Tuesday, November 27, 2018
a letter which can wither, a learning which can suffer and an outage which is simultaneous is principal
by Douglas Messerli
Chantal Akerman (writer and director) Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles / 1975
If there was ever a film that proves Gertrude Stein’s adage that we are what we repeat, it has to be Chantal Akerman’s 3 ½ hour movie, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles of 1975. Yet I hate even to describe this immersive entry into the beautiful widow’s life, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), living with her teenage son, Sylvain (Jan Decorte), and their daily routines. By the time you have carefully observed Akerman’s patterned images, you feel less like you’ve watched the art film (now almost a cult classic) Criterion presents it as, than you have gotten an opportunity to get to know a fascinating woman whose life has become defined by her attempts of daily survival.
She lives, as the title tells us, in a well-kept, if not deluxe, apartment at 23 quai du Commerce in Brussels, Belgium, where her patterns of behavior center around cooking meals for her herself and her son, bringing in small sums of money so that she might survive through prostitution with boring and unattractive businessmen (3 of whom we encounter in this three-act drama). But she is less a “whore” than simply a working woman trying to support herself and allow her studious son enough spending money that he can continue to finish his education—a problem, evidently, since he has been seduced by a close male friend (and yes, there is a fleeting suggestion that their relationship might have been more than mere friendship) to attend a Flemish school; now, in a French gymnasium or college (we can never quite determine is age, since he speaks little), he is having a difficult time in repeating the poems of Baudelaire in proper French. His mother night attempts to correct the locution of her student son.
We might almost quote from Stein’s Tender Buttons in describing Jeanne’s cooking habits and her relationship with her nearly grown child: the first day she cooks potatoes, creating also a kind of thin vichyssoise and lamb (or mutton).
A letter which can wither, a learning which can suffer and an outrage which is simultaneous is principal.
Student, students are merciful and recognized they chew something.
Hate rests that is sold and sparse and all in shape and largely very largely. Interleaved and successive and a sample of smell all this makes certainly a shade.
Light curls very light curls have no more curliness that soup. This is not a subject
Change a single stream of denting and change it hurriedly, what it does express, it expresses nausea. Like a very strange likeness and pink, like that and not more like that than the same resemblance and not more like that than no middle space in cutting.
These, the first lines of this rather long prose poem of “A meal of mutton,” might almost be seen as a model for Jeanne’s life. I don’t want to make to much of this, but I can’t imagine that Akerman, a feminist and lesbian, would not have read it.
Indeed, one of Jeanne’s most repeated actions is turning off and on lights, as she leaves the screen, returns to finish cooking, and moves on to other rooms, to set the table, place the dishes upon them, and remove them after her son and their quiet dinner together. No one says much; she reports only that she has received a letter from a relative inviting them to Canada. It is certain they will never travel there.
At other times the director simply shows Jeanne in long-camera takes as she bathes, after the loveless sex she has had with her customers. We watch her carefully as she makes up the bed, folds the towel she has used to cover the space between her body and the coverlet. Everything, on the first day, is done with nearly expert control. They only true joy seems to receive is that reading of Baudelaire and a late-night outing into the city’s neon-lights for a few more provisions.
The second day, we again watch Jeanne precisely put potatoes in a pot before exits to do some shopping. Her only pleasure appears to be a cup of latte at a local bar. Her patron of that day pays her and leaves her again to finish the evening meal. But this time things appear to be, just a little, “falling apart.” She must apologize to her son for the potatoes being overdone, but we’ve also observed that the shell of efficiency is slowly beginning to crack: she has dropped a spoon, left a canister uncovered.
And, on the third day, Jeanne seems not quite to be her self-sufficient being, talking, for the first time with strangers and gossiping, just a little, with her grocer. Her previous imperviousness in which she has lived seems to be slightly cracking at the edges. The lights go on and off, she light’s the burner as she does again and again to prepare for dinner, she combs her hair as usual, and prepares for her afternoon client—even if she is a little late.
She reminds me, a bit, of Glenda Jackson perfectly preparing her breakfast in John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a scene in which the directly turned his microphone up so that each movement of a knife, a fork, a plate, seemed to demonstrate her absolute efficiency.
Yet, observing Jeanne in sex with her third client, we recognize that something is different. Subtlety, Akerman helps us to perceive that, for the first time in many years, Jeanne actually achieves an orgasm with this not very loveable man. And soon after the sex ends, she carefully takes out a knife and slits his throat. Her orderly life has clearly been destroyed, her ability to do everything on her own has now shown her the lie of her life.
Once again, I was reminded by Stein, recalling Jeanne and her son, in their cramped living room (the room in which they also pulled out his bed from a small couch), setting up their evening table:
A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. It is like that a change.
