Saturday, August 06, 2022

HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG (2021)—THE EVENING CLASS INTERVIEW WITH DAYNA GOLDFINE & DAN GELLER (PART ONE)

Now I've heard there was a secret chord 

That David played, and it pleased the Lord 

But you don’t really care for music, do you? 

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth 

The minor fall, the major lift 

The baffled king composing Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Your faith was strong but you needed proof 

You saw her bathing on the roof 

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you 

She tied you to a kitchen chair 

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair 

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Well, maybe there's a God above 

As for me all I've ever learned from love 

Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you 

But it's not a crime that you're here tonight 

It's not some pilgrim who's seen the Light 

No, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Well people I've been here before 

I know this room and I've walked this floor 

You see I used to live alone before I knew you 

And I've seen your flag on the marble arch 

But listen love, love is not some kind of victory march, no 

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

There was a time you let me know 

What's really going on below 

But now you never show it to me, do you? 

I remember when I moved in you 

And the holy dove she was moving too 

And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

 

Now I've done my best, I know it wasn't much 

I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch 

I've told the truth, I didn’t come here just to fool you 

And even though it all went wrong 

I'll stand right here before the Lord of song 

With nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 

Hallelujah 

Quoting the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” can arguably only be a snapshot in time. As laid out in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (2021)Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s long-anticipated documentary (it took eight years to make)—"Hallelujah” was a song whose lyrics Cohen adjusted for years. Alan Light described it as “a little number he had been sweating over for years.”(1) Reputedly, the song had gone through anywhere from 80 to 180 draft versions.(2) Although it might seem that—since Cohen has been dead for nearly six years now—the lyrics of “Hallelujah” would be indisputably fixed, there remains a forward momentum to the song that suggests its intention to continue evolving, having already gone through so many transitions and varied performances within Cohen’s lifetime, subsequently shifting into a standard cover for multiple performers (at last count over 300), edging towards an ensouled anthem, and destined (I believe) to become a traditional a century or two down the line. “Hallelujah” is a song that has found and celebrates a life of its own.

  

As synopsized in the film’s trailer, the resurrection of “Hallelujah” from its near-death is the stuff of music legend, and as close to remedial justice as an artist could ever hope for. Five years after Recent Songs (1979), Cohen’s sixth studio album (and the third in a row that failed to do well), Cohen came down from a zen monastery on Mount Baldy, just north-east of Los Angeles, and entered into collaboration with producer John Lissauer to craft Various Positions (1984), which featured Cohen’s first recorded version of “Hallelujah.” Upon completion, Lissauer was convinced the album was going to be an important breakthrough for Cohen. Unexpectedly, Walter Yetnikoff—then president of CBS Records—hated it and refused to distribute it, even though it had been paid for. Various Positions was eventually picked up by the independent label Passport Records, and the album was finally included in the catalogue in 1990 when Columbia released the Cohen discography on compact disc. A remastered CD was issued in 1995.(3) 

  

Despite the shortsightedness of Yetnikoff, “Hallelujah” was performed by Cohen on tour (with varying lyrics). “Hallelujah” was then first covered by John Cale in 1991, which inspired Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version. Both versions, strengthened by Rufus Wainwright’s rendition on the Shrek soundtrack (2001) helped the song gain traction. The ability for a cover of a song to, in effect, rescue and resuscitate a song seemed an appropriate place to launch a conversation with Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. 

  

My thanks to Karen Larsen, Zachary Thomson and Zahra Sadrane of Larsen Associates for facilitating that conversation during the film’s mid-June San Francisco press junket at the Fairmont Hotel.

 * * *  

Michael Guillén: What is the value of a cover song? What is a cover song? Why that term “cover”? Do you have insight into what is the value of a covered song? Traditionals have always meant a lot to me. I interact with several young musicians in Boise, Idaho—there’s a strong music scene there—and I’ve argued for their learning traditionals. 

Dayna Goldfine: What would you consider a traditional?  

Guillén: “Wayfaring Stranger”, which has been around for 300 years. It’s been sung a million different ways. It could be the subject of another documentary!! 

Goldfine: There’s a documentary Bill Moyers made about Amazing Grace (1990). That’s the only other one about a single song…. 

Dan Geller: The value of a cover—it’s an interesting question—because most songs that you’re talking about that I would consider covered are songs where the major difference is in the musicality of the song. The song holds its own as its own emotional and intellectual orbit but the musicality will shift around it a bit. The emotional emphasis may shift a bit. 

“Hallelujah” is strange because the lyrics are so prismatic in a way—they’re so complex—that those covers by different artists seem like they’re entirely different songs. Just the preoccupations of the singer—whether they’re more enchanted by the Biblical references or by the sense of brokenness, or the yearning, or the celebration—they’re so different from each other that I can’t think of another song where the covers themselves almost feel like they’re new songs. 

Goldfine: Right. I probably wouldn’t be able to answer your question as a generic “what’s the value of a cover”; it’s more like “what’s the value of a cover of ‘Hallelujah’?” In an early incarnation when we were first thinking about this project, we were going to have a strand of this film where we would follow two or three artists as they decided to sing the song for the first time. We were going to watch the process that they used to make the song their own. 

Ultimately, a film tells you what it wants to be and—as we continued on the journey of making this film—that strand went by the wayside; but, I think every single cover of the song that we listened to, where people have really thought about it and made it their own, it’s a unique creation. I don’t think Brandi Carlile’s version is the same version Eric Church sang spontaneously at Red Rock because he was feeling blessed that night.

  

  

Geller: Or even how Leonard covers his own song with different lyrics along the way. The way he covered his own song—it’s certainly seen in the handful of video covers that are in the movie—they almost look like he’s singing a completely different song for a very different reason in each of those. That’s one of the reasons—as we got deeper and deeper into the movie—why we felt that the songwriter and the song, his preoccupation and the song he wrote and kept rewriting, were so twinned up together. To watch his own covering of his own song evolve in that way was startling. I hadn’t seen that footage before. We knew him from either hearing the original recording or seeing the concerts at the Paramount late in his life. When these other versions kept popping up while we were doing the research, it was startling to me; I had no idea.  

Guillén: It was a startling pronouncement in the documentary when Cohen admitted he wanted the song to become secular. That was a nice moment in the film because it made me think, “Oh! He chose to take it out of that holy realm.” 

Goldfine: Isn’t that cool? At a certain point he wanted to bring the song back down to Earth.  

Guillén: I understand that the structural traction of the documentary was based upon Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" (2012)? 

Goldfine: Not so much the structure because in a lot of ways the film just jumps off from the book. But Alan’s book was inspiring, because—basically, knowing that someone could get 250+ pages out of this song—gave us heart that we could probably do a film. But his book really does intertwine the Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen trajectories with the song and our film has a section of Jeff, but that’s it. 

Geller: But it was the inspiration, certainly. And Alan became a consulting producer and advisor, and also introduced us to all sorts of people. In many ways it was the depth of Alan’s book that was inspiring. It wasn’t just a simple sketching of “Gee, interesting that this song was rejected and then went on to heights.” It was the depth with which he approached the book that informed us that our film was going to be possible.  

Guillén: Language is a funny thing, y’know, particularly in its false dichotomies—the holy "and / or" the broken—whereas my appreciation for Cohen over the years since I was a teenager has always been that it’s not an either / or proposition we’re talking about when accessing the poetry of Leonard Cohen, which is holy and profane at the same time. That’s what I love about his work. There’s no “or” to fiddle over. Any comprehension of his work must embrace and encompass both. 

I could say the same thing about “Hallelujah.” People want to say, “I’m singing it in a sexual way” or “I’m singing it in a religious way”; but, neither approach really matters because the listener, the wild card, is going to take the song as they understand it anyways. For someone who’s being chaste, “Hallelujah” might be sexy beyond belief in its lyrics alone, no matter how its sung or how—as you said, Dan—its musicality is interpreted. 

Did the two of you ever get to talk to Leonard Cohen in person? 

Geller: We did not. And Alan’s advice was, “Don’t ask for an interview because you’ll never get it. Then they won’t even consider letting you do the movie.” The point of Leonard’s life was, “Leave me alone. I need to concentrate on writing what I can.”  

Guillén: Your film had a wonderful metaphor. I don’t know if he said it or you two said it about reaching an older age. 

Goldfine: Leonard said, “I’m not saying that 70 is old age, but it’s definitely the foothills.” 

Geller: The other thing he said is that it’s indisputably not youth. 

Goldfine: But he said there’s a pressing sense—I mean, these aren’t his exact words—but, there’s the pressing sense that one needs to complete one’s work. I thought that was so beautiful.  

Guillén: That’s where I am!! On the edge of 70, I identify with that so much. I live in a valley surrounded by foothills that every winter—when they’re covered with snow—I’m feeling. I find myself hiking in these foothills. It’s a liminal space conducive to subjectivity. I’m not quite old, and I happen to think I’m still good-looking…. [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: [Laughter]. You arrrreeeeee…!!  

Guillén: Oh, thank you!! 

Geller: And you dress well!! [Laughter.] 

But getting back to what you were asking about lyrics being “ands” and not “ors”, and how you interpret it, there’s a moment with Rabbi Mordecai Finley that’s not in the movie but was in the interview we did with him. We were going through the verses of “Hallelujah” together, just so I could understand his take on some of it, and we came to that verse:  

Remember when I came in you 

And the Holy Dove was moving too 

He went on about how that was right out of Medieval Jewish literature, but I said, “Rabbi, that couplet is about sex.” “No it’s not,” he said. I recited, “Remember when I moved in you and the Holy Dove was moving too? That’s about having sex.” You could see his eyes pop. “Oh my God, I never even thought about it that way,” he admitted. 

That’s to your point that one reason “Hallelujah” can be sung at weddings, or funerals, at all sorts of different events, is because you can approach the song on your own terms and get from it what you want; but—if you really look at the song—you can approach that same lyric and say, “Well, what else is it trying to say?” And it will be saying a lot of things. Every single line will be saying a lot of things, inviting you in to multiple interpretations.  

Guillén: As a teenager discovering Cohen (largely through Judy Collins singing “Suzanne” and then getting caught up in his published poetry), I steered through puberty reading sensuality—if not sexuality—into all of his spiritual phrasings. The importance of that fusion became seared into my sensibility. 

Goldfine: Maybe halfway through the film, Sharon Robinson says that Leonard conflated the feminine with spirituality. Leonard does this riff on how, y’know, this is something we drive towards, the sexual impulse, but it’s the other side of the spiritual impulse and this sense of wanting to get at the bottom of the meaning of life. He constantly twinned those two forces.  

Guillén: Which brings us to his understanding that his poetry was responsive to or informed by the bat kohl. 

Goldfyne: Which Rabbi Finley articulates as the “feminine voice of God.”  

Guillén: That quality of the bat kohl in Cohen’s poetry was influential upon me as a young person and, admittedly, a presiding guide to my own writing. Authors that I sought out after Cohen, such as William Goyen, also wrote with a fusion of the sensual and the spiritual. 

A song is like a room that you walk into that you’re thinking of renting for a while. What are you going to put up on the walls? What color are you going to paint the walls? What will you do to make this room yours? It’s the same with a song—and is part of my interest in covers—is how do you make a song yours? What is necessary creatively to make a song yours? How will it be different than how others sing it? 

