Sunday, March 29, 2020

Miloš Forman | Man on the Moon

there isn’t a real you
by Douglas Messerli

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay), Miloš Forman (director) Man on the Moon / 1999

Roger Ebert was never a more intelligent film critic than he was when writing about director Miloš Forman’s wacky but loveable work about the comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman (brilliantly performed by Jim Carrey, who won a Golden Globe for his acting); Ebert’s review begins with a near-perfect summary of Kaufman and the film:

Our inner child embraces Andy Kaufman. We've been just like that. Who cannot remember boring our friends for hour after hour after hour with the same dumb comic idea, endlessly insisted on? Who hasn't refused to admit being wrong? "I won't give up on this,'' we're saying, "until you give up first. Until you laugh, or agree, or cry 'uncle.' I can keep this up all night if necessary.'' That was Andy Kaufman's approach to the world. The difference was, he tried to make a living out of it, as a stand-up comedian. Audiences have a way of demanding to be entertained. Kaufman's act was essentially a meditation on the idea of entertainment. He would entertain you, but you had to cave in first. You had to laugh at something really dumb, or let him get away with something boring or outrageous. If you passed the test, he was like a little kid, delighted to be allowed into the living room at last. He'd entertain, all right. But you had to pass the entry exam.

     A less-talented director than Forman might have explained away Andy’s behavior as a Freudian-like response to his father, Stanley Kaufman’s haughty disdain of his son’s behavior.
     But Forman simply shows him as a kind of bully, called home by Andy’s mother from, presumably his jewelry sales job, to correct her son’s odd behavior of performing to a wall of sports-figures behind which he imagines to be a camera. My husband’s father was also a jeweler of sorts; Howard performed plays to invisible audiences with his toy soldiers in the family garage; and he too has always had a great sense of humor, so I sympathize with Andy’s childhood imaginings.
      Forman simply leaves it as that, a father trying to correct his son’s somewhat bizarre imaginary conversations with non-existent audiences. He does not present us with Andy’s early performances which began at the age of 9, but rather dives right into his life as a “failed” stand-up comedian, who, instead of telling jokes, created entertainment “situations” that questioned—in a manner that Henri Bergson, author of Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic might have approved—what humor truly is.

    Andy’s humor did not consist of one-liners but rather about existential situations. How does an audience react when a man stands upon a stage to sing only the “Here I come to save the day!” refrain from a recorded “Mighty Mouse” theme song? Is the performer still a mad child or an idiot-savant who draws the audience in by his own pretended naiveté? If you pretend that you’re an incapable stand-up comedian can your viewers still accept you as being actually funny.
     If laughter is a kind of method of degradation, a throw-back of what the audience is perceiving, why not go all the way? These were clearly the questions Andy Kaufman posed again and again, even forcing the sit-com on which he performed, Taxi, to accept the terribly bad lounge singer Tony Clifton for some performances. Latka Gravas was a fool, but not the only one that Andy had created, “thank you very much.”
     A somewhat incompetent, but nonetheless charming, Elvis Presley imitator, a serious British-sounding reader of The Great Gatsby (long before The Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz took it seriously) who reveals some of the pretentiousness of the original book which he reads out entirely to his exhausted audiences*, and a stint as a gender wrestler—battling with women whom he abuses both verbally and sexually, forcing us perhaps to see the real abuse by males everyday of the opposite sex—and yet other roles follow.
     Was Andy truly a man of spiritual beliefs, following the tenants of an Indian guru, or was that just also part of the shtick? At one point the movie makes clear that “There isn’t a real you.”
      Yet Carrey takes this role in different directions while maintaining impeccably the many personalities of his character, but yet letting us see through the veneer at various moments, as, for example, when his agent, George Shapiro (ironically portrayed by his Taxi partner Danny DeVito) suddenly perceives that the course lounge singer, Tony Clifton, is only another personae of his client (American playwright Len Jenkin, author of the wonderful The Dream Express, with the terrible lounge singers Spin and Marlene Milton, and even Bill Murray have to bow to Kaufman’s early revelations), or when he truly reveals himself as a would-be lover to his wife Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), and particularly when he contracts a rare lung disease which will eventually kill him—yet given his continual performative hoaxes few believe is real.
     In Forman’s movie the lovable Andy really does die, a frail leftover of a self so very prolific in its many disguises.  
     Who is a comedian truly? As early as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films we were asked to consider this question, and British playwright John Osborne in The Entertainer more seriously asked it: isn’t in necessary that to wear the mask of humor is to carry the mask of tragedy in ones back pocket. “Make ‘em laugh,” always ends with a wall crashing in or the comic crashing out. Carrey makes us realize that it is the very same thing.
      Actors have often said it was nearly impossible to work with the Marx Brothers because of their constant antic behavior on and off the set. Carrey today—who like Kaufman studied Transcendental Meditation, suffers from depression, and today espouses political and non-vaccination views that are not entirely popular in Hollywood—has seen his own career take a dive; few directors, apparently, want to work with him. So too did Andy Kaufman’s “man on the moon” improvisations eventually alienate him from those who previously had most loved his off-brand humor.
     Laughter, as Bergson reminds us, is also a mockery of society, a kind of intense release of hate.
Punch and Judy daily violently hit one another over the head.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sally Potter | Orlando

