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Knight at the Moves: Bill T. Jones: A Good Man; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-09-21

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By all reports, Fondly Do We Hope … Fervently Do We Pray—the Abraham Lincoln-themed dance piece by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company that debuted at Ravinia in 2009—was a wildly mixed bag, an overstuffed mass of good and bad. However, that's not the case for the creation of dancer/choreographer Jones' complicated work, as seen through the viewfinder of directors Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn in their documentary Bill T. Jones: A Good Man. It's brilliant.

The Ravinia Festival commissioned Jones to create the piece to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial; the cameras follow him from the beginning of the process up to the work's debut, as he is seen pacing backstage when the lights dim. At the outset, months earlier, he arrives in downstate Springfield for a tour of the familiar Lincoln sites. Jones, an African American, is visibly moved by what he sees and he speaks passionately about the heavy burden of trying to incorporate the complexity of his feelings about Lincoln, including the president's place in history, into the work.

After a period of research with Janet Wong, his associate artistic director, the work begins. In rehearsal, Jones equates the Black struggle for equality with same-sex marriage and immigration, and with a profundity that is part of his everyday discourse comments, "All that I humbly ask is that I be allowed to participate in a world of ideas." (Interestingly though, especially in light of Jones' own queer artistic identity, Lincoln's purported gay sexuality isn't one of them.) As we watch Jones wrestling to pull together the different pieces—creating the steps alone in improvisation (captured on video by Janet Wong, his devoted number two), offering input to the composers, directing the actors and ruminating on the importance (or lack thereof) of the piece at hand—we are privy to a commanding figure who is powerful, magnetic and deeply sensual.

"Bill's a fire," Wong says at one point, and we see what she means when Jones doesn't get what he's looking for from his dancers and musicians. However, he's not a screamer or a diva (at least not that we can tell)—just an artist with high standards who rightfully expects the same level of commitment from his fellow artists. "I'll be a story that they'll tell at dinner," he remarks about members of his own company with razor sharp insight, "But I'll be vivid."

The film doesn't offer a lot of Jones' own background (which one hungers for), veering instead into a mini-tribute (with marvelous clips of past performances) to Arnie Zane, Jones' lover and dance partner who died in 1988. Also, we see the resulting Lincoln piece only in tantalizing segments as the finishing touches are put on the work at Ravinia and snatches of the actual performance. However, those are quibbles. In examining this enigmatic artist, Hercule and Quinn have created a mesmerizing portrait of a great American artist—and a queer one to boot. This film is highly recommended.

The film, produced by Chicago-based Kartemquin Films is having its premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Friday, Sept. 23. The filmmakers—along with cinematographer Keith Walker, editor David E. Simpson and members of Jones's dance company—will be present for a post-screening discussion moderated by Ravinia Festival President Welz Kauffman following the 7:45 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27 screening. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

Of related interest: Self-described "social architect" and filmmaker Cleo Manago has produced the thought-provoking short film I AM A MAN: Black Manhood & Sexual Diversity in the Black Community, which documents a town-hall meeting in Harlem organized and presided over by Manago, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other panelists familiar with the topic of African-American gender politics. The 36-minute film raises interesting questions about the stereotyping and marginalization of Black men (including celebrities) in both straight and gay culture through the use of archival footage and the lively, insightful discussion of the participants. The film can be watched for free online at vimeo.com/27859721 and is available for private organizational screenings and discussions by contacting Manago at cleomanago@gmail.com .

More queer artists: Two disparate but altogether entrancing movies that focus on gay artists are now available on DVD/Blu-ray. Bill Cunningham New York, one of the year's most delightful documentaries, is a portrait of the artistic and energetic New York Times fashion street photographer/society chronicler that is out from Zeitgeist. In addition to the delightful film, the disc has a slew of wonderful extras—deleted and extended scenes, an essay booklet, etc.—that further illuminate the elusive personality of its energetic subject.

On an altogether different level is queer icon Jacques Cocteau's sumptuous and mystical 1950 effort Orpheus, the auteur's variation on the classic Greek myth that has been released in a stunning new edition from Criterion. The film stars Cocteau's one-time lover and muse Jean Marais as the poet who travels to the Underworld in the company of Death (personified by the beautiful but icy Maria Casares). The film, a triumph of the French cinema, has long influenced gay artists (including the Smiths and Pet Shop Boys) and has been meticulously restored and comes with a raft of extras, typical for Criterion.

Film notes:

—The Boys in the Band, Hollywood's first (1970) mainstream look at male gay culture and the subject of the recent documentary Making the Boys (debuting on DVD this fall) will have a rare theatrical screening on Sept. 23 at the Gene Siskel, 164 N. State St., as part of its series focusing on movies set in apartments. www.siskelfilmcenter.org

—Oak Park PFLAG is presenting a documentary film series focusing on issues pertinent to the LGBT community on Sunday afternoons in October in the Veteran's Room at the Oak Park Public Library (834 Lake Street, Oak Park). The 2:30 p.m. screenings are free and open to the public. The line up includes Gen Silent (Oct. 2), Bullied (Oct. 9), Getting Out (Oct. 16) and concludes with two short films, No Dumb Questions and Just Call Me Kade (Oct. 23). Historian and film buff Doug Deuchler is the emcee for the screenings which are being co-presented by Oak Park PFLAG and the Oak Park Public Library. Phone the PFLAG Council of Northern Illinois at 630-415-0622 for further information.

—Early warning: The Chicago History Museum's year-long exhibit Out in Chicago teams up with Roosevelt University to present Beyond Brokeback, a celebration of the LGBT 2005 classic Brokeback Mountain. The daylong celebration includes a 2 p.m. screening of the Oscar winning Ang Lee film followed by a 4:35 p.m. panel discussion with makers of the movie and a 5:35 p.m. staged reading with music of messages, essays and poetry that have been inspired by the film. The event takes place Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Further info: 312-922-2110. Advance tickets available at www.ticketmaster.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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