Monday, December 30, 2019

Andy Warhol | Blow Job


sex as eucharistic redemption
by Douglas Messerli

Andy Warhol (conceiver and director) Blow Job / 1964

Andy Warhol’s seminal gay sex film (although we are never quite certain who is actually providing the fellatio pleasures of the central figure, the beautiful look-alike James Dean figure, DeVeren Bookwalter) which directly returns us, in 1964, to Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour of 1950. Like Genet, Warhol demonstrates sexual acts without actually depicting them, allowing the imagination of any sympathetic viewer to fill in the spaces.
      We never see any of what Warhol described as “five beautiful boys” sucking Bookwalter’s cock; and indeed, we never see the penis itself. Rather the director focuses on the actor’s beautiful face, alternating with his almost ecstatic movements as he raises his face upward in joy, and his vertically downward looks, presumably peering down at the five young boys sucking him off.
      Certainly, if nothing else, this is a film of an utter ecstasy that might also be compared with another gay director, Robert Bresson’s horrific spiritual tortures of his Jeanne d’Arc. Like her, he is quite literally being consumed by the fire licking his loins, which Warhol, through his constant alterations of light and dark—the camera at two instances releasing the film into a total bright white light that removes us even from the vision of the delighted sufferer.
      When I was young, I was never much into “blow jobs”; I have a severe gag response as a provider, and I generally preferred other sexual releases of both kinds to a good suck. But in one instance in a sleazy gay hangout, I found a young man who wanted to provide me with his services. It was the very best blow-job I have ever had in my life, which strangely today I can even recall. I am certain it was received with the same vertical up-and-down facial movements of Warhol’s star.
      For minutes, Bookwalter’s lovely face moves up in pleasure, alternating with downward glances, the camera turning his eyes into dark auras of acceptance, hinting at the heavenly and bodily incarnations of what we have always known sex is all about.
      The only clue that we have that the sexual act has been completed is when the actor takes out a cigarette, and like Genet’s figure, enjoys its equally sexual pleasures instead of the energetic actions below. In an odd way, this gesture is more sexual that his ecstatic enjoyments. In this simple act Bookwalter becomes a kind of gay icon himself, a kind of movie star that transcends his roughly-filmed sexual pleasure, which, in a sense was what Warhol’s factory was all about.
      Evidently, Warhol had originally invited Charles Rydell, the boyfriend of filmmaker Jerome Hill, to be the cinematic figure of Blowjob, but in disbelief of the request, Rydell never showed up for the shooting. The Factory hanger-on Bookwalter quickly replaced the missing actor. Warhol, despite the legend of his asexuality, most certainly could spot a beautiful man when he saw him, and the movie became a legendary statement of gay sexuality, centered on the beauty of its young discovery, who Warhol could apparently not even identify.
      Legend has it that not all of the “five boys” (sounding a bit like the promised 72 virgins of Islamic matryhood) showed up for the shooting.
      Does it matter? Somebody and several somebody’s sucked off the would-be actor into a nirvana of great pleasure, desire, and disdain that reechoed Genet in the US gay audiences’ consciousness and changed the notion of how to present gay love upon the screen.
      Throughout Warhol’s career, movie after movie, built up an entire world of artistic gay-centered productions which helped to break through the barrier that, in the very same period, the cultural and legalistic authorities, attempted to resist.
     In the same year that this movie was made, I was in Norway, soon to return with a great deal of gay-angst, which a couple of years of later would break out into just such the organistic enjoyment that Warhol had shoved into the screen. I later met some of his cinematic collaborators such as Ronald Tavel and Gerard Malanga, whom I quite admired.
     If Blowjob is not exactly a profound statement, it nonetheless affected the world of its time, helping us to comprehend what sexual release might actually mean, a delightful release into space that was unacceptable to most of the world population. Sex, in Warhol’s films, was a joyful acceptance of the way things truly was a loving expression of a new kind of  Eucharistic redemption. 
     For both Genet and Warhol, gay sex suddenly became a new kind of expression of love in a world of hate, even if Warhol’s violent death and AIDS eventually helped to destroy that myth.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).
          

