I’ve got somewhat mixed feelings about Pat Mills’ Guidance. It’s very funny, enjoyable and inspiring in an oddball sort of way, but it feels like two separate movies which don’t really work together.

Meet David Gold, former TV child star. Twenty years after being on the air, he can’t even hold down jobs recording feel-good affirmation tapes because all he’s really good at is drinking, smoking, alienating his family, compulsively watching tapes of his glory days, and denying his gayness.

Out of desperation he answers an ad for a high school counselor. With no experience, no references and only minimal prep work (ie: watching a few online videos), he manages to bullshit his way through the interview under a fake name and land the job!

Yes, the school was pretty desperate too, which sortakinda justified the whole setup. My disbelief needed a lot of suspension, but it looked like a silly comedy so I rolled with it. And kept on rolling as he breezily fixed all the kids’ problems like an alcoholic fairy godmother: teaching the shy girl how to flirt with a dumb jock; getting a problem student transferred to a school that would challenge him better… with lots of shots. Sometimes weed or cigarettes. But mostly shots.

What gave this part depth was that David isn’t some happy twinkly carefree blithe spirit. Having a job, responsibilities and the promise of income doesn’t make any of his issues go away. He’s still alone, still drinking alone even at work, still struggling with fears and denial and low self-esteem. As much as we want to laugh or cringe at his antics (and we do!) we want to give him a big ol’ hug and tell him everything will be all right. The job is helping him, little by little: his bonding with Jabrielle, one of the school’s “bad girls” and checking up on her abusive home life shows that he’s started to think about people who aren’t him.

I was still all ready for the story to evolve this way: David would hit rock bottom, possibly keep his job, possibly be let go, there’d be wacky hijinks, the students would rally around him, he’d find his self-esteem, quit drinking, reconcile with his family, and maybe find out his landlady’s not such a mean bitch after all. Happy ending!

But then, reality ensues. The nosy and very gay gym teacher find out David’s real identity after a little snooping, he’s found behind his desk in a drunken stupor, and everything comes crashing down: the principal calls the police, and David runs. He meets up with Jabrielle who’d run away from home, they go rob a few tanning salons (it makes sense in context) but they can’t keep it up for long. David sends Jabrielle to her aunt in Winnipeg, and he surrenders to the police. And finally, finally, David is at peace.

So… that was a bit shocking, to be honest. I think this movie was meant to show (among other things) a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy trope, but I feel it went a little too far for a comedy. Because now I’ve got too many questions: what will happen to all the kids he’s helped? Will Ghost be forced back to his old school when authorities find out his grades were forged? Will Jabrielle be able to stay with her aunt, make a new life away from her abusive parents? Will she be called to testify against David?

Still, there’s a lot I love about the movie. Besides being hella funny, it’s a loving ode to freaks, weirdos and repressed loners everywhere, who tend to be way more interesting than so-called “normal” people. Flaws and quirks are okay, and it’s best to be honest about them. And bland affirmations are worse than useless. Sometimes life really sucks, and it won’t get better until you face it.


It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Lily Tomlin movie. Is that bad? Does that make me a bad gay? Well, it doesn’t matter, because this film is a hell of an initiation.

Tomlin plays Elle, a cranky academic still grieving over the death of her long-term lover; she seems to have few friends, and is barely on speaking terms with her daughter. Out of the blue, her teenaged granddaughter Sage shows up seeking money for an abortion. Elle is broke at the moment and has cut up her credit cards, so off they go to try to extract money from her old friends, ex-friends, ex-lovers and complete strangers before Sage’s appointment that very evening.

Grandma is a brilliant, hilarious ride: acidly funny like only Lily Tomlin can deliver, but also deeply moving in parts such as when Elle reminisces about her life with Violet or reconciles with her latest ex. And, just as importantly, it raises a bunch of points about the reality of getting an abortion, but wove them into the story so well I didn’t realise what it was doing until hours later: the issue of money or lack thereof, how supportive the baby daddy will be, actually having a clinic within easy access, dealing with guilt and fear of going to hell you never thought you had, getting judged by pro-birth activists or your own mother (for different reasons), having a support network…

Well played, movie. Well played.

