Review: Disclosure

“Stories hurt, stories heal.”  Those words conveyed the message of last summer’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and they popped into my head when I was thinking about Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 19.  What does this have to do with a documentary about the history of trans representation in film and television?  The stories these media have told about trans people have indeed both hurt and healed the interview subjects, all of whom are transgender (including insightful Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, also an executive producer on the film.)  Their testimonies demonstrate that representation truly matters. 

Laverne Cox

In one powerful example, writer/actress/producer Jen Richards (Mrs. Fletcher, the 2019 Tales of the City) recalls that when she told a friend she was transgender, she was asked, “Like Buffalo Bill??” because her only frame of reference for trans people was the demented, skin-wearing serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Needless to say, the reference was painful for Richards.

I myself learned that it’s impolite to ask trans people about their genitals by reading a piece on Cox years ago, so I can testify to the importance of trans representation in educating the larger world about their issues.  I also didn’t question the validity of the L Word storylines, in which Max transforms into a rageaholic because of testosterone, until I read how inaccurate and misleading those episodes really were.  These early eye openers set me on the path to educating myself more fully about the community and the many issues they face.

Lilly Wachowski

With its broad scope covering the very beginnings of cinema—which we learn featured cross-dressing and genderqueer characters in its earliest days—Disclosure seemingly aims to be a trans version of the acclaimed 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, itself based on the expansive 1981 book by Vito Russo.  Disclosure touches on everything from an old episode of The Jeffersons featuring a trans female character, to the Oscar winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999), to the problematic Max (Daniela Sea) character on The L Word, to the recent triumphs of Sense8 and Pose.  Its subjects testify, again and again, to the significance of these depictions on their lives:  Sense8 co-creator Lilly Wachowski was inspired by Bugs Bunny’s fabulous gender bending; actor/activist Marquise Vilson recalls Reno, a Jerry Springer guest who was the first Black trans masculine person he ever saw in media; and writer and Survivor alum Zeke Smith recalls the pain of revisiting his favorite childhood movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), and realizing that it’s graphically transphobic.  A number of the subjects testify to the devastating and frightening effect watching Boys Don’t Cry had on them, and challenge the “it’s a true story” defense by asking why this is the kind of story Hollywood has told so many times.  Richards was brought to tears by Jed, a father on the docuseries I Am Cait, affirming his transgender child.  “When I saw that father go so much further than I thought was even possible, it hurt, I couldn’t bear it,” she recalls.  “Because then all of a sudden, all those people, who couldn’t accept me, when I knew it was possible to go beyond acceptance—why couldn’t my mom have been like him?  Why couldn’t my friends have been like him?  And seen the value in my experience?”

The documentary also includes a variety of talk show interviews with trans subjects from the 1980s and 90s (i.e. Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall) to the present (Oprah and Katie Couric—the latter took the time to learn from her mistakes after being called out by Cox on offensive questioning).  The difference between the older and contemporary interviews is telling, as many of the older Q&A’s are preoccupied with the gender the subjects “used to” be and specifically their genitals—although Winfrey and Couric have both been guilty of this line of questioning.  Rivers, however, deserves credit for affirming the identities and dignity of trans folks on her program decades ahead of the curve.

Brian Michael Smith

There are compelling stories about the challenges and frustrations of working in the industry, like Candis Cayne’s irritation at the tone deaf dialogue when she played a murder victim on CSI: New York and Sandra Caldwell’s triumphant coming out in the New York Times after working for decades in the closet. This is a comprehensive and involving look at the subject matter, although I wish it were a little longer (I’m usually all for shorter films, but I’d happily watch a 2 hour or longer cut of this).  There are a couple productions I’d like to have seen just a little more about: Transparent and the ensuing sex scandal with cis lead actor Jeffrey Tambor is touched on just briefly, and although actress/model Jamie Clayton (Sense8), actor Brian Michael Smith, and writer/speaker/artist Leo Cheng all appeared on the L Word reboot Generation Q, which did a considerably better job handling its trans characters than the original, this isn’t actually mentioned.  There are also a number of clips that aren’t identified, particularly at the end of the film.  But these are minor quibbles. Feder and producer Amy Scholder‘s conscious decision to use only transgender voices to discuss the media that’s portrayed their own lives is a strong and important one, and the personal impact adds immeasurably to the film’s weight.  Disclosure is well made, well thought out, and a significant historical record. In light of the ongoing murders of trans women and this past week’s Trump administration rule removing protections for transgender people in health care, its call to recognize transgender humanity is as relevant as ever.

