Thursday, March 29, 2018

Richard Oswald | Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others)

justice through knowledge
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Oswald and Magnus Hirschfeld (screenplay), Richard Oswald (director) Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) / 1919

Yesterday, by an accident of a Netflix mis-shipment,  I watched Richard Oswald’s 1919 silent film, Different from the Others, which he did in collaboration with the great (and one of the first) specialists in gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.
     This film, starring the later noted actor Conrad Veidt (who soon after performed in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and later in Hollywood productions of Casablanca and even The Thief of Bagdad). Veidt plays a handsome German violinist, with whom his younger student, Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schultz) falls in love, the two of them walking arm in arm through the Berlin parks.
      It is there that they are spotted by Körner’s former college acquaintance, Franz Bolleck (Reinhold Schünzel), who, as we witness in a flashback, waits in gay bars to be picked up before blackmailing his would-be partners by threatening to turn them into the police.
     Although, as I’ve written above, homosexuality was looked upon as a rather benign thing in the Weimar Republic, it was still illegal, according to Paragraph 175 of the German statues, and one could not only be imprisoned for such acts but might surely be ostracized from the society at large. Bollack again threatens blackmail, and Körner, to protect himself and his younger lover, pays; but when Bollack demands more, he refuses, and a trial ensues. The judge gives Bollack three years and Körner only a week in prison. Yet the violinist’s career is ruined, and eventually, in a fit of despair, he takes poison and dies, his young student, rushing to his side, poised to also commit suicide.
      When this film first appeared, it drew large audiences, but it also quickly found social critics, and after a few months it was banned, soon after to be shredded with only a few copies intact to be used 
as teaching aids. Today, restored by the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project, many of the most remarkable scenes of the film no longer can be found, including a cameo by Oscar Wilde. Yet the film specialists at UCLA have, through documents and reviews of the day, pieced together much of the original filling things in with literate intertitles and even speeches by co-writer Magnus Hirschfeld, which helps to give us a large sense of the amazing excitement of this text. And the film does provide us with some of the first documentary scenes of gay and lesbian bar-dancing of the day, along with some fairly sensual if not sexually revealing scenes.
       Different from the Others is not at all a great movie, and was, perhaps, meant to be more of teaching tool than a piece of literature all along. Yet its deep felt convictions and it poignant presentation of gay and even heterosexual love cannot be ignored.
       Of particular interest is Hirschfeld’s own statements, expressed to Körner’s sister (Ilse von Tasso-Lind) and in a lecture to a general audience of the day. I could do without Hirschfeld’s likening of homosexuality to a male-feminine response, but his early recognition of a great many possible sexualities is radical for its time and still has immense meaning for today’s society.
      As he cautions Körner’s parents early in the film:

 You must not condemn your son because he is a homosexual, he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime. Indeed, it is not even an illness, merely a variation, and one that is common to all of nature.

     And his later advice to the suicidal young Sivers is a monumentally brave statement for 1919, just a short while before the rise of Hitler’s party:

You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices by which this man has been made one of the countless victims. ... You must restore the honor of this man and bring justice to him, and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!

     We can perceive just how true, despite so many years it took, Hirschfeld’s words were. And despite whatever one may think of the corrupt Weimar Republic, it was far ahead in much of its sexual concepts, which might have shifted all European thinking long before if it hadn’t, like this film, been wiped out by the Nazis. Finally, in Kino Videos short disk, we are able to hear once more what had been so long silenced. Maybe out there, somewhere, we may eventually find a true original recording of that banned film. Meanwhile, we have an excellent restoration of many of its scenes.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2015

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Frankenheimer | Seconds

by Douglas Messerli

Lewis John Carlino (screenplay, based on the novel by David Ely), John Frankenheimer (director) Seconds/ 1966

