Sunday, December 10, 2017

Favorite Christmas Albums

It’s easy for me to choose my favorite Christmas albums of all time because they’re the same ones that I’ve pulled off of my CD shelf every December for the past twenty years now. Typically, I play them on steady rotation from the middle of the month through Christmas Day. I’m not a follower of any organized religion, but these albums always give me a sense of peace at what can otherwise be a hectic and difficult time of the year. Now that the snow is falling here in New England once again, it’s time for me to return to that little stack of wintertime albums. In addition to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy Records, 1965), which everyone already knows well enough that it needs no further comment, here are some of the other holiday albums that I return to annually, most of which are lesser known and fairly rare.

Acoustic Christmas (Columbia Records, 1990), features a diverse roster of artists spanning many genres. At the time of its release, several musicians on the compilation were already quite celebrated (Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, Laura Nyro), while some others have since gone on to acclaimed careers (Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Harry Connick, Jr.) or have somewhat faded from mainstream public view (The Hooters, Poi Dog Pondering, Shelleyan Orphan). The late Laura Nyro’s medley “Let It Be Me / The Christmas Song,” performed with a light piano and keyboard, is one of the most beautiful cuts on the record, as is Judy Collins’ classic rendition of “The Little Road to Bethlehem.” “Winter Wonderland” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” are finely delivered by Harry Connick, Jr. and Rosanne Cash, respectively, while Art Garfunkel’s airy, multi-tracked vocals on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” are both reverent and haunting. Poi Dog Pondering’s spirited version of the Hawaiian Christmas tune “Mele Kalikimaka” lends the album a fun novelty song, and Shelleyan Orphan’s memorable “Ice” is the collection’s lone original track.

Released the same year as Acoustic Christmas, Christmas in the City (WTG/CBS Records, 1990) captures quite well a specific moment in the evolution of pop music history: New York City’s Latin/freestyle explosion. While a few of the artists on this compilation scored national radio hits (The Cover Girls, George LaMond, Denise Lopez, Brenda K. Starr), the rest of the acts fared well on the era’s dance club scene. The Latin All Stars’ faithful version of the traditional “Feliz Navidad” makes an obligatory appearance, and Brenda K. Starr’s upbeat, light-hearted take on Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” feels fully invested. Original tracks like Paris by Air’s “It’s Another Holiday” and Denise Lopez’s “All I Want 4 Xmas Is Your Love” joyously recall the awesome Latin pop of the ’80s and early ’90s. But the album’s truly excellent track is the Cover Girls’ percussive, piano-infused “New York City Christmas,” a song that really everybody should know, probably the best Christmas song created for a dance floor that I’ve ever heard.

Among Amy Grant’s several Christmas-themed albums, my favorite is definitely her second holiday collection, Home for Christmas (A&M Records, 1992). The vocals and orchestrations are stellar throughout the album’s twelve tracks, and Grant covers a full range of Christmas classics, from a pensive “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to an uplifting “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to a rollicking “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Ballads like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and David Foster’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” are equally affecting, as are the album’s original numbers, such as Carly Simon’s “The Night Before Christmas” and two magisterial songs that Grant co-wrote with Chris Eaton, “Emmanuel, God with Us” and “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” which has steadily become a favorite for other songwriters to cover.

Amy Grant also contributed vocals to perhaps one of the best little-known holiday albums ever, The Animals’ Christmas (Columbia Records, 1986). A cantata composed by the great American songwriter Jimmy Webb, with inspiration from a children’s book by Anne Thaxter Eaton, the project was helmed by Art Garfunkel, who sings the album’s lyrics alongside Amy Grant and the boys’ choir at St. Paul’s Church in London. This concept record traces the story of the first Christmas night through the perspective of the animals involved in the Christmas nativity tales. My favorite song in the cycle, “Incredible Phat,” follows the innkeeper’s cat, who watches over the scene as Mary and Joseph arrive, along with “three balmy old coots / in silver boots,” and then leads the young couple “to a tumble-down shack” behind the inn, where their child is born. The song is gorgeously introduced by “The Decree,” on which Art Garfunkel sings the biblical account of the angel Gabriel, guiding Joseph and Mary through the night. The album was also co-produced and engineered by famed Beatles’ producer Geoff Emerick, so enough said.

Shawn Colvin’s Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Sony Music/Columbia Records, 1998) opens with one of my favorite renditions of one of my very favorite winter songs, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” sung and played with just the right amount of mournful melancholy that the song requires. As the album’s title suggests, it’s a compendium of Christmas songs and tunes for small children, recorded when Colvin was pregnant with her daughter. As a child herself, Colvin had loved Maurice Sendak’s 1965 book Lullabies and Night Songs, and his artwork adorns the CD’s liner notes. The lullabies that Colvin selected to include all fit the Christmas theme: “Now the Day Is Over,” “All Through the Night,” “Evening Is a Little Boy,” “The Christ Child’s Lullaby.” Likewise, the album’s holiday standards all sound like lullabies: Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” the chiming traditional “Love Came Down at Christmas,” a sparely arranged “Silent Night.” And some of Colvin’s choices, like “Seal Lullaby” from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and the drifting “The Night Will Never Stay,” approach the sublime.

