“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin”: biography of a gay “real writer”

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin”, directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, aired on PBS Independent Lens New Years Day, and in parallels yesterday’s film about Joan Didion as another biography of a “real” career writer.  Why does the title remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Tanglewood Tales” (and even “Twice-Told Tales“), and American literature in 11th grade English?

Armistead grew up around Raleigh, North Carolina in the shadow of conservative senator Jesse Helms.  He first learned southern plantation values, including saying “ma’am” and “sir” (something I found degrading before my own Army days) and a certain embed of segregationism.  He then worked as a journalist in Charleston S.C.  But his life changed when he got a job with the Associated Press in San Francisco in 1971 and personally discovered Castro Street.  He was born one year later than me, and his “coming out” occurred at about the same time as mine (Chapter 3 of my 1997 “Do Ask, Do Tell” I book).

He soon got an opportunity to write a series about San Francisco, “Tales of the City”, for a Marin County paper.  Eventually the series wound up being published by the San Francisco Chronicle. The series would morph into a series of novels, with situations involving both gay and straight characters, sometimes the boundaries of the straight world being breached, perhaps by bisexuality.

Armistead would meet Rock Hudson and eventually out him, when Rock was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s (and died). Gradually, the idea that some major Hollywood staples are gay would become evident.  Armistead would become involved with the gradual inclusion of gay material in mainstream television, and even its funding by PBS, which would enrage social conservatives over “family values”.

Armistead wrote his “Tales” at work on a typewriter.  In those days, that is more how writers actually worked (as in the Didion film).

I came to writing a totally different way, as I had an income-producing career in information technology.  So I wrote from my own narrative what I thought had to be said.  I may have been ego-centric or deluded, but when I was in the Army I thought my 1960 cursive diary “The Proles” (also DADT III Chap 7) was the most important expose in the world, even if it was my own world (of “chicken man”).

Castro district in San Francisco (wiki).  My most recent visit: Not since February 2002.  Need to get there again.  I remember going to a poetry reading at the bookstore (Dog Eared Books) shown in the film.

Name:  “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin”
Director, writer:  Jennifer M. Kroot
Released:  2017/3
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS 2018/1/1, 10:30 PM
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, January 2, 2018 at 11:30 AM EST)

“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”: 2003 biographical documentary covers activist who connected many issues

A few years ago, Human Rights Campaign (HTC) gave away copies of a DVD for the 2003 PBS POV film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”, a biography   I overlooked it, and discovered it while packing to move from house to condo this fall in my own personal “downsizing”.

The 84 minute documentary is directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. It features a lot of black and white newsreel footage in small aspect, as well as interviews with two of Rustin’s male partners and also Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Rustin is perhaps best known for working with Dr. Martin Luther King on various events including the 1963 March on Washington, as a covert gay man.  But his life spanned many issues, moving from communism to anti-communism, working with labor unions to get them up to speed on civil rights, draft resistance, and only later in life openness about homosexuality. The film ends with some coverage of the 1987 LGB march on Washington;  the 1993 LGB march was larger and better known (I attended it) and covered heavily by writers like Andrew Sullivan.

Throughout his life, the FBI closely monitored him.  He served prison time for resisting the WWII draft, and wrote to his male partner from prison as if his partner was a woman. He had at one time joined the Young Communist League (in 1936) but after the US entered WWII the communists dropped their interest in race relations.  Ironically, later, he would push for racial integration of the military, which Truman achieved in 1948.

Later in life, he would be busted for public sex in Pasadena CA in 1953, and the history of a “morals charge” would be used in rhetoric against him, as by Senator Strom Thurmond (whom we know emphatically opposed lifting the ban on gays in the military in 1993, with his “it isn’t normal” rant in a public assembly in Norfolk right in front of Tracey Thorne.)

Later in his life, Rustin became anti-communist and supported US involvement in Vietnam but criticized many of the specific actions taken by the military. The film does cover the issue of identity politics and intersectionality as Rustin experienced it in earlier generations.  He created controversy as to whether is involvement with labor issues and later Vietnam represented the best interest of “his own people”, African-Americans.  He believed that African-Americans (called “negroes” in the 1960s when I was coming of age) needed to accept that technology would affect the labor market for everyone.  Heliked to use the phrase “angelic troublemakers”.

