Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Akira Kurosawa | 蜘蛛巣城 (Throne of Blood)


the spider who knits the net
by Douglas Messerli

Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth), Akira Kurosawa (director) 蜘蛛巣城 (Throne of Blood) / 1957

It is rather amazing that, perhaps, the best adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth would come from a Japanese director, the great Akira Kurosawa. Translating Macbeth’s foggy Scotland heaths to the equally foggy Mount Fuji and Izu Peninsula, but resetting it in the more ancient culture of feudally-controlled Japan, the director brilliantly makes it almost appear that the great English bard, had he known of the Japanese feudal world, might himself have chosen to set his play into this context.
       Certainly, the early scenes, when having bravely saved the day in battle for King Duncan (Tsuzaki Kunimaru, performed by Hiroshi Tachikawa), his loyal warriors—Washizu Taketki as Macbeth, starring the great Toshiro Mifune and Miki Yoshiaki, the Banquo played Minoru Chiaki—rush forward by command to visit the castle, titled “The Spider’s Web,” almost insistently losing their way in the forest surrounding the castle, race their horses in various opposite directions as they attempt to find their way to their inevitable rewards. The maze in which they are both caught parallels the lives they shall soon suffer.
     The nearly endless sound of the horse’s hooves, as they run forward and backwards in search of the exit out of the nettles, sets the pace for this constantly shifting work, in which, at any given moment, alternates between the old and newer rulers and their ministrations.
      I have always thought the Three Witches "Double, double toil and trouble" invocation over a stewpot of frogs and newts was more than a bit silly, particularly in Verdi’s operatic version of the work which I saw at the LAOpera. Kurosawa resolves this scene of ridiculousness with the sudden vision of the two lost souls of a single spirit (Chieko Naniwa), who magically weaving their fates together, tells them of the future: that today Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison and Miki will become commander of the first fortress. Moreover, Washizu soon after will become the Lord of the Spider-Web Castle, but that Miki’s son will eventually inherit that role.
       In Kurosawa’s version, the witch’s prediction sounds less like the witches’ terrible predictions than a kind of Jean Cocteau-like enchantment. These figures are now doomed by the weave and warp of a magical history that cannot be undone.
       Indeed, those fore-tellings do come true, encouraging the power-hungry Lady Macbeth (Isuzu Yamada) to literally fast-speed the rule of her husband as predicted through the murder of the King. In this cinematic reading of Shakespeare’s classic, she might almost be perceived as the perfect wife, determined to help her husband rise in the ranks from his humble and faithful obedience to a position, given his courage and bravery, she believes he deserves.
       Yet her evil deeds, serving a drug to the King’s guard, placing a knife with which Washizu has murdered Tsuzaki Kunimaru in one of the sleeping guard’s hands, and screaming out the facts that she herself has incited, is one of the most horrific actions captured on screen. The guilty Washizu is almost lost in the ruckus of his wife’s behavior. If he has rather unwillingly killed the King, she has become a kind of trumpet to deflect their own guilt. In a sense, she has already turned mad, and her later almost catatonic behavior as she washes her hands over and over seems inevitable.
       Similarly, the couple must now become determined to kill Washizu’s dearest, now-suspicious friend; and, even worse, once Washizu discovers that his wife has become pregnant to kill Banquo’s young son, the foretold future leader—all to no avail, since he later discovers his wife produces only a still-born, much like their own absurd attempts to gain power.
       If, in the original Shakespeare play Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing anguish is at the center of the work, in Kurosawa’s version, Washizu’s (Macbeth) drunkenness is what truly betrays him, as in a dining stupor he encounters the ghost of his formerly beloved friend, Miki, whom he has ordered to be killed. His behavior, as with so many couples, is quickly covered up with the easy excuse the he is simply drunk, speaking “out of his mind” so to speak.
      Desperate for a solution to his terrible visions, this Macbeth retreats again to the forest to call up the single “witch-weaver” who explains to him that only when the entire forest rises up to attack him will he lose his life. But we already know from those early scenes of the film, the forest has already done that, has confused him and forced him into the terrible actions he and his wife have since untaken.
      If he cannot imagine the forest attacking him, he soon must face it when the opposing forces of Miki’s son respond with branches cut in the middle of the night to disguise their approach. Since Washizu has shared the “ridiculous” prophecy with his own soldiers, when the forest does actually seem to rise up, his supporters turn against him, shooting him down with arrows somewhat like St. Sebastiane. As evil as we know him to be, there is something tragic about Kurosawa’s representation of his slow, very slow death. This was, after all, a hero who has been corrupted by visions and his own ambitious wife.
       In many respects, Kurosawa seems not only to adopt—at least in English translation—the cadences of Shakespeare’s original, but enhances the original, allowing us to further comprehend the horror of a man provoked to advance beyond his own limitations. Washizu is a strong soldier, but not a natural leader as we perceive in his early confusion during his attempt to even enter the sacred court. He has given up his natural role in order to fit the prognostications of a ghost, an imaginary figure, apparently, of his own imagination and desires.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Sunday, January 26, 2020