The variance of how one can interpret a song has preoccupied my consciousness since I was a child. We were migrant laborers and I grew up singing in the fields, or listening to friends and family singing in the fields. My mother had a beautiful singing voice and she would sing while we were working and—inspired by her—sometimes I would sing. I remember one time this guy we were working with commented, “You sing too slow.” 

Goldfine: Interesting. What does that even mean?  

Guillén: Exactly! But it hurt my feelings at the time and I protested, “No I don’t. It’s just the way I sing.” Then someone else actually supported me and said, “He’s singing that song absolutely okay. Leave him alone.” But then that made me wonder: was I singing slow? And, if so, why? 

 Goldfine: I don’t think there’s a rule. There have been two cases where this film has shown at festivals. The first was in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and one of the programmers found three Danish musicians to perform after the screening and sing various versions of Leonard Cohen songs. This one young woman sang, “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye” and it was a very different “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye” than Leonard would have done, but it was a poignant version. And then this last Sunday at the Beacon Theater in New York Amanda Shires [website]—who’s a country crossover who idolizes Leonard—she sang “I’m Your Man” and played it on her ukulele. It was unbelievable. I loved hearing a woman sing, “I’m Your Man.” It was completely distinct from how Leonard would have sung it.

  

Geller: There are some artists where the original recording of what they did was so specific to the entity of the song that it’s almost impossible to think that anyone can do a version that would match up. With the exception of Cocker doing “With A Little Help From My Friends”, pretty much everything in The Beatles catalog you cannot find any cover that equals that original. It’s the sonic environment that they created, the way they sang it, everything, it just can’t be topped. Cohen’s different because the words are so deep and so important and offer so much possibility for interpretation. I think there are plenty of covers of his songs that are every bit as good as the original versions. 

Goldfine: Why would we even need to go, “This one’s good. This one’s not good. This one’s better. This one’s not.” They’re all valid.  

Guillén: Because they’re doorways. Each song is a way to enter the body of Cohen’s work. 

Goldfine: But what I was going to say is that for me the word would be that they’re every bit as valid, as opposed to good.  

Guillén: Yes. Again, emotional truth. 

Goldfine: Exactly. 

Guillén: The documentary has such a wonderful cast of talking heads, some who I knew, some who I didn’t know. I was delighted to see Rufus Wainwright—because I adore Rufus—and I had totally forgotten that his version of “Hallelujah” was on the Shrek soundtrack. But I was also noticing significant absences that I would have included if I were a filmmaker and only because I am caught up in my own mythos of Leonard Cohen. He’s not only a direct influence on my life as a writer but that influence has been continual. I’ve read everything he’s written. Read everything I could get my hands on that was written about him. Listened to every song he’s sung and any covers I’ve known about. Jennifer Warnes

Goldfine / Geller: [In unison] She’s the one! 

Geller: We couldn’t get her. 

Goldfine: We tried to get her.  

Guillén: “Famous Blue Raincoat” was the album of Cohen covers that brought him back to me. I had set him aside as the poet of my youth, feeling I had to move on, but then Jennifer brought out her album “Famous Blue Raincoat” and I felt, “Oh my God!!” 

 Goldfine: Believe me, we tried.  

Guillén: I had no idea that she had been a back-up singer for him until your documentary. I knew she had backed up Roy Orbison, but I didn’t know about Cohen.

   

Geller: Our inability to get her to talk on the documentary was a combination of things. First, it was too close after Leonard’s death when we approached her; she, among others, really needed to hibernate a bit with their feeling about what that had been like. And she’s very shy as well. As far as people we went after, she was the only one who declined. 

Goldfine: Obviously, she was front and center when we first started thinking about who to approach. Though I have to say that Sharon Robinson is also a great back-up singer and then a collaborator with Cohen on many albums. 

Guillén: I was so glad to be introduced to Sharon through your documentary. 

Goldfine: She’s amazing. John Lissauer was a very early interview as well, back in 2016, and we knew he was friends with Jennifer and I remember saying, “We would like to interview her” and he said, “I’ll be surprised if she does it. She’s very shy.” At that point Leonard was still alive so we put it on a back burner and started asking other people. Then Leonard passed. I had reached out to Roscoe Beck, who was Jennifer’s ex-husband, and who was in the process of producing her last album, which came out a couple of years ago. I asked if he would sit for an interview and he said, “You don’t want me. You want Jennifer.” At that point I wrote back and said, “Indeed. But everyone tells us she’s too shy.” He said, “Write me a letter and I’ll forward it to her.” He was generous enough to do that. She still said, “I just don’t want to. My memories of Leonard are here and I’m not really ready to articulate them.” As a filmmaker, I think it’s very important to respect that. When a potential subject of an interview tells you clearly and articulately, “I don’t want to do it”, I think it’s only fair as a filmmaker to go, “I respect that.”  

Guillén: What about Cohen saying that people should stop singing “Hallelujah”? 

Goldfine: I agree with “Ratso” that he was kidding.  

Guillén: Kidding, perhaps, but also not kidding? I don’t believe in either / or positions. I think multiple feelings are going on at the same time. 

Geller: I think so too.  

Guillén: The other person whose absence I noted—though you did have one image of her—was Joni Mitchell. 

Goldfine: Because we were looking at it through the prism of “Hallelujah”, it narrowed our choices. But it was a gift to us as well because it meant we didn’t need to be trying to make the definitive Leonard Cohen bio pic. Every time we thought about who we were going to interview and what kind of things we were going to include, it was always, “How does this fit into the prism of ‘Hallelujah’ ”? And, of course, his relationship with Joni was in the ‘60s and it wasn’t that long-lived, so it didn’t make sense to include her.  

Guillén: Which I accept and understand, but more I was thinking about “Rainy Night House”, the song she wrote about him.

   

Goldfyne: And “Case Of You”.

  

Geller: If you can get us the interview, I’ll be down in a second.  

Guillén: I’ll see what I can do. [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: But then again, it didn’t make much sense. Jennifer was for sure.  

Guillén: Well, all the more reason to congratulate you on the strenuous work you did obtaining the archival footage. I’ll give you a classic reaction, because I can only have a personal reaction to this film. Your press notes have excellently laid out the process of making this film and I will borrow from that for review, but for me your film was just all so personal. I had always heard that Leonard was a ladies man, a serial amoreaux. I monitored these different affairs he had and the songs that came out of them. The archival footage you presented that I loved was when he was talking about how when you get older as a Jewish man, you change your name. He was talking to this woman about how he would change his name to September. He is so beautiful and so sensual in that sequence and the smile on his face is so seductive. You could see how he was seducing this woman and how irresistible he was. I could see how women would fall in love with him. 

Geller: He’s like a cat toying with a mouse.  

Guillén: Exactly. And he does that a lot actually. 

Goldfine: I love that footage.  

Guillén: Can you talk about where you got that footage. It enfleshed him. 

Goldfine: We had seen that footage early and catalogued it in our minds and also in our notes on archival footage. 

Geller: That’s CBC footage. 

Goldfine: But it wasn’t until we were fortunate enough to sit down with Leonard’s rabbi, Rabbi Finley, in L.A. over coffee that he reminded us of that footage and unpacked it for us in a Jewish way. It was like, “Oh my God. This gives us a whole other layer.” Then when we got back home after that interview with Rabbi Finley and revisited that footage, it was unbelievably rich footage in terms of the way Leonard was flirting mercilessly with this woman. She was in his palm.  

Guillén: As was I!! That’s what I’m saying. I’m so grateful that you found and incorporated this CBC footage because I felt that I was being seduced by Leonard Cohen. 

Geller: And also being toyed with, because when he says September—and he’s not fessing up that it’s a Jewish rite of passage—when he says, “I’m also thinking of getting a tattoo” and that has a double meaning. First, we’re talking about (at that point) less than two decades away from Auschwitz, right? A tattoo on a Jew means something very different. The other is in the orthodox Jewish tradition, or in the priestly Cohenim tradition—because the Cohens are the priestly tribe—tattoos are forbidden. If you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, right? So, whoa, he’s just throwing these little bombs at her, figuring she has no idea. Most people don’t have an idea what he’s saying in such a simple line. And then, of course, she says, “Where are you going to get the tattoo?” and he says, “Over on York Street.” [Laughter.] 

Goldfine: Because he’s always one step ahead of her. But, again, I thank Rabbi Finley so much for unpacking that scene for us because it might have made it into the film without that, but—having Rabbi Finley explain in this very beautiful, graceful way about what it really meant to Leonard to say he wanted to change his name to September—it allowed us to use that scene in all its comic but rich context. 

 Guillén: You had to negotiate a difficult transition when you began to talk about Jeff Buckley reintroducing “Hallelujah”. As I was watching the film and the focus shifted to Buckley, I winced because—I have to be very honest—I never cared for Jeff Buckley or his cover of “Hallelujah”. It never did anything for me. I never liked his version of the song.

   

Goldfine: So did you agree with him when he said he hoped Leonard would never hear it?  

Guillén: Well, I thought he was being a bit precious. 

Goldfine: No, I think he was right. He was actually quite humble.  

Guillén: But, truthfully, how could Leonard not hear it? 

Geller: Right. I think he was just saying he hoped Leonard would never hear it. When he finally fessed up and said, “It sounds like a boy singing it”, there’s truth. I think he knows vis a vis Leonard at that stage in the early 1990s that it would be hard to measure up. Musically, it’s gorgeous.  

Guillén: As your documentary points out, and as is well known, Buckley’s version is how most people know this song; but, when the documentary started going off on this, I thought, “Oh-oh. Is that all for Leonard? Because I’m not done with Leonard! I want Leonard.” I thought the way you paced and abbreviated the focus on Buckley was masterfully edited. You offered just enough Buckley that I actually felt for him this time around and actually appreciated what he had done with the song. 

Geller: Good.  

Guillén: The headline of his drowning in the river was tragic, and it made me wonder if this song would have become what it became had that not happened? There’s a mystery touched upon in your documentary about that song. “Hallelujah” is going to become a traditional, as I mentioned before when talking about “Wayfaring Stranger”, which is already 300 years old. “Hallelujah” is going to become a traditional sung 300 years down the line, 400 years down the line, people are still going to be singing this song. 

Goldfine: Both Clive Davis and Rufus—actually, almost every single artist that we interviewed—said that if it’s not part of the Great American Songbook, it will be. 

But the one thing I wanted to say about Jeff was that was the hardest section—not so much to edit as a sequence—but to figure out how much to go there and when to cut back. The very first version of the Jeff Buckley “chapter” of the film (if you will), was twice as long. We had to find a way to pare it back. 

Geller: Bit by bit by bit. 

 Goldfine: It took a long time to get it to be the right balance.  

Guillén: I often feel that editing is not given the due it deserves. It is the hard part of making a film, especially when you’ve gained access to so much information. After the Buckley chapter, as you phrased it, the documentary then explores the popularization of the song via “American Idol” and Shrek, which admittedly began to make me feel a little bit uncomfortable because of the dangers associated with the commodification of a song. It’s like all the conflicted feelings I have about the commodification of Frida Kahlo. 

Geller: Commemorative mugs!  

Guillén: Refrigerator magnets! But then—again, quite skillfully—you brought it back to Leonard and how he did the song, showing what the song really was. 

