Saturday, October 31, 2020

Ray Yeung | Yellow Fever

sticky rice

by Douglas Messerli

Ray Yeung (writer* and director) Yellow Fever / 1998

Hong Kong-based filmmaker Raymond Yeung has established himself over the last couple of decades as one of the most outstanding of gay film directors, producing to date three feature films and five excellent shorts, although he has as yet failed to develop the international reputation of artists working in the same genre such as François Ozon, Todd Haynes, Wong Kar-wai, and André Téchiné—but then the Asian LGBTQ scene in general has been rather overlooked, something which I do hope to help rectify in these pages.

     Yeung’s earliest work, Yellow Fever, released in 1998, was a wonderful introduction to his concerns with Asian identity and to his often comic twists of narrative expectations. At the time Yeung had just returned from London where he had been educated as a lawyer; he would not begin his film studies at Columbia University until 2008, and certainly, there are elements of the short that hint of its director’s as well as the actors’ youth.

     Yet in just 26 minutes Yeung establishes the personality of his central character Montgomery (Adrian Pang), in part because he is a kind of self-willed stereotype, a gay Chinese anglophile who wants as little to do with his own culture as possible. With his primarily Anglo friends such as the cute blonde-haired Andrew (Charles Edwards)—who one might imagine as Monty’s boyfriend except that his major role in Monty’s life seems to be kissing him intensely only at parties—and pretentious Chinese friends such as Yu Ling (Jaclyn Tse) (“So you see, I just couldn’t decide whether next season’s black was brown or camel. And so I meditate. And then suddenly I see the sign—not making a decision is a decision in itself.”) and the highly effeminate Earnest (Ivan Heng) who jokes that when his mother suggested he marry his long-time friend Yu Ling, he countered, having known our hero such he was a child, “why don’t you me ask to marry Monty?” 

      Yeung establishes the reality of Monty’s life from the first few seconds of the film which shows his character sprawling in the bathtub to enjoy a good, long masturbation, interrupted by a doorbell rung by his new Taiwanese neighbor Jai Ming (Gerald Chew), who after introducing himself asks the oldest come-on question in the world: “Do you have light?” Except the friendly and implacable Jai Ming is asking quite seriously, having already summarily been dismissed by Monty’s declaration that he does not speak Chinese (a lie) and that his name is, as he announces in the driest British accent possible, “Mont-gom-ry.” After finding the cigarette lighter which he cannot get to work (obviously a symbol of his sexual disinterest in the intruder), he hands it over to Jai who quickly lights his cig just in time to see the door closed in his face.

       Obviously, Monty is not comfortable in his own skin, being one of the many Asians living in Anglo cultures who, unable to bear their adopted culture’s stereotypes of Asians, play out their own counter-stereotypes of Asians who has been entirely enculturated.

       As Yeung portrays that world, however, it is a lonely place. Despite the few Andrews who love Asian boys, most of the English, so Monty is reminded when after five months of a celibate life he tries once more to score at the clubs, not an easy task. Every time he shimmies up to a handsome boy, the lad turns and runs. He returns home completely depressed.

       In the meantime, two further encounters with his neighbor Jai confuse him and make him wonder if just possibly he is becoming “sticky rice,” a term used to describe an Asian interested in having sex with his own countrymen. After discussing the problem with his gym trainer Dex and after having a longer conversation with Andrew, he is convinced that he should simply give his neighbor a try. This time he rings the doorbell immediately kissing the man behind the door intensely until the two of them end up in bed. Given that their sex is accompanied by Madonna’s version of Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell’s song “Fever,” we perceive that the sex was quite exceptional.

    Monty, however, can hardly cope with his sudden metamorphosis rushes to Yu Ling, but is so chocked up with confusion he can hardly express his dilemma. She becomes so frustrated that she utter loses her “always tranquil” disposition, gently striking him. When he finally can admit that he is has slept with another Chinese man to whom he is actually attracted and, far more importantly, he genuinely likes, she dismisses his perplexity. In short, “What’s the problem?” Monty marches to a Chinese revolutionary song back to Jai’s apartment. 

      As in the film’s first scene, he knocks, asking Jai “Have you got a light?” Jai momentary disappears returning with a lighter and his own cigarette which he swiftly lights, and, satirizing Humphrey Bogart’s legendary ignition of Laureen Bacall’s cigarette in Casablanca, pushes his fag towards that of his friend’s. Like a suddenly aroused penis, Monty’s cigarette rises to meet his, reassuring us that they’ll be a perfect couple from here on in.

