Monday, 15 July 2024

ESCANDALOSO!

Jordan FIRSTMAN & Sebastián SILVA

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It’s somewhat rare to get even a sniff of reality from public figures, let alone a fully-fledged, feature-length tour through their psychoses, addictions and darkest foibles. But that’s exactly what internet sensation Jordan Firstman and film director Sebastián Silva give us in their new cinematic adventure: a ketamine-fuelled cruise through Mexico, where the cast fucked off camera nearly as often as on, and the lines between fact and fiction are ever so blurred. For the following story, they swap clothes on a Provincetown beach and some time later engage in several three-way calls between Sebastián in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, the interviewer in east London, and lovestruck Jordan in the capital of Germany.

From Fantastic Man n° 37 — 2023
Text by DOUGLAS GREENWOOD
Photography by JACK PIERSON

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In those hazy, mid-pandemic days, award-winning Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva had lost faith in the craft he’d successfully dedicated the previous decade of his life to. Back in 2009, he’d released a low-budget social-realist comedy called ‘The Maid’, a film that propelled him to the kind of notoriety and artistic freedom that writer-directors desire. It won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to earn him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

That success meant that, in the 2010s, he was one of a handful of high-profile directors — think Noah Baumbach, then actor-writer Greta Gerwig and the late Lynn Shelton — making offbeat indie movies. Michael Cera became a regular collaborator, working with him on ‘Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus’, and big-hitter Sony Pictures bought the media rights to his strange psycho-drama ‘Magic Magic’. Then it felt like studio Hollywood — which had always been risk-averse but had still found places for films made on more modest budgets — stopped making the effort, unsure of how to market these films to audiences increasingly interested in superhero movies. The year 2017 made movie history when the ten highest-grossing films of the year were all sequels or remakes, among them movies like ‘Despicable Me 3’ and a live-action version of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It trickled down. In 2018, Silva’s film ‘Fistful of Dirt’ had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival but failed to find distribution. Wider audiences were starved of the chance to see it.

Disillusioned by an industry that made it near impossible for films like his to reach a wider audience, he packed up his things and moved from Brooklyn to Mexico City. There, he painted; his work was a collection of abstract, cartoonish, often grotesquely homoerotic oil paintings. Those works have since been exhibited by the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York and the OMR Gallery in Mexico City. Slowly, he started contemplating what his next project might be. A chance encounter in a park with one Jordan Firstman helped crystallise the idea for their new film, ‘Rotting in the Sun’.

Jordan, now 32, had been having issues of his own. Having written screenplays and worked as both a story editor and a producer on shows like ‘Search Party’ and ‘Big Mouth’, he’d been trying to get his own projects off the ground. When he met Sebastián, he was better known for his bout of success as a to-camera impressionist on Instagram. Previous targets included “a British woman who is consistently bored at events” and “a nepo baby who was forced by the internet to do another job”. Thanks to those clips, he racked up close to a million followers — today he’s both grateful for that audience and begrudging of the way he made a name for himself (he’s semi-retired from the impressionist game but often has to return to it “for work”). He and Sebastián bonded over that shared sense of disdain at how creating original storytelling — and getting it seen — had become such a difficult endeavour.

The result of their meeting is what they both call a “miracle”: a Hitchcockian K-hole class satire called ‘Rotting in the Sun’ that feels like the kind of film no Hollywood exec would have the nerve to touch. Sebastián returned with Jordan to the Sundance Film Festival to present it in January, and it sent audiences into a spin. ‘Screen Daily’ called it “in-your-face”; ‘Pajiba’ said it was “chicken soup for the sodomites”. Perhaps that’s because it makes incisor-sharp jibes at the very people who made it; perhaps it’s because it features, on more than one occasion, unsimulated public gay sex.

There are more than a few parallels between Sebastián and the down-and-out, ketamine-addicted protagonist of his film. Set in Mexico City and shot predominantly in the director’s own apartment, it follows Sebastián, a suicidal filmmaker and artist who, tired of his craft and trying desperately to escape it, leaves the city for a gay haven by the coast, carrying with him a copy of philosopher Emil Cioran’s ‘The Trouble with Being Born’, a book of scepticism and despair. There he meets Jordan, an oversharing online influencer convinced he has a great idea for a TV series, on a nudist beach. What ensues is a sweaty and unnerving cinematic bender about the trappings of queer ecstasy and our generation’s mind-numbing sense of narcissism.