James Wentzy | Days of Desperation


that’s part of our world tonight
by Douglas Messerli

James Wentzy (director and editor) Days of Desperation / 1994

My husband and I, Howard Fox, will next week celebrate our 50th anniversary as a couple, married now about 4 years, which matters little since in 1970 we met and cemented a relationship that would—despite what any gay relationship proffered as near impossible odds in those days—a commitment that settled us into a kind of outside marriage that could not tear us apart, while everything in our world in those days and much still now desires to. We fight daily; perhaps most couples do. But we have such a long history now that neither of us might imagine a separation, and I believe now that had we not met that year I most certainly and perhaps Howard also, as I’ve expressed elsewhere, might have died of AIDS. The year before, living in Manhattan and Queens, I had gay sex nearly every evening. And Howard, that first night we met, had suddenly become determined to pick-up guys; I was his first choice! We were, after all, from that first generation of the dreadful plague, when little was known about the disease or its transmission, and absolutely nothing was known about possible cures or extensions of life.
      The other day, a Facebook friend, John Wier, sent me James Wentzy’s tape about the ACT UP protests of 1991, however, that made me realize even further just how fortunate we were. That year, the apex of AIDS illnesses, when young and older gay people were suffering more deaths daily than the constantly news-reported deaths in the absurd wars of George H. W. Bush in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf States and more gays and others had died of AIDS than all those during the Viet Nam War, the gay-led movement ACT UP suddenly took over network reports, most notably CBS’s Dan Rather’s nightly news report, with Wier’s head popping up on screen, along with his friends Dale Peck and Darrell Bowman together shouting “Fight AIDS, not Arabs.”  
       Seconds after the screen went black and, with the intruders being carried off, Rather was returned into view apologizing for the interruption and arguing that they had been attacked by some very “lewd people.” I’ve always felt that Rather has been too exulted as a newscaster and writer, but this truly confirms it to me. He had not perceived that his constant reporting on the Gulf War, was totally ignoring the war at home that was killing so many people of the LGBTQ community (in those days simply described as “gays” and “lesbians”).
       Wier, whom Wentzy allows to talk about the event at some length, plays out the significance of those actions, quite humorously and yet clearly painfully, including his personal family crises that resulted—his father and brothers were all in the broadcasting industry—after which his father finally seemingly came to comprehend just how important his son’s action was. As Wier says, if I could influence just one person to perceive the problem, particularly my father, then I had succeeded.
       Meanwhile, at the same hour, Jon Greenberg, Mark Lowe Fisher and Anna Blume, demonstrated at the studios of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, but were unable to reach the studio itself. Unlike Rather, Jim Lehrer, who died this past week, later admitted that those protests and the events that followed the next day, January 23rd, 1991—which the ACT UP group described as the Day of Desperation Actions—in downtown New York, Harlem and governmental offices throughout the city.
      At 5:00 they joined up at Grand Central Terminal, making it impossible for thousands of workers and tourists to make their way to their trains. The protestors held large signs reading “Money for AIDS, Not for War” and “One AIDS Death Every 8 Minutes,” holding hands and, as documentary filmmaker Wentzy shows, sometimes laying down to block the commuters.
      Their demonstration flier read:

Within a matter of months the U.S. Government is able to house, feed and provide health care for half a million people in the middle of the desert. But here at home, the Federal Government continues to routinely deny these same basic necessities to people living with AIDS. We wonder--as we fight a war for oil in the Persian Gulf--whether President Bush and Congress are conscious of the desperate state of the AIDS crisis in this country. We are. Through 10 years of this plague and 10 years of Republican administrations, there remains no leadership. After over-whelmingly (and with much fanfare) passing the C.A.R.E. Act (aka the Ryan White Act), Congress and President Bush failed to appropriate the funds necessary to implement this disaster relief. Why is it that when a hurricane or earthquake hits--and causes mostly property damage and relatively few deaths---federal dollars pour in? When a disease devastates whole communities and kills more than 110,000 men, women and children--more than twice the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War--our leaders remain silent. And you remain silent. Silence = Death.

