Jewish films featuring in Sydney Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

January 28, 2013

From relatively humble beginnings in 1979, the Sydney Mardi Gras – at first primarily a gay pride parade – has grown into a full series of events and parties, attracting numerous international visitors to Sydney – and not all of them gay and lesbian.  Its Executive Director has estimated that the Mardi Gras is the second largest event in New South Wales, generating an annual income of about $30 million.

An outgrowth of the Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Film Festival is currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, but stems from a history of gay and lesbian film screenings running back to 1978.  Like the Australian Jewish Film Festival, many of those early years were supported by the Australian Film Institute, although the ownership has long since moved on to Queer Screen, a non-profit membership-based organisation.

Each year, the Festival features at some films of Jewish interest, and increasingly they are films made by Israelis and set in Israel.  This year is no exception, with two planned screenings of Eytan Fox’s new film “Yossi” (February 21 and 23), which originally screened in Australia last November as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.  “Yossi” is a follow-up to the ground-breaking “Yossi and Jaeger” (2003), and features the same character and the same actor at Yossi (Ohad Knoller), now working as a cardiologist but still suffering from the loss of his lover.

Yossi film image2

The film opened in New York City cinemas on 25 January 2013, so this Australian preview is timely, with Australian theatrical release not yet confirmed.  The (US) National Public Radio reviewer Ella Taylor calls the film “sublimely tender”.  Stephen Holden in The New York Times describes the film as a “beautifully acted but overly sentimental story of a man’s emotional rebirth in a more sexually liberated era”.  Holden also called the film “a pointed portrayal of the revolution in social attitudes inside the most liberal and secularized of Israeli cities”, even though he believes the film unrealistically portrays the acceptance of “gays in the Israeli military … (without) the slightest undercurrent of tension”.  As of 28 January, the “Metacritic” website reported four fully positive and seven “mixed” English language reviews of the film – with no negatives.

The other Jewish-related film in this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival is Keep the Lights On, an autobiographical film co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, a gay American Jewish film-maker.  Sachs is a frequent collaborator with Israeli film-maker Oren Moverman: they worked together on Married Life, starring Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams.

Ira Sachs + Oren Moverman

Film review of The Kids Are All Right

September 8, 2010

This review of The Kids Are All Right appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 8, 2010

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg

Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska

The film “The Kids All Right” – by American-Jewish lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko – can be classified in many ways.  On one level, it is simply a very modern family story about a lesbian relationship in which each partner has a child from the same anonymous sperm donor, a film that would not feel out of place in Sydney’s “Queer Film Festival”.  It is also a very personal story by director (and co-writer) Cholodenko, based on her own life and her relationship with musician Wendy Melvoin:  Cholodenko has a son aged four named Calder with an anonymous sperm donor, and film is dedicated to Wendy and Calder.

But “The Kids Are All Right” – which closed this year’s Sydney Film Festival – has not been relegated to fringe festivals, and opens widely in Australian cinemas this week, largely because of its strong cast and very interesting characters.  Set in Los Angeles (where else?), Annette Bening plays Nic, a doctor “married” to Jules (Julianne Moore), with their two kids – Nic’s 18 year old daughter Joni (played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who was “Alice” in “Alice in Wonderland) and Jules’ 15 year old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson).  And yes, Joni is named after Joni Mitchell, whose famed album “Blue” features in a breathtakingly uncomfortable dinner that takes place in the film’s final third.  Mark Ruffalo plays Paul, the biological father of the two kids, and whose arrival in the film stimulates more than a little emotional discord and growth.

Nic and Jules all called “the moms” by their kids, and refer to each other as “chicken” and “pony”.  They frequently use “California-speak” language, talking about their “highest selves” and read books with titles like “The Presence Progress”.  Although they live a very pleasant upper middle class lifestyle, there are also tensions in the family.  Nic is emotionally controlling and Jules is frustrated by her lack of a satisfying career.  Laser has an unhealthy relationship with a guy named Clay, leading to the hilarious scene where his “moms” worry that he is gay.  Joni has just graduated high school, and is about to leave home to attend university (in the American tradition of going away to “college”).

At age 18, Joni is legally able to search for her biological father, and at Laser’s urging does so.  So along comes father Paul, an earthy, non-intellectual, organic restaurant owner who is also an unattached ladies man and cannot help putting out the “vibe” to almost every attractive woman he meets.  Paul is, of course, totally unprepared for the emotional needs he encounters in this untraditional family and blunders through with a mixture of bluster, charm, naiveté and surprise as to what the moms and their kids bring out in him.

The Kids Are All Right” gives a good, straightforward portrait of modern teenagers, and certainly has the most complete portrayal of a lesbian relationship I can remember seeing in a mainstream film.  Annette Bening, who has been so glamorous in films like “The American President”, plays plain, brittle and “tight” in an emotional performance of wonderful subtlety, with Moore’s character emotionally looser but less grounded.  Cholodenko – who in interviews always talks about her being Jewish – clearly based parts of both Nic and Jules on herself, but has removed any Jewish elements from the story, even though her co-writer is Stuart Blumberg, who produced and wrote the film “Keeping the Faith”, one of the most interesting recent Jewish films.

