. Unlike their predecessors, the dramatis personae in this new generation of indies are not defined primarily by their sexuality, and their struggles are not about their sexual orientation. They’re dealing with a host of dysfunctions— bad parents, economic distress, addiction, grief—but they’ve largely integrated being gay into their otherwise messed-up lives. What’s most striking about these new antiheroes is that their flaws usually get the better of them. Most of these films’ denouements do not come with a side order of redemption (with the possible exception of Elle in Grandma, which, interesting enough, was created by a heterosexual writer-director).
So why this sudden proliferation of queer jerks and nasties? (Okay, there have been a few such characters in the past, like Aileen Wuornos in Monster or Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but they were once the exception.) I believe we’re seeing a new generation of writers and directors who are eager to create characters that veer away from the well-worn track of indie queer protagonists to date. Ironic and unsentimental, these filmmakers have moved beyond brave teens coming out to disapproving parents, misunderstood rural folk heading for the big city, or anything smacking of martyrdom for a gay cause. They’ve seen enough episodes of Modern Family to know that America may not need another likable homosexual on the screen on whom the audience can project its sympathy or approval. They’re feeling emboldened, or even entitled, to present what might be considered offensive gay or lesbian characters. Perhaps they wish to be seen as provocateurs as well as auteurs. They certainly show a healthy disregard for accusations of “internalized homophobia” (which have been leveled by some critics of these films). And they seem to trust the audience is ready to embrace stories that aren’t, in the end, an exercise in community pride.
As a result, queer film audiences finally have a narrative pleasure that has long been afforded to straight audiences since the dawn of film noir: a central character who is highly problematic, but fascinating.
There is an instructive parallel to this phenomenon that happened nearly fifty years ago involving another minority, namely American Jews. In the wake of growing social acceptance of Jews and waning anti-Semitism at home, a wave of cinematic “bad-boy Jews” swamped the screen in the late ’60s and early ’70s.” Think of the cad played by Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus, the matricidal George Segal in Where’s Poppa, or several of Elliott Gould’s rakes, cynics, and reprobates. This loosening and complicating of Jewish characters on-screen reflected a newfound confidence among young Jewish writers and directors, who were willing to risk offending people in order to widen the spectrum of Jewish personae beyond the pleasant pigeonholes of scholar, singer, soldier, milquetoast, or suburban assimilator that predominated in the postwar period.*
Could we be witnessing an analogous “bad queer” moment now, even as we witness the onset of marriage equality and I Am Cait? I suspect we are in for an extended run of “gays gone bad” on the big screen, if only because screenwriters now need something spicier than vanilla queerness to flavor their films. Expect a rash of Patricia Highsmith adaptations (two are already around the corner) and, who knows?, maybe another biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
* See J. Hoberman’s Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (2003, Princeton U. Press) for more on this period in American Jewish screen history.
I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing documentarian Marcel Ophuls at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, and penning an appreciation of his contributions to the field for the festival's program. Part of preparing for the interview and the essay was reviewing a good portion of his body of work...no small feat when it comes to his lengthy career and lengthy films! You can read my essay here or in the PDF below.
It's first in alphabetical order, though it's the last film we'll show, and well worth waiting for. The Closing Night film is a strong, edgy drama starring Dianna Agron (thankfully released from her cheerleader outfit in Glee) as a restless young woman stuck in a deadsville Nevada town, who encounters a troublemaking drifter (Paz de la Huerta) who opens her eyes to new horizons. It's well performed, burns with some R-rated heat, and has something deeper to say about what it takes to discover your own road.
_I Am Michael
The provocative true-life story of a gay youth activist whose search for spiritual meaning takes him down a strange path toward renouncing his homosexuality. With surprising and fine performances from James Franco and Zachary Quinto, this film helps complicate the possibilities of gay cinema...it's a counter-narrative, with an anti-hero, and yet never stops being a gay-positive film. Huh? See it and you'll know what I mean. It's the opening night film - discuss it at the party.
I love this romantic drama from Argentina's Marco Berger. Its structural premise is a bit like Sliding Doors, following two alternate versions of the same story, intercutting what might have happened if a crucial action had gone a different way at the beginning of the story. It's sexy, intelligent and ingeniously constructed. This is also one of 11 or so Latin American features in the festival, an especially strong year.
Stories of Our Lives
A stirring and beautifully filmed anthology of five fictional vignettes distilled and inspired from more than 200 interviews with Kenyan LGBT folks. An unusual and revealing window onto African lives.
