Monday, November 30, 2020

Tom Donagy | Story of a Bad Boy

pleasure is complicated

by Douglas Messerli

Tom Donagy (writer and director) Story of a Bad Boy / 1999

One has to wonder whatever happened to filmmaker Tom Donagy, or for that matter whatever happened to his charming, if inconsequential 1999 gay film, Story of a Bad Boy? Although it is now available for viewing on Amazon Prime, it was evidently extremely difficult to even view copy in the USA for many years after its release. There is not even a Wikipedia entry, and apparently there have been no archived reviews, with only a couple of brief synopses. Even if this Story of a Bad Boy is sometimes a superficial, yet another “coming of age” movie, it’s far superior to some  in its genre that continue to be touted as popular entertainments for LGBTQ or curious open-minded teenagers. One commentator described it, rather appropriately I think, as “the horny cousin” to David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen of a year earlier.

     If the 17-year old of Donagy’s film, Pauly (Jeremy Hollingworth), is seemingly “hornier” than Moreton’s character, it is because Edge of Seventeen is far more honest about portraying sex. Donagy’s cute, doe-eyed kid is ready for everything (“I want some day to do everything” is his creed), for much of the film he doesn’t have much opportunity to do anything. His confused and always exhausted parents, Spryos (Stephen Lang) and Elaine (Julie Kavner)—who besides their worrisome teenager have a young baby to care for—have permitted him to change religions, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic, without a clue that his inexplicable switch has mostly to do with Pauly’s attraction to an Irish altar boy, whom he soon discovers through his masturbatory voyeurism, is interested only in girls. 

     When Pauly’s “pretend” girlfriend—always a necessary accessory in films about budding gay boys—suggests he change back to public school for his senior year, he demands his folks allow  him yet another alteration in his life. Troubled by what they can only describe as his “weird” behavior, they argue instead he try basketball, playing the age-old parental game of “wait and see” regarding his newest reversion. Showing absolutely no interest in throwing a ball into hoops,  Pauly assures his expulsion from Catholic School by kissing a nun. As an aside: Story of a Bad Boy may be the first film to show a gay teenager kiss more girls than boys in the process of coming out.

     At the new school he immediately is befriended by a popular black girl, Carla (Cherelle Cargill), a wacky clarinetist, Ludmilla (Lauren Ward), and a male punk-like audio-visual technician and  school wrestler—all who try to convince him, along with his friend Colin, to seek out extra credits by engaging in anything but the “faggety” drama club.

     Ludmilla would have him try-out as the band’s drum major, a position overseen by a closeted older gay man, Mr. Fontaine (Gerry Becker). Carla and Colin argue for any sports activity, particularly track. The AV tech wrestler prefers to wrestle naked at home with Pauly in bed. Given his mantra of “try everything,” Pauly passively attempts to balance all their demands—that is until he gets a glimpse of this year’s drama teacher, Noel (Christian Camargo), a student teacher who, as a sophomore in college is just a couple of years older than the eager Pauly.

     There are a lot of reasons for the handsome Noel to be, as Pauly’s mother later describes him, so “sad-eyed.” For one, is has few of the natural qualifications of becoming a good teacher, since, as we soon discover, he talks mostly about himself. And, perhaps more importantly he has all the sophomoric pretensions of a young collegiate would-be director. Under the sponsorship of Mr. Fontaine, Noel has been brought to the school to produce his musical version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, “A,” the role of Hester going to Marta, the school’s “Miss Body,” singing that international hit song:

                            A is for adulteress

                           And archetype and are

                           A is for Antigone

                           For anarchy, for angst

                           A is agricol

                           And every day in every way....

Even The Producers would not have been so unlucky to save this turkey. But Pauly is so enamored of his new teacher—whose bed he has now shared and to whom he has provided more  sound advice than his slightly elder friend has proffered—that can see no flaws in the work nor in the character of his lover. Even after removing Noel’s school ring that has somehow been implanted during sex in his butt, Pauly can’t truly see what a pain in the ass Noel really is.

      With parents as clueless as his are, Pauly like so many young people, empathically declaims the empty truisms that every failed creator loves to hear: “They think they know. They don’t get it.” But these obviously won’t alter the fact that Noel has failed as a teacher and, soon after, told that he must return to attend to his studies at school. He’s certainly not ready for the big time of local high school yet, nor is he able to sustain the magical relationship between him and Pauly the younger boy’s imagination has cooked up. They will not be moving, as Noel suggested they might, into a teacher dorm, not a “dorm-dorm” which Noel had promised, particularly after he quite literally disappears from Pauly’s life. 

