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“Pray Away the Gay” May 9, 2012

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Protest against Love In Action

Yesterday evening, I attended the showing of a feature-length documentary at a small screening room (45 seats) in one of the ancillary theaters of the festival. The documentary, although well made, sported the klunky title, This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, referring to a program of Christian “reparative therapy” practiced on self-hating adults and hijacked minors.

A teenager is Memphis had blogged his unhappiness to his friends about being forced by his Christian parents to enroll in a residential brain-washing program, part of the Exodus movement, that seeks to turn people away from homosexuality through shame and fear. This sparked continuous protest amongst his friends (also Christians), who forwarded his blog post and organized daily demonstrations outside the program, called Love In Action. Their main beef was that, 1) you can’t change people’s sexual orientation, and 2) forcing minors into “straight camp” brainwashing is a form of child abuse. The protests eventually gained nationwide media attention, sparking a change of heart in the director of the program (an ex-gay himself) and leading to the shutdown of the residential program for minors. (The “ex-gay” movement is still going strong, however. Michelle Bachman’s husband, Marcus, runs a Christian counseling center in Minnesota that seeks to “pray away the gay.” Nasty queens claim he needs to butch up plenty himself.)
As I said, the feature-length doc was well-done, using web-based graphics to tell its story. The sophistication of even modestly-funded documentaries these days is quite heartening. Where this will end up is anybody’s guess. My straight friends liked it well enough but felt it was all advocacy and slighted potentially interesting issues that fell outside the ideological program. Before the closing credits, the filmmaker put in a scrolling text about how advocates of “reparative therapy,” most notably Exodus International, refused to be interviewed. But the filmmaker himself was part of the protest, and it was evident what his point of view was going to be. I wouldn’t have agreed to be interviewed for such a hostile project myself.
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Boston LGBT Film Festival, Day 5 May 8, 2012

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“T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” Goes to Boston

I arrived yesterday (day 5) in Boston and made my way quickly to one of the screening venues of the festival, the historic Brattle Theatre smack in the middle of Harvard Square. I had come with a friend I was visiting in Rhode Island, Jeff Clark, who is a ski buddy but has also been an active Episcopalian. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected as a bishop, was scheduled to be present Monday night at a screening of the documentary about the struggle of the Anglican church to come to terms with its faggots. The full-length documentary, Love Free or Die (Robinson is the bishop of the New Hampshire diocese) was quite good, a PBS-style follow-the-protagonist documentary funded by the Ford Foundation, ITVS, and others. It won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and will be aired on PBS later this year. So it had all the good production values, and the story turned out to be rather gripping as well. The director, Macky Alston, comes from a religious family himself; his father was a Presbyterian minister who initially rejected his son’s homosexuality. (Relented later, however, and married his son to his partner of 11 years.)

There was a panel afterwards with Robinson, two doc directors, and two multicultural religious experts (one Chinese, one transgendered)–a bit self-congratulatory but also heartfelt and well-meaning. Robinson himself was warm and funny and–I hesitate to use the word, but–wise. Though I’m inoculated against religion myself and have never felt the need to belong to that kind of community, millions of people do, and it is one place to promote social change. (Organized religion actually played a progressive role in the abolition movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th.) The American Episcopalian church recently voted in favor of the consecration of LGBT bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages within the church, a debate which was effectively documented in the movie. This puts the North American church at odds with the many conservative congregations on this continent and especially in the Southern Hemisphere (notably Africa) who have defected from the Anglican structure or who are seeking “realignment” (basically autonomy within the church). It’s all very interesting, and, for me, all very much beside the point. One of the women priests in the film was crying because, as she said about accepting same-sex unions, “pastorally it’s a no-brainer, but I can’t bring myself to go against 2,000 years of continuous Biblical teaching.” Really? So a woman who couldn’t even be a priest, according to the Bible, is tying herself up into emotional knots because she can’t let go of some verses in Leviticus which the church hasn’t repudiated. (She doesn’t seem to have a problem disregarding the strictures about slaves and multiple wives). Gene Robinson had a cute label for this kind of textual fundamentalism, “biblolotry.” But as much as I like the religious progressives I’ve met, religious discourse leaves me cold. And organized religion has been dragged by secular activism into the extension of civil rights for gays; it has not been in the forefront.
The Boston LGBT Film Festival looks to be a majorly well-organized event. It lasts 10 days, has organized venues at museums and theaters, and is punctuated with interesting events. For example, there will be a Scifi Night and Reception on Wednesday. Looks like I’ll be attending under the pseudonym “Robert Phillips” as a result of a mistake in the program (a beautifully glossy production), but Robert Phillips is only 51. There’s always a silver lining.

