Thursday, June 28, 2007

2007 FRAMELINE31: THE FALL OF '55The Evening Class Interview With Seth Randal


Seth Randal was thoroughly enthused when we met. He had been putting up announcements of the added screening of The Fall of '55, necessitated by the rapid sellout of his first screening at the Roxie Film Center. Amiable, articulate and earnestly invested in his own project, we retreated to Harvey Milk Plaza away from the noisy festival throngs to conduct our interview in sunlight and fresh air. Coincidentally enough, both of us were both born in Mercy Hospital in Nampa, Idaho.

As Randal has synopsized at the film's website: In late 1955 and early 1956, the citizens of Boise, Idaho believed there was a menace in their midst. On Halloween, investigators arrested three men on charges of having sex with teenage boys. The investigation claimed the arrests were just the tip of the iceberg—they said hundreds of boys were being abused as part of a child sex ring. There was no such ring, but the result was a widespread investigation which some people consider a witch hunt.

By the time the investigation ended, 16 men were charged. Countless other lives were also touched. In some cases, men implicated fled the area. At least one actually left the country. The investigation attracted attention in newspapers across the nation, including Time Magazine. In 1966, author John Gerassi wrote a book on the investigation, The Boys of Boise. The "Morals Drive" left scars which remain to this day.


Admirably influenced by the work of documentarian Ken Burns, The Fall of '55 likewise pays homage to the graphic design of Saul Bass (Advise and Consent, 1962) via Matt Johnson's art campaign, highlighting the double entendre of the film's title. A torn cottonwood leaf becomes the icon of hearts torn by this scandal.

For those who didn't have the opportunity to catch The Fall of '55 at Frameline31, it's being screened as part of the admission-free Frameline at the Center screenings on Thursday, July 12, 2007, at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center located at 1800 Market Street.

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Seth Randal: It's tremendously exciting to be here in San Francisco and to have the first showing sell out. It's just overwhelming. It's remarkable to see the interest that people have in this story.


Michael Guillén: Audiences in San Francisco have been trained to appreciate queer history. As someone who came here in 1975 in the midst of the Castro Florescence and has watched Frameline develop all these years, the quality of the documentaries that have made it into the program line-up has increased each year. I was excited by your entry—The Fall of '55—because, as I mentioned, I'm from Idaho, born in Nampa, raised in Twin Falls, and was aware of John Gerassi's book The Boys of Boise that examined the events that scandalized the capitol in the mid-50's, though not aware of all the details included in your documentary. What motivated you to focus on this story? Why did you feel it was a story that was important to tell now?

Randal: I had learned about these cases back when I was in high school going to Nampa High and my cousin's girlfriend had told me that there had been this scandal and a book had been written and I was blown away. So I went to the Nampa Library and I went to "that section" where they had these types of books and looked it up and I picked up the book and I thought, "Y'know, there are some great stories here but there's a lot to read and I'm not in that place in my life where I can do it."

The thing that interested me most was I wanted to know what happened after the book. I wanted to know what happened to the people whose lives had been destroyed by this and find out if they were able to recover? Were there any ongoing consequences or impact? And understand how the scandal changed the lives of the individuals who were involved; but, also their families and the community as a whole. That's really what interested me in following this story: trying to find out the consequences and what happened to these people, which is why it took us such a long time to make the film because it was an incredibly intensive research process trying to find everyone that was connected to the case. We actually found and determined the outcomes of all of the men who were prosecuted as well as most of the young accusers. We found out what happened to them and their families.


We also tracked people not just through time, through 50 years, but many of them had moved away, scattered, so we had to find out what happened to them, approach them, and ask them to talk. The thing that got me most was the idea of the injustice, that people were prosecuted over something that was really out of their control. They were prosecuted for being gay and that—as a gay man—was something that I found really frightening. I wanted to know more about the cases. Originally, it wasn't going to be a documentary. I thought maybe I'd write a play or a screenplay and I got to thinking, "If I'm going to write a screenplay or if I'm going to write a play, I'm going to want to do the research to make it as accurate as possible." Because I wasn't living in the 1950s, I would want it to be as accurate and fair as possible. Then I got to thinking, "If I'm going to do all this research, hell, I work in TV news, maybe I should make a documentary about it." The reason why I did it when I did was because I knew at that point the 45-year anniversary was approaching. I knew that many of these people were maybe already dead and—if they weren't dead—I wanted to get them to talk as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. Having watched the film, you can appreciate that one of the people interviewed in the film passed away during the process of making the film.

Guillén: That underscores the importance of recording these testimonials. One of the film's true highlights are the absolutely fascinating audio tapes of Mel Dir.

Randal: Thank you Jonathan Ned Katz!

Guillén: I was impressed. There's an effective juxtaposition that goes on in your documentary, in that you have staged many of the comments—envoicing journalistic sources—but you've mixed this recreated material with verbatim recordings of an interview with Mel Dir.


Randal: I think that interview was conducted here in San Francisco. Mel Dir was the man who was arrested here in San Francisco. Even though the cases are called The Boys of Boise, the scandal ended in San Francisco with Mel Dir's arrest. The Sheriff came from Boise all the way to San Francisco to arrest Mel Dir. Mel Dir was taken back and you heard the quote Mel Dir makes in the film where the San Francisco police officer said, "We wouldn't go to Oakland to make an arrest like this." Thank you Jonathan Ned Katz for sharing the interview with us and letting us use it, letting me know about it, but also for the work that he's done. It's a tremendous contribution to our history as GLBT people. The remarkable thing was Mel Dir was one of the easiest people to track down and find. He was one of the first people [to pop up] just searching online. However, he passed away right after I started work on the film. He had passed away right after we found the address; just a couple of months earlier he had passed away. Because of the work of Jonathan Ned Katz, we now have this vivid, historical document and Mel Dir tells it like it is. He describes the experience of being in the Number One cell house and to hear the story of being brought back to Boise and appearing in court.


Guillén: The Fall of '55 is also an insightful glimpse into the Cold War rhetoric that determined public attitudes regarding gender at the time. Peter Boag, who provides commentary in your film and wrote a contextual foreward for the reprint of The Boys of Boise, describes how this cold war rhetoric influenced the way homosexuals thought of themselves or how they were thought of by mainstream culture. Blackmail was one of the most effective tools to maintain normativity at that time. I can recall as a teen growing up in Twin Falls the sniggering that went on regarding any mention of The Boys of Boise and becoming aware of how blackmail was the modus operandi by which so many gay men's lives were ruined. I remember making the conscious connection then—really before coming out became the political act in did in the mid-70's—that I would not be put in a position where I could be blackmailed and that the only way to do that would be to be honest about my sexuality. You can't be blackmailed if you're out. That Cold War mentality that was so strong in Southern Idaho—perhaps throughout the whole country but very much so in Southern Idaho—is it still somewhat like that in Idaho? Some of your interviewees—Ron Bess comes to mind—made comments suggesting attitudes towards gays haven't budged much. Did you meet resistance filming this documentary?

Randal: In the process of trying to research the film, we actually met with a lot of resistance. The prosecutor of these cases [Blaine Evans] hung up the phone when I called him the first time, which was just shocking to me; he was involved in these cases. That was just one example of the resistance we faced. A lot of people—when we were doing the research—still didn't want to talk about it. It may be different now. I hope it's different now. I really hope that the film can be used as a springboard for a dialog about what happened. That's why we tried to go with an extremely fair approach to the film. We faced a lot of resistance trying to get the people connected to the case to talk. It was really quite frustrating a lot of times. With [regard] to the Cold War mentality, Boise per se isn't necessarily as conservative but the greater Boise area is still very conservative and these cases—which, as you said, were snickered at—were still being snickered at 50 years later, although people didn't know as much about it because so much time had passed, so much rumor and innuendo.

Guillén: One of the things that struck me about your film is its Crucible-like atmosphere with young people pointing fingers and ruining the lives of adults; but also, the politicized usage of children by conservatives to advocate and further homophobic agendas.


Randal: That's exactly how I see it. Let me tell you a story that I think is appropriate to this. For the latter part of making the film, I worked at a TV station in Boise for three years, which is an extremely conservative TV station. When I was working at the station, there had been a number of alleged enticements of children and the station was gung-ho going at it gangbusters, not using any critical judgment, because that was what was pushing the hot buttons: keeping your children safe; protecting the community; keeping our nice wholesome community safe. There is still a little bit of that there; but, I don't think that's necessarily a Boise thing. It just comes with conservatism in general; the idea of trying to exploit these moral causes in order to push some sort of agenda. That continues to go on. When I was young growing up in Nampa, I was a Republican. In junior high, my ninth grade year, I went and volunteered at the local Republican office making phone calls and hammering yard signs, so I've been there.

