Wednesday, June 28, 2006

LANATHON—Lana Turner: An Appreciation

"For the record," Robert Osborne informs for Turner Classic Movies, "she preferred her first name pronounced—not to rhyme with 'Anna' or 'banana'—but, more purringly 'Lawn-a.' "

Lana Turner. The name itself conjures up a precious gem in its glamorous setting and Flickhead has invited those interested to comment on their favorite facet. But they all sparkle, don't they? Sparkle and glitter and shine. It's hard for an old crow to choose.

Lana first entered my consciousness via my mother's love for watching women's melodramas mid-afternoon on the t.v.—Peyton Place (1957), Imitation of Life (1959), Madame X (1966)—then progressed into my later interest in film noir crime romances and Hollywood ambition dramas—The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

"If the Postman delivered anything," Flickhead writes so lovingly, "it was Lana inconceivably cast as a roadhouse hash slinger (!), radiant in open-toed shoes, white blouse and shorts, her beautiful bare legs held in awe by the lens, and those vacant, faraway eyes framed by a turban."

Even as a teenager my prurience was piqued by Lana's voluptuous body in compromised situations, tethered by middle class ethics, chafed by small town gossip, in love and ravaged by men she shouldn't be in love with, irresistible, a femme fatale, an unwilling adulteress with desires beyond her control. Little did I know that Lana Turner's personal life was no less dramatic than her roles on screen.

Recently I watched Carole Langer's original TCM documentary Lana Turner: A Daughter's Memoirs, narrated by Robert Wagner with commentary by Lana's daughter Cheryl Crane, Imitation of Life co-star Juanita Moore, dramatic coach Lillian Burns Sidney, make-up artist Del Armstrong, and friends Robert Stack and Evie Wynn Johnson. I've not seen a better documentary on Lana Turner than this one. It continues to pique my prurience with its eye for biographical detail. Fortunately, for those who didn't catch it when it first cycled around, Lana Turner: A Daughter's Memoirs is being reshown by TCM on Monday, August 14, 2006, as part of a mini-retrospective, which includes Rich Man, Poor Girl (1938), Dancing Co-Ed (1939), Two Girls on Broadway (1940), Honky Tonk (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Marriage Is A Private Affair (1944), Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), Green Dolphin Street (1947), Homecoming (1948), Betrayed (1954), Imitation of Life (1959), and Madame X (1966). A pity we couldn't have timed this blogathon with that TCM mini-retrospective though undoubtedly what I read during the blogathon will enhance my viewings mid-August.

Lana Turner's "playgirl" status and her laundry list of lovers is recalled by best friend Evie Wynn Johnson and confirmed by Robert Stack, who insists Lana was only trying to express herself. Her make-up artist Del Armstrong relates how, during his absence, she did her own make-up for The Postman Always Rings Twice. She meticulously achieved necessary perfection. So I'm not sure I agree with Flickhead's assessment that Lana Turner didn't possess "the self-assurance to comprehend and arrest the caricature and self-parody that lay at her disposal." I think she did. And I think it was because she did that she was able to survive as a Hollywood star for so many decades, especially with such bad luck (i.e., husbands).

And what bad luck!! Seven ways from Sunday. From Steven Crane, Cheryl's father, marrying her without remembering to divorce his previous wife. To Fernando Lamas who punched Lana out for flirtatiously dancing with Lex ("Tarzan") Barker. To Barker who ended up revealing himself a pedophile, molesting Cheryl for years before Lana found out and banished him. Tyrone Power was the man who got away; the one man Lana truly loved and couldn't have for a husband. Power's double standards were starched as stiff as his shirts, he didn't like that Lana was so much like him. But it was her ill-fated marriage to Mafioso Johnny Stompanato, henchman to Mickey Cohen, that led to "the incident" where Lana's daughter fatally stabbed Stompanato during a domestic squabble on Good Friday. Cohen paid for Stompanato's funeral but ordered a cheap coffin and sold Lana Turner's love letters to the press. The documentary's exploration of "the incident" told from Cheryl Crane's point of view, and her lesbianism, are some of the documentary's most lurid—and fascinating!—commentary.

The tension between Stompanato and Lana, ignited by previous abuse, amplified when Lana refused to have Stompanato accompany her to the Academy Awards when she was nominated for best actress for Peyton Place, taking her mother and daughter instead, and relations worsened until Stompanato ended up with a knife in his gut, staring at his step-daughter, saying, "My God, Cheryl, what have you done?"

The footage of Lana Turner's defense has been hailed as one of her best performances and I'm inclined to agree. If anything, the incident solidified her career, even as it drove Cheryl to torment. Juanita Moore has a touching remembrance of Lana arriving on the set of Imitation of Life for their deathwatch scene where Moore's character dies. When Lana finally lets herself go and wails in anguish at the death of Moore's character, it came as a primal cry from deep within her that started a three-day crying jag. When she finally returned to the set her face was swollen with grief. It wasn't just for the cameras that Lana was crying.

06/29/06 ADDENDUM: Contributors to the Lanathon include:

Master of Ceremonies Flickhead on Lana's career at Flickhead

John McElwee on Marriage Is A Private Affair at Greenbriar Picture Shows

Peter Nellhaus on The Sea Chase at Coffee, Coffee ... And More Coffee

Campaspe compiles a compendium of peer insights at Self-Styled Siren

That Little Round-Headed Boy on Somewhere I'll Find You at (where else?) That Little Round-Headed Boy

Richard Gibson dreams up a killer double-bill at his eponymous site

Pita offers up an exquisite photo of Lana as a pagan goddess at her site Agence Eureka

07/02/06 ADDENDUM: I'm still catching up on my reading! Alex Billings at Stillettos and Sneakers delivers an informative tribute complete with great photos, trivia, and Lana quotes (my favorite: "I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around."

Sheila O'Malley at The Sheila Variations celebrates Lana as well and engenders much discussion.

David Hudson at Greencine Daily tips his hat to us all!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WASSUP ROCKERS—The Evening Class Interview With Larry Clark

A strange boy is weaving a course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard through midday sidewalk traffic.
Just when I think he's foolish and childish and I want him to be manly,
I catch my fool and my child needing love and understanding….

I doubt very much that Joni Mitchell was envisioning a longhaired Latino punk rocker when she penned those lyrics, though grace and havoc is precisely what is woven into Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers opening up this week in L.A. and next week in the Bay Area. Bravely appropriating what allegedly belongs to White kids—punk rock, skateboards, and the steep steps of Beverly Hills High School—the boys of Larry Clark's latest face off to White kids who don't want them taking what's "their's", Black kids who don't want these "Mexicans" (they're actually "Salvies" and "Guats") on their hiphop gangsta turf, and Latinos committed to being skinhead cholos. In other words, just about everybody. Brave indeed.

I sat down with Larry Clark over a cup of Mexican coffee in his room at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel for a brief chat about Wassup Rockers.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Wassup Rockers has been written up a lot so I don't feel a great need to go into how the film was generated, because I think you've already talked a lot about that. I felt I had the opportunity to dive into some of the things that were of particular interest to me.

Larry Clark: Okay.

MG: The first film I saw of yours was Ken Park….

LC: Oh really? That was the first film?

MG: I was in Paris and it was premiering at the multiplex there. I went because my traveling companion was a great fan of your films and you were supposed to be there. He said, "We've got to go because Larry Clark's going to be there!" So we went and there was a boy in line in front of me, he was 14 years old, who had come with a script he was going to give to you. For one reason or another you weren't there, but….

LC: I wasn't even supposed to be there.

MG: Oh? Well for some reason it got out in the buzz that you were going to be there. The point being that I was so impressed that this 14-year-old boy wanted to meet you, wanted to collaborate with you, had brought a script, and trusted you.

LC: I wish I'd have been there.

MG: Last night at the Q&A after the press screening you were talking about that trust that you develop with young people. It's this association with young people that has garnered you much—in my estimation, misperceived—criticism. I look at you as an anthropologist of the authentic and that you see in young people, in youth, a unique authenticity. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LC: Well yeah, I think [youth's] a real important time of our life when things that happen to us dictate who we're going to be like as adults. It is this time where I find that kids can be so open and honest, y'know? I'm trying to show the reality of being that age and I'm making a social comment. It's as simple as that. I find it amazing that so many people who make films or do work about kids discount what's really going on, the way the kids really are and think it's got to be a certain way and think I can't do this, I can't do that, I have to do this and this is the way to do it. And that's not what's happening, y'know? I let the kids bring themselves to the work. I try to show that.