Disclosure premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 19.

Jamie Clayton

Tribeca Film Festival 2020 Review: Pray Away

The conversion therapy movement, spearheaded by the national organization Exodus International, is a bizarre and upsetting phenomenon ripe for demystification.  That insight arrives in the form of Pray Away, a well-made documentary from director Kristine Solakis.  It brings together both survivors and leaders of the movement, as well as an “ex-trans” individual, Jeffrey McCall, who puts a human face on its continued existence.

As the film traces the rise of Exodus from the 70s into the 80s and 90s, I’m reminded of the absurd aspects: prominent “ex-gay” John Paulk, for instance, speaks with a very effeminate voice in all his archived appearances, despite his new life with an “ex-lesbian” wife, Anne, and children.  Exodus vice-president Randy Thomas, too, is very effeminate, and I remember thinking of these men, essentially, as villainous jokes, especially after Paulk was photographed leaving a Washington, D.C. gay bar in 1998 and claimed he went in only to use the bathroom.  (Sure, Jan.)  Watching both men in Pray Away, though, it’s impossible not to have empathy for their experience, especially after they realized all the harm they had caused.  Thomas’ “come to Jesus” moment came when he watched news reports of the LGBT community mourning the passage of California’s Prop 8 in 2008 and he was confronted with the question “how could I do this to my community?”

Julie Rodgers

The subjects are integral to the success of the movie.  In addition to Paulk and Thomas, we meet Yvette Cantu Schneider, formerly of the notorious Family Research Council and now GLAAD’s official spokesperson against conversion therapy, and Julie Rodgers, a survivor who was forced into conversion therapy from age sixteen into her mid-twenties.  Rodgers is the movie’s most compelling subject, and is able to explain why conversion therapy made sense to her even as she remembers the pain of engaging in self-harm and being pressured to speak publicly about her rape as part of her “public testimony.”  Schneider, sifting through mountains of archival video tapes, observes that they bring back painful memories, yet she doesn’t want to discard them and forget where she came from.  A conversation arranged by journalist Lisa Ling brings together Rodgers, Exodus leader Alan Chambers, and conversion therapy survivors for a confrontational exchange that one participant describes as “the most intense group therapy session ever.”  It’s a turning point for Julie, who recalls “I realized I was sitting on the wrong side of the room.”  It’s also the beginning of the end for Exodus, which announced it was dissolving in 2013.

Congregants pray with Jeffrey McCall

Meanwhile, smaller organizations carry on the torch; the sweet, soft-spoken McCall starts up the “Freedom March” via Facebook and participates in a prayer group that feels like nothing less than a gay house party.  It’s obvious that the young people attending are finding camaraderie with each other as queer people even as they profess to be leaving “the LGBT lifestyle.”  In one insightful moment, McCall receives a call from a woman whose child has come out as trans; her feelings of confusion and grief are understandable, and Jeffrey is sympathetic while reinforcing her aversion to accepting the news.  The inclusion of Jeffrey is a major asset to the movie, and humanizes those who continue the movement while demonstrating that we have a long way to go in ending the harmful practice.

Pray Away, made by a largely female crew including producers Jessica Devaney and Anya Rous, editor Carla Gutierrez, and director of photography Melissa Langer, is a significant and illuminating piece of history and activism.

The Tribeca Film Festival was postponed, but films have been made available for members of the press.

PAGE TURNERS FOR THE IN PROGRESS PANDEMIC: 15 GRAPHIC NOVEL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR YOUR TIME IN QUARANTINE

Remember that episode of The Twilight Zone where the bombs fall and the world ends, leaving one man and all the books he could ever read? Well whatever you do don’t drop your glasses because it’s true, there really is time now. As a brief aside, I do want to make it clear that things are really hard right now, I know people are suffering, and it isn’t my intention to be crass or flippant when it comes to talking about the coronavirus. I’ve personally been in quarantine for about a month now, and I have a tremendous amount to be grateful for, but this isn’t something any of us have experienced before, and some days are better than others. Everyone is doing what they can, and for a lot of us that just means keeping ourselves inside for the time being. To that end, I’ve curated a list that I hope will include something for everyone, and that might fill your days with more reading and less worrying.