sleeping beauty
by Douglas Messerli

Sally Potter (writer and director) Orlando / 1994, USA 2010

Sally Potter’s cinematic retelling of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is stuffed with various explorations of sexuality, particularly concerning the role of women, androgyny, and transsexuality. But it is also a history of the United Kingdom from the death of Queen Elizabeth I to the present-day, seen mostly through the eyes of its brilliant central character (Tilda Swinton).
      Swinton as Orlando begins life as the young male courtier in the Elizabeth I court, who is so handsome and talented that the dying Queen (performed with near-perfect irony by the gay/trans woman Quentin Crisp) awards him a palace and a generous annual financial gift if he only agrees to her terms: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old."

    Somehow he magically does not appear to age and is prepared to marry a venal woman who would probably drive him crazy until he meets the Russian Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey) with whom he immediately falls in love. When she refuses his offer of marriage and fails to show up for a meeting with him under London Bridge, he undergoes a crisis of sorts which consists of several days of sleep (reminding me a little of the long day-long sleep that the young heroine of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt undergoes when she discovers that her beloved uncle is a murderer).
     Indeed, you might subtitle this film as “Sleeping Beauty.” Orlando recovers and to resolve his sorrows he takes a job as English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, yet further crises follow. Although Orlando remains a male, the addition of long male wigs during this era might almost be said to make him over into a woman, which, after another crisis which involves another long period of sleep, he finally discovers he has become. As Swinton quips: “Same person, no difference at all.”
      She now returns home as the glamorous Lady Orlando, immediately to be challenged by government lackeys over Elizabeth’s largess, since women were not allowed to own property or accept the inheritance agreements that Orlando has.
      Over a period of 50-year transitions, we see the female Orlando tiresomely having to counter court suits while falling in love with a male, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), and producing a daughter.
      By the early 1990s, when Potter’s film ends, she has nearly been worn out by battles to declare her rights of gender and the longevity of her life leads her to declare: “Today or always tomorrow I am neither a woman or a man.”
      Yet by the end “me” of Orlando that has been uncovered seems to find some peace simply sitting under an orchard tree with the daughter beside. Orlando finally has found a new outlet in writing a book about his/her history, accepted by an 20th-century editor played by Heathcote Williams, who earlier in the film, performing as the fictional Elizabethan poet Nick Greene, derided Orlando’s poetic attempts.
       The beauty of this film does not lie in its fragile and often incongruous plot, but in its dash through British history supported by the glorious art direction of Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs and the costume design Sandy Powell, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards.
     Although there’s lots to think about in Porter’s film, the transformations of all kinds visually displayed make this excellent work a bit more like the films of Sergei Paradjanov than any other British or US filmmaker. And Swinton is at every moment someone to behold. She is simply a being to admire and love, helping us to comprehend, as Potter notes, “The intellect is a quite solitary space.”