MG: You skillfully show that young kids wrestle with feelings, have sexual experiences, fight against things they don't believe in. Here in America young kids are demonized, youth is demonized. In some ways the most important thing about youth in America is that they are a niche market for commodified agendas…

LC: Yes.

MG: … so I appreciate that your films express that tension. In Paris a 14-year-old boy can go see Ken Park at the multiplex; but, here in the U.S., that wouldn't happen.

LC: No, no.

MG: So I'm curious about that aspect of your films that are about young people, but are they for young people?

LC: Well, yeah, they are for young people and young people see them. Everything's on dvd now and everything's accessible from the Internet. Kids see everything. There's no way you can keep them from seeing everything so if you try to keep them from seeing my films, they're going to see my films. Kids was unrated and every kid has seen Kids. Every generation sees Kids, it just goes on and on and on. I was in a skate park with the kids from Wassup Rockers a few weeks ago and a kid asked me if I was sponsoring these kids. I said, "No, I'm a filmmaker. I just made a film about them." And he said, "What other films have you made?" And I said, "Well, I made a film called Kids, have you ever heard of it?" He looked at me as if I were crazy and he said, "Everybody's heard of that." Right? It goes on. People see the work. Kids see the work.

MG: Another thing I like too in your films is how you have your finger on the pulse of music. The soundtracks to each of your films are great.

LC: The music is so important in my movies.

MG: I was sorry to hear that it's actually music rights that has caused the delay with Ken Park being distributed in the United States.

LC: Yeah. We had a crazy producer who didn't clear some music and there's some clearance issues and hopefully, at some point, we'll get those resolved. The music in Wassup Rockers is Latino punk rock from the ghetto. These are all local bands, unpublished bands, garage bands from the neighborhood. They're terrific. What an amazing phenomenon it is that punk rock has this big resurgence in the Latino community, which I understand is happening around the world. It's great music. Music is such an important part of my films. Like Another Day in Paradise was the soundtrack of my youth, all that great music, all that soul music was wonderful.

MG: I had to hunt that down. I went looking for that because I came late to your movies so I wasn't there when the soundtrack for Another Day In Paradise was initially released. I eventually found the soundtrack on EBay or somewhere like that….

LC: Well, good.

MG: It's one of my favorite collections of music.

LC: Cool.

MG: Your film is being compared every now and then—probably unwisely—to Crash though it is undoubtedly a more authentic portrayal of race relations than Crash.

LC: This is the real Crash. Wassup Rockers is the real Crash.

MG: One of the film's most authentic scenes was of the black girls quarreling with the "Mexicans" who had come into their neighborhood, telling them to take their seven burritos and eat them somewhere else. Are things still set up the same? I had a friend from L.A. telling me that it was precisely because the Latinos came into South Central that the Black population shifted to Palmdale, or something like that, and that now South Central is actually more of a Latino neighborhood.

LC: No, it's both, it's mixed. It's interesting there are no white people in South Central, it's all Black and Latino, and the racial politics of the ghetto is interesting, which I didn't know about until I was there….

MG: I didn't know about it either!

LC: …but there is a lot of conflict between the young Latinos and the young Blacks.

MG: At last night's Q&A you were saying you were not a documentarian and yet, like I said, I consider you an anthropologist of the authentic.

LC: A visual anthropologist….

MG: Yeah, a visual anthropologist. So you get that documentary feel to your movies but you also layer on a narrative launch to go further with it. I had one conflict with Wassup Rockers, which probably is because I'm not understanding it so I wanted to ask you about it directly. I totally accepted the almost ridiculous deaths of the White people in the latter half of the film, and I almost cheered it. [Clark smiles broadly.] I understood all that. The part that concerned me: I didn't understand why they left their homies behind? They had the one scene where they were expressing concern and regret about it, but, they seemed emotionally relatively unaffected by it and I was curious about that.

LC: Well, Carlos [Ramirez] gets busted by the police and what are you going to do about that? Kids get arrested all the time and they always have to run from cops and one of them got caught, y'know? When Louie [Luis Rojas Salgado] gets shot, what can they do? They can't get shot too, y'know? And Kico [Francisco Pedrasa] talks about that.

MG: I was wondering if you were trying to say that the young people have become inured to violence, that they are accustomed to it?

LC: It is part of it. I also had too many characters! [Laughs.] I had to get rid of a couple of them! My God, the coverage for seven people is really difficult. One kid gets busted and we don't really know how badly he's hurt.

MG: The hierarchy of the characters is intriguing. You have these seven young men and yet obviously Jonathan [Velasquez] and Kico rise to the top or come out in front as the main stories. Was that naturally the way the gang was?

LC: Yeah. Plus, it's a movie and I was interested … I thought that they were … they're both terrific actors, natural actors, and then Porky [Usvaldo Panameno] was great too in the beginning of the film. Porky had some great scenes.

MG: And Milton [Velasquez]! The final shots of Milton with that sweet smile despite everything that had happened to them was such a positive note in Wassup Rockers. At least they weren't going to call him "Spermball" anymore!

LC: They were all great.

MG: The scene I absolutely loved and where I think you are a master at catching the natural was the talk between Kico and the young woman…

LC: …Nikki on the bed, yeah, that's a great scene.

MG: Who was the young actress?

LC: Jessica Steinbaum, a 14-year-old actress, a schoolgirl who was taking acting….

MG: She's amazing!

LC: She's amazing. She was the only one with any real experience. She had actually done one t.v. show. She had done an episode of Law and Order or something, but, she was great. And I think that she has a career ahead of her, especially when Wassup Rockers comes out; she's going to be hot!

MG: I agree. Last night at the Q&A, a young woman expressed her concern about what she felt were overly-sexualized portraits of your female characters. Yet Jessica, as Nikki, came across not only beautiful but complex. Maybe her blonde-haired friend was broadly—if not brassily—drawn, but Jessica as Nikki came across complex and real. Can you talk a little bit about that scene and how you achieved it?

LC: Kico was very young when I met him and he was shy and in the year and a half that I knew him he grew up a lot. He got self-confidence and he became a much better skater. He was always the kid who was most aware. If all the kids were standing on the street corner, fucking around and playing and just being kids on the street corner, Kico was the one who was there doing that but he was always aware of everything that was going on. He knew who was there and who was there and who was driving down the street. This kid was totally aware but a smart, smart kid. It took a while for him to really open up to me. One day he'd hurt himself, he'd twisted his ankle or something, and he wasn't skating that day and his mother was out and his brothers were out and the kids were out in the streets skating or something and I'm in the house with Kico, and I'm talking to him and we have this intimate, personal conversation where he's telling me about his life and his feelings and about the gangs and how it's all happening. It was a very special afternoon I spent with him and I wanted that to be in the film, those stories to be in the film, and I didn't quite know how to do it. In the screenplay I wrote, "Kico and Nikki sit on the bed and talk" and I knew what I wanted them to talk about. And so on the day that we shot I told Kico what I wanted and he didn't know the actress, the girl, and I took her aside and I had her ask him certain questions and I made them lock eyes so they couldn't look away and they really got into it and he's really from the heart telling her about his life in South Central with this honesty that's astounding and she's really amazed because she's from a different environment entirely and she's saying, "What? He got shot?!" She's really into it but she's acting at the same time and she's asking the questions and it's just a magical scene and it really was happening that way.

MG: It did come across magically and what I was struck by—it saddened me, again because I don't think I fully understand it, and why I think it's important to be shown this—was his saying that … his trying to describe their fraternity, the egalitarian quality of their fraternity, that no one was a better friend than anybody else. Is that actually how they operate?

LC: They're great friends. They're a tight-knit group. If you're one of the group you wouldn't want to single one out and say, "Well, that's my best friend." They're all friends. It wasn't about that. It wasn't about best friends or a pecking order of—I like you better than you—they're really close. That was an honest answer that he gave. The girl last night who asked the question, she's basically saying that if you do anything there can be ramifications. I don't think she was saying, "Well, don't do anything" but it's kind of like that. You're always taking chances, taking risks, and these kids are opening up and being honest. At some point as they get older they may look at that and say, "My God, I was so open and honest, it's a little embarrassing and stuff," but, they're not doing that, they're inviting you into their life, into what happens. It was interesting. Do you know what I mean?

MG: Oh yes. It intrigued me because I often say I was never more honest than when I was 17. Somehow along the way culture gets to you, commodification gets to you, peer pressure and family pressure start to hit and you start to lose your initial authenticity. That's why I've never understood why you were being criticized for capturing that because it's such a fleeting grace really and you have—in a way—almost devoted yourself to making sure that voice gets out, where so many other filmmakers don't bother.