SACRED HEART

Written and Illustrated by Liz Suburbia

While it may not be about the exact thing the world is going through right now, this 2015 GN about mysteriously parentless children in the small town of Alexandria does touch on several themes which feel more universal than ever at the moment. Isolated, with little knowledge of the outside world, and a sort of vague hope that things will go back to normal eventually, Suburbia’s characters are left to fend for themselves. The mystery of their circumstances, and the lives they build inside their own special society, are all at once nostalgic, heartbreaking, and a little bit enchanting. Be prepared to read it twice, as the last page might just make you want to jump right back to the beginning.

KIM & KIM

Written by Magdalene Visaggio

Illustrated by Eva Cabrera

Colored by Claudia Aguirre

Lettered by Zakk Saam

Immediately after watching the premier of Syfy’s Vagrant Queen, based on the Vault Comics series, you’ll want to go back to the sprawling, madcap sci-fi romp that revealed writer and co-creator Magdalene Visaggio as a force to be reckoned with. The setting of Kim & Kim is developed with so much genuine joy, the pages practically giggle with delight.  With three volumes ready to read right now, it’s a goofy, fun time that lures you in with badass space queers and eyeliner powered necromancy before blindsiding you with heavy feelings and characters with an immense amount of depth.

ARE YOU LISTENING?

Written and Illustrated by Tillie Walden

Okay, just to get this out of the way, none of Walden’s books are to be missed. I chose this one in particular to be on this list for two reasons. One, it is her most recent published work, and two, I assume you’ve already been told to read On a Sunbeam (which you can read for free on the internet right now if you haven’t, or heck even if you have). Are You Listening is a soft and quiet story, given an amount of room to breathe that is, while not unprecedented in comics, certainly quite uncommon. Emotions hang in the air across its pages, waiting for you to digest them at your own pace. Trauma, family, and sexuality are explored so carefully and thoughtfully, you almost don’t notice the terrifying surrealism building in the background. This is one of those books that will have you flipping back and rereading scenes over and over with each new piece of information you get.

HOW TO FAKE A MOON LANDING: EXPOSING THE MYTHS OF SCIENCE DENIAL

Written and Illustrated by Darryl Cunningham

Previously published under the title Science Tales, this non-fiction graphic novel is a great read for any season, but particularly valuable at a time like now, when misinformation is both deliberately and unintentionally spread like, well, a virus. Cunningham unpacks the history behind several scientific topics, and the misinformation surrounding them. Subjects like vaccines and climate change can seem impossible to argue about with those that dismiss them. And even if you agree with the science you may not fully understand it. How to Fake a Moon Landing lays these and many more issues out in a way that is clear, easy to understand, and most importantly, evidence based.

THE PROMISED NEVERLAND

Written by Kaiu Shirai

Illustrated by Posuka Demizu

Translated by Satsuki Yamashita

Lettered by Mark McMurray

Feeling trapped? Need an escape? Sounds like you might identify somewhat with the plight of Emma, Norman, and all the other kids living in Grace Field House. These children are living a relatively pampered life, never really bothered by the fact they’re not allowed to see or go beyond the grounds of the orphanage. That is until they accidentally learn the true purpose of Grace Field House, to harvest and sell humanely raised meat. Oh, it’s not the same as what you’re feeling, surely. We haven’t been asked to stay indoors for any secret, sinister purpose, regardless of the rants your neighbors keep posting on Nextdoor. But it is very understandable that you might be feeling frustrated at our circumstances. So I offer you, as an outlet for that anger, a story of betrayal and heartache and terror and loss.

SURGEON X

Written by Sara Kenny

Illustrated by John Watkiss

Colored by James Devlin

Lettered by Jared K Fletcher

When the first issue was released in 2016, much attention was given to the behind-the-scenes, multimedia experience of the book’s tie-in app. And yes, it was very unique and interesting, no doubt, but removed from that completely, Surgeon X is a truly phenomenal, intriguing, and prescient series. London in the grips of fascism and class divide, a promise to “Make Britain Strong Again,” nationwide protests as the wealthy hoard life saving medicine. So yeah, one or two real world parallels there. The main plot of this comic, edited just so you know by Vertigo and Berger Books legend Karen Berger, follows a new kind of masked vigilante, Dr. Rosa Scott. Choosing to turn her back on a cruel and broken healthcare system, Rosa goes underground to perform illegal medical care, saving lives that her hospital and government have deemed unnecessary.

