Monday, June 30, 2008

THE LAST MISTRESS—The Greencine Interview With Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat's Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress, 2007) opened the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival after garnering many favorable reviews on its festival trajectory and Breillat was on hand to demonstrate her mesmerizing blend of premature frailty and fierce self-bemusement. Having already reported on that opening night festival appearance, I now follow through with my interview with Catherine Breillat published at Greencine, where Dave Hudson has expertly gathered up the most recent reviews in the wake of the film's theatrical release.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

THE BAND'S VISIT—The movieScope Interview With Eran Kolirin

It's with great pleasure that I announce that my editor at movieScope, Eric Lilleør, has finally acquiesced to my suggestion that movieScope offer feature content online. This is especially good news in light of the fact that movieScope—which has been in existence for a little over a year—has yet to score a North American market and is unavailable for purchase Stateside, other than through online ordering. By offering online content, I feel we become competitive with existing cinema sources like Film Comment and Cinema Scope. That Eric has agreed to profile some of my own writing makes these interviews now available to my Evening Class readership.

For starters, here is my conversation with Eran Kolirin whose debut feature The Band's Visit has charmed audiences worldwide. Originally published in movieScope Vol. 2, Issue 1.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

YBCA—Calendar Changes

I'm fond of saying that the flesh is willing but the calendar is weak. In some instances, the calendar is out of control. And in yet other instances, the calendar is simply beyond anyone's control. Joel Shepard has had some misgivings about announcing YBCA's line-up for the upcoming season when we spoke back in mid-April. "Things change too much in the film world," he recently explained in email. "It's a constant dilemma in an institution like this. It's traditional for performing arts to plan well over a year in advance, and announce their 'season.' But film doesn't work this way (and it would be bad if it did), so I'm always trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole."

Most immediately, there's been a shipping problem with the short films in the Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Objects program originally scheduled for tomorrow evening and Sunday afternoon and the films won't arrive until next week. Joel has decided to screen Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century instead, and is offering the screenings for free as compensation (Thursday, June 26, 7:30PM; Sunday, June 29, 2:00PM). That's an extremely generous offer for something over which he had no control and—for anyone who has not caught Syndromes and a Century—this is a great opportunity. The Mysterious Objects program has been rescheduled for Thursday, July 3, 7:30PM and Sunday, July 6, 2:00PM.

Further, as Joel began working away on his Jia Zhang-ke retrospective, he learned that the Pacific Film Archive had already booked a complete retrospective in October/November. So, as it stands now, YBCA is letting go of that program. It would be great if Susan Oxtoby and PFA would consider sharing the retrospective on this side of the bay simultaneously with YBCA—that way both Berkeley and SF audiences would get a chance to see the work—but, that's totally PFA's call. Again, if any developments occur in that area, we'll be sure to post.

Finally, Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing has had to delay his YBCA residency until February 2009. He just received production funding to make a short. One always has to acknowledge the inherent wisdom of delay and remember that all good things come to those who wait.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

TCM: UNDER THE INFLUENCEThe Evening Class Interview With Elvis Mitchell

Movies often have a profound influence on people's lives, and nobody knows that more than one of Hollywood's top film critics / interviewers: Elvis Mitchell, who brings his special brand of in-depth and deeply personal interview style to Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") with the new original series TCM Presents Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence. In each half-hour episode of this series, Mitchell invites special celebrity guests to sit down and talk about how classic film has influenced their lives.

Elvis Mitchell currently serves as host of
The Treatment for National Public Radio's flagship Los Angeles affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM, which has been broadcast nationally since 1996. He is also entertainment critic for NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, a position he has held since that show's debut in 1985, and hosts Independent Focus for the Independent Film Channel.

Mitchell was film critic for the New York Times for four years, beginning in January 2000, where he wrote numerous
reviews and articles. Prior to that, he served as film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for two years, where he won the 1999 American Association of Sunday and Feature Editor's Excellence in Feature Writing Award for criticism. Other positions as film critic include the Detroit Free Press, LA Weekly and California magazine. He has also served as editor-at-large for Spin magazine and has written for Interview, Esquire and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In 1993, he was nominated for a Writer's Guild of America Award for his contributions to The AFI Achievement Award Tribute to Sidney Poitier.

A graduate of Wayne State University with a degree in English literature, Mitchell is a visiting lecturer on African and African-American studies and visual and environmental studies at Harvard University. In October 2002, at the invitation of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, he gave Alain Leroy Locke lectures for the African-American studies department at Harvard University.

My thanks to Sarah Schmitz at TCM for inviting me to speak with Elvis Mitchell.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Elvis, how fun to interview the Interview Meister!!

Elvis Mitchell: [Chuckles.]

Guillén: I'm hoping today to talk specifically, of course, about your upcoming TCM series Under the Influence; but, to also speak more generally about the art and technique of interviewing. I figure while I have your attention, I'll try to pick up a few tips?

Mitchell: Okay.

Guillén: The upcoming series first. David Mills—when he interviewed you for Undercover Blackman [parts one and two]—made a point of stating that you have had "a lot of cool jobs." This gig with TCM is no less cool than any other. At a time when so many film reviewers are anxious about keeping their jobs, it's nice to know someone juggles opportunities with maverick flair, creating sustained employment in film commentary. Can you talk about how this TCM series came into being? Did you pitch the idea at TCM or did the indefatigable Charlie Tabesh approach you?

Mitchell: Exactly, it was pitched to me. I had met the TCM folk at Telluride a couple of years ago. They had been fans of my public radio show The Treatment and said that they wanted to try to find a place for me at TCM. It ended up working out.

Guillén: Excellent. The TCM series Under the Influence launches on Monday, July 7, with your interview with Sidney Pollack, which bears the sad distinction of being—if I understand correctly—the last interview he granted before his recent death? Was this your first time to interview Sidney? I couldn't find any record of your having talked to him before.

Mitchell: No, I had not interviewed him before so it was my first time. One of the reasons I wanted him for this show was because of his great connection to TCM. He had been the original host of The Essentials. I liked his compact, passionate film history from a man who made movies. He didn't give esoteric recommendations on what a movie was, what it should be or what it should do. He was just a man who made movies and was excited by the idea of movies and I thought he would be a great interview subject for this series.

Guillén: Do you have any feelings now that the interview's been done and Sidney has passed?

Mitchell: It's just heartbreaking. He was so full of energy and charisma. When you watch him, you think, "Wow. Why wasn't this guy a movie star?" I think part of that was because he came to understand himself by making movies. He developed a confidence as a person that he might not have had as a young amateur. That's why he became such a success later in his life because he's just brimming with enthusiasm and affection for the work, and for actors. That's what made him such a great actor too, was his love of actors.

Guillén: Clearly most people recognize him as a director, but I really loved Sidney Pollack as an actor. That's where he first impressed upon my consciousness, even before I learned about what he had done as a director.

Mitchell: What did you see him in that really impressed you?

Guillén: I first really noticed him in Tootsie (1982). He was outstanding in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992) and, recently, I really appreciated his work in Michael Clayton (2007). He always struck me as so natural as an actor. His directing seemed almost incidental.

Mitchell: I'm not sure many people would agree with you on that.

Guillén: I'm being flip. His directing was unquestionably masterful. The series then continues in July with conversations with Bill Murray (July 14); Laurence Fishburne (July 21); and Quentin Tarantino (July 28) and returns in November with Joan Allen, Edward Norton, John Leguizamo and Richard Gere as your scheduled guests. I know you've talked to Tarantino before on your KCRW program The Treatment; but, have you spoken with any of these other guests? What interested you to invite them?