      If this witty work is not precisely profound, it does challenge the gay Asian colonialization of themselves and asks a truly important question: why should a Chinese man be more attracted to tennis player Pete Sampras than to Michael Chang?

      The more serious issues behind Asian devotion to Western cultural values are explored in Yeung’s first feature film, Front Cover of 2015.

*Apparently Yellow Fever was devised collaboratively by Gerald Chow, Rosa Fong, Ivan Heng, Colette Koo, Chowee Leow, Kwong Loke, and Liam Steel)

Los Angeles, October 31, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema bog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).

Friday, October 30, 2020

Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley | Wonder Bar


by Douglas Messerli

Earl Baldwin (screenplay, based on the play by Geza Herczeg, Karl Farkas, and Robert Katscher) Lloyd Bacon (director), Busby Berkeley (musical director) Wonder Bar / 1934

Upon her arrival early in the film at the famed Parisian nightclub Wonder Bar, a bourgeois Babbitt from Schenectady, Mrs. Pratt (Louise Fazenda)—wife of the manufacturer of “nuts” (Hugh Herbert), accompanied to the club with his businessman friend, Simpson (Guy Kibbee), the manufacturer of “bolts”—declares to Mrs. Simpson (Ruth Donnelly) “Well, this place doesn’t compare with the lobby of the Bijou Theatre in West Schenectady!” The women, nonetheless, find the interior of the bar, particularly in the vast caverns of endless dances featuring  Busby Berkeley’s multiple-mirrored sets, to be quite enticing.

     Their husbands are simply looking for a good time with a couple of belles de nuit who spot them and follow along with the several moves of table Mrs. Pratt insists upon as the girls ogle and wink at their husbands. Don’t worry, when a gigolo gets sight of the heavily bosomed Schenectady “mother” he makes a pass, and the two women determine to put a little sleeping powder into their husband’s nightcaps to permit themselves a night in gay paree, just as their husbands determine to apply the same deceit to free them of their wives. We get the idea immediately: for those who can’t truly appreciate the wonders of Wonder Bar a good night’s sleep is a just punishment.

      The real denizens of this club which features the dance duo, Inez (Dolores del Rio) and Harry (Ricardo Cortez), are much more sophisticated in their attempts to get the love they want. Liane (Kay Francis) is determined to run away from her famous banker husband Renaud (Henry Kolker) if necessary to maintain her affair with Harry; and Inez, who loves Harry, as we later discover, is willing to go even further in her attempts to keep him in her bed.

      Meanwhile, nearly every male in the joint, particularly Wonder Bar’s owner and emcee Al (Al Jolson) and the club’s band leader and off-stage composer, Tommy (Dick Powell), is in love with Inez, Al having nightly dreams of her floating above his bed and Tommy staying up all night to create songs about his amorous pursuit.

      And then there is the Wonder Bar regular Captain Hugo Von Ferring (Robert Barrat) who, having just lost everything he had left in the stock market is planning to spend the few francs he has left to celebrate a grand send off with the chorus girls and others before driving over a cliff on his way back to his house. 

      Love, it seems, might put nearly everyone in this film to sleep before the night’s out. If the American nuts and bolts quartet are destined to a long night’s snooze, so is the sleazy double-crossing Harry provided an early dispatch into eternal rest by a knife his jealous partner puts in his chest as they whip up, quite literally, a gaucho dance (the South American version, evidently, of the French Danse apache). To save the woman he loves from any embarrassment, Al manages to stow Harry’s body in the Captain’s car, having been told by that gentleman about his midnight plans. That’s 6 down...and 3 to go. But wait, Inez, almost immediately recovering from her passionate mistake, finally comes to realize that she truly does love Harry, who given the singing composer’s bland and always smiling presence will surely soon bore her to death.

      Meanwhile, the movie’s audience might wish to have a little cat-nap to escape the loudly recorded stand-up jokes which Jolson cracks whenever director Lloyd Bacon gives him an opportunity, which is far too often. There’s the one about the nudist colony from which Al has just returned, “tired from seeing the same faces all the time.” Did you know that in America a boudoir is a place to sleep, while in France it’s a playground? A chaise lounge is a Murphy bed back in the good old USA. A moment later there’s the long embarrassing skit in which Jolson pretends he’s Russian, striking up a conversation with his White Russian émigré friend Count “Ofenlong” in which he describes the former great “wiolinist,” having lost everything, is now a street peddler selling “or-ang-és wid and wid-out cids.” The skit goes on...but I have to presume that your interest has already “vaned.”

