April 20, 2017
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Frameline is 40 and Better Than Ever!
by Doniphan Blair
(Rt) Bennett Wallace and Joe Stevens, musicians and trans men, in Shaleece Haas's 'Real Boy', the documentary audience award winner at Frameline's Fortieth. photo: courtesty S. Haas
FRAMELINE, THE FIRST LGBT FILM FEST-
ival—ever, anywhere!—turned forty this year, which means it will settle down, stop cruising rough trade and move on from the raw realities of alt-gender to marriage and house-buying—NOT!
Indeed, Frameline celebrated entry into middle-age with over 160 films, showing from June 6th-26th at their flagship theater, the Castro, and a half-a-dozen others around San Francisco and the East Bay. The festival's plethora of powerful docs was to be expected, given last year’s gay marriage legalization by the Supreme Court and the full emergence of trans people.
“The LGBT doc landscape is strong—extremely strong—it is great time to be making documentaries,” I was told by filmmaker Marc Smolowitz, a longtime attendee of Frameline from the professional community, with whom I checked in. “There are so many strong stories to tell. It is both quality and quantity.”
Also a director, Smolowitz is known for producing the excellent “Trembling Before G-d” (2001), about gay Orthodox Jews, and the even more important “The Weather Underground” (2002), about the preeminent radical ‘60s group.
Given the festival’s birthday, “A delightful documentary was made by Lauretta Molitor,” Smolowitz said. Called “Zeitgeist 1977: The First Festival”, the short shows Frameline’s founders, filmmakers David Weissman, Dan Nicoletta, Rob Epstein and Marc Huestis, culled from Molitor’s upcoming profile of Huestis, “Impresario” (2017) .
Tackling the trans story head on was “
” by Shaleece Haas about the travails of young trans men AND their mothers—“A son’s transition, a mom’s transformation,” is the tag line. It got a “thunderous, standing ovation,” Smolowitz said, went on to win the Best Documentary Audience Award and get picked up by PBS.
With California often first in love and politics, Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares’s “
” is an important look at the state’s first openly gay assemblyperson, Sheila Kuehl, who started in 1994, and Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, who joined her shortly thereafter.
Another timely historical film—tragically so, post-Orlando—is “Upstairs Inferno” by Robert Camina, about one of the largest mass murders in US history, pre-Orlando: the firebombing of a gay bar in New Orleans, in 1973, which killed 32.
Fantastic queer history made by Frameline's debut in 1977, from Lauretta Molitor doc-short 'Zeitgeist 1977'. photo: courtesty L. Molitor
“The film that really astounded me and made me angry was ‘South-West of Salem’,” I was told by Smolowitz, who is also a big fan of “Real Boy” and “Political Animals” —full disclosure: he was consulting producer and co-producer, respectively.
South-West of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
” follows four lesbian Latinas, who were wrongly imprisoned for raping children, a case coming from the 1980s hysteria about kidnapping and child molesting. “The film does an amazing job: they get out of prison after 13, 14 years,” Smolowitz went on, “the testimony gets examined; and they are awaiting exoneration. The women were all there [at Frameline]…a powerful experience.”
Although Frameline featured dozens of fascinating docs—another worth mention is “Check It”, by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, about black gay and trans teens who form a gang to protect themselves, this year’s narrative submissions were equally well-endowed.
And in that category, the film which caught the eye of Smolowitz as well as this reviewer, and won the most festival-goer hearts—indeed, it took home the Audience Award for Best Feature, was the locally-made “light comedy,” if you can dig that, about AIDS.
“A gay movie that is not a gay movie,” I was told by Tom E. Brown, the director of “
”, which stars James Roday and Danny Glover. “I just wanted it to be accessible to everyone and was hoping you could substitute whatever crap you are dealing with in life with HIV-AIDS,” see cS article "
Tom Brown: One of the Kindest Directors Around
A tight, as well as light, dramedy, "Pushing" ripples with classical styling, from its values and Big Hotel dramaturge to cinematography and art direction. It also includes a lot of different stories, visual riffs and even genres: one minute farce, the next surrealist, finally romance, albeit never maudlin, all lovingly wrapped around a hard-boiled bouncer who is also a sensitive writer AND a longterm AIDS survivor.
Highly familiar with his subject, Brown not only has been HIV-positive for over thirty years but made three earlier, AIDS-related, comedic shorts: “Das Clown” (1999), “Rubber Gloves” (1998) and “Don't Run, Johnny” (1997). This is his first feature.
James Roday, Tom Brown and the 'Pushing Dead' crew shooting the BART sequences. photo: courtesy Tom Brown
“It is a delightful, quirky and moving piece of filmmaking,” was Smolowitz's take (again full disclosure, Smolowitz is friends with Brown).
“What I think is really special is, while it has AIDS at its center, it just happens to be about AIDS… you don’t see such stories about AIDS and with such acting—James [Roday] was a GREAT lead!”