John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film, Seconds, has got to be one of the most surreal and odd films released by a major American film studio (in this case Paramount Pictures). Certainly, the work is 
rightly characterized, along with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, as one of his “paranoia” trilogy, with cinematographer James Wong Howe’s camera whizzing above and below and whirling over and about all characters and objects.
       The story, based on David Ely’s novel and adapted by playwright Lewis John Carlino has many of the same elements as Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face and the later Pedro Almodóvar work The Skin I Live In. Like those two films, Seconds involves a complete transformation of the body, in this case through an underground organization run by a disreputable doctor, an Old Man (Will Geer), and a Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey), who seek out unhappy beings ready to shed their former lives and identities.
       Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is just such a being. Although he has apparently made it good as a businessman and lives in a lovely home in the Manhattan suburbs with an attractive wife, he is clearly at a mid-life crisis, unable to enjoy anything and no longer interested in having sex with his wife. Randolph plays somewhat like a lumpen beast who sweats constantly, a man in a crisis of conscience but who also desperate to get out of the life he has built up around himself.
       Enter, through a phone call, an old friend, Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), who is though to have died. The phone call, in the dead of night, opens the possibility of a new existence, and Arthur is highly tempted to take up his “dead” friend’s offer. In fact, the first long scene of the film shows us Arthur, taking the train home, being followed by a man who offers him a small piece of paper with an address on it, as if he were being offered entry to heaven.
        Of course, it is a hell for which he sells his soul, as the address he first visits shows us: a man sweating over a pressing iron. The “new” address turns out to be an equally gruesome place, a beef storage firm, whose foreman, addressing him now as Mr. Wilson, transfers him—much like a cow gone to slaughter—to the mysterious organization’s offices, by comparison lush quarters, with a Picasso hanging on the wall.
       After meeting with Mr. Ruby and the Old Man, Arthur signs away his life and hands over $300,000 to be “reborn” through an operation and a highly staged “death.” It’s interesting that the three major “reborns”—actors Greer, Corey, and Randolph—had been blacklisted a decade before this film was released.
        The director must also have a had a great laugh in casting the handsome Rock Hudson as Randolph’s replacement, itself a kind of ironical statement given the fact that Arthur (now Antiochus “Tony” Wilson) had ceased being interested in his wife.
      But even Hudson plays it fairly “straight,” reiterating some of the doubts that Arthur himself had had, and carefully imitating some of Arthur’s body movements and affectations. As outrageous as it appears to discover Hudson playing such a serious science fiction role, the actor gives a rather convincing performance of a man at odds with his own body, fearful, as surely Hudson himself had often been, of giving away the secrets that lie within.
        It’s also fascinating that the “organization” now with a male houseboy to help with his assimilation into his new life. The houseboy keeps suggesting that he might want to give a party for the neighbors near him—obviously others who have had similar transformations.
        Ultimately, Wilson determines to give just such a party, which turns out to be an orgiastic affair where a nude woman begins by stomping grapes, as others, male and female, strip their clothes and join her. I don’t I had even seen so much nudity in an American film of the 1960s. When Wilson is finally asked to join them, he does so in complete hesitation, determining that this is not the life he had imagined after all.
       Returning to the doctors to express his doubts and to request yet another identity, he is assured that his concerns will be taken under consideration, but just before he is about to undergo the new operation, he perceives that he will be killed, his body used as a new “catalyst” for yet another customer. The final shot of the film is a drill entering Wilson’s head.
       Although this film was entered in the Cannes Film Festival of 1966, it was booed, and the audience laughed. The film did little better on its US release. Yet today, it appears on The National Film Registry, and has gained a cult-like status. The advances in rhinoplasty and body replacement have almost made such a transformation possible and have created implications that almost suggest what was seen at the time as science fiction is almost now reality. And today we can envision Hudson in a different way that audiences might have at the time.
       In the film Hudson’s character, after having expressed a desire to be an artist, is now given the chance to paint, only to discover, obviously, that he has little talent and can never put more that a few lines to his canvas, while, in his former life as a banker, he was a genius. The irony of this, particularly working his later years, after his Doris Day period, must have struck even Hudson, and it shows, if not in his acting skills, on his darkened face. He’s scared, probably of playing someone that comes so close to the bone: a man hiding out in his own skin.
       Today, we might almost think of this film as Frankenheimer’s most honest film, were it not that his other two “paranoia” movies have struck a new chord in the days Donald Trump.

Los Angeles, March 28, 2018

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Greg Berlanti | Love, Simon


by Douglas Messerli

Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (screenplay, based on the novel by Becky Albertalli), Greg Berlanti (director) Love, Simon / 2018

