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Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
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Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche
By Roderick Heath
French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.
Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.
Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a quality that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.
Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.
Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately.
Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.
Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1959) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1972) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.
Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.
The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.
Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.
When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.
In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.
Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.
Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.
Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.
Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.
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Director: Jean-Marc Valée
By Roderick Heath
As a child of the ’80s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to generally traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the general nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.
Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different paradigm, of course. The film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., when many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.
Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).
Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.
Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and through a display of forces, compells T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character who turn up when required by the plot.
Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.
Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled, and indeed, dictated dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and wit in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.
Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Valée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Valée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Valée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show “Breaking Bad” where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Valée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Valée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Valée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.
The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.
Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.
Meanwhile, Valée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as saviour of the queers whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic. I do like that the news broadcasts used to give some background information in the film seem to be real, as fake ones used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves in films. Not there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.
If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Valée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.
The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Valée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Valée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Valée closes the loop of Ron’s life.
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Director/Screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Stranger by the Lake has been making waves internationally for its frank exploration of gay cruising, which includes explicit, mostly unsimulated sex scenes. The film’s director and screenwriter, Alain Guiraudie, won the directing prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the film, a prize I think he deserved because of the unself-conscious performances he got from his actors and the subtle changes in mood he brings to the looping scenes of the lake, beach, and wooded area that form the single location of the film. At the same time, this film doesn’t offer a major departure in form or structure—Guiraudie, known for his more audaciously experimental approach to film, has said that he surprised himself by how formal the film ended up being. Of a piece with the New French Extremity movement that began in the early 2000s, Stranger by the Lake indulges the themes of loneliness, fatal attraction, and the linking of sex and death that go back to the beginnings of film, but that were elided until the end of the studio system in Hollywood and the coming of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The central character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a young, slim, gay man without a career, job, or any specific goal beyond spending the summer at the cruising beach swimming, sunning, and having sex in the woods that surround the lake. Franck uses his first visit to the beach to get acclimated. He greets a friend, strips to his underwear, and goes for a swim. As the summer progresses, he’ll forgo the underwear, sunning and swimming in the nude like the other men. Franck also goes out of his way to become friendly with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged man who sits apart from the beach dwellers, never sunning or swimming, but rather just watching them. Henri has split from the woman in his life (girlfriend or wife is never made clear), who has remained on the other side of the lake, presumably where couples roam in more conventional fashion. Henri may feel like an outcast from that world, but he also doesn’t seem to fit into the gay scene and, in fact, seems rather naïve about it. When Franck tells him that he doesn’t go with women ever, Henri seems surprised, thinking that all homosexuals also keep a woman around, perhaps because Henri is just such a man, trying to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality.
Franck is attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), a man who epitomizes the ’70s style of desirable homosexual—tall, muscular, tanned, and sporting a thick mustache. However, Michel has a possessive lover, Eric, (Mathieu Vervisch), who sends Franck on his way. Franck, who has a habit of staying at the lake into the night, watches Eric and Michel swimming one evening. They appear to be playing, but the play turns deadly as Michel holds Eric under the water and soon emerges alone from the lake. Despite the fact that Eric’s red car and beach towel remain in place for several days, nobody remarks on it, and Franck says nothing of what he saw; instead, he and Michel become lovers. When Eric’s body washes up on shore and the police come snooping around the lake, the film moves steadily toward a suspenseful end.
Stranger by the Lake mildly indulges a backward-looking pastiche that seems to be forming a contemporary current in French cinema. The sun-washed days of idleness and pleasure by an Edenlike beach are bathed in Summer of ’42 (1971) nostalgia. The film is shot through with comic moments that seem to look back in time to a different, less dangerous era of free love; for example, Franck hooks up with a man who insists he wear a condom, even though Franck is only giving him a blow job. The caution this man won’t throw to the wind is not only gently ridiculed, but also contrasts with Franck’s attitude, which eschews the future to live in the moment. It’s possible to look at Franck’s fatal attraction as being akin to the search of the main character for a lover who will kill her in the 1977 Richard Brooks film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but Franck is not the suicidal one here. The notion of a gay-hating serial killer picked up from the much-reviled Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980) is voiced by Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up at the lake regularly like Lieutenant Columbo, comic, but unavoidable, as Guiraudie refuses to open up his film beyond the lake. His intense focus on this locale has the effect of demystifying gay cruising for straight audiences through an honest depiction of desire that transcends sexual orientation. In this context, the explicit sex in the film is not pornographic, but an organic part of the world Guiraudie is trying to explore.
One wonders why Franck doesn’t run fast and far from Michel after what he has witnessed. Certainly, linking sex and death is nothing new—Gloria Grahame was more turned on by Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) after she asked him if he ever killed anyone, and Vanessa Paradis seemed to orgasm when carnival performer Daniel Auteuil threw knives at her in Girl on the Bridge (1999). It is usually not the aim of such foreplay, however, to actually end in death. More likely, Franck has been caught by the devouring charisma many emotionally damaged people give off that traps so many would-be rescuers and innocents who mistake their immediate connection with discovering a soulmate. Franck says after only a couple of meetings with Michel that he thinks he is falling in love, and Michel says all the things that would lead Franck to think he is feeling the same way, too. Only Henri sees Michel for what he is—an amoral psychopath who killed a possessive lover when he found someone he wanted more.
I found myself quite involved in this movie and concerned about what would happen to everyone. D’Assumçao exudes a pathos that nonetheless is grounded in reality. He tries to reach out to Franck, but knows that the young man is busy being young, and not a candidate to fill his empty heart. Paou is an implacable avatar of entitled desire—remorseless, sexually greedy, and quick to action. Deladonchamps, for all his sexual adventuring, seemed a bit like Bambi to me, particularly at the end of the film, when his plaintive cry was like a baby doe looking for its mother. By that time, we realize how much he’s made us care.
Stranger by the Lake screens Friday, October 18, 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 20, 4:10 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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Director/Screenwriter: Lisa Cholodenko
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.
I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.
High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.
Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.
The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.
The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.
The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.
The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore it. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.
High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.
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Producer/Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Patrick Wang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the Family should be seen as soon as possible by as many people as possible.
But it won’t be. In their infinite wisdom, 30 film festivals rejected the film. No distributor has picked it up. The heart of the film, producer/director/screenwriter/actor Patrick Wang, has had to knock on doors himself to get the film on screens, and so far, the results have been scattershot, with a brief one-week run in New York City in 2011, and some showings around the country as Wang has been able to arrange them. Chicagoans are exceedingly lucky to have Facets’ program director Charles Coleman, a big champion of the film, bring In the Family back for an encore run at Facets every Sunday in September; I was particularly lucky to attend the screening at which Wang appeared for a Q&A session.
What’s wrong with In the Family? Why has it been affixed with the label “No Commercial Potential”? That’s hard to parse out, unless you believe that only sex and violence sell. It certainly can’t be because its main character is a homosexual male—that demographic entered the mainstream of film narrative long ago. Is it the 169-minute running time? Not likely, with butt-numbing films all the rage, particularly among supposedly attention-challenged younger audiences.
My theory is that there are three things going against the film. First, Patrick Wang is a first-time director who came to film from the theatre, and there’s a prejudice these days about theatre people transitioning into film, the reverse of a long-standing prejudice of theatre people against the “fleshpot” that is movie-making. Second, the film, though full to the brim with feeling, is emotionally understated, and Americans have come to expect shrill, explosive performances that are easy to read. Finally, the film is set in a small town in Tennessee, and in Hollywood, urban landscapes in blue states are still considered the only places on earth where anything interesting occurs; films set in red states must, by general agreement, be like The Help (2011), that is, criticize backward, racist attitudes. In the Family’s biggest sin may be to expose our own prejudices by depicting a tolerant Southern town where racist and homophobic reactions are far outnumbered by accepting and loving ones.
Wang, who lives in New York, is originally from Texas, and the film was shot in his DP Frank Barrera’s home town of Yonkers, New York. Yet, In the Family has a strong feeling of a small Southern town. I credit that to shrewd location selection, even shrewder casting, and an intimacy of spirit in the finely crafted screenplay that allows both the fears and generosity of this specific population play out without being infected with the usual clichés.
Wang plays Joey Williams, a building contractor who has been in a six-year relationship with Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), an elementary school teacher with a six-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Their romance began after Cody’s wife Rebecca (Julia Motyka) died shortly after Chip’s birth, and Joey, who lost his family and then his foster parents, was able to relate to Cody’s grief and comfort him. Their relationship is a surprise to everyone, even them, but Cody’s family accepts Joey into their lives and recognizes how good he is for Cody. Sadly, when Cody dies in a car accident without updating his will to name Joey Chip’s guardian, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) tries to execute the existing will as best she can by taking over Chip’s care. The rest of the movie concerns Joey’s efforts to bring Chip home.
In the Family could have been a tale of high drama, even melodrama, but avoids both by focusing on the people, not the problems. Wang wants us to really know who these people are, and in a film with a fairly large cast, that he manages to give us something human in almost all of his characters is downright amazing. Joey is the central character, with all actions related to how they touch him, but perhaps because his heritage is Chinese, and even moreso because he lived in an orphanage for several years before finding a foster family, Joey has learned emotional reticence. At crucial moments, Wang turns his back to the camera, allowing Joey to grieve in private, as most of us do, and find comfort in concentrating on finite tasks, such as rebinding some antique books a wealthy client of his, Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), has in the library Joey is helping to remodel.
Even more than Joey, Cody is the character who unlocks myriad doors. Like the polar opposite of the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), but much more present throughout the film, Cody’s effect on those who knew and loved him forms the glowing heart at the center of In the Family. We see him alive at the beginning of the film, giving Joey a quick kiss before he goes to work, taking his students through a math lesson in a gentle but commanding way, playing with Chip, who mock-scolds his father for calling him “Chipmunk,” being the efficient one to counter Joey’s lack of organization. After death, Cody is seen in Joey’s mind’s eye—the first time they met when a pregnant Rebecca begs Cody to hire Joey as their contractor, when a drunk and grieving Cody throws up and Joey cleans him up and puts him to bed, when Joey finishes Cody’s home and over a celebration beer and a Chip Taylor CD, Cody impulsively kisses him. Rebecca withheld a flashback of the imperious mistress of Manderley to conceal information that would deaden the suspense. In the Family wants us to know Cody so that we can understand what his life meant and how the legacy of his love helps others find their way back to each other.