Finally, a pair of instrumental New Age albums always fit the mood perfectly at this time of the year, when the days are short and the nights are cold and long. Will Ackerman’s Windham Hill Records has released several superb compilation albums in their Winter’s Solstice series, but my favorite remains the original A Winter’s Solstice from 1985. Although a few of the tracks lean in the direction of Christmas fare, such as David Qualey’s opening guitar version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Philip Aaberg’s moving “High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line),” and Liz Story’s quiet piano rendition of “Greensleeves,” other tracks evoke winter more broadly: Will Ackerman’s somber “New England Morning,” Malcolm Dalglish’s darker-toned “Northumbrian Lullabye,” and Mark Isham’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Another Windham Hill artist, solo pianist George Winston, deserves the last slot on this list for his pristine, beloved 1982 album December. Beginning with “Thanksgiving” and ending with “Peace,” plus a virtuosic “Carol of the Bells” midway through, Winston’s December easily shows why it’s gathered such a wide international audience over time. Five of the album’s twelve songs were composed by Winston, one was written by jazz trumpeter Alfred S. Burt, and the other half are traditional and classical pieces in the public domain, from the Appalachian carol “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head” to 18th-century carol “The Holly and the Ivy” to variations on Pachelbel’s Canon. When December ends, its aura continues to echo into the new year.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

3rd Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 11th - 15th, 2017)

I show documentaries in my classes as often as I assign readings, and I’ve long told my students that they can learn as much from a good documentary as they can from a good book. This year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival, sponsored by the Boston Globe in conjunction with HUBweek, offered abundant evidence of just how educationally rewarding well-crafted documentaries can be. Over the past weekend, I watched seven excellent films, all at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, with topics ranging from the worldwide refugee crisis to restorative justice to male ballet dancers to airboating in the Everglades.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s latest film, Human Flow, provides a widescreen and consummately global perspective on the current struggles of international migrants to overcome forced displacement and settle in new lands. Covering refugees from 23 countries over one year, the movie’s scale is unmatched in addressing this subject. Ai Weiwei’s camera steadily and intrepidly follows masses of migrants as they trek together down muddy roads, up steep trails through mountainous terrains, across rivers that they wade while carrying luggage and children in their arms, and over oceans in solitary boats overflowing with passengers.

The first half of Human Flow focuses more on these vast streams of bodies and faces than individual stories, though the film’s latter half does shift to consider particular narrative strands as well. Several of the people whose stories make their way into the film still linger powerfully in my memory: a man who fled Myanmar with other refugees and laments being referred to as “boat people” when they’re all human beings whose futures were destroyed by the brutality of the military junta in their homeland; a group of young women in Gaza who express to the camera their dream of traveling the world and then returning home; and a traumatized man from Syria who weeps over the makeshift graves of his five family members who drowned at sea while trying to sail to a new life in a better place.

The final segments of the film include highly composed aerial drone footage of sprawling temporary refugee camps and neatly organized migrant neighborhoods. The drone cameras pan across these migrant spaces calmly and gradually, and one even descends straight down from far overhead to land gently in a circle of people who have gathered around it. These images suggest at once the enormity of the refugee crisis and the seeming smallness of the 65 million individual lives currently affected, the largest number of refugees since World War II. A former astronaut from Aleppo, Mohammad Fares, through his own perspective on our planet from high above, summarizes the film’s humanist global message: “We all have to share.”

Circle Up, directed by Julie Mallozzi, is among the most profound and moving films I’ve ever seen on the theme of forgiveness. Set in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, the film tells the story of Janet Connors, whose son Joel was stabbed to death in his apartment at age 19. Connors has since become a vocal advocate and practitioner of restorative justice, seeking to help find meaningful forms of redemption for those who have committed violent crimes, including the men who killed her own son, rather than just calling for retribution and incarcerating them through the court system. She facilitates community “circles” to promote victim-offender dialogues as a form of individual and communal healing; these circles of talking and listening about each other’s tragedies are inherited from Native American peoples, whose practices are also closely explored in the film.

