Sunday, July 29, 2018

Shyam Benegal | Bhumika

running off with the dinner
by Douglas Messerli

Shyam Benegal, and Girish Karnad (screenplay, based on a work by by Sangtye Aika on Hansa Wadkar), Satyadev Dubey (dialogue), Shyam Benegal (director) Bhumika / 1977

I had never previously seen a film by Indian director Shyam Benegal and was delighted to see some of his works posted on Filmstruck. This work, Bhumika, with a script by Benegal, Girish Karnad, Satydey Dubey, and others based on the work by Sangtye Aika on Hansa Wadker, a widely transgressive and stunning Indian film star of the 1940s, is a truly fascinating film about the Indian film tradition, particularly the Bollywood filmmaking, although the film itself lies outside of that cinema tradition.
     Certainly, this film has many of the Bollywood tropes, a woman who, as a child, was taught the music of the old tradition from the Devadasi community of Goa by her grandmother, a famous singer of that tradition, dismissed by Usha’s mother (Sulabha Deshpande), who is clearly a bourgeois religious woman, herself married to an abusive and alcoholic Brahmin. But in Usha’s world, everything is still based on a hierarchical cultural perspective, which she quickly, even as a child, rejects, running off with a chicken, for example, that is about to be slaughtered for a Korma dinner.
      She is clearly a rebel who needs to be constrained, that is until the family loses any financial standing, and must use their daughter’s musical and acting talents in order to survive. In a strange sense, this musical parallels the Hollywood film, A Star Is Born, but with little of the possible passion available to that film’s actress.
     Here, Usha (the wonderful Smita Patil) is quickly married off to the family friend Keshav Dalvi (Amol Palekar), who pushes her into the Bombay film industry, while also getting her pregnant with a child. This is not only a man who uses her to create his own financial success, but has lusted after her from childhood; and it is quickly apparent that he is not only an abusive husband, but, as Usha’s mother perceives, not of her own caste. For the young wife, it is not the caste that matters as much as his inability to perceive Usha’s worth and talent, using her to help support himself while also verbally attacking her. When she determines, finally, to leave him for the second time, she is not allowed to take her daughter with her.
      What is less obvious is why the handsome Bombay movie star, Rajan (Anat Nag), who clearly adores Usha and would provide her a comfortable life, is a person of no interest for the younger woman. Benegal’s film only subtly suggests, through the introduction of an obviously gay director, hinting perhaps that despite Rajan’s attending to Usha, that he too, the heartthrob of the film industry, might well be gay. Throughout the film, despite Usha’s rejections, he never marries. Benegal does not reveal why Usha rejects his advances, but it is clear that she perceives his advances as “unreal,’ and even mocks them, with a friend, by singing a song that dismisses his fervent attentions.
     Nonetheless, fed by the film magazine gossip, her worthless husband, Dalvi, is convinced she is having an affair with Rajan, and when she finally leaves their dark relationship, she is left without ties to her former family life.
     Now forced to stay in a hotel, the unhappy singer develops a relationship with another self-centered man, Sunil Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), developing with him a pact for a double suicide, which he does not carry out.
     Clearly, not a good judge when it comes to men, Usha then develops a relationship with a wealthy businessman, Vinayak Kale (Amrist Puri), whom she happily marries. But despite his lavish life-style, she soon after realizes that he intends to keep her house-bound, refusing to allow her to leave the house, let alone the palatial estate. Furious with the restriction, she calls on her hated former husband Keshav, who with a militaristic-like maneuver, rescues her, now bringing her back to Bombay, where he has plastered the streets with billboards of her picture. But her life soon after finds her back in drab hotels with little prospect of change.
     As Kale’s bedridden first wife observes, as Usha prepares to leave, "The beds change, the kitchens change. Men's masks change, but men don't change." In short, Benegal turns his musical into a kind of ur-feminist tract, making it clear how young women—even those who become, like Usha, successful—have little possibility of true happiness in a world controlled by men.
     Like her own grandmother, we suspect she will one day become part of her daughter’s household, secretly teaching a granddaughter the secrets of the musical tradition in which she so brilliantly performed.
     The director here presents his musical interludes as a mix of comic irreverence (their plots are clearly static and hackneyed) and high respect, particularly when Smita Patil is on stage. A bit like an Indian Judy Garland, when she sings she transforms this sad tale into a wondrous spectacle that surely would appeal to the hundreds of locked-away housewives.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2018

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Claude Lanzmann | The Last of the Unjust

