Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Paul Morrissey | Flesh


drop your pants, joe!
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Morrissey (writer and director) Flesh / 1968

After the intelligent writing and co-directing with Andy Warhol of Ronald Tavel it is difficult to suggest that anything done by Paul Morrissey is worthy of being described as a movie from the Factory. Gone are the days of true experimentation, surprise, and absolute zaniness. The fascinating actors who appeared in the Tavel works have been replaced by highly dim-witted men and women who seem simultaneously incapable of comprehending what anyone might say while absolutely believing in those statements as representing some kind of mysterious truth.
       It is difficult nonetheless, to completely dismiss it as most critics of the day reacted to his 1968 Joe Dallesandro picture, Flesh.
      The New York Times critic A. H. Weiler pretty much summarizes the feelings of most critics who bothered to even write a review:

“A year ago, Andy Warhol introduced Bike Boy, a repetitiously seedy screen saga of a pursued Adonis for the delectation of the delicate. And now, Paul Morrissey, his associate, is exposing Flesh at the Andy Warhol Garrick Theater to prove once again that even audacious, unadulterated sex can be a trashy bore. In listening closely to his master's voice, the writer, director and photographer of Flesh has illustrated, in essence a male hooker's handbook. It might rate marginal credit as a social document if it weren't so leeringly obvious. But as produced in gaudy color, a haphazard sound track and slapdash editing, it becomes transparently clear that Flesh is simply what its title shouts.”

     Even Roger Ebert who, although dismissing Warhol’s films from early on, generally attempts a fair-minded review—and in this case even apologizes for his lateness, 4 or 5 months into its run—veers closely to a homophobic attack on Warhol and his filmmakers:

Flesh is not exactly a Warhol film, however. It was written and directed by Paul Morrissey, a Warhol associate, and it's at least interesting. It isn't very good, though; if it hadn't come from New York under Warhol's sponsorship, we'd never have seen it. Warhol is one of the chief beneficiaries of that unholy New York in-group of art investors, social climbers, fashionable first-person writers, intellectually precious homosexuals and critics too insecure to dare to seem to miss the point.”

    Ebert’s description of the film’s story, moreover, seems almost to be of a movie I didn’t see:

“The story involves a day in the life of Joe, a male hustler who is married and has a baby, and whose wife's girlfriend needs an abortion. The wife sends him out onto the streets to hustle the necessary $200 (and instead of seeming sordid, this scene and indeed the whole film ranges between being funny and being banal).
     During the day Joe meets an aging artist with theories about the muscles on Greek statues, a kid who wants to break into the hustling business, a go-go dancer, a semi-sincere lover and eventually even his wife's girlfriend.
     Morrissey keeps the film moving more quickly than Warhol might. He isn't adverse to editing when absolutely necessary. But the film's appeal depends mightily on Joe Dallesandro in the semi-autobiographical leading role. Dallesandro is pleasant, naive, engaging. He is also, alas, not very bright and terribly narcissistic (especially in a scene where he feeds a cupcake to his baby and you wonder which one is more self-satisfied).”

     So dismissive is Ebert’s piece that I’m also surprised that he sees anything even vaguely humorous about the work, but I’ll come back to that soon. At least he didn’t as many a critic today might represent Dallesandro’s naked body holding his equally naked son as some sort of child abuse.
      Finally, in a review by John Fortgang in the current century looking back, more fairly reevaluates Morrissey’s work, bringing up both the weaknesses of Flesh and its strengths:

“Flesh is, in conventional terms, a primitive film. Sound and images are erratic. Morrissey's camera drifts in and out of focus like a junkie struggling to retain consciousness. It's also unusually explicit. Here is a rare example of an erection in non-hardcore porn, prompting the police to raid The Open Space where it shown in London in 1970. Sex replaces emotional intimacy, the characters remaining benign but disengaged—as, of course was Andy—in a bid to keep the real world at bay.
     Dallesandro, beautiful but blank beneath his trademark bandana, is an entirely convincing (non)-presence, well-suited to Morrissey's naturalistic style. Here too is most of the cast from Lou Reed's '”Walk On The Wild Side”: the transvestite Candy Darling, who came from out on the island; Jackie (Curtis), who thought she was James Dean for a day, and Little Joe himself, who never once gave it away.
     In itself this may be an insubstantial slice of life on the street, but the barriers it broke were significant, not least on a generation of artists and filmmakers who saw that it was possible to make independent—in every sense—films about those on the margins.”