A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table means necessary
places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.
Certainly, Jeanne’s table, in every sense of those words, has been shaken. Her routine has been disturbed; emotional interchange has suddenly crept into the looking-glass and made her realize just how empty her life has been. She can no longer sustain her son, Sylvain; he must now make it on his own.
As you might perceive, this film profoundly affected me. After seeing it, I will now have to rethink all films that speed through their stories with a leery eye. Sometimes getting to know your character is what human interaction is all about. We might almost say that the more we come to know Jeanne Dielman, living at 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, with its dreadful curlicues of wall-paper and the oppressive entry-way mosaics, the more she comes alive; yet as a figure of fiction, she has no choice, perhaps, in that process of the film itself, but to destroy her own being.
Unlike in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the central character leaps off the screen to join, temporarily, the real world, I desired to leap into Akerman’s screen just to put my hand on Jeanne’s shoulder to reassure her that emotions were just fine, that love was not something she need deny herself, as she clearly had done throughout her life. It’s a silly conceit, of course, a fag trying to reassure a lovely woman who very much knew what she was all about; but when a movie can create such an empathy between audience and character, well, that’s a kind of miracle.
Los Angeles, November 27, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).
Friday, November 23, 2018
pretty images do not a movie make
by Douglas Messerli
Derek Jarman, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and Nicholas Ward-Jackson, (screenplay, based on a story by Ward-Jackson), Derek Jarman (director) Caravaggio / 1986
Although in the past I have enjoyed a couple of Derek Jarman’s overheated homoerotic films, particularly his Sebastiane of 1976, his movie of 10 years later, Caravaggio—although containing some fairly lovely images—appears to have no logical point of view except to, apparently, celebrate the Renaissance painter’s life for its open expression of homosexuality and bisexuality, classifying the handsome artist as a kind of wild aesthete in the manner of Shakespeare’s wild nemesis, Christopher Marlowe.
Yet Marlowe, who like Caravaggio was killed (in the Italian artist’s case, evidently of poisoning), in revenge for his bad behavior, was highly educated, while in Jarman’s version, the Italian artist, although immensely talented, was little more than a street ruffian.
All the better for Jarman’s purposes, since between friezes of the prostitutes and street figures who Caravaggio used for painted figures, he can let the handsome young Caravaggio (Dexter Fletcher) and chiseled but decaying older Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), tended to by the mute Jerusaleme (Emile Nicolaou/Jonathan Hyde)—who the artist evidently purchased, with pederastic intentions from Jerusaleme’s Grandmother (Zohra Sehgal) early in the film—play out their own somewhat orgiastic adventures without much meaning.
Caravaggio, himself, has also been “purchased,” it is suggested, by Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough) who leeringly encourages the artist to produce his art, while evidently keeping the boy/man up many a night with his sexual attentions. Jarman clearly loves a good orgy or two, but mostly in this film he just hints at them instead of exploring their political and social implications as he did in Sebastiane.
This film seems to be simply a kind of endless, narrated often in a voiceover of the younger Caravaggio, recounting his sexual adventures, interspersed with very badly conceived recreations of Caravaggio’s beautiful art.
Just to remind us how “contemporary” the late-Renaissance bad boy really was, the director interposes numerous anachronisms throughout the film: courtiers madly typing up messages, Caravaggio standing aside a green truck, a motorbike speeding by, and a bar laced with electric lights. Perhaps Jarman thought his campy-like references might save his pointlessly wavering plot, but, I’m afraid, it points up the fact that he has very little to say about the artist and his art itself. He might as well have chosen any other wild-living figure of the past. If Sebastiane, as a sensuously sexual explorative Christian, was presented as being torn between the licentious and the pure, Caravaggio, at least in this depiction, simply jumps into the mud.
Observing a ruddy-faced street-boxer, Ranuccio (Sean Bean), he demands his sexual attentions, which the man, given enough money, is willing to entertain; but with him, fortunately, comes Ranuccio’s girlfriend, Lena (in the amazing Tilda Swinton’s first film role), and in order to get the red-faced streetboy into his bed, it appears that Caravaggio must enter into a meage a` trois. As a threesome they work well together, but when Ranuccio and Lena are observed making love to the artist separately, jealously, as the cliché goes, “rears its ugly head.”
Much of this film is, in fact, filled with clichés or, at least, with sentences that are destined to become clichés through just such a film. As Washington Post film critic Paul Attanasio wrote in his 1986 review:
What's most puzzling is Jarman's view of Caravaggio himself. Throughout, the
artist talks in voice-over, a jumble bizarrely composed of overheated poesy,
homoerotic dreams and the kind of "insights" that might inspire a sophomore at
Bennington to scribble in the paperback margin, "|" or even "|||" Thus: "Man's
character is his fate"; "The gods have become diseases"; "All art is
against lived experience"; "I am trapped, pure spirit in matter ..."