Watching the new teen comedy, Love, Simon, yesterday I realized it is not truly a gay story; in fact, 
we see little of young Simon Spiers’ (Nick Robinson) sexual desires, and even he admits that he is just like everyone else around him. His friends, a long-time (13 years) woman acquaintance, Leah (Katherine Langford), a black woman who has more recently moved to his Atlanta suburb, Abby (Alexandra Shipp), and a black-Hispanic male, Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) might represent the most correct coalition of high school relationships possible. Simon is not just “normal,” but almost a model for what young folks should be in this world of anti-racist and forgiving sexuality. Both of his parents, particularly his psycho-therapist mother, Emily (Jennifer Garner), along with his father, Jack (Josh Duhamel) are liberal, and even their son admits that if he told that that he was gay, they would probably be quite accepting. Clearly, this studio movie argues, times have changed from The Boys in the Bad, the play and movie which defined my own generation.
      No, the problem here is not in being gay but in admitting (or we might simply “expressing”) it, in “coming out.” The problem is that in speaking the truth Simon will be perceived as someone else, as a kind of stereotype rather than just an ordinary kid. If his desires are not particularly expressed—he 
simply feels that he, too, deserves a good love story—the film expresses a great deal of angst about sharing his desires with others. Indeed, a whole sequence plays with the idea of what it might mean if “straight” kids had to express their desires to their parents just as do gay ones. It’s a great comic moment; but, of course, we recognize that normality, even in this fantasy world, will never be perceived as being homosexual; heterosexuals are simply privileged in our society.
      My husband Howard has expressed that his greatest fear of being gay was that he would become one of the mincing fairies represented in Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, and, by and large, that is just what Simon fears, that in telling everyone he is gay he will become someone else than he is actually. Throughout the film, he keeps insisting that he is the same person that he has always been, perhaps suggesting that he has been a kind of perfect person. I don’t think all young people register that.
      I have never had those fears, but I certainly did fear speaking to my parents about my sexuality; and when I did, as I’ve noted several times in My Year volumes, they arose from the dinner table and left Howard and me in Washington, D.C., as they quickly made their way back to Iowa. It was a devastating act that, even if they later came to accept me, from which I never quite recovered. Now, in their minds, I was not the same son who had grown up in their house. So, I certainly do know where Simon is coming from. Being gay was not the issue, sharing the fact, particularly with parents and friends, was another problem.
      Fortunately, and quite by accident, Simon discovers, on-line, someone very much in the same position, a young gay man in his own school, who writes under the name “Blue” confessing that he feels that he is on a kind of Ferris Wheel, with terrible highs and lows, and that in his inability to express his sexuality, he is losing himself. Simon almost immediately bonds with him and writes back (how I wish we’d had computers in my day), signing his shared messages, just a few of which we overhear, with the name of Jacques. Together these two internet correspondents try to negotiate the problem they have had to face: how to remain the beloved kids they are while simultaneously having to keep such deep secrets.
     As the film casually explores, all young teenagers are in similar positions, being afraid to lay their emotions on the line, fearing to express love for one another because of the possibility of rejection or to tell of their own private fears because they might suddenly be mocked by their multiple interlinking “groups.”
     Perhaps, like Ethan (Clark Moore)—an apparently transgender student, who announces early on that she is also “gay”—being an outsider, as I was, may be actually be an advantage. Being an “insider,” as Simon, creates problems that doesn’t easily allow an admission of “outsiderness.”
      Much of this lovely film is simply a detective story, as Simon attempts to uncover the young man with whom is has now fallen in love. At first, he suspects Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale), but when he discovers him about to engage in sex with a female classmate, crosses him off the list.
     Later, he suspects a handsome local waiter, Kyle (Joey Pollari), but when that lad asks him about dating one of his female friends, the illusion is also destroyed. Who could “Blue” be, and how might he find him, a particularly difficult task now that “Blue” has come out to his father and has retreated to a WiFi free camping retreat to re-bond with his dad? What is the now fixated Simon to do?
      At last, he suspects a young gay-looking boy, who, when he finally confronts him, also leads to a wrong alley.
     In comes the film’s only real villain, the clumsy, comical, and self-serving Martin Addison (Logan Miller), the true outsider of this school community, who has a crush on Simon’s friend Abby and who, after discovering Simon’s communication with “Blue” on a school internet connection, blackmails Simon into helping him get a date. In doing so, Simon betrays all of his friends, trying to rearrange their social involvements at the very moment when such young people are already simply “scared” to express them. In short, to protect his own neck, Simon makes their own “coming out” commitments impossible. When, after a completely failed and utterly comic attempt to woo Abby, Martin finally releases Simon’s on-line messages, the young hero is now utterly shunned. Unintentionally is has accomplished just what he most feared: he is now “someone else,” a person excluded by the very people he was fearful might abandon him.
     Since this film is a teen comedy, of course, things do work out. Simon, finally, is re-embraced by his family—despite, in one of the most painful scenes in the entire move, his younger sister, Nora, arguing that he should simply deny the gay accusations—and, ultimately, by his best friends, particularly after an ugly incident when both he and Ethan are mocked in the school lunchroom.
     After a high school musical production of Cabaret, Simon signs on again, this time pleading with the mysterious “Blue,” to show up on the Ferris Wheel after the production to take that wild ride of ups and downs with him. At first it does not seem that his plea will work, and even the always clumsy, John Belushi-like clown, Martin arrives to argue that he is actually “Blue,” the idea of which Simon, and we, reject. Fortunately, Bram arrives at the very last moment to take a seat next to Simon and ride up to the skies before returning to earth again. I can’t tell you why, but I knew Bram was “Blue” all along. Maybe, as an actor, he was just too convincing in the role.
     In the end, Greg Berlanti’s teen comedy does not truly plow deep territory, but its concerns about speaking out does, and I now believe it screams volumes about young people speaking out, particularly after what we have just witnessed when the Marjory Stoneman High School students from Parkland and millions of other teenagers have seemingly come to life and intelligently spoken up and out about something that has long been troubling them and the entire country—far more tragic than their sexuality! If my legs were stronger, I would have loved to have marched along with them on the very same day I was watching this movie. But my mind is still functioning, and my gift, I hope, is that I can still write.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2018

Friday, March 23, 2018

Jacques Demy | Peau d'Âne (Donkey Skin)

the princess who hits the jackpot
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Demy (screenplay, based on a story by Charles Perrault), Jacques Demy (director) Peau d'Âne (Donkey Skin) / 1970