The Pan African Film Festival March 12, 2012

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B-LIST

My last major film festival, the Pan African Film Festival, took place last month in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. The PAFF bills itself as the largest Black film festival in America, and it’s probably true. Now in its 20th year, the film festival screened 190 films this year, all twice, over 17 days. The festival took over 4 theaters of the local multiplex, and these ran screenings from noon to 11:00 p.m. Backed (although distantly) by the likes of Danny Glover and Forest Whittaker, the PAFF shows all the major Black indie films as well as screening a slew of narratives and documentaries from Africa and the Caribbean.

The PAFF models itself on the A-list festivals. It confers awards, both audience favorites and juried; hosts great parties; creates ballyhoo. red-carpet events for the opening and closing films; attracts actors and directors from all over the world; sponsors a fair sampling of professional workshops and panels; and carries ancillary events, such as a Black art market in the neighboring mall. Yet it is a B-list festival, the reason being that distributors do not frequent it. You may be a young director from South Africa arriving in the land of Hollywood with hopes ablaze, but you will not be signing any distribution deals.

Still, it’s plenty exciting to a country bumpkin like me. Black people know how to dress for the occasion, and the colors and costumes in the cinema’s lobby alone lit up the room. And the parties! Child, don’t get me started!

Closing night party

Oooo! It's Blair Underwood!

I had my director’s badge and could socialize, in fact did socialize, with a young South African man and an older Guadeloupian woman, both of whom won PAFF awards for their feature films. And to feed my starf*cking jollies, I sat one row away from Blair Underwood who was the male lead of the closing film!  Not his best expression, perhaps.

The setting for the PAFF was a soulless mall in the Crenshaw district, so, outside of the festival participants, there wasn’t much in the way of local color. The artists set up stalls in the mall’s open spaces. One of the empty retail spaces had been transformed into a “director’s lounge,” but rather nicely done with African fabrics, comfortable chairs, and a tableful of snacks, drinks and meal-time servings of food. It was there that I really socialized with other directors. My two picture-mates are from South Africa (the white guy) and Jamaica (the other guy), but we’re all wearing our badges proudly!

Directors 3

THE LESBIAN CORNER

As this was a Black film festival, the lesbian and gay presence was well nigh invisible. My doc was programmed with three other shorts, either made by or about Black lesbians. Fragrantly titled “Shorts Series 8,” our program screened on a Tuesday afternoon and a Thursday evening. I attended the Thursday evening show with my L.A. claque (I had to bribe them with food to attend), expecting a sparse crowd as we were playing against a red-carpet centerpiece film. To my surprise, the theater was about sold out. Two of the documentary shorts were made by locals, and their claques were much bigger than mine. Noisier too.

On a cinematic level, both documentaries were somewhat dreadful. This reflected, no doubt, the dearth of LGBT-themed entries. Black lesbians are a closed society, however, so even this amateurish glimpse into their world was interesting. And they had the unintended virtue of making my documentary appear – I was the last to screen – as if it were headed straight to PBS.

Predictably, I was the only white male in the numerous line-up below the screen for the Q&A session. Through happenstance, I was given the mike to be the first to answer a general question directed to all of us. This triggered my PC radar, and I quickly handed the mic to one of the Black women, remarking that I was an outlier in the group. In spite of all, people were very complimentary about my work.

THE TOUGH LIFE OF AN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like artists of any stripe, nobody goes into this game for the money. But, of course, lightening can strike, and the likes of Spike Lee and John Singleton can catapult to fame. To make a decent-looking feature-length film, you need at least a half million dollars, and that requires calling in a lot of favors from fellow artists or friends in the industry. But the results can be amazing. You will see wonderful efforts and achievements at a good film festival that will never make it to Netflix, much less the commercial screens.

Rubbing shoulders with other directors, I certainly ran into those who were excited to be at the Pan African Film Festival, but I was surprised at how beat-up some of the directors seemed, even after making an impressive showing.

Mariette Monpierre, for example, had brought her first feature-length film, Elza, to the festival. Shot on the island of Guadaloupe, this semi-autobiographical tale was technically beautiful with island-paradise visuals and an entertaining story. It wasn’t my favorite amongst the films I did manage to see, but it was certainly strong. At the PAFF awards festival, it won not one but three awards, including the Festival Choice Award.