the subjects of their hate
by Douglas Messerli

Claude Lanzmann (director) The Last of the Unjust / 2013

Critic Richard Brody and others have described the filmmaking of Claude Lanzmann, who died this past week at the age of 92, as “the personal assumption of the burden of Jewish history (in particular, the black hole of devastation that is the Holocaust) in order to embody and to transmit Jewish identity in [the] present tense.”
         In honor of the great creator of Shoah (a documentary which I review in My Year 2015) I decided to watch his great second documentary, based on interviews with the Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, done in preparation for that earlier film but not included within it. Murmelstein, the only surviving “Elder of the Jews” from the camps—significant Jewish leaders who were forced to become emissaries between the Nazis and the millions of individuals trapped in ghettos and concentration camps, often given the devastating power to make choices about who might live and who might die—was, along with others after the war, perceived by many survivors simply as collaborators, Murmelstein being no exception, being tried and found not-guilty in the Czech courts. It is obvious why Lanzmann deleted this long sequence of interviewing from his original documentary, fraught as it is by so very many impossible moral choices.
      Yet, almost 40 years later, Lanzmann inwardly struggled with the information presented in his interview with Murmelstein, determining that he felt an obligation to present the information before he died. The result, The Last of the Unjust—the title that the interviewee applies to himself—is in its simple focus on one individual, as opposed to the hundreds of Shoah, in some respects, is even more powerful that that great earlier work. For in Murmelstein’s determined words, we see the complex webs of lies and deceptions (self-deceptions and community illusions) that any man or woman taken away by the Nazis had daily to face. Reality had been, as Murmelstein writes, “turned upside down.”

      On the surface, Murmelstein is not at all a likeable being. Argumentative, often cynical, even irreverent, and speaking emphatically in the very language of the oppressor, he seems, at different moments, self-justifying and yet completely broken by the series of events he had to endure and by what he admittedly did to others of his religion. This is a tale of beings who were forced to pretend to be what, at heart, they were not, simply in order to survive and to help others to live out the devastation of their culture.
     To ease us into the story, Lanzmann scrolls through the history of events, including the deaths by the hands of the Gestapo of previous Jewish Elders, Jakob Edelstein, a Polish-born Zionist and former head of the Prague Jewish community, Paul Eppstein, a sociologist originally from Mannheim, Germany, and—after they were each shot or hung—Murmelstein, the only survivor. From that introduction, we are introduced to the small train station in the Czech Republic where often deceived elderly Jews, who had been told they were on their way to a special city, Theresienstadt, a gift to the Jewish people from Hitler, were, as Murmelstein himself later describes it, forcibly “disembarked,” and thrown into barrack-like buildings, often forced to sleep on the floor. In some respects, the shock for these deluded individuals must have been even worse than those who surely guessed they would end up in terrible deaths.
      At the station, Lanzmann, himself at the time filming now 89 years of age, begins reading from the highly intelligent book, written by Murmelstein in Italian, Terezin, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann (Theresienstad, the Model Ghetto of Eichmann). Murmelstein had previously been forced to work with Eichmann in Vienna, where he headed the largest city synagogue, when in Eichmann’s early years he had been seeking for ways to get rid of the Jews through mass emigration, first to the Palestine, then, in a kind of mad, made-up project, to Mozambique. Murmelstein became the investigator he needed to explain where, when they emigrated, Jews went. Obviously, this sounds a bit like something Trump himself might have imagined for those he does not like. But, if nothing else, Murmelstein’s experiences and his personal involvement in Kristallnacht make all of Hannah Arendt’s suggestions of Adolph Eichmann’s “banality” pure nonsense. Eichmann, through Murmelstein’s sharp memory, is as knowledgably complicit in the creation of the camps and the killing of Jews as anyone in the Nazi hierarchy.
      When we finally meet Murmelstein, somewhat later in the film, we perceive him as a rabbi who had helped many Jews to escape, and as a man of moral principle and high intelligence—all of which help us to recognize his impossible dilemmas.
      The “model” camp, created by Eichmann and others to make outsiders believe that the Nazis were acting in the best interests for the Jews, was anything but that within. The elderly died quickly and sometimes got lost—to never return—on the streets of the so-called model city. Any of even slightest grievances meant that individuals were daily sent “east,” which meant usually to Auschwitz, although Murmelstein argues they didn’t know the name and destination of that camp. Others were sent to Treblinka and the concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia.
     When a typhoid epidemic threatened the camp, Murmelstein, then head of the health services, demanded beds for the sick and elderly, and helped to curtail the illnesses. Nonetheless, it is estimated that about 33,000 people died in the “model camp,” although a few over 17,000 did survive it, many of them musicians, artists, and other notable figures.
      Whatever one might think of Murmelstein’s actions and motives, he is certainly one of the most knowledgeable and credible historians of the period, describing himself as having to play a kind of Scheherazade in order to rescue Jews, and who rescued himself, by helping the Germans tell a propagandistic story. As long as they were determined to create the myth of a model camp, the Nazis could not totally destroy its inmates, or himself, he argues. They needed him and its distressed citizens to pretend to themselves and others about their good intentions.
      In the end, one can’t help but being a bit charmed, despite Lanzmann’s sometimes highly charged questions, by the brilliance of this survivor, now living in what he describes as a kind of complete cultural isolation in Rome.
      The director, moreover, keeps us aware of the great loss of European culture through the Holocaust by telling us again of the roots of Hanukkah, and filming a cantor chanting Kol Nidre (from the service of Yom Kippur) and the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in the last surviving synagogue in Vienna, Murmelstein’s previous home.
      What we perceive is that in those terrible camps and ghettos, there was no justice, and that no one might possibly be described as “just” who didn’t themselves die. To survive, you had to eat, you had to collude, you had to give up everything in which you believed. The Nazis made sure that even those Jews who might escape their vengeance could never fully forgive themselves for having been the subjects of their hate.

