I haven't been going to the movies much in the last few years. We have one, count 'em one, local movie theater, the Rio, which is an old Quonset hut on the Russian River that gets movies a month or so post-release for 3-4 days runs. This is the theater where I saw Mary Poppins when I was a little girl one summer vacation, and it hasn't been updated, upgraded, multi-plexed, or otherwise modernized since those days. You gotta love it.
But I used to go to the movies all the time, and had a lot of friends in the film industry. In fact, I've been to the Academy Awards with two of them, and yes, that photo is me holding Oscar. My friends Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman won it for Common Threads in 1989 (Rob had previously won for The Times of Harvey Milk in 1985). The other photo is me with Rob and Jeff, earlier that same night, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. I was helping Rob practice his acceptance speech, and in the interest of time, he was thinking of thanking "the gay community" instead of "the lesbian and gay community," at which point I threatened him with bodily harm. It is entirely because of me that the word "lesbian" was first spoken at the Academy Awards, and broadcast on national television. See, my life was once extremely glamorous, before I traded it in for country living and dogs.
I went just now to look up when exactly I went to the Oscars, and I was pretty taken aback to see it was 1989. Because last night I had another 1989 moment of shock, when I went to see the movie Rent.
I'd seen the stage version of Rent three times already, and I loved it (which I guess is obvious from the fact I saw it three times). It summed up the early years of AIDS perfectly, at least, the experiences I went through with most of my friends. Although the stage version never identifies exactly what year the story is set in, the first words spoken in the film set it in 1989.
1989 is the year I turned 30, just a few days after the Oscar ceremony. 1989 is also the very worst year of my life. If you gave me fifty million dollars I wouldn't live through it again. It was the year I lost more friends than any other year, the year I found out that two dear, close friends who had previously chosen not to be tested were HIV positive, the year I started really losing my ability to deal with what AIDS was doing to my friends, my community, and my city. I have blogged before about my friends Tim and Pietro; April of 1989 is when I found out they had AIDS, when I went to visit them in Italy. It's the year I finally realized that the coping skills I'd been using to get through this crisis were totally inadequate for the long term; I couldn't stand it anymore, but the epidemic showed no signs at all of abating. Things were getting worse and I would wake up every morning feeling like my nerves were being bathed in acid.
I loved the film version of Rent. I'd heard that most people who loved the stage version also loved the film version, but that people who hadn't already seen it (or didn't already love it) weren't so blown away. It got mixed reviews and while it's still playing in San Francisco, it's no longer in the theaters here in Sonoma County. I found it hard to watch, and cried through almost the whole thing - even though parts of it are actually astonishingly joyful - and cried so hard at the deathbed and memorial service for Angel that the lady sitting next to me patted my arm.
So I don't know if my recommendation is going to mean much to people who didn't love Rent already, and didn't live through the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York or San Francisco. But the nice lady who patted my arm had never seen the stage show, and she and her husband lived out here in the boonies during the 80s, so I'm guessing that's not the case. Go see it, it's great. Or if it's gone from your local theaters, rent it when you can.
I also saw another movie last weekend, Brokeback Mountain. I was fairly sure it was going to suffer from over-hype, and it did - it's hard not to be slightly let down by the reality of a film that is getting the kind of praise this one is. And it really is a fantastic film. The cinematography is incredible, the acting is mind-blowing, the script is just about perfect.
I'd call it a bit of a filmmaker's film, though, which sometimes translates into being a little boring. It dragged in a few parts. And it's grim, grim, grim - I don't think the two main characters had one moment's joy in their lives, other than a few days on that mountain. I understand that's an essential part of the story and of their lives, but it's painful - agonizing - to watch.
Probably the most interesting thing about Brokeback Mountain to me is the reaction to it in the media and among people who are seeing it and talking about it. Not just around here, in gay-friendly, culturally hip, left coast/blue state northern California, but nationwide. I could blather on about it for a while, but as usual, Mark Morford got there first and did it better:
Witness, won't you, the confluent forces, the twin streams of conflicting culture represented by the amazing "Brokeback Mountain" movie phenomenon, a spare and sad and highly controversial little indie-style flick that is shaking up the homophobic community and raking in the Golden Globes and which now seems a shoo-in to win an Oscar or four, as compared and contrasted with, say, the humorless, depressing, dry-as-death Samuel Alito Supreme Court nomination. Oh yes, we have a match. Do you see it?
Look closer. On the one hand, here is the astounding reach and power of this rare and striking little film, an emotional tinderbox of a movie that, in the wrong hands or with the wrong marketing or if it had been off pitch by just this much, could have very easily been trashed and quickly dismissed, would have hobbled the careers of two up-and-coming hunk actors, been mocked across the board and demonized by the religious right as revolting gay propaganda, the source of all ills, proof of the existence of the devil himself.
Of course, the latter is still happening (isn't it always?), but the amazing thing is, no one seems to care. The screech of the right's homophobes is being easily drowned out by the fact that this astonishing, pitch-perfect film is now considered a movie that, quite literally, changes minds. Shifts perceptions. That moves the human experiment forward and makes people truly think about sex and gender and love and not in the way that, say, "Pride & Prejudice" makes you think because that kind of thinking is merely sweet and harmless, whereas "Brokeback" slaps bigotry and intolerance upside its knobby little head and induces heated discussions of the film's dynamics and politics and ideas of love over a bottle of wine and some deep curious sighing.
I enjoyed Rent, even though it made me cry; it left me feeling like I'd seen a piece of my own life, and seen something on the screen that gave me joy even while it broke my heart - something like life in that way, too. Brokeback Mountain didn't have that effect on me at all, but the reaction to it? Maybe so. If Morford is right and the world has changed, I'm glad I lived to see it, as long as I can stay out of the way of the blow back.