Monday, August 31, 2020

Chantal Akerman | Saute ma ville

a letter that denies its own significance
by Douglas Messerli

Chantal Akerman (writer and director) Saute ma ville / 1968

What is amazing about Chantal Akerman’s first film from 1968, Saute ma ville (which I’ll translate as Burn Down My Town), is that she was only 18 at the time of its creation. And yet the statement she makes in this short work is so profound that you might think she had an entire career behind it.
     A young woman (Akerman) arrives home to her apartment building, flowers in hand, quickly checking the mail before she pushes the elevator. Immediately determining to outrun it by tripping up the stairs for several levels, she inexplicably checks on the progress of the elevator as she moves upward, all the time humming a sharp pitched noise as if she were almost attempting to irritate the viewer—which, in fact, she may well be attempting to accomplish.
      As critic Felicity Chaplin describes these opening sequences:

Saute ma ville is supported by images constructed like a burlesque and the performance of an actress that seems to come straight out of a slapstick comedy. This exuberant character is played by the filmmaker herself, who literally bursts in front of a large building (the sounds of the city being omnipresent there), flowers in hand, to get back to her apartment. Akerman’s humming adds an enthusiastic and light touch to this jaunty entrance.

     Finally reaching her door, she enters, throwing most of her purchases upon the kitchen counter before tacking the now-opened letter she has received to the cabinet, soon after cooking up a meal of pasta which she will chow down with a rapidity that is spell-binding before leaping up, seemingly driven by an inner voice repeating the word “Scotch.”
      Even prior are awareness, she has pulled out a role of thick scotch tape and begun to thoroughly seal up the door of her kitchen, stopping only briefly to pick up her cat, pet it for a moment, open a nearby window, and send the poor beast, presumably, on its way through a long fall unto the street to die.
      While munching on an apple, she quickly dons a raincoat and a scarf while picking up a sponge mop and tossing all the contents of a lower cabinet to the floor. Showering some water upon the mess, she shoves the various mixers, blenders, and whatever else she has kept there, with the mop toward to door.
      A moment later she has decided to shine her shoes, leaving a heavy later of the black she paste on her legs and hands. She reaches for a copy of the newspaper Le Soir and, as if speed-reading way through its pages, sets it aside to continue taping up a nearby window.
       Had she performed these same tasks in a more normative pattern, we realize, she might have reminded us of the actions of any housewife or single woman caught up in doing her daily chores. But this 18-year old is more like Raymond Queneau’s Zazie (of Zazie dans le Métro) rather than an adult setting out to accomplish the routine requirements of keeping a good house.
        If there had been any question, at first, of what this young apartment- dweller was up to, we now know that in her chaotic accomplishment of these meaningless tasks she is decentering and revolting against any of the so-called necessities of good home-making.
       From one of her cabinets she takes us a white substance which may be anything from a mix of flour to mayonnaise and applies it to her face as if were a beauty lotion, appealing to her mirror for approval of her attempts to properly take care of her body.  
       Denying even the rationality of these acts, this seemingly crazed teenager is a bit like a robotized version of “the good housewife,” undoing the very methodical patterns demanded by a hegemonic society, particularly a patriarchal one.
       Having focused explicitly on the domain of the woman, the kitchen and all it represents, the girl somewhat madly giggles and laughs, repeating the words “Bang, Bang!” while lighting the stove. We hear the hiss the gas only as we watch her through the mirror, one hand over head, the other holding the flowers she has brought with her before the final explosion results in the screen going black.
       The only narrative explanation of her acts might have existed in the letter upon which the camera has focused several times and to which Akerman herself has given a special credence of place. But to create any imaginary narrative from that letter’s contents—a statement of love abandoned or lost, a diaristic explanation of what has led her to destroy her artificed world, or even a simple list of instructions of how to “blow her city up”—would only make her revolutionary denial of all societal definitions of what it means to be female meaningless. The letter itself, I would argue, denies any narrational logic.
     Unlike Scheherazade desperately trying to appease her master with just one more nightly story, Akerman has openly refused to allow any more attempts of explanation or myth-making. She has shattered all conventions, including the actions represented in her film. She has blown up not just the town, but her own recreation of a self.