Other lessons I learned: we’re all flawed and messy. No matter what we tell ourselves, no matter how successful we are in our careers, whether we’re neurotic perfectionists, philanthropes misanthropes or just confused teens, we’re all muddling along the best we can. And in a way, that’s a good thing. It means there’s always room to grow, to be inspired. People who think they know it all would be really boring. Or picketing abortion clinics, maybe.

A few more thoughts:

Hello, all-star cast! Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Judy Greer, John Cho, Nat Wolff… All spot-on, even the one-scene wonders. And really, wouldn’t it take stars of that calibre to keep up with Lily Tomlin? Julia Garner, playing Sage, was… all right. She held her own, but didn’t really shine.

One little nitpick, which I guess was unavoidable: the plot seemed forced to me. I mean, how likely is it that Elle wouldn’t have any available cash? Mind you, it turned out to be justified pretty well and played into Elle’s character, so it all worked out in the end.

The Coast is Queer 2015

As always, The Coast is Queer gives us a variety of gems. Here are my faves:

Boner Fashion Show and 19th Birthday, by The Ryan and Amy Show. Two hilariously raunchy little shorts; one about a very unusual fashion show, the other about some aggressively gay-friendly parents.

Kiss and Tell, directed by Jackie Hoffart. A bunch of lovely little vignettes related to kissing, all tied to Vancouver streets. Beautifully shot, beautifully narrated, and definitely among my favourite shorts of the night.

The Out-Laws, by Shannon Kohli, a fun little slice-of life about a male couple and their extended family. Not a whole lot to say, except that one half of the couple is bisexual, and his gay brother-in-law (I think) is kind of an ass about it. This is apparently the pilot for a web series, and if it keeps up the bi visibility angle I’ll definitely check it out.

Family Is Like Skin is a documentary on lesbian life in Cambodia, directed by Paula Stromberg with the full participation of the local women. Some of the issues they face are very familiar—isolation, ignorance, familial rejection, forced marriages—but a lot of the political and cultural background is completely different. For one, Buddhism (the country’s official and majority religion) does not condemn homosexuality, nor is there any law against it. However, the government forbids public assemblies of any kind, so Pride parades are not possible. Right now the focus is just to build communities, break down barriers between women living in isolated towns, and promote honesty (and patience) with family members. Marriage equality is apparently not on their radar.

Same Boat, by David C Jones. It’s a surreal little piece where a musical lesbian couple shakes up the comfortable life of a bed-and-breakfast-owning husband and wife. I’m not a big fan of musical, but damn if this didn’t work! The songs were catchy, and the juxtapositon of musical lesbians with non-musical straight folks was hilarious. We’re all on the same boat, maybe heading for different shores…

Dissonance, by Anna Ngo: a beautiful animated short showing what happens when a trans boy tries to use the “wrong” bathroom.

The Right To Be Heard, by Krista Martin. A welcome and necessary documentary about the state of trans rights in Canada, with particular focus on federal politics (very timely, with the upcoming elections). Featuring interviews with several trans people, as well as NDP MLAs Mable Elmore and Spencer Chandra Herbert we hear about Bill C-279, and about problems trans people may face during their transition, if their gender presentation doesn’t match their official ID, which may lead them to being unable to vote.

Boy Meets Boy. A creepy, disturbing little flick about dating and vampires, where nothing is quite what it seems…

The Future Perfect, by Nick Citton, is a trippy tale of love, fatalism and time travel. In a weird dystopia where corporations compete to create favourable timelines, our protagonist is a time agent tasked with killing a child in the past and must struggle with the ethics of his job. Also starring Zachary Quinto as the disembodied voice of Mission Control, who falls / will fall / must fall in love with the agent.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d be blogging this year. Lots of stuff going on, not a lot of time, not a lot of spare energy, just a wee bit of stress… I didn’t need a repeat of the 2013 festival, where I loaded too many movies on my plate, burned out, and delivered the last one about three weeks late. I’d just go to the movies (how many? still TBD, TBH. Even as I write this I haven’t yet figured out my schedule), and maybe post short little snippets, like I used to before my blogging hit the big time.

But then, I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the VQFF’s opening gala film. And soon enough, I felt a review welling up inside me, and it felt good.