This ravishingly photographed film shot in Albania and Italy centers on the story of Hanna, who, in order to escape the hardships and limited choices faced by young women in her extremely traditional village culture, chooses to become Mark and live as a man...but years later begins to question her decision.
One of several strong American debut features in Frameline39, this stylish comic drama by Joey Kuhn is set among the young social elites of Manhattan's Upper East Side (the post-prep school types you'd find in a Whit Stillman movie), spinning a tale of unrequited love among two best friends (Charles and Sebastian), with whiffs of Brideshead Revisited...and Bernie Madoff.
Filmmakers on Screen: dramas & docs exploring the lives of pioneering moviemakers
Cinephiles rejoice! The festival boasts 7 features that dramatize, parody, lionize or actually document the lives and loves of pioneering LGBT or queer-adjacent filmmakers. We didn't go looking for this theme, it bubbled up as part of the zeitgeist. Maybe it's because 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the birth of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whom we honor with a new documentary as well as a retrospective screening of his dark and erotic final film, Querelle. Other notable cine-centric films include:
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
The latest film from British virtuoso Peter Greenaway is an over-the-top glitter-bomb, a visual feast that imagines the sexual awakening of the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein during his time in Mexico in 1931. Funny, brazen, and self-consciously gorgeous, the film features a bravura comic performance by Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein the tragic clown.
Jason and Shirley
In this fascinating faux documentary, director Stephen Winter turns the tables on the seminal, controversial 1967 film Portrait of Jason. Even if you don't know the original documentary--a groundbreaking example of confessional biography in which director Shirley Clarke seemed to coax her eccentric black gay subject Jason Holliday into an on-camera breakdown--this new film, taking a mock "behind-the-scenes" approach, gives us an engrossing take on the power relationship between artist and subject, and touches on important themes of race, sexuality and moviemaking.
Feelings Are Facts:
The Life of Yvonne Rainer
San Francisco's own Jack Walsh delivers an absorbing homage to pioneering modern choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, a San Franciscan herself, still a bracing and committed artist-activist now in her 80's.
Peter de Rome:
Grandfather of Gay Porn
Men of a certain age may remember the frisky and sex-positive underground movies of Peter de Rome (with goofy titles like Adam and Yves), but everybody else will be surprised and charmed by the courtly, puckish Englishman who in the early 1960s blazed a sexy 8mm trail for the likes of Andy Warhol, John Waters and today's multibillion-dollar adult gay porn industry. Though much of his imagery is X-rated, this excellent profile makes a strong case that Peter de Rome is an artist worth discovering...an opinion shared by the august British Film Institute, which is now busy archiving and preserving much of his (delightfully obscene) oeuvre.
Alex & Ali
Berkeley filmmaker Malachi Leopold's terrific thriller of a documentary tells the story of his uncle Alex, who fell in love in the 1960s while serving in the Peace Corps in Tehran and has held the torch for beautiful Ali over the decades. Despite the separation imposed by the Iranian revolution. they attempt to reunite, complicated by the changes each man has undergone in the intervening years and the very serious danger Ali faces if he is outed.
The Royal Road
Jenni Olson's mesmerizing and illuminating meditation on California history, urbanization, Father Junipero Serra, LA-SF cityscapes and much more. A rewarding and transporting viewing experience, shot in 16mm film (talk about dedication) by Sophie Constantinou and edited by Dawn Logsdon.
Tab Hunter Confidential
A clip-filled, behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood heartthrob who had to remain closeted to maintain a career, ably directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who will receive this year's Frameline Award. And of course...Tab in person at the Castro!
The Yes Men Are Revolting
The latest hilarious antics of Andy and Mike--the brilliant eco-pranksters known as The Yes Men--come to life in their most personal film yet, in which Andy (the gay one) reveals how he can't keep a boyfriend because of his globetrotting activism, and they take an emotional trip to Uganda, where their anti-corporate enviornmentalism may be far less controversial than Andy's coming out.
Among the six programs in Frameline39 that address the ever-changjng landscape where professional sports, gender, and sexuality intersect, I am especially fond of this heartfelt documentary that celebrates the camaraderie and acceptance sought by the tough athletes competing for the Bingham Cup, the gay rugby championship tournament. I still don't understand the rules, but I have new respect for the heart and determination shown by players from all over the world in a sport that long rejected them.
Don't-Miss Experiences, Only at the Castro...