It is impossible in the span of one review to touch on the many subtle details that enrich this film, but here are a few. When Joey meets with an attorney (Matthew Boston) recommended by a neighbor (Elaine Bromka) who liked to cook for Cody and Joey and still cooks for Joey, the attorney asks Joey where he’s from. He hears “From right here” in a west Tennessee accent, which unsettles him slightly because of Joey’s Asian features. That’s actually the only place other than when Joey is deposed by an aggressive attorney hired by Eileen that any kind of prejudice rears its head, and even here, it is a fleeting impression. Another effective detail is when Joey’s friend delivers one of a series of wooden blocks Joey made for Chip to teach him about dinosaurs and an audiocassette with a message from Joey. The camera moves slowly from framing the slit in the door on the far right of the screen to a close-up; we can’t really see Chip, but we can hear him rewind and play back the “Hi, Chipmunk” greeting from his dad over and over. Some great lines include Joey telling Cody after he throws up, “This is Tennessee. It happens,” and after the kissing, “I’m not a one beer, two-track guy. You’re going to have to take me out and wine and dine me.”
My favorite small moment occurs when Joey is sitting with his back to us and working on one of Mr. Hawks’ books. Hawks can tell he is missing Chip. He asks Joey if he’s found a lawyer yet, and Joey says they’ve all told him that he has no case. Hawks, a retired attorney, tells him he will take the case pro bono because he believes Joey will actually listen to his advice. He writes down three questions that he wants Joey to think about: What’s important to accomplish, what can’t be messed around with, and what is he willing to give up?
These questions would be a great start for any of us as we enter a negotiation, as Joey does in the climactic scene of In the Family. That he was barred by a restraining order from seeing Chip is the only flaw in this film, as I saw nothing in his or Eileen’s behavior that indicated this was a logical step. Nonetheless, it does offer a supremely satisfying scene in which the emotionally reticent Joey lays bare his heart—I cried all the way through it. In an intense monologue, Joey shows us exactly how humble he is, how grateful he is for the good things in his life, how willing he is to take responsibility for his past, present, and future actions, and how he wants to be welcomed back into the family he had while Cody was alive.
Wang is miraculously good playing a character a bit less intelligent than himself. His interactions with Banes are unaffected and realistically everyday, as are St. John’s. I found St. John’s moments of awkward affection toward Joey touching and believable, and I was grateful that I was allowed to mourn his loss, a hole a lot of films centered on tragedy (Ordinary People, for example) inadequately fill. All of the supporting cast members are terrific, no matter how much or little screen time they have, but special kudos go to Murray, a veteran stage actor, and Park Overall, whose return to view as Cody’s mother I greatly appreciated. One moment when I completely misjudged a character occurred when the nurse (Gina Tognoni) at the hospital Cody was taken to tells Joey that only immediate family can see him. We see in that small detail what the right to marry can mean to many homosexual couples. We also see the nurse come by later with a form Joey can fill out that will give him visitation rights, and completely shatter my assumption that she was a rigid homophobic.
In the Family wants to break down the us vs. them assumptions rife in society and celebrate the very conservative values of family, home, and most important, talking to each other; tellingly, the film got a very warm reception in Tennessee. In the Family will get another shot at reaching New York audiences on November 16; check the official website for a screening in your area.
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Director: Rodrigo García
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Those are the words hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) uses to lie to his employer, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), about the condition of his mattress so he won’t have to share it with a temporary worker and risk revealing his secret—that Nobbs is actually a woman. Those are also the words that I would use to describe Albert Nobbs: there are a lot of great things about this film, but viewers can expect to roll over a few lumps while watching it.
Albert Nobbs, a passion project for Glenn Close, who did a stage version of the story in 1982 and not only stars in the film but also coproduced and cowrote it, is based on a short story by the great Irish writer George Moore. These days, Moore is not as famous a member of the Irish Literary Revival movement of the latter 19th and early 20th century as Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, but he was a highly influential and controversial one. He brought English literature into the modern age by offering realism and sex, including homosexuality, in place of romanticism. “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” published in 1927, displays all of these elements in spades, offering an exploration of gender and social class roles and the more Irish-centered concerns of delayed adulthood and idealized motherhood.
Albert is a very buttoned-up, 40ish person, careful and economical in both word and deed. He remembers little touches, like putting roses on the dinner table of a particular hotel guest, and these actions garner him the steady tips he records carefully in a ledger and squirrels under a floorboard in his room. His hope is to leave the employ of others and open his own shop. He has even located the property he wants to buy in a rundown part of Dublin.
Albert’s modest plan gets a major kickstart when he discovers the temporary worker he failed to avoid sleeping with shares Albert’s secret: Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is also a woman. The pair exchanges stories. Page left an abusive husband who gave her a broken nose as a permanent scar, donned his clothes, and made a good living as a house painter, work that would not have been available to a woman. Page moved in with Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), a milliner, to share living expenses, and when the neighbors started to talk, they got married. Albert believes he is the unacknowledged bastard of a gentleman and well-born mother who died when Albert was an infant. She was cared for by a Mrs. Nobbs, who gave her her treasured picture of her mother, but nothing more in the way of information. Mrs. Nobbs died when Albert was 14, and she was gang-raped by some young men. Determined to get out of the miserable conditions in which she lived, she bought a second-hand suit and was hired on as a waiter at a short-staffed restaurant. And that was it—Albert’s life as a man and a waiter began.
Meeting Hubert sets the repressed Albert’s imagination on fire. When he learns Hubert has a wife, he is desperate to find out how Hubert did it—did he tell Kathleen before or after they were married, innocent of the notion that such a thing as a lesbian could exist. He tracks them down, and they invite him in for tea and conversation. He decides he wants to sell tobacco when they question what his intentions for his shop will be, but Albert has never even rolled a cigarette, much less smoked one. Albert wonders if a woman could sell tobacco; Hubert says yes and suggests that Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, young maid in the hotel, would be great for the job.
That idea planted like a weed in manure, Albert decides that he will court and marry Helen; he imagines the façade of the shop, “A. Nobbs, Tobacconist” hovering over the entryway, and a door leading to a sitting room where Helen sits knitting before a hearth fire. However, Helen is carrying on a sexual affair with Joe (Aaron Johnson), another employee whose only wish is to go to America and leave behind his troubled past. It’s hard to know how a middle-aged, chaste, peculiar cross-dresser will win Helen, but therein lies some of the intrigue of Albert Nobbs.
Glenn Close inhabits Albert like the closely tailored suit and bowler he wears. Subtle make-up provides her with a dessicated look appropriate to someone whose emotional life has all but dried up. When Albert’s carefully circumscribed life starts to unravel, Close offers jewels of uncontrollable emotional release that are quite touching. For example, in one scene, Albert and Hubert each don dresses Kathleen made and take a walk. The initial comedy of seeing two women acting believably like awkward men in drag gives way to a burst of feeling as Close opens her arms and runs as the wind skims under her skirt and blows her shawl loosely around her, the tight corset concealing Albert’s breasts and close-fitting suit and tie abandoned for a time. In another scene, Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), the sympathetic house doctor, ruminates with Albert at a fancy dress ball for which only the hotel guests are costumed, “We are disguised as ourselves.” But who really is Albert? He barely makes a start at finding out and growing up before fate intervenes.
Still, Albert Nobbs has some problems. First, and less critically, the pacing is uneven. Director Rodrigo García’s background includes both episodic television and episodic films, and Albert Nobbs feels episodic as well. A typhoid epidemic that hits in the middle of the film puts in place one important plot point. One of the hotel’s maids and Albert become infected, and Mrs. Baker’s self-pity at being abandoned by her patrons and closed down is a good capsule of her character. But the incident is so rushed through that the scope of the devastation barely registers. Helen and Joe’s affair has some lyrical moments, such as when Helen goes into a yard hung with drying sheets looking for Joe, but the relationship is a bit clichéd and rather uninteresting. Johnson doesn’t make Joe a very compelling character; though we feel drawn to take his side when he is dismissed from a previous job for daring to knock snow on the feet of some rich guests, he never puts the mix of vulnerable and callous together into a combustible brew.
Wasikowska is better as a young woman who is doomed to scrape after a living in the same way that forced Hubert and Albert into disguise, and she shows a conscience about using Albert, a strange but likable colleague at the hotel. Her confusion about leaving with the sexually entrancing Joe or opting for the security of Albert is real, and her attempt to make Albert into a more palatable mate by trying to teach him to kiss passionately is more sad than humorous.
The failure to find enough humor in Albert Nobbs is the film’s greatest weakness. If any ethnic group exemplifies the twin masks of comedy and tragedy, it is the Irish. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Colombian director really understood the comedy underlying this superficially tragic story. His social critique of male/female and upper/lower class relations is almost nonexistent, relying on exposition (e.g., Hubert and Albert telling their stories) rather than any blackly comic exchanges to make the point. Albert’s sexual naivete could have had more humorous consequences than Close flailing on a park bench when Wasikowska kisses her. Could there not have been some curiosity or naïve questioning of Hubert and Kathleen? After all, Albert is emotionally and experientially stuck in prepubescence, and such questioning would be funny, poignant, and appropriate.
The very end of the film, when Hubert sees a photo in Albert’s room and turns it over to find the word “Mother” written on the back, was very funny for me, but I honestly don’t think that was the intention. The film seemed determined to make Albert a tragic and pitiable figure who was robbed of an authentic life, and possibly wished to make points as a gay-friendly film as well. The truth is that Albert is a bit dim and fell into a masquerade that pokes great fun at the marriage-shy, mommy-fixated Irish lad of yesteryear. While I recommend this film unreservedly for its fine performances and period detail, it falls just a bit short of what it could have been.
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Director: Lucky Kuswandi
2011 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up after taking in some of the somber fare at this year’s festival, or if you want to add a genuinely funny satire to your DVD collection, Madame X is the movie for you. This Indonesian comedy based on a character created by its star, comedian Amink, pits a would-be transsexual hairdresser against the forces of puritanical morality, taking every cliché of the spy/superhero genre and tailoring them to the clichés of drag life. Unlike the title character of the 1966 American women’s film of the same name, this Madame X doesn’t suffer in silence—she kicks ass!
The film opens with a disheveled drag queen named Adam (Amink), her falsies popping out of her mini-dress, getting screamed at by a truck driver who found her sprawled in the bed of his truck. He calls her names and then reluctantly decides to give her a ride back to the capital city. Once inside the truck, he demands that she give him a blow job, but tosses her out when she puts a little too much tooth into it. The film flashes back to show us how she ended up in the back of the truck and sets up what will happen for the rest of the film.