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

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Carlos Hugo Christensen | O menino e o vento (The Boy and the Wind)

blown away
by Douglas Messerli

Carlos Hugo Christensen, Millor Fernandes, and Anibal Machado (writers), Carlos Hugo Christensen (director) O menino e o vento (The Boy and the Wind) / 1967

Born and raised in Argentina, Carlos Hugo Christensen made 54 films before his death in Rio de Janeiro in 1996, moving from Argentina to Brazil in the 1950s to found his own studio, Carlos Hugo Christensen Produções Cinematográficas.
     In Brazil he produced a wide variety of films among the most memorable of which was he 1967 work, O menino e o vento (The Boy and the Wind).
     Superficially, this is not a gay film, although its hero—a handsome young engineer, José Nery, who as the film begins returns to the small rural Brazilian village which he had earlier visited on vacation—has agreed to stand trial for the mysterious murder of a local teenage boy he had met there, Zeca da Curva. Although he is not charged with pedophilia (the age of consent in Brazil was at the time of the trial and remains today the age of 14, while Zeca is 15 years of age), the villagers are also certain that he has regularly had sex with the boy, since he was often seen standing on a hill with both of them naked and he had regularly paid the teenager for services unknown.
     If we are to believe the narration of the film itself, however, there is no evidence that the two fulfilled any sexual desires, and the shirt of the boy later found, part of the villager’s proof of the boy’s murder, was tied to a post by the boy himself.
     Clearly José is certain of his innocence, refusing even the help of the local sleazy lawyer who promises to get him off with lesser charges, and rejecting to even directly question those many who accuse him of the murder, including the boy’s mother, his rich cousin Marío (who lives in Rio de Janeiro, and threatens to testify against the engineer because, as he tells him, he too is homosexual and can therefore recognize José’s behavior as being somewhat similar to his own), the concierge of the small hotel where José stays on both his visits (a woman who has offered herself to the visitor and has become enraged by his rejection) and others, who all believe that the “murder of passion” stemmed from the horrific fact that José was a pederast. If nothing else, the stranger played a pedagogical role to Zeca, offering the boy knowledge beyond his previous experiences.

     The concierge, moreover, confirms the reason for José’s sudden decision to leave the village was that he was asked to return home by his fiancée. Yet, the townspeople see, even in that, evidence that he murdered the youth when reminded of his more normative sexual responsibilities, killing the boy, perhaps, out of feeling pangs of guilt.
     The villagers are angered over the intrusion of their isolated world for other reasons as well. Since José departed the heavy winds for which the town was noted have subsided, leaving hot air to drive them out of their homes into the streets. Some believe that the construction of a new river dam—a structure with which the engineer had no direct involvement—is the cause of their woes. If José has left a world of friendly rustics, he has returned to a dark and threatening place where he is perceived as the symbol of several losses in their meager existences.
     Accordingly, the film-goer watching the first part of Christensen’s film is faced with either believing the truths with which the townspeople are familiar or with the possibility that the director himself is not being entirely open.
     Gradually, we discover that not only are the villagers unable to see the real truths behind their surface appearances but that Christensen himself is composing a work that tells its tale through a lens that is less about 20th century notions of reality than a Romantic metaphor of something perhaps even more horrific to this simple bourgeois community than their own fears of homosexuality and murder.
     When it comes time for José to present his version of the “real,” the story he tells is as unrecognizable as if he were speaking in an unknown tongue of a previously unknown Amazon tribe.
      The engineer has traveled to this particular village, he recounts, because of its famous winds, some of the fiercest in the entire country. Even since he was a young child, he admits, he has been fascinated with and obsessed with strong winds. His own family was artistic and encouraged his deviant interests, which is why, when seeking an occupation, he explains, he chose one entirely based upon logic and mathematical certainty. It is as if he would attempt to cure his dangerously inexplicable pleasures with something in which he could trust, a knowable entity that could better society rather than standing as a force outside of it.
      He was a good engineer and quickly worked his way upon in his office, taking on so many new projects that he nearly collapsed with exhaustion over his intense commitment to their design and execution. When he was told he must take a vacation before continuing his work, he chose something that might take him out of his zone of comfort and return him to his childhood delights.  