LC: It's true. It's startling the honesty and that's what I'm trying to do.

MG: In one of your interviews I read you said that in a teenager's take on the world they ask, "Why can't things be the way I want them to be? I can do anything I want to because it's the truth." That really struck me because I remember the boldness I had as a young person.

LC: That's how I started. I started making images that I couldn't see anywhere else when I did my first book Tulsa. All this stuff is happening around me, it's everyday stuff for me, but you never see it, it's forbidden to even show this or talk about it. That was my original motivation for making those photographs and there's still that aspect to my work: Why can't you show everything? Why can't you show this? Why can't you show that?

MG: And it's a good question: why can't you?

LC: And I can! [Chuckles.]

MG: And that's wonderful that you do, that you show the sex among teenagers, you show their drug use. In another interview you're quoted as saying you have to celebrate the darkness along with the light. You have to celebrate the first time you have sex as well as the first time you use a syringe. You can't block things out because they happen.

LC: Right.

MG: In Wassup Rockers what I've noticed is that reviewers keep talking about its sweetness. Here is a film where there isn't any drug use, where there's little sex. You aren't so much showing the darkness as you are showing the light in these kids and somehow that ends up being radical. Did that happen consciously?

LC: It's just the way kids were. It's as simple as that. These kids had this amazing energy and zest for life, and for the moment, living in this dangerous environment, and they weren't negative. I mean I was so much more negative than these kids were; they'd say, "Snap out of it, Larry!" Y'know? These kids were seeing the up side of everything. Ways to get around the negativity. Ways to survive and ways to be a kid and ways to have fun. These kids are just happy, good kids.

MG: Great. Well, I just got the two-minute signal. I could probably talk to you for hours about all this.

LC: Yeah, we could talk, yeah!

MG: Thank you very much for Wassup Rockers, enjoy the premiere tonight at The Egyptian.

LC: Yes, exactly, the premiere.

MG: The boys are going to come skateboarding up the red carpet?

LC: That's what I understand. Thanks a lot. Good to talk to you.

07/03/06 ADDENDUM: Per Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily, Peter Sobczynski at Hollywood Bitchslap and Glen Helfand at SF360 likewise interview Clark.

07/13/06 ADDENDUM: A shout out to colleague Sara Schieron at Filmshi whose "shicast" with Larry Clark culls some truly intriguing biographical details.

Monday, June 26, 2006

BLOGATHON--Leonard Cohen: An Appreciation

I sometimes feel I should wear a t-shirt that reads: "I have survived melismatics." Anjani exemplifies that celebrated survival with her spare—yet rich!—renditions of Leonard Cohen on their recent collaboration Blue Alert, which like Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat reminds that Leonard Cohen writes poetry that the best voices wish to sing and that every now and then, unexpectedly, he shows up again with new beauty to share. The expectant choir drools.

Tired of choosing desire
I've been saved by a blessed fatigue
The gates of commitment unwired
And nobody's trying to leave.

I merely wanted to mention Blue Alert because I am still befriending her as a moodpiece and do not want to scare her away with facile equations; I prefer our getting-to-know-each-other dalliance for now. What I will comment upon is the photograph on the back cover—taken by Lorca Cohen, I believe—of Anjani and Cohen sitting side by side drinking cups of coffee. Anjani is looking over bemusedly at Cohen who is blurred out-of-focus so that you cannot distinguish his face. I thought, ah yes, how clever, to efface oneself just enough to promote a protégé. To efface oneself just enough to promote the music, not the man. And yet at the same time, admittedly it's a modest folly because there are some men who are music, just as they live and breathe, their talents inseparable, their poetry prescribed like veins beneath the skin and the questing blood that explores through them.

At one of Leonard Cohen's websites there's a link to his collaboration with Anjani. If you follow that link you'll find a 10-minute video clip on the making of Blue Alert wherein Cohen sweetly sways to Anjani's voice as she records "Thanks For the Dance." He comments as well on her true generosity which never overwhelms but which nourishes and satisfies. At the Anjani link there is also a video of "Thanks For the Dance." At the archival website—Bird On A Wireyou'll find a plethora of interviews and commentary. Dave Hudson provides a compendium at Greencine Daily. And my final recommendation would be Terri Gross's NPR interview with Cohen.

What perhaps intrigues me the most about Leonard Cohen is precisely the body of his work exactly as it has grown over the last few (my last few?) decades. The maturation of Cohen's body of work—through poems, through songs, through photographed persona, through collaborative projects in albums and tribute concerts, through documentaries such as Lian Lunson's upcoming I'm Your Man—reflects the maturation of my own physical body. His poetry's reflectivity is one of its most seductive allures. His depths have a shiny surface. And his depths—like a hematite mirror with which to scry—have reflected my own dark obsessions, my orgasms, my epiphanies; the revelatory smoke to all my confusing flame. He confirms what diarist Anais Nin once wrote, that by going deeply into the personal you achieve the universal.

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in my mid-teens. It was "Suzanne" of course that summoned me to orbit Cohen's gravity and his Grove Press publication of Selected Poems was the first book I ever stole from a bookstore. I can be upfront about that. At 52, with my temples silvered, I can look back at my 16-year-old sticky-fingered hippie self, long dark hair down to my shoulders, and see—without doubt—that the theft of that volume of poetry was a necessary crime to save my soul. From it I learned that my soul was the scent of cloves. Such insights help you survive life. From Cohen's Energy of Slaves I learned that I would happily suffocate in the circle of a lover's back.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be Leonard Cohen. I wanted to fuse the sensual and the spiritual as experientially as him. He represented for me a world-traveling poet, a sensualist, and (as Joni Mitchell described him) a "holy man on the FM radio." My understandings of desire shaped themselves alongside his descriptions in eager and gainful mimicry. I can't confirm that Joni Mitchell wrote that lyric for Leonard Cohen but somehow that conflation has become personal history in my mind and is now a fact that needs to be disproven before rejected.

You are a holy man on the FM radio.
I stayed up all the night and I watched thee
To see who in the world you might be.

When Jennifer Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, Cohen came back into my life in a really big way. Like Girish I concur that the arrangements on that album are resonant and lapidary. Around that time I watched Warnes perform from the album with a five-piece string ensemble at a Bread & Roses benefit at the Greek Theater, Berkeley. The beauty of that performance—the songs themselves, the lyrics, the arrangements, Jennifer's voice, the warm autumnal weather—drove the audience wild with beauty. I recall Bonnie Raitt, who followed Warnes, admitting she was intimidated. "Jennifer," she said, "you blow me away." And the cello's mournful lament became affixed to my understandings of Leonard Cohen and his music. Even though just a cameo, that's perhaps why I was pleased to hear a cello on the Anjani album.

After re-reading what I've just written, I am struck how it confirms Zach Campbell's astute observation: "LC deals with the problems of memory, and the inclusion of the past inside the present, not as a matter of nostalgia but as a condition of daily experience … This is to say, maybe, one doesn't look back in LC's universe so much as he or she is pushed forward by constant, complex, and even irrational presences of the past."

Zach completes his observation: "Even when the signifiers can be ascribed to Cohen's personal life and history, the relation to the listener (and the potential for the reinterpreter) works because it is a whole self-sufficient system of meaning-making. This is what good songwriters and poets often do, constructing something deeply personal but expressing something that exists outside of persona."

Which returns me to the photograph on the back of the Anjani album, where Cohen is captured out-of-focus. This is not only about self-effacement to advance another's career but about Zach's elucidation that persona isn't everything. Or, wryly perhaps, that you get to be a certain age where self-effacement can become merely another aspect of persona.

So what else to say? I won't get to see Lian Lunson's documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man until a press screening just a few days before it opens so, again, I'm grateful to Zach's initial impressions. At that time, keep your fingers crossed, there's a good chance I'll get to chat with Lian on the film, as well as Martha Wainwright so there will be a later entry then. For now, I would recommend Lian's own blogsite on the documentary.

Cohen also has a new book of poetry that's out—Book of Longing—but, try as I may, I couldn't locate it. I had been trying to support my local independent bookseller A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books but they advised they can no longer stay in business so I guess I should just give up the ghost and purchase online. (So strange to see an independent book seller closing shop and selling off stock. Half the shelves were empty. It felt as if my memory were being erased. And it's always ominous to go to the poetry section of a book store and find no Leonard Cohen.) Whenever I can get my hands on a copy of that volume of poetry—even if I have to resort to my adolescent thieveries—I'll be back to supplement this post.