Adam is working in a hair salon, celebrating her birthday, and dishing about the news blaring from the TV. Aline (Joko Anwar), a large and sassy drag queen, worships a Paris Hilton knock-off, Kinky Amalia (Shanty), who has been married 11 times in her alleged 22 years on earth; Adam, on the other hand, thinks she’s a skank and uses magic to maintain her youthful looks. She doesn’t know how right she is. Kinky and Bunda Lilas (Sarah Sechan), two wives of Dr. Storm (Marcell), the mysterious leader of a morality party, are driving around looking for a homosexual hairdresser who is celebrating a birthday; Bunda Lilas, a second-rate psychic, thinks this person is a danger to their diabolical plans. When she finds Adam, Bunda Lilas blows some animated red dust from her magic ring on Adam and her birthday cake, which looks cool and vaguely evil, but doesn’t seem to do much of anything.
When Adam, Aline, and the rest of the gang go out to celebrate her birthday at a gay disco, they are raided by the paramilitary gay-bashing organization BOGEM, and herded into the back of a truck. Aline escapes, does a victory dance in the street, and is promptly run over by a truck. Adam, infuriated, attacks her attackers and is thrown over a viaduct, which is how she landed in the bed of her rapist’s pick-up and eventually ends up in hiding at a dance studio run by former special ops fighter Uncle Rudi (Robby Tumewu) and his transsexual wife Auntie Yanje (Ria Irawan). (Note that despite the subtitles, Auntie Yanje is the only transsexual character in the film.) They teach Tari Lenggok, a martial arts dance form they invented, and Adam, learning of their secret spy operations, becomes their chosen crusader for the forces of freedom and equality when Mr. Storm and his wives kidnap the female dancers to be used as sex slaves in Thailand. Adam dons their black-leather, cone bra superhero suit, takes up their modified curling iron, blow dryer, hat pin weaponry, and becomes Madame X.
The trajectory of the plot is standard action hero stuff, circa 1965, mixed with special effects that are minimal and played for laughs, vaguely tracking with those that can be found in Big Trouble in Little China. The film is also liberally sprinkled with entertaining musical numbers that add to the enjoyment of this buoyant film. Two things make this film stand out as more than a cheap parody—the troubles it addresses are real, and its drag queens have none of the hyperflamboyant hostility found in so many American films. Gay bashing and the gay community’s fear and rebellion as depicted in the film are real; Madame X offers a positive, if lighthearted attitude to fighting the powers of conservatism. These strengths are a tribute to the writing, which provides character touches without exaggerating them, and the acting, which dignifies each character with a well-realized interpretation, no matter how cartoonish some of their behaviors may be.
The set pieces in the film are brilliantly executed without resort to 3D, CGI, casts of thousands, or any of the other extravagances of modern action films. It was a kick to watch Madame X wail on the baddies with cartoon starbursts saying POW and BAM in Indonesian. Adam’s showdown with the three wives—one played by pop singer Titi DJ is an opera star with, of course, a concussive high C—allows each of these characters to be broadly comic women, not robots who are pure evil because the script doesn’t want to deal with their humanity, arguing for dominance and jumping to their deaths in pursuit of a real crocodile designer handbag Madame X has thrown over the railing. In a hilarious scene, Adam is running on a beach when a vision of Aline rises over the horizon, illuminated with an angelic halo. The pair chitchats a bit before Aline gives the obligatory “avenge my death” order and then sinks with a quick slurp back into the sea. I can’t commend Joko Anwar enough for his comic panache in this role.
Adam is an incredibly appealing character—sweet with just a bit of sass, sincere, and for a drag queen, amazingly free of affectation. She is who she is, moving from a part-time whore for her worthless boyfriend to someone who finds the heroine within and a cause worth fighting for. Flashbacks to her childhood show her wearing a dress in the bedroom of her boyhood friend Hamar, who received a beating and an “x” marked with a machete on his chest by his homophobic father. Hamar breaks with Adam, blaming him for the abuse that will go on to warp and wreck his life. Sweetly, however, the film ends with a memory of the two youngsters sitting on a roof and enjoying each other’s company, a good feeling the film generates about the homosexual community that makes Madame X’s crusade one we hope will succeed.
Madame X will screen Wednesday, October 12, 1:45 p.m., Friday, October 14, 10:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 16, 4:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)
By Roderick Heath
The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.
Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.
His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.
Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.
Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.
Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.
Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.
As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.
Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.
Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.
Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.
With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.
As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.
Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.
Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.
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Directors: Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman
By Roderick Heath
Before his sad death at age 52 from AIDS in the early ’90s Derek Jarman, had established himself as one of British cinema’s true enfants terrible. He helped define gay cinema, maintained an aesthetic guerrilla war against the Thatcher government of the ’80s, and claimed a corner of demanding, semi-abstract narrative filmmaking that took up challenges laid down by the likes of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but dragged them off in his own direction. Sebastiane, his first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness.
Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic: following Sebastiane, his subjects included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marlowe’s Edward II, Caravaggio, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.
Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.
Sebastian is a favourite of Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) and captain of his personal guard. The opening sequence depicts Diocletian’s court celebrating the birth of the sun in the time of his jubilee in a scene of Felliniesque excess. Male dancers sporting huge fake genitals tied to their groins dance around a man painted as a caricature of femininity, who is spread-eagle on the floor and mock group-raped, fake jism squirting on him, in a droll parody of Roman phallocratic sexuality and politics. It’s a stylised representation of what follows. Roman high society sprawls in decadence, suggested through a punkish mix of historically accurate tropes and glam rock pizzazz that includes the reigning whore supreme Mammea Morgana (played by punk emblem Jordan). Diocletian loses his temper with one of his toy-boys who is weeping for a man sentenced to death for one of the conflagrations started by Christian insurgents in Rome: the Emperor has the boy strangled. When Sebastian tries to intercede, Diocletian strips him of his rank and exiles him. The rest of the film takes place in Sardinian locations, standing in for the unnamed desert outpost to which Sebastian is exiled. Maximus (Neil Kennedy), also present in at the festivities, is posted to the same locale, and reports this directly to the audience.
In that hot, dry, unpopulated part of the Empire, Sebastian makes it clear that he’s become a Christian, and won’t train for fighting anymore with the other men. The commandant Severus (Barney James) abuses and humiliates him, a regimen that worsens when Sebastian won’t let Severus screw him, to demonstrate his contempt for browbeating power. The introductory scene has already made clear that this refusal to submit, to allow access to the body and, more importantly, to the private conscience, infuriates the representative of the dying regime. This theme, of the powerful figure that forces obedience and conformity, runs side by side with the religious and sexual themes; those three basic concepts—sex, power, spirit—constantly shade into each other but occasionally are shocked into polarisation.
Amidst the small band of soldiers, the leading personality is Maximus, a dirty-minded git with a false nose strapped to his face and a false penis sometimes strapped to his groin. He has a relentless hunger for amusement and dirty by-play, whilst the other bored, horny soldiers turn to each other for gratification after looking at dirty pictures. One of the soldiers, Justin (Richard Warwick), empathises with Sebastian’s plight and tries to understand his strange idealism, which, as Sebastian meditates on his own, seems partly composed of narcissism—making his prayers whilst gazing at himself in the water—and lust, as he wishes to be embraced by Jesus. Sebastian communes with his rugged landscape and prays, conflating the sun god Phoebus Apollo, whom Sebastian used to worship, with his version of Jesus. So the searing touch of the sun, of which Sebastian gets plenty when Severus has him staked to the ground as a punishment, is only more ecstatic bliss for him.
Like many beginner filmmakers with artistic ambition as well as an urgent intellectual position to articulate, Jarman—and it’s hard to doubt Jarman was the driving cinematic force here—gives into the tendency to indulge longeurs and pound select ideas into the ground. Early in the film, Jarman presents a beauteous sequence in which Sebastian awakens early in the morning and washes himself down in the morning sun, enjoying and idolising the physical sensations which are part and parcel with his spiritual understanding. Severus watches him with a predatory intent and fascination with a species of man beyond his experience. Jarman shoots the male body like he’s the first person to discover it, and in a manner of speaking, he is: he doesn’t just eroticise it, but also renders it as a universe unto itself.
But on occasion, Sebastiane starts to resemble a motion picture edition of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except with sporty young guys frolicking and wrestling in the water rather than girls, lounging about in the sand, and cleaning their sweaty bodies in a Roman bath. The actors are barely clothed through much of the film, as Jarman said they didn’t have enough money for costumes. A lengthy sequence with two of the soldiers in an initially romantic clinch that gives way to them wrestling in the water, goes on forever, and though it clearly had political heft in 1976—Sebastiane pissed off people exactly as it was supposed to, though there are no literal sex acts in the film—it seems like soft-core self-indulgence now. And yet the evident erotic enjoyment is imbued with a hint of the alien, anticipating Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, as Jarman communicates a sense of the body as a thing of mystery and beauty in his languorous, slow-motion scenes of muscles flowing under skin with ineluctable beauty.
The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have his true, inner self. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.
Jarman doesn’t make the assailed Christian emblematic of a desexualised, denaturalised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism, however. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential. The images seem engaged in a perpetual search for signs of transcendence only to be found in a surrender to the utterly physical, a loss of distinction between world and self. Throughout the film flows a brand of humour blending poles of donnish esoterica and Carry On-style scatology, particularly when the soldiers stage death battles between beetles they name Messalina, Boadacea, Sappho, and Dido, imagining them in a mass lesbian rape, and those passages of vulgar Latin proliferate in the soldiers’ excited sexual language. At one point Sebastian demonstrates for Justin a dance he used to do for the sun god in Rome, which Maximus sees and satirised feverishly before the other soldiers as he pretends to make love to a pig. Kennedy’s earthy performance dominates the film, playing Maximus as a human being with no high ideals, violently contrasting Sebastian’s elevated aspirations, and appointing himself the chief persecutor of the Christian until Severus orders him to stop.
As its story unfolds, Sebastiane displays surprising similarities to the likes of Platoon (1986): amongst its many aspects, one that emerges strongly is its portraiture of the volatility of soldiers, beset with rampant sensual hunger while trapped in an existentially ambiguous exile in distant territory. Perhaps the likeness isn’t coincidental, as Jarman surely had the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it on his mind, as well as any regimen of forced social normalisation. As the film entwines sexual, political, and spiritual anxiety, cranking up on virtually subliminal levels, the casual sex that some of the soldiers indulge contrasts Severus’ building hysteria in his need to dominate Sebastian and force his surrender. He has Maximus and the others snatch and beat Justin to a pulp, and Sebastian dragged to Severus’s cell where he plans to rape him; instead, he only reaps his own humiliation, and so, as in many a horror movie, erotic unease is deflected into physical destruction, as this finally makes Severus decide to have Sebastian killed. In the glare of day on a rocky plain, Sebastian is tied to a pole, where the soldiers, several stark naked, riddle him with arrows. Even the bloodied and barely conscious Justin is manipulated into firing a bolt. Sebastian’s martyrdom sees the ironic fulfilment of his desire to physical communion with his god and of Severus’ desire to penetrate him in a welter of blood. In a point-of-view shot from Sebastian on his pole, the world is suddenly rendered in the distortions of a fish-eye lens, inverting space and changing the devastated plain and his torturers into a permeably false reality. It’s one of the most grotesquely beautiful scenes ever shot, and galvanises Sebastiane’s final haunting effect.