Born in Guadeloupe and raised in Paris, Mariette Monpierre earned her Master’s degree in Media and Languages at the Sorbonne University and Smith College before taking up residence in New York City. There she made money filming commercials.

When I met Mariette in the director’s lounge later that day, I congratulated her on her multiple awards. “You must be walking on air,” I remarked. “Yes, it’s nice,” she responded, “but it took me seven years to make this film, and I’m in debt. I’ll have to find a regular job when I get back to New York, or I won’t stay afloat.” As I said above, the PAFF doesn’t attract distributors. Can she find distribution or funding for her next film project as a result of her success at the film festival? One would think so, but I’ve seen many a worthy film at festivals that never made it to distribution.

A classic case in point is the narrative feature, High Chicago, directed by the Canadian son of a West African immigrant, Alfons Adetuyi, from a script written by his brother. Here’s the short synopsis:

“A gritty yet beautifully accomplished drama, inspired by a true story set in 1975, of a husband, father and gambler with a dream of traveling to Africa to open a drive-in theater.”

I came out of the screening thrumming with excitement. The film was savory, filled with colorful characters, sharp dialog, a sexy protagonist, redolent of a bygone era—and it possessed great heart. But the script wasn’t written as a historical drama. The script was written in the 1970s. It just took forty years for the film to get made.

Alfons and I became buddies briefly because I was so enthusiastic about his film. As a native of Toronto, he was hoping to have its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, which is an A-list festival. He knows the festival director somewhat. Because A-list festivals prefer to boast that theirs is a World Premiere, Alfons held the film back from other film festivals in order to better his chances of acceptance. To his great disappointment, he didn’t make the cut. And so he doesn’t have distribution.

Now Mr. Adetuyi is an experienced director and producer. He knows the game, at least the way it’s been traditionally played. And here he is faced with a dilemma. Does he try to raise $400,000 to arrange for a week-long screening in New York and L.A. with expensive publicity in hopes that somebody will take notice? It’s a costly gamble. Of course the returns, if successful, would far outstrip the straight-to-DVD route that is certainly available. But if lightening doesn’t strike, then his production company is another half million in the hole with the same result: straight to DVD.

I, of course, have no such problems.

I Occupy the Rose Parade January 10, 2012

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OCCUPY THE ROSE PARADE (OTRP)

When I heard there was a plan for Occupy supporters to march directly behind the official Rose Parade that had been worked out with the Rose Parade organizers and the City of Pasadena , I knew I wanted to participate. Because of previous travel, I had missed the mass demonstrations last fall sponsored by Occupy Oakland. This was an opportunity for me to show my support at the site of the town where I had grown up. And the fact that the organizers had negotiated the probably grudging acceptance of the march from the Powers That Be augured well for a non-violent event. I’d made my efforts to smash the capitalist state back in the 60s, and the escalating violence of the police response at that time convinced me that I was better off accepting my privileged position as part of the sated American middle class rather than trying to bring about the New Millenium for humanity.

Occupy the Rose Parade (OTRP) planned two public events, a forum and rally at the All Saint’s Church in downtown Pasadena on the afternoon of January 1 and a protest march after the parade on January 2. I attended both.

The forum was, by my lights, a slightly depressing affair. The speakers made the connections between Wall Street greed, corporate arrogance, the foreclosure crisis, and Republican intransigence. The discourse was reasonable, and there was even a bit of good political theater about the absurdity of granting personhood rights to corporations. (“I used to pay taxes,” one video interviewee confessed. “Then I declared myself to be a corporation and moved all my assets to a bank account in the Cayman Islands !”) But there were perhaps 200 people in the audience, which felt small for the space provided, and the atmosphere was suffused with the left wing/progressive/well-intentioned/lost cause vibe that makes these events seem sadly marginal. Fortunately, the protest march the next day, felt much more successful.

True to the City of Pasadena ’s deal with the devil, January 2, Rose Parade day, dawned warm and blue. I arrived at the municipal park which had been allocated by the City as a staging area at 8:30. The protestors were flowing in, and the three floats that had been prepared for the event were also being readied. The most elaborate of these floats was a corporate octopus of waving tentacles made out of recycled garbage bags.

Occupy octopus

There was also a huge hand-lettered replica of the first paragraph of the Constitution that begins “We the People.” A satirical twin reading “We the Corporations” detailed the rights and benefits that the corporations arrogate to themselves. Estimating crowd strength has always been difficult for me, but I would guess there were no more than 600 people at the staging area. But the atmosphere was upbeat, and there was a greater demographic represented amongst the marchers than there had been at the previous day’s forum. Furthermore, many of the handmade signs and costumes were witty and effective.

