Interview: Joe Zaso, the Himbo Chef

“It was one of those freezing cold days,” author and actor Joe Zaso recalls, explaining the genesis of his series of “Café Himbo” cookbooks, “I was home and I love to cook, and I decided to start dabbling in recipes and things.  Back then I was in the West Village.  Jessica Harper [from the original Suspiria] had just written a book called The Crabby Cook Cookbook and I was very inspired by [it], so I said, I think I’m gonna start a blog.  So we can exchange recipes.  And because I’m called the Horror Himbo by some sites, [like queer horror site Camp Blood] I made the name the Café Himbo, which became a blog, which became a cookbook, which became a little featurette show on YouTube, which became a brand, and here we are, still going strong.”

Zaso and I are chatting in a coffeeshop in his current neighborhood in the lower east side.  Zaso is jovial and easygoing, talking quickly and excitedly and using his hands.  He has an amusing tendency to imitate the voices of the people in his life—and books—perhaps reflecting his background as an actor.  Apart from his own roles in horror films like Revenge of the Egg and 5 Dead on the Crimson Canvas, the “Himbo Chef” is a lifelong fan of the genre himself, and his books are filled with recipes from other horror players like Rutanya Alda (Amityville II: The Possession, Mommie Dearest) and Candice Azzara (Pandemonium).

“It’s what’s so surreal about people like Rutanya Alda, I’ve been watching them in movies since I was kids, with my brother on HBO, and here I am 30 years later and we’re talking about their cats, kvetching about rent, she’s telling me about her past relationships,” Zaso says.   “She will slip into Amityville II, here and there, but, you know, we’ll be meeting here and she’ll tell me how she’s into gluten free [foods].”  Zaso draws collaborators from his personal life, horror conventions, and occasionally messaging people on social media.  “It’s cute because everybody, I think they find it flattering and fun,” he states.  “Some people they don’t return emails, or they say thank you for asking.  Camille Keaton, from [the notorious “rape revenge” film] I Spit on Your Grave, she said that she makes popcorn, and that’s about it.”

For his latest book, The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends, Zaso teamed up with his friend Beverly Orth-Geoghegan.  “She’s fun to work with, she’s very seasoned, she knows her wines, she’s a good cooking partner,” Zaso enthuses.  “So I was like let’s write a book together.  And she said, [Zaso slips into an impression] ‘oh, it would be fun!’  We exchanged recipes, and cooked at each other’s places.”  Orth-Geoghegan has a horror connection herself; her husband Ted Geoghegan is a writer/actor who wrote the critically acclaimed independent film We Are Still Here (2015) and appeared in last year’s The Ranger.

As the title indicates, Zaso’s latest focuses on comfort food, from “Tiramisu French Toast” to “Creamy Dreamy Tomato Parmesan Soup” to “Single White Trash Chicken” (the latter from Rockbar co-owner and fellow horror fanatic Jason Romas).  “The book is about comfort food and just comforts, period,” Zaso explains. “There’s just unease at the moment, you almost feel guilty for having fun and doing certain things.  On Facebook I would see people posting every day with their favorite junk foods and all these decadent things, and I said, ‘didn’t we used to be really health conscious?’  And I think people are just saying ‘no, we want fun right now.  We want to be healthy, but right now we want to be, you know, are souls need to be improved.’”

Zaso finds certain horror films from the 70s and 80s to be a sort of comfort food, and was tickled to include some of their stars in his latest.  “One person I like very much is this actress Elizabeth Shepard, who you may know as Joan Hart, the woman who got pecked by the raven in Damien: Omen II,” Zaso says.  “She is such a doll.  She lives uptown, she teaches Shakespearean classes down here.  She gave me a whole bunch of recipes over the years.  The weirdest, most interesting recipe I got from her was for Pigeon Pie, which is very Northern English, it’s like squab, so we made a joke, ‘in honor of my attacker.’  For this one she gave me Welsh Rare Bit and Elizabeth Shepard’s Shepard’s Pie.”  The book also features Lynne Griffin, who famously played the first victim in the original Black Christmas (1974) and has found more recent success starring in Hallmark movies like Santa Baby (2006).   “She’s bubbly,” Zaso shares.  “And she has her fans, she has her horror fans, and if you’re like my mom– and I’m becoming a bit of one myself– she has Hallmark.  She’s such a good cook herself, she has such great advice.  She and her husband have recipes galore in the book and they’re just wonderful.”