Guillén: For me, what's problematic about the Boise story is that, yes, the "keeping children safe" rhetoric was being used to further certain political agendas, but the reality is—and your documentary implies—these selfsame "children" were baiting gay guys for money. We might call these kids "trade" today.

Randal: I don't know that they would have necessarily seen themselves that way. They were a [few] poor kids who found a way to make money. The teenagers who were involved with the initial arrests had previous criminal records. One of them killed his father. These were kids who had tough lives and they found a way to make some money. I know that one of them, it impacted his life forever. I don't want to get into a lot of detail in order to protect him, but, his name was mentioned in the book—Gerassi didn't use a pseudonym—he was married when the book came out; his in-laws didn't know that he had been part of this scandal until the book came out; and he said it led to his divorce. He has since remarried and has led a straight life. It was an opportunity for him to make some money and—you're right—it was a lot like The Crucible. Some young people made some accusations and it just got out of control.

Guillén: That quality of the witchhunt was emphasized in your documentary. Could this happen again? Have we evolved as a subculture so that we can't be blackmailed by guilt?


Randal: Shame. Shame is the word I use. And the shame was not just for the people directly connected to the cases. Let me share a story about another man who was living in San Francisco [during the investigation]. I found him and talked to him on the phone and we had a very nice conversation. I approached him about the idea of coming back to Boise. We would pay for his transportation to come back to Boise to do an interview for the film. He seemed like he might be interested. We had a nice enough conversation that I was willing to ask him that. The next day I get a phone call from his sister saying, "Don't ever call my brother again. Leave him alone." Because for her it was still an extraordinarily painful thing. So the shame goes well beyond just the people who were directly connected to the families. Also, there are still many people in the community who feel a sense of shame over how the community reacted.

Guillén: The thing about shame that I've long noted is that it's the flipside of pride. That's why I ask you whether or not this could happen again now because—in the midst of the queer community celebrating Pride Week—we define and defend ourselves by pride. I suspect it would be much more difficult to capitalize upon shame as was done in the mid-50's.

Randal: It would completely be possible for something like this to get going, but it would never reach the scale of the Boys of Boise. And the reason for that is that in 1955 there were two TV stations in Boise, there was the one newspaper, there were no free papers or anything like that, and everybody read the newspaper. The newspaper had a lot of influence. They had these fiery, emotional editorials getting the community riled up. Something like that couldn't happen again. Also, positively, humanity has evolved and we now have greater critical thinking skills. Americans tend to understand that, yes, there are homosexuals and there are a lot of other people who aren't like them and you may like them, you may not like them, but it seems like things are improving. I would absolutely hope that nothing like this could ever happen again and I certainly don't think it would happen to this extent.

Guillén: Let's talk about how you've structured this documentary. You employed voiceovers, conducted one-on-one interviews, and incorporated archival footage; it's textured with multiple levels of information. How did you go about shaping all this material?


Randal: I would have loved it to be the kind of documentary where we didn't have to have narration. We had to structure it the way we did partially out of necessity. We had to use the resources we had. In telling the story, I didn't want it to jump around chronologically. I wanted the scandal to unfold the way it actually happened to try to give the viewers as much of a sense of living the scandal as possible, where it starts with the arrests and then it continues to build and gets more intense and then the consequences of it. I wanted—as well as I could—to recreate [the scandal] and give people the feeling of what the tension was like in the community and the constant editorials. So we hit the newspapers frequently with these editorials and headlines because that's what the people of Boise were experiencing. They were having it hammered at them twice a day because at the time the Idaho Statesman had two versions. In constructing [the documentary], I wanted to do it in a way where it would build up; where—as June Schmitz in the documentary describes it—it would be "an avalanche."

We also made the choice early on that we would be as fair as possible with this. I recognize that lives were destroyed by this. I understand how painful it was for these people who lived through this, who had to endure it. The woman who called and said, "Leave my brother alone", I felt great empathy for her because I understand how painful it was for her. Because of that, we didn't include his story in the film. We chose carefully what stories we had based largely on people's willingness to cooperate. There are even more incredible stories of this scandal that could be told but we chose to focus on primarily the ones where we had involvement or where we had to dovetail off of another story. For instance, the West Point cadet—

Guillén: Frank Jones. A sad story.

Randal: A very sad story. I find it deeply moving. Very painful.

Guillén: I found his story moving because, admittedly, towards the beginning of the documentary I didn't much like him. I saw him as one of the Crucible-like informers; but, by the end of the film, you had humanized him and—as audience—I was stunned by how the scandal destroyed his life. He was a true victim of consequences.

Randal: We had to include his story because we had the interview with Mel Dir and it dovetailed off the Mel Dir story. I would have loved to have expanded on his story. There were a lot of painful details about it that we just couldn't include [out of respect to his family].

Guillén: The other victim of guilt by association was Jack Butler, the psychiatrist who was brought in to Boise to assess these cases.

Randal: And was booted out of the Mormon Church.

Guillén: That was amazing to me; that the taint of this scandal was so pervasive it could damage the lives of those conducting the investigation.

Randal: This was a long process and it was difficult at times to soldier on, to continue to do this, because this was something I basically devoted essentially my life savings to and my weekends and evenings, my vacation time (which was when I came to San Francisco to do research for the film or when we went to Southern California to do research and interviews). I was working the TV news business at the time. During the final editing process of the film, I was working at my day job at least 50 hours a week and then coming back to do this. What motivated me to keep going was the power of the stories, particularly the Alty Travelstead story, which had never been told before. That story is so moving in and of itself, it just needed to be told, and then to know that he had passed away, I knew then that I had to continue to soldier on and make the film; it had to be done. These stories had to be told. They can't be forgotten and I hope the film can be used as a learning tool. I also hope that this scandal can be revisited by future filmmakers, playwrights or authors.

[Of interest is that Variety's Ronnie Scheib did not share Randal's commitment to these individuals. Scheib states Randal's interviews with Alty Travelstead solicited commentary that was "peripheral to the chronicled events" and "somewhat insipid." For my money, Scheib completely missed the point about the consequential ramifications of the scandal and how it damaged the lives of those "peripheral to the chronicled events."]

Guillén: Was it in your capacity as a TV journalist that you were able to access the archival footage? How did you secure that footage?


Randal: In the process of putting this all together, there's a lot of serendipity. The puzzle pieces were being handed as if it were predestined that they be there. All the black and white footage of Boise was a 1955 Chamber of Commerce film. Some filmmakers had apparently gone from city to city around the country doing these Chamber of Commerce films and they had been in Boise in October of 1955. That footage of Boise in 1955 of the Ada Theater, of the police officers standing in front of the Police Department, that moves down and plants squarely on the city councilman whose son was involved in the scandal was all shot the month the scandal happened. All of that black and white footage came from the same source. That Chamber of Commerce film was discovered in the Egyptian Theater [formerly the Ada Theater] by two gay men who run the theater. They found this film and donated it to the historical society right when we were in the process of editing the film. When I looked at it, I about fell out of my seat! [It] was completely relevant: the police department, these shots of [Boiseans] throughout town. That this film existed was just remarkable.


We were working on this film with a very tight budget. I invested between $30-$40,000 of my own money and we solicited donations from the community; the Friends of The Fall of '55—approximately 100 people from Boise and throughout the country—donated about $10,000 to help finish the film. They held house parties, did silent auctions and put together a premiere celebration at one of Boise's LGBT bars. I am deeply in their debt and humbled by their belief in me and our film. But it was still a very tight budget. That's why—later in the film [when] we talk about Mike Wallace of CBS News coming to town—we don't have shots of it because we couldn't afford to license them. If we did, I would have loved it. Most of the color [archival] footage that we have in the film, I [secured from] June Schmitz ("It starts with a 'Q' "). I had written out the script and I was racking my brain about where we could find footage, how we could cover this, what were we going to do? I went to June Schmitz and I said, "June, do you have any photographs? Do you have any home movies or anything?" She said, "Home movies? I got 100 cans of home movies." And she did! She had a 100 cans of home movies because in the 1950's she was going around constantly with her Super8 camera around her neck. She shot [these home movies] in film and the color is so rich and vibrant. The shots looking down Capitol Boulevard to the Capitol Building or her performing in the club, again, I had written about her being a lounge singer and here she had footage from the era of her doing it! She actually had the 1955 Fairyland Parade. I about fell out of my chair. I was just stunned. Again, it was like God had opened up the puzzle bag and all the pieces were falling out. This goes here and this goes here and this goes here. It was like it was meant to be. Most of the color footage we got from June Schmitz, including most of the shots of San Francisco, like driving over the Golden Gate Bridge; she had shot it. The cable car going down the hill? June Schmitz shot it. Shots from Mexico? Thank you, June!