The documentary gathers much of its power from Connors’ relationship with one of the men responsible for her son’s homicide. The man is identified in the documentary only as “AJ,” and his face is never fully revealed on camera. Filmed from behind in partial profile and partial shadow, he recounts the experience of meeting Connors when she arranged to visit him in prison, mainly so that she could share with him her own side of the tragic loss of her son. At the time of the visit, he recalls, he was still too young to feel much in response to what she shared. As required by law, their entire exchange was transcribed on paper, a document to which AJ returned several years later when he was placed in solitary confinement. Her words finally break through to him, and he writes her a detailed letter, initiating a genuine plea for forgiveness that changes the course of his life. After his release from prison, the two visit Joel’s gravesite together as part of their reconciliation, an image that I doubt will ever fully leave my mind.

I also feel fortunate to have seen documentary portraits of two extraordinary artists whose work I was totally unfamiliar with before watching the films: the Brazilian ballet dancer Marcelo Gomes, and the late, celebrated Getty Images photojournalist Chris Hondros. Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, finely directed by David Barba and James Pellerito, presents Gomes as an effortlessly likable and professionally enduring personality. Despite the intense physical demands of his 20-year international career in ballet, beginning with his studies at Florida’s famed Harid Conservatory to his present status as a principal performer with the American Ballet Theatre, Gomes has persistently maintained a great sense of humor while keeping his eye firmly fixed on the level horizon of his dreams.

While the documentary focuses mostly on Gomes’ artistic and professional development over time, his personal life and family life are also considered in the film. He was among the first major male ballet dancers to come out as gay publicly when he was featured on the cover of The Advocate magazine; having been raised by a pair of gay uncles, he mentions at one point in the movie that coming out as a teenager was no problem for him at all, due to their example and caring influence. His relationship with his father is also explored because at the time the film was made, his father had still never traveled to see Gomes perform in an American Ballet Theatre production in New York. His father was supportive of Marcelo’s decision to pursue ballet from a young age, so having the opportunity for his father to watch him dance on a New York stage is a wish that Gomes still hopes to fulfill before he retires from his ballet career.

Photographer Chris Hondros, one of the most prominent photojournalists of the past two decades, covered wars in Liberia, Iraq, and Libya, and his images became some of the foundational touchstones of those conflicts for the general public through news media outlets. One of his colleagues mentions that Hondros “was there for every major world event” in recent years. He was killed at age 41 in 2011, during coverage of a violent combat situation in Libya. One of his closest friends since childhood, the non-fiction author and filmmaker Greg Campbell, has directed Hondros as a deeply engrossing film that’s also a much-deserved memorial to Chris.

Several interviewees in the documentary mention that Hondros’ pursuit of high-risk scenarios abroad seemed to be authentically rooted in human empathy. He found ways to re-connect with his subjects long after he had photographed them. For instance, he sought out the young Liberian fighter at the center of what would go on to be perhaps Hondros’ best-known image, urged the man to return to school, and gave him the funding to help him do so, which the man later says completely turned his life around in a positive direction. The dangers of Hondros’ career were manifold, but he continued to capture those images and cultivate those relationships. When his mother Inge Hondros is interviewed in the film, she recounts how Christopher’s father tried to dissuade him in his youth from pursuing a career in photography, and she flat-out told Chris’ dad, “Zip it.” That gave Hondros the chance to follow his true calling.

Finally, I was quite surprised to enjoy Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys as much as I did. I wasn’t sure before watching the film if the topic of airboating in the Florida Everglades would hold my interest, but director David Abel and his producing partner Andy Laub have created a beautifully made and timely film that’s filled with entertaining characters and important environmental issues. The backdrop of isolated south Florida marshland, with its wide blue skies and spectacular sunsets, is itself reason enough to see the film. But the people who inhabit it are equally intriguing from start to finish because they’re fighting to maintain their distinctive way of life. Congress recently passed legislation that will begin to phase out private airboating in the Everglades; anyone who wasn’t at least 16-years-old in 1989 will no longer be permitted to operate an airboat privately. The National Park Service sought to pass these laws for environmental purposes. They claim that airboat trails through sawgrass are re-routing the natural water flow in ways that harm the environment, and they also want to eradicate hunting in the Everglades. Some gladesmen earn their income from hunting for frogs, alligators, and other animals in the marshlands.