I ask Zaso why he thinks horror has such devoted queer fans, and he ruminates on the topic a bit.  “I have this theory that half the horror fans in this world are gay people,” he says.  “What made me discover this is when you go to newsstands and Barnes and Noble, all the horror magazines are near the gay magazines.  Everyone who likes Pino Donnagio [composer of films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill]they always turn out to be gay, I don’t know why.  What is it about horror sequels: Damien: Omen II, Exorcist II, Elm Street II, they are always big with gay fans.  What is it?  There’s something there.  I don’t know what it is.  There’s something in horror that just speaks to their soul.”  Later, Zaso brings up a theory a friend once offered about the author’s personal connection to the genre.  “My friend Ricardo, from Rome, who’s straight, he said, ‘I think you liked horror in the 80s and 90s more, were you out yet?’  And I said, no.  And he goes, ‘when you came out, you noticed that you liked horror less, maybe it’s an exchange of aggression, maybe it was your guilt, or like hatred or darkness that exchanged,’ and he was being very philosophical and as soon as I became more comfortable with being gay I stopped liking horror as much.  I don’t know if that had something to do with.”

Zaso is more assured when it comes to advice on becoming a good cook.  “Patience and space, are the two vital things that will help you become a better cook,” he declares.  “Because when you have that, then you want to try things and relax and not rush and not burn things, and you want to take a little more time to cut that tomato up and not just, you know, hack away like Jason.  When you have a nice kitchen, and you have people there, and you have a glass of wine, and you’re talking, it’s pleasant, it makes the whole experience fun.”

The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends is now available in physical and e-book form on Amazon and at joezaso.net.

The Gay Canon

My geeky, Pokemon Go loving friend Mick came out not too long ago, and I got the idea to make him a list of my personal “gay canon” of films and TV (with a few books thrown in for good measure).  I sent him this list on the occasion of this past weekend’s Pride celebration in his hometown of Manchester, England.

Armie Hammer and Timothy Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name

Philadelphia (1993)—It may play as outdated now, but Jonathan Demme’s drama, the first studio movie about AIDS, is a significant time capsule and features a terrific Oscar winning performance by Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer who sues his firm for firing him when they learn he has the disease.  Denzel Washington is equally strong as the initially homophobic lawyer who represents him on the case, and it’s a compelling and undeniably affecting tear jerker.  The soundtrack, featuring Bruce Springsteen’s award winning ballad “Streets of Philadelphia” as well as Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, and the Indigo Girls, is also terrific.

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in the original Tales of the City

Tales of the City (1993-2019)—Armistead Maupin’s saga of the lives and loves of straight and queer San Franciscans isn’t just one of my favorite gay series, it’s one of my favorite things, period.  The original 70s-set miniseries brilliantly captured the excitement and uncertainty of living on your own for the first time, as Mary Anne Singleton (a terrific Laura Linney) moves into a magical apartment complex lorded over by sage transgender landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, sublime) and becomes fast friends with adorably wide-eyed Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and acerbic, frizzy haired omnisexual Mona, who memorably melts down in a board meeting with a snooty client by bellowing “crotch, crotch, CROTCH!!!!”  The three original series—Tales, More Tales, and Further Tales—possess an irresistible mixture of soapy shenanigans and genuine heart.  Later, un-filmed books in the series included Babycakes, the first work of fiction to address AIDS, Significant Others, Sure of You, Michael Tolliver Lives, and Mary Anne in Autumn. All are worth reading, and this year’s Tales of the City, while not a direct adaptation of any of them, incorporates elements and characters while perfectly updating the franchise for the 21st century.  (Just try not to think about how Linney and the other returning players are nowhere near old enough to have aged forty years since the originals.)  The newest installment pays particular care to the trans characters, including casting trans actress Jen Richards as a young Ana Madrigal in a captivating flashback episode.