    By accident, he met the young street boy, Zeca (who name is etymologically rooted to the name of Joseph and the stranger’s own name, José) who promised to take him up into the hills where the wind is its strongest, particularly in one spot.
      If at first, the boy’s enthusiasm seems something acted out simply to gain favor with the outsider, José quickly discovers that the younger version of himself is truly at one with the wind, able to even speak its own language and, on occasion, call it forth.
     Time and again, the two trek up to hills overlooking the village to be whipped by the force of the strong gales, enjoying them most as they sweep across their naked bodies, sometimes so powerful that they must cling to one another simply to stay in place.
     José explains to Zeca that there are even stronger winds by the ocean, a place to where the adolescent has never before traveled, and at one point when the boy disappears for a couple of days—the elder mistakenly believing that Zeca is hiding out with his girlfriend, which somewhat irritates him—the boy returns to report that he has run away to the ocean to enjoy the lusty winds he has encountered there.
     Zeca has promised him, however, that there will soon be even a stronger wind upon the hill, and before the boy has returned he attempts to travel alone by horse to the top of the summit, there encountering winds that make him fear for his life, only to have Zeca return at that very moment, shedding his clothes as they cling together for protection, one of the scenes recounted at the later trial.
     Even the director’s visual enactment of that scene suggests that the deep friendship between these two involves something other than an appreciation of forceful air currents. If we haven’t already perceived it, we now must recognize that their beloved winds not only tear away their clothes, but all other inhibitions. In a sense, they become one with nature, and as such, become free of all societal constraints, including any sexual restrictions. They have, in fact, in their embracement of the natural, transcended their human limitations, becoming one with the other as surely as if they had inserted themselves into each other’s body.
    One might also perceive this metaphor as representing the adult not only reentering his childhood existence but as the child being consumed into the body he must later inhabit. In the end, we might not only see the wind as freeing them up to enjoy something much like a sexual encounter, but, again metaphorically speaking, reclamation and sublimation (a kind of symbolic murder) by the elder of his own younger being. The boy cannot later be found because he has become José, who himself has been transformed into the breath of another truth that threatens to destroy all normative societal values.
     Near the end of the trial where we can only imagine that the accused will be found guilty, the wind suddenly enters the village once more, letting loose a fury that threatens to tear away every human construct, the trial room attendees running for cover in fear for their own lives.
     Only José calmly stands in place, seemingly impervious from the destructive storm he himself has called up. We cannot know whether it is the elder or the soul of the lost boy returning to existence. But it clearly no longer matters: they are one and the same having sexually consummated in way in which no ordinary mortal can explain.
      A serviceable if not entirely accurate English language subtitled version of this eccentric Portuguese-language film is available on YouTube.

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

Friday, August 28, 2020

James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber | Lot in Sodom

loving sodom
by Douglas Messerli

James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber (directors, with a story based on Biblical passages) Lot in Sodom / 1933

With poet and art historian Melville Webber, James Sibley Watson produced two major experimental films in the early part of the 20th century, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, reviewed previously in my World Cinema Review) and Lot in Sodom (1933), as well as a lesser known satiric work, Tomatoes Another Day (1930), all of which represented a developing American avant-garde cinema unlike anything else known.
     After directing the Poe adaptation, the duo begin work on what was to have been called “The Dinner Party,” but abandoned it, as Watson later wrote, “as being too difficult.”
      Watson goes on to describe the new work they would now undertake, Lot in Sodom:

…two new members had been added to our group, Remsen Wood and Alec Wilder. Remsen wanted to use our equipment in making a sound film of objects moving in time to the music of Stravinsky’s Fire Bird. In return he agreed to help us with Lot, and help us he did. It was through him and his friends at Kodak Park that we obtained a sound on film recorder. He kept our new optical printer working, made valuable suggestions, and most important of all, he helped Melville with the difficult task of synchronizing our film with its sound track—the musical score composed and conducted by Louis Siegel and played by students from the Eastman School, among them the oboist Mitchell Miller. Though crudely recorded, the music gives to portions of the film an impact and a meaning that would be badly missed if the projector’s sound system were to break down.

     Before continuing with my discussion of Watson’s 1933 film, however, it will be interesting to note that, as the grandson of Don Alonzo Warson and Hiram Sibley, he inherited their Western Union Telegraph fortune and the social standing among the Rochester that went with it. His mother had established that city’s Memorial Art Gallery.
     And prior to turning to movies—Watson was educated as a medical doctor—the young socialite supported many writers and artists including Marianne Moore, Kenneth Burke, and Gaston Lachaise.
     Throughout the 1920s, moreover, Watson became deeply involved with The Dial magazine, and was named its president. With Scofield Thayer he virtually co-edited the journal, arguing not only for the inclusion of those artists he had supported but William Carlos Williams, whom Thayer disliked, also contributing some of his own work under the name W. C. Blum, as well as translations such as Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.
     This most certainly explains not only his interest in literary subjects for his filmmaking efforts, but helps to make clear why he and Webber chose such experimental and avant-garde methods for their cinematic attempts.
      Lot not only combines the music and elaborate lighting Watson mentions above, but applies some of the newest of cinematic techniques including multiple exposure, trick printing, and tilts and spins of its subjects and sets, but the expressionistic and symbolic structures he applied, some of them obviously influenced by Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the early works of G. W. Pabst.
     While watching this film for the first time the other evening, I observed to myself that it reminded me, at moments, almost of a Biblically-based cantata infused with lines directly lifted from the Bible and Latin phrases.