SPARROWHAWK

Written by Delilah S. Dawson

Illustrated by Matias Basla

Colored by Rebecca Nalty

Lettered by Jim Campbell

Okay, yes, I hear you. These are starting to hit a bit close to home. So maybe you want something that feels a little less here and now? Sparrowhawk follows Artemesia, illegitimate daughter of an absent navy father. After her classic fairy tale wicked stepmother decides to make her useful to the family by marrying her off, Artemesia finds herself displaced to the kill-or-be-killed world of the fae. Frankly, I wish I had more time to dive into this one specific series. Though its release went a bit under the radar at the time, it was in my humble opinion, right alongside Crowded as one of the best new titles of 2018. A whimsical, Labyrinth-like adventure, memorable characters, elegant victorian dresses, nightmarish creatures, heaps of blood, plus colors and letters that elevate every single panel to a perfect example of comics at their absolute best.

COSMOKNIGHTS

Written and Illustrated by Hannah Templer

While we’re on the subject of fantasy escapism, let’s take a hard turn into space. Cosmoknights overflows with love and hope and sincerity. A heartwarming tale of a mechanic searching for her runaway princess, with generous helpings of gladiatorial sci-fi sports and super-spy intrigue! Templer’s world bursts with color and wonder, from the cyberpunk alleyways to the grand, romantic architecture of space coliseums. Also worth noting are her big, bold onomatopoeias, like musical, laser light shows sprawled out across the pages. But what is most special about this series is that it centers lesbian characters of all shapes, shades, and sizes, and thoroughly explores the dynamics of many kinds of relations between women, be it friendship, mentoring, or sapphic love.

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN

Written by Gene Luen Yang

Illustrated by Gurihiru

Lettered by Janice Chiang

With racist rhetoric filling up twitter, causing arguments with your family, and dripping from the mouths of public officials, there is a powerful catharsis in reading a story by the writer of American Born Chinese and the artists of Gwenpool, where Superman, icon of icons and the original socialist agitator, just beats the ever living snot out of some cowardly, hooded bigots. Based on the classic radio drama, in which fictional journalist Clark Kent blew actual, real life Klan secrets wide open, this retelling for modern readers of all ages combines classic heroic action with the timeless struggles of American immigrants.

GIRL ON FILM

Written by Cecil Castellucci

Illustrated by Jon Berg, Melissa Duffy, Vicky Leta, and V. Gagnon

What is it exactly that lands this recent graphic memoir by The Plain Janes and Shade, the Changing Girl writer, Cecil Castellucci on this list? Frankly, just the fact that I will use any excuse to talk about it. Girl On Film’s autobiographical narrative is laid out brilliantly, flashing between several periods of life and growth, and a present day conversation between the author and her father about the fragility of memory. While that sounds like a lot, it’s made very easy to follow by the different artists representing each time frame. An unflinchingly personal story that explores how we form perceptions.

ALL WE WE EVER WANTED: STORIES OF A BETTER WORLD

Edited by Matt Miner, Eric Palicki, and Tyler Chin-Tanner

Written and Illustrated by Various

It cannot be overstated how important it is, now more than ever, to see the future as something to look forward to, something that is worth fighting for. That is what motivated the curation of this anthology by A Wave Blue World, which features more than twenty pieces of utopian fiction by dozens of creators, including Nadia Shammas (Corpus), Eliot Rahal (Cult Classic), Liana Kangas (She Said Destroy), Eryk Donovan (Eugenic), and many more. Each of the short stories explores something different. Different people, different futures, different obstacles to overcome, but all deliver some much needed hope.

