Friday, July 31, 2020

Giorgos Lanthimos | Άλπεις (The Alps)


DANCING THEIR DREAMS TO THE GROUND
by Douglas Messerli

Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (screenplay), Giorgos Lanthimos (director) Άλπεις (The Alps) / 2011, USA 2012

For several years now the Greek film director Giorgos Lanthimos has been creating a series of dystopias, visions of society created by those in power or others outside and hidden from the general society that may be seen by their creators as different kinds of utopias—a world wherein a family’s children are sheltered and protected from the perceived excesses and breakdowns of the general society (Dogtooth); a society in which all beings find perfect mates who deeply share their interests and patterns of behavior (The Lobster); or where a woman who has literally served as a dress designer’s model and has been somewhat psychologically “made over” by him can turn the tables, so to speak, helping to transform not only the balance of power between them, but to help him discover new ways of living (The Favorite).
      The trouble with all of these seemingly utopian visions has long been perceived: when people in power or who are secretly enacting their imaginary transformations of others, they generally do not take into account the true feelings and emotional well-being of those for whom they seek “better” lives; and their own attempts to enforce the betterment of the society around them is quickly perverted by their own misconceptions, psychological quirks, and failures to emotionally respond. In order to keep their children locked away in the paradise they imagine their have created, the parents of Dogtooth must lie and pervert natural desires, even going as far as to create false languages so that their children cannot even interpret the would outside of their domain; the dictators of the world requiring people to find their perfect companions mistakenly assume that love is determined by similarities instead of differences, or even more wrongly assume that marriage is the central defining joy of life; the former model who would achieve some level of control over her dominating lover’s life can do so only by serving him poisonous mushrooms that temporarily endanger his life by creating nausea and fever.
       Lanthimos' 2011 work, also part of this series, deals more with a somewhat hidden team of would-be do-gooders. The group, which during the course of the film come to call themselves The Alps, have taken on the cause of helping people whose loved ones have recently died by “replacing” themselves as the daughters, sons, husbands, wives, and other relatives who people have recently lost.
For a small fee, they learn of the habits, conversations, and friendly sexual relationships of the recently departed beings, parroting them back, generally without emotion, to family and friends. Often, they play out, again and again, over days, dramatic moments in the beloved dead ones’ lives: the discovery, in one case, of a young girl in bed with her new boyfriend, a sexual liaison a dead man had with a wife who was about to leave him forever, etc.
      The well-meaning goal of these seeming therapy encounters is to help the grieved more quickly come to terms with their loved ones’ deaths. It never seems to strike the doctors, nurses, coaches, and others who play out these charades that by extending the relationships beyond death they may be, in fact, refusing the important process of forgetting, of letting those who have disappeared from their family’s lives go more quietly into death.
     Moreover, what the director shows us behind the scenes of this group is their own personal demons intruding into the lives of the dead ones and their families. As Roger Ebert correctly observed in his September 2012 review:

Not a single person in the film points out the absurdity
of its [the Alps’] premise. We don't get to know the clients
very well, but we watch the Alps members as they train in
an empty gymnasium. In particular, we follow a gymnast
(Ariane Labed) and her trainer (Johnny Vekris), as they
work on a routine involving her dancing with a long ribbon
fluttering at the end of a baton.
     She does this (very well) to classical music, but when
 she asks to change to pop music, he tells her he will bash
in her face if she questions his authority. We find it is
no idle threat. This brutal relationship has no apparent
connection with the grief therapy of the Alps, which
otherwise consists largely of memorizing dialogue.

      Need one mention that the Alps themselves are not so mentally stable? Later in the film the gymnast, convinced that she will never be allowed to dance to pop songs, attempts to commit suicide. Her friend, who has taken the moniker of Monte Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia), a nurse in this group,
attempts to convince her trainer to allow her to perform to something other than classical music, which he agrees to—but at a cost. The nurse must carefully trim his hair before having sex.
      Indeed, Monte Rosa seems to be required to participate and sometimes refrained from engaging in sexual activities, including with clients. At other times team members are punished by the leader, Mont Blanc, for the smallest of infractions, including drinking from or allowing others to drink from each of their assigned coffee mugs.
      Monte Rosa becomes the center of Lanthimos’ drama, moreover, when she becomes infatuated with a dying tennis player (Maria Kirozi) brought to her hospital in serious condition, apparently from a car accident. At first she attempts to convince both the girl’s parents and the patient that she is getting better.

       But when the girl dies, she suggests to the family that sometimes her group allows team members to take on private clients, and slowly worms her way into their household.
     In fact, the idea of taking on “private clients” is totally antithetical to the Alps’ methods, and surely is one of the multitudinous rules that control their players’ lives.
      Yet, the nurse goes even further, inviting the former tennis player’s young boyfriend to her house, where they have sex, Monte Rosa announcing to her elderly father that he is her new boyfriend.
     Predictably, Mont Blanc follows her to the tennis player’s family home, later suggesting a heavy baton with an apparent light at the top will define her punishment for breaking the rules, which will mean her ouster from the organization if the light turns red.
     There obviously is no light at the top, and redness of which he speaks is created only when he smashes the object into her eye, around which she herself must later sew stitches to prevent infection and help it to heal.
     Now nearly completely ostracized from the tight society she previously inhabited, she then shows up at the dance club her father attends, grabbing the woman with whom she has seen him dance as her partner and, in surely one the strangest dance scenes ever performed on screen, quite literally draging the woman through a kind of deathly tango, finally depositing her on the floor.
     A final attempt to regain entry to the tennis player’s home duing which she breaks through the patio window before she is escorted out by the girl’s father, ends with a protective barrier rolled down so that she can no longer ever again enter her strange vision of a paradise—a home and life which she apparently never had of her own.
     The gymnast, meanwhile, has brilliantly come alive in her new role of dancing to pop music. Even her trainer seems utterly pleased with her performance; but we recognize by the somewhat salacious grin on his face, that her future with the Alps will surely cost her something which she may not yet be ready to pay.
     The trouble with utopias is that they are inevitably imagined by human beings, earthly beasts who are all so terribly flawed.