I have no idea what Attanasio had against Bennington University women, but the script might remind us of thousands of such well-intentioned university-student perceptions throughout the world. I probably wrote some myself.
Of course, tragedy lies just behind the tapestries. Lena, who is now pregnant does not implicate either of her lovers and now intends to become mistress to the wealthy Scipione Borghese (Robbie Coltrante). Murder seems to be the result of her determination, as Caravaggio and Jerusaleme clean Lena’s nude murdered body in order to capture it in a painting.
Arrested for Lena’s murder, Ranuccio claims innocence, Caravaggio appearing to believe him and arranging through his Vatican connections to release him.
But when Ranuccio admits the murder to the artist, Caravaggio slits his throat, while we return to the murderer’s own bed, where he has visions of attempting to deny priests from offering him the last rites.
Okay, this wild young genius lived large and mostly uncontrollably, a kind of Warhol of many centuries past, which is what I supposed attracted Jarman to his subject. Yet, you want to ask, so what? Was murder the poisoning the AIDS of other centuries? Did he deserve what he got? Was he somehow simply misunderstood by a society that was, in fact, far more open to various sexual deviances than our own? It’s hard to know what to make of the film Caravaggio because I don’t believe the writers had a clue about what they were trying to say.
Pretty images do not a movie make.
Los Angeles, Thanksgiving Day, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
the lure of the native
by Douglas Messerli
Robert J. Flaherty (writer and director) Man of Aran / 1934
Often described as a fictional documentary film (an ethnofiction), Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 work Man of Aran might better be described as pure romantic hokum, a work which in its poetic intensity is perhaps closer to someone like Jack London than the post-war neo-realists.
The major tenets of this film, that the isolated islanders living in harsh conditions off of the western coast of Ireland are a beautiful folk who live in a premodern world, struggling to grow potatoes on stony cliffs by using seaweed as soil, surviving by rock fishing, and keeping their lights on by hunting and harpooning large Basking sharks to render their liver oil into lamplight are almost all fabrications. The seaweed, in fact, was used mostly as a fertilizer; shark hunting had stopped nearly a half-century before the making of this film, and the director needed to bring in Scottish sailors to show the Aran natives how to maneuver their harpoons; and the small crabs and fish that the family’s young son catches would hardly have supported the hunger of a larger family.
Indeed, even the family Flaherty portrays, the father, Man of Aran (Colman ‘Tiger’ King), the mother (Maggie Dirrane), and son (Michael Dillane) were not related, and were chosen for their photogenic capabilities.
If the storms and slapping waves against the stony coast, captured by Flaherty’s wide-lens camera (the camera evidently dwarfed by its lens) during his several visits to the island over two years are quite astonishing, the movie’s final scene, in which the shark hunters are nearly lost in a huge storm, was also an utter fiction—and a dangerous one, since, it is rumored, none of the men could swim. Even Flaherty latter admitted: “Looking back I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do for the film…for the enormous risks…and all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pound a piece.”
Yet, that last scene is so very powerful, looking as it does a bit like something like Albert Pinkham Ryder’s 1880s work, The Waste of Waters Is Their Field, that we can only wonder at the scene. Moreover, as we know from movie history, there were plenty of filmmakers from the 1920s and 1930s who put their stars in great danger: Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd—to name only a few.
Today, there are a great many critics of this work who completely dismiss it for its lack of proper focus—some arguing that instead of man vs nature, the film might have dealt with the Irish treatment of the island’s poverty-stricken population and the tariffs applied to them—while others such as George Stoney, who created a documentary about the making of the film, Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, How the Myth Was Made, have continued to attack the movie outright for its fabrications. Others have been kinder to the film, which received great acclaim upon its premier, not only from Irish and British viewers, but from the Nazi government, who saw in Flaherty’s myths of the outsider, issues which resonated with their own visions of themselves. It is apparent that Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was influenced by Flaherty’s film.
But it is equally clear that for Flaherty there was no political intent, but, perhaps just as dangerously, as writer Arthur Calder-Marshall notes, Man of Aran is an “’eclogue’—a pastoral and marine poem”—as I would argue, not a film you can easily make under the guise of a paean to a real place and its people. Ryder’s wild landscapes come to mind again; we know these wonderful works are from a feverous imagination, not from a stolid vision of reality.