Mitchell: I interviewed Fishburne on my radio show before too. And I interviewed Bill Murray for a show I did that ran on IFC a few years ago. For me the key to the show having any success would be to get people who knew and loved movies and could talk about them in an informed way. So many people can only offer a bland enthusiasm about film; but, I wanted to get people who had a point of view about movies as history and cultural influences upon them as performers. These are all people who seem more than capable with doing that.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Having interviewed Laurence Fishburne previously, as you said, as well as Bill Murray, and Quentin Tarantino—and being that I am someone who has only been interviewing folks for a few years and am only now starting to cycle back towards follow-up interviews—can you speak to the value of the follow-up interview?

Mitchell: Well, when an interview goes really well, you can feel there's so much stuff you wanted to talk about that you weren't able to get to. It's always a matter of schedules too. As we [were scheduling our guests], the writers' strike was going on. We had to get people's schedules to coordinate while we were filming the shows. But when an interview goes really well, you find you want a chance to encounter that person again and continue that conversation. I was happy for the opportunity to do this on camera with Tarantino, with Fishburne, and with Bill Murray again.

Guillén: Speaking of on camera, in terms of interview technique, how does conversing in front of the camera differ from doing a spot on the radio or writing a piece for a newspaper or magazine? Does your approach to the individuals differ in any substantial way?

Mitchell: You have to shave and comb your hair, that's a big part of being in front of the camera. Or—in my case—not comb your hair, as the case may be. [Laughs.] For me, it's still the same thing. I want these "interviews" to feel as much like conversations as possible. I want them to feel informal. That's really what these are all about. I want to do what Dick Cavett used to do where—after a while—everybody's guard was dropped and people weren't just paying attention to what they were saying, but they were listening to the question. You've done enough of these to know that at a certain point you're going to get canned responses. You want to try to get past that. One of the luxuries I have with people I've talked with before—like Murray, Fishburne or Tarantino—is that we're already in relationship and don't have to break the ice. We're at a comfort level that helps us get into things. These are people who come to play, they're conversationalists, and they're fascinating to listen to. They're the kind of people who—in an ideal world—you want to see being interviewed on television and we're lucky. I think, too, that people do love TCM and it may surprise people what a fan and aficionado of movies Bill Murray is.

Guillén: I absolutely agree about TCM; it's a spectacular forum for film. I like how you describe your time with your guests as "conversations" rather than "interviews"; that's how I think of them lately myself. At what point does interviewing others become—not what you do—but who you are?

Mitchell: How do you mean?

Guillén: You've qualified in the press notes that you're wanting to talk to people when they're not promoting a film. You've sidestepped the commerce of the press junket and the demands of publicity to focus instead on in-depth topics of your own choosing. I never had any true intention to write about film or to interview film personalities; but, it just became my life. It just became who I am. I wake up in the morning and I think, "Who do I want to talk to today?" Was there a time for you in your own experience where talking to people about film became not so much a job but more just something you enjoyed experiencing?

Mitchell: I've looked at my entire career as being things I've enjoyed doing that I've been fortunate enough to make a living at, y'know? We both probably recognize that—in the world at large—what a rarity it is to get to do something you want to do and love to do for a living. I think of myself as being extremely fortunate to have that.

Guillén: Your career is an inspirational model for others! It's been filled with opportunity and rich changes. I admire your life very much.

Mitchell: Thank you.

Guillén: The thematic thrust of the series—if I'm understanding it right—is that you want to explore the influence classic movies have had on film personalities. The term "under the influence" is quintessentially Dionysian to me; it implies a certain intoxication, if not a downright substance abuse problem. [Mitchell laughs.] Can you speak to the value of movies as intoxicants and stimulants? What precisely is addictive about movies?

Mitchell: There's definitely a chemical reaction. Your body chemistry changes when you're in a dark room and lights are flickering around you. It's like we're hypnotized, if we're lucky. Sometimes we're compulsive enough that we don't want to get out of the way to go get popcorn or change the station or anything like that. That's definitely a part of what the title "under the influence" tacitly acknowledges. Part of that influence makes these subjects want to go out and maybe offer a similar influence to others. They want to go and invoke that in their own careers, extend that history, extend that world and offer it up to other people too. They want to seek that out and see if there's a way to make it a part of their own pursuits and then offer it up to others. It's that thing that
Pauline Kael says in the introduction to her book When The Lights Go Down: there's no moment more exciting than when we were all sitting in the theater and it goes dark and our expectations are raised, our hopes are raised.

Guillén: I like how you're stressing this organic continuum of cinema, that films are not separate and distinct units in and of themselves; they're building blocks that further the medium. It's like the onion architecture of the Maya, where you find a pyramid inside of a pyramid inside of a pyramid. Your approach to movies has that intertextual style of placing movies within movies within movies.

Mitchell: You have to. People don't watch movies in a vacuum. Most people don't watch one kind of movie. They're all related in that continuum that you mention. People also watch movies with other people. Basically, they go to theaters with audiences to talk about those movies afterwards with other people in the audience and that all leads to this big conversation. Maybe we've gotten away from that a little bit? One of the things that TCM does is it incites that conversation and there's no better place for a show like this, as far as I'm concerned, than TCM.

Guillén: Another riff on that term "under the influence" is to visualize standing beneath the stars and—as in astrological parlance—having the stars influence our lives. Specifically, in this case, the radiance of movie stars. Dr. John Beebe has stated that the reason we call them "stars" is because they exert a certain radiance. Do you have any thoughts on the nature of that radiance? What makes up a star? Why we should be interested in how they learned to shine?

Mitchell: These stars don't come out of a vacuum either. All these actors and directors, they all have grown out of what they've seen that did something to them, that touched them in some way, that provoked them in some way. Maybe those movies they saw were catalysts that made them what they are? Undoubtedly that's a big part of it. To me, that's what these people are all about: how they were impacted by the films they saw. How they wanted to emulate those or how those films inspired us to see other films by the same director, or made us seek out actors and their work. That's part of the great thing of the conversation. Sidney Pollack was the epitome of that person. He viewed each experience he had with actors and movie stars as something he could learn from. He even made a joke about it. I know intellectuals don't think much of this; but, Pollack knew that thing you're talking about. He could take something from each experience with movie stars and go off and make other movies with that. Their radiance was something he carried along with him.

Guillén: Their radiance becomes a shared radiance that the audience wants?

Mitchell: Completely, yeah! We all want to bathe in that light, don't we?

Guillén: I do!! [Laughter.] Anyways, I'm intrigued by your comment that the series is offering a different perspective on actors and filmmakers when they're not promoting a new film. It makes me consider the timing of interviews. When is the right time to talk to someone? Do you factor that in when you're selecting your interviewees?

Mitchell: First of all, we're lucky to get the people we have! It's also a matter of the time they have to offer too. But the people who have worked at it, who have achieved some success at it, who have created a body of work, there is no wrong time to talk to them. The great thing about having all these interview subjects come on at a time where they're not trying to sell something is that it relieves a lot of tension. The questions you don't have to ask. The questions they don't have to answer. You wonder if they bite their lower lip or chew the inside of their mouth going over for the 9,000th time what the movie is about. Because they don't have to cover that, I think you create a tablet for real relaxation.

Guillén: I agree. That's precisely why I've stopped accepting press junket interviews. I don't like the tone of the conversations. I'm soliciting interviews through indirect channels.

Mitchell: It's got to be more satisfying for you, isn't it?

Guillén: Oh, yes. I'm enjoying it much more. Speaking of influences: you're tracing influences in the people you're talking to; but, can you speak to the influence Pauline Kael had on your becoming a film critic?

Mitchell: I grew up reading her stuff. I was lucky enough to meet her when I was in college. She was a great person to have as a friend. There was a motto that she lived by: If you don't want to know what I think, don't ask me. She could be merciless. I remember in college I sent her something to read and called her up to see what she thought about it. As she was going into the second hour of what was wrong with it, I was thinking, "I'm paying money for this conversation?"