     In several respects, Fortgang is correct about this film’s outspoken statements of LGBTQ values, Dellesandro insisting verbally and most certainly cinematically that “Nobody’s straight or not straight” as he explains to a young street hustler. His gymnast friend, moreover, reiterates a common viewpoint held by hustlers, body builders, prison inmates, and others who daily participate in homosexual activity: “We’re not queer but other people don’t know that,” the “queer” here rejecting not so much the idea of homosexuality, but the idea that there might be anything unusual in having sex with another male or, in his gym friend’s case, even wanting to live with someone like Joe forever.
     I do get a little irritated, however, with the notion that the sexual nudity of such a film that reveals even an occasional Dellesandro hard-on is somehow “barrier-breaking.” Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Passolini, Carlos Hugo Christensen, Jack Smith, and even Andy Warhol himself, along with others catalogued by Vito Russo and my own essays in this volume/blog all showed various degrees of male nudity if not as literally as Morrissey does in Flesh in sometimes for more sexually stimulating ways. I might even suggest that Dellesandro’s earliest porn films, shot by Bob Mizer, editor of Physique Pictorial magazine, had grown so popular with gay followers before this film that they might almost be seen as part of the larger LGBTQ complex of movies, particularly since some of these clips later made their way into Thom Fitzerald’s 1999 documentary Beefcake, a film I will be reviewing in these pages.
     The very fact that so much of contemporary LGBTQ filmmaking is now actually quite sexually explicit furthers the idea of such a larger inclusion of what might once have been isolated as gay porno. And, of course that open seseme allows entry to many classic gay porn movies by far more talented directors than Paul Morrissey, including Peter de Rome, Joe Gage, Jean-Daniel Cadinot, William Higgins, Kristen Bjorn, the list goes on. I don’t intend to go there, but…perhaps in the future others might.
     But this is not really the important issue about the critical reactions to Flesh. What strikes me most about nearly all the critical commentary about Morrissey’s films—or perhaps we should say, Dellesandro’s films which represent Morrissey at his best—is its absolute lack of a sense of humor. If nothing else, as Ebert perceived, at times, and I’d argue most of the time, underneath the seeming banality of Little Joe’s day on the streets as he attempts to hustle up $200 for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion, is the ridiculousness of those entering and exiting our handsome sexual hero’s life.
     Beginning with the absurdity of the very driving force of having to raise money to get rid of a baby with whom your own baby son’s mother is having a lesbian affair, Joe makes the rounds of pick-ups and so-called friends who live life as if it were directly based on a cartoon book or, if you want to elevate it, right out of the pop-cultural art world of Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and, obviously, of Warhol.
    The very first trick he picks up on the street wants to see him again. “I’m on the street,” Dellesandro states the obvious. In other words, he’s openly available, yet the man with whom he’s just had sex apparently wants more perhaps than an occasional event which he will have to seek out. Clearly he’s thoroughly enjoyed what appears to have been simply sucking Little Joe off.
     Joe’s second pick-up, a far more lucrative one, is an older artist (Maurice Braddell), who not only wants to photograph Joe in various athletic-poses (not so different one presumes from those in the Physique Pictorial for which Joe has previously posed), but the opportunity to explain in art historical terms what those classic positions meant for the Greek, Roman, and Italian artists of history and philosophize about the importance of the athletic body to love and sex, as if imparting some unperceived knowledge that few others have before discovered.
     It’s clear that the true aim of his photographs and crude drawings is simply to capture the image of this male nude beauty a bit longer than the normal voyeur (he pays $100 for the privilege), and even he, who obviously done this several times in the past, is pleasingly amazed at just how easy it is to get Joe to whip off his shirt and pull down his tight-fitting denims. If Joe seems to be attentively listening to every word this poseur spouts, he later admits to his two street friends, one his own brother, Bob, that it was an absolutely boring event except that he was paid well and got a free dinner.
     Talking at length with his two compatriots, Bob, and a new kid on the block (Barry Brown), Joe seems for a moment or two to be honestly imparting wisdom on how to pick up tricks—indeed, one critic asserted that this was perhaps the most honest and natural moment of the film—but is also apparent that he is quickly growing bored by the insistence of the scrawny rather unattractive new hustler boy from Wisconsin and Alabama (the subtle look that comes across Dellesandro’s face as he even mentions these names, says everything about where the boy was and where he now is), suggesting that the worst thing they could all do was hang together which would surely not attract any john. Rather that the kid should go up to Third Avenue near the 40s or 50s to hang out near a newspaper stand. It’s clear that Joe simply wants to get rid of the inquiring pest, but the boy keeps insisting upon knowing the exact location of the newsstand while attempting to get a commitment that one day soon the two might hang out together so that he can “learn the trade.”
      If this scene appears to be banal in its serious discussion of their job, it’s really quite the opposite; just as Greta Garbo proclaimed, “I want to be alone,” it is something Joe desperately needs just to go about his business.
     The next stop is even more hilarious as Joe visits a female friend Terry (Geri Miller) for a free blow-job. She gladly provides him with what we can only imagine is a strange desire for someone who has come from one only a few hours earlier and intends soon after to scour the streets for yet more sex.
     Moreover, the act of fellatio is jealously witnessed by Geri’s two transvestite friends, Candy (Candy Darling) and Jackie (Jackie Curtis) who, in an attempt to both ignore and mock Terry’s indelicate act, pretend to read every article in a Hollywood gossip magazine, commenting on each word as if it were an important element of some sort of Holy Grail.
      It’s not enough that Terry sucks off the hunk in from of them, but after talks endlessly upon having liposuction to enlarge her bosom in order to be more successful as a topless go-go dancer.
    If this scene is absolutely “funny,” however, it is also extremely sad, as she recounts a past encounter with Joe in a room where other men corner and rape her several times after Joe has left (or perhaps escaped). Terrified and suffering at the moment, she now admits the entire event was sexually exciting, while meanwhile the other girls, still drooling over Joe, try to understand why he has actually married his wife, let alone fathered a baby.
     A visit to his gymnast friend, David (Louis Waldron), is an attempt to get a loan. Evidently, for a little friendly sex, Joe has taken such “loans” from the man who he refuses to describe as a customer. Although David, like the pick-up artist, is almost entirely concerned with the athletic body, he admits that he is losing some of his muscular development and can no longer get an erection. Yet he too cannot at all comprehend why Joe doesn’t simply move in with him and leave his ugly lesbian wife, Geri (Geraldine Smith). Like all the others before him, his major demand of Joe, however, is for him to take his clothes off, as he attempts to snuggle up to the hustler in partial payment for the loan. But Joe, as with all the others, quickly pulls away and speeds off.
     The last scene of the film consists of Joe lying in the nude on his own bed just as in the film’s very first scene, attempting to sleep with his wife and her female lover, Patti D'Arbanville, the two obviously stoned and giggling as they nuzzle up on the left side of the bed while Joe sprawls out on the right.
     The entire film might be said to be structured around this single image representing the contradictions of the film and Joe’s life: the nude body displaying his complete openness while his sleep suggesting a sense of closure and emptiness. Throughout it is as if everyone he meets demands of him, “Drop your pants, Joe,” only to reveal the complete meaninglessness of engaging with this god’s body. Of course, that is always the ephemeralness of any sexual act; it may be lovely but only while it lasts, and no matter how much any of those who worship it no one can hold onto its joys for long. If everyone wants Joe to give up all other beings and activities for them alone they will always find themselves wanting what they can never have, locked out from the world of continuous joy they seek. Flesh is only the cover for the heart, mind, and soul.