      On a previous date, Pauly and Noel, dining at an Interstate highway restaurant—presumably a safe haven Noel has chosen so that they might not be recognized—they run into a former friend of Noel, Guy, a rather flamboyant gay man living presumably in New York, who leaves Noel his telephone number, which when left behind, Pauly pockets.

       Without Noel and seemingly anyone else with whom he can commiserate, the would-be bad boy calls Guy and invites himself to a wild party. Meeting the young boy without memory of the context, Guy calls up his fashionista friends to remake Pauly up for a weekend of endless drinking, drugs, and sex—although by the time they get to the latter it seems more like an orgy out of Jack Smith, the in-drag and drugged out participants mostly rolling around in the skivvies as they hug and kiss one another—that inevitably lands Pauly in a hospital, tended to by friends, his now awakened and forgiving parents, and a spacey therapist that makes Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale. Handing him a sequined arrangement of plastic flowers and what looks to be a swan, she asks, like it were a Rorshach test, what it reminds him of. He quietly answers,  he likes it, he likes its shape. “Yes?” she leans forward as hoping to glean some profound insight into his attraction to gay beauty. It gives me pleasure, he admits. “Pleasure is rare. Pleasure is complicated. But pleasure is good.”

       By the time he’s freed from lockup, he’s too late to claim a graduation gown, that is until the popular Carla decides to break away from her normative crowd (“The next time you see me, I could be less popular”), handing over her white robe (the males are dressed in dark blue) which Pauly proudly wears to the graduation ceremony which finally brings his parents out from their homelife hibernation. As it begins to rain, the camera pans away from the small crowd gathered after the ceremonies to capture Marta exiting from the back of the building to join Noel in his car as they speed off into the future. Noel opts obviously to attempt to live out his life as an unhappy closeted man, restating what we long ago perceived even while the innocent hero of this tale, Pauly, could not: he is a fraud.

       Pauly’s father has provided him with money to buy tickets to the Poconos where, he suggests, his son might be able to pursue his painterly activities with other family members who plan to retire for the summer to Water Mountain. Although he purchases the tickets to Water Mountain, his eyes catch the departure of another bus to New York.

      A few minutes later when the bus pulls away, we see his white robe laying on the concrete as that bus to New York moves out of the frame, a bus which evidently the boy who wanted to experience everything has embarked.

      Donagy’s alternatively loud and quiet film, with equal parts of farce and wit, may not be a profound film, but it’s certainly not worth having been entirely ignored as seems to have been. If nothing else, it certainly represents an entertaining hour and a half. View it, I argue, for what it is.

Los Angeles, November 30, 2020

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


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Luiz De Barros | Hot Legs

the living doll

by Douglas Messerli


Luiz De Barros (writer and director) Hot Legs / 1995


The short film (27 minutes) Hot Legs begins—after its color credits and an eerily nervous musical score by Dean Hart—somewhat like a gay noir, one of the first of a slew of such works after, that also toys with being a kind of existentialist mind teaser:


“Imagine waking strange place, say like a motel room (wakey wakey)...find yourself sitting up facing a man with a rather large gun (fuck). I’ve been thinking to myself. What would be the first words I would say? Like in the movies...what the...or where am I or some shit like that. So think carefully because I’ve giving you a chance here to come up with something a little more...original.”


The stuttering answer of the victim to whom these words are spoken are even less interesting...”I...where am I....” He has clearly failed the test.

      But these are obviously not your typical noir figures. The man, clearly awakening from drugs, is a stunning beautiful young blond, completely naked and, yes, with “hot legs”—as his tormentor comments—his hands tied with rope behind his back. This young man makes Bogie look like a monster.

     Who might have been a goon in the typical Hollywood movie is a trim handsome man smoking a cigarette, a well educated figure whom we later discover is a medical doctor who was educated in the same private boarding school as the “pretty boy”—this South African director Luiz De Barros’ earliest film from 1991 was titled Pretty Boys—sitting in the nude before him.

