Tuesday, February 26, 2019
by Douglas Messerli
Todd Haynes, writer (based on various Jean Genet fictions) and director Poison / 1991
Looking back on the reviews I’d done so far on Todd Haynes’ films, I realize—having just this week seen his first feature movie, Poison—that perhaps I have been a little to critical of his very lovely to watch and carefully structured works. I still believe that his films, so interlinked with the 1950s and early 1960s melodramas, are somewhat stereotypical—although in an utterly opposite way than most early works which involved gays and lesbians—and delimited by their intense historical contexts. One simply must recognize them as rather dour, suggesting the tragically closeted and bigoted worlds in which films like Far from Heaven and Carol.
Having lived through those same years, I, as a young man, certainly suffered some of the homophobic closeting and was aware of the bigotry all around me. I was forced into blackface by my high school drama teacher in the musical Finian’s Rainbow during which its three or four performances I put on the shoe polish to play a young black boy—not to satirize the child but because our school had no blacks, and I am sure Marion Hulin, the singing teacher, must have felt that in a work about poor Southerners and black share-croppers that there had to be a least one black being; and, at 13 or 14, I was chosen for that task. I didn’t even comprehend it as a blackface performance. I was a little black boy—even if I didn’t comprehend what that meant. I didn’t do it for entertainment; it was simply who I’d been told to become.
Yet during that same period many of us did find freedom and enjoyment, and even some deep pleasure in our being different. Unlike Douglas Sirk’s bleak depictions of the period, this Douglas discovered that the real problem was in his own ways of thinking more that in the homophobic values of his father and community. And to this day, I wish I might have realized that I could have had sexual enjoyment with two of my favorite seniors, one of them about which I’ve already written, another Doug, in My Year 2005.
Film helped me to see that the world was much more open to what I feared about myself than were the home and town in which I lived. Somehow, I perceived that Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo, and then teenage-girl heartthrob Tab Hunter, and even James Dean (whatever his sexuality) were more like me than the local boys who taunted me for being queer—even though I wasn’t even sure what that meant. I’d had no sex. I’d never kissed a boy, never enjoyed even a winking glance. In many ways I was as naïve as Oliver Twist, and would have loved to be taken in to Fagin’s den.
But Poison was a kind of revelation, a work that demonstrated that Haynes was perhaps more radical than I had previously perceived him to be. For in this 1991 film, the young director, born more than a decade later than I, perhaps took the melodramas far too seriously (I’ve also written an essay on how liberating some of life of the period truly was), yet in the era when AIDS was killing so many gay men, Poison, brilliantly interwove three different tales of alternate sexualities and their consequences. All end sadly, alas.
The first, presented in a kind of news-documentary manner, concerns a young 7-year old boy, Richie Beacon, who inexplicably killed his father and “flew out a window.". Yet we know that he must have been abused, either verbally for his sexuality or sexually attacked, and sought a revenge which no one in the community in which he lived might have imagined.
In the second tale, “Horror,” shot in the black-and-white shaky camera movements of a grade B horror movie, a kind of mix of Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, creates what might have been a wonderful discovery, worthy of display in the film Barbarella, of a way to turn the sex drive into liquid form. However, after swallowing a dose, he turns into, as film critic David Ansen describes him, a “pustule-dripping fiend,” described in the papers as the “Leper Sex Killer.” This, obviously, is a statement about how many saw AIDS, and the tragedy of his life is made even more evident when only a woman colleague can see any beauty in him.
The final strand owes a debt to the great gay author, Jean Genet, wherein a young man lusts after a fellow prisoner—although in this prison, as in Derek Jarman’s earlier (1971) soldier’s garrison in Sebastiane, where nearly everyone enjoys gay sex. I do feel that this final section, titled “Homo” is a bit over the top, creating what some critics described as an almost “designer prison.” But we can presume, surely, that some of these men have been imprisoned just for their sexual desires. And, although real sex is not depicted, in is the most homoerotic of the three pieces.
I remember the NEA attacks in those years. I was on a literary panel that I found absolutely disgusting, and my companion Howard had been on the art panel that awarded Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ a grant. An outcry in Congress, led mostly by Jesse Helms of North Carolina, resulted in grants being stripped from several performance artists and the cancelling of the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran Museum of Art. The independent Washington Project for the Arts, led by Al Nodal (later head of arts for Los Angeles) and where Howard was Chairman of the Board, presented the show instead.
The “poison” was already in the government and society at large. At the American Publishers annual show that year, an assistant to then-chairman of the NEA John Frohnmayer hissed into my ear of how much damage Howard and I had done.
