Monday, June 29, 2020
love until death
by Douglas Messerli
Gregg Araki (writer and director) The Living End / 1992
Through the introduction of a gay On the Road-like journey by two HIV-positive young men, Luke (Mike Dytri) and Jon (Craig Gilmore), an early favorite of “New Queer Cinema,” director Gregg Araki has created a fresh film that challenges ideas of love and survivability in one of the darkest times in gay history, the time of thousands of deaths from AIDS.
Several critics titled this work a gay Thelma and Louise; yet I would argue except for the act of two individuals getting into a car and driving through the US landscape without a true destination, Araki’s The Living End has very little in common with Ridley Scott’s 1991 film.
From the beginning these two have established to one another that they are both in process of dying, and, although several early scenes reveal Luke as a quite violent person—or perhaps we should say, as an individual who suddenly perceives himself as having the freedom to be violent or anything else he wishes to be, given his newly-discovered sentence of death—these two do not go about robbing stores or other establishments, despite the fact that Luke might well be willing too. Moreover, unlike the friendship that develops between Thelma and Louise, these two become desperately in love with each other, drawn forward, in part, out of the adventure of their having come together as a loving couple, as opposed to Thelma and Louise’s straying from the delimits of a closed-off society and an unloving and restrictive husband, these gay males move forward out of a kind of enchantment with one another, Jon, in particular, addicted to the craziness of Luke the way a one approaches a new lover in the search of discovery of who that being truly is.
Most importantly, these two, even though they might have thoughts of it, do not end up in a double suicide, as Louise and Thelma did in their willing drive off a cliff in the Grand Canyon. As Araki’s tile insists, even these mortally dying men cannot destroy one another, and will surely go on living to live throu all the pain and suffering that most gays and others struck-down by AIDS did. And that is precisely the point here, their love, by the end of the film, is stronger than death— stronger even than urge to now do anything they might wish without real punishment, w Luke argues for, since they are themselves already being punished for their previous sexual behavior.
If comparisons must be made, and I’m not sure they are even necessary, I’d suggest a more comic film of odd-couples who grow to love one another, while also traveling through new territory, such as Bringing Up Baby or What’s Up Doc? all overlaid with a strong dose of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.
Certainly, in this film’s early scenes, before Luke has encountered the film-critic Jon, we are made witness to a Los Angeles that is as outrageous as West’s fiction. Attempting to hitchhike his way out of town, Luke is picked up by two women, one apparently transsexual, Daisy (played by the always brilliant actor Mary Woronov) and Fern (Johanna Went, a heterosexual, a lesbian, or just a maniac murderer on the run, we’re never certain). Fern, angry with Daisy’s flirting with the handsome pickup, points a gun to his head, while Daisy recounts somewhat like the Peter Lorre figure does the many murders of Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and old Lace. When Fern, attempting to take a roadside piss encounters a snake and Daisy goes running to help her, Luke absconds with the car and her gun.
He doesn’t get far, encountering a flat tire. Despite his continuing attempt to escape the environs of Los Angeles he is constantly returned to the city, where this time he witnesses an S&M couple, she with whip in hand, pulling a shopping cart in which sits her humiliated lover. Later in the film, he and Jon oversee a violent fighting husband and wife using their car as backdrop outside of a Ralph’s grocery store. When the gay couple ask them to break it up, the arguing pair turn on the car-owners, demanding to be left alone. And these are just a few of the glimpses we have of a clearly apocalyptic landscape that is not so very different from that of West’s.
By the time Luke finally meets Jon, he almost seem to heave a sigh of relief in finding a handsome man who is in a somewhat similar situation to his own, as the two dive into bed for what appears to be ecstatic sex.
Even here, however, Luke has not quite tamed his demons, and is ordered to pack and leave by the more conservative and timid Jon, who if nothing else has a loyal and beloved friend—what gays used to call a “fag-hag”—in Darcy (Darcy Marta), a short-haired painter who has a live-in male lover whose hair is much longer than her own.
If Araki can be accused in this early part of the film as using a great many stereotypes to put us “in the mood” so to speak of what is about to happen, it is I would argue quite justifiable. For by the next day, Luke not only reappears at Jon’s apartment doorway, but admits that he has now totally “fucked up” in shooting and probably killing a policeman.
We know now that certainly some magic has happened between the two of them, when they quickly both jump into Jon’s car, finding themselves on their way to San Francisco, where Luke claims to have a friend who who put them up for a few days.
After the long drive, with many pit stops along the way, Luke admits that he not only does not know the name of his so-called friend, but does not have the address. Yet the two do find the row house where, where an elderly man comes to the door, while Luke attempts to make recontact with him, trying to remind him of a two-or-three-year-old sexual encounter. The man quickly closes the door, leaving Luke and Jon without a place even to shower and perform their toiletries.
