“Summer of ’42”: Two in Isolation

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Ithaca is a town that, when I was in graduate school at Cornell University in the late 1990s, had a population of 30,000. Whatever you have heard of Ithaca’s scenery is no exaggeration. Every season, except winter, is postcard picturesque. Once snow falls, a shadow envelops the place, the sky gray as if volcanic ash were rolling forth. Ithaca doesn’t offer much for diversion nor is an escape easy; to get to Manhattan requires a five-hour bus ride. Cornell is its pulse. Either you fit in or you don’t. Social activities from parties to dining occur no further than half a mile beyond the campus, and nearly all cater to undergraduate students. One gay/lesbian club existed back then, the Common Ground, which was four miles away. This is why my friend, Jason, said that had he and I met amid the bustle of San Francisco or Manhattan, we would not have moved on after one night, but because we were stuck in the boonies, a friendship developed, fate’s way of joining two souls.

So it is with Hermie (Gary Grimes) and Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neill) – he, a 15-year-old bewildered by the riddle of love and sex; she, a war-bride in her early twenties – in Nantucket Island, off the coast of Cape Cod, awash with the tinctures of a soft watercolor. They are as opposite a pair as can be, yet they are. It is the “Summer of ’42” (1971). Dorothy lives alone and far from neighbors, in a wood cottage atop a dune that overlooks the sea. Hermie spends his days with pals Oscy (Jerry Houser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant), frolicking on the beach and discussing schemes to feel out a girl’s breasts. Hermie and Dorothy meet when the boy offers to carry her groceries. She accepts since she’s got so many that items are falling to the ground. She should have brought her cart, she says, and we question why she didn’t. It’s a long stretch from the market to the cottage. Even Hermie is panting by the end of the journey. We also question why she’s in Nantucket, how she manages to vanish the morning after their emotional interlude at the movie’s climax, and what becomes of the cottage.

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Or maybe that’s just me. From the start, Dorothy is a mystery, a dream girl who transcends reason. She’s an angel of no origin or destination, in the present for the sole purpose of acting a part in this crucial chapter of Hermie’s life. If there is a mantra for love, Hermie recites it in voiceover as a middle-aged man still in awe of this unforgettable woman:

Nothing from that first day I saw her, and no one that has happened to me since, has ever been as frightening and as confusing, for no person I’ve ever known has ever done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.

Had Dorothy and Hermie met anywhere else, “Summer of ‘42” would have been another uneventful summer, Herman Raucher would not have written the memoir on which the film is based, and I would not be writing about Jason. Not to say that Jason and I became googly-eyed lovers, but we did become fantastic friends. Our relationship started at the Common Ground. He introduced himself and chatted me up one night, then later asked me if I needed a lift home, at which I responded, “No, thanks. I’m working on the guy in the orange shirt.” When I got back to my place early dawn, a voicemail message was on my phone machine; Jason had looked up my number in the student directory. He was extending an invitation to dinner. It so happened he lived directly across Ithaca Commons, a hundred steps between us, so that for the two years that followed, he would on occasion have a view of me in my underwear and I of him at his desk. It’s a free meal, I thought and nothing else.

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Nights later, I walked up the stairs of a brick box of a building to Jason’s front door. He greeted me with grimy fingertips (from hours spent at the kitchen chopping board, I presumed) and a smile seen only in tourism ads (he was earning his masters at the hotel school). With nose, feet, and jaw as sizeable as his smile, brown hair almost black, and a complexion the shade of sea drenched sand, Jason seemed more a child of nature than a native urbanite (Jewish New Yorker).

I did not like Jason. The pad thai was delicious. The wine added a fine touch. The conversation… smart guy, he is, but in the course of our meal, combative. He had lived in Indonesia, where he trekked across the Borneo jungle and opened a diving center, operated on an injured hand during a mountain climbing accident and traveled through Asia – all this by the age of 26. A cockiness was evident so that whatever I told him of the Philippines, he contested with a smug smile. I folded my arms in fury. He laughed. I wanted to walk out, but being tipsy, I huffed my way to an armchair instead. He followed, pinned me to my seat, and that was that.

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The morning after, he asked if I was always that easy. I don’t remember my response. It could have been a snarky yes or I could have said that putting out was frugal and less strenuous than taking a trip to the drug store to buy a card, writing a thank you note, placing the card in an envelope, sealing it, falling in line at the post office to purchase a stamp, and mailing the damn thing. Jason was right. Had the two of us been in a metropolis, our meeting at a club would have led to naught. As he has told me, I was an “asshole” for brushing him off the way I did. Our stars had other plans, however. The world needs tales like Jason’s and mine, like Hermie’s and Dorothy’s. It’s precisely Jason’s commodious knowledge that I came to love about the guy. If he didn’t have an answer to a question, he never said “I don’t know;” rather, “this is how you can find out.”

