Tuesday, June 23, 2015

SUN BLOOD STORIES—TWILIGHT MIDNIGHT MORNING

"Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it's in the desert we must go and look for them."—Jean Genet.

Boise sits in the southern sagebrush deserts of Idaho, a wavering mirage and seeming refuge from the arid heat that grips the city in late summer, and commensurately a progressive jewel that chafes against the cheap political conservatism associated with the state: like a confident diamond scratching against glass. There's something to be said about the repressive forces of conservatism requiring—in fact, inspiring—a progressive response. Boise's youthful, creative independent music scene provides exactly such a response to the state's embarrassingly kneejerk lockstep politics.

With the first track "Palace Mountain Mirage" on their latest release Twilight Midnight Morning (2015), Sun Blood Stories invites their listeners out into the desert to surf astral sand dunes. Watch out for the androgynes along the way who—shaded and mischievous as all get-out—might seduce you into some sidestep fever dream just to sprinkle glitter in your eyes or paint your fingernails blue. This invitation proves important as—for a while there—I thought we were going to be left behind on the band's post-psychedelia sojourn. With true shamanic responsibility, however, the band has gone "out there" and returned with some truly trippy but accessible tunes in what is admirably their most mature effort to date.

Photo: Megan Jae Riggs
Although members Ben Kirby and Amber Pollard will be the first to tell you they prefer their vocals to stand behind the music, I'm pleased the band has not forsaken their lyrical chops, brought into play with "West the Sun" where Kirby's gravel-rich voice complements Pollard's witchy croons to mesmerizing effect, and likewise with "Found Reasons Found Out", which feels like the haunting memory of wavering sea kelp recalled out in the middle of the desert underneath droning power lines, stark against a black sky glutted with stars. This might be, in fact, the governing aesthetic behind the band's new release: a heady electric mixture between liquidity and drought. A sea splash on sagebrush, if you will. If whispers could be hung up like hammocks between the sharp points of night stars, it'd be easy to lie there, sway in the night breeze, and listen for hours to Sun Blood's intercepted messages from the Milky Way.

With the strong and steady heart of Jon Fust's drumming, Nik Kososik's desultory, dreaming bass, and Judah Claffey's exploratory viola, Sun Blood Stories has engineered a lushly-textured listening experience that flows seamlessly from its opening invitational track, to its final lullaby "Misery Is Nebulous", where a fevered brow is calmed by gentle hypnotism. Night fades away, the cyclic vigil is complete, and—in that space inbetween dream and waking—the listener walks into morning, worn but informed by a deeply shared experience.

With the help of filmmaker Jason Sievers, Sun Blood Stories has released the first video from the collection, "Nigh Tremor", where Pollard's vocals edge towards the husky smoke of whiskey to reveal what she knows in her bones.

Monday, June 22, 2015

FRAMELINE 39: TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL (2015)—Onstage Conversation with Tab Hunter, Jeffrey Schwarz, Allan Glaser & Eddie Muller

As predicted, Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), Frameline Award recipient Jeffrey Schwarz's companion documentary to Tab Hunter's 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making Of A Movie Star (co-authored by Eddie Muller) was enthusiastically received by a capacity audience at the Castro Theatre's 1400-seater. An intimate conversation with one of Hollywood's most famous sex symbols, Tab Hunter Confidential explores the "X" factor that made Hunter a cinema icon in the last days of the studio system star-making machinery and how he maintained privacy and dignity in the face of intense mediated hype. Smartly edited with '50s pop cultural flourishes, creative animations and titles by Grant Nellessen and Taryn Teigue, Tab Hunter Confidential reveals how dreams are manufactured, and realigned with the advance of time.

Hunter exclaimed it felt good to be back in San Francisco where he grew up and praised the audience for their fabulous reception. Schwarz, too, thanked the audience for their warm standing ovation. As for the origin of the project, Schwarz detailed: "As everything goes, all roads lead back to John Waters." It was during the filming of I Am Divine (2013) when he met and interviewed Tab Hunter and his partner / producer Allan Glaser, that the subject came up of making a documentary; a project they were already considering.

Hunter admitted it had been difficult enough to write the book, but—suspecting someone else might do it and write a lot of garbage—he thought, "Get it from the horse's mouth rather than a horse's ass." Next, Glaser proposed they make a documentary, but not without due credit to Eddie Muller for helping Tab write his autobiography. Despite living with Tab for 33 years, Glaser was not able to pull stories out of Tab like Eddie could. "It's amazing what a few margaritas will do," Muller quipped.

Once those memories were committed to print, Hunter was more willing to be interviewed further for the documentary. His past career was exactly that for him and—according to Glaser—Hunter kept nothing from those years. He even gave away his gold records. So for years Glaser had to re-collect everything to use in the documentary. Glaser would be on Ebay in his bedroom betting on a photo of Hunter, who would scold, "What are you buying that crap for?" Glaser told him it would come in handy someday.

"To stand up on this stage now," Muller offered, "is the culmination of a long story for me that began when these guys were friends with Evelyn Keyes, the actress. I had written a profile of Evelyn Keyes in a book of mine and they thought that I had captured Evelyn to a point where they felt, 'We should talk to Eddie and see if he could work with Tab on this book.' I just want to say that early on in that process, there were a couple of writers they had worked with before that didn't work out. I was asked to fly out to New York to Simon & Schuster to meet the man who had wanted to publish this book, the great editor Chuck Adams. I thought I was going back to New York to sort of audition for Chuck, like could I actually write this book? When I got into Chuck's office, he said, 'Oh no, Eddie, I'm not concerned about you at all. My question is: will Tab be gay enough?' So, I'm just happy to be standing here on this stage today."

Hunter freely admitted that it has been very difficult for him to open up about his life because he is an exceedingly private person. "Sharing the Warner Brothers days is the whole combination: my mother, my brother, who were very important in my life. My mother was a strong wonderful character. She was very positive, but old-fashioned. Today, that just doesn't exist much. Everything's so out there in your face. I love where she came from. When I look back, the more I think how fortunate I was to live in an era like that. So it was difficult for me to explain all that. People today, they don't really understand what a studio contract was like. Those moguls who ran those studios are not who they have today—executives who spent a gazillion dollars on movies that have no depth or reality. Once in a while you will get some creative people out there today that just touch you and move you, and that's what it's all about. It's about communication with one another." Deferring to Glaser, Schwarz and Muller, Hunter praised them for their ability to communicate with others.

Hunter further praised Glaser for being one of the toughest producers he's ever worked with. "It's true," Glaser agreed proudly. Recalling (and respecting) that Hunter was not as interested as he was in doing a book and a movie, Glaser turned to Hunter and applauded him for allowing his walls to be broken down so he could share his story. "Because I think it's an important story to be shared for generations to come," Glaser asserted. "I look at it from that perspective." With the great bio from the book that Eddie and Tab had created, and Jeffrey as director, as a smart producer Glaser knew he had surrounded himself with the most talented people he could find.