Given Frohnmayer's and other’s lack of vision and support for the panels’ more controversial decisions, I refused to even apply for a NEA grant for my Sun & Moon Press, in those days a non-profit organization. I wrote letters to many of the Senators explaining my position, yet only Senator Diane Feinstein from Northern California wrote back, scolding me and insisting that she agreed with the spineless Frohnmayer.
I mention all of this only because in that poisoned atmosphere Haynes and his film was also involved. As critic Dennis Lim writes:
The heightened profile that came with the movie’s surprise
Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival —
combined with the early word on its frank depictions of gay
sex and the news that it had received a $25,000 completion
grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — turned
“Poison” into a target for right-wing leaders, including
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Sight unseen,
conservative commentators who opposed public arts
financing labeled it pornography; one even called Mr.
Haynes “the Fellini of fellatio.”
Rev. Donald Wildmon, then head of the American Family Association , as Ansen puts it:
went into in a rage. Upping the ante with characteristic imagination,
he denounced the movie for its "explicit porno scenes of homo-
sexuals involved in anal sex." While one of the film's three
interrelated stories, inspired by the writing of Jean Genet, involves
homoerotic passions in a 1940s prison, anyone rushing out to see
an explicit porno film is going to wonder what Wildmon's been
eating for breakfast.
Those were the days. And today…?
Even Frohnmayer spoke up in support of Haynes’ film. And the work quickly became, along with works before and simultaneous to it, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Christopher Munch’s Hours and Times, and Gregg Araki’s Living End, as described by critic B. Ruby Rich as the “New Queer Cinema,” which gave audiences and other cinema makers such as Ira Sachs, a new way to perceive their situations.
I can’t say that I loved Haynes' early film. There had already been much more before it that has never been documented. But I’ll surely credit its re-empowerment of what being gay, in those years of Reagan and later Bush, was. We were thrown to the wolves and saved ourselves through our own imaginations. As Freddie Mercury sang so very powerfully, “We are the champions.” At least those of us who survived. One of Haynes’ early boyfriends, James Lyons, who played in and edited Poison, died of AIDS in 2007.
Los Angeles, February 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Friday, February 22, 2019
by Douglas Messerli
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (writers), Giorgos Lantios (director) The Favourite / 2018
As many critics and viewers with whom I communicated felt, Giorgos Lanthios' 2018 film, co-produced by companies from Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the USA, is a comic romp about two women, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rael Weisz) and Abigail Masham, later Baroness Masham (Emma Stone) who vie for the “love” of Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Olivia Colman).
Americans, the British, and evidently the Irish can’t get enough of the kind of “upstairs/downstairs” intrigue that this film, by the totally eccentric Greek director Lanthios, provides. Here it’s all evident, as Abigail, sold by her father to a German in a card game, comes filthily into Anne’s court (she literally falls into the dirty mud and pig-slough as she arrives after a long carriage ride). Witnessing, from her new position as a scullery-maid what is truly going on in this court, that Sarah is evidently sharing the bed of the ailing queen, creating a kind of lesbian relationship that might or might not have been the reality of the real Queen Anne.
It hardly matters, since once Lanthios, through the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes us through an early 18th century romp filmed within the walls of the Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, and at Hampton Court Palace in Hampton Court, Surrey, we have entered another world which is beyond any concept of realism. This is perfect Downton Abbey territory, with far more treacherous behavior, as the two possible queen consorts battle it out with graceful bows, guns, and drugs. Abigail ultimately wins out over the almost masculinely powerful Sarah, and she shifts the power structure from the Tory-based demand for war with France to a more pacific retreat which will surely allow property owners in the United Kingdom to achieve greater wealth.
And it is delightful at times to see these two powerful lesbian-aligned women fight it out, particularly given the current issues of Brexit, where many of that country’s citizens want to cut off relationships with the rest of Europe as opposed to allowing a deep interrelationship with the continent with which they are divided only by their island isolation.
On the one side is Sarah, determined to conquer the European relationships, while on the other is the beautiful Abigail, who helps the Queen realize that the strategies of retreat might allow for better communication with the European continent. Given the historical context, I might argue that Abigail’s manipulation of the royal cunt (a word used quite often in this film) was highly beneficial.
The much-manipulated Queen, however, is not so certain—particularly when she observes the newly acclaimed Keeper of the Privy Purse pressing her shoe against the head of one of her 17 beloved rabbit bunnies, representing the same number of children whom she has had to suffer their deaths. Why, one must ask, did so many innocents die in her palace? Something is clearly rotten in the Palace of Whitehall in the heart of London.