Los Angeles, July 31, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Jeffrey Schwarz | I Am Divine


whatever happened to harris glenn milstead?
by Douglas Messerli

Jeffrey Schwarz (director) I Am Divine / 2013

When on-line Netflix announced the availability of a documentary on the film and theater actor, singer, and stand-up comedian/audience abuser Harris Glenn Milstead I almost passed on seeing it. Just from the previews I seen, this was pretty much a “talking heads” work, stuffed with mostly blurred and dim archival shots gathered by director and producer Jeffrey Schwarz.  
     Did I really need to review, moreover, yet another gay documentary, most of which concern men and women who were unjustly ignored in their lifetimes or, despite their notable achievements in other fields, were harassed and punished for being a member of the LGBTQ community? Milstead was neither.
    True, as a young effeminate male growing up in Towson, Maryland (a family pediatrician warned his mother Frances that their son was “demonstrating too many feminine traits”) he was daily beaten outside his school—surely a bit of an overstatement (I too was waylaid by sadistic schoolmates on my way home from school, but if I remember honestly, it was only 3 or 4 times)—and like so many beloved mother-loving sons, when he announced to his mother and father that he was gay and had long been active in homosexual activities, they banned him from any future visits to their home, a decision which Frances later lamented.
     Of course, I’m being a bit deceptive about what I’ve said above. Harris Glenn Milstead was hardly unknown, but as the larger-then-life performer Divine had entered the consciousness of most individuals of the 1960s and 1970s by playing outrageous drag queen who was raped by a giant lobster (Multiple Maniacs), herself raping several young women under her matronly care in an long-running Off-Broadway play by Tom Eyen (Women Behind Bars), a forlorn woman who had a love-affair with real kisses with former teenage heartthrob Tab Hunter, and a gun-toting female who absolutely lived up to the moniker of the “filthiest person alive” (Pink Flamingos)  actually chewing up freshly released dog feces—an act provoked by his then director and former childhood friend John Waters which the actor later regretted, if nothing else because it was what most came to define him by later audiences.
     I first realized that Divine had entered the national consciousness when one day my then-companion, now husband Howard came home from teaching at the University of Maryland quoting in a perfect Ballteemoran accent “If my husband don’t get me those cha-cha heels, I’m leavin’ him!” (Female Trouble).
     Besides the larger than life persona Divine represented someone so outlandish and outre that even his imitations of the bellowing Elizabeth Taylor stolen from her roles in Butterfield 8, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Reflections in a Golden Eye seem like a purring siren.
And how could anyone forget a 300-pound man highlighted by eyeliner that climbed his forehead reaching for the heavens while the rest of his body was poured into a bright red tight dress that slithered down the outlandish mounds of his hips to gather his legs up into rush towards the earth, impeded only by what fashion writer Emma Hope Allwood describes as “an explosion of tulle fishtail” dotted with a few rhinestones, along with, to prove she means business, a handgun in her outstretched left paw?
     And who’s kidding? Those talking heads, who include director Waters, actors Hunter and Holly Woodlawn, and Dreamlanders and Cockettes such as Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, and Peaches Christ might snap the heads of any interested star-watcher. Together they tell the tale, as Nikola Grozdanovic, writing in IndieWire summarizes, of a person who suffered “lifelong struggles as a homosexual man who loved to dress up in women’s clothing, a pothead who wanted to devour everything in front of him, and an actor desperate to make Hollywood appreciate his talents… carefully balanced by his emphatic energy, altruistic love for people and all-encompassing generosity for those dear to him. What Schwartz succeeds in conveying is a complete picture of a flawed human being who was divine in much deeper ways than the most familiar one.”
     Later in his career, even his mother became a fan, particularly when her son played the much tamer Baltimore housewife in Waters’ Hairspray, wherein Divine’s subdued performance received praise from even the often-trenchant film critic Pauline Kael.
     Of all his traits, it appears to be his utter kindness and gentleness that most defined his off screen and stage existence. And late in his life, Milstead struggled against conventional agent-logic in order to escape his foul-mouthed impersonation by performing as Harris, the actor behind  Devine’s well-documented talents.
      Most of the figures who describe him also make clear that despite the power of his drag performances Milstead remained very much a gay man, not, as it may seem to many, as a would-be transsexual. He loved men, says Woodland, and laments that he had “many a handsome lover who made me jealous.” Even the twink porn star Leo Ford had a serious relationship with Milstead for a period of time. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the volumes of My Life, I once had bathroom sex with Ford in Los Angeles.)
      Finally, Milstead was offered a short stint on the television series Married with Children, playing a role closer to his true self. The night before he was to show up to the studio the grossly overweight actor died of a massive heart attack.