Goldfine: Thank you. 

Geller: We had the let the air out of the balloon a bit because—after blowing it up like that with the “American Idol” sequence—we had to let the air out carefully so that you don’t feel a sudden disjuncture and could be let down from that manic crazy moment when the song is at number 1, 2 and 36 on the U.K. charts. There were some corners to turn that we weren’t immediately successful at first, but we kept at it. 

Goldfine: Thank God somebody interviewed Leonard right at that moment in 2007 or so when the song was in three places on the charts. I love that he says, “Maybe people should stop singing it for a while” and he has this little smile on his face. Ratso says he was kidding. Who knows? Other critics have said he told people not to sing it anymore. 

Geller: You’ve brought up something, Michael. When we make our films, we hope that they last for a while and some of them have lasted for decades now, which is great, but I hadn’t thought until you just mentioned it that the song is likely to become a standard and that might give a chance to this movie to be a resource for people for however many years down the line if they’re curious about this song that is a standard, a portrait of how it came to be, and the man who made it. That just made my day thinking, “Maybe this film might last for a good long while.”  

Guillén: And there’s value to that. I’m just about to hit 70 and I think, this guy, this song, has been in my life since I was a teenager. His poetry helped me through my early love affairs. His poetry told me what a love affair was supposed to be, or what a poetic life was supposed to be, so that when I first visited Manhattan, I had to stay in the Chelsea Hotel, and when I had the chance to meet Joni Mitchell after a concert in Memphis, I lingered at the stage door to meet her. In other words, his has been a longbody influence. What is speaking to me now—that you have so elegantly portrayed in your documentary—is that Leonard Cohen, ever since he was a young man, wanted to be an elder. 

Goldfine: Isn’t that unbelievable?  

Guillén: And approaching 70, I too long to be an elder in the full and resonant meaning of the word. 

Goldfine: I don’t know if it’s ever chic to say that you want to be an elder, but for him to say it in 1974, at the age of 40, in a conversation with Ratso Sloman….  

Guillén: And perhaps he shouldn’t have said it at 40? 

 Goldfine: Why not?!  

Guillén: Because he wasn’t an elder. 

Goldfine: No, he wasn’t saying he was an elder. He said, “I would love to become an elder. I hope I have the good fortune to be able to become an elder.”  

Guillén: Okay, that I accept. And it tracks with what I’m currently feeling. I tell myself, “You made it through AIDS. You made it through Trump….” 

Geller: [Laughter.] You’re still making it through Trump!!  

Guillén: Right. We just had that horrible incident of the men arrested in northern Idaho who were on their way to a gay rally to cause horrible damage and I think, “Another near miss.” But what Cohen keeps giving me and making me think—specifically through what your documentary presents to your audience—is, “Look how elegant he is. Look how humble he is. Look how loving he is. Everyone who collaborates with him, who works with him, loves him.” 

So, first, as a young man he taught how to have a love affair and now he’s teaching me how to be an elder, how to be gracious to the young. What’s holy about his graciousness is what the Native Americans would call the longbody. When he was young, it was as if he was already old. And when he was old, he related to the young. That holiness is what I believe people respond to in Leonard Cohen. It’s a palpable, physical, visceral response to his writing and his music and the experiential arc of his life, which served to create “Hallelujah”. I can’t get that song out of my mind since watching your film. I’ve been singing it under my breath for about 69 hours now. [Laughter.] And I don’t even know all the lyrics so I keep singing the same incomplete phrases over and over! 

Goldfine: When the film played at the Beacon on Sunday night, there was a mini-concert afterwards and the concert promoter set up who was going to be in it. There was Judy Collins—that was an obvious choice—so that when the curtain came up after the film she sang “Suzanne” and then it was Sharon Robinson, Amanda Shires, and then this promoter goes, “Trust me, be open-hearted about this, I think this guy named Daniel Seavey who’s in a boy band and who came to fame singing ‘Hallelujah’ on ‘American Idol’ should sing ‘Hallelujah’ at the end of this show.” I can’t speak for Dan but I was like, “You’re going to have someone come out and actually sing ‘Hallelujah’ after this film’s over?!” Daniel came out—he’s like 22, 24 years old—and he hit it out of the park. He brought the house down. He made that song his own.

   

Guillén: That’s it! That’s what I’m approaching when I talk about the cover, or when I talk about traditionals, what I’m trying to say to my young musician friends in Boise, “It’s not really about you. It’s not about how you’re going to interpret the song. It’s not about how you’re going to phrase it, or pace it. That’s not what the true value of a cover is. It’s that the song is holy. It covers time. It’s about time. You’re the steward. You’re a speck of time in the life of the song. And don’t you want to be a part of it? That’s where ‘you’ come in. That’s where—when you match the holiness of the song—you own it and it becomes yours as it becomes anyone’s who willingly serves as the steward to the holiness of the song.” 

I’m so grateful that you chose with this film to focus on such a powerful song. But I was surprised when I reviewed your press notes that you claimed to have never done any film about music. What about Ballets Russe (2005)? 

Geller: Well, there was music in that but I wouldn’t say it was a movie that was examining music in and of itself. 

Goldfine: Early on, when we were just starting to toy with this idea, we were fortunate enough to be on a festival jury with Morgan Neville who’s made a lot of music docs….  

Guillén: Good ones! 

Goldfine: Really good ones. He’s a great filmmaker. We pitched this idea and he offered to come on as a DP and that gave us some street cred because—even though we thought we could make a music doc based on our past work—the world didn’t necessarily agree that we could. 

Geller: It just opened more doors. His participation was a validation. By Morgan Neville saying that these filmmakers have the chops to do something like this, for people in the music world who might not have been familiar with us, it helped. People in the dance world know who we are. People in the art world know who we are. But we were entering a new terrain.  

Guillén: And I believe it’s becoming an increasingly popular genre, largely because of my generation, our generations, people are more interested in what influenced us in our youth? Here I am now, pushing 70, what made me who I am now that I can look at these foothills dusted with snow and have a poetic, aesthetic arrest? It was music. Music helped me become myself and continues to do so through every year I’m alive. What songs mattered to me? What songs matter to me now? 

I’ve been saying for years that as I grow older my films of choice are documentaries. They’re the most interesting stories because they’re real stories. 

Goldfine: You can’t make up anything better.  

Guillén: Right. 

And I think people are more interested now in the musicians, the artists, the art of crafting songs, and your documentary is attractive for providing the fulcrum of one song to shed light on the man who wrote the song and on the art of songwriting itself. 

Goldfine: It definitely allowed us to narrow and hone in on one aspect of Cohen’s artistry. In some ways it’s a revisionist history because so many people have idolized the Marianne-Leonard relationship but I feel our film is saying, “That was one thing, but, you know, there was Dominique.”  

Guillén: And though you use “Hallelujah” as a fulcrum to leverage insight, your film is not just about “Hallelujah”. You sample many of Cohen’s songs. 

Geller: There are 22 of his songs in the film.  

Guillén: Which was a great relief because I was concerned that you were just going to keep playing “Hallelujah” over and over again until I would go crazy and have to rush out into the lobby to stuff popcorn into my ears. 

Goldfine: We didn’t know we were going to do 22 other songs, but we also weren’t completely upfront with Robert Corey, the head of the Cohen estate, who said, “If I would have known eight years ago that you were going to talk about 22 other songs, I don’t know if Leonard or I would have allowed you to do this project.” 

Geller: But we didn’t know when we approached it! But as we started playing with it, to understand “Hallelujah”, you need to know “Who By Fire”. To know “Who By Fire”, it would help to know a little bit on the other side, like “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”, just to see the different elements of Leonard. Then, because the film does extend to late in his life, “Tower of Song” becomes important. It’s all about mortality, and aging, and where you are in that tower. Bit by bit we began to get further into debt. [Laughter.] 

ENDNOTES 

(1) Alan Light, “Broken Tablets”, MOJO (January 2020, pp. 70-71). 

(2) Wikipedia entry on “Hallelujah”, accessed August 5, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song) 

(3) Wikipedia entry on Various Positions, accessed August 5, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song)

Monday, July 18, 2022

OUTFEST 40 / FRAMELINE 46: UNIDENTIFIED OBJECTS (2022)—THE EVENING CLASS INTERVIEW WITH JUAN-FELIPE ZULETA

Photo: © 2022 Corey Nickols, courtesy gettyimages.com

Whereas one is an acknowledged auteur’s megaplex arthouse horror confidently boasting a first-tier cast, and the other a modestly-produced independent first feature with relatively unknown actors gamely trafficking niche festivals, there are thematic resemblances and effective similarities between David Cronenberg’s 45th film Crimes of the Future (2022) and Juan-Felipe Zuleta’s first feature film Unidentified Objects (2022). That says and promises a lot for Zuleta’s next forty-four. 

Both films address near-future demographic ruptures that target maligned minorities disfavored by a majority populace; a social stratification that is near de rigueur for dystopian sci-fi narratives, where the power struggles between hierarchies determine access to an increasingly limited trough. Cronenberg’s social outcasts are “plastic eaters”—individuals able to survive on the refuse of a polluted and compromised world—and Zuleta’s are small gay people, namely one small gay person, Peter (bitterly portrayed by Matthew August Jeffers), who is able to survive the state-sponsored indignities of physical non-conformity. Embodying what “normal” people fear as unknown, the subjects of both narratives seek to redress and subvert the ways in which ruling political forces alienate and marginalize and frequently eliminate physical “types” who do not support their governing hegemony. It’s suggested in both films that self-acceptance is requisite for social acceptance. Self-acceptance is the cornerstone to resistance. 

Unidentified Objects recently had a one-off U.S. premiere screening at the 46th edition of San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, where it won an Honorable Mention for Outstanding First Feature. Unidentified Objects is currently situated as the Platinum U.S. Centerpiece for the 40th edition of Outfest, venued in Los Angeles. That centerpiece screening is on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, and Unidentified Objects continues on to contribute to Outfest’s structured hybridity by being available for remote streaming from Thursday, July 21, 2022 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. 

As synopized at Outfest: “Peter, a self-described ‘college-educated, homosexual dwarf,’ keeps to himself in his apartment as he reels from the recent loss of his closest friend. His solitary existence is up-ended when his quirky neighbor Winona shows up at his door with a favor to ask: she’d like to borrow his car so she can drive to the remote Canadian field where aliens are due to beam her aboard their spaceship. 

“Led by a sensational pair of performances from Matthew Jeffers (TV’s New Amsterdam) and Sarah Hay, this disarming and wholly original take on the roadtrip comedy finds its charm and its power in spotlighting characters who rarely get the lead roles. Directed with a fabulous visual flair by first-time feature helmer Juan-Felipe Zuleta, this film demonstrates the thrilling rewards of watching previously sidelined characters take center stage.” 

My thanks to publicist Matthew Johnstone who provided access to Unidentified Objects during its Frameline premiere and then facilitated a Zoom conversation with its director Juan-Felipe Zuleta. Long an avid fan of Latin American cinema, I’ve had welcome opportunity to interview Colombian filmmakers over the years, including (most recently) Ciro Guerra and Luis Ospina. Thus, it was with sincere pleasure that I was fortunate enough to speak with one of Colombia’s youngest up-and-coming filmmakers, Juan-Felipe Zuleta (now, officially, Colombian American). 

