Movie Review: Pride, directed by Matthew Wurchus

The very essence of the movie Pride

The very essence of the movie Pride

They called her the “Iron Maiden” for good reason. She was the toughest politician in a male-dominated world–and perhaps feeling she had to overcompensate as a woman–she felt the need to be tougher than her male counterparts.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

Perhaps no one felt the wrath of Margaret Thatcher’s steely resolve (some might say steel-heartedness) more than the the British coal miners and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). After Thatcher’s government announced its immediate plans to close 20 of the nationalized coal mines and its future plans to close 70 more, the miners walked out on strike.

The strike lasted a year, a hard and violent year, with Thatcher’s government not blinking and the miners returning to work, having lost much of their substantial political, social, and economic clout. For many, her dealings with the coal miners defined her.

The film Pride, directed by Matthew Wurchus and written by Stephen Beresford, plays out against the miner’s strike, already nine months in progress.  At a Gay Pride march in London, gay-activist Mark Ashton gets the idea that since oppression is oppression no matter what, and if Maggie Thatcher has her steel boot on the necks of the miners’ union, then the LGBT community–which knows something about oppression itself–should step in and lend its support. And so the organization, “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” is born.

Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in the film Pride

Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in the film Pride

The unions did not want their help.

And so, the London gay community–rebuffed by the officials of the union– brings it support and it funds to a little Welsh mining village instead. There is tension, lines are drawn among the villagers, and there is also some great fun as the the more open-minded villagers get to know their visitors from London.

Pride is a comedy with a social awareness. There is drama with villains and heroes, with domestic and social conflicts, with intolerance and the haunting shadow of AIDS and Thatcherism. But it is, nevertheless, primarily a comedy, the type of comedy that comes about when two incongruous groups come together.

For instance, there is a scene when a dozen of the Welsh villagers come to London to attend a benefit concert–The Pit and Perverts Benefit–which succeeds in collecting a huge sum of money for the miners. After the concert, the villagers accompany their hosts to a variety of gay clubs and discover–and giggle–at much of what they learn. It is comedy straight out of The Full Monty but instead of strippers we have the gay community.

The benefit concert features Bronski Beat, and is indicative to how great–and fun–the soundtrack is. From protest songs to disco numbers, from Billy Bragg to the Communards, from the powerful union song “Bread and Roses” to Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk.” The music is essential, and it captures the excitement, the power and the heartbreak of the times. (The Communards’ poignant song “For a Friend” was actually written for Mark Ashton who died of AIDS shortly after the events of the film took place.)

Miners supporting the LGBT

Miners supporting the LGBT

Pride is a fun and a “feel-good” movie. It opts for lightness rather than heaviness, although there is a heavy cloud blowing in, which we feel the effects of in the final credits. But it is a fine gesture in defiance of Thatcherism. (In my opinion, the film Brassed Off may be the best look at the devastation that Thatcher’s policies wreaked on the coal miners and their families. Peter Postlethwaite’s speech at the end of that film should be shown in every government/history/social science class.)

But Pride doesn’t have to be Brassed Off.  It doesn’t need to have a heart-stirring speech.  It is what it is–a  sweet film that is provocative without being preachy. And it does what it does well. It doesn’t hit you over the head with its message, but we know the message is there all the same. And it’s an important one.

Fish and Chips, an AIDS Memorial, and celebrating the court’s decision

Fish-and-Chips at the Irish Times in South Philadelphia

Fish-and-Chips at the Irish Times in South Philadelphia

A neighbor, a exuberant fellow from County Tyrone, told me about a new pub down in South Philly. It had, he claimed, the best pint in the city and fish-and-chips that were extraordinary. And so I made my way to the Irish Times. I’m not sure about the pint–I prefer my local’s–but the platter of fish-and-chips could have fed a family of four.

But there was something very familiar about the pub from the minute I walked in. Behind all the soccer regalia, the scarves, the jerseys, the posters, I recognized the place from an earlier time–it had a very odd, unique but familiar, two-level set up. Of course, I had been there before in an earlier incarnation, when it had been a good Italian restaurant. I had been there for Nick B.’s memorial.

By the early 90s, I had been to three AIDS memorials. All three were great celebrations and deservedly so. They celebrated the lives of three very special, very creative people. Nick B. was a graphic designer in the advertising agency I once worked in. In fact, he was often my graphic designer–or to be more exact, I was often his copywriter. He was kind and witty and funny and very talented.

When Nick contracted AIDS, he deteriorated quickly. The last time I saw him was about a week before he died. By then, he weighed about 70 pounds and had difficulty breathing, but still he tried to comfort us and keep us at ease. He still managed a smile, or maybe it was a smirk.

Before he was in too bad shape, his parents had come down to visit him. He had had two things he wanted to tell them: first that he was gay and second that he was dying. How long had he wanted to tell them? how long had they already known? how sad is that whole scenario—for all of them?

Anyway, a month after his funeral, his partner threw this wonderful party, a memorial to Nick. In a very real way, it was a joyous event, with many good people–his family and friends–celebrating a life well lived.

And now, once again, I was standing in the very space.

Memories came back slowly, not only of that night, but of Nick, of working with him and laughing with him.

So two days ago, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and with its two rulings gave married gay couples federal footing and paved the way for California couples to resume marrying. It was a great day for people everywhere. And a great day for people like Nick. Because now there is less reason to hide who one is, less reason for young men and women to feel that they are outside the pale.

Maybe this is the first large step in a much larger acceptance… maybe soon no man or woman will have to wait until they are dying to tell their parents who they really are.

It is a day to celebrate.

Lisa Kirk, left, and Lena Brancatelli react to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage ERIC RISBERG / AP

Lisa Kirk, left, and Lena Brancatelli react to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage ERIC RISBERG / AP

Photo: PETE MAROVICH/MCT

Celebrating the Supreme Court’s Rulings
Photo: PETE MAROVICH/MCT

Movie Review: Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe 

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.

Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”

Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.

A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.

The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.

“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.

It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .

We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.

By the way…

The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

https://i2.wp.com/media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/192x/85/cf/f1/85cff11fb5bb99780ab77c77af4861d9.jpg

Andy Warhol at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball without a mask.