Los Angeles, July 30, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Jafar Panahi | سه رخ‎ (Se rokh) (3 Faces)


an observer of his own secret art
by Douglas Messerli

Jafar Panahi and Nader Saeivar (screenplay), Jafar Panahi (director) سه رخ‎ (Se rokh) (3 Faces) / 2018

You might describe the great Iranian film director Jafar Panahi as a kind of master of deception. Despite his 20-year ban from making films, he has managed to produce a number of cinematic works that subtly transform his personal activities into films that while, dodging the issue of making a true motion picture, still ask all viewers the important question of just how and what a movie means.
     In one work, This Is Not a Film, Panahi stayed entirely within the confines of his apartment and the building in which it exists, using the camera and even his cell-phone to document his interchanges with family members, his lawyer, and even a  delivery boy, not to forget his large pet iguana. In another, the director hires himself out as a taxi driver, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, (it’s important to quote the full title, since he debunks the notion of Panahi as a filmmaker, centering his role instead on his taxi-driver existence) who picks up famous and not-so-famous riders whose various conversations determine the structure and themes of the film.
     Compared with these early works, his 2018 work, 3 Faces, seems absolutely expansive in its range of territory. Like his previous films the characters in this piece are precisely who they claim to be: Behnaz Jafari is a famous TV actress, Panahi is a noted director, and the young woman they are seeking, Marziveh Rezaei, is a would-be actress who has been accepted by a noted Teheran acting school, but whose family—particularly her brutish, misogynistic brother and the husband and his family, who we never see—are violently opposed to her desired career, refusing to allow her to leave their isolated village on the side of a mountain in rural northwestern Iran, where the natives mostly speak Azeri-Turkish.
      What brings Jafari and Panahi to this isolated region is a cell-phone message, sent originally by the young girl to Panahi, but directed to the famous Jafari. In the filmed message, the girl is seen apparently on the verge of committing suicide because of the family restrictions and the fact that although Marziveh has tried several times to reach the actress, she has received no answer and no reprieve from her desperate situation.
       In the last few frames of this message the girl seemingly hooks a noose to a large wooden outcrop within a hidden cave, and leaps to her death.
       After watching the cellphone message which Panahi has shown her, the overwrought Jafari jumps into his car, demanding that they travel to the region bordering Azerbaijan, abandoning without notification the important final scene of her series.
        Jafari insists that she has never received a message from the girl and, although admitting that she often changes phone numbers which she passes on to friends, insists that if any of her acquaintances received such a message they would have notified her. She also suspects that the film may be a fraud, and that Panahi himself may further be involved since we once suggested she play a character in a film about a suicide. In short, the director has already created a sense of drama and suspicion which is at the heart of any good film.
       Moreover, when they finally arrive in the area, driving on dirt roads that narrowly wind through the region—at one point encountering a native who demands a series of honks from the car, evidently a way in which those also on the road know you are approaching and whether or not your travel upon the road is or is not urgent—they reach their destination where, after visiting with the mother and her nearly insane son (the mother is forced to lock him away in his room in order to attend to her guests); meet with Marziveh’s close friend; and, we soon find out, collaborator; and investigate the supposed location of the girl’s death they discover the girl is safe and in good health, hidden away in a house that lies a ways outside the village.
     Jafari is furious with the girl, striking her again and again for her lies and forcing her travel the long way while putting her own career in danger. But as the two outsiders attempt to turn back to Teheran they are met with yet another impediment, a large bull who is dying in the center of the road whose owner refuses to kill him because of his long-time service as a stud-bull, impregnating hundreds of heifers, a new batch of which will arrive at the local market the very next day.
     Frustrated by these several issues, Panahi, playing a very patient but somewhat stand-offish figure—for example, he watches the fight between the girl and the actress without intruding, and later refuses to be drawn into Marziveh’s plight—turns the car around with Jafari’s insistence that they must return to help the girl in her situation.
     Despite Panahi’s rather straight-faced non-involvement in the shooting of somewhat comedic “movie,” we nonetheless realize that a cameraman (Amin Jafar) is hiding somewhere just outside of the frame and the supposedly “reality-based” documentary has, indeed, begun with a kind of fiction. If this is not a film, we can only ask, what is it?
      In fact, 3 Faces is kind of cinematic decoy where the two central figures experience a sometimes dramatic and often inexplicable on-the-road encounters not only with the would-be actress, her family, and friend, but a head-on collision with another culture, where a woman sleeps in her own grave and a man asks Jafari to take back his recently circumscribed son’s skin to bury it in a place that will bring him a good education and career.
      If nearly all the villagers are acquainted through their cell-phones and TV satellites with Jafari and know of Panahi’s forbidden films, they hilariously think that the two have been sent to them by the government to help them to obtain what they desperately need: a new road, a doctor, better cell-phone reception, etc.
      Time and again the two visitors are invited to stop, chat, and share tea and other local delicacies; yet Jafari and Panahi, in a hurry to settle the matter with Marziveh, shoulder on with the director sleeping the night in his car while Jafari bravely walks back into the village to call her studio director and plan a second visit of the girl’s family when her father, evidently far more moderate than Marziveh’s brother, has returned in the morning.
      By the time Jafari reenters the girl’s home the next morning—with Panahi once again disavowing any role in the transaction (“women are better at this,” in offhandedly observes)—they have both learned of the fates the woman of this region face if they do not go along with the self-proclaimed laws dictated to them by the village patriarchs.
      Marziveh’s friend recounts a time when, frustrated with the narrowness of the road, she attempted with shovel in hand to extend the road a little to enable a small turn-around, male village leaders insisted it was not work for a woman to do. The home in which Marziveh is hiding belongs to an actress, poet, and dancer Shahrzad, once famous for her appearances in Iranian cinema, who was shunned by the villagers upon her return and pointed to as an example of how women ended up after such a career. Marziveh’s mother is terrified that if the men discover that her daughter has stayed in the house, the men will burn it down. Shahrzad, as some critics have observed, might almost be seen as a 4th face, except we never see her except from a very far distance.
      Panahi’s passivity might be explained simply as a ruse to appease the Iranian censors, suggesting it is not he who is controlling any of these events, but the others who have created the drama. As in his taxi driver role, he is here just a driver taking Jafari to where, sometimes contradictorily, she desires to go.
      Yet, finally, when Marziveh’s brother, locked outside of his house, grabs a brick from a nearby wall, directly threatening the director sitting quietly in the automobile. Even here, however, Panahi remains in a passive role, rolling up his window and exiting the car to move a distance away.
      In a brilliant cut to the final long scene we see the damage on the car’s front window that that brick has rendered. The car is moving back toward Teheran with both the director and actress in the front seats. At the place where they must honk for safety’s sake they are told by three long honks that something more important than their flight is on its way.
       At that moment Jafari, leaving the car, insists she needs a walk, and heads down the dirt road for a long distance before, from the back seat, the young student actress calls out and runs toward her, the first time we perceive that Jafari has obviously been able to negotiate the girl’s freedom.
       The arriving vehicles of trucks are the promised bellowing heifers, obviously on their way to encounter a new stud bull—or you never know in this strange place, perhaps the resuscitated earlier bull. Panahi must wait a bit longer as the girl, desperate to become the next generation’s famous actress and her famous savior walk forward into the distance and out of sight.
       The would-be director has lost his film’s heroes to the acts of their own volition. He is but a delivery man, who in the capitol city will later drop them off for the activities that will continue to define their lives. For Panahi, we recognize, such a role has been stolen, leaving him as a mere observer of his own secret art.
        At the Cannes Film Festival, this observer received the award with co-writer Nadar Saeivar for Best Screenplay.