      Over the six episodes, representing the days the doctor Tim (David Dukas) holds the boy beauty Dave (Gerrie Barnard) we gradually discover that the two were lovers at school, who, perhaps from peer pressure or the mockery of Dave’s athletic friends, were turned into enemies, as the now naked hostage in those olden days suddenly turned on his friend, beating Tim and later mentally traumatizing him throughout the rest of his school years. As Tim late in the film attempts to comprehend it, he enquires: “You know what I want to know. I mean I understand how your macho ego had to find a way of proving you’re a man, beating the shit out of me. But what I never understood was, why did you have to carry on after that? Why did you have to fuckin’ torment me, terrify me, humiliate me in front of the whole school? Why Dave?”

       Dave hardly even recognizes the individual who, turning the tables so to speak, is now tormenting him, and even when reminded that Tim was his boyhood friend, can only repeat that it seems so long ago. Why is he being so obsessed about something so far in the past, Dave wonders.

       It’s clear that the now heterosexually-inclined Dave is not the most intelligent of beings, claiming that he deeply loves his wife who provides him with good sex, although as Tim reminds him, he has regularly had sexual encounters with other beautiful women.

     As Tim attempts to dig into his hostage’s past, to comprehend how and why his once homosexual lover so radically shifted his sexual desires, we eventually perceive that Dave has not given those painful events or any of his other actions much thought. Like Maurice’s friend Clive Durham in James Ivory’s film version of E. M. Forster’s novel, he has almost effortlessly abandoned his homosexual life when faced by the normative demands of South African society.

       Although Tim has clearly plotted out his actions to enact a revenge fantasy, as the subtitle of this film suggests, that will end in his ex-lover’s death, as he teasingly and at times brutally feeds, strokes, toilets, washes, and shaves the now “doll-like” figure he has raped (using that word in its original Latin meaning, “the act of seizing and carrying away by force”), he eventually shifts his intentions.

      It is almost as if De Barros’ central character—as well as his audience—has become so attracted to the slightly dimwitted but hot-legged Dave that he cannot bear to do away with him, imagining the possibility perhaps of keeping him around as, if nothing else, as a loving-hating diversion that might even result in a few intense moments of intense kisses.

       But it is at that very moment of shifting when we sense a different balance occurring between the two. Earlier, despite his claim that he can never remember his dreams,  Dave manages to reveal a particular dream in which the two of them went hiking and it was “really beautiful as we walked around the mountains. It was hot, the sun dancing on my back. It was so hot. ...As we set up camp for the night I remember it being very quiet. Just the sound of wild animals. As we were lying next to the fire you came close and you started touching me and I...well I started spitting in your fucking face, you asshole.”

       As he spits now into Tim’s face, we cannot but wonder whether the memory itself has been a creation simply to taunt his captor. But if so, we suddenly recognize that Dave may have some inner resources of survival and with those an inner life that all these years he has worked intensely to sublimate.

       There is an almost Harold Pinter-like quality about this narrative shift, as the seemingly unfeeling Dave admits that he had beat Tim because, regarding their sexual involvement, “he liked it too much,” an admission of homophobic guilt that absolutely terrifies Tim, who gradually loses control, his captive suddenly spinning out of his chair to beat him just as he had as a child. With the shaving knife he is able to cut the rope that binds his hands together.

        When he turns back to the fallen Tim, he sees the now equally naked Dave once standing erect, holding the gun aimed at his body. After attempting to calm him, to reassure him that he will not go to the police, that they should just “forget” all that has happened—a true reversion, I would argue, to his simplicity of thinking. When that fails, he lunges again toward Tim yelling out, “You want me to fuck you?”

        The gun explodes. When the police arrive, in what the “epilogue” describes as 40 minutes later, we see Dave once again sitting in the chair, his hands still tied behind his back just as in the very first scene, except this time with blood rubbed across his face.

        “He killed himself,” he insists to the police. “He kidnapped me. He’s dead.”

        There are several ways of interpreting this ending. Perhaps, fearing the rape and not being able to face the trauma of his youth yet again—in the short flashback clips we briefly observe a previous rape, perhaps one of the torments Tim was forced to suffer—the doctor truly did kill himself. The blood on Dave’s face, according to this scenario, is Tim’s blood that splattered upon the attackers’ cheeks.

