The conversation surrounding the “gay voice” has been shadowed and loaded. Shadowed by the specter of homosexual self-loathing and stereotypes, and loaded with gender expectations and biases. The idea of the gay voice is that if you close your eyes, and you can tell if a male is gay or straight just by listening to them. It’s the aural aspect to the gaydar. All the way back in 2000, David Sedaris wrote about the speech impediment classes he took in elementary school to rid him of his lisp. Waggishly, he quipped that the class was actually attended by Future Gay Boys of America.
Sedaris was filling in an anecdote with truthy observations, and not by any means making a documentary. By creating a personal account of his experience with the gay voice, he’s permitted to put himself in the story. Unfortunately, David Thorpe was unable to remove himself in the documentary Do I Sound Gay? in which he struggles with his status as a single gay man in his 40s, and uses that to explore his gay voice, the phenomenon of the gay voice, and why the gay voice matters. He bounces around from topic to topic, never dwelling long enough on anything to let that point make a definitive statement. Is it about misogyny? Is it because the gay voice has a feminine structure? Is it condemned because gay men became gay because we like masculine identifiers? Is it picked up as a social habit; a gay code of sorts?
We never get answers to these because Thorpe interjects himself all over the map. At several points throughout the movie, Thorpe edits in classic films that are supposed to have gay-coded characters. He lets the characters talk for a line or two, then proceeds to finish their lines in a voiceover. This style is representative of the movie, where he gets experts in gay culture to speak their opinions, then proceeds to whine right over it and interject his own voice lessons in how to speak more hetero. There are gold bricks of good information, but they’ve been paved over by Thorpe’s insecurities, and that’s a shame.
One of the prominent festival rules is “Sometimes the movie you see is the movie you can make it to.” That is, sometimes you have no idea what you’re watching, but you’ll watch it anyways because it is near the last movie, and starts at a time that doesn’t impede anything else. Sometimes you’ll end up with genius. Other times, you’ll end up with crap. My decision to watch Pioneer Heroes ended with the latter, but I’m not even entirely sure about that.
Natalya Kudryashova’s first feature film is nothing but ambitious. It’s a non-linear film with a broken timeline, flipping between present day (2015) and 1987. It also follows three different characters along both timelines. Yes, there are six different stories happening at once. The 1987 timeline follows three children under the Soviet Union striving to be Pioneer Heroes, a group of scouts who are actually experiments in ultra-patriotic Lenin-worshipping brainwashing. One boy refuses to be a lead singer in a choir, desiring to clack his tongue like everybody else. One girl stresses because her grandfather is brewing alcohol, and it is forbidden. Another girl…blech.
Whatever Kudryashova is trying to say is lost in translation. I couldn’t tell if she was criticizing the naivete of the children and the program, or if she was praising its patriotism. I couldn’t tell if she was saying that the brainwashing messed up their adult lives, of if their adult lives were messed up because they strayed away from the teachings of Lenin. Is it better to be conservative and listen to the leaders? That’s what I got from the movie, but others didn’t react the same way, though they were similarly confused. Though, maybe the confusion in ultra-liberal Seattle was because we were rejecting the ultra-conservative pro-Soviet Union message in the film.
Thursday’s world premiere of Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione’s Circle was a phenomenal hit that retained its audience through a significant technical glitch. The glitch, which happened about an hour through the movie, saw the various audio tracks go off sync, and suddenly we were hearing dialogue in three separate times in three separate locations creating a weird psychotic break for about 3-5 minutes, after which they stopped the movie, had to fix the problem, and restarted it. Only 2 people walked out. That’s a real film at work.
Circle plays with tropes familiar to anybody who has been watching indie science fiction for the past two decades. 50 people wake up in a room standing on individual red circles laid out in a patterned ring surrounding a black dome. If they step out of their circles, they’re killed and dragged off the board. Every two minutes, the black dome zaps a person and they are dragged out of the room. Eventually, the people figure out that they can vote on the next to die via a pattern in the floor, but each person can only see the vote that they themselves are casting. Soon enough, it’s trying to figure out who everybody is, and who deserves to live and die.
