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.
I have lost my doppelgänger. All my adult life I have been fated, due to oddly similar facial characteristics (from a certain angle, and especially lately with ever receding hairlines), to have been confused with Robin Williams. This happened most often in public settings, when I would detect strangers staring at me, whispering to a friend with a furtive nod in my direction. Because I too am in the film business, and frequently convey, superficially anyway, a somewhat antic temperament, the confusion happened a lot.
Occasionally I benefited from the resemblance: I was once whisked past a long line of waiting patrons upstairs at Chez Panisse, where the maître d’ greeted me warmly with “How nice to see you again!” and immediately seated my party at a prized table. I tried to convince myself and my impressed friends that he recognized me. But a few minutes later I saw the maître d’ scrutinizing me from afar: annoyed, even ashamed, that he had been taken in by an impostor. Hey, I hadn’t asked for the special attention. From everything I know about Robin Williams, I suspect he wouldn’t have either.
I never got the chance to ask Robin Williams if he too was plagued by this confusion—set upon by strangers who breathlessly wished to be greeting their spritely gay Jewish filmmaker friend, only to be disappointed that it was an international comic superstar. I did have the chance: In 1984, in a private airport lounge at SFO, I saw him lying across several seats, napping. I stared at my doppelgänger, living proof that we were two separate, distinct beings, our differences now magnified because I was looking for them. I didn’t have the heart to disturb him, just so we could gaze into each other’s funhouse-mirror reflection of ourselves. I let him sleep in peace.
I’d long gotten used to our resemblance, and confident enough in my own persona to laugh it off; but now, in these sad last few days, I find myself weirdly self-conscious. In public, I believe that somehow I am conjuring a ghost, and far too soon—one whose gifts, and struggles, were uniquely his, and not for me to impersonate, even unwittingly. I feel the absence of his comic brilliance as much as his adoring public does, with great pain, but also with a specific and peculiar pang: I am suddenly now a phantom limb, a presence at once comforting and disorienting, a reminder of what we had, and what we’ve lost.
While it’s now been 2 ½ years since I left the staff of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I still feel butterflies of excitement and occasional fits of anxiety as we approach each new festival season, symptomatic of some unconscious Judeo-Cinemato-Circadian rhythm that rules my autonomic nervous system. I suppose I should not discount, as indirect cause of my generally pleasant anticipatory jitters, the fact that good friends and colleagues still organize the festival, and that I just spent the better part of six months working at Frameline, precisely one floor upstairs from my former office. So I feel that I have been continually exposed to the 2014 strain of the SFJFF bug. While I am not fully versed in the upcoming program, there are several films premiering in the 2014 festival that I have been waiting years for; I also had the chance to preview some of this year’s films, write some program notes, and build up some excitement for a few screenings:
The Green Prince
The current ghastly violence in the Middle East will no doubt lend a strange cast to this year’s opening night documentary, about the friendship between a Palestinian counter-spy and his Israeli handler. For that reason alone I want to be there. I vividly recall having to preside at SFJFF’s Opening Night in 2006, days after the hostilities with Hezbollah in Lebanon had broken out. Watching films as a community can’t solve a crisis, but it sure beats fretting at home, clicking on the latest handheld video reportage on YouTube, and feeling helpless.
Little White Lie
I first met director Lacey Schwartz in Fall 2006, when her idea to tell the story of being both black and Jewish was in a very early stage and her proposed film, then titled “Outside the Box,” was sketchy at best. How wonderful to see that she has pulled off a terrific personal documentary, strong enough to be the festival’s Closing Night. I was thrilled to write the program note.
10%: What Makes a Hero
Another example of a documentary long brewing: for several years, Yoav Shamir—talented and provocative maker of Checkpoint, Defamation and Five Days—has been pondering on the kinds of people who become moral heroes. He shared with me once that, in considering the infamous Milgrom obedience experiments, he was interested not in exploring the psychology of the majority of participants who kept pushing the buttons that (they thought) tortured unseen subjects, but rather in understanding the few participants who resisted. This film—which I haven’t yet seen—is the result.