Hunter added: "I know how difficult it is when you're gay and people so often say, 'Oh she's gay or he's gay blah blah blah blah' and I hate that. I just don't think it's anybody's business. You should live your life the way you want. My concern is with your being a human being. What kind of human being are you? That's what I love so much because I've worked with such incredible human beings. People always want to put people in a category and lock them into it right away. I hate labels."

Asked what it was like working with Jack Warner, Hunter revealed that Warner cracked the worst jokes in the world. He thought he was funny and everyone would laugh along obligingly. But he sure knew how to run a tight ship. If you worked for him and he said, "You go to work on Thursday", Thursday you go to work, no questions about it. If you turned something down, you wound up like Bette Davis on suspension. But Hunter loved those old moguls because they knew what they wanted. They knew how to produce motion pictures. He characterized Warner as Lucifer with his little moustache, but he knew his business and was tough. "When you're employed by someone, you do what they ask or you're out and someone else is in there. So do it to the best of your God-given ability or get the heck out."

Schwarz added that Warner defended Hunter many times. Although he couldn't include it in the film, when Hunter was cast in Damn Yankees (1958) and director George Abbott expressed his discontent, one of the reasons for his discomfiture was because he thought Tab was a little "light in his loafers." Years later when researching for his book, Hunter discovered this remark in a memo Abbott had written Warner. Warner insisted Hunter would be in the movie, whether Abbott agreed or not.

Hunter recalled another instance. The controversial spread in Confidential Magazine had come out two weeks before he and Natalie Wood won the audience awards for promising newcomers. They were at an event when one of the photographers shouted out, "Smile pretty, Tab, this is for the next issue of Confidential Magazine." Horrified, he turned his back on the photographer. Warner grabbed him by the shoulders and faced him back out, stating, "Tab, remember this, today's headlines are tomorrow's toilet paper." He was so grateful. People were always out to criticize. "We have to be positive in this day and age," Hunter encouraged, "There's too much negativity."

Hunter emphasized that he was a part of the end of the studio era, along with Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, and Robert Wagner.  They were all youngsters and part of a studio system that was rapidly crumbling because of live television, and because the studios had to get rid of the theaters they had all around the country.  It was a changing business. They all looked up to the big movie stars—Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield.

He recalled working with Geraldine Page, who he considered a "master." He told her, "Gerry, everything you do people absolutely love and the critics hate me. They tear me apart." She grabbed hold of his arm and said, "Remember this, Tab. If people don't like you, that's their bad taste." He thanked her for the advice, which he passes on to everyone he meets: "If people don't like you, that's their problem, not yours."

Asked about the participation of Mother Dolores Hart in the documentary, Jeffrey Schwarz understood it was kind of a shock to first see her in the film but she's friends with Tab and Allan. Hart wanted to be a nun but she also wanted to be an actress. She consulted with some other nuns and they told her to be an actress first and then be a nun. She did movies first, with Elvis Presley—she was in Where the Boys Are (drawing question marks in the sand with George Hamilton)—before becoming a nun. She had a powerful aura around her when he interviewed her, something he's never felt with anyone else, and he loved how accepting she was of Tab. Through her commentary, Schwarz was able to include Tab's spirituality on screen to show how important his religion is to him; something you don't often see presented in a positive way.

"Mother Dolores is a terrific woman," Hunter affirmed. She was in Los Angeles on tour with her book, Hunter and Glaser attended the booksigning, and he asked if she would participate with the documentary. "I would love that," she responded, and Glaser immediately sent a car for her and brought her over. Schwarz advised that she's still a voting member of the Academy. Hunter joked, "I always wondered when they sent her a lot of schlock if she and all the nuns sit around watching it?!"

With regard to how he adapted the book for the film, Schwarz recounted that the first cut was four hours or so because there was just so much beautifully detailed material in the book to follow up on. They interviewed 50-60 people. But they couldn't use it all, including stories about Tab's working with Tallulah Bankhead on off-Broadway, and one of his being taken to trial by his neighbors on false accusations of animal cruelty. There was insane, crazy, very moving stuff in the book, but a movie can only be 90 minutes. Schwarz is grateful to Muller and Hunter for starting the process all those years ago. The good news is that the book has just reappeared as No. 9 on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

FRAMELINE 39: TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL (2015)—Introductory Remarks by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman; Frameline Award Acceptance Speech by Jeffrey Schwarz

Jeffrey Friedman recalled that he and Rob Epstein had just started working on their documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) when they met Jeffrey Schwarz. He was a recent film school graduate who had made a short, sweet documentary Al Lewis in the Flesh (1993) about the actor who played Grandpa on the television series The Munsters. That was his calling card. He came to San Francisco from the East Coast, wanting to work in film. This was in the early '90s, which was not a great time in San Francisco. The city was still reeling from the AIDS epidemic. It didn't feel like a fun, gay destination. It felt more like a ghost town. So when this smart, talented, creative gay man made the conscious decision to move to San Francisco at that moment, there was something moving and hopeful about it. He felt like Jeanette MacDonald after the earthquake. But Jeffrey Schwarz was not just any young, creative, talented gay man; he was somebody who "got" the Jeanette MacDonald reference and someone who also made the mental cross-reference to Judy Garland's reference to Jeanette MacDonald in Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. "When a generation of gay men were disappearing," Friedman asserted, "Schwarz seemed to have the visceral need to cultivate and preserve our collective memory."

As Friedman and Epstein were working with Vito Russo on the film version of his pioneering queer history of the movies, The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised 1987), Schwarz's arrival in San Francisco at that moment felt like a gift from heaven. He was a compulsive student of film. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was the kind of film buff who could tell you the names of bit players in screwball comedies from the '30s. As "a kid", he knew films that Friedman and Epstein had never heard of. When they interviewed Tom Hanks for The Celluloid Closet and asked him the first gay character he remembered seeing in a movie, Hanks described the scene from the 1971 film Vanishing Point. Schwarz was the only one on the crew that had—not only heard of the film—but seen it. Vito Russo died before The Celluloid Closet was completed. Years later, Friedman and Epstein felt it was fitting that Jeffrey Schwarz made the definitive film about Russo's life, as he has with so many other icons of gay history and film history. Above all, what Friedman wanted to say about Jeffrey Schwarz, is that he was a mensch whose decency and compassion shines through all of his films.

Agreeing wholeheartedly with Friedman, Rob Epstein stepped up to make a few additional remarks. He recalled that the first time he met Jeffrey Schwarz was at their then-office at 347 Dolores Street, which was a former convent and Catholic girls school. He came out of his office and there at the copy machine was a "really cute guy." He thought, "Hmmmm, who's that?" Michael Lumpkin, the producer of The Celluloid Closet, said, "That's Jeffrey Schwarz, our new intern." In fact, Schwarz's internship was short-lived because he quickly made himself indispensible to the project and was hired to be an apprentice editor on the film. He taught himself the Avid and ultimately edited the scene that became the finale of The Celluloid Closet. "We can't lay much claim to Jeffrey's success," Epstein told his capacity Castro crowd, "but he can make some claim to ours."