So, Sergei Eisenstein: Soviet Russian film director, famous for (among others) Battleship Potemkin and October (a.k.a.: Ten Days That Shook The World). In late 1930 he embarked on a long trip to Mexico: financed by various Hollywood personalities, he was to make a movie of his own design and choice, but all the materials as well as the final product would belong to his backers. This film, directed by Peter Greenaway, tells the story of that Mexico trip, and the spell of love and death that Mexico cast on Eisenstein.

This is a crazy, weird trip of a movie, as zany and frantic as Eisenstein himself, filled with self-consciously artsy camera work, over-the-top profound discussions on love, sex, death, politics, colonialism, Soviet culture vs. Mexican culture vs. Hollywood culture, movie history, name-dropping every major Western film and cultural figure, from Charlie Chaplin to Upton Sinclair to George Bernard Shaw…

Oh, and there’s sex, too. Eisenstein is seduced by his (married) guide, Palomino—also a teacher of comparative religion—and they fall in love with each other. This is not just a superficial fling, but a serious relationship between intellectual equals who connect with each other on every level. It has to end, though. Eisenstein is eventually called back to Russia when his grand Mexican movie goes way over budget and his backers get pissy, but Palomino must stay with his family.

Visually, this film is absolutely amazing: stunning landscapes, loving eyefuls of Mexican architecture as well as Mexican life—those glass-entombed mummies, the creepy alleyway that Eisenstein explores near the beginning, and the creepy-fun Day of the Dead parade. More than that, though, this film is filled with techniques that harken back to old-school cinema: abrupt cuts to static close-ups, repeated three-way split screens, shots filmed in grainy old black-and-white… as well, more modern (probably) tricks with fisheye lenses and such. Now I’m kind of in the mood for some silent Soviet film! How much of this movie was genuine callbacks to Eisenstein’s œuvre, and how much was the director playing silly buggers? I am definitely curious.

My only complaint was that some of the dialog was hard to follow, what with the protagonists tending to talk a mile a minute with strong accents, but I didn’t really let it bother me. Their conversations were genuinely fascinating, and with those visuals you could never get bored. If I lost the thread of a scene, I could just pick it up again later.

All in all a great start to the festival! Beautiful, weird, zany, dramatic and intellectual—and best of all, it’s inspired me to blog again!

Fare Thee Well!

My third and probably last PuSh Festival show was Fare Thee Well!, an unusual art piece I caught today after work. To see it I had to get to the Lookout at Harbour Centre and look into one of several telescopes facing roughly east. For about 15 minutes I listened to sad, haunting instrumental music while a distant scrolling marquee bade farewell to various people and ideas, or showed classical quotes about goodbyes.

It was very high-concept, and it worked for me. What helped was that the messages were not all sad. One said “Farewell VHS players”. I think another was about rotary phones. “Farewell CBC” was followed by “Farewell Jian Gomeshi”. Some were downright ambiguous: for example, how should I read “Farewell Trust in the Father”? A sad acknowledgement of the breakdown of family structures, or a happy end to patriarchal authority?

There were a small number of “Welcome” messages, and all of them were either sad or disturbing. Most memorable? “Welcome Harper”. Yeah.

All in all, a job well done! My only complaint was that the setup in the Lookout needed work. The telescopes were too low, and having to look through them without moving was damn uncomfortable. There should have been some way to move the chairs up or down a bit.

And since this was my first trip up the Lookout, I made sure to take lots of pictures. It was the perfect time of day, too: just light enough to see details of the buildings, but dark enough to give them some magic.

7 Important Things

After the sublime and the philosophical, I came down to earth with 7 Important Things, the true story of baby-boomer-turned-hippie-turned-heroin-addict-turned-hair-stylist George Acheson. Directed and co-performed by Nadia Ross, it is a perfectly mundane, perfectly special story of dreams and despair, hope and disillusionment, sex and drugs and love beads.

The short play (about an hour long) is presented in a number of formats: semi-formal Q&As, projecting old photographs, re-enacting scenes from his past, monologues. It almost felt like a bunch of acting and motivation exercises, except that they actually managed to gel into a play. I got the definite impression that George is not an experienced actor (and his life story never mentions any passion for acting), though he held his own very well. And either way, it’s not a bad thing: that bit of roughness made the experience more authentic to me.