Guillén: So now that The Fall of '55 is starting to make its festival rounds, what are your hopes for the film? Do you have distribution?

Randal: We actually have distribution through Frameline.

Guillén: Excellent!

Randal: We still have to sign the paperwork but I'm comfortable with Frameline. They have a tremendous mission. Frameline knows what they're doing. This is the kind of film that's right up Frameline's alley. They understand how to market a film like this because it's sort of a niche film. Well, most people would perceive it to be a niche film, though I personally believe it has a much broader appeal because this could have happened anywhere.

Guillén: I agree. As we were discussing earlier, the Cold War mentality, the Crucible-like theatrics, lift The Fall of '55 above mere queer history.

Randal: The '50s were not a good time for LGBT people. Everyone thinks of the '50s as being Ozzie & Harriet time and for LGBT people it was a very difficult time. Young people need to know that, understand that and respect that. With Frameline being the premiere Lesbian and Gay festival, it has tremendous contacts within the festival industry. We showed at Newfest in New York City and Reeling in Chicago, plus some regional festivals.

Guillén: How have audiences reacted?

Randal: People have had different responses. In New York City, for instance, when we had the shot of Idaho's tallest building towards the end of the film, people laughed.

Guillén: I laughed when Byron Johnson said people always thought he was from the Midwest because they didn't know the difference between Iowa and Idaho. That used to drive me crazy when I was an Idahoan.

Randal: Boise—especially in the 1950's—was a tremendously isolated place. The Interstate Highway system didn't exist. If you wanted to fly out of Boise, you'd be flying on a propeller-driven DC5. It would take 2-2½ hours to fly anywhere, let alone to drive anywhere. A community that's as isolated as that being thrust into the national spotlight in newspapers around the country, in Time magazine, you can imagine how difficult it would be for those people to be in the spotlight for this embarrassing shameful investigation.

Guillén: Tell me a little bit about Alan Virta, the historical adviser on the project.


Randal: The way I got involved with an historian—Alan Virta—was because Alan met Jonathan Ned Katz at a history conference a number of years before I met him and Alan started thinking, "Well, I can do something with gay history too." So Alan actually began researching. When I met him he had done gay research for a slideshow that he does. He's taken it throughout the state, [received] an award from the ACLU, it's tremendous work, so I actually called in sick to work one day when I saw in the newspaper that his slideshow was going to be coming to town. This was when I was thinking about doing a film and here was somebody who had done a project on gay history in Idaho. I thought, "This is someone I need to meet."

Guillén: Interesting. I would love to see his slideshow on gay history in Idaho. Not too many people know that the Castro Florescence in the '70s received a tremendous boost of energy from Idaho queers—namely Scotty Williams—who had moved here from Twin Falls. He helped start some of the main businesses here in the Castro and elsewhere in San Francisco—Fanny's, Burton's, Ivy's—all these places that were hubs for the gay urban populace in the mid-'70s. I got my start in San Francisco because Scotty hired me as a dishwasher (for one night!) at Fanny's. I was such a lousy dishwasher that he instantly promoted me to busboy. His contribution to what was "gay" at that time was indispensable and marks him as an unsung hero in my book.

Randal: During the midst of the scandal [in the mid-'50s] there were a lot of former Boiseans living in San Francisco, people who moved here. There was a gay couple who moved away who had been together over 50 years. I went to the funeral for one of them. I wish they would have talked. They essentially ran what I would call a home for refugees. Their friends who had fled Boise, they let a number of them stay with them.


There's a man who I talked to who was living here at the time, he had an emotional story that I wish I could have included in the film. He was a Latino. One of the few in his community [who was gay]. He opened the newspaper one day and saw that there had been more arrests. I think this was after [Joe Moore] the banker had been arrested. He ended up not going to work that day because he was frightened. Well, there's a knock at the door. He lived upstairs in a rooming house and the landlady opened the door and there were two men in suits there wanting to talk to him. She knew he was there home from work but she lied and said she didn't know where he was and she thought he was at work. That gave him a chance to hide out in town. He hid out at a movie theater and he hid out at the post office for a while, waiting for his family to pick him up. His family picked him up and they were driving back home and the father said to the mother in Spanish—because it looked like their son was asleep—"What's 'gay'?" They got back to the house and they ended up all three of them holding each other and crying because he's now become a fugitive from justice. They drove him via back roads to Ontario because the Boise bus station and the train station were under surveillance. He got on a bus and came down to San Francisco. When the Sheriff came to San Francisco to arrest Mel Dir, he also questioned this man, but he didn't bring him back to Boise because he knew the man's father. So the Sheriff let him go. This man then lived in San Francisco for 30 years before moving back to Boise. But talking about this story, he still is overcome with emotion thinking about it. I wish he would have talked but he lives in a small town again with shame. He left San Francisco and went back to living with a sense of shame and what will people think and rumors and innuendo. It's still happening in small towns.

Guillén: It saddens me to know that's still happening. I had a gay friend from high school who died of AIDS and—when I phoned home to express my condolences to his mother—she begged me not to tell anyone for fear that it would make it difficult for her grandchildren. It broke my heart that he was buried under six feet of shame.

Randal: I approached the scandal [the way I did] because I understand that sense of shame in a different way. My father died of AIDS 20 years ago. May was the anniversary of his death. We lived with that sense of shame for a long time, and carried it around, because when he died back in 1987 it was still very [stigmatized]; Ronald Reagan had just gotten around to saying the word. It was early on and my family lived with this sense of shame for a long time. So—in telling this story—I wanted to make sure that I was fair to these people because I understand what it's like to have this sense of shame about something that's happened in your past, about something that somebody else has done that you can't control. I understand why it's so painful for them and I have tremendous empathy for them. That is why I created the film I did. That is why I created The Fall of '55. I wanted to make sure it was not going to exploit these people or these cases in any way but still not pull any punches in telling what really happened, thoroughly researching, going through the newspapers, using the letters from people—especially those prison letters, which were so moving—and because of my own background it was important to me to tell this story in a fair way. Dealing with the sense of shame was something that I buried and repressed. Even though I'm gay myself, it was something that took me a long time to get past.

2007 FRAMELINE31—Michael Hawley's Wrap-Up

While I'm still struggling to transcribe the various interviews secured during this year's Frameline Film Festival, my Evening Class cohort Michael Hawley wipes his hands of the whole affair with this entry.

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Frameline31 ended this past weekend with my having watched a total of 14 features during the festival proper. Of the six World Cinema selections I saw, my favorite was easily Stealth, the latest from French/Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier, who makes good on the formidable talents that were hinted at in his first feature, Garçon Stupide. I also caught three documentaries, the best being the widely acclaimed Red Without Blue. I also managed to see five films from the US Features section, a category at this festival I've largely ignored in recent years. Here's a closer look at them.


As expected, the most outrageous of the bunch was Mike Ruiz's Starrbooty, showcasing RuPaul. Commanding the Castro stage on Pink Saturday in a slinky silver gown and a snow-white 'fro to rival Dietrich's 'do in Blonde Venus, the self-proclaimed "America's Drag Queen Sweetheart" warned us that "this movie is more like who I really am." The plot in a nutshell: Ferocious SuperModel turned SuperSecretAgent Starrbooty goes undercover as a prostitute in order to rescue her kidnapped niece from arch-nemesis Annaka Manners, who's become a billionairesse by turning human body parts into cosmetics. So remember, if anyone ever tries to hand you a gift certificate to the International House of Pancake Makeup, run for your life . . . unless you want to become a key ingredient in someone's Labial Rejuvenation Cream. The film itself is a stylistic mish-mash of blaxploitation, kung-fu, music videos and TV soaps, with nods to everything from Showgirls to Chinatown, and manages to entertain much more often than not. Those whose main cultural reference to RuPaul is her 1997 Xmas CD, "Ho Ho Ho", will certainly be shocked to see her participating in graphic scenes of CBT and eproctophilia. I know I was! The film also features a nifty, ghettotech-influenced score, entirely written or co-written by RuPaul, which will soon be available for on-line download only (CDs being "so 2000"). And the icing on the cake?—the film is "Dedicated in loving memory of Jerry Falwell."