It was with "great privilege, pleasure and pride" that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman awarded Jeffrey Schwarz the 2015 Frameline Award.

Acceptance Speech

Jeffrey Schwarz: When we screened my film Vito in this theater a few years ago, there was a kid in the audience—he was right over there—and he was decked out in rainbows from head to toe. He was probably about 17. He was just coming out and his mother brought him to the Castro to introduce him to our community. Maybe some of you were there, to remember this? It was amazing. He said that before the screening he had never heard of Vito Russo and now he had a new hero. That was such an incredible moment. You can feel the joy in this theater. You can feel everything come full circle. Tonight, here at the Castro Theatre, with this award, it comes full circle for me as well.

This city has meant so much to me, especially when it was my home in the early '90s. I had just come out to my friends and my family, including my grandmother who said she had "already guessed" because I moved to San Francisco. That's all she needed to know. But prior to arriving here, part of my coming out process was devouring every gay book and movie I could get my hands on. Rob Epstein's Oscar®-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and Vito's book The Celluloid Closet were my two monumental touchstones.

Rob's film was a revelation and it presented Harvey—not frozen in amber—but as a passionate, funny and brave human being. For 90 minutes I watched that film, thrilled at seeing Harvey emerge as a leader, saddened at his death, and enraged at seeing justice denied; but, also learning that one person can change the world and inspire future generations.

Then there was Vito's book The Celluloid Closet, which introduced me to a world of images I had no idea existed and like many I responded to his righteous indignation at how LGBT people were portrayed on film. So when I read in The Advocate that Rob and Jeffrey were going to be making a documentary out of The Celluloid Closet, I called their office from my home in New York and begged for the chance to work with them. I guess the begging worked because a few weeks later I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco. Rob and Jeffrey welcomed me to their offices at Telling Pictures, which—as they mentioned—was located at a former nunnery on Dolores Street, which I'm sure was haunted, working the night shift was really creepy, there was nobody else in the building but me, and also it was right across the street from the location where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, which was super cool.

So I became an apprentice editor on The Celluloid Closet, worked the night shift, digging through hundreds of LGBT films, looking for just the perfect clip for Rob and Jeffrey to incorporate into the film. Vito's dream was that a film would be made of his book and now—only three years after his death—his vision was becoming real. His spirit very much guided the making of that film.

San Francisco also opened my eyes to the idea of a gay community, which was something I had never really experienced before. I felt at home here. I started to see what it meant to be part of a community. When a co-worker at a temp job here asked me if I was "family", it took me a minute to understand what he meant by that. I don't think people say that anymore, but I loved that. When the plumbing needed fixing at the office, the office manager called the Gay Yellowpages. Even hiring a plumber would be kept in the family.

The men and women that I met in San Francisco shared a common history of struggle and triumph, of incredible loss, but also of healing. I went to my first Frameline Film Festival in this theater and that year I saw films like Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche and the late Richard Glatzer's Grief. For the first time I was watching movies with a gay audience. You haven't lived until you've seen The Wizard of Oz with a Castro audience. For that matter, Can't Stop the Music, which came out 35 years ago today. Showgirls, I saw that here. Or a terrifying scream fest like Mommie, Dearest. Seeing movies in this theater felt like coming home and it still does.

Vito felt the same way. In fact, from where I am right now I can see his favorite seat, which was right in the middle of the first row on the balcony. If you're in that seat, you're lucky. Working on The Celluloid Closet, I felt more passionate than ever about the power of movies to entertain, to educate and to inspire. I got to witness and participate in what is now considered a queer documentary canon. I soaked up as much as I could watching Rob and Jeffrey practice their craft and worked closely with their brilliant co-editor Arnie Glassman, and with Frameline's former festival director Michael Lumpkin whose passion for the project led him to produce The Celluloid Closet. The film was completed in 1995 and—armed with everything I'd learned from working on this all-star team—I decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles.

Twenty years ago this week Rob and Jeffrey sent me on my way to what I hoped would be a new adventure in the movie capitol of the world. One of my early jobs was working as an editor on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, which led to a decade-long adventure producing DVD extras for the Hollywood studios. Once in a while, I got to smuggle in queer content without telling anybody. We did an interview with members of Queer Nation about the protests that happened here over the making of Basic Instinct for the DVD. We talked to trans activists about their critique of The Silence of the Lambs. And we recorded Harvey Fierstein's audio commentary for Torch Song Trilogy.

But the desire to make films about our history, the family history, was what really propelled me. I've been able with film to celebrate people whose lives serve as inspiration to anyone's who felt like an outsider and then seized power for themselves, like Jack Wrangler who transformed himself into a 1970s porn caricature to give himself confidence and to provide a fantasy figure for newly-liberated gay men. Or Divine, who terrorized midnight movie audiences with a screen persona that might be called "Godzilla meets Jayne Mansfield"; but, as outrageous as he was, his message was always, "Love yourself. Don't let society's standards of beauty keep you from being what you were always meant to be: fabulous!" And, of course, the film about Vito Russo, along with his brothers and sisters in the gay movement, who were able to overcome homophobia, depression, and a shrunken visibility, to liberation.

Tonight, you'll meet Hollywood's boy-next-door, Tab Hunter, and share his journey to self-discovery and acceptance. I'm driven to celebrate these people—whether porn star, drag queen or rabble-rouser like Vito Russo—and today a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about our pioneers and how they helped make it possible for us to live proudly and openly in the world. When we were making Vito, we hoped that the film would find its way into high schools so kids could learn about our history. Now, thanks to Frameline's Youth in Motion program, that dream is a reality. Thanks to Frameline, gay-straight alliances around the country can request a free copy of the film, along with tools to help the students channel Vito's philosophy into their own 21st century activism. Thank you, Frameline.

When Frances Wallace called me to tell me I would be receiving this award, and that Rob and Jeffrey would be presenting it, I was stunned because the list of previous Frameline Award recipients reads like a Who's Who of the last three decades of queer cinema. So once I picked up my jaw off the floor, and this all sunk in, I just have to say this means the sun, the moon and the stars to me. I'm grateful and honored to accept this award. I also want to thank my family—my Mom and Dad are here—they always believed in this mission. Thanks to my boyfriend; he's here too. Making movies can be all-consuming and he's the godsend that keeps me grounded and present. He's real cute, too.

But I really want to thank all of you for embracing the films that I've made. Thank you for coming to see these movies at film festivals. Thank you for championing queer film and queer artists. Thank you for supporting us when we come begging for cash on Kickstarter. Hollywood is not going to give you these movies. It's up to us as a community to support the films that we want to see get made. We have to keep telling our stories and we don't need to ask permission from anybody to do it. To tell a story, you do not need a film school degree. People ask me all the time, "I didn't go to film school. How can I make a movie?" You just need passion and tenacity and definitely insanity to channel your obsessions onto the screen. I'm so proud of our community and so honored to be part of it. This award is for you, to all of you for all of your support, and to quote Harvey Milk, "Thank you, San Francisco." Thank you.