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Directors: Alistair Reed/Pierre Gang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.
In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.
28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.
Got all that?
Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.
The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.
Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.
Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.
Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.
If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.
As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.
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Director: Róbert I. Douglas
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My local library, the Skokie Public Library, is, I’m convinced, the most wonderful community library in the country, and it’s got the credentials to prove it—the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. The huge catalog of foreign-language films the library carries or has available for download to accommodate village residents who speak one or more of 97 languages likely cannot be found in even the best video rental sources. And while I would never guess that Icelandic was one of those languages, the Skokie library has a few titles from that small country as well. The hubby picked up one of them yesterday for our evening entertainment, an irresistible-sounding film about a gay soccer club based in Reykjavík.
Eleven Men Out wastes no time in getting to the point. The powerful pro team, KR, moves into the locker room after a game, where they are pursued by photographers and reporters. One of the reporters is talking to Ottar Thor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is concerned where a photo of him will be placed in the magazine. She says that it will be on the last page, the last thing people read. He complains. She says that if he gives her something good, he could get a cover. He decides on the spot to come out as gay to her, the photographers, and his unsuspecting and flabbergasted teammates. Ottar gets his magazine cover—and gets booted off the team by the homophobic team owner.
Ottar’s father (Sigurður Skúlason) tells him to give up this nonsense or, barring that, to get psychiatric help to “cure” his “illness.” Ottar’s brother Orri (Jón Atli Jónason, who cowrote the screenplay), a completely contemptible person who treats his girlfriend of two months like trash, merely insults his brother at every opportunity and shows more concern for the money owed him for rentals from his video store than the tumult Ottar has caused his parents. Gugga (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), Ottar’s ex-wife and a former Miss Iceland, is sloppy drunk for most of the movie; neither she nor Ottar understand how Ottar has made their son Maggi’s (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson) life hell at school.
Ottar’s friend Pétur (Helgi Björnsson), a former pro who had his moment of glory scoring a goal off the mighty Arsenal team in London, coaches an amateur soccer team. He offers Ottar a position, mentioning that his team has a few gay members so Ottar won’t get the same treatment as he did on KR. Alas, Ottar is now a very high-profile homosexual, and the few straight men on the team resign. The discussion Pétur has with them is hilarious in its circularity (“But I’m not gay.” “Exactly. That’s why this isn’t a gay team.”). Of course, it doesn’t matter that the team is mixed; perception is everything, and these men fear guilt by association.
Eventually, the team is composed entirely of gay players. They change the name of the team to Pride United and adopt a uniform that has a rainbow stripe on the sleeve. After winning their first game through the homophobic forfeit of the other team, they finally get a chance to prove their worth by winning enough games to reach first in their league. A random drawing of teams for the playoffs has them bussing to northern Iceland to play a team in an isolated hamlet and partying in a pathetic disco called Club Cambodia, run by the Cambodian wife of the other team’s coach. Maggi meets their lovely half-Cambodian daughter Rosá (Pattra Sriyanonge), who asks the 13-year-old boy if he wants to fuck. He’s taken aback and nervous, but she says matter-of-factly that there’s not much else to do in her town.
The film climaxes when KR, worried about fallout from their homophobia, agrees to play Pride United. The date of the match falls, coincidentally, on the same day as Reykjavík’s gay pride parade. As a multicolored balloon ribbon follows the floats filled with drag queens down the streets of Reykjavík, Pride United and KR face off. If you want to know the outcome, stay with the closing credits; this film does not traffick in the traditional underdog payoff of most sports movies by filming the big game.
To many Americans, this film may seem thoroughly contemptible and behind the times. After all, have we not seen openly gay politicians rise to national prominence, openly gay entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres win lucrative modeling contracts and continue on with their successful careers, gay writers land on best-seller lists? Have we not also seen gay bashing continue, gay marriage rights come—and go—in various states, strong coalitions of religious leaders forming organized offensives against gay rights of every stripe? Have we not seen a 2010 film by a gay director present two lesbians in the most straight-friendly manner imaginable? If you listen carefully to the Icelandic, you’ll notice that the language has only one word for homosexual, whereas the subtitles change it up frequently. This one difference represents what I like so much about Eleven Men Out—its direct approach to its subject.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the homophobia that exists in Iceland; it also doesn’t have its gay characters back down into stereotypes or defensiveness. Ottar says he is what he is, and by the way, that includes a narcissistic soccer star whose vanity brought him out of the closet without considering the consequences of an abrupt public outing on his teammates, friends, and family. Continuing with his tunnel vision, he takes up with a young soccer player on Pride United, offering up movie theme nights for entertainment; he’s caught completely off guard when his lover walks out on him, preferring to spend his time in more youthful, active pursuits. He is also careless about having Maggi walking in on him having sex with his lover. The film is utterly casual about nudity, mixing women and naked men in locker rooms without comment; a group hug in the showers is handled unself-consciously by the actors.
The film also doesn’t whitewash the very serious drinking problem the country has, as evidenced by Icelandic singer Björk’s admission to drinking a liter of vodka every Friday, a “custom” she picked up from her grandparents. Gugga is drunk all the time, but so is everyone else in the film, and there are virtually no scenes in which a character doesn’t have a drink in his or her hand. It also doesn’t present picture-postcard images of Iceland; in fact, I’m surprised the populace hasn’t drowned in all the rain, which isn’t the gentle mist one finds in more image-conscious Irish films, but comes down in torrents on the umbrella-free characters.
While Eleven Men Out strives for some kind of upbeat ending, with the Pride/KR match, Gugga’s entry into rehab, a real talk between Maggi and his parents, and Ottar’s mother (Lilja Guðrún Jónsdóttir) forcing her husband to sit in the stands with the fans of Pride United, the film doesn’t foresake the reality of Iceland’s attitude. “You didn’t expect us to win,” Ottar says to Pétur, a wonderfully comic line that sums up a realistic, sardonic attitude not only to the difference in skill between Pride United and KR, but also the uphill battle facing homosexuals in a society whose language has barely changed since it landed on the island in the 9th century.
I like how unsympathetic a part Atli Jónason was willing to write for himself, making him the perfect comic man you love to hate. This is a funny movie, but it’s not blind to the seriousness of its subjects and isn’t willing to turn its characters into caricatures for the sake of a few yucks. Unlike a film I didn’t much like, Up in the Air (2009), it doesn’t use its serious subjects as mere background. The film is too packed to get a deep character study, but we do get a good feel for the nasty situation Icelandic homosexuals find themselves in and their real strength to overcome it.
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Director: Yu Ha
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Movie buffs with any sense at all don’t expect historical dramas to offer much in the way of, well, history. An overwhelming number of historical dramas offer audiences an escape from the drab and dreary present into the pageantry and intrigues of defunct monarchies, the noble battles of knights in armor, and the bucolic gentility of country living. A Frozen Flower, a King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle set in 13th century Korea, provides a little of everything typical to the historical drama, plus something a little more intriguing—graphic sex and lots of it. Sadly, not even the absence of bodices to rip can save this fitfully boring hit from South Korea.
The film opens with a cadre of young boys being schooled in the code of the Goryeo king’s guard. “What is the greatest way to show one’s patriotism?” they are asked. Several answers are given, the last of which is “To die for the king.” The boys are trained in combat and other military arts. At night, as they sleep, a young crown prince walks with his retainers among them. He looks tenderly at one boy, whose foot is exposed, and folds the boy’s blanket over it.
The film moves forward. The boys of the guard are now men, and one, Hong Lim (Jo In-seong), is both the chief of the guards and the king’s (Joo Jin-mo) lover. He holds such sway over the king that he persuades the king to spare the life of a guardsman who has been caught fleeing with a woman he is forbidden to wed. It seems nothing can upset this relationship, not even when the king makes a political marriage with a princess (Song Ji-hyo) from the neighboring Yuan kingdom. The queen suffers in virginal silence as we watch Hong and the king share a night of passion, which amounts to little more than frenzied French kissing.
After 10 years with no heir to the throne in sight, the nobles of Yuan smell a chance to conquer Goryeo. A band of assassins pounces upon the royal party as the king and queen enjoy an afternoon of al fresco dining. Desperate to produce an heir to solidify his position, the king asks the only man he trusts, Hong, to impregnate the queen. Hong protests strenuously, but complies. The first attempt is awkward for all three principals, as Hong kisses a stiff and silently weeping queen. During their second encounter, however, both the queen and Hong awaken to passion. After that, the pair finds themselves in the midst of a grand love affair that the king soon discerns. His jealousy for Hong aroused, the king becomes mad to avenge his honor and assuage his hurt at being replaced in Hong’s affections. Much tragedy ensues at the very moment that the queen learns she is pregnant.
Director Yu and his crew of art directors and costume designers lay a lavish visual feast for the eyes. The opulence and glamor are indeed royal down to the smallest detail—at least, to begin with. Much is made of a perfume sachet the queen wore when she first came to Goryeo and which she loses in the outdoor attack. During a trip to Yuan to uncover those plotting against the Goryeon king, Hong finds a similar sachet in a street market. It couldn’t look cheaper, but he gives it to the queen as a love token. The king notices it and admires it. Why? Because it is a plot device. During the climactic sword fight between the king and Hong, the latter of whom seeks to avenge the queen’s apparent execution signaled, incidentally, by the sachet hanging around the neck of a head on a pike in front of the king’s palace, the king’s chambers are completely trashed. The flimsy set pieces and cheap pottery ruin the illusion that we are in a real palace and sap the deadly battle of some of its poignancy.
The film’s much-publicized sex scenes—and there are a lot of them—are a bit more graphic than a generic softcore porn film. They’re artfully photographed so we can be sure to see Hong squeeze the queen’s perfect breast, and a variety of positions are offered. But perish the thought of showing a penis. (Even in an innocent scene where the guardsmen are bathing nude in a nearby pond, nothing but ass cheeks are revealed.) The sex is stimulating to watch, but devoid of any real feeling.
All the battle scenes are hopelessly unreal; it’s not the flying swordsmen I object to, but rather the cheap gore (though I thought a servant who gets an arrow through his head to kick off the outdoor ambush was a clever and surprising touch in an otherwise pastorally peaceful scene). Regardless, the film could have done with a little more action of this type to liven up the lackadaisical love story. The injection of musical interludes lavishly sound-produced seems aimed at the Bollywood market. If you’re getting the idea that A Frozen Flower is a pastiche of styles that miss more than they hit, then I’ve done my job.