THE WILDS

Written by Vita Ayala

Illustrated by Emily Pearson, Jessi Jordan, Chris Shehan, Isaac Goodheart, and Phillip Sevy

Colored by Marissa Louise and Stelladia

Lettered by Jim Campbell

I’m sure there is a certain expectation that a list like this will make a zombie apocalypse pitstop. But I have resisted obvious choices like The Walking Dead or I Am A Hero, not because they are bad stories, but because the last thing we need right now is end times, macho, wish fulfilment. So instead I’ll direct your attention to a lonelier apocalypse. One that is held together by the people delivering essential goods, not gun toting, wannabe superheroes. The Wilds reads like Annihilation meets Death Stranding meets our exact current situation, set in an America devastated by plague and broken up into city states. With that in mind, I do not recommend it because I want you to stress yourself out even more over current events, but because it is a gripping tale of survival and queer love in a time of hopelessness that is all but guaranteed to resonate with every single person reading this list. The haunting and surreally beautiful depiction of horror futurism presented in this series makes the world we face today seem, if bleak, survivable.

RUSH: THE MAKING OF A FAREWELL TO KINGS

Written by David Calcano and Lindsay Lee

Illustrated by Juan Riera and Ittai Manero

With the recent passing of Rush drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, it’s a good time for both hardcore fans and those with little or no prior knowledge of the band to connect more deeply with their body of work. A worthwhile look into not only the creative process of world famous rockstars, but of artists in general. Particularly valuable insight comes from direct input by guitarist Alex Lifeson and producer Terry Brown. And if you really want to do a Rush comic deep dive you can follow this one up with the graphic adaptations of concept albums 2112 and Clockwork Angels. Of course, they’re both out of print so you may have to settle for just getting blazed and listening to both albums cover to cover while vividly imagining the scenes for yourself. No wrong answers here folks, please just listen to Rush.

ALFIE

Written, Illustrated, and Lettered by InCase

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. Twenty-some recommendations in and no sex? You’re stuck inside, pent up both figuratively and literally, and you want some smut. Or maybe that’s not your thing, which is totally cool, but I know at least some of you are just skimming this list looking for something tawdry and lurid. Now, it may go without saying, but I’m gonna emphasize that Alfie is very much not for everyone. The series is, like most pornography, pretty graphic. If you are not an adult, or if you are at all uncomfortable with sexual content, do not read it. For the rest of you, a simple google search will direct you to the homepage of this erotic fantasy webcomic. Beyond it’s very, very sexy artwork, Alfie is a surprisingly touching story about repression, shame, and self-exploration. The characters and relationships it explores are complex, and the emotions heartfelt. And with thirteen chapters and nearly nine hundred pages currently available, it should occupy a good chunk of your time.

MODERN WITCH TAROT DECK

By Lisa Sterle

Okay, so I’m definitely cheating a bit here, as a deck of cards can hardly be considered a comic. But if we allow ourselves to stretch our definitions just a bit, a tarot deck does indeed juxtapose panel-like images in a row to communicate ideas, so every reading one does can be considered their own personal comic strip. And whether you view tarot as a mystic act of reaching out, a practical tool for working through emotions, or just a fun thing to toy around with, you’re unlikely to find a better time to try it out for yourself then your days spent cooped up inside. With these gorgeously illustrated cards, comic artist Lisa Sterle (Submerged, Dead Beats) has reinterpreted classic archetypes to create an assortment of diverse and inclusive images which reflect modern technology, fashion, and society. Sterle has also written extremely thoughtful and thorough descriptions for interpreting each card. If you find yourself interested, or even a bit curious, you’re sure to find this lovingly crafted assortment of art and insight to be engaging, delightful, and perhaps even beneficial to your mental health.

Interview: Nikki Smith

Niki Smith is the writer and illustrator of the fantasy graphic novel, The Deep & Dark Blue, her debut Middle-grade read. Known for her gorgeous illustrations and queer and diverse storytelling, Smith is also the Lambda Literary nominated author of Crossplay, a queer erotic graphic novel. Self-described “Artist, writer, lover of fine comics (and some pretty trashy ones too),” Niki Smith currently resides in Germany with her wife, Kiri.

Where did the inspiration for The Deep & Dark Blue come from? What were some of the some of its artistic influences? (Was Avatar the Last Airbender one of them?)