Providing an apropos lift-off to Starrbooty was Frameline alum Bruce LaBruce's latest short, Give Piece of Ass a Chance, in which a group of lesbian guerrillas kidnap a munitions heiress and initiate her in the ways of womyn. The film is essentially silent, with the on-screen action accompanied by some choice soulster sides by the likes of Etta, Nina, Aretha and others. The cunnilingus close-ups on the giant Castro screen had half the nearly all-gay male audience roaring its approval, and the other half shrieking with terror. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to appreciate the film's revolutionary message.


Taking the level of outrageousness down just a notch or two, we arrive at Alan Cumming's solo directorial debut, Suffering Men's Charity. Part grand guignol gothic comedy and part Tennessee Williams tragedy, Cumming directs himself in the role of Jonathan, a pathetic music teacher/composer who has finally had enough of his sponging houseguest Sebastian, a "bankrupt man-whore with an IQ of a rat." The film's comically intense centerpiece is a lengthy torture sequence in which Sebastian (played by TV hunk David Boreanaz), outfitted in bra and panties and bound-up with Xmas lights, must answer a series of multiple choice questions. A correct answer results in a particular debt being forgiven—a long-distance phone bill for instance—whereas, an incorrect answer … well … why should I spoil it for you? Cumming ravenously chews the scenery here, channeling everyone from Baby Jane Hudson to Pee Wee Herman to Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. The film's energy flags from time to time; but, when it's going full-force—as it certainly does in an extended scene with Karen Black as a drunken old slut—look out! Cumming graciously appeared on-stage before and after the Castro screening and shared a number of hilarious anecdotes about the film, many of which appear in Michael Guillén's interview conducted earlier that day.


The other three US Features I saw during the festival could all be lumped into that hoariest of gay movie categories, the coming out film. Outing Riley, written, directed and starring Pete Jones, is an earnest comedy about a young architect's extreme reluctance to come out to his Irish Catholic siblings after their father dies. At times I felt like I was watching a TV pilot, but the film's combination of a unique Chicago setting, Jones' winning lead performance and a few genuinely original comic moments made it all relatively easy going down. The audience at the Castro seemed to enjoy itself, that's for sure. The same things can be said for Russell P. Marleau's The Curiosity of Chance, except its unique setting is an "international" high school in Belgium during the 1980's, "the decade that fashion forgot." Originally scripted to take place in California, writer-director Marleau moved the story to Belgium when it became a requirement of the film's Belgian financiers. The lead roles are played by Americans, and the amalgam of accents is disconcerting, even comic at times. The story concerns a flamboyant new student and his attempts to find self-acceptance at school and at home, with the help of two other misfit students and the cutie football player next door. Again, not an outstanding film, but one that's easy enough to enjoy when you're in a packed theater of enthusiastic well-wishers.


I'm a bit more keen on the third coming out film, Shelter, which had its world premiere at Frameline31 and is the first feature to be produced by the here! gay cable network. It's a step up from the other two films in terms of almost everything—acting, direction, story—and should prove to be very popular when it's released theatrically this fall. Set in the working class SoCal seaside town of San Pedro, our hero Zach is a young fry cook who gave up a shot at art school to care for his ill father, his cluelessly selfish older sister and her 5-year-old son. He also loves to surf, and when his best friend's gay older brother, also a surfer, comes home for an extended stay, it sets off a chain of events that will offer him the possibility of a brighter future. This is a very sweet movie, but not one without believable conflict and drama. It has a genuineness unique to the genre, with a generous share of humor and surprises as well. A huge part of its success lies in the casting of its two charismatic lead actors, Trevor Wright and Brad Rowe. Both are avowedly straight, yet their on-screen intimacy has a believable warmth and naturalness to it. During the Q&A, I'm sure many audience members would have liked to eat them both alive. Finally, I was pretty amused to read this thank you in the film's end credits: "Additional funding provided by Frameline and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

2007 FRAMELINE31—Awards


The Audience Award for Best Feature was given to Chris Kraus' Four Minutes, a German drama that follows the volatile relationship between a convicted killer and the older piano teacher who takes her on as a pupil. Vince DiPersio's Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Screened at the Castro Theatre in front of an appreciative audience that included many lesbian and gay veterans of the Iraq War, Semper Fi traces the evolution of Lance Corporal Jeff Key, a patriotic gay marine stationed in Iraq who begins to question both the occupation and the policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The highly charismatic Key graciously and humbly accepted the award on Closing Night. Frameline Completion Fund winner Pariah (Dir. Dee Rees), which centers on a black, butch lesbian teen struggling with self-doubt, guilt and familial rejection, garnered standing ovations when it closed the Fun In Girls' Shorts program at the Castro Theatre—and ultimately took home the Audience Award for Best Short Film.

The juried Frameline First Feature Award recognized Glue, Argentine director Alexis Dos Santos' richly poetic ode to budding adolescent sexuality. The jury consisted of three esteemed film industry representatives: writer/director Quentin Lee, the Founder and President of Margin Films; Sylvia Perel, the Founder and Director of San Francisco's International Latino Film Festival; and Rod Armstrong, Programming Associate at the San Francisco Film Society.


The Michael J. Berg Documentary Award, a $10,000 juried award recognizing the best documentary feature having its Bay Area premiere at the Festival, was given to Red Without Blue, Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills and Todd Sills' moving portrait of Mark and Clair, identical twins whose relationship must adapt when one of them transitions from male to female. All three directors, as well as Mark and Clair, were on hand to accept the award, a fitting follow-up to their Audience Award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. The Documentary Award jury included Todd Holland, whose film The Believers won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at last year's Frameline; Michael Ehrenzweig of landmark queer film production company Telling Pictures (Paragraph 175); and 1993 Frameline Award Winner Pratibha Parmar, whose narrative feature debut, Nina's Heavenly Delights, screened at this year's festival.



Photos courtesy of Gustavo Fernández.

2007 FRAMELINE31—Itty Bitty Titty Committee


Along with my review of Jamie Babbit's Itty Bitty Titty Committee for City Pages in Minneapolis/St. Paul (my thanks to Jenni Olson and Rob Nelson for the gig), Gustavo Fernández and I caught some photos of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee talent at Frameline's closing night party.


Director Jamie Babbit with film historian Jenni Olson.


Nicole Vicius ("Sadie") and producer Andrea Sperling, this year's recipient of the Frameline Award.


Guinevere Turner ("Marcy Maloney").

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: SPIELBERG ON SPIELBERGThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Schickel


It has become a common practice among movie directors today to provide audio commentary for DVD releases of their films. One notable exception, however, is Steven Spielberg, who has never created such a commentary and according to reports has no plans to do so in the future. Thus, Richard Schickel's documentary Spielberg on Spielberg, scheduled to be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") Monday, July 9, 2007 at 8:00PM ET / 5:00PM PT with an encore at Midnight ET / 9:00PM PT provides an opportunity to hear Spielberg speak candidly about his films. "Some stories," as TCM publicizes, "need to be told in the first person. His movies speak for themselves. Now he speaks for himself."

My interest was in having producer / writer/ director Richard Schickel speak for himself. Schickel is a documentary filmmaker, movie historian and film critic who has published more than 30 books and produced, written and directed more than 30 films for television. Among the most recent are Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, Scorsese on Scorsese and Watch the Skies!, a history of 1950s science fiction. Earlier this year TCM broadcast Bienvenue á Cannes, Schickel's portrait of the film festival. Spielberg on Spielberg marks the 19th in a series of portraits of American film directors he has made over the course of his television career.

Among his other television titles are Eastwood on Eastwood, The Harryhausen Chronicles and the legendary PBS series The Men Who Made the Movies, which represented the first-ever TV portraits of movie directors, including such seminal figures as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. A second such series The Moviemakers, profiled Elia Kazan, Stanley Donan and Arthur Penn, among others. He is currently working on a five-hour history of Warner Bros., which will premiere in 2008. His reconstruction of Sam Fuller's classic war film The Big Red One, restoring more than 45 minutes cut from the original release print, has been an international success, listed as one of the year's 10 best movies by The New York Times and winning awards from The National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles and Seattle Film Critics Associations and Anthology Film Archives.


