Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lazy Sundays: The Sessions

Cheryl Eddy's contribution to the Bay Guardian's Year In Film issue published yesterday makes it sound like it's already happened, but the 73-year-old Bridge Theatre hasn't closed yet. It closes tonight, with a film I didn't have much initial interest in seeing but felt compelled to take a look at after learning it would likely be the last hurrah for one of Frisco Bay's few remaining single-screen cinemas. (That's assuming no other operator might want to take the Bridge over after Landmark departs tonight; an assumption questioned in this sfgate article). I liked it so much I plan to go back for the final show tonight; it's not a perfect film (it doesn't make my own just-published list of 2012's best commercial releases, but it would be a close runner-up. And I can't think of a better current film to close the curtain on the Bridge, which I attended dozens of times, at first to see modern "tradition-of-quality" films like the German sub movie Das Boot (my 1st Bridge excursion), but made my most enduring memories loyally attending Peaches Christ's midnight screenings of cult films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Carrie, and Showgirls. The film playing tonight includes a wonderful sequence tributing the midnight movie- specifically the Rocky Horror Picture Show and its live-casts that still carry the midnight tradition today, even if Peaches no longer stays up that late. 

I'm being coy about the title of the film (pictured above) because all this is an extended introduction to a piece by my friend (and new twitter followee) Adam Hartzell, the #1 Bridge Theatre fan I know, who rather than getting all melancholy about his favorite theatre closing, has decided to move forward and redouble his commitment to other Richmond District/Laurel Heights area theatres. And to mention the name of the film playing tonight would spoil a bit of the poetry of his opening paragraph. Here's Adam:

The sign was on the marquee, bellowing the supposed perks of the wallflower weeks well after the film's initial release. Something foreboding was afoot. Then we saw the same perks pitched week after week with no new release on the horizon.  We heard the rumors and this was a neon sign of the coming cine-pocalypse that The Bridge would soon close. And the time has come.
I am bummed.  I regularly attended screenings at The Bridge as part of a self-devised independent theatre adoption program.  I did my part.  But I am but one cinephile with only so much disposable income.  As a result, I will no longer be able to walk a few blocks to The Bridge.  Thankfully, this being San Francisco, I still have options.  I will now jump on the 38 if it's coming, or walk if it isn't, in order to head down to the 4 Star Theatre on Clement or travel further to the Balboa Theatre on its eponymous street.  Sometimes, I'll head in the opposite direction to catch something at The Vogue.  I have consistently patronized these theaters as well, but now I will attend even more screenings than I did before.  My adopted theatre has left me.  It's time to move on to others.
In fact, with my wife having to work Sundays at her new job, I've decided to make Sunday a fairly regular movie-going tradition.  This tradition will be a regular jumping off point for an occasional feature here at Hell on Frisco Bay - Lazy Sundays at the 4 Star or The Balboa or The Vogue.
And an inaugurating lazy Sunday it was.  The air was misty from the typical Richmond District kinda-rain streaking the streets, windows, and my glasses as I walked (the 38 wasn't coming) to the House of Bagels for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese and sat for a spell to nosh the bagel at Argonne Playground.  After I finished my bagel, I walked to the 4 Star as an escape from the wet weather.  I casually conversed with the ticket-taker as I purchased my small buttered popcorn and small ice-less root beer.  (Independent movie houses rely on a significant percentage of their income from concession sales so I always concede to purchase something along with the ticket.)  The inaugural edition of this tradition found me watching The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) along with a fairly respectably-sized audience. 
The Sessions, as you likely already know due to the Oscar buzz around Helen Hunt's 49 year-old nudity, John Hawkes' Oscar-baiting embodiment of able-bodied disability, and William H. Macy's long-haired priestly-ness, is a film based on an article on sex and disability written by the late Berkeley poet and journalist Mark O'Brien.  This was a topic close to O'Brien's heart, and other body parts, since he himself was disabled by polio as a young boy and lived much of his years in an iron lung, an impediment to developing a considerable sex life.  O'Brien was able to use his mind to write poetry and act as a journalist.  He required the assistance of care-givers to propel him to visits to Catholic confession and secular reporting assignments.  One of those assignments was, as mentioned above, on sex and disability, a 'door-opening' that enabled O'Brien to confront his situation-imposed virginity and the emotions tied up with his sexual longings.
When I came out of the theatre, I was happy in spite of the gloomy weather.  The film was a joy to watch and it left me with hope for the world.  I highly recommend catching it.  But as the film rumbled around in my head, I began to find myself disappointed in the film.  So if you haven't seen The Sessions, stop reading here.  Go and experience the joy the film brings before I possibly ruin it for you.
First, something somewhat positive about The Sessions: it does more than the average dramatic film where one of the lead characters has a disability.  My remark about the Academy of Arts and Sciences privileging able-bodied folks further by rewarding their taking of disabled roles with Oscar nominations is a bit of snark, but that snark is fueled by the frustration that Hollywood rarely provides substantial roles to the Disabled.  As much as I wish they'd made an effort to enable a lead role for a disabled actor, I do appreciate that they seemed to be aware of this less than admirable track record and provided considerable screen time for at least one visibly disabled actress in the film, Jennifer Kumiyama.  The Sessions is an improvement on opportunities for disabled actresses.  In the same vein of more representative representation, Bay Area folk will be happy to see a film about our region that actually includes the casual everyday diversity that motivated many of us to come out here before everyone started claiming they were an entrepreneur. 
Now for the buzz kill.  As much as I enjoyed Helen Hunt's role, my cynicism can't help but wonder if her Oscar-worthy-ness has to do with her being an older women who is often naked in the film.  (Her character is a sex surrogate, so nakedness comes with the job.)  It's as if she's being rewarded for disrobing so late in life.  She's gorgeous and it's nice that Hollywood is slowly starting to realize that older women are beautiful too.  Yet as much as this celebration of almost-50 nakedness, The Sessions contradicts this tale of unshackled bodies by its refusal to challenge another aspect of American puritanism. One would expect a movie like this to be willing to show a little penis if it's so sexually liberated, but even The Sessions makes cuts in order to prevent a little pecker from poking its way through the diegetic frame.  Such censorious constraints limit the impact of what might have been a much more powerful reflection of our bodies, ourselves.
And the films penis-less-ness is what makes an otherwise decent film a disappointment as it sticks in my mind days after watching it.  But that is part of my movie-going experience and that wider experience did not disappoint.  Being in the 4 Star's main theatre with other patrons laughing, smiling, and tearing up is part of the pleasure in the collective experience that is cinema-going.  I don't get that on my computer screen.  But my computer screen can let me know how to get there, to a theatre near me.