FRAMELINE 39: THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING (2014)—Q&A With Actor / Director Andy Bichlbaum

As one of the community co-presenters of Frameline's Bay Area premiere of The Yes Men Are Revolting (2014) [official website], Rachel Caplan—founder and CEO of the San Francisco Green Film Festival—offered by way of introductory remarks her appreciation of the green band in Gilbert Baker's 1978 design for the rainbow flag, which she was delighted to learn intentionally referenced the green of nature. By extension, she appreciated Frameline including the Yes Men's "green" documentary on the threat of global warming into its LGBTQ programming.

Caplan's appreciation underscored this past week's welcome news that Baker's flag has been added to the permanent design collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Since 1978, Baker's rainbow flag has become a widely recognized symbol for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities and, as stated by MoMA, "The creation of new symbols for a changing world is a significant way for design to give definition and direction to human life, and one of MoMA's goals is to acquire the art of our time."

Stressing how amazing it was for him to attend Frameline, Actor/ Director Andy Bichlbaum fondly recalled living in San Francisco for some time, when he would often catch films at Frameline. The Yes Men Are Revolting is the first of The Yes Men's filmic projects that purposely revolves around a gay theme on such a personal level, but is equally a communal film about activist movements in general. Bichlbaum felt it important to remind his audience that the Gay Movement came out of the Rainbow Movement, which (of course) inspired Baker's design of the rainbow flag. Granting that his Frameline audience probably didn't need reminding, he qualified nonetheless that there are still gay groups who forget that we're all part of a struggling movement, and—though we have achieved almost everything that we set out to do, "minus a lot, of course"—it remains the same ongoing struggle. Gay marriage, unthinkable ten years ago, is upon us ("for whatever that's worth, I'm sure"), but it's even more important to remember that it's an achievement that's part of a much larger movement. I, for one, was heartened to hear Bichlbaum opine that gay victories are not the be-all and end-all of socio-political change and to caution against the self-serving complacency that demeans queer achievement. The work doesn't stop just because queers have gained the hallmarks of perceived normalcy.

Perhaps one of the bravest, most intense, scenes in The Yes Men Are Revolting is when Bichlbaum comes out as gay to Ugandan activist Chandia Kodili and her colleagues. "We were driven from the airport when we arrived by a taxi driver who spewed homophobia. He said all these things that you would have heard here in the 1950s, which were all spread there by an American preacher named Scott Lively—the British were also instrumental in modernizing Uganda's homophobia—but Lively has brought it right up to the 17th century.

"So this taxi driver was spewing all this stuff about how gays recruit boys to become gay and—once they put on make-up—they can't go back. I was shrinking in my seat, not wanting to deal with it. But then during the course of the five or eight days that we were there, we interviewed a couple of visible gay activists, notably one guy named 'Longjones' [John Abdallah Wambere], an extremely obvious queen who made a point of being clear about his orientation. I realized, 'Shit, if he can be out facing death threats, then I have no excuse not to be.' " Wambere's courage put a lot of pressure on Birchlbaum to come out to his Ugandan activist collaborators.

"On the way back to the airport, we had the same taxi driver. At a certain point—we were already at the airport—I told him, 'Y'know, that stuff you said is not true. I know, because I'm gay. That's nonsense. We don't recruit.' He completely melted. In an instant he realized that he had no basis for thinking such things. 'These are the things we hear all the time,' he admitted, 'but I've never actually met a gay.' "

Admitting that he didn't know what American citizens can do about Uganda "besides trying to stop these crazy American preachers from going over there", I'm surprised Bichlbaum didn't detail the ongoing litigation against Scott Lively, which built momentum in December 2014 when it was announced that Lively will have to stand trial in federal court for crimes against humanity, having failed to get the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds. Sarah S. Kilborne breaks it down at Slate.

Queried about the fluctuation between initial optimism at the onset of a staged protest and the deflation experienced afterwards, Bichlbaum was asked if he really believed change was going to happen as a result of his participation in protests?

"I know I'm fooling myself too," he admitted, "It's a con I do on myself to have the proper enthusiasm for it. But I'm not actually deflated afterwards. I am, in the way anybody is after having done a big thing, but it's not like I'm actually disappointed that we haven't changed everything. It's a common feeling. There are these giant protests that sometimes don't accomplish anything by themselves. Almost every action, every protest, fails. It's hard to find an action or a protest that actually changes things by itself. Yet, the movements that actions and protests are a part of always achieve what they set out to achieve. We no longer have child labor, or slavery, we have gay marriage, and none of the actions associated with those things actually achieved that. They all failed. But the movements succeed."

The film's closing protest is perhaps its most comic and successful as The Yes Men infiltrate a Homeland Security conference and succeed in convincing participants to join in a feel-good Native American circle dance celebrating the downsizing of fossil-fuel dependence to shift to renewable energies, whose profits will be handed over to indigenous tribes.  One audience member wondered about the fall-out of such prank activism? Do the participants become angry once they find out they've been punked?

Bichlbaum responded: "It's great that they have this excitement around this possibility but then after we leave and they realize it was a hoax—which actually took them five hours—do they feel disappointed and maybe angry? Does it have a negative effect? The short answer is: we don't care. They're not really our audience at all. The point of that scene is to show film audiences or anybody who hears about it that our conceptions of what's stopping us are wrong. By and large, it's not them but a few people and the system itself, the rules that run the world, that are the problem. It's not the human beings at these corporations. They're going to be happy if things are done that fix the world. It's the system and the fact that we allow money to do whatever it wants. We need to take action and make it happen and there won't be that many people standing against us. The people themselves, I don't think it matters that much. They can't do anything anyways. I don't think that within companies there's much change to be made. The bottom line is they have to make a profit. They're not going to advocate for a renewable energy revolution in reality because that wouldn't be profitable. Unless we, the government, decide it's a good idea, they're not ever going to do it and it doesn't even matter how much they want it. They're never going to be able to do that unless everybody gets together and says, 'This is the correct thing to do.' Then they're going to be really happy to do it. We don't put any hope in them."

 

Friday, June 19, 2015

FRAMELINE39—A HANDFUL OF HOLD REVIEWS

If memory serves me, the "hold review" capsule was a negotiated compromise struck at one of the early editions of the New York Film Festival to mollify theater owners who felt that festival reviews were robbing them of press coverage necessary for commercially successful theatrical runs. A balance was demanded between movies as art and movies as commerce and the hold review became the concise means to contain that tension. It's now de rigeur for a good percentage of films shown at film festivals to be embargoed on hold review, which range—contingent on who's counting—between 50 to 100 words, plus or minus a sentence or two.

I chafed against the policy early on, primarily because San Francisco's theatrical openings were (and often still are) way behind New York and Los Angeles, meaning I was being cut off at the knees in joining the larger conversation in a timely manner. The publicists never really cared about that (why should they?) and, admittedly, I never felt responsible for getting bums in seats (why should I?). In 2008, at the 51st edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, I reached a pitch of itchy bitchiness when advised that Jia Zheng-ke's Still Life (2006)—which had already been on festival circuit for two years—was tethered to a 75-word hold review. I responded with 75 online links to critical reviews. That earned a few stifled chuckles and a bit of leeway. Not only did I consider it stupid to tether local writers to San Francisco's theatrical openings, but insulting to moviegoers to assume they couldn't do a selfsame Google search to find out about a film.