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

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Cheryl Dunye | Janine/She Don't Fade/Potluck and the Passion


a welcoming embrace: three movies by cheryl dunye of the 90s
by Douglas Messerli

Cheryl Dunye (director and actor) Janine / 1990
Cheryl Dunye (director) She Don’t Fade / 1991
Pat Branch and Cheryl Dunye (writers), Cherly Dunye (director) Potluck and the Passion / 1993

There is something terribly comforting about watching black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye’s films. It is almost as if she greets her viewers at the gate of her own being, like it were a house into which you are immediately invited.
     I am not suggesting that she simplifies or sanitizes the issues of sexuality which these films discuss; but, particularly for those who might be a bit frightened about lesbianism, not to say the racial concerns her work sometimes calls up,  Dunye simply prepares the viewer for what the film is about to show us and the implications of what her work means ahead of time. A bit like the playwright María Irene Fornés, particularly in Fefu and Her Friends, Dunye not only directly introduces many of her films, but invites the audience into the various rooms of her house, the kitchen, living room, bedroom, and sometimes even the bathroom, where we get various perspectives of the action which her actors have already outlined, often sharing with us how they see the characters they are about to perform. Even my unknowingly racist mother, fearful of alternative sexualities, might basically have felt comfortable in watching Dunye’s seemingly amateur videos.
      One of the earliest of this period in her career, the 1990 work Janine is a monologue in which the narrator lights two candles, filmed in color, before she begins her basically black and white framed tale (the black narrator Dunye sporting a white T-shirt) that, in fact, is about a black and white teenage relationship between herself and a fellow student, Janine with whom she played basketball of Mercy of Mary Academy near Philadelphia.
     Janine lived across the “main line” in the wealthy neighborhoods Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd side with a working mother who drove a BMW, whereas Dunye grew up in far more rustic circumstances in Philadelphia. Although Dunye has sought out the relationship with the blue-eyed, blonde Janine, she admits that, even after they had seeming become friends, there “always was a constant struggle.” “I felt insignificant,” she suggests, and wanted to be more…well white.”
     One incident speaks volumes, as Dunye describes that after a basketball practice she showered in Janine’s house, putting shampoo directly onto her hair, when her friend, observing the act, intervened: “That’s so wrong. We don’t do it that way.” Later, Janine would offer Dunye her used clothes as if her friend’s mother couldn’t afford to properly dress her.
      As she grows older, Dunye begins to perceive her sexual difference, visiting lesbian bars and, always off campus, gradually moving into sexual relationships with other women. Finally, in the 12th grade, Janine’s friend reveals to her that she is lesbian. At first, Janine seems quite at ease with the fact, but later calls to tell her that she cried for a long while after. Finally, Janine’s mother calls, suggesting that she will pay for Dunye to visit a doctor to help her with her problem.
       That ended the relationship between the girls. Yet Dunye felt, justifiably, that Janine and her mother had had the last the word, and sometime later, on a Thanksgiving, called her up, only to be reminded by Janine’s constant mention of the great times they had shared in school—few of which Dunye recalled since her mind had far more centered about her own sexual issues—her “dear” friend from the past announcing that she was now living in Washington, D.C. where she had a $30,000 job and, like her mother, drove a BMW. Several times, apparently, she mentioned to Dunye that she is soon to be married. But the final straw was when Janine brought up the fact that several of their fellow female students had had babies out of wedlock, which Janine felt was a sin.
       Slowly we observe, the two candles lit in the first moments, have now gone out. The narrator has finally realized, with a new self-confidence, that her life and Janine’s have gone in quite opposite directions.
       It is the simple frankness of this confessional narrative that puts all the weight in Dunye’s court, leaving the seemingly perfect Janine looking like a somewhat mindless bigot. The happily ever-after life that Janine is looking forward to will never be as honest, robust, and exciting as Dunye’s life, of which the short film itself is testament.
       The director’s 1991 film, She Don’t Fade hints of what that more exciting, complex, and richer life might entail. This time Dunye plays a character named Shae Clarke, a 29-year-old who explains her role in the plot, such as it is, of this brief presentation of the vagaries of love, and, as she will also in other works, allows the other actors to also explain their characters to the audience. The self-declared “dyke yenta” friend of Shae’s, Zoie Strauss, however, gives the first abbreviated lowdown of the story “about the wild world of lesbianism” where Shae first meets one woman with whom she develops a nice relationship. The video camera, very much presenting this as a cinematic event, even shows the two having a kind of lifeless sex in bed—which Zoie has described as “getting down and dirty. If fact there is absolutely nothing “dirty” about the artful presentation of two woman having sex as the cinematographer maneuvers them into position. Everything in Shae’s life, including her new job as a street vendor and the woman whom she has just met seems to be going extremely well.
      That is, until taking a stairs to a pedestrian bridge to her own apartment she meets another woman going down and falls desperately in love. Without even knowing who the stranger is, Shae breaks up with the first woman, desperately seeking out the other woman who path she has accidentally crossed.
      At a party attended by both her lesbian and gay male friends, Zoie suddenly points out a woman across the room and both Shae and the woman she has seen on the stairs are quickly swept up into a relationship which looks to be more long-lasting than the previous one, particularly since their unbridled sex scene is far steamier than the earlier “staged” coupling.
      It is, as Zoie has told us from start, familiar territory even in Hollywood films: someone falling in love only to quickly find someone else who she loves far more intensely; isn’t that, after all, the story of the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr film, An Affair to Remember? So Dunye seems to ask, what’s the big deal if its two women instead of a gay man and a woman who played basically prim and proper women (twice as a nun)? Haven’t we now just entered through a back door into a far tamer version of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures?
     Dunye’s even more complex The Potluck and the Passion, which is truly closer to Fornes’ work. To celebrate their 1st yet together, Dunye and her friend decide to invite a select group of each of their best friends, most unknown to one another.
     The funniest pair of these luncheon guests are a lesbian couple living in New York who travel down to the couple’s home without having the proper directions and losing their way several times while attempting to buy their contributions to the potluck in convenience stores along the way, only eventually to eat most of it when they again become lost. They arrive after nearly everyone has dined and made friends with one another—a white Janine-like woman who has brought along a black lesbian woman she has just met responding to her friend’s interest in another invitee by storming out of the event at the very moment the stragglers finally enter.
       Perhaps, however, we should describe her departure as the beginning rather than an ending, since the girl she has dragged along finds not only that she has a great deal in common with another interloper, who has brought a long a delicious spicy chicken dish, but so enjoys the entree that she insists she must watch the other prepare a new batch. In fact, we might argue, the potluck is only the beginning as it leads into a night of new passions, of relationships and deep friendships these women have quickly developed by simply being brought into the hot-house atmosphere of Dunye’s and her lover’s welcoming embrace.

