7th 06 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City/More Tales of the City (TV, 1993/1998)

Directors: Alistair Reed/Pierre Gang

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.

In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.

28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.

Got all that?

Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.

The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.

Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.

Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.

Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.

If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.

As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.


7th 02 - 2009 | 17 comments »

The Bridge (2006)

Producer/Director: Eric Steel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I read the synopsis of The Bridge in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival program guide, I experienced an instant revulsion. “More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world,” it said. There would be actual footage of people jumping into the swift, deep waters below. The hubby went to see it. I did not. Yet, yesterday, when it showed up on IFC, I found myself sampling it, then really watching it—all the way to the bitter end.

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My reluctance had to do with wanting to respect the privacy I think a person’s last moments deserve, as well as a sensitivity because I have had a suicide in my family that was very traumatic for me. I am also aware of feeling a certain distaste for the ghoulish aspects of capturing an actual suicide on film, while at the same time finding such footage riveting. It’s like slowing down on the road to look at a crashed car; something in us wants to have an encounter with death. Maybe we really do have a death instinct, as Freud suggested. There is no doubt that as surely as we are given life, that life will end, and we have the dubious advantage of knowing this inevitable fact. Most of us contemplate death, try to understand it and come to terms with our own mortality. Some of us have suicidal thoughts in times of desperation. Most of us want to live, fight to live when death is near. How is it that people—many of them in the prime of life—choose, finally, to give up that fight? And why do so many of them choose to do it in broad daylight on a very populated bridge?

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Producer/director Eric Steel was inspired to make this film after reading Tad Friend’s The New Yorker article, “Jumpers.” He lied to the Bridge District authorities about the purpose of his project—supposedly to capture stock footage of one of the great wonders of the world—and spent all of 2004 filming the bridge. He set up fixed cameras on either side of the bridge for panoramic views and used DV handheld cameras with telephoto lenses to film activity on the bridge. Film crews were equipped with cellphones that had the Bridge Patrol number entered into speed dial. Whenever they observed the warning signs described in Friend’s article that someone might be ready to jump, they hit that speed dial. Some people were saved this way, but some people moved too swiftly or defied their powers of detection. A total of 24 people made the jump: 23 were captured on film.

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The Golden Gate Bridge is a mesmerizing sight at any time, its seemingly delicate lines contrasted with strong vertical towers, and set in a breathtaking natural landscape. When the frequent fogs that visit San Francisco roll in, the bridge seems to float like a heavenly structure in Mount Olympus. There is a romance to the bridge; indeed, San Francisco is considered one of the most romantic destinations in the United States and is a favorite among honeymooners. Thousands of tourists and residents alike walk the bridge each year, admiring its marvelous form and gazing out to the surrounding vistas of water and hillsides. It is not farfetched to believe that jumpers choose the bridge because of the physical beauty that will be their last sight, the desire to make their deaths somewhat poetic, and, of course, the knowledge that their suicide attempt will almost certainly succeed.

The idea of the romance of the bridge fills a friend of a jumper nicknamed Ruby with rage. Photographed in an identity-protecting shadow, she speaks through tears of her attempts to help her severely depressed friend cope. She speaks of giving him some antidepressants she couldn’t finish taking because they kept her awake. Expressing a thought she finds shameful and that she clearly has obsessed about in the months following Ruby’s death, she says she didn’t want anyone to find her name on the prescription bottle if they came snooping around his apartment—already she feels his death may be inevitable—and she therefore put the pills in a plain, white envelope. She speaks of her last night with Ruby, an outing to a movie during which he sobbed uncontrollably; a conversation about suicide and his various options, which she tried logically to dismiss as “being unfair to the landlord” and other subterfuges; and finally, a refusal to let him come home with her to talk in order to respect his space and his free will as an adult. This “respect” will haunt her the rest of her life, and she vows she will never do it again if a similar situation should face her.

An extremely poignant interview, held in full view for the cameras, is of a couple talking about the suicide of their son. They are plain-spoken about his difficulties and the events on the day of his death. Their words and voices are calm, but they look stunned, like deer caught in headlights. The mother wonders what she did to make him so unhappy, repeating the wrong and misogynistic notion that mothers are to blame for their children’s unhappiness. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her.

Various survivors express anger, exasperation at the “cry wolf” aspects of their friends’ frequent and lifelong threats, and helplessness. One woman, aware of the enormous pain her loved one was in, admonished him to promise to say good-bye and to put her name and phone number in a plastic bag and carry it on his person so that she would at least know what had happened. Others, remembering how their friend was always upbeat and the life of the party, mused that if it could happen to him, it could happen to just about anyone.