The Broken Hearts Club (2000)—A friend once mocked this film, written and directed by future TV mega producer Greg Berlanti, as the story of a young man who becomes enmeshed in a world of shallow West Hollywood gayness.  There’s some truth to that, but Broken Hearts Club is still an entertaining, occasionally affecting, and trailblazing comedy about the lives and loves of a group of gay friends.  There’s an inspired bit of casting with TV Superman Dean Cain as a man-eating lothario, plus lots of retroactive recognition with Timothy Olyphant, Justin Theroux, Zach Braff, and Billy Porter in the mix.  John Mahoney shines as the mother hen of this squabbling but ultimately loving and supportive group.


Queer As Folk (2000-2005)—Let me start by admitting I never watched the British original—set in Manchester, appropriately enough—and have heard it’s great, and maybe superior.  But QAF, as fans in the know called it, was an endearing if occasionally dopey and maddening soap opera that portrays “boys becoming men” in that well known American gay capitol… Pittsburgh.  The whole cast is great, but Peter Paige is transcendent as unapologetically queeny Emmett, and Robert Gant is charming and extremely sexy as HIV positive professor Ben.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)—John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in this brilliant, intensely cinematic rock musical about a “little wisp of a girlie boy” who escapes East Germany via a botched sex change operation for the promise of a better life in America.  Abandoned by his would be sugar daddy, Hedwig falls in love with Tommy, a teenage Jesus freak, then winds up stalking him across the country when Tommy gets famous off the songs they co-created and embarks on a national tour.  The songs are terrific, the performances are outstanding, and one liners abound in this sardonically funny, moving film.  It’s considered somewhat problematic in these more enlightened times, but I think its genuine heart and innovation outweigh any such concerns.  Mitchell has gone on record stating he doesn’t consider it a representation of the transgender experience, a sentiment with which many would agree.

Mary Louise Parker and Justin Kirk are some of the disparate souls whose worlds collide in Angels in America

Angels in America (2003)—Mike Nichols’s made for HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” puts most feature films to shame for sheer ambition and cinematic art.  An indomitable cast led by Al Pacino and Meryl Streep breathe life into this elaborate work of magical realism, which dramatizes the anguish and inspiration of the AIDS crisis and a particular moment in queer Manhattan.  It’s a really extraordinary and engrossing production.  Related: I’ve always wanted to see the two part play live. Maybe you’ll get the chance sometime.


Brokeback Mountain (2005)—Ang Lee’s heartbreaking shoulda-been Best Picture is certainly depressing, but it’s a sublimely crafted and essential film in queer cinema history.  Heath Ledger was rightly praised for his tormented ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, but the entire cast is first rate, including Jake Gyllenhaal as his lover Jack Twist (swoon), and Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as their long-suffering wives.  The cinematography and Oscar winning music are excellent, too.  Related: Annie Proulx’s gorgeous short story.

The L Word stars Leisha Hailey and Kathering Moennig

The L Word (2004-2009)—The trailblazing saga of the lives and loves of lesbians—and occasional straight women and trans folk—in very glamorous Los Angeles could be all over the place, but it was never boring and often moving.  A strong, almost entirely female cast (many writers, directors, and crew members were women as well) portrayed women’s struggles with sex, relationships, monogamy, family, and, um, the high stakes world of lesbian poker (?!).  There were some missteps—the cynical and unnecessary killing off of a beloved character, iffy trans storylines—but this was still an addicting and often rewarding series. The L Word: Generation Q , a “woke” revival with original cast members Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Katherine Moennig (my favorite character, womanizer with a heart of gold Shane) is coming in December, so cram now!

Left to right: Emile Hirsch, Kelvin Han Yee, Sean Penn, Alison Pill, and Joseph Cross in Milk

Milk (2008)—One of the best biopics ever made, Gus Van Sant’s dramatization of the brief career of America’s first openly gay elected official is perfect in every aspect.  The performances are uniformly excellent: Sean Penn rightly won an Oscar as Harvey Milk, a darkly compelling Josh Brolin plays troubled assassin Dan White, and a luminous Emile Hirsch brings sass to budding activist Cleve Jones.  The film makes great use of San Francisco locations and balances character with story.  Despite a tragic ending, it remains buoyantly hopeful and inspiring.  Related: Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street and Cleve Jones’ memoirs Stitching a Revolution and When We Rise.