Somewhere outside of San Francisco they find public showers, enjoying their new-found cleanliness. Jon calls up Darcy, but hardly is able to explain to her not only where he is, but why, and to where he might be going. It is, for him, like a kind of heady dream in which he has no sense of reality—but isn’t that what love generally begins as, a dream you cannot otherwise describe? But she, of course, is worried for him. This is not the Jon she knows, and for the rest of the film she smokes cigarettes with her phone placed just a few feet before her. Unable to provide her lover, Peter, with any sexual relief, he thoughtlessly leaves her, now without friend or lover, completely alone.
For Luke and Jon it is now a journey into the heart of darkness, an American landscape of horrible sites and consequences wherein the natives make logical sense about as much as Luke’s stop-and-shop meals, served always with heavy glugs of whiskey. The two not only don’t know where they’re at, but where the might be going. Cheap motels and open space, accompanied always with intense sexual encounters between the two of them, seems to keep them fueled for what might have been an endless journey where it not for Luke’s continued near-insanity and his always latent violence, which is aimed now only at empty bank machines.
When Jon again attempts to call Darcy, this time at her expense, Luke mugs throughout most of time, finger-writing on the dirty phone booth (this is, you have to remember a 1992 movie) “Luke & Jon are in love forever.”
Jon, it is clear, has finally accepted the absurdity of their voyage, but when he begins showing further signs of his illness, coughing sometimes endlessly, and after yet more imbecilic actions by Luke, he finally determines to return to his previous reality. Luke, always the rebel, understandably mocks it, but Jon is in control of his car and believes he might still be in control of his own destiny.
Depositing themselves yet again onto the turf of Los Angeles, the last scene is played out under the iconic 6th Street Bridge that connects downtown LA with East Los Angeles.
There in the sandy stubble under that bridge that makes it look as if they have landed in the some unknown desert, Luke, angry for their return to reality, seriously pistol whips his friend, pulling him closer to the car and, when Jon comes out of his temporary coma, rapes him, the gun cocked into Luke’s his mouth, ready to go off the second he cums.
“So do it already,” shouts Jon as he nears his climax, almost passively now awaiting the death of his beloved friend.
Sex is completed, but the gun remains silent, Despite all of his stated convictions, Luke too has honored some semblance of the past, if it is nothing else but an instinct for survival.
His logic now completely spent, Jon walks away, perhaps to return to some kind of normality.
The camera pauses before we see his legs on their return to Luke, as the two, clearly still desperately in love, hug and hover over a landscape of nothingness. Luke’s phone box message has spoken the truth that these two dying men will now together to face their ends.
Since we are all in process of dying, it is apparent that any deep love keeps us together until the end.
Los Angeles, June 29, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).
Sunday, June 28, 2020
love takes a thousand forms
by Douglas Messerli
Chrissta Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann (screenplay, based on a play by Winsloe) Leontine Sagan (director) Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) / 1931
As J. Hoberman wrote in The New York Times the other day, reviewing the new Kino-Lorber restoration of the 1931 German film, Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform), the film was am subtle intertwining to two themes: the fascist-like government of Prussia at the time these young girls were almost locked away within the walls of the Empress Augusta boarding school and the fact that these young girls were slowly being exposed to lesbian life by both their own attractions to their fellow school mates and through the beauty and gentleness of one of their head governesses, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck).
What takes this film in a slightly more sexual direction results from the night smooches von Bernburg plants on the foreheads of the girls under her direction, making an exception with her new charge, Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertha Thiele) by kissing her goodnight on the lips. It is apparent that this kind teacher sees that the girls she is attempting to educate all need a bit of special loving, particularly the forlorn and quite terrified Manuela, who has lost both her beloved mother and her father.
That does not mean that these young girls do not have sexual fantasies about Fräulein von Bernburg and one another. Like the girls in Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour written only 3 years later, in which a young boarding-school girl either imagines or recognizes that the two headmistresses are having a lesbian affair.
Manuela, given a new undergarment—one of the teacher’s own, when it is discovered that the girl’s shift is in tatters—takes this as a further sign that the head governess most especially loves her, revealing this, almost unintentionally, after she successfully plays Don Carlos in a school production of Schiller’s play and, afterwards, is made drunk by the punch, spiked by the school cooks.
In both the British schools and in this Prussian institution, such same-love feelings, if revealed, result in particular punishment, including ostracization and expulsion.
These attitudes, clearly, and yet another set of values embraced by Frederick the Great—whose statues, as Hoberman puts it, “litter the institution”—and by the Prussian sensibilities in general. These girls are not only punished for the slightest of infractions, but are underfed: as the heartless headmistress remarks: “the fatherland needs people of steel,” suggesting that hunger will transform the young nubile girls into machines that will help the country to survive.
When one young girl, Ilsa von Westhagen (Ellen Schwanneke) attempts to smuggle a letter to her parents, complaining of how little they are fed, the post is returned for improper postage, and she is banned from performing in the play, denying her one of the few moments of joy for her and other girls.
When she finally recovers from alcoholic stupor, brought on by the spiked punch, Manuel is not only told she will now be expelled from the school, but she is guilty of a deep sin for which she will never be forgiven.
It is finally here, in the scene where Fräulein von Bernburg challenges the headmistress, asking her “exactly what ‘sin’ committed, and stating her view that "What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms."
