Who: Charles Busch, Phoebe Legere, Penny Arcade, Austin Pendleton, David Amram, F. Murray Abraham, William Electric Black, more
What: Live concert and summit (and many other events)
Where: Theater for the New City
When: Saturday, May 23, free, 8:00 (festival runs May 22-24)
Why: Since 1996, Theater for the New City’s annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts has been a harbinger of summer, three days of multidisciplinary performances taking place in and around the organization’s East First St. home. But the twenty-fifth anniversary of the popular weekend event goes virtual because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s slowed down in the least. From May 22 to 24, the festival, whose theme is “Renaissance: Arts Alive 25,” will feature 250 participants providing music, dance, theater, discussion, and more, all for free. The centerpiece occurs on May 23 at 8:00 with “The Mt. Olympus of LES Love!,” a concert with an amazing lineup consisting of Charles Busch, Phoebe Legere, Penny Arcade, Austin Pendleton, David Amram, F. Murray Abraham, and William Electric Black, followed by a summit that attempts to answer the question “Where do we go from here?”
The three-day celebration will feature such speakers as Nii Gaani Aki, Michael Musto, Brad Hoylman, Carlina Rivera, and Candice Burridge; theater excerpts with Barbara Kahn, Anne Lucas, Eve Packer, Greg Mullavey, the Drilling Company, Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater, Nuyorican Poets Café, and others; comedy from Reno, Stan Baker, Trav S.D., Wise Guise, Izzy Church, Epstein and Hassan, and Ana-Maria Bandean with Gemma Forbes; dance with Ashley Liang Dance Company, Constellation Moving Co., Dixon Place, H.T. Chen & Dancers, Wendy Osserman Dance Company, Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, and Zullo/RawMovement; music by Donald Arrington, Allesandra Belloni, Michael David Gordon and the Pocket Band, Art Lillard, and Yip Harburg Rainbow Troupe; cabaret with KT Sullivan, Marissa Mulder, Eric Yves Garcia, Aziza, and Peter Zachari; and poetry readings by Coni Koepfinger, Tsaurah Litzky, Lola Rodriguez, Bob Rosenthal, Lissa Moira, and Brianna Bartenieff; along with puppetry, film screenings, children’s events, and visual art, all for free, although donations are gladly accepted.
Who: Lee Ranaldo
What: Online film screening and introduction
Where: Holt/Smithson Foundation Vimeo and Instagram Live
When: Friday, May 22, free, 2:00 (streams for twenty-four hours)
Why: The Holt/Smithson Foundation, which continues and expands the legacies of husband-and-wife artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, have been livestreaming rare films by and about the couple on Friday afternoons at 2:00, leaving them up on Vimeo and IGTV for twenty-four hours. On May 22, the foundation will present Holt’s The Making of Amarillo Ramp, a documentary that goes behind the scenes of the creation of Smithson’s last earthwork, 1973’s Amarillo Ramp, consisting of rocks and dirt that was meant to emerge from an artificial lake in Amarillo but is now eroding in a dry basin. Holt shot the film in 1973, but it wasn’t edited and completed until 2013; Smithson died at the age of thirty-five in a plane crash while surveying the work, which was finished by Holt, Tony Shafrazi, and Richard Serra, while Holt passed away in 2014 at the age of seventy-five. The thirty-two-minute 16mm film will be introduced by musician, composer, visual artist, writer, producer, and Sonic Youth cofounder Lee Ranaldo, who in 1998 released the experimental album Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson), which features the title track in addition to “Non-Site #3,” “Notebook,” “Here,” and a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation,” which fits in all too well with the current pandemic; Smithson was a land artist working outside, amid large expanses of deserted areas, and Ranaldo has just released a new video for “Isolation,” with footage taken during the coronavirus crisis.
Who: David Teague, Marley Mcdonald, Brian Becker
What: Zoom Q&A about Spaceship Earth
Where: Maysles Documentary Center website
When: Saturday, May 16, free, 4:00
Why: Big Brother meets Silent Running and The Martian in Spaceship Earth, Matt Wolf’s new documentary that takes on new meaning in the age of coronavirus. Currently, most of America is sheltering in place, stuck in their homes. In Spaceship Earth, which is streaming on the Maysles Documentary Center website, Hulu, and other online platforms, Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project) takes us behind the scenes of the development of Biosphere 2, the 1991 project that was supposed to be all about sustainability and biodiversity, with a crew of eight planning on living within the large dome in Oracle, Arizona, for two years, in a kind of self-imposed lockdown or quarantine. Wolf goes back to the beginning, to an avant-garde theater troupe that eventually morphed into a group of unique individuals determined to save the planet, under the leadership of ecologist, writer, activist, and engineer John “Johnny Dolphin” Allen, who founded the hippie Theater of All Possibilities in San Francisco, and moneyman Ed Bass, whose family was in the Texas oil business.
