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Conversations With Killers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The centerpiece of “Outfest Retrospective: Arthur Dong,” at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, is Dong’s award-winning documentary feature “Licensed to Kill” (1997), in which Dong confronts seven convicted killers of gay men. Dong, himself a victim of a gay bashing, places his interviews within the context of archival material pertaining to the cases and the steady flow of anti-gay messages in the media disseminated by the religious right. Not surprisingly, most of the murderers clearly are poorly educated and none too bright, and several report having been molested in their childhood by gay men. Several show remorse for having killed but stick to their homophobic views. By far the most intelligent and reflective of the killers is Jay Johnson, who has one white parent and one black and whose preacher father has always vociferously condemned gays. Johnson talks of growing up in a white community where he met sexual rejection because of his skin color, which compounded his self-loathing on account of his own homosexuality. “It’s very bad to be unsuccessful at what you hate,” says Johnson, who is HIV positive and whose inner conflicts erupted in a lethal rampage directed at gay men.

“Licensed to Kill” screens Friday at 7 p.m., and screening tonight at 7:30 are two delightful Dong films, the 56-minute “Forbidden City, U.S.A.” (1989) and the 14-minute “Sewing Woman” (1982).

From 1938 through 1962, the Forbidden City nightclub was a San Francisco landmark, featuring elaborate production numbers and specialty acts. It was like many such successful clubs of the era, except for one crucial difference: it featured Chinese-American entertainers.

Dong’s documentary on the club is composed of interviews with many of its performers and enriched by rare archival footage shot inside the club, vintage recordings of its singers and even clips from the Hollywood films in which they appeared. Dong’s film brims with nostalgia for a more glamorous and innocent show-business era yet is a commentary on racial stereotyping and the insidiousness of discrimination. The handsome and vigorous array of Forbidden City veterans, now in their 60s and 70s, first had to persuade their often chagrined families that they were serious about entering show business and then had to persuade potential employers that Americans of Chinese descent could actually sing and dance. For most of them, the late Charlie Low, the Forbidden City’s proprietor, was the man who gave them their breaks.

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When Forbidden City performers toured, as they did during the club’s World War II heyday, they admit they were confounded by the rigid segregation they encountered in the South and were perplexed as to where they fit in. In any event, the Forbidden City, which became a casualty of the North Beach topless clubs and other social changes, was one of the few venues open to Chinese-American entertainers. Charlie Low’s alumni see themselves as Americans first and foremost, and Dong’s film preserves their place in our show-business heritage.

Derived from oral histories, “Sewing Woman” tells of a Chinese-born seamstress and her odyssey from an old to a new culture. It begins in her then war-torn homeland with an arranged marriage at 13. Then emigration, with a baby son left behind in China, not to be reunited with his family for a decade. And finally a full, happy life, resonant with family pride, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film is based primarily on the life of Zem Ping Dong, who is seen at work, in home movies and in family photographs.

Outfest also screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. Josef von Sternberg’s classic “Morocco” (1930) with cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich and Foreign Legionnaire Cary Grant. (323) 960-2394.

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The “Looking to the East” series continues at the Goethe Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, with a 7 o’clock screening tonight of Gerd Kroske"s 1994 “Vozkal--Bahnhof Brest.” The film is a remarkable evocation of the brutal tides of 20th century history that have swept over Brest, Belarus, along the Polish border, site of a vast train station that has long been a vital checkpoint between East and West. The ancient city was the site of key battles in both world wars, and the aura of war hangs over the site as Kroske deftly interweaves vintage newsreel footage with interviews of some individuals with haunting stories. There’s the Russian who survived German concentration camps only to return home to 6 1/2 years in Stalinist camps for being suspected of being a spy or an anti-Soviet agitator simply because he chose his native country over the U.S. Then there’s the young Russian soldier without family who, now that the Red Army has disbanded, has no home awaiting upon his return from service. And then we learn of a Russian World War II soldier, a medaled defender of Brest, who lies down on a station track in an act of suicide, calling attention to the desperate poverty of many brave veterans. Finally, there is the group of German war veterans, returning to the scene of a great defeat that cost their division 10,000 lives. Kroske, from the former East Germany, does a superb job of pinpointing a locale in which the confluence of geography and history has caused so much suffering and hardship. (323) 525-3388.