Nowadays, I've let bygones be bygones and have learned to enjoy hold reviews, like program capsules, as practices in short form criticism. A little more elbow room than a tweet, acceptable as a Facebook entry, and clearly just the right size for social media consumption. A swallow or two of opinion and perspective, no less, no more, maybe an image to cap it off. Here you go.

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Justin Kelly's I Am Michael (2015) is the most downbeat opening night feature in recent Frameline memory and my reactions are predictably mixed. From gay rights advocate to Christian pastor, Michael Glatze's controversial "turn or burn" feature narrative comes across as a sardonic send-up of self-lacerating rationalizations (i.e., religious conversion). If I'm supposed to feel compassion, it's only for James Franco's unbridled hunger to play every gay role in existence. I'll accept I Am Michael as an eccentric genre mash-up simulating identity confusion. The horror-comedy hybrid as a cautionary template actually works here, whether intended to or not. "There's No Place Like Here," Frameline's motto attests: even if "here" in this instance is both horrific in its self-loathing and ridiculous in its Christian overreach. Besides, no one's ever done it as good as Saint Augustine.

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), Jeffrey Schwarz's companion documentary to Hunter's autobiography (co-authored by Eddie Muller) is, in effect, an intimate conversation with one of Hollywood's most famous sex symbols. The "X" factor that made him an icon is articulated as a groundedness that reveals a solid and sincere human being. Schwartz's documentary is eye candy not only for Hunter's publicized youth, but for the glamorous era of Hollywood's star-making machinery. Smartly edited with '50s pop cultural flourishes, creative animations and titles by Grant Nellessen and Taryn Teigue, Hunter's recount of his own career is sure to be a favorite Bay Area premiere at the upcoming 39th edition of Frameline, where Schwartz will receive the Frameline Award given every year to a person or entity that has made a major contribution to LGBTQ representation in film, television, or the media arts.

Chuck Holmes, founder of Falcon Studios, is aptly characterized as the gay equivalent of Hugh Hefner in Michael Stabile's documentary portrait Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story (2015), which honors the entrepreneur for his porn films of the '70s-'80s. His manufactured fantasies of virilified masculinity familiar to men of my generation legitimized gay male sexuality as a political identity when San Francisco was party central, before the onset of AIDS doomed the revelry. Whether these lockstep fantasies were a form of subcultural fascism remains as controversial as Holmes' later legacy as a major donor to activist causes. It's strange to frame pornography within nostalgic terms, but Stabile's doc conjures memories galore.

Certain Jungian analysts will confirm that the seaside is often—in the dreams of men—an anima terrain where men can get in touch with their feminine side. Brazilian directors Felipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon explore that gender fluidity in their debut feature Seashore (Beira-Mar, 2015), whose attractive young cast inflects a familiar narrative with compelling, sensuous performances. Childhood friends, Martin (Mateus Almada) confides to Tomaz (Mauricio Barcellos) that his father once whipped him for taking a solitary walk on the beach and getting lost. Seashore tenderly teases that metaphor to suggest that getting lost is the only way to live life and—as bracing as the first wave might be—to dive into love.

In Those People (2015), Joey Kuhn's directorial debut, we get to see suffering albatrosses hanging around the necks of an attractive crew of upper crust Manhattan queers. Well-produced, with a literate sense of its melodramatic romance, Those People explores the captivity of early friendships, mentors and their eventual torments, the failures of first love, and the ever-popular erotics embedded in cross-class and cross-race attractions: Laurentian and Shakespearean flourishes move this narrative right along, as do the Gilbert and Sullivan sing-a-longs. Its central erotic triangulation—Jonathan Gordon (Charlie), Jason Ralph (Sebastian), Haaz Sleiman (Tim)—provide a strong engine to keep up the momentum of repeated off-and-on, give-and-take histrionics.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

FRAMELINE 39—MICHAEL HAWLEY PREVIEWS THE LINE-UP

The following are preview capsules for ten films screening at the 39th edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival. This year's fest runs from June 18 to 28, 2015.

Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Denmark dir. Christian Braad Thomsen)—The insanely prolific queer German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have turned 70 this year, had he not died at age 37 after directing some 40-plus feature films in 15 years. This new doc from a longtime Danish friend attempts to psychoanalyze Fassbinder and his work via some fascinating, never-seen-before interviews (including one that was filmed immediately after his first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, got booed by critics at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival). Those interviews mingle with appropriate film clips and contemporary conversations with surviving members of Fassbinder's un-merry band of actors. Amongst the latter I was particularly thrilled to hear from pasty-faced actress Irm Hermann, the ex-office worker whose masochistic on-and-off screen relationship with the director got played out in 19 films. While To Love Without Demands should be essential viewing for Fassbinder aficionados, it's probably overwhelming and a bit academic for neophytes who would be best served by simply watching a handful of his films. To that end, Frameline39 will also be screening the director's final feature, 1982's phantasmagoric sailor's wet dream, Querelle.

54: The Director's Cut (USA dir. Mark Christopher)—A highlight of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was director Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his much-maligned 1998 movie, 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees at NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut features 44 previously unseen minutes that essentially put back all the gay stuff expunged from the original release. While this new edit isn't quite the "minor masterpiece" some critics have proclaimed, it's an awful lot of fun—whether you're vicariously reliving your own misspent youth or nostalgia-tripping for an infamous era not actually lived firsthand. 54: The Director's Cut is already available on VOD, but it should really be experienced in the company of an exuberant Castro audience on the Friday night of Pride weekend. Director Christopher is expected to attend.

In the Grayscale (Chile, dir. Claudio Marcone) / Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)—These two low-key indie dramas from South America are all the more impressive for their being works by debut feature filmmakers. In the Grayscale captures a period in the life of Bruno, a serious-minded 35-year-old Chilean architect who's been hired to design a large-scale public monument in Santiago. The titular grayscale refers to the ambivalent existence he inhabits midway between leaving a 17-year marriage and embarking on a same-sex relationship with Fernando, a high-strung local tour guide from whom he seeks inspiration. Claudio Marcone's film impressed me with its naturalistic, intelligent adult dialogue and a recurring symbolism which manifests itself brilliantly in the final shot.

The two male leads in Seashore are a generation younger and their still-unformed sexualities place them in a sort of "grayscale" as well. Lifelong best friends Tomaz, who's gay, and presumably straight Martin drive to a beach house where Martin is expected to wrap up some sketchy family business. They spend time quietly hanging out until the idyll is broken by an overnight bacchanal of booze, loud music, drugs and for Martin at least, sex with a female friend. The morning after finds the hungover buddies hazily reminiscing about the night's events and it's also the first time we're privy to any discussion of Tomaz' sexuality. One thing leads to another, and well, you can guess where this one's headed. Like everything else in this lovely and enigmatic film, the welcome denouement feels neither false nor unearned. The meaning of the final scene is sure to initiate some post-screening discussions.