Although Jacques Demy’s film, Donkey Skin, is very little known in this country, it was a large hit in France, where the story’s originator, Charles Perrault is highly beloved. Like that poet’s “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella,” “Donkey Skin” is a tale about a young woman who must be transformed before she might receive her reward of the handsome prince. Like “Cinderella,” the prince is able to track her down, in this case with a ring which she has embedded in a cake, rather that a golden slipper, and like that other work, in this case, the young princess has a fairy godmother protecting her.
     Yet Demy’s version is far more transgressive than many other versions. Unlike the magical love tales such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, this Michel Legrand collaboration concerns a far more problematic kind of love: the incestuous love of a king for his daughter. And the fairy aunt (Delphine Seyrig), who absolutely loves the color lilac (a blue mixed with just a hint of red), might just as well be a gay fairy attempting to outwit the film’s fixated king (Jean Marais) so that, at the very last moment, (s)he might helicopter in to marry him.
      Despite his long marriage to fellow film-maker Agnès Varda, Demy was also gay (he died of AIDS), and the musical, in this case, is often a loving send-up of Demy’s fellow gay filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, paralleling many scenes and techniques of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (including using Marais, who appeared in that film) and later referencing Cocteau’s Orpheus when the charming prince (Jacques Perrin) comes up with his nose against a protective mirror surrounding the princess’ (played by his Umbrellas of Cherbourg actress, Catherine Deneuve) hut.
      A bit like the American political landscape, the reigning groups of this tale are divided up between the blue and the red; however we must remember that these are central colors also in France’s flag, so that the fact that the princess is born into the blue to be wooed by the red prince, should not be given too much credence; yet it does hint of a kind of Romeo and Juliet-like romance; and that, in turn, lends this fragile story a bit more depth. If nothing else, the young beauty has been forced to escape her own father and kingdom hidden in the skin of her father’s favorite ass (who happens also to be the secret to his father’s financial success).
     But even here, Demy further satirizes the original, by allowing the now scullery maid (hired mostly to clear out the pigsty) to take along the three dresses she has demanded from her father, one defining spring weather, a second celebrating the moon, and the third radiating gold like sun. In short, this Cinderella ain’t so very bad off as it appears. And the rather effete, certainly foppish “charming prince” who catches a glimpse of her dressed in the sun-based dress, might almost be a kind of closet-fashion admirer; after all, he’s utterly bored (much like the princess’ father) with seeking out a princess to marry, and even leaves a celebration to wander off into the forest wherein he discovers this beauty.
      Accordingly, there is a very campish element to this tale, which I’m certain accounted for some of its 2 million and more sales in France. Yet, as in nearly all Demy films, there is a lightness and grace to Donkey Skin—despite its absurd circumstances—that allows us to fall in love with its myths permitting us to bathe happily in Legrand’s Broadway theater-like songs. Why this film was never turned into a stage musical I simply can’t explain. Perhaps the movie is just that, a kind stage musical captured on film.
       Whatever, I’m a big lover of Demy’s outrageously beautiful film fantasies, even when the princess, to escape her father’s lust, must hide out in his ass.

Los Angeles, March 23, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2018).

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

William Friedkin | The Boys in the Band

laughing while shedding tears
by Douglas Messerli

Mart Crowley (screenplay, based on his play), William Friedkin (director) The Boys in the Band / 1970