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

Friday, July 24, 2020

Eliza Hittman | Beach Rats


i don’t know what i like
by Douglas Messerli

Eliza Hittman (writer and director) Beach Rats / 2017

If one ever needs a clear definition of what the Q means in the updated LGBTQ sexual/gender gathering, Eliza Hittman’s 2017 film is a good place to start. As the hero of this film, Frankie (Harris Dickinson) says time and again when asked about his sexual interests—in the case the pick-up girlfriend Simone (Madeline Weinstein)—and the middle-aged and elderly men with whom he connects many a night—“I don’t know what I like.” Standing in for the Q in the rainbow moniker, this cute, somewhat hunky, Brooklyn boy is not only constantly questioning his sexuality but feels “queer” in the most general sense, a being who does not fit in to any of the various societies in and out of which he slips.
     Indeed, the three “buddies” he daily hangs with on Coney Island boardwalk are twice specifically described by him as being “not my friends,” a strange locution which they tolerate, perhaps believing that he is coding to others that he and his “beach rats” are more than friends, when he is actually speaking a kind of truth, obliquely suggesting that the three homophobic thugs with whom he hangs out each day, and with whom he apparently grew up, are at the heart of his sexual confusion. For them, he self-justifies, he is forced to seek out his sexual encounters each night, hoping to score some weed or other drugs for their daily pleasure.
      For them, Simone, who flirts with him one day on the beach, has to become, given his buddies’ expectations, his girlfriend with whom he nightly “scores”—although the truth is something far different, as he toys with the idea of a sexual relationship with Simone, abusing her verbally, after what seems to be a necessary intake of cocaine, when he finds it difficult to sexually engage.
     When, at one point, she asks him “Am I pretty?” his mocking retort of “Am I pretty?” by pointing to himself, becomes something more than mockery as in his own self-loathing he seems to truly to be questioning his own beauty, made far more complex by the fact that the on-line computer customers with whom he makes late-night appointments are older, a tactic he uses to make certain that the his “buddies” might never meet up with his those with whom he has sexual encounters. We cannot help but wonder if Frankie might not be for happier with a young man of his own age whose beauty is as obvious as his own. Or, as critic Sheila O'Malley puts it in her Roger Ebert review: “Yes, I wanted to tell Frankie to go find a local LGBT center and get a new tribe of more accepting friends.”
      Eventually Simone perceives him as being too much of a “remake” or “upgrade”—as if he were a living room she would have to remodel—for her busy life. At least she has a job. After a night with his various male companions Frankie hangs out in a local vape shop to watch the professionals blow rings through the air—somewhat like one might watch bubbles being blown out of a pipe or the weekly Coney Island fireworks, which Frankie declares are unromantic because they are always the same, but still uses as the opeing image on the homepage of his computer.
      Yet Frankie’s inability to break through his torturous enigma is precisely Hittman’s point. His “queerness” is not merely sexual, but a product of his feeling out of place even in his own life as a member of a working class family with a father dying of cancer who lies on a hospital bed in the middle of their living room, a mother (the excellent actor Kate Hodge) whose former good looks have been turned into a vision of an exhausted woman who badly needs her hair done, and a sister who daily makes out with young boys on the boardwalk and, like the empty-headed Simone, desperately desires a dangling belly button ring. Is it any wonder that the confused son has abandoned his former upstairs bedroom (of which, when his not so friendly “friends” are invited into, one mutters “I didn’t know you had a little brother”) for his alternative basement bear cave, where he keeps his computer and drugs.
      Clearly, the director is fascinated by his beauty and the male body in general, as, against the shoddy entertainments of the beach; she moves her camera, lovingly held by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, across every crook and cranny of the male psychic. Her quite obvious voyeuristic approach to Frankie and his gang almost reminds one of the earliest of gay porno pictures, shot often on the beaches of New York, Atlantic City, and, particularly, of California and packaged as pretend “physique and muscle” magazines, very much in the manner of filmmaker Gus van Sant, whose bronzed porno magazine heroes briefly come alive as potential partners for who anyone who desires them enough.

    Indeed, the older men who meet Frankie for quickies in the bush or one-night stands in local motels, can hardly get over their good fortune in finding a kind of fantasy figure willing to be fucked in the flesh. No need for Frankie to ask these often hairy, ragged elders whether or not he is “pretty.” Even in his self-hatred he must know is what they have been always seeking in their on-line chatrooms. When he accidentally meets up with one of his late-night friends who is bar-tending at a Coney Island dance hall where Frankie has taken Simone, he is embarrassed and flummoxed about how to react to the free bottle of gin the bar delivers to his table, particularly when his buddies suggest he and the bartender must be friends.