The performances are good on the whole. Song as the sweet and suffering queen and Ho Shim-ji as the subchief, whose role grows in importance as Hong falls further out of the king’s favor, are mesmerizing. I also enjoyed Joo as the king, though he started flailing a bit as the king loses his senses to his jealousy; one scene in which he is torturing a guardsman who helped Hong escape is laughingly sadistic. Still, the worst flaw in this film is the casting of Jo In-seong as Hong. A blander actor I haven’t seen in many a year, and this really wrecks the film because Hong is in so many scenes. In the closing scene, Hong’s choice of the queen over the king, it is suggested, was the wrong choice, a message laughable unless you consider that dozens of people might have lived had he denied his own feelings. The love between the three principals isn’t the only thing frozen about the wrong-headed A Frozen Flower. l
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Director: Gus Van Sant
By Roderick Heath
My admiration for Gus Van Sant’s films made since he retreated to the edge of mainstream film after the shameful Psycho (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000) has been tempered by a major concession. Skilled artist of mood and texture that he is, films like Elephant (2003) or Last Days (2005) conjure a psychic atmosphere that’s cut adrift from cause and effect, from analysis, and thus from intellect. They are, fundamentally, explorations of sensual existence, implicitly expelling the world of the mind and, more intently, the moral and emotional didacticism of so much popular culture. They verge on being exemplars of a philosophy of “shit happens,” which is why they’re all about young people, teenagers mostly, beings that tend to exist in private cocoons of existential development. Van Sant wants to restore mystery to existence. The violent acts that punctuate his recent films, be they killing sprees, suicides, or accidental deaths, remain products of a suggested tension that lies eternally under the surface of the lives the characters lead. Van Sant’s explorations of what could be called antidrama, where the film’s soul is defined as much by what is not present as it is by what is, appears almost offhand, but requires tremendous technical discipline to realise.
Paranoid Park and Milk, his two most recent films, appear disparate in cinematic narrative method but are linked through their variably telegraphed sense of danger and transcendence: the omnipresent threat and frustrated escapism latent under the nondeclarative surfaces of Gerry (2002), Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park are literalised in the figure of Harvey Milk. Paranoid Park is distinct from its immediate predecessors in that the young protagonist Alex (Gabe Nevins) is not doomed. Rather, he is fated to live with a harsh knowledge inside himself—that he is born as a moral being far earlier than he’s equipped to be one. The film’s fractured storytelling, reflecting Alex’s dithering attempts to make account of what’s happened to him, bounces back and forth like an echo before reaching that central trauma, its grotesque result, and its immediate effect on Alex. Scenes shown earlier in the film only find context in repetition to restore the sense of cause and effect. When Alex ventures out to Paranoid Park, his actions communicate his desire to find a community; his interactions with those he meets, however, are filled with anxiety over what codes, behaviours, and status are required to enter the community.
Alex is middle class but rootless, the result of his father leaving a home that now has a provisional feel and is empty a lot of the time. He’s liked in school, chiefly for being passive. His girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) would seem the adolescent boy’s fantasy; she’s, like, totally a cheerleader, but she’s also thick and a bit of a bully. He pines to belong to the faintly feral commune of masterful skateboarders who gather at the eponymous stadium, built illegally under an overpass in Portland, Oregon. The kids and young adults who hang out there are often homeless, perhaps damaged, but fired by their communal experience; they become weightless Seraphim, cavorting in harmonies essayed in loving slow motion. It’s a vision of transcendence that can’t last. Alex briefly pals about with Jared (Jake Miller), an older boy, and when they goof about jumping onto freight train cars, a railyard cop tries to swat Alex from his perch. Alex strikes back, and the guard falls under a train. In one key moment, he’s just a goofy, doe-eyed kid singing along to the radio: in the next, a haunted, weathered soul.
Detective Lu (Daniel Liu) is on the right track as he prods Alex and his schoolmates about the incident, no proof of wrongdoing turns up. Alex’s main struggle is with his own shapeless sense of responsibility. His attempts to compose an account of his situation obeys the advice of Macy (Lauren McKinney), the rather more intelligent girl he gravitates towards after he’s lost his virginity in a moment of nonpassion with Jennifer. Alex passes through experiences with an alienated glaze.
Where Van Sant’s previous trilogy eddied around everyday happenings before reaching a grim terminus, the end of Paranoid Park is known well before the climax. Van Sant portrays Alex and the skaters with the beatific arousal Renaissance painters found in their subjects: his sequences rejoicing in the physical transcendence of the skaters are the most compelling in the film. Van Sant’s overall aesthetic maintains a challenge to the American cinematic tradition of narrative flow, that illusion of relentless progress and resolution. He yearns for artistic traditions that distilled concept and feeling into figures and representations. The mop hairdos and retro-tone affectations of the kids reflect that of much current youth fashion, ironically aiding one of the film’s more telling reflexes, where domestic tension reflects a deeper dread as Macy attempts to stoke a sense of awareness in Alex over the Iraq War. This could as easily be a moment from 1972 as from 2007.
Van Sant has said he’s finished with this type of filmmaking, and Paranoid Park does indeed confirm its limitations as much as its potency. Van Sant has often wrestled with questions of articulation and how it conflicts with raw experience. His third film, My Own Private Idaho (1991), appropriated a Shakespearean narrative, whilst his visuals shattered individual scenes into tableaux: the clash between the image and the word, the experience and the response, resulted in a film whose sense of social relations and cultural form was turned inside out. Blake Nelson’s source novel for Paranoid Park owes its concept to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but Dostoyevsky could interrogate the psyche with implacable force. With cinematic technique that stays relentlessly outside the psyche, Van Sant can’t really say much about the nature of the guilt and reveal much of Alex’s thought processes, and so he, and the film, move to the most nonplussed of conclusions. The mostly nonprofessional cast further limits any sense of personal depth.
What Paranoid Park does, and in purely cinematic terms, is deal precisely with the consciousness that can refuse to look at itself, absorb without critiquing, and work up the moral courage to confront the horrible. Alex moves in a vacuum of ethics, which does not mean he wants someone to tell him what to think and feel. There is no adult and really no friend, except possibly for Macy, in whom he can confide without an assumption of some sort of judgmental, frame-forcing lens being placed on his experience. To this extent, Van Sant and Alex’s agendas coincide: understanding as opposed to judging is their chosen path out of a quandary.
Milk places Van Sant’s impeccable technique at the service of a biopic with a populist purpose. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) initially is another Van Sant wandering dreamer, packing in his closeted life for some hippie adventuring, soaking up the world with his camera arbitrating between himself and experience. Unlike most Van Sant heroes, Milk grows swiftly into an undaunted, conquering force. He escapes from a dreadful stasis that afflicts most Van Sant protagonists. The head-on gay and outsider themes in Milk dispel the mystery in Van Sant’s best films precisely for making them apparent: the angst is over the difficulty of gaining a culturally resonant voice when none is allowed and the fear of violent repression. Although Milk confirms that fear on one level, it also memorializes a war against it. Van Sant took on the project as a commission, but the film is a far more honorable way to tackle his mainstream urges than Good Will Hunting (1997). Before Milk ,the only halfway major film I can think of about landmark gay rights scenes was the severely disappointing Stonewall (1995).
Milk is interesting not merely as a man of force and conviction, but also as a magnet for sharply delineated, but subordinate personalities that become a community—people like his younger boyfriend Scott (James Franco), who energizes him to take a leap into the world; Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsh), a teenaged street hustler who spouts clichés and spirals until Milk gives him a sense of purpose; Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a recovering addict and hysterical near-ruin who brings out the nurturer in Harvey, but also defines his limitations; Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a “tough dyke” organizer who ruffles feathers in Milk’s boy’s club but soon has a powerful effect on his campaign; and, later, gruffly agreeable Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). The urge to form community, to find a place in a milieu that is accepting and insulating, which haunts and hurts Alex of Paranoid Park, is Milk’s singular dream, too.
Most ambiguous and dangerous of the people Harvey draws into his gravitational field is fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), the whitest of white bread—Irish, cop, and fireman—whose ruggedly charming façade obscures a faint awkwardness and a slow-simmering frustration. He and Milk seem bound from the outset into a kind of pas de deux, where understanding and contempt shade imperceptibly into each other. Milk thinks White’s closeted, and White thinks Milk is a bit of a showman—both might have a point.
Van Sant the realist is most apparent in Milk in its dedication to observing process—watching Harvey and his fellow organizers develop a political strategy, identify voting blocks and core messages, and forge alliances—making Milk is one of the most coherent films about political organization around. Milk’s skill and pragmatism, and even his temptation to throw his weight around, aren’t elided. His ability to zero in on the concept of the gay individual as a taxpaying citizen whose needs are not being met, stands in contrast to the radical-chic bull of hippie youths. Milk turns his square experiences into a new queer philosophy. He’ll get things done simply by tackling a rock-bottom issue of practical concern: cleaning up dog droppings. Yet he also stands a distance from conservative-minded gays, harnessing the new force of a movement that wants acceptance but no longer is willing to mollify.
The film’s most sustained dramatic movement details Milk and friends’ campaign to hold ground against the Anita Bryant campaign of reversing gay rights legislation. The climax is, of course, Milk’s and Moscone’s assassination by White. Van Sant adopts techniques of the docudrama in a rather more fluent fashion than that usually suggests as he captures the scene of DIY counterculture as thoroughly as he did grunge-era bohemianism in Last Days—a small child of the period and milieu like me might feel flung back into preverbal memory of a world of rolling political arguments between people crowded into small kitchenettes and provisionally furnished apartments smelling of patchouli. Although Van Sant is absorbed in telling a story in Milk, his filmmaking is at its most deft, fro example, how he can instantly summarize the disdain for Bryant’s opportunism by showing a series of her orange juice commercials or use split-screen shots to explain a very simple organizational process. A pair of shots of White seated in his underwear, peeking out through his blinds, and then clad in his suit but in the same place, communicates his potentially violent tension as effectively as the entirety of Elephant.
Not that the film is perfect: one ill-judged moment of foreshadowing has Milk watching a performance of Tosca in which Scarpia, the villain who drives Tosca to her death, looks a bit like Brolin. Although the scene is in line with Idaho’s Shakespeare-quoting and Van Sant’s culturally omnivorous bent, it’s still tacky, clumsily introducing an element of the overcharged, symbolic emotion that Milk says he loves in opera that contradicts the film’s otherwise determinedly naturalistic style. And Van Sant might have reined in screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s Hollywood reflexes in reducing Scott to the role of resentful politician’s wife and during the finale, when Scott and Anne bear awed witness to a streaming crowd of candle-bearing mourners, which, with its wait-for-it triumphalism and hopeful stares into middle-distance, walk the line of cornball.