When Hermie visits Dorothy on the night she receives a telegram of bad tidings, neither of them planned on what was to happen next. For Hermie, it was such a remote possibility that he doubtfully entertained the mere fantasy of it. For Dorothy, he’s a child. Nevertheless, isolation brings two together, and a connection is never more potent than in a moment of grief and compassion. She’s lonely. He’s at the right place, at the right time. The affection he shoulders for her isn’t a crush. The boy loves her. It’s meant to happen.

For our sake, Hermie grows up to tell us how this experience carries a generational significance. Never shortchange love. Never underestimate chance. With good intentions, a bond can forge with the most unlikely person in the most unlikely place.

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John Garfield: Man in the Age of the Superhero

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It used to be that GQ and Playboy were the only magazines that served as guidebooks to being a man. They detailed the art of dressing well, offered tips on gentlemanly behavior, and allowed for fancy getaways (if only through pictures and words) by means of the flashiest sports car or the sleekest jet. Mr. Hefner even provided us men the company of naked ladies airbrushed to perfection. Nowadays the selection has increased exponentially to include those that promote bodybuilding. Male movie stars have adapted to the trend. They have to or else they wouldn’t have an audience. We are in the golden age of the action movie. With terrorism in the Middle East casting a net of destruction across the globe and gun-wielding monomaniacs spitting out bullets in our neighborhoods, we need more than ever to believe in superheroes. On magazine covers, juxtaposed with lines that advertise tighter abs and bigger biceps, are the likes of Chris Evans (a.k.a Captain America) and Henry Cavill (a.k.a. Superman) in form fitting tees, their muscles on the scale of the Hindenburg. Even absent of a cape, our movie stars tout invincibility. In “San Andreas” (2015), Dwayne Johnson maneuvers a speedboat over a tsunami, lifts heavy objects underwater without the necessity of an oxygen tank, and equates landing a spiraling helicopter to a ride in an amusement park. No wonder the guy is nicknamed The Rock. He’s as solid as Mount Rushmore and as emotionless.

This is what it is to be a man in the 2010s – bodacious in musculature and unflinching in danger, a fearless Samaritan willing to plunge into daredevil situations to rescue others. It’s impressive… for Imax. As united as we are in protecting the world, we can’t know for certain what we’d do if a crackpot emerged from a park bush and pointed a .45 caliber at our picnic partner’s head. I, for one, am not equipped with Jason Statham’s karate chops. The predicament can bring out either the worst or the best in us. There’s something, therefore, to be said about old movies. While today’s actors embody our comic book fantasies, those of yesterday exhibit traits attainable on a human level, character over brawn. Name some of the greats: Humphrey Bogart, cynicism plastered on that smirk; stoic Joseph Cotten; James Stewart, the poster boy of small town diffidence; perennially nervous Jack Lemon. Disparate as their onscreen personas were, they shared one quality – nobility. Even when they lost, they walked away as winners, their lot made all the more poignant with a vulnerability that revealed itself with the inflection of a word and a wistfulness in the eyes. If there’s one I would hold as the king of them all, it would be John Garfield, the artist who brought method acting to the big screen.

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“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) introduced me to Garfield. As Frank Chambers, a lone voyager dulled by the endless stretch of the California freeway, he stops for a rest at a roadside diner, where Cora Smith (Lana Turner) – in halter top, derriere-boosting shorts, and a blonde bouffant as icy as snow on a mountain top – seduces him with a swivel of the hips and lips parted ever so softly. He must wonder what the hell this foxy chick is doing at the end of the world. Then again, that’s the West, a barren frontier that has gold buried in nooks and crannies, only this bijoux is married to a fat bore (Cecil Kellaway) who is also the proprietor of the diner. Plus, she’s got murder on her mind. The destiny of love being what it is, Frank’s arrival provides the opportunity to rid husband Nick from her life.

Frank’s a bad guy, you might say. It isn’t that clear-cut. As in every gripping story, a complexity imbues the character. Frank is not evil as much as he is flawed, an everyday man enslaved to lust. Bombshell Cora so blasts the sense out of him that he’d do anything for her and he does but with brows a profusion of sweat and face twisted in torment. We could hear his heart beat in his every breath. Poor guy has never loved this much before. He knows what he’s about to do is wrong, but it’s the only way he could have her. We often aver that we would die for love. Would we kill for love?