Lanthios, accordingly, suggests a complete overthrow of the masculine world, where the males, dressed up in wigs, pale makeup, and rouged cheeks, are the true stereotypical feminine figures of this world, even if they still presume power. We know, through the back rooms of Queen Anne’s kitchens and bedroom, that they are truly mere pawns in the power-struggle they imagine themselves involved with. Anne shifts positions as her vagina is entertained. She may even regret her changing decisions, but we recognize them as realignments with her lesbian associates. In this matriarchically-dominated world, the men are only spokesmen for the queen’s transforming perceptions, which is one of the major delights of this film, which pretends, just for a few moments, that the issues of politics are truly controlled, in this instance, by women.
In a larger sense, what Lanthios is allowing us to perceive is a future we males have not quite imagined yet. Except that the world we might not even have imagined will surely not be controlled by terribly arthritically pained woman, who can barely read her occasional statements of major of government (which surely must remind us of another now famous government figure). Anne could hardly read her daily messages, and she made many of decisions based on the influence of her sexual liaisons. I believe that in this film Lanthios has got it quite right, even if we cannot, finally, truly like any of the figures involved in the society which he has presented.
None of his characters are nice people, none of them morally admirable. But then that is true in our own ruling leaders as well. And this film demonstrates just how sad that is—despite our utter enjoyment in watching how it might play out.
Los Angeles, February 22, 2019Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Thursday, February 21, 2019
any day now
by Douglas Messerli
Ronald Harwood (screenplay, based on the autobiography by Władysław Szpilman), Roman Polanski (director) The Pianist / 2002
As anyone who has read My Year volumes knows, I am a big champion of coincidence. Immediately after reading and writing about a totally unrelated film, a piece which I titled “Rabelais Rewrites Robinson Crusoe,” I determined to watch, for no connected reason, the 2001 Roman Polanski film, The Pianist, based on an autobiographical work by the great Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, who—I hadn’t known previously—was described as one of the central Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw, Jewish men and women who after the 1944 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising chose to remain in their home city until the entry of the Red Army in January 1945, hiding out in bombed-out basements and hiding spots they’d previously established.
Many of these people died of starvation or were discovered by the Nazis and murdered. But somehow Szpilman survived, in part because one of Jewish kapos—men who often worked with the Nazis in order to carry out their policies—knew of Szpilman’s genius and pulled him out a line in which the pianist waited with his family to be taken to the Treblinka concentration camp, where Szpilman’s mother was killed. After months of growing abuse of his family and other Jews throughout the city, this might have been described as the most awful event of what he’d had to endure, since it took him from his beloved father and mother, his sister Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) and his radically-inclined and quite cynical brother, Henryk (Ed Stoppard)—the only one who apparently actually perceived the truth.
Nonetheless, the kapo does save the musical genius, and one of the powerful understatements of Polanski’s film is how a few gentile Poles and even Germans were not simply monsters but helped these Crusoes to survive.
Particularly, in this work, a beautiful Pole, Dorota (Emilia Fox) and her husband (Valentine Pelka) help to hide Szpilman. Even the dreadful Nazi captain, Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann)—out of far more selfish reasons—hides the great interpreter of Chopin in his attic, if only from time to time luring him downstairs to play Hosenfeld’s grand piano.
The film also does not blink at demonstrating that some of Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto folk were sometimes as venal as the Poles and Germans, using hidden monies to bribe guards and allow secretive deliveries of food and money, often at the expense of the smugglers, young boys and others who, for a few coins, endangered their own lives. One of the most painful moments in the film is when a male child, after having delivered just such a package is pulled into a basement by his legs, with Szpilman, observing what has happened, attempting to retrieve the kid by pulling him up and out. The result of the tug-of-war which only ends in the boy’s death.
In another scene revealing the differences between the Ghetto residents, a man, counting coins at a restaurant table in a bar wherein Szpilman has been allowed to perform, demands the pianist temporarily stop his playing so that he might carefully listen to the sound each gold coin makes as it hits the table, in order to determine whether they are real or counterfeit.
These scenes help establish the honesty of Polanski’s work, which more thoroughly documents the total naiveté of the assimilated Jews of Warsaw, fairly well-to-do families (such as the Szpilmans) or middleclass figures, who when the Nazis first took over the city, believed the English, Russian, and, perhaps, even American forces would immediately come to their rescue. “Any day now,” seems almost to be their general mantra. The pianist himself (wonderfully performed by Adrien Brody), cannot even recognize that he is truly in danger, attempting to perform the entire of his Polish Radio performance as bombs tear through the studio.
If he survives with only a moderate face-wound, the rest of his family members are ready to relocate to another Polish city until they intercept a British broadcast proclaiming it will come to the support of the Polish cause.