At the end, Nadia asks George to step up to the audience and just stand there, to “have them see you as I see you.” And we did: worn but not broken. Unmasked. Vulnerable. Alive. He went through a lot of pain and didn’t really change the world but in the end he found his place, and quiet happiness. We should all be so lucky.

Dark Matter

This was my first PuSh Festival show of the season, and boy was it a doozie!

I honestly had no idea what to expect, and the writeup didn’t help. And that was just fine by me, I was all ready to take whatever experimental mayhem the theatre would throw at me.

At first I was just… bemused. Performer and writer Kate McIntosh, along with her two sidekicks, just did a lot of strange quasi-slapstick antics, moving props around, getting in each other’s way… it looked frantic and meta, like a metaphor for the creative process, or behind-the-scenes work at any production. I couldn’t see a story or a pattern, but I patiently waited, trusting that it would all come together.

Then things got verbal. McIntosh and the others brought up abstract and/or deliberatly silly philosophical questions, and lectured us about Big Scientific Ideas, focusing on the Many Worlds Hypothesis—you know the one, it’s that interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that says every observation, every choice, actually branches off whole new universes that are just as real as the one we’re in now.

Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead when you open the box, in different realities. Instead of sitting in SFU’s Goldcorps Centre for the Arts, I could have tripped and fallen on the way to the show—fallen left, and I would have been killed by an oncoming truck; fallen right, and I would have found the love of my life.

(I didn’t make up that last example, by the way. McIntosh pointed in my general direction and speculated about the alternate lives of “the man over here.” I like that she was talking about a man meeting another man. Hey, it’s like she knew me!)

And so the audience got our brains massaged and stretched by the wonder of science, the weirdness of philosophy, and some general clowning around. Good stuff? Sure. Nothing too memorable though, I felt.

But then!

But then McIntosh lifted the backdrop a little.

Picture it: a solid black sheet pierced with little holes, lit from behind for a lovely starfield effect. And picture me: primed by all that high-flown cosmic cogitation, of time and space and higher realities. When the backdrop was lifted my brain clicked on the Aristotelian geocentric model, where stars are just holes in the outermost sphere (sound familiar?) letting in light from the Primum Mobile. This glimpse of the backstage lights, so bright to my dark-adapted eyes, was for a moment like looking into someplace outside reality. I was Dave Bowman entering the monolith, I was Dante reaching the heights of Paradise. It felt transcendent, almost a spiritual experience, and I don’t use that word lightly.

The play wound down soon after this. Its last few minutes were more quiet and low-key, letting me come down gently from my epiphanic climax—which didn’t stop me from gushing about it afterwards, repeatedly.

My brain was buzzing all the way back home, both at the experience, and the cleverness of juxtaposing such an old cosmology with modern theories. If indeed that was the intent. That’s the beauty of non-narrative performances like this, it’s easy to write your own interpretations. All I can say is, this is what I got out of it.

Fortunately I didn’t trip and fall once on the way home. On the downside, neither did I meet my future husband.

Gender politics in xkcd’s Time

This is coming way late, but I’ve been having some thoughts about xkcd’s Time comic percolating in my brain for a while. Because xkcd is a stick figure webcomic, the only gender cues available are longer hair on female characters or facial hair on male ones; characters’ genders are just not an issue, unless the storyline demands it. Women in the comic are just as nerdy and weird as men, and appear in about equal numbers overall—a couple times even outnumbering them. This is kind of a big deal, because I can’t think of any nominally gender-neutral media or space that regularly achieve that kind of parity, and makes it look so natural and normal. Which to me makes the comic a feminist one, though I don’t know if Randall Munroe would agree with that label.

In any case, I think I was primed to see the character dynamics in Time partly as some kind of statement. The story starts off with one male (let’s call him Y) and one female protagonist (let’s call her X), both interesting and nicely developed, and it seemed to me on first reading that X was more adventurous, more curious and a better scientist, and Y more passive. A third character they meet later on, a woman, is the leader of her community, which just seemed to confirm my first impression.

However, when I went back and reread it again some months later, I found the truth was a lot more nuanced. It looks like I was dealing either with confirmation bias—just a few frames stuck in my mind and coloured my entire memory of the story—or some kind of gender-based bias where a female character’s coolness jumps out at me more. Which is a weird one, and I don’t know if there’s a name for that.

