Final Frameline 43 Reviews

by on June 25, 2019

Stephen Kijak’s fascinating Frameline Film Festival Centerpiece Documentary “Sid and Judy” delivered a portrait of gay icon Judy Garland mainly through the reminiscences of Garland’s manager and eventual third husband Sid Luft.  Newbies to the Garland mystique will be treated to samples of her singing prowess as well as insights into the more tumultuous aspects of the icon’s life. Even veteran fans of Garland will be surprised by some of the rarities Kijak and his production team presents in the film.

The vocal talents of actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason-Leigh provide strong contributions to the effectiveness of “Sid And Judy.”  Both actors bring to life the writing voices of Luft and Garland, respectively. Hamm’s nicely gravelly tones capture both the public bruiser as well as the privately flawed human who deeply loved the troubled movie star and her children.  Jason-Leigh conveys the woman long scarred by “the business of show” as well as the continually disappointing behavior of far too many men in her life.

Garland’s eventual death from a drug overdose gets shown to be more than the product of a personal lack of self-control.  Benzedrine and other drugs were regularly prescribed by film studio doctors to ensure stars such as Garland could perform at peak efficiency even towards the end of a grueling 14-hour day.  Yet over time, Garland would need drugs to help her function outside a film studio setting. Luft guiltily admits to his culpability in enabling the singer’s drug addiction.

Drug problems aside, the film presents some very good reasons why Garland became a gay icon.  Her signature song “Over The Rainbow” spoke deeply to gays longing for a life better than their current stifling circumstances.  Garland’s re-starting of her career despite devastating life setbacks inspired gays who’ve also been forced to rebuild their lives.   Finally, if the emotions conveyed in Garland’s singing style were a plant, it would be one strong enough to break through the social concrete of decorum and politeness.

“Sid and Judy” nicely reciprocates the existence of Garland’s gay fandom by allowing some of these fans to be heard on-screen.  These include the fan who published Judy Garland Fan Club newsletters and the legendary transgender activist Miss Major.

The Garland song performances peppered throughout the film show by example how the Garland vocal magic entranced people.  There are excerpts from “The Wizard Of Oz” (obviously), “Meet Me In St. Louis,” “Summer Stock,” and “Love Finds Andy Hardy.”  Garland’s stage concerts in England prove a lot trickier to convey on film as no footage of the actual concerts exist. But thanks to the genius editing of Claire Didier, the mixture of song recording and rare concert photographs deliver a sufficient degree of electricity.

A song segment from the short-lived CBS series “The Judy Garland Show” will be an Easter egg for gay viewers.  Garland had brought on to the show an up-and-coming performer named Barbara Streisand. The unfortunately way too short excerpt from that show, their “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” duet, provides one of “Sid and Judy”’s most electrifying moments.

The sequence that tops the Garland/Streisand duet, though, involves Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away.”  This song was intended to be a show-stopping highlight of the 1954 remake of “A Star Is Born.” Creative disagreements led to re-shoots of that sequence three different times.  Archival Researcher Claire Melton luckily discovered a trove of photographs from all three re-shoots. Didier took those photos, mixed in Garland’s performance of the song, and the on-screen results show that an umpteenth redo didn’t compromise the quality of Garland’s performance.

Other archival rarities shown on-screen will also dazzle the viewer.  A picture of Garland’s gay father with a probable lover showed the future star’s father had good taste in men.  Secretly taped recordings Luft made of his phone conversations captivate viewers with their candor. Samples of Garland’s private correspondence, freely peppered with four-letter profanities, will cause Legion of Decency types to have a mental meltdown.

Even celebrity trivia fans will love “Sid and Judy.”  Who knew President John F. Kennedy was such a Garland fan that his family’s Sunday evening schedule included time for Garland’s short-lived TV show?  Or that Luft and Garland once had Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as neighbors?

Ultimately, Kisik and his team successfully creates a cinematic love letter to an indelible entertainment talent whose life was too quickly cut short.

***

Bridget, the 34-year-old at the center of Alex Thompson’s alternately uproarious and rueful award-winning SXSW comedy “Saint Frances,” is a paladin of underachievement.  Her landing a summer nanny job with an upscale and woke lesbian couple means being in charge of Frances, a 6-year-old giant’s handful. Publicly embarrassing clashes slowly give way to tender bonding between the withdrawn adult and the very vocal child.  Who knew learning Dumbledore dies can be a modern loserdom signifier?