Call Me By Your Name (2017)—There was backlash and criticism of the age disparity in this celebrated gay romance, but the beauty and eroticism of Luca Guadagnino’s film is undeniable.  Timothy Chalamet is sexy and utterly convincing as the teen who finds himself inextricably drawn to Armie Hammer’s hunky grad student one sumptuous summer in Northern Italy.  Dad Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech to his heartbroken son is one for the ages, and Sufjan Stevens’ songs, as well as a needle drop of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” provide the perfect accompaniment.

Left to right: Ryan Jamaal Swain, Angel Bismark Curiel, Indya Moore, and MJ Rodriguez on Pose

Pose (2018-Present) — I consider this the best thing Ryan Murphy has ever done.  He and creative partner Brad Falchuk were smart in teaming up with Steven Canals to offer an authentic point of view on the world of Ballroom culture.  Pose applies somewhat formulaic, crowd pleasing tropes to characters that have never before been the center of a narrative.  The record-breaking number of trans, queer, and people of color in the cast make this a show that finally centers non-whites in the LGBT community.  The series also serves as a history lesson, especially as it delves into the devastating AIDS epidemic and dramatizes real-life incidents like a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Related: the coming of age musical Saturday Church, co-starring Pose’s MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore.

Review: Queerskins: a love story

“A lot of VR asks you to ‘pretend you’re a Black person for five minutes’ or ‘pretend you’re a trans person,'” explains Ilya Szilak, co-creator (with Cyril Tsiboulski) of the virtual reality experience and real world installation Queerskins: a love storyQueerskins premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, when this piece was originally written, and went on to win a Peabody Futures of Media Award.  It returns to New York City this week for World Pride with the addition of a second chapter, “The Ark.”  Szilak continues, “We don’t actually want anyone to pretend to be anyone other than who they are and bring all their history, all their baggage, all their prejudices, into this space. The show is about reconstructing this character Sebastian [a young gay man, estranged from his Catholic family, who dies of AIDS in 1990] from a box of photographs and a diary, so your relationship to those photographs and those objects is going to be very different depending on who you are.”

Sebastian’s bedroom installation at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival

With Queerskins, the immersion begins before you even put on the headset; you’re ushered through a recreated attic bedroom, past shelves and mirrors and authentic knickknacks, to one of two chairs. Once the VR commences, you find yourself riding in the back seat of a car. A man and a woman, Sebastian’s parents, have a tense conversation bubbling with tension, regret, and barely suppressed emotions. Outside, diminishing sunlight filters through the windows as the rural Missouri countryside passes by. I was instantly reminded of similar rides with my own family through western Massachusetts. A box of belongings keeps refilling with items on the seat beside you; I rummaged through a book of Saints, an old muscle magazine, and a stuffed rabbit with my ghostly blue hands. I put on a Hulk mask and a baseball cap. The ride reaches its destination and hits a climax of sorts, but I was left wanting more. In fact, future installments and experiences are planned, including one that promises to simulate intimacy with a virtual lover.

For me, the most engaging part of the experience kicked off once I removed the headset and returned to the real world. I had as much time as I wanted to explore every inch of the bedroom. Visitors are encouraged to touch whatever they like, to pore over every item that draws their interest. “Don’t miss the closet!” Szilak had told me; I opened it to discover an interior collaged with images of black and white muscle gods, the word love glowing in fabulously lurid neon pink at the bottom. I selected and played a record of 80s hits: “We will find you acting on your best behavior/turn your back on Mother Nature,” Tears for Fears intoned. I thumbed through a People magazine revealing the AIDS death and sexuality of actor Rock Hudson. In fact, the specter of AIDS was everywhere, from the photo print out of a protest march to a cheeky card commanding “Men use condoms or beat it.” I signed a guest book marked A Celebration of Life, placed alongside flowers and a statuette of the Virgin Mary. The experience reminded of the song “And When I Die,” so I jotted down some lyrics, ending with the line “there’ll be one child born to carry on.” I associate the recording with the loss of my grandmother several years ago, and yet the song carries a sense of hope that I felt resonating from the Queerskins installation. Like the guest book, Queerskins is largely about death, and yet it celebrates the life of Sebastian, and of the viewer—and, by extension, of those we’ve loved and lost.