Los Angeles, July 24, 2018

Friday, July 20, 2018

Craig Johnson | Alex Strangelove

a different kind of bond
by Douglas Messerli

Craig Johnson (writer and director) Alex Strangelove / 2018

Having truly enjoyed Craig Johnson’s second feature film, The Skeleton Twins, of 2014, I determined yesterday to watch his most recent work, Alex Strangelove that was released by Netflix this year.
      His earlier film had been a clever family drama, starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wigg, which featured a rather unhappy housewife and her gay brother who both attempted to nurse one another, often rather clumsily, back to health, after attempting suicide; the ending of this black comedy being rather uncertain.
            Accordingly, I wasn’t quite prepared for the rom-com sitcom-like Alex Strangelove, although the title might have easily tipped me off, since the character’s real name is Alex Truelove. In a sense, it’s just a sex and drug-infused movie that, like another recent film, Love Simon, tells the tale of a handsome and quite popular young high school student who is in the process of “coming out.”
      Like that film, the central character doesn’t yet quite perceive that he’s gay. But things are so far different from the days I attended high school, that the entire decision of whether to be heterosexual, gay, pansexual, whatever, sees simply to be a matter of choice, like picking items from a Chinese menu. As the comic straight-guy in this film, Dell (Daniel Zolghadri), argues you just need to choose. Their school even seems to have an active LGBTQ community, the drama kids, who hold their own parties to which heterosexuals are also invited.
      But Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), now the popular class president and a dogged cultural conservative—he’s carefully laid out all his plans for his life, determining upon studying marine animal biology at Columbia University, getting married, and having children—and he’s already found the girl of his dreams, his long-time friend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein).
      Although Alex is clever, witty, and even enterprising—he and Claire perform together in a popular on-line school web series, featuring the sexual habits of and other eccentricities the school’s students—there’s still something slightly nerdy about him (at least in his own mind), and like most of these teenage comedy-dramas, he hangs out with a group of rather dorky friends who spend far too many of their hours describing their heterosexual conquests. Something doesn’t seem right. Why is this bright kid not moving on? And, most importantly—at least in terms of teenage hormones—why us he still a self-admitted virgin, particularly given the fact that Claire herself insists she has been desperately trying to “de-virginfy” him. He keeps putting off the event.

     Finally, embarrassed in front of his bragging bodies, he determines to do something about it, setting up a hotel room so that he and she might finally have sex.
       The plot needs time to hatch it’s secret, of course, so the sexual encounter is put off for a few weeks, while the meandering story takes him to one of the “drama kid” parties (consisting of numerous ridiculous stereotypes, including one male who obviously believes he is the permanent host of Cabaret and a hallucinogenic turtle which Dell immediately picks up and licks sending him into comic hallucinations that might have served nicely for a backstory to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover. Oddly there seems to be a lot a role playing and very little sex. Maybe that is what Johnson meant by “Strangelove.”
      Obviously, anyone with a sense of film history knows that gay director Johnson means that other “strange love,” even if there seems nothing at all strange in being gay in this progressive high school community.
      By accident, Alex stumbles into the more normative “pot” room, where a handsome young man, Elliott (Antonio Marziale) and what we used to call a “fag-hag” (a heavyset young girl who is best friend to a gay boy) are about to light up. Clearly not inexperienced with pot and quite obviously intrigued by this open gay guy, Alex joins them ending up head to head in bed with Elliott; and a day or so later, meeting up with him for a concert and slow walk, so to speak, around the park.
      Claire clearly begins to suspect something’s up, but Alex (I must admit, a bit like me at his age) is slow to wake up to the reality of his feelings. He still takes his girlfriend to the hotel, but in the midst of clumsy sex tells her there’s someone else.
       It takes a final deep dive into a suburban pool to make him come to his senses, finally admitting to himself that he is gay. (As I’ve written in My Year 2005, it took me a bad showing in an ROTC test and a few circles around my bedroom to come to that same realization).
     What’s a guy to do? After admitting to Claire that his “Truelove” has reverted to a “Strangelove—a moniker, as a gay man, I rather resent—they still agree to go with one another to the prom party. Claire, perhaps the wisest figure in this film of dumb-headed adolescents (she has also the wisest of mothers) arranges for Elliott—how she knows the address of a boy who has graduated from another school the year before is never quite explained—to also attend.
     Suddenly faced with the boy he now knows he loves in a room with his high school chums, Alex gets cold feet once again, rushing off to the bathroom and almost losing his chance for maturation and true love. Returning just in time, he kisses Elliott, expressing his sexuality for the first time in the very judgmental public of young evaluations of life.
     I presume we are meant to be touched and overjoyed in that fact. But for me, there is something sad in the final image. Let us hope that Elliott does not have to wait for the sexual consummation as long as Claire and we have. But worse, can the otherwise excellent director, Johnson, release himself from this kind of teeny-bop writing to again create a sophisticated adult comedy-drama such as his earlier works? Or have we lost him to Netflix gay “feel-good” fantasies?
     This is not seriously a gay film, but a rather silly tribute to an LBGTX nostalgia, where all is ultimately just fine as long as everybody just finds their own groove. I doubt that’s the way, even today, that most kids see those difficult years.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Ruben Östlund | The Square