She had what we've been talking about: that fervor, that passion about your work, about doing something you love. That was something she wanted to share with people, which is—again—a big part of this show: I want these subjects to come on and talk about what tuned them to this in the first place and then to get that out so that people have an understanding of it. That's what I got from Pauline. You owe it to yourself to be as honest as you can in terms of the feeling about your work and, hopefully, that's just a starting point. That's the unfortunate thing now about the way we do film criticism; it's looked upon as being a consumer function. Should you go see a movie or not? As expensive as movies are nowadays, maybe that's appropriate? But the best criticism works as something that you use after you've seen a movie. It doesn't tell you what to think. It should help you understand what the movie is trying to do and maybe give you some insight into the critic as well, with any luck. That's what I took away from her.

Guillén: What a great influence! Naturally, that's something I chafe against: this definition of the film writer as a consumer advocate.

Mitchell: It's tough, isn't it? It means that people don't understand what you're doing. I don't think it's my job to tell someone what he or she should see or not see. I mean, it's really not. I understand that it's become a big deal for people to go to the movies now, especially in this economy, but criticism as consumer advocacy is just not right. With access to movies being democratized by DVD and Video On Demand, you can get recommendations from other people at the video store or from your Netflix queue. That's one of the things that's great about all this. The unfortunate thing is that people can't see these little odd movies in theaters with other people anymore; but, even at a place like Netflix there's still this ongoing conversation we've been talking about.

Guillén: Exactly. I've actually been saying to people lately that one of my favorite thing about the online discourse on cinema is that it harkens back to the old-fashioned word-of-mouth model that built up interest in movies.

Mitchell: Absolutely. Yes, right.

Guillén: I know you've been watching films for a long time.

Mitchell: Oh yeah….

Guillén: Is there any recent film you feel has influenced you? Having seen so many movies, does it get harder for films to influence you?

Mitchell: Gee, one of the things I love about my life is that I get to go to film festivals. The thing about going to film festivals is that I get to see a film I know nothing about. One of the great things about online conversation is—you're right—it has made itself one big national audience; but, the other unfortunate thing it's done is that now there's too much information about anything now. You think back, when you look at Sidney Pollack, you remember how surprised you were with Tootsie because you didn't know what he looked like when you went into the movie. It's hard to imagine an environment where that kind of thing can happen anymore. I'm excited every time I go to a film festival because someone might mention a movie to me or you might overhear about a movie on the shuttles at festivals, what people are excited about, and you think, "Oh, I might want to go see this." That's one of the great things about a film festival and the really fun ones create real fervor for films in those communities. Like, I was at the AFI Film Festival in Dallas. It's a movie-hungry town and it's great to see that. I worked in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for two years and people tend to look down on it. Where I grew up in Detroit, it was a movie lovers city. It's great to go to a film festival in cities such as Dallas or Austin, I was in Toronto a few weeks ago, and to see the pleasure that local people take in going to see the movies in a room full of other people still exists. I'm definitely surprised by that.

Guillén: Film festival culture is precisely what got me back into movies after I'd given up on the megaplexes. The audiences, seeing movies you know nothing about, and the chance of interacting with attending talent is all wonderful. Can you remember your first interview?

Mitchell: Sure I can remember. I was writing for a paper in suburban Detroit, Pontiac, and I interviewed Chuck Norris. He couldn't have been more polite. It was a great conversation and I shocked him. At that point he was being compared to Fred Astaire, but I compared him to Gene Kelly. He said, "Really?! Gene Kelly?" I couldn't believe I got an interview with Chuck Norris; I believe the movie was Silent Rage. After the interview, I actually got a note from him, he wrote me a letter! I thought all my interviews were going to be like that.

Guillén: That's a sweet story. As someone who has interviewed nearly everybody, is there anybody you would like to interview?

Mitchell: Oh, I haven't interviewed almost everybody; but, thank you. There are lots of people I would love to interview. I'd love to get Sidney Poitier at some point. Talk about a big influence from the '60s. You always hear about Brando or Paul Newman or Cary Grant or Sean Connery, but I think Sidney Poitier was an elegant, charismatic and talented figure who doesn't get nearly the kind of cultural recognition he should. There was a book just recently that spotlighted that called Pictures Of A Revolution, which was a look at 1967. Of the five Oscar nominations, two of them starred Sidney Poitier who was at that point the biggest box office star in the world. How lovely it would be to have the chance to talk with him. I'd love to talk to Harry Belafonte. I'd love to sit down and talk with Meryl Streep. I'd love to talk to Shirley McClaine who's been through more incarnations than anyone could ever imagine. There's lots of people I'd like to talk to.

Guillén: It's interesting you single out Sidney Poitier because he is one of my favorite actors and definitely when I was a young kid, just becoming a young man, his performances affected my sensibility so much. The other night when TCM had their tribute to Sidney Pollack, I didn't realize that Pollack had directed Poitier in The Slender Thread, which is a favorite film of mine that struck me as very mature and realistic when I was younger.

Mitchell: Sidney hated that movie. You could tell he had just gone from doing TV to doing film. He's crazy with the camera. It's flying all over the place.

Guillén: Clearly, the value of an interview with Elvis Mitchell is Elvis Mitchell. Thus, I'm intrigued that in your recent piece The Black List (which, admittedly, I've not yet seen; but, which I've read a lot about), you elected to be something of a non-presence, to be structurally absent; a style Richard Schickel told me he prefers as well. What motivated that shift?

Mitchell: I felt these weren't my stories. I felt these subjects should become their own source without cutting to an interviewer and a nodding face of approval. That's something that happens a lot in documentary films and I felt it was more important that each of these people were so incredibly eloquent with potent camera presences looking directly into the camera. There's nothing better than that. We often hear the term "talking heads" derided; but, here, they were shot so beautifully by the director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders that it was nearly portraiture and there was no need for me to be in the way.

Guillén: Well, Elvis, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I'm really looking forward to the TCM series Under the Influence.

Mitchell: Thank you for your time!

Cross-published on

Monday, June 23, 2008

2008 FRAMELINE32: WOMAN IN BURKA—Q&A With Director Jonathan Lisecki

As Kate Carroll details for the Frameline program, Jonathan Lisecki's short Woman In Burka "follows real-life actress Sarita Choudhury through fictionalized auditions for a new film. Is it a drama or just a cheap horror flick? None of the auditioning actresses (each of whom, it seems, have appeared in Law & Order at some point) really know. But who cares? It's a job! This darkly comedic short shines a spotlight on race, aging, gender and the actor's eternal quest for validation—and a paycheck." As part of the "Don't Go" program of shorts, I was alerted to Woman In Burka by filmbud Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy).

Winner of this year's Spirit of Slamdance Award and the Arizona Film Festival Merit Award, Woman In Burka is—as Nick Haramis accurately describes it for Black Book—"a real knee-slapper." One might say it's a post-9/11 sandwich served on dark wry. I joined the appreciative throng who poured into the AT&T Festival Pavilion to take part in the program's Q&A.

* * *

Asked by Jennifer Morris how his film came into being, Lisecki admitted that Woman in Burka was an experiment to see if he could even make a movie. He'd done several plays and he was tired of the same 15 friends seeing his work, period. He decided to do something that maybe other people could see someday. He had just come off of an audition for the role of a stereotypical gay assistant for a television series called Lipstick Jungle. The role was disgusting but he really wanted the money. The casting director, who was straight, came up to him and said, "You're really in the mix if we don't go gaysian." Lisecki thought, "Are you allowed to say gaysian as a straight casting director?"

His good friend Sarita Choudhury had experienced similar demeaning auditions after 9/11. "She's Indian," Lisecki explained, "but it doesn't even matter to these people." When Law & Order did a call for an actress to play an Iraqi woman, they decided Sarita looked "close enough." When he and Sarita got into a conversation about that, he found himself wanting to explore the issue.