     Yet those more serious concerns don’t last long when one inevitably begins giggling in delight over the Polish boys (obtained for them, so Watson recalls, by Steve Kraskiewicz)  replicated from the two “uninhibited and extremely handsome” young men into a near orgy of almost naked physiques covered only with short-black loin clothes as they lean into, jump over, and curl up to one another’s bodies. Flames pop up now and then from the Sodom city streets as they cavort, suggesting perhaps that their sexual actions are heating up the town.
      I am now also a bit confused by the cinema commentators who describe this film as somewhat “homoerotic.” In fact, what the directors display in these early scenes is a clear instance of homosexual lust, only a little shy of what might later be described as home-made porn and certainly far more explicit than the early gay physique magazines that satisfied those who cracked them open throughout the 1950s.
      As their anatomies tilt and tumble through Watson and Webber’s cinematic space, the Sodomites come alive in their somewhat balletic maneuvers, tamping their actions down only when they lift and drop a totally naked torso out of the frame, suggesting perhaps that this one time they have gone a bit too far in their sexual games.
      In his nearby home, protected by giant doors marked with esoteric metal carvings, sits Lot with his daughter and wife (played by Watson’s wife Hildegarde) nearby, the seemingly only unhappy people in town.
      Lot (Friederick Haak), dressed in a costume which the actor himself applied daily of heavy grease paint and a beard of twisted rope, prays to God to help rid his city of the evil that it suffers, although the Biblical texts suggest his prayer was to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction since the cities still contained a few righteous souls.
     The Lord answers with his offering of an angel (Lewis Whitbeck, Jr.), a man so lovely that the locals demand Lot free him from his room so that they might “know” him (there were two angels in the original text). Although there is still a great deal of controversy about what that “knowledge” means, in popular myth it has continued to suggest they wanted sexual intercourse with the heavenly visitor.
     Lot, in an attempt to waylay their attacks against the angel’s saintly body, at God’s command offers up his daughter (Dorothea Haus) instead, presumably so—in an early version of sexual conversion—they might discover heterosexuality. Although there is much writhing and apparent suffering on her part, the introduction into the film of a serpent larger than even the city’s temple, suggesting perhaps that she too is a kind of latter-day Eve, argues that Lot’s attempts were quite unsuccessful.
     When the angel, having finished dining and drinking within Lot’s house, does enter the streets, his holy aura, represented in a disk-like spin of rays, so dazzles the waiting gay men that they quickly fall dumbstruck to the ground.
     It is time, as God tells Lot and his family, to leave the city so that it might be destroyed. As the story goes, Lot’s wife cannot resist looking back at the flames of the wicked city and turns into what almost looks, in the directors’ crude recreation, like a pillar of salt.
     In some Jewish commentaries her transformation into salt emanated from the fact that when the angels visited she found herself without salt for dinner, and thus asked her neighbors to borrow some, thereby letting the entire city know about her special guest.
     In the Muslin version she is simply spoken of as a bad woman who would not leave Sodom behind. In yet another variation, she turns back to check to see if her daughters, married to Sodom men, were leaving the city or staying behind. However one reads her actions, it is clear that Sodom was a place that neither Lot nor his family members truly wanted to leave.
      Watson’s and Webber’s cinematic version, if we are at all sympathetic to a wider view of sexual activity than the Biblical God was able to condone, presents us some notion of why.

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

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cosima Spender | Without Gorky

the fatalist
by Douglas Messerli

Valerio Bonelli and Cosima Spender (writers), Cosima Spender (director) Without Gorky / 2011