Lifelong residents of the area, like the film’s key figure, Donnie Onstad, argue that the gladesmen’s children and grandchildren should have a right to the same idyllic upbringing and family rituals that he grew up with himself. Most of the airboaters interviewed in the film mention how remote the territory is, and they say that airboating is really the only way to access many locations. Others remark, rightfully, that airboating is therefore a long-standing form of communing peacefully with their natural environment, and a way of being at one with it. But the most sobering comments in the film come from Professor Harold Wanless, chair of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, who says without question that, due to climate change and sea-level rise, coastal areas of southern Florida will be overtaken by the ocean within the next century, perhaps even sooner. For that reason, and many others witnessed in these documentaries, I felt that the films in the GlobeDocs festival speak urgently both to our present moment and to our future.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Everything but the Girl, Idlewild (Sire Records, 1988)

I remember about twelve years ago having lunch with a former friend and colleague, when Everything but the Girl’s “Oxford Street,” from their 1988 album Idlewild, suddenly came on the restaurant’s sound system. I was so surprised that anybody would even think of playing the song that I perked up and admitted — seemingly outdated ’80s tune though it was — that it had always been one of my favorite songs. My lunch companion replied incredulously, “Really?” and I think he even rolled his eyes at me a bit. To the uninitiated, it’s a song that sounds like a long-lost soft rock ballad that an adult contemporary radio station back then would have played. Not so cool or hip, he thought, despite my insistence that he just wasn’t listening to the song closely enough.

Before I say anything more about the album itself, I want to say something important about taste. The colleague I had lunch with is a former friend in part because I don’t think taste should be informed too much by fear of what others will think about our taste. Actually, I don’t think that sort of taste is really taste at all; rather, it’s fallout from some kind of juvenile peer pressure that creeps into the lives of many people I’ve known over time, and far past their middle school days. Genuine taste is not a form of social currency. It’s sensibility, a map of who we most authentically are as individuals, and that’s something I’ll continue to defend, and probably forfeit more friendships over, until my time here on earth is done.

Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn recorded Idlewild three decades ago now, in the autumn of 1987, about five years into their career as a duo. When the album was released several months later, they were both 25-years-old. The sophisti-pop movement in the United Kingdom was still going strong, and I heard and loved it all from as far away as my childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In a hilarious moment from a 1988 promotional interview, Tracey explained that Idlewild was titled after the original name of New York’s airport (now JFK) and said, “The Americans have this wonderful knack for naming their places with a kind of poetic imagination that seems to reveal itself nowhere else in their entire culture.” That's somewhat harsh, but also largely true.

Nevertheless, the homespun, measured tone of Idlewild, leaning away from jazz and more towards pop, was clearly aiming for an American audience, although Everything but the Girl wouldn’t begin to find an audience in America until their 1990 album The Language of Life. Lyrically, the songs on Idlewild are very much rooted in England, in a way that the Anglophile in me finds irresistible. “Oxford Street” poignantly thinks ahead to London life by reaching back to Tracey’s upbringing in Hatfield and her university years in Hull: “When I was ten I thought my brother was god, / he’d lie in bed and turn out the light with a fishing rod... / Then when I was nineteen, I thought the Humber would be / the gateway from my little world into the real world.” I think it’s the smart balance of lyricism and prosaic poise that makes me love this song so much, along with its vocals delivered through a calm evenness that only Tracey Thorn can pull off in exactly the way she does.

I had never paid much attention to the subject of “These Early Days” until I was listening to the album again tonight to write this review, even if this is an album whose music itself I know totally by heart, having listened to it literally hundreds of times. The song’s written for a child in Tracey’s life, a child who’s only two at the time. Its gentle refrain (“though you may weary of this vale of tears, / these days remember, always remember”) reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem “Spring and Fall” and the child Margaret in that poem (“yet you will weep and know why”), as she ponders the falling leaves and her own mortality.

Another of the album’s four singles, “I Always Was Your Girl,” counterpoints its airy synthesizers and tenor saxophone with some down-to-earth humor, as Tracey sings of a couple who feel ill-at-ease in the world: “You put your friends through hell, / and that’s why we get along so well... / Self-assured and abusing guests, / that’s the way I like you best.” Ben’s wistful lyrics and vocals on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” extend the album into deeper territory (“if I only do one thing, / I’ll sing songs to my father, / I’ll sing songs to my child; / it’s time to hold your loved ones / while the chains are loosed and the world runs wild”). And on a sunny summer holiday in Italy, “Lonesome for a Place I Know” returns to dim rains of the UK: “The hedgerows and the townhalls... / something pulls, something I can’t define tells me England calls.”

Some of the other songs on Idlewild got considerably more attention, including an ace cover of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” the song that was popularized by Rod Stewart a decade earlier, and “Apron Strings,” which the film director John Hughes selected, in a less subdued version, for the soundtrack of his 1988 movie She’s Having a Baby. The excellent B-sides from the album’s singles, such as “Hang out the Flags,” “Home from Home,” and “Dyed in the Grain,” also saw a second life when Idlewild was re-issued as a deluxe edition (with many home demos and outtakes) by Edsel Records in 2012. These extras are wonderful to have, of course, but so is the original album, which remains in my top five favorite albums of all time.