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This is why I am a John Garfield fan. He’s manly in the true sense of the word – features on the rough side, a blue collar cadence, and a lumberjack swagger – yet he knows how to wear a suit, and he’s got a multiplicity of emotions. He can be as timid as a kitten or as ferocious as a lion. Observe Garfield in “He Ran All the Way” (1951). He’s Nick Robey, a thief on the lam with a stash of dough. To evade the cops, he woos a girl by the name of Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters) whom he sidles up to in a public swimming pool so that she invites him to her home, where he takes her family as hostage. Surprise, surprise – the two fall for each other. But there’s a reason for this other than the mating factor on which movies capitalize. In witnessing the Dobbs’s domestic stability and with love now available to him, Nick exposes himself a rejected child robbed of a moral foundation, an injured animal that was cast into the wilderness to fend for itself.

Garfield’s own life didn’t end so well. He died at 39 of a heart attack, some say of a broken heart. His career was terminated when the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklisted him on account of his refusal to name colleagues of possible communist leanings. He had co-founded the Hollywood Canteen, which during World War II offered dancing, entertainment, and free food to American servicemen, had entertained the troops overseas, and had played a soldier in patriotic films. From Hollywood royalty to pariah, Garfield appealed to the committee to consider his numerous acts of nationalism, though he would never snitch.

This is what it is to be a man. Superheroes can do all sorts of sensational feats. They can scale skyscrapers, infiltrate a labyrinth of explosives, hang from airplanes, dodge bullets with the alacrity of a metal target in a shooting gallery. Whatever. We ordinary men have as armory no such abilities but something exceptional even so: our word of honor.

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“The Red Shoes”: Passion and Sacrifice

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Boris Lermontov: The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.

Dimitri: That is all very fine, Boris, very pure and fine, but you can’t alter human nature.

Boris Lermontov: No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.

Thus goes the decisive conversation that Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) overhears between ballet master, Boris Lermontov (Anton Wolbrook), and assistant Dimitri (Eric Berry). Page has the makings of a star. Hair the hue of autumn, skin winter white, and figure delicate as a spring raindrop, she pirouettes with the fury of a summer storm, the incarnation of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” en pointe. She has the ambition to equal her talent as well as the discipline. Lermontov knows Page is listening in the shadows, which is why he pronounces his lines with an arch of the brow and a flourish of syllables. Every moment commands drama for the impresario. Those who respond to the calling of a creative life must surrender body and soul to their art. As Lermontov says, ballet is a religion. When he first meets Page at a soiree, he tests her dedication with two questions: Why do you want to dance? Why do you want to live? “Well, I don’t know exactly why,” she says, “but… I must.” The perfect answer. The stage is her reality, the world she must inhabit to survive, and in her Lermontov has discovered a novitiate he can train to greatness like a thoroughbred racehorse.

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Some viewers might consider “The Red Shoes” (1948) an exaggeration of creative fever. This sort of existence is implausible. It goes against the grain of what we are conditioned to believe since childhood comprise our collective destiny – marriage and parenthood – the exception to the norm being the men and women of the cloak. Even then, as evidenced by the scandals that have rocked the Vatican in recent years, deprivation in the name of God of a human touch that sizzles the flesh and upraises the heart is an outrageous demand. Neither is it practical in the name of art. Consider the world’s masterpieces created in centuries past that speak to us in the second millennium and will continue to do so for millennia hereafter – from the “Mona Lisa” to “Wuthering Heights,” from the Taj Mahal to the songs of the Gershwin brothers. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/an-american-in-paris-a-song-and-dance-to-a-broken-heart/) They were all inspired by love, the singular emotion that shoots us to the heavens, there where we can color the night sky like fireworks with explosions of fluorescence. Or is art that easy to define?

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Emily Bronte led a life of solitude, her primary companions books and her sisters. No record exists of Leonardo Da Vinci as having engaged in intimate relationships with either a man or a woman. The same goes for George Gershwin. So when Lermontov says “doubtful comforts of human love,” he probably means that the angst of loneliness is sublime… it results in works that brim with pathos… and should we find ourselves falling for somebody, then it’s acceptable so long as the affair ends in tragedy. As ambitious as Page is, she is no machine that can ignore that which human nature needs. “She’s dreaming,” Lermontov scoffs to Dimitri of her performance of “Swan Lake.” The dream shatters when the object of her affection – Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the composer to the ballet fated to elevate her to spectacular heights – makes her choose between him and dance. How victorious for Lermontov that his protégé should be faced with this dilemma. She’s cracking inside. She wants Craster, but the red shoes take possession of her, impel her to dance in a frenzy of heartbreak.

This is what art is about.