I’m sure it was! I loved both Avatar: TLA and The Legend of Korra (and though we didn’t get to see Korra and Asami’s relationship play out in the show, the subsequent graphic novels have allowed the world and characters to be so much more openly queer and I couldn’t be happier.) More than a direct influence, though, I think it’s a matter of shared influences– the styles and pacing of Avatar and The Deep & Dark Blue are both inspired by manga and anime, stories about kids and teens saving the day while still dealing with the day to day struggles of being a kid. There’s something about that mix of adventure, sincere friendship and inventive magic that will always appeal to me. Story-wise, The Deep & Dark Blue was inspired by characters like Mulan or Alanna– girls who took new names and disguised themselves as boys to have adventures, to learn to fight and save the day. But in all of those stories, the main character went back to a happily cis, straight life– I wanted more, and I know I wasn’t the only queer kid out there who wanted the same.

The Deep & Dark Blue features one of the first cannon trans protagonists in a book geared towards younger audiences? How do you feel the landscape of kids/ young adult comics is changing in regards to queer representation?

Things have come so far since I was a kid, and it’s wonderful to see. Growing up, it was rare to see an LGBT character that wasn’t a two-dimensional stereotype, and even more rare to have that identity go beyond subtext. We still have a long way to go in many regards– particularly when it comes to diversity– but the graphic novels I’ve seen come out over the last few years give me so much hope. Young adult books like The Prince and the Dressmaker and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me are winning awards and helping pave the way for the next generation of artists. The incredible reception that Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy received was part of what gave me the courage to finally pitch The Deep & Dark Blue— it looked like the world of publishing was ready, and I’m so happy I was right. We’re slowly moving beyond “coming out” stories. Authors like Sarah Searle, Melanie Gillman and Katie O’Neill are all creating wonderful queer graphic novels for kids and teens, where a character’s journey with gender or sexuality is an undeniable aspect, but it’s only one of part of a much richer and more complex story.  

The comic also features one of the first nuanced non-stereotypical depictions of twins I’ve personally seen in general media? Did you take into account the fictional obsession about twins to counteract the stereotypes? How did you develop the twin siblings’ personalities?

I decided early on to make my main characters twins. The two find themselves in a situation they never expected, forced into hiding, living as girls to disguise their identities. Being side by side lets the reader see just how stark a contrast there is between their reactions– Hawke resents having to live in disguise, yearning for revenge, while Grayce blossoms. It’s the first time in her life that she’s been able to live as herself and she doesn’t want to lose it.

Since The Deep & Dark Blue is a graphic novel, the most important thing to me was that readers could tell the twins apart even if they were wearing the same uniform. There are no Parent Trap hijinks or speaking in unison, just two kids who happen to be identical. The two have wildly different personalities, and I wanted their body language to reflect that. Hawke is bold and hot-headed, while his sister Grayce is reserved; she has a lot on her mind and always thinks things through. Body language says so much about a person– a head lifted high in confidence, compared to someone who shyly averts their eyes– and I love drawing that difference. 

As an LGBTQ+ artist and creator, how did you incorporate elements of your own identity or experiences into your comics? 

I think most LGBTQ+ kids can relate to Grayce’s story in some way– a secret you’re not sure you can voice, that fear of feeling like you’re letting someone down, family who have expectations of you that you know you can never fulfill. I wanted to write about the strength it takes to come out, even when your hands are shaking. And I knew I wanted to write about found family, about surrounding yourself with people who love and support you unconditionally. 

Do you have any projects you are working on right now and are at liberty to discuss?

I’m working on a new graphic novel for kids/teens, though this one will be a contemporary story, not fantasy. But still just as queer!

Finally, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?

I listed some above, but there are so many! For graphic novels, Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, Yuhki Kamatani’s Our Dreams at Dusk, Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star, and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. Ashley Herring Blake’s middle grade novels are some of my favorites from the last few years. 

Review: Stonewall Outloud

I love gay history, so I jumped at the chance to attend a screening of the documentary short Stonewall Out Loud at the Stonewall last week.  It initially premiered on June 5 of this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the riots and is currently streaming on YouTube.  After viewing the film by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – the acclaimed directors of Inside Deepthroat and Party Monster, among others—I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm was rewarded. 

