Sunday, October 29, 2017

John Butler | Handsome Devil

by Douglas Messerli

John Butler (writer and director) Handsome Devil / 2016

John Butler’s 2016 film, Handsome Devil, immediately reminds one of a great many other coming-of-age and gay coming-out films. In its focus on a young unhappy school boy, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), who attempts to drown out his misery in song, Butler’s film reminds one a bit of John Carney’s Sing Street. Except in Carney’s film, the young hero is taken out of a posh boarding school and forced to attend an inner city Dublin Christian Brothers’ school, and although that young man was most unhappy with his classmates, he wasn’t bullied because of being gay. Ned would surely love to be taken out of his rugby-obsessed boarding school, and attempts even to convince his wealthy parents to let him drop out of school altogether, although he appears to be a fairly competent student.
      In Ned’s sense of imprisonment, particularly when forced to room with a new student, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), the “handsome devil” of the title who is also a rugby star, the film also calls up Simon Shore’s teen gay love film, Get Real.  Like the hero of that film, Ned also gradually becomes a friend of the jock, particularly when, as in Get Real, Ned discovers that  Conor is also gay. But even though the two are roommates, these 16-year-olds do not have sex. Moreover, unlike the totally self-loathing sprinter, John Dixon, Conor is fairly comfortable with his own sexuality—if only everybody else weren’t so terrified of that possibility, particularly his teammates, particularly the always taunting Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor) and, even worse, the single-minded rugby coach (Moe Dunford), determined to win games at all costs.
      In a single night, after celebrating another rugby win, Conor discovers that the school’s new, and increasingly popular English teacher (Andrew Scott) is gay, after he runs into him in a nearby village gay bar, and Ned discovers that his roommate is gay when he accidentally observes him entering that same bar.
      As in Ned confesses to the school—however, not about his own sexuality but about Conor’s being gay. When in horror, Conor bolts, (he’s already been kicked out of another school for fighting those who taunted him) threatening the rugby heart of Wood Hall.
     Ashamed for his behavior, which may also actually result in his expulsion, Ned determines where Conor has gone and brings him back, thus allowing the team to win the game, and a way to show all his fellow classmates and staff that you can be a great team-player and gay at the same time.
       We know this kind of bullying still exists, but there is something, nonetheless, retarder about the way this film resolves the problem, particularly in its preachment of the obvious clichés to its inevitable gay-based audience.    
      Moreover, although Scott appears in this film to be a far better English teacher than was Robin Williams’ character in Peter Wier’s Dead Poets Society, a nearly insufferable over-zealous, do-gooder English teacher, there is some of the same piousness in this new film that we encounter over and over again in the media: “things do get better,” “If you don’t be yourselves, who will be?,” etc.
     Handsome Devil is a lovely, feel-good film, but my only wish is that it was simply more honest. There will always be people in this world who detest other people for loving someone of the same sex or hating those who are unsure of their own sexual identity. That hasn’t changed over time, despite all the major shifts in society. In some ways, in fact, it’s gotten worse: the haters encouraged by politicians like Trump and Pence to keep gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals out of schools, jobs, and housing. And winning a rugby game will never be enough to win the hearts of those who so hate. We can only hope that one day, people will come to recognize that those who are different are also the same.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2017

Friday, October 27, 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Katzelmacher