Flaherty loved the exotic, worlds he felt had been left behind by the modern world—and were better off for it, despite the hardships their cultures might have had to face. If only Flaherty had never been classified as a documentarian his films might proffer a different kind of perspective of a man who, in the depths of the Great Depression, who offered lullabies for a people whose land, agriculturally and economically, had betrayed them. Flaherty’s mock-nativists survived because they’d never even entered the 20th century. And the lure of that world still exists. Is it any wonder that Riefenstahl, in her later years, photographed African tribal natives?
Los Angeles, November 21, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
a lost hat, a crushed doll
by Douglas Messerli
Tadao Ikeda (screenplay, based on a story by Hiroshi Shimizu (story), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk Cheerfully) / 1930
Yasujirō Ozu’s silent frolic of a film, Walk Cheerfully, comes early in his career, long before his figures mostly retired to more-traditional tatami mat-bound characters; yet in this lovely work he already is very much concerned with changing family values.
The difference, however, between the more traditionally bred, yet office-working Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), a beauty which her scotch drinking, game-playing boss would love to get onto his office couch, and the man who falls in love with her, the gangster, Kenji the Knife (the handsome Minoru Takada), is more like the relationship between Polly Peachum and Mackie Messer in G. W. Pabst’s version of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera than any of the more carefully framed confrontations of the sexes in Ozu’s later films.
Even here, nonetheless, Ozu does contextualize his American-styled societal outcasts as far more fun-loving and charming figures than anything out of the tough-guy noirs of the Hollywood screen. Here, working together, Kenji and his sidekick Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) commit a crime—Senko stealing a wallet while Kenji comes to the victim’s rescue only to help Senko pass on the object on to him—it is more like a scene out of the 1940s American musical Guys and Dolls than anything you might experience in The Public Enemy (1931). In fact, these “gangsters” often tap dance, enjoy themselves at the local bar, and, in their off time, take in boxing at a local club. Of course, Cagney (the “public enemy”) was also a great dancer and could tap up a storm. But he might never have imagined doing that simultaneously in his gangster movies. Ozu distances Kenji from the contagion of his world by making him somewhat of a dandy who charms his victims to death rather than shooting them down in the streets.
The director lets the minor figures, particularly after Kenji determines to go straight in order to win his beauty’s hand, play out any evil that might exist. Kenji tries his best, taking Yasue on a car trip into the country with her young sister at their side, but the results are more out of Harold Lloyd than Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He keeps losing his hat and accidentally squashes the young sister’s doll under the car’s never-ending tires in his macaronic movements into space. In this Ozu film, there is no going back, even if his entire “gang” intend to impede his desired transformations.
And that is the fun of this comedy. As Kenji removes his dagger-like tattoos and takes on a job as a window-washer that might be almost a foretelling of another musical hero, chronicalling J. Pierpont Finch’s rise to the top in the 1960s Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Kenji becomes almost erased from the film, while his former moll, the evil Chieko (Satoko Date), with hair styled like Clara Bow’s, takes on her sexual competitor, attempting to replace herself as their mutual bosses’ favorite, and working to get Yasue fired. As the critic of the perceptive “Silent London” blog writes:
…the real business of Walk Cheerfully is transacted between Yasue
and Chieko. Yasue, like it or not, has to change – just as painfully
as her boyfriend does when he scratches away his ink – and take
Chieko’s place instead.
It is almost the same lesson that Guys and Dolls’ Sister Sarah Brown needs to learn from Adelaide, you have to “marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow.”
Although in Ozu’s speed-driven work everyone, it seems, is busy changing themselves, transforming a previously feudal society into a totally westernized world that puzzles and terrifies the elders and often frightens even those determined to undergo that change, their very energy astounds us all.
As the “Silent London” essayist argues:
Walk Cheerfully’s jittery tempo is measured by more of these cutaways
to feet, dancing, pacing and tapping. There’s something suspicious about
all that perpetual motion: just like Senko when he’s being frisked at the
quayside, Chieko and her boss jiggle their guilty feet while they scheme in
the office lift. And the pace of Walk Cheerfully is relentless: these inserts,
the speeding cars and the travelling camera. The question is: where is all
this forward momentum taking us?
I wouldn’t exactly describe this forward motion as “suspicious,” but simply as inevitable. This society is in a not-so-slow collapse that must quickly be filled in with the transformations of its youth. Many of these changes, as we know from the history of Japanese cinema and literature, will ultimately be extremely painful, disorienting, and, if nothing else, challenging for both younger and older generations for decades to come. One might even argue that the backlash for this sudden lurch forward came in the Japanese fascism of World War II. If we see it from this perspective, in fact, we can easily parallel it with the radical shifts in German culture of the Weimar Republic during the same period—or even the not so pleasant transformation from Obama’s enlightened politics to the Trumpian “kill-them-all” political chaos of today.