Love Island (Croatia dir. Jasmila Žbanic)—In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize for Grbavica, a searing drama about a mother and daughter in the aftermath of the 1990's Balkan genocide. One decade and two additionally well regarded features later, she returns with this silly and overbearing comedy set at an all-inclusive beach resort in the Adriatic Sea. Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) stars as Liliane, a very pregnant French landscape architect on holiday with her sweet but boorish Bosnian husband Grebo. Also on the scene is Flora, an ex-lover of Liliane's who works as the resort's social director. The trio is put through a contorted sexual roundelay as Liliane works out whether to stay with Grebo or leave him for Flora. There's a half-baked gay subplot involving Grebo and a male resort employee to boot. In all, it's an innocuously diverting 86 minutes with some genuinely inspired laughs. A handful of musical numbers help lend Love Island a Mamma Mia-like-vibe.

The New Girlfriend (France dir. François Ozon)—France's most entertainingly subversive director attended Frameline exactly 15 years ago, presenting his second and third features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks to an appreciative Castro audience. Ozon's 15th film is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that affixed a permanent grin to my face when I caught it at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. French superstar Romain Duris stars as a widower who dresses in his deceased wife's clothes, solely as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in drag, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. Restrictions put upon Frameline by the The New Girlfriend's U.S. distributor is undoubtedly why this sublime film screens just once during the festival, late on a Thursday night way over in Piedmont.

Reel in the Closet (USA dir. Stu Maddux)—This fascinating documentary celebrates the importance of archiving and preserving LGBTQ moving images from an era predating ubiquitous smart-phone movie cameras. Highlights include footage shot in the North Beach lesbian bar Mona's Candle Light in 1950 (with audio!) and an all-male skinny-dipping pool party filmed sometime in the 1940's. Amongst those lending authoritative commentary are Susan Stryker (Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton's Cafeteria) and renowned photographer Dan Nicoletta, a Frameline co-founder and Harvey Milk compatriot. The film also spotlights the organizations leading the charge to archive these materials, from the Lesbian Home Movie Project of Bucksport, Maine to the U.S. Library of Congress (whose eloquent spokesperson Mike Mashon is a familiar face to San Francisco Silent Film Festival attendees.) Reel in the Closet closes with the advent of video, which was cheaper and allowed people to shoot longer. Regrettably, it resulted in lots of Pride parade footage but little in the way of intimate moving images revealing how LGBTQ people lived their lives (the documentaries of the Queer Blue Light Video Collective being a notable exception).

Tab Hunter: Confidential (USA dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)—With his acclaimed bio-docs on Vitto Russo (Vito), Divine (I Am Divine) and Jack Wrangler (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Jeffrey Schwarz has established himself as our foremost chronicler of notable gay personalities, a talent for which he'll be honored with this year's Frameline Award. Schwarz' excellent new project surveys the turbulent life and career of iconic 50's actor-singer-horseman-heartthrob Tab Hunter, cleverly employing public archival materials to comment upon the man's clandestine private life. Lining up with salient commentary on Hunter (née Arthur Gelien) are such diverse voices as Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Rona Barrett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Muller (the Bay Area's Czar of Noir and co-author of Tab's autobiography) and of course John Waters, who revitalized Hunter's acting career by starring him in 1981's Polyester. One of Confidential's many highlights is hearing Hunter open up about his long and complicated love affair with Anthony Perkins. While the film's "Hold Review" status keeps me from divulging more, I promise Frameline39's Castro screening of Tab Hunter: Confidential, with Hunter and Schwarz in person, will be a major highlight of the festival.

To Russia With Love (USA dir. Noam Gonick)—A special sidebar at this year's Frameline is Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, comprised of six features and 17 shorts. Although I couldn't be more disinterested in sports, I found much to appreciate in this documentary about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The film skillfully braids several trajectories, starting with that of its executive producer and poster boy Johnny Weir, the figure skating champ and NBC commentator who comes off as an unaware, haughty fur-clad diva. Then there are the LGBTQ Olympic athletes who struggle with their desire to make political statements during the Sochi games. Ultimately, none do, but who can blame them when arrest and prison enter in the equation? We also follow the valiant efforts of one Konstantin Yablotsky to stage Open Games, an LGBTQ athletic competition scheduled to take place in Moscow three days after the Olympics close. Every Open Games event gets shut down by authorities except for one, a table tennis competition attended by heroic Greg Louganis. The heart of To Russia with Love, however, belongs to Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who endures intense, daily persecution for his sexuality. Efforts to publicize his plight pay off big time in the film's uplifting climax, when a prominent American athlete selflessly comes to the rescue.

The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA dir. Laura Nix)—It's been six years since we last heard from political pranksters The Yes Men, when their film The Yes Men Fix the World screened at the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival (both members Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are Jewish). Well it turns out Bichlbaum is also gay, giving Frameline reason to lay claim to the duo's newest compilation of anti-corporate shenanigans. The Yes Men's antics this go-round exclusively target fossil fuel industries, with some hilariously pointed attacks against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, Shell Oil and the Canadian tar sands industry. Unlike the two previous Yes Men films, Revolting also gives us a peek at their private lives, with Bonanno's decision to lay low and raise a family in Scotland negatively impacting Bichlbaum's own efforts to maintain his first serious same-sex relationship. Just when it appears the Yes Men's days of activism might be over, the Occupy Movement and Hurricane Sandy intercede and pave the way for one of their most outrageous stunts ever. Although The Yes Men Are Revolting opened this week in NYC, as far as I can tell there are no plans for a Bay Area theatrical release. Andy Bichlbaum, who is my idea of a real LGBTQ hero, is expected to be in attendance.

Cross-published at film-415.

THE WOLFPACK (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Crystal Moselle

In the "truth is stranger than fiction" department, in lopes Crystal Moselle's festival favorite The Wolfpack (2015), her thought-provoking portrait of the Angulo brothers—Bhagavan, Govinda, Jagadisa, Krsna, Mukunda and Narayana—who have spent most of their lives sequestered away from social contact in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their coming-of-age tale proves unique and emancipatory. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Wolfpack was also an official selection at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). Picked up by Magnolia Pictures, The Wolfpack opens June 19, 2015 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and the Regency in San Rafael.

My thanks to Steve Indig of Landmark Theaters for facilitating the time and space to sit down to talk to Crystal Moselle during SFIFF. It was, of course, impossible to talk to Moselle without exploring the details of her documentary, so from hereon in: SPOILER ALERT.

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Michael Guillén: I wanted to make sure, Crystal, to start off by acknowledging that you are a conscientious, gentle and protective director of your documentary subjects. That's not always the case so I felt that shouldn't go unsaid.

Crystal Moselle: Thank you.

Guillén: Naturally, I need to know how you met the incredible Angulo family of brothers?