Because, truth be told, there were so many other things I wanted to write about Leonard Cohen, but, I was covering two dovetailed film festivals and simply ran out of time. For example, I wanted to go back to that early shoplifted volume of poetry to sift through all the highlighted passages (in those days—like Joseph Campbell—my meditation was to underline sentences), just to see if they would bear the same witness today. I've put that on my list of future writing projects.

And I had definitely wanted to play with Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Which led, of course, to checking out Cohen's affiliation with cinema on IMDb. I guess the truth is I could never exhaust all the possible approaches to Cohen's body of work, but, I remain grateful to Jennifer and Invisible Cinema for encouraging me to begin.

06/27/06 ADDENDUM: I'm delighted to report that I actually found a copy of Book of Longing today and intend to shack up with it the next few days. And believe it or not, I actually bought it!

Also, Dan in the comment section to this entry, provided a link to the most amazing compendium of "Hallelujah" covers I've ever seen on My Old Kentucky Blog!

07/03/06 ADDENDUM: Though not initially intending to, Brian Darr at Hell On Frisco Bay contributes to the Cohen blogathon with commentary on his friend David Eno's animated short Leonard Cohen at Alberta.

07/08/06 ADDENDUM: The recently-launched blog for Bright Lights Film Journal features Megan Ratner's review of I'm Your Man.

Friday, June 23, 2006

2006 FRAMELINE XXX—B. Ruby Rich On The Q-Word, the Post-Brokeback Landscape, Queer Normativity and the Genderation Gap

B. Ruby Rich has an endearing tendency of staring up into space when she's formulating ideas, as if they are flying around like elusive birds above her audience or—more accurately—projected larger-than-life on a big screen. She is a purveyor of visions and definitions. Five years ago she delivered the keynote address to Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference and returned to do the same this year at the Victoria Theatre. Conference Co-Coordinator Matthew Florence has provided an in-depth bio on Rich at the Persistent Vision website.

B. Ruby Rich entitled her keynote address "The Q-Word, the Post-Brokeback Landscape, Queer Normativity and the Genderation Gap"; a cluster of themes with which she has been preoccupied in the last year. "Where to start?" she asked her audience. "I have a heavy burden here. Do I want to claim New Queer Cinema yet again? Or dismantle it? Do I want to update it? Or trash it?"

Admitting she had come to praise New Queer Cinema, not to bury it, she quoted a comment made by Amy Villarejo in an essay written for GLQ (The Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies)—"The questions raised by queer studies, queer film studies, are still operative. It matters whether we choose to [embalm] them or resuscitate them, transformed for today." Qualifying that Villarejo was talking mostly about history, Rich nonetheless thought it could likewise apply to a reappraisal of queer cinema terms. "I suppose what I want to do here today is neither and both," she decided.

"What kind of landscape are we inhabiting now?" she asked. "Whether compared to five years ago when Persistent Vision was last held. Whether compared to 1992 when I first published my New Queer Cinema essay. Or whether compared to 30 years ago when a version of this festival first came into being."

She offered up a few examples. First, of course, the phenomenon of Brokeback Mountain. Secondly, a billboard that has sprung up all over New York City advertising Bravo's new show, Five Queens One Joker. "Guess which one is straight? It's a new kind of set up where the heterosexual's in the closet."

If Persistent Vision had been held last year, she would have talked about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but, of course, that's old news by now and, after all, the show and its Fab Five have even become so mainstream that Thom Felicia went off last year to the World's Fair in Japan where he had been invited to design the U.S. pavilion. "I'm not even talking about The L-Word," Rich dismissed, "to which I of course pay slight homage in my title. But since it's happening this week, I think I'll just reference Rufus Wainwright performing Judy Garland. Was anybody there? No? We wish, huh?"

With queerness everpresent in cinema, television and popular culture, on the screens with Transamerica—"for better and worse"—and Brokeback Mountain, Rich noted that such emergences into the mainstream are read by some people as emergencies. One might call the situation "a push to queer normativity." But what has happened to the oppositional powers? The powers that the old original gay liberation movement was supposed to deliver? "Some of us," she recalled, "are old enough to remember the pledge to dismantle the nuclear family three decades before a new generation set about retrofitting it and rebuilding it instead." A weak smile came to my face remembering that distant, dusty pledge.

B. Ruby Rich has spent the last 10 months talking about Brokeback Mountain, much of which has gone into print; but, two of the best write-ups are the piece she wrote for the Guardian website and her interview with a young journalist named Cole Akers at the Orange County Weekly.

Notwithstanding, she wanted to point out a few things and provide a quick version. First, she disagrees with the mainstream critics who jumped on board to declare the western was always gay, providing an opportunity for all those guys—"Maybe you had some of them as film professors in college?"—who wanted to "suddenly declare they had seen Red River, they had seen this film or that film, and didn't they always know (wink wink) what was going on? I would argue that Brokeback Mountain does not belong in that setting. That, in fact, those westerns are about another kind of homosocial bonding and that it distorts the achievement of Brokeback Mountain as well as that of the genre to so glibly go into that comparison. Besides which, that should be our terrain to enjoy, not theirs."

But Rich also disagrees with so many of the queer critics who jumped on the bandwagon to attack Brokeback Mountain, to denounce it as "not even queer normativity, just mainstream normativity." Her favorite denunciation was Gary Indiana's in the Village Voice who complained that the film's credibility was stretched and completely unbelievable, reasoning that sexual attraction between Ennis and Jack couldn't have persisted for so long. Indiana pointed out—"and he didn't say 'In my experience', he simply declared it as fact"—that sexual attraction between men doesn't last past two or three years.

"I want to claim a proper lineage to the film," Rich explained. "Not the lineage that takes us back to—God help us!—John Ford, but, preferably the people who came after who did more interesting—to my mind—things with the genre." B. Ruby Rich has claimed Brokeback Mountain's "distinctly queer lineage", which is something of a "funny double-edged sword."

Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys begins the list. Rich recalled that critics were dismissive of Brokeback Mountain saying, "This is nothing new. It's already been done. Look at Lonesome Cowboys." But, in fact, Lonesome Cowboys was interesting for another reason. "Lonesome Cowboys was shot in 1968 in Oracle, Arizona using a movie-ready main street that had actually been built originally for the early westerns. But while shooting there the Warhol superstars attracted the hostile attention of the locals who promptly reported them to the FBI and they became a target of an FBI investigation." If you explore some of the Warhol websites, you'll find references to the FBI dossier on Lonesome Cowboys.

Next, Rich would claim John Scheslinger's Midnight Cowboy, "the film that acknowledges the gay fascination with cowboys even if it doesn't quite create the cowboy fascination with being gay." Midnight Cowboy moved into the urban setting "where the New Queer Cinema of course would stay, where many of our great gay and lesbian films have stayed, but really it was a very groundbreaking film for its time and remains so in interesting ways."

Finally, her claim referenced Isaac Julien's "wonderful" video installation Long Road to Mazatlán shot in San Antonio, "deliberately referencing Warhol, deliberately referencing mainstream movies, as his central character repeatedly looks at himself in the mirror and does a strange update on Travis Bickel in the process, but there are cruising scenes—such as you might have expected to find in Brokeback Mountain—cowpokes cruising at the cattle auction. It's a wonderful imagining of a more contemporary queer sensibility relocated into a fantasy mythic western setting." These three films B. Ruby Rich claimed as the queer precedents for Brokeback Mountain.

Rich pointed out that aspects of the film that have been overlooked include "the class constraints of modern queer culture, the urban bias of the New Queer Cinema, all of which we see played out in this film that is indeed—as Marcus Hu and others have acknowledged—a working class love story. And finally the figure that etches indelibly into our retinas and our minds of the toxic patriarch. The family that smolders and strikes. The mother's powerlessness to save us from the father's wrath and disdain. And for lesbians of course in this eternally male-centric queer culture, the dad is who would save us from the moms who sometimes destroy us." But, of course, Rich mused, that film is one that no one has seen yet. She hoped we might get some hints as to why in one of the Persistent Vision panels aptly named "We Want Our Dykeback Mountain."