Los Angeles, September 30, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Dorothy Arzner | Merrily We Go to Hell


the smell of fire and brimstone
by Douglas Messerli

Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay, based on a story by Cleo Lucas), Dorothy Arzner (director) Merrily We Go to Hell / 1932

Dorothy Arzner was one of the great women film directors from the early teens of the 20th century up until the Hays Code tightened its noose around the neck US filmmakers in general.
     Herself a lesbian, Arzner’s films often dealt intensely with the concerns of women, including marriage, divorce, adultery, the patriarchal system, parenting, financial inequality, fashion, and numerous other social issues that male directors found to be uninteresting. Several of her films, such as Get Your Man and The Wild Party (both of these starring Clara Bow) involve complicated love interests. In the former, from 1927, the young lead, determined to marry a wealthy man, Robert, is courted by the father of the woman Robert is about to marry, joking, “If I marry the Marquis won’t that make me your mother-in-law?” In the latter film from 1929—one Arzner’s most successful movies—Bow, a college student, falls in love with her anthropology teacher (Fredric March), having long-ago shared his bed without him even recalling it. At one point Bow and several of her female friends, having been turned away from their school party for wearing revealing clothing, escape to a bar where the male patrons prepare to rape them, Bow escaping only when the professor comes to the rescue, with both student and professor eventually leaving the school on account of bad behavior.
     Her 1932 sound feature Merrily We Go to Hell, recently featured on the Criterion network, unfortunately is not one of her best given its final collapse into soap opera conventions.
     Yet there are plenty of wonderful moments before we get there. Featured as a comic film, by the end of the work we very clearly recognize it as a kind of tragic love story, similar to the one in which March—who in this film plays the drunken hero Jerry Corbett—would soon after be featured, A Star Is Born (in the 1937 version of the repeatedly remade classic).
     In the very first scene, for example, Jerry sits drunken on a rooftop terrace patio, while within the glass-encased apartment a few feet away drunken carousers, male and female, dance, stumble, and clumsily attempt to make-out while Jerry, in his hazy stupor, evaluates their worth, spinning pieces of broken straws in their direction. When one of the guests, the pretty young coffee-heiress, Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sydney), escaping the unwanted advances of the major Chicago newspaper’s gossip columnist, joins Jerry on the terrace, he finally comes alive just enough to offer her a drink, to which she saucily replies: “No thank you. Drinking isn’t one of my many vices.”—immediately suggesting we are in for a heady search to discover just want many other vices might consist of.
     Unfortunately, they are never revealed except perhaps for the worst of all vices, sentimentality, as she quickly falls in love with the witty drunk who begins each round of public drinking with the toast that serves as the film’s title.
     Despite her conservative father’s quite sensible pleas for her to realize that Jerry is not the man for a highly protected girl who has been showered with nothing but the best in life, the inexperienced romantic is convinced that she can redeem her man, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he shows up late to the very first tea party to which he is invited and is too drunken to attend their marriage-announcing event.
     It isn’t that Jerry doesn’t attempt to warn her about falling in love with him, even going as far as to make two early wise cracks about his cock-eyed views of love. After meeting her father for the first time, who obviously detests the young man come-a-courting, Jerry tells Joan:

“I think your father is in love with me.  
joan: Why?
jerry: Because he seemed upset. Men always most love the ones with   
            whom they are upset.