In new interviews and archival footage, Wolf introduces us to Allen, Margret “Firefly” Augustine, William “Freddy” Dempster, Marie “Flash” Harding, Mark Nelson, Kathelin Gray, Tony Burgess, Kathy Dyhr, and others who were involved in the project, which had some cultlike elements, in addition to the eight men and women who became biospherians (Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Bernd Zabe, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Roy Walford, and Sally Silverstone). Among the major influences were William S. Burroughs, R. Buckminster Fuller, and the Whole Earth Catalog. And just wait till you see Stephen Bannon enter the picture.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about Spaceship Earth is how far away 1991 seems, and how little we have learned since then. The film will continue streaming at the Maysles site through May 22; on May 16 at 4:00, there will be a live Zoom Q&A with editor David Teague, associate editor Marley Mcdonald, and archival/story producer Brian Becker.
Who: Shelby Caban, Jack Cloonan, Jennifer Lentini, Doug Housman, John Redican, Joy Oppedisano, Michael David Drucker
What: Online film premiere and live discussion/Q&A
Where: Zoom link available here
When: Wednesday, May 13, free (donations accepted), 8:00
Why: After being selected for the Queens World Film Festival, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York, the Hell’s Kitchen NYC Festival, the Point Lookout Film Festival, and many others and being named Best Documentary Short at the Big Apple Film Festival, Michael David Drucker’s Gifts of Life: Profiles in Courage from the Transplant Community is having its online premiere May 13 at 8:00 over Zoom, where the thirteen-minute film will be screened, followed by a live discussion and Q&A. The beautifully photographed work shares the stories of two women and one man who are alive today because of organ donations: Shelby Caban, Jack Cloonan, and Jennifer Lentini, who all feel an obligation to live life to the fullest in tribute to the people who donated their organs upon their tragic deaths. “There’s an uncommon level of gratitude among organ recipients. They have the utmost appreciation for their donors and for every moment of their extended life. It’s an inspiration to hear their stories of struggle and resilience,” Drucker says in his director’s statement.
They also are all giving back to society in their own ways. In making the film, writer-director Drucker (The Copper Cowboy, Inside My Life on the Spectrum) teamed up with LI TRIO and Hearts for Russ, two organizations leading the fight to increase awareness and funding for organ transplants. “The numbers for New York are horrific compared to any other state for registered organ donors,” Lentini says in the documentary, a poignant fact especially now that we’re in lockdown because of the coronavirus. The live Q&A will feature Caban, Cloonan, Lentini, Drucker [ed. note: Drucker is a close childhood friend of mine], executive producers Doug Housman and John Redican, and producer Joy Oppedisano. The event is free, but donations are accepted, pun intended.
Who: Paul Dooley, Cliff Retallic
What: Livestreamed classic silent movies with special guests
Where: Retroformat Facebook page
When: Monday nights at 10:30, free with RSVP
Why: Retroformat in Los Angeles has teamed with Flicker Alley LLC, Lobster Films, and Blackhawk Films to present #SilentMovieMondays, livestreamed screenings of silent classics on Facebook, with live musical accompaniment by Retroformat musical director Cliff Retallick, special guest lecturers, and Q&As. On May 4, they showed Max Linder’s 1921 Seven Years Bad Luck and had a talk with self-described “cinevore” Serge Bromberg. On May 11, the great Paul Dooley, the ninety-two-year-old star of stage and screen, including such films as A Wedding, Breaking Away, Popeye, Cars, and Sixteen Candles, will be on hand to talk about Buster Keaton, who will be featured in one of his all-time best, One Week, about a pair of newlyweds and their new home, as well as Cops, in which he gets in trouble with the LAPD. Dooley, who refers to himself as “a household face” and was the cocreator of the long-running children’s show The Electric Company, considers Keaton his hero; he played a Keystone cop in one of Keaton’s 1964-65 Ford Econoline commercials. Retroformat, whose “sole mission is to educate and inspire enthusiasm for the art and history of silent film,” will continue the series during the pandemic shutdown with future titles and guests to be announced.