She herself is almost fired and is certainly diminished in her role as teacher in the headmistress’s perception. But the elderly headmistress does finally relent, ordering the young Manuela to simply be isolated from all others for a period of time.
When Manuela hears of this from von Bernburg’s own lips, she runs off. Missed by the other students, they finally gather in a kind of rebellion (which Hoberman suggests by even have influenced Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct) in their search for Manuela.
They find her at the highest point of the high stairwell, having crossed over the bannister and ready to jump. As they quietly talk her down, embracing her in their midst, von Bernburg explains the ruckus to the seemingly unforgiving headmistress, suggesting that the girls themselves the institution from a surely damning scandal if the girl had actually jumped to her death. The last scene of the headmistress, skulking back to her office demonstrates that this crone of sorts has lost all power over the students of her institution.
In reality the girl on which the film’s Manuela was based, attended the earlier play by Christa Winsloe, the source of this film version,, with a serve limp she had developed after she actually did jump from the heights of this cursèd school.
The film was a great hit in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, while the US threatened to censor it, finally showing it only with a great many cuts, which just now have been restored. The Nazi government later banned it and its many actors, who were most Jewish, either escaped or were killed in the concentration camps.
I should add that I saw this film on the Kinomarquee, which collaborates its showings with film theaters across the nation, allowing some of the rental sales to be paid to theaters in your city. I was so very happy to help Lumiere (which, when Laemmle Theaters closed down the Beveraly Hills Music Hall, was purchased by some of their employees, allowing the venue to continue showing excellent movies.
Los Angeles, June 28, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).
Saturday, June 27, 2020
tomorrow may be different
by Douglas Messerli
Crisaldol Pablo (writer and director) Bilog (Circles) / 2005
The poster for Filipino director Crisaldo Pablo’s 2005 film Bilog (Circles) looks as if it was one of the counterfeit porno films that the hero of the work, Cris (Archie de Calma) daily sells—along with candies, perfumes, fruit, beaded necklaces, and even crude drawings of wedding dresses, in fact almost anything anyone visiting the vast Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City of Metropolitan Manila might desire, including desire itself.
The somewhat corn-ball structure of this film—at the beginning of the movie, Chris has just been robbed in a jeepney he is riding by men who are now each holding knives to this throat; and throughout the rest of this rather longish work, he re-imagines his last few days to help him explain why this is happening to him, certain, he believes, to be his last moments on earth—doesn’t exactly allure us into the film we’ve just begun. And along with the poor visual quality of the cinema itself, and its fast-shifting repertoire of a vast number of characters perhaps explains why mine will be apparently the first and only review for a while of this work in the US.
Yet, Pablo’s film is so much complex and dramatically significant than all of these simple flaws that one also wonders why this film has not become a kind of underground cult favorite. In Chris’ world, fruit sellers, business-men-and-women out to enjoy the nearby park’s deep shadows, prostitutes, both male and female, who hide in the depths of the park, and just plain naïfs having just arrive in the Philippine capitol directly from small isolated communities, as well as numerous others come together to ignore or encounter one another.
Moreover Chris is not just a simple con-man carrying his large canvas bag of tricks, but is determined to help these individuals find housing, love, and acceptance in a world where such tangibles and intangibles are nearly impossible to find. For a small percent on a loan, he’s ready to personally take on one of the earliest country boys whom he rubs against, the beautiful Deo (Keno Alejandro), who has followed a smart and savvy female social activist to the city, personally escorting him to a kind of flea-bag dormitory, where men live three to a room, sharing bathing kits (which consist of little but a pan and soap) and even bed-space.
Yet, Chris has knowingly bedded this new straight boy with two gay men, in particular the serious-minded Rod (Rudolph Segundo), negotiating a smaller rent for Beo with the hope, it appears, that he may one day have sex with him. Yes, Chris is gay, but not the handsome young men with whom he surrounds himself without ever throughout the film being able to fulfill his desires. As Pablo’s closing theme song puts it (with lyrics by Pablo and music by Ato del Rosario): “I’ve gotten used to failed relations.” Yet, for all of Chris’ seeming cynicism, the same song ends “Tomorrow may be different.”
Throughout the film we see Chris interacting with dozens of individuals, often taking advantage of them or simply accepting their dismissals of his peddling services; yet he knows a broken heart or, just as importantly, one soon to be broken when he sees it, and is often willing to zip up his bag of tricks and work, often without a fee, to help fan the flames of desire.
One such figure whom he takes under his wing, is Rod, who has put his own life—and his gay sexual urges—on hold while he works as a office boy for a company head who later, as has a recent government communique, openly remarks that fags are a true danger to the society. He works in a world from which he has locked himself away, rejecting the temptations every desire and sex, or even a simple beloved mango for breakfast, so that he can save up enough money to send it back home to help out his ailing brother (who eventually dies of stomach cancer), his other brothers and his mother and father, none of whom, he suggests, seem to be able to care for themselves.
Chris argues that he should at least release his forbidden desires once in a while, if not daily. With Rod eventually does when Deo, discovering that the girl of his dreams—who incidentally has tried to make him realize that there can be no relationship between the two of them—seeks consolation, after Chris clears the room of the other boarder and any want-to-be voyeurs, in intense sex with boy.