***

The 1926 disappearance under mysterious circumstances of famed evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple Mc Pherson actually did occur.  Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann may not be the first ones to do a cinematic speculation about Mc Pherson’s vanishing act with their film “Sister Aimee.”  But it’s safe to say those earlier efforts probably didn’t include either bisexual power moves or a woman-loving Mexican revolutionary.

Buck and Schlingmann suggest the evangelist faked her disappearance because she got professionally burnt out.  John Reed wannabe reporter Kenny sweeps Mc Pherson off her feet with a supposedly dangerous romantic plan for a writing expedition to Mexico.  However, the evangelist’s fame necessitates taking the backroads before crossing the border. The aspiring writer likes this plan partly because it lessens the possibility of awkward questions about the marriage he’s escaping.  Getting across the border requires the services of the laconic but tough as nails Mexican woman Rey. But as the trip continues, Mc Pherson starts noticing that Kenny’s far less than he boasts…while Rey’s secrets make her far more intriguing than she initially seems.

If “Sister Aimee” is a story about storytelling, then there are two types of stories told in the film.  The police officers investigating Mc Pherson’s “disappearance” get the self-serving stories. Unsurprisingly, the bitter ex-relatives and even a jealous rival who tell these tales paint Mc Pherson as someone who wronged them…even as flashbacks show a far different truth about the events recounted.  The acolyte who claims the evangelist evaporated before her eyes is the exception as she’s serving Mc Pherson’s will.

By contrast, the stories the film’s three central characters tell themselves involve lying of various shades.  Kenny’s story of being a potentially great writer is belied by what words he actually does put down on the page.  Rey’s story involves the supposed worthlessness of her personal history. And Aimee’s story comes out of believing she’s lost The Lord’s favor.

The evangelist’s adventures feel like her embrace of the sinful life.  She repeatedly has sex outside of marriage. She bears false witness to her disappearance and encourages another to do the same.  Mc Pherson’s cigarette smoking might not be worth noticing by modern audiences, but the evangelist’s more conservative peers may have felt differently..

In that vein, Mc Pherson’s eventual romantic relationship with Rey would be the worst of her sins.  Yet that relationship becomes the key to both women learning far different stories about themselves.  The Mexican woman learns to own her real story and defend it from those who would write her out of it.  The American woman learns to reclaim her personal agency. When Mc Pherson deliberately kills a man, that moment marks a turning point in her relationships with Rey and Kenny.  The evangelist’s later declaration that she’s sitting in the front seat with Rey while Kenny gets the back seat feels like a bisexual power move.

The musical number that provides “Sister Aimee”’s show-stopping climax manages to be both jaw-droppingly weird and a logical culmination of the evangelist’s story.  Buck and Schlingmann subtly build up to this entertaining finale. Earlier Mc Pherson revival meetings seen on-screen look more like religious rock concerts instead of austere celebrations of the higher spirits.

Those flashbacks and the look of the film in general feel more impressive given the filmmakers’ lack of a budget to do an incredibly detailed recreation of the story’s 1926 setting.   Instead, Buck and Schlingmann get around those problems through three principal ways. The police investigation takes place via office interviews. The fervor aroused in thousands by Mc Pherson’s religious meetings get evoked by keeping the camera focused on the faces of small numbers of particularly moved attendees.  Finally, much of “Sister Aimee”’s story uses that genre beloved by budget-conscious indie filmmakers, the road movie.

An early title in “Sister Aimee” notes that only 5 ½% of the film’s story is true.  Fortunately, the remaining 94 ½% of the tale that the filmmakers create out of whole cloth turns out to be irreverently fun.

***

Cristina Ibarra & Alex Rivera’s riveting documentary/dramatization hybrid “The Infiltrators” delivers timely real-life thrills.  Marco and Virdi, two undocumented activists with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, allow themselves to get arrested and sent to Florida’s Broward Detention Center.  It’s part of an NIYA race against time to prevent further deportations and bring public attention to ICE’s deportation system. This film shows why supporting ICE’s officially sanctioned cruelties is a symptom of moral bankruptcy.  Abolish ICE!

***

San Francisco Bay Area gay progressive political life needs to be broken down into two eras:  Before Hank Wilson’s Arrival and After Hank Wilson’s Arrival. For the late queer activist did many things in his storied life that wound up having a huge impact on San Francisco LGBT politics and culture even literally decades later.  Bob Ostertag recalls the late activist’s life in his biographical film “Thanks To Hank.”