Cosima Spender’s film Without Gorky is truly a family affair, but don’t imagine that you’ll encounter in this fascinating work something similar to a living room projection of what fun it was to be part of the Gorky tribe. This rather somber film is something closer to the homemade films of The Friedmans of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans without any of the judicial accusations that accompany the father and son of that film.
     Here the accusations, rather, are muted, almost at times inexplicable, as Cosima interviews her grandmother, the now famous painter Arshile Gorky’s wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, a woman liberated years before such a concept might even have existed. Rolling her own cigarettes while recounting her more-than-painful later years with the artist, she, the daughter of Admiral John Holmes Magruder, Jr., was—as the cliché goes—almost swept off her feet by the dashing storyteller who, in his early days, Gorky was.
     Close friends with artists Roberto Matta, Wilhelm de Kooning, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and many others, Gorky introduced her not only to a high-powered art world, but, mostly on foot, to the New York City which her soon-to-be husband loved.
    Working out of a large studio near Union Square, Gorky painted up a storm of portraits (including the famed works of the artist and his mother) and early abstractions before the impact of the Abstract Expressionism which later gained him, after his death, great fame.
      Mougouch (an Armenian term of endearment) soon married him, but with the birth of their first-born daughter, Maro, found life difficult living with a child—and soon after a second daughter Natasha—in a working artist’s studio. As Maro explains, “he let me paint on the back of his canvasses, but when, on occasion, I tried to move to the front, he grew furious.”
     Much of their mother’s time was spent in parks and on the busy streets daily attempting to entertain her children until she might return home to eat dinner.
      Gradually, the family, through temporary loans by friends of country houses, was able to split its time between New York and Connecticut, the later far preferable to Gorky’s wife and children, while lacking for the artist the intensity of the city and his interchange with his artist friends. Although, he there worked to free himself, by immersing himself in nature, of his former practice of sketching and working with smaller paintings before tackling the larger canvases, thus creating a new excitement of directly applying paint to canvas without any preconceptions, Gorky found his temporary locations could not compare with his orderly studio.
     Both their mother and her daughters recall the heated arguments between the couple, along with Gorky’s increasing abuse of alcohol. In 1946, a series of serious health problems occurred which brought the family into further crisis.
       Gorky’s studio barn burned down in a fire, taking with it numerous of his most recent paintings. The artist seemed almost fatalistic about their destruction; as we later discover, he was doomed by birth to become a kind of fatalist. But soon after he was forced to immediately undergo a colostomy because of developing cancer, which further exacerbated the fraught relationships between Mougouch and him.
      For her part, his wife recognized that he was considering suicide, and whenever she saw him carrying about a rope, hurried the girls out to greet him and bring him inside. Nonetheless, things grew even more difficult, in one instance Gorky “helping,” as his wife puts it, her to tumble down a narrow flight of stairs from their bedroom.
       In the process of filming, Cosima takes her aunts back to the house, which in Maro’s case brings memories that are simultaneously lovely and horrific. Nathasha, on the other hand, can recall nothing—except for the stairs, which ends, for her, in tears, frustrated that she has clearly blocked nearly all memories from her mind, but also momentarily growing inexplicably frightened by the image of the staircase.
       That event, in turn, brought a series of even more frightful turns. Terrified by her husband’s violence, Mougouch returned to New York, spending a weekend of reassuring love with Matta. When she arrived back in Connecticut, Gorky was ready both to beat her and possibly kill his artist friend. His sister, with whom he was in regular communication, insisted “In America we do not beat our wives,” and after a few rounds in Central Park, Gorky and Matta sat down on a bench to discuss the situation between them.
       Unfortunately, soon thereafter Gorky was involved in an automobile accident with his gallerist Julien Levy at the wheel. Gorky’s neck was broken and his painting arm paralyzed.
       Soon after, Mougouch took the girls and left Gorky, who committed suicide by hanging in 1948 at the age of 44, at the very moment when audiences and critics were finally beginning to notice his great achievements in art.
      It is clear from the tensions in the interviews and conversations that Cosima films that Maro, now a painter herself, was never quite able to forgive her mother, particularly since Mougouch sent both her daughters to a strict Swiss boarding school, while she continued an affair with Matta.
Natasha, in particular, was almost daily punished for wetting her bed at age 3.
      Yet through their conversations in this film, at least Maro begins to realize just how difficult Gorky was to live with. Moreover, in the years since the entire family has come to realize that numerous things the artist had told them about himself—for example, that he was the great-grandson of Maxim Gorky—had all been lies. As more and more art shows were organized they came to discover that their father’s real name was Vosdanig Adoian, and that his family lived in Armenia, forced to take part in the Turkish-led marches away from their homeland which led to the murder of millions of individuals, including Gorky’s mother who died of starvation along the long trek. 

     Late in the film, Maro with her husband sculptor and writer Matthew Spender (the son of poet Stephen Spender) and Natasha travel to the original home of the Adoians in Khorgom, Vilayet of Van. In that beautiful landscape nestled in low-lying hills which catch the afternoon shadows and filled with flowers and shrubs they recognize what might have a child’s eye-level view of the world he painted in abstraction again and again throughout his later years. Exploring a home similar to one in which their father and grandfather might have lived and witnessing the very splendor of Gorky’s childhood world they seem to come to some sort of reconciliation, however brief, with the failures of both their mother and father, now able finally to embrace their lives without Gorky.
      This is not an easy film, for either Gorky’s family nor for the viewer, but along with the visual presentation of many of his great works, we do gain a new appreciation for the man who rejected all of his painful past just to come to the US and be embraced by the new culture. Unfortunately, as they muse, he did not live long enough to witness that.*

*My husband Howard N. Fox began his curatorial career at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. working with Cynthia Jaffee MacCabe on a show of artists who had come to the US with the same hopes and desires that Gorky had, The Golden Door: Artist-Immigrants of America, 1876-1976, a show in celebration of the American Bicentennial, including more that 200 artists. The first thing that fell out of the catalogue when I opened it up yesterday to explore its wonders was a black-and-while photograph of Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother from 1926-1929, obviously a reproduction to be used by newspapers and magazines. I recall that painting from the show along with many others.