The rest of the cast — composed of Jordan, Sebastián, and Sebastián’s friends, including architect Mateo Riestra and artist Martine Gutierrez — all play deeply unflattering, self-absorbed versions of themselves. “It’s a movie with no heroes,” Sebastián tells me. Jordan concurs: “It’s a messageless movie, too. You will take from this movie what you want to take. It will not tell you how to feel about anything, but it shows you everything.”

Queer cinema once felt inherently rebellious, but as its makers have assimilated into the mainstream, its visceral impact has mostly been tempered. Gay storytelling has been embraced by the same studios that once rejected it: swooning adaptations of contemporary queer fiction — think ‘Heartstopper’ and ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ — are finding their audiences via Prime Video and Netflix. But they’re love stories more than anything. Romance is in, while gay misery and explicit sex are out. Showing the latter, particularly to a slightly more prudish audience, is akin to an act of aggression. But it is, as ‘Rotting’ shows, also an act loaded with liberty, laced with self-consciousness and full of fun. The film isn’t weird; even its sex scenes are beautifully fluid and matter-of-fact. Sebastián might not be a cinematic anarchist — his narrative eye is too clear for that — but his work serves as a reminder that queer cinema should not be saccharine or sanctimonious; that to rid it of its carnal edge is to strip it of its queerness altogether.

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This is Jordan Firstman.

SEBASTIÁN — Happy birthday, Jordan!
DOUGLAS — Is today your birthday?

JORDAN — No, it’s my birthday week. But at the last screening we did, I made the entire audience sing happy birthday to Sebastián, and at the end I told them his birthday is actually in April. At our next screening, I’m going to get down on one knee and propose.

Go ahead!

We’ve been together a lot recently, so we need to keep things fresh somehow. We actually just spent our first time travelling together. We were both really shocked — it was fun.

We departed being, like, “I think we’re friends now!”

We were in Paris only a week ago. I took Sebastián to his first fashion show: my friend Louis-Gabriel Nouchi’s. He behaved himself.

Jordan was so scared I was going to come in a mask or clown make-up.

He said he wanted to come with a Michael Jackson mask on!

D — Do you pay attention to what people wear in different cities or countries? Is there a place where you feel like people dress the best?

It’s so hard. In the last couple of years, it feels like, because of the internet, every cool scene dresses exactly the same. Rave wear, the loose bottoms with the tight top, all of that stuff. I was talking to my designer friend this week and I’m, like, “Fashion is over. There is really nothing more we can do!” In 2021 and 2022, everything was pulled from culture that could be pulled. They’re, like, “What is something that a normal person would wear in said culture and how can we put a $500 price tag on that?” And it happened with every subset of culture; people were digging deep into every micro niche of everything. Workwear, sportswear and even basic office wear have all been kind of taken now. So I’m just wearing a hoodie.

D — Do either of you think fashion is fickle?

I don’t know if it’s more or less important than, say, painting — because it’s about visuals, proportions, colours and composition as well — but the one thing with fashion is how seriously they take themselves. That part is what makes fashion so corny to me: that they think it’s actually that important. Most of the attitudes of models on the runway, fashion ads, some fancy magazines, and how a girl is sitting in a weird position looking very sad and skinny. There is a self-seriousness about fashion that makes it counterproductive for fashion. When it comes to a form of art, if you cannot laugh at yourself, it’s a sign of unintelligence to me. That’s why fashion sometimes gives me this feeling that it’s dumb — because of how serious they are.

D — Jordan, you said you think fashion is over.

I think culture in general is over, and it happened really fast. All of these conversations about AI — it’s all leading to this thing that we can’t really imagine at this point. I haven’t seen an image that I thought felt new in about a year, because AI can’t go into the future. It can only pull from the past. So when I say culture is over, I feel like we’ve hit a point where we can only reference things from the past. Frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. It’s making me really depressed. I really can’t think of a new sound that I haven’t heard, a new image, a new look, a new story.