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Katzelmacher  / 1969

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s second film of 1969 already reveals his genius. If his lovely premier film, Love Is Colder Than Death, is an interesting send-up of his love of American crime films, particularly the noir masterpieces of the 1940s and 1950s, that second film, Katzelmacher (a world meaning, quite literally, “cat-screwer” and, more generally, “troublemaker) takes us firmly back into the German milieu which Fassbinder was to explore most of the rest of his life. Particularly in this work the director explores the younger generation of German “losers” upon whom he focuses in Fox and His Friends, In a Year with 13 Moons, The American Soldier, The Merchant of Four Seasons, and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, as well of Fassbinder’s insistent revelation of his being a culture that painfully excludes outsiders, such as he portrayed in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
       Here he focuses, in a series of very theatrical vignettes (the work was first presented as a play), introducing us, pair by pair, quartet by quartet to Marie (Hanna Schygulla), Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem), (Helga (Lilith Ungerer), Rosy (Elga Sorbas), Gunda (Doris Mattes), Erich (Hans Hirschmüller), Franz (Harry Baer) and Peter (Peter Moland), none of them (with the exception of Marie, Rosy, and Franz)—most unusual in Fassbinder’s films—worth giving a second glance,  all, having grown up in the same Munich neighborhood, after having gone to high school together, and now believing that their friends are “primo,” the best in the world. They not only hang out together on the street, but in bars and in each other’s apartments, sharing sex, gossip, local barbs, and, mostly, empty stares. This group of supposedly 20-year olds are going nowhere fast, with some of the men clearly beginning to plot some petty crime to help make them richer before their military duty comes calling.
     Although they have all long played sexual musical chairs (in one scene they actually act out their previous interrelationships by changing chairs in a small bar), the women proclaim to the heavens that their men are wonderful sexual partners, if only they could get their current partners to commit to marriage.
       They are, in fact, a quite despicable little clan, the type that make up hundreds of small American towns and even Australian ones (as portrayed in Muriel’s Wedding), who, left behind, feel that they exist as the center of the universe, despite their poverty, bigotry, and inability to find real love.
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       Fassbinder reveals their emptiness by putting them, time and again, into a starkly black and white lineup, one beside the other or one posing next to another, or, at other times, spread out on the street like waiting whores, both men and women basically playing those roles in their private lives. Rosy has even become a real whore (with regular paying customers from this group of “friends”) with dreams of becoming a television star; Paul brings in a few marks each week by servicing a homosexual patron, Klaus (Hannes Gromball), who is probably the nicest of the men in this movie.
        The rest mutter inanities to one another or often sit sipping beer and endlessly smoking cigarettes; the women share romance magazines, smoke, and tell horrible tales behind each’s other back. No one of these characters dares to look one another in the eyes, with the men suddenly slapping their girlfriends brutally across the face if they present even the slightest of resistance to their endless “suggestions” on how they might rake thousands of marks.
      Indeed, throughout most of the movie’s first 50 minutes, Fassbinder tests our patience with his endless dialogues, mostly empty of any content, except to quite brilliantly reveal his character’s pointless lives—this is a true drama of despair—and prepare us from the arrival, in their neighborhood of an outsider, a Greek worker, Jorgos (brilliantly performed by Fassbinder himself).
     Jorgos has come to Germany to make more money for his family back in Greece, and Elisabeth (Irm Hermann), the only woman of this coven who seems to be able to financially survive (she supports her ape-like husband Peter),  determining to rent an empty room in her house to Jorgos. Like a kind of Maria Braun, the powerful title character of a later Fassbinder film, she knows how to truly succeed.
      Her neighbors not only harass her, but bully and berate the Greek, who cannot even comprehend their German-language taunts, believing that they are perhaps being friendly with their xenophobic comments. When Marie leaves her current lover, falling in love with the gentle stranger, the men plot castration and much else, fortunately as empty in terms of action as most of their meaningless plots.
      Yet even Marie senses, as does the audience, a truly violent encounter is in the air, suggesting these people know each other so well that they can smell their acts. And after Gunda lies about being raped by the stranger in the playground, and another of them reports that Greece is filled with Communists, suggesting than Jorgos is himself a sympathizer—an even more terrifying possibility for these thoughtless Germans—four of the males beat him when he attempts to pass their horizontally-controlled universe.
       Jorgos survives, and Elisabeth requests that, despite the “bam-bam” incident he has suffered that he stay on, while her boyfriend reveals that she is getting a top-rate rent for the room and is now planning to divide the bedroom where he lives to invite in another “outsider.” The group gradually perceives the wisdom of her ways. “Elisabeth always was a good business woman,” they sigh. “These foreigners work hard and keep their money within the country,” they suddenly perceive, after reading a newspaper. Maybe it’s not too bad to have a few Greeks and Turks around to help out the German economy. Marie even believes that come spring-time Jorgos might take her on trip to Greece, despite the existence of wife: things are different there in Greece, she imagines. Like so many of Fassbinder’s films, one might cry out in despair if only we weren’t laughing just underneath of tears.
       Today, when we think of the strategies of Angela Merkel in relationship with our new xenophobia promoted by Donald Trump, Fassbinder’s 1969 film seems absolutely prophetic!