Yet it takes only a few days until they are forced to wear armbands, and by the time that Szpilman re-encounters Dorota—who has attempted to visit him, in total admiration for his music, on the day of the Nazi attack—he can no longer enter one of his favorite cafés, is not permitted walk in the park with her, or even sit on a nearby bench. If she is outraged, he and his family have had already to assimilate these facts into their lives. He can only stand on the street and discretely talk; an elderly Jewish man is told by an SS soldier that he can only walk in the gutter.
A neighbor’s apartment is suddenly attacked by Nazi Gestapo members, and a group of dining family members suddenly exterminated in front of their and their neighbor’s eyes, all in the darkness of their rooms in which they have protectively turned off the lights.
Even when they are located to the Warsaw Ghetto, his mother proclaims: “Well it’s better than I might have imagined it to be.” Little by little, the Ghetto citizens saw their lives diminish and curtailed that even they couldn’t quite imagine what was happening. And that, so Polanski seems to suggest, is what occurs when blind hate meets up with a world of belief. The believers insist upon their belief, their hopes, their possible dreams, while the haters take advantage of their innocence, their faith in the future, cutting them off from life.
These good and not-so-good humans, the citizens of the Warsaw Ghetto—who ultimately did attempt to stand up for their own humanity against the horrors they were daily encountering—were already dead before they might even imagine what it was they needed to fight against. These men and women were not weaklings—in fact, they were quite strong in their instincts for survival and their determination to fight the injustices they encountered—but the only survivors, as Szpilman and Polanski seem to suggest, were those who didn’t speak out, didn’t attempt to go to war with their oppressors. They hid, playing out their lives much like this pianist who is not allowed even to express his own talents. The piano must be kept silent, just as it’s master must hide his face, abandon his own ideals, remove himself from the world he once loved.
The Holocaust took all these people away from our world, packing their lives away into small suitcases and, today, museums of memory. The rich world of ideas, feelings, everyday emotions, just simple pleasures were wiped away, for utterly no reason other than fear and hate, from the planet.
It is quite clear that, despite what anyone might think of Polanski, this is his second-greatest movie, perhaps even his best, although I dearly love his first film, And very few directors have even been more able to show the terrors of what it means to try to love in a world that doesn’t want to permit it.
It’s strange, now I think of it: wasn’t that really the theme of the other “Robinson Crusoe” film I reviewed just yesterday, the crazy Swiss Army Man? And isn’t Polanski’s film just as surreal?
If you’re starving and discover a can of pickled cucumbers which you hug to yourself while wandering a totally devastated landscape, how might you ever go back to Chopin again? Could Crusoe ever return to civilization after having encountered a world of “Fridays?”
Los Angeles, February 21, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
rabelais rewrites robinson crusoe
by Douglas Messerli
Dan Kwan and Daniel Schinert (writers and directors) Swiss Army Man / 2016
The two Daniels, Kwan’s and Schinert’s 2016 film, Swiss Army Man, has to be one the weirdest movies ever released to American cinema theaters. My husband Howard saw it upon it’s original release, and I recall reading a review, sort of aghast by what the critic was describing. I did not see it in the theater, but finally saw it (twice I must admit) yesterday and today on Netflix. I can only praise them for allowing this odd-ball film to be released onto their on-line screenings, although I had previously ordered it up from their mailed CD disks.
I hardly ever use the word “weird” to describe anything. To me, it seems like an almost adolescent description of something one might not quite comprehend, an unusual trope, a kind of surrealist-like series of images, or even a grotesque approach to the material: films as various as The Rocky Horror Show, Frankenstein, or Freaks.
My role as a critic, I’ve always felt, is to try to help the viewer or reader (and I do argue that watching a film is akin to a literary reading) to comprehend how she or he might perceive more or less than simply “strange” or “weird,” something that expresses that the work is slightly outside the standard limits of whatever genre. Great art is always pulled into one’s own ability to comprehend it.
But the central characters in this film, Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (that charming other “Daniel” Radcliffe) so often throughout this film describe their own experiences as weird, as indeed they are, that I truly feel comfortable with that word in this case.
If you were to try to categorize this movie, it would be near impossible, thank heaven. The intelligent critic Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for the Roger Ebert blog, called it a dreamlike expression. And he’s right; it is most definitely like some of Strindberg’s “dream sonatas.” It’s also a fantasy, a kind of parody of Greek drama, and Ovid-like presentation of an endless series of metamorphoses. It’s also a buddy rom-comedy, a dark, homosexually-infused story about the love the hero, Hank, cannot speak. And, in its deep heart, is a ridiculously-inspired bad-boy satire, filled up with farts, endless erections, magical vomitations of water and shit, and hippie-inspired celebrations which, given the heroes isolation can be attended only by two. It’s a heterosexual love-story in which the beloved is, in this case, a married and happy housewife played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
It’s also, to go beyond what anyone might readily perceive, a kind of pop-opera, given its beautifully ethereal score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. I could go on: It’s a funny story about self-hate and suicide, a tale about resurrection, and even an adventure story in the manner of works such as Sky Wars and Jurassic Park, the latter of which is reaffirmed by the character’s appropriation of the song by John Williams (it might be difficult for anyone who has regularly seen my reviews to imagine that I did actually see those movies).