But Milk mostly combines passion with a graceful touch, and will stand deservedly as an important work about the gay rights era, which is only just beginning to gain the same aura of nostalgia and perspective of plentiful films about other such movements. It’s the palpable sense of community that finally makes Milk feel like the cheeriest of homecomings for Van Sant. I saw Milk with an audience at least half composed of lesbian couples who cheered the “tough dykes” line. It made a nice change from sitting through a blockbuster with a bunch of glowering nerds.
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Director: Ken Russell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You’ve really gotta love Ken Russell. Whatever project he chooses—and they are frequently sexy, operatic affairs that reflect his own sensibilities—he manages to find and remain true to their essential spirit. Valentino is not a literal biography of the great silent film heart throb Rudolph Valentino—the film, in fact, is based on a novel—but one that clings to the spirit of the times and the legendary allure of the man, which is as strong today as it was in his time. As a fan of Valentino—my office is plastered with pictures and memorabilia of the star—I appreciated how Valentino mirrored a wit I have always associated with him.
The film begins with the pandemonium that greeted the news of Valentino’s (Rudolph Nureyev) untimely death at the age of 31. In a faux newsreel sequence, grief-stricken female fans mob the funeral home where his body is lying in state, crashing through the windows in a Technicolor excess of sorrow. After order is restored, one by one come several important women in his life to pay their respects, mug for the newspaper photographers, and tell the Valentino story in flashback.
Screenwriter and Hollywood executive June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), a tearful mask of tragedy that suggests unrequited love, recalls Valentino’s description of his early days as an immigrant from Italy, trying to make enough money from washing dishes, taxi dancing (and Latin loving his paying dance partners) to go to California and buy an orange grove to farm. A dramatic attack on his apartment by some mobsters forces his hand, and he sets off for Los Angeles, where he keeps his dream of farming alive by dancing in nightclubs.
One night, he incurs the wrath of Fatty Arbuckle (William Hootkins) by grabbing the frizzy-haired starlet (Carol Kane) seated next to him, dancing her into a swoon for a packed house of patrons, and stealing her away to be his first wife, Jean. This scene is a splendor of grotesques—Fatty the most grotesque of them all, turning red and slack-jawed in fisheye close-ups—squealing catcalls and hoots. Nureyev shows off some of his exquisite ballet technique while jazzing his duet up with vampy ballroom elegance. Valentino sees Jean’s lavish lifestyle from a second-rate career in movies, and decides to try his hand. Mathis recalls discovering him in a two-reeler and recommending him for his star turn in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A recreation of the famous tango scene from that film is a natural for Nureyev.
Back to the present and the gloriously excessive and comic entrance of Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron). Draped in a foyer-sized blanket of white roses, she collapses over Valentino’s coffin. When photographers ask her to do it again, she obliges with refined vulgarity and launches into a description of her relationship with Valentino. Nazimova singled out Valentino to play Armand opposite her Camille. A seduction scene from the film is shot on a set very similar to the fabulous Art Deco sets of the original film, but Valentino’s aura shone too bright for Nazimova. Having seen Camille, I can testify that it’s a strange telling that has Camille die her fabulously romantic death with Armand nowhere to be found.
Enter Natacha Rambova, a 1920s hippie played by a quintessential 1960s hippie, Michelle Phillips, who tells the reporters that although she had been separated physically from Valentino, they remained spiritually close. In her flashback, she is Nazimova’s lover but clearly sees that Valentino has a crush on her and that his career will be bigger than anything to which Nazimova could ever aspire. On the set of The Sheik, Rambova seduces Valentino with a dance of the seven veils under a gold-and-jewel-encrusted tent of Arabian splendor. When Valentino’s divorce is in process, Rambova convinces him to go to Mexico where they can be married. Upon their return to the United States, they are arrested for bigamy. Studio head Jesse Lasky (Huntz Hall) refuses to bail Valentino out, and he spends a tortuous night in jail where he is taunted by a sadistic guard and the drunks and disorderlies, including a perpetual masturbation machine, for his dandy ways. The scene goes in for hallucinatory visual effects combined with a clownlike atmosphere that could be called Felliniesque.
On the set of Monsieur Beaucaire, Rambova and the film’s director Sidney Olcott (John Justin) call directing cues together in a hilarious scene highlighting Rambova’s megalomania. During a break from shooting, two stagehands positioned on the catwalk above the soundstage wonder if Rambova calls the shots in bed, too. They toss down a pink powder puff, which lands squarely on Valentino’s lap. Rambova, outraged, insists that the perpetrator of this insult come forward or she and Valentino will walk off the set. Although Valentino finishes the picture, Rambova insists he refuse future work at Paramount until Lasky meets their demands. Lasky suspends him, and the pair end up penniless on a beach. They are approached by George Melford (Don Fellows), who books the pair to do personal appearances on behalf of Mineralava, a beauty product for women. We are treated to another stunning duet with Nureyev at center stage and Phillips managing to stay out of his way. George becomes Valentino’s manager and eventually negotiates a sweet deal with Lasky, including a huge raise and script approval. It’s back to Hollywood for the Valentinos.
A climactic moment comes when Valentino reads a newspaper article that casts aspersions on his manhood. Russell has given us a scene earlier in the film in which Valentino is dancing, ballroom style, with the famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Anthony Dowell), so as to plant doubts about Valentino’s sexuality in the minds of the viewers of Valentino. I never really believed it from Nureyev’s performance (though the dancer was himself homosexual), and this feeling was true to the real Valentino, whose wholesale purchase on the hearts of American women put him in opposition with the ideal of American manhood the popular culture wished to keep alive. In any case, Valentino challenges the reporter to a duel, which for legal reasons, becomes a boxing match. Rory O’Neil (Peter Vaughn) stands in for the reporter—and O’Neil just happens to be a boxing champion. The match is a mini ballet. As O’Neil pounds Valentino, the matinee idol’s body is a rubber doll of fluidity. O’Neil, in an echo and parody of the earlier dance with Nijinsky, twirls a semiconscious Valentino around the ring. Nureyev’s grace during this tragicomic scene is awe-inspiring. Miraculously, Valentino recovers and clocks the middle-aged champ in a stunning series of combinations and a smashing knock-out blow.
By now, Valentino has been exhibiting signs of the ulcer that would eventually perforate and kill him. Nonetheless, when O’Neil asks for a rematch—a drinking contest—Valentino accepts and again bests him. The film omits Valentino’s later films for United Artists, concentrating only on the contract stipulation that barred the disruptive Rambova from the set. Russell ends with Valentino’s death, in a regal scene that has the actor stretched on a slab in what almost appears to be a white marble tomb.
Valentino is a gorgeous film that revels in its lush colors—particularly pink—and lavish sets and costumes. The Sheik costumes are just as the many photos of Valentino had them, including a small detail I remember from the film—a wristwatch. A scene in a speakeasy has a bevy of girls dressed as pink powder puffs putting on a show as entertaining and insulting as any on film. Russell’s extravagant imagination is all up there on screen, and yet, as I said in the introduction to this review, the film really captures the fable of Valentino. For example, one scene has Mathis watching one of Valentino’s films in a darkened theatre. The audience is comprised entirely of women. The utter contempt American men showed for Valentino is evident in the behavior of the prisoners and guard at the lock-up, the studio bosses who wouldn’t bail him out, the boxing crowd (that is, until he proves himself in the masculine American way), and the journalists who built him up and tore him down.
The choice of Nureyev to play Valentino seems an odd one, but in general, it was a gamble that paid off. Nureyev, like Valentino, had unconventional good looks from certain angles. His beautifully sculpted and strong body could also look slight. As a homosexual, he certainly would have related to the hate directed at Valentino, and as a world-famous ballet dancer, he would also have been able to relate to Valentino’s fame. While I can’t really say he “acted” very well, he created an impression that I found believable and endearing.
All of the main actresses must have been told by Russell to keep the needle in the red zone. Leslie Caron and Felicity Kendal, both decent actresses, camped shamelessly through their roles. Michelle Phillips, I’m convinced, really was a terrible actress when she made Valentino and thus fit right into the shrill femininity Russell seemed to want to capture—a reflection of the Valentino mania of the time. I found these ungenerous portraits of women a bit offensive, but as an artistic interpretation of a temperment that surrounded this man, I respect Russell’s choices.
Valentino satisfied me like a chocolate mousse topped with three feet of whipped cream. Not just for Valentino fans, Valentino is a riotous, daring adventure in filmmaking that is a real treat. l
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Director: George Englund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Living with a hippie from the 60s has pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to watch every hippie movie ever made. The hubby defines the hippie movement as an attempt by certain naïve people to reach nirvana. The films he identifies as hippie movies include Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Head (1968), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Easy Rider (1969), and Hair (1979, based on the 1968 stage musical), for their sensibility and honest depiction of the successes and failures of hippies to reach their goal.
Zachariah is perhaps the quintessential hippie movie, telling as it does the story of a young man trying to find himself. Of course, the hero’s quest is as old as humanity itself. What locates this telling in the American hippie movement is that it is a Western shot through with rock and roots music from Country Joe and the Fish, The James Gang, The New York Rock Ensemble, White Lightnin’, Doug Kershaw, and Elvin Jones.
Over the opening credits, we watch the prototypical scene of a lone horseman riding across a vast expanse of open land to the strains of a slightly romantic score. Into this idyll is introduced an unfamiliar object—a Lucite guitar turned blood-red by the rising sun. Soon, The James Gang crank out a hard-rocking song on this open plain, and our lone rider, Zachariah (John Rubenstein), jumps off his horse, and runs to a scrubby hillside to open a kraft-wrapped box. Inside is a pistol. He squares up to draw, pulls at the gun, and it flies out of his hand. The first word of dialog is his exclamation: “Shit.”
Zachariah heads into town where he visits the blacksmith shop of his best friend Matthew (Don Johnson). Coyly, he teases Matthew about something new he just got. Finally, he asks Matthew to make him some silver bullets. Matthew asks if he has some vampires he needs to get rid of on the farm, then sends his young Mexican assistant away so the two friends can be alone. Zachariah pulls out the gun he just received “in a brown paper wrapper.” Both young men are enamored with it and run off for some shooting practice. They both become very fast and very accurate in a very short span of time. With that, Zachariah decides he is leaving town to make his fortune as a gunfighter. Matthew presents him with a silver bullet—only one due to a lack of materials. At this point, the two friends decide to go off together.>
The first group of outlaws they meet up with are the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish). In awe of their reputation, Matthew and Zachariah follow them into a saloon, where the outlaws take up musical instruments and bang out their signature song “We’re the Crackers.” Matt and Zach are enjoying the music, but another patron isn’t so happy. Zach explains that they are only trying to enjoy the music and have no quarrel with him, but to no avail. The man calls Zach out, and Zach shoots him dead right in the saloon.
