Reviews From Frameline 43 and Fresh Meat Previews

by on June 18, 2019

Thank queer nerds for the significant decline in the number of gay and lesbian characters who meet untimely ends on recent TV shows.  The other consequences of these nerds’ activism is part of the story of Gabrielle Zilkha’s entertainingly rousing documentary “Queering The Script.”  After watching Zilkha’s film, queer viewers should no longer settle for momentary smoldering glances as a TV show’s begrudging concession to their demographic.

Zilkha’s film charts the long rough road of LGBT representation on TV from Ellen De Generes’ coming out scene on “Ellen” to a present burgeoning with such unforgettable characters as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”s Rosa Diaz, “Riverdale”’s Cheryl Blossom, “Black Lightning”’s Anissa Pierce, and “One Day At A Time”’s Elena Alvarez.  Throughout this long and sometimes frustrating journey, queer nerds at their best have pushed sometimes oblivious creators towards better fictional representation of the LGBT community.

As “Queering The Script” shows, good fictional representation matters for several important reasons.  For the LGBT person living in a part of the world where that person seems to be the only LGBT he or she knows, a well-drawn fictional character provides reassurance to that isolated individual that they are not alone.  Talking about fictional relationships such as WayHaught or Sanvers provides an entry point for some viewers to talk to others about their own LGBT-related issues. And of course good representation such as Team Shoot provides a topic on which fans of the relationship can bond.

The Internet deserves props for its important role in helping grow queer nerd subculture.  Message boards dedicated to particular shows became a communication vehicle for far-flung fans to find each other.   Fanfiction sites such as An Archive Of Our Own allowed fans to freely imagine LGBT relationships between a show’s characters when the official writers were reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of such a pairing.

Sadly for idiot conspiracists, LGBT characters or relationships aren’t deliberately introduced into a show to advance The Gay Agenda, aka the homosexual version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Lucy Lawless, who played lesbian favorite Xena Warrior Princess, wasn’t even aware while making her show that it had a lesbian subtext. Dominique Provost-Chalkley, who played “Wynonna Earp”’s lesbian sister Waverly Earp, didn’t even know what “shipping” was.

One of the joys of Zilkha’s film comes from its freely explaining to newbie viewers queer nerd slang.  Aside from shipping, viewers will learn what tropes and queerbaiting refer to. A notorious example of queerbaiting is “The 100”’s aggressive marketing of the Clarke-Lexa same-sex relationship to LGBT fans.  Such marketing may have helped goose the series’ ratings and news coverage. But angry and hurt LGBT fans responded to the sudden tragic ending of that relationship by starting the #BuryYourGays movement. At least Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who wrote the Lexa dies episode, acknowledges onscreen the hurtful effects of that story.  By contrast, because “The 100” series creator Jason Rothenberg betrayed the series’ LGBT fans, he hereafter deserves to be dubbed Jason Rottenberg.

Complaining about an LGBT character’s untimely death is not equivalent to demanding LGBT characters never face dramatic adversity.  Such complaints respond to the recognition that popular culture has not generated a sufficiently critical mass of LGBT stories where death of an LGBT character is not the norm.  In the 2015-2017 period of which “The 100” was a part, 27% of character deaths in scripted television happened to befall an LGBT character. Such frequency is more a hallmark of lazy storytelling than well thought out dramatic considerations.  The Mary Sue’s Princess Weekes is just one of several interviewees who point out that violent LGBT character death is on a par with other familiar offensive fictional LGBT tropes such as the predatory lesbian or the bisexual woman who eventually prefers only men.

Zilkha’s film finds optimism in the diversity of recent depictions of the LGBT community.  Nafeesa Williams’ black lesbian superhero Thunder is invigorating precisely because her character’s not the usual white femme lesbian.  Also, Thunder’s bulletproof powers means she won’t die the same way Lexa or “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”’s Tara did. The characters of Emma and Eddy from “Vida” are two very different Latinx lesbian individuals.  Angelica Ross plays the black transgender House Mother Candy Ferocity on “Pose.”

“Queering The Script” also embraces the different ways in which queer media nerddom has expressed itself.  ClexaCon celebrates actresses who’ve played lesbians on TV shows, for example. But the most unusual gathering captured on film is Penny Cavanaugh’s Xenite Retreat.  Over a weekend, 130 “Xena” fans practice archery and other physical skills Xena employed as well as talk with some of the show’s writers.