Queerskins: a love story is shown in a site specific installation at 325 Canal Street, New York, June 26-30 from 11am-7pm (11-9 Thursday).  Visit vr.queerskins.com for more info.

Interview: Director Jeanie Finlay and Freddy McConnell of Seahorse

In Jeanie Finlay’s sublime, affecting documentary Seahorse, trans man Freddy McConnell embarks on a profound personal journey when he decides to become pregnant.  Freddy deals with all of the physical challenges of pregnancy plus the added stressors of gender dysphoria and other people’s reaction to an “unconventional” parent. I had the chance to sit down with both Finlay and McConnell on the eve of their world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.  As it turns out, McConnell provided the impetus for the film himself.


“I’m a journalist as well,” he explained, “[and] I knew I wanted to share this process, this journey.  It was sort of at my instigation.”  McConnell was particularly concerned with finding a trustworthy collaborator.  He wanted Seahorse “to be different from the way a lot of other trans stories are told, which is exploitative and sensationalized.  I never would have said yes to anyone who had just approached me.”  McConnell had witnessed friends’ bad experiences with producers and journalists who proved untrustworthy.  “The reason the film is the way it is, is because of the way it was made and the way it was envisaged right from the word go,” he stated.

Director Jeanie Finlay

Indeed, the film is artfully made and incredibly intimate.  Every step of the process is detailed, from the dysphoria that results after Freddy stops taking testosterone (so as not to interfere with the pregnancy) to the painful end of his relationship with partner CJ.  Finlay spoke with a lovely, soothing British accent as she explained her role in telling Freddy’s story: “I really want to think about the film and let the film emerge.  Like if you go in too tight with a plan, the film doesn’t grow.  The point is to grow like a baby.  One of the definitions of a documentary filmmaker is to be an emotional barometer; I’m really in tune with my feelings.”  Beautiful footage of Freddy’s hometown of Deal, England, as well as close-ups of real seahorses weave through and enhance the narrative.  “I’m very sensitive to how atmospheres and the situation make me feel and I really try to think deeply about, what could that look like in a film?” Finlay said.  “How can I create visuals that can help promote what I felt in the moment?”  This thought process led to some scenes that seem abstract but subtly support the themes of Seahorse.  “Because Deal is so beautiful I wanted that to be part of the film,” Finlay stated. “The idea that we’re sort of sitting on the edge of England, looking into an uncertain future.”

Was the more or less constant filming ever too much for Freddy?  “In the moment sometimes, but the reason it was happening was because I wanted it to happen,” McConnell pointed out.  “I wanted to go out and tell the story.” 


“It’s my job to make the film feel personal, intimate,” Finlay agreed.  “Sometimes my job is to gently push, because when I committed to the film, I said, ‘if I do this, I’m all in.  I give you all my heart.  I’m gonna do this, and it’s not gonna be easy.’  Sometimes my job is to ask the difficult questions.  ‘What is this like?  What is the answer that you haven’t said out loud before?’”


“It did get hard,” McConnell said, “but the way that it was put together and the way we worked meant that wasn’t a disaster and that didn’t mean it was the end of it.  It was just part of the process.” 

McConnell wanted to share his story, in part, to let other trans and queer people know that they have options: “The information isn’t made widely available and it’s seen as something unsafe or shameful.  Things that we’re told aren’t always in our best interests by people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, like doctors.”  He also hoped the film would be enlightening for audiences unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, trans people.  “People whose minds are racing with those issues and questions they have, debates they want to have, can maybe just  park that when they see, ‘oh, it’s just about another person who has the same desires and struggles and emotions that I do.’”