Having made his first kill, a thrill that has him shaking in both horror and triumph, Zachariah decides he must become an outlaw. He and Matthew ride out to the Crackers’ camp and force them at the end of a rifle to take the pair on. The Crackers, as it turns out, aren’t very good at robbing anything. They get outrun by a stagecoach and miss a rendezvous with a train. Fed up, Matthew and Zachariah dream up a scheme to rob a bank. The Crackers will play music at one end of town, draw a crowd, and then the team will go in and rob the bank. The plan works, but Zach becomes dissatisfied. He’ll never make it to the top with this motley band. He and Matthew leave.
A wanted poster leads them to the man they must find—Job Cain (Elvin Jones), the fastest gunfighter in the West. On arrival at Cain’s hangout, Matthew and Zachariah watch him kill a challenger. Matthew impetuously urges Zachariah to call Cain out. No, says Zach, we need to learn how he got so fast. At this point, Cain picks up a pair of drumsticks and takes over for the drummer of his band (The James Gang). When we watch him beat the kit, we understand how he got his lightning draw.
Abuptly, Zachariah leaves again. He still hasn’t found what he’s been looking for. Matthew stays. The two friends are now on divergent paths. Matthew is on the narrow track to success as defined by his society. Zachariah continues on a spiritual journey that has him explore hedonism, including taking up with whore Belle Starr (the hippie go-to actress Pat Quinn, who played Alice in Alice’s Restaurant), and finally, exploring the power of the desert.
I’m not sure you could find a better blueprint for the hippie movement than Zachariah, including its Amateur Hour feel. There are some laughs along the way (though many fewer than one would expect from a writing team composed of members of the comedy group The Firesign Theatre), but this film is surprisingly serious. Hippies did have to make choices, important choices, and as with the drug-dealing duo in Easy Rider, some made very wrong choices. The sketchy script and the no-budget look of this film make Zachariah a very rough affair indeed, and many will dismiss this movie as a self-indulgent experiment that’s only worth watching for the music.
But there is a wonderful gem at the core of this ragtag film—the relationship between Zach and Matt. If you detect something gay in their rapport, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. (It may come as a surprise to younger readers that Brokeback Mountain wasn’t the first gay cowboy film. In fact, neither was Zachariah. The Celluloid Closet  outed Monty Clift’s character in Red River  with this line, again said over a gun: “There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?”) Rubenstein and Johnson are exceedingly pretty at this early stage in their careers, and they have a chemistry and close affection that is quite touching. Although the hippie ethos was to make love to anyone in the spirit of freedom, not necessarily gay liberation, there is a true gay love story in this film.
Aside from this very watchable duo, the music showcases some of the top performers of the time who also happen to capture perfectly the sensibility of the film. In addition, roots players White Lightnin’ and, particularly, fiddler Doug Kershaw play some of the most haunting music I’ve heard in a while, placing this story squarely in the American experience and honing its spiritual edge.
Zachariah takes a universal story, and particularizes it for its generation. But it also manages to create a lasting impression that one can enjoy even at this more-distant time. This is a film that is both of its time and ahead of it.
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Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Conformist is a film that has attained legendary status. A beautiful and surprisingly assured work by preeminent director Bernardo Bertolucci and equally respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro when they were just in their 20s, The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after its rave reception at several film festivals. It only got a very, very limited run in the United States after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. The film also was scarce in its native country because of its depiction of the popularity of fascism in 1930s Italy.
At long last, Paramount has released a DVD of The Conformist, including a three-part special on the making of the film that includes interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. This DVD, the most anticipated foreign-film release of the year, does justice to the film (which I saw on the big screen early in 2006) and sheds light on its sometimes frustratingly oblique approach.
The title character is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). We first meet him in a hotel room fitted out with ornate, antique furniture, surrounding his nervous movements and ’30s private-eye appearance with traditional elegance. Already there seems to be some sort of disconnect between Marcello and his surroundings. Marcello soon is shown riding in a car with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), an affably viperish operative for the Italian fascists. From here on, most of the film is shown in flashback as we watch Marcello move from privileged childhood to fledgling spy for the Italian government.
Marcello is friends with a blind fascist named Italo (José Quaglio). This not-very-subtle symbol for Italy under Mussolini broadcasts fascist propaganda on the radio and introduces an eager Marcello to the Colonel (Fosco Giachetti), who can help Marcello realize his ambitions. Marcello enters a monumental building, his tiny figure like an ant moving across a vast marble expanse. He enters the wrong room for a brief moment and catches a glimpse of a ranking fascist seducing a woman in mourning attire who is laying across his desk. Marcello’s and the woman’s eyes meet for an instant. Excusing himself quietly, Marcello goes on to the Colonel’s office.
Marcello offers to try to infiltrate the antifascist movement through his former philosophy professor, a middle-aged man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is a self-exile in Paris. The Colonel knows Marcello is not a true believer, nor is he being bribed to work for the fascists. The Colonel cannot guess Marcello’s motive for signing on to the cause, but he willingly accepts. When the Colonel learns Marcello is soon to be married, he considers a honeymoon in Paris as the ideal cover.
A happy Marcello goes to dine with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and her mother (Yvonne Sanson). Giulia is a simple-minded bourgeois whom Marcello chose because of her sheer ordinariness, her good looks, and her sexually eager nature. He teases her about their honeymoon destination, and she teases him with an invitation to love right on the carpet of the sitting room. (This invitation must have been the inspiration for a similar offer from Angelica Huston to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.) Giulia’s black-and-white striped dress and the shadows created by the light coming through the blinds suggest a noirish atmosphere, but moreso a rigid geometry surrounding Marcello. His desire, like all fascists, is for strict order.
The Clericis’ train makes a stop before they proceed to Paris. Marcello moves quickly along a dock, moving behind a painting at an outdoor market of a boat on a dockside, and emerging from behind the painting into the exact scene it depicted. Marcello meets Manganiello in a boathouse where the older fascist is being entertained by a red-haired whore. Manganiello sends her over to greet his friend. He takes one look at her and hugs her close. Marcello is given a handgun, and in a move that frightens Manganiello, points it straight at the him. Marcello then assumes a couple more attitudes with the gun, practicing not only how to hold and aim it, but also to look like a man who holds, aims, and fires guns. Instead of infiltrating the Quadri antifascist cell, he is ordered to kill the man.
Once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room (the room we saw in the opening scene), Marcello phones Quadri to suggest a meeting for old times’ sake. Quadri invites the Clericis over for tea. They are greeted at the door by a large dog and Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). Marcello seems thunderstruck by her, and we get the distinct impression that they know each other. In fact, Sanda played the woman in black and the whore. She is clearly the woman of Marcello’s dreams, and he spends the rest of his trip to Paris pursuing her.
For her part, Anna distrusts Marcello and has her eye on Giulia. The two women go out shopping for gowns they can wear dancing, and while they prepare for the evening out, Anna has sexual contact with an initially angry and then willing Giulia. Immediately after this encounter, Anna goes to Marcello and falls into his arms. Her interest in Marcello, however, is to plead with him to spare her life and that of her husband.
Manganiello has tried to contact Marcello, but having lost his taste for his task because it puts Anna in danger, Marcello dodges him. Finally, there can be no more delay. We return to the present, as the two men follow the Quadris up a snow-covered mountain road as they make their way to their vacation home outside of Paris. The Quadris’ way is blocked by a car that has skidded in front of them, the driver apparently stricken. Manganiello blocks their way from behind. Against Anna’s cautions, her husband leaves the car to check on the other driver. At that moment, a number of trench-coated fascists – Marcello’s and Manganiello’s coconspirators – emerge from the surrounding woods and set upon Quadri with knifes in a scene reminiscent of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Anna flees her car and spies Marcello in the backseat of the rear car. She bangs on his window, wailing like an animal for his help. He might have helped her or mercifully shot her to end her misery, but he sits by and does nothing. She runs off and is stalked and shot dead in a scene of utter brutality.
The film fast-forwards to the end of the war. Marcello plays with his young daughter as the household listens to the radio in their house in Rome as news of Mussolini’s arrest and demonstrations throughout the city rings out. Giulia reminisces regretfully about the Quadris, but forgives Marcello for his fascist loyalty. “It was good for your career,” she says in unreflexive, bourgeois justification. Italo calls Marcello for help, and Marcello grabs his coat, though it is dangerous for known fascists to be in the streets. Giulia tries to stop him, but he says he must go, that he wants to see what it looks like when a dictatorship falls. On the street, he has an encounter that upsets everything he ever believed about himself and turns him into a raging lunatic. His fascist control is gone from inside him as well as from the city that swallows him up in the night.
So what is it that drives Marcello? What is it that he believes about himself that leads him to pursue social conformity in spite of the irrational urges that spill forth when he is confronted with Anna and her lookalikes? We are led to believe that a homosexual encounter Marcello had when he was 14 that resulted in him shooting his seducer has made him feel different. Bertolucci and Storaro state in the DVD interviews that it is the shooting that set him apart as a killer in his own mind, but I think there is much more going on than that. The man who seduced him was his chauffeur, and this man rescued the young Marcello from the tauntings of his schoolmates, who had attempted to remove his pants. So, we see right away that he doesn’t fit in, perhaps because of his family’s wealth, perhaps because he has betrayed some hint of homosexual longing.
Before Marcello marries Giulia, he goes with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly) to see his father (Giuseppe Addobbati), who has been institutionalized in an insane asylum (in fact, a massive building constructed at Mussolini’s orders). It would certainly not surprise me if Marcello was a little touched himself, or at the very least, fearful of being overtaken by the madness that felled his father and drove his mother’s addiction. Those who seek to fence out the irrational will naturally gravitate to the safe, narrow tracks of society’s rules, and certainly to fascism. (It’s easy to see how the neoconservatism of modern times that bears a strong resemblance to fascism might have arisen from the sexually and politically open 1960s and ’70s.)