Over the course of a year he filmed scenes piecemeal and then put them together. He didn't have a script; he created the story as he went along. The actresses used their own names and they all really did have roles on Law & Order. Sam Rockwell really was Sarita's ex-boyfriend (though not the father of her baby, as in the film). He wanted to use the actors' real names to establish a hyper-reality.

The Law & Order clips were actually from the television series and—when I asked whether he had permission to use the clips—Lisecki scoffed, "Oh, permission!" He knew, if he needed to, he could make an argument for fair use and parody; but, his friend Annie Parisse assured him that—if he ever got in trouble for it—she would bat for him. She really was on the show for two years and knew the series creator. Permission issues would only arise anyway if Woman In Burka were picked up for distribution; it's a non-issue at film festival screenings.

He shot the film digitally and didn't spend a whole lot of money making it. When it was accepted into its first film festival, that's when he had to come up with money for the sound mix and color correction and all that kind of stuff, which cost him about $3,000. "I begged. I borrowed," he explained. "I work at a place that makes commercials so they loaned me their equipment and loaned me their editing machine." The lady who represents Kerry Washington worked at his job as well. He reads scripts for her as a day job. Basically he went to one of Kerry's press junkets with his camera in his book bag and asked, "Hey Kerry, could you say a couple of lines for me?" because he wanted her in a scene. "And that's how you do it. You just ask, ask, ask, ask…."

Lisecki wanted to draw attention to how inauthentic ethnic portrayals often are on television or in film. He recalled one artistic director at a film festival who oddly protested, "You know they wear burkas in Afghanistan; they don't really wear them in Iraq." Lisecki raised his eyebrows and countered, "Yes, I know that. The people who are making the movies don't know that. Those people don't care. That's the point!" Lisecki has discovered that there are more than enough people who lack any sense of humor and want to get angry at anything, which is fine, let them go right ahead. "There's always someone who will pick out the one thing in your 21-minute movie that you've worked on all year to get all up in arms about and that's great; at least you're affecting them in some way."

I asked Lisecki if he would talk about the clever graphic on the film's postcard, which shows a woman in burka who looks suspiciously like the cartoon representation of I Dream Of Jeannie. He said it was weird but he just knew that was what was supposed to be on the post card. He wanted a woman in burka with I Dream of Jeannie eyes because, in the end in a Hollywood movie, the woman in burka would be played by the white, fair-haired girl. He asked a friend to design it to those specifications and he got the image back within 20 minutes. When he got into Slamdance, which ran at the same time as Sundance, he postered up and down the street and is convinced that's why both his screenings sold out; people responded to the graphic. Nobody cared about the photograph of the famous actors on the flip side. I encouraged him to print up t-shirts and he admitted to being behind the times on monetization.

As for the future of Woman In Burka, Lisecki responded that, yes, the film was going to screen at other festivals but that—as far as he was concerned—he could just stop now because it would never be any better than being screened on the giant screen at the Castro with such an enthusiastic audience. At other festivals his film gets shown on a screen the size of a TV. He's on his way to a film festival in Austin, even though he's "scared to death of Texas!" As for future films, he wants to make a short about the first gay divorce. "Just kidding!"

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 FRAMELINE32: TONGZHI IN LOVE—The SF360 Interview With Ruby Yang

A Double Life—the working title of Ruby Yang's Tongzhi In Love—is boasting its West Coast premiere at Frameline32, screening with Yang's Oscar-winning documentary short The Blood Of Yingzhou District on Saturday, June 28, 2:30PM at the Roxie Film Center. Although unable to attend the festival proper, Ruby Yang was recently in San Francisco and we were able to discuss her "latest and most lyrical film yet." That conversation is up at SF360.

Tony An has written that—riding the waves of rapid social and economic progress in China—many gays (tóngzhì, as they are called in China) are beginning to enjoy a more tolerant atmosphere, tasting newly found freedom in such big cities as Beijing. However, most of them cannot come out to their parents. They continue to live a double life because—besides the conservative views toward gays—they also face an immense pressure unique to Chinese culture based on Confucian teaching. He quotes prominent Confucian scholar Mencius: "Among the three major offenses against filial piety, not producing an heir is the worst." More than two thousands years later, Tony explains, a billion Chinese people still take Mencius's words close to the heart, creating an obvious challenge for tóngzhì, many of whom—due to the one child policy in modern China—are the sole carriers of their family bloodline.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, June 16, 2008

2008 FRAMELINE32—Michael Hawley on Pansy Division / Kinsey Sicks

In my three decades of attending Frameline, I've always been wowed by the festival's breadth of documentaries on LGBT folks in the arts—whether it's a German doc about Peruvian exotica songstress Yma Sumac (who wasn't gay but may as well have been), or a behind-the-scenes look at k.d. lang on tour in Australia, or a tribute to ground-breaking British filmmaker Derek Jarman. As a queer culture vulture I can't help but eagerly eat this stuff up. For Frameline32 I've previewed a film about the world's foremost gay punk rock band, and another which probes the private places of a drag-a-pella beauty shop quartet. I can highly recommend both.

Michael Carmona's Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band takes a breezy, blow-by-blow look at the band whose 17-year rallying cry has been: "We're the butt fuckers of rock and roll. We want to sock it to your hole." Formed in 1991 San Francisco by Illinois transplant Jon Ginoli, Pansy Division was one man's reaction against the limitations of so-called gay culture of the time. The group became an essential part of the Bay Area-based Queercore/Homocore music scene, but never received much love or respect from mainstream gay audiences. Fortunately, many from outside the lifestyle were listening, and the film does a terrific job of documenting their advocacy. Nirvana gave its blessing to a "Smells Like Queer Spirit" parody, and most famously, Green Day chose the band as opening act for its 1994 "Dookie" tour (and wore the band's t-shirts on Saturday Night Live). They went from playing small clubs to rocking out 15,000-seat stadiums, while promoters unsuccessfully tried to convince Green Day to bump them from the bill. Later years would find Metallica's Kirk Hammet contributing a guitar solo to the song "Headbanger", and in one of the film's juiciest clips, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford joins the band onstage at 1997 San Diego Gay Pride for a cover of "Breaking the Law".

As much as I love Pansy Division's cover songs and parodies, it's the band's original material I admire most. Their clever and heartfelt lyrics speak of gay male sexuality in a way that's recognizable no matter what one's taste in music might be, with entire songs devoted to subjects like tricks who won't take "go home" ("I Can't Sleep") and the joys of having a "Fuck Buddy". Fortunately, all the tunes in the film are given subtitles, so that none of the boys' bons mots escape our attention. I was also impressed that the film includes a vast assortment of the band's outrageous poster and record sleeve art, which represents what was truly the cream of punk's DIY aesthetic. And finally, I loved the film's comic treatment of the group's search for a permanent drummer—12 of them came and went during the five years before Luis Illades arrived in 1996.

Band members Jon Ginoli, Chris Freeman and Luis Illades are all expected to attend Frameline's lone screening of Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band on Thursday, June 26 at the Victoria Theater. Afterwards, they'll perform live at an after party at the Eagle Tavern, which should make for one hell of an evening for longtime fans and newcomers alike.