Monday, June 19, 2017

19th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 14th - 18th, 2017)

A frequent refrain at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival was a reaction to the current political climate. From filmmakers to programmers to award recipients (and sometimes even in the festival films themselves), numerous artists, producers, and collaborators expressed their concerns about what artists and audiences may have to endure over the next few years, as the arts come increasingly under threat by a government administration that’s been defunding arts initiatives and vital forms of support for creative work. Whenever someone voiced their trepidation from the microphone, the sentiment was always that we in the room would have to keep our art forms alive and carry them forward, both as creators and as spectators. One of the most memorable festival documentaries that I’ll be returning to below, Spettacolo, directly addresses this issue through the citizens of an Italian village who’ve kept their annual tradition of shaping and performing their own original, collaborative theatrical production going strong for the past five decades.

One of the narrative features that I’d been most looking forward to seeing, writer/director Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, also ended up being one of my favorite films from this year’s festival. The film follows Frankie, a young working-class guy in Brooklyn who covertly cruises on gay webcam sites online and starts to act on desires that he’s barely begun to articulate to himself. Whenever men online ask him what he likes, he’s unsure how to respond, especially since he’s also pursuing a relationship with a girlfriend whom he meets on a boardwalk under summertime twilight fireworks early in the film.

Frankie’s portrayed by newcomer Harris Dickinson, in a bold, star-making performance that’s multi-layered and undeniably sexy. The rowdy bunch of guys who roam around town alongside him provide colorful company, but Frankie is always the movie’s focus; the camera closely studies him in every scene as the other characters go about their business, a demanding role for any actor to take on. It’s even more demanding in the sense that Frankie is often taciturn and elusive, understandably so given his circumstances. What we learn about him gradually throughout the film is conveyed mostly beneath the surface, through brief glances, quick changes of expression, and tiny looks of exasperation or empathy. I was never bored for a second while watching this actor inhabit the role and found him to be totally transfixing.

As any viewer may predict about a film that features a group of young male upstarts at its center, I wasn’t surprised when the movie swerved into more dangerous territory. I’m sure that some in the audience were also disappointed with the direction in which the film ultimately headed. Although Frankie’s predicament is not approached unsympathetically — he’s trying his best to connect on a deeper level with other men (mostly older guys who won’t know any of his friends) in a social setting that seems to limit his set of options drastically — he also gives in to peer pressure and familial expectations, in an attempt to fit into the masculine constructs that have been presented to him. Even in our post-Brokeback Mountain era, I think this particular narrative is still under-told and underrepresented, both in film and literature. I remember being involved for about a year with a guy who grew up in working-class Boston, and so much of Frankie’s character reminded me precisely of him and how conflicted he felt about being bi, or maybe gay, or maybe straight. Beach Rats deftly demonstrates why our cultural and sexual categories can also become somewhat less reliable in the actual context of individual people’s lives.

Beatriz at Dinner, the latest film directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White, who previously made both Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl together, will surely be seen as a timely response to the current class and race divisions in America. Beatriz (an excellent Salma Hayek) is a holistic healthcare worker at a cancer clinic in California, who winds up as the unanticipated guest at a dinner party held by one of her female massage clients after a massage appointment at the client’s swanky mansion. Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner when her car won’t start in her client’s driveway, and also in part because she became close to her client’s family when their teenage daughter received treatment as a patient at the clinic where Beatriz works.

Another guest at the dinner, Doug Strutt (an outright villain played with relish by John Lithgow), is a glowering and powerful real estate developer whose business tactics are widely known for being mercenary and unethical. He’s clearly an analogue for any number of contemporary political and business figures whose greed remains unchecked and unchallenged due to their wealth and their influential positions. Beatriz, a legal immigrant from Mexico, instantly sees Doug Strutt for exactly what he is, and she also feels certain that she recognizes him, even confusing him for a real estate mogul who built a tourist resort in her Mexican hometown and displaced many longtime residents of the community.

As expected, the dinner dialogue unfolds at a measured pace with steadily escalating tension, as Beatriz and Doug initiate their verbal sparring match and trenchant arguments heat up. Hayek endows Beatriz’s outlook with a moral gravity that drives the story and pulls the other characters forward. On the surface the film feels fully realistic, though I think it’s equally an allegory, a combination that proved perplexing to some audience members. After the screening that I saw, I overheard some viewers saying that they didn’t really get the film’s ending, which operates as a metaphor for what Beatriz is up against and perhaps shows how she feels about the future. The movie’s final images also connect back to its dreamlike opening scene, framing the film within a context that’s rooted in nature, and also making the movie feel as timeless as it is timely. For all of those reasons, I thought that Beatriz at Dinner was smarter than it seemed at first glance.