54: The Director's Cut
No, that title is not a complete a sentence (<rim shot!>). It's the completely overhauled, eye-opening new version of the 1998 disco-drenched movie, set in Manhattan's legendary Studio 54 nightclub. At the time it was released, the director's original dark vision of the story--centered on the gorgeous bisexual bartender Shane (Ryan Philippe)--was so butchered and sanitized by Miramax that the creative team took to calling it "55." Now, some 40 minutes of re-shot footage have been removed, a similar amount of original material has been rescued from VHS dailies and re-integrated, and the whole thing is a coherent, glossy, erotic cautionary tale about a decade of decadent debauchery. Besides the great soundtrack, it's a thrill to see so many now-famous performers in younger, earlier roles: Salma Hayek, Mark Ruffalo, Neve Campbell, and of course a magnificent Mike Meyers as creepy club owner Steve Rubell.
Magic Mike XXL
And Lest I Forget...
...there are lots more I could feature because, you know, I love ALL our children, but I have to end this somewhere. Still, I don't want to overlook a trio of fine new American dramas--The Surface, Beautiful Something and That's Not Us (an improvised rom-com)--and the trio of shorts programs I curated: the annual comic cavalcade Fun in Boys Shorts; a dramatic sextet of films about longing that I've named Thirst & Desire; and finally, and all-Latin edition of amoroso shorts in Worldly Affairs.
Meryl Streep, I fear for your legacy.
Yes I know, you just got the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Along with your three Oscars. And a heap of new nominations for your performance as The Witch in “Into the Woods,” which opens Christmas Day. But I am deeply concerned about your place in posterity.
You see, we are hatching a generation of young moviegoers whose first exposure to your protean talents will be in “Into the Woods”—and they will be forever scarred, incapable of watching your other performances without a shiver of unconscious dread. As the erratic sorceress who locks up her daughter into a tower out of possessive motherly love, then blinds her prince, and otherwise performs despicable (if often funny) acts of magical barbarism against the humans around her, your Witch is certainly a villainess for the ages…just not the pre-teen ages. Children will listen… and be traumatized.
A Curse on Madame Armfeldt
OK, Meryl’s legacy is probably secure, but I speak my concern from experience. As youngsters growing up in San Francisco, my sister and I, in a precocious act of sophistication, bought tickets to see the Broadway touring company of Stephen Sondheim’s romantic “A Little Night Music” at the Curran Theatre. What should have been my joyful introduction to the delights of Sondheim was instead a waking nightmare: the role of Madame Armfeldt was played by Margaret Hamilton—the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” film. Her cackling evil was seared on my young brain, and the Sondheim musical was ruined. Meanwhile poor Margaret Hamilton, a fine actress, never escaped that terrifying legacy for generations of American children. (You can see her on YouTube touchingly trying to reverse that curse in a 1975 episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”)
Even so, I am grateful that my parents exposed us as tots to “The Wizard of Oz,” in all of its upsetting splendor—children have resilient, if impressionable, imaginations. But “Into the Woods” presents a more challenging decision for parents, because at heart (despite interweaving the tales of such childhood favorites as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, and despite the Disney brand) the film is a dark and very adult journey. It explores the unintended and sometimes tragic consequences of our quest for “happily every after.” As one lyric puts it, “wishes come true, not free.” Promises are broken; the land is beset by violence; beloved characters die.
Sondheim and his collaborator James Lapine never intended to make a children’s musical; in fact, most school performances present only the first, more cheerful act, a truncated version called “Into the Woods Jr.” But unless you’re willing to leave your movie seat halfway through these “Woods,” that’s really not an option with the film. Nor would I want it to be.
The power of the musical, which I have seen in many incarnations since its 1987 Broadway premiere, is that it deals, like its fairy-tale source material, in archetypes. Stories of absent fathers, dead mothers, far-off princes, dark woods and dangerous wolves play out deep-seated fantasies (and nightmares) about abandonment, poverty, sexual awakening.
And then there are the giants.
The destruction wrought by an enraged, provoked lady giant stomping through the land is a terrifying Rorschach test. Each time I see the show, my response to the giant is different, correlating with my own fears and the preoccupations of the times. In 1987, it was hard not to connect the wanton death unleashed by the giant with the ongoing devastation of AIDS (and indeed, one of the show’s tender closing songs, “No One Is Alone,” became in the 1990s something of an AIDS anthem in the gay community—a call to compassion and collective responsibility).