OTRP signs

At 9:30, we were summoned to march behind the final motorcade signaling the end of the official parade. We only walked ¼ of the parade route, ending our own itinerary at an area just west of City Hall. As we marched, our numbers swelled until the wave of protesting humanity surging down Colorado Avenue looked impressive.

OTRP apogee

Parade organizers over-estimated a crowd of 5,000; the police under-counted to 400—a ridiculous claim. I would say around 3,000 at the march apogee would be a fair number. We lost a good 4/5 of those people at the closing rally, but we put on a good showing for the march down the parade route. And there were still lots of people in the stands. Some gave us a thumbs-down; others were clearly welcoming. Most simply watched, bemused or amused. The Rose Parade is corn-fed Americana , as I wrote previously, so the masses watching the parade are not exactly ripe for radicalization, particularly the ones who could afford bleacher seats, but many thousands saw us in person, and we got some news coverage that evening and the following day.

All in all, the march was a success. Everything progressed peacefully, and we all felt the uplift of spirited protest as our signs and floats swirled down the parade route. The Billionaire’s Marching Band added some festive music to the occasion (“We’re In the Monday”), and even I, who am not much of a joiner when it comes to chants, could get behind the slogan, “The banks got bailed out; we got sold out.”

The post-march rally had a celebratory feel to it. The march’s principal organizer, Pete Thottam, was understandably euphoric. He acted as the Master of Ceremonies for a series of short political speeches, including one from the famous Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan, followed by some musical acts. The overkill police presence in riot gear standing between us and City Hall made some people nervous, but the organizers assured us that nothing bad was going to happen, and nothing did. The Powers That Be hoped that we would remain contained in our little bubble, and that our perverse squeaks of dissent would be drowned out by the roar of celebratory consumerism. Bashing our heads in would have been counter-productive.

THE MEDIA RESPONSE

As a participant, I know that many thousands of people witnessed the march because I saw them with my own eyes. Anything amplified beyond that was dependent on the media. To the extent that the OTRP march was a news event, it got covered. How it got covered by mainstream media – the only media that has any sort of deep reach into the populace – was a mixed bag but a revealing bag.

Of course TV stations covering the parade live immediately switched their programming. Oddly enough, just to insure that our message would be literally drowned out as we passed the media stands, Glenn Miller records blared at top volume, providing a weirdly upbeat soundtrack to the protest march.

As might be expected, the local print paper, The Pasadena Star News, provided the most extensive coverage of the march preparations and its advent. The day before, the paper published a lengthy article, a bit of a hit piece, on the Pete Thottam’s, the organizer’s, checkered past and ideological disagreements with the Occupy movements in L.A. and Pasadena. However, that same paper provided the most even-handed reporting of the event itself the following day. (http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/news/ci_19660978) As for the all-important TV news, the L.A. version of the CBS network provided some pretty fair coverage. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-zLhpedKj8&t=2m40s). I don’t know what channel 5, KTLA’s, ideological position is, but their coverage was somewhat hostile, saying in their evening program of the event that the protestors “tried to get their message across.”

And what of the scintilla of attention granted to the event by the powerful and prestigious Los Angeles Times?  Let’s examine how the coverage devalued the march by misrepresentation and context. Here are the first three paragraphs of their story.

Hundreds of Occupy the Rose Parade protesters marched down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena on Monday after the real event was over, lining up behind police squad cars, tow trucks and the last official float to carry their message of economic inequality.

The reaction from the crowd, which was dispersing, was mixed, with some boos, but most people watched quietly or with amusement.

A member of a small group called the Bible Believers, which marches every year at the end of the parade, yelled to the Occupiers: “You people are no more than communist revolutionaries who destroy our country.”

Videos of the march clearly show that there were many more than “hundreds” involved. Then, of course, we were characterized as a sideshow to the “real event.” The reaction from the crowd ranged from neutral to negative. (I personally witnessed many cheers and thumbs up.) And, finally, while “our” message of economic inequality was referred to in only the most generic terms, a full quote from the Bible Believers (“communist revolutionaries”) was given way more news space. And, as a bonus, we got implicitly branded as the same kind of fringe-y lunatics that always march at the end of the Rose Parade.

Nice work, Fourth Estaters!