As Bailey told the crowd at the screening, there are very few photographs from the Stonewall riots, so he and Barbato had to get creative.  Their brilliant conceit was to bring audio recordings of the participants to life by having various LGBT celebrities “play” the storytellers: i.e. lip sync.  It seemed a little odd at first, seeing the likes of Lance Bass, Adam Rippon, and Isis King “speaking” for the participants, but I quickly got used to it.  Considering lip syncing’s long association with drag, the technique is actually all too appropriate; in fact, Drag Race’s Jinkx Monsoon “portrays” the legendary Sylvia Rivera.  The film also includes conversations between the actors and the still living “voices”—like Fredd E. “Tree” Sequoia, who still bartends at Stonewall today—and reflections from both generations on the significance of these events in shaping our community’s ongoing history.    There are also cinematic close-ups of smashing bottles, flashing lights, and other images evoking the riots and the context surrounding them, as well as incendiary footage of Rivera lashing out at a hostile crowd at Pride 1973.  Watching this documentary in the spot where it all happened was a truly moving experience.

“Tree” Sequoia with Adam Rippon

Afterwards, legendary journalist Michael Musto conducted a Q&A with Sequoia and Bailey before opening up the floor to audience questions.  One self-identified “zennial” (cross between a millennial and generation Z) professed that they talk about Stonewall “all the time” with their circle of friends and that it’s quite meaningful, “especially for the trans community”—this comment brought a chorus of snaps from their friends in the crowd.  With Stonewall Outloud, those young people and generations to come have an invaluable new testament.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Spiral review

Spiral is the quintessential film I wanted to like more than I actually did.  I was excited to review a queer horror film, especially one specifically addressing homophobia in the 1990s.  Alas, Spiral’s reach winds up exceeding its grasp.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

In director Kurtis David Harder’s film, a gay couple with a teenage daughter move to a small town—and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) soon suspects something is amiss.  Are the neighbors part of some bizarre cult?  Did the lesbian family who lived in the house previously suffer a horrible fate?  Or is Malik—still traumatized from a hate crime years earlier– just suffering from a delusion?

Bowyer-Chapman (UnREAL) is the best part of the movie.  He gives an arresting performance and is believable, endearing, and sexy as a gay man trying to find his footing in a relationship with an older man and as a step parent.  As his partner Aaron, Ari Cohen essentially plays the standard disbelieving husband role we’ve seen in countless horror films, but for the most part he avoids coming off as unsympathetic (he’s a cute daddy, too).  Jennifer Laporte is the other cast stand out as daughter Kayla, whose angst never rings false. Lochlyn Munro (Betty’s slimy dad on Riverdale) is effortlessly slimy here as the suspicious neighbor.

 The set-up is tight, with the film seemingly aspiring to be a gay take on Rosemary’s Baby and/or Get Out.  Intriguing threads are set up: Malik realizes the documentary he’s editing is about a conversion therapy advocate; the grieving man from next door seems like he might be interested in Malik; blackmail photos appear to threaten his relationship with Aaron.  But the shift to overtly supernatural content feels jarring and a little silly, and those three threads never really pay off.  By the time the end game is revealed, Spiral has trampled over the goodwill it earned during its first hour.  The tone is a problem, too; the premise is fairly ludicrous, but the movie wants to be deadly serious.  If it had leaned into the campiness a bit, it might have been an enjoyably pulpy allegorical thriller.  Instead, the movie comes off as pretentious, with its statement on the shared struggles of different marginalized groups landing with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil.  (A quote lifted from Harvey Milk feels almost blasphemous.) What’s more, the audience’s investment in Malik and his family is betrayed rather callously by the narrative.  Ultimately, Spiral is a misfire, though I’d love to see Bowyer-Chapman in bigger and better things. 

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Slayed! Review

“Bathroom Troll”

This year marks the second year for Slayed! LGBTQ Horror Shorts at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.  This co-presentation with NYC’s queer NewFest film festival continues to offer an eclectic and interesting selection, even if a couple of entries fell a little flat.

In “Jeremiah,” a young Asian man with a crush on his football teammate is troubled by visions of a folk tale monster he grew up dreading.  The eerie cinematography and locations are top notch, as are the young actors playing the boys; they have a believable chemistry.  The Hitchcockian score also adds a sense of dread.  But the short left me wanting more information on the monster and the storyline—it may be intended as a pitch for a feature length film.

In the Spanish language “Estigma,” my favorite of the program, two young men start to get it on—but a freakish insect interrupts their liaison.  I’ve long remarked that some of the best horror exaggerates real life fears, and this short dramatizes the anxiety experienced by HIV positive men quite well.  The makeup and practical effects really help sell the film, and the two leads are authentic and sexy.