To say that I have mixed feelings about William Friedkin’s film The Boys in the Band of 1970 is an understatement. In 1969, during the original run of Mart Crowley’s play, I volunteered as an usher for a few nights at Theater Four, where the work ran for two years. But a year later, back at the University of Wisconsin, with Howard and other members of the university gay liberation group, I picketed the film for its stereotyping of gay behavior.
     I was just old enough to recall scenes very much like the one Crowley portrayed, where a group of homosexual men, who perhaps knew each other far too well, would gather and try to be wittier than the others in Oscar Wilde-like quips, mostly dishing the others for their past and present digressions. The goal was to out-do one another in outrageous put-downs, while also satirizing oneself. I was young enough to find it somewhat entertaining, and clever enough to spout a couple of zingers each evening. What I hated, however, was the exaggeration of these events, the adoption of feminine names and personalities, and the closeted and claustrophobic self-hatred that often emanated from the group.
     Of course, just attending such an evening clearly meant you were, in fact, queer, and gathering with the others you were publicly announcing that. The patois spoken by these groups was evidence, itself, of being in the know, sharing in a kind of private language which the society as a whole would find difficult to comprehend. And if, in their put-downs, it might superficially sound as if the entire gathering hated each other, it was really a reassertion of love, the way a stereotypical Jewish family might endlessly kvetch to one another for their behaviors. Love and family were at the heart of such events. In fact, only someone like Woody Allen can match Crowley’s loving cruelty of one’s own kind.
     But in the two-year period since the opening of Crowley’s play things had radically changed. People of our generation (I met Howard and began our life-long companionship at age 23), influenced by feminism and gay liberation, were no longer self-haters, and did not generally see ourselves as feminized males. We now felt we needed to take our rightful places in society at large, speaking out to that society with voices that could be comprehended and help make change. In a strange sense the very opening up of society that made The Boys in the Band so successful soon made Crowley’s then-courageous play seem like a sad relic, an ancient ritual that demonstrated the isolation and tragedy of gay life.
     Watching that film again, after 49 years, resulted in similar contradictions represented mostly in the fact that I seemed to be laughing and crying throughout much of the movie at the very same moment.
     What I also had forgotten is just how much Crowley had used character-types to represent the larger gay world. There is the former alcoholic “intellect,” Michael (Kenneth Nelson), who, at the center of this birthday bash, falls off the wagon; his sometimes lackadaisical, underachieving lover, Donald (Frederick Combs); the “nelly” queen/designer, Emory (Cliff Gorman); the straighter school teacher and photographer couple, Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice), the dumb hooker/cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux), the black, Bernard (Reuben Green), and the pock-marked Jewish boy, Harold (Leonard Frey), all of whom I had seen in the original off-Broadway play.
     These very types, of course, allow the film to open up also discussions of other feelings of outsiderness due to ignorance, anti-Semitism, racism, and patriarchal male notions of masculinity, while Michael’s alcoholism gives rise to his bad behavior which spins the work into the nightmare world it becomes when he insists that they all play a telephone game (this was a time of old-fashioned phones) in which they must call someone from the past whom they first loved. Actually, given the facts of my first love, which I recount in My Year 2005, the former high school football captain who later killed himself, I wish I might have played such a game, letting him know, what he had perhaps known better than I, that he was not alone, and that he had been loved from afar. And I later discovered that I was not the only one in my school who secretly loved him—if you can describe teenage attraction as love.
      Into this madhouse of “screaming queens” stumbles Michael’s college roommate, Alan McCarthy (interestingly, the only character given a last name) (Peter White). Having evidently fought with and having left his wife, Alan has sought out Michael, perhaps as a friendly advisor or maybe as an alternative life-style—we never discover the truth—but his call, nonetheless, is the only one that is truly answered, and which results in a resurrected relationship. In short, Crowley seems to suggest that only heterosexual love can redeem a being, while the world in which these gays must endure is something close to hell.
     At the same time, the world Crowley portrays, in its exaggerated honesty, is hilarious through its never-ending barbs of self-honesty and familiar love. They dance, they sing, they bitch, they kiss and make-up, and, ultimately, they leap into one another’s arms in tears of pain. Yet together they get through each night. It’s certainly a more entertaining world than the quiet evenings Alan is doomed to play out with his wife in his so very proper life. We really don’t care about a winner like Alan; we only care about the loving losers of this work.
      And I am finally able to embrace this film as a document of gay life, about a time when gay men felt it necessary—when they were not sharing in the bar life, where Friedkin’s film begins—to lock themselves away each night.
      The earliest scenes in this movie were filmed at Julius’, in the West Village, the bar where I began my evenings every night before heading off to wilder fare. That was in 1969. After I met and fell in love with Howard the following year, we quickly became a couple who was accepted by almost everyone we knew. When we left Washington, D.C., where I was a graduate student and Howard, at the end, a curator at the Hirschhorn Museum, The Washington Post, for what I believe was the very first time, referred to the two of us as a couple. I might imagine that the very day we protested the film The Boys in the Band, we left those oh so clever living rooms and bedrooms and never looked back. It’s odd, but over the years, we have had very few gay friends, but so very many heterosexual ones. We quickly came to feel at home in the world at large instead of an isolated society, as I think a great number of gays also came to feel. We never imagined that one day we might be permitted to marry; we were married in our eyes and in those of our friends.
     Crowley’s play and Friedkin’s movie revealed, even as they first appeared, a world that had already been relegated to a scrapbook. This year, now the 50th since the play first opened, Joe Mantello is directing a limited run on Broadway. I’d love to be there, but probably won’t; I’ve seen it played out in real life too many times.

Los Angeles, March 20, 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Suzan Pitt | Asparagus