When Deo himself becomes a kind of apprentice-activist, the story focuses on others of Chris’ friends and enemies, the latter of whom keep him out of the house they own and away from visiting other clients. The friends seem increasingly to made up of male prostitutes who find clients in the park or, when it closes at midnight, on the street.
One of the most handsome of them is Paolo (Rezíven Bulado), who has apparently contracted AIDS, and who a couple of times Chris saves from jumping from freeways and other dangerous spots. Paolo, however, eventually enters the park late at night, strips off his clothes, and from the top of one of the park buildings, jumps to his death.
At other times, the entire community, fruit sellers and gay boys equally, are accosted by police raids, one of which leaves one of the seller’s young daughter almost dead as, left alone after the police have arrested her mother, she wanders out into traffic. She is saved by a local doctor.
Yet good things also begin to happen. A doctor who daily comes to the park on her lunch break, reencounters her former lover, who has everyday since she has rejected him returned to the same spot with the belief that eventually she will return; their love is reignited.
Two warring mango sellers, forced to rush away from yet another police raid, help each other, one knowing of a place where they might temporarily hide with their wares. Simply out of appreciation for the help of the other, the least comely of the two women unexpectedly kisses the other seller, who admits that she rather liked the kiss, hinting that these to former enemies may become lesbian lovers.
Deo again runs across the joyless Rod, and tells him of his love for him, and his desire to again have sex.
Even Chris is “saved,” as a wedding dress obviously meant for one of his would-be customers, which has floated out of the jeepney in which he is being held captive, is spotted by some of his customers and protégés who quickly catch up with the jeepney and demand that the doors be opened, allowing for his escape.
Pablo’s film, filled as it is by lost souls, also reveals that just the smallest bit of love and dreaming for them changes everything. As poor and desperate as most of these individuals are, “tomorrow may be different” as they circle round one another in search of their desires.
Los Angeles, June 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).
Thursday, June 25, 2020
finding their way in often hostile worlds
by Douglas Messerli
Sam Feder (director) Disclosure / 2020
Documentary director Sam Feder has done something special with his 2020 film titled Disclosure.
For one of the first times on film, he has brought together a rather large number of trans women and trans men—an opinionated, sometimes angry, but always well-spoken group of actors, directors, historians, and others involved in TV and film, including Laverne Cox, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Billings, Jamie Clayton, Chaz Bono, Alexandra Grey, Yance Ford, Trace Lysette, Jazzmun, Mj Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Elliot Fletcher, Brian Michael Smith, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Zackary Drucker, Lilly Wachowski, Ser Anzoategui, Zeke Smith, and Leo Sheng—to help explain to the some 80% of US citizens who have never met a transsexual person what their lives were as they were growing up and, later, transitioning, and how they continue their lives today.
There are so many interlinking issues and specific examples here that I would be loath to name all of them without seeing this film at least 10 times. But we can summarize the major of them.
One of the most painful of this groups’ experiences is that, particularly in transitioning, they were greeted on subways, busses, and even in the streets as beings for the general public to laugh at.
Indeed, they argue, being transsexual has always, in the American consciousness. Been seen as cartoonish, ridiculous, and simply funny. After all, those comedians who used transsexual tropes such as Flip Wilson and Milton Berle—while often fascinating to these young and confused sexual beings while growing, with them perhaps even a bit fascinated how and why these men would so readily don dresses and imitate the gestures of the opposite sex—they quickly grew to comprehend that for US citizens the very idea that a man might actually, temporary as it was, become a woman, was laughable, something so ridiculous that the bark of hostile laughter (as Henri Bergson, in his book Laughter, might have put it) was the only way they could imagine to respond.
There was always, in the American heterosexual (cis world, or individuals who were happy with her birth sexuality) an absurdity in the transsexual attempts to transform themselves into beautiful women or handsome young men (both which many of these figures truly are), particularly among feminists who mocked their applications of heavy makeup, lipstick, sometimes extravagant wigs and hair additions, since man feminists were working against, in their minds, these very feminine stereotypes.
When these transsexual figures, moreover, actually had the opportunities to play out their true sexualities on the screen—and despite the fact that major roles, such as in Transparent were still reserved for heterosexual men and women playing as if they were transsexual—the roles centered primarily on murder and/or fatal diseases. One of them recalls how she, quite by accident, performed as a transsexual woman in movies back to back, being done away with similarly in each film. They took the work simply because there was such a dearth of roles in which they were encouraged to audition for.
Many were particularly angry about Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game starring a truly beautiful transsexual woman, Jaye Davidson (who was nominated even for an Academy Award), but who, in the script, after revealing herself to her naïve and somewhat confused heterosexual lover (she had previously given him a most fulfilling blowjob) had to endure his rush to the bathroom and insistent vomiting, as if her very presence was suddenly something that was so unbearable that he could literally not stomach it.
Jordan, at least, somewhat redeems himself by allowing the relationship to continue and, after the male character takes on the guilt of a murder the transsexual lover committed, suggesting that the two may someday, when he is finally released from prison, take up a serious relationship with her.