D — Well, I found the film so much fun, but it also made me hugely depressed about the state of our universe.

I love that it made you feel sad about the universe. It’s really a letter to everybody who’s feeling rotten, you know? It’s a very existential movie.

D — I read that you had the idea of making a misanthropic film because the world’s burning.

It’s something we live with every day. We check the news and half the world is under attack and the other half is starving, and then we are the few that are just laughing at memes on Instagram. It’s hard not to feel like shit. That’s why the movie is attacking myself and the people around me: because we’re part of the problem. We’re so profoundly selfish that we don’t know how to solve it. The 50 people in the world who can make changes need to have a heroic dose of LSD and realise they’re being selfish.

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And here is Sebastián Silva.

D — Sebastián, before you made this film you had moved from Brooklyn to Mexico City. You were looking for a new project and painting at the time, and while you were there, you ran into Jordan at Plaza Río de Janeiro. What were your first impressions?

Technically we’d met twice by that point, but Sebastián didn’t remember. I tried to play it off as if we had never met before. I was hooking up with this guy and he hated the world. Sebastián’s movie ‘Crystal Fairy’ popped into my mind randomly. We watched it; he liked it. The next morning, he goes to walk his dog and asks me to meet him at Plaza Río de Janeiro. I arrive, and he’s flirting with Sebastián. I had no idea Sebastián lived in Mexico City. When I went up to greet the boy I was sleeping with, I pretended not to know Sebastián, because I was so embarrassed that it would come up that we watched his movie the night before.

It’s like I was subconsciously looking for him. I was already writing this movie, and I didn’t know this guy would be exactly what Jordan is in the movie — an influencer. We had dinner, and you were hilarious. You didn’t let anyone at the table talk. You talked about your story, your relationship with fame. You were very unhinged and asked very private, sexual questions. I was both terrified and fascinated by you. After you left, I kept writing, and I thought, “What about Jordan playing Jordan?”

He called me two months later and asked if I wanted to do the movie. I knew he wanted to make fun of me. I was down for that — I’ve always had a masochistic thing. I think you could agree with this, Sebastián. It’s part of my personality. I play hard, so I can kind of get made fun of, but then I get hurt when I’m made fun of. Would you say that’s true?

I would 100 per cent say that’s true. Even by looking at his videos, you can tell that Jordan knows how to laugh at himself. The team of the movie was mostly people who are really good at laughing at themselves. They’re rotting in the sun. They know that what we do is so meaningless, and yet we still do it.

We say it as an adjective for something now. Like, “This is so rotting.” The fashionshow was so rotting. Doing an interview for a fashion magazine? Rotting!

We asked everyone in the movie to play the worst version of themselves. That included myself, because I do read Emil Cioran and I have had a death wish, but I’m not that asshole!

It’s true, he’s pretty fun. Even Sebastián’s trope of the suicidal artist… People have been attracted to that forever. It’s the sexiest thing. People find Sebastián really sexy in this movie.

People are really upset that I didn’t show cock. Everybody’s cock is in this movie. I remember having this concern before making the movie, like, “Are people going to think I have a microdick because I don’t show my dick?” I wrote a scene in which I’m listening to Solange and I’m looking at myself in the mirror, caring about my bald spot. It’s a very sad moment. I showed my cock in that scene, but then my editor was, like, “What is this sequence?” It made no sense.

The Solange aspect is pretty brilliant. No one’s ever made fun of a character by showing them listening to Solange, but it’s so specific and real.

D — In the film you meet each other on a gay nudist beach. Talk me through the logistics of finding it and figuring out how to shoot there.

I’d been going there for the past couple of years. I went for the first time in 2019 or 2020. When we shot it, it was my sixth time there.

It was the most beautiful scenery. A lot of our friends were there, and a lot of naked hot guys you could hook up with after shooting. It was fun! My friend Pedro used to live there, so he was our fixer. All the people you see having sex in the movie are guys that he cast. We told everyone at the beach, “We’re so sorry we’re making this movie.”

I’d fucked most of them by that point. Also — and I’m just being real — if you ask a gay person if they want to be in a movie, 90 per cent are going to say yes. Naked or not.