The latest among Schickel's many books are Elia Kazan: A Biography, which was named a New York Times notable book, and The Essential Chaplin, an anthology of critical writings about the great comedian. Among his other titles are The Disney Version, a study of the life, times and art of Walt Disney; His Picture in the Papers, a pioneering work about the modern beginnings of the celebrity system; D.W. Griffith: An American Life; Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity; Brando: A Life In Our Times; Clint Eastwood: A Biography; Matinee Idylls and Schickel on Film, both collections of his longer essays on film; and Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip, a memoir of his formative movie going years.

Schickel began his career as a critic at Life in 1965 and has reviewed for Time since 1972. He also writes a monthly column reviewing current books about movies for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He holds an honorary doctorate from the American Film Institute, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded the British Film Institute Book Prize, the Maurice Bessy prize for film criticism and the National Board of Review's William K. Everson Award for his contribution to film history.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on Spielberg on Spielberg; it's a fascinating piece of work.

Richard Schickel: Thank you.

Guillén: Your prolific output, Richard, is thrillingly intimidating. You've published more than 30 books and directed more than 30 films for television. I became familiar with your work through your columns for Time magazine and then through TCM's broadcasts of your documentaries. What can you say about being one of the world's prime voices on film for—how many years now?—40?

Schickel: Well, I guess I wrote my first reviews for Life in 1965, I think it was. So I've been reviewing for a long time. I started doing television in 1968. I wrote some shows for Channel 13 in New York and then it sort of developed out of that. I found I enjoyed [writing for television] so I started doing that. I've been writing books—sort of minor books—before 1965. So it's been a long career; there's no question about that. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Clearly, writing about film is one of your passions, maybe even an obsession with you?

Schickel: I don't really feel that it's obsessive. I do have another life other than writing endlessly about movies; but, it's something that—I don't know—I didn't have any conscious desire when I started out to become a movie bozo. [Chuckles.] It just sort of happened. There's not as much intentionality in it—at least at the beginning—as it would seem, I think.

Guillén: I relate to that. When I decided to use film as a fulcrum for my writing, I had no idea it would suck me in as it has.

Schickel: Yeah, well you know what happens. Bob Mitchum once said to me, "You don't get to do better; you get to do more." [Laughs.] Speaking of a guy with a long career. So, yeah, you do something and that attracts someone's attention and they ask you to do something else and then opportunities in your own mind occur. You say, "Oh, that would be an interesting topic. Maybe I could write something about that." And that can be as accidental as seeing an old movie or something like that, or seeing a new movie. It just kind of happens, y'know. It's not a big deal in a way.


Guillén: Although your sensibility informs Spielberg on Spielberg in every frame, your structural absence in the documentary is striking and—as someone who loves the interview format—inspiring.

Schickel: I never am in any of them. All of the interviews are conducted in an anonymous way. If I say so myself, they're well-prepared. Whenever I'm doing one of those director profiles, I always go back and look at all the films in a short span of time—two or three weeks—before I conduct the interview and take a certain amount of notes about what I see. I think maybe the advantage I sometimes have over other shows about movie people is that I'm experienced. I've seen a lot of movies. I make a point of seeing them again. I bring to it all those years of historical knowledge and information. I think I have an edge over some interviewers in that respect. There are other people obviously who could do it; they just don't happen to do it. But, sure, I bring something to the party.

Guillén: I enjoy your style of structuring interviews.

Schickel: I've done 19 of these director profiles over the years, starting back in the '70s. I think I'm done with them in the sense that there are only a couple of directors I'd still like to do. They have to have substantial careers. You can't do one of these on some young director who's done two or three movies. You have to wait a while and see how the career develops and have a substantial body of work to deal with.

Guillén: You've pretty much covered the bases. You've interviewed all the greats, I think.

Schickel: There's at least one—I don't want to talk about because I've never approached him on it—but there's at least one more I'd like to do. I don't know if I'll get to do it.

Guillén: Could you talk a little bit about how you got this documentary on Spielberg going? Was it a project you and he have been wanting to do together?


Schickel: Kind of. I've known Steven for some years. We actually did a film together; he was executive producer and I produced, a picture called Shooting War about a camera man during WWII. I found him to be a wonderful executive producer. He's very hands off but—when he did engage with the picture—he had excellent suggestions. He's a great filmmaker. If you show him a rough cut of something, you're getting a good, solid opinion from him. You're not getting vague comments that you sometimes get from people who are network people in charge of something. He's really terrific in terms of collaboration that way. It was always on the boards that I would someday do one of these on him. The time became ripe. In part because—after he finished Munich—he wasn't directing. He's taken almost two years off from doing pictures so he had the time to do it, really. It was easy. I just said, "Do you want to do it?" and he said, "Yes" and we did it. [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's a valuable contribution because my understanding is Spielberg provides no commentary on his DVD releases.

Schickel: I've heard that too. I wasn't actually aware of that when I did it. I do a certain amount of commentaries myself on DVDs but I never listen to them and I've never listened to any commentaries on a DVD. You're not the first person to mention that to me that he's never done that and I don't know why he's never done it. He just doesn't.

Guillén: Indulging auteur theory through your series The Men Who Made The Movies and The Moviemakers, you've applied film history to profiling the personalities who are behind making films. That's a unique approach.

Schickel: Yeah, I think I kind of invented that actually back in the '70s. I don't think—before I did that first series The Men Who Made The Movies—I don't think anybody had done this kind of an approach to directors. All of them are the same in the sense that they do not have anybody else except the director. It's his perspective on his own work. I like the format. I've never felt the slightest need to change it because there's an intimacy in it. He's talking directly about what he's up to, talking as best he can about the development of his career, the development of his themes, that sort of thing. That's good. I'm not real interested in hearing from his collaborators or his relatives or any of that stuff. That's for a different sort of documentary and there's room for that kind of thing but it's not my way of doing them.

Guillén: I appreciate your keen angle into their creative process.


Schickel: Yeah, and it's especially true with Steven. If I say so myself, I think his is one of the best I've done because—first of all—he's very articulate; he talks in paragraphs. He's got a pretty good sense of film history, a very good sense of his own history, and [on what] has impinged on his own consciousness and has helped form the way he's done his movies. So it's a particularly good one. Not all directors are as articulate as Steven.

Guillén: Can you remember who was your first interview?

Schickel: Oh yeah, sure, it was with Alfred Hitchcock. That was about—oh I forget—'71 or something like that. As a writer and a co-producer I had done a couple of films, again for Channel 13 in New York, about the history of Hollywood, Hollywood in the 30's, Hollywood in the 40's, and in the course of that I had met a number of directors—Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Bill Wellman, Frank Capra—and I found them to be very interesting men. So I almost instantly said, "Y'know, we should do a series of films on these guys." They were all getting on in years so I said, "I think we ought to get them before they can't be got." Somehow we were able to do that. It was a fairly successful series so stuff followed on from that. I've done other kinds of documentaries and there are documentaries where—contra the way I do these—you get lots and lots of people talking, you get 25, 35, 40 people talking about a topic. So I'm not wedded to this technique except when we're talking about author-directors.

Guillén: Had you trained in filmmaking at all?

Schickel: No.

Guillén: How did you negotiate the shift from writing about film to making documentaries?

Schickel: When I was a kid in college—at least where I went to college at the University of Wisconsin—there were no film courses there or anything like that. A few of us started a campus film society at the time, which was interesting. I'd always loved movies. I went to movies more than the average person in those days did; but, it was never my intention to start making documentary films about them, or even to write particularly about them. I was going to be a writer of some kind I thought when I left college but I didn't have a particular field that I wanted to write in at that time. I would have and did write about anything that came along actually.

Guillén: I've had some good conversations with Phillip Lopate and David Thomson—who basically have said the same thing you just said—that they never knew they were going to become film writers; they kind of created the profession for themselves as they went along.

Schickel: Well Phil does a lot of other stuff. He reviews novels, writes essays, and stuff like that. He's perhaps a little bit more broad-gauged than I am.

Guillén: As someone who has seen the industry morph over the decades, what are your thoughts on the current somewhat awkward shift from print journalism to online journalism?