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Jean Genet | Un chant d'amour


impossible intimacy
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Genet (writer and director) Un chant d’amour / 1950

It’s strange today, 70 years after its original release in 1950, that I might wish to describe Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour as one of the most truly romantic movies ever made.
     Upon the attempt to show it by Sol Landau at Berkeley in 1966, the local police wrote that if he actually screened it, the film "would be confiscated and the person responsible arrested." Landau immediately filed a suit, which, after watching the film twice, the Alameda Superior Court declared it as “explicitly and vividly reveal[ing] acts of masturbation, oral copulation, the infamous crime against nature [a euphemism for sodomy], voyeurism, nudity, sadism, masochism and sex," rejecting Landau’s suit while describing it as "cheap pornography calculated to promote homosexuality, perversion and morbid sex practices." The strange thing is that none of these acts in this film are actually portrayed but simply suggested.
     When the case was heard by the US Supreme Court, a 5-4 per curiam decision declared that the film was simply obscene. It had already been banned in other countries.
      It is true, the prisoners locked away in jail, do rather go crazy at the hour their sexual desires reach their peak, particularly for the hirsute gay man (André Reybaz) who is in love with the boy next door, a look-alike James Dean (credited simply as Java), and attempts to entice the young man into symbolic sex—since the two have little possibility of actually meeting in the flesh.
      We perceive all of this, moreover, by the voyeuristic peeping’s of a horny prison guard who through a tiny eye-hole looks in upon the two would-be lovers, as well as observing through larger openings two other sexy prisoners, uncredited by Genet (the dancer Coco Le Martiniquais) and another masturbating figure.
       But the guard is clearly more taken by the frustrated lovers, Java and Reybaz. Reybaz attempts to entice the younger through a long open straw through which he blows his cigarette smoke, along with gentle knocks on the wall, surely hardly heard by the other (I should mention that this is basically a silent movie with musical accompaniment). And why shouldn’t he be, seeing them through their prison windows attempting to woe one another with a gathering of flowers?
      Where Reybaz might have obtained the flowers is inexplicable, but it serves, as in Genet’s original fiction, Our Lady of the Flowers, as a potent symbol of their unrequited love.
       The couple’s frustration is the true subject of the film, as in many of the early scene’s the handsome young man seems more in love with this Betty Boop-like tattoo than with the man improbably attempting to engage him.
     And yes, penises do become erect and come out of the clothes in which they are trapped. If the young hot Java, at first, seems more interested in his feet, arm-pits and other body parts than in his penis, he eventually succumbs, reaching into his own stock of straws to pick the largest one—and, of course, in their mutual acts there could be no more potent symbol of the sexual intercourse between the two men—so that we almost literally imagine that their shared smoke represents a kind of “blow job,” each pouring out and sucking it the vital connection it suggests.
      The true criminal acts here are not presented not in their desperate attempts to share love, but by the prison guard, who cannot bear their impossible intimacy. Like the Berkeley police, he dares to finally unlock the door of the sweaty gay lover, pull out his gun, and remove his belt to beat the older man before putting the gun, which we obviously understand is a version of his rusty cock, into Reybaz’s mouth. This is, in fact, sadism, the reason, most certainly, why the courts could not allow the screening of this film: it portrayed them!
     While Reybaz is being beaten, moreover, he fantasizes a lovely outdoor celebration with his would-be lover, where the two romp in a forest wilderness, chasing one another around trees and into the bushes before the elder literally carries off the younger for a deep romantic entanglement in the grass. Their love, we realize, is pure, sensual, and caring, while the prison guard’s passion comes from an embarrassed and violent attraction. His love is perverted while the prisoner’s is almost innocent.
      We can never know whether in his own moment of desire, the guard actually shoots into the mouth of Reybaz. The nearly 26-moment film ends before we can discover the results. But it doesn’t quite matter. Java and Reybaz have imaginatively had their romantic encounter, despite the definitive refusals of the so-called authorities.
       I was only 3 years old at the time of this film, so I can hardly imagine the significance of Genet’s work, and the bravery of Sol Landau and his failed attempts to allow people to see how gay men felt in their cultural—and often literal—imprisonments. It took over 20 years more for some of that to stop in the US. Yet in many countries still today it ends in death.

Los Angeles, December 29, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Tsai Ming-liang | 黑眼圈 (Hēiyǎnquān) (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone)


lovers and caretakers
by Douglas Messerli

Tsai Ming-liang (writer and director) 黑眼圈 (Hēiyǎnquān) (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) / 2006

Tsai Ming-liang’s 2006 film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is only tangentially a gay film. The major subject of this tender work is, in fact, are the caregivers who gently look after their near-dead and dying patients, a young homeless day laborer who cannot even speak the language of the country, Malaysia, to which he has moved (played by Lee Kang-sheng) and a paralyzed and brain-dead patient (also performed by Lee). Their caretakers are another unemployed day laborer, Rawang (Norman Atun) and the former maid/now a night waitress of the “Paralyzed Man’s” mother—the whom some sources identify as the figure who abused him and mysteriously is responsible for his current condition.

