Sunday, June 19, 2022

Whitstable Biennale

 It was great to get back to this event after six years, but the date I chose was the hottest day of the year, so my memories are slightly blurred by heat exhaustion. Beautiful sea and sky and absolute crowds on the beach made getting inside to exhibits quite the feat. 

First up was old reliable Horsebridge Arts Centre which had two exhibits. Downstairs was Savinder Bual's Fade + High and Low, two water-powered works requiring topping up by human beings, which I thought was novel, if labour intensive. 

Upstairs was a viewing room to see two films by Sonya Dyer. I caught The Betsey Drake Equation, which juxtaposed two white male scientists discussing cosmology with a black female dancer interrupting the discourse. I am told cosmology is quite in right now. 

Jennet Thomas's The Great Curdling was a baffling, bonkers film screened in The Old Bank which had me guffawing out loud. A bit sci-fi, a bit high school musical, it featured characters in the future lamenting the loss of the sea through recitals and songs and dodging low fi special effects. I missed the accompanying live performance. 

This film and several exhibits had to be moved from The Cockle Shed owing to a fire and I never found the new location for Sarah Craske's An Eco-Hauntology, which I was looking forward to seeing.  

I did stumble on Chromatic Agency's Ephemeral Evidence while wandering down a side street. Two versions of the film play out on a screen while a giant lump of clay is available to mark. The film details Southern Water's release of raw sewage into the sea and asks who speaks for the sea? 

My final visit was a long trek to the library to view Alicia Radage's installation MOTHER BENT, which took up a whole room upstairs in the lecture hall. The floor was covered in dirt which had screens and sculptures of body parts pointing upward. Sounds came through speakers while headphones offered additional sounds. I spent quite a lot of time here and allowed myself to really get immersed. I did not see the additional works in the adjacent library. 

What was surprising this year was the lack of a Biennale HQ to offer a gathering place for visitors. Venues did not seem to know about events at other spaces. It would have been good to feel more of a connection with other visitors to the festival. But a day out in Whitstable offers its own connections, to the sea and shore and of course the gorgeous sky. 

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Creating Change

Farewell then to the tireless activist Urvashi Vaid whose passing was announced last week. I met her in the early 1990s while strolling down Castro Street in San Francisco, stopped her for a chat and ended up exchanging details with her to set up an interview. All this while her partner, the comedian Kate Clinton, waited patiently by her side. 

Just before we parted, Vaid reached into her trouser pocket, pulled out a rather crumpled object and told me to listen to it. It was Clinton's latest album. I left impressed by them both. 

Eventually, we did speak and I wrote up the interview for Deneuve magazine. I saw her speak at several events including Creating Change West in 1991 and the March on Washington in 1993 and she was always forceful, charismatic and on point. 

I lost touch once I moved to the UK, but I always found Urv an inspiring figure and a much-needed leader in many overlapping communities. My deepest sympathies to Kate Clinton. 

Here is an interview with Vaid and Clinton from 2014. 

Monday, April 04, 2022

BFI Flare: Unsaid

So, this really will be my final post for this year's Flare. My last feature is The Sound of Scars, a doc on the rock band Life of Agony. Knowing nothing of their story, I was pleased to learn they were from Brooklyn. Always good to hear some authentic NYC accents. Singer Mina Caputo had transitioned some years back, in between band break-ups, and this was one stream of the film, another being that several members of the band had suffered traumatic childhoods. A lot of footage showed young boys in various states of rough and tumble. I had rather expected Mina Caputo to reflect on the lasting scars of toxic masculinity in the scene, but this theme was notable by its absence. 

Reflecting back on 1990s hardcore, I remember it was this very strain that alienated so many girls and women from attending gigs, let alone joining bands. What a missed opportunity. Anyway, the band have a new drummer and album and seem to be putting things back together. 

The short Borekas is largely a two-hander of a father and son leaving much unsaid as the latter prepares to fly back from his homeland to his life in Munich. The fumbling of the father and the angst of the sun are well played and the final awkward pat on the back is poignant. 

Syed Family...

And for a final heart-warming family comedy, there is The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, a mouthful to say and replete with cringey moments of recognition, as little sister brings her girlfriend home for the titular event. Actor turned director Fawzia Mirza brings order to chaos, wringing out every last drop of tension and humour from the making of a pot of chai. Coquitos all around!

Sunday, April 03, 2022

BFI Flare: Making Space

 I am coming to the end of my Flare viewing and have a trio of films to explore, all of which deal with repression, tradition and making space when it is not offered. 

Terence Davies' drama Benediction is a languid depiction of the life and loves of Siegfried Sassoon, best know as a First World War poet. Davies uses a lot of archive footage from the front, as well as having actor Jack Lowden, who plays Sassoon, voice his poems, but this really unbalances the film. I found the poems to be the least affecting aspect of the drama and was more interested in Sassoon's relationships with his peers. Later in life he married a woman, despite being gay and the film also has disconcerting flashes forward to him as an older man converting to Catholicism and arguing with his son. The whole thing dragged badly and I wished Davies had trimmed the film down. 