Later that evening he even admits: “I found out long ago that I enjoy the company of men—particularly if they’re a bartender.” Joan’s lame response reveals her naiveté: “Don’t tell me you’re a woman hater.”
     For that is just Jerry’s problem. He hates and forever drinks to the memory of the one woman he loved and who brutally dumped him, the actress Claire Hampstead (Adrianne Allen), one of the film world’s sleaziest ex-lovers.
     Jerry does attend their grand wedding sober, but, having forgotten to bring the ring, presents his bride-to-be with the ring at the top of a screw-cork. Joan hardly bats an eye. After all, as she tells her father, “You’re sure of everything when you’re in love.”
     And for the first few months as Jerry goes “on the wagon again” and she marches him into a daily work ethic wherein the newspaper reporter must write three pages of his new play-script each day, it almost appears that the miracle Judy Holliday conjured up for another drunken playwright, Dean Martin in the movie musical Bells Are Ringing, might work. At least he finishes the play, When Women Say “No”—even if no one seems to want to produce it. Yet, on the most disastrous night as the couple and their friends celebrate dozens of script readers having turned his play down, they receive a telegram saying that a New York producer wants to open it on Broadway. The hitch, and in such works there is always a hitch, is that the star will be Claire.
     It hardly takes a wink for Jerry to return to her arms as he once more hugs the bottle close to him as he formerly had his now almost deserted wife. Just when he is about to end their relationship Joan turns on him to accuse him of neglect. He begs her to lock the door to keep him home, but she rightfully replies, “I’m not your jailor,” opening it wide so that he might leave her alone of his own accord.
     Joan is about to pack up and return to Chicago before she has a revelation, declaring to Jerry that she intends to remain in New York to embrace a “modern romance” unimagined by her great aunt in which they will live in an open relationship, with the caveat that if he has such privileges, so too does she, an agreement that finds him once again declaring what he has throughout the film: “You’re swell.”
      Just when you think, however, that this picture might be livening up to reveal a sort of an open marriage in the style of Noel Coward’s Design for Living, produced on stage in the very same year, the writer, Edwin Justus Mayer, bunts, tossing  away any opportunity he might have had to allow Arzner to hit one out of the stadium.
      Joan sings the song just fine, but as Jerry tells her, “She’s got the wrong tune.” Her standard toast, for example, is far more bitter than Jerry’s: “Modern marriage. Single lives, double beds, and triple bromides in the morning.” And even Cary Grant, in an early minor role, doesn’t truly appeal to her, particularly when he suggests that they might “pop up to Harlem” to have a little fun.
     Mayer was the writer of a great many romantic films and even worked with the beloved Ernst Lubitsch on what I consider to be his one stinker of a film, To Be or Not to Be, with Jack Benny repeating stupid gag lines over and over as if he were auditioning for his later radio and TV shows.
     Feeling terribly ill, Joan visits the ladies’ room where a black washroom attendant suggests she visit a doctor. Yes, Joan, just as any clever sixth-grader might have imagined, is pregnant. Intending to tell Jerry and perhaps win him back, Joan finds that he is far too busy with his drunken friends and openly kissing Claire in their kitchen to be able to hear what his wife has to tell him.
      The open marriage is clearly off, as Joan packs to return to Chicago, pleading that if instead of his repetitive claim of her being a swell he might have been only once replaced that phrase with the words “I love you,” their marriage might have lasted. Off she goes, with the thick-headed Jerry finally coming to the recognition that Claire is nothing more than “a phantom to whom he has been drinking for years.”
     Since we have now entered soap opera theatrics, Joan, now in bad health, has a baby which quickly dies. Without knowing this, Jerry has attempted to write her about his love time and again, with each letter and flower bouquet being returned by her protective father. 
      When Jerry finally learns of her pregnancy—from the same gossip columnist who attempted to manhandle Joan in the very first scene of the movie—he flies to Chicago, demanding entry to her hospital room where Joan’s father stands guard. When Jerry insists upon entering, the father— pretending to be preparing her for her for the shock of her husband’s return while Joan, in fact, pleads for him to bring Jerry back—returns to the doorway stating that she refuses to see him.
       Barging into the room, Jerry discovers his loving and always forgiving wife is ready to start all over again. So everything, after all, is just swell! At least we have Arzner’s beautifully cinematic images to remind us that this movie might have been an act of love.

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


Monday, September 28, 2020

James Bolton | Dream Boy


a queer paradise without fear or guilt
by Douglas Messerli

James Bolton (screenplay, based on the fiction by Jim Grimsley, and director) Dream Boy / 2018