S — We were with our kind.

D — I find those enclaves of gay culture so interesting — places where you can witness gay men acting completely uninhibited.

You take sex away from gay people like, they did in the beginning of the pandemic, and they will spend the next five years just having sex. It’s like in the movie too: Americans just came in and gentrified the fuck out of this place. We don’t name the actual beach town, but a lot of gay people know. It’s real and complicated, because it brings a lot of business there but it’s also a problem. My character represents the problem; I’m the gringo of the movie who comes to gentrify Mexico.

D — What part of being gay is overrated?

The culture, I guess. Right? The thing of sticking together is a bit antiquated at this point. I don’t think we need each other as much as we did, so the fact that we’re all still obsessed with having these solely gay spaces… I hate, hate, hate when a gay bar doesn’t let women in. I think it’s so cringey and so corny. The exclusionary part with women I really don’t like. I hate feeling like I don’t have a good enough body to be desired by gay people, which is a thing.

We’re all supposed to be into drag queens. I don’t watch that at all. I find it very unamusing. It seems like it’s an across-the-board gay thing, and I’m, like, “Why?” I don’t know. And even the word gay is overrated. It’s used very irresponsibly. The other day, I was upset about IndieWire calling this movie a “gay movie”. It’s very reductive and it really works against what we’re working for. Why do you call a fucking thriller in Mexico about suicide a gay movie? Don’t use “gay movie” to qualify my thriller, man.

D — Jordan, are you the first person to have gay sex on camera and work on a Disney project in the same year? Do Disney and Marvel, the makers of ‘Ms. Marvel’, know about it?

I have no idea. They’re such a fortress. They invited me to the premiere, I did my little red-carpet photos and that was that. But a big reason why I really wanted to do it was because I knew I had ‘Rotting in the Sun’ coming out, so I wanted to see if I could get away with having both. It’s not just a Marvel show. It’s the most family-friendly Marvel thing you could ever think of. I like my performance in that show. I think I’m pretty funny in it. ‘Rotting in the Sun’ is definitely more in line with what’s in my soul and how I live my life, but I am family-friendly! During the pandemic, my Instagram impressions were what I was doing mostly. I was leaning into a more palatable vibe, even though I still was a depraved, drug-addled sex monster.

‘Rotting in the Sun’ is a family film. And a Christmas movie.

Nobody talks about the fact that it’s a Christmas movie!

But also it sucks that we have to justify: “Hey, Jordan can also do other stuff!” I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses some job opportunities for being fully naked and sucking cock in a movie, but it only shows how stupid the world is. There were very few actors who would allow themselves to be filmed doing that, but I don’t think it’s a weakness; it’s an asset that Jordan can do a Marvel project for teens alongside ‘Rotting in the Sun’. Think of a sex scene with two hot straight people in an HBO show: they show the side of her butt and her boob, and they’re both looking fresh out of Equinox gym. That’s more problematic than gays having an orgy, because you’re setting up standards of beauty. There’s so much more trauma and dysmorphia that stems from those HBO shows than from porn on Pornhub.

D — Did the semi-autobiographical elements make this shoot feel therapeutic?

Every time I show the movie, people are actually concerned about me. They’re asking me: “Are you okay? Are you going to kill yourself?” The answer is I am okay and I won’t kill myself, but I’m also exposing something. This is not an all-made-up scenario. I’ve definitely had suicidal thoughts, and I’m reading a philosopher who is known for his appreciation of suicidal ideation. You can’t avoid having people genuinely think that I’m a ketamine addict with suicidal tendencies. There’s a whole other, sunnier side of me that’s not shown in the movie, but it’s something I keep telling myself to never do again: to shoot films where I live, with my own pets. But I can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. There is a therapeutic and cathartic side to this movie for all the players involved.

D — It’s alluded to in this film that you can have creative ideas that seem profound and important, but Hollywood isn’t hugely interested in hearing them anymore.