        But how to explain the bound hands? It is far more likely that the gun went off accidently, killing Tim, or that Dave actually shot and killed him. Within the 40 minutes before the arrival of the police, who presumably Dave telephoned, he returned to the chair and retied his hands, in so doing obviating any guilt that might be attached to him, and allowing himself the possibility of denying any knowledge about the logic of his own abduction.

        Yet, in so doing, he has once more been forced to shut himself off from any emotional or intellectual consciousness, to play the role of the complete passive innocent whose outward beauty is the only thing he has to offer others. Perhaps Tim realized that, after all, he did not need to kill his “living doll” since inside it was already dead.


Los Angeles, November 29, 2020

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


Henry K. Novalls | Shower

invitation to a sexual act

by Douglas Messerli

Henry K. Norvalls (writer and director) Shower / 2012 [7 min.]

There is, at first, something rather charming about Norwegian director Henry K. Norvalls’ horrific short film, Shower (2012). A swimmer (Svend Erichsen) is showering in a public facility. Another hunkier man (Per Magnus Barlaug) enters and takes another stall. Within a few moments, the first showerer hears strange noises coming from the other stall, pauses the flow of water, listens, and returns to his cleanly business.

      Soon after, he hears the sound of pleasurable groans, and again he stops momentarily what he’s doing, only to return to bathing himself. When it happens a third time, his curiosity, and we can presume his hormones, are somewhat aroused, and he turns off the water, darts out of the stall, and quickly moves into a stall closer to the sound of the pleasure. 

      Finally, witnessing the man openly masturbating in the stall, he chastises him for his inappropriate behavior. Almost in total innocence, the man says, he enjoys it.

      A bit flummoxed, the swimmer suggests this not the place for that kind of behavior, with the man responding once more about how much enjoys it, moving out into the changing room, presumably with an erect penis.

      Even more angered by the recalcitrant masturbator’s behavior the first man once more expresses his disconcertion about the second’s public sexual activities, although one might argue with only one other being to observe him, his actions are just slightly “public,” and Barlaug’s character even suggests something like that, arguing that if other man truly found such behavior so abhorrent he might have left immediately, but instead has stayed and even moved closer to the engagement.

     The first man briefly turns away, but turns back when the sexually aroused man tells the first that he is even more excited by the other’s observation of the acts, and outrightly asks him, “Put your hand on my shoulder.”

     Almost as in slow motion, Erichsen’s character moves forward as if in a trance, putting his hand on the other’s shoulder as the man again proceeds to jack off. 

     The first man’s eyes widen in witnessing the immediate action, stuttering out the words, “Is there something else you want me to do?” He seems to almost be pleading for further involvement, for an invitation to participate in the sexual act.

      After what seems like forever in a 7 minute film, the second responds: “Kiss me when I come.”

It is, when one thinks about it, a rather strange request. One might presume he would ask the other man to help in the masturbation, to perform fellatio, or even become involved in other sexual services, but the very innocence of asking him almost to award him for the success of his self-pleasuring is a bit odd and distancing even if at the same time there is a kind of utter innocence in the request.

        An even longer few seconds of only the sound of the hand slapping across his penis ensues, followed by a growing moan in the masturbator’s chest, as he cries out “Now, now,” the first man, wearing a gold chain from which hangs a tiny cross, moving toward other’s lips for a kiss.

       At that very moment, an older man (Bjarne Hjelde) enters the showing room, obviously witnessing their acts. He says nothing as the camera returns to the expectant faces of the two men.

     Without warning, the first man slugs the second, sending him to the floor, bending down to hit him again and again and again—so many times that it is difficult to even believe what we are suddenly witnessing immediately after his previous gentle and almost teenage-boy like behavior. His obvious wonderment and even joy has turned, with a blink of the eyes, into hatred, as the camera pans back to show the body of the dead showerer, blood pooling up beside his head.

        Every openly gay man probably has long heard of such stories. Certainly in the late 1960s when I was active in the New York City gay scene, I heard time and again such tales of how a simple sexual encounter turned murderous the moment the act came to an end, legendary stories of how a friend of the teller’s had been picked up for sex never to be seen again, or, surely a common urban legend, how a stranger involved in fellatio suddenly bit off the man’s penis the second the sperm began to well up. And we all later read of the repulsive perversions of the Milwaukee madman, Jeffrey Dalmer, who killed and sometimes ate parts of the bodies of 17 boys and men from 1978 to his capture in 1991.