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit Megan Delaney

Moselle: I was walking down First Avenue in New York City and these boys ran past me in Reservoir Dogs outfits and my instinct was to run after them. We met up at the cross walk and I asked them, "Where are you guys from?" They said, "Delancey Street", which was just a few blocks down. They were a little stand-offish. Govinda said to me, "What is this you do for a living?" I said, "I'm a filmmaker." He said, "Oh, we're interested in getting into the business of filmmaking." So I started showing them cameras in the park and we became friends. That's how this all started, through the friendship. I thought they were fascinating and had no idea what their story was.

Guillén: Running after a wolf pack of boys is a brave thing for a young woman to do. What was it about them that compelled you?

Moselle: Sometimes you can't explain things too much. It was just how I felt at the time. But I'm known to do that on the street, so…. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Were you studying to be a filmmaker in New York? Or were you already working in film?

Moselle: I was already directing and working on different commercial projects. I'd finished producing a documentary on Taylor Meade when I was in college. When I graduated, I started doing short form projects, mini-documentaries, and working with photographers on different projects.

Guillén: So most of your training and experience has been in New York?

Moselle: Yeah.

Guillén: At Columbia?

Moselle: No, I went to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan.

Guillén: When did you know you wanted to make a documentary about the Angulo Brothers?

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Moselle: It happened right away. I decided I wanted to do a documentary about them after the first time I visited their house. They were making all these incredible costumes and sets for their Halloween celebration (that I wasn't invited to). I wanted to get invited to that Halloween celebration! It took many years before that happened.

Guillén: I'm sure you're aware that The Wolfpack is going to leave a lot of audiences scratching their heads. You've chosen a controversial, difficult subject. One of my colleagues came up to me after the screening last night and said, "I really want to complain about the bad parenting in this movie; but, the boys turned out okay, so something worked." But the issue remains: was this an abusive situation?

Moselle: I think it was an abusive situation. Not letting your kids interact with the world when they want to? Holding them back?

Guillén: Which places their mother in a complimentary light. These boys were intelligent, sharp and well-educated. Was their mother largely responsible for their homeschooling?

Moselle: Absolutely, though their father also had influence. I have to say that in this abusive environment where the boys weren't allowed to go outside, their mother was also a victim. I want that to be clear.

Guillén: As another point of enjoyment for the viewer, her emancipation—which came on the coat tails of her sons' emancipation—carried an ever deeper resonance for me. You may not want to hear this, but I thought her story was even more moving than the boys.

Moselle: She had the biggest transformation. She was completely inspired by her kids. Her kids laid the way for her. She became liberated.

Guillén: It's such a treasure in life to realize you're someone's first friend. As you met the boys and you began to realize you were their first friend, their first true social contact, how did that make you feel?

Moselle: It was a big responsibility; but, it was fulfilling. I'm an empathetic person and like to help people. It makes me feel so good to help people, probably more than anything.

Guillén: One of the most intriguing scenes was when they went out to a movie for the first time. Their obvious intelligence was coupled with such an honest social naïvete. What movie did they choose to watch?

Moselle: The Fighter (2010) with Mark Wahlberg.

Guillén: What's happened with the boys since making the documentary?

Moselle: Bhagavan, the oldest, is part of a hip-hop theater group. He's dancing, and acting in theater, and loving it. He's so fulfilled. He's also a yoga teacher and that's how he's making money. Narayana, one of the twins, the second oldest, works with Nyberg, who deal with issues like fracking. He canvases with them. He's passionate about saving the environment. Govinda is a camera assistant on commercials and is going to work on a feature later this Summer. As an aspiring cinematographer, he's doing great. I actually take him on shoots. Mukunda is an aspiring director. He's interning at a media company called Alldayeveryday. He's going on shoots and P.A.-ing and doing great. The two younger boys Jagadisa and Krsna are into music. They're especially passionate about the '80s. Their mom is running. When they go out and about these days, they bring her with them a lot.

Guillén: Are they still living at home?

Moselle: Govinda moved out, but the rest still live at home.

Guillén: It appeared that the mother was their main economic support through the assistance she received for their home schooling. Once their home schooling was completed, I found myself concerned how they managed? Are the boys bringing in revenue to the home?

Moselle: It's complicated and I don't completely understand it. The home schooling is still going on. They're on welfare. They get disability for the sister who has Turner Syndrome (which is why we couldn't interview her). Some things have changed. They get less food stamps because some of the kids are bringing home some money. Govinda was making the most money; but, he moved out and separated from the family.

Guillén: As I've gotten older, one of the things that has definitely made my life better, was learning how to live below my means. They were basically raised that way. When they finally made contact with the world, did that affect their wanting things? Did they start coveting what basically had been off limits to them before?

Moselle: It's been a slow process. They're resilient and resourceful. They can make something out of anything; but, it's been different with each of them. Govinda moved out of his own because he wants to buy cameras. He has nice clothes and works very hard. He has a savings account. Bhagavan's different. He's only interested in his art and focused on being a dancer. But, absolutely, when you have nothing and never get anything, or the only thing you ever get is the movies you've asked for (which was their passion), you might start wanting things. But it's funny, with New York City you can have nothing but still have a rich experience.

Guillén: The documentary reveals their imaginative freedom in the face of imposed restriction.

Moselle: Their experience exhibited instincts like those of outsider artists. They learned early to be resourceful and to go with what they had.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Guillén: Which, in an odd way, was what their father was trying to teach them? Maybe he was too severe in his methods, but I couldn't come away hating the dad. Fundamentally, something that he believed in was instilled in them. The footage of them being small boys dancing around in a circle looked tribal. And, of course, their father had this rule about their hair, which added a kind of feral quality to them. Thus, I was amused as the film progressed how each of the boys started to cut their hair. Were you privy to any of their feelings about that and why they wanted to cut their hair?

Moselle: Bhagavan and the two younger boys all cut their hair together at once. It was like a release for them. It felt ritualistic.

Guillén: Speaking of that home footage of them at such a young age, can you talk about the process of going through what they had available to include in your film?

Moselle: That was another pivotal point towards making the film, when I realized that I had all this footage, which made for a more interesting story. I asked them, "Do you have any home videos?" and Govinda came to my house with this stack of VHS tapes. Each tape had about 10 hours of footage on it. It took a long time to go through all that stuff and read between the lines to find "those" moments. A big majority of it was birthdays and the few times that they went outside. It was beautiful to go through this footage and I was very happy to have it.

Guillén: I found myself concerned about all the boys growing up through puberty in such cramped quarters, already lacking socialization. There wasn't much age difference between them. I was concerned about their ability to interact with others. If they would know how to? But clearly at least one of them found a girlfriend, if not at least just a friend who was a girl?

Moselle: They're late bloomers in that area; but, it's happening. A lot of it's happening right now, actually.

Guillén: I'm sure the movie has contributed to it?

Moselle: Yeah, they're getting attention. I think their mojo's really coming up. I'm pretty sure one of them has a girlfriend that he hasn't revealed to me yet. So, it's happening. They're just late bloomers in a lot of things; but, they're speeding up fast.

Guillén: And they're obviously intelligent, and adapting fast.

Moselle: And interesting. These days in New York…?