A Place in Heaven
Scripted with a bold storytelling style and beautifully shot to reflect the mystical-fabular nature of the story, this is a present-day morality tale that is as fascinating a drama as I’ve seen in a long while. My description in the online catalog is a sufficient statement of why I like the film, but, like the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s the kind of film I want to see again just to chew over.
Regarding Susan Sontag
If you missed it at Frameline, here’s your chance to see Nancy Kates’s thoughtful and deeply engrossing account of the life and (self-)image of America’s most glamorous and prolific public intellectual.
If you need a shot of optimism about the future of our sorry world, come meet Mica, the adolescent hero of this Bay Area-bred documentary, as it follows his attempts over several years to bring much-needed baseball equipment to kids in Cuba. Full disclosure: Mica’s parents—the talented local filmmakers Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel—are friends of mine, but I’ve been watching their film deepen and grow from where it started, and it has flowered into a beautiful and surprising evocation of tikkun olam. Don't miss this uplifting and touching chronicle, and the chance to meet the whole family at several Bay Area screenings.
Many friends and colleagues have asked me for a list of my “favorite” films in the upcoming 38th Frameline festival (San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), for which I’ve served as Senior Programmer. That's not really a polite question, people; it's like asking parents to name their favorite child ("You must have one, right? or at least one that you don't like?"). But without prejudice to any of the 214 films from 31 countries that will be screening between June 19-29, I am sharing here some quick suggestions for films and panels I am especially excited about...events that are “don’t miss” ... or special screenings that I am truly looking forward to sharing with the 65,000+ attendees expected. (All tickets available here.)
(Despite the above disclaimer, I don’t mind saying this is among my favorite single films in the Festival!)
A Chinese-Cambodian mother in London resists the overtures of friendship offered by her late son’s boyfriend, whom she has never acknowledged. A beautiful, moving and ruefully comic study in relationships, and in picking up the pieces of one’s life after a loss.
I Feel Like Disco
I can’t say enough about this funny, poignant, uplifting film! The central character, young Florian, is an endearing misfit in school—anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit (and haven’t we all?) will really fall for this pudgy kid who just wants to be himself. What I especially love—and one of the reasons you’ll find it as the Closing Night film—is that the writer and director refuse to take the sappy, easy, sentimental route with their story of father and son: they win our hearts with honest and funny dialogue, and make us smile with some of the goofiest disco-fantasy sequences ever. Here’s a rave review from its recent New York premiere.
Open Up to Me
A supremely well-acted drama from Finland about a woman who falls for an attractive soccer-playing man she knows from her past, when she was still a man. It’s one of several outstanding films this year featuring transgender central characters or subjects (see also the fabulous documentaries Kumu Hina and Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story).
The Way He Looks
Think of a John Hughes film transposed to Brazil: a teenage boy and his best gal-pal both fall for the new kid in school. But the fabulous twist here is that the boy is blind. A marvelous, sensitive take on adolescence and what it means to be “seen” for who you are.
and Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love
I had (embarrassingly) never even heard of the ground-breaking post-war French writer Violette Leduc before seeing these films—she was mentored by Simone de Beauvoir and way ahead of her time in her feminism and frank sexuality. Now there is a sumptuous feature film (by the director of Séraphine) starring the terrific Emmanuelle Devos (above), and an artful documentary that both make her a memorable literary pioneer.
This contemporary dysfunctional romance is a bit like HBO’s “Girls” in that the main character is a hot mess: a twenty-something Persian American confused about everything (including her sexuality), and always her own worst enemy. Features a very sharp script, and a first-time director/star!
For sheer laughs: Helicopter Mom
Stars Nia Vardalos (from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as an over-the-top meddling mom who enters her teenage son into a college scholarship competition for out gay high school students…long before he has declared his sexual orientation.
Not for laughs: Bad Hair
An outstanding drama about a misunderstood effeminate boy in Caracas. This is no Ma vie en rose in its bleak family dynamics, but nonetheless extremely well realized and performed, especially by the kid actors.