Camila Comes Out Tonight is an Argentine drama about a teenager finding life in Buenos Aires to be somewhat out of her comfort zone. Dragged their by her mother as her grandmother lies dying in hospital, Camila meets a boy, then a girl and finds herself negotiating her sexuality as her relationship with her mum becomes strained. The first hour is absolutely tedious but the last act is incredible, with secrets aired and revenge enacted in a way I found delightful. It's rare for a film to depict intergenerational family relationships in a way that is fair to all and it is also refreshing to see the street protests in Argentina given air time. Seeing girls chanting My Body, My Business was a fist-pumping moment for me. 

Gateways Grind

And finally, Gateways Grind is a TV show masquerading as a film that is littered with delightful anecdotes and archival footage as Sandi Toksvig rides around London in a cab offering a history of the historic lesbian nightspot The Gateways Club which closed in 1985. There is a lot of dish, especially around the filming of The Killing of Sister George, but also about the staff and patrons of the club. I was utterly fascinated by the story of proprietor Gina Ware, who was married to the owner but had a close relationship with bar woman Smithy, as told by Ware's daughter. They deserve their own film. A wonderful watch. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

BFI Flare: Under Pressure

Though the festival has finished, I am slowly working my way through titles I did not have access to while it was on. Today I am looking at films that feature characters in sticky situations. 

The Divide opens with a woman frantically texting her sleeping partner who is in bed next to her snoring. Great opening and from there the film wends its way, equal parts humour and trauma, as various characters find themselves at a local hospital as the gilets jaunes protests take place in Paris. Not having paid that much attention to French politics, I was not entirely clear what the sides where in this dispute, but writer-director Catherine Corsini uses this particular divide to map out a complex range of positions, loyalties and identities. The lesbian couple, Raf and Julie, were breaking up before they arrived at the hospital and as tensions rise, the strains on everyone show. At one point, someone shouts, "The hospital is falling apart!" and I thought of our dear NHS, so badly treated by successive governments. Special shout-out to nurse Kim who holds it all together. A brilliant piece of work. 

In Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music, the pressures are caused by bigotry, tradition and homophobia. We meet a range of queer women who work or have worked in the field of country music. Awesome to think how many hits were written by lesbians. But, as the film shows, Nashville is not nearly so understanding of queer women performers and some of those on show, such as Dianne Davidson, lost their careers as performers when they came out. But the film is a bit meandering and director-screenwriter TJ Parsell could easily lose 20 minutes or so to make it more punchy and impactful. I was also annoyed at how Chely Wright is introduced about 65 minutes in as a cautionary tale and then just left hanging. I googled and found she is still making music and has become an activist. So, why not tell us that? There are also a couple of shocks, as veteran performers turn up and don't quite look as we remembered.... 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

BFI Flare: Boulevard!

It seems appropriate as the stars gather in Hollywood tonight to celebrate their successes at the Academy Awards that we consider the queer art of failure. Boulevard! A Hollywood Story does just that, charting the quite incredible but true story of Gloria Swanson's attempt to turn her cinematic triumph Sunset Boulevard into a Broadway musical in the 1950s.

As camp as Sunset Boulevard is and especially the character of Norma Desmond, a faded star who launched a thousand drag numbers, the queer interest in this documentary is found in the two young men who wrote the musical, Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, who were a romantic as well as professional couple. 

As the three attempt to make the show work, the collaboration falls apart when Swanson falls for Stapley and the two men break up and go their separate ways. And it gets stranger. 

Hughes, Swanson and Stapley at work

As the documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz makes calls and unearths dusty boxes of ephemera, the truth unfolds in a way scarcely credible. Stapley had a film and TV career as actor Richard Wyler, while Hughes played piano for Marianne Williamson. 

Swanson of course continued on her merry way being a star, long after the roles dried up. All three found the later years difficult, mirroring Ms. Desmond. A Sunset Boulevard curse or the unforgiving nature of Hollywood? 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

BFI Flare: Melodrama Queens

 I approached Fragrance of the First Flower with great interest. Lauded as Taiwan's first GL, it features a great meet cute that proves to be a meet again cute as two women who knew each other in high school get reacquainted. But how well did they know each other before? And how close will they get? The problem with the film is it is not really a film but a web series that has been stitched together, which creates problems with pacing and story-telling. At only 99 minutes, it still felt quite drawn out to me and by the end I was losing interest owing to the lurch into melodrama. Would it be too much if a story involving two women could be a bit more upbeat? Apparently, a second series is in the works. Probably best watched in episodes online. 

Similarly, the short Fever sets up a good premise as an inter-racial couple head to one guy's house for his mother's birthday party, before underlying issues in their relationship come to the fore. The explosive finale plays out as rather am-dram and totally undercuts the build-up of tension that precedes it. Quite disappointing.