Los Angeles, October 27, 2017

Thursday, October 26, 2017

William Dieterle | Dark City

by Douglas Messerli

John Meredyth Lucas (screenplay, based on a story by Larry Marcus), William Dieterle (director) Dark City / 1950

William Dieterle’s 1950 melodrama, Dark City, one might argue, is a grade B movie with a grade A cast. With the go-to noir actress Lizabeth Scott, such 1950s regulars as Viveca Lindfors, Dean Jagger, Don DeFore, Jack Webb, Ed Begley, and Harry Morgan, and with new-comer hero, Charlton Heston (in his first Hollywood film), how, one wonders, could this movie have failed?
 Image result for Dark City 1950 film Well, we might begin with the plot. It’s overly simple: an upright business man accidentally falls in with some petty criminals—Heston and his gang run a often raided bookie joint—Arthur Winant (DeFore) gets hoodwinked in two nights of poker games, losing, in the process $5,000 of his company’s money. Shamed by his own behavior, he hangs himself. And for the rest of the movie, Winant’s “crazy” brother stalks Danny Haley (Heston) and his gang (Webb, Begley, and .Morgan).
     Ulcer-sufferer Barney (Begley) is the first to go, and the police (represented by Jagger) suddenly realize that, somehow, Haley’s gang is involved in Winant’s death. The others spend their time simply trying to survive, Soldier (Morgan) speeding off to Las Vegas, and Augie (Webb) nervously following his boss to Los Angeles, just to get a picture of the “crazy” brother who’s after them. Augie is the second to go. And, oh yes, Haley loves Fran Garland (Scott). It’s hard to keep such a simple plot going, let alone spinning it out into interesting scenarios.
      Scott, dressed in slinky gowns while lip-syncing several torch songs, does her very best, while trying not to show how much she’ll do to hang onto her wary lover (there’s a momentary back story that suggests Haley lost his first, European-born love during World War II). Composer Franz Waxman whips up a first-rate score, almost as if he were composing for a Hitchcock film. And cinematographer Victor Milner stalks his figures through the three dark cities they inhabit, just as if he were truly filming a great noir. Even the usually sunny-white Los Angeles Union Station glowers threateningly under Milner’s camera.
      But the German-born director, William Dieterle, was never much known for his subtlety nor adventurousness, even though, during the 1950s he was briefly suspected for having Communist ties, particularly since he was a friend of Bertholt Brecht; and he struggles, white gloves (which we usually wore to work so that he wouldn’t get mussed) on hands, to create a noir, in this case, while basically asserting Haley’s inner goodness. He does truly love his torch-singer girlfriend, and even falls, temporarily, for Winant’s widow and young son. Even the police try to save him. And in the end, hardly the making of a true noir, Haley is saved to return to the woman he loves.
    When a movie begins with a chiseled-face hero walking down the credits with a ribbon-bound box within which sits a stuffed Easter-rabbit in it, you know you’re not in noir country, but have instead entered a darkly-lit melodrama, closer to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians that Heston’s true noir, Touch of Evil. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But it might have been so much more interesting if the director had got his hands just a little dirty.

Los Angeles, October 26, 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Noah Baumbach | The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

by Douglas Messerli

Noah Baumbach (writer and director) The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) / 2017