My favorite documentary from this year’s festival, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, is a phenomenal follow-up to his 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, which powerfully explored the ACT UP movement during the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City. His new documentary examines a very different subject that’s just as fascinating: the life and suspicious death of Marsha P. (for “Pay It No Mind”) Johnson, one of the transgender people of color who courageously stood up and fought back against the police that raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in late June of 1969. In the ensuing years, Marsha became one of the key figures in the legend of the Stonewall rebellion. Tragically, she was found drowned in the water of the Hudson River off the Christopher Street piers one morning in July of 1992, and while police dismissively ruled the cause of death as suicide, Marsha’s case was never truly investigated or fully resolved.

The film’s star and tenacious hero is Victoria Cruz, another trans woman of color from the Stonewall era, who was born and raised in a family of eleven children in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Working for the Anti-Violence Project in Manhattan, Victoria re-opens Marsha’s case, which had remained cold for 25 years, in order to dig deeper into its details and determine the true cause of Marsha P. Johnson’s death. When she calls retired police detectives who worked on the case in 1992, she runs into dead ends and refusals to cooperate, but she keeps pushing ahead tirelessly. Upon finally receiving Marsha’s autopsy report, sure enough, “possible homicide” is listed as a potential cause of death. Ominous threats that had been made to Randy Wicker, Marsha’s longtime roommate, also seem to support that possibility.

What makes David France’s film brilliant is its intricate and engrossing storytelling. The movie functions as a true-crime thriller, detective tale, compelling mystery, and history lesson simultaneously, in addition to its activist stance, which offers an important social justice message about the unfair treatment of trans people in our society. Sylvia Rivera, another trans community icon who led the resistance during the Stonewall Riots, becomes an equal focus during the film’s latter half, as the documentary traces her rise from living homeless on the Chelsea Piers to receiving the wider cultural recognition that she deserved from the LGBT community. I was fortunate to have lunch with Victoria Cruz during the press luncheon on Saturday at the festival, and I’m still blown away by her dedication to the cause of justice in the film. Even when the director of the Anti-Violence Project urges her to focus time and energy on the trans people who face discrimination in the present and will continue to encounter violence in the future, Victoria remains devoted to finding some closure to the memory of Marsha P. Johnson, both for the community and for Marsha’s immediate family.

On the themes of community and endurance, I also loved Jeff Malmberg’s and Chris Shellen’s offbeat slice-of-life documentary Spettacolo (meaning a spectacle or play, and pronounced similarly to “spectacular”), which takes place in the remote medieval Tuscan village of Monticchiello, where the town’s residents have collectively written and performed a play as themselves every summer for over fifty years. Some of the original performers still appear in the play today, though as the younger generation moves away to cities and more urbane pursuits, the older residents of Monticchiello wonder how much longer their unique tradition can survive. Those anxieties, coupled with ongoing rumblings from the international news, especially news about the ravages of global capitalism, led the group to select a darker theme during the year that the documentary was being made: the end of the world.

The semi-absurdist theatrical production that’s mounted by the troupe each year harkens back to the style of Italian playwrights like Luigi Pirandello. But regardless of the shape that each play takes, under the guidance of a serious and hilarious director who spends his downtime painting visionary watercolors, the main point is that the community creates it together from the material of their own everyday lives. “Our lives became one long play,” says the director early in the film, and some of the actors also comment memorably on what working together throughout the annual production reveals about their communal bond. “We’re 300 people who love each other,” remarks one actor in vintage footage from about 30 years ago, a stark contrast to the kind of public solitude experienced by many who live in cities today. It’s also a startling contrast to the village’s current population of only 136, as noted at the start of the movie. It made me wonder, when is our way of life not under threat of extinction? Nonetheless, the town’s determination to keep its theatrical tradition alive is inspiring at every moment of the film.

I was moved in a very different way by 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, Hope Litoff’s brave and unsparing meditation on the reasons behind the suicide of her older sister Ruth, who died of an overdose in 2008 at age 42, after a long, heartbreaking history of depression and hospitalizations. A gifted artist and photographer, Ruth left behind an abundance of large-scale photographs of individual flowers and other colorful objects, which saturate the frames of the documentary itself whenever they appear on screen. The images are so vivid and present in those scenes that it’s as if Ruth is speaking directly to us through the photographs, even in her absence.

