Saturday, June 14, 2008

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.

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