Los Angeles, August 27, 2020

Monday, August 24, 2020

Ettore Scola | Una giornata particolare (A Special Day)

another day
by Douglas Messerli

Maurizio Costanzo, Ruggero Maccari, and Ettore Scola (writers), Ettore Scola (director) Una giornata particolare (A Special Day) / 1977

If you can believe that Sophia Loren is a somewhat frumpy housewife and Marcello Mastroianni is a homosexual about to be shipped off to Sardinia by the Fascist government, the two of whom meet in a large public housing complex nearly emptied out by the fact that on their “Special Day” Il Duce is meeting Hitler for a public celebration of their new political pact; and if you can imagine that this unlikely couple—who accidently collide in that vast apartment building because of the escape through an open window of Loren’s pet myna bird—find a moment a solace apart from their own desolate lives through sex (and as someone who has just watched this 1977 film directed by Ettore Scola I believe these fictional circumstances completely) then you are in for a poignant 106 minutes of cinematic delights.
     Even when I admit, moreover, that Scola’s film does present a fictional world, given the fact that hundreds like the Mastroianni character (Gabriele) were arrested for homosexual activities or even suspicion of it (see Paul Rowley’s 2018 documentary, The Red Tree for a recounting of the Fascist government’s imprisonment, mostly on islands far smaller than Sardinia, of gay and political prisoners) and simply recognizing that there may have been an equal number of overworked and uneducated housewives such as Antonietta, forced by their Fascist-party husbands to stay and home and bear new babies, particularly since a seventh child resulted in a government-sponsored financial perk—we might almost describe this fictional incident as representative of a series of unpleasant truths.
     The interchanges between the gay anti-fascist Gabriele and the dissatisfied Antonietta are at first rather predictable, with the former politely inviting in the would-be intruder and even helping her retrieve her bird who had flown up near his window from the busy housewife’s residence below. What saves this rather mundane gathering of small-talk and sexual misconceptions (when Antonietta returns to her unit, she observes that Gabriele has moved to his phone, presuming he is calling his girlfriend) is cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis’s astounding shifts of the camera’s focus from
the cramped internal rooms of Antonietta’s flat as she gathers her husband (John Vernon) and six children for chaotic awakening, dressing, and breakfast before she begins to attend to bed-making, clothes-washing and dishwashing to the open-lensed portrayal of the vast gathering of these familial units as, all called into this super-Fascist celebration, individuals and family groupings come stumbling, marching, and finally running out of their equally Fascist-like residential tower.
     The moment the film has moved into deep focus, particularly given the fact that we are now suddenly left alone with just three individuals, Gabriele, Antonietta, and the nosey gossipy caretaker who, through her radio broadcast, provides us with updates from the world outside, the camera tells us far more about the lives of the couple than their own developing conversations.
      Gabriele, the anti-Fascist who is about to lose all of his freedoms, is busy in his personal warren in sorting books for others to later claim and in making his last contacts with his friend/lover? Although we can easily trace his movements as Antonietta does and, apparently, so has the Italian government, they make little sense without context. A phone call is perceived a being made to a woman, the sorting of books might simply hint at a change of residence instead of imprisonment, and his gentle kindness—he invites his guest to coffee and attempts to offer her a book, The Three Musketeers, Dumas’ tale which speaks of the central characters’ battle against the injustices, abuses, and absurdities they discover in the world around them—yet his actions and inner life remain hidden, unreadable by the traditionally-bound Antonietta donna madre, a mother figure who lives up to her feminine responsibilities.
     Yet, if her life seems all too obvious and stereotypical—because her husband is a Fascist, she keeps a scrapbook outlining Mussolini’s political achievements and his proclamations—with most of her life made easily accessible to Gabriele, who, as she attends to her kitchen duties, seeks out in what appears almost to be a secret evaluation of his new acquaintance,
she too, so she reveals has some deeper held secrets: her husband is unfaithful and is currently corresponding with a teacher, a woman far more educated that she; and even more importantly he is arrogant and dismissive of his wife.
     As things progress between them (at least in her eyes). with Gabriele attempting to provide her with a little fun by dancing a rumba and, when later helping her to take down the sheets hanging on the rooftop clothes lines, wraps her momentarily in a bedsheet, she mistakes his playful actions as flirtatiousness, responding in like kind.
     Gabriele grows furious with her misapprehensions, and berates her for the sudden transformation into the male stereotype of all Italian women: outwardly prim but inwardly always ready for sex. And she, perhaps for one of the first times in her life, suddenly realizes just how much she has played along with that and other male-determined roles and duties throughout her life.
     Despite Gabriel’s admission that he is gay and the building caretaker’s aspersions that he is also a virulent anti-fascist, Antonietta seeks him out sexually, to which, if for no other reason than recognizing they are both subject to behavioral rules forced upon them, he responds.
     Antonietta is startled by how gentle his lovemaking has been, an experience she has never before encountered. For his part Gabriele—whose horn in religious myth announced the resurrection of the dead—reminds her that the experience with her has not resurrected him, that he remains gay and, although able to have sex with women, will not convert to heterosexuality: “Nothing’s changed.”
     But for her everything has changed. As she scurries back to her apartment to serve up a simple meal to her returned family, she takes up the book he has given her, beginning to read until she is distracted through her gaze at his window by the arrival of the Fascist police to take Gabriel away.
     The moment Gabriele turns out the light to his apartment, Antonietta turns back to her kitchen, as the camera returns to its early interiority, the good wife eventually trotting off to her husband’s bed where they will perhaps attempt to produce their seventh offspring, whom he wants to name Adolfo after the Führer.

