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Knight at the Movies: Wildness; Beloved; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-09-12

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With Wildness, transgender performance artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang has created a stunningly evocative portrait of a location at the epicenter of gay culture, past, present and, one presumes, future.

That would be the local gay bar, which (in the case of Tsang) was the Silver Platter, a tiny bar situated in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. For more than 40 years, this has been the sanctuary for the Latino transgender and immigrant gay community. Tsang's movie, which the bars literally narrates itself (a very canny device), is his love letter to a place where the brutal realities of life for the otherwise disenfranchised queer community can momentarily be replaced by a safe haven, and where one can find new families along with a kind of temporary magic.

At the outset, we meet many of the regulars at the bar as they primp and strut in front of the curtained stage area. Several of these transgender performers relate bits of their stories, and are seen performing or just socializing at the bar. (More backstory would have been welcomed and wouldn't have hurt, as the film's running time is only 75 minutes.)

Tsang, a former Chicagoan, and his hipster friends Asma, Daniel and Ashland so loved the tacky yet fabulous atmosphere of the place—with its gold drapery, checkerboard dance floor, hot pink lights and fascinating clientele—that they created a weekly nightclub event called "Wildness" in 2008 to celebrate it. But as the popularity of the night grew—which is vividly illustrated with snippets of outrageous and creative performance footage inside the club—the original denizens of the bar increasingly felt shunted aside or mocked.

The soft-spoken Tsang was sensitive to this troublesome development, which reached a pinnacle when a freelance writer's cynical endorsement of the bar appeared in the LA Weekly that dubbed the Silver Platter "Best Tranny Bar." Tsang and his friends targeted the writer, who eventually cried "uncle" and appears on camera recanting his review and apologizing for his thoughtlessness.

The film momentarily shifts tone as it next delves into issues of deportation and violence against the Latino transgender community, but then reverts to chronicling more of the performance footage—a commingling of gender bending, queer punks and outsider artists. The bar's patrons honor the 2010 death of Gonzalo Ramirez, one of the co-owners of the bar, but this leads to trouble and the eventual end of Tsang's night at the bar when Ramirez's family disputes his will, which left his portion of the bar to his ex-lover. Although things eventually got resolved and the owners asked Tsang to bring "Wildness" back, the moment, as Tsang notes—recognizing the fleeting nature of bar culture—had passed. But while it lasted (by all appearances), it was sensational.

Wildness has the same feistiness of other queer art/nightclub documentaries like Sissyboy and The Cockettes—and shares their exuberant, youthful vitality and jaw-dropping creativity. It's a great affirmation of the power of the creative spirit. The film is screening Thursday, Sept. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and Tsang will be present for a post-screening discussion. See www.siskelfilmcenter.org .

With Beloved, gay French director Christophe Honore continues his backhanded homage to the '60s French quasi-musicals of Jacques Demy, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. But where Demy's touch was light as a feather, Honore's is a bit heavy-handed when the tone of the piece isn't wavering uneasily between light and dark. Honore shows a surer hand as he moves his action back and forth between the 1960s to a middle section in the 1980s, ending up in 1997, but the stories he tells are not particularly involving or, worse, feel particularly passionate. Also, for a film about romance, things certainly take a dark turn for all the characters.

His heroine, Madeline (played as a young, saucy minx by Ludvine Sagnier and as an older and definitely wiser one by Catherine Deneuve), is a part-time sales clerk who prostitutes herself, seemingly on a whim, with a series of men until she falls hard for a handsome Czech doctor whom she ends up marrying and temporarily moving to his country. Thirty years later, the now divorced couple finds each other again—though she's since remarried and back in London. In-between, the couple's daughter (played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real life offspring) becomes improbably involved in an intense love triangle between her hot tempered boyfriend and a gay man she meets in passing. Though a ménage a trois seems to momentarily diffuse the competition between the two men, it instead leads to unexpected tragedy.

The characters sing lyrically introspective, musically bittersweet songs (they're more like vignettes) that comment on the action and while entertaining enough, disappear from memory the second they're over (a duet between Deneuve and Mastroianni is a nice exception). Considering the film's dark approach to romance (and its often sobering consequences) these pretty, though meandering melodies would find a better home elsewhere. There's nothing here as melodramatically over the top or zesty as the songs found in 8 Women, another Deneuve film (and one much superior) from another French queer auteur Francois Ozon who might have taken this dark material and given it the decided lift it needs. Plays exclusively at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. www.musicboxtheatre.com

Film notes:

—Finding Nemo, the delightful Pixar hit from 2003, is back in theaters, this time in a 3-D version. Ellen DeGeneres shines as Dory the ditzy friend of Nemo's nervous clown fish dad (voiced by Albert Brooks) who befriends him and joins him on a series of adventures in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

—Brink of Survival is a documentary set in a small rural hospital in southeast Africa charged with the care of more than 120,000 people and staffed by one doctor. The film also documents the impact of HIV/AIDS, poverty and the status of women in one of the world's poorest countries. It is showing Friday, Sept. 21, at the Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theatre, 77 E. Randolph St., at 6:30 p.m. (A one-hour reception precedes the screening.) An auudience discussion with Dr. Martha Sommers, who is featured in the film, and filmmaker Salome Chasnoff follows the screening. Admission is free. More information is at www.facebook.com/events/402604356466653.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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