Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)

(USA 1966)

Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.

It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.

Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Canyon Cinema

Distribution:

11 minutes
Not rated

(Daily Motion) C-

 

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

Kedi

(Turkey / USA 2016)

Warm, lively, and thorough, Ceyda Torun’s oddly intriguing documentary Kedi is a sort of love letter to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and its thousands of roaming street cats that have shared space with people since the days of the Ottoman Empire. As one resident puts it early on, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”

Yes, the cats are cute. Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann follow a number of them as they move through their day: one gathers scraps to feed her kittens stashed safely in a retail building, another is pulled into a turf war with an orange tabby drifter, and yet another assumes the responsibility of taking care of vermin that dare to enter a popular seaside gathering spot for humans.

Each cat has a story, and each attracts — and impacts — different people: a shopkeeper, an artisan, a restaurant owner, a bona fide crazy cat lady. These cats are therapeutic, bringing happiness and purpose to residents. They serve as companions and wards. Most of them have a tough life — or nine of them. Torun does a nice job showing that the cats in Istanbul face the exact same threats that people do: overpopulation, urban development, and local politics.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than…well, Cats.

With Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz

Production: Termite Films

Distribution: Oscilloscope Laboratories

79 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center at Chicago Athletic Association) B-

https://www.kedifilm.com

2350 Last Call: The Neo Story

(USA 2017)

I seriously doubt that any documentary about a defunct local dance club from the ‘80s and ‘90s holds much interest to very many outside the city where it was located. With 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story — its title incorporates the club’s address on Clark Street — director and documentarian Eric Richter starts at the “farewell party” in July 2015 and goes backward, telling the story of Chicago’s iconic nightspot Neo’s 36 year history.

Starting as a new wave bar in the early ‘80s, Neo evolved into an industrial goth club and for a long time created its own scene. That alley was the perfect lead in! Neo attracted some famous guests, obvious ones like Al Jourgensen and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, both on Wax Trax at one point. Neo also attracted some not so obvious ones, like Debbie Harry, Trent Reznor, Prince, and David Bowie. Richter lovingly tells about some of the theme nights (like Nocturna), the music, and of course regulars, from bouncer Kimball Paul (R.I.P) to a Mexican guy who looked like he’d be at home on a Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass record cover.

For all his local focus, Richter does something that puts 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story beyond mere local interest: he gets to the heart of club culture and community, something that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Jaimz Asmundson’s music video “Plastic Heart” by Ghost Twin was a fitting prelude. It’s  irreverent, fun, and over the top with its tongue in cheek goth and satanic sensibilities.

With Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie

Production: Eric Richter Films

Distribution: Eric Richter Films

World Premiere

Screening introduced by CIMMfest cofounder Carmine Cervi and followed by a live Q and A with director Eric Richter and Eric Richter, Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie

46 minutes
Not rated

(Gman Tavern) B-

CIMMfest

http://2350lastcall.com

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution

(USA 2017)

For those who don’t know, queercore (or homocore, as it’s sometimes called — personally, I find that term clunky so I don’t use it) is rooted in the North American punk scene. In an oversimplified nutshell, it’s LGBT punk rock, and its heyday was the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. It developed in response to the homophobic machismo that increasingly characterized the ’80s postpunk scene coast to coast.

Yony Leyser’s Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution is thorough and fun even if it is fairly standard. Using interviews, footage from concerts and other live performances, films, home videos, and a treasure trove of zines and old flyers, he starts in Toronto, where filmmaker Bruce LaBruce and artist G.B. Jones published the queer punk zine J.D.s. They confess that one of their goals was to manufacture a scene, or at least make it sound there was one where it didn’t actually exist. It worked.

LaBruce, Jones, Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8, Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division, Genesis P-Orridge, and others discuss their role in the queercore movement and what it was (and is) for them. Even John Waters has his take. Leyser focuses on more than just bands, getting into the entire culture: zines (elemental to the movement), art, films (particularly LaBruce’s), politics, and AIDS. He also ties in subsequent scenes like riot grrrls and mainstream successes like Green Day, Hole, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Nirvana.