Los Angeles, March 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Harlan Thompson | Kiss and Make-Up

lovely episodes
by Douglas Messerli

Harlan Thompson (based on the play by István Békeffy (screenplay and director) Kiss and Make-Up / 1934

It’s strange that most critics completely missed the joke of Cary Grant’s 1934 film, seeing it as a romantic comedy instead of perceiving it as another version of the quite misogynistic Pygmalion. Much like Henry Higgins, Grant’s character, Dr. Maurice Lamar—at one time, so we are told by former colleague, one of the most brilliant of researchers—has turned his operating skills into a “nip-and-tuck” service, helping women with his face-lifts, creams, and exercise regimen in the manner Higgins transformed Eliza Doolittle.
      And much like the Higgins of the My Fair Lady he is far-more interested in his relationships with the male characters—in this case his former schoolmate Max Pascal (Lucien Littlefield) who is evidently creating a new wonder drug by working with, quite ironically, rabbits, and the dissatisfied husband of one of his shop’s clients, Marcel Caron, played with relish by Edward Everett Horton. Marcel wants the plainer wife he married back, and Max desires his friend to return to serious medical research.
     He treats the beauties which he has created (Paramount Studios trotted out their entire “WAMPAS Baby Stars” as Maurice’s fawning customers) like “girl” secretaries, and behaves to his truly loyal and loving secretary, Anne (Helen Mack), as if she were simply a lowly stenographer, despite the fact that we later discover she is the one who actually keeps his beauty shop in order.
     In the Pre-Code Hollywood days Kiss and Make-up is actually a very coded film, in which the handsome Grant is clearly not very interested in the women he makes over. It’s not accidental that his three males that truly grab his attention have names that all begin with “m,” himself, Max, and Marcel. Or that the film begins with the arrival in his Paris-based school of beauté of an already beautiful woman, Eve Caron (Genevieve Tobin), with his commanding her to “Take your clothes off please,” and when she does, after explaining that she’s actually there to arrange a consultation for her mother, he suddenly questions why she has just undressed. She answers: “I thought you’d be interested to see how I look without it.” “No, I’m not,” he snaps back.
       Maurice might be very interested in women’s faces and even the dimples in their knees, but he is clearly not interested in the women themselves, nor the sex they might provide him. Even the visits to his lovely apartment by some of the beautiful women upon whom he has worked—we can hardly imagine him actually crawling under the covers with them, but simply entertaining them encouragement and champagne—are referred to as a series of “lovely episodes.”
       When his Eve, having been entirely made over, now demands a sexual award for her transformation, Maurice can hardly wait to flee her company, declaring: “There’s nothing more I can do for you.” If it isn’t clear by this time that this doctor is far more interested in lifting chins and applying powder puffs, you’ve truly missed the narrative this movie provides. His kisses are all in the air, and his make-up is part of the make-over.
       Of course, in all of Grant’s films, the woman ultimately gets her man, but here Eve’s seduction of and marriage to Maurice, after ditching her more simple-minded husband, is perhaps the worst disaster of matrimony ever portrayed on film—except for perhaps what Shirley MacLaine describes after marrying the brother of her dead husband in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.
     Through her endless narcissism Eve forces Maurice to miss the banquet for the highest award by and presidency of the organization he has long sought. Grant’s character is not even permitted a full meal. His special beauty cream is slathered over her face as they attempt to enter the honeymoon bed. If the actor Grant ever wanted to go straight, he certainly has no luck with this conquest.
      And even as he realizes that he needs his former secretary Anne—who in the meantime has fallen in love with Eve’s former husband, Marcel and, in surprisingly singing out, along with Marcel, their expression love of  for “cabbage”—we’re not sure that the doctor’s capture of her will end with anything more than Henry Higgins’ demand that she bring him his slippers. His Galatea remains a thing of stone which he, and now his new office partner, Max, can dress up like all the pretty women Maurice has in the past.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Pedro Almodóvar La mala educación (Bad Education)

the dizzying past
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (screenplay and director) La mala educación (Bad Education) / 2004

There is but a few sexual differences left out (except those involving women) of Pedro Almodovars’s 2004 film, La mala education (Bad Education), which includes gay, drag, transvestite, transsexual relationships, pederasty by a priest and principal at the Catholic school of which the movie’s title hints, and later child abuse of the brother of the child the priest lusted for. Besides all that, the director includes themes concerning drugs, robbery, defamation of religious relics, bribery, and two murders. This is clearly not a comforting in world into which you, if tortured by things out of ordinary, might want to curl up.
      What starts out as an innocent love between the two schoolboys, Ignacio (Nacho Pérez), a beautiful young choir boy, and Enrique (Raúl García Forneiro) quickly shifts into a deep tale of lust and revenge. The two boys, like many adolescent males, fall in love, grope each other in a movie theater, and attempt to meet up again in the middle of the night in the school’s bathroom, where they caught by the head principal Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The loyal Ignacio even offers his body up to the priest, in a kind of odd spin of the Eucharist, if only Enrique is not punished; the offer is accepted but Ignacio’s dear friend is still expelled. As the later transvestite Ignacio says, "I sold myself for the first time that night in the sacristy.”
      From that terrible event, the movie spins out a series of events wherein nearly everyone except Enrique shift names and sexual identities almost simultaneously. The lovely child Ignacio becomes a transvestite whore, Zahara (one of three roles Gael García Bernal plays in this work), who along with her friend Paca (Javier Cámara) evidently steals her customers’ keys, money, and cars in turn for a few moments of sexual pleasure.

