Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Front Cover - a film review

For years now, I've been tuning in to made-for-gays movies, far more times than not gagging at how bad the acting is in a so many of them, how trite the plot, how full of stereotypes. Trash. So much trash.

The upside of having to plough through all these really bad movies is that when you come across a decent film you get twice the pleasure. The bar is pretty low. It doesn't have to be a gem, you say to yourself. It just has to have something going for it.

That's the case with Front Cover. There are two lead characters, Ryan and Ning.  Ryan is an ABC - American-born Chinese gay man - who works for a fashion magazine called Mаis Oui. His boss assigns him the job of introducing Ning, a well-known actor in China, and booster of all things Chinese, to the American public.

They start out with a series of culture clashes. Ning has a serious case of internalized homophobia; Ryan has an equally serious case of internalized self-loathing about being Chinese.

So far, so bad. We are primed for the plot line about how the two bigots whittle away at each other's prejudices. In incompetent hands, this would be just another stinker waiting to happen.

But it's not a stinker. And it's not a spoiler, I hope, to tell you that they do both become friends and move closer to a happy medium, since that's what you expect will happen. What is surprising, though, is how well writer/director Raymond Yeung Yaw-kae plays out the resolution of the conflicts. Yeung is chief of the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. He has an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts. He knows his stuff and what could so easily have been one long cliché from start to finish turns out to be a very engrossing watch.

photo credit

in English (mostly), Putonghua (that's Mandarin, to you), and Cantonese

Monday, June 27, 2022

Torrington from the air

Didn't spend the morning, as I usually do, watching child prodigies at the piano keyboard, or Russian folk dancers performing Olympic level athletic moves with their superhuman young bodies. This morning I relaxed into some serious nostalgia.

A friend sent me a link to a Facebook site with a three-and-a-half-minute video of the town where I was born.  Somebody apparently got a drone to fly over Torrington, Connecticut, film it, and post the film on Facebook. In the wintertime, when industrial revolution-era New England towns are at their drab-most.  It really is ugly, when filmed from this perspective. An overgrown village, of about 36,000 people, 2010 census, criss-crossed by great swaths of long straight city streets, which remove any last trace of charm the village might once have had. Boulevards made for drag-racing, with names like Main Street, East Main Street, and South Main Street.

Thanks to the durability of my baby-sister-the-great-grandmother's marriage, my spousal unit and I had cause to revisit Northwestern Connecticut last month. My closest biologicals, as I call them (to distinguish them from my chosen family) were celebrating their 60th anniversary. In our free time we drove all over the place marveling at the changes a bit and marveling even more over how much had not changed in the sixty plus years since I lived there.

Torrington is the town where I was born. Where my mother, who came to America in 1923 with her aunt and uncle at the age of 8, grew up and lived until she married my father and they moved nine miles up the road to Winsted, where I grew up. Another town with one long Main Street, much wider than it needs to be, the main difference being Winsted's Main Street runs east and west, Torrington's runs north and south.

Sometimes these towns expanded their streets to include tree names. They and so many other New England towns all have a Maple Street, an Oak Street, an Elm Street or a Walnut Street.  As do American towns all over the country which took their cue from what I take to be the country's original Puritan appreciation of trees. Torrington doesn't have a Maple Street, actually, but it does have a Maplewood Street and a Maplewood Drive. And a Willow Street. Other names include things like Water Street, Prospect Street, Park Avenue, Park Drive and Church Street - pretty dull next to names like Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles or Madison Avenue in New York City. But that comparison is unfair. In small town New England there's no reason to get too big for your boots.

My father and his brothers grew up here as well, went to Torrington High School, because their father from Scotland and their mother from Nova Scotia settled there when they could no longer handle the hustle and bustle of Boston and my grandfather got a job teaching carpentry at the local trade school. Many of these folks died in the same hospital where I was born.

So as I look down on the Yankee Pedlar Inn and the Nutmeg this and the Nutmeg that (Connecticut is known as "the Nutmeg State") I am aware of how different the place where I have made my home is, with names like San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica, San Rafael, and Sacramento, and how very English my American birthplace is. Torrington was named after a small down in Devonshire, in Southwest England, next to Cornwall. (There is a Cornwall, in Connecticut, by the way, a few miles west of Torrington. Their main street, if I can call it that, is Pine Street. It's a village of fewer than 1500 souls, has a lovely covered bridge, and was the birthplace of Ethan Allen, of the Green Mountain Boys, according to the town's website. A bit of a stretch, since the town didn't actually exist when young Ethan was born, but his family did settle there while he was growing up. Whereupon he went off to do his thing in the Revolutionary War. And established the state of Vermont. But I digress...)