       If those worse-than-vaudeville jokes don’t put you into a dreamy heaven of slumber Jolson’s overtly racist blackface number “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” will surely send you into a stupor of astonishment.

      Writing in Sense of Cinema, David Boxwell describes the event:     

This now notoriously extravagant “tribute” to African-American culture serves as a key illustration of the laxity of official overseeing and governance of content in Hollywood films before the middle of 1934. No doubt entirely defensible to its creators, this long musical number climaxing the film is only different in degree to the many ways in which mainstream American popular culture appropriated black culture and distorted it through a racist lens which was ostensibly “affectionate.” As Eric Lott argues, “blackface minstrelsy has seemed a form in which transgression and containment coexisted, in which improbably threatening or startlingly sympathetic racial meanings were simultaneously produced and dissolved.” Thanks to his performance in The Jazz Singer (1927), Al Jolson was associated with blackface performance traditions originating as far back as the 1830s. This number was a kind of apotheosis of Jolson’s blackface star persona, but Berkeley also intended the number to be a fashionable reflection of the Harlem Renaissance’s verve, as well as a utopian vision of material plenitude for deprived Depression audiences, regardless of their racial-ethnic identity. While we find the grotesque elaboration of racial stereotyping in the number appalling today, Wallis and Lord also must have known, deep down, that the unfettered breach of taste inherent in the number wouldn’t fly past the SRC, hence their unwillingness to screen it for the Committee. 

      Well, you might say to yourself, there are all those Busby Berkeley numbers to simply sit back and enjoy. But here too, I find the repeated images of hundreds upon hundreds of women, hands swaying through the air while their gentlemen dancer friends move in and out of pillars to be a real snooze. There are, as usual, the impossible-to-believe overhead kaleidoscopic visions of human bodies shifting, like wilted flowers, into patterns that are momentarily worth watching just for pure wonderment. I am sure, however, that when Siegfried Kracauer saw this film he must have gone bananas (that’s crazy in German), with which, by the way, Berkeley had much more fun (that’s bananas not Kracauer). 

      And speaking of fun: any gay viewer on the lookout for the film’s rumored “panze” humor should not blink twice. There is the early scene when a man asks if he may “cut in” to a seemingly heterosexual dancing couple, only to dance away the man, to which Al, hand on hip, limp wrist in air, snipes: “Boys will be boys.” And even in heaven there is a blackfaced fairy, hankie in hand, who hands Al his silver foil wings. Well, at least black gays don’t necessarily to hell.

      Whoever suggested that all pre-code movies were a lot more fun ought to be forced to sit down to watch Wonder Bar back to back twice, no snoring permitted.

     It almost makes one want to cry when recalling that this film was 1934s big hit. I think Mrs. Pratt was probably right, I bet the West Schenectady Bijou did have better features.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2020

Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queen Cinema blog (October 2020).


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Alain Berliner | Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink)

the heart of their terror

by Douglas Messerli

Alain Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen (screenplay), Alain Berliner (director) Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) / 1997

Belgian director Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose is billed as a comedy, which ultimately it becomes; but not before a great deal of social bigotry, confrontation, and ostracization along with domestic confusion, terror, and outright confoundment before arriving at that place. One might almost describe this as a kind of absurdist comedy except that in 1997, the date of this film’s French-language release, the issues it raises were still so fresh that the underlying assumptions upon which the perception of the absurd depends were not yet fully established. Even today there are many intelligent people who have difficulty in talking reasonably about some of the issues Berliner’s film raises.

      It’s not just that the Fabre’s youngest boy Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne), called “Ludo” by family members, has a cherubic-like ovalene face, wears his hair long as many a European family permitted throughout the 20th century—even while US fathers and barbers insisted their sons be subjected to flat tops and buzz cut—dances to the tunes of his favorite TV show Le Monde de Pam, starring the fantasy-like human doll Pam (who lives in a pink world and marries the man of her dreams), but regularly wears dresses and, when he is later told by his older sister Zoé about the basic biological facts of X and Y chromosomes that determines the sex of a child, declares that he is actually a girl who instead of the female XX chromosomes he was intended to get, received the XY after “my other X fell into the garbage.”