     Indeed, early in Bad Education we observe her attempting to roll a handsome young man who is too drunk to accept her sexual ministrations. When Zahara discovers, after stealing Enrique’s billfold, that he (played by Fele Martínez), is the same boy (the adult Ignacio is performed by Francisco Boira) she once loved, the heist is called off, as they move on to take out her revenge against the priest who so changed her life.
     Almodóvar never quite explains why the abused Ignacio has become a “fag” drag queen seeking to become a transsexual. This director rarely explains why his impassioned characters have chosen the lives which they live. Rather they shift in and out of the realities the films within a film reveal to us; or, for that matter, refuse to reveal to us.
      While Paca steals the expensive church relics, Zahara confronts the Padre about their past, threatening to publish a story she has written—like Almodóvar, she is also a writer—if he does not pay her a million pesetas—a lot of money in the Franco days, which this film stealthfully references.
      Fast forward to a moment when Ignacio visits the now successful filmmaker Enrique—who at the moment, reminding us of Almodóvar’s most recent film, Pain and Glory, is currently suffering a kind of creative hiatus—reintroducing himself as Ignacio (again Gael García Bernal), but who now calls himself Angel Andrade (a much better name proclaims the young would-be actor), has brought the story of “The Visit” to his former adolescent lover.
     The director is intrigued, particularly when he recognizes the story which this older Ignacio has given him is the tale of their childhood love. Although Enrique is perfectly willing to cast the handsome young actor in the role of Ignacio, he also senses that there is something wrong with “the picture,” particularly when the now muscular Ignacio wants also to play the role of the drag-queen Zahara. He is intrigued enough, however, to take on this Ignacio has his lover, but confused enough to visit the boy’s mother in Galicia, who informs him that Ignacio has been dead for four years from a heroin overdose.
      As Roger Ebert wrote, this is the stuff of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a spinning out of a web wherein the central character cannot quite identify the Ignacio/Ángel/Zahara whom he is now encountering.
In truth, we soon discover, he is not really Ignacio, but his younger brother, Juan, who desires to become an actor, after having his affair with Ignacio’s childhood priest who has now have removed himself from his church life to become—in yet another switch of a name—Sr. Manuel Berenguer
(Lluís Homar), who also pays a visit to Enrique to tell him the “real” truth, that after being blackmailed by Ignacio/Zahara for years, he enlisted his young lover, Juan, to kill his own brother, which Juan did by providing him with pure heroin.
      If you’re not dizzy yet, you should simply stand up on your nearest chair and jump into the delights of this movie, which like Hitchcock’s great masterwork, simply asks that you leap into its sexual confusions, significant guilt, and impossible desires. Enrique is faced with the dilemmas that James Stewart had to deal with in the Hitchcock work: is his new Ignacio a redone version of the person he once loved or a simply a murderer who has hung onto the jewelry (in this case the script and a letter) of the double of which he has become?
      Like Hitchcock, Almodóvar doesn’t answer that question. Everyone in this film is a beautiful villain, destroying the very ones they most desire. An epilogue tells us that Juan/Ángel went on to a very successful career—until it declined, and he was forced into a television series. And he murdered again, perhaps in a kind of odd revenge for Ignacio, killing Manolo/Berenguer through a hit-and-run accident after having long been blackmailed by the former priest himself.
     Oddly, all these figures are so very lovely—even the evil priest who is later, Juan’s lover—are such likable and beautiful people (the former priest describes his time with Juan as the loveliest period of his life) that you can’t truly hate them.
     I think the film’s remarkable credits and the music Alberto Iglesias explain this film; reminding one of a collaged version of Saul Bass’s credits for Vertigo, they, however, move horizontally rather than vertically, pushing together images of people and events that cannot any longer escape their interactions as Hitchcock did constantly by his endless verticality. These individuals are all trapped by their needs in horizontal time, and they cannot escape rubbing together, destroying one another in the process. Leaping, falling, collapsing into space are not allowed in the world of Bad Education. The past haunts Almodóvar’s world in a way that the vertiginous spaces of Hitchcock’s film—which strangely allowed a dreadfully aloof redemption—in a way the destructive past of the Gallaecian world by this great Spanish director does not.
Los Angeles, March 23, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Mati Diop | Snow Canon

