"Ellie's Head" (Flem Films): There is more than one head in writer/director Peter Fleming's psychological horror feature "Ellie's Head." The first head belongs to Ellie (Joette Waters). It virtually bubbles over with a continuous and often nonsensical monologue. Ellie wanders the streets and alleys of Chicago, chatting to herself as she goes along, collecting souvenirs in a tote bag. Ellie's head is topped off with an unruly mop of hair and a black bowler. It is adorned by round spectacles and protected by a tattered umbrella.
The second head is one that Ellie finds in a paisley bag within a box at the riverside. Pleased with her discovery, Ellie takes the decaying human skull, which she names Henry, home with her and sets it on a doily-covered side table. Ellie converses with the head and, from the way she reacts, it talks back to her. The minimalist dialogue is enhanced by Waters' expressive face, which conveys an array of emotions and sensations.
Before long, Ellie and Henry's relationship sours. According to her, he talks back and is ungrateful. She finds ways of punishing him, but he always manages to get even. Are these things happening in Ellie's head or are they real? Pushed to the limit, Ellie puts Henry back in his box and then in the refrigerator. But Henry won't be silenced and he isn't through with Ellie. And, then there's someone else who has his own plans for Ellie's head.
Fleming's low-budget David Lynch-style technique is effective here and the shock of an ending comes as a complete surprise. Waters is wonderful, alternating between harmless psych-case and full-blown whack-a-doodle.
(Head over to the Logan Theater on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square on July 8 at 4 p.m. for a special screening of "Ellie's Head." For more info: www.facebook.com/elliesheadmovie.)
"Endgame: AIDS in Black America": Beginning on December first, at a red carpet gala in Hollywood on World AIDS Day, award-winning filmmaker Renata Simone's Frontline doc "Endgame: AIDS in Black America" presents shocking statistics, such as half of those infected with HIV each day are black. It is the story of a crisis in America that no one imagined.
Dr. David Ho and Dr. Michael Gottlieb, from the UCLA Medical Center, are interviewed about the appearance of AIDS in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and express concern over the omission of race. Early stories and images were of gay white men, but they were not the only ones infected.
In San Francisco, word spread rapidly among the gay community. But across the bay, in Oakland, it was a different story. The bridge created a division between two different worlds. In San Francisco, people were acting up, being vocal, taking action. In Oakland, people were silent, living in fear. According to Marsha Martin, it was because African-Americans didn't have "the safety of numbers or resources to have an out, active community." Because of cultural baggage, African-American LGBTs were raised to protect themselves by keeping secrets and hiding.
Of course secrecy and fear fueled the epidemic. An interview with divorced nurse Nel, a mother and grandmother active in her church, is a perfect illustration. A second marriage to Rodney, a man who failed to disclose his HIV status to her, resulted in her testing positive for the virus.
The damaging homophobia of the church led many gay men to find community in the club scene. It was a place to be among others like them, to dance, to drink, to forget their troubles. It also became a place for access to drugs.
The drug use epidemic also contributed to the rise in HIV rates with needles being shared in shooting galleries. It was the unexpected consequence of paraphernalia laws across the country. Interventions, including syringe exchange programs in cities such as Atlanta, attempt to stem the spread of HIV and some even have HIV testing vans nearby. However, the political fallout of needle exchanges creates political fallout that is too much for local pastors.
It is at this point in Simone's documentary that a fascinating coalescence takes place. Beginning with a discussion of babies born to mothers with HIV, "Endgame" traces a line from the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s to the present day. With crack promoted as an aphrodisiac, it's not surprising that crack and sex work, as a means of paying for the drug, often went hand-in-hand. Crack-related arrests and imprisonment then created a large African-American prison population. And while most people in positions of authority in the prison system would be quick to deny the existence of homosexual activity among the inmates, but a doctor, such as Earl Joyner, MD, knows differently.
Paroled inmates with HIV then return home to their wives and girlfriends, as well as male sex partners, and a new cycle of transmission begins. Because of the large number of incarcerated men, the number of available men dwindles and the competition between women is intensified. Women are then willing to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, including having unprotected sex, if there wasn't a shortage of men.
The effect of HIV on women and the importance of women being counted in the stats reached its peak in the early 1990s through a lawsuit against the US Secretary of Health and Human Services and demonstrations at the CDC, claiming "murder by omission." Because of such activism, the definition of AIDS was revised to include women's diseases, too.
Another "tipping point" occurred when professional basketball player Magic Johnson, who is extensively interviewed in the doc, came forward with his AIDS diagnosis. Still, black leaders were slow to respond. As AIDS activist Phill Wilson says, the black community "lacked the political will to nip the epidemic in the bud."
But even with the formulation of cocktail therapy, which meant adhering to a strict drug regimen, thereby changing HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness in the US, the crisis is far from over. AIDS in rural America is epidemic. In the deep South, due to ignorance and fear, distrust of the government there is a massive outbreak. The doc stresses that school systems and communities across the Deep South, adhering to abstinence-based education, are letting young people down. Young, black gay men, between the ages of 18 and 29 are engaging in risky behavior. While new cases of HIV/AIDS have dropped in other countries, they have stayed the same in the US.
Although an actual "endgame" doesn't appear to be in sight, certainly not without a serious cultural shift among African-American leaders (religious, political and social), the doc offers signs of hope. The 2011 National HIV/AIDS Strategy is one example. As Wilson says, after 30 years, it's time to start talking about an endgame.
("Endgame: AIDS in Black America" airs on Frontline on PBS on July 10. Please check local listings for time.)
"The Skinny" (Tall Skinny Black Boy Films): Gay, African-American filmmaker Patrick-Ian Polk has a track record with ensemble pieces, beginning with his debut feature-length production, the festival fave "Punks." His sophomore flick "Noah's Arc" morphed into the popular Logo series of the same name and even spawned another movie, "Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom."
In "The Skinny," five queer, African-American, Brown classmates reunite in New York for a Pride weekend of fun, frolic, floats and fireworks. The host, Magnus (Jussie Smollett), is having mixed emotions as his friends' arrival signals the first weekend he will spend apart from Ryan (Dustin Ross ), his boyfriend of five months.
But once the old gang arrives, Magnus gives them his (mostly) undivided attention. Slutty Kyle (Anthony Burrell) from L.A., virginal and naïve world traveler Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain), uptight Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) from Atlanta and lonely lesbian Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland) begin their visit with a little sightseeing, including a stop at the Langston Hughes House in Harlem. Shortly thereafter the four-day weekend begins to take a series of unexpected turns.
While searching an online gay sex site, Kyle is hit on by none other than Ryan. This is especially perplexing since after meeting online, Magnus and Ryan each supposedly took down their profiles from the website. Magnus is then faced with coming to terms with the possibility of infidelity and more. Meanwhile, Sebastian confesses to Magnus that he plans to give Kyle his "flower" (Sebastian's word) to Kyle. Joey and Langston commiserate over their single statuses.
It would be easy to label "The Skinny" a sexy (and occasionally graphic) queer soap opera, but writer/director Polk is careful not to let that happen. Sure, there is drama for (four) days, including betrayal and an assortment of sexual situations. But Polk also manages to work educational information into the entertainment. Aside from the gay literary and historical references, there are well-placed and informative (if a bit clinical) discussions of HPV, preparations for anal sex and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) treatment in regards to HIV, to mention a few.
("The Skinny" premieres on Logo on July 8. www.skinnythemovie.com)