One miracle man who survived his jump talked about his mental instability and about his attempt. He said he stood on the bridge for some time, crying uncontrollably. Some people stopped to see if he was all right, but most walked by without a word, which he might have perceived as uncaring but probably stemmed more from embarrassment and a desire not to intrude. The last straw for him was a woman with an accent, “German, I think,” asking him to take her picture. He did, and thinking about how she hadn’t even noticed his tears, thought “nobody cares” and jumped. This is the kind of impulsiveness that often causes an ill person to attempt suicide even when he or she may still feel uncertain. “As soon as I let go, I knew I didn’t want to die.” He talked about what he thought might save him—going in feet first. In the four seconds it took for him to hit the water, he turned and landed in a half-sitting position. He shattered two lower vertebrae, but the bone fragments missed his heart. He now has to stick to a rigid routine of meds, meals, and sleep. “It’s a hard life for a 24 year old,” his father says.

This survivor provides a valuable window into what “happened” to these sad people—mental illness. Seriously suicidal people are physically ill—very ill. They can’t just snap out of it. They frequently become marginal individuals, unable to sustain loving relationships, hold down a job, or perform day-to-day tasks. As one jumper wrote (and we see the actual scribblings), “I was voted ‘most likely to success.’ What the fuck happened?” and “I’m a fuck-up. I’m a loser.” I used to see people like him on my bus ride home from work loitering outside of nursing homes and halfway houses, a somewhat scary-looking lot who actually didn’t do much of anything, let alone harm anyone. They are the people who well-meaning, but misguided liberals concerned about individual rights had released from these community institutions to mainstream into society during the 1970s. They’re the people the insurance companies had refused for decades to insure and that mentally well individuals scorn, apparently not viewing one’s brain as a part of one’s body. Lacking the funds for proper treatment, many self-medicate with alcohol or cheap drugs like crack cocaine.

The pain of the surviving families is difficult to watch. But it is the actual, filmed suicides that are so hypnotic and haunting. We see one man in a gray sweatsuit and white running shoes pace energetically, talking animatedly on his cellphone. Before you know it, he has climbed up and sat down on the wide rail, crossed himself, and let go. Another man bolts quickly over the rail and runs off the side, as though he didn’t want to think about it in case he might change his mind. One woman climbs down onto a platform. A man with a camera starts photographing her, aware that she’s probably going to jump but distanced from her by the camera. He compares his actions to what war photographers go through, witnessing horror but somehow unable to intervene. Fortunately he “woke up.” Steel’s cameras capture him reaching over the rail, grabbing the slightly built woman by her hoody, and dragging her back to safety and the waiting Bridge Patrol vehicle.

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Cut in throughout the film is a man with beautiful, waist-length, black hair blowing in the wind as he walks up and back across the span. He stops frequently, gazes out, lays his hands on the rail. The crew said he looked like someone just appreciating the beauty of the bridge and the scenery. He got off the bridge at one point and sat in a park at one end. The film crew was completely fooled. We, however, watch this man, fairly certain that he will jump because he’s in the film. I found myself both waiting expectantly for it to happen and dreading it. When he finally does it, the image is as beautiful and haunting as the bridge itself, a perfect symbol for the lost souls who fly to their doom.

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The deadly seduction of the bridge affects not only the jumpers but, apparently, the Bridge District as well. For years they have fought putting up a suicide barrier, though they have set up barriers to prevent head-on collisions and pedestrian traffic accidents. These, according to Steel, were almost nonexistent problems before the barriers were erected. By contrast, an average of 20 people a year jump to their deaths from the easily breachable bridge. Why is the Bridge District so recalcitrant about suicide barriers? Cost was mentioned, but the other barriers cost as much to erect. I think it has to do with not wanting to mar the aesthetics of the bridge. Announcement that The Bridge was going to screen in several cities finally forced the Bridge District to get serious about doing a feasibility study, but it may still be years before barriers go up.

The Bridge takes a brutally unblinking look at suicide and the plight of the mentally ill that our society must grapple with. The beautiful shooting by San Francisco DP Peter McCandless and the sensitive direction of Steel make this the perfect vehicle for beginning this conversation.

The official website for The Bridge contains much useful information. I recommend a visit.


1st 06 - 2007 | 9 comments »

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Director: Judy Irving

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Rod Heath, my collaborator on this site, may have a right chuckle when I say that one of the most amazing things about my visit to see him and his family in Australia was looking up in the sky and seeing flocks of parrots flying around, common as dirt, or pecking around on the ground like a rich man’s pigeon. I’ve been a birder for many years and seen a lot of beautiful and unusual birds in different parts of the world, but experiencing the raucous galahs and elegant sulfur-crested cockatoos claiming a bit of tree or sky as a normal part of the day is something I’ll never forget.