don’t ever fall in love
by Douglas Messerli

Mati Diop and Judith Lou Lévy (screenplay) Mati Diop (director) Snow Canon / 2011

Senegalese/French filmmaker Mati Diop’s 2011 film Snow Canon is not about a French Alps avalanche exactly, but it might well be just such a statement of a psychological condition for the young woman who suddenly has been visited by an Los Angeles-based au pair who has evidently been asked to care for the young adolescent Vanina (Nilaya Bal), who has apparently been left behind as her parents attend a funeral—we never discover for whom—which she has refused to attend.
      As a young teenager, she is interested primarily in her on-line boyfriends, posting teen angst about the male friends she is encountering on-line, as well as the temporary male caretaker, Simon, who enters her home to watch over her while she awaits for the US “babysitter.” He is handsome, dark-haired and clearly interested in the young Vanina, but remains at a some-what distance, while still clearly interested in her young sexuality, gently stroking her leg while still refusing to allow her a cigarette. Thank heaven he is not an abuser.
      When we finally see Vanina’s babysitter, Mary Jane (Nour Mobarak) we realize that the innocent and sweet, slightly demonic Vanima (she intrudes upon her sitter’s cellphone) is about to experience another world.
     It starts as a series of complete innocence, the new nanny trying to remain apart, while still caring for her new charge, while, obviously suffering her own trauma through telephonic conversations, with her apparently own lesbian relationship with her resistant lover. Their love is falling apart, and, as a result, Mary Jane almost literally falls into a kind of drunken-nervous reaction, relying on her young charge to care for her.
     Vanina suddenly comes alive with her new responsibility, bathing the quite drunken babysitter and joining her in the sauna in what we can only imagine is a lesbian interlude. This young woman, on the edge of adolescent sexuality, is introduced, incredibly, but amazingly in Diop’s short film, into a new trajectory in her own sexual perception. Her imaginary boyfriend relationships on-line are suddenly transformed into a kind of lesbian perception, in which she immediately must recognize as a world she might never before have imagined.
     Diop’s films have tended to represent alternative worlds, imaginative spaces where her characters might have perceived themselves to have previously encountered. They exist in worlds that are utterly transitory. And the story of Vanina and Mary Jane represents just such a situation, a strange French Alpine space where the characters visit deep underground caves, filmed in  purple and bluish colors that signify their own alienation from the frosty and forestry environment in which in which they are existing.
     The dialogue of this film is tri-cornered into French (Diop’s native language), English, and computerese, forcing us, as do many of her films, to shift quickly through various dialogues into and out of our own dedicated linguistics, just as we need to shift in and out of our sexual distinctions and perceptions. Location is not real but cinematically created. We are in and outside of our own perceived sexual locations.
     This is not, particularly, a lesbian film, but a work which demands that we question and wonder about our own sexual awakenings.
     At 15 or 16, while babysitting (a vocation I participated in activity in those days), a young boy, coming of age at 12 or 13—a child far more sexually aware than I was—quite literally seduced me, permitting my first sexual masturbation. I should have known better, but I was, alas, more innocent than the boy which I had been hired to care for that night.
     He was ecstatic; I embarrassed if totally excited by the event.
     Diop’s profound film presents just such a situation, the babysitter entranced by the sweet-demonic child she is attempting to care for. Sex is never easy or predictable. It’s simply what happens, as Diop’s short film reveals. The two kisses quite significantly as they leave one another, obviously realizing that this was an important experience in their lives, with committing to the sexualities they had uncovered within themselves. Mary Jane even warns her young charge “Don’t ever fall in love,” while clearly having fallen in love with her the child she has been asked to care for. Vanina will, perhaps, return to her on-line boyfriends; Mary Jane will maybe encounter a new friend. But as in Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, this movie seemed a moving possibility for a future possibility of sexuality, despite its more correctly sexual encounter—the young boy in this film was conveniently of the proper age.
      Diop’s film says it all. You can’t imagine when such an encounter might occur, and you won’t ever comprehend its consequences.