Name:  “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Director, writer:  Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer
Released:  2003
Format:  1.85:1  (often 1:37:1), often BW
When and how viewed:  DVD giveaway from HRC, 2017/12/27
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Question Why, PBS POV
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 at

“Shadow World”: how American businessmen get rich selling arms to our enemies

Shadow World”, directed by Johan Grimonprez, written by Andrew Feinstein, based on his own book (“Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”) , chronicles the underbelly of corporate contractors (especially defense contractors) which allegedly sell to the enemies of the US and the west.

A highlight of the film concerns Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who was kidnapped in 2007 and who had been arrested at least twice by US forces.  The scene where he throws shoes at president George W. Bush at a December 2008 press conference in Baghdad becomes a centerpiece of the film, which for the most part is a collage of speakers with short narratives about secret dealings.

The film mentions American support of Iraq and Saddam Hussein during the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.  That caught my attention because Keith Meinhold, one of the early sailors to challenge the gay man the US military (even before “don’t ask don’t tell”), had claimed he was the “best submarine hunter in the Navy” when he served on Orion planes patrolling the Straits of Hormuz – in the days that oil supply really mattered.  (It still does.)

The film does cover some of the misleading rhetoric about Saddam’s phantom WMD’s that serves as a justification for the war in Iraq (I remember watching the accounts at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis when the “shock and awe” started in March 2003).

There is also coverage of selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to countries who have implicitly supported terror.

But selling arms simply becomes a big business career for a lot of people, making them rich.

The practice is particularly disturbing as it could have contributed to the NSA tool leaks that led to an outbreak of ransomware in some companies and hospitals last spring.

The film aired on PBS Independent Lens on Nov. 20.

Wikipedia collage pictures of Baghdad.

Name:  “Shadow World
Director, writer:  Johan Grimonprez, Andrew Feinstein
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS Independent Lens, 2017/11/20
Length:  90 (84 on PBS)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS Independent Lens, Louverture, Tricoast Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 12:15 PM EST)

 

“Almost Sunrise”: two Iraq war veterans walk across America to raise awareness of “moral injury” from combat

Almost Sunrise”, directed by Michael Collins, written with Eric Daniel Metzgar, aired on PBS Independent Lens and POV Monday Nov. 13.  The film depicts a journey of two Iraq war veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, on foot, across much of the country (from Milwaukee to Santa Barbara), to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide, and particularly with the psychological issue of “moral injury”. That concept refers to the idea that when in combat soldiers engage in behavior that would be criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible in civilian settings.

But of course one of the points of international terrorism (especially some associated with radical Islam) is to blur or eliminate the distinction and vulnerability between civilian and military combatants.

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The men gather support, including from those who find that some veterans’ families don’t get full benefits, as after suicide.   There is a home with a family of an affected veteran with a “no media” sign on the front door.

In Colorado they reach an ashram run by an unusual Catholic priesthood.  They explore some other forms of spirituality. In Utah, they go through some of the familiar scenery.

The film was funded by Kickstarter.

The film was accompanied by two shorts.  One of them, “Voices of Resilience: Insight from Injury”, by Veterans Trek and Pacific Islander.  The film presented a support group in Hawaii, where there seemed to be no VA hospital (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding). But there followed  panel discussion about the effect of a volunteer Army which almost seemed to beg the question of returning to conscription (including women, and making the now settled question about gays [don’t ask, don’t tell as repealed in 2011] and less settled issue of trans solders morally [aggravated by Trump’s tweets] relevant). The film said we have a warrior class of a small percentage of the people waging a war on terror of unprecedented length. It is also a problem that civilian citizens act as if military and foreign policy should not be their concern.

The program also presented a very short animated film “Tom’s War” where Tom visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

Name: Almost Sunrise
Director, writer:  Michael Collins, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Released: 2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/11/13
Length:  98
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Thoughtful Robot Productions, PBS POV
Link:  official PBSofficial

(Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 12 noon EST)

“Raising Bertie” examines education of three underprivileged African-American teens in coastal North Carolina

On Monday, August 28, 2017. PBS POV aired “Raising Bertie” (2016), a documentary by Margaret Byrne, about three underprivileged African American boys being educated in an alternative school called the Hive House, in Bertie County, North Carolina, near the Tarboro and the area that was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

The three young men include “Junior” Askew, whose father and brother are incarcerated, Dada Harrell, the quiet teen, and Bud, who is on parole.  The boys are raised by single moms.

When the Hive House closes (or is threatened with shutdown), the boys face going back to inferior public schools, with perhaps limited prospects of getting the attention they would need to succeed.  Junior has to repeat his junior year, which (according to the show “Everwood”) is the toughest year. But the seems to be developing the possibility of becoming a landscape architect.