Catalonian auteur Albert Serra’s Liberté seems tailor made for these challenging times, as so much of America hunkers down at home, sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. The fetishistic fête, which played festivals last year and is currently enjoying its exclusive virtual theatrical release via Film at Lincoln Center’s website, is a voyeur’s dream or nightmare, depending on how you look at sadomasochistic rituals and orgies. In Serra’s previous film, 2016’s brilliant The Death of Louis XIV, nearly all the action took place in the crowded bedchamber of the Sun King as he faced the end of his life. Liberté, set in a German forest, “a cursed place,” on the eve of the French Revolution, has a similarly claustrophobic feel. Both films were shot with three cameras: Serra’s technique means the actors don’t know which camera to perform to and don’t know exactly what the cameras are focusing on or which parts of their bodies are in the frame. In Liberté, this results in a dark vulnerability, especially given what body parts are shown, from afar and in extreme close-up.
For 132 slow-moving but intense minutes, we watch a cast of professional and nonprofessional actors touch themselves and one another, remove articles of extravagant clothing, perform ever-more-graphic acts of sex and violence (it’s often difficult to tell what is simulated and what is not), discuss bestiality, God and Jesus, killing, and politics, and, perhaps most important, gaze luridly at each other. In every scene, as we, the audience at home, follow the radical, vivid goings-on, at least one other character, and often more, are already in the composition, watching as well, or slowly entering the scene from the periphery, and our vision picks up the slightest motion emerging from behind a tree or a bush as we spot another voyeur, like a bug or a wild animal materializing from the darkness. At one point, a man with an extended spyglass peers around the area and ultimately faces us directly; thus, everyone knows they are being watched — we are all implicated. In addition, cinematographer Artur Tort rarely moves his camera; there are no active zooms, pans, or dollies, very little camera movement at all. Serra is not telling us what to look at; we scan the scenes individually, deciding for ourselves where to direct our attention (and what to turn away from). This is especially poignant when we are in our house or apartment on a computer, where we value our privacy and, perhaps, dabble in bits of pornography here and there, at least when our partners or children might not be around, which of course they always are now. Watching Liberté in a crowded theater with strangers would be a very different experience.
Liberté was first staged as a controversial German play in 2018 at the Volksbühne in Berlin, followed by the multimedia art installation Personalien at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid last year. The bold, daring cast, which improvises heavily throughout the film, features Helmut Berger as Duc de Walchen, Marc Susini as Comte de Tésis, Iliana Zabeth as Mademoiselle de Jensling, Laura Poulvet as Mademoiselle de Geldöbel, Baptiste Pinteaux as Duc de Wand, Théodora Marcadé as Madame de Dumeval, Alexander Garrcía Düttmann as Comte Alexis Danshir, Lluís Serrat as Armin, Xavier Pérez as Capitaine Benjamin Hephie, Cătălin Jugravu as Catalin, Montse Triola as Madam Montavrile, Safira Robens as Mademoiselle Rubens, and Francesc Daranas as the Libertine. While the women are beautiful by traditional standards, the men come in all shapes and sizes, some stunningly handsome but most not. The acts they perform will entice some viewers and disgust others; very little is left to the imagination (although there are no scenes of actual penetration).
The film recalls Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and William Friedkin’s Cruising, with an ample dose of Charles Bukowski, going well beyond Fellini’s Casanova, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and Tinto Brass’s Caligula. The costumes, compositions, and scenery, which includes a palanquin where certain more private seductions occur, were inspired by the Baroque paintings of Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard and François Boucher, lending an elaborate elegance that speaks to class, wealth, and power. Dialogue is sparse but striking. “Let me describe a scene that would be most pleasurable for me,” one man says. “Is that enough?” someone asks of a woman who cries out for more. “Finally, an image that satisfies me,” a character declares approvingly of a sight that might not satisfy you. Editors Ariadna Ribas, Serra, and Tort had more than three hundred hours of continuous footage to sift through, shot in less than three weeks, using no music till the end, the primary sounds being insects, groans, whispers, grunts, and screams. It has been intricately edited down to portray one debauched night during which no holds are barred and everyone can act as freely as they desire, societal morals be damned. We are immersed in this perverse world that grows more and more shocking by the second, exposed to tableaux most of us have never seen before onscreen – or in real life. Serra (Honor of the Knights, Birdsong, Story of My Death) is not judging anyone, and he’s not asking us to judge either, although you’ll be hard-pressed not to want to know more about the making of this ravishing, rebellious film and Serra’s intentions. To do so, check out his 2019 Q&A at the New York Film Festival and the May 3 online Q&A, although he only gives up so much.