“When I commit to making a film, I want people to come on a journey with me,” Finlay added.  “’Come on, let me hold your hand and I’m gonna take you on a little journey.’  I want people to see the ordinariness, the normalness, the smallness, the ecstasy of people’s lives.” 


“I just hope that anyone who watches it can relate to some tiny little thing, or maybe some huge thing, in a way that surprises them, that they didn’t expect coming in,” McConnell said. Added Finlay: “I just always want people to feel moved, in a small way or a big way.”  There’s little doubt that anyone who sees Seahorse won’t be.


Seahorse will continue to play film festivals throughout the summer and fall.  Visit seahorsefilm.com for more.

Review: Changing the Game

When the documentary Changing the Game played at the Tribeca Film Festival, journalists were invited to a roundtable discussion with the transgender athletes featured in the film.  At the cozy Battery Park offices of GLSEN, teens including wrestler Mack Beggs, skier Sarah Rose Huckman, and runner Terry Miller had a lively chat about transgender issues, their lives, and more.  I was moved and inspired by their intelligence and bravery, even more so after I saw the movie.


“The film shows that we’re not just transgender, that we live lives just like everybody else.  It shows us.”—Terry Miller

Mack Beggs (right) wrestling for the Texas girls State Championship.

Changing the Game is an engaging and intensely cinematic movie.  It centers primarily on three young trans athletes across three locations: Beggs in Texas, Huckman in New Hampshire, and Miller in Connecticut.  Beggs, who isn’t allowed to compete against males under state regulations, draws a ton of media attention, both positive and negative.  Critics rail that he’s “cheating” by using testosterone even as Beggs longs to wrestle other boys. Director Michael Barnett introduces us to Mack’s support system: his sweet, horseback riding girlfriend; his intensely driven, committed coach; and, most memorably, his gun toting, Republican, and unconditionally loving grandma.  These stalwarts come in handy as the quiet, reserved Mack struggles internally with the jeers he receives at wrestling events.


“I’m putting out a story that can be related to other trans people.  And it’s just amazing to be able to have a platform and use that to create good in this world.”—Sarah Rose Huckman

Sarah Rose Huckman

Huckman is perhaps the most articulate of the teens, and the most involved in activism.  From her popular YouTube channel to her impassioned speech before the House Judiciary Committee in support of the anti-gender identity discrimination law HB 1319, which was eventually passed, Huckman emerges as a champion for equality—as well as a good candidate to enter politics someday.  Like Beggs, Huckman has strong familial support in the form of her loving adoptive parents.


“They talk about fairness, but what about our fairness?  Is that not important, or does it not matter?  Everyone else wants fairness, so why can’t we have ours?”—Terry Miller


Terry Miller and her running colleague Andraya Yearwood , also a Black trans woman, encounter their share of outspoken critics at track events.  At one point a woman rants at the camera about how neither girl will know what it’s like to run while on their period, and eventually admits, “I forgot what the question is!”  Barnett allows her to hang herself, but he also makes a smart choice by giving screentime to the kids’ critics. These moments and the news clips interspersed throughout show exactly what the young athletes are up against—and underlines how brave they are to persevere in spite of such venom.


“I take pride in being able to say, ‘I’m a transgender woman of color.’  Because there’s so many people out there who are not able to come out and they’re afraid to.”—Sarah Rose Huckman


Changing the Game does a terrific job of depicting the sports the teens excel at.  Vivid slow motion sequences bring the training, matches, and meets to life.  There is exceptional cinematography of the locations, such as the icy terrain Huckman skis across.  Stark statistics about the realities of transgender life appear, simply and without comment, over overhead shots.

Beggs

“We just want to be known as who we are.  I’m Mack, I’m a guy.”—Mack Beggs


In a time when transgender rights are being threatened on a daily basis, the importance of Changing the Game cannot be overstated.  It’s a humanistic, beautiful character study that makes a powerful statement just by depicting the extraordinary/ordinary kids at its core.


Changing the Game will continue to play at film festivals throughout the summer and fall. 

Review: Charlie Says

Charles Manson’s crimes have long fascinated the American imagination, and this year’s fortieth anniversary of the murders has reignited interest.  But is there anything more to say at this point?  If anyone could add something new to the conversation, it’s director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, The L Word), who crafted the satiric masterpiece American Psycho nineteen years ago.  They achieve this goal by focusing not on the charismatic Manson (Matt Smith) but on the three young women whose lives he ruined.