Image result for the meyerowitz storiesAfter several quite edgy films, director Noah Baumbach has discovered a softer tone and method to get to the core of his vision of neurotic New York family life. At the heart, or perhaps one should say “selfish center” of the Meyerowitz family is the self-engrossed artist father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman) (clearly another stand-in for his own writer- father, Jonathan) who has been married 4 times—well, he demurs, the first was annulled—producing with his various wives three children, two of whom are loveable but total social failures. Danny (Adam Sandler), son of a wife played by Candice Bergen, is a former music composer and performer, who has abandoned his career for unclear reasons, but has still managed to raise a beautiful young daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), off to Bard College, where Harold has previously taught. His sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is so retiring and seemingly permanently “scarred” (we later discover at least one reason for her condition) that she almost reminds one of Bette Davis’ character early on in Now, Voyager—except, in this case, without the possibility of a ship voyage cure.
      Their half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller) put his neuroses to work far more successfully as a Los Angeles-based business manager (a kind of heavy-weight agent). His mother, Maureen (Emma Thomson) is clearly an ex-Bard student herself, trying, quite unsuccessfully, to the play the role of a good housewife (the dinner of nearly raw shark she cooks represents the disasters of her housekeeping attempts). Besides, as Danny and Eliza arrive at Harold’s door, Eliza on her way to Bard and Danny, planning to stay on with his father, until finds another career, Maureen is off to a retreat to rest. Given what we soon discover about Harold and his self-obsession, mostly expressed in one-line zingers of hostile judgment, we don’t blame her.
      Harold feels ignored. At one time The Whitney even bought one of his works of art (now seemingly lost in their storage space), but in his old age, seemingly, no one is interested in his quite obviously late modernist sculptures. His Bard colleague, on the other hand, is currently having a retrospective at MOMA, an event he begrudgingly attends with Danny, resulting in several hilarious vignettes, including a rather meaningless encounter with Sigourney Weaver and with a former woman acquaintance of Danny’s, which given his separation from his current wife, briefly allows him to imagine he might still be able to find another relationship; besides Sigourney has said hello to him.
Image result for the meyerowitz stories      In order to bring his comedy-drama into full play, Baumbach must find an excuse to bring these suffering folk in touch with their younger brother, Matthew, who flies into town on business, necessarily stopping by at his father’s house. A sudden partial heart-attack or stroke, suffered by Harold, forces the family to interact once again, poignantly and rather comically forcing them all to live out their jealousies and life-time hurts. Harold imagines that his best-loved work was created with his son Matthew at his feet, but we gradually perceive that it was the neglected Danny who was his true muse. Jean recalls an childhood incident when a friend of her father's masturbated in front of her.
       But, it actually turns out, the successful Matthew, having also broken up his marriage, is the unhappy of them. His life has been built on deal-making, and he is attempting to make yet one more deal by selling his father’s house and art to a gay couple, desperate to “move up” to the lower East Side.
       For those living outside the 1000 zipcodes, much of this tale may seem a bit incomprehensible. How might Danny allow his daughter to make a kind porno-satire like her “Pagina-Man”; and who might have doctors, who in the middle of caring for a patient, suddenly decide to go on vacation? Who attempts to lunch on expensive steaks, yet before the meal comes, determine to leave, outraged by the  waiter’s and other diner’s behaviors? Who might demand a copy of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks back from their ex-wife? Yes, Baumbach’s comic routines—playing out something like a series of riffs—seem, perhaps, more at home in the pages of The New Yorker or in a J. D. Salinger fiction than in the movie theaters (particularly if you ignore the films of Woody Allen).
      To me, strangely enough, a man directly out of the Midwest, who lived in Manhattan for only a brief year, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) seemed so pitch-perfect that I couldn’t help comparing some of these incidents to some of my New York friends’ lives.
       And yes, Baumbach’s characters, as in all of his movies, are cynical beings who see themselves in terms of larger-than-life figures. But that is, alas, all they have left of themselves.
        Any director who can get such marvelously crafted performances from, not only the almost-always brilliant Hoffman, but from Sandler (a revelation), Stiller, and newcomer Van Patten is simply a genius. And his softer, more forgiving treatment of these somewhat cartoonish-life figures is only to be commended. This is a movie I will see again.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

João Pedro Rodrigues | O Ornitólogo (The Ornithologist)

by Douglas Messerli

João Pedro Rodrigues (writer and director) O Ornitólogo (The Ornithologist) / 2017

Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues’ 2017 film, The Ornithologist, is ostensibly a very loose retelling of the life the Portuguese religious figure, St. Anthony of Padua. But its approach to the saint is entirely metaphorical and secular, posing its hero, Fernando (Paul Hamy) as a handsome young gay ornithologist, who has left behind his lover, Sergio, to voyage into the wilderness to check on the health of the species of black stork living in the wilds of northern Portugal. 