      Soon after these events, Mark Fischer died of AIDS, and, a few years later, upon the death of another AIDS sufferer, Jon Greenburg, a friend reads poignantly from the speech Greenburg had prepared for Fischer’s funeral, but could not deliver because of his own illness at the time. If there was ever a statement about how brave these desperate men and women were this is it. I wish I might print out that entire previously undelivered speech, but if you care at all you need to hear it as delivered in Wentzy’s movie.
      At the heart of these statements is just how these young men and women where nervous, frightened, and doubtful about the actions they were about to undertake, while yet realizing that if they didn’t do so, their deaths would be suffered without consequence. They were not afraid of dying as much as they were horrified for the suffering of so many others before and after them. And they were justifiably angry. There was, as the speech declares, “an otherness about their fears.”
      By the time of Wentzy’s film, covering the events of 1991, Howard and I were ensconced in rather lovely jobs, he as a curator at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I, having, been an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, going on to be a significant publisher, a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist.  
      In short, we were sheltered somewhat from the world this 1994 film recounts. But I feel slightly guilty for those facts. I am glad that we narrowly escaped the AIDS crisis, but I do feel that, given my stubborn beliefs in fairness and my love of the LGBTQ community, I might have wanted to have been there to fight for those rights.
     Wier, as an AIDS activist, seems at moments to be slightly apologetic or at lease a bit sanguine for his actions; but when he posted Wentzy’s film I immediately realized how proud he should be and perhaps is.
     Any growth in consciousness, in the US awareness of what is truly happening, is a near miracle, given our recalcitrant belief in our values, and those young men and women from 1991 helped to accomplish that with acts small and large.
     Goodnight Dan Rather; "That's part of our world tonight." These men where not “lewd,” but true believers.

Los Angeles, January 26, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gus Van Sant | My Own Private Idaho


the things we’ve seen
by Douglas Messerli

Gus Van Sant (writer and director) My Own Private Idaho / 1991

By any traditional analysis Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is a kind of mess, a mish-mash of a story about Portland-based gay hustlers and an on-the-road tale that resembles, at moments, the wild, early life of the young future Hal hanging out with Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry plays.
       The swings between the two tales occur without any cinematic apology for not truly being fused together. Scenes from the childhood life of Michael Waters (River Phoenix) are mixed with the surreal statements by gay magazine cover-models who suddenly spring to life and the existential angst of Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the wayward son of the Portland mayor. Gay desire is met with heterosexual hauteur, grungy street adventures alternate with wealthy homes and offices filled with all the trinkets that money can buy. Poverty and fortune seem almost indistinguishable in Van Sant’s fantasy, just as beauty—expressed primarily in the Idaho landscape—and squalor rub shoulders. Van Sant’s work easily shifts from street love to a romantic heterosexual Italian-based idyll.
      In fact, My Own Private Idaho might easily be summed-up as a chaos of opposing images and directorial styles.
      And all of this is wrapped up with a ribbon of Mike’s narcolepsy, a condition that constantly interrupts his active attempts to hustle both male and female clients. But, in a sense the metaphor Van Sant has chosen to embrace is absolutely perfect: this is a film of dreaming and dreams, past and present, which overwhelm nearly all of its characters.
      Each of the gay hustlers in this work—most of whom refuse to describe themselves as homosexuals—spends the movie walking and working in a sleep-like condition, dreaming of love, money, or even a way out of the stupefaction. Only the handsome Scott knows that he will be able to find the inheritance to exit his semi-rebellious behavior. All the others are not so rebellious as they are simply trapped in their attempts to find modes of survival.
     Yet, despite its collection of disparities, Van Sant’s film is absolutely likeable and brilliant, a film which when I saw for the second time the other day, an extraordinarily emotionally nuanced work that stands out in the early 1990s (though originally conceived in the 1970s) as a kind of beacon for LGBTQ desire.

