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The best films you can't see: Ernest & Bertram is the latest in a series of acclaimed queer films banned from public view because their makers stepped on some famous toes. (film).

In January, Peter Spears's short film Ernest & Bertram was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival. Less than six months later, the short would be banned and destined never to be screened for an audience again. He might have guessed that outcome, though. For Spears's clever project--a retelling, in eight minutes, of Lillian Hellman's classic play of unrequited gay love, The Children's Hour, using the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie--was made without the permission of Sesame Workshop, the organization that owns the copyright to the characters and produces the long-running TV show.

"I expected that they would have a different point of view," laments the filmmaker. "I felt it was protected under First Amendment freedom of speech parody, but I understand that they have to protect their copyright. When they served me the cease and desist, I didn't have the energy or financial resources to fight it."

Ernest & Bertram was a smash at Sundance, but the ensuing flurry of attention and media interest was Spears's downfall. After the short screened at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., Sesame Workshop's lawyers lowered the boom, and Spears pulled it from the Cleveland Film Festival, with the understanding that the movie would have one final public outing at Outfest, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival, in July.

Spears is no stranger to courting controversy through short films. He produced the 37-minute movie Scream, Teen, Scream, a Jackie Beat and Alexis Arquette comedy, without getting permission to use the song "Love Roller-coaster," which is featured heavily both on the soundtrack and in the dialogue of the film. Again Spears was met with legal threats over its exhibition. How did he overcome them? "You just do it without getting the clearance," he says.

He certainly had some illustrious predecessors. Todd Haynes, director of Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and the upcoming Far From Heaven, launched his film career with the short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a much-acclaimed retelling of the singer's life utilizing Barbie dolls and original music by the Carpenters--used without permission; it was taken out of circulation by Richard Carpenter himself. And Lilies director John Greyson's classic short The Making of "Monsters," which reworked Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" as an anti-gay-bashing anthem, was yanked off screens by the Weill estate. So incensed was Greyson that he was inspired to make the 1997 feature Uncut about themes of censorship.

And the banning goes on outside the United States too. While toy giant Mattel didn't seem to mind about Barbie and Ken being used in Superstar, it has been less forgiving of Argentinian filmmaker Albertina Carri, whose recent lesbian short Barbie Can Also Be Sad was pulled from a film festival in Mexico as a result of legal action taken by the company. The Barbie ban hasn't reached the States yet--it screened at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June.

So why do so many shorts get into trouble? "For a short film to get shown, it has to go really far to get special attention," explains Christine Vachon, the renowned producer of Haynes's films who helped him with Superstar and gets a special thank-you on the film. "Superstar was clever, well-done, and provocative in a way you were going to remember. You can't deny that Todd has tremendous compassion for Karen Carpenter in the film, and Richard Carpenter jumped to the conclusion that the movie was making fun of his sister when it wasn't."

Haynes had, says Vachon, "no idea" that he would incur the Carpenter family's wrath when he crafted his labor of love over two summers at college. Nor did he realize that Superstar would bring him his first taste of global fame. "The film has legendary status," adds Vachon.

Marcus Hu, copresident of Strand Releasing, which owns the rights to Scream, Teen, Scream, confirms that banned films continue to spark interest on college campuses and via bootleg cassettes. "They've already had their festival life and exposure," he says. "After they are banned, these forbidden shorts take on an underground life of their own."

Such notoriety will ultimately give Spears and Carri a better shot at making it into features than many other makers of short films. "The publicity about the legal problems has changed everything for my career," says Spears. "I did it as a calling card, and now I'm on the radar."

"Just go ahead," he advises other aspiring makers of shorts. "If you start seeking out all the obstacles ahead of time, you'll never make it."

Goodridge is U.S. editor of Screen International.
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Article Details
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Author:Goodridge, Michael
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 23, 2002
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