Ken Bielenberg's The Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous is probably not the best filmic introduction to San Francisco's beloved political/musical/comedy drag troupe. That honor would belong to Bielenberg's 2006 film The Kinsey Sicks: I Wanna Be a Republican (Frameline30), which documented one of the group's brilliant stage shows in its entirety. Almost Infamous, on the other hand, provides a more intimate portrait and is structured around three alternating leitmotifs. The first is a Kinsey Sicks mini-history featuring plenty of great archival material. Their attempt to mount a self-produced off-Broadway show in the months following 9/11 I found of particular interest. The second part focuses on its four members as individuals outside The Kinsey Sicks, with a peek at off-stage family life and an accounting of each member's evolution as a performer. The balance of the film tells a warts-and-all tale of a 2006 engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton. Rollicking and revealing, Almost Infamous is a true gift that no one in the group's legion of fans will want to miss. And as an added bonus, it's expected that director Bielenberg, Chris Dilley (Trampolina) and Irwin Keller (Winnie) will all appear onstage for the film's singular Frameline screening at the Castro Theater on Saturday, June 28.

FRENCH CINEMA—Les Chansons d'amour (Love Songs, 2007)

It's June Pride. A month when all things queer and queer-affirmative are to be celebrated, including cinematic representations of the homosexualized and/or homoeroticized (though I would prefer to phrase it as the joyful spirit of gender variance). Let the party begin!

As party favors, not only is Frameline opening Thursday night with Tim Fywell's lesbian bodice ripper Affinity; but, Holehead is offering up the West Coast premiere of Kankuro Kudo's gay samurai comedy Yaji & Kita; Dead Channels is shocking San Franciscan audiences with Sean Abley's electrifyingly addictive Socket; and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts offers Apichatpong Weerasethakul's mysterious objects, namely two programs of shorts. And that's just for starters.

Perhaps—as Michael Lumpkin and I recently discussed—what is most subversively rewarding is precisely that queer representation has succeeded past the immediate community to be found in mainstream fare. Case in point would be Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour (Love Songs, 2007). Though Michael Hawley and I agree Love Songs is a flawed vehicle and not as rewarding as Honoré's previous musical Dans Paris (2006), there's no denying the pleasure derived from the sensual parity with which Honoré directs his young actors. Michael Hawley caught the film last night and was "delightfully surprised" by its gay turn. Louis Garrel's girlfriend dies and he ends up finding redemption in the arms (and bed) of a very cute Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. It's thrice twice. Michael offers a triptych of YouTube clips of their three songs together (the third one ends the movie). Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, which is a shame because lyrically they were probably the three best songs in the movie.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

PFA: JOAN BLONDELL—Matthew Kennedy Introduction to Blonde Crazy

Matthew Kennedy launched the Pacific Film Archive retrospective Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda with introductory remarks for the first evening's double-bill: Blonde Crazy and Night Nurse, both from 1931. Straight off, Matthew expressed his thanks to PFA for "having the good taste" to organize the Blondell retrospective in conjunction with the publication of his biography: Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

* * *

Great Hollywood acting careers are usually defined—reasonably enough—as the result of great performances in great movies. Take the, admittedly, trite example of Bette Davis; undeniably, a great movie star. It may be a bit tacky to start a tribute to Joan Blondell with mention of Bette Davis; but, we have reasons. One, they were contemporaries and good friends; two, because Joan admired Bette's guts, talent and fighting spirit; and three, because a comparison is, I think, revealing.

Joan Blondell never had a run of characters to equal Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Margo Channing or—God knows!—Baby Jane Hudson. Nor did she have movies on her resume that approached the excellence of Now Voyager, The Little Foxes or All About Eve. Let us mourn the career that might have been had Joan been nurtured by directors she never worked with: Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturgess and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. That's what Joan didn't have; but, what did Joan have in her career? Plenty, it turns out.

In fact, I would like to suggest that our conventional notion of what makes a great star is too limited and that's just where Joan comes in. She began in vaudeville before WWI, made 92 movies, was a regular on three television series, made over 100 TV guest appearances, and was in dozens of plays and on radio over a 70-year career in show business. Yet how many times have I heard something like this: "Joan Blondell was wonderful. What was she in?" Most of her movies are forgotten; but, she is not. Her career was based on the slow, steady warmth of public affection that keeps burning all these years later. She's the kind of actress who gets taken for granted in her lifetime and leads us all to the eventual realization that someone wonderful was knocking around the perimeters of major stardom for decades.

So here we are at the Pacific Film Archive to give delayed honor to the fizz on the soda. Blondell's career was not based on fulfilling the promise of great roles, as was the case with Davis or Stanwyck or Crawford. Instead, her career was based on fulfilling the promise of great types. Or rather, types she made great. And anyone who's ever seen a Joan Blondell picture, especially those from Warner Brothers in the 1930s, knows these types well: the slightly disreputable chorus girl; the love struck secretary; the cynical gun moll; and the clever newspaper reporter, among several others. Time and again she took uninspired material and made it sing with the distinctive timber of her voice with its perfect diction and timing, in tandem with those startlingly round and expressive eyes. It always seemed to me that—after Joan Blondell delivered a line, any line—she owned it.

So while Davis had Jezebel, Dark Victory and The Letter, Joan Blondell had dozens of Joan Blondell pictures, which is precisely the point. There wasn't one movie she made that wasn't improved—sometimes enormously—simply by her being in it. If Blondell performing one miracle after another with tepid scripts and ineffective directors over a 50-year film career is not a sign of greatness, then I don't know what is.

Everything I've just said is rather contradicted by this marvelous 11-film retrospective since it includes those films that actually do justice to her talent. If she excelled at a variety of types, so too was she at home in a variety of genres. Represented here in this rich two-week course on the art of being Blondell is the twisted film noir Nightmare Alley, the big-budget musical Footlight Parade, the sentimental family drama A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and the hardboiled pre-Code quickie Three On A Match. Joan is foremost remembered as a comedienne—rightfully so—and three subgenres are featured here: the romantic comedy The King and the Chorus Girl; the screwball comedy Three Girls About Town; and the mystery comedy There's Always A Woman. Finishing the festival are two of her later performances that confirm her exceptional range. In Lizzie she is the boozing, mean-spirited aunt to a mentally ill Eleanor Parker. Then, in 1977, when she was chronically ill and just two years from death, Joan discovered a whole new way of making movies when she appeared in John Cassavetes' Opening Night. Here, she is a seasoned, world-weary playwright in a semi-improvised low key tour de force of barely-concealed contempt for a neurotic actress played brilliantly by Gena Rowlands.

But back to the early days. For this opening night, we start with the chipper comedy Blonde Crazy from 1931. While Joan and James Cagney were appearing together on Broadway in 1930, they were both given short-term contracts at Warner Brothers and both were signed to long-term contracts even before shooting ended on their first picture Sinner's Holiday. Blonde Crazy is their fourth outing together, Joan's first starring role, and the first time the great Cagney-Blondell match-up could really take flight. In this naughty romp for two loveable Depression-era grifters—that echoes towards The Sting and Paper Moon in the 1970s—they show a fantastic yin and yang, Blondell wisely choosing smaller gestures to complement Cagney's pyrotechnics and she matches him every step of the way, disarming him with a quip or quick slap across the cheek.

Tonight's second feature Night Nurse was shot and released several months before Blonde Crazy. It was among many films that acted as kind of a prolonged audition, as early on Warner Brothers had Joan support a potpourri of other young first generation sound actresses. Some are immortal, some forgotten, including Evalyn Knapp, Mary Astor, Helen Twelvetrees, Jean Harlow, Bebe Daniels and Loretta Young. As sassy day nurse to Barbara Stanwyck's title character, this is precisely the kind of role that endears Joan to audiences then and now, as she excels at comradeship and sympathy with a copasetic actress like Stanwyck and is free from the burdens of a leading role. And, I should mention, both Blonde Crazy and Night Nurse—in the best pre-Code tradition—nearly exhaust the cinematic potential of underwear.

To finish, let me tell you a little bit about 1931. Joan made 10 movies in 12 months. So tonight's double bill represents a mere 20% of her work output in a single year. She would make 10 more in 1932. Under these circumstances and in respect for her sheer talent and hard work, remaining the fizz on the soda for those two years, much less the following 47, was a Herculean accomplishment.