      Tony Rayns, in my always useful Time Out Film guide, argues that they are one and the same, the “Paralyzed Man” (as he is identified in the credits) dreaming of the other figure. I’d argue against that, since each of the Lee figures have slightly different trajectories, even they often cross over. I’d rather suggest that Tsai has represented them as mirror images of those who care for and come to intensely love their patients.
      In the film’s earliest scenes, we observe a Malay street preacher promising the crowd of young and dreaming men surrounding him with the promise of money—if only they will pay him the small sums they hold in their wallets. How these needy Kuala Lumpur workers could possibly believe in his scam, that he will provide them with secret numbers which will suddenly provide them with great wealth, is a bit hard to believe. But all of them are desperate to return home or simply find enough money in order to eat, like our young hero, that they need to believe. They might be described as the true believers of great tribulations, people who have suffered so deeply in their lives that they cannot afford not to believe anything another person promises them.
      The “Homeless Day Laborer” strings along with the others, but when it comes to paying, the scam-man’s partners discover he has absolutely no money on his body, punishing him by nearly beating him to death.
      Meanwhile Rawang and three other friends, living illegally with him in a large construction site that was never completed, discover a discarded mattress near a garbage dump, carrying the heavy object back to their encampment. Along the way they discover the day laborer almost dying from his beating, and, wrapping him into the mattress, carry him back to their shared “home” as well.
     They lay out the dying body and ply him with a home-made medicine from their probably also looted refrigerator. It seems not to matter whether this is the right medicine for the boy they’ve taken into their lives. If nothing else, it startles him back into living.
      The next morning, we observe Rawang attempting to wash the new mattress from its previous filth while, suddenly observing the still weak boy he has discovered attempting to leave the Escher-like building, who he quickly retrieves, lovingly wiping his ass, and helping to allow him to urinate. It is the most sexual moment in this film, but one recognizes almost immediately that he is also attracted to the boy he is caring for. Before long they are sharing the mattress, while Rawang attempts to lower the boy’s fever with the cold liquid we have earlier seen him drinking, his very sustenance being used to help his young patient.
     In a parallel incident, the maid is seen washing her patient and then gently soaping and cleaning his hair, almost a reverse image of the previous—although we quickly recognize that she equally loves the man for whom she is caring.
      Just as the collective building dwellers fear to reveal the existence of their new-found friend to their Chinese landlord, a woman who evidently charges them small fees for living in the uncompleted high-rise, so too is the maid (Chen Shiang-chyi) fearful of the family whom she once served, who enter her space in an attempt to sell it.
      So has the director quietly revealed the situations in the Malaysian capital of those who are rather wealthy and those who have absolutely nothing. Yet, this is not truly a Marxist film, but a story about those who care and love and those who don’t, locked into a world, as Rayns argues, of Tsai’s often-employed images of “holes, water, and sickness.” And also, in this film, a smog that is so overwhelming that it even chokes off Rawang’s eventual attempt to finally show his love of the young boy he has saved.
      When he eventually discovers that his young would-be lover has been sneaking out most evenings to have sex with the maid/waitress, and that the boy now wants to move in with her carrying with him the bug-infested mattress, he falls into a temporary rage, threatening the handsome young man with an opened tin-can lid. His anger, however, quickly resolves itself into tears, which the young boy wipes away with his tongue—evidence certainly that he too has feelings for Rawang.
      In several of Tsai’s films there is no simple resolution of the secret desires people feel for one another. In this instance, moreover, the director’s film is basically a fable, as the story ends with an image of the three of them, the maid, the boy, and Rawang laying together upon a bed floating down from space as the “Homeless Guy,” embraces them both while the mattress floats into a sea below. I guess you might not have seen bi-sexuality expressed any better than in this image.

     Tsai, living for many years in Taiwan, returned to his native Malaysia to make this film, but was told it could be shown there if it were highly censored. He edited it severely; so sadly, that country missed out in a gloriously beautiful tale of the true giving-powers of empathic love.
      Tsai appears to suggest that love is not about sex or power, but about saving and caring for another. These three deserve to ecstatically come together from the heavens to reveal their lessons, even if in the hovels in which they must live they cannot find the ability to express what they have miraculously accomplished.