Viewers expecting a slick A&E Network-style presentation of Wilson’s life will run shrieking from Ostertag’s film.  Then again, frequent on-screen appearances of members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence might produce the same reaction.  The reasonable response to these negative feelings would be to note that such naysayers would not have appreciated Wilson and what he did when he was alive anyway.

Ostertag’s film at its best shows that Wilson’s life was all about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.  He helped found the nation’s first openly gay Democratic club, whose name was partially an in-your-face rebuke to the politically connected who preferred to tiptoe around publicly acknowledging the gay community’s existence.  The Ambassador Hotel, which Wilson managed for a couple of decades, was a haven for street kids and a de facto hospice for the AIDS-infected poor.

In attempting to tell the story of his subject’s life, the director had to work with certain limitations.  Wilson was notoriously camera shy, so actual footage or photographs of him wasn’t always available. That reality becomes a problem in a couple of places in the film.  At one point, the screen is black for an extended period of time while Wilson can be heard giving a speech on the soundtrack. Later, a very static talking head sequence featuring Ostertag himself appearing on-screen felt like a lazy way of recounting the story of Wilson’s passing.

But other self-imposed limitations adds to the film’s power.  Community contributions from such local talents as the Kronos Quartet, photographer Dan Nicoletta, the Tin Hat Trio, animator Jeremy Rourke, and the aforementioned Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence speak by implication of the positive impact of Wilson’s work over the years.  For example, that Gay Democratic Club Wilson helped found eventually became the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club.

But the long term impact of Wilson’s work also extended to the cultural sphere.  The Valencia Rose comedy club did more than provide an all-ages entertainment space for LGBT teens.  It also became the venue that launched the careers of comedians Lea De Laria and Whoopi Goldberg. The 32 Cole Street space that Wilson used as an LGBT community space served as the venue for a small 16 mm gay film festival.  43 years later, that small festival has grown to become the Frameline International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

Two long sequences in the film show important facets of Wilson’s character.  The political strategist and organizer aspect of Wilson gets illustrated by his response to the Save Our Children campaign.   The organization led by despicable homophobe Anita Bryant conducted a country-crossing campaign to take away gays and lesbians’ equal protection rights at the ballot box.  Long before Save Our Children made its move in California with the Briggs Initiative, Wilson had already been prepared for them. He travelled to Florida to study the tactics used by Bryant’s forces and kept an eye on new tactics used in other states.  In addition, the veteran activist kept notes on failed rebuttal tactics (e.g. keeping homosexuals out of the public spotlight, having actual homosexuals do door-to-door canvassing). By the time of the hatemongers’ California arrival, his planning helped the anti-Briggs forces successfully defeat this vote to take away gay and lesbian rights.

Interviews with former managers and residents of the Ambassador Hotel show the depths of compassion Wilson had for the proverbial “least among us.”  Making Ambassador rooms available for dying AIDS victims marked a startling contrast to the fear-driven practice of hospitals and other “respectable” institutions pushing such terminally ill people out onto the street to let them die.  Ostertag’s interviewees don’t gloss over the psychologically punishing nature of the Ambassador staff’s compassion-driven work, particularly in Ambassador manager Donna Lisa Steward’s mention of a day marked by five Ambassador residents’ deaths from AIDS.

Viewers wondering how Wilson could afford to do all of this political work will not get any details in Ostertag’s film.  They’ll have to content themselves with a sense that the late activist lived a very simple life. Wilson’s one-room apartment sported a mattress for him on the floor and regular cockroach infestations.

While a few interviewees in the film refer to Wilson as a saint, the film’s subject was the sort of person who’d react by quietly pausing for a moment before returning to sweeping.  Wilson’s lack of narcissism in a visible sphere of social activity proved refreshing given the types of egomaniacs usually drawn to political work. His modesty makes the number of LGBT organizations he founded or co-founded over the years even more astonishing.  These organizations would include Community United Against Violence, the AIDS Memorial Candlelight March, and ACTUP San Francisco.

“Thanks To Hank” may work better as a cinematic love letter to the late activist rather than a slickly professional piece of filmmaking.  But the film’s heartfelt appreciation for this Clark Kent of San Francisco Bay Area political activism at least gives this relatively unknown queer activist his long deserved public due.

(“Saint Frances” and “The Infiltrators” have been picked up for commercial distribution.  “Sid and Judy” will be broadcast sometime in the Fall on the Showtime Cable network.)

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