Ozu, always the conciliator, seems to warn both sides, at least in the English title of Hogaraka ni ayume, suggesting the society “walk” rather than as do his characters, run and dance into the future, and that their elders be “cheerful” rather than begrudging or even grow hateful about those changes. By film’s end, Yasue’s mother remains in place over her teapot, but seems to smile in approval of her daughter’s acceptance of the former gangster. And even with her doll crushed, Yasue’s sister seems ever so pleased with what the future has brought her, a new brother-in-law who appears determined to help move her move out of her sheltered present.
Los Angeles, November 20, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).
Saturday, November 17, 2018
by Douglas Messerli
Taijun Takeda (screenplay, based on the novel by Tsutomu Tamura), Nagisa Oshima (director) 白昼の通り魔 Hakuchū no tōrima (Violence at Noon) / 1966
Known for films with highly sexualized content, Nagisa Oshima, in his 1966 film Violence at Noon, focuses more traditionally on attitudes about sex. That is not say that the film does not often contain emotionally repellent attitudes about sex: the central character, Eisuke Oyamada (Kei Sato), after all, is a serial rapist and in the very first sequence of the film becomes a brutal murderer.
The two central female characters, moreover—Shino Shinozaki (Saeda Kawaguchi) and Matsuko Koura (Akiko Koyama)—hide the identity of the man who now twice raped Shino and killed the woman for whom she works as a maid, and in Matsuko’s case, Eisuke’s schoolteacher- wife whom he has basically abandoned.
Finally, this film also features an attempted double suicide by lovers Shino and village leader, the young Genji Hyuga (Rokko Toura). Genji succeeds in hanging himself, while Shino is cut down by Eisuke and raped for the first time.
Yet, in this case Oshima makes no attempt to hide the “violence” signified by the American title. The first many frames of this film (there are a total of over 2,000 cuts in the entire movie) represent a combination of jarring shifts of camera position and the juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal patterns that hint of the rapists’ ultimate ending, eventually with the help of his conflicted lovers, internment in prison and a sentence of death. This violent criminal, we later discover, actually accosted 35 women, killing several of them.
Even after we leave the urban landscape of the first scenes, the fields, with their rows and rows of plantings create an unforgettable horizontal line that seems to imprison the four friends, having grown up together—the strong peasant Shino, the highly educated and seemingly perceptive Matsuko, and the popular but psychologically distressed Genji—all having suffered dire circumstances as children, when floods and other events destroyed their parent’s livelihoods. Oshima almost seems to suggest that their destructive childhoods have created the passions with which, as adults, they cannot now deal.
Of their group, Eisuke was always the outsider, the one who stole without guilt, and survived while the others suffered. He is a taker, while the others were givers, often to their own detriment. If they survived by offering their talents to their impoverished community, he steals their produce, their animals, their love. It is the sad story we all know about a kind of inverse survival of the fittest—the fittest, in this case, being the outsider, not at all fit to survive in this tightly enclosed community; but, as such, he is also, strangely, the prodigal son, beloved by all for his very inability to remain within the bounds that they have so carefully, and often painfully, embraced.
Of all the figures, Matsuko is the most controversial. Having just watched a day or two earlier Sara Conlangelo’s film The Kindergarten Teacher, I realized just how similar the two teachers were: both were remarkably calm and loving in the classroom yet were so dissatisfied with their lives that outside their ordered classrooms they were desperately passionate beings who had no ability to choose the right husbands and families. Trapped between their intellects and their passions, they had no way to properly travel through everyday life. In the more recent film, the character sought out the genius of her young student; in Oshima’s film, the teacher chooses the most outré being of her own childhood group, Eisuke, both women destroying the good they have intended and created within their communities.
Genji, the charmed leader of his community, is too frail to lead it, and determines to destroy himself at the very moment he is elected their leader.
It is only the solid, hard-working peasant Shino who might survive. Late in this violent-laden film, after both women have both helped to turn over the true menace of their lives over to the police, they together realize how they had helped Eisuke—even indirectly—to commit his terrible acts, with a deep sense of guilt—what they describe as a “link” to him—realizing that their lives have also come to an end. The always proud and graceful Mutsuko gathers her students together, and naming them one by one, personally says goodbye, a beautiful scene that combines here personal teaching skills with her graceful recognition of who she and everyone around her is.
On the train ride back to their homes, the stolid Shino is only hungry, eagerly consuming not only her own meal, but, when Matsuko rejects her dinner, the food of her friend. Yet, like Genji, Matsuko convinces the still innocent Shino to commit another “double suicide,” as the two, returning to their home village, and tying their feet together, poison themselves underneath the same trees from which Genji had hung himself.