Los Angeles, December 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hirokazu Kore-eda | 歩いても 歩いても (Aruitemo aruitemo) (Still Walking)


moving ahead in order to celebrate a broken past
by Douglas Messerli

Hirokazu Kore-eda (writer and director) 歩いても 歩いても (Aruitemo aruitemo) (Still Walking) / 2008


Over the years of watching films by the great Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda I have come to rely on his art for visions of slightly disoriented yet loving families, and in that sense, as Roger Ebert has commented, this director is the direct heir of Yasujirō Ozu—except, perhaps, Kore-eda has updated his family stories and turned what was nearly always horizontal into basically vertical worlds.
      This is particularly so in his 2008 masterwork, Still Walking, whose title alone suggests an endless forward push, or, at least, a repetition of movement through space.
       Yet, as in Ozu, Still Walking, is fascinated with tradition. The father of this rather large brood, Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada) is seen quite often simply sitting, as are Ozu’s figures, and pontificating his viewpoints from tatami mats and office chairs. If he has once been a caring and loving local doctor, while perhaps ignoring his family—he was away at the time of his elder son’s death and he has evidently had extramarital affairs in the past—he has now turned into something of a curmudgeon, highly opinionated and hardly speaking to his hard-working wife, Toshiko (the excellent actor Kirin Kiki), who is the true force behind the Yokoyama family, and who, in many respects, is as hard-fast in her beliefs as is her husband. Just like her husband, moreover, she loves music—he classical and jazz, she pop tunes.
       The family has gathered, as it has annually for 15 years, to commemorate the death of their heroic first-born son, Junpei, who drowned while saving another boy’s life.
         Her second-born son, Ryota (the handsome Hiroshi Abe) and the Yokoyama daughter,  Chinami (You) have obviously had to suffer this annual ritual without being so highly appreciated, and memorialized, as their elder brother, for whom Toshiko cooks and orders up enough eel, sushi, and other dishes to feed an army, while Chinami’s children rush around wildly, and  Ryota’s adopted son, born of the widower he has recently married after his own divorce, is somewhat more of an introvert, wanting to grow up to be a piano tuner (like his father) or, after a conversation with Ryota’s father, perhaps a doctor—much to his father’s chagrin.
      Moreover, it’s also clear that the two younger siblings have not necessarily had very successful careers. Ryota, an art restorer, is between jobs and spends much of the film on the telephone attempting to find employment without telling his parents about his predicament. Chinami attempts to convince her mother to allow her noisy family to move into the rather large parental home yet makes little progress with the recalcitrant older woman. “Who could bear all of that noise?” she ponders.
     As for Ryota’s son, she treats him less like family than as a kind of uninvited guest, purchasing new pajamas for her son, while providing nothing for the child, with whom she demands his father bathe within their crowded bathtub. There is a slight sexual embarrassment in the event; he is not the son’s father, and bathing with a young alert boy is annoying—and perhaps a little dangerous.
      Yet for all the tensions and uncomfortable situations all experience, we sense the love between them. They walk to Junpei’s grave to place flowers and wash down the headstone, evidently a Japanese custom, during the overwarm day. They take Ryota’s son to the beach, while warning him, understandably, not to enter the water. Surely, it was here that Junpei drowned.
      They even annually invite the boy Junpei saved, now an overweight underachiever, to a tea and drink ceremony, which is so uncomfortable, the now older man almost begging for their forgiveness, that Ryota suggests they should not do it again; to which his mother admits the invitations are only to punish him.
      Mostly they cook, Chinami and her mother spending hours in the kitchen, talking and slightly arguing, but working up a feast to celebrate the long-ago event. We slowly come to realize that Junpei is no longer the center of this celebration, even if together they pretend and even insist it is the reason they have come home. Rather it is a begrudging love they feel for one another, despite all they personal failures and inability to fully express their love. Even the somewhat bitter Kyohei, the gruff former doctor, forges a relationship with his now adopted grandson, whose fascination with the piano that lies at the foot of Junpei’s home memorial, attracts the child to play its keys, which suggests he truly might become a piano-tuner, or even maybe a pianist someday. Skepticism, patience, and love play equal parts in this lovely work.
      They relationships are based in familial love, the lessons they have learned by living so many years together, and, at one point, when a yellow butterfly enters the room to settle on Junpei’s memorial, on superstition—a crazy mix that is at the heart of most family relationships.
      Strangely, I watched this movie on Christmas day, remembering through its difficult expressions of family love just how many of those who return for family gatherings equally hate and enjoy those events. And by the end of this film, we realize, as we all must, just how short-lived those sometimes-terrifying reunions truly are.
      In a voice-over near the film’s end Ryota reveals that just a few years later his father died, his angry mother dying soon after. I recall in one of Anthony Powell’s great fictions, part of his 12-volume series of A Dance to the Music of Time, how a couple who openly daily argued among friends, died only a few days apart, the male, in this case, absolutely unable to bear the loss of his much-belittled wife. Could Edward Albee’s Martha and George ever live apart?
     Families argue, families hate, families love and can never retrieve those emotions or must live with them the rest of their lives. In the last scene, we see that with the beautiful widow whom Ryota has married he has begun a new family, a young daughter to join his deeply curious son, who is perhaps, in the end, the center of this film, a representation of the next generation pondering all the never-ending confusions of the previous generation and vowing, surely unsuccessfully, to never repeat them.
     Kore-eda manages in his films to reveal the failures of family life, while still forgiving them all.  