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution is a comprehensive, inclusive, and engaging documentary. Irreverent, fun, and at times ridiculous, it’s a fitting tribute.

Incidentally, you can find some queer zines here — you’re welcome: http://archive.qzap.org/index.php/Splash/Index

With Silas Howard, Kim Gordon, Peaches, Kathleen Hanna, Patty Schemel, Justin Bond, Dennis Cooper, Jayne County, Scott Treleaven, Tom Jennings, Rick Castro, Jody Bleyle

Production: Desire Productions, Totho

Distribution: Edition Salzgeber (Germany)

Screening followed by a live Q and A with director Yony Leyser

83 minutes
Not rated

(Davis Theater) B-

CIMMfest

https://www.facebook.com/Queercoremovie/

Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu]

(Japan 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] is an intriguing film for a few reasons. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave, writer and director Toshio Matsumoto comes up with something simultaneously ordinary yet avant-garde, very much a product of its time yet years ahead. It’s extraordinarily cool.

Structured as a movie within a movie, Funeral Parade of Roses follows Tokyo “gay boy” Eddie (Pîtâ a.k.a. Peter) through his many exploits as a young transvestite immersed in the underground club scene. He might even be a hooker. Meanwhile, he’s carrying on a secret affair with Jimi (Yoshimi Jô), the boyfriend of club elder statesperson and fellow gay boy Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda is onto them. Oh, the drama it creates!

While all this is going on, a camera crew records Eddie as though this were The Real World or Truth or Dare.

As Eddie ponders who he is — and looks to alcohol, group sex, drugs, and lots of attention from others for answers — Matsumoto explores “queer identity” through him. He intersperses interviews, flashbacks, episodes with Eddie’s mother (Emiko Azuma), and even a musical diversion or two to offer clues. A crazy subplot develops, and it references Oedipus in a tacky and sad but clever way.

Clumsy in its exploration of “gay life” and downright disturbing at points, Funeral Parade of Roses is nonetheless fun to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has an otherworldly feel. When it’s not nihilistic, it’s kitschy and entertaining — almost in a nascent John Waters way, just not quite as rough. The clothes are mod. The music is heavy on classical. The ending, sudden and bloody, is really messed up.

I’m not sure what exactly Matsumoto is saying here — a lot is open to interpretation — or that I agree with him. Either way, I enjoyed the journey.

With Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toyosaburo Uchiyama, Don Madrid, Koichi Nakamura, Chieko Kobayashi, Shōtarō Akiyama, Kiyoshi Awazu, Flamenco Umeji, Saako Oota, Tarô Manji, Mikio Shibayama, Wataru Hikonagi, Fuchisumi Gomi, Yô Satô, Keiichi Takenaga, Hôsei Komatsu

Production: Art Theatre Guild, Matsumoto Production Company

Distribution: Art Theatre Guild, Image Forum (Japan), Cinelicious Pics (USA)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

(USA 2017)

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.

Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.

From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.

With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka

Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films

Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix

Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde

105 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me

(USA 2017)

“He was way ahead of his time. Just the way we do now with selfies and Snapchat and Facebook — he would have put the little Instagram kids to shame!”

— Amber Valletta

 

“Kevyn’s biggest motivation to succeed was his abandonment issues. He had this thought that, if I work with you and you become my friend, and I make you pretty, then you won’t abandon me. I absolutely think he was looking for a mother figure in the people that he worked with.”

— Eric Sakas

Superstar makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin lived an enviable life. He was successful doing what he loved — his work was on runways, in music videos, on award shows, and on magazine covers, at one point nine consecutive issues of Vogue. He wrote books and started a line of cosmetics.

On top of that, he hung out with models, legends, and his own idols: Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Paulina Porizkova, Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Cher, and Jennifer Lopez to name a few. Some of them were actual friends (I can only imagine Liza leaving voicemail for me).