eating your vegetables
by Douglas Messerli

Suzan Pitt (creator and director) Asparagus / 1979

In Suzan Pitt’s remarkably bizarre Asparagus that vegetable is filled with more phallic possibilities than any cigar in Bergman’s films. And unlike George Coe and Anthony Lover’s The Dove, the phallikan symbol here is joyously treated and awarded a totally feminine perspective.
       The faceless hero of Pitt’s work, puts on a mask and carries off a huge bag, not unlike Pandora’s box, and unlocking it a theater audience, allows them a surreally colorful head-trip of objects of all sizes before herself (or himself, for this is a kind of transgender figure) before unleashing a downpour of asparagus which she/he consumes and deep-throats and defecates.
      Pitt, herself has described her work as “a visual poem that is an erotic allegory of the creative process, in which a woman views and performs the passages of artistic discovery.”
     But the cell animation work of 20 minutes can be openly interpreted in a large number of ways. Yes, this woman definitely is imagining a kind of orgy of joy, but she is also consuming, like so many Americans, everything around her. Yet this vegetable, despite the color and smell of one’s urine after it is consumed, is most definitely “good” for you, a healthy choice. And although it is certainly a phallic-looking object, Pitt makes certain the represent its flower like tips, which link it with the vagina.
      And why is this woman “faceless,” with the need to put on a mask? Perhaps without her desire she has no identity in her humdrum life, or is she, given what she is about to do, attempting to hide her identity, performing a fantasy not unlike the wife in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour? Notice how, when she dons the mask, how much larger she is in her reflection. Perhaps the work not simply about the creative process but is satirizing it as well. Or, finally, as I hint above it is perhaps a woman seeking a new identity where she can stand aside the world players on the generally male-dominated stage. It is probably all of this and more, but it’s also simply a roller-coaster ride of breathtaking images, something which, once you’ve witnessed, you cannot quite get out of your head.
     Pitt teaches now at Cal-Arts near Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018

Louis Malle | Lacombe, Lucien

the wrong side of history
by Douglas Messerli

Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano (screenplay), Louis Malle (director) Lacombe, Lucien / 1974

Lacombe, Lucien only proves my contentions that there is something of a disconnect between French director Louis Malle’s characters and the way he portrays them. There is a kind of cold, almost documentary quality to his work that, despite the rich texture of colors and mastery of cinematography, which makes us unsympathetic to his figures. As Pauline Kael expressed this, in far more positive terms:

We look at Blaise’s [the untrained actor who plays Lucien Lacombe] face in a different way from the way we watch a trained actor. We look into it rather than react to an actor’s performance. The enigma 
of a Lucien, whether he is a bullyboy of the right or the left, is the enigma of an open face and a dark, closed mind. Professional actors have the wrong kind of face for this sort of unborn consciousness, and they tend to project thoughts and feelings from the blank area. Blaise doesn’t, and we trust our readings of his silent face almost as if we were watching a documentary. We examine it in that way, and we’re more engaged than at most fictional films. There’s nothing about Lucien that one can take for granted. Even those close to him don’t feel close; his own mother (Gilberte Rivet, in a fine performance) isn’t sure how to talk to him. His incomprehensibility is a mystery we’re caught in, and Malle astutely surrounds Lucien and the girl with unfamiliar faces (actors from the theater, with little exposure in films), so that we won’t have past associations to distract us. By the end, the case of Lacombe, Lucien has been presented to us. We know the evidence on which he will be judged a traitor, and we’ve also seen how remote that term is from anything he’s ever thought about.
     As Kael makes clear, this country bumpkin—who falls in love with the daughter of a Jewish tailor, Albert Horn, who is attempting to keep our of Gestapo sights, but nonetheless is forced to dress some of its men and women—doesn’t really intend to become a brutal traitor, responsible for many deaths; like so many Europeans, he simply complied to Nazi demands the same way he had been taught to comply with school teachers and the local bourgeoise. When he introduces himself to France Horn, he replies as he has been taught to, expressing his name with the conformance of a schoolboy: Lacombe, Lucien. Like so very many peasant bullies, he sees nothing wrong with taking out his slingshot and killing a beautiful bird singing out its heart in a tree next to the hospital where he scrubs floors. Chickens are kept to have their necks wrung, rabbits exist to be shot. As a farm boy, he sees no brutality in their killing. So how might he possibly be expected to comprehend the politics swirling around him?
      If the head of the local Resistance Movement, a former school teacher who finds Lucien to young (and perhaps too stupid) to join, you turn to the Gestapo. Besides, their headquarters at the Carlingue are far swankier, and the perks, open liquor, well-coifed women, and a new suit crafted by Horn (Holger Löwenadler), along with what seems like a new friendship with the man willing to use Lucien’s knowledge of locals to his advantage, beginning with the arrest of the school teacher who turned Lucien down.

     I would not describe Lucien, as does Kael, as another representation of the banality of evil—evil is never totally banal given its horrific results—but rather evidence of stupidity and rigidity of class distinctions which so often lay under those who embrace and accept that evil, much like those who strongly voted for Trump. Those folk are anything but banal; they specifically embraced the president’s politics of hatred because they, too, had been rejected and felt left out of the American Dream.
     What you do have credit Malle for, if nothing else, is showing us a figure in France, during the German occupation who was a true collaborationist, and not secretly a member of underground which, after War II, nearly everyone claimed to have been. It nothing else, Malle is far more truthful than many another director. Yet, in presenting us with yet another kind of monster, he has once more alienated us from his central figures, risking us to care for his films. One might almost describe Malle, in some stranger manner, as the Bertolt Brecht of cinema. His figures seem to be heartless and unsympathetic rather than, as directors such as Renoir, Bresson, Resnais, and so many other French filmmakers, helping us to take them to heart, even if they are outsiders or criminals.
     We may be fascinated by Malle’s criminals, wild innocents, burghers, and bourgeoise, but we seldom grow to completely like them. Lucien, we know from the start, simply chose the wrong cause, and as the director coolly announces in his end credits, he was executed as a traitor.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