Marcello’s attitude toward women is at least as repressed as his other urges. When the Quadris and Clericis go out for Chinese food and dancing, Anna asks Giulia to dance. The two do a seductive tango that disturbs the conventional couples on the dance floor and scandalizes Marcello. Quadri is content with their behavior: “They both look so pretty.” He has accepted the bisexual Anna as she is, whereas Marcello holds his wife in contempt and thinks nothing of abandoning her on their honeymoon for Anna. While he may feel an irresistible regard for Anna, it is, perhaps, more threatening to think that his conventional wife is more sexually liberated that he could have imagined. As the ultimate irrational in a man’s psyche, women must be as predictable as possible for the man Marcello desperately wants to become.
The central metaphor of this film is Plato’s cave. When Marcello and his old professor meet, Marcello reminds Quadri of the lesson about the prisoners chained to face the back of a cave, seeing only the shadows of the objects moving behind them. As in Plato’s cave, Marcello himself seems to be a shadow. This is emphasized when Marcello’s shadow on the wall of Quadri’s study vanishes when the professor opens the window blinds.
Like all of Bertolucci’s films, The Conformist is deeply sensual. Storaro provides sumptuous visual effects that make the film appear to be a dream inside a dream. Bertolucci says in the DVD interview that he always thought it was a shame that films had to be edited from the daily rushes. For him, the rushes represent the unfiltered creativity of the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Storaro and film editor Franco Arcalli manage to keep an impressionistic, almost surrealist feel even as they create a mood and narrative drive that build from illusion to horror. Lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is just a little too cryptic for my tastes. He doesn’t suggest depths under still waters, and I think that would have helped this film in its first half. Marcello is a part made for Matt Damon. As heretical is this may seem, Alberto Moravia’s novel on which this film is based may be due for a reinterpretation. Of course, no one should, or will, ever remake The Conformist. l
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Director: Ang Lee
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
By Roderick Heath
The Modern Western has racked up enough films to be considered a defined and important genre. There have always been Westerns set in contemporary times, such as George Stevens’ Giant (1956), but this genre truly arrived—with its themes of man against society, of nature and humanity intermingling or failing to, of deromanticising a mythic scene—in the early ‘60s, with a small cannonade of pictures. These films included John Huston and Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, David Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s Lonely Are The Brave, and Martin Ritt’s Hud, based not too coincidentally on Brokeback Mountain scriptwriter Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By. The Modern Western is a dusty, disillusioned genre about men and, occasionally, women, who survive on the myths of the past and who often would make excellent heroes for those tales, but find themselves eternally alienated and often destroyed by the tawdriness of modern life. There is no longer the sheer nobility and almost religious awe that attended the commencement of the cattle drive in Red River in the lives of men like Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Today they’re spotty, hopeless young men stuck with the stink of sheep-shit and toxoplasmosis, hardly able to scrape together a living unless they get lucky enough to marry the boss’ daughter. In truth, of course, that was what life was like for the pioneer cowboys, too, but that’s neither here nor there, when John Wayne is more potent a force than any real westerner.
Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are the two latest examples of the form, the appeal of which includes the inordinate amount of grit allowed in paying attention to the lives of working-class people while giving passing nods to the gods of cinema legend. Both films are driven by an intense male bond—in one case, a bond that has bloomed into a proper love affair—and observe the moral and emotional consequences of that bond. Another theme of the Modern Western, inevitably, is culture shift. In Modern Westerns, the heroes are tugged at and tempted by the pull of changing cultural winds even whilst they try their best to preserve themselves in an old cultural skin. Both films essentially exist within the same environment, where nature is predominant rather than repressed, where civilization has petered out in shabbily built buildings through which the wind whistles, and society is almost sparse enough for people to get away with living by their own rules. Almost.
As in another recent Modern Western, Billy Bob Thornton’s underrated All The Pretty Horses, Three Burials is about the divide between the United States and Mexico, of the temptation of outsider gringos to find their identities in the romantic poverty of Mexico. Tommy Lee Jones’ aging cowboy Pete Perkins takes it upon himself, like a true western hero, to fulfill an unanswered plea for justice. The method he uses is not a varmint shooting, but a primal process of penitence inflicted on the callow, foolish, violent border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has killed accidentally Pete’s amigo, the illegal immigrant baquero Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cadillo).
These characters inhabit a sterile, impermanent Texas town where Mike and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) have moved from Cleveland and where they were a popular, pretty couple. In the film’s first half, the various characters are explored in layered, time-hopping style. Without the distracting buzz of suburban life, Mike’s emotional vacuity and gross sexuality are thrown into high contrast. Mike takes out his frustration on the illegals he captures. Lou Ann, increasingly alienated and excruciatingly bored, is pulled into friendship with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who lives a cheerfully your-cheatin’-heart lifestyle, having affairs with Pete and local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) under the nose of her diner-owner husband. Lou Ann ends up spending mot of her time with Melquiades, and it is a pure coincidence that Pete guns down Melquiades whilst on patrol.
The first “burial” is the shallow grave Pete gives Melquiades on a mountain. The second is the one the authorities give him when his body is disinterred by coyotes. With only rumours as to what happened spread by the border guards, and Belmont’s insistence that Melquiades was “only a wetback,” Pete abandons his reticence in favour of kidnapping Mike, forcing him to dig up Melquiades’ corpse, and then proceeding, with the border guards in hot pursuit (and Belmont’s comic disinterest), to cross the border to give Melquiades—and maybe Mike—a proper burial.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is as classic a westerner as Pete Perkins. Tall, rangy, stiff-mouthed, painfully reserved, the redeeming aspects of his life are his one true love, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), and, much later, his daughter Alma Jr. (Kate Mara). In between are an eternity of pain caused by confused and gut-wrenching relationships with the one man and several women in his life. Ennis, orphaned in his adolescence, finds his identity crystallised during the months he and fellow teenaged ranch-hand Jack tended sheep on the eponymous slab of wind-washed granite. When both are prematurely exiled from the existence that seems redolent of a Greek mythic idyll, they accept their surface identities within the strict machismo order of modern Midwest America.
Jack tries to live up to the macho reputation of his bullrider father, then marries dashing horse girl Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) and does his best to wriggle his way up the social pole. Ennis marries Alma de Beers (Michelle Williams) and has kids by her, but can never give up either his desire for the simple freedom of range work or for the adolescent warmth of his love for Jack. Their snatched interludes together on fishing trips, tolerated to a certain extent by their wives, offer fleeting and ultimately dissatisfying tranquility. Both men are transfigured by their sexuality, but where for Ennis it is a vital emotion he seeks, for Jack it’s both more complex and also more typical; carefully compartmentalising, he sleeps with Mexican male hookers and keeps on the lookout for another partner who will adapt to his part-time vision of love. Ennis lives in justified fear of frontier morality, which eventually claims Jack.
Both films are remarkably rich tapestries that extend well beyond the specifics of their plot to take in an almost epic, yet expressively minimalist vision of whole cultures in a state of flux, and the people within them in a state of crisis. Although Pete and Melquiades are not homosexual—though it’s easy to imagine Pete as Ennis, 20 years after the end of Brokeback—their bond, as well as Jack and Ennis’, demand almost mystical commitment to notions beyond the visible, or even factual. For Ennis, it is to accept permanent emotional exile: our last vision of him, a reverse of the end of The Searchers, is gazing out on an eternal plain whilst living with dreams and memories in his shabby trailer. For Pete, it is to reject his country, his livelihood, even his sanity, to give Melquiades a true resting place, and extract from a man with no terms of reference beyond bad daytime soaps and suburban plasticity a true contrition.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that Brokeback Mountain, concentrating as it does on a gay romance, offers its most biting and memorable moments in observing the men’s heterosexual lives—the kitchen confrontation where Alma, having left Ennis, lets slip her simmering loathing of him and Jack sets Ennis off like Krakatoa, is one of the most convincing moments of marital spite ever filmed. Similarly, when Ennis spurns vibrant barmaid Cassie (Linda Cardellini) and apologises, “Sorry, I can’t have been too much fun,” she responds in anguish, “Dammit, Ennis, girls don’t fall in love with fun,” I suspect a lot more men than the bisexual cowboys of this world might recognise themselves. The film follows Annie Proulx’s majestic novella very closely, ironically weakening when it adds some potentially nifty ideas of its own, especially Lureen. Lureen’s status as a gender-crosser in her own right, a champion rodeo rider who boldly seduces and screws Jack, demanded more depth and time and strikes sparks off the film’s later portrait of her as an icy homestead princess. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a messier, less compressed tale, and overdoes its early portrayal of Mike Norton’s baseness, but then Three Burials has an edge of wryly surreal comedy and deliberate morality tale at its heart, not the lightly poetic realism and heart-dulling tragedy of Brokeback Mountain.
Ang Lee is a great filmmaker, but has yet to make a genuinely great film. His work on Brokeback is as meticulous and measured as always, almost too much so. It is often so over-posed in its desolate beauty as to look like the world’s first animated Andrew Wyeth painting, and his feeling for the West is never quite convincingly raw. Since the warm inclusiveness of his early films, a frost has gilded Lee’s heart, and he finally seems to mistake emotional stinginess for detachment. This attitude accounts for my lingering dissatisfaction with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ride with the Devil, The Ice Storm, and his work on Brokeback Mountain, which is finally a triumph more for the actors and screenwriters (McMurtry and Diana Ossana), than of Lee’s Oscar-winning turn.
In comparison, Tommy Lee Jones’ work on Three Burials is much less refined and skilled, particularly some clumsy scene interchanges where music starts blaring without reason and static camera set-ups. Yet Jones knows his subject more truly, and at his best, he captures with almost surreal intensity his locale and characters, particularly when he gets to the Mexican side of the border, and Pete lounges drunkenly in a cantina that’s ancient but with modern appliances. Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay is as humane and fine-threaded as his work for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and retains two of his singular qualities: his love of moral fable and his tendency to go on too long.
A part of me wanted to see—unlikely as it was—Sam Peckinpah make Brokeback Mountain, and Three Burials gives hints of what that might have looked like. For Peckinpah, that blood and dust and hot leather would have reeked with urgency, whilst Brokeback smells only of far-off snow. But Brokeback Mountain is still a remarkably haunting and intense experience. Three Burials is a less fine but more pleasurable experience, its moments of urgent humanity and its jolts of wry humour sit happily in the memory. Both films are spotted with great performances up front and in the background from Pepper, Leo, and Levon Helm in Three Burials, and from Ledger, down to Williams, Hathaway, Cardellini, even a small shot of cheer from scene-stealer Anna Faris (whose dingbat starlet was one of Lost in Translation’s memorable elements), in Brokeback. Beyond this, Three Burials confirms the beauty of human beings, where Brokeback, for all the pseudo-political arguments the mass-media and commentators tried to extrapolate from its tale, actually states a thesis that living is agony, no matter your caste and character. l