pilgrim’s progress
by Douglas Messerli

Ruben Östlund (writer and director) The Square / 2017

Late last year my art-curator husband came home from the film The Square expressing his dislike of the movie. Its visions of how curators make their decisions and what they do is disturbing and wrong he argued.
      In fact, after seeing the movie for myself the other day, I’d argue there are very few curators shown in this film and the work is centered almost entirely on the museum director, Christian (Claes Bang), who is basically a well-meaning gentleman with some very human flaws which, giveen his high voltage position, where he has few moments before he is not trotted out for an interview or a speech to powerful museum supporters, become all too apparent.
     Christian, indeed, does remind me of museum directors I know, many dedicated individuals who want to show daring contemporary art, yet must daily cope with finances just to keep his or her museum, in this scase the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm (formerly the Royal Palace) open. And some of director Östlund’s satiric riffs—for example, when the chef attempts to explain what museum guests will be eating that evening, the crowd rises en masse and like a herd of buffalo charge to the banquet table—are very close to the truth. I myself have seen it, perhaps even participated in the rush to devour the food.
       More importantly, however, I feel that the film is not really about the museum world, but merely uses it as a metaphor to explain the discrepancies of Swedish society. Although the arts are highly supported by the government in Sweden, they too must work to keep their doors open, attempting to wow their audiences while reflecting Christian’s tastes in conceptual and performative art that raises serious questions about art and the society in which it exists. Although neither Howard nor I share Christian’s aesthetic tastes, we must comprehend the fair-mindedness of the film’s title art piece, “The Square,” by Lola Arias (I believe there is no such artist, but there an Argentinian songwriter and performer by that name), a work described in the artist's statement: "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations."
     In short, Christian has chosen a work of art that asks us to recognize what we share in any society or space with others, responsibility for one another while still allowing freedom to be ourselves, a rather lofty goal I might suggest.
      In a sense, this reflects the entire doctrine of the good-doing and good-thinking Swedish vision of society (what several critics have described as a correct-thinking mentality). Yet Östlund’s work goes out of its way to demonstrate that the truth is not always what it might seem. If the sociable Swedes outwardly care for one another, they rush to work each morning ignoring the pleas of poor and immigrant citizens for a few coins. Time and again they rush forward, not just for the banquet table, but simply to get to work in order to save their “fair” place at the table. Christian, who is basically more caring than his neighbors even falls for a frightening performance by con-men, as a woman rushes forward yelling “He is going to kill me,” while a man menacingly runs after her. When the museum director and another man attempt to protect the woman and stop the attacker in his tracks, they soon discover that their wallets, cell-phones, and in Christian’s case, even his special cuff-links, have been stolen.
      Like many in our society, Christian has basically put his entire life—personal and professional—onto the phone, and the cufflinks were given to him from his presumably now-dead father. Surely his wallet, even if he can easily afford the money within, must contain numerous credit cards and other pieces of information necessary to live his daily life and which may be used for other nefarious purposes.
       I don’t have a cellphone thankfully, but my wallet was recently pickpocketed, and it took weeks to get new cards, licenses, and medical confirmations.
       Christian’s communications assistant, Michael (Christopher Læssø) quickly finds the location of the cellphone, a large apartment complex, suggesting that Christian write a threatening letter to all its inhabitants. Christian reframes Michael’s crudely framed language, but still goes through with it; yet when they arrive at the complex with the messages, Michael refuses to do it, and his boss is forced to take on the improper task. And it is at this moment when we begin to realize that even the most charmingly officious of those in this society have far darker aspects underneath their handsomely hirsute bodies and their well-tailored clothes.
       Yet, this is after all, a well-bred society, and amazingly, through a delivery at a local 7-Eleven, Christian receives a package containing all of the missing items, cards and money intact.
        At the opening of the show, Christian again runs into the American correspondent with whom he had previously had an interview, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who seduces him into her bed and, after having sex with him, demands his condom.
      Östlund’s films have often involved the strange politics of male/female relationships, but this surely is one of the oddest, as he refuses to give up the condom; if at first it may seem he is hiding the fact that he did not actually have an orgasm, when he finally hands it over, we realize he is actually fearful that this woman, who later claims she doesn’t want simply a one-night stand, might impregnate herself with his semen. After all, women in this director’s films have played meaner games (see my review in My Year 2017on his Force Majeure).
      Soon after, Christian’s reserve and attention are even further strained when he receives another delivery at the same 7-Eleven, this one threatening revenge. A young immigrant boy, living in the same complex with the robbers, is accused of robbery by his own family, and wants Christian to absolve him. But by this time the museum director’s openness and sense of fairness has perhaps been tested too many times, and he refuses. It is time to attend the business for which he has been hired. He too has suddenly become one the many Swedes rushing through the streets to attend to their work. In a strange way (or, perhaps, I should say, in a predictable way) he too has retreated from “the square,” the public marketplace, to perform responsibly for himself and his institution.
      But it is too late, for he has now too thoroughly revealed his own humanity. A performance piece at an opening dinner for “The Square” goes awry when the performer Oleg Rogozjin (Terry Notary), acting as if he were a threatening chimpanzee, terrifies several of the women patrons, a scene that reminds me of the hostesses strange dinner-time performances in Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel.
     A symposium on the new art work is interrupted by an audience member suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome.
     While he has been out of the office, the publicity department and their two out-of-museum consultants have developed their own publicity campaign featuring a small blond child entering the square to suddenly be blown up. Christian’s and the artist’s gesture of civil community has, without 
his knowledge, been turned into a statement of rightest protectionism, or, at least, a statement that suggests it is dangerous to enter a public forum. After the clip goes viral with 300,000 YouTube visits, the press angrily attacks the museum, and Christian realizing his failures, is forced to resign.
     Even when the former director attempts to return to the public world, trying to visit the young boy accused of acts he did not commit, he is told that the family has now moved. True public interchange, so the movie suggests, is a truly dangerous thing.
     Yet Östlund’s work, I would argue, is not simply a skeptical or satirical statement. Christian, a bit like the similarly named character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is a man who having suffered the many troubles of believing has done so in order to survive in a meaningful spiritual life.
      Obviously, I don’t truly agree with Howard, and I do understand, although I am still a bit surprised, why this film was chosen as the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Los Angeles, July 14, 2018