Armando Ianucci | The Death of Stalin


by Douglas Messerli

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) (writers), Armando Iannucci (director) The Death of Stalin / 2018

Watching British director Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin the other day, I asked the same questions as my husband, Howard, what does this movie really intend to say? Yes, it is a satire, one can imagine, but how can one possibly satirize the life of a man who killed millions of his own citizens? And then turn the later violent figures around him into a kind of “three stooges” satire of t
heir later takeover. True, Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power did lead to what many described as a  
“thaw,” or simply a more mild version of Stalin’s truly mad attacks on all of Russia’s cultural institutions—including most of the nation’s artists, poets, musicians, and, as the movie asserts, even Moscow’s physicians (they, so he claimed were all plotting to kill him—sound familiar?), not to say anything about journalists and simple truth-sayers, and anyone else who might have bothered to question, or even not have openly questioned Stalin’s iron rule. Russian citizens slept in their clothes so that, when they might be rounded up in Stalin’s/Beria’s nightly purges, they would not be entirely naked. The lessons of the Nazi round-ups of Jews had been well learned. At least, if they were about to die, they would not go naked into their graves.

     Yet, Iannucci’s film is, at least as many members of the audience with whom I attended this strange film attested, a comedy. At least they laughed, giggled, clapped their hands to thighs, etc. as if it was truly a “three stooges” comedy. I felt creepy, to the say the least. I know of the terrible fate of those who suffered under Stalin and even under his survivors, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the even the more reform-minded Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), that I simply couldn’t laugh, as the younger audience members seemed able to do, about their clownish maneuvers as they struggled for new power.
      Based on the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, Iannucci’s film is a kind comic book recreation of the significant event that was Stalin’s death, in this case, apparently, caused, at least in part, by a vitriolic pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), who includes a note within the re-recorded concert that Stalin demanded be delivered to him—despite the fact it was only a live performance.
      All right, I appreciate the fact that this film is a kind of post-modern re-do of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (a film that mocked Hitler), but then I never much liked that movie nor the other film it calls up, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be again about Hitler—also a work I have problems with. Comedy about mass killers, I guess, is just not my thing. And laughter never once dominated Iannucci’s “comedy”; in fact, the inordinate chuckles and thigh-slaps of several audience members almost made me want to get up and leave the theater.      
      Call me prudish, or simply unable to laugh at a good joke, but, despite an occasional chuckle, I just couldn’t cough up a good laugh at the death of this desperate despot, anymore than I might have sped along with any of what Trump describes as jokes. I like comedians, just not murderous ones.
      Was Iannucci and company simply trying to tell us that we should just laugh away these monstrous beings? Or was it merely trying to tell us, in a Kafka-like sense, to cough the deaths of thousands off into the absurdity of history? Well, I’m all for that; but I just can’t do it. I guess I have too much memory, and Stalin is still someone who I cannot laugh away.
     I recall when I attended O What a Lovely War! with my elderly friend Ruth Lagesen, the great interpreter of Grieg, in Oslo, I remember her saying—and this still about World War I—“I just still cannot find it funny; I lived through that war!”
     I didn’t even live through the 1930 and onward tyranny of Stalin, although he died in my 6th year of life, but I don’t easily sniffle at his and his followers’ surely clumsy attempts to gain control over a country still in the clumsy and very ugly control of Putin.
      Surely, Iannucci realized the territory is was attempting to breach. He has said as much in this morning’s Los Angeles Times.
      Well, the cast is wonderful (they rehearsed together for weeks before filming), and the images are quite marvelous, the beauty of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, who we know in this country for her book about her father’s tyranny (played by the beautiful Andrea Risborough), is stunning. Despite my reactions about this film, there were many wonderful elements. I’d simply say, this is not a comedy, but a kind of very dark vision, with comedic elements, subsiding the terrible facts. And then I’d be somewhat uncomfortable with its ruminations, despite the somewhat manic quality of its presentation.
      Finally, in the last 2/3rds of the film, I grew to somewhat like it. These were fools, after all, just not the stooge figures that the movie first presented them as. They were all determined to take over roles that could only present them as fools in history, just like the terrible manic fool we have given over to our current government. He will not survive, and he will be seen for what he was, just as Khrushchev’s ridiculous determination to “bury us” will always be perceived as a ridiculous bluff.
      What the director ultimately reveals is that men fighting for power will all eventually bury themselves, fall into their graves more quickly than even they might imagine, to be replaced by equally rapacious figures. But some will simply fall away, be forgotten, even ignored by their ignominious histories. Who remembers Beria or even Molotov today? If we can’t forget Stalin, then perhaps we might soon forget the clown Trump. I think that is truly what Iannucci is saying here, although I’m not yet sure of what he thinks he is truly saying. And this movie, eventually seems to be without purpose.
      Well, let us imagine it as an absurd, somewhat factual comedy of the end of the Russian empire, despite the fact that it has already reimagined itself and is trying to recreate its terrible vision across the world.