      Ludovic’s mother Hanna (Michèle Laroque) puts on a brave face, believing in allowing the fantasies of childhood to be harmlessly played out, explaining "It's normal until 7. I read it in Marie-Claire.'' Ludo’s father Pierre (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is not completely assured by her attitude, but as a loving husband allows his wife to raise the children as she sees best. Indeed, all might have gone well, but Ludo does not seem to be in any hurry to abandon his fantasies when the family moves into what appears to be the perfect suburban neighborhood which might almost remind us of Leonard Bernstein’s short operatic rendition of US suburbia in Trouble in Tahiti—a  backup quartet singing

Friendly sun opens the eyelids, opens the eyes

Of the husband and wife;

Kindles their faces, kindles their love,

Kindles their faces with greetings of love

In the little white house in Wellesley Hills.



Joy to your labors until you return

To the little white house in Highland Park

In Shaker Heights

In Michigan Falls

In Beverly Hills.

Skid a lit day; skid a lit day... Ratty boo.

      Not only is the suburban community friendly, but members share weekly neighborhood barbecues, which, of course, having just moved in, the Fabre family is now expected to host. They’ve invited their somewhat eccentric, certainly open-minded grandmother, Élisabeth (Hélène Vincent), their broodingly correct-thinking next door neighbor Albert (Daniel Hanssens)—who happens to be Pierre’s boss—and the entire force of fathers and mothers doting upon their seemingly rather bratty and selfish kids. Things appear to be going well until Ludo decides to show up in a frilly pink dress.

      At first, the visiting parents are delighted seeing in the child a beautifully dressed and well-behaved young lady;  that is, until Pierre, in the midst of introducing his four children, pauses before continuing, “And this is Ludovic. The practical joker. He’s always doing things like that.”

      So begins a long and slow decline in the newcomers’ stature in this perfect adult version of Pam’s world. But unlike the TV version of a children’s fantasy, the adult one hides many secrets.  

     When Ludo meets his fellow classmate Jérôme (Julien Rivière) it is love at first sight, the boy, who just happens to be Albert’s son, accepting Ludo almost the girl she demands she has always been. Even if the adults have not yet been able to assimilate the change in pronoun their children symbolically embrace it.

       As friends, Jérôme invites his new girlfriend over to his house, carefully explaining that the room just before his had been his sister’s. Later the children break into the sacred room, kept intact from a time before the daughter’s unexplained absence not unlike Mrs. Danvers’ shrine for Rebecca in Alfred Hitchcock’s film. Discovering the child’s dresses, Ludo determines that she must dress up in the prettiest and pinkest of them for an unofficial wedding between herself and Jérôme, playacting a ceremony with the dead child’s teddy bear officiating, as “Pam” marries her “Ben.” It is a moving scene of childish wonderment; but parents in this film are always interrupting the fantasies of their children, and Albert’s more than dutiful wife Lisette (Laurence Bibot) discovering them as they are about to kiss, faints in horror over what she, and eventually the entire neighborhood, perceive as a perverted desecration of their sexual values. 

       The Fabres have no choice but to seek out psychological help for Ludo, which, given the girl’s insistence that she is female, has little result. She lamely attempts to play with the male-assigned toys, but it is as if the life has been drained from her. After Ludo, during the school production of Snow White locks the young girl who is playing that character in the bathroom and replaces her, awaiting the kiss of Jérôme she has previously been denied, the entire school district goes into crisis. Ludo is expelled and forced to attend another school which requires several hours of travel each morning and night.

      When Pierre’s own job seems to be threatened even Hanna joins in the societal blaming her daughter.

       Soon after, the child goes missing, found eventually in a freezer where she been hiding to await her frozen death. Realizing they will totally lose her if they continue, they allow her to wear a dress to a neighborhood birthday party. The next day Pierre is fired from his job and returns home drunk, with the terrified Ludo asking, “Is it my fault?” Pierre’s announcement to her that it is not, that people are “jerks,” and Hanna’s rejoinder, “I’m sick of all this hypocrisy” seems to suggest that Pierre and she no longer blame their child’s gender displacement to be the heart of the problem, yet at the very next moment she again turns against the child spitting out the horrible words: “Yes, it’s your fault. Everything is your fault,” almost as if suggesting what the hypocritical adults have determined is something she has no longer any power to deny. This is the way the normative patriarchal society works, blaming those innocent for their own fears and transferring the guilt upon those who attempt to salve those fears.