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Georges Franju | Judex

characters of many faces
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Champreux and Francis Lacassin (screenplay), Georges Franju (director) Judex / 1963, USA 1966

Georges Franju’s 1963 film, Judex, is one of those films that critics might be immediately puzzled about how to describe to viewers who have never seen it. Despite Franju’s often very original filmmaking, this work is based on a 1916 French film by the great serial cinema-creator, Louis Feuillade (several of whose shorter films I have previously reviewed), in which the same character and some of the same events enchanted the early 20th-century filmgoers.
      Yet, Franju makes this film, suggested to him by Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux, who also as a collaborator on the script, with many completely contrary movies from the original. Franju has long wanted to remake Feuillade’s Fantômas, for which he could not get permission. No matter, Franju took matters into his own hands, focusing on his own beautiful black-and-white images, which he’d already established in his 1960 classic, Eyes Without a Face, while, as he had also done in that film, basically ignoring the acting talents of his characters. Franju loved the inter-connectedness of 
all his films, while embracing film history in general. In this case, he hired Édith Scob, who played the terribly scarred and frightened daughter in that earlier film to play the villain’s daughter Jacqueline; as the hero he chose the handsome American actor, Channing Pollack to be Judex, but dressed him up throughout much of the film as an elderly bearded man, Vallieres, serving as secretary to the film’s villain, banker, Favraux; the building-climbing cat-like woman, also nanny to Jacqueline’s child (Francine Bergé), is eerily similar to another Feuillade villain, Irma Vep in his Les Vampires; and Franju even manages to bring in Fantômas as reading matter for the bumbling but gentle detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau).
     Indeed, it appears that the director spent more time on his cinematography and numerous film associations than on finding actors who could fully express his characters psychology and motivations. Entire portions of the original were jettisoned, making, at times, for inexplicable behavior and acts. Why, for instance is Vallieres so determined to out the evil-doings of his employer, and why has he waited so long to accomplish what we gradually perceive is revenge? Why does the same rather staid and boring Vallieres suddenly become a kind of bird-loving magician, returning to life a seemingly dead dove before conjuring up an entire flock of the same birds, and how does he poison Favraux without the man drinking a sip of the poisoned wine he has offered? These and dozens of other questions throw the viewer into a sense of utter confusion, which, evidently, is was Franju sought.
    For any excitement in this film lies within its sudden and utter transformations: Vallieres becoming the matinée idol-like figure (the producers noted his facial resemblance to Rudolph Valentino), Favraux, a dead corpse, suddenly returning to life, and the formerly demur nanny becoming a knife-packing cat before transforming herself again into a nun right out of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The previously passive Jacqueline, after her father’s apparent death, even becomes noble, denying her inheritance to help pay back those whom her father has defrauded. In his story-telling capacities (he begins the tale of Alice in Wonderland) to Jacqueline’s daughter, Cocantin becomes a better teacher than her nanny, Diana, might ever have been.
    With each of these shifts, moreover, Franju’s film also sheds its genre, taking on various movie types: a revenge drama, a spooky murder mystery, a devious film about kidnapping, with its almost comic intertitles, a silent movie with spoken dialogue, and, finally, in its absolute devotion to birds, a kind of tribute to Hitchcock’s movie of the same year, The Birds. As The New York Times justifably commented at the time of Judex’s US release: “It is hard to tell whether Georges Franju, who made it, wants us to laugh at it or take it seriously."
     Given my basically contrarian nature, I’d argue that the film is both a loving and almost comical tribute of the absurd Feuillade original while also being a kind of serious exploration of the very tropes of filmmaking that for so long dominated French cinema. One must remember that Franju, as co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française film archive, knew film history intimately, and in this film was not only exploring some of its various manifestations but putting himself and his films into that context. If to many viewers of Judex the work might seem more like pastiche than a coherent movie, I agree with them, but simply ask them to enjoy the circus of nods to popular film history. This may be a kind of silly movie at times, but it is also an extremely intelligent one which ought to be take utterly seriously. The film is clearly not one of his greatest, but if seen from the right perspective is so fascinating that it cannot be forgotten.