Los Angeles, March 12, 2018

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Masahiro Shinoda |はなれ瞽女おりん (Hanare Goze Orin) (Ballad of Orin)

the delights within
by Douglas Messerli

Keiji Hasebe and Masahiro Shinoda (writers, based on a story by Tsutomu Minakami), Masahiro Shinoda (director) はなれ瞽女おりん (Hanare Goze Orin) (Ballad of Orin) / 1977

Many critics of the day reacted to Masahiro Shinoda’s 1977 film, Ballad of Orin, quite negatively, The New York Times critic,Vincent Canby, harshly criticizing the movie as being all surface, a pretty gazetteer of Japanese tourist destinations without any heart for its central character’s plight. “You've 
probably never seen so many beautiful mountains, plains, seacoasts and quaint villages, in sunlight, rain, snow and fog, in summer and winter, spring and fall,” writes Canby while declaring the work as “false.”  Others found the work quite “boring.”

Well, yes, Ballad of Orin is quite beautiful in a rather bleak way, since much of first half of the film is shot in a wintry coastal city where the blind girl, Orin (played by the director’s wife, Shima Iwashita) was born, and where she was taken as a young girl to a goze group, a community of blind women who, working together, survive by performing traditional songs at family celebrations and other events. In a sense, it reminds me of a kinder version of the once popular schools for the deaf 
and blind that dotted the American landscape—a kind of method for families to dump their deaf and blind children with whom they couldn’t cope.
       But the goze were also highly religious, Buddhist in their vision, and strict in their demands. Pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, is outlawed, and any goze who had sex is immediately ostracized from the community, forced to go it alone.
       Orin, a great beauty, is raped by a relative of one of the group for whom they have just performed, and is quickly sent packing, spending most of her sad life wandering across the landscape. It may often be a beautiful landscape, full of dark waving reeds, stunning waves pounding the beaches, and stunning picturesque mountains, but it is not an easy and emotional rewarding life. Moreover, Orin, a kind of stubborn woman, enjoys the warmth and sensual pleasure of the male body, and is quite determined to spend much of her life in the arms of some of the men before whom she performs. By the time she meets and equally strong male figure, Teruyo (Tomoko Naraoka) who, we later discover, is military deserter, a figure as equally on the outside of Japanese culture as Orin. Indeed, despite the film’s prettiness, the director portrays war as being always at the edges of this world, threatening to tromp down and away whatever beauty might be perceived. And, at one moment, Orin, cane in hand is knocked down and nearly tromped to death by a squadron of marching soldiers. Pretty? Not quite.

Nor is her strange relationship with the deserter ever quite explained; all we know is that what she most seeks, bodily warmth, ever provided by him; he refuses to sleep with her but determines, rather, as a kind of protective companion to stay by her side without sex. We might even suspect that there is more than a simple aversion to violence to his desertion.
      And Teruyo, who becomes a gentle cobbler, is not a coward, daring to kill a peddler who rapes Orin, now further threatening his existence by becoming not only a deserter but a murderer. And the police do finally uncover his existence.
      Yet in his relationship with Orin he has transformed her from an utter outcast to a real woman, who might be a wife or a simply a talented contributor to the society at large.
       Roger Ebert has argued that the filmmakers of Shinoda’s filmmaking generation are far more explicit about Japanese cultural differences than were Shinoda’s own cinematic heroes, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but, in fact, his subject matter—despite his careful narrative explanation of events—is far more esoteric. The goze tradition and the militaristic nature of Japanese culture are simply more mysterious and inexplainable than were Mizoguchi’s prostitutes and Ozu’s tight-knit conservative families. And, accordingly, Shinoda is forced to more explicitly explain the culture to his Western audiences.
      If Orin seems, as Canby claims, to lack heart, it is not that she isn’t filled with passionate emotions, but rather excluded from the larger society, is not permitted to openly express those feelings. If there is an utter restraint in Ballad of Orin it is anything but a polite prettiness, but rather is a cauldron of restrained emotional responses. Orin might as well have been a young Chinese girl with bound feet; yet, nonetheless, she has escaped her roped, open clogs the goze employ to walk through the snow, but she has not been quite able, except with Teruyo, to open up about her own feelings. When she does, wondering why he won’t have sex with her, we see glimmers of a kind of ur-feminist, a woman who openly speaks about her own feminine desires.
     If Orin is finally undone by her male companion, that is the way of her world, in which male desire has so very determined her life, even within the all-female society in which she grew up, that she is not even surprised. It is something she simply recognizes, given the difficult life she has survived, it’s simply a matter of fact.
      Canby’s right in one sense only: Shinoda’s film is not “sloppy.” It is as carefully crafted as a Japanese bento box; but o the delights of what is within? I will return to those treasures again and again.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2018