As Seitz summarizes it:
The film is elastic, transmogrifying from a psychological
drama into a literally excremental comedy and then a hard-edged
survival picture, occasionally embracing the cosmic and turning
into an emo hipster answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet
the emotional temperatures of the movie fluctuate so intuitively from
moment to moment, and the situations and editing choices along
with them, that there's ultimately no point trying to deal with
"Swiss Army Man" on any terms but its own.
I’d argue that, in essence, it’s a wonderful Robinson Crusoe story retold by the bawdy writer François Rabelais, who combined most of these elements into his early fictions.
To tell the plot, which I often deem necessary for the readers who might have forgotten or never even seen the films I care about, would be nearly impossible. Let us just say that the moment Hank, obviously stranded on an isolated island of his own creating, begins the film by trying to hang himself from a tree on the cliff above, this movie shifts into another world. At the very moment of his intended suicide he perceives a washed-up body from the sea and struggles to free himself from his rope embracement to check out that being, trying to resuscitate what he soon recognizes is a corpse, perhaps a vision of his own dead self.
It is a kind of mythical friend Friday, quite obviously, a man who cannot comprehend—since he is apparently dead to Hank’s own expressions. Yet, like Defoe’s “primitive,” this corpse has marvelous powers to help Hank survive that involve absurd perceptions of the contemporary world, including ski-jets (propelled, in this case by the dead man’s farts), cellphones (which Hank uses judiciously, since he is losing the message), and the corpse’s ability, when sexually stimulated to point, like the Swiss Army Knife suggested in the film’s title, inevitably north. I must admit, this not a movie of logic, but, as I expressed above, a work of dreams.
For no possibly logical reason, Hank establishes a relationship with this dead being, obviously an imagined image of his own unfulfilled youth in which he was not allowed to even masturbate. And gradually, after he begins to teach the dead man, who saves him but who he must carry around on his own back, the corpse gradually comes back to life, expressing his name as “Mahn…E,” in short, as a kind of everyman, who Hank renames as Manny.
In the new wilderness into which they have escaped, Hank attempts to reeducate his dead childhood into life, explaining the love of women, the joy of dancing, the simple pleasures that he has retreated from, while the flatulent, sexual being of his youth gradually comes back into existence.
Can one develop a sexual attraction and gay love to one’s own image of one’s failed youth? This movie even attempts that, Crusoe’s Friday becoming a kind of being with the now, spiritually- dead Hank, dressed up in to drag to attempt to explain to himself who his beloved Sarah (the locked-up housewife) truly was. Their final sexual encounters, which end in an underwater kiss, are as loving, more loving I’d argue, than any gay coming-of-age film. This is a man finally embracing his own sexuality, his own inability to even fart in public, to enjoy any of the natural experiences of his life.
I’d love to meet the young me, and to finally recognize just how loving I might have been…if only if. This film, like Rabelais, totally embraces it. Life isn’t just nice gestures and well-behaved thoughts.
In a far more conventional version of this, Ronny Commarei of Moonstruck tries to draw his love Loretta into his bed with words that Hank may have uttered to his younger self:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn't
know this either, but love don't make things nice - it ruins everything.
It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to
make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect.
Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts
and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit.
Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!
They betray one another, ultimately, and the everyman who Hank once was has, unfortunately, to die, with Hank himself being restricted again by the society in which he lives, in this case being arrested for having almost stalked Sarah, whose pictures the police find on his cellphone.
Yet Hank, once more, tries to release those youthful impulses, grabbing up the morgue-bound former self to allow him to escape in the flatulent world of youth, speeding across the continents in the imaginative farts of the youthful fullness of itself. As in the world of Greek myth, those children are all who we once were, who might create fountains of water that help us to survive far more powerful that we could ever be when we had aged, reviving our love for the world and for one another they might ever allow us to protect ourselves from all of the bears and other horrible beasts we would surely encounter in our older life.
We need, as this film makes clear, to carry those youthful visions of ourselves upon our backs, to take them with us into our futures and to let them die when they will, while freeing them to have been what they were meant to me, Swiss Army Knives of a sort, that directed us to where he finally arrived.