* * *

Based on a story by Kubee Glasmon and John Bright, with an original working title Larceny Lane (which appears on one of the film's earliest reviews), Blonde Crazy is a slap-happy "grifter flick" (as Dennis Schwartz terms it). The MovieDiva sketches it as "[a] tough and risque lark about cheating cheaters" and notes the pairing of Cagney "with the lush and sassy Blondell. The jazzy comedy was written for them, and they are amorous buddies, a bellhop and a chambermaid riding an escalating whirlwind of swindles."

As Lorraine LoBianco details for the TCM database (leaning heavily on Kennedy's biography, I might add), Blonde Crazy's tag-line was "Jim's back!...and with a brand new line!" Fresh from his break-out hit The Public Enemy where Cagney won audiences over with his wisecracking gangster persona, the "new line" in Blonde Crazy became the now infamous, "Mmm, that dirty, double-crossin' rat!" Or perhaps it was: "The age of chivalry is past. This, honey, is the age of chiselry." There are several quotable witticisms in Blonde Crazy, and not all of them from Cagney. I'm partial to Joan's: "You must be exhausted. Sit down and rest your hands and face."

Though somewhat dated, Blonde Crazy still entertains for its lively repartee, specifically between Cagney and Blondell. As Matthew Kennedy quotes film scholar Molly Haskell in his biography: "Blondell's beauty as a 'broad' is that she can outsmart the man without unsexing him. Cagney's beauty as a man is that he can be made a fool of without becoming a fool." Kennedy concurs: "Indeed, the incongruously amusing sight of him in a bellboy's uniform lets us in on the joke. Cagney's masculine power allows him to be subservient to no one, even when he is dressed in a uniform of capitalist oppression. Blondell's feminine power comes from her easygoing sexual self-confidence that never lapses into vampish excess. Together, they create a barely contained erotic heat." (2007:40)

2008 FRAMELINE32—The Evening Class Interview With Michael Lumpkin

When word was announced last October that Frameline's Artistic Director Michael Lumpkin was relinquishing his position to pursue personal goals, after 28 years involvement, and 22 years as Executive Director, Frameline Board President Linda Harrison released a statement detailing Lumpkin's numerous and impressive accomplishments during the course of his tenure. Key figures in the San Francisco Bay Area festival landscape likewise extolled Lumpkin's skills and achievements.

"Michael Lumpkin is extraordinary. He has been visionary in his leadership at Frameline," said John R. Killacky, Program Officer Arts and Culture, The San Francisco Foundation. "He has made this incredible organization not only the most important queer film festival in the world, but also under his stewardship, Frameline and three other media organizations were able to purchase a building [the Ninth Street Film Arts Building] and create a home for media arts in the Bay Area. His legacy will continue for generations."

In Walter Addiego's piece for The Chronicle, Addiego quotes Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society: "It's hard to adequately praise the full extent of Michael's remarkable achievements and legacy. He has done brilliant and extraordinary work at the helm of the world's most significant LGBT film organization for nearly 30 years and in so doing has been a crucial figure in contemporary film culture. All of us at the Film Society take our hats off to him."

It's only fitting that this year's 2008 Frameline Award—given to someone who has made a significant contribution to lesbian/gay/bi/transgender film—is being presented to Michael Lumpkin.

Michael generously invited me into his Frameline offices to conduct what I will not call an exit interview; but, more a conversation serving as a blessing to his future phase of creativity.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm truly delighted, Michael, that you've taken the time out to talk with me this morning, primarily for the opportunity after all these years to sit down one-on-one face-to-face to thank you, personally, for your incredible contribution to the Frameline Film Festival. I've been in San Francisco since the festival started. I've watched it grow over the years and witnessed your invaluable role in its development and growth. So thank you for that.

Michael Lumpkin: Thank you.

Guillén: Are you from San Francisco?

Lumpkin: No, I'm not. I'm from Texas. I moved to San Francisco in 1978.

Guillén: Ah, so you were part of the migration in the mid-70s that fueled the Castro Flourescence? We were all summoned to San Francisco from different states by some kind of beacon call.

Lumpkin: Yeah. When I first moved here, I lived on Haight Street at Ashbury for eight or nine months, which was great.

Guillén: Were you a hippie?

Lumpkin: Not really. I had long curly hair and a beard; but, the Haight-Ashbury was a great place to arrive. It was past the Summer of Love and more part of the beginning of the gentrification of the Haight. Looking back, what amazes me is that there were five or six gay bars on Haight Street.

Guillén: I remember! And there was that whole genderfuck phenomenon going on that had come out of the Love Generation scene. I arrived in 1975, missed the Cockettes proper but was on hand for the Angels of Light and the first street fairs. Everything was kicking off.

Lumpkin: They had the first Haight Street Fair while I was living on Haight Street. I was in the middle of my first street fair and it was right in front of the flat where I was living.

Guillén: You started as a volunteer with Frameline? What were you doing for them in the very beginning?

Lumpkin: I moved here and was going to grad school at San Francisco State. In the summer of 1979, I noticed a flyer for the festival out at State, either right before or right after the festival happened that year. I didn't attend the festival. I was out of town. But there was a flyer up for it and it looked interesting so I got in touch with them. At that time it was just a collective of a handful of people. I started meeting with them and the next year I was running the festival.

Guillén: Nowadays people would kill to move into such a position! [Laughter.] You were in the right place at the right time.

Lumpkin: I guess so.

Guillén: In those early years, how were Frameline's objectives formulated? How did you go about deciding and establishing the festival's mission, what it was going to be in the years to come, or did you even have a sense that it might survive and be around in the years to come?

Lumpkin: I didn't have a sense really of where it was going early on. The fourth festival was the first one I was involved with and I basically kept the structure that the festival had in place, which was just a program of short films that screened at two or three different venues around town. We replicated that structure for the fourth festival; but, in making contacts and communicating with other people, I quickly found out what a major film festival looked like and certainly developed a sense of what a festival should be within the first few years I was with Frameline. I set the festival on a path of being a major film festival. Also, Frameline has continuously had throughout its history one foot in the queer community and another in the film community and I've always tried to make sure that we were part of both spheres—that we didn't become just a community event—that we were known and acknowledged as being a significant player in the film festival world.

Guillén: You mentioned you were going for your graduate degree at San Francisco State, was that film-related?

Lumpkin: Yes. My undergraduate degree was in film and I was studying film history and film theory at State.

Guillén: At the time that you set your sights on making Frameline an internationally acknowledged film festival, were there any other gay film festivals? Was there anyone you could model yourself after?

Lumpkin: When I started, the New York Gay Film Festival had just started so that first year I discovered and got in touch with them. At that time that festival was over multiple days showing feature films and already in that model of a film festival. I did the fourth festival that summer but a few months later I took our program to New York and Philadelphia and got to know the New York Gay Film Festival and Peter Lowey, who was running it at that time, and I learned a lot from him.

Guillén: At what point did Frameline push past exhibition to branch into distribution and into providing the films you were showing at the festival year round to a larger community?

Lumpkin: The distribution program started informally. For the fifth festival we had this feature from France—We Were One Man (Nous étions un seul homme, 1979)—which we showed at the festival. There was one English-subtitled print and the director (Philippe Vallois), who had come over from France, was going to take this sole print back with him when he returned home. I talked Vallois into leaving the print with us. I told him, "This print needs to be seen by people in other cities." So We Were One Man was the first film that Frameline acquired and—after a few years—we formally established our distribution program. We actively started acquiring films and getting them out to other film festivals or schools or whatever, as well as returning royalties back to the filmmakers.