"Brokeback Mountain is most significant as a phenomenon," she continued, "More than a film, it's a phenomenon." Not just the Oscar parody. Not just The New Yorker cover. Not just the Boondocks cartoons. Not just all of the jokes and all of the quips and all of the articles—the countless articles!—but the breathless coverage that started when Brokeback Mountain won the award at Venice, which led to the Guardian giving her space to write about it, and then "ratcheted up" as the film was set to open. The incessant speculation on who would see this film, who would pay to see it, and how much money the film might make signaled to Rich "the arrival of a whole new sort of heterosexual hysteria. The box office litmus test. The homophobia of the cash register. How much you have to gross to be a player." In the old days when the New Queer Cinema was starting out in '91-'92, it was a million dollars. If you broke a million dollars, you were this wild runaway success that earned respect for queer representations. But in global ticket sales combined with something like $30 million already in dvd and video sales, Brokeback Mountain is now headed towards $200 million. "That's the new bar for respectability." But the most lasting contribution, Rich emphasized and she thanked Ang Lee for this, were the boundaries that no longer needed to be crossed, what she described as "the opening up of our terrain. The terrain to which we can lay claim. No longer just our town or our neighborhood, our friends, our social circle, our issues, our fights but a wide open world of movie genres and wild Western landscapes."

Already fascinated by Angela Robinson's D.E.B.S.—still a much beloved film for Rich and one which opened up the door to the world of popular mainstream genres—Ang Lee took it a step further and queered the most sacred of the genres—the western—and did it not just to these sacred characters of the cowboys and the ranchers—"Although sheep is still not cattle!"—but to the landscape; a queering of the Wyoming landscape that will never look the same again.

Further, Brokeback Mountain has also "annexed" history. Some critics have complained about that queer annexation. "But the very first impulse within queer cinema was toward history," Rich instructed. "It was Isaac Julien making Looking for Langston. It was Todd Haynes looking at the examples of Genet when he made Poison. It was Tom Kalin looking back at Leopold and Loeb when he made Swoon. It was a very strong historical impulse in that very very first encounter. Even some of the lesbian shorts like The Meeting of Two Queens [Dos Reinas] by Cecilia Barriga went back to Garbo and Dietrich. So there was in the very first instant a desire to annex history, to go back and look for precedents, and to assert our claim not just on today's stage but on that stage of the past that shaped us and that shaped our fantasies coming of age."

Rich raised the specter of Brokeback Mountain for another reason too. Since the film was released, she has been astonished at the re-emergence of a question that never seems to quite go away entirely: Why are these queer festivals still necessary? Why have a LBGTQQI festival when the marketplace has now taken over? Isn't it wonderful enough that queers are now in the mainstream? Why would we need these festivals now? On this theme she recommended Johnny Ray Huston's article in the current San Francisco Bay Guardian inspired by Mary Jordan's Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis talking about the kind of initial queer avant-garde impulse that Huston wants to see at Frameline, for which he values the festival. She likewise recommended Dennis Harvey's SF360 Frameline overview. For those up to the task, she pointed to indieWIRE's forum on indie queer cinema that rounded up a number of people to debate the topic, and the Village Voice section in 2002 on the 10th anniversary of her New Queer Cinema article which first appeared in the Voice. "Taking stock," she smiled wistfully. "It's odd this New Queer Cinema phenomenon, people constantly seem to have the need to take stock of it and I seem to keep going for the bait and rising to the occasion."

"So I've been trying to think through these issues myself and I want to run through a few parts of this article that I've done for GLQ," she said, "I've called this article 'The New Homosexual Film Festivals' in recognition of what my U.C. Santa Cruz students told me when I taught New Queer Cinema there last year. They said, 'Oh, queer is such an old word; we prefer homo.' " Her audience laughed with a groan. "I know," she responded, "I was surprised."

So what position do film festivals occupy exactly? This was a question Rich thought about five years ago at Persistent Vision. And now five years later the festivals that were then called Lesbian and Gay festivals are now called GLBT. "Festivals inhabit a really changed cultural and political landscape," Rich contextualized, "and not just in the ways I've just outlined. Not just in these fizzy ways. Transformed by predictable as well as unforeseen pressures…. Such pressures include the rise of homophobic and right wing Christian fundamentalist politics in the U.S., the tightening of all zones of tolerance under a national security state intent on not just the heterosexualization but the militarization of civilian life, increased homophobia masked as ignorance and indifference, generational differences within the queer community—what I choose to call 'genderational' differences—chronically underexamined class and race differences, the classically reappearing/disappearing lesbian question in all of this, the impact of the Internet and digital technologies … and the transformation of audiences by niche marketing, the increased seduction of queer viewers into willing consumers serviced by increasing commercial representational products and strategies. I think that investigations are more urgent than ever as a result as to what positions exactly the festival today inhabit, not only in the body politic but also in the political imaginary of their publics, those viewers who constitute themselves in hundreds of movie theaters and screening spaces around the globe into communities—however temporary, however ephemeral—of identity. …These audiences need to turn out constituting visible communities this time each year if only briefly and insuring the continual growth of the festivals themselves, in however conflicted and ambivalent a space."

Rich proposed it might be time for reception theory to get a workout again, that sociology students trained in statistics classes might point out the data on the lives, experiences, tastes and subjectivities of today's LGBT audiences. To be sure all is not well on the festival front. "It's not just this year after Brokeback," Rich qualified, "but virtually every year that the LGBT festivals are charged with outlasting their mandates and invited—if not ordered—to cease and desist. The frequency with which critics inside and outside of the queer community is issued this call to arms—or perhaps to disarm—is perplexing. The frequency is as constant as the message. Critics say that choices are available enough now in the mainstream to rule out the need for such specialization. Queer audiences are now a niche market, no longer viewed as ghettoized events. These [critiques] are a stale holdover from the pre-Stonewall era that survived like some sort of—I don't know—evolutional redundancy that by now we should succumb to the pull of Darwinism and surrender in some kind of Darwinian last gasp."

"What has been apparent instead," Rich elucidated "is the extent to which GLBT festivals may become repositories of that which the mainstream and popular culture, commercial culture, refuses to embrace. Not just in terms of style and aesthetic but in terms of issues and contents: which bodies are representable, which bodies are globally attractive, which themes are dignified?" She noted a similar pattern that has presented itself in other communities—the feminist film viewers of the '70s, the African-American festivals of the '80s—that entered the embrace of popular culture and, each time, the audience that was once so open to experimentation, so galvanized by witnessing its own representations, changed off to a commercial version once it became available. "It's not farfetched to see that pattern repeating itself."

On the other hand, Rich opined, such development forces the hand of the festivals "which will spin out into ever more courageous and experimental directions." In that regard she mentioned three trends. The first is the transgender revolution represented, not by the mainstream characters that have garnered Oscar nominations—thanks, Felicity!—"but by the increasingly accomplished works entirely framed and produced by trans-sensibilities and talents." Secondly, the rise of brilliant Third Queer Cinema outside the North American/Western European axis has brought increasingly challenging and fantastic films from Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, Hong Kong. Thirdly, "the fruition of digital storytelling, realized by low budget toolboxes," has brought work by younger and younger filmmakers and allowed "for the emergence of stories far from the urban centers and far from the film school training that has so long dominated the kinds of things we get to see."

Rich pointed out the MIX festivals in Mexico and Brazil as "powerful seedbeds to local production in this regard, a function of payoff with Julián Hernandez's first film A Thousand Clouds of Peace and this year with Broken Sky." Hernandez's "uncompromising and groundbreaking portraits of the young characters outside the mainstream" constitute for Rich the "reinvention of a true visceral erotic energy that just absolutely penetrates off the screen."

She profiled Mexican video artist Ximena Cuevas who has long been building a body of work back when digital was still called video. "Remember that?" Five years ago one of Rich's favorites of Cuevas's recent work—La Tambola [Raffle]—was "a wonderful demonstration of the discomfort that can still be inflicted on mainstream media. We don't enter into that space disguised but instead enter in as an undigestible other, as she does, the lesbian artist who refuses both submission and abjection on a wired, out of control t.v. talk show."

From Argentina, Rich highlighted the "queer empathic work" of straight filmmaker Diego Lerman whose film Suddenly (Tan de Repente) Rich described as a "lesbian romantic escapade." She amplified, "If you've never seen it or heard of it, you're missing your chance to see a young woman abducted at knifepoint by the lesbian street punks that desire her." Self-portrayals like Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa) and La Ciénega, both "subtly disrupt heteronormativity and make space for girls' homoeroticism."

Shifting focus to Brazil, Rich complimented such "wonderfully transgressive works" as Madame Sata, one of the films that she thinks has "created a new standard for transvestite—perhaps more than transgender—investigation."