Los Angeles, July 10, 2018

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Derek Jarman | Edward II

by Douglas Messerli

Ken Butler, Derek Jarman, and Stephen McBride (screenplay, based on the play by Christopher Marlowe), Derek Jarman (director) Edward II / 1991

Somewhat like his 1976 Sebastiane Derek Jarman’s Edward II is a film about gay men who were martyred for their love. In both films the language used is from other times, the first presented in Latin, the second using the language of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. And both of the movies juxtapose scenes of the period with postmodern intrusions, particularly in Edward, in 
which characters sometimes appear in Elizabethan garb, but just as often appear in modern suits and dresses. Furthermore, overlaying the Marlowe work are scenes of contemporary gay protestors and a singer (Annie Lennox) performing Cole Porter’s "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." Yet, even with these clashes of purposeful anachronisms, there is something lean and spare about Jarman’s direction, allowing us to focus on the language itself.
     The film begins with the death of Edward’s father, and Edward (Steven Waddington) calling home his lover, Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) who has been banned from England by the Bishop of Winchester (Dudley Sutton) for his relationship with the then-Prince. Now, after being given several royal titles and full use of the exchequer, Gaveston tortures the Bishop with a mock sex orgy and targets various barons and other royals who long disdained him with imitative monkey-like gestures. He is a rather unlikeable fellow, whom only Edward loves because of his unequivocal love of the King.
     One of Gaveston’s most mocked targets is Isabella (Tilda Swinton), the wife Edward married in France, who hurries back to the castle and hopefully to her husband’s bed the moment he is crowned. Edward rejects her, while replacing her position in bed with his male lover.
     In revenge, Isabella joins up with the chief of the army’s forces, Mortimer (Nigel Terry) in the hope to agitate among the royals and citizens for the ouster of Gaveston and her return to the Edward’s favor.
     If, at first, their attempts to disrupt the homosexual relationship, seem to fail, they ultimately get the barons, the bitter Bishop, and others to sign a document demanding Gaveston’s banishment once again. In order to retain his power, Edward is forced to sign, saying goodbye to his lover in the beautiful Porter ballad with a final dance, one of the most lovely and peaceful scenes in the film. Porter might have been proud.
     Isabella, who now hopes to regain her proper role, is rejected even more thoroughly by Edward, and in the hope of maintaining any power, allows Gaveston to return. But when this still has no effect, a bit like Sebastian’s Serveus she plots Edward’s and Gaveston’s deaths.
     Returning to England, Gaveston and his friend Spencer (who apparently also shares the King’s and Gaveston’s love) the two outsiders are captured and tortured by the sadomasochistic Mortimer. When Edward’s brother Kent attempts to warn him of what is happening, he too is killed by Isabella. Edward to locked up, and we see a man arriving to kill him, presumably with an insertion of a hot iron poker into his ass, apparently so no one might perceive any outward bodily harm.
     We soon discover this has actually been Edward’s nightmare, and when his executioner actually does arrive, he simply kisses the King.
      If Isabella and Mortimer might now hope to enjoy their power-grab, it is short-lived. In the last scene of the film we see them both in metal cages, above which Isabella’s, child, Edward III, dances with his Walkman, dressed in his mother’s earrings, heels, and hat. The basically ignored child, who had perhaps seen too much of the palace intrigues, becomes, in this version, a “girl boy,” the moniker which Mortimer had attributed to Spencer. Although, in reality Edward III was more of a warrior and loyalist than a sexual rebel, he did rise to power at an early age to take the rule away from Mortimer and his minions.
      In Jarman’s version, accordingly, the gays win their freedom. It is interesting the document the barons and Bishop sign for Gaveston’s banishment is dated 1991, the same date as this movie, described by many critics as an important document of queer film, only a year after gays had established Outrage, clips of which can be seen as supporters of Edward in this film. In that respect the film celebrates its own audacity and expression of gay rights, turning Edward’s reign to an expression of their own values.
      If Edward II is not as sumptuous and beautiful as Sebastiane and Caravaggio, it stands as the most straight-forward and Brechtian statements of Jarman’s beliefs. The Isle of Man rejected its sodomy laws only a year later. Three years after this film, the director sadly died of AIDS.

Los Angeles, July 8, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2018).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress | Sebastiane

splendor in the sun
by Douglas Messerli

Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress (writers and directors) Sebastiane / 1976

Surely the only soft gay porn in which the characters speak Latin, Derek Jarman’s 1976 film, Sebastiane, is like no other movie ever made. While it is true that this work begins with a long orgy scene in Diocletian's court that might have come out of a film by Fellini, and then shifts, throughout the rest of the film to long Pasolini-like images and story; and while the hilarious orgy dance itself that might have choreographed by Busby Berkeley is performed in front of an audience that includes at least 3 Rocky Horror Film alumni, the whole is a product only of the imaginations Jarman and his co-director Paul Humfress.