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LACMA’s glorious “Berlin Between the Wars” series continues Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., with a restored version of F.W. Murnau’s 1924 classic “The Last Laugh,” with live musical accompaniment by Robert Israel, followed by Percy Adlon’s 1996 “The Glamorous World of the Hotel Adlon.” In the first, one of the most famous of vintage films, Emil Jannings is unforgettable as an aging doorman at a grand Berlin hotel--not unlike the fabled Adlon--who is destroyed when he is demoted to restroom attendant.

Such a cruel demotion would have been unlikely at the Adlon, for the surviving employees of Louis Adlon Sr. speak only of his kindness, gallantry and courage in Germany’s darkest days. This grandest of grand hotels was built in 1907 by the self-made Lorenz Adlon, a master cabinetmaker of French descent from Mainz. The story of the Adlons, crammed with enough romance and tragedy to make a miniseries, has been told by Louis’ grandson, filmmaker Percy Adlon, with his characteristic wit and charm. His film unfolds from the point of view of Louis Jr., a handsome playboy and occasional actor who married Marion Davies’ elder sister Rose and was dispatched to Berlin by William Randolph Hearst with the end of World War II. Louis Sr. and his hotel survived the war only to be destroyed needlessly by the Russians. Confronted with the destruction of the Adlon--only recently rebuilt--and the death of his father, Louis Jr. was inspired to write a series of remarkable dispatches, which constitute the one break with his pursuit of pleasure.

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With infinitely more imagination than money, Percy Adlon has summoned a vanished world of incredible splendor, playing interviews against a glittering collage of archival material; in non-speaking reenactments, Percy’s son Felix stands in for his Great Uncle Louis Jr; Eva Mattes, no less, is Louis Jr.'s lover Pola Negri. This is one of Percy Adlon’s finest.

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Saturday at LACMA brings the immortal “The Blue Angel,” with Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich (who was brought to the attention of Jannings by Louis Adlon Sr.), and Ilona Ziok’s illuminating and poignant “Kurt Gerron’s Karussel,” which premiered in November in the International Jewish Film Festival. A famous stage and screen comedian and character actor and a major cabaret artist of Germany’s Weimar era, Gerron made more than 70 movies. In “The Blue Angel” he played the seedy music hall promoter-magician who bluntly orders an indolent Dietrich to “get out there and sing.” He is best known today as the director of “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City,” the infamous propaganda documentary on the Theresienstadt concentration camp that depicted it as a humane establishment when in fact it was a place of fear and starvation. Gerron, who had founded his Cabaret Carousel at Theresienstadt to cheer up his fellows prisoners, only made the documentary with the false promise that it would secure his freedom. (323) 857-6010.

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The Laemmle Theaters’ “Documentary Days 2000" continues at the Sunset 5 on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. with “Circus Redickuless,” a tedious account of the meanderings of a would-be punk circus; it also screens Friday and Saturday at midnight at the Sunset, and repeats March 10 and 11 at the Monica 4-Plex at 11 a.m. Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., (323) 848-3500; Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.

Pedro Almodovar will appear Friday at the Lloyd Rigler Theater at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., where his “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989) followed by “High Heels” (1991) will screen as part of the American Cinematheque’s “Recent Spanish Cinema” series. (This event is sold out.) The Cinematheque will be presenting a new 35mm print of the road-show version of “The Happiest Millionaire” (1967) Wednesday following a 7 p.m. discussion with the film’s composers, Richard and Robert Sherman, and some cast members. (323) 466-FILM.

Gough Lewis’ “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story,” which opens Friday at the Sunset 5, recounts how Singapore-born USC student/porn actress Grace Quek had sex before the cameras with 251 men in 10 hours, but his subject proves elusive. Quek is clearly very bright, but she is far more convincing as a rebel against her conservative native culture and a tireless self-promoter than as some sort of radical feminist. Quek, who adopted Annabel Chong as her nom de porn, talks a lot, but we’re left wondering how well she knows herself and also with the feeling that she remains defined in her own mind by her fleeting notoriety. Some brief X-type moments, much blunt language. (323) 848-3500.

Tina Valinsky’s “Soft Toilet Seats,” an inept and meandering attempt to combine romantic comedy and murder mystery, is one of the worst films to receive commercial release in the last decade. David Alex Rosen, Alexa Jago and Sammi Davis star; the film opens Friday at the GCC Fallbrook 10, Woodland Hills, (818) 347-6091; and the Los Feliz 3, (323) 664-2169.

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