Continuing her praise of Third Queer Cinema, Rich added, "Queer Asian filmmakers have been deploying really substantive bodies of work to challenge the West's definition of queer politics as well as aesthetics, and I think here of Stanley Kwan and his wonderful Tianneman Square tragedy Lan Yu; of Tsai Ming-Liang's evolving body of work, most astonishing, perhaps, with Goodbye, Dragon Inn and his queering of the movie theater and the supernatural cruising that goes on in the balconies of the abandoned theater. Or Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul [and] his melodramatic minimalism out of Thailand, such as Tropical Malady, where even the human is a container that must be breached for the welfare that eventually moves into the jungle and onto a tiger." With all three of these films hailed on the mainstream arthouse circuit, Rich conjectured that it would seem that LGBT festivals might again be considered redundant. But she cautioned that these films have been "imported for their aesthetics while their sexuality is left discretely at the door, unremarked upon by the mainstream cinephiles, even when the screen blazes with its evidence."

That point having been made, Rich then suggested that another function of LGBT film festivals that is worth protecting and honoring is the entire question of context. "It's only here in these theaters, in these audiences, that we can see these works for what they are," she proclaimed, "that we can hear audiences laugh and sigh, gasp and breathe in unison and realize the powers that can never be realized, never will be realized at home alone with the dvd player and the flat screen t.v. What these works mean and how they make that meaning, what they mean to us, still has to be fought for. LGBT festivals still have a lot of work to do in forging these connections between the international work from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the communities of color in San Francisco and the rest of the United States. Anyone attending the festivals can see always that audience development has a long way to go, though efforts in programming do sometimes pay off with diversified audiences."

Rich was particularly thrilled at last year's Frameline Festival with the audience of William E. Jones' documentary Is It Really So Strange?, his revelatory film about Morrissey's following amongst gay Latinos in the '80s who turn back to celebrate their own past and youthful folly. "Indeed," Rich theorized, "tracking the documentaries, both short form and in long form, offers an alternative perspective on festivals whereby political issues … enter into representation and dialogue. Last year was the year of gay marriage in San Francisco, but, of course this year is the year of gay marriage in Spain with Reinas having put into dramatic form what already got tested in documentary here. And other subjects continue to present themselves to demand attention. Every year it's something new. This seems to be the year of crystal meth from what I can tell. Crystal meth and gay men: 2006." Her audience chuckled sadly and knowingly. "It's one way of looking back at the Frameline sequence. And it's also one way that festivals offer an alternative to either the homo-ignored world of the mainstream journalism where only tabloid stories ever get play and the individualized world of Internet news where we must circulate and where no critical mass ever can get together for discussion or action. Our festivals are the place where we come together to constitute community. But what about the politics? When festivals begin to tie action campaigns into their screenings, perhaps something even more exciting than hook-ups might happen here."

Rich proposed that further diversification might well be aided and abetted by the strides and low cost of new production tools, even though this might blossom into a submission nightmare for programmers. But at the same time as these low budget tools are being introduced and made accessible to a more diversified filmmaking community, a parallel effort is required to create a low price ticketing structure for people who can't afford the tickets that others can. Rich reminded us that the poster child for a low budget production aesthetic is, of course, Jonathan Caouette and his infamous film Tarnation, which first attracted press attention at Sundance and then Cannes once Gus van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell signed on as executive producers. "But remember," Rich stressed, "it had its world premiere in the queer-specific space of New York's MIX festival whose director Stephen Jusick left to become its producer and—crucially—editing advisor, as it got cut down from—what? those of you who first saw it?—three hours? Three and a half hours? …Tarnation proved that a little money and a consumer I-Mac with the right life story and packrat habits could still break out of the pack, at least if you were an adorable white boy…."

Rich took this as another chance to start talking about the gender divide that has long stalked the New Queer Cinema and which is only getting wider. "Sadie Benning, where are you when we really need you?" she called out to her audience. "There's many many hundreds of Sadies now out there and you see them in the shorts programs and then we wonder what happens? What trips them up on the way to the feature? So I look forward to that [Dykeback] panel here to tell us why."

Then B. Ruby Rich proceeded to broach the topic that seemed to most agitate her audience. "Last year," she said, "Frameline dedicated its program theme to transgender work and here's the breaking news that I think is not really so new: that transgender is the new queer. It has the excitement, the uncompromising demands, the litany of oppression, the new representations, and yes, the youngsters. Stage center, a new generation experiences the LGBT universe as a cycling homonormative one. Just as much as my generation tarred our elders with a similar brush. What goes around comes around in identity politics. Now the transgender and genderqueer kids have their own digital productions, their own favorite productions, their own favorite films—I shout out to By Hook or By Crook, that genderqueer masterpiece. …At the moment, most of the heat is in short videos and dvds while the feature format belongs to the mainstream and the mainstream's more problematic use of such characters….

"The presentation of perspectives from within these emergent transgender or genderqueer communities are going to become increasingly urgent as the distorted images begin to circulate. But having been in the audience this year at The Believers and last year at The Aggressives, I can say something definitely is happening. The excitement that these films and videos is setting off is every bit as passionate and powerful as the original New Queer Cinema screenings of the early '90s and, truth be told, the late '80s as well. And that's why I dare make that assertion: that trans equals the new queer. But there's a difference. Queer was a word that was all about inclusion. Transgender, instead, is a very exclusive kind of club rather than an inclusive one. It's more like a new generation's version of the coming out story and that's why I call it the genderation gap, the transgender generation gap. In that sense—as a coming out story—it's already part of our lexicon, it already has a place set at the table, but in other ways it's ruffling feathers. There's lots of work still to be done. It has its own formulas that are just beginning to get articulated, its own narrative trajectories. Often the tragic ending in the mainstream versions is always about the discovery moment, the money shot as they say in porn, that requires in the mainstream versions the anatomical moment of truth and, of course, there's still a massive understanding and misunderstanding in equal parts, not just the characters in The L Word, the first time around, the second time around, but also—I don't know—let's see what this Lifetime show's going to be like. I think it's on tonight actually. A Girl Like Me: the Gwen Araujo Story, directed by of all people Agnieszka Holland, and starring Mercedes Ruehl as the sympathetic mom.

"And then the energy is still moving from documentary to fiction so I think we're still seeing a lot of the energy and a lot of the emergence of these stories in documentary and in shorts and they just gradually begin to move into longer formats.

"The festivals have served as launching pads for successive generations of communities and we can peep at the moments when queer first made its appearance. When gay and lesbians had to make room for bisexuals. Each of these moments were fraught with difficulty, fraught with excitement, moments that festivals had to engage with and transcend. But there's something I think important to point out about the genderation gap: queer was a word that was all about sexuality but it never was even remotely about gender. In fact, many argue that gender was unduly effaced under the sign of queer though, of course, that dilemma of lesbian erasure is hardly ameliorated by transitioning. The genderation gap forms the same violence to queer that queer did to gay and lesbian that gay and lesbian did to homosexual that homosexual did to homophile and so on. Who knows? We may get all the way back to the third sex if we keep going this way.

"…The international perspective of these festivals is even more urgent than ever as this country disappears more and more into an unknown xenophobia that closes its eyes to the rest of the world. The strengths as well as the weaknesses of the festivals can be found in their stalwart and solid march through the years. …I think there are also monuments erected on battlefields, a kind of movie image version of Gettysburg to which we all go on a pilgrimage. Like brick and mortar monuments, the festivals hold time capsules to years gone by surfacing in legacy shows, assembled by curators and scholars, always one of my favorite parts of the festival, the retrospectives and revivals staged by programmers and the historic excavations performed by filmmakers like last year's Dutch documentary Based On A True Story about tracking down John Wojtowicz, the "dog" of Dog Day Afternoon who was a real character whose gender crisis had provoked the famous bank robbery.

"The festivals are crucibles of identity for their attendees and like house of wax attractions that hold many such identities that viewers have outgrown, even if in some cases, we refuse to throw them out. …For the older generation shaped by civil rights struggles and equal protection under the law, as well as the middling generation shaped by AIDS and Act UP and the politics of confrontation, and the younger generation shaped by queer families and matter-of-fact sexualities, the newest kids on the block are always going to form a new round of shock and surprise. That's their role." The crucial role of the LGBT festivals, Rich defined, "is to provide a focus and a locus," a place where the ephemeral communities brought into being by this or that film or video program are coaxed out of their private worlds of flat screen wonders, Ipods, the cell phones "into community, into communion, into an encounter with one another."

"Gathering together in this age of privatization and surveillance and commodification, not to mention economic stress, is already a victory," Rich confirmed. "We have to find better ways to make use of the occasions, to extend the reach beyond this moment in June to create staging platforms for politics, discussion forums for issues, network platforms and year-round awareness that there are options beyond queer normativity, beyond following what the marketplace offers us, between toeing the line of a new status quo and succumbing to despair, to depression, to surrender. If we criticize our festivals it's because we need and love them so. We're here, after all, every year once again, aren't we?"