Some transsexuals, given their inabilities to find substantive roles went into what they describe as “Stealth” mode, portraying heterosexual women so successfully that, although they lived with bated breath, were seldom questioned.
Two years later, however, comic-actor Jim Carey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective took the trope even further after discovering the woman he loves is transsexual, not only profusely vomiting, but scrubing out his mouth, and brushisg his teeth in absolute disgust. One might argue of course that Carey and his screenwriter were also satirizing the scene in The Crying Game. Yet, nonetheless, it signaled to US males that such behavior was absolutely necessary after having been, in their minds, “tricked.”
Although these actors do not mention it, by 1998, 4 years later, in the highly sensitive film that deals with AIDS and numerous other such issues, after Dennis Quaid seems to take an interest in the transsexual Alec Mapa, she quips, “I may be a fabulous looking broad, but I got a penis. This ain't no disco and I don't want no "Crying Game" drama.” In fact, his encounter with her is simply an assigned acting lesson. But she still gets her wry vengeance:
Lana: That was quite a story. Right enterainin’, but Sugar
I don’t know who you think you’re foolin’
Hugh: What do you mean?
Lana: Lana may be three sheets to the proverbial wind,
But I don’t believe a single word coming out of
your pretty, straight, little mouth.
Indeed, for a group so lied to throughout their youths and young adult lives, illusion is something these women and men—despite the endless accusations of heterosexuals that they are living an illusion—immediately see through, the pretenses of the general society at nearly all moments, and judge the early attempts of Hollywood films and TV to be pitiable failures that functioned against their own attempts to define themselves.
And many of them also equally bemoan the fact that when they were finally invited to speak on TV talk shows such Jerry Springer and even Oprah, the conversation always began with a discussion of “cutting” or even hiding their penises, instead of speaking about their outward appearance or even their daily lives. At least Oprah eventually changed the focus of her concerns.
When it comes to suggesting cinema and TV works that truly meant something to them, they strangely enough seem to agree upon the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs, performing an opera, suddenly is transformed into a beautiful version of Brúnnhilde in Chuck Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc? with whom even the rabbit hunting Elmer Fudd falls in love.
Other seminal films, such as Paris Is Burning of 1990 and the 1968 film The Queen (both of which I reviewed in My Year 2020 and in my forthcoming collection Queer Cinema).
Several named a more unlikely favorite, Victor/Victoria, in which a supposed male plays a transsexual, who is actually a heterosexual woman. But even here, they point to a moment which seems to have to be repeated in many films in when women, transsexual and heterosexual had to reveal their “true” identities by pulling open their blouses to reveal their breasts.
Those females who have transitioned into males, they argue, are still underrepresented in the media, and few American citizens even realize that they exist. One of the reasons, according to Chaz Bono, that he appeared on Dancing with the Stars, despite his self-perceived inability to dance, in order to represent this aspect of the community.
Perhaps one of the most shocking of some of their observations is that, despite their desire still be accepted and sometimes loved by the straight community, the more transsexuals who rise to success, the more violent are the actions of some people in relationship to everyday transsexuals.
In a sense, the heartfelt revelations and observations of these individuals are a brilliant introduction to the transsexual world, helping, one can only hope, each of us with little previous knowledge of their lives, to come to recognize them not only as gifted participants of our society but as a group that needs—particularly in this time of hostile actions by the government and president (who has just declared that transsexuals will be taken off the medical insurance roles during a time when they may most need it, during the coronavirus pandemic)—our support and friendship. Fortunately, the Supreme Court did just that, recently ruling that they too are protected from discrimination at their working places.
If Feder’s film is but a sampling of transsexual issues, it is at least a fine introduction which will help us to begin seeking fuller understandings of the entire LGBTQ community.
Los Angeles, June 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
cheesburgers and new shoes
by Douglas Messerli
Peter Morgan (screenplay, based on his stage play) Ron Howard (director) Frost/Nixon / 2008
Our current national “leader,” Trump, occasionally likes to compare himself with Richard M. Nixon, especially when it comes to issues of “law and order.” But as Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction quietly reveal, Nixon, although often a narcissist, was much more uncertain about everything about which Trump is certain. And, although Nixon also felt that even an illegal action when it was done by the President, became automatically legal, he had far more doubts about his behavior than Trump could ever imagine. No one ever denied, moreover, that Nixon was an intelligent man. And most importantly, unlike Trump, Nixon actually had a glimmer of a conscience, which is the theme of this chronological telling.
Although escalating the Vietnam war, and with the help of Kissinger, moving it into the then-peaceful country of Cambodia and, obviously, ordering up the botched robbery of the Democratic Washington, D.C. headquarters, which eventually grew into the rubric described as the Watergate affair, Nixon actually accomplished some important things, including ending the draft and establishing an all-volunteer military force (for the negative effects of this, see my comments on Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods); he founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which, in turn oversaw the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (all of which Trump has worked hard to abolish); his administration dedicated $100-million to begin the war on cancer, including the creation of cancer centers throughout the country; with Title IX he opened up the possibility of women playing collegiate sports; he oversaw the peaceful desegregation of southern schools, and, with the 26th Amendment, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18; he authorized the FBI and Special Task Forces to eliminate organized crime; he was the first president to give Native Americans the right for self-determination and returned their sacred land; and in appointing Nancy Hanks as the first active leader of the National Endowment for the Arts, he strengthened that institution significantly.