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In my youthful romanticism, I fell for the film’s message of passion and sacrifice. I saw “The Red Shoes” in my twenties, in the throes of an unrequited love. The dagger in the heart was necessary for me to write tear-inducing love stories. To grind the dagger to no end, I surrounded myself with melancholy. I consumed them all – “Anna Karenina,” “Madame Bovary,” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” – both the novels and the films based on them. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/) My CD player was on a repetitious run of Frank pining for “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Ella bleeding that everyone was singing songs of love “But Not for Me.” Let’s not forget Maria Callas, she who reigns eternal as the prima donna dolorosa, a world celebrated talent embroiled in a romance that cost her career and, worse yet, her voice. I may not have understood a word of her arias, but… man… she sure knew how to drown a note in despair. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/maria-callas-prima-donna-dolorosa/)

Lest you misconstrue, “The Red Shoes” did not instigate my self-indulgence; rather, the film validated it. Self-indulgence had started years earlier when I was in college. Closeted and alienated, guys in gay bars clones of the all-American prototype of jocks and fraternity brothers, I withdrew deep into myself, sought refuge in make-believe. Here set a cycle in motion that has lasted for too long.University of Pennsylvania and Stanford degree holder, Francisco, with the flirtatious blink and a soldier’s build (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-law-of-desire-lunacy-and-obsession/); former navy man Chuck, blond and broad-shouldered; Scott of the Abercrombie and Fitch mold and who toured Israel with the bible as his guide… with them, I had a moment of heat that cooled on their end quicker than iced coffee. It has to be this way, I thought. The urgency to express oneself through art isn’t born from happiness, after all. Even Van Gogh’s “Sunflower” is a scream for happiness, not an enunciation of happiness.

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Nearly 30 years after “The Red Shoes,” “ The Turning Point” (1977) was made, another classic movie that pits dance against the doubtful comforts of human love. Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft) and Deedee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine) are friends who were promising ballerinas. While the former is now hailed as ballet’s equivalent of the pope, the latter proves with a husband and a daughter that human love is a certifiable comfort. Albeit successful with their choices, one sees in the other the life she could have had. The bond between both women is therefore tightened by a convoluted knot of enmity and goodwill, regret and contentment. Yes, being an artist is that complex, in movies as in life.

But wait a minute. Who am I? I’m not a ballerina. Neither am I Maria Callas nor am I George Gershwin. Nobody is imposing on me an ascetic existence. Most people don’t even know who it is that’s writing this. And while I will always be a sucker for a fatal romance, I’ve reached a realization that for my words to bear the weight of truth, I must know what it is to lie at the gates of Nirvana with one who loves me in return, to inhale his breath, to feel his caress as if my body were a chalice of light.

Here I go again, taking off on flights of rhapsody. What I want is simple enough: to hold someone’s hand. Art can be a collaboration with the most bromidic of happiness.

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“I’ll See You in My Dreams”: A Golden Renaissance

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From the moment of our birth, we are given ultimatums on which we are to plan our lives. We must graduate from high school by 18, from college by 22, and by 30, we are supposed to have found a long-term partner, if not a spouse. A friend has asked me how I feel about the belief that if a gay man hasn’t found a mate by the age of 50, he never will. “I don’t worry about that,” I said. “What would be the point?” For a woman, 50 is a pivotal stage. As society views feminine pulchritude to wane in a woman’s forties, come 50, she is invisible. The evidence is in Hollywood. Aging actresses wince that roles are scarcely available to them. Madeleine Stowe, Meg Ryan, Kim Basinger… the list goes on of screen ladies whose names once commanded top billing on a theater marquee and then… poof!… no more. The influx of young and talented actresses such as Carrie Mulligan and Frieda Pinto trumps experience, and when a film does require a mature actress, the opportunity is often handed to the holy grail of Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Judi Dench, although as matrons suffering either the loss or the death of love rather than the birth of it. Really, now that I’m 48, what would be the point pondering a downhill journey that awaits after the road mark of 5-0?

But that is not how life has to be. In “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), Carol (Blythe Danner) is a 70-year-old woman who had a youth of riches – beauty, a musical career, a husband, and a lovely daughter. It ended at 50 when she became a widow due a plane crash that claimed her husband. We wonder why it is 20 years until she falls in love again, yet there it is. It happens – the blushing and the coquettish bows of the head, the melting kisses and the swooning over a whisper. The wait was worth it. Bill (Sam Elliott) is a heartthrob, smooth and attentive. That he should ignite a flame in Carol in her golden years dispels all notions that romance must end with youth.

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Given their proximity in age, the two are a logical match. The surprise is in Lloyd (Martin Starr), Carol’s pool boy, a stonehead of a lost soul who’s young enough to be Carol’s grandson yet who is prone to spurts of wisdom. He is also attracted to Carol. The two bond over a bottle of wine as he takes a break from his chores, and this leads to a night of karaoke. Typical of karaoke, the performances are playful, mimicries of singing rather than actual singing, even Lloyd’s performance, aspiring songwriter the guy may be, until Carol takes the mike with her rendition of “Cry Me a River.” The way Lloyd on the bar stool looks at her, the scintillation in his eyes, that alone unbolts the portal to soaring possibilities for Carol. She’s still beautiful. She’s still worthy of a man’s touch. She can command attention from admirers both young and old.