* * *  

Michael Guillén: Have you been able to take advantage of the film incentives provided by Colombia’s recent movies law, passed (I believe) in 2003, 2004? 

Juan-Felipe Zuleta: I apply every year. I haven’t won it yet so it hasn’t helped me; but, it has helped a lot of filmmakers in Colombia. It is competitive. Some people get really lucky. Some movies—like Ciro Guerra’s—are not seen anywhere; but, I think it’s the best thing that has happened for film culture in Colombia. Like I said, I apply every year with a project. I think the project that I have submitted for the last couple of years—one that Lee [Frankel] and I wrote—it might be a little too commercial? I don’t know. You never know because they change judges every year. It’s not like in Canada or some European countries where everybody gets it. In Colombia, especially for first-time filmmakers, they give one prize for $150,000.  

Guillén: Well, you’ll probably win it when you least expect it. 

Zuleta: Yes!! And, listen, I’m very persistent. I never stop applying.  

Guillén: Good, good. 

Zuleta: I have another movie that I want to make, in Spanish, called We Were Born Dead (in English) or Nacimos Muertos (in Spanish). Hopefully, we can use some of the funds from that law for that, or some of the other laws that Colombia has like the 1556 law that’s for foreign investors. There’s one where the government just gives you money to make a movie and part of the extension of that law is—if you bring in foreign investors—there are tax breaks, something like 40% tax breaks for foreign investment.  

Guillén: That’s a particularly interesting development for Colombia’s film industry. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul recently made a film in Colombia, Memoria (2021), starring Tilda Swinton, which I considered a fascinating development. 

But let’s focus on your movie, your first feature, Unidentified Objects (2022), which is having its U.S. premiere at the 46th edition of the Frameline Film Festival. Let’s hit the title first. You’re playing very skillfully and intriguingly with a blend of the sci-fi genre and gender politics, as insinuated by your title. 

Zuleta: Yes. The title Unidentified Objects was one of the first things that came to be when Lee and I knew we wanted to make this movie. Lee and I are longtime collaborators. We work every day on screenwriting, back and forth with ideas, so when you talk about “gender politics”, I think the film is beyond gender politics. The film was written during the Trump administration. I’m an immigrant to the United States….  

Guillén: I misspoke. I meant to say identity politics. 

Zuleta: Identity politics, yes, that’s more like it. When I got to the United States for the first time, I had a visa. I’m a citizen now—that’s a long story—but, originally I was assigned an alien number. That’s how my passport was called. That’s how my green card was called. I had an alien number. “You don’t belong here. You’re an alien.” 

In many ways it goes back to that sense of who belongs, who doesn’t belong, who’s identified, who’s unidentified? Who are the people who are like everybody else? Who are those who aren’t? That sense runs through every topic that’s controversial. You can talk about artificial intelligence. You can talk about the gay rights movement and all of that. You can talk about immigration policy. You can talk about professions like church workers, etc., right? You can go deep into many many topics. So Unidentified Objects is a perfect title. In fact, it’s my favorite title.  

Guillén: [Laughing]. Well, that’s a good thing since it’s your film’s title. 

Zuleta: It’s really hard to find a good movie title. It’s much harder than anybody thinks. “What should my movie be called?” But this one was easy.  

Guillén: One thing you’ve done masterfully in broaching the subject of aliens, or alien rights, or alien identities, off-Earth and on, is that you’ve situated the subject within a liminal space through a liminal perspective. It interests me that you’re playing with this liminality, and that you have aligned that effort with your own experience of being an immigrant into the United States. You’re allowing this liminality to filter out to any identity that people in your audience might identify with in your movie. 

Zuleta: Yes! It’s a liminal space across the board, but it’s a liminal space about a road trip movie where you are literally crossing a border, right?  

Guillén: Your characters cross from the United States into Canada. 

Zuleta: Liminal space to the degree of subjective storytelling where we’re trying to understand where these characters are coming from and there’s something about humanity, about “what are my thoughts? Or my feelings and the way I feel?” That does not necessarily mean that you feel that way, right? It’s very subjective. Everybody has a very specific experience in the way they inhabit the world. Everybody, everybody, no matter if you’re within the same people in the same…—what I would call “circles within circles”—even people who are in the LGBTQ community, and even within that the gay community, and even within that, everybody has their own experience. 

When you take a character like Peter [Matthew Jeffers] who is an academic and a scholar who cares about literature, who cares about words and culture, about Anton Chekhov—one of the greatest Russian authors—but, he’s also a little person, and his is a gay experience of a little person in society that is very particular and unique, right? That hasn’t been explored in cinema in a way that I, at least, think is interesting. And yet we’ve seen interesting little people performers. We know there’s a lot of talent. There’s a huge talent pool of actors in that community, per se.  

Guillén: Yes, but what you’ve done differently in your presentation of a central performance by a little person actor is you’ve explored the fantasies and articulated the fears and frustrations of little people in—as you have phrased it—a “circles within circles” specificity. We’ve seen representations of little people in cinematic narratives—Peter Dinklage, for example, in his various performances in movies and television—but, you have complicated that representation through a gay lens, which I find interesting, particularly in Peter’s fantasies; fantasies I would say that are driven by a “Lynchian imperative.” 

Peter’s fantasies are neither prefaced nor explained. They arise out of an experience the audience believes they are participating in, which gradually, if unexpectedly, morphs into something other than the experience the audience thought they were having. There’s an oneiric pivot that distinguishes the experience on the screen as either a dream or a fantasy. Which leads me to the ambiguities you have purposely folded into your narrative. These ambiguities—as strangely as they are introduced—reveal emotional truths. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? 

Zuleta: I’m a firm believer that storytelling—especially in cinema—is not about being literal. It’s not about being in-your-face obvious. That’s what a telenovela, or certain stories are. They’re telling you, “I feel this way”, right? What I love about storytelling, especially visual storytelling, and the capabilities you can do with visual and audio-visual storytelling is precisely what you are saying: we can really go deep into the psyche of a human being. We can dive into their reality and their experience of the world. If it’s done well through sound, through images, we can create a deeper meaning that hasn’t been done or that is not part of our real specific experience. That’s why some people will say, “Oh, this is like a fantasy film.” I do think there’s something about surreality, meaning, what is that? It’s exploring a world that’s both….  

Guillén: Well, you defined surreality in your press notes as “the imaginary meeting the irrational.” 

Zuleta: Exactly! I speak about surreality being the imaginary meeting the irrational and, in many ways, that’s like there’s so much meaning. If you look at a Luis Buñuel movie, or a David Lynch movie—I’m talking about directors that I like—you can go and point at a certain scene and say, “That scene is making me feel a certain way inside. It’s making me feel weird. It’s making me feel emotional.” And yet for some people it’s like having their pants pulled down in a toilet. It’s like their reaction is something different. When I talk about visual storytelling it’s mainly about diving into that world. It’s about how can we create an experience visually that, again, could be fantasy, could be reality? That’s where ambiguity comes in for me. My favorite stories are the ones that make the audience be part of the experience. That make you start questioning, “What is happening?” 

For example, audiences—especially audiences that I like—they like to play detective. They try to be ahead of you. They like to anticipate what’s going to happen or try to have an explanation to what you’re showing them. Unidentified Objects is in many ways designed by those surreal sequences that you’re talking about through which we can give a lot of substance. If you study it, if you watch it multiple times, every viewing is going to be different. With every viewing you could probably come up with a different conclusion to what we’re trying to say. Yet, as you said, the one thing that is always there is the emotion. 

People have said that this movie are pill trips. That this is just Peter dreaming everything because he’s taking pills. One of the first things you see the main character do is take pills. Sure, that’s an interesting interpretation of the movie, but that’s where the ambiguity takes place. It’s like the ending of the movie Prisoners (2013) where Jake Gyllenhaal is standing outside of a house where, we as the audience, know that Hugh Jackman is buried underneath. We know that he’s screaming and blowing a whistle but Jake Gyllenhaal is not listening. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but we do. The movie ends there. You’re left thinking, “Oh my God, is he going to unbury him? Is he going to save him? Is he going to die?” That’s maybe a literal way to look at it, but I can get very passionate about it….  

Guillén: [Chuckling.] Yes, clearly. As can I. I interpret what you’re doing with the liminality in a slightly different perspective. I’m well-trained in psychology and mythology. What I understand to be the first liminal spirits, the first threshold spirits (if not the first psychotherapists), were in ancient Mesopotamian mythology in the Sumerian descent myth of Inanna. In that myth Inanna goes down into the Underworld where her sister Ereshkigal rules. Ereshkigal is a miserable queen who doesn’t enjoy reigning over the dark underworld. In her mean-heartedness, she kills her sister Inanna and hangs her corpse on a hook. But Inanna, suspecting her sister might do just that, had previously arranged to be rescued if no one had heard from her in three days. 

The Sumerian god Enki, deeply troubled by what has happened to Inanna, attempts to help her by creating two sexless figures named gala-tura and the kur-jara from the dirt under the fingernails of two of his fingers. He instructs these two sprites to appease Ereshkigal and retrieve the corpse of Inanna. In some versions of this story these two sprites take up residence in the threshold of Ereshkigal’s bedroom where, listening to Ereshkigal’s bitter complaints about her pain and discomfort, they repeat her complaints back to her. “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my hip hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites repeat, “your hip hurts.” “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my back hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites echo, “your back hurts”, thereby confirming Ereshkigal’s misery, placating her and appeasing her so that she hands the corpse of Inanna over to the two sprites to take out of the Underworld where—through magic rituals—Enki is able to revive her. 

As I understand and interpet it, the function of these liminal spirits is to repeat to you your psychology; to help you articulate it. That’s what I believe you have done with this film, specifically through the surreal fantasy sequences. Representing liminality, giving it a voice, helps us to identify and understand it in ourselves. 

Most notably, the scene in the film where Peter fantasizes on dancing with the tall, handsome man in the bar dove right into my heart because I have been coming out of a failed love affair and, I have to say, I watched that scene and knew that I was Peter. Which is to say that his emotional truth was my emotional truth. I was that small. I was dancing with someone that tall. Someone that handsome. Someone that masculine. I watched that scene and thought, “Wait a minute. How can I be this? I’m not small.” But I was

In effect, your film performs this function. I hurt from a failed love affair. Your film is saying, “You hurt from a failed love affair.” 

Zuleta: Yes, that’s 100%! In many ways, I feel a lot of the scenes. I think the bar scene plays really well, specifically in the disability and the LGBTQ communities because there’s an extra layer. If you’re a little person and you want to approach somebody in a bar or if you’re someone from the LGBTQ community and you want to go up to someone and tell them what you feel, there’s an extra layer. “Are we in the same world?” 

You’ve used the word “threshold”, which is the name of my production company. My production company is named First Threshold.  

Guillén: I didn’t know that! 

Zuleta: Yes, my production company is called First Threshold precisely because it’s that crossing, that moment when you go and you’re living within, you’re living in all spaces, that in many ways is that moment of transition. But I love what you’re saying. That bar scene, for example, is very universal.  