Schickel: I guess there has been. I haven't particularly done that except mostly I write nowadays for Time.com instead of Time magazine itself. I guess that reflects mega-changes in journalism. For reasons of their own the magazine doesn't seem to particularly want many movie reviews anymore but the online Time.com likes them and has success with them. I just made that transition; but, I can't imagine myself ever becoming a blogger per se or anything like that. I'm busy writing books if I'm not doing television shows. I write for such magazines as ask me to write for them so it hasn't really affected my professional life all that much so far.

Guillén: I've long hoped that somehow there would be some kind of primer or manual that would apply the professional standards of print journalism to online journalism.

Schickel: I think that would be a good thing. Again, I don't really see a great deal of film blogging. I just don't have time to read it all. But I'll be honest with you, I'm not a big reader of film reviewing. I see the movies. I have my own opinion. There's some reviewers who automatically fall before me. I see the people in the L.A. Times, the New York Times, The New Yorker—publications that I regularly receive—but I'm not going out of my way to read a lot of opinion about current movies. I'm sort of the worst person to ask in a way about the state of contemporary film criticism because I don't really see that much of it.

Guillén: In your Wired For Books interview with Don Swaim you made me laugh describing how you prefer to watch movies with the great unwashed rather than with your "twit" colleagues.

Schickel: That's not completely true. If I go to a screening and I see Manohla Dargis or Kenny Turan or one of those guys, we tend to sit together. We know each other. We like to chat with one another. I like sometimes just to go to the movies on a Saturday evening or a Sunday evening and see something I've missed or see an old film that I'd like to see again or something like that. Screening room auditoriums are less than the best place to see a movie. It's better to see them, I think, as they're intended to be seen in just an ordinary audience.

Guillén: If you do watch them with your colleagues, do you ever talk about them afterwards?

Schickel: Sure.

Guillén: You don't rush away to keep your own thoughts virginal and intact?

Schickel: No, but that's not a deep conversation, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs.] It's not so different from going with any of your other friends. You come out, you may say a thing or two about the movie, but you're likely to pass on talking about something that has nothing to do with movies.

Guillén: You've filmed several documentaries; have you ever filmed a feature?

Schickel: No. Features aren't my bag. For me doing a documentary is an extension of journalism. It's just a different form of journalism. I've never thought I've had any particular talent for fictional forms. It's not the way my mind works. I've certainly never wanted to write movies or be a screenwriter. That was never much of a temptation for me.

Guillén: That was actually something I was going to ask you: can you differentiate between writing about film and writing for a film like a documentary? Is there much difference for you?

Schickel: For me, writing narration for a documentary is not actually a favorite form of mine. It's very constrictive. You have a certain amount of space—17 seconds to get something in—so it's writing that is kind of constrained and frustrating because you haven't got quite the space you'd like to have to make the point you want to make. It's not like writing a review or an essay where you can digress and have a little more room on the space-time continuum. It's not a form of writing that I particularly enjoy or look forward to doing.

I like putting the films together. That's pleasurable. Because in a way structurally that's where you're doing the most important writing. You're saying, "This clip. Not that clip. This clip following that clip or this clip preceding that clip." That's where you're really structuring the film. You'll notice that in the case of [Spielberg on Spielberg] or in the Scorsese film or the Woody Allen film, there is no narration. They just tell their story. I think that's the best possible way to do it. If you're dealing with the film I did on Charlie Chaplin, well obviously Charlie Chaplin's not around to speak for himself so you really have to do a narration; but, I think if you can avoid narration in a documentary, that's good.

Guillén: I'm impressed with that aesthetic. Actually in Spielberg on Spielberg, I think there's only one chuckle from you and that's it.

Schickel: That's too bad that you hear that. It just happened. Sometimes you can cut those out. You don't necessarily have to have the question or the questioner's response to the answer in there.

Guillén: Just to gain a glimpse on your methodology, about how many hours of footage did you get on Spielberg?

Schickel: In the case of Steven, it was about four or five hours.

Guillén: And did you go over with him the questions you were intending to ask?

Schickel: No.

Guillén: So his responses were impromptu and unrehearsed?


Schickel: Yeah. When I'm being interviewed, I don't like to know questions in advance. I think it's a constraining thing. And then it's an interview. In other words, you have to pick up on something you weren't expecting the interviewee to say and follow up on it because it may be productive and something you haven't thought about. In that sense it's like any kind of interview. You have to be alert to what's on the guy's mind and what he wants to say and odd things that come up. For example, in the Spielberg [interview], I wasn't expecting him to be quite as frank as he was about 1941 but he was very funny on the subject and very self-revealing on it. So there's more of that in there than I would have anticipated going into the interview.

Guillén: And I respected him for his humility. It was good to hear him express his own learning curve.

Schickel: Oh yeah, sure. It's true of a lot of stuff. He talks about his early days at Universal and the troubles he had with his crews there who were really hoping the kid would fail. Again, I'm not sure that I expected to get that from him; but, it was good stuff and valuable stuff and I liked it. You have to—if you're doing anything like this—you can't let the interview get entirely out of control; but, you've got to let the guy have his say. Whether it's what you expected or completely unexpected.

Guillén: In your perspective as film historian, and in the way that you create these profiles of these directors—which A.O. Scott has expertly described, "Mr. Schickel knows how to use his prodigious knowledge of cinematic history to create portraits of film artists that illuminate their individual talents while at the same time situating them within a social and aesthetic context"—what are you hoping for? What impression are you trying to make on your audiences?

Schickel: [Laughs.] I don't know.

Guillén: You're just working off your own interests?

Schickel: What I want, I guess, is to give the viewer a feeling of how that guy's mind works, what he's aiming for, what surprises him, just a portrait of how his mind is working, that's about it.

Guillén: Do you have any gauge of how people are becoming more literate about film?

Schickel: Are they?

Guillén: I'd like to think they are. For example, I deeply respect how TCM educates and informs viewers with their programming.

Schickel: Turner Classics is a unique channel; but, it is the only channel that has a passionate interest in film history and stuff like that. I don't know if we're more literate. I can't gauge that. If I go to a typical Summer American movie, I'm not feeling like I'm in a room full of cineastes. There are people there who just want to be entertained. So I'm a little unclear as to whether film . . . to use a fancy word, I'm not sure there's an American film culture that is comparable, let's say, to French film culture. France is just full of people who are very knowledgeable about movies and much more attentive to movie history than the American audiences. There's a real historical amnesia in the United States about movies, about a lot of things about literary history, all kinds of things. We are in danger in general—politically, socially, culturally—we're in danger of losing a good part of our past and it's a bad thing.

Guillén: I like Gore Vidal's comment that we live in the United States of Amnesia.

Schickel: I think that's a fairly good characterization. This has a little bit to do with the Internet. It's very oriented to today's sensation, today's news—whatever it is—and that's a dangerous place to be in because we don't accidentally arrive wherever we're at. If you were just to take the Iraq War, there's a lot of history there that a majority of Americans are unaware of and that's important knowledge, especially if you try to get out of it; you have to know how you got into it.

Guillén: Finally, and I'll let you go here, do you have any advice to aspiring film critics/reviewers/commentarians?

Schickel: [Laughs.] In today's world?

Guillén: Exactly.

Schickel: I think film criticism and film reviewing is an endangered species. There are notable exceptions, but, one by one publications that once did movie reviewing are either folding up or deciding they don't want to have movie reviewing at the moment. People don't actually like movie criticism. People in general. They're happy to read it and get a sort of vague idea of how they might spend some discretionary dollars over the weekend but I don't think they're interested in serious analytical writing about movies. Again, that's bad. You need to have a dialog going on between the audience, the critic, and the filmmakers. We might not get better films out of that, but we will get a better understanding of films out of that. That dialog is presently endangered and I don't see a lot of hope for a big change in that trend. I think there's going to be less and less and less critical dialog about movies. That's not a good thing. It's not a good thing in literature either. There's been a lot of talk in the press recently about the truncating or disappearance of book review media and it's also applicable to movies. Look at classical music. Almost no publications in America have fulltime music critics anymore. That did not used to be the case. Dialog in the cultural arena is dwindling.

Guillén: Well, without question, Richard, you have enrichened that dialog.

Schickel: Thank you. It's moreorless been my pleasure. I like doing it and I like being part of the dialog. As I say, the films I make are another contribution of mine to that dialog. It goes with the books and it goes with the reviewing and it goes with doing DVD commentaries. [Chuckles.] Whatever it takes. Whatever keeps the conversation going is, I guess, what's important to me.