Of course, age matters. One destiny we all share is the grave. As the years progress, an acceptance seeps in that the career we’ve been laboring over might never be and that the one who got away is gone for good. The body ails. Time grows ever scanter. All that work and hope become so tiresome that we reach a point in which we say: “Enough. This is what I’ve got. Relish it.” That’s the key factor – to relish what we’ve got. Although the future may not be the sprawling meadow it used to be, it still exists. Maybe a blindness to this is what stymied Carol from love during her two decades of grief. Maybe. She has no answer and neither do we. Much of living and dying are an enigma. When she bewails to Lloyd her lack of comprehension of the most piercing of losses, he says with complacency, “There’s nothing to get.” What a godsend it is to Carol that this kid should be there at life’s onerous hours, Confucius in the guise of cougar-bait. She is old, and the hunt for answers to the unanswerable won’t placate the years she’s got left. Sometimes, we need to relinquish ourselves to the flow of existence because things will happen regardless. It’s the only way we can rest in peace.

RS-26-croppedI went to watch “I’ll See You in My Dreams” with my 28-year-old nephew. He applauded it, commended the relationships depicted and Blythe Danner. He found her prettier than daughter Gwyneth, a testament to the agelessness of beauty. However, I wonder what reading he got from the film as well as what my own interpretation might have been were I his age today. That I am near the autumn of my years awards me the insight to write this posting with conviction rather than with analytical detachment. And as I ruminate over my life, I am amused that turning 20 was traumatic for me. I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I viewed 23 as the pinnacle of adulthood. Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Norman Mailer were literary stars at that age. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/infamous-the-high-risk-of-faith/) James Dean was dead at 24, while Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin themselves didn’t survive to 30. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/) Young as they were, they had made their mark. I wanted to be a writer, but I had no subject on which to write. Time was ticking. My first thought on the morning of my birthday was that if these 20 years went by this quickly, then the next 20 would go by even faster. I contemplated what accomplishments I could trumpet given that I had just gotten a C- in my first creative writing assignment. Answer: none.

Such is the effrontery of innocence, this incurring of expectations, the illusion that we are endowed with the superhuman capacity to fulfill them not long after the age when we have just been granted the right to drink. To measure our lives against those of others is foolish. So, too, is constricting ourselves within a time frame. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t fret over middle age. My stories and novels continue to meet rejection. That’s my youth right there. The years spent honing a craft for the reward of recognition are soon to result in a mid-life crisis of anonymity. On the other hand, I’ve always been a late bloomer of sorts. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 19, and I was five years older than most of my colleagues at the Cornell writing program. I didn’t look 30 until I was 40, and I have yet to experience a great love.

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I also continue to dream. Ultimatums aside, the half-century mark can be a new beginning rather than a dead end. As long as I’m breathing and able, the goals I’ve held on to through thick and thin can reach fruition. No doubt, I am entering the stage in which my dear elderly are starting to pass on. What a daunting thought – to be alone, those who have provided emotional uplifting… parents and teachers… gone. There’s nothing I can do other than what Carol does: when the shit hits the fan, to take a vacation.

“Pride”: The Triumph of Identity

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“Pride” (2014) is a celebration of camaraderie, acceptance, and identity. It recounts the true events in 1984 of the alliance between families affected by a miner’s strike in the Welsh town of Onllwyn and London gay/lesbian activists. The friendship between the two polar groups begins when headlines about the situation in Onllwyn cause Mark (Ben Schnetzer) to mobilize monetary support. He reasons that those who are oppressed… whether on account of their sexuality or dire wages… must stand in solidarity against their oppressors. The town is initially reluctant to accept help from people whose nature it condemns. Mark and his pals confront defamatory epithets and handshake refusals. A fellow activist, Jonathan (Dominic West), has an idea: show these stuffy townies a good time. At a meeting hall, he turns up the disco music and shakes his booty on tabletops. It works. The women let loose and wiggle away, and the men request dancing lessons. Gays and miners find a commonality in a zest for enjoyment.

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This is the underlying message of “Pride” – enjoy life. As Mark says, “There isn’t enough time,” an adage that homosexuals in the Western Hemisphere during this era took with gravity because of an epidemic that was decimating their community. He dispenses his advice to a closeted college student by the name of Joe (George MacKay), who has been lying to his parents about attending school when in truth he has been partaking in the fundraising efforts. It’s touching to see Joe, lanky with floppy blond hair and eyes sometimes frazzled, sometimes beaming, like a kid who clings onto a big brother he regards as the gatekeeper to the world. Indeed, there’s much to look up to in Mark. The guy is handsome, smart, and impassioned. He wears his gay identity as a laurel wreath, and whatever cause he advocates, he does so with the fire of a meteor. Although the ‘80s may have wreaked havoc on the lives of many gay men, a romanticism lingers over it. It was the first time since Stonewall that they marched the streets with fists in the air in a fight for their right to live.