James Bolton’s Dream Boy, based on a fiction by Jim Grimsley, begins in a way that might support the easier interpretations of its title, suggesting that the backwater territory of Louisiana to where Nathan Davies (Stephan Bender) and his family has moved serves as backdrop to yet another tale of a neighbor kid, Roy (Maximillian Roeg) discovering his gay dreamboat, in this case, the shy Nathan. 
    Roy, as a farmer’s son must do chores before he gets down to his homework and drives the school bus as a part-time job to arrive at his morning destination. It is on that bus that Nathan first shows up, somewhat uncannily, in Roy’s rearview mirror. Seeing the handsome visage staring back at his gaze, Roy quickly motions for this tempting vision to move up closer to him, thus beginning a friendship that, like most coming of age gay sex tales, eases into a bonding between the two forged in their attempt to help each other with homework—Nathan being a model student in English with Roy better comprehending the complexities of Algebra.
     But something about this film doesn’t quite click into the gears of such now almost predictable gay teen romances, beginning as they generally do with a few stuttering attempts to demonstrate what their hormones demand followed by a longer period of angst about the direction in which their sexual drives are sent them.
    True, Roy has a Bible study girlfriend (Rooney Mara in her first film role) with whom he has almost graduated beyond the stage of intense petting while his best friends, Burke and Randy seem almost to be hostile at first to the newcomer and perhaps just a bit envious of the fact that Roy has found a apparently closer friend in Nathan. The young boys themselves, Roy two years older than Nathan, perceive their sexual attraction to one another almost immediately, playing it out with a gentle touch of the hands in only their second homework assignment meeting. Over the next few days, moreover, they sexually experiment at a speedy rate that is almost unheard of in such “coming out” films.
     Before long they have almost entered a relationship where they feel such a strong emotional tie that Roy asks, almost out of a sense of possessiveness, whether or not Nathan has had such homosexual contact previously. Nathan admits that this is his first time, with which Roy, without admitting so much, seems to take solace. That such gay virgins might suddenly find themselves in the midst of such longing and desire seems a bit incredible—particularly in an isolated world where, as Roy tells Nathan, hardly anyone else visits. It might almost be a kind of lost paradise in which neither boy feels the need for any feelings of fear or guilt.
     Yet, when soon after Nathan begins to fuck his friend, Roy suddenly pulls away, clearly shocked by the younger boy’s skill regarding what he might imagine is a neophyte’s attempts to please him. He goes so far as to accuse Nathan of lying about his previous experiences with a male other.
      Moreover, that the fact that the woods nearby are filled with strange totemisstic locations, a common Christian cemetery, an ancient Indian burial ground, and an empty mansion from the long ago slave days which is said to be haunted, all suggest to the viewer that something is slightly amiss in this movie if we are to imagine it as a youthful portrait of two gay boys coming of age.
      Gradually, the “dream boy” epithet shifts from a notion of Nathan being a model of Roy’s sexual desires, to the possibility of the entire story working within or at least beside a kind of fantasy or a presentation of an unreliable realist narrative somehow intertwined with dreams. In short, the love relationship between Nathan and Roy begins to take on the shape of a work such as Andrè Breton’s surrealist fiction Nadja, a mix of the Russian concept of “hope” and the Spanish “Nadie” or “No one.”
       Things become even stranger when Nathan’s father Harland (Thomas Jay Ryan), away for weeks at a time for his job as a salesman, returns. The tension between him and Nathan’s mother Vivian (Diana Scarwid) is subtle but somehow palpable. Even more apparent is the problematic relationship of Nathan to his father, who does not at all appear to approve of Nathan’s new friend and asks several times if they might just have a long talk, which results in the seemingly obedient Nathan retreating into his bedroom, longingly staring out the window for a glimpse of Roy.
        Vivien insists that her now increasingly drunken husband leave their son alone. And when we observe Nathan, as he prepares to go to sleep, tying a piece of twine between his chest of drawers and his bed post, we suddenly know that we are being told something far darker than this tale might have led us to believe, particularly when the father trips later over the trap, the fact of which sends Nathan scurrying to the nearby graveyard in order to sleep out the rest of the night.
       We now can comprehend how Nathan has learned to “screw” so professionally. His father has obviously been abusing the boy for a long while.
       Despite the temporary tensions between Nathan and Roy, when Roy discovers that his friend is terrified of returning home, he arranges for Nathan to sleep in their empty ranch hand’s bed. And soon, with Roy’s other friends, they “get away” for a weekend of exploring and camping in the apparently magical woods and its wonders to which Roy has promised to introduce his new lover.
       In the haunted house, however, Nathan begins to hear what appears to be his father’s voice, finding comfort only in the arms of his friend as they hide away in one of the tents which they have erected in the mansion itself. The next morning, as the other two boys explore the mansion’s upper floors, Nathan and Roy once more enjoy sex, for the first time Roy performing fellatio on Nathan. In the middle of their pleasure, however, the other two boys return to catch them in the act.
      Roy and Randy run off, but Burke remains, raping Nathan, and, when realizing what he’s just done, breaks off an arm of a nearby chair and clubs him to death. When the body is found by Roy, the police are called, Roy no longer trusting his previous friend Burke. Nathan’s father arrives and covers the body.
      A funeral in the local Baptist Church follows, but as Roy returns to the ranch hand’s room he has a vision of Nathan, greeting the boy with a smile. Next door we see Nathan’s mother, suitcase in hand, obviously leaving her abusive husband forever.
       The next morning on his school-day bus route, Roy looks once more into the rearview mirror to see Nathan’s face reflected in it, the only rational explanation being that Nathan has either now become a dream from which Roy will never escape or that he has been a dream-figure all along.*

*I have never read Grimsley’s 1995 novel, but apparently it ends with a kind of resurrection, with Nathan awakening in the Mansion to seek out Roy, the two discussing how they might escape the others who might search them out and agreeing to re-enter the woods and disappear forever from society. In short, Nathan’s death is still an open issue by the close of the fiction. Yet clearly, within any realist context, the events which seem to still partake of the realist conventions of the rest of the book make sense only if they are perceived as being a part of a dream world or a fantasy.

I might also mention that Grimsley is also a noted playwright, and I believe is a friend of one of the playwrights I published on my Sun & Moon Press, either Mac Wellman or Len Jenkin. In any event, Grimsley sent me a manuscript, if I recall correctly, of his collected plays Mr. Universe and Other Plays, which was ultimately published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1998, after I passed on it because of my recognition that I could not continue publishing books on that imprint, having just begun to produce new titles under my Green Integer.