    The hinge to the power of this film is River Phoenix’s (older brother to Joaquin and many other Phoenix-family actors, who died tragically of a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room in West Hollywood only two years after the release of the picture) performance, as he takes to the road—a dangerous thing for a young man with his condition—to discover himself, his mother, and, hopefully the man he loves, Scott. He doesn’t fully succeed in in any of these attempts, and it is his failure to achieve those goals that gives heart to this film.
      Simply the view of his slightly gold-haired stubble of his face, the always slightly confused look of his eyes—as if a deer caught in headlights—and his stumbling, bumbling attempts to get through each day, with or without drugs or money, along with his absolutely loving devotion to Scott, who when Mike expresses his love for him, declares “I only go to bed with men for money” inures us to this unlikely hero.
      Money is everything for Scott, and he even declares early in the film that he will make a complete change when his father dies, and he inherits his fortune. This young Scott, like Henry IV quickly gives up his ways when he is declared as the young “prince,” abandoning and denying his young friend Mike and even his substitute father, Bob Pigeon (William Richert).
      Reeves plays him as a nonetheless likeable figure, helping Mike to track down his brother back in Idaho, who insists that their mother was infatuated by a local cowboy who was Mike’s father—although Mike seems to perceive the real truth, that his own brother was his father.
      Scott’s attempt to track down Mike’s mother slightly redeems his later actions as well as his refusal to actually accept Mike’s love for him—although there is one liberating scene in which the police invade Pigeon’s illegally occupied apartment building wherein Scott pretends to be fucking Mike in order to protect them from what the police are actually seeking: drugs. There is no doubt that the later turncoat, Scott, truly loves Mike. But as he has been taught by his father, he loves money and societal mores more. Even he, when Mike claims his father was not a normal Dad, quips “What’s a normal dad?” Normality in this world of seeming perversions has little meaning.
       Scott leaves his young acolyte Mike alone in Italy, running off with his new princess Carmela
(Chiara Caselli) and leaving his old world behind. He rejects even the recognition of his former hustler friends, and when his former, “real” father, Pigeon dies of a heart attack, attends like the good boy he has suffered to become to his father’s funeral, while a short ways away, the hustlers revel over Bob Pigeon’s coffin—another the film’s obvious dichotomies.
       Somehow Mike finds his way back to his own Idaho, returning us to the opening scene of the film as he falls again under another narcoleptic attack. If the road onto which he collapses has previously been totally abandoned, a truck now appears out of the nowhere, men exiting it to steal his clothing bag and shoes, while another soon after appears to retrieve his sleeping body. We can only imagine where that might take him: this is 1991 and AIDS is already prevalent when AIDS patients died every two-moments, as was the gay-hate which led to Wyoming-born Matthew Shepard’s brutal death only 7 years later.
       Throughout the scenes in Pigeon’s hovel for homeless hustlers, he and his boys talk again and again about “the things we’ve seen.” By the end of Van Sant’s film we have seen them as well, and hopefully been rendered, through that process, as more empathetic by those visions. Mike’s private Idaho is now ours as well.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2020
Reprinted in World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Jonathan Demme | Philadelphia


i’m ready
by Douglas Messerli

Ron Nyswaner (screenwriter), Jonathan Demme (director) Philadelphia / 1993

For some rather inexplicable reasons, I did not see the movie Philadelphia in 1993, when it originally appeared in Los Angeles. My husband Howard did, but not I, and I only visited it on Netflix the other day, 27 long years after its first appearance.
      Although I have no justifiable excuse for my long reluctance to see this film, I can partially explain it: Tom Hanks is a reliable actor and I am sure is one of the nicest persons in the film community. But his constant portrayals of somewhat blundering straight men have basically left me cold. For him to play a big firm lawyer, suddenly discovered to have acquired AIDS and his gay life behind it, required, I felt, more than a little imagination. Why might they not have chosen an openly gay actor or even a hidden gay actor in the Cary Grant mode?

     Hanks reminds me a bit of the truly talented Meryl Streep, who can wonderfully mime almost any character she plays; but where is the real person behind the figures both she and Hanks portray? More and more, I perceive, I like actors who bring their own personalities into their roles: Bette Davis, Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino—every one of them over-acting, but yet bringing their own identities into their performances. Hanks and Streep are just as talented, perhaps, but they lose themselves in their acting personalities as they adeptly transform their own beings into the characters they portray. In a sense they are deep deceivers, actors who become someone else in the process of their art. I never liked chameleons.  
     Hanks won an Academy Award for pretending to be a gay man with AIDS. Hepburn won several awards for being Kathryn Hepburn, a smart, fast-talking, independent-minded, possibly lesbian woman, who flew planes, talked down her male companions, and chewed-up her stories with her obviously New England upbringing. Grant played the lover to men and women equally, recognizing his own personal sexuality and charm. Just by refusing a breast over a leg in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, you knew he was somehow an honest human being, a bit removed from Grace Kelly’s ferocious sexual approaches.
     Somehow Hanks seems clumsy in being the lover of both Jason Robards—as the legal firm’s leader, whom we recognize is a man desperately seeking a son, hugging the man he has chosen to his breast—and the always beautiful and extremely intense lover of Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas). The character Hanks plays, Andrew Beckett, seems to be on both sides of the various issues the movie explores: is he a calculating explorer destroying young companies through his legal actions, while still tenderly relating to his handsome lover?
     In short, I don’t quite trust the character, let alone believe in the absolutely loving Beckett family, father, mother (and who could disbelieve Joanne Woodward?), sisters, brother who support him despite the viral conditions of Andrew Beckett’s life. It may have been true, inspired (some say based on the story of lawyer Geoffrey Bowers), but it doesn’t ring out as a truthful statement of the era. In his roles Hanks likes to portray morally responsible figures smudged-out and up by an evil society at large. In reality, love was not so very easy, family and friends preferring to turn away from those who had suddenly HIV death-sentences, and they were terrified in those early days of acquiring the newly-discovered disease themselves.