     These ominous warnings were part and parcel of living in a hostile environment wherein homophobia was a natural result of the culture’s general fear and even terror of gay men and the growing LGBTQ community as whole. But to see it so lucidly laid out in Norvalls film came as something of a shock. As commentator Ivan Kander writes:

“With one location, two characters, and minimum dialogue, Norvalls crafts an undeniably engaging scene that exposes its protagonist to his bare core, both literally and figuratively. ...In other words, it’s a character drama about sexuality, repression, and identity that essentially feels like a suspense film. Quite simply: it’s tough to look away from.”

      As Norvalls himself described his response to an international short [movie] challenge that asked its participants to interpret the theme “naked”:  “I came to the realization that naked for me meant to be caught in a lie or have a secret revealed, when others knew what I did not want them to know.”

     It’s the “not wanting” others to know that leads to the swimmer’s attempt to blot out the very existence of the evidence, in this case a human being simply enjoying the pleasures of his penis.

Los Angeles, November 28, 2020

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

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Faraz Arif Ansari | Sisak (Silent Love)

love unsaid

by Douglas Messerli

Faraz Arif Ansari (writer and director) Sisak (Silent Love) / 2017 [20 min.]

Billed as India’s first silent gay film, Sisak (Silent Love) is a work in which two gay men, one an apparent business man or teacher who apparently is married (Jitin Gulati) and a younger man just beyond boyhood (Dhruv Singhal), encounter one another on the Mumbai subway and over several days fall in deeply in love—without touching or even speaking to one another. Contrary to nearly every gay film I review in these pages, director Faraz Arif Ansari’s characters represent gay love while fully dressed and without their sexual arousal resulting in the need to pull off their clothes and their clothes and jump into bed. Yet, as viewers, we feel their intense encounters so deeply that we long for them to simply brush up against one another, put a hand upon a shoulder, or simply lift up their fingers intensely pressed into the metal stanchions and straps of the nearly always moving space they cohabit to simply press flesh upon flesh.

      In the very last scene, where Jintin’s character rises and moves behind where Dhruv is seated, moving his hand to the bar just behind the younger boy’s back, we are almost certain his arm will slip into the space behind where Dhruv sits in intense anticipation. And when Dhruv also stands, the two of them coming face to face, we watch with almost bated breath for Dhruv to move his feet a few inches closer, for Jintin’s hand to slide down the metal pole upon which they share their balance to satisfy the desire so welled up between them. Their books and briefcases are left behind on the seats as if, in fact, they have shed their clothing.

      We also perceive that their strange standoff represents something so close to a sexual orgasm we can almost imagine their bodies quavering with the explosion of relief. And the final long scene in which, walking down both sides of the subway, they encounter full-length views of one another through the open, about-to-be shuttered car doors, the film comes so close to the cliché of lovers running alongside departing trains to express the intensity of their soon-to-be lost love, that we almost perversely imagine these gay lovers might suddenly both pull themselves back into the tram cars to speed off together into a life of the “happy ever-after.” Yet neither of them board the car, and although they may, in fact, encounter one another on the train again, we are certain that their “brief encounter” is now over, that for proprieties’ sake, if nothing else, they will pull back into their ordinariness ogling each other with only fond regrets. 

       Previously, we have seen them share not only their intense daily glances, but tears, frowns, smiles, and even the present a book Jitin’s character leaves behind (a fiction by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, if my agèd eyes read it right) for Dhruv to read. Why use words when they have so successfully expressed their emotions without anything else needed to be said?

        And then, if you were an Indian LGBTQ man or woman in 2017, the year of the film, you might come to this work with a much fuller sense of the film’s political ramifications that viewers from other cultures might. As Ansari has remarked in a conversation with Varsha Roysam:

"'My film is a political statement.’ Sisak, with its furtive glances and timid gestures, hair-raising music, and the chugging of the Mumbai local, silently retaliates against section 377 of IPC. It was December 11, 2013. Faraz Arif Ansari sat in a quaint café nestled in Nainital, on what seemed like an uneventful day. The news was turned up, competing with conversing voices, and what Ansari heard left him hollow. The Supreme Court had recriminalised homosexuality, upholding the infamous section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. “What do I do?” was the thought that ran through the mind of this devastated 30-year-old filmmaker whose sexual orientation was now punishable. With an overwhelming urge to do something, anything, he did what a filmmaker does best—weave a story.”

