Delusions of Grandeur, wowed the sold-out audience (which included yours truly) at its Hollywood premiere on June 1st as part of the independent film festival Dances With Films. Now in its 15th year, DWF encourages aspiring auteurs and the indie spirit with the mantra "Dream BIG or go home!"
The no-budget, endearing Delusions of Grandeur is the odyssey of Lulu, a rebellious young woman struggling to come to terms with her long-absent mother's mental illness and her own resultant clinical depression. Lulu's home life has grown stifling despite the presence of her gay kid brother, so she rents a room from the transgender Illusion in San Francisco. It is there that the disparate parts of her life as well as her yearning for love begin to find completion. Delusions of Grandeur boasts an equally hilarious and sensitive screenplay by Almaraz and her guest director/production designer Gustavo Ramos, excellent performances by Leana Chavez as Lulu and Salvador Benavides as Illusion (full disclosure: Reverend's partner, James Jaeger, also has a brief but poignant role in the film), a catchy song score, and some fun, psychedelic visual touches.
Prior to the DWF premiere, Almaraz and the openly gay Ramos chatted with me over banana cream pie martinis at Reverend's rectory about the five-year effort to get their labor of love to the big screen. The pair met while attending college in San Francisco and they first and foremost consider Delusions of Grandeur "a love letter" to the City by the Bay.
"We wrote (the film) to all our friends there, to all the people who touched our lives and opened their hearts to us," Ramos says. "It's also a modern-day coming of age story, from a female point of view."
"For me," Almaraz shared, "the film is about falling in love with yourself. I feel like each character needs to learn to love him- or herself, and I think to fall in love with yourself is what makes you fall in love with someone else."
The character of Lulu and her plight are based to some degree on Almaraz's own experience as a child raised by a schizophrenic mother. Almaraz lived in motels, missed years of school and was forced to participate in her mother's shoplifting ring. She was subsequently in and out of juvenile hall and, as a young adult, worked as a phone sex operator. Almaraz today believes that "making films and telling stories about people living on the fringe of society is not an option; it's a calling." To this end, Almaraz, Ramos and producer Joey Mendez have established a production company, Jezebel Pantry.
"I never say no, that's my problem," Almaraz laughingly states when talking about some of her prior productions, which include a documentary about dominatrixes. "When I got there, I thought it was just the process of a dominatrix getting dressed and then they said, 'Oh, later on we're gonna do some piercing, do you wanna film that too?' and I said, 'Hell, yeah!"
Ramos, who was raised in Mexico but went to school simultaneously in both Mexico and the US, has a similar passion for society's outsiders. In particular, he contributed personal insight into the transgender community, gained primarily through a romantic relationship Ramos had with a trans woman, to Delusions of Grandeur. "I had a lover that was transgender, a male-to-female transgender," Ramos revealed. "Her name was Barbara, and a lot of the character Illusion comes from her story. Comparing my journey as an artist and as a gay man to their journey, their journey was much more difficult and they had so many more obstacles."
"I love transgenders," Almaraz concurred. "I first lived in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and to me their plight was so much more than my own and I was like 'Who am I to bitch and complain?' These women were doing it with style and grace and 'f--- you' to anyone else who has a problem with it. I was like, 'Oh, I want to be f--- you too!' Style and grace, I already had that (laughs)."
Although Ramos is today in a 9-year+ relationship with another man, he admits: "I always kind of wrestled with my own masculinity as a gay man. Being with other men, sometimes you succumb to one (extreme) more than the other and I always felt kind of insecure about my masculinity. With Barbara, it was solidified within me that I was a man."
One of the artistic and moral strengths of Delusions of Grandeur is the respect with which it treats its sexually-diverse characters, another of whom is a straight, married transvestite. Almaraz, Ramos and all involved are to be commended for this, especially when their film is compared with another being shown at DWF, the woeful Blissestrasse. Set in Berlin, this English-language satire by Paul Donovan documents the travails of a group of evangelical Christian missionaries being led by a Bible-thumping, closeted gay pastor. Though the film is nicely shot, few if any of its characters and their motives have any credibility, and its graphic sex and Pastor William's overripe dialogue will also put some off.
Other GLBT-interest films being screened at DWF before the fest's June 7th conclusion are The Olivia Experiment, Face 2 Face and a retro sci-fi melodrama musical, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X. For more information about all of these offerings, visit the Dances With Films website.
Delusions of Grandeur: B+
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.