Yet if there’s much to like about queer media fandom, Zilkha’s film doesn’t truly consider this fandom’s lack of immunity to more negative expressions of love for favorite show relationships.  “Supergirl” actor Jeremy Jordan was attacked by Supercorp shippers who strongly objected to his claiming that Kara Danvers and Lena Luthor were just good friends and nothing more. However, this writer hasn’t heard of the queer version of anything as toxic as the male “Star Wars” fans whose strident objections to the major presence of female characters in “The Last Jedi” led them to create a female-free cut of the film.

Perhaps that’s why on balance, queer media fandom is better than traditional white male media fandom.  The queer fans support more cultural diversity while the traditional white male fans want to be fandom’s version of Trump’s intolerant supporters.

***

The “Homegrown” shorts program brings together five often entertaining LGBT-themed shorts made in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The pro-tolerance story gets an enjoyably campy ribbing in Brian Benson’s drag musical comedy “Eat The Rainbow.”   Local musical treasure H.P. Mendoza helps spur viewers to dance in the theater with his song contributions and his playing one of the lead characters.

New neighbor Bayani (Mendoza) does not get the welcome wagon from the other residents of a suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood.  Bayani’s bright blue skin looks too weird for their taste. A couple of the new neighbor’s other physical characteristics further offends the existing residents, and the witch-like realtor Lobelia Gerber in particular.  Only the good-hearted if not terribly bright Wonderlette (Cousin Wonderlette) stands with Bayani. But will that be enough to turn the tide of hate?

Benson takes the self-seriousness out of the “stop your intolerance” story by mocking several of its tropes.  Hate-filled insults are shouted at Bayani. But instead of repeating existing insults or inventing new ones, it’s enough to have a group of neighbors angrily shout “Weird” or “Chant.”  The short’s title refers to Wonderlette’s attempt at using a salad as a metaphor for tolerance. However, her initial stab at sensibility soon gives way to her humorously losing the thread of her metaphor.

What pushes Benson’s short beyond simple parody into high entertainment is his willingness to go to ridiculous lengths for a laugh.  Bird poop jokes aren’t off limits. Familiar sayings such as “Si, se puede” get hilariously misheard. But the highlight of ridiculousness has to be Lobelia’s twitch-messaging, complete with subtitles.  This supposed affectation admittedly seems at first pointlessly odd. But it soon becomes clear that the twitches express Lobelia’s truly hateful feelings hidden beneath her honeyed words. The running twitch joke pays off when Lobelia eventually loses emotional control.

Underneath Benson’s joking lies some serious truths.  Fears of supposedly dropping property values caused by Bayani’s presence provides the real reason for Lobelia’s hostility.  Also, Bayani’s departure would do nothing to curb future instances of intolerance.

Using a couple of catchy songs helps Benson’s serious message go down very easily.  The imagining of Trump’s exploding at Benson’s turning his MAGA hat symbol of hatred into a symbol of acceptance counts as proverbial aesthetic icing.

Jennifer Abod’s documentary memoir “Nice Chinese Girls Don’t!” offers a portrait of Asian lesbian activist poet Kitty Tsui.  For Asian-American LGBT viewers who often thirst for more representations of themselves at LGBT film festivals, this short does a good job slaking some of that thirst.

Tsui’s recollections of her life, sometimes expressed through her poems, will bring nods of recognition from Asian-American LGBT viewers.  There’s the tokenism and exoticization of being the only Asian-American lesbian in a roomful of white lesbians. There’s the increased difficulty of coming out to a conservative Chinese family, as Tsui recalls in part in her powerful poem “A Chinese Banquet For The One Who Was Not Invited.”

Learning from Tsui about the writer’s collective Unbound Feet feels like having a piece of Asian-American cultural history restored.  What the poet calls the nucleus of the Asian Pacific lesbian movement boasted such members as Genny Lim and Willyce Kim. The group’s name itself alludes to a rejection of stifling Chinese traditionalism.  That rejection is also expressed in the Tsui poem that gives Abod’s short its title.

Tsui, as a lesbian growing old gracefully, has led a sometimes stormy life.  There is her mention of a bout of alcoholism. A period of wider celebrity brought in its wake harsh criticism that forced this leather dyke to move from the Bay Area to Chicago to lick her wounds.  Then again, competing in the Gay Games body-building competition brought out Tsui’s inner ham.

But in-between Tsui’s recollections of S.F. State University anti-Vietnam War political activism and discovering her beloved grandmother’s secret history, Abod uses Tsui’s readings of several selected poems to eloquently express the poet’s personality in a way that would seem dry in a straightforward recollection.  By the film’s end, the note that Tsui is currently writing a memoir also called “Nice Chinese Girls Don’t” will inspire more than a few viewers to eagerly anticipate the book’s completion and release.