Guillén: This is where I have to tip my hat to Matthew’s performance because what launches the emotional truth of those scenes is that moment—the beats you give him—to be incredulous. Like when the guy turns to him and says, “Would you like to dance with me?” The look on Matthew’s face of incredulity makes you feel, “No, this is impossible. It can’t be happening.” Then you see it happening and then it devolves into the repetition that tells you, “Oh, this is oneiric. This is something surreal. Irreal.” I have to commend your directorial timing and Matthew’s chops in following your lead. 

Also, the sequence of being pulled over by the police, hearing the voice of the cop and his bizarre instructions, was likewise delightful because—not only was it a gay fantasy—it was a sci-fi fantasy. Which poses the question: can you speak to why you used the sci-fi genre as a metaphor to orient your message? 

Zuleta: I’m that fond of the genre. I love science fiction and what it represents in culture. I love these movies. If you watch Guillermo del Toro telling a story about an alien that’s with a deaf woman in the 1950s and you buy it, you cry in the theater. Science fiction is one of those genres that is, in many ways, like subcultures, like the many ways that people think about Marvel movies. It crosses boundaries. It crosses belief systems. You can talk about politics. In 1984, Orwell wrote a novel about the oppressive politics of a totalitarian regime. That’s why period piece movies exist. They give you permission to talk about today without talking about today in your face. I’m a fan of science fiction. I love science fiction. 

People ask me if Unidentified Objects is a commercial movie? Is it a personal movie? The point is that we made the movie that we wanted to make. We just made something that we would want to see and feel and hear. I love Isaac Asimov movies and his arguments about artificial intelligence, talking about identity, which is interesting because you can create huge metaphors about humanity, about identity, about belonging, about asking, “Am I real?” In that scene with the cop, we took science fiction and pushed it through surreal storytelling, and through fantasy. It’s a merger of genres. People also call Unidentified Objects a dark comedy, because it is funny, even though it’s a tragic story. 

It’s funny that you mention that scene with the cop because it shows that I am a collaborator. Originally, in the first draft of the script, we didn’t want the character Peter (i.e., the actor Matthew) to be naked. Matthew and I had a deep conversation about that, about what that scene meant. In that scene the cop commands Peter and questions his humanity, right? That’s the purpose of that scene being there—"Are you human? Are you an unidentified object?”—that’s the premise. You can feel all that there. 

In cinema, when you see male genitals it’s considered not necessary because society hasn’t caught up yet. Matthew was the one who told me, “I have to be naked. I need to be how I came into the world. I think that’s how Peter feels in that moment and we need to be true to the character and true to the story.” I agreed with him, but I said, “Listen, it’s your decision. I’m not going to ask you on a low-budget movie to be naked on screen; but, we are taking this very seriously and I agree with you. He has to be naked. It’s going to make a difference if we want to make the impact that we want to make.” So, yes, to our audience, to your readers, whoever listens to this or reads this, we do have a scene of a little person where he is completely naked and he’s been stripped down by a cop who is questioning his humanity. In many ways, that’s the premise of that scene. So, yes, we have to take it to that surreal level where the audience crosses a threshold.  

Guillén: Further, this is a nuanced version of the sci-fi genre because what you are talking about—especially with regard to identity politics—is a near-future. This is something that we’re in, but also nearing. We have transgender issues, Latino issues, all sorts of minority issues of people coming into their own, gaining agency, but still chafing against law enforcement or cultural enforcement that are not yet fully recognizing them, that are seeing them—as you suggest—as unidentified objects. I don’t know if you intended to do that, but I have to commend you for utilizing this subtle sci-fi approach to visualize and politicize a near future. 

Zuleta: The answer is yes. These are the themes of science fiction when you are talking about the near-future of politics and the norms of society. Yes, that’s what science fiction does and is always commenting upon. In many ways, as I was saying before, we use genres and combine genres so that we can comment upon these themes. 

Returning to the subject of exposing male genitals, you do have to think from a storytelling perspective, especially as a director, if it works. If it works, if it’s necessary, that’s where you have to judge. Is it something that you’re doing for an emotional impact? You have to think about why you’re doing it. Our conclusions were that it was something we needed to talk about. In many ways, the script was re-written when Matthew came on board as an actor because it was a little person movie as well. He was giving us permission to tell his story and the experience of a little person in the world. So I had to take that into consideration. It wasn’t just me being a director. It was me taking into consideration the characters and the subject matter and really understanding from his perspective, which I had never really seen before, even though Lee and I had conceived of it from the beginning as being a little person’s story. But there are many layers. What is the liminal experience of a little person in the world?  

Guillén: They’re asking us to wrap up here so my final question might be about what you discovered about your movie while editing it? 

Zuleta: Two things about the editing of the movie. That’s a big big big deal. The biggest thing with a movie like this is that we rewrote some things in the editing room. The biggest thing that changed was that initially we edited the movie in a linear storytelling way. We built the movie with our composer, Sebastian Zuleta, my brother. From the moment we started filming, we knew we were going to do it with that soundscape, which was analog scenes. We started creating some of those sounds from production. From the moment we were filming, we wanted to know how it felt, how it played, everything. That scape, we used some of that and then it got replaced with original comps. That was a big tool. 

The thing I realized after editing for 16 weeks and when I was close to locking the picture, someone handed me a piece of paper and they told me, “You have to really lean over more into the dream quality of the film and you have to explore non-linear storytelling.” It was really hard to make this decision as a director of a low budget movie because we didn’t have the resources, but I said I’m never going to lock this picture until I truly explore that note because that note touched me. It meant something. So what my friend the French editor Raphael Lubczanski and I did was we went back and revised some of the driving scenes with the music and took down dialogue from other scenes where we had too much dialogue and we explored a version of Unidentified Objects that was non-linear. 

The movie did inhabit this weird dream state, this—as you said—liminal space but we didn’t know what it was. There were things there that were just floating and there were many reasons for that. Partly the aliens, partly the pills, all of these things coming together, but non-linear storytelling was the one variable that we hadn’t originally done. That’s how we came up with the beginning. That happened in the editing. There were other things that we found as we asked ourselves: how do we manage the expectations? How do we manage the ambiguity? How do we maintain the audience on a journey that we’re telling them we’re taking them somewhere? 

I edited the movie about 10-15% max. I didn’t change it much. I made small changes. But there was an exploration process in the editing. What I have to say about movie editing is that it is one of the most fundamental things of cinema. Writing a script, you have a blueprint, yeah, but editing is where you can truly innovate. Because we did that, that’s why Unidentified Objects feels like a bigger movie in many ways. We really spent the time. I don’t know how we found the resources. Me and Raphael just dove into everything we’ve been talking about, making sure we could make it feel the way we wanted to make it feel. That’s what the movie asked of us.  

Guillén: One little editing flourish I would like to ask after is the caterpillar crawling from underneath the alien hat. Talk to me about that. 

Zuleta: That was a happy accident. At that location there were these caterpillars on the road. I didn’t conceive that image originally. Matthew pointed it out to me. He said, “That’s Peter. He’s a worm trying to cross the road.” I was like, “You’re a genius! We’re going to shoot this right now.” And then we shot what became the opening shot of the movie at the end of the shooting schedule. I put a dead cockroach next to Peter’s crocs in the opening shot, after we shot the caterpillars. I was using bugs as a metaphor for his character who is a worm, a dead bug, who is a borderline suicide who has to decide whether he wants to die or not. There has been such a metaphorical use of cockroaches who survive the changes in society. They’re still there dwelling, surviving, going through everything, people stepping on them, right? That’s ultimately the theme of Unidentified Objects in some ways. You know where I’m going with that, right? But the caterpillar was a miracle, it was Matthew’s idea, and we thought, “We got to get it.”  

Guillén: I want to thank you, Juan Felipe. Unidentified Objects is a beautiful first feature. I’m excited for your Frameline U.S. premiere. I wish I could be there, but I actually live in Idaho and have to return home. 

Zuleta: I wish you could be there too.  

Guillén: Your passion is infectious. I know your Frameline audience is going to enjoy that so much and you’re going to enjoy interacting with them. Thank you, Juan Felipe, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. 

Zuleta: Thank you, Michael. I look forward to staying in touch.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

THE FALL OF ’55—Q&A With Seth Randal for TCC Benefit Screening

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén.
The Show On the Roof (2022), the musical adaptation of Seth Randal’s documentary The Fall of ’55 (2006), boasted its world premiere at the Boise Contemporary Theater on April 13, 2022 and ran through May 7, 2022. This anticipated, well-received adaptation afforded the welcome opportunity of a one-off revival screening of The Fall of ’55 to benefit The Community Center ("TCC") in Boise, Idaho, with director Seth Randal in attendance and yours truly to moderate a post-screening Q&A. 

Seth Randal started his audience out with a synopsis of the making of The Fall of ’55, outlining that work began on the documentary in 2000 and finished up in 2006. He worked extensively with Alan Virta, former archivist at Boise State University, conducting research in Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington D.C., among other places. They dug through historical archives to find material because there weren’t a lot of people who were willing to talk about these events. So, unfortunately, they had to fill in those blanks by finding what people were saying at the time, using archival letters, and obscure newspapers that no longer exist—things like that. Seth completed the documentary in 2006. He apologized for its being “a little grainy-looking” but he shot for five years on standard definition video (because HD was very expensive).  

The Fall of ’55 had its world premiere at Newfest in New York City, and then went to a number of other festivals around the country. In the intervening years The Fall of ’55 has been used as an educational tool by universities around the world, including the University of Tokyo, Duke, Northwestern, the list is long. 

Seth grew up in Nampa, Idaho and learned about Boise’s homosexuality scandal when he was a teenager. His cousin’s girlfriend mentioned that the scandal was so big in the ‘50s that a book had been written on the incident—John Gerassi’s The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice and Folly in an American City (1966). He went to the library and—first, looking around to make sure nobody would know which section he was in—Seth pulled the book off the shelf and tried to read it but realized it was dense reading and he wasn’t going to get through it. Instead, he researched old newspapers on microfilm and started looking at old articles. Even at the age of 17 Seth had in the back of his mind the notion that he would someday do something with his initial research into the scandal. Originally, he considered writing a play or a screenplay. 

As time went on—he was at college studying journalism—Seth came home in October 1995 for his beloved great aunt’s funeral. This proved fortuitous because he discovered in his cousin’s recycling bin an extensive front-page article, which was centerspread for the Idaho Statesman for the 40th anniversary of the Boys of Boise scandal. That article contained the story of Frank Jones and how his life had been destroyed by these events. That’s when Seth recognized the real persons’ angle of this incident. He felt for the lives and families that had been torn apart. That human angle was absent in Gerassi’s book where, instead, much detail was given to pages and pages of dry deposition hearings. But discovering the Statesman’s commemorative article on the scandal told him that there were human stories to be told. Later, continuing with his work in journalism, Seth started working on The Fall of ’55 when he was a producer at Channel 6, and finished it when he was a producer at Channel 7. Realizing that writing a play would entail extensive research about what life was like in the 1950s, Seth decided that—if he was going to undergo all that—he might as well make a documentary. That’s how it all came together on a shoestring budget. 