The question isn’t “does a life matter?” but “how do you value a life?” Hann and Miscione fill the circle with 50 identifiably American characters arguing over identifiably American values. The gimmick of a death every 2 minutes keeps Circle moving at a rapid, almost breathless, pace. Just as you’re getting comfortable in a conversation, suddenly somebody dies. The screenplay is clever and knowing, even if it feels a bit rushed and cliched at times. Hann and Miscione aren’t here to make judgments on their characters, but have filled them with the observations they’ve seen in their experiences. But, more than the politics, Circle is just a hell of a lot of fun.
The Seattle International Film Festival is known for its mix of under the radar films and high profile indies. On the third Friday of the festival, they showed the high profile Mister Holmes, the new pairing of director Bill Condon and Ian McKellan. They last worked together on Gods and Monsters, the indie darling about the end of James Whale’s life. This time around, they’re focusing on the end of Sherlock Holmes’ life, and casting his last case in a different light.
Based on Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mister Holmes finds Holmes returning home from a trip to Japan where he was trying to buy an oil to help him with his loss of memory (read: Alzheimer’s Disease). In his country mansion, he’s at odds with his housemaid while befriending her son. Holmes spends his time rewriting his final story, a chintzy remake of Vertigo and getting the son to be his editor. And, he also retells his travels to Japan.
If there’s something deep, I’m not sure what it is. Mister Holmes has three different timelines in just 105 minutes, not having enough time to properly dive into any of them. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is that there is no mystery. There is, instead, a dedication to humanity and love in the golden years of fading memory and abilities. But, even that is poorly done and not well constructed. One must resort to the simple pleasures of Ian McKellan starring as Sherlock Holmes (and possibly Laura Linney as his housemaid).
With a much lower profile is the PBS-produced documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, about the rise and fall of the Black Panthers. For those that don’t know, the Black Panthers were a national group of black people who wanted to better their own community through beneficial programs and displays of power. The iconic image of the Black Panther is the black man in a leather jacket and hat armed with large guns defending their right to bear arms. But, they also were developing programs to rid themselves of the class structure that disempowered the black community through poverty and lack of education. One such program was free breakfasts for school children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
Vanguard is an average doc about an important subject. Stanley Nelson can’t wrangle the subject into a form that expands beyond the PBS origins, and, subsequently, it lacks the passion that would be fitting of the Black Panthers. One doesn’t make a 10-point program without being passionate and angry about the situation surrounding you. Instead of editing with passion, Nelson has talking heads saying that the anger was in the streets. Nelson’s generic tone doesn’t match the radical subject matter; but is that to make it more palatable to the PBS audience? Whatever it is, it suffers.
Still, the SIFF presentation of Vanguard on Friday night was one to remember. To have a follow-up discussion of subject matter in the film, SIFF conducted a Q&A with Ericka Huggins, a leader in the Black Panthers, and subsequent activist. Huggins is, perhaps, one of the wisest people that I have ever had the fortune to listen to. Her Q&A was everything I have ever wanted to hear in a leader without having ever heard it before.
The audience was filled with a variety of walks of life. In one corner there was a group of youthful black activists who were fighting against the building of a new juvenile detention center in the middle of a black-prominent neighborhood. They also taught an extra school that focused on black and activist history. Standing on the stairs during the Q&A was a white police officer. Sons of black panthers were behind me. Well-meaning liberal white people were around my seat.
Ms. Huggins answered a few questions, but with these wise poetic answers that would drift from topic to topic, but always coming back to the core of the question. When asked about the industrial prison complex, she first started talking about the various socioeconomic factors that lead people to commit acts that would guide them to the path of prison. Even as she condemned prison, she was pointing out the problems that increased the populations of prison. She commented on how the current class system is structured off the plantation, where the moneyed interests used the police as ranch hands to control the uprisings of the slaves/peasants/working class. She commented on the educations system and its funding, and the limitations that come with high cost higher education. Through it all, Ms. Huggins spoke in a cool, calm, and collected manner that spoke to her decades of wisdom without coming from a place of elite authority. This will remain a cherished moment where the Q&A was so full of wisdom and love.
Next Entry: Stories, investigations, and the only film (so far) that I cannot figure out how to rate.