    The viewer of this film can only perceive that both of these central characters are now imprisoned for their sexual behaviors. If the narrator of The Red Tree is credible, at least the locked-away homosexuals found in one another a sense of community, Antonietta has no such possibility. The only way she might have of escaping her prison would be to abandon her entire family and, despite even what she might learn in books, the values with which she has been indoctrinated. The only remaining traces of a new possibility for her exists in her memory of the “special” afternoon with Gabriele, a kind of love she might never experience again, and which her beloved myna bird, a traditional symbol of “undying love,” may now and then remind her.
     Perhaps only Antonietta daughters Romana and Maria Luisa (the latter played, ironically, by Alessandra Mussolini, Mussolini’s grand-daughter and Loren’s god-child) might possibility grow up to escape their mother’s entrapment.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio | Retablo

the second coming
by Douglas Messerli

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio and Héctor Gálvez (screenplay), Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio (director)
Retablo / 2017

It says a great deal about the changes in LBGTQ filmmaking when one is suddenly faced with a film in Quechua—my first. It’s more than fascinating to know that even in a community in Quechua-speaking Peru a 14-year-old boy might suddenly be faced with the painful difficulties of finding his way through emotions that do not fit into the normative values of his society.
     Yet in Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s 2017 film, Retablo, it is not the boy, Segundo (Junior Bejar) who—at least at first—is haunted by his sexual urges, but his artisan father, Noe (Amiel Cayo), whom the boy, riding to the nearest town in the back of the truck in which his father is seated up-front, discovers, upon briefly parting the canvas barrier, giving fellatio to the unknown driver.
      It is so quick of a glimpse that perhaps even some of the theater viewers might not immediately recognize its significance. Yet Segundo, having grown up in this violent and homophobic society living at the foot of the Andes perceives immediately just what it means and, despite his love and admiration of the man preparing him for a career as a “maestro,” the term by which all of the natives address the elder, recognizes it as something so shameful that he cannot even think of, let alone speak its name.
     The voyage they are making is a fairly regular one to the nearby village to sell his father’s “tourist” retablos—small wooden framed structures, a assemblage brightly painted with traditional motifs that when opened, a bit like the doors of an apartment building, reveal shelves containing small likenesses of people, sculpted out of potato dough and, once again, brightly painted to represent their local costumes. These tourist versions of the grander 4-feet high constructions bearing the likenesses of real local families who have commissioned them are the major source of income for Noe’s poor family, who themselves live in a far less grandiose world in a stone hut with dirt floors. Their major source of food are the potatoes themselves and, perhaps an occasional lamb which they also raise as a source of milk and whose fleece provide them with clothing and blankets. 
     In the first scenes of this film we have watched the father and son working in their nearby studio, wherein Noe is slowly tutoring Segundo on how to create this nearly sacred peasant altars. Segundo is not only a good and loving student, but you realize at first sight, just how appreciative this sensitive boy is to have the opportunity to create something of beauty and meaning as opposed to the hard labor available to others such as his nearby friend Mardonio (Mauro Chuchon), the son of a pig farmer who dreams of running off to the cotton fields where, he insists, women are nightly available, like the cotton itself, for the plucking.