My own identity as a gay man was budding during this decade. To this day, I envy my peers their accounts of a first sexual experience that involved a friend. A pubescent boy who puts out for his best buddy as a wager for losing a game of Trivial Pursuit, while George Michael croons “Careless Whisper” on the turntable, makes for a beautiful memory. It also enables one to believe in romance. My first time occurred at a porn arcade. En route from Manila to Boston, where I was to start college, my parents and I stopped over in San Francisco. I told them one afternoon that I wanted to explore the city. Given its blocks of gay bars and notoriety as a hustler gathering spot, Polk Street was my destination. His name was Will. He was 30-something with a shaved head, and he was dressed in red shorts and a white tank top that showed off the kind of body I had been fantasizing about ever since Nicholas Clay in “Excalibur” (1981) and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1981) heated up my betamax machine. Will brushed his crotch against my backside in a bookstore as I thumbed through X-rated man pics. I stammered for him to “ta… ta… take me… some… where.”

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I would not call excitement the feeling that overwhelmed me in the cubicle. It was a sensation of blood rushing to my head with such speed and my heart pounding with such a tremor that it seemed I was to self-combust. Light from a video screen cast a sheen on Will’s muscles. I had wanted this for a while, but I had not expected this to happen as it did. Perhaps it was too soon. Then again, there might never be a right moment. From then on, throughout college, sexual expression involved huddling in the corner of a newspaper stand to skim gay magazines and trips to porn arcades, my soul hungry for acknowledgement from other gay guys whom I encountered anywhere from the classroom to the subway. The most burning desire was the most elusive: love and friendship.

Joe in “Pride” has it good. He’s got a mentor in Mark, a family in gay and lesbian activists, and amity in Onllwyn’s people. His loneliness is with his parents. But that passes because they find out about him when his mother chances upon newspaper clippings he has been collecting on Onllywyn, Mark, and the gang. Sure, his mother is in tears and his father is in a rage. Nevertheless, the truth is out. If silence equals death, then noise equals life. Joe, in the end, is able to hold a loudspeaker to his mouth as he proclaims in open space equal rights to gays and miners alike.

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At Tufts University, I sought acceptance from resources different from Joe’s. I called the gay and lesbian hotline one evening. The mere act of pressing the numbers on the phone gave me heart palpitations. Since it was late, the phone kept ringing. I then found out about the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youths (BAGLY) from the yellow pages. Sitting in a circle as we each broadcasted our clandestine crushes, masturbatory longings, insecurities, and traumas was nerve-wracking for a kid from the Philippines, especially one who had a hard time as it was greeting hello to a stranger. Fortunately, I did have role-models in John and Danny, two campus activists. The former was Caucasian, auburn-haired with glasses, handsome in a tall, bookish way and as vocal as a presidential candidate. The latter was Asian and lean and more on the subdued side. They were visible in the quad and on the library roof, championing their gay identities and the respect for all LGBT individuals. Pink triangle buttons were pinned on their tops as they were on other members of the Tufts gay and lesbian organization, marking them as comrades of an exclusive tribe.

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It was staggering, their courage at so young an age. I wondered where they got it from. We didn’t have today’s copiousness of celebrities coming out of the closet, and the only gay character I knew of was Steven in “Dynasty,” who was far from an ideal role-model considering his mother was Alexis Carrington, prime time’s queen of conniving bitches. Although I didn’t stand beside John and Danny, the two were my saviors. They spoke for me.

Coming out in the second millennium is a different matter. The internet has driven porn arcades and gay magazines to near extinction. Chat sites furnish opportunities aplenty for the young, the confused, and the curious to connect with each other without the heebie-jeebies of public recognition. Online conversations establish familiarity. Coming out is less of a scary ordeal. At the same time, though, I lament the loss of innocence that underscored the fear of my generation. Sex was a mystery, not a boom of graphic videos downloaded onto a computer, and the knot in my throat as I cruised Polk Street was a rite of passage. Paralyzing as the experience was, it allowed for the possibility of human warmth.

Generations ultimately don’t matter. Each one gives birth to a flock of gays and lesbians who struggle to spread their wings. As “Pride” declares, to enjoy the marvels of love and friendship, we must stand up for our convictions, assert our identity. Only then will our voices echo in the deepest valleys, across the oceans, and into the heart of the most redneck of miners.