     Sexuality, Hanna recognizes is at the heart of their terror. Almost as if to prove it, she appears at her neighbor Albert’s driveway the very moment he has put Jérôme in the front seat and is waving goodbye to Lisette on his way to drop off his son at school before driving himself work. Hanna greets him and plants a long, sensuous kiss upon his lips, gently stroking his hair.

       The obedient and long-suffering Lisette, a product of her husband’s social and cultural inhibitions, has no choice but to believe that her husband has now been dishonest, having long desired Hanna and other women previously. In this contemporary Salem—or to contextualize it within French history, in the tradition of Margot de la Barre and Marion la Droiturière, women who were accused of causing impotence and desire in Marion’s former lover—has truly become a witch, or as Albert describes her “a devil.” 

       A day later they discover the words “Go Away Fruits” spray-painted on their garage door. The family itself has now become defined as “queer” simply for their son’s shift in the definition of her gender. This surely cannot be a comedy the audience must conclude. And as if in answer, soon after, while tears roll down Ludo’s eyes, her mother clips her hair to match the cut she has given her to “other” sons.

       Is it any wonder that Ludo now wishes to live with her more accepting grandmother? When the two return for a family weekend reunion, however, Pierre announces that he has found another job in a town far away. And the Fabres once again pull up stakes and move on, as if attempting to put the past into the coffin where Snow White, never having received her kiss, likely died.

       The new home, certainly more run-down and less suburban than their previous home, is also filled with friendly-seeming neighbors. Yet the new family keeps its distance and have ordered Ludo to never again behave in a manner that suggests his gender desires. Ludo nonetheless meets someone willing to be a friend, a tomboy (Chris Delvigne) forced to wear girl’s clothes and envious at Ludo’s male attire. Invited to a costume birthday celebration with her mother, the two are dressed by their parents in cis-gender attire, Ludo in a musketeer outfit and Chris costumed as a princess. Alone with Ludo, the tomboy conspires to switch costumes, to which Ludo reacts with both horror and desire, twice insisting, “No I can’t.” The stronger of the two, Chris physically enforces the switch as both return to the gathering of mothers, Ludo hanging behind.

     When Hanna sees Chris wearing Ludo’s costume, she runs to find Ludo, who, as she begins to slap him hard, cries out “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t my fault,” a muted declaration that actually nothing ever was his fault. Yet Hanna, fearful of the past repeating itself, continues to beat the fairy princess. The mothers come running, pulling her away from Ludo, confused why such an innocent act as simply exchanging costumes has resulted in such a violent response.

        This is, if you recall an adult fantasy as much as one for children, and now, as Hanna rushes to find Ludo to apologize for her behavior, she finds her missing. Running to a highway sign advertising “Le Monde de Pan,” into which she has previously seen Ludovic longingly staring, she is startled to find Ludo in the picture as well, running off with Pam.

         Awakening on the neighbor’s couch, she is confused to see the faces of her own husband among her neighbors peering down at her. Dr. Freud might have noted that she is the one who is now displaced—as a mother who fears she can no longer play that role for her beloved Ludovic; what is a mother who cannot accept and protect her own child? a question surely that Lisette has long asked of herself as well.

         Wondering if it’s okay if she now wear dresses, both parents assure her that she may, clearly in acceptance of the transformation overwhelming their still beloved child.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Joel Ashton McCarthy | Why Does God Hate Me?

a lie to ease our conscience

Joel Ashton McCarthy and John Morrison (screenplay), Joel Ashton McCarthy (director) Why Does God Hate Me? / 2011 [16.31 minutes]

If Patterson’s film, reviewed above, uses one of the numerous times in history in which members of the LGBTQ community suffered bigotry and hate by governmental civil authorities which  reiterate his rather obvious conclusions, Joel Ashton McCarthy’s commentary on religious fundamentalists’ determined efforts to destroy sexual diversity reads almost like a propagandistic text written by gays for youths suffering those prejudices in their homes and churches. Even the movie’s title, Why Does God Hate Me? appears to be a loaded question which allows any liberal-minded human being to subscribe to the film’s easy answer, which we know even before the movie presents its first image: God doesn’t hate anyone, only bigoted people hate in the name of God.