Judging from the fact that they all let Aucoin record him with them backstage — on videotape, and not always made up — they must have felt something for him. An affinity? Safety? A debt? Whatever it was, it endeared him. Even in his home videos, he made them look good.

So it’s odd and downright tragic that someone who brought so much beauty to the world, never felt beautiful himself. Perhaps it had to do with his birth mother, Nelda Mae Williams, giving him up for adoption, or all the bullying he got as a teenager. He didn’t like his physical features, which were exaggerated by a condition that went undiagnosed for most of his life: acromegaly, a tumour on the pituitary gland that keeps the brain secreting growth hormones. It’s a painful condition that causes headaches and joint pain, and it got Aucoin addicted to prescription drugs.

A trove of home videos found after his death in 2002 forms the basis for Lori Kaye’s documentary, Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me. He recorded everything — the aforementioned videos with celebrities, with family members and boyfriends, and even when he was alone. Kaye interviews different people from Aucoin’s life to tell his story, and the interviews range from funny (Andie MacDowell) to sad (ex boyfriend Eric Sakas discusses Aucoin’s downward spiral) to eyeroll-inducing (Williams claims Aucoin would not have been gay had she raised him).

His adoptive parents, Isidore and Thelma Aucoin, accepted him and even dropped out of their church because of its stance on homosexuality. He moved to New York City, and the rest is history.

The celebrity interviews are fun, and some are gushy. Some of the interviewees even cry. They all provide insight into the kind of guy Aucoin was. What Kaye has that makes her documentary special, though, is Aucoin’s tapes, and she incorporates footage from them into the project in a way that lets him tell his own story. It’s an often amusing one with a sad undertone. It also serves, as Cindy Crawford points out, as a time capsule — a really good one. I confess, a few scenes gave me chills.

With Andie MacDowell, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Valletta, Isidore Aucoin, Nelda Mae Williams, Jed Root, Eric Sakas, Tina Turner, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson

Production: Putti Media

Distribution: Logo Documentary Films (USA), Dogwoof (International)

World Premiere

Screening introduced by director Lori Kaye

90 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.kevynaucoindocumentary.com

Letters from Baghdad

(USA/UK/France 2016)

“We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”

—Gertrude Bell

According to the promotional poster for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” and “female Lawrence of Arabia” Gertrude Bell “was as controversial as the history she made.” Well, that certainly sounds promising!

Born into a wealthy family, Bell immersed herself in the Middle East in the early 20th Century and used her talents as a writer and a schmoozer to intimately acquaint herself with the area, its people, and their culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell). Her contacts with influential expats and various Arab leaders combined with her knowledge of the culture led to an appointment as a British officer during World War I and a direct hand in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq.

Tilda Swinton gives Bell her voice, reading off camera Bell’s actual writings about events that occurred on her many trips and the people she met. In Bell’s own words, Swinton offers history, observations, and even some Victorian Era dish. Bell had at least as much influence as T. E. Lawrence a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (played here by Eric Loscheider in a staged “talking head” interview made to look like old footage).

Bell’s life and the impact of her deeds a century later make for an interesting story. Painstakingly researched, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum pull from diverse source material—letters, diaries, photos—to show what cities like Baghdad and Damascus were like a hundred years ago. They do a great job humaninzing Bell, getting into personality flaws and personal disappointments. In both respects, Letters to Baghdad works really well.

Not everything works as well as it could, though. Some important items are treated superfically. For example, they mention the tension between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds even back then, but Krayenbühl and Oelbaum don’t delve into it. They touch on Bell’s reasoning for the borders she devised, but they don’t give much critical assessment to it. I left with the distinct feeling that I didn’t get the whole story. Another problem: the staged interviews give a lot of information, but they’re cheesy.

I found myself glancing at my watch about halfway through Letters from Baghdad. It’s a well made documentary, but it’s not as enthralling as it promises to be.

With Ammar Haj Ahmad, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens

Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Letters From Baghdad, Missing in Action Films

Distribution: Vitagraph Films (USA)

95 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) C

http://lettersfrombaghdadthemovie.com/about/