From left: Bacon, Murray, and Rendon

We first meet “Manson girls” Leslie (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones), Patricia (Sosie Bacon), and Susan (Marianne Rendon) in the isolation ward of a women’s prison.  Though an administrator (Annabeth Gish) is sympathetic to their plight, it’s not until teacher Karlene Faith (Meritt Weaver) arrives that they are able to truly connect with someone outside of Charlie’s sinister influence.  Through vivid flashbacks, we experience life on the Spahn Ranch, where Charlie reigned supreme and the trio lived a hippie lifestyle with dark, apocalyptic overtones.  Harron conveys a vivid sense of place and carefully renders period details, aided by terrific production design and costuming.  It’s to her and Turner’s credit that the movie both leans into the absurdity of the story—tales of elves and wings, a woman biting through an umbilical cord—and confronts its terror and misogyny.  Smith is terrific, but it’s the strength and humanity of the women’s performances that carry the day.  The writing, acting, and filmmaking bring us into the girls’ perspective as their dream of enlightenment curdles into a nightmare of violence.  Charlie Says is a thoughtful film that avoids exploitation and instead treats these sensational events with reverence and insight.

Charlie Says is in theaters now.

TFF 2019 Review: Circus of Books

It was a banner year for LGBT documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, but even amidst a crowded field, Circus of Books was a standout.  It takes a compellingly quirky story and presents it with grace, humor, and heart. 

Barry and Rachel in the basement with porn inventory

Multi-hyphenate artist/director Rachel Mason grew up in a fairly typical Jewish family, with a twist.  The business her parents ran for decades was an infamous gay porn shop in West Hollywood, a reality hidden from Rachel and her two brothers until they were in their teens.  When Barry, who did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek series and invented a medical device, was forced out of work by steep insurance costs, his enterprising wife took notice of a newspaper ad from the notorious Larry Flynt.  They bought the failing Book Circus, rearranged the sign, and started selling both the controversial Hustler and, later, the gay titles the enterprising Flynt bought out.  They also became involved with gay porn production, though Karen ads “we never watched any of these movies.”  A certain amount of cognitive dissonance was exercised by Karen—who “wore the pants in the family” according to one former employee—to juggle her conservative Jewish faith and the realities of selling dirty magazines and sex toys.  Son Josh agonized over coming out to his parents, and though Karen struggled at first, she and her husband are now active and proud PFLAG members.

Karen at a sex toy convention, making wholesale orders

Mason delivers an intimate, touching, warts-and-all-portrait of her family, especially Karen.  The oft cranky matriarch is refreshingly honest and candid throughout, whether stressing over laying off employees or lugging boxes of material out to the dumpster.  All of the participants are revealing and frequently funny.  Josh recalls how the porn tape he hid away until he had a chance to play it alone turned out to be a Beta.  Former employee Alaska Thunderfuck bemoans the fact that he never knew about the store’s cruise-y attic.  Even gay film legend Jeff Stryker turns up to share his memories.  Mason skillfully weaves together a personal narrative and the larger picture of gay history to make a significant and extremely entertaining documentary.

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Netflix will distribute Circus of Books later this year.

TFF2019 Review: Pilot Season

Julia Lindon in Lady Liberty

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival Pilot Season features five different television pilots, and with one exception, they’re all terrific.  The first is particularly exciting for LGBT audiences: Lady Liberty, starring Julia Lindon as Shea, a young aspiring comedienne in New York City.  Shea works for an established comedian (Jason Sudeikis), but is afraid to tell him about her own ambitions; she’s also struggling to define her own sexuality after an intense affair with a longtime friend (Rebecca Henderson).  A chance encounter with a beautiful young lesbian (Karen Eilbacher) in an Uber pool leads to her first night out with “gay gals,” and it’s clear that Miller’s taking her first thrilling steps towards self-actualization.  Lindon, who created the series, is tremendously appealing and relatable, and the first episode is wonderfully real and authentic.  I think this could become the next Broad City.