     Particularly given that the mean-spirited parents whom we hardly get an opportunity to meet in this work are made to represent the worst of hateful stereotypes, being folk who block all stations not broadcasting religious sermons, chastise their elder son for arriving home a few minutes late, and lash their youngest boy, Matthew (Dakota Daulby), for even asking why gays are the subject of his family’s vitriol, we wonder if there is any flesh and blood behind their views.  As Matthew says in the voiceover in which he expresses his struggles with his mother’s and father’s values: “I didn’t know how strict my parents were until they kicked my brother out,” evidently because of their discovery in his room of small quantity of marijuana.

       These are the kind of parents who enjoy taking their son on an outing to express their hate for women who have chosen abortion, any faggot still standing, and anyone else might even avert their gaze in a direction other than the ones upon which they and their fellow church members are focused. There is simply no room in their cross-eyed view of the universe for deviation.

        Such people, of course, do indeed exist. But it’s too bad that we might not have been presented with bigots with a little more meat on their bones and less grey matter in their heads. Many children suffer enormously because of parents who share such beliefs, but in order to understand the complexities and difficulties of such family imprisonments, it might have served the director better to allow these monsters to have some carnal appetites instead of presenting them as simple-minded as the badges of hate they pin upon their chests and the posters of damnation they wave through thin air.

        Their son Matthew, having grown up believe such rot, seems amazingly nonplussed to discover his own gay feelings and is so unbelievably well-adjusted that he is even able to suffer the abuses of his girlfriend Esther, who kicks him in the balls every time his eyes scan the handsome school jocks parading down the hall, purposely shares her cold with him so that he might get out of sharing a few weeks in an all-male summer camp, drops a cinder block on his leg so that he is refused by the wrestling coach, and prays over him like she were a vulture impatient for a taste of carrion.

         On their first missionary outing to San Francisco, he holds back from joining the others ready to scream out their hate to anyone with a set of ears. And on his second such voyage to San Francisco with his parents to protest the gay pride parade, he momentarily skips over to the other side, amazed by a gentle gay man who speaks kindly and honestly to him and even attempts to call him back after spotting the WE HATE FAGGOTS badge Matthew has been forced to wear.

       Returning back to his home in Redding, Matthew calls up his brother living in that evil den of iniquity, San Francisco, and arranges for his own escape from his pompous jail keepers. When Esther, inexplicably asked to come see him off, reminds him that he hasn’t yet been cured, the now savvy Matthew suggests that perhaps he is not the one who needs “curing.” and blithely skips with his suitcase out of the house, repeating his brother’s facile adage, “Sometimes you just have to fuck the rules.”

       Unfortunately, this is not the way young gays and even heterosexuals escape their parental jailhouse of the mind and spirit. Many young gays and lesbians forced to survive on the streets and engage in prostitution just to survive may still feel quite strongly that God does indeed hate them for simply being who they are. 

        As nicely as everything seems to come together for the young hero of this fairy tale, in the real world the bigotry of belief has deep sinkers on the souls of such innocents, and the pain they suffer for their so-called sins is real and enduring. A slug in the balls or any other part of the body, a brick tossed in anger, and a contagion of any disease such as COVID-16 more often kills than serving as a reminder of what such youths have abandoned. McCarthy’s film is a lie to ease our consciences.


Los Angeles, October 28, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).

Monte Patterson | Caught

                                                          selected shorts 2011

a change of the reel

Monte Patterson (screenwriter and director) Caught / 2011 [12 minutes]

Obviously influenced by William E. Jones’ now-classic underground 2008 film, Tearoom, which used almost an hour of raw film data from a police sting of a men’s room in Massillon, Ohio, Patterson’s Caught does the same for what are supposedly tearoom scenes in Jonesville, Ohio where in 1964 a bathroom camera hidden behind a mirror filmed over 68 men having different forms of homosexual activity, leading eventually to 38 convictions.

      Unlike Jones, however, who is fascinated with how the sexual acts themselves reveal the sociological and sexual interplay of men seeking physical love that they knowingly recognize as outlawed, Patterson, in his faux documentary, is far more interested in the psychological condition of a heterosexual man (Gabriel Gatton, to whose character I shall attribute his name) who, despite an apparently loving wife and a young male blonde-haired child, Georgie, visits the bathroom during this short film three times in order to find sexual fulfillment.