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“The Shop Around the Corner”: The Seduction of a Letter

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Letter writing was a serious undertaking. Before the advent of e-mail, this is how I spent many childhood afternoons. I savored authoring epistles to relatives overseas in America, my two closest pen pals being Tita Florence and Grandma Susan. Tita Florence was my favorite aunt. When my family had moved back to the Philippines from Japan, she babysat my brother, sister, and me. She had a voice that vacillated between girlish and womanly, with one word spoken in a high register and the next dipped down an octave. Although she was of the age in which wearing hot pants was acceptable, she had a penchant for dolls. She could be zany, as well: in a department store restaurant, she once piled paper napkins on a plate onto which I had disgorged my pork strips, then rushed us out in a state of laughter. Tita Florence immigrated to the U.S. when I was about eight, shortly after Grandma Susan, a maternal presence who spent years with each of her seven children so that she could aid in raising their children. My grandmother would write me letters on blue triple folded, air postal stationery, her accounts… as those of my aunt… concentrated on the prosaic; words of wisdom would have spoiled the fun. On my end, I never divulged growing pains because I didn’t have any; I was that carefree. Letter writing was an indulgence for two reasons: to practice my penmanship, which Catholic school had fine-tuned into a calligraphy cursive, and to share in the everyday activities of someone I cared for.

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Therein was my introduction to the seduction of a letter. I can still feel it – the anxiety for an envelope to be delivered to me that bore my name written in a hand as if it were Santa’s, and the thrill of tearing the seal once the envelope was in my grasp – exactly as it is depicted in “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), only the letters in the film carry deeper value than the recapitulations of a day. They’re about romance and poetry, aimed at leading the anonymous recipient to the altar:

My heart was trembling as I walked into the post office. And there you were, lying in box two-thirty-seven, and I took you out of your envelope and read you. I read you right there. Oh, Dear Friend… Are you tall or short? Are your eyes brown? Are they blue? Now, don’t tell me. What does it matter so long as our minds meet?

What a tricky endeavor it is when the pair of quill love birds are Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), sales attendants at a gift shop who detest each other in person. He is the head salesman. She is his new assistant. He sees her as meddlesome. She sees him as cocky. He calls her “cold and snippy like an old maid.” She calls him “an insignificant little clerk.” Unbeknownst to them, Alfred had answered Klara’s newspaper ad for a pen pal shortly before her employment.  This is the majesty of their situation – they’re in love with each other and they don’t realize it.

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75 years after the release of “The Shop Around the Corner,” we have the speediness of e-mail and online dating sites, where we impart our hobbies, biographies, likes and dislikes to millions of strangers at the click of a button. ChristianMingle.com, match.com, and ucdate.com in addition to sites that target specific ethnicities, professions, and ages… they are all over the internet. They’re a benefit to the world; many people can asseverate their success. And yet, the impersonality of black font on a white screen and single sentences typed in haste as an afterthought can never replace the soul of a letter. Take it from a veteran recipient. If you’ve been following my blog, then you know of Jonas (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/5-to-7-the-permanence-of-a-perfect-romance/), my Paris friend. Had his letters been computer generated, I would not have been able to run my fingertips on the indentations of his words, trace the flow of his script, and gaze at the ink that had streamed from his pen as he cherished me in his thoughts. His flowers would have been stock images copied and pasted from the internet rather than hand painted. Of his typewritten letters, I would not be able to admire his dedication as manifested by the cross edits and white outs, appreciate how he labored over an archaic machine just for me.

A story can itself be a love letter. I write erotica. I recently gave an anthology that contains one of my pieces to a guy I just met. I had introduced myself at a bar where he works. Since he revealed himself to be a voracious reader, I figured sharing with him an expression of my creativity would be an apt way to connect. I had scratched out a character’s name in one section and replaced it with his, and on the front page I had scrawled an inscription: Thank you for your conversation and hospitality. You made me feel at home at 440 Castro. The next time I saw him, I asked if he had read my story. He said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance.” Why would he have? Although it’s a touching piece – two frat brothers experience the exhilaration and ache of first love – I had not written it with him in mind. We haven’t spoken since other than exchanged a perfunctory hello. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-wings-of-the-dove-when-to-fight-when-to-quit/)

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Imagine what would have been had Alfred Kralik not responded to Klara Novak’s ad. They would never have discovered the virtues each possesses, spelled out on sheets of paper the weight of gold, original documents their generation would not have today’s technology to photocopy or save on a memory stick. I keep in an antique chest my own letters from Grandma Susan, Tita Florence, Jonas and so many others who have gone either due to nature’s course or a divergence in our joined path, all of them postmarked in an era that recedes further into the distant past upon each passing year.