Los Angeles, September 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).


Kenneth Anger | Fireworks || Scorpio Rising


a body scourged by sailors
by Douglas Messerli

Kenneth Anger (director) Fireworks / 1947
Kenneth Anger (director) Scorpio Rising / 1963

Most of experimental gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s works are an acquired taste. If you love leather, bikes, and boys who spend hours pulling on their denims, slicking back their hair, slipping into tight leather jackets, checking out the outline of their protruding cocks, and zooming up their motors, you will adore Scorpio Rising (1963). Sorry to say, as sometimes sexy as these images are they don’t quite put me into cinematic ecstasy.
    Nor, for that matter does one of Anger’s very first works, the highly homoerotic sailor flick Fireworks from 1947—although this one is far more visually fascinating and psychologically complex.
      The sailors here serve as a kind of double-edged sword, beautiful boys in summer whites to whom the unnamed 17-year old Anger is simultaneously highly attracted but also repelled. Anger himself has noted that during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 he had witnessed sailors in uniform chasing down Mexican men and attacking them.
       Accordingly, one of the standard symbols of homosexual eroticism is presented in this film as also a possibly dangerous force to which one must sacrifice oneself before being able to partake in the sexual joys they represent.
      The dreamer, in fact, has already sacrificed himself or at least been crucified by the men in white before the film’s very first frame, showing the young man (played by Anger) being carried into his bedroom like the dead Christ as depicted in the many historical pietàs. Placed rather gently upon his bed, the dreamer gradually awakens to recall his soldier-boy re-encounters through photographs of the sea men and himself. In a somewhat witty moment, the boy appears suddenly to be getting an erection until he pulls the projectile of a male African sculpture from under the covers.
      He dresses and tentatively crosses the room to enter a door marked “Gents” as if it were a urinal filled with sexual possibilities or, in this case, possibly even a kind of inverted version of the typical carney invitation of “Girls, Girls, Girls.”
      The boy enters only to find himself in a sort of bar, surely something close to a gay bar wherein a muscular sailor, much like a hoochie-coochie girl, performs his tricks, which in this case instead of dancing consists stripping off his shirt to flex his muscles and pose.
       A bit like an intoxicated carnival goer, the boy’s eyes open wide as he admires the man’s arms, chest, and back. But when he proceeds to offer the sailor his cigarette—an act extraordinarily similar to Jean Genet’s prison-set offerings of his 1950 short film Un Chant d’amour—which instead of the sailor accepting the offering, results in his taking umbrage, attacking the handsome kid and using a flaming bundle of sticks with which he lights the boy’s symbolic phallus.
      But even that somewhat calmer act is interrupted as a phalanx of sailors gradually moving forward as if in some mysterious military operation or even a dance in which the males maneuver in pairs, trios, and quartets. This too also quickly grows violent as they near the young gawker, chasing after him and pinning his body to the ground, whereupon one stuffs his fingers into his nose while the others beat him with metal chains in an obvious allusion to sado-masochistic sex, before reaching into the inner recesses of his bodily organs, to discover his heart which appears as a ticking timer. The blood pouring from his bodily orifices which has resulted from the sailors’ physical attacks is soon after washed away with milk, which clearly reminds us of the substance of motherly nourishment and, obviously, a stand-in for urine, the male fluid often employed in S&M sex.
      In another witty moment, one sailor unbuttons his pants crotch only to reveal a Roman candle shooting its contents into space instead of a penis filled with semen (all puns applicable).
      The dreamer, now wearing a decorated Christmas tree upon his head, as if decked out in drag somewhat like Carmen Miranda, moves toward the burning fireplace where several of the sailors’ photos, obviously a reference to early versions of pornography, are burning, as if the sexual excitement of the boy has spontaneously brought the objects of his desire into the realm of his own body heat.
      Back in in the sack once more, he is seen sleeping with a man whose head is radiating light, as if the film itself, just like the photographs, has caught fire within its projector.
      Perhaps Anger’s later musings about this flick, which he claims was shot in his own Beverly Hills home with sailors he’d hired over a long weekend while his parents were away on a visit, says everything we need to know about his freshman work: “This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.”
     One would think that a film such as this, with no apparent nudity, no male-on-male kissing, or even simulation of homosexual sex could hardly be subject to any obscenity charges.
      Yet upon showing the film at Los Angeles’ Coronet Theatre, the owner Raymond Rohauer was arrested and charged for presenting homosexual content with William C. Doran, as the prosecutor, focusing on what he repeatedly described as “the penis scene,” evidently the comic moment when the sailor’s open crotch revealed a firecracker. Rohauer was found guilty with a fine and three years’ probation in 1958.
     Appealed by civil rights attorney Stanley Fleishman to the California Supreme Court, the judges found homosexuality to be a valid subject of artistic expression, reversing all previous charges. Fleishman later defended and won the case against Anger’s Scorpio Rising.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Isobel Sandoval | Lingua Franca