Los Angeles, March 19, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Brian Knappenberger | The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

a shock to the system
by Douglas Messerli

Brian Knappenberger (director) The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez / 2020

For the last couple of days, sidelined by the almost lockdown of the Covid-19, I watched the 6-part series of what is described as a documentary work on the death the 8-year old Palmdale, California child, Gabriel Fernandez. It is a grizzly and painful work, and just perhaps as Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd described it, “another slice of tragedy as entertainment”—although I did not perceive it that way.

     If this series was a bit overlong, and somewhat “messy” in its structure—not entirely revealing actually that the true monsters, Gabriel’s mother Pearl and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, who quite literally locked up, hung up, and tortured this evidently loving child, eventually beating him to death—were punished with death and life imprisonment.
      I read the 2013 Los Angeles Times pieces, recounted daily primarily by the reporter Garrett Therolf, for weeks after the death of Gabriel and tried to wipe away the tears. I couldn’t, and Howard would not even let me share them with him. He refused to even hear of such events.
      As the accounting nurse at the time of Gabriel’s entry into a local hospital, after he had been beaten to death by the two, describes—in complete disbelief at what she and the doctors saw: his entire body was covered with welts of torture, his inner body revealing bi-bi shots into it, cigarettes were put out on the surface of his skin, a wasting of his body since he’d been locked up in a closet and fed, for long periods of time, only cat litter. And then what was worse than even the movie reveals, evidently that had been hung-up by his legs, “was forced to eat cat feces and his own vomit; made to sleep in a locked cabinet without access to the bathroom; and subjected to regular beatings.”
      The abrasions to his body were so severe that the reporting nurse could hardly write up her she and director Brian Knappenberger commiserate upon the horrors that this lovely boy had to report. If nothing else about this series is moving, it is the moving first moments of this film, in which she can hardly deal with the child’s suffering.
      Even worse, as the series moves forward, we realize that the entire social system, which was meant to protect people like him, failed. The movie makes it clear that there were so many signs, teachers and relatives reporting what they felt was abuse, which the four-charged, ultimately released social workers simply refused to accept or believe, allowing the tortuous life the young child had to survive to continue. It’s as if they turned away from their focus to accept the concept that somehow it was better for a child to live with his quite disturbed mother (abused as a child herself and as an adult mentally incompetent). There’s even a suggestion that she and her lover Aguirre received sexual pleasures in the abuse of the innocent.
      As the film’s narrator confirms:

               Everything you can think about Gabriel had went through
               of feeling, it’s your fault. Being scared every day. At that
               age you can’t do anything.

     Although the film concentrates on his unbearably painful last year, Gabriel did, in fact, have move through loving relationships with his gay uncle and his companion and, later, his grandparents, who fought with the mysterious Los Angeles Office of Childhood Protection, not even quite controllable or, evidently overseen by the powerful LA County Supervisors nor the errant Los Angeles Sherriff at the time, the now-imprisoned Lee Baca.
     The white-knight hero of this film is prosecutor, the handsome (almost Hollywood-like figure) Jonathan Hatami, who takes on this cause with a serious sense of disgust for all it represents, pushing, successfully for the death sentence—which in Newsom’s current governance means little (thank heaven, I might add)—of Aguirre. Nevertheless, he is locked up for life! Unlike O. J. Simpson’s trial, the dedicated Hatami made it work.
     The real punch-in-the-gut, however, was that Aguirre and Pearl Hernandez mostly punished this young boy because they thought him to be gay. He once proclaimed he identified himself as such and liked to play with dolls. They forced him to wear dresses and tortured him for that very fact. He was only 8 years old. He had evidently received the love of his gay uncle and attempted to reclaim his life in that respect.

