September 16, 2013

Up on Lavender Hill

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Consider Lavender Hill as a needed counterpoint to Glee, Modern Family and other mainstream films and television shows that feature out and proud LGBT characters. While the creators and financiers behind these shows deserve (and have adequately received) praise for representing a long-neglected chunk of the population, aren’t these representations fairly one-note? Some gay men are flamboyant and fashion-minded, yes, but not all — not even half of them. In this sense, Lavender Hill, with its moving and honest documentation of LGBT life, past and present, should hit any sensible human being like a clarifying tonic.

In this 26-minute documentary, filmmakers Bob Hazen and our very own Prof. Austin Bunn, performing and media arts, resurrect a slice of unsung local history that could hardly be more relevant today. This lovely little film looks at a commune that thrived in the ’70s, just 15 minutes south of Ithaca on a wild patch of land in West Danby, NY. The commune, named “Lavender Hill” after its abundant flora, housed a self-sustaining population of gay men and women, a pairing former resident Mitchell Karp now remarks was “quite unusual” for its time. There, they enjoyed a hedonist lifestyle that involved drugs, music and “love fests” (Yvonne Fisher, another former member, admits the current nomenclature would call “orgies”), challenged by punishing winters and the austerity of such an isolated environment.

Cutting between 8mm home videos shot by Sunny Bat-Or, a resident who passed in 2001, archive footage, contemporary interviews and B-roll of Lavender Hill today, writer-producer Bunn and editor-cinematographer Hazen ground their story in LGBT history yet prioritize the humanity of their subjects over any politics or polemics. Opening with a quote from author Larry Mitchell — “Romantic love, the last illusion, keeps us alive until the revolutions come” — and billed with the lowercase subtitle, “a love story,” this film takes interest in the time before anything resembling today’s current LGBT landscape. Back then, the lives of those who sought their peers and nature for a comfortable existence skirted somewhere between fantasy and tragedy. Some of their problems were humorous inconveniences — the winters were so cold and the outhouse so far away, that “people burned shit” on the stove — and romance faced its universal obstacles, such as infidelity. But others overwhelmingly discriminated against gays and lesbians, like when Lazar Mintz, the twin brother of surviving member Zelik, perished of AIDS in 1988. It was his death that marked the end of Lavender Hill; the real world demanded their return. The past is past, so what makes this documentary special is how Hazen and Bunn inform the lives of the members today with what happened all those years ago. For one, closing subtitles clue us in to what they’ve done with the time since Lavender Hill: Zelik Mintz is a psychoanalyst in New York City, and David Hirsch co-founded Ithaca’s Moosewood Restaurant, co-owned by fellow member Ned Asta. Near the end, Yvonne Fisher, today a psychotherapist, wonders aloud whether she regrets not marrying a man and having children. She then pauses before speaking, with a measured calm, about how Lavender Hill taught her to embrace her own identity, with its set of atypical but conducive norms. The many close-ups, particularly those of Fisher and retired Ithaca real estate broker Allan Warshawsky, capture both the grace and hard-won life experience that the years on Lavender Hill instilled in its members. Today, these men and women may not look like or act in the manner of most LGBT icons in pop culture, but they carry the screen nonetheless. They stand for nothing more than themselves, which is all one person can stand to bear.

Prior to Lavender Hill’s Thursday screening at the Schwartz Center, I spoke with Prof. Bunn — who also co-wrote the Sundance hit Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe — about what he learned from his work. When asked about the precarious conditions these commune members lived in, he turned the question onto me, and I will, in turn, pass his questions onto you.

“Can you imagine building a house with your best friends, right now? They were you. That was part of it, building a house, believing you could live off the land. The downsides? The winter, burning your own shit to survive, discovering that your friends have limitations as to how much they can cope with you. There are things that were pretty hard for those people. Communes have cults of personality and they have centers, and in this experience there were two guys who fell in love who were the parents of the experience, and their breakup split the whole thing apart.

“One question that has been on my mind is, could this happen again? I think your generation, the millennial generation, has all the energy and wherewithal, but is way too technological and media-oriented to give it up. Could you live without your phone?”

Lavender Hill will accompany Bryan Horch’s award-winning short Spooners at the Film Forum in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, and Bunn, Hazen and former commune members will conduct a Q&A afterwards.