The Case Against 8
The opening night documentary – an incredible inside look, shot over 5 years, at the attempt to overturn California’s Prop 8. Even though you know the outcome, this is a riveting account, like being a fly on the wall to an historic civil rights battle. All 4 plaintiffs will be on hand!
I am not always a fan of docudrama, but this pitch-perfect retelling of a little-known chapter in postwar gay history is amazing: alternating between wonderful interviews and high-sheen period re-creations ,it tells the story of the groundbreaking Swiss homophile society (and eponymous magazine) called Der Kreis (“The Circle”). I love this film – director Stefan Haupt is coming from Zurich, too!
Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank
Can’t wait to meet the man himself, as he and his husband Jim Ready will be at the Castro to take in this chronicle of the bumpy road to becoming the nation’s most prominent gay politician.
Out in the Night
The powerful story of a group of African American women from Newark who were accused in the tabloids of being a “Gang of Killer Lesbians” after a street altercation with a man in Manhattan. A gripping account of racism, homophobia and justice denied.
Regarding Susan Sontag
Nancy Kates’s thoughtful and deeply engrossing account of the life and (self-)image of America’s most glamorous and prolific public intellectual.
Spotlight: LGBT Films in Today’s Russia
A four-film program of dramas, docs and shorts reflecting this perilous moment in Russian LGBT life. I have a separate blog entry about the Russian films. I especially recommend the crime drama Stand and the documentary Campaign of Hate, followed by a discussion including filmmaker Michael Lucas, international LGBT rights activist Julie Dorf, and the amazing and fearless journalist Masha Gessen. Plus who can pass up a shorts program called Pussy vs. Putin?
Past (Im)perfect: Filming Queer History
A free panel taking a look at the joys, challenges, and new cinematic approaches to telling LGBT history – a subject close to my heart. I’ll moderate a discussion among a great group of award-winning filmmakers.
Plus of course there are the three shorts programs that I curated: Fun in Boys Shorts, Worldly Affairs, and Shadows & Secrets...and the fun evening with Star Trek superstar George Takei...and...well, I better stop.
Even if I haven't exactly exhausted my "favorites," I do hope at least I've gotten you excited about some of the offerings at this year's Frameline festival. If you have specific questions about these or the other 200-odd film titles, just shoot me a question. I'll try to answer it...as long as I'm not in one of the screenings, chuckling, weeping. swooning...
I met Maya Angelou just one time, in 1998; her presence was formidable, her voice, unforgettable. She was on one of her many visits to San Francisco and had stopped by the television station where I worked, KQED, where in the late 1960s she had produced a series of cultural essays called Blacks, Blues, Black! I asked her to participate in the documentary I was making about the history of The Fillmore, where she had once lived and worked as a performer. She politely declined, declaring herself too busy.
Little did I know what was occupying her, among many projects: that very year my (future) friend Stephanie Rapp had commissioned her to write a poem on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. I had never seen this poem until today. It is stunning, powerful, more relevant than ever...unmistakably Angelou. She will be missed.
A Brave and Startling Truth
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
It’s shaping up to be a varied and busy next few weeks, so here’s a quick update on some activities where you can find me hanging out onstage, backstage, and in character…in a 75-seat black box…at the Berkeley Rep…and back in the Castro Theatre.
Lafee: This coming Sunday evening (May 25), I’ll be performing an excerpt of my (creeping-toward-the-finish-line) solo play The Disappearance of Alfred Lafee. The scenes (about 20 minutes in all) are different from those I performed in February at The Marsh and Stage Werx, though if you saw me at the Berkeley Marsh last year you will recognize them. The rest of the interesting lineup at Solo Sundays will be new, so take a break from the grill this weekend and come down and join the fun.
LGBT Movies: I’ve had a great time this spring working as Senior Programmer for Frameline, the upcoming 38th annual San Francisco International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival. We have curated a fabulous collection of 214 films from more than 30 countries. The festival runs June 19-29 – and the program is now online! Tickets go on sale Friday May 23 for members, next Friday (May 30) to the general public. I’ll post another blog entry with some personal favorites and observations, but start browsing the lineup now, it’s pretty hot! Of special pride and interest: a very timely and (I believe) necessary spotlight on new Russian features, documentaries and shorts with LGBT subject matter, highlighting some especially brave filmmaking in this difficult moment for Russian LGBT artists and citizens.