It is a both tragic and comic ending to Oshima’s film, as the high-minded, moral “Ma’m” (as Shino keeps calling Matsuko in the English-language version) dies, while, miraculously, once again Shino survives, vomiting out what she has ingested, after which she attempts, unsuccessfully, to save her friend.
The patient intellect, the political leader, the impulsive lover have all destroyed themselves, while the stolid peasant farmer-girl and maid has survived. In Oshima’s vision, truly the “meek inherit the earth.”
Los Angeles, November 17, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).
discovering a poetic genius
by Douglas Messerli
Sara Colangelo (writer and director) The Kindergarten Teacher / 2018
As a former teacher, I know what a delight it is when you find a student of special talent. That is, after all, what your profession is about, in part, helping to educate the mediocre but to also uplift a being who has a rare intelligence, a series of marvelous perceptions which might never before been realized by the general educational system or simply by the societal conditions in which she or he previously existed. You marvel in their perceptions, their sometimes-easy conceptions, and encourage them to challenge what they have already, within themselves, and even despite themselves attained.
You must be careful. Sometimes you might even be deluded by a quick-witted challenger, a bright young kid who will use his or her talents for more nefarious gains. But I often, without openly mentoring them (the worse kind of attention these youths might endure), encouraged them through out-of-class connections—often discouraged these days—with a drink at a local bar or a meal at a local restaurant. The goal was never to convince them of their brilliance or of my brilliance. Simply to hear them out, to listen to their perceptions—often learning as much from them as from my own declarations of knowledge—wondering at how their mind worked and encouraging them, most importantly, to ask the questions they were ready to admit with encouragement. That was the most you might be able to give them, the acceptance of their own imaginations.
I never encouraged or demanded any sexual relationship (and would have never permitted such contact), nor even allowed myself to challenge our consensual friendships. But then, my students were university adults—as much as a young 18-20-year-old student is an adult—and I was careful that they knew I was not controlling the events which we shared so that I might discover their talents. I was also very careful about not showing, at least in the classroom, any favoritism, often calling upon the least talented students before speaking to the more able ones. Teaching, I would argue, is a process of making all feel included, enveloping even the angry kid in the corner into your curriculum, helping him or her to understand that your role as a teacher is to help them, as well, as to enjoy and understand what you are attempting to convey to them. It didn’t always work. But generally, it succeeded. I once had a diffident baseball player get so excited about the book I was teaching that he could hardly contain himself with the joy of the discovery. “Sex was okay,” he almost shouted; “you could even write about it.” (I give Michael Brownstein’s absurdly written Country Cousins all the credit for that—this in a day when you might still be able to teach a book in which the “cousins” fuck themselves to death throughout the entire fiction).
In Sara Colangelo’s deeply-thought movie, however, the teacher is frustrated with her rather ordinary life, whereas I never thought I ever knew what ordinary was. In a relationship with a loving but totally unappealing husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), the would-be creative Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is unhappy with her life as a teacher in Staten Island. Her children have seemingly no imagination, and like most kids their age spend their entire lives on cell-phones talking to their friends, with very few references outside of those computer-generated conversations. These are good kids which you never thought you should have to deal with.
As Lisa perceives, in the oft-quoted Gertrude Stein comment, “there is no there there,” and she seeks other worlds in which she might discover herself and her own inner talents. Through Gyllenhaal’s lovely performance, we perceive her as a caring and loving teacher, despite her family disappointments, a supportive wife and mother—although even her children recognize her disaffection for them. She takes a creative-writing class with a supposedly perceptive teacher, Simon (Gael García Bernal), who later seduces her while attempting to describe the quality of her poetry.
Yet, this kindergarten teacher knows that her whole life is a sham. The poetry that most receives acclaim in her class is that of her 5-year-old student, Jimmy Roy (the always-watchable child actor Parker Sevak), whose poems overcome him like sudden visions, which Lisa suddenly feels she must record, he being, in her vision, another kind of Mozart, a talent that can only be worshiped and kindly supported in a society which could care less. The poems are interesting, but not, perhaps what she believes them to be; expressions of a genius-in-the-making:
Anna is beautiful
Beautiful enough for me
The sun hits her yellow house
It is almost like a sign from God.
The class analysis of this child’s poem is such a classic case of poetry-in-class imposition of dense meaning of a simple statement that it would be utterly painful if it were not truly (supposedly) the product of a 5-year old. As funny as it is, it is also truly painful if you’ve ever taught a creative-writing course.
The problem with Lisa is not her dilemma alone, but that of the society in which she lives, a world which, while basically abandoning poetry and art also carefully elevates it to a level outside of everyday experience. If these lines, as well as his second poem, “The Bull,” might be seen by a mother, father, and teacher as quite profound, in this film they become talismans for a society seeking meaning where there is not much there, or, to bring in Stein again, where there “is no there there.”