Guillén: It's been a great honor to have a brief conversation with you this morning, Richard, and congratulations on Spielberg on Spielberg.

Schickel: Thanks much.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I HAD TO SAY SOMETHING—The Evening Class Interview With Mike Jones


According to Wikipedia, the word hypocrisy derives from the Greek ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means "acting out"; the word hypocrite is from the Greek word ὑποκρίτης (hypokrites), the agentive noun associated with hypokrisis, i.e. "actor." Both derive from the verb κρίνω, "judge, assess," presumably because the performance of a dramatic text by an actor was to involve a degree of interpretation, or assessment, of that text.

Nevertheless, whereas hypokrisis applied to any sort of public performance (including the art of rhetoric), hypokrites was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. In Athens in the 4th Century BC, for example, the great orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a hypokrites whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him an untrustworthy politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, perhaps combined with the Roman disdain for actors, later shaded into the originally neutral hypokrisis. It is this later sense of hypokrisis as "play-acting," i.e. the assumption of a counterfeit persona, that gives the modern word hypocrisy its negative connotation. In all this, we do not find the modern idea that the hypocrite is unaware of that his performance or argument stands in contradiction with his self: on the contrary, a hypocrite in antiquity was someone who intentionally tried to deceive others.

Michael F. "Mike" Jones is an author, personal trainer and a former escort and masseur who gained notoriety when he came forward with allegations that he had had a three-year affair with Ted Arthur Haggard, an American evangelical preacher and founder of the New Life Church. The timeline of those events are well-documented through any Google search and have now been rendered from the inside out in lean, straightforward language in Mike Jones' book I Had To Say Something, co-written with Samuel Gallegos, and recently published by Seven Stories Press. Mike will be appearing in San Francisco on Wednesday, June 27, at Books, Inc., 2275 Market Street, at 7:30PM.

* * *


Michael Guillén: Mike, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today regarding the Seven Stories Press publication of I Had To Say Something. My interest in interviewing you came about because of a recent interview you granted Deborah Solomon for The New York Times Magazine. Although I'll grant her interview is great publicity for the book—and I hope it helps to sell the book—something about it didn't sit well with me. I didn't think she treated you respectfully, especially when she said that—despite the fact that millions of people appreciate that you spoke up—"you're hardly a shining exemplar of gay accomplishment." That truly bothered me.

Mike Jones: Thank you, I think. [Chuckles.]

Guillén: What is that like for you, to deal with press who are not sympathetic to your experience?

Mike Jones: Not only some of the press; but, you have to understand, there's a large segment of the gay community that has really treated me crappy. It did bother me for many months when the story broke. I guess I'm dealing with it much better now. I was just flabbergasted that no gay groups were calling me when the story was breaking—particularly when I needed help—that none were offering any kind of assistance or even just checking up on me to see if I was okay.

Guillén: That saddened me when I read that fact in various interviews you've granted and in hearing it from you now. But you were given a lifetime achievement award from San Francisco's Harvey Milk Club as recently as a month ago, isn't that so?

Mike Jone: That is so. Which was incredible.

Guillén: And well-deserved, Mike.

Mike Jones: Thank you so much. It really meant a lot to me. Back in January the Gay and Lesbian Task Force in New York City flew me out to New York to be a speaker at their event, which also meant a lot to me. I guess what I'm saying more than anything is that back in November when the story broke, November and December passed without even a return phone call from the Human Rights Campaign ("HRC") just to check up on me, y'know? I wasn't angry, but I was disappointed.

Guillén: I can understand your disappointment. When I first heard about the story as it broke last Fall, and then as I was doing research to interview you today, I was struck by how the whole incident has emphasized hypocrisy, not only in the specific situation with Ted Haggard, but in how certain factions of the gay community have responded.

Mike Jones: Absolutely. What's really sad and what I have really discovered through this whole ordeal is how divided we are in our own community. We're not as cohesive as people may think we are. We have these splinter groups and factions within ourselves and it's kind of sad when you see that. Sometimes I think, "No wonder we can't get things accomplished. We can't seem to come together."

Guillén: I know what you're saying. When I first came to San Francisco from Idaho in the mid-70s, one of the first things I remember writing in my journals was that the meanest men I had ever met were gay men.

Mike Jones: [Chuckles.] They can be pretty vicious.

Guillén: And I do think a lot of that stems from internalized homophobia, from shame and not growing up with positive self-images that causes us to act out with each other.


Mike Jones: Well, most gay men have issues. We all have baggage. There's no doubt about it. But for a lot of gay men, they've never come to grips because—as gay men a lot of times—we do put up with a lot of crap. We have to [jump] hurdles to be who we are. I think sometimes since we haven't resolved a lot of the issues within ourselves, we're not quite sure how to react to certain situations. I think that has kind of happened with me. Are people happy that I exposed [Ted Haggard]? Yes. Are they happy that it was me who did it? I think a lot of them feel not. What's happened, even with HRC, is they're looking too hard at me as a person than what I did as a person to expose this man. They're looking too much at the escorting part and not at what I accomplished.

Guillén: It also underscores how little we understand our own prurience. If you stop and think about—let's say, the gay porno video industry—and just how much money it rakes in, you have to wonder who's buying or renting all this porno and why it's so adulated? Why is there no issue with that? And yet when someone like yourself anguishes over a difficult decision, it's deminimized because you're a male escort. Prurience is being used for different purposes and there's a lack of parity. That's one of the reasons I was motivated to talk to you today. I don't have a huge readership but I do have one and I wanted to offer you a vote of respect, thanks and support during Pride Month.

Mike Jones: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

Guillén: All that being said about the gay community, though, some of them did step up to help you out last Fall, didn't they? I know you were having difficulty paying your bills when your livelihood was disrupted?

Mike Jones: Let me say this, a couple of bloggers—Joe My God and Dan Savage's The Stranger—did help me out. They both came through and said, "Hey. Mike Jones took it upon himself to do this." Because what people are forgetting is I exposed myself too. I had death threats. I had the risk of being arrested. I lost all my massage business, my personal training, I got fired from the art schools and then they were trying to kick me out of my apartment complex. I had all those issues going on at the same time I was trying to deal with the media. It was overwhelming and I had no one to help me through all that. Now with the financial part, those two bloggers did help me out because a few people did send me some money and I appreciate that so much. It was a lifesaver for me. I didn't know what I was going to do. So, yes, on that level it was nice. The reason I wanted HRC to help me was I was so inundated with the media from around the world. They were beating down my door and I didn't know how to handle it. I needed help and I figured [the HRC] had media people who could maybe help me out; but, they never returned my phone calls so I ended up dealing with it all myself.

Guillén: So you made an effort to contact the HRC?

Mike Jones: I called the national number and said, "This is Mike Jones with the Ted Haggard story. I need someone to call me back or get a hold of me somehow. I need help." And nobody did.

Guillén: I'm very sorry to hear that. One thing that comes across in your book—and why I think the book is a good read in terms of helping folks understand your personal anguish—is I remember years back when my partner passed of AIDS, I was a person like yourself: it was very difficult to ask for help. It wasn't in my nature. I imagine in retrospect you wish it would have been easier for you to ask for help.

Mike Jones: Absolutely.

Guillén: Or that you might have structured how you came out with this information in a different way so that you wouldn't have had to take the full brunt of the disclosure.

Mike Jones: But let me say this, perhaps I would have done things a little bit different if I had known the way it was going to turn out. I simply thought Ted Haggard would admit it, apologize, ask for redemption, and continue. I had no idea it was going to turn out the way it did.

Guillén: Yeaaaaah. [We both laugh.] It really steamrolled.

Mike Jones: Listen, if I would have known that, I would have had a book deal signed before I even did it.

Guillén: Well, I'm glad you got this book deal. Let's focus on that. How did this deal come about and how did Sam Gallegos become involved? What was his contribution?

Mike Jones: He's been a friend of mine for years. I knew he had done some writing in the past, newspaper columns and [such], so I asked him, I said, "I think I have a book deal." This publisher—who was the first publisher to contact me—they took it right away within an hour and I needed someone to help me. Even though all of it was in my head, I didn't know how to put it down on paper. I could have just used Sam as a ghost writer, but Sam has always wanted to do a book and I said, "Well, I'll put your name on it if you want to work with me." He said yes.

