Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ira Sachs | Love Is Strange

private lives/public lives
by Douglas Messerli

Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (screenplay), Ira Sachs (director) Love Is Strange / 2014

Most of the nearly unanimously positive reviews of Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange portray the film as being about a gay couple, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) and their relationship during a period of time when the couple suddenly discover that they can no longer afford their condominium and are forced to move in with others, Ben to his nephew’s Brooklyn home where he lives with his family, and George to the nearby apartment of two gay cops. And most critics have highly praised the film’s portrayal of the couple’s relationship by its two leads. Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey, for example, summarizes this critical respect: “…in the hands of two of the craft’s best, the most ordinary of moments become illuminating, penetrating.”

In fact, I’d argue—although I’d agree that Lithgow and Molina are both very good actors in this movie—that there are so few moments in this film that truly reveal the nature of their actual relationship that we have to make a great leap in simply assuming that after more than 30 years this couple is deeply in love and barely able to survive without each other. Only in the very few scenes—in an early gathering after their marriage ceremony, as they joyfully sing a Broadway standard together in their living room amongst friends; in a second scene where the two cuddle up with other in a transitory gathering in the bunk-bed in to which Ben has been assigned to share with his nephew’s son, Joey (Charlie Tahan); in a nearly speechless encounter at a concert after which they joking spar about Ben’s Romantic sensibility; and in a penultimate scene in which the two gather for a quick drink at a Village gay bar (once a favorite of mine, Julius’ on the corner of 10th and Waverly) during which the two briefly hint at Ben’s occasional unfaithfulness and George’s more steady support of his companion and his art—does the film give any evidence of what their life together might have been like. As my husband, Howard, complained: “We don’t really get to know them very well, do we?”

      Although we do get to know a little more about each of them than I have just suggested, we discover very little about them as a couple, or even why they have decided to marry. Sachs leaves it to our imagination to fill in how these two might have behaved in their “private lives.” What we do perceive is that Ben and George are, in fact, very private people. Neither of them— so we discern through Ben’s “lie” to the bartender about being involved with the original protest against Julius’ original discrimination against homosexuals—has been particularly politically active. For many long years, George, a religious believer, has quietly taught music at a Catholic school where, although his sexuality has been an “open secret,” he has clearly never ruffled any sensibilities. As an artist, Ben has seemingly has spent more time as an observer of art than as a painter whose who has been shown there—a man who, visiting all the major galleries, has apparently lived his life dreaming of someday being “discovered.” Although they live comfortably in their condominium, they apparently have not been able save much for the days of retirement (willingly in Ben’s case and enforced in George’s) which they now face. Although they have regularly entertained in their home, their closest friends appear to be family members and gay friends who live nearby. And although it is apparent that those friends clearly love and enjoy the company of this couple, they seemingly know little about just how much their separation will affect the two, and how different their own patterns and behaviors are from the more quiet pleasures of George and Ben. In short, they have lived an utterly normal life that, as do so very many gay couples, they have remained under any “cultural” radar.

      These two men have lived a life not so dissimilar to that of Howard’s and my life in which we, after 45 years of living together, have few gay friends, living openly in a world which our relationship does little to intrude on or question the relationships of others.

      Only when the two men in the film marry, the event that sets all the concerns of the film into motion, does their life suddenly become “public.” And that moment changes everything, beginning with the unstated (and by the movie unchallenged) homophobia of church doctrine, as George is fired by the priest who has been a life-time friend. His excuse is that of all those who shirk moral responsibility: it’s the fault of the higher-ups—and besides, hadn’t George signed away his life by committing to the values of the Church when he joined the teaching staff?

      That decision suddenly catapults them, living in a world of exorbitantly outrageous real estate prices, into a kind of homelessness as they engage—as if they were embarking upon a hunt for the holy grail—in a search for an affordable rental space, something that, as the movie progresses, seems more and more like perusing a technical manual written in governmental agency doubletalk.