On the international level, he participated with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; and, of course, he was the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China (see elsewhere in this series of My Year titles my essay on John Adams’ Nixon in China), where he worked to develop open and normalized relations with that country.
These achievements, however, are to not at all to whitewash his continued involvement with the Vietnam war nor his and his associates’ labyrinthine attempts to bend the democracy he was supposedly representing for his own personal attempts to get reelected, and which ended in his resignation, which is where Howard’s film begins.
I mention his successes only because, after tentatively agreeing to four interviews, the last dedicated to Watergate, Nixon himself laments to his aide, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) that with the discussion of the Vietnam war and Watergate, he will have little time to discuss any of his achievements.
Cambridge-educated David Frost, if once thought of as a budding journalist, was in 1974, the year of Nixon’s resignation, was then working in a kind of reality show in Australia, touting the miracles of a manacle man who could magically escape even when placed, upside down, under water. Although perhaps still loved by the masses, Frost was scoffed at as a “talk show host” by most serious journalists.
How Frost ever even had the temerity to call Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) to set up an interview, is almost unimaginable. But having just negotiated a good advance for Nixon’s own biography, Lazar perceived how desperately his client wanted a more immediate way of correcting the record and bringing him somewhat closer to normalcy.
He knew he dared not take on an interview with the hard questions Mike Wallace or any of the other serious network interviewers might have posed, while Frost was seen as a lightweight, who would probably lob a few friendly questions that would allow the former President to create a forum for his rehabilitation. Calling Frost (Michael Sheen) back, Lazar got an outstanding advance for a TV interview of $600,000, made even more astounding by the fact that Frost had not yet found any network supporters, and the first payment of $200,000 probably came out of his own pocket.
Already on the airplane to Washington, D.C., Frost reveals his frivolous nature by picking up a young woman, Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), who stays with him throughout the rest of the film.
Meanwhile the team of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) attempt to comprehend Frosts’ strategy without much success, since Frost himself, is seldom there, running after possible funders as insignificant as the manufacturer of “Weed Eater,” only to be turned down again and again. The three strategists, accordingly, imagine questions that Frost might ask, while one of them plays Nixon, attempting to answer them as the former POTUS might. At one point, when they attempt to engage Frost for the evening, he instead runs off the a movie preview—a film-fantasy which he himself has produced.
Without any advertisers or other methods of support, Frost convinces the networks such as BBC and his Australian station to fund the interviews themselves, thus holding control over all future rights, which he assures them will be substantial.
Frost begins the first interview with a rather intriguing question: “Why didn’t you, Mr. Nixon, just burn the tapes?” But the tricky Dick Nixon (played by the marvelous actor, Frank Langella, whom the make-up artists did not even attempt to transform into someone that looked like the real man), turns the question on its head, in a long rambling answer arguing that, actually, Johnson had set up the taping system in the White House, which did actually allow its occupants to speak without having to call in a secretary, and were, perhaps, just too difficult to uninstall.
Another question, “What gives you pleasure, Mr. Nixon?” allows the criminal to ramble on endlessly for the rest of the allotted time about issues such as his daughter Julie’s marriage, etc, etc. Frost has simply lobbed empty questions that take him nowhere.
Still, somewhat self-assured, and refusing the intense advice his strategists provide him, Frost nonetheless begins the second session a bit more successfully, by insisting that Nixon explain why he extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia, killing thousands, and turning a previously peaceful people against the US. A short but powerful video follows.
Nixon, however, simply justifies the attacks arguing that the Cambodians had guns that eventually would make their way in Vietnam to kill young American boys. Answering a straw man’s response that he wishes that the Americans had previously taken the gun away that killed his son, Nixon insists that his only regret is that the US had not gone into Cambodia earlier. Checkmate no. 2.
The third interview, not even as memorable, does not go much better, and Frost is now being generally presented in the press as a patsy. The Australians pull out of the deal to broadcast the tapes, and there is a possibility that England may follow.
Totally despondent, Frost cannot even suggest what he might want for dinner when his girlfriend rushes out to the local Tiki bar to bring back food.
When the telephone rings, soon after, Frost picks it up to answer “a cheeseburger.” That sounds good answers the voice, who is Nixon calling him at moment of deep despair and somewhat dunk. For the next several moments Nixon bemoans his own inability to ever be appreciated for his political talents, arguing that men “like them” never are truly recognized for their abilities no matter hard to they attempt to prove themselves. Projecting upon the Cambridge graduate who nightly parties with singers, Playboy girls, and other celebrities, and is still beloved by a large swath of his audience, Nixon continues to group his sense of failure with Frost.