       Ransacking his meager savings, using the famed overcrowded Mumbai subway illegally, and with some financial backing from the actress Sonam Kapoor, Ansari, his cast, and co-workers “ran the rails,” so to speak, playing urban hoboes for art’s sake. 

 "'My actors would change behind dupattas in the corners of the train,’ he recalls. ‘And we didn’t have the money to get the permission to shoot on the train, which costs Rs 6.5 lakhs for three hours!’ So, Ansari and team filmed guerrilla style, sneaking their way through the platforms while pretending to be exorbitant tourists. ‘It was absolute madness’....”

     The real madness, however, was the reinstatement of the Indian Penal Code 377, which read: “Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

     Fortunately, it was finally ruled unconstitutional in 2018. But the year before, when Sisak was released, the code was still in place. This small gem of a film’s final moments were later devoted to a dedicatory cry in the wilderness:

“After 71 years of Independence, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality on 6th September, 2018. Homosexuality in India continues to remain a taboo. Many love stories fail to find a voice. Sisak is a dedication of to all the silent, unsaid love stories.”

Los Angeles, November 28, 2020

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

Friday, November 27, 2020

Roberto Fiesco | Actos impuros (Unclean Acts) a.k.a. Lewd Acts

toward the light

by Douglas Messerli

Julián Hernández and Roberto Fiesco (screenplay), Roberto Fiesco (director) Actos impuros (Unclean Acts) a.k.a. Lewd Acts / 1993

Robert Fiesco’s first film, Actos impuros (1993), translated alternately as Unclean Acts or Lewd Acts (I prefer the latter) is a highly disturbing but yet utterly beautiful film. In some respects, it is not even a coherent narrative but a series of “acts,” just as its title suggests, that have no real explanation.

      Julián Hernández’s script was based reportedly on “el estrangulador de Tacuba,” the 1942 Mexico City strangler who lived in the Tacuba district, Gregorio Cádenas. Yet Cádenas who killed four women, at least one with whom he had sex, strangled no men, and certainly was not the handsome Lucifer-like figure, Oscar (Oscar Trejo Lara) who stokes the fires for the baths in which he works. Unlike Cádenas, moreover, who presumably suffered from a possessive mother who, according to the psychiatrists of the day, led him to hate women, this murderer knives and strangles men and women equally without any apparent reason.

     We do see him having difficulty completing sexual intercourse with the neighboring woman, Leticia (Yoatizin Hernandez), someone to whom he is clearly attracted, particularly since he takes her a local carnival and, before sex, briefly dances with her (a favorite tool of sexual seduction in Fiesco’s films), their reflection captured in a mirror almost as if it were a TV set.

     And we can imagine that he kills the male showering in the baths—a murder we never actually see him commit, only perceiving that he has done so by his cries as he digs the knife he apparently used into the walls of his apartment building—due to his apparent attraction to him as he watches, again in a mirror, the water dripping down the attractive stranger’s naked torso, a scene that, as film commentator Rick Powell has observed, João Pedro Rodrigues might have borrowed for his O Fantasma. Clearly this would be macho figure is somewhat sexually confused. And we can speculate that he lashes out when he discovers himself precisely in that state of mind. 

     But this is simply speculation. Oscar is a loner, without any clues around him to suggest his past, future, or even present. When not in bed or in the showers, he life is spent shoveling coals into the burner which keeps the showers hot.

       In fact, in this film, no one even seems to be aware of his killings. And the focus of this movie is not on the act of killing—we only note it when in the midst of his attempts of having sex with women, the hands and bodies fall slack. As I report above, we never even witness the male’s knifing.

     The real fascination of this film lies in the beauty of the working class building in which he lives, in the shadowed and dappled lights that reveal swaths of blues, reds, yellows, and, even more importantly, the beauty of Oscar’s hairy brown buttocks in the midst of sex.

     Unlike Fiesco’s later short film, Trémolo (2015) where the director erases any sense of prurience in our observations of the handsome young male bodies, here we are purposely turned into voyeurs, wondering at all times whether Oscar will be able to relieve his sexual frustrations or unable to, will strike out again. There is almost an element of sadomasochism involved, a suggestion that heterosexual sex and homosexual desire will almost always result in death, standard tropes of literature since the beginning of time. 