Los Angeles, December 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).
      

Monday, December 23, 2019

Preston Sturges | The Miracle of Morgan's Creek


the trapped boy next door
by Douglas Messerli

Preston Sturges (writer and director) The Miracle of Morgan's Creek / 1944

If you were to believe Preston Sturges’ 1944 film (filmed a couple of years earlier before its release), nearly all the young soldiers heading off to World War II were sexually potent beings who in a kind of desperate attempt to link with the women they would have to leave behind, were ready to marry and fuck one grand last time, a kind of “love them and leave them” routine outlined in so very many movies of the period.
      That, at least, is what the small-town Morgan’s Creek girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) s
eems to discover. Attending a last night dance for the soldiers, Trudy ignores the warnings of her policeman father, played by the ever grouchy William Demarest, and with the unwilling help of her admiring 4-F small-town admirer, Norval Jones (the ever sad-eyed, nervous and stuttering innocent, Eddie Bracken), dismisses her father’s stern refusal to let her have her pleasures, which includes a dance and a follow up night-club after-hours event, with a final drunken vow for of all the young soldiers to suddenly marry the women who have joined them.
     Using false names and hiding behind their one-night girlfriend’s drunkenness, the soldiers marry the girls, with poor Trudy suddenly realizing she has spent the night in bed with a man whose name might have had a “z” in it: Razkywatzy of Zitzkywitsky. She doesn’t remember exactly, despite that she is now, she soon after discovers, pregnant with his child.
     Visiting a local lawyer, she attempts to have the marriage annulled, without success, and then attempts to woe her previously discarded lover, Norval, to save her name and help bring her child into a more normalized world.
      Sturges always played at the edges of traditional morality, and the Hays Committee, almost shot this film down because of its open flaunting of traditional morality, its young 14-year old’s (the precocious Dynna Lynn) quite cynical observations of her elders, and the film’s later flirtation with bigamy and numerous other crimes.
      Given her father’s bluster, Trudy’s new would-be husband, Norval, who finally convinces her of his long-time attempts to be close to her—including even taking a high school cooking class—
is arrested on 19 charges (all of which we know him to him to be innocent), including, soon after, an escape from jail.
      I remember as a young man watching this film with great dismay. How could such a decent person become so intensely punished for crimes he never committed—reminding me a little of the black eye awarded Jack Lemmon in The Apartment for having had a nonexistent affair with Shirley MacLaine. Both characters are even a little bit proud for their travails which slightly redeems their damaged manhood’s.

     But then the floozie-like Hutton was just not my type. Annie Get Your Gun, in which she later starred, with its absurd shooting sprees and distastefully racial song “I’m an Indian Too,” were not events I enjoyed, even as a child. If she was the most beautiful girl at the soldier’s ball, I didn’t want to be soldier. Like poor Norval, I was deemed by the Selective Service as a 4-F—in my case because of my sexuality, which saved me, I am sure, from dying in Viet Nam and allowed me to continue my relationship with my now-husband Howard.
      Underneath this film’s comic veneer—which allowed it to join The National Film Registry—there is a strong suggestion that, if Norval (dubbed by his atrocious name), is not exactly a “pansy,”—he goes to movies instead of the dances—is not truly worthy of the sexy Trudy’s love.
       This time round, I laughed more than I sneered, as the brassy Hutton began to realize that she was desperately in need of a local man—especially with the appearance of six healthy babies. A call to authorities suddenly frees (or perhaps I might argue, dooms the loving Norval), to an endlessly restricted life of a father.
        Even Sturges’ film-end quote, after Norval falls in a faint upon hearing the news:

But Norval recovered and
became increasingly happy
for, as Shakespeare said:
"Some are born great, some
achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon
them.”

suggests a passive rather than proactive role for this would-be Shakespearian hero. If he has saved the princess of his dreams, he has closed-off any future possibilities, while the soldiers have marched off to another kind of herodom, without any of the repercussions of the own sexual acts.  
     If there was ever an argument for the #METOO movement, Norval, as well as Trudy, might have claim to the impact which such blatantly sexist behavior has had upon their lives.
     I now, as an elderly man, realize what I didn’t like as a young kid about this movie. No one here seems to have any moral choice to behave as they might have. I love Sturges highly comic films, but not his moral possibilities—twins, even double-twins, might have been able to make their own sexual choices, a young unconquering hero, might have been allowed to outwardly speak the truth, an older director in search of those lost to the Depression should not be imprisoned for his search. Yes, order in Sturges’ movies is turned upside down, but simply laughing about those facts is not quite enough.
      Both figures of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek become entrapped into lives that they had not originally sought out, even if they now pretend to accept a world of complete social normality. And how, one might ask, will Norval, a lowly bank-teller pay for his six new children’s survival? The miracle at Morgan’s Creek, alas, is not miracle at all, despite the reporter’s call to the Governor, who can’t even quite perceive that this small town exists in his state.

Los Angeles, December 23, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Maren Ade | Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees)


in search of a friend
by Douglas Messerli

Maren Ade (writer and director) Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees) / 2003

The Forest for the Trees, German director Maren Ade’s directorial debut, is a tale about of provincial schoolteacher, Melanie Pröschle (Eva Löbau) who has moved to Karlsruhe to work in their prestigious Bose school. It is her first teaching position, which begins, inexplicably, in the middle of the school term. And, equally inexplicable, she is asked to teach math to both third-graders and ninth-graders. She is full of apparently new concepts of pedagogy, but in this far more conservative institution, she is thwarted not only by her fellow teachers, who apparently give higher grades to their students but severely control classroom behaviors, and particularly by the unruly older students themselves, who protest almost any new project she suggests, including a field-trip outing, for which they argue against a trip to a local amusement park. At one point a particularly unruly student thrusts a chocolate milk carton at her at her back; and when she calls in his mother to speak of the incident, the woman sides with her son.
     In short, the positive-thinking Melanie is thwarted in almost all her optimistic ideals. One teacher daily displays lovely plants her students have awarded her, but, as Melanie’s only seeming ally Thorsten (Jan Neumann) suggests, purchases the “presents” for herself.
     While Thorsten attempts to help and perhaps woe her, Melanie, who apparently has experienced a breakup of her own previous sexual romance, pushes him and his advice aside, attempting to soldier on without the help of others, particularly when she overhears other teachers gossiping about her inabilities to control her classrooms.



     Moreover, she has been unable to find new friends in the city, although she even awards some of her fellow apartment-dwellers with house-warming gifts which they might have been awarding her. The work she spends on planning for new teaching projects mostly turns her under-decorated apartment into a mess. And as she grows in the depression of what she projected as a new life, her calls home to her mother end in near-disaster as her mother attempts to probe the underlying cause of these calls.
     In short, Melanie is left entirely alone in a new world, vulnerable to depression at work and at home. If there ever was a film to demonstrate the difficulties teachers daily face—and there have been numerous others (think of Up the Down Staircase or the earlier Blackboard Jungle)—this somewhat quieter version of the dilemmas of attempting to help a younger generation learn is a model. I left the university, with basically good experiences nearly four decades ago, but I have heard from peers about just how difficult it now is to try to help young closed and seemingly privileged minds to question their values, a necessary event if we want to truly educate our children.* 
     Shopping for a new outfit that might slightly intimidate her misbehaved students, Melanie meets the shopkeeper Tina (Daniela Holtz), whom she soon after discovers lives in the apartment across from hers—almost completely visible from Melanie’s vantage point.
     The two, at first, strike up a kind of friendship, Tina inviting her neighbor into her far nicer apartment, and even befriending her, at one point hiding out in Melanie’s apartment, as the two slug down glasses of homemade schnapps, while Tina watches her angry boyfriend return to her space. The event seems to create a bond between the two that only Melanie truly assimilates.