When Nixon finally hangs up, it is as if Frost has suddenly awaken to his responsibility, reading all of the files that his strategists had created for him, and calling up Birt in D.C. to ask him, after previously refusing, to check up on the Colson communication that the staff-member believes in in another Washington library.
Frost stays awake, the entire night reading, with Birt, having hit the payload, returning to give Frost and him just enough to arrive the house where they are filming the interview, just before Nixon does, a bit late. Nixon refuses to even shake Frost’s hand.
As the two sit, Frost whispers that he will begin with last night’s phone conversation, perhaps putting the former President off guard. Yet Frost makes no mention about their telephone conversation, but immediately launches into the heart of the Watergate events, demanding to know whether or not Nixon knew of the attempted break-in.
As expected, Nixon blames it all on H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who he claims orchestrated the robbery without his knowledge.
Yet this time, Frost is prepared, and quotes tape after tape, and finally the letter Nixon had personally written to Colson, demonstrating that Nixon not only knew about the events ahead of time but was involved in paying off anyone who might point to the three of them.
The enultimate intense scene is worth quoting:
NIXON I’ve always maintained that what they were doing, what we were all doing was not criminal. Look, when you’re in office you’ve gotta do a long of things that are not, in the strictest sense legal, But you do them because they are in the greater interest of the nation.
FROST: Wait, let me get this correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations the President can decide what is best for the nation and then do something that is illegal?
NIXON: I’m saying when the President does it, it is not illegal.
From there Frost demands an apology from the former President of the country, insisting that its citizens need such an apology.
Brennan quickly interrupts the interview, taking Nixon into the next room to warn him about what he might be admitting, but Nixon rejects not facing up to Frost’s request, and returns to admit that he is sorry for what he has done, that he has not only let the people down, but let down democracy.
Obviously that admittance of guilt is what everyone had sought and presumed they would never hear out of the mouth of Richard Nixon.
Frost, finally, has won the debates, and temporarily rises, briefly, as a new kind of hero. Although as the film rider suggests, he never did anything in his journalistic career that could match this moment.
Yet the screenplay adds a kind of gentle ending, as Frost and his girlfriend travel down to Nixon’s sea-side home at San Clemente just to say goodbye, giving him a present of the pair of Italian shoes, worn by Frost, which Nixon told his associates was too effeminate.
After a few more words, their guests turn to go, with Nixon shouting after, “Did I really call you the night before the final interview?” “Yes,” Frost responds. “What did we talk about,” asks the nervous Nixon. "Cheesburgers," answers Frost.
If Howard’s cinematic structure is rather simplistic, and Morgan’s script—as many critics have argued—too fictional in its content, director and author still have created a suspenseful tale based simply on one man asking questions and the other answering. We might even imagine that in those first three first interviews, the friendliness of Frost’s questions led, in that final interview, to Nixon letting down his guard, resulting in no way out of a deeply-held guilt which needed to be released not only for the health of the nation, but for the survival of the man himself.
Los Angeles, June 24, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
love and sausage
by Douglas Messerli
Alice Wu (writer and director) The Half of It / 2020
Alice Wu’s film The Half of It, from 2020, might easily be dismissed as yet another coming of age comedy-drama about discovering oneself suddenly as part of the larger LGBTQ community. Depending upon the writers and directors, such a realization can either be confusing and painful, as in David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen, or a far easier transition, supported by fellow students, as in Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove.
The Half of It visits neither of these extremes. The central figure in Wu’s film is simply a well-adjusted young Chinese-born American girl, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a bit shy perhaps, but so intelligent and capable that she has not only taken over her father’s duties as a train station master, while he continues in near perpetual mourning for the death of his wife. A straight A student as well, Ellie earns extra money, mostly to pay the electric bills and other family needs, by writing most of the local football players’ English essays.
Her teacher, Mrs. Geselchap (Becky Ann Baker) well knows what is going on, but almost appreciates Ellie’s plagiaristic interactions for allowing her to read intelligent essays instead of the drivel the males of her classroom might have otherwise produced. A graduate of Grinnell college, in a small town in Iowa (I’ve been there). The teacher insists that Ellie should apply there, knowing that with her grades and work ethic, she would most certainly be accepted. But Ellie cannot imagine leaving her small town of Squahamish because of the dependency of her father (Collin Chou).
One day, however, a new figure comes on the scene in the form of another football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), who does not want her to write a paper, but a letter, in particular a love letter to the girl in which he has fallen in love, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of the local church deacon of the church where the “heathen” Ellie plays the organ.
Ellie, at first utterly refuses. But Paul pleads so charmingly—and the new electric bill is three-months overdue—that before she even realizes it she is involved in a Cyrano de Begerac-like bargain with the eager young man.
After a few letters (not just one, the terms she had originally dictated) and some speech lessons for the not-so-bright Paul, he insists that he should now meet with Aster, who has responded to the letters positively by texting.
But Ellie argues that he is not yet ready, and works with Paul far further than she had committed to. Finally, at the first meeting, he is disaster, not knowing how to respond to a book which Aster has traveled to Portland’s great bookstore Powell’s to give him as a gift. But Paul cannot even make everyday small talk, and the two sit, in an out-of-the-way restaurant—necessary given her father’s religious strictness—both extremely uncomfortable with each other’s company.