      More importantly, their sudden public identities require that they both truly engage with others, revealing perhaps how little we know—and as Ben, suggests, how little we really might want to know about the lives of our friends. Although they all struggle bravely to resist hurting each other, the family and their “life” into which Ben is thrust is fraught with filial, marital, and simply emotional tensions, as the father Elliot (Darren Burrows), mother Kate (Marisa Tomei), and son Joey work hard to ignore one another. Into their silent avoidance of each other, Ben tromps in like a buffoon, disrupting Kate’s work on her novel and Joey’s private adolescent searchings, while Elliot continues working (vaguely as a video producer of some sort) long hours before occasionally diving back into family life. Sharing his room with the odd intruder, Joey is particularly flummoxed. How are you supposed to discover who you are, intellectually and sexually, with an old gay man sharing your bunk bed each night.

      Joey has developed a rather mysterious relationship with a slightly older friend, a Russian boy named Vlad (Eric Tabach), an odd relationship in Elliot’s eyes and a fascinating one from Ben’s point-of-view, who quickly makes the whole situation more complex by Ben’s seemingly innocent recruitment of Vlad as a model for his roof-top painting. Joey’s hostile reaction when he discovers his friend’s temporary role seems out of proportion to any logical emotional response. Could it be, we are led to ask, between the two boys something sexual is going on?

      We soon perceive that it is not that, but might as well be. The two are in love, so to speak, with desire—the desire for something outside of their temporarily closed-off lives; in this case it is a love of all things French, including books in that language they cannot read which Vlad has stolen from their school library. How can parents be expected to comprehend such a complicated love as that which has suddenly obsessed these two bright boys, binding them momentarily, in a private commitment to another world and one another in the process? How can a distant relative possibly be expected to help the young boy with whom he neverously sleeps each night? Miraculously, Ben does open up the conversation to question Joey about his love life, and gives him the permission, somehow, the boy needs to approach the opposite sex. But Ben can have no answers, surely, for the parents who, in their self-centered activities, appear to be destined to destroy any marital ties they have left. Is it any wonder, living in the unstable world of such fraught loving, that Ben falls down a flight of stairs, betraying the early signs of a problem with his heart.

      At least George’s new public life is more transparent; but that is just the problem. Living with the two young cops who party late into every night, George’s life has become so thoroughly public that he has hardly any of his self left to inhabit. The pair and their friends, like Elliot and Kate, might also be said to be uncommitted to any deep relationships, but at least Ben can occasionally find a night of rest, whereas George must torturously wait out their noisy evenings before he can lie down upon their living-room couch. And it is he who first cracks, rushing off to Brooklyn just to hold his missing mate, revealing the impossibility of living a public life without his beloved other. Yet even within the din of noise and meaningless partying in which few of the guests even know their hosts, George also discovers another lost soul, a young man, Ian (Christian Coulson), who just happens to have an inexpensive apartment to rent!

      But in Sachs’s sad fable, the now public couple’s economic salvation comes too late. Through a narrative break in time, we discover George living in the new hospitable space, but now even more privately than he had before, Ben having died. Joey sheepishly shows up, in part to explain his absence from the funeral (he wanted to remember Ben, he justifiably explains, as he had been, not as a corpse) and to deliver up a special gift—the unfinished painting Ben had done of Vlad—a token of the past meant, clearly, to heal the broken present. Of course, it cannot mend the tear in George’s heart. Between that totally public roof-top encounter of the old artist and his young model and the now quiet entombment of his surviving mate, lies an entire unknowable world that no matter how much one tries can never be truly bridged. Between the private and the public self, perhaps, there can be no complete communication. That gap, between feelings and actions, between the regretted past and the redeemable future, between troubling desire and peaceful comfort is quietly expressed in Love Is Strange by the boy’s extended pause in the hallway outside of Ben’s new apartment, where he releases those built-up tensions in a gentle torrent of tears.

      A few moments later, Joey has hooked up with a girl who obviously is his new friend, the two of them skate-boarding into the sunset and, just possibly, into a new privately-lived golden age of togetherness.

Los Angeles, August 25, 2014

Reprinted from Nth Position (September 2014).

Monday, August 25, 2014

Joseph Losey | The Damned (These Are the Damned)

buried seed
by Douglas Messerli

Evan Jones (screenplay, based on a story by H. L. Lawrence), Joseph Losey (director) The Damned (These Are the Damned) / 1963, USA 1965

Having visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s to study the Russian stage, and working as a director for the WPS’s Federal Theatre Project, Joseph Losey seemed destined, it appears in hindsight, to come under investigation in the 1940s by the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Not only had Losey worked for the perceived “Commie”-aligned Federal Theatre Project, but he had been close friends with German composer Hans Eisler, who worked closely with German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Described by some as “the Karl Marx of music” and “the chief Soviet agent in Hollywood,” Eisler came under investigation, and was placed on the Hollywood blacklist, despite early support by Charles Chaplin, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, and Wood Guthrie. Eisler was deported from the US in 1948.