     Knappenberger’s documentary does not truly deal with this, nor with the final logistical decisions Hatami accomplished, without allowing us to truly seek a resolution for such absolute punishment of a kid who was seeking to find a source of security and love in a world of absolute horror. This is a film-series I cannot ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. The Los Angeles systems of power must simply bow their head in sorrow to their ineffective embrace of protecting our most innocent and vulnerable citizens.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Héctor Babenco | O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman)

the webs we weave

Leonard Schrader (screenplay), Héctor Babenco (director) O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman) / 1985

It’s nearly impossible to even begin to describe a film made by Argentine-Brazilian heterosexual director Héctor Babenco, based on a novel by the gay Argentine writer Manual Puig, staring a many-times married British actor John Hurt as an effeminate gay man opposite a Puerto Rican macho political figure, played by an apparently gay man, Raúl Julia, set in a Brazilian prison during that country’s dictatorship, while being based on the terrible Argentine dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, with a script by American writer Leonard Schrader.
    If you’re getting a bit confused let me just add that the role of that effeminate gay man was originally to have been performed by the macho US superstar Burt Lancaster, who was rumored, according to the Wikipedia article on Kiss of the Spider Woman—unknown to me until writing this piece—to have been a notable Hollywood crossdresser!
     Let me just add that the films Molina describes to his beloved fellow prisoner, Valentin, are based centrally on Nazi propaganda films and those of his own imagination—particularly the title film about the Spider Woman—while he himself has been arrested for pedophilic sex and is offered freedom only if he succeeds to get secret information from his would-be lover.
     And if your head’s still spinning, let me just add that most of Puig’s works were brought into English by the remarkable lesbian translator Suzanne Jill Levine (whose translation of José Donoso’s Hell Has No Limits both of my presses also published). The webs this “spider woman” weaved were terribly complex, and evidently woven so deeply that all those involved simply could not escape the ties that bound them.
     Lancaster is listed as one of the producers since his age at the time forced him to bow out of the performance he desired to undertake. I wish he had; it might have been as utterly fascinating as his Felix Happer role in Local Hero or his Prince Don Fabrizio Salina performance in The Leopard. I believe Lancaster was one of the most underrated of Hollywood stars.
      The publicity and commentary on this 1985 film, moreover, is highly unreliable, most of them simply suggesting that the two oppositional prisoners—the one a true loving, but passive humanist, the other a terribly caring, but active, political figure—“form a bond,” or, even worse, “become friends.” Yes, they do both of those things, but far more importantly, the come together into a sexual relationship: in short, they fuck. This happens, not just in prisons, but every day life, everywhere when a macho being releases him or herself into sexual same-sex ecstasy, when men and women suddenly realize that they are not limited by the sexual decrees of the society at large.
      Molina’s kindness, his protectiveness, seductiveness, and self-serving tendencies finally break through the wall of the true believer and, yes they become friends, they bond, and finally they fuck, even able to share a deep kiss as Molina is released in order to further torture the man with whom he has now fallen in love.
      Given the clear brutality of the government which surrounds them—the true spiders which encase their lives—we already know the result. Desperately in love with the only man who seems to fit his endless impatient “Waiting, waiting and waiting…for a real man” the weaker Molina is even willing to join the political underground for that intense momentary kiss.
     It is, of course, the kiss of death, yet simultaneously that kiss, a bit like Snow White, brings him back to life, to commitment, to a fire in his stomach that will surely kill him but turn himself into that “real man” for which he has so long sought. Even the macho Valentin demands of him, as they part, to no longer accept the homophobic abuse he has previously suffered.
      In the end, ironically—a word that does not any longer seem to have much meaning—the previously uncommitted, now believer is killed not by the evil right followers but by the left figures to which he is attempting to provide information. In Puig’s vision there are no real heroes. Valentin himself was a modest political figure, hiding out in his girlfriend Marta’s wealthy bourgeois home. It seems to me now that he, not Molina, was the “Spider Woman,” someone involving people into his own well-meaning, but not very thought-out intentions.
      Once shot, Molina dies slowly, falling to his knees after a long perception that he has been killed, refusing to reveal anything to anyone. We don’t know what his still-imprisoned and terribly tortured cell-mate has revealed. A hospital assistant illegally shoots him up with morphine, which, if nothing else allows him visions of his beautiful, lost lover, Marta, as they cross the perfect pond of water together—an illusion that might never even be allowed in Molina’s more visceral and painful vision of the cinematic world, where women were cruel, and men so, so very seductive.
      Maybe, just maybe, in describing all the films I have discussed, I have become a kind of Molina, a spider-man who cannot totally break out of the web I myself have constructed.