     His bragging machismo along with his and his friends’ sudden shifts from playing soccer into sometimes brutal brawls, is the only thing the far gentler Segundo knows of what he supposes is standard male behavior, except when his father, increasingly until the denouement of Delgado-Aparicio’s film, comes home drunk, sometimes unable to find even his own bed to which Segundo’s loving mother eventually guides her husband.
      In an earlier trip to the village, the two encounter natives nearly flaying a man, who simply as a stranger, an outsider to this also xenophobic world, is suspected of cattle rustling. Later, in a day of celebration akin to Mardi Gras, the locals, donning horrendous looking masks, play out in theater productions and in all-male battles involving leather belts demonstrate their quite obvious internal aggressions.
      The only woman who attracts Segundo is the town grocer, who in admiration of the “maestro” always saves some of her best produce and sweetly smiles at both father and son. Later, after witnessing his father’s sexual act, Segundo becomes determined to prove his own sexuality,  breaking into her home while she lays sleeping, presumably to rape her or, at the very least, to gain entry into her bed.
      Yet, the boy can do little more than stand beside her bed for a few moments before running off in despair. In his mind, he has failed the test, while in the observer’s view he has simply proven himself as someone removed from the brutal enactments of the society in which he has been raised.
    Indeed, much of the middle panel of this, a bit too obviously segmented cinematic triptych, consists of Segundo “acting out,” the way any young teenager might, his angst over his father’s behavior and his fears for what it might mean about himself. For this boy the time has come, as it must for most children, in which he must negotiate the differences between the voices of his peers and those of his parents. At the celebration, Segundo runs off after witnessing the male-on-male battles to an old stone building, either a former center of government or religion, removing his sandals and painfully cutting his feet against the outcropped stones, an act which might be said to resemble the knifed arm and hand carvings suffered by disturbed young men and women in more urban communities.  
      After that last trip into town, Segundo refuses to return to work with his father in the studio and often goes missing for long periods of time, at one point insisting to his mother that he intends to join Mardonio as a cotton picker. The confounded woman kindly insists that if he does so he will be undoing everything his father has attempted to provide him, the life of an artisan instead of a peasant.
      It is only when Noe arrives home so terribly beaten that he is near death that Segundo begins to come with terms with his and father’s relationship, in which he can only fear may force him more in the direction of his father’s behavior than those of the general community.
     When his mother demands that he immediately run to the neighbors for help, Segundo does so only to be shunned, Mardonio and his father both reporting that Noe had been caught having anal intercourse with a man, whose relatives beat his father with the intention of killing him.
      Returning home and to the studio where he suddenly perceives the sometimes open and howling mouths of many of his father’s hidden retablo, that perhaps for all these years Noe has recognized the horror of his neighbors’ close-minded values.
      When his mother demands to know why the neighbors haven’t arrived, Segundo can only mumble that they were not at home, in response to which, she herself, with her crutch in hand, makes the trip to fetch help.
      Her return is far more violent than Segundo’s simple horror, as she enters her husband’s studio like the mad Lytta (related to the the Maniae, the spirits of madness and insanity) of Greek mythology. With furious swipes of her arms and hands she wipes away nearly all of her husband’s creations, allowing the retablo and their figures to fall broken to the floor.
      Soon after, her mother arrives and they begin to cook and pack up for their journey to another region, far away from where they will now ever after be shunned.
     Segundo cannot assimilate that possibility. As he nurses his ailing father, he insists that they still have enough potatoes left for the dough for new figures and that they are still owed for the last retablos they have placed on commission in the village. Carefully, he attempts to retrieve any of the figures and wooden structures which have survived her revenge.
      Pulling away from them as they pack up, Segundo sits on a nearby hill, refusing to respond to their calls for him to join them as night approaches on their long journey away from a world in which they can no longer exist.
      Still caring for his father, the boy packs up a retablo with the intention of selling it, but, met along the way by Mardonio and his soccer-playing bullies, he is mocked by his former friend who beats him, bloodying his nose and destroying the large retablo. For the first time, Segundo himself releases his fury, tripping Mardonio as he turns to leave, and slapping him over and over again in his face. We can only take some small pleasure in Segundo’s final coming to terms with the world around him; yet, at the same time, we are horrified that he too might have now become a member of the society which he, Noe, and his have previously shunned.
      Segundo returns home knowing now that there is no possibility of ever again finding some version of normality. Arriving in his hut, he sees that his father has disappeared and hearing the far-away bleating of their lambs, realizes that Noe has left the yard. He finds his father’s body hanging in the nearby well.
      Once again entering the studio, Segundo creates his own small retablo, showing his father as a teacher while the son sits below him, creating still unpainted and unformed villagers below, a gift which he places gently into his father’s pine coffin before buying it.
      The director could not have provided a clearer statement of what lies ahead. This boy’s future in society is still something unformed, like the pristine white clay which he and his father worked into shape before painting eyes, hair, mouths, and the multi-colored clothing upon the small icons.
     Packing up the paintbrushes and the few pieces of wood and figurines undestroyed in this symbolic devastation of his world, Segundo moves on and away in a direction opposite the route his mother took. He too will need to move into another still unknown world where the sins of the father—if in fact they are sins—will no longer hinder the development of the son. But in taking on his father’s avocation, with both its sacred and profane elements, Segundo, has become, like the second “one” whose name he bears, a kind of Christ hopefully redeeming the new world he encounters.     

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