      This is not your mother’s Christian saint, despite small bows to church history. Yes, Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) here is also a captain of the Praetorian Guards, but unlike the saint’s hagiography, Diocletian does not personally order his death, and the handsome Christian youth is most definitely not a figure who converts others. His major action in this work is to attempt to dissuade the Roman emperor from killing his two current boy bedmates, the second of whom, Diocletian claims, tried to set his bed afire. His interference does not save the boy and gets Sebastiane, in the first of his endless acts of martyrdom, sent off to a desert garrison headed by the hunky ruddy-faced Severus (Barney James), who, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no battles to fight, simply wants the beautiful young man to share his bed now and then, a pleasure which time and again Sebastiane refuses.
    It’s not that the eventual saint is against homosexual dalliances. As one of the favorites of Diocletian he must surely have also had to share his bed (he kisses the Emperor in the very first scene); and his relationship to his friend Justin (Richard Warwick) comes very close to being sexual while presumably chaste, about which, nonetheless, even his fellow soldiers describe Justin as a Sebastiane-lover—and, finally, there is that blue-eyed mysterious young Leopard Boy (Gerald Incandela) who shows up as a vision while Sebastiane is bound and staked out naked in the desert sands; although he expresses his love in semi-natural terms, as is his wont—nearly everything he speaks is about the sun and water—even he declares he loves this boy, whom he has only glimpsed as in a feverish dream, and whom Justin cannot even imagine exists.

   Besides what else is there to do in this desert, heated-up outpost but to wander around naked or in cod pieces, eying the other eight soldiers with whom you’re daily sharing your lives? One of their group, the least beautiful of them, wants nothing more than to return to Rome and get himself a female whore. Another young boy seemingly resists all attempted assaults. But all the others, particularly Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov), spend most of their days, when not being forced by Severus to play out mock battles and enter into wrestling matches, to put it simply: kiss, make-out, and fuck. Indeed, Jarman’s and Humfress’ depictions of their tender love-making is the closest this film gets to the truly spiritual, as one of the pair is even allowed to get an on-camera erection. And almost all of these thin and muscled soldiers spend most of their days in naked 
splendor in the sun, a bit like a gathering of gay magazine models, entertaining both the voyeur Severus and the audience itself. I think anyone who likes the male body, man or woman, might enjoy just staring at the directors’ screen.
      Yet Jarman well knows the entire genre of gay film-making, spending long periods with S&M scenes in which Severus, the continually spurned lover, finds new ways to torture the boy he so admires. There’s whipping, hanging, binding, and staking enough for any S&M admirer (of which I’m not). But this is, if you recall, a supposed rendition of the martyrdom of a saint.
      Finally, after a particularly frustrating night alone while drinking, Severus orders up the famed scene of arrows being flung through the air into Sebastiane’s body. It can hardly be a surprise that this scene of a naked beauty being put to death by other naked beauties attracted nearly every Renaissance painter. Only Christ and Sebastian might have been painted naked, or at least, semi-naked, a titillation for both Renaissance men and women. If in the saint’s story Sebastian survived all the slings and arrows, and he was ultimately killed with cudgels, Jarman and Humfress know a good image when they see one and end their Sebastiane’s life with an arrow through his neck, the whore-loving rascal organizing and overseeing a death which he has long been wishing for, particularly since it is now a war between the beauty and the beast.
     One can well understand why this film was so controversial in its gay and unauthorized telling of a Christian believer who had attempted to stop Diocletian from his endless murder of the converted. How Jarman even cleared the British censors is beyond me. While the US was trying to recover from The Boys in the Band tame row-line dancing, Sebastiane presented its hero in a wild dance to the sun and body that Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis might have died for.
      Yet, for all of its languishing over male buttocks and genitals, there is something very pure about Jarman’s and Humfress’s work. In their simple celebration of the male body we do come to a kind of testament to the human bodies that God chose us to inhabit, with all of its appendages and beckoning entries. Eyes, nipples, noses, and yes, penises, buttocks, and any other orifice is explored here, not in titillation (although these directors are not against that, and certainly Severus is not appalled by all their sexual exploration), but in a kind of expression of the sacredness of human life. We know that in killing of Sebastian that Severus and the others who are charged to carry out the act, they all have certainly lost something of their own sacred existence in that act.
      And, in large part, Jarman’s “gay” film is not simply about homosexual lust, but about the power of sex of any kind: transgender (as in the film’s first scene), lesbian (Diocletian’s wife has her own favorites), and, perhaps too shocking for many, man-boy love. It’s a bit strange, but perhaps appropriate that in casting his figures in Latin, Jarman is restating that these loves are those that still cannot speak their names—at least in English. What is there left to do but to witness and watch?

Los Angeles, July 6, 2018

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Tim Wardle | Three Identical Strangers

heart of darkness
by Douglas Messerli

Tim Wardle (writer, with the help of Lawrence Wright; and director) Three Identical Strangers / 2018