      The bird’s association with pregnancy and the delivery of babies is apt, since the journey—paralleling the Saint’s voyage from Morocco back to Portugal and his survival is Sicily—is a tale filled with new birth and discovery. 
      In the film’s first few scenes, little “happens” in the traditional sense of cinematic storytelling, but shows us how to view it by simply sitting back and watching nature and the people in it. Rational explanations are hardly necessary as Fernando goes for a swim, frustratedly attempts to telephone his lover at home, and checks out the local birds with his binoculars. Images come and go as Rodrigues and his wonderful cinematographer Rui Poças move the camera from one species of birds to another, from a nest filled with eggs to a group of new stork chicks exploring life. 
     With so much of the natural world around him, is it any wonder that the hero, now floating down the river on a kayak, mightn’t lose touch with navigating the river. His inability to focus on his voyage instead the world around him, however, ends in a kind of disaster, as he suddenly hits a heavy rapids, ending in what appears to his being drowned.
      From there, the fairly experimental filmmakers take us into the wilds where two Chinese women, Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan), are trekking without really knowing where they are going. They describe themselves as Christian pilgrims and, in a radical shift of storytelling, the director and his cinematographer suddenly retell some of their adventures through a series of snapshots and a travelogue montage of their previous adventures which seem to  have spanned the globe. Despite their own sense of helplessness, we quickly perceive that these two “pilgrims” are so intrepid that they surely find their way out of wilderness in which they are currently lost. We also immediately realize that, despite their deep traditional faith, the two are lesbians.
      The utter contradictions of Rodrigues film are what make his fictions so interesting. When these “pilgrims” soon after come across the “body” of Fernando lying in a small pool of backwater, they are fearful of even approaching him. After all, what are two Christian girls going to do if this man is still alive and might possibly attempt to rape them? But we also suspect, as I suggest above, they are thoroughly able to take care of themselves.
       Indeed, Fernando is still living, and after they bring him back to life, they demand that he lead them out of the wilderness. Fernando tells them that he is going in the opposite direction and refuses their pleas. As a professed atheist, he is not moved by their pleas to God. They continue to cajole him throughout a small dinner ends with a hot cup of specially brewed tea.
      The tea, of course, is a potent drug which knocks him out. When Fernando awakens he discovers himself trussed up in dozens of ropes and half hanging from the branch of a nearby tree. Now they “insist” upon his heling them, but disgusted by what they have done with him, he even more insistently refuses their request, spitting into the face of one of his imprisoners. But it is clearly they who have the upper hand, as the director poses Fernando in tight underwear, looks much like the almost naked Saint Sebastian about to be killed by arrows. 
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     The next night, when they head off to their nearby tent, he finds a way to release the ropes that hold his hands and gradually is able to release his other bindings. Quietly gathering up his clothes and a few possessions he runs off deeper into woods, especially upon hearing them discuss that in the morning they plan to castrate him.
      We surely now recognize that we are entering a surrealist world that is akin to Buñuel,  Cocteau, and others wherein intellect cannot completely interpret the reality that we see. For no sooner has Fernando has entered deeper into the forest than he encounters the terrifying night figures the women have been complaining about. These strange “birds” are evidently young native boys dressed up in bird-like costumes covered with hundreds of shreds of multi-colored cloth, as they whoop and dance about a fire, whipping themselves up to a kind of inexplicable frenzy. There seems to be no “real” purpose about their crazed movements, but simply some sort of ritualistic intent, a bit like a whirling dervish that may take them into some spiritual ecstasy. 
      Yet Rodrigues even contravenes here but the insistence of one of their members—possibly the same goat herding-boy who Fernando later encounters near the river—who proclaims he must pee, and doing so, showers the hiding Fernando blow the hill from which he stands with urine; at first Fernando tries to escape the current, but gradually almost seems to enjoy it, allowing to flow across his face and into his lips.
       En route once more, he discovers parts of his own kayak, seemingly placed in a kind of symbolic, possibly ritualistic position.
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       Soon after, he encounters the hunky goatherd ((Xelo Cagiao) drinking from the teat of one of the lambs he is tending. The boy turns out to be a mute, but soon makes his desires clear, as he strips and jumps into the nearby river for a swim, beckoning Fernando to join him. Fernando   waves him on, but soon after changes his mind, and after a playful splashing, the two engage in sex in the sand nearby.     
      Once again, however, things suddenly shift as the young boy appears to threaten him, knife in hand, and in a struggle is (accidently?) killed by Fernando.
      By this time the film has become simply a kind of dreamscape as the hero visits a strange structure he discovers, imagines an image of the young goatherd, slipping two fingers into his open wound, and encounters a group of horse-riding amazons. The former voyeur of the natural world has become someone other, a figure of the spirit, infused with the wonderment of nature itself.
      As Justin Chang, writing in the Los Angeles Times, observed: “We keep watching, not for the revelation of what it all means, but for the simple, inexplicable beauty of what it is.”
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      Yet one can imagine some sort of interrelationship between the beautiful images and the events this movie presents. All of these figures who we encounter, including the ornithologist himself, are, in one way or another, lost. The women cannot find their way to the church they are seeking; without his cellphone and map; Fernando seemingly cannot find his way back to civilization and, just perhaps, given their brief conversation, to his lover back in Lisbon. Even the forest boys, despite their festive garb and nearly-mad behavior, cannot find something they can truly worship or even harm. The figures in this film are all lost beings.
      After an important book of psalms within which he had ascribed his own comments and teachings was stolen from him by a young novice who left the church, St. Anthony prayed that it might be returned to him. The robber, soon after, did return the book, the miracle of which established Anthony as the saint of lost things. 
      Even if, by film’s end, these characters have not found their way out of the maze into which they’ve entered, they have found something other, new meanings, new ways of being, new sources of faith.

Boone, Iowa, October 10, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2017)