Lisa at least is well meaning and ultimately, rather honest, when she basically absconds with the bartender’s Nikhil Roy’s son to allow him to recite the two poems which she has written which basically, has tested out in her creative-writing class. Her Bowery Poetry class members are rightfully confused: is she using her student’s voice as a kind of performative figure for her own work? Or, as she finally admits, has she lied about her own contributions to their community. She admits the lie and is immediately ostracized without their even recognizing the chances she has taken to do that. In a sense, they have themselves been deluded by the child’s siren voice, the simple words he speaks having served for a far deeper expression of poetic thought than they themselves have been capable of.
Yet, of course, Lisa, herself, is highly deluded. The child genius is not Mozart whose hands needed to be messaged after every performance so that he might create another work of genius. The little child, Jimmy, is a natural, who simply spouts, at times quite perceptively, what is on his deeper mind. And it’s always a delight. But his father wants nothing to do with it—his own brother having been an unsuccessful writer—preferring that his son grow up to be a practical man, who has played baseball and who might one day, like him, run a good business. Hasn’t nearly every poet, musician, dancer, artist, performer in the world had just such a father?
The deluded Lisa, however, imagines herself—given her own personal failures—a kind of spiritual force who might release this would-be poet into the world. It’s a beautiful and stunningly profound imaginative vision, but when the child is taken away—quite rightfully—from her supervision, she determines to steal him away again for a purpose that even she cannot quite comprehend, whisking him away to a northern New England motel before, apparently, planning to shuffle him off to Canada, where, in her imagination, she and he will work on a book of his poetry, implanting his name upon it, as if she might be Boswell to some future Samuel Johnson.
The delusion is so grand that even a 5-year old sees through it, locking her in the bathroom as she takes a shower and calling to the police to announce that he has been kidnapped.
The scene is one of the most painful confrontations I’ve ever witnessed on film, he talking to the police about the birches he witnesses outside her window, she from within trying to tell him where he really is so that he might report it to the police. She is not a true abuser, except for herself. And when she finally convinces him to let her back into the room, it is for a modest change of clothing so that the police will arrest her fully dressed, Jimmy again cuddling up to her leg as he had done in his kindergarten class. If this child knows that what she has done is wrong, he still admires her, psychologically speaking, for what she has done. Inwardly, he realizes she is the only audience truly for his poetic verbalizations.
Lisa has already warned him that in turning her in, he will have lost his ability to speak, to say his poems in the easy way he always has: “I have a poem.” And as we see him in the police car, about to be taken back home, where he announces, once again, “I have a poem,” while those around ignore his comments, we recognize the truth of her predictions.
Poems, this movie suggests, are never spoken or written with permission from the society; if in the future, Jimmy wants to write a poem, no hands will be messaged, no egos given any rubbing. He will have to do it despite the society into which he was born. Art is not a given, and no one, no one, will truly encourage you to engage in such a meaningless activity.
Los Angeles, November 13, 2018Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018)
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
by Douglas Messerli
Anthony McCarten (based on a story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan), Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (directors) Bohemian Rhapsody / 2018
Director Bryan Singer’s and, ultimately, Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of the amazing British musical group Queen, might have been—and accordingly to many, still is—a kind of cinematic disaster. The major figures in the cast kept shifting, from Sacha Baron Cohen to Ben Whishaw, and finally
Malek playing Freddie Mercury, with major shifts of screenwriters from 2010 to
the final release in 2018, along with numerous changes in the supporting
figures in the cast. It’s almost amazing, looking back, that Bohemian Rhapsody, as the film was
eventually titled, got made, let alone that it was a financial hit, loved by
thousands of its audience members.
Many of the critics simply hated it, The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott summarizing, early on in his review:
A baroque blend of gibberish, mysticism and melodrama, the indiefilm seems engineered to be as unmemorable as possible, with the exception of the prosthetic teeth worn by the lead actor, Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, Queen’s lead singer. Those choppers may give you nightmares. And some of you who venture into the theater will surely be inspired to exclaim “Mama mia, let me go!”
The usually reliable Justin Chang, of the Los Angeles Times attacked the film along the lines of numerous other critics, who dismissed its theatrical inaccuracies:
…There is something woefully reductive, even pernicious, about the narrative shorthand used to elide Freddie’s sexual relationships with men: a glimpse of leather here, a truck-stop montage there. There’s also something oddly moralistic, even punitive, about the way Freddie’s increasingly debauched, hard-partying ways drive a wedge between himself and his bandmates; it’s not that Brian, Roger and John aren’t allowed to react with cross-armed disgust, but that the movie too often seems to share their attitude. Even more irritating is a wholly inaccurate later scene in which Freddie tells his bandmates in 1985 that he has AIDS, a fabricated detail that feels like an attempt to tidy up the obligatory reconciliation narrative.