For several years while doing the research, he and Virta kept the project hush hush because they were aware that John Gerassi had received threats for writing The Boys of Boise. His hotel room had been invaded and his records searched through. Fortunately, he had locked his records up in a bus depot locker so they were saved; but, being aware of this incident, Seth also knew there had been a lot of resistance from the community to the 1995 article he had found in the recycling bin, which quoted real people. The Fall of ’55 shows people protesting that the subject was being dredged up again.  Randal and Virta encountered similar resistance. A lot of people wouldn’t talk, let alone on camera, so Seth had to fill in the blanks accordingly with the words of actual people in an effort to make it as true to the events as possible. 

How the Howdy Pardner looks today.  Photo: Michael Guillén
With regard to how working on this story through this film has affected him over the years, Seth admitted to an audience member that it was affecting him more now than at any other point. Partly because a musical play—The Show On the Roof—was inspired by The Fall of ’55 and recently staged their premiere at the Boise Contemporary Theater (“BCT”). The Show on the Roof took the story of the Travelsteads and their Howdy Pardner drive-in. 

Though Fall of ‘55 does incorporate archival interview footage, most of the interviews in the film Seth shot himself, which afforded him the opportunity to fully flex his compassion. Sitting directly across from Alty Travelstead when he talked about the impact this scandal had on his family made his testimonial even more moving. 

Coming from a news background, Randal was trained to keep a journalistic distance and not get too close to the subjects of his story; but June Schmidt, the lounge singer, ended up becoming a dear friend, which he wouldn’t have imagined at first. A lot of the home movie footage used in The Fall of ’55 of Boise in the 1950s, of driving down Capitol Boulevard, of San Francisco and of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, came from June. 

Seth Randal at the site of the Howdy Pardner.  Photo: Michael Guillén
The documentary has given him opportunities he might not otherwise have had to work on other projects. The Fall of ’55 is still a relatively obscure film. At the most, maybe 10-20,000 people have seen it. At the same time, it has given him a measure of credibility. 

As for the BCT production, Randal admits that it’s strange to see stories that he has been close to all his adult life—nearly 20 years—being enacted; and to see characters based on people that he knew personally in some cases. For example, The Show on the Roof finishes up with a portrait of the piano player depicting Jimmy Sayles, one of the men prosecuted in the Boys of Boise cases. Randal located and contacted Sayles in New York. Sayles’ accuser recognized him because Jimmy used to play the piano on a childrens show on Channel 7. Seth’s conversation with Sayles lasted several hours. He asked if they could fly him out to Boise to conduct an interview? Seth explained that it would allow Jimmy to see his family and was cheaper than flying himself and a photographer to New York City, plus staying in a hotel there. Sayles answered, “Well, let me think about it.” The next day Seth got a call from Sayles’ sister, angrily insisting, “Don’t you ever call my brother again! Leave him alone!” That demonstrated for Seth that these men who were involved in these cases had time to process what had happened to them, but for the families there was still a lot of residual emotion. Nonetheless, Sayles ended up coming to the world premiere in New York City and was the guest of honor at dinner afterwards. 

Seeing him brought to life as a character in The Show On the Roof, caused Seth to remember what Sayles had told he and Virta about how he forgave the people who had prosecuted him because they were “just doing their job”. To see his spirit of forgiveness and hope being brought to life in the stage play was undeniably emotional and a little surreal. For Seth, some of these people are more alive today than during the time when he was working on the cases and doing the research. Of course, the play took licenses and departed from the documentary. It was a musical with song and dance, after all, and—obviously—those songs weren’t being sung in the 1950s. There were some minor factual details that were changed, but—on the whole—Randal felt The Show On the Roof was fairly true to the people he knew. 

At this juncture Seth shifted to introducing me as the person who would be asking him a few more questions. He read my boilerplate bio: “Michael Guillén is the founding editor of The Evening Class and a former member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and a contributing journalist to several print and online venues.” But then with a glint in his eye added: “Known for his insightful questions, he has interviewed many notable directors, including Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufmann, Eli Roth, Ang Lee, and David Cronenberg. He’s also interviewed many actors, including the following Oscar® winners: Viola Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Shirley Jones, Forrest Whittaker and Marisa Tomei. As well, he’s interviewed a number of queer filmmakers, including John Waters, Peaches Christ, Jenni Olsen, Alan Cumming, Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. “In 2007 in San Francisco at Frameline, he had an opportunity to interview a young Idaho filmmaker named Seth Randal and today we’re having an opportunity to continue that conversation.”

 * * *  

Michael Guillén: This is very exciting for me as a film journalist to have the opportunity to do something like this. 15 years ago I got to talk to Seth about this film. It has had a profound influence on me in 15 years. I look at it differently now. Every time I look at this film, I look at it differently. What I want you all to acknowledge here is what Seth has done. The Fall of ’55 is a significant contribution to gay history. It’s the individual efforts that people make—as Seth has done with this story—that has contributed to our history, which is a lasting history. This document is the definitive document on the scandal of 1955 and I have to applaud him. 

 [Applause.] 

Seth Randal: Very quickly, let me give you a little bit of Michael’s background. He was born in Nampa, moved to Twin Falls as a child, and while he was young he learned about the Boys of Boise cases from Gerassi’s book. Tell me about finding the book and what that was like.  

Guillén: Well, I was an avid reader in Twin Falls. I loved the library—y’know, that fount of socialism—and I was allowed to go into the adult stacks a little bit earlier than most of the other children. I don’t remember exactly why—it might have been the amount of books I read—but, they allowed me to go into adult stacks. Like Seth, I found these areas in the library that I probably shouldn’t have been in and found The Boys of Boise. I wasn’t old enough to check it out—I was only about 10 or 11 years old—but, I read it. Or I tried to read it, I should be honest. It was very difficult for me to read. The thing that came out of reading it was the word “blackmail.” Blackmail. What does blackmail do

Another thing I must commend Seth for is his truly empathic and compassionate grasp of what this scandal did to people, to real live human people. What I also got out of reading the book is that no one was ever going to blackmail me. Right? Because I was seeing it happening to people around me in Twin Falls. You’ve got to understand that when the book came out, when I was a senior in high school in 1971, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. I had to be careful of looking sideways at anyone for fear that some adult who didn’t like me was going to yank me into his office, then send me off for electroshock therapy. That’s what I lived with. And I resented that my classmates did not have to think about this. That really bothered me. But I told myself, “You will not be blackmailed. And how can you not be blackmailed?” 

It was the gestalt of the time. In The Show On the Roof, the character of Jimmy Sales ends the musical with an upbeat number, saying, “We will survive. I will survive.” Which was the gestalt of my generation. We were just about to move into the modern gay liberation movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Idaho of The Boys of Boise. I didn’t want to have happen to me what had happened to these men. So I left Idaho. I wasn’t going to let it happen to me. I went off to San Francisco to take part. To be history. We, as a people, have had to be history. We have had to find it—as Seth did so brilliantly. 

I don’t like it when you say you “filled in the blanks”. I don’t think that’s the right way to say it or think about it. Seth took a core, factual narrative and built this gorgeous thing around it that amplifies how the scandal had affected the lives of people. This is not just filling in the blanks. This is a visionary look at the emotional effect of this scandal. So I don’t want you to say that anymore. [Laughter.] You have to give yourself credit for what you actually did. You may not have known that was what you were doing; but, that’s what you did. 

All these years later I’m struck by the fact that—in taking on this Boys of Boise project—you didn’t do what Gerassi did. You didn’t talk about “The Queen”. [Addressing the audience.] Do any of you know the background on this? Allegedly, there was a Queen from one of the major families here in Boise, and a feud with another family was what really got the whole scandal mobilized. 

Randal: Allegedly….  

Guillén: Allegedly. We always have to qualify that version. But the story was that there was a warring competition between families and one family wanted power over the other family so they were trying to get “the Queen” to discredit that family. Instead, “the Queen” was never exposed and many innocent people were hurt by the scandal that ensued. Why did you choose not to take that angle from Gerassi’s book? 

Randal: Well, first off, we were doing independent research. Sure, I had read The Boys of Boise, I had made footnotes, but we wanted to do our own original research by going back to the original court documents, by going back to any record we could find related to that time. The fact is—when you connect the dots—there is just no evidence that there was such a person. I didn’t want the film to be a response to The Boys of Boise except for this one area. There were a lot of people who felt that The Boys of Boise was a sensational version that cast Boise in an unfair light, which some people touch on in the film. 

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén
We intentionally restricted ourselves to on-the-record sources. For example, I spoke with Eugene Thomas, the Deputy Prosecutor turned Prosecutor turned President of the American B.A.R. Association at his office in the U.S. Bank Building. But he wouldn’t go on camera and so we couldn’t include any of that. I talked to a number of the men who were the young accusers at the time. I very much wanted to have their stories as part of this and it is a shortcoming of the film that it does not have their perspectives. However, none of them were willing to talk on camera. The guy whose statement had addressed Al Travelstad’s name being crossed off and bank vice-president Joe Moore’s name replacing Al’s, I met him for lunch and we had a long conversation. I asked him to do an interview and he called me the next day and said his attorney told him not to. 

Likewise, if you saw the musical you saw the story of William Baker who—during the course of this investigation—ends up shooting and killing his father, which was an event that actually happened. We found the color crime scene photos. Vivid Kodachrome that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades so they were still vivid color. It was quite unnerving. I found Baker in Texas. I wanted to include his story but, again, he wouldn’t do an interview on camera. William Baker was the one whose charge against the bank vice-president Joe Moore ended up with Moore being prosecuted. Baker told me that he didn’t even know Moore and had to have him pointed out in a line-up so he would know who he was. But guess what? They both ended up in prison at the same time: William Baker for killing his father and the bank vice-president. He said he apologized to Joe Moore while they were behind bars. That’s a detail that I would have loved to have included in the film, but again we were sticking to stories that were verifiable, that we could say, “These were the facts in the matter, these were the people who were willing to come forward and tell their stories,” and not rely on innuendo and speculation. 

With the Big Queen case? There’s just no evidence that there ever was a Big Queen. In fact, Mel Dir touches on it during his interview where he talks about how the investigators told him, “If you don’t tell us all the gay people you know, we’re going to say you’re the ringleader of this sex ring.” I think the idea of the Big Queen was rooted in this investigative tactic. “We’re going to say you’re the big guy if you don’t tell us everybody you know.” They used that to extract knowledge, to wring it out of people. I don’t believe there was a Big Queen. After years of research there’s no evidence there’s a Big Queen. I know the identity of the person that John Gerassi thought was the Big Queen. He was not the member of a prominent Idaho family and apparently didn’t have ties to Idaho.  

Guillén: [Addressing the audience.] Now see? This is why I like interviewing someone 15 years later. [Laughter.] 

Randal: Now I want to ask you another question.  

Guillén: Okay…. 

Randal: You moved from Idaho to San Francisco in 1975. You were already aware of the Boys of Boise book and that had an impact on your decision to leave the state. How was that book—and Boise—perceived by people in San Francisco and abroad?  

Guillén: Nobody knew about it. Nobody knew about this. That’s why I was so pleased when your documentary came to the Bay Area because I thought, “Oh! Finally, some attention.” 