* * *

For those aroused by B. Ruby Rich's provocative voice, I further recommend Jennie Rose's 2004 Greencine interview, her 2004 State of Cinema address for the San Francisco Film Society, and her 2001 interview with Isaac Julien.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

2006 FRAMELINE XXX—101 Must-See Movies For Gay Men

As an exercise to help promote and sell copies of his recently-published film guide 101 Must-See Movies For Gay Men, Alonso Duralde's Saturday film clip lecture of the same name at the Roxie Film Center was effective—he sold every copy of his book that he brought to sell out on the sidewalk in front of the theater—and rightfully so! Duralde's 101 Must-See Movies For Gay Men is wittily written, insightful, and deserves a wide readership. I wasn't fast enough to catch one outside, had to walk down to Different Light on Castro to secure my copy, but have been enjoying it a lot since. It's fun!

For me Duralde's book is more 101 Movies For Gay Men I Have Seen, which feels nice actually, confirming a method to my cinematic madness, reminding me that watching queer film has really been one of those cultural processes limned with history in which many of us have taken part in a shared growth. His book also reminds me that we have gone to the movies not only to seek representative images of ourselves—whether masked in metaphor, or up bare in your face—but also to find scripts, words to remedy the regretful wit of the staircase or to escape invisible silence; the verbal weaponry of memorable one-liners. "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" "I am big! It's the pictures that got small." Along with his insightful plot synopses Duralde offers choice lines from each of his must-see movies as well as delicious trivia. I was delighted to find out Roger Ebert wrote Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, and that Lupita Tovar is the mother of Chris and Paul Weitz!

So why was I mildly (not wholly) disappointed in the film clip lecture? It wasn't the content—which faithfully tracked with the book—but more the sense that Alonso wasn't allowing himself to shine. I know it's just a pet peeve of mine, but I much prefer extemporaneous speaking over hiding behind notes. It wasn't like this was unfamiliar material to Duralde, he was in effect quoting from the book he'd written, so why not just say it? Why not speak from what he knows? Why read it? Further, technically, he didn't need to project his chapter headings, often preceded by enough space to drive a 16-wheel truck. What would have been the harm in just announcing his themes and moving the program along at a steady clip?

I considered the possibility his lecture format might be an early rehearsal of an intended documentary, but, afterwards he admitted he didn't have rights to any of the clips, was probably already pushing fair use, and a documentary was most likely out of the question. So my suggestion to Alonso would be to stash the notes, memorize his jokes, do away with the projected chapter headings, and be the wry, erudite film critic we have come to know and love. I know he can do it. He's one of the most engaging talking heads in Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

2006 FRAMELINE XXX—The Evening Class Interview With John Cameron Mitchell

The other morning when I picked up my phone and heard John Cameron Mitchell introducing himself, I mustered all my resolve not to squeak and calmly said, "Oh, hello John." I was professionally calm but personally, tremendously excited.

* * *

Michael Guillén: John, you're all over Frameline 30 this year. You're featured in Katherine Linton's documentary Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, you're one of the talking heads in Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, and you'll also be delivering the closing remarks at Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference. Thanks in advance for your strong presence at our festival this year.

John Cameron Mitchell: Sure. It's a free ticket. A good time. The best queer festival in the world. Why not?

Guillén: Let's start with Follow My Voice. For those who haven't yet seen the documentary, can you synopsize your involvement with both projects, not only producer Chris Slusarenko's Hedwig tribute album—Wig In A Box—but Linton's documentary?

JCM: Slusarenko had the benefit idea and then Stephen Trask and I just did everything we could to help. Then Katherine just appeared, suddenly there were cameras, so I really didn't have anything to do with the film except to be there when she wanted me there. I had a couple of comments on the edit, but, she really did it all and that was fantastic. They were incredibly persistent and ubiquitous which is necessary for that kind of a documentary. Documentary filmmakers are really the saints of this industry because there's no money involved. It's all about passion and to me they are one of the circles of heaven. So I really applaud her and her team for making this. It was very powerful for me because, y'know, when you see the repercussion of one little thing that you did having other good results is very powerful and reminds you that you're doing anything at all.

Guillén: I'm not sure I'd call Hedwig "a little thing" but I know and respect what you're saying. Do you still have The Breeders singing "Wicked Little Town" on your answering machine?

JCM: Erased it by accident!

Guillén: Aw, that's unfortunate. As I was listening to The Breeders sing their acoustic version of "Wicked Little Town" in the documentary, I thought of a couple of things. I had read an earlier interview with you where you talked about the music of Hedwig and you made it very clear that the music could be covered and adapted by other musicians so it was neat to see your prescience confirmed. And as I was watching The Breeders singing within the setting of Manhattan, I thought it was sadly ironic that Staten Island, New York City, could still be as provincial and prejudicial a place as a little bohunk town in mid-America.

JCM: Yeah. Yeah, I was too. But, y'know, I'm living in the West Village and these kids are coming from uptown, way out in the boroughs where it's still rough. It's better than it was but all the uptown kids have to come down to Christopher Street, which is no longer a gay center in any mainstream way. Now, Christopher Street and the Christopher Street piers are where the uptown Latino and Black kids go to have somewhere to hang out because they can't uptown, there's nowhere to go. I'm so glad that historically the place of the freaks in the 60s and 70s has become a haven for a lot of these kids. It's unfortunate because all the rich apartment owners down there are trying to get the kids out of there.

Guillén: Yeah, I remember a documentary to that effect last year or the year before about the kid scene on Christopher Street and the problems they were having. I was reading also that as a young boy you had difficulty coming to terms with your own sexuality, like so many of us, like myself, and obviously this is something that has stayed with you and become a concern and a passion in reaching out to these young kids today. You seem to be relating to young kids a lot.

JCM: Well, yeah. I mean, y'know, coming out in the 70s—well, I guess I came out in the 80s—but growing up in the 70s and the early 80s was such a … it was better than before but it was still a very strange time to come out. I came out as AIDS hit, which is even stranger than the 50s, it actually meant death as opposed to just ostracism. It was a political time. It was a powerful act to come out because it was linked to disease so for me—as it was for many people—the act of coming out was the crux of the gay rights movement in that … because the more people come out, the more common it is for everyone to have someone in their family who's gay and they can't discriminate the same way when it's someone you work with or you love or is in your family. It's just impossible. I'm sure that's why George Bush is sort of half-assed about his marriage amendment thing. Which makes it worse in a way because you know that he doesn't really … you know he'd be quite happy to go to some gay wedding of someone he knew. You just get that feeling. And the fact that he's actually using it as a wedge issue, using people's hatred as a wedge voting issue, is even more repulsive than a Jerry Falwell.

Guillén: Well, he is playing a lot to his Evangelical fanbase. I'm 10 years older than you, I think, and I came out in the 70s, pre-AIDS, when it was very exciting and we were fighting Anita Bryant and all that stuff, but I often think sometimes when I look back on my high school years that—because no one really talked about it and if you could pass—you were basically safe, you were invisible and that provided a certain safety. With queerness being so much more defined and visible today do you think young people have a more difficult time of it?

JCM: It seems like more and more teenage gay kids feel that they can come out and have a love life and have some kind of acceptance from their peers and family and that is only good. I'm sure there's another group that is … y'know, you don't quite know what your sexuality is at that age so there's a certain … I don't like that kind of, "You must now decide on MySpace if you're straight or gay." There's a freeflowing thing that goes on, especially when you're that age, and it's not just about the fear of being gay to say you're bi—bisexuality exists—it's something that shouldn't be rammed into a cookie cutter shape. It's something that becomes clearer the older you get. So I think the necessity to label yourself is a little bit limiting and a little bit scarier for some kids, but it always was. Probably in rural areas there's a little bit, maybe even more fear now than there was 10 years ago because of political opprobrium against gays coming from the Republicans. It's like this weird cover for abuse. Sometimes it's very mild abuse, like using the word "gay" as a negative, which is kind of sad, a little bit pathetic, but at the same time what's different now is that if you're feeling like you may be gay and you're suicidal because of it, nowadays you actually with the click of a mouse can find someone to talk to, which was not the case 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago.

Guillén: Exactly. There's a great documentary in the festival this year called Ugly Ducklings by Fawn Yacker that's about youth suicide based upon bigotry and bias that I found moving. With regard to Follow My Voice, one of my favorite scenes was you helping Yoko Ono record "Exquisite Corpse." I thought that was a sweet scene. Do you have any personal anecdotes from the filming that stick in your mind?