If you visited my grandparents any Thursday morning at their house on Beaumont Avenue in San Francisco, you were likely to find my grandfather noisily slurping his coffee and munching on a piece of matza. Thursday was when you also might meet Mrs. Fujimoto on her weekly visit to their house. Mrs. Fujimoto – we never learned her first name, it was just Mrs. Fujimoto. Kind of like in that old TV series where the Japanese housekeeper was just called “Mrs. Livingston”—the nice lady who would call Bill Bixby “Mr. Eddie’s Father.” In our family, we already had a Mrs. Livingston —it was my grandmother. That was her name. Mrs. Fujimoto called her “Mrs. Livingston.”
In 1939, my grandparents had left behind their house on Viktoriastrasse, a leafy lane in the town of Elberfeld, where generations of German Jewish women like my grandmother had kept impeccably well maintained, intimidatingly scrubbed homes...Cleaning was something of a sub-religion, a new denomination in the ever- more-secular Jewish world of my grandmother. This was something she had in common with Mrs. Fujimoto, who, I should clarify, was not a German Jew. My grandmother went at housecleaning like a demon, and even in the Weimar years, when my grandfather’s ribbon factory in Elberfeld was doing well and they had the money to hire housemaids, my grandmother was loath to turn over the cleaning to anyone else. Oh, she had no qualms assigning the intimate task of breast-feeding my mom to a wet nurse, but polishing the silverware?--ach Du lieber, now that was personal.
My grandparents had left a lot behind in Germany—their language, which upon arrival in America they pretty much refused to speak, except unconsciously when counting out playing cards and totting up points in their weekly bridge games, or in the occasional nursery rhymes they would sing to my sister and me. Hoppa hoppa Reiter, wenn er fällt dann schreit er...
So they left behind their language, if not their accent. And their house on Viktoriastrasse, if not their cleaning habits. And they left behind their mothers. My grandfather had to make a bargain with the Kommandant at Dachau—said he already had visas to leave with his wife and children, just release him and they’ll get out on the first available ship to America, stop waiting for the mothers’ visas to come through.
No time for the bread to rise: my grandparents, like the Jews of Egypt, left in haste. They threw their clothes into suitcases, they hid my grandmother’s jewelry in the insulation of the icebox door, and they left their house and their mothers in Elberfeld. The icebox got out. Their mothers didn’t.
My grandparents’ house in San Francisco still felt to me like a piece of the Old World: there was a certain Prussian formality, tempered by very warm and generous surprises—a secret candy drawer...toys hidden in the piano bench...a foosball game in the closet. Reluctantly as she aged, my grandmother yielded more and more of the housework to Mrs. Fujimoto—a fellow San Franciscan who had her own family story of wrongful imprisonment. Her family too had left their homes in haste, spent the war in internment camps, and had returned to San Francisco simply to carry on their lives.
My grandmother loved Mrs. Fujimoto, respected her talents. She may have been the only housekeeper who actually exceeded my grandmother’s exacting standards. Before a Thursday morning visit, my grandmother would go around the house anxiously fluffing the pillows...tidying up for the housekeeper. And Thursday mornings were the only time that my grandmother allowed her husband—the man she had married at age 19 and with whom she would eventually spend 72 years— yes, Thursday mornings were his one weekly appointed time to eat his beloved breakfast treat: matza. You see, matza was simply too crumbly to risk being eaten on days when Mrs. Fujimoto was not on hand to vacuum away the offending shards.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever explained to Mrs. Fujimoto what the little cracker crumbs were that she vacuumed up every Thursday. But I can imagine how it might have sounded, the way my grandmother would say it as we gathered around the seder table:
“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need come and celebrate.
This year we are slaves: Next year may we all be free.”
--Peter L. Stein
commissioned by and presented at the City Winery's Downtown Seder, San Francisco, 4/9/14