Howard and I, who grew to adulthood in this period, had not ever known of Queen. Sure we heard of the group, but, as Howard reports, we presumed that they took over the seemingly “gay” moniker to simply mock it, that perhaps they were just a grunge group, rock-a-billy singers (we did know, obviously, the clap along songs “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”; you’d have to have been dead to never have heard these), knowing nothing of Mercury’s history, let alone of the crazy, psychedelic operatic song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with the high counter-tenor reaches of “Galileo.” Had we known, we might have loved it!
Perhaps our very ignorance, and our lack of knowledge about Mercury’s actual history freed us from all the pre-judgments that the critics could not resist.
Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody often plays with many of the tropes that musical biopics are based on; the unloved hero finding his own way to reveal his talent and moving toward a love you know that he can’t ever sustain. In this case, obviously, Mercury’s apparent love for a young woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) can never be consumated, which she herself quickly perceives knowing he is not only not bisexual but “desperately” gay, and in this case that is the proper word. Freddie may not have even perceived it himself, but he was destined to seek out an underworld of truly transgressive gay life that would end up with his death of AIDS in 1991.
True, as well, this film spends far too much time with his infatuation with Austin, his determination, despite their inevitable break-up, to keep her in his life, winking with lights off-and-on between the neighboring mansions he was able to purchase after his amazing musical success. But you’d have to be an idiot not to realize that Freddie has long before been slipping in and out of backroom bathrooms to be fucked or to fuck others. If the movie is perhaps a bit too discrete, it doesn’t exactly hide his dark sexuality, and when he finally settles into life with his perverse second manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), we are in on the radical sexual orgies in which he must have participated—even if the film doesn’t want to draw our attention to them. Only the blind need claim that this movie doesn’t focus on Mercury’s “darker” world. This is definitely not the Cole Porter of Cary Grant’s sanitized film biography.
In fact, Malek, with his implanted incisors, gives us a view of a highly, highly sexualized being at fight with the world in which he inhabits, even among his mostly heterosexual band-members, who married, but nonetheless, allowed themselves to collectively portray the kind of faux gay sexuality in their guitar playing, Brian May (played by Gwilym Lee), bass guitar, John Deacon (Joseph Mozzello), and drummer, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) roles. They knew who their lead singer was, and encouraged his open sexuality, despite the times, while keeping their personal distances. This is not simply the story of Freddie Mercury, but of the lives of the strange family named Queen. I kept being reminded of Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." So why should the movie haunt the alleys of Freddie’s sexual indecencies—I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s kind of boring.
And perhaps the most touching moment of the film is when Freddie visits a clinic where he finds that he is HIV-positive. As he is about to exit the building, a handsome young boy, showing signs of the effects of AIDS on his fact, calls out Queen's who shout to his audiences; in performance it is a whoop of joy which whips up his crowds in participatory singing; but in this scene, is a cry-out of death, a kind of sign of recognition of a fellow now walking-dead.
Of far more interest is their inter-relationships, even if the film also fictionalizes them. So, now we know, the group never actually broke up, that Freddie didn’t reveal, just prior to the remarkable Live Aid concert that he had AIDS. Well that’s dramatic license which actually makes sense. Even if he truthfully told them about his illness much later, and wasn’t suffering deeply during the concert itself, and didn’t meet his new “friend,” Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) as a one-night waiter, but as a nightly hairdresser, who cares? It’s all good drama, and the tea-party with his estranged Farsi family is right out of a fantasy like that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (his Red Queen-like father demanding the family turn on the television to watch his son’s performance) even if it is something that only the seasoned writer Peter Morgan (who has written about a real queen), who helped write this story, might have imagined.
What’s more, all critics agreed, Rami Malek did the best imitation of Freddie Mercury that might be possible, singing some of those songs himself, while lip-synching others, while dancing in a way that Mercury surely would have approved of. And the music, the heart of this film, is not to be ignored. I cried, wishing I had encountered Queen in my youth instead of my old age. Today I watched the entire YouTube feature of Freddie Mercury’s Live Aid concert performance, and literally cried again and again. Well, when a movie can make you do that, how bad can it have been?
When Malek picks up the extended microphone, employing it as did Freddie as a kind of extended cock that spelled out to his audience what a true rooster he was, you can’t help but love him (and Mercury). He was a showman, even in his Presley-like performance, that you simply can’t forget. Bowie, the Beatles, Mick Jagger, John Elton, so many others, are there in his performances that you simply can’t ignore Mercury. He was the champion.
Los Angeles, November 14, 2018Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).