     The first two times quickly reveal the unpleasant frustrations and dangers of such desires. The first time Gabriel enters he immediately is faced with two rather heavy-set men in the toilet stall, one sucking the other off.  Our “hero” moves to the urinal where he pretends to piss, one of the men from the stall leaning back to get a view of the younger man’s face, whereupon Gabriel decides to opt out of that day’s sexual adventure, moving instead to wash his hands below the mirror behind which the camera is hidden.

     The very next image is of his curly-haired son with his wife (Liz Wicker) smoking a cigarette on the couch. Despite her greeting of “Hi, honey” and a kiss on his cheek, her husband kisses only the air, quite obviously dissatisfied with her standardized greeting.

     The second time at the bathroom, dressed far more casually, Gabriel encounters a handsome young man (Cole Simon) at the next urinal, who when he turns to face him gradually moves his lips into a knowing smile before flushing the urinal and going over to the mirror, where we see the camera whirring behind it, to comb his hair. Soon, he returns to Gabriel, putting his hand upon the other’s shoulder and messaging it momentarily. A very unattractive intruder immediately enters while Gabriel quickly scuffles off, obviously displeased with the interruption as he walks quickly back to his Chevrolet.

      During the next brief interlude at home, his wife, smoking yet another cigarette, stands over the stove scrambling his eggs. Georgie sits in his highchair, she bending to retrieve after she puts on her gloves, apparently spiriting him away with her to church, while our friend posts himself behind the local newspaper.

      After Gabriel’s first spoonful of eggs, Patterson’s camera immediately cuts to Gabriel sitting in his car yet again outside the public bathroom, swallowing down a final sip of beer as if to get up enough nerve to enter once more.

      At the same urinal he again encounters Cole, who this time stands behind him, thrusting his lower body slightly forward as if to suggest he might be interested in anal sex. This time we see the camera and the cameraman behind the mirror, catching the kabuki-like scene their victims are playing out.  Cole moves off to the open stall, pulling down his pants and facing out. Eventually Gabriel follows, as the hidden camera evidently stalls as, we later discover, the cameraman engaged in changing reels. Accordingly, we see nothing depicting their sexual act, but know that this time Gabriel has succeeded when he we observe him leaving the building with a slight smile on his face.

      Later, in the midst of the police-viewing of the camera scenes—wherein we recognize several of the men we’ve previously glimpsed—and in in their later arrestment by police before being hauled off to jail, Patterson briefly interrupts the surveillance shots to show us what really happened during those lost camera moments. Facing Cole, Gabriel pleads “Wait, wait, I’ve never done this before.” Cole looks longingly at his new prey, while Gabriel asks, “What’s your name?” to which Cole replies, “Shit, turn around,” forcing him into position so that he can fuck him, probably Gabriel’s first and possibly only anal penetration.

     The next cut shows Gabriel, dressed only in his undershorts, opening his door to collect the daily newspaper where he discovers through a headline that police have arrested 17 men at the men’s room for “deviant behavior.” Each of the men arrested (Cole among them, having been caught on camera with other sexual partners), if convicted, is sent to the state penitentiary for one year. 

      In a highly ironic shift, our ears are suddenly bombarded by the Bobby Vinton standard, “My Heart Belongs to Only You.”

My heart belongs to only you

I've never loved as I love you

You've set a flame within me burning

A flame to stay within me yearning


It's just for you I want to live

It's just to you my heart I give

I'll always be your slave my darling

Through the coming years

      Gabriel suddenly moves to his wife, kisses her full on the lips and takes her upstairs to the bedroom, evidently to celebrate his escape from justice through sex. It’s not to be, however, as he  quickly pulls away, driving off. In the film’s last scene, we see him sitting again in the parking lot in the front of the bathroom, obviously contemplating.

     Need anything more be said? He has been temporarily “saved,” but it is clear that he longs for another homosexual encounter which he may or may not chance.

     Obviously, this is a kind of tragedy, not because of his queer desires, but because of the restrictions put upon those desires by the so-called normative society in which he lives. If he chooses not to chance it again, he will have to accept a life of lies and dissatisfaction that will offer him little else in the future but work, death, and the possible dissolving of his marriage and the effects of that upon his little Georgie. Perhaps what he has now assimilated is that although he has not been arrested, he too has been “caught” and imprisoned for life.


Los Angeles, October 28, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).    