     Losey’s first wife, Elizabeth Hawes, moreover, had worked with numerous Communist (an anti-Communist) liberals at the leftist-leaning newspaper PM. After it closed in 1944, she wrote about her work as a union organizer after World War II, arguing “one preferred the Communists to the Red-Baiters.” Losey, himself, had joined the Communist Party in 1946, explaining later:

              I had a feeling that I was being useless in Hollywood, that I'd been

              cut off from New York activity and I felt that my existence was

              unjustified. It was a kind of Hollywood guilt that led me into that

              kind of commitment. And I think that the work that I did on a much

              freer, more personal and independent basis for the political left in

              New York, before going to Hollywood, was much more valuable


     Losey’s long-term contract with Dore Schary at RKO was extended by the company’s new purchaser, Howard Hughes, in 1948. But Hughes purged anyone he suspected of Communist sympathies, as Losey described it, by offering him a film to direct: I Married a Communist. When Losey immediately turned the project down, it has clear to Hughes that the director was a “red.” Accordingly, Hughes held Losey to his contract, but refused to assign him any new work. Schary intervened, persuading Hughes to release Losey, and the director began working as an independent for Paramount Pictures. When Losey, however, was called by two witnesses for testimony before HUAC, he abandoned his editing of The Big Night, and left for Europe a few days later, while HUAC tried unsuccessfully to issue him a subpoena. After working on Stranger on the Prowl in Italy, the director returned to the U.S. in 1952, but found that he was unemployable.

For a “brief moment” Losey was considered as a possible director of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, but he was because he had been “named” by the Committee. Once again, he left the country, this time for twelve years, settling first in Rome and then in London in 1953.

     As Losey describes it, “I didn’t stay away for reasons of fear, it was just that I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any work.”  And so the U.S. lost another significant artist, despite the assertion of some that the blacklisted directors and writers represented artists of insignificant talent.

     Under a pseudonym Losey worked on a couple of films in English, but when he was scheduled to direct the Hammer Production of X The Unknown, actor Dean Jagger refused to work with a supposed Communist sympathizer, and Losey was removed, to be later reassigned to another Hammer project, The Damned. 

     Although the film was made in 1961, it was shelved due to political considerations, including Losey’s sympathies, but also because of its comments on contemporary British culture, until 1963, with several minutes cut from the original. When it was finally released in the United States as These Are the Damned in 1965, the film was further cut from its original 96 minutes to 77 minutes, creating a confusion of character actions and motivations and the removal of some of its philosophical considerations.

On one level, The Damned is a kind of precursor to Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel The Clockwork Orange, transformed into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. But it also has elements similar to Colin MacInnes’ fictions, City of Spades and Absolute Beginners of a few years earlier. What all these works have in common is the presentation of British gang culture, in both MacInnes’ fiction and in Losey’s film described as Teddy Boys. The leather-jacketed, bowler-hatted-gang of Losey’s work prowl the streets of the seaside village of Weymouth, waiting to rob and molest unsuspecting tourists.

     The film begins with just such a mugging, during the musical accompaniment of an almost comical gang sing-along:

                        Black leather, black leather

                        Smash smash smash

                        Black leather, black leather

                        Crash crash crash

                        Black leather, black leather

                        Kill kill kill

                        I got that feeling

                        Black leather rock

     Attracted to a young woman lurking about the streets, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), the wealthy American Simon (MacDonald Carey) attempts to pick her up, only to be waylaid by the gang, headed by Joan’s brother, King (Oliver Reed). Beaten and robbed, Simon is rescued by two local military men who return him to the town’s hotel, overseen, it appears, by Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local celebrity who is also in charge of a top secret military experiment. Bernard’s mistress, the bohemian artist Freya (a wonderful Viveca Lindfors) has just returned to Weymouth from London, and, after meeting Simon, poutingly scolds Bernard for his secrecy. He warns her that he dare not involve her in his secret life for it may me “condemning her to death.”      