Guillén: Frameline's outreach has always been commendable. Some years past—in the mid-'90s I recall—Frameline developed the "Send It Home" program. It allowed folks here in San Francisco to buy a Frameline film and choose the town it would go back to, which in many cases was the home town we had escaped in order to survive and find our own lives. Having come into our own strength and the security of our identities, "Send It Home" provided a culturally pro-active and psychologically compensatory function. I sent several films back to Twin Falls, Idaho, to their PFLAG chapter, in memoriam of childhood friends who had passed of AIDS. I wanted them to be remembered. I'm not sure if that program still exists?

Lumpkin: We did that for a few years but are no longer doing it. It was a great program and we had a tremendous response; but, what we found is that it turned out to be a somewhat cumbersome program. It took quite a bit of work to get some of the receiving institutions—such as libraries—to actually take the films. Some wouldn't even take them. We stopped that program after a few years because it involved such an intensive amount of work. We're actually planning on launching a new program later this year that has a lot of the elements of "Send It Home". We're working with Gay-Straight Alliance Network ("GSAN") here in California to develop a program that will send LGBT film to high schools all across California. The partnership with GSAN is allowing Frameline a much easier pathway into schools where the films can actually be used.

Guillén: More hands mean less work.

Lumpkin: Yeah. We've learned that "normal" channels for getting films into schools can be cumbersome and difficult, having to get past these bodies that have to approve what films are going into the school and it can take a lot of work and time to go that route. GSAN is already in over 600 schools in California alone and they are recognized groups within the schools. Partnering with them makes it much easier for our content to be available in the schools, especially because we're encouraging the youth who make up GSAN to choose the content and develop the study guides so that they'll be used as much as possible in the school systems. We'll also be opening it up so that there's an online mechanism for individuals to purchase and send films "home" but through these GSANs.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear the "Send It Home" program has morphed into this new more manageable expression. I bring that program up by way of emphasizing the facility the festival has had to educate its audiences over the years; the films have served as fulcrums that help focus topical issues of relevance. In many ways the festival exhibits the growth rings of our culture over the years, registered by the community's evolving concerns as cinematic themes. As you were planning each festival year by year, was there a way you could sense whatever were the current concerns of your audiences? Was it the content—the films themselves—that clued you in to those concerns?

Lumpkin: A lot of it was the content that was available and coming in to us. More and more, the people making the movies we show are responding to what's happening in the community. That's the primary way. Another way that I've seen Frameline change and grow has been through direct feedback from our audiences and the community in a variety of ways. Behind some basic markers in our history—such as the festival first being named the San Francisco Gay Festival, and then the Lesbian and Gay Festival, and then the LGBT Film Festival—there's a lot behind those changes, such as what was going on with the organization and the community at that point that caused this event to change its name.

Guillén: And finally, before we run out of letters, Frameline is so much easier and comprehensive.

Lumpkin: Yeah. One thing that we've done that I'm really proud of is that—over the three decades we've been serving the community—the community has come along with us. We're not only responding to the community in what they want to see and how the community is developing; but, through film, we've also pushed our audiences and our community. We've developed our audiences to understand their knowledge and appreciation both of the diversity of the community but also the diversity of filmic expression.

Guillén: Which is—and should be—an ongoing evolution as a community. Different facets keep rising up in films to register that fascinating evolution.

Lumpkin: Yes.

Guillén: I'm aware of your threefold mission in exhibition, education and distribution and am, thus, intrigued by how these branches of Frameline are evolving. You mentioned the online transformation of "Send It Home", but have you any thoughts on how the phenomenon of online culture has contributed—if at all—to the evolution of queer cinema?

Lumpkin: The way people are consuming media—and not just in the queer community—has changed the way that filmmakers are structurally making films, what they look like. For example, there are more and more documentaries. A documentary was structurally a certain kind of film 20 years ago and now there's more that are reflecting reality television, more cinema verité than a structured talking heads documentary.

Guillén: How about online exhibition? Is that a wave of the future for queer film?

Lumpkin: It is; but, the thing is, we encounter that through our distribution program. The issue of online exhibition has raised some big questions. One basic question that we've wrestled with, and still wrestle with, is: do we contain online exhibition to Frameline's website with the goal being of driving viewers to Frameline's website, or do we put queer content where viewers are already looking? Do you go where people are watching or do you try to get them to watch it in a new place? What's it going to take to shift viewership to a new place? Or do you put the content where they already are?

Guillén: Are you talking, by way of example, of putting up Frameline content on YouTube?

Lumpkin: Right. Or if there's a website where they're already watching queer content. What's going to achieve the mission more? We still wrestle with that. The other big question regarding online exhibition is: where's the money? What is the financial model? Our distribution program returns a significant percentage of the revenue we bring in for renting or selling work back to the filmmakers in royalty payments. Through distribution we are fulfilling the mission of Frameline and doing great things, but it is a business. Filmmakers should be and want to be getting a financial return on the exploitation of their work and—as I've said—our distribution returns royalty payments back to them. Online distribution is very new and we've been trying to figure it out. About a year ago there was a headline in the paper that made me relax about it because it was the head of Google saying they hadn't figured it out yet. So I thought, "Okay, if Google hasn't figured it out yet, I don't think Frameline's going to figure it out!" [Laughter.] It's something that is still in its early stages and Frameline is venturing into it cautiously….

Guillén: Protecting your filmmakers?

Lumpkin: Yeah. We're waiting to see what is going to work or not work. Online hasn't demonstrated that the bulk of the kind of work that we distribute—which is not content that millions of people are going to watch—will have a return that's great. Is online a revenue-generating place? Or is it all marketing? Do you put up a clip of a film to generate interest to go someplace to buy it? It's very complicated and a lot of it is still unresolved.

Guillén: In terms of its public face, how do you feel Frameline's festival credence has been—over the years and into the present—perceived by non-queer festival professionals?

Lumpkin: The mainstream has taken notice of Frameline and what we're doing at various points when it was just obvious that our efforts were significant. The first year we showed films at the Castro Theatre, there was a notable increase in interest in theaters wanting to show gay films because they saw people lined up in front of the Castro Theatre putting down money to watch gay movies. It was like, "Oh, okay, there's money to be made here. Why don't we do this too?" Perhaps the initial attention was commercially motivated; but—if that gets more gay film out there—great! Also, the sheer size of our festival, how big it has become, has generated interest. We're one of the largest film festivals in North America—gay, straight or otherwise—and that makes the film industry and people in the film world notice us just for the size. The extent to which we have played in their world—that we go to the major film festivals, that we're present, that those festivals are important to us—that's yet another way they've taken notice of us. Early on, it was a political act, an activist act, to be at the Berlin Film Festival as an industry professional who was gay and out and say, "I am with this gay film festival" and to be in the registrant's directory as a gay festival. The first few years I would have people wanting to make contact with me just because they knew I was gay. It's not that there weren't a ton of gay people at the festival; but, we were really the first out gay presence on the major film festival circuit. We started having parties like the big Gay Party at Berlin or Toronto. We were hosting and mounting these very open and out affairs.

Guillén: Which strengthened the network, I'm sure?

Lumpkin: Yes, yes.

Guillén: That being said, I'm always curious here in San Francisco where there's such a plethora of film festivals, how programmers negotiate content between themselves for their respective festivals? Now that gay films have more cachet, has the competition increased to secure them for Frameline? How do you negotiate that competition?

Lumpkin: You just do. In a way, you want that to happen. If Frameline is true to its mission, we want all of these festivals to be showing queer films. If we don't, then that's going against our mission. First, you acknowledge that other festivals showing queer films is a good thing and you have to accept and support it. And we do. It is negotiation. At the end of the day, it's not our decision. It's not my decision. It's not the San Francisco International's decision where a filmmaker or producer or distributor is going to put their film. If, let's say, both the San Francisco International and Frameline want a film, we both go after it, we both ask for it, and the third party who is in control of the film will decide who gets to show it. We both just make our best case.