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

Friday, March 13, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Queer Film: A New Perspective of LGBTQ Cinema--A Prelude"

Queer Film: A New Perspective of LGBTQ Cinema
by Douglas Messerli

A Prelude

In late 2019 I realized that over the years I had written about a wide variety, from many different countries, about LGBTQ films, and I perceived that although several such volumes had been collected in the past, that perhaps, given my “reading into” what otherwise might have seemed straight films, might be an interesting project. I have been actively gay since my early 20s and lived for several years as a nightly participant in the gay communities of Madison, Wisconsin and New York City before I met my now-husband Howard N. Fox.
         Howard and I, however, lived in a kind of special bubble as first university students, and later a professor and art curator, in which we were so accepted by our peers that we basically stopped going to gay bars or even associating ourselves with our fellow gay community members.
     Of course, there were exceptions, but our deep commitment to a basically monogamous relationship meant that we not only saved ourselves from the terrible scourge of AIDS, but we were somewhat isolated from the sufferings of the rest of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and gender unidentified friends. Over the years, Howard and I have given money to support the wonderfully active Los Angeles LGBTQ community, and, as I have written elsewhere, our very openness about our sexuality and our refusal to submit to homophobic concepts, did help change many individuals’ perception, I believe, of what it meant to be gay.
     I think that the Washington Post article about our leaving that city for Los Angeles, which identified me as Howard’s "companion," might have been one of the first of that paper’s open recognition of a gay relationship.
    And, when upon our first major evening at an event to celebrate Howard’s arrival as the new curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Howard announced me as his mate, the heterosexual crowd was forced to recognize us in a manner many of them had never before encountered. Our first outing at LACMA’s rather Brahmin director, Earl “Rusty” Powell’s, dinner parties seated me, as is standard in such gatherings, next to the director, while Howard was seated next to Rusty’s wife, the typical husband/wife / male/female placement.
     Over that first year, moreover, we were invited out almost every night to all the wealthy Beverly Hills and Westside homes as a couple. And in that process I believe we lost our connections to the gay world. Yes, there were friends, present and past, who were gay, but they almost faded into the distance as we were so utterly accepted and apparently appreciated in the heterosexual communities into which we had now entered.
       While there was something warming and transformative about this new communal relationship, I also felt, deep down, we were losing something as well. Howard and I had very few friends who died of AIDS, while all around us LGBTQ people were dying of the disease. I believe we only once visited a gay bar in the then vibrant West Hollywood community, and this with a wealthy gay patron; at another time we visited a gay restaurant with another art patron, Bob Halff.  But we had hardly any involvement with the larger Los Angeles gay community. I am certain my straight editor Pablo Capra knows more about the history of regional LA gay bars than Howard and I do.
      But perhaps while we effected a significant change in the heterosexual perception of gays of which we were both proud, I also missed the literal connections with the LGBTQ community, which I think I secretly sought out in attending and reviewing so many works of queer theater, literature, and film.
     Complete assimilation has its drawbacks. Although I may have hated the somewhat nasty, often self-hating gatherings of gay men in the late 1960s, there is something I still miss about them: the clever language and quick-thinking it demanded, the separation it enforced from the general society, and just the camaraderie it offered with always, just behind the screen, the opportunity to enjoy sexual pleasures, it proffered.
     So when I realized that I might put together a rather large volume of queer film, I felt it not just as a contribution but as a duty to the community I felt we had lost. More importantly, I realized suddenly that I needed to publish this volume, as much for myself perhaps rather than any palliative commitment to the LGBTQ community which I’d inexplicably lost.
     It’s fascinating that this volume was being created at the very same moment in which I was composing a My Year volume centered around Trump’s horrifying vision of “Them and Us.” I realized that, in this situation, I was both an insider and outsider simultaneously, a critic looking outside but living within. I could be somewhat objective while still attending to the intricacies of what it meant and had meant to be seen by the general society as an outsider.
     I am sure, despite our easy acceptance into the endless societal events we attended, there were, behind our backs, numerous aspersions and homebound dismissals, and I also recognized that those loving Howard’s curatorial ventures sometimes treated me as if I was his “hair-dresser” husband, not as a formidable thinker I truly was. Only at the tough age of 72 have some of these now elderly folks perceived me for who I then was. Many of them, unfortunately, never read. Yet the longevity of our commitment to one another, now 50 years, speaks to them more strongly.
     I needed to put these queer film essays together to help express my own identity.