    Let me clarify: this is not a lesbian movie; there is no sexual interrelationship between these two women. But it might as well be, as Melanie becomes more and more attached to her new “friend,” spying on her, often through binoculars (which have been donated for her classes’ failed field trip) and, ultimately, even slightly stalking her new-found friend, showing up even at a rather elegant celebration in her haute clothing shop in a frowsy coat to talk to Tina’s clients about the difficulty of teaching.
      In other words, this might as well be a lesbian film, since Melanie is now almost infatuated with Tina to the degree that when her friend finally attempts to include her in her birthday party, the schoolteacher suggests to her arriving ex-boyfriend, Tobias, that he leave, while she delivers the roses he had brought to her new friend.
      The politics of this “friendship” are now quite clear; Melanie is attempting to replace Tobias in Tina’s life. If this relationship is outwardly simply a close connection between suffering women, it has now unfurled into something else, and Tina’s response of now isolating herself from the voyeur of her life is totally comprehensible, while it is also quite devastating to Melanie.
       Melanie, always the outsider in the new world into which she bravely has entered, later observes the couple mocking her, as she looks down from her apartment upon them.

      With the school vacation over, Melanie takes her own day off, driving her car down a freeway on cruise control, and suddenly, releasing her hands from the wheel, jumping over into the back seat to calmly observe the results. 2003, the date of the film, was long before cars might possibly be driven electronically by themselves. We know what the result will be. Melanie may be outwardly mourned, but she will never have discovered much love in her life. She has been a clumsy and desperate would-be lover for her students and both her heterosexual and woman friends.
      Ade’s first film was a kind of tragedy about idealism meeting up with truly cynical aspects of real life. Her later figures become kinds of clowns who persevere in worlds of near-disaster, living and surviving despite themselves.

*There were only two instances of student rebellion in my teaching experiences: the first was when a freshman class in literature were appalled when I taught Jonathan Swift; having lost the concept of irony, they hated the writer for suggesting that the English might boil and eat the Irish children. But the worst was with a bitter group of graduate students to whom I attempted to teach Williams and Pound. They hated Williams because of his dismissal of the acaedym and hated me because, even though I had them purchase the Index to Pound’s references in the Cantos, I suggested that the author often explained those references later in the text, and that the index was not truly necessary. However, the wonderful Tenney Nathanson came out of that angry class as a friend and made a significant career for himself.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Fernando Meirelles | The Two Popes


slow tango into the catholic church’s history
by Douglas Messerli

Anthony McCarten (screenplay, based on his play The Pope), Fernando Meirelles (director) The Two Popes / 2019

I have to admit that my husband Howard’s insistence that I see Fernado Meirelles' 2019 film, The Two Popes, was first greeted with deaf ears, partly because I knew Netflix would soon be streaming it, and also because I have little interest these days in religion, and even less in Catholicism—even though I have admitted in these pages a couple of times that as a young man, with two uncles who were Protestant ministers, and a father and mother very involved in their Presbyterian church, I once imagined becoming a missionary and later, a student of theology.
      Yet, I realized quickly that my desire to be a missionary had more to do with traveling than with converting people to any religious perspective, and that my interest in theology had less to do with any one religious perspective than it had to do with a strong curiosity of why people believed, an off-shoot of my interest in philosophy. And my own sexuality certainly mightn’t have encouraged me along that route.
      About three decades ago, I abandoned any religious beliefs, convinced, in part by Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe that religion did more harm over the centuries than good. The heaven and hell at the center of so much theological thinking no longer accorded with my own rational thinking. And the good values of believers seemed to be slipping away from those that I tried to maintain.
      Nonetheless, when Howard and my publishing assistant Pablo Capra pulled me away from my home desk to see the film, I found it a far more likeable work than I might have imagined. Both of these Popes are failed human beings, who feel, in different ways, that they cannot go on in their ministries.