The Hoi Polloi Camp Out on Route 66 January 9, 2012

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THE HOI POLLOI CAMP OUT ON ROUTE 66

When I was growing up near the end of the Rose Parade route, my family regularly went down the afternoon before to place benches and chairs along the curb. Spectators can reserve spots along the route beginning at noon of the previous day, and they do so all along Colorado Blvd., the old Route 66, and Sierra Madre Blvd. I myself only gave one year to spending the night along the banks of the Sierra Madre. It was cold, and I’ve never liked staying up all night. But we always found other kids who thought it was a great adventure and were happy to guard our spots for a modest fee.

I’d never walked along the route in downtown Pasadena the night before the parade, but I did so this year, and it was quite the spectacle. Folks young and old, families, gatherings of friends, social clubs … all were sitting in chairs, chaises longes, grouped around tables, or on cushions, nesting in sleeping bags, and, most amazingly, cooking over open fires!

hobo candles

The sidewalks teemed with urban campers. No tents were allowed, but everything else seemed to be. And I saw people playing Monopoly, dominoes, listening to music, arguing with proselytizing evangelicals, checking out the souvenirs being peddled by itinerant vendors. And all the while traffic rolled down Colorado Ave.; many of the shops and all of the restaurants in Old Town were open for business. What was immediately apparent was how family friendly the scene was. No drunkenness or rowdiness on display; the teenagers seemed well-mannered; and kids were in evidence everywhere. The area was well policed, which ensured that unsavory elements would be quickly eliminated, and the general atmosphere was one of a low-keyed party.

In spite of the benign ambiance, the corporate store franchises – Juicy Couture, the Gap, Barnes and Noble—had their windows boarded up.

Corporate pigs board their windows

Crate and Barrel not only had boards on its plate glass windows but was open for business on New Year’s Day. There has never been any violence associated with the Rose Parade, but corporate pigs are a paranoid lot, probably because they measure the world by their own diseased yardstick.

Roses and Circuses January 9, 2012

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ROSES AND CIRCUSES

Bread and circuses, as the Roman satirist Juvenal famously remarked, were the favorite ways in which the plutocracy kept the people’s minds off the misbehavior of the ruling classes. The Pasadena Rose Parade, now in its 123rd year, certainly fits into that tradition. I grew up in Pasadena, and I have seen many Rose Parades. The form is unvarying: magnificent floats interspersed with fabulously costumed equestrian teams and marching bands. The floats themselves rank amongst the greatest floral creations on the planet, and they provide a fine metaphor of consumer capitalism: processed nature completely subordinated to human design, eye-popping color, mechanical gimcrackery, and rapid obsolescence. Once done with the parade, the floats are on display for only two days. But seen close up, they are wonders of color and design.

float close-up

I love the Rose Parade. It is pure Americana —sunny, gorgeous, sprinkled with athletes and beauty queens, marching bands and floral representations of the American dream and the exotic beauty of the foreign cultures to which our manufacturing jobs have been shipped. All of this costs money, of course, but local municipalities have a tradition of entering floats based on much volunteer efforts, and, in a twist of late capitalism, corporations, such as Wells Fargo and Discover have discovered the happiness of participating with prominently displayed logos. It *really* is a small world, after all. This year’s “theme” was “Just Imagine . . .” and yet there was no mention of the John Lennon classic.

Still, for those who might unfairly tax me with a jaundiced view, I do admit to being dazzled by the artistry of the floats. The Animal Balance float featured surfing dogs propelled on boards powered by a wave machine.

Surfing dogs

Now really, that’s impressive. Though I didn’t see the floats in action this year, I did view them the day after the parade. Many of them were parked alongside Pasadena High School where I went to school, adding an extra layer of nostalgia. Not that I’d ever want to be in high school again. But . . . go Bulldogs!

Auditorium of Pasadena High School

Hot Springs, Arkansas November 24, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF, Travel Dispatches.
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Hot Springs postcard

AN AMERICAN BADEN BADEN?

What was the first land reserved by the federal government for the protection of a natural resource? If you answered Yosemite (1862) or Yellowstone (1872), you’d be wrong. In 1832 the federal government set aside undefined parcels of land to protect a hot springs in the Ozark Mountains that puts out over 700,000 of odorless water a day.

I’m going to date myself here, but those of a certain generation will remember a really stupid TV show from the 1960s called The Beverly Hillbillies.

Come and listen to a story of a man named Jed.

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is . . . black gold . . . Texas tea.

And so the stereotype of the American rube, the Ozark Arkie, became forever enshrined in American popular culture. I’ve never visited the Ozarks, so I don’t know how distorted the popular conception is, but I can tell you from the four days I spent in Hot Springs for their annual documentary film festival that this town doesn’t adhere to my preconceptions of fundamentalist fear and prognathous facial features. But, because of its history as a spa town, Hot Springs, I suspect, has always been a slightly bluer enclave in a deeply red portion of the country.