Guillén: So what was your working method? Did you record things and he would transcribe them?

Mike Jones: No, we never recorded anything. We got together and talked. I wrote a lot of stuff too and he would go through and clean it up a little bit. It was a collaboration, but again it's my life so it's all my words basically.

Guillén: What I was glad to see in the book, Mike, was that—obviously you're a manly guy and all that—but, what I appreciated reading was that you come across as a kindhearted spirit, a sweet person actually.

Mike Jones: Thank you. I am emotional. There's no doubt about it.

Guillén: For myself, I've long been fascinated with this strange, conflicted attitude towards the whole escorting phenomenon; what some call the oldest profession of culture. I'm also an aficionado of early Christianity and have extensively studied the role of Mary Magadalen in Christ's ministry. [Mike laughs.] Hear me out. Your defense of your services as a male escort strikes me as monumentally Magdalenian. You've had powers that be that have sought to diminimize what you've done by foisting a tainted definition of your services like so many smoke and mirrors, comparable to how Magdalen was deminimized by being labeled a prostitute.


Mike Jones: I was trying in my book to educate people that may have never known [about male escorting]. There was this one radio host in Minneapolis who said, "Y'know, Mike. I learned so much reading your book about what an escort does and what they may do." He goes, "That's why I use the word 'prostitute' also." And I go, "Well, I wanted to try to educate people also that there is much more to it than just sex. There's a lot of emotions and a lot of compassion that goes on in that business." It [was] for me anyway. I had men who just wanted to be held. That's what I think is the difference between prostitution and escorting.

Guillén: That was actually one of my objections to Deborah Solomon's piece—here you corrected her about the term—but she insisted on using it again.

Mike Jones: It's because it makes headlines.

Guillén: I know; but, I didn't like that. It bothered me.

Mike Jones: The problem with giving interviews like that is that they cut and choose what they want. When I mentioned in the column that I voted for Bush, I gave her the reasons why and I told her, "Listen, if I could take it back, I would, okay? I think he's a really lousy President. But everything happens in that moment in time and—at that moment in time—my head was somewhere else regarding what was going on in the country." But she never printed the rest. She just printed that I voted for Bush and some gay people really got mad at me about that. I gave an explanation with it and she never printed that and that kind of bothered me a little bit.

Guillén: I think, again, it's this dominance of what's prurient and what people are sniggeringly interested in. You have, however, made that work for you. I read that earlier this year you listed your massage table on Ebay and made some good charity money for Project Angel Heart.

Mike Jones: That's correct.

Guillén: I thought that was cool. Was getting rid of the table a way of getting rid of that phase of your life?

Mike Jones: I really didn't want it anymore. Could I have used the money? Sure. But I didn't want to appear like I'm this greedy person trying to capitalize on it and Project Angel Heart is one of my favorite charities so I wanted to give them the money. But people are forgetting because—one of [the] criticisms I'm receiving, of course, on my road appearances—is I'm exploiting money. My response is Haggard exploited the gay community for years to make money so don't give me that crap. I could have blackmailed the guy from the very beginning. I could have my private life still intact with money in the bank and probably on the church payroll actually; but, I didn't do that either. People need to give me a break. I've done the best I could at that moment in time. I didn't consult anybody else. Some people are just so harsh and that's why I can't read blogs to be honest with you because some of them are so nasty. I used to cry when I would read some of them so I just stay away from them now.

Guillén: Again, I'm very sorry to hear that. When I was reading your comments about how gays have treated you in the gay community, I wanted to confirm that that's not what you think of yourself? You don't internalize those negative comments, do you?

Mike Jones: Like I said, months ago I used to cry a lot when all these things were being said about me because I knew that was not the type of person I was. Especially in Denver, there was a huge jealousy factor because people knew who I was and they were just so jealous that I was getting all this attention and limelight. God, it was just nasty and I was like, "I don't know what to do for you people." I stick my neck out on the line for the gay community and then I get all this backlash. I still haven't understood it all and I guess maybe it's not meant to be that I understand.

Guillén: Are you worried at all about bringing all this back up through the publication of the book and the book tour?

Mike Jones: No. I needed to do it. When I wrote that book, I broke down many times reliving it all. It's almost like I needed to write it. I really wanted people to hear the full story and hear my story because all people really saw were headlines and the headlines were "PROSTITUTE DRUG DEALER" basically. And I was not that at all.

Guillén: Well, I have to admit I'm a bit concerned for you because you will be making book store appearances, this remains a polarized issue, and you're so sensitive to this reaction that I worry for you a little bit. But you're up to it, eh?

Mike Jones: I'm a lot better than I was, you have to understand. I'm able to let a lot of the comments roll off my shoulders now where four months ago I was not like that. I'm much better. I've been through so much by myself that I can deal with it. I always seem to pull out of it; but, thank you for your concern.

Guillén: What is the extent of the book tour? I know you're going to be in San Francisco at Books, Inc. on Wednesday, June 27. Do you go on from there?


Mike Jones: Oh, yeah, my God, I'm going 'til July 25. I started in New York and I went to Atlanta and Denver. Denver was good. Denver, 150 people showed up. Then I did Minneapolis and now I'm in L.A. tonight. Then I fly from L.A. to Portland and Portland to San Fran and San Fran to Seattle. [Laughs.] Then I go home to Denver. Then I go to Miami Beach. I'm actually going down to Colorado Springs, believe it or not, because the three bookstores down there turned me away. Two of the chains—Borders and Barnes & Noble—turned me down and the third independent bookstore down there—the guy's a liberal who owns it—turned me down, saying it was poorly written and he wouldn't carry it. He caved in. He's caving in to the whole group down there. That made news down there, of course. But all of a sudden now the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and a bar in Colorado Springs both got a whole independent booksigning for me so I ended up down there afterall.

Guillén: Congratulations on achieving that. I'm glad to hear that the local community backed you up.

Mike Jones: Down there they did. Finally! Finally someone came through.

Guillén: I don't want to dwell too much on the actual incident with Haggard because you've articulated what's happened, how it happened, and the timeline; but, there were a couple of things I wanted to ask you about.

Mike Jones: Sure.

Guillén: Have you ever heard of the psychological concept of the "tao of synchronicity"?

Mike Jones: No.

Guillén: It's fostered by a Jungian analyst named Jean Shinoda Bolen. She says that whenever there's a major conflict in the psyche, something in the environment mirrors it and pushes it to resolution. I felt that with regard to you, in how you came to identify Ted Haggard; first, that you saw the segment on the History Channel regarding the AntiChrist and then that the following morning at your gym he showed up on a televised broadcast. Did that not strike you as weird?



Mike Jones: It was meant to be. I always refer to that as—when you hear religious people say they had a calling from God?—that's what I would say: I had a calling from God. Because how ironic for 2½ years not ever seeing him [like that] and then boom boom like that. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Another thing I liked in the book, Mike—as someone intrigued by the religiosity of memory—is how after your mom passed, you prayed to her via memory. I think that's lovely and it reveals to me that you have a spiritual center and that you do communicate with the Invisible World.

Mike Jones: Thank you so much. I do pray to the Universe. I just have to say I don't know exactly who I'm praying to; but, I do pray. I always feel that if we don't have some kind of hope, what do we have? I think praying sometimes is almost like talking to someone. You just have to release and let go and that's how I look at my spirituality.

Guillén: I know there's no way for you to know—you've had your lifestyle disrupted so much by this courageous act of yours—but I read somewhere that you wanted to do some theater work. What do you think you'll be doing from hereon in?

Mike Jones: I wish I could say for sure. I don't really even know where my life has taken me to be honest with you at this point. But one of the things I've been talking about the last couple of booksignings—and it just kind of came to me through talking to some other people, particularly when I received the Harvey Milk award—and that is when I told some younger gay people about the Harvey Milk award, they go, "Harvey who?" And I thought, "You know what? The more I think about it, these young people have no idea about gay history." I was thinking—you know what might be kind of cool?—after I'm done with this book tour, I might investigate getting some people together to work on a program where we could travel around to the different cities and present gay history. Because I think it's really sad and I think it's important that they know some battles we've been through and why they're so able to enjoy being so out and open the way they are today.

Guillén: Well, Mike, I'm going to let you go and I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I look forward to meeting you when you're here in San Francisco to have you sign my copy of your book.

Mike Jones: I'm so flattered and thank you for calling me and it was nice talking to you.