“Origin” from Simone Lyles is set in Oakland 1982.  Kora (Christina Childress) and Gina are best friends who run a small fashion store.  Gina’s preparations for her impending marriage to boyfriend Darrel starts creating friction between the two friends.  For Kora is a closeted lesbian who’s convinced that her desires since childhood for Gina show both her inability to resist temptation and her emotional sickness.

As the plot description suggests, this story is one that has been told many times before.  Lyles does attempt to bring something fresh to the telling by making Dr. Keller’s video exercise initially sound like part of an innocuous self-help course of the period.  By the time the viewer realizes that Dr. Keller is giving Kora the 1980s version of conversion therapy, it feels like an emotional gut punch. Childress also helps with a solid performance as a woman slowly being crushed between the shame of the closet and the desire to truly express her feelings to Gina.

However, despite throwing in fragments of Kora’s memories of the roots of her same-sex attraction, at least a few viewers will wind up feeling Lyles ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to telling this unfortunately familiar story.

DJ Frida Ibarra tells how club dancing is more than pointless hedonism.  The subject of Jimmy Zhang’s short documentary “Trans 128” (and DJ for this year’s Fresh Meat Festival post-show reception) explains that club dancing provides a refuge for transgender and non-conforming individuals to be themselves.  Zhang underscores that point with a montage of club patrons at a party that Ibarra works.

It’s not an exaggeration for Ibarra to call the music she provides for her parties the soundtrack to her community’s church.  Ibarra herself refers to these parties in this way. More importantly, if a church is a space where people can get in touch with an essential part of their personality, then the club parties provide a safe space for its patrons to express the positive energies of self-acceptance and the negative energies of rage at those who will not accept them.  This point explains why non-community coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting missed just how personal an attack it felt to many LGBT community members.

Zhang treats his subject in a down-to-earth manner.  A bedroom crowded with electronic equipment provides the workspace for Ibarra to match the beats she creates with the appropriate visuals for an upcoming party.  Even if the viewer can’t share the energy of the music Ibarra creates for such places as El Rio and The Stud, they can come away with a good sense of what Ibarra’s work means for the partygoers who come to her shows.

The last of “Homegrown”’s shorts is Robert James’ touching and very colorful documentary “Verasphere: A Love Story In Costumes.”  Long-time spectators at the San Francisco Pride Parade will have seen the Verasphere contingent at some point. The members of this mixed gender contingent wear entertainingly colorful and detailed costumes that often cause lots of smartphone pictures to be taken of them.  James’ film tells the story behind Verasphere.

At the core of Verasphere are its founders, David Faulk and Michael Johnstone.  Both men came from similar backgrounds and had much in common. Principally, neither David nor Michael knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Both men had also developed AIDS. Both men are so close to each other that each man seamlessly finishes the other’s sentences, which James nimbly shows in the film.  However, before becoming Mrs. Vera, David had never done drag.

Touchingly, love for Michael caused David to change his mind on this matter.  For the former had lost quite a few theater world friends to AIDS. To bring Michael out of his depression, the two of them embarked on a fun project to have David play a drag character named Mrs. Vera.  The name came from a clothing designer named Miss Vera Newman, who favored big bold colored patterns.

How David and Michael went from creating a personally fun project to being the heart of a 75 member strong (and counting) wonderfully colorful Pride Parade contingent will not be revealed here.   What can be said is that everything from the dresses to the platform heels of Verasphere is a tribute to the concept of inventive recycling. Also, the dedication involved in putting the detailing on the costumes requires a lot of methodical work that will indeed make a few viewers wonder whether a few recreational pharmaceuticals were involved.  Having Joshua Grannell make a cameo appearance for a very valid reason provides a delightful surprise.

After over two decades of doing Verasphere for Pride, both David and Michael have started to display some weariness.  There’s confidence that Verasphere can continue without its founders. If not, here’s hoping some museum can preserve these amazing costumes that have brought joy to the hearts of the contingent’s participants and those of many Pride spectators.

***

Hari Sama’s energetic “This Is Not Berlin” is both a coming-of-age story and a historical miniature.  Visiting an underground gay club opens up the lives of discontented middle class high school friends Carlos and Gera.  Yet both boys’ paths diverge with their immersion in 1986 Mexico City’s clandestine art and punk worlds. Sometimes unfamiliar 80s tunes underscore the triumphs and mishaps both boys endure as they learn the difficulties of staying in their new world.