Monday, October 26, 2020

Jenni Olson | Blue Diary

that melancholic ache

by Douglas Messerli

Jenni Olson (writer and director) Blue Diary / 1998

Jenni Olson’s poetic reflection on love past begins with a simple act of stroking her friend’s tattoo on her left arm. Without a visual analogue the action might be that of anyone, a man making his first move on a woman, a man attempting to engage another man, or, as we know in this instance, a woman having fallen in love with another woman.

     The voice we hear is suddenly interrupted by an intertitle, presumably describing, rather humorously, the actions that have led to the moments about to be described: “Fuck, talk, sleep, fuck, breakfast,” the kind of events which are usually are at the heart of normative narrative films which are generally less interested in the time after the events that lead up to and include the sexual act.

       But then Olson’s films—this her first full 16mm short in color, Blue Diary—are always “different,” queer in a way that underlies the director’s lesbian sexuality from new and different perspectives. The visual content of her films, for example, are simple shots of mostly empty San Francisco streets revealing everything from industrial sites to rows and rows of city bungalows, along with dead-ends, large open boulevards, gasoline stations, neon-lit parking garages, a view of the ocean, etc.—an entire world of various possibilities which— in the ruminative voice-over performed by Lynn Flipper, read actually, Olson later admitted in an interview, by filmmaker and director Silas Howard who at time was transitioning, if his voice is any clue, from woman to man—are apparently now closed off due to the woman at the center of the film as she pulls away the morning after the sexual act.

       And in that sense, one might describe Olson’s short work a study in contradictions:  

I think I’m too tired and then I’m not. So much for my good boundaries and emotional health. She’s straight. But so cute. I think we’re on a date. It suddenly becomes clear that we’re not and last night was just a fluke. I become lost in her train of thought. I become tender about the way she talks. The way she laughs and the way she seems so far away from me. She doesn’t ask me questions beyond certain conventional enquiries. And then she’s not particularly intent upon listening to my answers. She tells me now she’s actually celibate. Ignoring this obvious rejection of  my advances, I maintain some hope, and buzzed on raging hormones I make more meaningful eye contact. Slowly approaching her for a kiss, I wish she would open her mouth. She gives me only a soft kiss, which I return in a gesture of earnest desire. With my heart pounding, smiling sadly at her disinterest, I lower my eyes in defeat and feel the heroic acceptance of this new fact of life. She is not interested in me.

     This passage, which represents the majority of the film’s “essay,” (as Olson often describes the aural center of her works) is entirely based on oppositions: being tired and then not, having boundaries but breaking them, imagining one is on a date but realizing that the sex was just a fluke, being tender about someone who is actually far away. The loved one asks conventional questions but seems disinterested in the answers, while the teller of this tale, feeling rejected, advances nonetheless. Even disinterest seems to result in excitement, defeat becomes a kind of heroic act.

     Similarly, the “wallpaper,” as Olson describes the visual scene, in this case shot by noted filmmaker William E. Jones, primarily represents cityscapes lit by the hazy blue light that in California generally defines sunrise just before the golden light breaks through. The streets are mostly empty, the stores and businesses not yet fully opened, a kind of “stop” (just like the stop-signs we witness) before the actions of the day take over.

     In short, love in this “blue diary” is transformed almost moment by moment into a kind of longing for what the speaker has momentarily enjoyed at the very instant  it is disappearing, the way morning steals away the joys of night in bed dreaming of those multiple possibilities. A full 17 years before the director’s “defense of nostalgia” in her feature film, The Royal Road, there is already in this work an intense remembrance of the pleasures that in that very moment are also being taken away, forever lost. And, yes, there is something heroic in the knowing abandonment of something which you had that was never yours in the first place.

      In a sense, Olson’s haunted lover represents a kind of tougher urban version of the role at the center of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, The Marschallin, who warns her young lover, Octavian (performed always as a “trouser” role, i.e. a woman singing the part of a male) that the passion they now feel will soon be over due to realities of daily life; the best that one can hope is to have the grace and wit to accept without rancor what the new day brings.

      Near the ending of her Blue Diary, Olson sits in the dark, swallowing the oppositions she has just faced now signified in her very choice of food: bland, slightly sour tasting Swiss cheese combined with the fruity bright flavor of strawberries, while nursing “that melancholic ache I have felt from childhood, always having crushes on girls and not being able to do anything about it.”

Los Angeles, October 26, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).