Fans of Cholodenko’s earlier films “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” will certainly race to see “The Kids Are All Right”.  It’s a mature and frequently uncomfortable film, and – considering it centres on a non-traditional household – portrays a remarkably conservative sensibility, coming down firmly on the side of the importance of family.  The film’s ending is not fully satisfying in the usual sense:  as we leave this group, there is a sense that the resolution is only temporary and new chapters await them all.

And here is the link to the trailer for The Kids Are All Right:

Milk film review

August 20, 2009

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill

The recent DVD release in Australia of the film Milk makes it important to reflect on the significance of this film.  My review below originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News earlier this year – on January 29, 2009

Milk, the biopic about the life and death of gay Jewish San Francisco city councilman (“supervisor”) Harvey Milk, is both highly conventional and a fascinating example of how mainstream gay and lesbian life has now become in American culture.  It is also one of “the” films of the year, and destined to join Brokeback Mountain as the “gay” film which garners a wide general audience.  Directed by gay film-maker Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting), Milk stars actor Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in a moving and convincing performance which will certainly achieve his fifth Academy Award nomination and just possibly claim his second win (note:  my prediction on this was correct:  Penn did win).  How could this tightly muscled actor turn himself into the voluble, emotional, thin, homosexual and Jewish Milk?  He does so, brilliantly, and thus anchors the film, giving the rest of the cast a powerful presence to play against.  The result lifts Milk from straightforward predictability to an often moving and riveting screen experience.

Milk tells the story of a particular time in San Francisco history – the early 1970s leading up to Milk’s death, when he was deliberately murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.  For those of us living in San Francisco then – and I was one, a resident in the Mission District adjacent to the “Castro” where most of this film’s action takes place – this was a tragic time, and dare I say, a highly creepy one as well.  Just one week before Milk and Moscone were killed, the “Jonestown massacre” took place:  the mass suicide/murder in Guyana of more than 900 former San Francisco residents from the city’s “People’s Temple”.  This was a time when any strange thing could happen, and in fact much did.

One of the great achievements of Van Sant in Milk is in capturing this tumultuous moment in American social history.  Aside from a strong cast, he is ably assisted by cinematographer Harris Savides who helped to make another “historical” San Francisco film, the murder-thriller Zodiac (2007), so convincing.  I never met Harvey Milk, but I did meet a number of the minor characters who appear in the film and I well remember the odd feeling of that city in the late 1970s:  already post-hippie, post flower-child (trends die quickly), with political power rapidly moving from “old” money to the community-based activists like Milk and his liberal Jewish colleague Carol Ruth Silver (who I briefly worked with, and who appears in the film as another character; her character also appears, played by a different actress).

Milk makes extensive use of newsreel footage of that time, including that of a shaken San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein (later mayor of the city, and currently one of California’s two Jewish senators) announcing the deaths of Moscone and Milk.  This scene appears early in the film, so there is no doubt how it will end; the fun (if you can call it that, and it often is) is to see how Harvey Milk’s life unfolds.

Milk’s early life was peculiarly American mid-twentieth century:  the geeky, big-eared, second generation son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants was born in 1930 in Woodmere, Long Island, New York (as “middle Jewish” suburban as you could get), went to university and then served in the navy during the Korean War.  The film opens as he is living in New York, still hiding his homosexuality, but picking up younger men in the subway.  He moves to San Francisco and becomes fully “out”, opening a camera shop, and slowly turning from a Goldwater Republican to an ardent progressive Democrat.  Milk had a number of romantic relationships, and was notoriously bad at them, frequently choosing emotionally needy partners.  The film includes two of them:  Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Lira).  The film’s willingness to acknowledge Milk’s messy personal life is admirable.  There is a delicate balancing act going on here:  San Francisco gay life was (in those pre-AIDS days) full of wild sex and multiple partners, but Milk is portrayed as a serial monogamist.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does make the film that much more palatable for the “straight” audience.  Be warned, however:  this is not a film for those who are uncomfortable watching men being affectionate with each other on screen.

The real core of the film charts Harvey Milk’s growing political success – the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, and his political battles, notably his successful opposition to “Proposition 6”, a California citizens initiative that would have prevented homosexual teachers from working in schools in that state.  The most interesting relationship in the film, one which is clouded with ambiguity, is Milk’s on-again, off-again attempts to work with Dan White, a highly conservative former policeman and fireman who was a City Supervisor from another district – and who ultimately killed him.  Van Sant’s interpretation suggests a potential (but unrealised) closeness between the two men which I am not certain actually existed.  But it is these ambiguities that make a good film.  (White served only a short prison sentence for the murders, which sparked riots in the city.  He committed suicide a couple of years after being released from jail.)

This is not the first time the story of Harvey Milk has been told:  in 1982 Randy Shilts published his book The Mayor of Castro Street and in 1984 Robert Epstein directed the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (declaration of interest:  Epstein is my second cousin), which used much of the same archival footage – and is credited in Van Sant’s film.

“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”, Harvey Milk states a number of times in film, each time to widely different audiences, gay or straight.  For Milk, who was by then turning into a consummate politician, the meanings could be very different, depending on who he was talking with.  Gus Van Sant is an able enough film-maker to know simply when to let his main character talk, actively recruiting us into Milk’s messy but fascinating life.