Guillén: They're unique for being different. By having met them, do you feel that you've had an effect on their emancipation?

Moselle: Yes. I absolutely had an effect on them. I was their first friend. The beginning of this process was our friendship. It wasn't like, "I'm just going to sit back, hold this camera, and not talk to you." There's no way this film would have happened if I had approached it like that. And I didn't even know that I wanted to make a film back then really. I just knew I wanted to do something with these guys because they were so interesting. As the years went by, I was able to step back more. They found their way and I captured it.

Guillén: The film took five years to make?

Moselle: I met them five years ago. The film took more like 4½ years to make. The last interview I got was with the father last November.

Guillén: In terms of the family's emancipation—we celebrate the boys coming into their own; we certainly celebrate the mother being freed—has the father achieved any kind of a new-found way of expressing himself?

Moselle: When he watched the film, he said it was educational. He thought it was a good film and an honest portrayal of his family.

Guillén: Where was he from again?

Moselle: He's from Peru. He and Suzanne met at Machu Picchu. There was this moment where they fell in love and had the same ideas about life. I think Suzanne was looking for freedom and for the openness that he had, but then the relationship went in the opposite direction.

Guillén: I presume he was hoping for something else? It sounded like he was trying to get them to Scandanavia.

Moselle: He had delusions of grandeur. He thought great things were going to happen. They started to prepare for it and then time slipped by and nothing happened.

Guillén: How did you secure his consent to make this documentary about his boys?

Moselle: When I first thought about this story, everything was already very different than when I first met them. The boys had completely taken over the household and their father didn't really have a say about what was happening. They'd let me in, the parents would leave, and we'd hang out. Eventually, I met the Dad. He was very polite and seemed to be into the idea of me filming them.

Guillén: Even though the boys were not socialized by way of human interaction, or environmental interaction, they achieved a modicum of socialization through movies. They watched a lot of movies, which is an interesting point. There was a value in their having that outlet. They learned to talk and interact by impersonating movies and their impersonations—of Pulp Fiction, no less—were hilarious and great fun. Except for Govinda (who seemed to love his mother the most), I didn't see in any of them the capacity to express sorrow, however. Have they spoken to you about that or do you have any insight into that?

Moselle: When you grow up in such a tight household like that, I think you have to suppress a lot of feeling. They definitely had to hide their feelings a lot and toughen up.

Guillén: To wrap up then, this is an amazing debut for you, entertaining and thought-provoking. Where are you headed next?

Moselle: I'm working on some narrative projects for now. I'm always inspired by what I've experienced in life, but I need to take a rest from documentaries. It's tall that something this amazing dropped into my lap.

Guillén: But you spotted it. You ran after the potential story. You pursued it. 

Moselle: Tomorrow everything might change, I don't know.

 

Friday, June 12, 2015

NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—The Coffin Maker (Magkakabaung, 2014)

You're in luck! For the fourth edition of New Filipino Cinema (NFC), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) programmer Joel Shepard has elected to repeat screenings of the NFC line-up the following weekend, so those of you who missed last night's opening reception of Jason Paul Laxamana's The Coffin Maker (Magkakabaung, 2014) [IMDb / Wikipedia / Facebook], will have a second opportunity on Friday, Jun 19, 7:00 PM to watch the film heralded by Shepard as his favorite in the series.

As encapsulated by YBCA: "In one of the most highly praised Filipino films of the year, a hard-working father tries his best to raise a young daughter alone in a rural area, but he is ill-prepared for what fate throws their way. The film takes us on a deeply emotional journey, free of cliché and sentimentality, slowly unveiling the struggles of a man who must confront his guilt and remorse."

Chale Nafus, Director of Programming for the Austin Film Society has, perhaps, best situated the importance of Laxamana's films within the current resurgence of Filipino filmmaking: "Jason Paul Laxamana is a Filipino cultural warrior with a mission—to preserve and promote the Kapampangan language, culture, and identity through film, video, music, and online. The majority of Filipino films are in Tagalog, but the independent film movement based on digital technology has allowed filmmakers like Laxamana to make films in regional languages and in areas not usually explored by Manila-based mainstream media." Nafus's interview with the director is well worth the read and a perusal of Laxamana's website is likewise encouraged. But before checking those out, I need to offer a spoiler alert that it's near to impossible to discuss this film without revealing narrative details (which even the film's trailer cannot avoid).

So from hereon in: SPOILER ALERT.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
Laxamana's third film The Coffin Maker premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and has since been on festival track. It won Best Asian Film at the 3rd Hanoi International Film Festival in Vietnam on November 2014. As recounted to Nafus, Laxaman's involvement with the film came about in an interesting way. His producers approached him to develop a story set in the town of Santo Tomas, Pampanga (the casket capital of the Philippines) based on the true story of a father who had to steal the body of his daughter from the morgue due to financial incapacity. One of his producers, Ferdinand Lapuz, was likewise the agent for Allen Dizon, and Laxamana was encouraged to develop a story with Dizon in the lead role. Dizon inhabits the character of Randy, the titular coffin maker, with a taciturn pathos that slowly builds to bewildered rage, exhaustion, and a cascading series of inescapably bad decisions. A genuine sense of affection exists between Randy and his daughter Angeline, as Felixia Crysten Dizon is the real-life daughter of lead actor Dizon (especially in a scene where he prepares her a sandwich and she smiles in delight with her first bite). While researching the material, Laxamana encountered other interesting true accounts—such as the buying and selling of cadavers and the costly and bureaucratic way of disposing the dead—which serves to texture a narrative wholly centered on death and its processes, both bureaucratic and physiological.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
The film's technical merits are immediately engaging. Shot by Rain Yamson in handheld widescreen long continuous takes, The Coffin Maker provides a palpable sense of place and movement through space and—especially in the sequence where the children are playing—an immersive grasp of their innocent world, with the boys playing "bang / stab" and then, later, splashing around in the shallow waters near a dike. Much of the narrative consists of the coffin maker's mobility around the streets of his home town in a pedal buggy and, thereby, offers observational moments that are notably brilliant; particularly, a scene seen in passing where a young boy is being throttled for breaking a merchant's clay jars, introduced ahead of the visual reveal by the sound of their argument. Here, I shout out to Junel Valencia's layered sound design in effective collaboration with Diwa de Leon's restrained music score.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
Perhaps the film's most satisfying elements are the way it frames the film's central tragedy against a background of disregard, frivolity and opportunism registered in an ensemble of minor characters from Neri (Chanel Latorre)—Randy the coffin maker's pretty, vapid love interest who likes him only for the credits he can load onto her cell phone—to the funeral home director (Emilio Garcia) who seeks to profit off Angeline's corpse. Equally effective are the film's touches of mordant humor, indirect justice, and its flourishes of magical realism to visualize Randy's torturous regret and guilt. Angeline's shrouded cadaver speaks up and asks her father, "Daddy, when do I get to go back to school?" The film's final scene sends a chill through the viewer as we see the coffin maker vigorously digging a hidden grave for his daughter, who stands silently looking down at his labor. A final moment of decency in a largely indecent universe.