    As the movie declares, many felt it was a disease actually chosen by those suffering from its consequences. By this time, it may have been, since we all suddenly began to discover how we might get infected; yet what can you do when you love and need to be loved by those of the same sex? The truth has still today to not be fully explored: how and why were so many young gay men destroyed by some disease that apparently might have come out of Africa? And yet today thousands are still suffering, many of whom, despite new drug regimens, will surely die.
      Yet, in retrospect, how could you not enjoy this Jonathan Demme film, filled, as it is, to the gills with some of the best performers of the period, Hanks, Mary Steenburgen, Banderas, Woodward, Karen Finley, Bradley Whitford, and Anna Deavere Smith?
     And then Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) enters, a successful black man who carries his homophobic upbringing as a chip on his shoulder, yet who gradually grows to perceive how mistaken he has been and even develops his own kind of love for the dying Beckett. One might almost imagine that Miller represents the kind of Godot Beckett was eternally waiting for.
      This “grinder of the grain,” the original meaning of Miller's last name, boils down the legal issues that Beckett has established quickly, deciding despite his own fears of AIDS, to represent (after nine other lawyer’s refusal) Beckett’s petition of the unfairness of his being fired from his job for having AIDS.
      Washington is a brilliant actor always and plays this role almost as a reverse of the understandably pontificating Beckett as he gradually perceives that the prejudice that Beckett has been subject to is not so very different from what he has experienced all his life.
      Fortunately, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner does not make too much of this, allowing us to fill in the blanks of the slowly comprehending legal defendant.
      Miller wins his case with a 5-million-dollar compensation for the dying Beckett, but in this film it hardly matters. The plaintive dies soon after, celebrated in his family’s home by a memorial that almost wipes out his real significance, portraying only his happy early days as a child on home movies.
      I guess, even in 1993, I sensed that this totally Hollywood film was not the way to truly comprehend what had happened to so many gay men, lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual people—not to forget the millions of straight women and men who have died from the terrifying disease.
      In the end, Philadelphia—a city in I lived many days each week in that very same period—is a strange version of a “feel-good” movie. But who can truly feel good when a man dies just for going to bed with a lover? Or when a woman dies for simply having sex with her husband?
     Yet I must confess, I cried throughout the entire film—which, of course, is the reaction that allowed it so many awards in its time. Perhaps seeing it so late in my life, so long after the worst of the AIDS infections, is simply better. It’s a good movie about important issues. But the devastation of the disease was not won by large legal compensations, but simply by death. As Beckett can only admit near the end of this film, “I’m ready.” You truly can’t take it with you.

Los Angeles, January 22, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Monday, January 20, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock | Champagne


never safe from ourselves
by Douglas Messerli

Alfred Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard (screenplay, based on a story by Walter C. Mycroft), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Champagne / 1928

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 silent romantic comedy, Champagne, is often described as one his very few forays into the comic mode. Yet, if you carefully look at Hitchcock’s oeuvre you’ll perceive highly comic moments in nearly all of his films, including his own appearance carrying an ear-horn in Vertigo and even the wisecracks of his daughter Patricia in Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock was apparently delighted to discover that his writer for Rope, Arthur Laurents, was having a brief fling with the film’s handsome actor, Farley Granger. He surely loved the irony of the creator and his villain jumping into bed together.

      Champagne also is not all comedy. Once the wealthy heiress, Betty (Betty Balfour) absconds with her father’s airplane to elope with her lover (Jean Bradin), her father (Gordon Harker) angrily sets his agents against her, including a somewhat suave but even more menacing Theo von Alten (Ferdinand von Alten), who attempts to woo the strong-headed beauty, Betty, away from her apparently kind and loving boyfriend.
       Her father is certain that The Boy is attempting to marry Betty simply to get her (and his) great wealth. But, in fact, the Bradin character disparages her money which seems to privilege her to make all the decisions, including a demand for an immediate marriage aboard the ship she has flown to.
       Betty, herself, moreover, is presented as a selfish, strong-willed woman—more interested in drinking and dresses than her future husband’s sense of independence.
       When The Boy finally visits her apartment in Paris, flowers in hand for forgiveness, he finds it filled with empty-minded partyers, a stern maid who obviously does not approve of him, and female dresser—both of whom, attired in black, are subtly identified by the director as lesbians, the first quietly allowing her fingers to remain longer than usual upon Betty’s shoulder and the second of whom quietly picks up her employer’s previous dress before she folds it up and in a quick shot kisses the gown, as if it were a kind of holy shroud. In 1928, attentive audiences knew what that meant: this was a den of perversions.