      It is perhaps at that very moment, the moment the young teenager has feared for years, that pushes him in the direction of revealing his hidden world without admitting any involvement in it.
Having hooked up with a rather sweet gay man, closer to his own age, he dares to admit to the trio of boys that he sometimes goes onto gay sites to find sources for his drugs.
      These thugs are strangely intrigued by the fact, and even attempt, the first time he meets up with the man, Jeremy (Harrison Sheehan), to get in on the act, as if eager to actually meet up with a self-identifying gay man. Their actions immediately end the transaction. But when Frankie suggests to his buddies that he and Jeremy meet up instead in the woods near the Coney Island beach, where they can, so to speak, “grab the goods” (the weed he has promised to bring along), they are even more intrigued than before.
      For them, we already suspect what Frankie seems to not quite be able to admit, that it represents not only an opportunity to get their drugs but to perform a kind ritualized gay-bashing, a  brutality which lies deep in their bigoted heats. For Frankie, as the BFI magazine reviewer Hannah McGill sensitively perceives, the issue of “whether his friends would mind being around gay guys if weed were involved, indicates his yearning to change everything without having to change a thing.”
      After these thugs run the sweet gay boy into the water and begin to beat him, however, obviously everything does change. If, at first, in the horror of the scene, Frankie hangs back, when his friends, unable to find the weed, began to pummel Jeremy, he searches the waves nearby, discovering the packet and thereby releasing the gay man without further harm.
       But in that very “act of inaction” Frankie knows that he has severed any relationship with his crew he may once have had.
       While he has been away for the night another kind of major change has occurred in his life, as his mother, curious for his shifting behavior, enters his computer and begs him to tell her, when he returns home, what’s happening.
        We don’t know if his mother has deleted all of his computerized gay contacts or whether Jeremy has notified the heads of the chatroom about Frankie’s actions, but he is now cut off from his nefarious past.
     As always in this film, Hittman leaves the answers in the cracks of the few verbal communications in which her characters engage. He tells his mother nothing just as she does not share with her son whatever she might have discovered. And in the last scene, where Frankie now walks the boardwalk completely alone, the weekly fireworks crackling in the background, we, and apparently he, have still no idea where he is going, physically or psychologically. We only know that he now has no ability to return to where he was and has all the freedom to create a new space of his own making, perhaps one that will truly allow him to find the love we imagine (and, I remind you, it is only our imagination, perhaps not his) he has been seeking in all those worn-out stranger’s faces, genitals, and hands.
       If the writer/director has given us no answers, she has, at least, opened up the possibilities, and not just those for Frankie. The three boys with who he has spent so much of his life are even less knowable that Frankie is. They are true ciphers whose names, after the film has ended, are difficult to even recall (Joe, Nick, Alexei I believe). Yet, one of them, perhaps Alexei, which I might describe as the “runt” of the group is different from the others. At one point, when Frankie and two others pull off their pants to briefly enter the ocean, this figure remains dressed, wearing his heavy-looking shoes as he sits back to watch the others in their furtive swim.
       Later, when the same two move in to beat Jeremy and grab the drugs he has brought with him, we see this same figure immediately turn back and leave the site.
       In these two actions we can readily perceive that, like Frankie, he too is someone who is “queer,” not sexually gay perhaps, but a figure uncomfortable with the activities of the others. And in that sense, he too is a kind of questioning “Q,” someone who doesn’t quite know where he stands in relation to those around him. One cannot make too much of these two subtle acts, but they do suggest, if nothing else, a turning away from the more normative actions of the others—even those of Frankie who behaves under peer pressure as someone other than he truly is.
       If nothing else, it seems to me, Hittman is suggesting that people with clearly defined attitudes toward the world live always simultaneously with others who admittedly “don’t know what they like” or have little knowledge of where they are going. In the end, these figures are always hiding in full sight, ready to surprise the often-unthinking believers with an independence based more on questions than on preconceived answers. If society is to make any significant changes, it perhaps is to these Q figures to whom we must ultimately look. Those who seek no change sometimes accomplish the greatest of changes in life. Sitting on a train that is not moving may seem to be moving when a train beside it pulls out of the station. A bit like Einstein’s train and the man left on the platform who observes the lightning strike, it is a matter of relativity.