      Pope Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) is described as a “Nazi” by some followers and given the German church’s unspoken support of Hitler during World War II, might be properly described as one. Certainly, as he later confesses to the Argentinian cardinal whom he has summoned to his summer home, he allowed priests who were known sex-abusers to move from town to town continuing their abuse. Moreover, his top official has just been arrested for financial malfeasance.  
     His views might be described as those of a conservative hard-liner regarding his view of church doctrines. Great church historian he may have been, but change was something Benedict would not allow.
     What his opposite, the tangoing, soccer-loving Jorge Bergoglio argued should be bridges instead of walls (does this sound familiar?), is met with Benedict’s argument that all change is compromise and that a sound house needs walls.
       Yet, this film also tells us another story, that of a young scientist who later rises to become the head of the Argentinian Jesuit order during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, when hundreds of dissidents were simply “disappeared,” arrested and killed, their bodies often dropped from airplanes into the ocean.
       In order to protect his fellow Jesuits, Bergoglio visited the dictators and attempted to make a kind of terrible peace with them; but it was to no avail, as many of his best followers were arrested, tortured, and killed nonetheless. When the dictatorship is overturned, he is sent away for a kind of isolated redemption, which he gladly accepts, now knowing the errors of his ways. If Benedict has not spoken up against the Nazi regime, neither has Bergoglio openly spoken out against the dictators of Argentina that murdered so very many of that country’s young and best. He is no longer the beloved man of poor in his homeland, although he has certainly attempted to pay his penance.
      Indeed, shortly before his summons the cardinal has brought a ticket to the Vatican, seeking out permission from Benedict to resign his position, feeling that he might offer more to his constituency by simply serving as a local priest, hearing the many confessions he has learned to listen to, and working among the poor.


      If the two in conversation, however, may seem to represent such a serious interchange that no one but an intense believer might be interested, you haven’t seen the movie. Writer Anthony McCarten (based on his play The Pope) and director Meirelles’ production is actually a playing out of these opposites as a challenge between two great actors, Anthony Hopkins (as Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (as Bergoglio) who wryly and humorously fight for their positions, the former favoring the Church’s past, the other the Church’s future. In many senses, Benedict, knowing the weaknesses of his position, and, as he admits, no longer able to hear God’s voice, realizes that he is at a great disadvantage. Without able to say it, he realizes that without rejuvenating the Catholic Church, it will dwindle away to nothing, despite its current millions of members. And there is a sly and often humorous wisdom in his arguments with his far more liberal cardinal.

     Benedict is not the major figure here, nor is he the beloved one, but Hopkins knows how maintain his acting superiority simply through the smallest of statements and gestures—a refusal to even eat with his guest, while in a nearby room he eats his Bavarian meatballs while watching his favorite movie, a ridiculous series about a dog-hero; an absolute refusal even to read Bergoglio’s request for release from his duties; an near abandonment of the man he has summoned as he rushes back to the Vatican; and his final admission that he too his seeking a release from his vows, which may compel the reluctant Bergoglio to become Pope, which given what we know of the history is inevitable.
     I don’t imagine that all of these events really occurred quite as McCarten presents them, but like Stephen Frears’ and Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, we believe it all “might” have happened given the surrounding circumstances.
      And the final “switch” wherein Bergoglio’s confession is heard by the Pope, who then asks the cardinal to hear his confession is a marvelous transformation of position. Alas, Meirelles doesn’t allow us to hear the Pope’s full confession, despite the openness of Bergoglio’s previous statements, and we only get a few glimmers of what he felt guilty about. But perhaps, once again, that is the difference between the two men: one an intellect in trapped silence, no longer even hearing the voice of his maker, the other openly pouring out his guilty heart into the world.
      With The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, I agree that the numerous flashbacks of Bergoglio’s youthful life (played by Juan Minujín) almost interfere with the heart of this movie, the intense conversations between the once and future Pope. While I appreciated the information about the younger Bergoglio in his homeland, facts I had not previously known, and Minujín credibly enacts a version of the younger Jesuit who believed, wrongly, that he might protect his order by allying himself, temporarily, with the dictatorship, I too felt it detracted from the masterful sparring of the two major actors.
      And while it was equally fascinating to observe the results of these conversations of the Pope and cardinal, we didn’t really need the film to be extended into the more than a two-hour demonstration of what we now all know. But the delight of a new Pope who would not dress up in the papal red shoes, not don the gold cross of God, might have been worth those last minutes. And, although I don’t believe it for a moment, the representation of the conservative Benedict dancing a temporary tango with his replacement, it gave me a kind of slight thrill. Did some member of the young Swiss Guard observe this, or is it simply the logical imagination of the screenwriter?
     I don’t really care. I’d take the tango over a polka or the Schuhplattler knee/slap dance any day—although I doubt the young Ratzinger ever danced even these dances.
      Oh, and yes, I loved the pizza just outside of St. Peters. I’ve eaten from that very small stand.
But I must admit, despite Benedict’s deep delight as he consumes it, it truly is not very good piazza!
       Perhaps this is another kind of German joke, not really needing a punchline.

Los Angeles, December 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).