     Even more seriously, Betty arrives in Paris to announce to her that he has lost his fortune and can no longer support her luxurious life. Betty takes up cooking, although she has not had any experience or gift for the culinary art. The old man’s sneaking out to a Paris bistro where he orders up a big steak and even larger dessert makes it clear that he lying. He can still afford a life of high-living.
      Convinced she must acquire a job to support herself and her father, Betty goes to work as a kind of waitress-performer in a large restaurant, run by Maitre d’Hotel (Marcel Vibert) who quietly indicates that her job might include flirting with the male customers and, if willing, to follow them into their rooms as a kind of early version of a call-girl.
      The several floors of this extravagant dining establishment already show Hitchcock’s brilliant use of his camera, presenting the place as an elegant version of Dante’s Hell, with layer upon layer of heavily drinking and testosterone-driven men plying the women with whom they sit with, as the title suggests, Champagne.
      In another attempt at reconciliation, the boyfriend visits her, appalled by what he sees. To spite him she wildly dances, not the first time in this often-frenzied film.
      The Boy returns with Betty’s father, who is equally shocked by what he sees, and admits his lie, inviting her to return home and marry the man he now realizes loves her and not her money. But not before she is carried off and locked in her room the Mysterious Man, only to be saved by her younger suitor.
      So, indeed, the film ends as a kind of comedy. Yet, I’d argue that the great director has this early in his career far more serious issues on his mind—a licentious world inhabited by young rich women such as Betty, and the ability of the males around them to manipulate and sexually abuse them. If Champagne is truly a romantic comedy, then Vertigo is not a psychological tragedy. Hitchcock knew always that human beings encompassed both the potential for deep love and dangerous behavior.
     Eve Kendall, in North by Northwest, was both a sexy siren, a kind of version of the original Eve who might easily lure the confused Roger Thornhill out of the protection of his office-building world, or a kirk-loving member of the Cumbria area in England—the original source of her last name.
     The Wikipedia Urban Dictionary quite precisely describes the word “Kendall” presumably long after Hitchcock’s film.

A beautiful girl with many friends. She is often crazy, but once you get to know her she is the most lovable people you will ever meet. Her funny attitude gives her countless friends. But don't be fooled by this witty personality, she can be the most romantic person ever. I seriously think I'm in love with this girl.

     That is exactly what Betty (a kind Betty Boop of the day) is in this 1928 early Hitchcock film. But the dichotomy of the two is essential to nearly all of his movies—whether it is a loving wife who turns quite mad in The Wrong Man, a sexy dress-seller who is absolutely ready to take on any adventure she encounters in Rear Window, or even a beloved uncle Charlie who turns out to be a murderer of wealthy widows in Shadow of a Doubt. Even a nice-looking Norman Bates, seeking the love of an on-the-run secretary, might turn out to be a psychological-freak with murderous intentions. In Hitchcock’s films no one ever gets off free from their inner-demons. We are never safe from ourselves.

Los Angeles, January 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Friday, January 17, 2020

David France | The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson


stopping by stonewall
by Douglas Messerli

David France and Mark Blane (writers), David France (director) The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson / 2017