Junior finally gets a regimented factory job, Bud graduates from high school before “aging out”, and Dada prepares to become a barber.

The film includes a speech to youth by Barack Obama.

There’s a great line, “You can’t live with mama all your life.”  A fight breaks out near the end of the film.

Finally the Hive House gets reborn.

The film was produced by the National Black Programming Consortium )NBPC).

There is a brief interview with the filmmaker, who is white. She says she was asked why she didn’t film “role model” star people in high school instead.  She says people need to think others matter besides the obvious achievers. But she really didn’t use race in her answer.

Name:  “Raising Bertie”
Director, writer:  Margaret Byrne
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/8/28
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV, Filmbuff, Kartemquin Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Tribal Justice”: how juvenile justice works in the sovereign native American system

Tribal Justice” by Anne Makespeace, looks at how juvenile justice works on two Native American reservations in California:  the Yorok, on the Pacific Coast near Eureka,  and Quechan, in thedesert.

Specifically, it presents two female judges, Abbie and Claudette, who deal with troubled youths (like Isaac) in their system.  They are confronted with the possibility that the state of California may take custody of them.

The independent tribal justice system tries to apply healing and resolution rather than punishment and justice.  The film makes the point that “restorative justice” could set a good example for mainstream courts.   The judges say they are well aware of the “devastation of history”.

The film presents life inside both communities.  I noticed that most of the young men seemed obese, from their natural reaction to western diets with processed foods.

The film appeared on PBS POV Monday night Aug. 21, 2017, late (10:30) after the PBS Nova coverage of the eclipse.  The film was followed by a brief director interview.

Wikipedia tribal art for Quechan.

Name:  “Tribal Justice”
Director, writer: Anne Makespeace
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/8/21
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 at 1o AM EDT)

“Memories of a Penitent Heart”: a filmmaker looks into the life of an uncle who died of AIDS in the 1980s

Memories of an Penitent Heart” aired on Monday, July 31, 2017 on PBS Independent Cuts, slightly abridged from 69 minutes to about 55.

Filmmaker Cecilia Alarondo looks at the life story of her gay uncle Miguel, born in Puerto Rico, who would die of AIDS early in the 1980s.

Miguel would change his name to Michael and live a double life in New York City.  For a while he stayed with a priest, who was OK with his being gay but who didn’t want to allow guests.

Miguel developed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, apparently conspicuously. Some doctors were afraid to treat him. The documentary does cover the attitudes during the early days of AIDS, where it was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID) and even Wrath of God syndrome. Some people wanted all infected people or even all gay men quarantined.  I remember those days of panic.

The film could be compared to the much larger film, “The Normal Heart”, from HBO, of Larry Kramer’s play, aired in 2014.

Puerto Rico scene.

Toward the end Cecilia travels on a riverboat through canals in what looks like Louisiana.

Name: Memories of a Penitent Heart
Director, writer:  Cecilia Alarondo
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS Independent Cuts, 2017/7/31
Length:  69/55
Rating:  NA
Companies: PBS
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at 2:15 PM EDT)

“Presenting Princess Shaw”: how a mashup artist helps an amateur YouTube singer become a star

Presenting Princess Shaw”, directed by Ido Haar, starts with a text tagline to the effect that user-generated content on the Internet gives potential voices to all so that ordinary people don’t have to bow down to the powerful.

Yet, we are left to wonder, what makes some artists popular and viral and eventually powerful.

The film presents a nurse, Samantha Montgomery, who built her art entertaining residents at assisted living centers in New Orleans where she works.  She writes her own songs and does a reasonable job of recording them and putting them up on her YouTube channel.  The film shows us plenty of everyday life in the Ninth Ward, years after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Negev region of Israel, Ophir Kutiel builds mixages and mashups of the works of many artists, often unbeknownst to them.  This practice, creating what is called derivative works in copyright law, is sometimes legally controversial and unclear, but very much supported by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The end result is that “Princecess Shaw” very much earns her “right of publicity”.

The film shows a lot of the tech work behind mixing, which I ought to learn in order to edit my own YouTube videos on my own autobiographical material (with Final Cut Pro).  So I guess this documentary gives me a kick in the pants.  Music is recorded and mixed in different ways, including being entered directly onto a tablet rather than through a Midi.

There is an interesting soliloquy (vertical cell phone video) where Samantha talks about being alone after a visit to distant family.  It sounds like personal growth, Rosenfels community stuff.

There’s a video with a telltale title, “Give It Up”.  Lose it.

Finally, Samantha goes to Tel Aviv and meets Ophir to put on a major show. She sings while Ophir does keyboard.