      Accordingly, we immediately sense that this seeming charming community is loaded with dangerous figures who clearly are not fond of any kind of intrusion. King and his gang continue to goad the recovered Simon at the very moment that Joan has joined him as he prepares to take out his boat.

      King, pathologically protective of his sister, demands that she leave the boat or he will hurt Simon. She unwilling does so, but, as the boat begins to move out into the bay, she suddenly jumps aboard to rejoin Simon, infuriating King and his delinquent friends who are not determined  to kill the American.

      Thus far, Losey’s film seems to be pointing to the kind of intimidation of innocents by bullies that we can observe in other films of the day such as Marlon Brando and his gang in The Wild One (1953) or the school gangs’ attacks on James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955). The situation is tense, but hardly earth-shattering in its moral consequences. The question that arises is simply how will Simon and the strange half-wild girl to whom he is now attracted survive. They may be threatened and even face death, but we can hardly define them or the  the evil-minded Teddy Boys as “damned.”      Quite quickly, however, the film entirely shifts its focus, as Joan suggests a spot where the two may secretly spend the night on land, an empty apartment embedded in a nearby fortress usually inhabited by the sculptor, Freya, we have already met.

      The odd couple break-in to the apartment, watched without their knowledge by King and his gang, and share, for a short while, the joys of sexual intercourse—evidently the first time that Joan, unbelievably, has been able to escape the watchful eye of her brother, who has trapped her, so it seems, in a nearly incestuous relationship.

      Freya’s return, however, quickly requires the couple’s exit, while the sculptor, discovering that someone has broken into her lair is equally intruded upon by the violent King, who in anger for her inability to tell him where the couple has gone, destroys one of her favorite works, a bird that is both beautiful and horrific.

      As the couple retreat further into the cliffs, they fall into a small stream, as does King as he attempts to follow them. Simon and Joan are “saved” suddenly by a group of children, who take them inside the mountain through a kind of magical (futuristic) door, where they discover that their saviors are incredibly cold to the touch.

      King is later saved by one of the young boys of the group.

      We have already been shown, just previous to this event, these children, locked away in the military fortress, are being schooled by the evil Bernard. And we soon discover after the three intruders entry, that the children were all born on the same day to radioactive mothers who died soon after. The children miraculously survived, and are now being kept by the military for the day when a nuclear explosion will likely destroy all of mankind. These educated, trained beings, which Bernard refers to as “buried seed,” will, thereafter, be freed to begin a new race of humans able to survive the “brave new world” they will be forced to face.         

     Meanwhile, the children have been proffered only bits and pieces of information, which they have gradually expanded to comprehend that there may exist a world outside of theirs or that they inhabit a spacecraft on a long trip to another planet. The appearance of three new humans in their midst at first give them the hope that they may be their parents come to claim them, or, later, that the strangers may help them to escape.

      Losey, in short, has created in this film a bi-level world of violence consisting of destructive teenagers who serve, perhaps, merely as a reflection of a far more pernicious and terrifying world of adults and the governmental authorities they represent. It is a cynical world on both levels, but particularly in Bernard and the military’s case, who are convinced that there is no alternative to world destruction but a new breed of mankind.

      Simon, Joan, and even King determine to help the children escape, but in the time that they have spent with them they have already become infected with radioactivity—and, metaphorically speaking, with the very reality of such a perverted perception of life through which Bernard and his cronies justify their behavior. Bringing the children temporarily to the daylight merely helps speed everyone’s destruction. The children are quickly rounded up by the military helicopters and returned to their darkness. The one boy who escapes with King is sent away as “poisoned” by the already dying gang-leader. King crashes his car over a bridge.

      Simon and Joan, returning to their boat, are seen circling in the ocean with helicopters circling overhead. Freya, who refuses the brutal vision of the future espoused by her lover, is shot to death.

      Losey’s split terrorist-tale and science-fiction flick combine two genres to reveal the multiple interconnections between the mindlessness of certain kinds of juvenile violence and its consequences in the authoritarian imprisonment of innocents. The blinded righteousness of both generations close off any normal possibilities of love, family, community, or open-minded culture. It is not a great leap to perceive that the children’s “differentness” has led directly to their imprisonment and isolation, just as the wild hysteria of McCarthy’s and the red-baiters’ political fears fed into a system of disenfranchisement and open hate of those who stood against the standard American values. In both cases, the future is damned! 

Los Angeles, August 22, 2104