Bath House Row

Much of the downtown area is a national park. After the original inhabitants, the Quapaw Indians, generously ceded the land to the United States (no doubt preferring some inhospitable Western reservation in return), the hot springs area was taken over by the federal government in 1832. Up until the late 20th century, federal oversight was lax, and the remarkable springs were commercially exploited in the chaotic and colorful ways of 19th and early 20th century capitalism. The town of Hot Springs grew from a raw frontier outpost, to “sophisticated” European spa wannabee, to Ozark Babylon and gambling haven (a gangster museum celebrates that piece of its heritage), to its current incarnation as a local arts center, camping Mecca, and tacky tourist destination. Although the wonderful 20th century buildings of Bathhouse Row have been preserved, taking the waters is but a minor activity.

The vulgar tourist dimension was visible enough, but since I was there as a guest of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, I had a chance to see the town’s artsy side. And the physical setting is beautiful: tree-covered hills turning into the reds and golds of fall. The National Park service makes sure that the historic bath houses are properly maintained and has turned one of them into a museum of 19thcentury bathing practices, a confounding combination of upper-class fantasy, quackery, and medical practice.

Bathhouse skylight

THE “N” STANDS FOR NAPOLEON

Oddly enough, I have a family connection to this resort town in the Ozarks: a hospital is named after my paternal great great uncle, Leo N. Levi. (Nobody current knew what the “N” stood for.) Old World Jews were familiar with the idea of spas as places of healing, and both the wealthy and the poor came to Hot Springs in the early 1900s for extended stays. The local Jewish community (now much diminished) was overcome with requests for housing and transportation, so the B’nai B’rith stepped in, authorizing the construction of a hospital facility in 1910. Its illustrious president, Leo N. Levi, had died of a heart attack six years earlier, and the hospital that finally opened its doors in 1914 bore his name.

Hot Springs is a large town, but it’s still a town, and the vaunted six degrees of separation are reduced to two, or at most, three. When I told the film festival volunteer who picked me up at the airport of my family connection, she had her friend, Donna Casparian, who works there, contact me at a reception the evening of that same day. The next morning, I was given the grand tour of Levi Hospital by its CEO, Patrick McCabe.

As you might guess from the CEO’s name, Levi Hospital has drifted away from its Jewish roots. Although there are still Jewish memorabilia in various spots (mezeuzot, a menorah in the window of the old front entrance), I had to explain to this Scotch Irish descendent that the year 5763 inscribed as the erection date referred to the Jewish calendar. With typical Southern hospitality, Patrick, on short notice, took almost two hours out of his schedule to show me around, treated me to lunch at the modest hospital cafeteria, provided me with documents relating to the hospital’s history, and gave me a thin hardback book on the topic as well as a paper weight.

Busted with my great great uncle, Leo N. Levi

As for the family connection, you will see a picture of me with the bust of my great great uncle. [Leo and me.] Also the same multi-generational family portrait of the Levi patriarch, Abrahahm (Victoria, TX), which I had framed for my stairwell also hangs in the hospital meeting room. Other than that, not much.

In 2003, motivated by curiosity about the Texas branch of my family (my father never talked about our Texas relatives), I took a trip to San Antonio, Victoria, Galveston, and Houston to do some research in the local libraries. On the Levi side of things, Uncle Leo is far and away the most prominent of my ancestors.  Though his father was a typical Jewish-merchant-turned-banker, Leo was sent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to be turned into an American gentleman. It worked. Even though he remained Jewish, Uncle Leo hewed closely to the model of American cultural and business success. (His classmate, writer Thomas Nelson Page, based the character of the noble Jew, Wolfert, on Levi.) He settled in Galveston as a prominent lawyer when that town was the biggest and most important in Texas. Elected national president of B’nai Brith in 1900, Levi moved to New York in that year, thereby missing the hurricane that still counts as the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. (some 2500 dead).

Part of Uncle Leo’s fame stemmed from his windy gifts as a Victorian orator. In a time when public speaking was considered a form of entertainment, Levi’s prose was particularly orotund. I have in my possession an 1879 letter that Leo wrote to his sister, Rosa, upon learning that she was betrothed to the San Antonio merchant, my great grandfather, Moses Haas. And I quote: “… it is natural that I should rejoice when one so near to me as you are has entered the radiant avenue that leads to the temple of Hymen; and I am the more disposed to rejoice at the step you have taken, when I reflect that your chosen spouse is one so eminently fitted to make your life a long succession of happy days.”