***

“Self-Portrait In 23 Rounds:  A Chapter In David Wojnarowicz’s Life 1989-1991” can be described easily despite its unconventional title and structure.  It’s a portrait of the late outsider artist created by Marion Scemama. She was a former collaborator of Wojnarowicz’s who uses as this film’s structural spine a 5-hour interview from May 1989 that Sylvere Lotringer did with the artist.  The period covered in Scemama’s film is essentially the last years of Wojnarowicz’s life before he finally succumbed to AIDS.

Like the late artist’s kitchen table, the film’s organization appears at first to be a messy stack.  Yet if the viewer is patient, relevant bits of information and insight about Wojnarowicz soon rises to the surface.

Lotringer’s conversation with Wojnarowicz ranges over such subjects as the late artist’s hoarding tendencies, his ambivalence about popular and financial acceptance, and even reminiscences about the steady deterioration from AIDS of former lover Peter Hujar.  Supplementing the interview footage are samples of Wojnarowicz’s art from the last years of his life, and even moments of the late artist at play (e.g. showing a cat a “family album” of its weird relatives).

Viewers wanting some behind the scenes glimpses of Wojnarowicz’s method of creating art will leave the theater satisfied.  Preliminary sketches show the apparently random pieces which will come together as some of the late artist’s collages. Scemama herself is caught on the soundtrack trying out ideas with Wojnarowicz during the filming of the video work “When I Put My Hands On Your Body.”

Scemama’s film ultimately reminds the viewer why Wojnarowicz’s art still matters.  What he created stemmed from a sense of being in a state of constant war with American society.  The umbilical cord wrapped around infant Wojnarowicz’s neck at birth nearly strangled him to death.  His mother’s reaction to that near death would only be the first sally in American society’s hostilities against him.  A peaceful family life would not be Wojnarowicz’s thanks to a father who was physically abusive towards his mother, who in turn didn’t particularly want more children.  Subsequent events in his life, such as his awareness of American society’s attitudes towards gays reinforced his sense that he “grew up in a society that basically wanted to kill me.”

But instead of cowering, Wojnarowicz lived a life of daily resistance to this murderous society he was trapped in.  Instead of being afraid of expressing gay desire, the Wojnarowicz piece “When I Put My Hands On Your Body” lyrically celebrates Wojnarowicz’s sensual undressing of his model Paul.   The text accompanying “(Untitled) Hujar Dead” boils with rage at the universe’s unfairness and the powerful who enable such injustices.

Were this controversial button-pushing artist around today, he would have no patience or interest in the words of those preaching the gospel of civility.  Wojnarowicz’ answer to a government that enabled his early demise from AIDS is far from civil. He’d want his surviving friends to carry his corpse to Washington, D.C., break into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and throw his infected body onto the front steps of the White House.

(“Queering The Script” screens at 4:00 PM on June 22, 2019, with the free panel discussion “Queer That Script!” following the screening.  “Homegrown” screens at 9:30 PM on June 23, 2019. “This Is Not Berlin” screens at 6:45 PM on June 21, 2019. All these screenings take place at the Victoria Theatre (2961 – 16th Street, SF).  An additional screening of “This Is Not Berlin” takes place at 3:45 PM on June 24, 2019 at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, SF). “Self Portrait In 23 Rounds: A Chapter In David Wojnarowicz’s Life, 1989-1991” screens at 1:30 PM on June 22, 2019 at the Roxie Theatre (3117 – 16th Street, SF).   For further information on these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.frameline.org .)

Fresh Meat Festival 2019 Preview

Something more feels at stake with attending the 18th iteration of the annual live performance festival put on by Fresh Meat Productions Artistic Director Sean Dorsey.  Going to the 2019 Fresh Meat Festival means supporting transgender and gender non-conforming artistic resistance to the return of culturally retrograde oppression. Enjoying the after-party music spun by DJ Frida Ibarra as well as the go-go dancers and the photo booth doesn’t hurt either.

Consider: enabled by a mentally incompetent bigot who’s badly posing as President of the United States, religious homophobes have been waging a multi-level sociopolitical campaign to return transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to an otherdom status lacking social or legal rights.  From bathroom bills to legalized religious bigotry, such hateful efforts cumulatively aim to send a society-wide message that these sexual minorities should not presume to conceive of a life beyond the severely circumscribed one the bigots want to impose on them.

The acts performing at Fresh Meat Festival 2019 resist such hatemongers by offering examples of what it means to be transgender or non-gender conforming and to exist in the world.  From music and dance to cutting edge indescribability, the festival’s three evenings at Z Space (450 Florida, SF), features works from established and new artists as well as works specially commissioned for the festival.