Los Angeles, February 19, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Sunday, February 17, 2019
into a possible paradise
by Douglas Messerli
Nathan Adloff, Justin D.M. Palmer (writers), Nathan Adloff (director) Miles / 2017
Over the years I have watched perhaps too many stories of LGBT boys and girls coming out during their late high school years. Frankly, given my own closeted condition during that same period, I have enjoyed most of these, and even feel there may need to be more—if for no other reason than to assure young men (and women) such as I was, that although in small towns they may feel utterly alone (I believe that in my high school class of about 100, I was the only gay, and in 1964-65 there were no possible models through which I might comprehend my feelings except in the general “world out there”) that there are many individuals in their same positions. Films like David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen, Simon Shore’s Get Real, and, more recently, Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon—while presenting some of the darker aspects of the fear and sense of loneliness, even displaying the actual dangers involved—also make it almost seem “cool” to be a bright gay kid, knowing something about oneself that others simply could not imagine. I wish I’d had such films as a young boy; I looked instead, to the witty comedies of the 1940s and 1950s, reading between the lines of figures such as Carey Grant, Rock Hudson, James Dean, etc.
Yet, while watching Nathan Adloff’s 2016 film Miles yesterday, I became a little frightened that the genre was perhaps wearing itself thin, or, at the least, was now a bit dated.
Clearly, Adloff’s comedy/dramedy (as Los Angeles Times critic Katie Walsh described it), based evidently on his own experiences, is well-intentioned. And this time around, the 1999-situated story has more than a few brushes with the darker aspects of being in a school in Springfield, Illinois while desiring to be instead in the big city of Chicago to the north.
Unlike me at this age, Miles (the talented Tim Boardman) knows precisely how he is different from most of his classmates: he wants to be a movie director and he’s most definitely attracted to his same sex, even if this film shows no actual sexual scenes. For Miles, it appears, his only solution is to communicate on his now rather odd-looking “You’ve Got Mail”-like computer with his luverboi217 correspondent, describing himself as SmallTwnboi_17.
There are also very few villains in this work. Miles, in his senior school year, has an excellent relationship with his mother, Pam (a great Molly Shannon), and serves in the school as a beloved AV assistant. At nights he works the projector at the local movie theater. Generally, he seems to be a very well-adjusted and well-liked. His mother is also one of his teachers.
The only true villain of this work is Pam’s husband (Stephen Root), who virtually ignores his patient wife and treats his son, who describes his dreams of attending Columbia College in Chicago, to which his father responds that he can only go Springfield Community College. Miles is determined to leave what he describes as his sleepy town rather be locked, like so many others including his mother, within its confines.
One almost roots (sorry for the pun upon the actor’s last name) for his father’s death, which occurs with a sudden implosion of his heart, soon after—a symbol clearly for the emptiness of his love. And at the funeral itself Miles’ mother opens up to her son, admitting that she (and her son as well) has long known of his affairs and near complete ignorance of their own lives. What she and Miles are not prepared for is that he has used their meager savings for Miles’ college education to buy a new car for his current young girlfriend. It comes as a shock to Pam, who has clearly devoted her whole life to family, and, obviously, a terrible disappointment for a young man eager to move on.
Yet Miles, seemingly unchallenged by even these dire circumstances, simply seeks out possible scholarships that will allow him to make his escape. The only one that seems possible is an athletic award for something the director has not yet prepared us for: volleyball. Evidently Miles (the movie has been hiding the fact) is a great volleyball player. The only problem is that his high school has only a woman’s volleyball team.
When queried, the dubious but sympathetic woman’s volleyball coach admits that when a young woman attempted to join the football team, they had little choice but to allow her to join. And so too, after a tryout, is Miles allowed to join to volleyball team,
Soon the school is winning all of their games, but their opponents also begin a kind of retribution by refusing to play out the competitions when Miles joins the front line. City patricians also begin to complain, and even the normally kind and bland Superintendent of Schools (the role my father played in my life), who is now dating Pam, becomes forced to question Miles’ role on the team.
This might have been, in a different kind of movie, a great statement about a young man’s break-through in civil rights. But everybody here seems pallid and almost as unresponsive in their love and values as the father has been. The local theater owner finds a way to fire the young would-be film maven, and even Pam, who discovers his computer conversations, never even confronts him with the truth she now knows—this, after admitting with her husband’s death, that the lies cannot be stopped.
One might almost say that “things fall apart” without splintering. Although forced off the volleyball court, Miles still gains a scholarship for another Chicago school, Loyola, and is even presented with a gift from his mother (although one hardly imagines where she might have found the money to pay for it) of a film camera, as Miles leaps unto a bus into his possible paradise.