Top that, Kanye West!

“UNCLE SAM BATHES THE NATION”

Such was one of the slogans used to promote the city. But Uncle Sam was a racist. African Americans had to open up their own baths in 1905 because they had no access to the waters otherwise. However, they were extensively used in their familiar menial capacity. And, for those yearning for the pleasures of Jim Crow service, you can still have that experience at the Buckstaff Baths. (Pun intended?) This was an aspect of Southern tourism I couldn’t pass up.

Bathing has sadly fallen out of fashion in Hot Springs. Only two bath houses are currently in operation, one modern one (been there, done that) and the Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912 – hasn’t been upgraded since then either.

The Buckstaff opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 3:00 p.m. Strange hours, but if you want to avoid the crowd, you have the option of going really early. I arrived around 8:30 on a Monday morning and had the place to myself. And it was an odd experience. After dropping off my valuables at the front reception, I was led to an area of small dressing rooms, also with lockers. The Black dressing room attendant then took me back to the bath area where I placed under the care of Jim (!), an older Black man who shepherded me through the various stages of the Traditional Bathing Package ($68) without ever meeting my eyes. I was given towels with which to drape myself, but since the bathing areas are sex segregated, nudity was clearly the norm. The bathing area itself was out of another era: white small-tiled floor, stalls with marble dividers but no doors, iron tables, everything rusty and careworn but spotlessly clean. Everything white white white except for the attendants.

I began with a whirlpool soak in a clawfoot bathtub, made to drink a few cups of the water to demonstrate its lack of mineral taste. At the end of 20 minutes, Jim came with my purchased loofah and scrubbed me down: arms, back, legs. I knew better than to attempt conversation. I was then led to the stall where I enjoyed my sitzbath and an unimpeded view (no doors, as I said) of the bathing area. On to the needle shower, a Jules Verne-looking set of pipes that peppered my body with thin sprays. More drying off, then Jim wrapped me in hot towels as I lay supine on a table. By this time I was ready to give up on the cultural anthropology and just submit to the hedonism of the experience.

After the towel wrap, Jim led me to another part of the building where the massage rooms were located. My masseur was an interesting and voluble émigré from Roumania. I turned a 20-minute massage into a 30-minute one by simply getting him to talk about his life story. I had now left the traditional South and was back in familiar multi-culti territory.

Glorious Excess in Montreal November 12, 2011

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Catholicism has always had a penchant for excess—in its architecture, in its vestments, in its ritual, in its global ambitions. The Quebec version of Catholic excess surfaces most often in the painted interiors of its churches. Small churches, such as the Old Port’s Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, surprised me with the profusion and fine detail of their painted walls – not a square centimeter left uncovered.

Basilique Notre-Dame

The most astonishing of these interiors is the 19th-century Basilique Notre-Dame, a star-studded vault of blue and gold and neo-Gothic trappings that either borders on the garish or topples complete into it. I missed the nightly son-et-lumière show that would have surely established its kitsch credentials.

There are other manifestations of Catholic hubris. Montreal’s cathedral is a one-quarter-sized replica of St. Peter’s in Rome—strangely unpainted in its interior but, with its reproduction of Bernini’s baroque Baldacchino as its altar canopy, still going for baroque. But the Montreal award for religious excess goes without question to St. Joseph’s Oratory, the world’s largest shrine to the father of Jesus.

St. Joseph's Oratorio

Everything about St. Joseph’s is outsized: its basilica can seat 3000 worshippers; its dome is one of the largest in the world; it receives 3 million pilgrims a year, many of them asking for cures to physical, psychological, and spiritual ailments. The “Illuminated Chapel” houses ranks of votive candles ($5 a piece) burning at multiple stations marking various aspects of St. Joseph’s character and responding to the hopes of the worshippers: Hope of the Sick, Patron of the Dying, Terror of Demons. [Illuminated Chapel] Oil placed in a basin beneath the central statue of St. Joseph can also be purchased at the gift shop.