“The Original”

The black-and-white “The Original” concerns a lesbian couple and has an intriguing premise: a specialized surgery can transfer the ailing partner’s mind into a healthy new body.  But although the piece is emotional, creepy, and at times darkly humorous, the ending didn’t quite land for me.  I was left with a lot of questions; maybe this, too, is a stealth feature film proposal.

“Penance”

My two least favorite shorts, though very different, both come off as one-note gags that barely justify their extremely brief runtimes.  “Penance” is a smug, heavy handed take that! to the Catholic Church’s homophobia.  It’s a deserving target—I say that as a former Catholic myself—but the gruesome perversion of communion doesn’t really go far enough to be truly satisfying.  It abruptly ends before it can justify its own existence.  Meanwhile, the bizarre “Docking” was somehow selected by the Sundance Film Festival; I can only assume somebody wanted to be cool and subversive by picking it.  It’s nothing but a dirty visual joke with giant erect penises subbing in for Star Wars spaceships.  I’m no prude, but this just felt like a waste of time, effort, and money.

“Bathroom Troll” is a candy colored satire that, while not as clever or as much of a statement as it thinks it is, is nothing less well-executed and quite fun.  The crowd-pleasing Carrie takeoff has “Cassie,” an androgynous teen, getting tormented in the bathroom by mean girls and then roped into a plot by her religious zealot mother.  The twist is that, unlike Carrie’s mom, Cassie’s is a Satanist, and the pair conjure up a demon to enact vengeance.  The demon is entertainingly campy/vicious in the Freddy mode, and every actress (it’s an all-female ensemble) knows exactly what tone to hit to make this short work.  I just wish there was a clearer transgender element, since the recent “bathroom panic” was clearly the inspiration here.

“Switch”

The program ended on a high note with the endearing “Switch,” a sort of 21st century Orlando with a teen who inexplicably changes genders– and lovers.  It’s fun, engaging, and sexually explicit, but in a very heartfelt and tender way.  The young cast is appealingly naturalistic, and the performers who play the lead’s two personas complement each other quite well.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Review: Carmilla

Devrim Lingnau and Hannah Rae in Carmilla

It feels like it’s been a few years since we had a good old fashioned Victorian horror film; perhaps not since Guillermo Del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak.  So the moody, intelligent Carmilla (inspired by the gothic novel by Sheridan Le Fanu) is a welcome addition to the genre—not to mention a queer one!

Writer/director Emily Harris’ film immediately makes a strong impression with gorgeous cinematography and a vivid locale.  Teenage Lara (Hannah Rae) lives a lonely existence in an isolated mansion.  Her well-meaning governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is caring but strict; her father is usually away on business.  More than anything, Lara wants a friend, and one finally arrives in the form of Carmilla (a gorgeous Devrim Lingnau), who the family takes in after she survives a mysterious carriage crash.  The two immediately form a close bond that develops into a romance, but there may be more to Carmilla than meets the eye

Rae and Jessica Raine

 Carmilla is essentially a drama with horror elements, a character-driven film that showcases terrific acting from all three of the women featured.  Rae and Lingnau come across as genuine teens, not the twenty-somethings who play high schoolers in so many movies and shows, and their performances feel wonderfully authentic.  Raine, meanwhile, is outstanding in her role.  She comes off as fully three dimensional and compassionate despite her old fashioned beliefs and strict rules for Lara.  In one standout scene, she hints at her own same sex attractions while trying to steer Lara away from her feelings for Carmilla.

Lara’s growing attraction to the other girl gives way to a tender eroticism.  Harris does a terrific job of capturing their chemistry and generating heat; it’s a rare treat to see any kind of love scene in movies these days, and all the sweeter to have ones involving two women.  There’s also a moment of unexpected and powerful sexuality between two other characters late in the film.

Carmilla is a dynamic and well-crafted movie, pleasingly ambiguous and understated with its horrific elements.  When things get creepy it feels organic – Lara has some morbid interests and fantasies, which Carmilla appears to share–and in keeping with the serious tone of the film. The movie is brimming with interesting motivations and relationships, and keeps you involved all the way through its poignant finale.