Hope’s insistent search for meaning in her sister’s struggle takes such an emotional toll on her during the making of the film that she breaks her own sobriety of sixteen years right on camera, in one of the most harrowing moments of confessional cinema that I’ve ever seen. The film is redemptive in the end, too, as Hope mounts “Ruth’s Dream,” an installation of illuminated boxes wrapped in transparencies of Ruth’s photographs on exhibit in the lobby of Bellevue Hospital, a project that Ruth had begun working on herself just prior to her death but was never able to complete. The exhibit and the film are both a testament to the director’s unwavering courage in preserving her sister’s spirit, and I think that the movie will also be a helpful document for those who are navigating grief from the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Finally, I also enjoyed one beautifully made biopic in this year’s festival, Dome Karukosken’s Tom of Finland. I’m sure that this is the only narrative feature film ever to begin and end at Chicago’s popular IML (International Mr. Leather) conference and competition for gay/bi leathermen and the BDSM community. It’s amazing that what occurs between those two bookends in the movie unfolds within the classic period biopic formula. The film follows the rise of famed Finnish visual artist Touko Laaksonen (soulfully portrayed by Pekka Strang), who was later given the pseudonym Tom of Finland by Bob Mizer, the publisher of American beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial. Tom of Finland’s drawings depict hyper-sexualized fantasy versions of various uniformed (and un-uniformed) masculine types, from sailors to policemen to motorcyclists, all so outrageously proportioned and perfect that they burst off the page. While the art itself features less in the film than does Laaksonen’s life, including his 28-year relationship with his boyfriend Nipa (played by Lauri Tilkanen), who died in 1981, the film features several actors in military and prison inquisition scenes who look like they’d fit right in with the kind of figures Tom of Finland drew throughout his storied and liberating artistic career.

I’ll close with one key moment from the conversation with this year’s Excellence in Acting award recipient, Chloë Sevigny, who was interviewed on stage by deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Eugene Hernandez. When he asked Sevigny to name one thing that she loves about acting and one thing that she hates about it, she responded that though she loves getting outside of herself while escaping into a film character, she hates aging as an actress. To help counter the effect that Hollywood can often have on women’s careers, a new record of half the films featured in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival were directed by women. That’s roughly ten times the percentage of mainstream Hollywood films that are directed by women each year. This crucial kind of social progress reassures me that, despite the challenges faced by filmmakers and creative artists in upcoming years, great cinema will continue to get funded, and lasting art will continue to be made.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fresh Horses (dir. David Anspaugh, 1988)

My first and only time ever on a movie set was for the 1988 film Fresh Horses, which starred Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. Clearly, Fresh Horses was meant to be a kind of not-quite-sequel to 1986’s Pretty in Pink, though it didn’t come anywhere close to matching its predecessor’s success. Fresh Horses was filmed in and around where I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was 14-years-old at the time and had been fairly obsessed with John Hughes’ mid-’80s high school dramatic comedies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. So I was excited when I read an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, our hometown daily newspaper, about how Fresh Horses was being filmed in town.

The only specific filming location that was mentioned in the article, and which sounded like it might be locatable for a 14-year-old kid, was a house on a rolling hillside in Union, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  I’d never been to Union, Kentucky, of course, but I figured that it couldn’t be a very big place. Determined to find that house where they were filming, I convinced a friend who was a couple of years older and who had a car to skip school with me one Friday, so that we could drive down to Kentucky. He was up for that and excited about it, too. This was in the fall of 1987, late October as I recall.

We arrived in Union, Kentucky, by sometime around noon. It was quaint and rural, basically just one long country road through bluegrass hills and fields of horses. Within a few minutes, we spotted the big white house on a hillside, set a little ways off the road. Lighting equipment was set up in metal clusters on the sprawling lawn in front of the house, but there was no activity going on at that point; as the abundance of idle lighting equipment clearly indicated, the day’s filming would commence after sundown. In the meantime, we drove around for a while, had a late lunch at a roadside diner, and returned to the house that evening, once it had gotten dark outside.

Then something happened that would never happen today in 2017. My friend parked his car in the grass alongside the winding gravel driveway that led to the house, he grabbed a big quilted blanket from the trunk of his car, and we sat beneath a huge tree to watch the movie being filmed from a safe distance. I remember seeing one security officer stationed on the property, a little further up the driveway. He took notice of us, but he didn’t say anything to us. Neither did anybody else. Nobody even approached us at all, perhaps thinking that we had some actual reason for being there. We sat there for hours, in fact, from about seven o’clock until sometime well after midnight.

During all of those hours, we saw only two scenes being filmed, both exterior scenes on the front porch of the house, and both with Andrew McCarthy. In one scene, he drove a car up to the house and parked, walked slowly up to the porch, peered inside the front door, then stepped off the side of the porch to walk around the side of the house. In the other scene, a fight broke out just inside of the house, between Andrew McCarthy’s character, named Matt Larkin, and some other random tough guy. Then the brawl tumbled out the front door onto the porch, with poor Andrew McCarthy’s character hitting the ground in front of the porch steps. I vividly remember hearing the punctuated shouts of Patti D’Arbanville’s character, Jean, who owned that big party house on the hill, trying to break up the fight.