if…
by Douglas Messerli

Isobel Sandoval (writer and director) Lingua Franca / 2019, general release 2020

This morning before I sat down to write it dawned on me that perhaps in some future time the film I had seen and admired yesterday, Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, might be perceived simply as a heterosexual romance in which there are some very serious complications concerning the central character Olivia (played by Sandoval herself), most notably that she is an immigrant without a green card working as a caretaker for an elderly Russian-Jewish woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen) residing in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at a time in which President Trump has illegally ordered ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents to arrest people like Olivia while they go about their daily lives.
     Even more importantly, the man with whom Olivia falls in love, Alex (Eamon Farren), Olga’s handsome grandson, living in the same house, has inexplicably stolen her passport, the only document which might allow her, through marriage to become a US citizen and to gain access to a green card and the legality which would take away her fears of suddenly being returned to her native country, The Philippines, as Olga’s previous nurse Wanda was.
      In such an instance, Sandoval’s narrative would center primarily upon the mixed feelings of the rather immature Alex—who also has serious problems with alcohol and, accordingly, in maintaining a job—has about getting married to the woman with whom he has been sleeping and is, quite apparently, now in love. The issues here might be centered upon their cultural differences, Alex’s erratic behavior, and upon his dependence upon his boyhood friends who clearly prefer that he remain trapped in the teenage world-views which they have never escaped. Indeed, it is one of his drunken friends, staying overnight in Olga’s house, who lifts Olivia’s passport and a CD from her bedroom drawer, passing in on to Alex, something which the latter never mentions. But the very fact that Alex has held onto these items suggests that his good intentions to help out Olivia and, perhaps, even his professed love has all been a kind of pretense.
     At one moment, he even appears to have switched off the apartment’s electric power— terrifying Olivia in the increasing would of paranoia which she inhabits—to suggest that ICE may be on her trail. Soon after, Alex goes even further with a clumsy lie, telling her that he has seen a man in a ski-mask leaving her room. Why, asks Olivia’s good friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), would an ICE agent dress up in a ski-mask?
      Certainly, these might be obstacles posed by the plot of any heterosexual love story, despite the fact that near the end of this work— which might remind any knowledgeable cinema buff of a film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai—Alex, after spending a romantic night in a local bar dancing with Olivia to the standard love song “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” appears to be more intent upon marrying this Filipina from the Cebu region more than ever. The lovers even briefly discuss what size family they might each desire as we almost buy into the film’s title by recognizing that the “lingua franca” which the movie touts is love.
      But, also as in any traditional Hollywood romance, when the couple wakes up the next morning in a hotel room with the male beginning a sentence with “About last night…” we know the lovely fantasy the film has woven has come to an end, just as it does in this case.
      I was highly amused by comments by many of the critics, male and female, who all seemed to concur that Sandoval’s great movie somehow ran out of steam in its last minutes by not more carefully explaining why the couple’s relationship could not last.
     Writing on the Roger Ebert site, Christy Lemire, for example, wrote:

Sandoval wisely refrains from spelling everything out about these characters and their backstories, but her film might be a bit too understated. It ultimately runs out of steam just as it’s reaching its most compelling point, leaving us hanging emotionally. Still, the dreamlike  mood she’s set lingers afterward.

     Or, as Dennis Harvey concurs in Variety:

There’s a simultaneous delicacy and straightforwardness to Lingua Franca that stamps Isabel Sandoval’s third feature with a distinctive directorial sensibility—even if her script eventually muffles some of the film’s early promise. …Nor does the ambiguous fadeout offer much satisfaction. To a point, Sandoval’s commitment to intriguing understatement comes off as intelligent restraint. In the end, though, a little head-on confrontation and plot resolution surely wouldn’t have hurt.

      One wonders if either of these writers and the others who have argued similarly have ever seen Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in which Emma Stone, despite her clear love of Ryan Gosling, intentionally chooses the wrong man and lives somewhat happily ever after; or Catherine Deneuve who, in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg purposely abandons her young romeo Nino Castelnuovo for an older and wealthy man. Or, for that matter. The central couple of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love; the list might go on forever. Heterosexual romances, I might remind them, just as in life do not always end up in perfect bliss.
       LGBTQ films, in fact, seldom end up in standard romantic notions, and that, obviously, is what is missing in my attempts above to imagine Sandoval’s film being located in the precise genre in which in any sane world it might belong. But in 2020—a throw-back year which in every way possible has retreated to the cruel days of hate while wiping away so many recent representations of social responsibility and loving that one might have previously imagined—the fact that Olivia (including the actor her performs her and has written and directed this work) is a transsexual woman, which skews the entire fabric of this finely wrought fabulation in the direction of a life that inevitably is battered by the winds of fear, bigotry, and outright horror for both lovers.
      Women like Olivia must generally seek out men whose love or marriage they must purchase, as has her friend Trixie has, a companion (permanent or temporary) to escape the terrors of living as a woman with a passport from another country on which her former male name is her sole identification. Yes, there is the constant worry as an illegal alien she might be arrested at any moment, but there are just as great fears that she will never find anyone who truly loves her or might, if her previous sexuality were to revealed, be subject to deadly violence.
      In a sense, Alex, in toying with her own fears (stealing her passport, controlling the apartment lights, and creating a fiction that suggests that ICE is following her movements) and in his own return to alcohol has played out just such violence, even if he mercurially loves her as well and even visits websites about the logistics of New York State marriage.
     He may even see himself as a kind of hero by enabling her to release some of her layered anxieties, but somewhat like Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, who attempts so save a transgender woman (not a transsexual one who actually has undergone a medical procedure to alter her birth sex) with whom he has experienced a deep relationship, his love will perhaps always be mixed with a strong element of disgust.
     Sandoval fortunately doesn’t linger on this issue. For if Alex deludes himself into believing that he might brave the mockery that the brutes who surround him will surely dole out if he were to actually make such a commitment, the sensitive viewer of this cinematic masterwork knows that the hero, Olivia, will surely be better able to buy her way into the American Dream rather than waiting for it to happen naturally. Besides, as all LGBTQ people know very well, what most people perceive as something they might define as natural are usually quite blind to everything else.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Ralph Ceder | The Soilers


the celluloid fairy

Hal Conklin and H. M. Walker (writers), Ralph Ceder (director) The Soilers / 1923