Successive viewings have morphed my projections onto the giant into other deeply resonant threats: nuclear destruction, environmental despoliation, even the intractable tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (this during a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I saw in August, at the height of the Gaza war). Such is the power of archetypes—they accommodate time and circumstance, retaining their potency.
Film is a far more literal medium than theater, so I wonder if the viscerally realistic giant of Rob Marshall’s film (played with gusto by the formidable, if digitally enhanced, British actress Frances de la Tour) will invite movie audiences of the future to project their own fears onto her, too. I hope so—“Into the Woods,” like “The Wizard of Oz,” deserves to remain a classic—though perhaps more for adults than children. That will require a certain elasticity in the way we interpret its characters...an ability to see ourselves, no matter which Witch we watch.
A version of this article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 17, 2014.
The fall arts and culture season is just a couple of weeks old and I already feel hopelessly behind. To save you from that sinking feeling (“What, I missed that [show – screening – concert – lecture – exhibition] already?”), here is my highly edited tip sheet for the coming month, as the Fall season commences along with (for some of you) a new year, 5775. The only common denominator to the items below is that I have some personal or professional connection to these events, so be forewarned, it is a hopelessly self-referential list:
The Cinema Club: Year 17, Season 35
This venerable sneak preview club, which I have been moderating for <gulp> 10 years, returns for a new season of top-notch, discussion-worthy features on select Sunday mornings at the Sundance Kabuki. Actually, you’ve already missed the first one this past Sunday (I told you, it’s hard to keep up)— we showed the phenomenal Swedish psychodrama-cum-ski-movie Force Majeure (pictured), already garnering Oscar buzz—but you can still become a member for the remaining sessions or come a la carte. Subscription info here.
Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 2-12)
So many strong films lined up this year at MVFF, it’s hard to choose. I am especially looking forward to the producing debut of my friend (and former SF Jewish Film Fest director) Janis Plotkin, whose Plastic Man is a documentary about San Francisco bail bondsman-turned-artist Jerry Barrish. Of the films I have already seen, I was impressed with the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, a sensitive drama in which a working-class Belgian factory worker (Marion Cotillard in an understated, glamorless and lovely performance) has one weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so she won’t get laid off. And then there is the oddly captivating and unsettling dysfunctional marriage drama from Israel called Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, starring the intense Ronit Elkabetz, co-directing with her brother Shlomi. Here’s my catalog note on that one. Also MVFF is also showing the above-mentioned Force Majeure.
A Taste for Conversation –
Last year’s blazing-star cookbook sensation was Jerusalem, whose message from its Israeli and Palestinian co-authors seemed to be “make food, not war.” Now the London-based Israeli half of that duo—chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi—is riding high with several new cookbooks and public conversations. I’ll be doing the onstage honors with him (and extracting some cooking advice) at the JCCSF on October 24. Tickets are going fast, but if you miss out you can watch the live stream at jccsf.org/live.
The Stanford Family:
From a Tragic Loss,
a Lasting Institution
What is a Harvard guy doing plugging the founding story of Stanford University? Cool your jets, Crimson. I had the honor to work on the reinstallation of the Stanford Family Galleries at the university’s renowned Cantor Arts Center; the renovated galleries, which opened last month, tell a remarkable story in California and national history and include some fascinating historical artifacts like The Last Spike, which completed the Transcontinental Railroad, and artworks by Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Hill. So if you’re heading down to Palo Alto, perhaps to check out the new Anderson Collection, stop in across the street at the Cantor and have a look at the galleries. You’ll discover the little-known (at least to me) tale of how both the university and the museum were created in a single gesture to memorialize the death of 15-year-old Leland Stanford, Jr., scion of one of the country's most influential Gilded Age families. My favorite anecdote: when Leland and Jane Stanford founded the university in 1891 in their son’s memory, they insisted it should be co-educational and tuition-free. But they felt the university museum (precursor to the Cantor) should charge an admission fee. Today, attending Stanford costs around $60,000 a year….but the museum is free. Oh, for the noblesse oblige of the Gilded Age!
5775 – Palindrome Year
Since English is read from the left, and Hebrew from the right, perhaps the only hope for making sense of our divided world is in a palindrome. May the coming year 5775 bring each of you much palindromic symmetry, calm, rationality, and order…but may it also provide many unexpected bursts of random pleasure in this irreproducible, irrational universe we inhabit, no matter from which direction you approach.