It’s a touching film, and you can only delight when Miles suddenly finds a way to move off into the proverbial “sunset.” But, I’m sorry to say, it just doesn’t quite make sense. Things don’t quite happen like that. Children who are told they are not allowed to do things, come to resent the world; women who only serve their families, like Pam, grow bitter. The determined Pam and the implacable Miles seems to me to represent myths of an endlessly-loving mother a knowledgeable young gay man totally ready to embrace his new world.
I used to sneak views in local grocery stores of the males in fan magazines (the Gee-Bees had incredible bulges). On one occasion I bought a book of boy porno (still available in those days) in my senior year in Waukesha, Wisconsin, sneaking it into a public bathroom, where the person in the next stall tried to get my attention, presumably for sex. I was just embarrassed; shocked by own desires.
Let us hope Miles and his mother, like the entire school community in Love, Simon, simply represent a new world, where there is no pain for having to rediscover one’s entire life. But Adloff turns his central characters simply into enduring ciphers, unable, it appears, to even be scarred by the world in which they exist. I’d like to think that suffering such feelings of being removed from the society is a thing of the past. But I’m afraid it’s simply not. If nothing else, might not Pam realize her son’s desperate attempt to escape has something to do with her own entrapment in that society?
And I’ve been to Chicago many a time. It’s terribly cold and horribly hot, a city with a very large amalgam of American life. A dangerous city itself. I used to escape there as a young man through bus-trips from Iowa, not for sex (although there was one hotel encounter with a restaurant colleague when I indeed might have realized by sexuality but did not) but for theater and museums.
In the 1980s my poet friend Charles Bernstein and I were both invited to read at the Chicago Contemporary Museum. While watching this film, I suddenly remembered that our sponsors were students and faculty members from Columbia College Chicago, the institution which Miles so desired to attend. The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. Outside of Philadelphia, it was one of the best readings of my life.
Our hosts, after the reading wherein they declared that both Charles’ and my books had been stolen from their library, took us to an excellent Armenian restaurant, Sayat Nova (I was impressed since I’d already seen the Paradjanov film). They then took us to a party in a distant Chicago community, where I realized that several of these beautiful young men were gay.
Suddenly, in the midst of festivities (drinking and enjoying their young company), I realized that I’d left my carrying bag at the restaurant. A call to the restaurant proved that an employee had indeed found the bag and would gladly meet us at a bar nearby the Loop restaurant at 12:00 A.M. One of the young men drove me there for that late appointment, and she appeared with my bag. I offered her a financial award, but she simply allowed me to give her drink.
I think the cinematic Miles would have adored Columbia College of Chicago and given the total honesty of the people I encountered there, perhaps he chose the right place to drive wide-eyed into his new reality.
Los Angeles, February 17, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Friday, February 15, 2019
medea’s mad dance
by Douglas Messerli
Pier Paolo Pasolini (writer and director) Medea / 1969
I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea several days ago but couldn’t quite bring myself to write about it until now. Part of the problem is that the story itself is so confusing and shifting that it is difficult that it is hard to truly understand the role of Medea in her relationship with Jason (Giuseppe Gentile), his search of the “golden fleece,” and her pain concerning her many children who have been destroyed by Kresus (Massimo Girotti).
Medea, even in the myths, is impenetrable, and even the great Maria Callas, the remarkable opera star Pasolini chose for his Medea figure, hardly speaks in this film—and when she does only in translation. Mostly she glowers over the scenes this ritualistic tribe, who killing men use their innards to return them to the landscape in attempt to reinfuse it with their powers. It is a terrifying ritual that smells of a Euripdean world that Pasolini never quite explains. But then Pasolini is obviously seeking a world even darker than that of Euripdes.
People in this world are chopped up, for hardly any logical reason, and their parts distributed back into the earth, with the community participating in a cannibal-like feast. Mostly, the participants look on, including Callas, with severe observation, as if the entire community were transfixed by the central scene in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.
Whatever the source of Pasolini’s film, we are simply terrified by the brutality. And there seems to be no way out of this horrendous drama of hate and revenge, except in the earliest of scenes with the centaur (Laurent Terzieff) and the young Jason (Luigi Masironi), told, encouraged before he can comprehend the message by the centaur to reclaim his kingdom taken from him.
Although quite beautifully filmed, Pasolini’s movie is a confusing mix-and-match version of the Medea myth. And, since it is mostly presented in images, with very little dialogue, it is almost impossible to comprehend why Jason, upon his return to Corinth, turns his attentions away from Medea to Glauce, and why in sudden revenge Medea repeats the brutal ceremony we witnessed earlier in the film, the time destroying her brother Absyrtus before she turns on her lover and Glauce. As The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby expressed it:
Medea is a primeval soul who erupts almost spontaneously
when transplanted into a civilization ruled by order. And this,
I think, is where the film goes awry. There is no real conflict
between Pasolini's conception and Euripides's Pasolini's
supplements the other's, but because nothing in Pasolini's
imagery in the scenes in Corinth is equal to the passion of
the original text, or to Pasolini's own scenes early in the film,
the movie seems to go thin and absurdly melodramatic.