Anastasia Leddick in Halfway

Another, distinctly different strong female is at the center of Halfway, about a woman’s struggle to re-enter society, and reconnect with the daughter she abandoned, after prison.  Anastasia Leddick is mesmerizing as Krystal: she’s got an incredible punk look, and is utterly convincing as a woman who’s been through the ringer.  The first episode is equal turns funny and dramatic, and left me wanting to binge.

Elizabeth De Razzo in Unimundo 45

The rest of the program is comprised of DC Noir, a strong, gritty slice of urban life; the goofy but promising Unimundo 45, about a plus-sized Latinx news producer (Elizabeth De Razzo) looking to inspire her family and friends in the wake of Trump’s election; and the faintly obnoxious Awokened.  The latter was the only entry I had no desire to see more of—it focuses on entitled, irritating millennials and lots of forced wackiness, and it retreads ground better explored by the critically underrated Enlightened.


Pilot Season screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: For They Know Not What They Do

Rob & Linda Robertson

Any LGBT individual who grew up religiously—and that’s many of us—knows what it’s like when your faith seemingly conflicts with your identity.  That conflict is at the heart of Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So)’s new documentary. Among the most powerful stories: Linda and Rob Robertson, who encouraged their son Ryan to undergo conversion therapy, with tragic results; Vico Baez Febo, who was thrown out of the house by his grandmother for being gay, and later survived the Pulse shooting; and Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender woman ever to speak at the Democratic National Convention.


The film is well executed and affecting, with some deeply emotional testimony from all of the participants, particularly the Robertsons.  The movie does a good job of making us understand their perspective, and the profound sorrow they feel for the loss of their son is balanced by an enlightened and ultimately hopeful view.  Vico’s vivid testimony, Snapchat video of his slain friend, and security footage of his rescue bring the Pulse tragedy to searing life.  But though every participant in the film endured unimaginable loss, the movie is ultimately neither depressing nor didactic.  It does a great job of outlining the current state of the LGBT struggle, explaining how, in the wake of marriage equality, trans folks became the new scapegoat for the religious right.  But if McBride is any indication, not to mention the other resilient and courageous figures depicted in the film, we’re not going down without a fight.


For They Know Not What They Do screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: Gay Chorus Deep South

After an emotional performance in Charlotte, chorus members console each other

Early on in David Charles Rodrigues’ exquisite Gay Chorus Deep South, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Dr. Tim Seelig is working in his office. He explains that he keeps himself surrounded by “queens,” Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco legend—and gay hero—Harvey Milk among them.  So it’s fitting that the Chorus takes inspiration from Milk, who famously used a lavender pen to sign groundbreaking gay rights legislation into law, in naming their post Trump Lavender Pen Tour.  The men travel from Tennessee to Alabama to the Carolinas, looking to spread hope and ignite dialogue.  Interestingly enough, assumptions are challenged on both sides.  A queer historian complains that the concept reeks of condescension.  A Southern Baptist church, meanwhile, welcomes the group with open arms. 

Ashlé, the first trans individual accepted into a Gay Men’s Chorus, stands their ground in America’s most discriminatory states

Rodrigues shoots the film beautifully, with sweeping overhead shots, intimate access to the performances, and skillful editing.  The music is beautiful and accomplished, naturally, and it weaves in and out of sequences seamlessly.  A sequence in Selma, where the men hold a triumphant concert and walk across the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, is particularly striking.  We get to know a few of the men particularly well.  Seelig reveals his painful history with the Southern Baptist Church and the havoc wreaked on his family when he came out.  Jimmy White is fighting cancer and hoping for reconciliation with his staunchly conservative father.  Perhaps most compelling is
Ashlé , who struggles to come to terms with their gender identity and finds unwavering acceptance in the men of the Chorus.  Thus this film is one of several notable examples of trans stories being told at Tribeca this year; Jeanie Finlay’s beautiful Seahorse and Changing the Game being two others.


Gay Chorus Deep South takes a story that is compelling and of the moment and delivers it with precision and heart.


Gay Chorus Deep South screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.