Parrots and their genetic cousins don’t occur naturally in the United States and Canada, and many birds and their eggs have been imported, legally and illegally, for those who can pony up a fair amount of money to keep the birds as pets. Unfortunately, keeping an exotic bird doesn’t suit everyone—they’re noisy, given to biting holes in one’s cheek and furnishings, and are likely to outlive their owners. A fair number of pet parrots are given the heave-ho by their owners; some also escape their cages. In this way, wild flocks of these birds have established themselves in the urban areas their former owners inhabit. Here in Chicago, a wild flock of monk parakeets has made its home in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park since the late 1960s, surviving harsh winters and scarce food conditions, and growing to as many as 200 individuals. Similarly, San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill has provided a roost to a flock of parrots, mainly cherry-headed conures, since at least the early 1970s.

Many San Franciscans noticed the conures over the years, but only Mark Bittner had the patience and time to become their friend, champion, and nursemaid. In the process, he brought an end to the 20-some years of chronic poverty and homelessness he experienced while trying to find himself. Judy Irving’s documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, brings us the story of Mark and the conures in a way that manages to be wildly entertaining and touching while still providing valuable information to birders and naturalists interested in exotic species in urban habitats.

parrots%201.jpgThe film opens with Mark standing on a path near his home (he’s a squatter who been allowed to stay) surrounded by cherry-heads who are eating unshelled sunflower seeds from his hands. Some curious tourists are asking him questions in French and English about the birds. An American man starts grilling Mark about whether they really are wild birds. “You feed them.” Yes. “You have names for them.” Yes. “That’s not wild.” Yes, it is. The dissatisfied man says “Whatever,” and walks away in frustration. “What a turd!” I commented to the hubby.

In fact, however, although I didn’t like the man’s style, he brought up an interesting point. Clearly, some of these birds had been pets. Mingus, for example, prefers to stay inside Mark’s home; Mark punishes him for biting by putting him outside for a “time out.” The birds have become accustomed to feeding at Mark’s side, and he does treat them a bit like pets. Nonetheless, Mark was absolutely right to call them wild birds. Any bird will go to a steady source of food, but if that source disappears, the bird will forage. The conures nest and reproduce in the wild, something the film shows us, and that is not something a pet would do. And the birds exhibit flocking behavior, such as signaling warnings when a hawk is nearby and cooperating in eluding its treacherous claws and beak with defensive flying patterns. Mark has observed quite a lot over the years, learning the basics (his description of how he learned how conures feed their young is really funny) and getting a rare opportunity to study a type of bird that is very hard to track in the wild in its native range in Central and South America.

Irving’s film is superbly constructed. After laying this early groundwork, she gives us more about Mark’s background—the desire he had to be a rock musician that brought him to San Francisco in the first place from his native Washington State; his unwillingness to pursue another career, preferring to rely on his survival skills and the odd job to keep body and soul together; his gradual introduction to the birds and growing fascination with them as individuals and as a flock. Then she introduces us to some of the birds, which Mark has learned to recognize from specific behaviors and physical characteristics. She has Mark demonstrate how close observation can help anyone become attuned to peculiarities and learn to really see what they are looking at. If there is a star conure in the film, it is Connor, the only blue-crowned conure in the flock. Mark Parrots%20Connor.gifdescribes him as a curmudgeonly, but dignified bird that is kind of cranky because he has no mate nor any other blue-crowneds to hang with. Connor won’t accept preening (feather-cleaning) from the other birds, but he does defend individuals that are being harassed by other members of the flock.

Mark gives us a bit of background on the mating habits of the birds, including their basically monogamous nature. He tells the story of a rare divorce, when a male rejected his neurotic mate for persisting in pulling his feathers out. He also tells us about a red-masked conure that has mated with several cherry-heads and created a new hybrid. His attention to the nuances of each individual helps us to understand that these birds are complex creatures with a social system that compares in many ways with our own. His touching story of nursing a sick conure named Tupelo conveys his experience of the feelings birds can express to those who care for them and leads to a philosophical discussion that seeks to put human beings in harmony with nature. Irving’s background as an environmentalist and maker of nature films helps her capture the right tone to communicate this message without making it seem airy-fairy or preachy.

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There are some surprising developments in the story that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say that Mark’s experiences with the conures changed him profoundly and helped him find the path he had been looking for both personally and professionally. The flock garnered international attention, so their continued existence on Telegraph Hill seems relatively secure for now, despite one threat to their roosting trees. Hopefully, this film will inspire more people to appreciate the everyday miracles that help make life so much richer. l


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