JCM: Well that was, yeah, certainly a highlight. It was wonderful hanging out with The Breeders. We had a lot of footage of me performing with various bands but it was obviously too much. The documentary was very long at one point. So those stuck out in my mind, performing with the Polyphonic Spree and The Breeders, and Yoko was fantastic.

Guillén: Let's shift to Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, where you're one of the talking heads. In that documentary you say that the first queer film that truly registered a queer sensibility in a big cultural way in the public's imagination was Andy Warhol's Blowjob. In light of your recent explorations with Shortbus, I was wondering if you're intentionally carrying on what Warhol began?

JCM: Well, y'know, I liked a lot of what Warhol did. I found a good deal of it rather cynical and kind of loveless? He was always more interested in this definitely creative and pushing boundaries and imaginative, but there was this strange kind of lack of affect or maybe a bit of amorality to it and it felt more than anything sometimes loveless. I think Paul Morrissey had, y'know, there was definitely love in some films like Flesh but there was just kind of a bit of a voyeuristic without compassion feeling going on. For me the sexual films that were more our antecedents were things like Un Chant d'amour, which is Jean Genet's sexually-explicit film set in a prison in the 50s, which is full of—suffused with—emotion and compassion and violence. Or Taxi Zum Klo [Taxi to the Toilet], I don't know if you know that one?

Guillén: Yes, I do know that one. I loved that film, in fact, when I was a young man because I could use it to project myself forward into my adult life.

JCM: It's very much a film about adolescence into adulthood and compartmentalizing parts of your life, with humor, and compassion, you got the feeling that the characters were being very honest and the sex was very much matter-of-fact, it was part of their lives. Above all I would say queer films that really used sex were the most influential on Shortbus.

Guillén: I also like in Fabulous! how you talked about the only thing you have in common when you're gay is that you grow up not telling the truth right away. You're aware of artifice, acting, and exaggeration. And you understand metaphor. You start to understand that—as you were saying—you can watch a man and woman in a love scene on television and identify with the woman or the man, but realize it's not exactly what you feel because it is a woman and a man, but you can project yourself into the situation and it's that projecting, it's that understanding that something represents something else that is the crux of metaphor. In a lot of the reviews I've read about Shortbus you talk about sexuality serving as metaphor. Can you speak a little bit about that metaphorical consciousness and its importance for queers? Or for that matter, people in general?

JCM: It's all pretty much what you said [chuckles], it's all there, but that is the one thing that binds us as people of different sexuality, LGBTQ, I guess. I certainly don't feel like I have a link in terms of taste or link in terms of body culture or whatever else with all other queer people, but, I think we do all understand metaphor. We understand what it means to hide what you really are and present a surface, i.e. a metaphor, in place of you. It's usually how you deal with the world at a certain age. In some cultures—not too many—you didn't have to do that from day one. You could even say that the fact that gender expression is linked tenuously and sometimes strongly with sexuality, i.e. a lot of gay women have masculine energies that are more intense than straight women and a lot of gay men have feminine energies, more than their straight male friends. And that seems to come out of biology, nothing's proven or anything, but we all know about it, it's strongly there. That's a current that runs through queer sensibility, it's an awareness of gender expression and an awareness of hiding behind it, an awareness of using it, an awareness of feeling it. But then there's also queer kids who don't have a big dichotomy of male and female within them, they tend to be more straight and more masculine or more feminine. So the one thing that does bind us is the fact that we had to hide something. That's why there are so many people in the arts from the queer community, because art involves creating constructs to make sense of life. Creating things that weren't there already—beautiful sculptures or hair or whatever—to make sense of all the contradictory feelings within us that can be the conflict between what's in us and what is outside of us, which we have to think about a lot when we're young and in a different way when you're older.

Guillén: I like what you were saying earlier about how these days with young people it isn't just about being gay or straight or even bi. What Hedwig did for our culture and where I really have to commend you is that it presented an exploration of gender I'd never considered before. As a self-identified gay male, I was having trouble understanding the transgender issues, which have really come to the forefront in recent years because, as B. Ruby Rich stated it in the documentary, for self-identified gay males in the 70s our struggle was about sexuality and sexual expression, and then it changed more into issues and understandings about gender and gender shifting or persona shifting.

As a producer of Tarnation, you've also explored how queers are documenting themselves at a younger and younger age as cameras become more accessible and available. In Follow My Voice it was intriguing to see the four or five kids that they were monitoring using video diaries to process their experiences and to understand themselves. Several of the documentaries I've seen on queer youth at this year's Frameline Festival—including Follow My Voice and Breaking the Silence—have certainly explored this new avenue for young people. What do you think is the importance of video diaries for queer youth?

JCM: Video diaries are the more modern version of looking at yourself in the mirror, which you just do when you're young, especially when you're gay. How do people see me? How do I see myself? If I'm a gay boy, do I look like a girl? Do I act like a girl? Do I hold my books, cross my legs, like a girl? If I'm a butch girl, should I be wearing makeup? You look at yourself more fiercely in the mirror for better or for worse. Now technology is video, it's MySpace, it's presenting photographs of yourself into the web to define yourself, to label yourself, I am this, I am that, MySpace is all about what you are and it makes you feel a little fearless because you have the technological barrier between you and another person, but it also can make you a little bit cruel so that you're less compassionate when you have those barriers. People are meaner to each other when they're communicating on the web. People are communicating through Manhunt, which reduces respect in a way and compassion, it might be kind of hot, but it veers into addiction.

Guillén: I agree with you there. I know that from personal experience and it's been something I've had to leap over as I've actually entered an asexual phase of my life because I've tired of where those forums lead. Shortbus, then, appears to be an effort to help us understand the generous spirit within sexuality that really isn't being presented to us in the mass culture. It premiered at Cannes, I understand, was it well received? Did you feel you accomplished what you wanted to do with the film?

JCM: Yes, we did. We presented it to the world and it was very well accepted. We had a 10-minute standing ovation at our sold-out 2,300-seat premiere. We had a party and Justin Bond was our emcee and it was really fantastic. We're now sold all over the world and we'll be out here in the fall. It's going fantastically. People are accepting the film the way we hoped they would, which is reminding people that sex is integrated into other parts of our life, or should be. Lately, it's been disintegrated, it's been compartmentalized by religion, but also by gay culture and Manhunt, by consumerist porn, get a credit card, get this, separate that fetish from this one. It's very compartmentalized for all of its availability. Kids are learning about sex through porn now so they're thinking of themselves as consumer niches. "I'm now a member of Barely Legal!" They fetishize themselves through porn. I'm talking about all kids, gay or straight. So I don't think they're learning about sex in the multifaceted way that they should be. They should be learning from their friends, from their relationships, maybe their parents, maybe their schools, the internet porn and other things, to give a broader view. I remember having sex with someone who was younger in the last year and it felt like they were doing it the way they saw it in a porn movie and not enjoying it.

Guillén: Hopefully, Shortbus will remind people of that compassionate spirit that is within sex and the communion and communication it's supposed to engage. You say Shortbus has gotten domestic distribution? Did somebody pick it up at Cannes?

JCM: We're just finishing it up now, I can't really announce it yet, but yeah, we've had a bidding war so it's been great.

Guillén: That's wonderful. Congratulations on that. I want to thank you, John, for taking the time to talk with me. I know you're very busy and I really appreciate your time. I look forward to hopefully getting the chance to meet you when you're here in town.

JCM: It was very nice to talk to you, Michael.

Guillén: Take care.

* * *

Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig has its West Coast premiere on Monday, June 19, 6:00 pm, at the Castro Theater. Completely worth it for its multiple musical performances, including The Breeders, Polyphonic Spree, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Richman and a sultry Rufus Wainwright. Let alone the triumphant opening of Harvey Milk High School, the first queer high school in history.

Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, likewise has its West Coast premiere on Friday, June 23, 6:00 pm, at the Roxie Film Center. Proceeding forward from The Celluloid Closet, Fabulous! celebrates—not so much the recognition of queer identities disguised in Hollywood genres—as much as queer-created, queer-conscious cinema. John joins the likes of B. Ruby Rich, Jenni Olsen, Marga Gomez, Todd Haynes, Angela Robinson, Rose Troche, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Alfonso Duralde, and many others, to bring us current and to help us celebrate our achievements.

On Thursday, June 22, 4:00 at the Victoria Theater, John Cameron Mitchell will deliver the closing remarks to Frameline XXX's Persistent Vision Conference.