The director of the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle has encouraged critics not to reveal the ending (or even the second-half) of his film about the triplets who suddenly discovered, at age 19, the identities of one another. Yet, I’d argue that it might be better to know the second half of the film without knowing the early, rom-com, part. In a sense, it is like asking one to read The Heart of Darkness without knowing that things go bad for Kurz and other Belgian occupiers in the Congo, which misses, perhaps, the very reason one might wish to read that book, or, in this case, take a visit to your local movie theater to see this remarkable piece of filmmaking.
      If you don’t want to know anything about this movie before seeing it, please feel free to skip this review. It has never bothered me to know as much as I can about a film before seeing it so that I might better comprehend and enjoy its images.
        As the many critics writing on this film have revealed is the wonderful accidental encounter by Robert Shafran, a 19-year old freshman at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York, of a series of people who greeted him with great enthusiasm, pats on the back, and even kisses on his very first day on campus. That alone might have made anyone suspicious something was amiss, but the fact that many also called him Eddy might have made any of us feel we were in a slightly surreal experience. When he finally met his dorm room mate—who, recognizing that Eddy (Galland) had previously determined to not return to campus and was slightly different from his new roommate—asked Robert whether he was a twin, the news might have set off shocks of incredulity to the new freshman. We never discover in this film why the evidently popular Eddy had decided not to return to the community college or how Robert had determined to attend the very same institution, a semester later, but it clearly did trip off clues that something was very strange; and before he knew it, Robert was in a small phone booth with his new roommate dialing up Eddy Galland and, soon after, speeding in his elderly car about two hours away to meet, at the doorway of the house, his mirror image.
       Discovering that they not only shared the same birthday, the same adoption center, and many of the very same habits, newspapers, particularly Newsday, quickly glommed onto the news item, much to the delight of the sudden discovered twins. Meanwhile, as their stories and pictures begin to appear in local papers, another young freshman at Queen’s college in 1980 saw himself in the pictures that he witnessed and, particularly, after confirmation from his mother and his proud father, nicknamed “Bubbalah,” he too called the media, where after suddenly the long-lost twins became triplets.
      The euphoria of the discovery of two other versions of yourself swept up the three boys into a new world of self-love, propelling them almost immediately into, as an aunt describes it, a world in which the 3 former wrestlers joined one another of the floor in a kind a roll-around that she describes as a somewhat like “puppies.” The three, Eddy, Bob, and Dave hit all the talk shows, dressing alike, talking alike, and interrupting each other’s comments while commenting on their shared interests in the same kind of women, Marlboro cigarettes, and taste in color. There had been numerous other pieces on how rediscovered twins or even those knowledgeable of their kinship, shared conversational habits, patterns of thought, and tastes, and these triplets simply fueled that concept, as newspeople promoted their similarities as opposed to questioning their differences. As they later assert, we wanted and were encouraged to show how much we were like one another without anyone asking anything else.
      They had, however, big differences in their upbringing. Eddy, raised by a strict and authoritarian school teacher, did not have a close relationship with his father. Even in interviews, Eddy’s father still seems to have no clue why he did not have a deep connection with his son. Robert’s father, a physician, although deeply supportive of his son, was often missing; Bob’s mother was herself a successful professional. It was David’s more lower-class father and mother with whom the trio most bonded. If you sense a series of class differences here, it is no accident, and might have been one of the first things that the triplets questioned about themselves; the Jewish adoption agency purposely put them into families of different financial and parenting skills, having already also helped their adoptions of older sisters for the three.
      If the adopted families grew angry for not having been assessed of the fraternal relationship of their beloved sons, the triplets themselves moved in together in a bachelor apartment, showed up at nights in many 1980’s bars and dancing clubs, and even appeared in a Madonna movie. You might say they became enamored to their own triplicate identities. How might anyone not have been: you who were alone most of your life, and who, in this case of all 3, sensed something missing in those years, acting out hostility in their early teen years. The trio even opened up their own SoHo restaurant, Triplets, serving up steaks and dancing with their customers each night. In the first year they made more than a million dollars.
      If it’s delight to see these smilingly toothy, pudgy fingered, curly-haired boys in their early encounters, things soon begin to fray. Each of them found women whom they married, not, as they had previously argued, all similar in type. Eddy, who fought hard to keep the families they created together, was devastated when his broth Robert left the business, unable to work successfully with the other two. And, although David remained close to Eddy, living across the street, he could not stop his brother’s eventual suicide. Darker elements had existed in all our lives which involved a sense of abandonment, and later, of having been forced to live a life over which they had had no control.
      When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower, Going Clear) began to write about “twins” in the late 1990s, he discovered a great deal of information that suggested that the triplets and several twins had been intentionally separated from their birth mothers by late child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer, an Austrian Jew who had fled the Holocaust, using the Jewish Louise Wise Agency. The experiment, which might have been interesting had all parties been alerted to its existence, was an attempt to determine the difference between nature vs. nurture.
      If Wardle’s film begins rather solidly on the side of nature—these guys, after all, seemed at first to be so very alike that only nature could have explained it—we gradually come to perceive that perhaps their upbringing did make an enormous difference. Robert admits that too had had suicidal thoughts, but that he couldn’t bring himself to carry them out. David, although stunned by events, seems rather blessed by having the beloved “Bubbalah,” as his father. Perhaps wealth and permission are not the things that most sustain an individual this film suggests. Just a daily hug might make all the difference.
      Yet, the even darker story of a purpose experiment on human beings, the findings of which will never be published and whose files cannot even be opened in 2066, are the most sinister elements of this tale. Why can’t the overseeing Jewish Federation open those Yale files, or why won’t Yale themselves admit that they might be opened? One of Neubauer’s unwitting confederates perhaps says it best. Those twins who don’t know about each other may be better off, without being torn apart by the news that these triplets had to endure. If the actions of those with they worked were indeed corrupt, cynical, and even inexcusable, the pain these three brothers had to endure by the discovery of the truth might not be worth it. Yet, at least the two remaining brothers now know one another, and speak out strongly about the truth; and that is the undeniable power of Wardle’s film.

Los Angeles, July 5, 2018