I have to say something here that I think is important: the “Add the Words” movement inspired a very fine documentary on that civil rights movement here in Boise. That movement absolutely wowed me when I moved here: to witness a civil rights movement where the people who were on trial, in effect, couldn’t actually be there because—if they were identified—everything that you would think would happen to them could happen to them. “Add the Words” was a straight-ally-supported civil rights movement, which absolutely wowed me. I couldn’t believe it. I tried so hard to get that “Add the Words” documentary shown in the Bay Area, anywhere I could think of, and nobody wanted to watch it. The Fall of ’55 they wanted to watch because history has the entertainment value of distance. They could think, “Oh well, that happened then and it’s interesting because it happened then.” But when I said, “Wait a minute! This is a documentary that’s showing that our brethren right now are being persecuted in the state of Idaho because of laws that are draconian and you don’t want to show it?” They said, “It’s not sexy enough.” Films of interest at the time either went way back in time to reclaim history or queer civil rights movement happening in other countries. I remember being so disillusioned by this because I pulled in every favor—I have talked to so many people in the queer film community, have helped so many people—but nobody wanted to help me get the “Add the Words” documentary screened. 

So, to answer your question, in urban gay centers Idaho was perceived as a hinterland. To this day. That’s why I’m proud of you that you got your document in Frameline and it had such an effect that Frameline picked it up for distribution. That was a great thing. But I wonder—if you had decided to make The Fall of ‘55 now—would there be an interest? I don’t know for sure that there would be. 

Randal: That’s a good question. If I did it now, there would be fewer original interviews because a number of the people we interviewed for The Fall of ‘55 have since passed away. June Schmitz has passed away.  

Guillén: June was fabulous. 

Randal: She was a character. Let me tell you a quick story about the serendipity of making the film. We had been working on it for a long time. We were contacted out of the blue by a film festival in Los Angeles because my beloved, late executive producer Louise Luster had gotten the film listed in The Hollywood Reporter as a film in production. So we were randomly selected by a film festival and we were like, “Shit! We don’t even have a script. We’re still trying to throw stuff together. After five years of working on it, we need to get this wrapped up.” So I threw together a script and we sent them a cut that still had a lot of black holes in it. I wrote the script based on the information we had from the people who were willing to talk; but, there were a lot of spots where there wasn’t any footage or photos to cover it up. I said, “June, do you have any home movies or photos?” “Home movies?!” she responded, “I’ve got fifty cans of home movies!” So we sat in her basement looking through her silent home movies. Some of them we added sound effects to: driving sounds, or sounds in the grocery store, or—early in the film where June is playing the music in the Club Le Bois—our composer Randy Coryell looked at what the musicians were doing and tried to make something to riff around that. I had written scenes like “June was a lounge singer”, “Fairyland Parade” (since re-named the Holiday Parade), “San Francisco scenes.” So we sat in her basement looking through her color home movies. She carried a camera around her neck the whole time. 

That is the actual 1955 Fairyland Parade that she is talking about where she got the hint that her people were going to be busted. The scene where she’s playing in the Club Les Bois, those are the people she’s talking about. There’s a shot of her husband in front of the door of the Club Les Bois at the Fairyland Parade. June then referred me to a photographer in Boise who had a lot of the black-and-white photos . So we got a bunch of material there. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by the Idaho Historical Society. They knew me. I had been going down to the Historical Society offices for four years digging through every random box I could find, trying to find something, some detail or some morsel we could put in the film. They called me out of the blue and said, “The guys who run the Egyptian Theater found this old black-and-white Chamber of Commerce film that we think might be of interest to you.” I’m like, “Yes, I would love to see it.” So they got it transferred and I started looking at it. There are our shots of downtown Boise and the Capitol Building, film shots of Boise High that we needed, and there’s a shot of the city council member whose son was arrested in the prosecution and the chamber door closing. It felt like we had sent a crew back in time to 1955 because—when I looked at one of the calendars on the wall—that black and white footage was shot in October 1955, the same month the scandal started. It was just unbelievably serendipitous how things came together with this.  

Michael Guillén & Seth Randal.  Photo: Michael Hawley.
Guillén: Serendipitous, yes, but again indicative of the spirit of the time because what we were being asked to do as gay-identified young men—you in your time and me in mine—was to concentrate on history, to find our history, because we had been denied history. It had been covered up. In the ‘70s particularly, we were asked to uncover it, to recover it. We were asked to find it in the margins and in footnotes. We were asked to be history, to create history, to become history. That was the challenge that I remember specifically. I believe your serendipity was very much meant to happen. 

Randal: It felt that way.  

Guillén: The timing of it is really quite unbelievable. I want to ask you another question. I’ve watched The Fall of ‘55 probably about 20 times. Every time I watch it, something different comes up. Like this viewing, that shot of June’s husband standing in front of the Club Les Bois, I never noticed that before. It’s actually a shot of where she went in to use the phone to warn her friends. So there’s always something and [addressing the audience] I recommend you watch this documentary many times because you’ll keep learning something new. 

Randal: We tried to layer it with a lot of information that would reward people who watch it repeatedly so they catch things that maybe were missed the first time.  

Guillén: It’s customary to have talking heads in a documentary. In more recent viewings, the two talking heads that have impacted me most are Jeanette Ross, but also Peter Boag. I’ve been researching Peter’s work lately. Peter has done a lot of work uncovering crossdressing in the Pacific Northwest. He won awards for a volume he published on that subject. It fascinates me—and I don’t know if you know this or not—but, there is a huge crossdressing scene here in Boise. Why? What is this? 

For me, crossdressing is not drag. I have to make a distinction here. Drag is a gay perspective, a gay phenomenon, usually community-building, usually fund-raising, usually comic, whereas crossdressing is something else. Crossdressing is a straight phenomenon. It’s a power play. And I have a lot of issues with it. That’s why I was glad while rewatching The Fall of ‘55 that I turned onto Peter’s work again because I think he might help me ratchet down my animosity a little bit? To understand that there actually is a lineage of crossdressing, in which Boise plays a large part. So my question is: how did you get in touch with Peter and why did you pull him in? I know that he was asked to do a foreword for a reprint of The Boys of Boise, was that the main reason you pulled him in? 

Randal: That was one of the main reasons but, also, Peter Boag had been in the news prior to being a part of this film. He had been working at Idaho State University and—I don’t remember all the details because it’s been 15+ years—but he was supposed to be getting funding for a project involving gay research, or writing a book or something like that, and there was a big ruckus over money being spent on something like that. He was already known as a historian, but then when he was asked to write the foreword to The Boys of Boise, I felt he would be a good person to help put the book in the proper historical context because he was already being tasked with that for the reprint.  

Guillén: And then Jeanette Ross likewise caught my recent attention. Here, I have to once again praise Seth’s capacity for compassion. It exceeds my own. I don’t think I have the depth of compassion he feels for the shame these families suffered from the scandal. I posed to Seth way back 15 years ago that I considered these young male accusers to be like the young accusers in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. These were young people accusing adults of crimes that ruined the lives of those adults. I don’t think of them as innocent at all. I was sexual at 12 so I know the reality of that. I feel sorry for all the teachers I seduced as I was growing up! [Laughter.] I look back now and think, “That was terrible what you did! The jeopardy that you put them into.” 

Randal: And I don’t endorse that. [Laughter.]  

Guillén: I remember when we first discussed this that I called these young male accusers “trade.” [Addressing the audience] I’m presuming you are all familiar with the term “trade”? Well, back then you countered that; you didn’t agree that these young men were trade. You felt they were good kids who were poor and just needed money and this was what they did to get it. Can you expand on that because I still don’t quite agree with you. 

Randal: In some cases they were poor kids who were trying to get money to fix up their car or do whatever they wanted to do with the money. In some cases, the accusers were legitimately young gay kids who were fooling around. Or in the cases of Eldon Halverson and Lloyd Thompson—who were accusers in numerous cases—were young men both of age. Nobody truly knows what’s in anybody’s heart; but, I do believe that in most cases the accusers were not willing accusers, especially starting in the very beginning with Emory Bess. He was a juvenile probation officer. He wanted to know, for example, how William Baker had money to be fixing up his car? Bess would be talking to these kids and eventually they would reveal details. Even in the case of Eldon Halverson (who’s featured in the musical briefly), I don’t think he necessarily wanted to be in the role of being the accuser in three or four cases. What it feels more like was—because he was 20-21 in some of the cases, as opposed to 25—they pressured him to be in the role of being the accuser so that he himself would not end up being prosecuted.  

Guillén: I was struck in the documentary of the threats made to juvenile probation officer Emory Bess and his family, which you wouldn’t have thought would happen. Who was threatening him? 

Randal: That’s a great question. His son did not have an answer of who was threatening Emory Bess.  

Guillén: Only that they were driving fancy cars? 

Randal: He stepped on a lot of toes in announcing this investigation, because he basically went over his superiors’ heads to announce this sex ring. So it could have quite possibly been someone in law enforcement or somebody else that he pissed off, some community member who felt threatened. I don’t know that for sure, which is unfortunately why we had to keep it vague. We know that it happened, but we don’t know who or why.  

Guillén: And it is interesting that his son, Ron Bess, elicited some discomfort in our audience. I was monitoring the reception here where it felt like the audience was reacting “how can you say that?” when Ron insinuated that homosexuality was immoral. 

Randal: Because we had limited witnesses who were there at the time, I wanted to make sure that the people we interviewed were given a fair seat at the table to share their perspective. There were some times when interviewing certain people, or when transcribing their interviews, or cutting their interviews and watching clips again and again, where it would make my skin crawl a little bit because they were espousing an opinion that I didn’t agree with. However, the fact that I didn’t agree with the opinion didn’t mean that it was something that shouldn’t be stated. In some cases, it was the prevailing opinions at that time so I had to put the journalist hat back on and be like, “Alright, I’m going to treat this person as fairly as I can, even though I might not agree with what they’re espousing.”  

Guillén: I recently interviewed the composer and the author of The Show On the Roof, the musical adaptation of The Fall of ’55 and the writer Tom Ford mentioned to me that the interruption of the COVID pandemic has psychologically fractured us so that our understanding of any reality is now fractured. Particularly with this story, this narrative, there’s no way that we can have a “truth” about it; there will always be multiple truths. The play was structured that way to allow the audience to have two or three different takes on each scene so that you, as the audience member, could ask yourself: “Was the homosexual the creepy guy? Was the young person the creepy guy? Was nobody the creepy guy? Was the situation the creepy guy?” I think that’s a healthy response. 

With regard to Emory Bess, I feel for him because I have concerns about this now. I have concerns now that young gay people are under threat by forces here in Boise. It bothers me very much because nobody talks about it. 

You asked me how The Boys of Boise had affected me in leaving Idaho and what it was like going to California—what that meant for me was that I was given an opportunity to say, “Who am I?” I didn’t think of myself as “gay”; that was a label I chose later. I don’t say I’m gay anymore because the label “gay” isn’t what it was in the 1970s. When you were gay in the 1970s, it was a political act. We were coming out against Anita Bryant. We were coming out against the Briggs Initiative. We were “coming out” as a political act. Then sometime in the ‘90s the term “gay” got appropriated and turned into a lifestyle choice, which really upset me. I don’t care if my curtains match my carpet! [Laughter.] Well, I do! [More laughter.] But it bothered me. So I don’t like to say that I’m gay anymore. People I have met here in Boise’s multi-faceted “scene” will say, “Well, you’re gay, right?” and I go, “Well, I used to be.” Then they ask, “What do you mean by that?” And I will explain to them. Because some of these guys are very concerned about the labels. They’ll assert, “Well, you know that I’m straight, right?” I respond, “I’ll accept who you say you are. But I don’t think the labels work anymore.” 