In addition to Roday, who starred in USA Network’s “Psych” (2006-14), and Glover, whose CV is too long and well-known to need mention, there is Robin Weigert, “Deadwood”’s Calamity Jane (2004-2006), Khandi Alexander, “There's Something About Mary” (1998), and Tom Riley, who has done a LOT of TV—not bad for indie.
Indeed, from its opening scene parodying a San Francisco car chase, “Pushing Dead” displays a director in full command of his story, actors and ideas. First there’s Danny (Roday), who finds himself dropped by his insurance for depositing a $100 birthday check,; then Bob (Glover), dropped by his wife for inflexibility, and Danny’s roommate, Paula (Weigert), who can’t seem to meet a sane man.
The personality-driven story doesn’t over plays its hand into slapstick or preachy but it pushes its development envelope, with many characters wandering into strange circumstances, a boy in a pharmacy trying a Halloween wolf mask and many metaphorical asides, notably figurines in all its forms, which serves as a gentle reminded of ... what exactly it is hard to say.
Indeed, Brown told me, "I am really happy not many people are getting my metaphor of the white monkey doll."
“[Brown] got great performances out of all of the actors,” Smolowitz continued. “This quirky universe of friendships... all these nuances of a character who is living long-term with AIDs… really spot-on. The surprising thing is it has so many little touches.”
As the story of the Danny's cancelled meds proceeds, we get to know the pharmacy cashier who checks his insurance, which is being denied, the case worker, who could fix his med situation, and his boss, who is being kicked out by his wife. With solid, simple and stylish photography by local Frazer Bradshaw, “Pushing Dead”’s multiple worldviews hang elegantly together, turning what could be just an admirable indie adventure into a cohesive commercial outing.
"The stigma of the younger guy is unfair," noted Smolowitz, about the film's central romantic pas de deux. "It shows you how people work and lets you make your own choice. It gives you the nuances of dating in a post-AIDS world. That is a beautiful thing that Tom has done in present day SF."
Cali Queer politicians: (lft-rt) Christine Kehoe, Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl and Jackie Goldberg, from 'Political Animals' by Jonah Markowitz. photo: courtesy J. Markowitz
"You never see see anyone on a cell and, at the end, they watch 'Check Please Bay Area'. There is something so San Francisco but it is not wrapped up with all the bells and whistles of the tech world, which Tom stripped out—which is so refreshing!"
Indeed, “Pushing Dead” circumvents today's “prop problem,” wherein tech changes so quickly it can render phones, computers, etc, in even a few year-old film passe. "Pushing" has electric typewriters, land lines and fax machines, as well as a work-a-day San Francisco.
“There are certain classic aspects that Tom has crafted that will give 'Pushing Dead' a certain shelf-life. It will be interesting to see how it is received, since there are so few stories with AIDS at their center," concluded Smolowitz.
Although James Roday’s character is facing some serious problems, can’t get his meds, gets mugged both by a mugger and a young English hottie, who discriminates against him because he has had AIDS for twenty years, Danny is never reduced to what some might call gay acting out but is really the universal difference between child and adult. "Pushing" is the post-AIDS consciousness come of age.
“That is my philosophy in film and in life: you try to be a kind person,” Brown told me, in our interview in the basement of his building in San Francisco’s colorful Tenderloin neighborhood. "I like everyone to be kind on the set. If anyone isn’t, that would be the only thing that would make me upset.”
“Tom was very nice,” said Jerry McDaniel, who played medical case worker. When McDaniel had some line-recall difficulties, “He said, ‘Just break it up and keep it going.' I trusted him. He is very personable on set.”
Also central to the stellar result was Brown's main producer Chris Martin, who did “I (Almost) Got Away with It” (2012) and producer Richard LaGravinese, the accomplished director "Beautiful Creatures" (2012) and scriptwriter of “The Fisher King” (1991) among others, who also plays the mugger.
Tom Brown, director of 'Pushing Dead', had emerged as a strong spirit in San Francisco cinema speaking for openness, having fun AND kindness. photo: D. Blair
The subtle and masterful score was music directed by Mark De Gli Antoni, who has done docs from “She's Beautiful When She's Angry” (2014) to “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out” (2012), while Frazer Bradshaw’s cinematography is elegant and masterful. Bradshaw is known for “Being George Clooney” (2016) and “Babies” (2010), or his own fantastic feature “Everything Strange and New” (2009), starring Jerry McDaniel.
“Tom wrote that story to have a little more Hollywood chutzpah,” McDaniel told me. “There are a lot of people who write scripts and not everyone can do it he is a really good writer. I am blessed to be near people of high caliber. “
“There is something about what the Castro theater offers. People are still hungry to come out and consume films together. It is not just about the movie but the experience—they also have the filmmakers there."
“A lot of people think an AIDS film will be a downer but that is not Tom’s film, which makes it much more accessible . It’s a very genteel comedy and that makes endearing, when the acting is good and characters are likable, people stay with the film.“
With Frameline fantastic fortieth and Tom E. Brown's special debut, "Pushing Dead", we are looking forward to their 41st and Brown's possible new project, a television show about his very mixed San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 17, 2016 - 12:01 PM