Illuminated Chapel

Montreal: Francais Without the French November 9, 2011

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As a rabid Francophile, I was prepared to love Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the Western hemisphere. And, indeed, I did love Montreal. I loved the French signs, the French food, the French fries, and the language with its weird Quebecois twang. But I was also bemused by the Quebecois’ insistence on thrumming the same old historical complaints. I was in Montreal for a film festival, not paying a lot of attention to the news, but during my five days there, I read an opinion piece in a free francophone daily about how the sovereignty movement needs to be rallied out of its dangerous torpor. Local French television news featured a segment about how certain shopkeepers were being fined because the French lettering of their bilingual signs were not twice the size of their English counterparts. I tuned idly into a TV roundtable discussion under the rubric “La France a-t-elle nous abandonné?” (“Has France abandoned us?”) wherein the francophone participants made bitter reference to “the conquest”—that is, the 1763 acquisition by England of New France under the Treaty of Paris. (The treaty brought to an end the first global conflict now known by historians as the Seven Years War. Our section of it was the French and Indian War.)

Nationalist graffiti

Has France abandoned us? Well, yes . . . two and a half centuries ago. In spite of de Gaulle’s incendiary battle cry, “Vive le Québec libre!,” the Quebecois are Canadians and do pretty well by it. The French language predominates and is not going anywhere. Although a pleasant fiction in the English-speaking provinces, the Official Languages Act declared Canada to be a bilingual nation and required the use of both languages in all federal operations. One well-known bon mot on the subject says that the Quebecois want an independent Quebec within a strong Canada. Montreal itself is wealthy, well-ordered and the most genuinely bilingual city I’ve encountered. Everyone there speaks both languages to some degree. Still many of the Quebecois nurse their linguistic and historical grudge. One could make comparisons to the ideology of the post-Civil War South with its delusional attachment to The Noble Lost Cause (like slavery was so great), except that the South finally moved on.

Montreal skyline

Also, language and cuisine aside, Montreal isn’t that different from Toronto and Vancouver. The downtown streets are just as rectilinear; the skyscrapers look the same; the social services and public transportation systems are just as efficient. Montreal possesses some historical anomalies, such well-known tourist attractions as the Old City (not so rectilinear) and the myriad of Catholic churches that were lavishly decorated in part to one-up the more austere Protestant houses of worship frequented by the Anglophones.

Image+Nation, the Montreal LGBT Film Festival November 6, 2011

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Image+Nation will be 25 next year. For some fifteen plus years, the festival has been run by a lesbian couple, Charlie Boudraeau (francophone) and Katharine Seltzer (anglophone). Like the couple themselves, the festival is completely bilingual, as is the city of Montreal. I’ve spent a lot of time in francophone countries, but being in Montrealwith its perfect mastery of the two languages is a new experience for me. And the festival programming reflects the city’s dual linguistic heritage. Films in French and English, without subtitles, are routinely screened in the same program. My own film, for example, which is not subtitled in French, is playing with an equally monolinguistic French documentary, Louis(e) de Ville, Portrait d’une bad girl.

Image+Nation looks like a successful festival and well-established institution. The festival spans twelve days with two, sometimes three, simultaneous screenings. Most of the programs take place atConcordiaUniversity, which has an enormous screen and good sound system. The theater doubles as a classroom, so the seats also have fold-down wooden writing tables, an acceptable substitute for cup holders. The crowds are good. The big theater seats 300 and has been close to full more often than not.

Moi with festival directors Katharine Seltzer (r) and Charlie Boudreau(l)

This is not a festival that brings in a lot of film makers, though it does a few. When Charlie and Katharine heard I was attending, they offered me three nights at an elegant gay B&B. There are two other directors here as well, though I’ve only met one other, Steve Lewis, another San Francisco resident (works at The Chronicle, actually) who is travelling with his fourth feature film (Longhorns, a gay comedy). One night Charlie and Katharine invited the directors in attendance (two locals and one guy from Los Angeles) to a late dinner at one of the sponsoring restaurants, and I had a chance to talk to them over a beef and horse mix of steak tartare about the programming process. They’re both smart and sophisticated in their film tastes (only what you’d expect). They love “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” and have put it in the shorts competition. I don’t think it has a chance, since it is the only documentary, but it’s quite a compliment to be nominated.

The best thing about Image+Nation is the wide international net that it casts. At American festivals, I’ve seen the same “big” films programmed again and again. And I have to say, they don’t knock me out. The best feature films I’ve seen at this festival are ones I haven’t seen elsewhere: a black Israeli comedy entitled Joe & Belle (subtitled in English); an equally black French drama, Notre Paradis (no subtitles) about murderous rent boys in a passionate affair; a fascinating, complex glimpse into Tehran’s upper and political classes entitled Circumstance (subtitled in English). Actually Circumstance won the Sundance U.S. audience award for drama this year. See it when it comes to a theater near you.