You find your peers as you grow older. When you’ve been in your field for a while, you start learning who you should collaborate with. A lot of opportunities go down the drain. They could be big opportunities, but you know they’re going to ask you to blur the dicks or cast a hot 31-year-old as a 54-year-old. You start learning who you align with artistically and philosophically. You cannot work with most of Hollywood, because it’s always a remake, or a politically correct boring movie that’s telling leftists what they already know. There’s not much room for truly challenging content in which the people making it are also nervous and insecure. That’s where the good shit is.

I’ve been trying to make my own TV shows for nine years, and I’ve sold three of them in that time, but they haven’t gotten made. So, any time I really put my whole self into what I want to do, it’s too edgy for the system, or too specific. I get to this point in development where the executives love it, but then they don’t make it. Miracles have happened, though: the internet is one and Sebastián was the other. I get these lifelines, and they allow me to show what I can do. I haven’t done a fraction of the things I want to do in my career, because I’m a writer first. But ‘Rotting’ was definitely a dream project for me.

‘Rotting’ was a bit of a miracle for me too. We did everything we wanted with it. I put my friends in it. Jordan was doing whatever he wants. People responded to it, and that’s a very good way to get the right people to reach out. It’s opened up minds and eyes.

If the movie is talked about in a way that money people deem successful, then movies like this will get made.

D — Do you care about blockbuster movies?

It’s case by case, right? For instance, there’s ‘Avatar’, which is a huge franchise, huge budgets, but the scripts seem well-intentioned. They’re talking about ecological disasters. They’re at least trying to come with something slightly philanthropic. And ‘Avatar’, to me, is such an incredible display of new technologies. I find that director to be a genius, not so much for the stories he’s telling me but for the things he gets done. So I’m a supporter of that, and I’m a supporter of ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’. I don’t know how much money that movie cost. Then the Marvel Studios movies: you just wonder how we got there. Really, I just don’t understand it. It feels like every Marvel movie is the same, but the superhero is wearing a different costume. How those movies are enticing to an audience will remain a mystery to me.

D — What do you watch if you’re not watching blockbusters?

I keep track of new stuff coming out. I watch a lot of true crime. Whoever is a decent, known director, I will watch his movie: Paul Thomas Anderson, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke. Any decent arthouse filmmaker. I watch YouTube stuff, like people passing out on slingshots. Also, weird AI-generated videos. I’ve been watching a lot of AI-generated content, like “Danny DeVito water balloons” or “Biden and Trump eating spaghetti” or “The Rock drinking water”. And animal documentaries, and animation. I keep track of new animations, whether it’s a Pixar movie or the Spider-Verse or just new cartoon shows.

D — Are you afraid of AI?

Personally, I’m not. We were having this conversation yesterday with fellow filmmakers and creatives, and one of them was actually very afraid and freaked out. I’ve enjoyed the content that has been created with AI just because it’s so completely full of flaws and bizarre and uncanny. I’m, like, “What the fuck am I even looking at?” It’s so alien and weird, which is the early stages of the technology. I’m sure it’s going to get better and then we’re going to miss these sorts of eccentricities. I understand that there are a lot of writers out there that maybe could be replaced by AI, and it’s really a terrible scenario because they have to pay rent and they have families, but the reality, from what I have seen just being 44 years old, is that when the internet came, everybody was, like, “What the fuck?” And all of a sudden we couldn’t imagine our lives without it.

D — Jordan, you’ve been in Europe all summer. Do you like it here?

I’m happier here than I am in America. My boyfriend lives in Berlin, and I like being with my boyfriend more than not being with my boyfriend. LA really just weighs on your soul, and you don’t realise how one-track-mind it is there and how much you could lose yourself in the hustle. Then you leave and you start to feel so much better, and then you don’t want to go back, and then you’re, like, “But I need to go back for my career.” I’m trying to figure out a way to just be in Europe more and then just hopefully work in the States. The big con worked on most of the world: America made everyone believe that you couldn’t make it unless you were in America, so everyone wants to live there. But then when you get there, you’re, like, “Oh, this is all a fallacy.” It’s not even worth it in the end. And actually, the place you’re trying to get keeps moving higher and higher and higher.

I just moved back to LA after two years in Mexico City. I came here with the intention of actually being isolated, which LA is perfect for. It’s backfiring a little at times where I’m, like, “Did I want to be this alone?” But it’s picking up. Luckily, I already knew people here. I’m painting. I set up a painting studio in the backyard, and I’ve been preparing for a show that I have in Mexico City, and I’m having studio visits with LA galleries. I just paint, hang out with my dog and go to dinner with friends.