Guillén: I appreciate your honest enforcement of Frameline's mission with regard to that issue, even if Frameline loses a specific film to another festival. A couple of years back when Frameline hosted the Persistent Vision Conference there was expressed concern that a time might come when Frameline's mission statement might lead to the organization's and the festival's dissolution; that in educating audiences to appreciate the acceptability of queer films and making them available and attractive to everyone, a time might come when it will no longer be necessary to have such a thing as a niche queer film festival.

Lumpkin: That is a possibility. You have to be open to that. If that's what's happening, the duty of those who are guiding the organization is to not ignore that trend if that's where things are headed. Either you have to say, "Okay, our work is done here. Shut down." Or you have to see if the work you're doing is the best way for you to fulfill your mission at this point in time. You have to be open to asking yourself that question over and over. The Montreal LGBT Film Festival had a conference last November and that was, again, a major question that surfaced. Are queer film festivals obsolete? Queer films being shown in non-queer festivals is not the issue; the bigger issue is availability of queer content on television, online, everywhere, it's much more readily available. You have to ask yourself: "If that was your mission, to what extent have you accomplished it? And do you need to adjust your mission? Or quietly go away?"

Guillén: With regard to quietly going away, I'm sure many of us are wondering what you're planning to do next, Michael?

Lumpkin: I don't know! I'm still figuring that out.

Guillén: You just felt it was time to move on?

Lumpkin: Yeah. It was a personal decision. I can best express it by saying that I really feel I want to do something else and—if I am—I'd better get to it. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Once your impending departure was announced, I think most of us took a quick breath and realized how much we have taken your stewardship for granted over the years. I found myself hoping you have written down the history of the organization as you've lived it, that you've fashioned a chronicle of not only the organization of Frameline, but the growth of queer film culture since the mid-'70s. Would you consider writing such a history or do you truly want to do something altogether different?

Lumpkin: I don't know. Perhaps. This isn't retirement. [Laughs.] I don't know. I certainly would be open to that; but, we'll see.

Guillén: One of the most welcome announcements at the Frameline press conference was the news of your retrospective sidebar. Can we talk a little bit about that? Why—out of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of films that have been shown at Frameline—these seven are the ones you've chosen? Why were these valuable to bring back?

Lumpkin: In thinking of how to acknowledge that this would be my last Frameline Film Festival as artistic director, as a programmer you show movies, right? I looked back at those films, those screenings, that meant something to me and meant something to Frameline, the festival, and our audiences. My selection falls into different sorts of categories. Chronologically, the first two films in the series—Mala Noche and Law of Desire—represent Frameline introducing great directors to Bay Area audiences for the first time. Gus Van Sant came to Frameline with Mala Noche, has become one of our major directors, is just finishing up Milk; it's a great circle.

Guillén: He touched off that circle with a flourish of paint; restoring the marquee of the Castro Theatre to its '70s-'80s splendor for the location shooting of Milk. But Mala Noche was his first film, no? Or close to his first?

Lumpkin: It was his second film. I'm not even sure the first one sees the light of day anymore. It had something to do with sororities and cheerleaders; but never really anything, from what I understand. I've never seen it. As for Law of Desire, Almodovar was a director I was exposed to the first year I went to the Berlin Film Festival and we introduced him to Bay Area audiences.

The other special moments for me are those special screenings for audiences; those times when an audience reacts to a film beyond anything I or the director imagined. Bound, by the Wachowski Brothers, was one of those films. We hoped that it would be a really great screening. After the festival, which they attended, the Wachowski Brothers sent us a thank-you note, saying, "We can never watch our film again because that screening that you had for us was the ultimate. It will never get any better than that." We hear that over and over from directors. After their screenings, they're amazed by the audiences.

Guillén: There's a viscerality to the response from Frameline's audiences, especially in the Castro Theatre. They're either jubilant to the point of operatic or a hissing pit of snakes.

Lumpkin: Yeah. Bound was like that. John Greyson's Lilies was like that. Lilies was received with a 10-minute standing ovation. Big Eden as well. Big Eden was another film that—I remember watching it at home—I was taken aback by it. I watched the film and my first reaction was, "This is the film we've been wanting!" You know? Where this gay love story sits in the middle of this small rural town and everybody in town is fine with it and supportive. Everything's happy and wonderful. Also, the protagonist is not a 20-year-old buffed gym guy; he's somebody I would know, this slightly older, balding protagonist. I didn't know what to think about this film arriving, this film we'd been wanting, where everything is beautiful and wonderful in this make-believe world; but, audiences responded to it. I remember I introduced the film, and then I had to go introduce another screening at another venue, and when I came back for the Q&A and walked into the Castro Theatre five minutes before the film was over, the atmosphere in the theater was electric.

Guillén: I remember! I was in that audience!

Lumpkin: I could tell immediately, "The audience is with this. The audience is loving this film." It had a 10-minute standing ovation.

The last two in the seven-film series are both musicals. Not that I'm a huge musical fan; but, these films were different kinds of musicals. Karmen Geï, from Africa, retells Carmen.

Guillén: It's wondrously voluptuous.

Lumpkin: Yeah. It's so rich and sexy and sensuous, just a beautiful film. Yes Nurse! No Nurse! is an over-the-top, silly, Dutch musical.

Guillén: You're also offering a revival screening of Word Is Out, which—in terms of visceral audience reactions—set the bar when it first screened. I remember that audience. There was a near emotional meltdown in the theater. At that time the coming out story was the most important story to be told, especially in the face of opponents who were trying to imprison us in the closet forever. You also took a few years off from your Frameline duties to film The Celluloid Closet?

Lumpkin: Right. I left Frameline before in 1991….

Guillén: So maybe there's a chance that you'll come back? [Laughs.]

Lumpkin: Oh no, no, no. There are several people who are not going to let me do that.

Guillén: Well again, Michael, I want to thank you for all your hard work all these years and especially for taking the time today to let me thank you personally. I know you deal with hundreds of people all the time, you are much beloved and well-respected, but, I didn't want you to leave without you knowing that I'm one queer guy who grew up in the Castro Theatre with the Frameline Film Festival.

Lumpkin. Great! You're welcome. Thank you.

* * *

The Evening Class recommends David Lamble's B.A.R. detailed synopsis of the Lumpkin Retrospective, as well as Dennis Harvey's comparable overview at SF360. Lamble likewise has an exit interview for the B.A.R. Last year Susie Gerhard interviewed Lumpkin and festival programmer Jennifer Morris for SF360. A couple of years back, Christie Keith wrote up a fine description of Frameline's history for AfterElton, highlighting one of the festival's most important benchmarks:

"Lumpkin was there when the changing political waters of the mid-80s brought demands for representation of groups other than gay men, most notably by lesbians. During the 1986 festival, a near-riot broke out at the Roxie Theater, a smaller second venue used by the festival, when a program of short films by lesbians included a scene of two men having sex. The festival's inclusion, or lack thereof, of lesbian programming, and its attitude towards its female audience, was suddenly in the spotlight.

"Instead of wasting time on defensive posturing, Lumpkin and Frameline took a long look at their institutional priorities and patterns, and decided to change. 'I think hearing what we heard from the lesbian community made us realize we had a responsibility as an organization,' Lumpkin says. 'Before that, it was "we can only show what's out there." We realized that, the situation being what it was with women's films, we needed to not just sit back, but to do something. We experienced a real shift in our thinking, organizationally. This wasn't just about showing movies, it was about social change."

06/17/08 UPDATE: I was wondering how SF360 would angle in on Michael Lumpkin's leaving Frameline and they scored a coup by inviting Strand Releasing's Marcus Hu to conduct an exit interview.