Netflix’s documentary film by David France, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is not just a work about its titular hero, but a story about three women, Marsha—a drag queen, possibly transgender figure, born Malcolm Michaels, Jr., who didn’t want to determine his life as either male or transgendered female (if there was ever a Q in the LBGTQ community, Marsha represents it)—his close friend, quite clearly a transgendered figure, Sylvia Rivera, and, perhaps the most interesting of
them all, Victoria Cruz, working for the New York City Anti-Violence Project in an attempt to solve the violent death as her very last investigation—a cold case described by the police as a suicide in 1992—and who doggedly in her near-retirement years, attempts to track down the real culprits.
      This was a terribly painful movie for me, since it involves the Greenwich Village gay community of which I was involved just a few weeks before I left New York previous to the significant Stonewall Bar riots.
      Night after night I began my evenings, after studying dance at the Joffrey Ballet studio, from Julius’ for a hamburger dinner—in which many of this film’s scenes are filmed—turning the corner to Christopher Street and walking past Stonewall (sometimes even dropping into the dive-like bar) before making my way down the street to the a bar near the Hudson, which was clearly more friendly to the college white boy world from which I’d come, with a very large back room for a nightly orgy of bodies which I loved.
      After watching this insightful film, about Rivera and Johnson’s abilities to establish the gay liberation movement, and their attention to lost street children through their S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) housing project, and, in particular, Johnson’s attention to men and women dying from AIDS, I wish I’d stopped in more often to the Stonewall. If I had stayed longer in New York City, I now realize, I might have been one of the gay-white men who usurped the gay liberation marches which annually followed, barely allowing Rivera to even speak at one of their later events, after the terrible death of the queen founder, Johnson.
      What I didn’t know, and thousands of other gay men did not realize as well: these gay/transgender women had made all of us freer.
       Yet the Mafia, who controlled most of these Village gay bars also controlled the celebratory parades, and evidently, according to this film and Cruz’s investigations into the facts, even some of Johnson’s dearest friends, such as Randy Wicker, who later attempted to take back the gay marches from the Mafia control, had perhaps unintentionally helped to allow her violent death.
       It seems apparent that Johnson’s fears about the Mafia were behind her murder. She was just too flamboyant and popular for these mob bosses to ignore. She was a voice, clearly, that stood against their own secret control of a world which—the so-called midgets of the brutal Mafia world—it would soon become apparent, helped also, unintentionally, to kill hundreds of their bar-customers through AIDS.
       Marsha—whose middle initial, she proclaimed stood for “pay it no mind”—was beloved by all, a clearly caring individual who dressed in male and female attire daily. She/he was obviously way beyond sexual gendering with which we still today attempt to define individuals.
       This wonderful documentary even attests to the segregation of gay males and transgendered people, each marching down opposite sides of the street. Rivera’s later plea to the gay men who have captured the “Pride Parade’s” annual events, shouts to the crowd, as they booed her down, shaming them for their failure to comprehend how they are now as responsible for the police dismissal of and continual deaths of transgender or drag-queen individuals.
      I realized, while watching this moving film, that I too was guilty. As a gay man, proud of my sexuality, I had long ignored the difficulties of those who didn’t share my own sexual sensibilities.
If only I had dropped into the Stonewall more often, talked to the denizens of that small, somewhat sleazy bar, I might have discovered another world which as a young man I simply dismissed.
     Marsha often haunted the Hudson piers, which I’d heard about, but never visited, just a block away from the bar in which I regularly received sexual delight. She evidently was a force not to be reckoned with, a true adventurer who cared about the entire LGBT and now Q world which I, as a 20-some year-old never perceived.
     At one point in this film, she is reported to be visiting The Anvil, another East Side bar which I only one time visited, where I met my first lover, Dick Charmatz, then a curator at the Natural History Museum of New York, who I presume is no longer living.
      Marsha was killed, given the evidence that Cruz accumulates, probably by the Mob, but she is killed, in their total lack of investigation, also by the 6th Precinct Police Force: a kind of double murder, by the government which was supposed to protect her, and the mafia who paid off the police to protect their then-illegal sexual dens. I was there. I was one of their participants without even knowing about it. I drank their liquor; I enjoyed the pleasures offered in their illegal interiors.
     An innocent boy from the Midwest, how could I know it was all be offered up to me for the death of the individual who helped, a few months later, to transform myself into a sexual rebel? Howard and I were saved from prejudice through this man/woman’s death.
     I lived and she died, a kind of Christ-like figure. I now feel I can never forgive myself for just not stopping into the Stonewall Bar to meet her.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mauritz Stiller | Vingarne (The Wings)


a frozen icarus
by Douglas Messerli

Axel Esbensen and Mauritz Stiller (writers, based on a novel by Herman Bang), Mauritz Stiller (director) / Vingarne (The Wings) 1916

I’d already reviewed the Carl Theodor Dreyer vision of Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël before I watched the earlier 1916 silent film by Mauritz Stiller, Vingarne (The Wings) based on the same work.
      Stiller’s film, much of it now lost (the film was not even discussed in my usually authoritative World Film Directors volume nor in David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) seems much more tame, basically unable to capture the relationship between gay sculptor, Claude Zoret (Egil Eide) and his beautiful, newly discovered model,  (Lars Hanson), who is the subject for the Master’s greatest work of art, an image of Icarus—hence the film’s title, The Wings.
      In what we have left of Stiller’s version of Bang’s work, we observe little of the relationship between Zoret and his model, the reconstructed film announcing only that Zoret lovingly adopted the young man, thus making him a father to his own Icarus.
      Although we certainly witness the artist’s attraction to Mikaël, we observe little of mutual response from the young son since the passages we have left of this film almost immediately immerses us into the world of the a beautiful countess (Lili Bech), whom Zoret paints while she, in turn, attempts to entice the handsome Mikaël into a relationship.
      Predictably, she succeeds, demanding that he not only spend all of his time with her, but that they live a wild and expensive life that her lover can only afford through regular payments from his benefactor-father.
      In Stiller’s reimagining of the Bang novel, Zoret becomes a rather pitiable figure that reminds one, a bit, of the professor of The Blue Angel, desperately in love with Marlene Dietrich.