Here’s who you can expect to see during the festival’s run from June 20-22

International award-winning African American deaf dance choreographer and Deaf advocate Antoine Hunter boasts an impressive career resume.  He’s been crowned King of Carnival SF 2017 and has received the Isadora Duncan Dance Award in 2018.  He’s taught and lectured at such places as Harvard and Duke University. The Urban Jazz Dance Company was founded by Hunter and he still serves as its Artistic Director.  Currently, he also produces the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival.

Over the last three decades, the AXIS Dance Company has lived in practice its credo that all bodies can dance.  The members of this contemporary dance troupe mixes both disabled and non-disabled dancers.  The works the troupe commissions and performs expand by example the possibilities of the physically integrated dance field.

Pittsburgh, PA’s #kNOwSHADE Vogue Ensemble creates experimental dance and theater pieces commenting on the concerns of its urban LGBT youth/young adults of color performers.  The piece they’re doing is a collaboration with Empress Dena Stanley of the Pittsburgh Ballroom Community.  Stanley serves as a Mother of Pittsburgh’s House of Mizrahi and has founded the Pittsburgh non-profit transgender advocacy group Trans YOUniting.

Fresh off performing at Japan’s Hand In The Hand LGBTQ Choral Festival, the GAPA Men’s Choir will grace the festival with their “sublime harmonies.”  The choir’s performances allows the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) to do outreach to both the Asian Pacific and LGBT communities.  This year marks the choir’s 30th year of existence.

Performing together for the Fresh Meat Festival, J. Mase III and Randy Ford both use poetry and dance to artistically explore themes of BlackTrans Survival.  Their works have touched on such subjects as domestic violence and colonization of various stripes.

Competitive dance partners Jahaira Fajardo and Angelica Medina have made a huge mark in the queer dance world.  They’re co-directors of In Lak’ech Dance Academy, and have founded the Bay Area’s Queer Latin Dance Festival.  In competition, the duo has taken first place honors twice at the World Latin Dance Cup. They’re one of four acts premiering new work at the festival.

Javier Stell-Fresquez & Ivy Monteiro will deliver cutting-edge performances.  Stell-Fresquez brings to her performance a lifetime of work in dancing and performance art as well as voguing experience in her persona of Xav ome’Lauren.  Monteiro comes with a closetful of artistic hats including queer futurist, draglesque alter-gender-bender, and social expectations shapeshifter.

Trans-woman of color stand-up comedian Lottie Riot makes a return visit to the Fresh Meat Festival.  Her edu-taining style of comedy can be expected to repeatedly go for the gut and be peppered with lots of profanity.  She hails from Chicago, after all.

The fairly new musical group New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Choir hails from the San Francisco Community Music Center.  This 30-voice strong group of transgender, intersex and non-binary singers use choral singing of music from different traditions as a medium of community uplift.  Singing ability matters less than providing a place where TIGQs can grow free of silence or shame.

Modern dance troupe Sean Dorsey Dance is where the Fresh Meat Festival’s guiding light dances and does choreography work.  The troupe’s newest work, “Boys In Trouble,” unsparingly unpacks contemporary American masculinity.

Openly transgender folk-punk singer/songwriter Shawna Virago has performed nationally since the early 1990s.  In addition, she’s a writer whose published appearances have included “Gender Outlaws: Next Generation” and “Trans/Love: Radical Sex.”

Multidisciplinary music and video artist Star Amerasu’s work has been seen in such outlets as Paper Magazine and KQED Arts.  As indie electronic music creator Ah-Mer-Ah-Su, her 2018 album “Star” was hailed by Billboard Music as one of the year’s Top 20 LGBT music albums.  Her singing voice has been likened to Nina Simone’s tones. Amerasu will also premiere new work at the festival.

Former Detroit native Tajah J favors contemporary soul, EDM, R&B, and pop songs.  The wellsprings of her music draw from her passion for trans empowerment, her love life, and  from her incarceration experiences. The festival has commissioned her to present new work.

Queer trans retro band The Singing Bois make a return visit to the festival.  Infectious hooks and lush harmonies make their “songs of love and liberation” a pleasure to listen to.  Their music draws from R&B, hip hop, and Latin music to create their sound. The Bois are the last of the acts given a festival brief to perform new work.

The Fresh Meat Festival has often been called a highlight of Pride Month.  Don’t wait too long to work up the courage to step outside your comfort zone and score tickets to this popular event.

(All shows start at 8 PM.  For further information about the festival and to order advance tickets, go to http://freshmeatproductions.org/fresh-meat-festival-2019/   .)

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