FANTASTIC MAN - Jordan loves fashion; he even walked for his friend Louis-Gabriel Nouchi’s Spring 2023 catwalk show, wearing a dressing gown and not much else.

D — Do you like LA culture? Do you feel like it has a culture?

There are so many pockets of different people. In LA you have the chance to curate your social life more than in New York or in Mexico City, because in those places, as soon as you walk out of your house, you’re exposed to so much. In LA, you walk out of your house and you’re exposed to an empty street and some trees. And LA is always mentioned as a place where the entertainment business is all over the place, and people get very tired of showbiz talk, but my friends are similar to me and have similar sensitivities and tastes. I love movies, and I love to talk about movies. I love to talk about photography or storytelling or production even. It’s not something that I’m annoyed by in the least. I’m bored of talking about celebrities and agents, but that’s really not my world. I’m putting my best friends and my siblings in my movies. Even though I’m in LA, I really do not belong to the industry at all. And I’m from Chile, which is the Pacific, so LA has a very similar feeling to Santiago. Driving up or down the coast in LA feels exactly the same as driving down the coast in Chile. There’s a sense of familiarity that I enjoy a lot.

D — What was the last thing that made you feel really happy?

I really am so in love. It never ceases to amaze me that I’ve found this person. Nothing really beats the feeling of being really in love with someone. Finding a person that I can feel this strongly about, that I feel like I understand so much — it’s really cool. When I met this guy, it was like nothing else besides love mattered. It doesn’t make sense that we’re together at all. A relationship between LA and Berlin makes no sense. How we met and the way we got together — none of it should happen, but it’s just so undeniable. I just didn’t realise this kind of love existed.

D — Sebastián, what makes you happy?

It happens every day: I had never lived in a house with a pool before, and we are in a heat wave right now, so going into that pool makes me happy. I can spend 45 minutes basically in and out, floating underwater. Staying underwater makes me very happy, in a way that I feel that I’m as present as when I’m having sex or dancing. I’m completely in the moment. I feel very joyful when I’m not in my head. So the short answer is: swimming in my new rented pool.

D — What else do you like doing?

Thinking about my career being over. No, I mean, being out in the world, meeting people. I like to party. I like to watch movies in a theatre. I am on TikTok a lot. I think the receptors in my brain tell me that I like that, but I don’t. I like to eat good food. I like to wear clothes that I think are cool. I like to create things. Working is important, but I also hate that too. I like the feeling of having worked, but the actual work has always been hard for me, especially when I’m writing. Writing is really, really hard for me. I like to keep things inside and then just burst them out.

I really enjoy dancing, in a way that is exceptional, I think. I’m 44 years old, and I still chase really fun dance parties, straight or gay. If there is a dance party that I’m into, I get there very early so I have the dance floor for myself. I would also dance in my studio alone. And I don’t know if it’s a hobby, but I do like doing this practice called yoga nidra, which is mentioned in ‘Rotting in the Sun’, and I call it ketanidra, which is ketamine and yoga nidra together. Yoga nidra is honestly just laying on your back in complete stillness for 45 minutes. So it’s some sort of meditation, but it’s a little more relaxing than meditation. I’m always ordering books. I read philosophy and I spend a lot of time with my dog, Chima. That’s kind of it.

D — What is the first thing you sacrifice in your routine when you get too busy?

I would say friends and family. Wait, is that bad? When I’m in major work mode, or even major going to social events. I think the people in my life know me well enough to know that it doesn’t mean I don’t love them, but I could definitely be better about checking in and telling people what I’m up to. Even now I’m in Europe, I’m in boyfriend mode.

A good night’s sleep or self-care. I’m never that busy, that’s the reality. I always have time for everything. I’m the most available person you’ve ever met.

CONTRIBUTIONS

Styling by Edward Bowleg III. Styling assistance by Natasha Bocha and Kelsey Logan. Grooming by Alex Levy at Streeters. Thanks to The Tucker Inn, Provincetown, MA.