Last week, the Professional Bull Riders hosted the first sports event in America since the Covid-19 shutdown postponed or ended stadium sports, including basketball, baseball, hockey, and others, as well as the Olympics. On April 25-26, PBR, whose latest motto is “Be Cowboy,” held its Las Vegas Invitational in Guthrie, Oklahoma, with competitors maintaining social distancing guidelines and riding in an arena with no fans. It was such a success that PBR will return to the Lazy E in Guthrie for “Unleash the Beast” tournaments May 9-10 and 16-17. You can now go behind the scenes of bull riding in Annie Silverstein’s deeply affecting debut feature film, Bull, but you will have to stream it at home rather than watching in a theater with other people.
An Un Certain Regard selection at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Bull is a gently told coming-of-age story involving fourteen-year-old Kris (first-timer Amber Havard) and the middle-aged Abe Turner (Rob Morgan), a former professional bull rider who now works as a bullfighter, the men who protect the riders as they try to stay on the bull for the toughest eight seconds in sports. It’s the fighter’s responsibility to make sure the bull doesn’t gore or trample the rider after he dismounts or is ejected, as the fighters put their own lives in danger over and over again in the course of one event.
Kris is a quiet white girl who lives with her grandmother (Keeli Wheeler) and little sister (Keira Bennett); Kris’s mother (Sara Albright) is in prison but is nearing parole. Abe is a dour black man living alone down the street from Kris. Abe chastises Kris when her pitbull kills one of his chickens. Kris doesn’t seem to care about it — she doesn’t appear to care about much of anything, walking around with a sullen look, saying little. When Abe is away at a tourney, Kris breaks into Abe’s house and invites her friends to a wild party there during which they trash the place. When Abe gets back and catches Kris there, he calls the cops. Kris’s mother begs Abe and Officer Diaz (Karla Garbelotto) to let her go. Offered the chance to make things right, she mumbles to the officer, “Can’t you just take me to juvie?” Her eyes are distant, resigned to a life she has already given up on. Meanwhile, despite the beating his body is taking, Abe is determined to keep on fighting, either with PBR or the regional black cowboy rodeo circuit. Kris starts working for Abe, doing laborious chores while also becoming interested in bull riding herself. Abe has no intention of turning into a mentor to her, but soon they are forming an unusual bond, two lonely souls in desperate need of real human connection.
Expanding on her award-winning short Skunk, Silverstein has created a tender, moving tale that subtly reveals such issues as race, opioid abuse, the prison system, and parental neglect in rural America. Silverstein wrote the script with her husband, Johnny McAllister, after more than five years of research, including getting to know the men, women, and children living in such communities as Acres Homes outside of Houston and the athletes participating in local rodeos. She had previously spent ten years working with children in her native Seattle, which helped her define the character of Kris. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner glides between intimate, handheld shots and the explosive excitement of bull riding, filming in such locations as the Old William Johnson Arena in Egypt, Texas, and the Roy LeBlanc Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma.
Professional bullfighters Demetrius “Teaspoon” Mitchell and JW Rogers served as consultants and appear in the film, along with pros Devonte Toler, Tyler Travis, Cody Tesch, Nate Justice, and Lucas Teodoro; most of the cast are nonprofessionals in their first film, including Havard, who was discovered in a school cafeteria and beat out a thousand other girls for the part. She has an extraordinary screen presence, so modest and genuine that you will want to reach into the screen and shake her out of her character’s malaise. Morgan, who has appeared in such television series as Stranger Things and Daredevil and such films as The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Just Mercy, is edgy and boldly sensitive as the uneasy, unsettled Abe; the two actors avoid cliché as their lives become unexpectedly entangled.
On May 3 at 4:00, Silverstein, Havard, Morgan, and producer Monique Walton will participate in a live Q&A moderated by Gamechanger CEO Effie Brown, focusing on the film itself as well as the history of black rodeo communities; you can register in advance for free here. To find out more about bull riding and bullfighting, please check out the annual twi-ny talks I’ve conducted with PBR stars over the last five years.