But what especially doesn’t work for me is when a “straight” man takes a young “gay” man and convinces him that he must be a woman in order to earn love. In my youth, I was given a choice. If that’s what a young gay in Boise wants to do, fine; but, I sometimes feel that he isn’t really being given a choice. 

Randal: That’s the premise of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  

Guillén: Exactly. 

Randal: Which you interviewed the director of that film as well.  

Guillén: John Cameron Mitchell, that’s right. 

Why The Fall of ’55 is a serious document is because you see how a scandal is manufactured. Bess’ impulse to correct something that he thought was going on with young people is valid, and that’s why I can accept the attitude that’s represented there because I actually have that attitude right now. 

Randal: Bess’ error, I think, was in announcing that there was a sex ring of 100 boys, which automatically got the fires burning and people were instantaneously in a panic over these allegations. Boise’s population at the time was 35,000 people so—by the time you look at the number of teenage boys who would have been in that age range—you’re getting into a lot of them. So it was enormously scandalous.  

Guillén: And the irony is in retrospect there’s a kind of joke. The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that just won’t shut up. [Laughter.] 

The concern that we as queer people need to concentrate on is: are the victories and the rights we have obtained being appropriated? I call it gay tokenism. We just had Treefort, where there was Dragfort, which I think is a great, progressive development. However, I fear that it’s being used as a smokescreen to guise something else that’s going on here in Boise. This is just my personal opinion, okay? But when I watch Ron Bess expressing his concern for the young people in Boise in 1955, I have a lot of concern for young people in Boise now. 15 years ago when I first interviewed you, I asked you if this could happen again. You answered, “No, I don’t’ think so because Americans are becoming educated and smart and their critical thinking has developed….” 

Randal: I think that’s paraphrasing. [Laughter.]  

Guillén: But now, 15 years later, I have to ask you the same question. Have Americans become smarter? Are we becoming more tolerant? 

Randal: Y’know, honestly Michael, I have to say I’m as concerned as I’ve ever been. There’s been a lot of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction with the “don’t say gay” business in Florida and all the trans issues. There’s a lot of threats of prosecution against parents. There’s a lot more push back and it’s gotten stronger and more vocal than maybe I had anticipated when I gave you that answer originally.  

Guillén: We were more hopeful then. 

Randal: Yeah, we were more hopeful that the progress would stick, that it wouldn’t be a constant back and forth of people pushing for their rights and people who oppose them pushing back; but, it’s kind of been a tug of war, which is sad to see. I’m less optimistic than I was 15 years ago about what’s going to happen in the future, which honestly—not to toot my own horn—but that makes the film all the more important because we have to understand what could happen, what did happen, and stand up to prevent that. The lessons of Boise in 1955 and how the scandal tore apart so many lives, how the satellites were shaped and informed and how their lives were impacted as a result of this, if we don’t stand up it just makes it all the more possible.  

Guillén: We have to look at the scandal with a clear-minded sense of what righteous nostalgia is. I feel we have an effort going on right now trying to pull us back into the mindset of this time period. So we have to look at this time period and seriously examine the righteousness. Righteousness can be okay. It can be okay to be righteous about something, this is how causes are won and minorities are emancipated; however, the kind of nostalgic righteousness that tries to pull us back into a time that was before and heralds it as some kind of idealized time is very pernicious and dangerous. I attended the rally downtown today protesting the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. It shocks me that we have to keep fighting for the rights of women to have authority over their own bodies. I realize that within my lifetime—I’m hitting 70 pretty soon—I’m never going to see this conflict in any way finalized. All that we have is the struggle. All that we have is the constant fight. I’m actually a little bit more optimistic than you and a little more clear-eyed than I used to be. Nothing is in granite and you can’t step into the same river twice. We just keep trying. The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote that for us there is only the trying and the rest is not our business. 

Randal: Now I want to ask you a question that’s kind of a tangent. You’ve spoken about something that happened in the Castro district of San Francisco, which is the gay neighborhood, starting in the late ‘60s into the ‘70s when you moved there that you call the “fluorescence”. Can you explain what that is? And the role that Idaho refugees played in the transformation of San Francisco?  

Guillén: Thank you for asking! [Addressing the audience] This is so important for you guys to know. Along with Seth’s amazing contribution to gay history through this document, most people here in Boise do not understand that what happened in San Francisco in the 1970s was a political strategy. We all said to ourselves, “I’m not going to be blackmailed.” So we moved somewhere where we wouldn’t be blackmailed. We said, “We’re going to have our own restaurants where we can go with our boyfriends and sit there and have dinner and look over and see other boys with their boyfriends (or girls with their girlfriends) and it’s not going to be a problem. We can have our own banks, our own hardware stores.” 

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén
This was the beginning of community centers, which were based on the idea of being able to gather somewhere as brethren and become ourselves. In San Francisco, this was largely effected through a pot roast recipe that was brought from Twin Falls, Idaho by a man named Scotty Williams who worked in all the first gay restaurants in San Francisco: Fannys, Burtons, Ivys, the Café Flore. These were the original gathering places for gay people during the Castro Florescence. I call it a “florescence” because for me it was a shining thing when light was starting to come out of us. Visibility was the theme. “We’re not hiding anymore and look at us. We’re beautiful.” That’s what it was. These restaurants—Fannys, Burtons, Ivys, The Café Flore—were all kickstarted by a group of gay men from Twin Falls, Idaho. This is gay history that nobody knows about. I keep telling people about this because—this is the weird thing—Idaho kind of doesn’t want homosexuality, yet it has everything to do with homosexuality. [Laughter.] It’s been going on like this for a long time. 

That’s why Peter Boag’s work is so interesting to me right now because this has been a tension—I call it a “hinged” tension (like a swinging door)—that’s been going on here in the Pacific Northwest, but specifically in Idaho, for hundreds of years. Alan Virta, who is just a remarkable individual—Seth introduced me to him—was the historical consultant for The Fall of ’55. He’s done a wonderful analysis and purview of gay history in Idaho. 

Randal: It’s very important work that he’s done going back to the 1800s.  

Guillén: Going back to the Native Americans, to the First People! This is a lineage, this is a tradition, which we should take pride in. There should be no shame here. This is why I keep going on about my concern over young gay men being ashamed of who they are and succumbing to requests to be something other than who they are; it bothers me deeply. My generation worked so hard to not be ashamed, to be proud, and I’m seeing it being dismantled in the Treasure Valley through a kind of righteous nostalgia. 

Randal: Ozzie and Harriet.  

Guillén: Ozzie and Harriet. I mean, who lived those lives really? We know now that even they weren’t living those lives. 

Randal: Do you have any other questions for me?  

Seth Randal & Louise Luster (n.d.).  Photo: Unknown.
Guillén: I want to talk a little bit about Louise. I didn’t really ask you much about Louise Luster 15 years ago and her production of the film and what you two were doing. There’s that wonderful photo of the two of you where your hair is down to here. I just love that photo. Talk about archival footage!! [Laughter.] Can you talk more about how you got involved with Louise and why she was willing to help you with this document? 

Randal: Louise Luster, who was the executive producer of this film, was one of two or three people without whom this film could not have been made. It was probably in early 2001 when I was living with my boyfriend and we had money in the bank. He had written a horror movie script and I said, “I’m going to buy us some cameras and we’ll make this horror movie script and turn it into a low budget horror.” We were looking for actors, doing a casting, and we went to this theater company Prairie Dog Productions—which no longer exists but they had office space on Cassia—and they allowed me to crash one of their castings so that I could announce that we were casting for our horror film. 

Louise was one of the people who showed up for this low budget horror. We did an audition with her and—when I looked at her resume—I saw that she had been the executive assistant to the vice-president of a railroad and she had been an Ada County planning commissioner and I thought she had the kind of experience that could benefit us above the line, so to speak. She agreed to be the production manager on this horror film because she had this great experience. I knew that—because she had worked with the vice-president of a railroad—she would be fearless in dealing with people in power and authority. To be in a position like that, I knew she had to be organized and on top of things. Long story short, the low budget horror film didn’t get completed. My boyfriend and I broke up. I later re-approached Louise and asked if she would be willing to help with this film. I showed her some of the material that had already been shot and told her what it was about. We met originally because she wanted to be an actress but she had gotten excited about the film industry so that on her own she was wanting to do production management on local film projects. I brought her on board as a producer. Louise—who passed away a year and a half ago—was married with children who were very young at the time. At the end of the day, I don’t know why she said yes.  

Guillén: I think I know. 

Randal: I think it was because she believed in me.  

Guillén: Yeah. 

Randal: She believed in me before almost anybody else did and she’ll always have a place in my heart. It wouldn’t have been possible to make the film without her. We wouldn’t have gotten the recognition and gotten into festivals without her. She would travel to the American Film Market in Santa Monica. She got us into The Hollywood Reporter. She became fully invested in wanting to run her own production business to help other Idaho producers to get their projects off the ground. She left behind a lot of unproduced Idaho-made scripts, so—if you know any producers—I have a stack of potential scripts and projects. She invested so much time and effort that we gave her the title of Executive Producer because she earned it. Normally, an Executive Producer would be somebody who threw a lot of money at a project to bankroll stuff. She did it, not directly to the film, but through traveling and through her time. She and I would talk at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning sometimes, going over ideas. I’d bounce stuff off of her. 

September will be two years ago when she and her husband retired to Ecuador. A year and a half ago in September I said good-bye to Louise. She left to Ecuador. I looked at her and I thought, “She doesn’t have the same vibrancy, the same fire, that she did when we were working together.” I was concerned that it would be the last time I ever saw her. In April of last year she went to the doctor after several visits. They couldn’t figure out why she was so low energy and why she was having trouble remembering things. That day they did—I don’t know if it was an x-ray or a ct scan or what—but they discovered that her chest, her pelvis and her liver all had little puffs on them, nodes of cancer, and she died that night in a hospital in Ecuador. 

Guillén: I’m sorry to bring up that sad memory for you…. 

Randal: No, no, I wouldn’t be sitting here and talking with you if it weren’t for Louise because this film probably never would have been done. Because Alan and I were doing the research, but ultimately I was shooting the video and paying for the trips to do some of the research. There was a time period when a lot of people didn’t even know this was in the works. There were times where I could have just given up and said, “Fuck it. I’ve already invested $15,000 into this. I don’t have any more. I could have bought a boat. My retirement plan would be in much better shape.” But, the more people became involved and the more we let others know we were working on it to try to get more stories and to try to find support, Louise had helped to organize house parties. She would go door to door to businesses looking for fundraisers for silent auctions., things like that. It wouldn’t have been completed without her and I wouldn’t have the documentary filmmaker. title if it were not for her support and her believing in me.  

Guillén: As we conclude here, I think it’s clear to us all why she believed in you. As a film critic, I have to say once again this is a remarkable document and it’s going to last for a long time. It may be the one thing you really do. Hopefully not; but, even if it is, you have made a major contribution. I’m grateful for it. I’m sure your audience is grateful for it. Thank you so much.  

The Fall of ’55 is available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime and on Kanopy.