Los Angeles, July 24, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Edward Yang | 青梅竹馬 (Qīngméizhúmǎ) (Taipei Story)


a world without now
by Douglas Messerli

Chu T’ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Edward Yang (screenplay), Edward Yang (director) 青梅竹馬 (Qīngméizhúmǎ) (Taipei Story) / 1985

Edward Yang’s 1985 cinematic work, Taipei Story, is a fragmented narrative about a city’s past and future played out in its landscape and, particularly, in the lives of its two central characters, Chin (the off the screen Taiwanese pop star, Tsai Chin, and Yang’s wife at the time of the filming) and Lung (played by the director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who also, with Yang and Chu T’ien-wen, wrote the script to this movie).
     The film begins in a slightly older high-rise apartment that has clearly seen better days. One almost might describe it as a kind of compromise between Chin, an assistant to a real estate operator working in a company obviously devoted to high-end real estate deals, and Lung, a former teenage baseball star, who still hangs out with some of his old buddies and helps to coach members of the newest teen league.
     Lung, however, is even more entwined to family, almost locked up, one might say, with family commitments. He works as a fabric seller, but is about to travel to the US where his brother-in-law is a wealthy businessman who Lung hopes will allow him to buy his way into participating as a business partner. Together the couple declare the property they are surveying as “not bad,” which as critic Glenn Kenny succinctly summarizes, “is about as good as it gets” for this still-unmarried couple. Without saying why, Yang makes it clear from the onset of his film that both Chin and Lung are delaying their wedding plans for reasons which will later become more apparent; if for no other reason, neither of them is quite ready for total commitment to each other. Furthermore, Lung will soon be away for several months while Chin plans to redo the place.
     It is clear that Chin is a more-than-capable worker representing a bright new hope (a term suggested in Yang’s later masterwork A Brighter Summer Day (1991). But no sooner does she rent their new somewhat dreary dwelling, than her office superior, Mrs. Mei, is let go and Chin herself is told by the new owner of the company for whom she works, that she is in an odd place in their business structure, being neither an executive nor secretary.
     She is encouraged to become a secretary, which also explains why Mrs. Mei was let-go. The new owners represent, quite obviously, a thing of past, with patriarchal values that will soon have no room in the future Taiwan. (It might be of interest to remind ourselves that the current present of that country is Tsai Ing-wen, a female who this year was re-elected with an increased percentage of the vote.) Before Chin can be fired, she resigns, and, one might suggest, to lift her spirits, starts up a deeper relationship with an architect friend, Mr. Ke (Ko I-chen), who also works for her former company. Looking out the window of his office he laments that he designed several of the buildings that lie below the tower in which he works, but can no longer remember which ones. In Yang’s film, even the somewhat recent past has given way to a future that has little meaning for those who cannot, for whatever reason, completely embrace it.
     In Ke’s case, it is an unloving wife a home that leads him to despair, which even a drink of beer with Chin is somewhat allayed. Chin, for her part—although trying to reach Mrs. Mei on occasion—keeps telling herself and others that she is simply taking a break between jobs, but we sense her inner despair of losing the upward mobility she has previously sought.
     Her brief affair with Ke is only one of the many problems she now faces, including a search for her missing daughter—whom she finally locates and offers a room in her new apartment—as well as the return from the states of Lung.
      After visiting his brother-in-law and sister, Lung is even more intent on buying his way into a partnership and moving to the States with Chin. Yet, even in his upbeat dreams of his own future, we sense the dangers that he may face he making such a radical move: his wealthy in-law lives in a mansion in a state where, so he tells it, you can drag a black man onto your property and claim he has trespassed with an intent to do harm and then legally kill him. In short, in retelling this horrific tale, Lung hints at his own reservations of making such a move and, were he to relocate, suggests the racism he might have to face.
     Where she was once a force in helping him make such decisions, Chin now appears rather passive about both her own and Lung’s futures, even though we suspect that she would rather stay in the world she knows.
      Lung, in the meanwhile, with the intent, so it seems, of making an offer to his US relative, determines to sell his decease father’s house, a well-built building of the old days that will surely go for a high price.
      But no sooner does he collect the payment than he runs into an baseball-playing friend of his youth,  Ch’en (Wu Nien-jen) who is now working almost full time in order to feed his children and to pay the bills of his endlessly gambling wife. The kind-hearted Lung gives him money to help the children eat, and later arrives with a large package of groceries, only to find the children alone in the house, while in a nearby café Ch’en’s wife is once more sitting at the gambling table. Pulling her away from the inn, and demanding that she properly attend to her crying children, Lung finds himself as serving the traditional role of a male figure in a family that has forsaken all traditional ties. Soon after, the wife commits suicide, suggesting that familial order and the behaviors that attend it are a thing of the past or, possibly, destroy those would live differently