Torrington, speaking of English colonial towns that birthed famous people, is the birthplace of John Brown, whose body lies a-mouldering in the grave.  It prides itself as being a center of the abolition movement from early days.  A lesser claim to fame is the fact that Gail Borden made the original condensed milk there, which fact you might have overlooked last time you opened a can to make Vietnamese coffee.

But boring as the names are and dull as the town looks, especially mid-winter, and happy as I am to have left the snow and ice behind, this drone's-eye view of the place fills me with nostalgia. I spent much of my childhood with my grandmothers, one of whom lived on Water Street, the other on South Main Street. I joined St. Paul's Lutheran Church - also on South Main Street - back when I wanted to be associated with my German roots and with Martin Luther. 

The road leading out of town to the north was called (and still is) the Winsted Road. We in Winsted called the same road the Torrington Road. Call it lack of imagination, if you will. New Englanders will call it simple practicality. Or common sense. The road to Litchfield carries the name Litchfield Road.  The road to Goshen carries the name Goshen Road.

You won't find a Winsted in England, incidentally. That's because it's a contrived name for the commercial village that grew up between the towns of Winchester and Barkhamsted. Win- of Winchester, -stead of Barkhamsted, in case you missed it. Winchester, England, despite its small population - barely 10,000 more souls than Torrington, Connecticut, is obviously a more substantial city than Torrington, England, and has a magnificent cathedral and the honor of being England's first capital city. Barkhamsted is named after Berkhamsted, in England, home to John Cleese of Monty Python fame.  Also Graham Greene, by the way, if your tastes go more literary. I assume the vowel "e" got switched to the vowel "a" in America because the Americans decided if you're going to pronounce it to match the way a dog barks, then maybe you ought to spell it that way.

Same goes for Berkeley, of course, except in reverse.

In any case, if you've been dying to fly over and look down upon a small town in New England, now's your chance.

Quaint, it ain't.

But it means the world to me, being the place I first got to express my feelings when the doctor spanked my bare bottom to make sure I was born alive.

photo credit - photo is of Charlotte Hungerford Hospital where I was born, 82 years ago.  5th floor, if I am not mistaken. Postcard and I were created at about the same time.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Królowa - The Queen - a film review

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is suggesting, now that he and his man-buddies on the court have dragged the United States back to the dark ages of back-alley abortions, that he's just getting started. Also on his to-do list, as if forcing girls impregnated by their fathers or brothers to carry the baby to term, and criminalizing doctors who choose the life of the mother over the life of the fetus were not enough, is removing the right to birth control and taking back the right of gay people to marry each other.

I know, I know. That's the "worst case scenario" you will tell me. Not necessarily going to happen. Maybe not, if we can get Americans to throw the zealots out of office who are responsible for this horror show, but they've definitely opened the door to the possibility. Homophobia, welcome to America. Step right in and have a seat. You're welcome here.

Meanwhile, over in a more progressive nation - Poland - they're making movies now (well, a movie) about a drag queen who saves the day in his old home town. Remember those Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland days when things got rough for the working class parents and the kids (why were the boys all wearing suits and ties?) put on a show and bailed everybody out?

That's the plot of the new Netflix film just released two days ago. It's called Królowa (Queen), and it's about a queer kid from Katowice, a mining town in Silesia, who runs off to Paris as gay kids are wont to do when the going gets rough. If you're American, you go to New York or Hollywood, but if you're Polish, like Chopin, bright lights/big city means Paris.

Sylwester, played by Andrzej Seweryn, becomes a fashion designer by day and a drag queen entertainer by night, and succeeds big time in both endeavors.  Forty years go by and he gets a letter from his granddaughter. She has googled him and asked him to return to Poland and donate a kidney to her mother, who will die if she doesn't get a transplant from somebody compatible. Turns out granddaughter is pregnant and can't do the job herself.

Sylwester, whose stage name is Loretta, stews over the decision for a while but gives in to his better instincts.

What happens after that is for viewers to discover. Much of it is predictable, and since it's French and it's about drag queens, in addition to being soap opera, there's farce. In the wrong hands this Netflix streamer of four hour-long episodes could easily go off the tracks. But the sentimentality works. The film has great heart, and the lead, Andrzej Seweryn, turns out, has some serious acting chops. He is a seventy-six-year-old veteran who has starred in over fifty films in Poland, France and Germany and is currently director general of the Polski Theater in Warsaw.

Supporting actors do a pretty good job, as well.

There is an accident in the mines that leaves the locals financially strapped, so the "let's put on a show" bit in which Loretta is drafted to save the day can be seen coming a mile away. Also predictable is that it will be not just a little, but way way over the top.

No matter.

Anybody putting on happy-ending feel-good movies these days deserves a vote of gratitude.

in French and Polish, with subtitles

photo credit