“A Better Life”: A Father’s Love

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A son can be relentless in his criticism of his father. Such is the conceit of youth. When we are in our teens, a parent-child relationship is one-sided. It’s all about us as takers. No matter how generous the giver, we continue to demand more without a thought to the hard work done on the part of the man from whom we expect unconditional kindness. “A Better Life” (2011) is one heck of a movie that explores this father-son dynamic. Although steeped in the culture of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles, the film transcends culture. The fraught relationship between Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) and son, Luis (Jose Julian), is as palpable as seawater on a fresh sore, a portrait of sacrifice so stinging that it drains the tear ducts whatever our background.

Carlos is a single father faced with the challenge of raising Luis, 15, an impressionable age in which the boy is at risk of falling into a life of street gangs and crime. The father finds an opportunity to save his son when a friend sells him a truck complete with equipment in order for him to start a gardening business. As a proprietor, Carlos at last has a taste of the American Dream. Gone are the days of standing on a street corner, accepting any menial job a drive by offers to him at a pittance because he is an undocumented immigrant. Luis doesn’t understand his old man’s excitement. All he sees is a beat up truck and an absentee dad whose communication is limited to naggings about the importance of education. “So we could move out of here and get you in a better school,” Carlos explains of his plan. “I won’t have to work Sundays no more. We can do things, spend time together. If you want, you know.”

It is a better life. For a moment. As Carlos climbs a palm tree to admire from a bird’s eye view the foliage that surrounds him and the white houses perched on hills like pearls to be plucked, the truck in which he has invested his son’s future drives away, stolen. Luis offers assistance to find the thief, but Carlos says no. It’s humiliating enough that his business could be a flopped venture. For him to admit helplessness to his child would be unbearable. Carlos must retain his pride.

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Pride. This is one characteristic of which my own father possesses in large quantity. I’m not talking about arrogance. I’m talking about dignity. I have never seen my father cry, though one instance he might have on account of something I said, and he never mentioned a word of it. He turned his back to me instead, and not in a way that indicated rejection either. Rather, my father didn’t want me to witness his hurt. I was Luis’s age. My father had taken us – his family- to Italy, where we stayed for a month in an apartment in Como. With a rental car, we toured villas, crossed over to Switzerland, and shopped in Milan, which to me was the highlight of our vacation – a wardrobe update; Milan offered an opulence of linen, leather, and Fiorucci priced at half the American value. While in a boutique, I wanted to buy one more shirt, at which my father said no. I told him he was selfish. That was when he turned away and pretended to browse an item on a shelf. “Why did you say that?” my mother asked. “He has brought you to Italy. He has given you all this and everything you have.” She didn’t raise her voice nor was she angry. Until that moment, whenever I would upset my parents, my father would enlarge his eyes Bela Lugosi style and my mother would call me by my first name punctuated with an exclamation point, then rattle on about what I had done. This was the first time my mother spoke to me with a voice downhearted, the first time my father shielded his eyes from me and the only.

DaddySwitzerlandMy father’s pride extends to physical pain, as well, which he has had to endure on my behalf, the most telling occasion being the weekend he taught me to ride a bike. I was 12. We had moved to Walnut Creek, where we lived in the kind of house kids make origami replicas of – rectangular with a slanted roof and a garage with a triangular peak. My school attire in the Philippines had been slacks and dress shoes. In the United States, I now wore jeans, corduroys, and sneakers. To complete my Americanization, I needed a bicycle. Lessons entailed my father’s holding up the two-wheeler as we circled the street until I was able to balance on my own. The days were sunny and hot, and my father had rolled up his pant hems so that they wouldn’t snag at the spokes. On the first day, the pedals tore through his socks, lacerating his ankles. “You’re bleeding,” I said. “Never mind,” he said. Round and round we went, through heat, sweat, and blood. The next day, we were at it again. My father had covered his ankles in gauze. He simply wouldn’t quit.

When Carlos in “A Better Life” tells Luis not to concern himself with the theft of the truck, Luis insists that they have both lost something; they are in this together. Thus begins an adventure where father and son, with a shared goal, become friends. They have a riot of a time when Carlos retrieves his source of livelihood, then tragedy strikes. A cop stops them due to a broken taillight. “You asked me why I had you,” Carlos says in a climactic scene. “For me. For a reason to live.” He bows his head in apology, expresses remorse for having been a failure of a father. Luis says a line that is perhaps the rallying cry of all sons to their fathers: “You never failed me. I was never there. You were always there. Always.”

This is how it has been between my father and me through the years. Two continents apart we may be today, but he has been present in every place I have called home, my dire straits, and my all-consuming tenacity to succeed as a writer. A son can never repay his father for the sacrifice of paternal love; the gift of life is incalculable. I do have this – stories founded on the memories with which my father has blessed me, each one a declaration of my immortal gratitude.

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