PBS did a brief director interview after the film. The director talked about passive self-promotion on the web and being found.

The POV short film was “Driven” from “Story Corps”, by Wendell Scott, in animation, about an African-American amateur race driver in the segregated South.

Negev scene.

Name:  “Presenting Princess Shaw
Director, writer:  Ido Haar
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/7/17
Length:  90 (81 on PBS)
Rating:  PG-13
Companies: Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, PBS POV
Link:  official PBS

Posted: Monday, July 17, 2017, at 11:45 PM EDT

“Abacus: Small Enough to Fail”: how New York State targeted a local immigrant cash “off the books” economy

Okay, there ought to be a moral impulse to start small businesses, especially financial institutions that can work intimately with the members of local communities.  Such was the case with Abacus Federal Savings Bank founded in Chinatown in New York City in 1984.

In 2012, prosecutors in Manhattan indicted the bank and 19 former employees for fraud regarding mortgages sold to Fannie Mae, maintaining that the bank did not properly report the risks of some consumers.

That’s the background of the new documentary film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” by Steve James.

The film takes us through the courtroom drama of the trial and jury deliberations, which almost hung. The customers tended to work with cash and “under the table” through their own social capital a lot more, so it was harder to prove resources.  In some cases “off the books” transactions didn’t get reported to the IRS.  One employee was fired and plead guilty to fraud, but the others, as well as the company, were finally acquitted.  The company maintains it did not underwrite subprime mortgages. But this was the only financial institution actually prosecuted in any connection with the 2008 financial crisis.

It was rather interesting to hear testimony about the physical placement of workers on the bank floor, as if that could add to evidence of collusion.  I was once a witness to workplace litigation where that issue was raised in a deposition.

I’ve also heard that Fannie Mae used to be a very difficult place to work in the I.T. area, especially in the 1990s.

Name: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
Director, writer:  Steve James
Released:  2016
Format:  1.66:1
When and how viewed: Landmark E St, 2017/7/5, afternoon
Length:  88
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS Frontline, ITVS
Link:   NYTimes reviewofficial

(Posted: Thursday, July 6, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

“The War Show”: from Arab spring to absolute carnage in Syria, through the eyes of a DJ

Radio talk show host and DJ Obaidah Zytoon captures the spirit of the Arab Spring in Syria in the new documentary “The War Show” by Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard (with Oqba Bouzian).  The positive beginning of the revolution is credited to social media, especially Facebook, but soon the unintended backlash (or “Blowback” (2000)) would happen.

The early part of the film is shot in super-16 (so it looks) with smaller 4:3 aspect ratio, as somewhat secular resistance against Assad springs up in cities like Homs. Assad often takes personal retribution against opponents with torture and kidnappings. In one case, a resistance fighter is denied the honor of a funeral.

As time passes, the war becomes a 3-way fight, as radical Islam enters the fight, with the gradual evolution of ISIS, setting up a capital in Raqqa. Russia enters, more or less on the side of Assad fighting “terrorists”, complicating the picture further. The film expands to the usual wide screen showing the more recent devastation as Obaidah somehow gets around to film it, despite threats to filmmakers and journalists that no one record what is happening. The life stories of a few of the more secular resistance fighters emerges, all ending in tragedy and retrospect.  There are some scenes of the venting of radical Islamist ideology when applied to civilians (especially women) on conquered territory.  There are brief scenes of boatlift escapes toward Greece.

The film was aired on PBS POV on July 3, followed by a brief QA by one of the co-producers, who emphasized that Americans do have a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees, Trump’s nationalism and isolationism notwithstanding.

Homs pictures on Wikipedia, 2011, and after civil war.

I am remined of the 1965 long short “The War Game” by Peter Watkins, of how a nuclear WWIII erupts from a sudden escalation over Vietnam. I saw it while in graduate school in 1967 at KU (before my own military service). I remember the line “I don’t want to do anything” in the devastation. Yet, as the films from Syria show, civilians are capable of a lot of resilience.  The classic BW film (belonging to Universal now) seems especially relevant given North Korea’s recent belligerent behavior, including the claim of a launch of an ICBM.

And don’t forget John Badham’s “War Games” (1983) where a kid video game fanatic almost starts WWIII, in a pre-Internet world.

Name: “The War Show”
Director, writer:  Andreas Dalsgaard
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1, 1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS POV 2017/7/3
Length:  88 + QA
Rating:  NA  (R for war violence)
Companies:  October Films, PBS POV
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 at 12:30 PM EDT)