Nevertheless, nothing in my experiences as a young filmgoer had prepared me for just how boring and repetitious being on the set of a film would feel. The seeming glamour of Hollywood and the artful deception of edited cinematic narratives had brainwashed me into thinking that film sets themselves would be equally glamorous. The scene of Larkin driving up to the house was filmed at least twenty times, with the movie crew trying to get the right take, and the fight scene on the porch was filmed about thirty times, maybe even more. Andrew McCarthy chain-smoked whenever there was a break between takes. I remember seeing him many years later, portraying Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and catching a glimpse of him chain-smoking yet again, out in the courtyard with the crew members during the intermission.

Perhaps because of the repetition involved in the filming, and the novelty of the whole experience, visiting that film set is indelibly engraved into my memory. I can replay the entire sequence of events in my mind anytime, like a little cinematic loop itself. It was fun, too, seeing how those two scenes had been incorporated into the film when it was released in theaters towards the end of 1988. Larkin’s little jump off the side of the porch to walk around to the side of the house, which ended right there with each take during the filming, is followed in the movie itself by his intense first kiss with Jewel, Molly Ringwald’s character, right up against the outside wall of that house. This was probably my first actual lesson about how storylines in movies aren’t filmed chronologically. I don’t think Molly Ringwald was even on the set of the film that night.

The screenplay for Fresh Horses was adapted from Larry Ketron’s stage play of the same title, and he adapted the screenplay himself. The play starred Suzy Amis as Jewel and Craig Sheffer as Larkin when it premiered in New York in 1986. It’s the story of a well-to-do college student, Larkin, who’s interested in engineering and design (constructing rides like rollercoasters, specifically), and his illicit romantic pursuit of Jewel, a street-smart country girl from across the river, who may or may not even be of age to be dating him. All of that comes out slowly during the course of the film, naturally, and with no little amount of melodramatic tears and formulaic effect. Fresh Horses is not a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. But that’s part of the reason why I wanted to write about it this many years later. How can a movie that’s not particularly good, and more than a little cheesy at times, still feel like it’s kind of good in retrospect because of how it attaches itself to one’s own youthful memories?

Larkin’s sidekick in the film, Tipton, is played by Ben Stiller, who makes a charismatic comedic impression in one of his earliest film roles; he’s cute and expressive and just manic enough. Tipton is meant to be Larkin’s reliable buddy and his social conscience, urging him to be more interested in the attractive college women at a pool party that they attend at a private home, rather than falling for the seductive girl from the wrong side of the tracks that Jewel represents. Larkin is still at that age when his homosocial friendships with other guys carry more weight than his fledgling relationships with women, including the self-righteous rich girl to whom he’s engaged to be married. That’s probably why the film opens with Larkin and Tipton cruising in a speedboat together at nightfall along the banks of the Ohio River, with a widescreen view of the iconic Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium and the Riverfront Coliseum all decked out in lights. Fred Murphy’s cinematography certainly captures Cincinnati’s gorgeous skyline exactly the way I remember it from childhood, as does David Foster’s wistful opening keyboard score, which takes me right back to the late 1980’s like nothing else really could.

Much of the dialogue from Ketron’s original play translates well to the screen, even powerfully so in intermittent flashes, especially during scenes in a run-down, abandoned railroad shack, where Jewel and Larkin work through the mysteries of their attraction to each other and further seal their bond. Jewel’s given a handful of inventive monologues that cut deeper in those scenes. Although she’s the character who never graduated from high school, she’s the covert brain of the film, as well as its fierce heart, facets of the character that Molly Ringwald more than ably conveys. As Jewel’s name suggests, she’s the magnetic force at the center of the story; other characters simply react to her. She maintains the control, even if she’s still too young and naïve to know what do to with it.

Later in the film, there’s also a riveting performance by a young, smoldering Viggo Mortensen, who plays Green, the ne’er-do-well husband whom Jewel manages to keep a secret from Larkin until later in the movie. Mortensen appears almost silently at a truck-stop diner mid-way through the film, and his only real speaking scene is for a few important minutes at the movie’s dramatic climax, when Larkin barges into the ramshackle home where Green lives with Jewel, in order to confront the two of them together. The way that Mortensen embodies Green’s cruel sensuality, and the tantalizingly lazy Southern drawl with which he delivers his hushed dialogue, should have rightly convinced anyone watching the movie back then that he would go on to have a major career as a film actor.

The moment that I remember most often from Fresh Horses is a quiet scene in which Larkin and Jewel walk together beside the tall, criss-crossing wooden beams of a rollercoaster at a closed-down amusement park in winter. The amusement park is called LeSourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio, a place that was located not too far from where I grew up in Cincinnati. I always loved amusement parks as a kid, even in the off-season. Recalling the towering structure of the rollercoaster and the image of a tiny couple embracing next to it, in clear contrast to its sheer size and height, I think that the scene works almost as a kind of metaphor for the immensity of time itself, and our own small space at the margins in the scope of it.