     In short, the obvious homosexuality of the central couple, perhaps due to the film’s lost sequences, is given short shrift, and thus shifts the film into a story instead about an young man who displays great ingratitude to the lover who has made his image famous, leading, ultimately, to Zoret’s death in a downpour at the base of the statue of Mikaël he has created out of his intense love for the boy.
     In the Dreyer version the boy at least feels some feelings of repentance, while in Stiller’s work he sells the work in order to feed his and the countesses’ desires. If Stiller might wish we sympathize with the artist, the lack of almost any feelings for the Master from Mikaël does not permit us much sympathy for the narrative’s point of view.
     Perhaps, in the earlier lost scenes of this silent work, we might have become aware of true feelings between the two; but as it stands, this Icarus seems less burned by the sun than simply bound by the bronze (and plaster) into which his image was cast.
     This early “gay” film has little sympathy, I would argue, for the relationship it might have portrayed. The 70 minutes which remain seem more like gossip than a film revealing any male/male connection. The young would-be Icarus is locked into the metal of a foolish relationship with a woman of pleasure, without anything else that she might possibly offer.
     Stiller would prove as a more reliable director of heterosexual romps and in his discovery of Greta Garbo.

Los Angeles, January 16, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sidney Drew | A Florida Enchantment


the seed

Marguerite Bertsch and Eugene Mullin (writers, based on the novel and play by Fergus Redmond and Archibald Clavering Gunter), Sidney Drew (director) A Florida Enchantment  / 1914

Perhaps one of the strangest of silent, pre-code films ever made, Sidney Drew’s 1914 film, A Florida Enchantment combines a series of mind-bending sexual transformations as first a young wealthy woman, Lillian Travers (Edith Storey)—about to marry her young male lover Fred (played by the director)—inexplicably swallows a seed which has apparently been sent to her by mail.
     Almost immediately Lillian is transformed into a lesbian, showing utterly no interest in her fiancée at an evening ball, and dancing off instead with a young woman who attracts her.
      Strangely, these women’s male partners also join up for a dance, only to be broken up by a man who appears to be the ball’s host.
      Lillian soon changes her name to Lawrence and begins dressing, assisted by a man in blackface—also appearing to be in drag—in male attire.
      Fred, it turns out is a doctor and is highly intrigued by Lillian/Lawrence’s sudden shift, in what today we might describe as a transgender alteration. He, aided by his own attendant in blackface, decides to test the “seed” as well and suddenly turns gay, kissing a friend of his before making the same transgender shift, soon after dressing-up in a woman’s gown, an act for which a local mob chases him as he drops into a nearby body of water.
     Whatever this “seed” possesses, it is suggested, enchants the recipients with the ability to immediately release whatever hidden sexual desires they might have long repressed, whether it be just gay or lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, or transgender affinities.
     In this short, we get no sense at all of the characters’ psychological makeup, no indication that they have or have not been long repressing their sexual lives. The “seed”—a clue that reveals it was perhaps something they were born with—is enough to trigger their radical shifts in gender identity. And, in that sense, Drew’s film says something far deeper than many later LGBTQ films say over the next several decades.

    Lawrence and his/her previous doctor friend Fred might as well have been consumed up in Cole Porter’s 1928 song “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” which suggests simply that sex is at the central issue in animal life. Only, Drew’s film goes even further, for a few seconds, suggesting that the seed implanted within us knows no bounds with regard to gender. “Falling in Love” has little to do with it; it’s simply a kind of primal drive that cannot be resisted.
     It would have been interesting if the film might have further explored this issue and attempted to explain its strange relationship to “pretend” black sexuality. Unfortunately, the film returns to the conventionality with which it begins, Lillian attempting to explain to her arriving prince, Fred, that she has just had a horrible dream.
     Nonetheless, that dream is important in what it reveals about her and his doubts about the marriage in which they are about to engage. Based on a novel and lost play by Fergus Redmond and Archibald Clavering Gunter, the latter of whom is known mostly for his popularizing of the terrible poem, “Casey at the Bat,” this work is a mischievous take on what any “one” sexuality may actually mean.
     Ultimately, we cannot feel easy with their reunification, after what we have just witnessed, and must doubt either Lillian’s or Fred’s sexual intentions. In this 63-minute work, the director has suddenly shaken up all of our standard notions of sexual behavior, forcing us to imagine what else might be available.
What has been “seeded” to each of us through birth? How might we be able to resist those forces?
Should we even desire to?

Los Angeles, January 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).