Obviously, there needs to be further lessons in simple conversation, and further letters—at one moment Ellie, in her description of Aster, describing the girl’s six variations voices so eloquently that we know that she loves Aster far more than the enthusiastic Paul, who merely appreciates her beauty.
Meanwhile, Ellie and the viewer begin to perceive aspects of Paul which, despite his rather inchoate way of expressing himself, is actually quite loveable—especially when talking about his life-time dream of creating the perfect sausage taco.
Chasing away those rowdies from the school who have previously mocked the determined, badly dressed and virginal Ellie, the two become friends, Paul’s mentor and father both try Paul’s current version of his sausage, against their suspicions about it. Amazingly, and despite the carboard-like texture of the taco (we’ve all had those store-bought taco shells, which I continue to hate, while Howard willingly accepts them.), both agree that the sausage is tasty, and before long Ellie is also writing nearby food critics, which Paul has previously tried but failed to attract. Soon after Paul has begun working in the kitchen with Ellie’s father in an attempt to discover new versions of sausage.
Paul’s second meeting with Aster succeeds only a little better than the first, she suggesting that the two talk, this time, about everyday things instead of books. Paul is convinced that their conversation has gone on beautifully, but Ellie, listening in, knows, as we know that Paul is still no natural charmer.
Yet he is so exited that the encounter that when he observes both Aster and Ellie in the crowd for a football game, wherein the Squahamish is already down 49 to 0. Catching, almost by accident, Paul runs the ball across the goal post, putting the team, at least, the score board which, apparently, has not occurred for an exceptionally long time, and turning Paul into a bit of a local hero.
After accidentally discovering Ellie’s letters addressed to local food critics, he rushes forward to suddenly kiss her—evidently her first kiss—unfortunately at the very moment that Aster is standing at the doorway. Ellie rushes forward to try to explain to Aster that the event is not at all what it looks like.
At the school amateur concert—mandatory for all seniors, and despite the fact that Ellie’s performance is preceded by the popular school jock, Trig Carson and his band, Ellie plays a simple guitar song of her own creation, wowing even those who have previously made fun of her.
Aster even invites Ellie to her home, but quickly suggests they take a ride in her car to Aster’s “favorite secret place,” a hidden hot spring, where she suddenly gets undressed and enters. Ellie, fully dressed in bib overalls and terribly colored long johns, gradually joins her, with Aster eventually pulling off Ellie’s clothes. For a few minutes, the girls enjoy the warmth of the sun and pool and, we gather, one another’s company.
This is perhaps the only suggestion that there might be a budding lesbian relationship between the two. But it is never reiterated, and is only a hint at what their friendship might mean to each other.
Back at the church the next day, the self-enchanted Trig is asked to lead the group prayer, but takes the time, instead, to ask Aster, in front of all parishioners to become the perfect wife whom he has been seeking.
The confused and quite passive Aster is clearly about to say yes, until first Effie, from her high location in the organ loft quickly registers a protest, soon followed by Paul’s again somewhat incoherent, rambling about why it would not be a good choice.
Aster’s father and his religious associates, unable to comprehend these deniers, ask Trig to proceed, but this time Ellie truly speaks out, descending her loft position to report before everyone that it is she who has written all Trig’s assignments for years, and attempting to make it clear to Aster that she is better loved by others, both herself and Paul.
Suddenly realizing who has really written Paul’s letters, Aster breaks away, moving down the church aisle, stopping only to slap Paul’s face for his outright lies.
Ellie, despite her inclinations to stay with her father, has indeed applied to Grinnell College and has been accepted. As she is about to travel off to Iowa (to a town as small almost as Squahmish, but, at least, filled with college students) she encounters Aster one last time, the beautiful and beloved girl admitting that she perhaps had always suspected that the beautiful letters she received were penned by Ellie. She announces that she has applied to art school, news that makes Ellie quite happy for her.
Ellie prepares to go, but suddenly turns back to kiss Aster full on her lips, insisting that she will be back in two years to discover what then might happen between the two.
It becomes fully clear that Ellie now has come to accept herself as lesbian and that, just perhaps, that the rather clueless Aster may eventually recognize her own sexuality.
In a movie she has previously attended with Paul, Ellie mocked the lover running beside the train to say a last farewell to his girlfriend. She well knows trains, she insists, and no one can actually catch up with them.
But now Paul—who has come to her father’s station to see her off—runs after the train in which Ellie sits. Unlike Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, we know that there is no chance in a million years that Ellie will sweep the running would-be lover into the car with her. For she now knows herself, and like Gertrude Stein writes in her great opera The Mother of Us All, realizes that “Men Are Such Poor Things.”
Earlier, Ellie’s father has insisted that he will keep the boy busy for years, testing out new versions of pork and sausage.
Wu’s film is handled so deftly, that even when nothing seems to happen, we recognize it as representing absolutely everything that’s profoundly important about life. This film won at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature
Los Angeles, June 23, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).