Indeed, her vengeance, coming seemingly out of nowhere—particularly since she has not even been allowed to explain her love for Jason—is so difficult to endure that, as in the final scenes of the director’s Salò, we almost feel that we must close our eyes to what we are observing, particular since Pasolini has previously made love to his beautiful star with his camera.
Perhaps, as in that Salò, Pasolini’s point here is that within every human heart there is always perversion and, finally, a monster, and trying to hold on and control the beloved is always a sort of fascist act.
Certainly, Pasolini’s own life and death gave credence to that fact, as his “acquisition” of a young handsome man led to the boy turning on him and murdering the director. One might almost read Medea today as a prescient vision of what love spurned can lead to.
Los Angeles, February 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).
Sunday, February 3, 2019
the man in white
by Douglas Messerli
Kōbō Abe (writer), Hiroshi Teshigahara (director) おとし穴 Otoshiana (Pitfall) / 1962
Increasingly, through the years, as I have watched the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara based on writings by Kōbō Abe, I have come to see him as one of the most innovative of Japanese film directors. In even his first feature film, Pitfall, which I saw the other day, I discovered a breathtaking work that brought politics into a kind of surrealist world, as an iterant miner and his young son get involved in Japanese union politics simply because Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa) is a dead-ringer for the a union boss, representing Union 2, who has dared to defy the more dominant union boss from Union 1.
The lookalike Otsuka is stalked and later killed by a man in a white suit (Kunie Tanaka) when
he returns to an abandoned mine, surrounded by a strange ghost-like mining town which now has only one woman shopkeeper (Sumie Sasaki) who seems to sell only candy and trinkets to the ghosts, like Otsuka, who occasionally appear at her doorstep.
The odd mix-up of politics and ghost-stories is heightened by the modernist music of Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yuji Takahashi, and the sets, which present such a deep desolation that one might imagine herself suddenly transported into an ancient gold-mining town of the old West in the US.
Here everything is gray and totally washed out, while the man in white and Otsuka’s son (Kazuo Miyahara)—murderer and hidden observer of all events, stand out in this ghostly landscape, the one because of his costume and determination, the other by his innocent beauty.
The only other witness to the crime is the shopkeeper who is paid by the man in white to tell a false story, further incriminating the lookalike union leader and his opposing union head—even though, in reality, these two have worked carefully together to restrain any worker resentment.
A bit like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, it is the reporters (particularly Kei Satō) who stir up events, suggesting to both union leaders that each other has plotted against one another.
When the two union bosses determine to visit the old mine for evidence, they come across the body of the shopkeeper, who has now also been killed by the man in white, after being raped by a local policeman. These men blame one another, eventually moving into a battle, which ends in both their deaths, while the ghosts of Otsuka and the shopkeeper look on, Otsuka desperately attempting to discover why he and the shopkeeper have both been killed.
As an older ghost warns, there will be no easy answers and what he might discover will be even more disturbing than the facts—truths they gradually discover as the man in white jumps onto his motorcycle, suggesting that everything has worked out precisely as planned, before he rides off into the sunset.
Perhaps the real “pitfall” here has not been a death in the dangerous mines, but Otsuka’s belief, despite his own nefarious attempts to make a living by operating in off-zone territories, that there is a single “truth.” He, at heart, is an honest man. Demanding that when his son steals a piece of candy from the shopkeeper that he pay for it.
Strangely, it is only the son who might be able to tell the whole story, although he is too young to speak it or to even assimilate the events he has seen.
And how might we account for the accidental “doublings” of appearance between Otuska and the Union 2 boss? Are they simply aspects of one another, a kind of earlier apparition of what the second Union boss was as a younger man? Clearly, they are twins of some sort, their lives intertwined in the mining world present and past. And why has the shopkeeper stayed on to serve a community which no longer exists. Both figures were ghosts even before they died.
One can only imagine that perhaps the man in white is the future itself, a kind of Rod Serling-like figure who imposes the demands of the future upon the world of the past. If nothing else, with the murders of Otsuka and the shopkeeper the Old Union mine is now only a city of ghosts. No one is there any longer to even care for it—except, we presume, in the later memories of Otsuka’s wide-eyed son. We might even suggest that this haunting film might be his own story.
Los Angeles, February 3, 2019
World Cinema Review (February 2019).