The 1923 silent western The Spoilers directed by Lambert Hillyer was an enormous hit, remade in 1930 with Gary Cooper playing the hero and in 1942 with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Marlene Dietrich playing the leads. In the 1923 version, the cast included Milton Sills, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Noah Beery, Sr.
     The original plot, based on a novel by Rex Beach, is somewhat complicated, but boils down to a simple matter of claim jumping in the Alaskan gold fields, in particular a wealthy mine called the Midas, originally claimed by Roy Glennister and his partner Dexter, but illegally taken from them through the auspices of a crooked state judge and the Nome, Alaska attorney, both of whom are paid nicely by Alex McNamara for their evil doings. Meanwhile the judge’s niece, Cherry Malotte (Nilsson) has become attracted to McNamara, but when she perceives his evil doings, switches her love to Glennister, who is such an innocent that he cannot even bring himself to allow a gunfight to be waged in her presence, particularly with Malotte being part of the judge’s family. Soon after the Duke appears in blackface, later in Dietrich’s feather boa, and after in half drag. But we’ll speak of that at another time.
     Only have he is jailed and freed on the sly by Malotte does he seek revenge, fighting it out in the local saloon and, of course, winning back his property and the hand of Malotte.   
      I describe this only because that same year, Stan Laurel starred in a parodic version of this film, The Soilers, a kind of Saturday Night Live-like satiric skit. Directed by Ralph Ceder for the Hal Roach Studios, this version stars Laurel as Bob Canister (in the Glennister role) and James Finlayson as Smacknamara (as the McNamara villain). Canister’s sweetheart, Helen Chesty, in this rendition making only a brief appearance, is played by Ena Gregory.
     In this case the director allows his central hero to get down to business soon after the mine is stolen from him and Dexter by Smacknamara and his gang, meeting up with him again in his offices above the local saloon and demanding they fight it out by fisticuffs.
     The humor of this scene depends on the fact that neither of the wranglers are the typical macho types represented by Cooper, Wayne, or Scott, but are themselves weaklings, trying to best one another with a seemingly endless series of embraces as they destroy the contents of Smacknamara’s office before spilling downstairs into the saloon. Neither one can get the better of the other as they pointlessly struggle, biting one another’s arms, slinging pots and other pieces of furniture instead of pies in the face, and finally ending it all it a ridiculous pillow fight. Their battle, in short, appears less as a western-like donnybrook and more like the postures of a dance or even a kind of absurd series of sexual couplings as time and again they reach out to get hold of one another, flailing their arms into mid-air before pulling their adversary to the ground once again, turning and tumbling each over the other like as in a slightly berserk wrestling match. As artists such as Thomas Eakins, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Robert Longo have long made clear, visually there is little difference between two males intensely fighting and two males rolling in sexual ecstasy across their bed.
    Ceder underlines this rather homoerotic tussle with the comings and goings of a film stereotype of a mad campy queen in cowboy drag, who evidently works as Smacknamara’s secretary. Swishing in and out the door to gather up documents, sometimes hidden away under the bodies of the brawlers, he appears to be oblivious to their goings-on, as if somehow such queer behavior was so natural that it was beneath notice.
     Soon after he re-enters to reach up for a shirt remaining amidst the pandemonium of papers, carefully dons it tucking it into his tight denims, straightens his cowboy hat, and primps for a few moments before the mirror, the fighters pausing until he leaves to resume their own activities, as if he has indeed caught them in an untoward act.
      Downstairs, on the other hand, the patrons literally ignore their physical efforts, and when Laurel finally wins by the accidental spillage from a high shelf of several bottles upon Smacknamara’s now dizzy noggin, he enters the street with his shirt half torn off as if imitating Marlon Brando after having been beaten up behind the shipyards of On the Waterfront, announcing to cowboys about to enter the chaos-riven joint that he has “won.”
     They appear to be equally unimpressed as those within and quickly walk around him as if he was a blathering madman.

      On the balcony upstairs, however, the effeminate office clerk, now dressed up as if ready for a night on the town, looks down at him while batting his eyes as if telegramming his love and admiration while putting forward his hands as if about to play patty-cake, shouting “My hero!”
      Canister looks his way only to dismiss his advances, to which the campy cowboy replies by picking up a potted plant and dropping it upon the battler’s head, knocking him out just as Canister had Smacknamara. One might almost expect this celluloid fairy to suddenly swoop down and scoop up the body, but the local garbage cleaners accomplish a far more rapid removal of the remains.

Los Angeles, September 26, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).