     Hardly has Lung put in a call to his brother-in-law than he discovers that Chin’s father (Wu Ping-nan), whom Kenny correctly describes as a “crooked and lazy businessman” is about to be taken to collection by loan sharks who have long backed his gambling debts.
     Lung feels, simply out of the moral obligation for his relationship with the man’s daughter, that he is obligated to pay the debts, which leaves him with hardly any money left to buy his way into a business. Moreover, his telephone calls to his brother-in-law have not been returned for weeks.
     When Chin hears of obeisance, she is furious for his naivete. It is clear that she feels no commitment to her father or the past that he represents. Only later do we learn that as a child she often suffered beatings from the man so that he spare her mother the same tortures.
     Meanwhile Lung discovers that his former lover has now arrived from Japan to Taipei, he refusing her insistence that he continue the brief affair he had with her upon his stop-over in Japan from his US trip; he has lied about spending any time in Japan to Chin. Even his ex-lover rejects Lung’s connections with the past: “ “You’re living in a fairy-tale world where only your pity can save us.”
     Apparently, Lung cannot even entirely leave a woman connected with his past. It is an inferno which he cannot escape just as Chin is now unable to escape purgatory, the break she has taken from her search for her ideal job which might bring her both power and money.
       When Chin discovers the truth, the two fight, and Lung is sent packing with no longer anywhere he can go. He has even sold his car in order to raise the payment to help bring him the new future he imagines for himself.
       Mrs. Mei finally contacts Chin, and shows her around the new office space into which she is planning to move into with a new company, in which Chin will obviously serve a major role. But for the first time Chin actually remains quietly passive, as if she has lost all will to move on with her life.
       Indeed, in searching yet again for her missing daughter in the empty shell of a building in which she tracked her down the first time, Chin discovers only a young man studying for his entrance exams for college.
       The two immediately hit it off, and almost inexplicably she joins him on his scooter on a long trip through a partying night including her formerly missing daughter, during which, deeply inebriated, she falls into a kind of intense sleep. When Chin attempts to return home, she finds the young man waiting outside the building and quickly rushes away to escape him.
        Frozen-in-space, so to speak, a bit like Lung has equally has nowhere to turn, she calls her ousted lover for help. Together the two take a taxi to their apartment, only to discover that the boy has finally disappeared. But when Lung leaves, he discovers Chin’s obsessed would-be suitor again waiting for her. Lung impulsively grabs him insisting that the youth recognize his one-night relationship is over.
       Lung hails a taxi and is off to wherever he might go in a world that proffers him little possibilities of future, perhaps yet another night on the floor with his old baseball friend Ch’en and his children. Yet he finds that now Chin’s own past is following him in the form of the boy on his scooter. Ordering the taxi to stop, Lung leaves the vehicle as the cabbie speeds away, wanting no part of a confrontation.
     The older baseball player approaches the younger would-be student and beats him for his impudence. The fallen boy is seemingly left behind, as Lung begins to walk—not for the first time in Yang’s film—down the long road that might return him, at least, to civilization.
      Suddenly, the young man returns and again Lung rebuffs him, continuing on his march towards his destination. As he soon discovers, however, he is bleeding on the side of his lower stomach, at first just a few trickles, but then quite profusely.
      Confused, but also somewhat abashed by the fact that he unknowingly has been knifed by the kid, Lung continues for several more steps before the camera goes temporarily black before opening the lens again in its penultimate scene where we see a couch and other derelict household objects left near a curb for garbage pickup.
    Lung, now coughing and bleeding intensely, painfully pulls out a cigarette and with a rather bemused look, joyfully takes the smoke into his lungs in what he now recognizes will be his last few breaths. 
      No garbage truck arrives, but a brightly lit ambulance picks Lung up almost as if he were now a piece of tossed-away debris left by the side of the street.
     Yang leaves us with no answer concerning what choices, after she hears of Lung’s death, Chin will make for her future, whether with Mrs. Lei she will rise up to a manufactured paradise in the towers of Taipei or if she might, like her boyfriend, fall down in an almost humorous grief recognizing the meaninglessness of her aspirations. Will the possessive nameless young man return to haunt her? Those are the rich and somewhat ironic possibilities with which this profound director leaves us. In a city determined to transform its past into the future, what has happened to the all-important present, the now in which people can love and live?

Los Angeles, July 23, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).