For reference, here are the frames that stuck in my mind on first reading:

But, there’s context for all of these, and they tell a somewhat different story. The trees, for instance: in the previous frame X has asked if the tree was supposed to be like that; i.e.: she was worried that it might be sick. So Y’s reply reads not so much as apathy, but rather trust that Nature generally knows what it’s doing. And, the belief that plants can be both weird-looking and healthy.

Overall I got the impression that Y has a very deep curiosity about the natural world. He loves to think about big and abstract things, like the sea, rivers, logic, and physics. His world is full of mysteries, which may someday be discovered, or maybe not—but the journey’s still worth it. He’s a big-picture kind of guy, less comfortable with living things or with nitty-gritty details. That’s more X’s department.

Where Y is mostly about theory, X is all about practice. She’s the hands-on engineering yang to his abstract yin—building sand castles, dreaming of building even bigger castles, easily excited about new technology and new shiny questions. Not the big questions Y likes, mind you, but specific, concrete, answerable questions. She’s brave and a bit reckless in the pursuit of those questions, but not so much that she doesn’t empathise with her companion and the cute little critters they meet.

I felt at first that X was the driving force behind their expedition, based (I think) on one frame where Y floats the idea of going home. But that comes after many lines of him thirsting for more understanding. But I guess everybody has limits. I’m also wondering if he gets antsier the further he gets from water?

More questions and not that many answers, but that’s okay. It was an interesting exercise in unbiasing myself, and—bonus!—I found a lot of beautiful places in re-exploring this amazing story. So it was totally worth it.

Vancouver Queer Film Festival 2014: final thoughts

Right, another festival under my belt! Let’s do a recap, by the numbers.

Number of shows I planned to see: 20. Which I realised was insane unless I took the entire week off or something.

Number of shows I actually saw: 11. Last year I saw 17, fell way behind on my reviews, and then felt guilty and stressed out about it. It looks like this is about the optimal number if I want to balance the festival with work and non-queer-film-related life.

Favourite feature film: A tie between The Way He Looks and Drunktown’s Finest. Honourable mention goes to Children 404.

Favourite short film: A three-way tie between Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny, Orbits / Orbitas (shown in Grrls in Space) and StandStill (shown in The Coast is Queer)

Movies I wanted to see but didn’t:

Drunktown’s Finest would have been listed here, but some movies pulled out of the festival at the last minute, and the Monday night late show was graced with an additional showing of Drunktown’s Finest.

There were a couple other movies I’d planned to see, but I’m not that broken up about missing.

Percentage of subtitled films I saw: 5 / 9 feature films, or 55%. (6 / 9, I guess, if you count the Navajo dialog in Drunktown’s Finest.) Not as high as last year, but still respectable. I managed to see films from Argentina, Brazil, Morocco/France/Switzerland, the Netherlands and Russia. Also Australia, Spain (no dialog) and the United States.

Percentage of films I saw that were directed by women: This year, over 50% of the festival feature films are directed by women. This is a big, big deal, since the percentage in mainstream cinema is apparently 8%. Dropping to 6% if you only look at Hollywood. How does my festival experience add up? Well, out of the 9 feature films I saw 4 were directed by women, so that looks about right at 44%. Incidentally, I had to look up the name of Boys’ director, Mischa Kamp, but it turns out she’s a woman. Counting short films, the percentage is 17.5 / 33 (Trenchcoat Lesbians was co-directed by Ryan Steele and Amy Goodmurphy) which just edges it over the 50% mark.

GIRLTRASH: All Night Long

This is an awesomely hilarious movie about sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, lesbianism, heartbreak, fantasies and lies. It’s silly and over-the-top, knows how silly and over-the-top it is, and just merrily rolls with it. And rocks with it. (See what I did there?) And did I mention it’s a musical? With some really catchy songs?

There’s not a lot more I can say. I mean, you don’t really care about the plot, do you? There’s a battle of the bands that must be won with pluck and determination, one girl’s in love with another who’s in love with a third but it turns out she really isn’t and actually bonds with girl #1 and in the end they totally do it. And we all learn valuable lessons about how wrong (or at least, really inconvenient) it is to lie to get what you want.

A great way to conclude this year’s VQFF! You always need to start and end on a high note, and this film absolutely delivered.