     The beautiful landscapes with which we are presented—almost reminding me of a rawer version of the richly colored shades of the later films by Gregory Markopoulos—almost stabilize the violent sexual encounters we observe, as if the monster of this tale might only be able to balance himself by identifying with the landscape he might be able to calm down his demons.

     And, in fact, something like that does seem to occur at the film’s end when, after killing the woman he most seemed to love, he throws away his knife, later “picking up” a male with whom he has sex. Their lovemaking is fairly ambiguous, and it is hard to tell whether or not he successfully ejaculates, although he does appear to do so. In any event, despite his hasty departure, he leaves the man he has just fucked alive, as the camera follows him down a heavily shadowed staircase moving out toward the light.

     Of course, we cannot know whether he has finally come to terms with his homosexuality or just grown tired, as apparently Cádenas did, of his horrendous acts. But the landscape, if nothing else, suggests a sort of resolution.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2020

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


Roberto Fiesco | Trémulo (Trembling) a.k.a Carlos and Julio

i don’t know tomorrow

by Douglas Messerli

Roberto Fiesco (writer and director) Trémulo (Trembling) a.k.a Carlos and Julio / 2015

In a Mexican barbershop—the kind which you see everywhere in the world posting symbols of its trade on its window while within hanging publicity photos of celebrities who may or may not have had their hair cut by the shop’s owner—a handsome young soldier, Julio (Axel Arenas), dressed in civilian clothes, is getting his hair cut. On the radio an announcer relates what the night’s celebrations will entail and where and when the parade the next day, Mexican Independence, will take place. Others somewhat patiently wait for the barber to finish. The barber Ricardo (Alfonso Bravo) lays down his scissors and calls out to a young boy, Carlos (Benny Emmanuel), 14-16 years of age, who has been washing the windows, to come in, remove the barber’s cape and brush any loose hair from the customer’s face and clothing. Carlos does so, his eyes meeting Julio’s in the mirror, the two intensely reflected in an intense stare for a few quick seconds.

      Julio pays Ricardo and gives the boy a tip for his ministrations, which Carlos quickly deposits in a red tin box on a nearby shelf. Another customer enters just as the soldier gathers up his large duffel bag and returns to the street.

       One might never imagine that such a seemingly public event might simultaneously represent such a delicate intimacy. Anyone who has been in love immediately can recognize that the gaze between the young soldier—not that many years older (I’d guess 19-21 years of age) than the boy—signifies what we colloquially describe as “love at first sight.” Yet what could possibly happen between this junior janitor of a barbershop and a man who just returned to the busy streets on the day in 2015 before a major holiday with the shop about to be closed until Friday?

       As the sun goes down, we can begin to hear firecrackers in the distance, as Ricardo, the boy’s godfather, and his assistant plan to take in the festivities, encouraging Carlos to join them. The boy refuses as they warn him to lock up; there have been robberies in the neighborhood. As they leave, Carlos closes and locks the glass-sliding door, turning toward the camera, as he dances the keys in the palm of his hand with a huge smile on his face; it is as if he is suddenly now in charge of the shop, even though his only activity is to scrub the floor. But his innocent joy is still telling, and he will repeat it soon after several times which will help to make him the totally sympathetic figure he quickly becomes to the still-expectant movie-goers. If this is a short movie, noted director Roberto Fiesco (this was his seventh film to date) gives it the structural heft of a feature work, alternating between a series of quick images and more languorous scenes which help to evoke a deeper sense of story and character.    

       Our expectations are soon after met with a knock on the glass door, Julio inexplicably returned.

He signals that we wants a shave, with Carlos explaining that he “can’t open,” the shop is closed until Friday. Julio shouts back that he can’t wait until Friday, he has to march in the parade the next day and his military unit is leaving soon after. Might not the boy give him a shave?

        Pondering the idea for a second or two, Carlos opens up, the two introducing themselves to one another, and sharing brief information about themselves while eating the food Julio has brought along for a quick dinner, inviting the boy to share with him. At one moment, Carlos begins to choke on something he just swallowed, giving Julio the opportunity to touch his back and offer him an orange soda which they'll surly share. These gestures, as so many of those I’ve described above, are almost insignificant, but in Fiesco’s lens matter immensely as a way to break through any distance between to establish the sort of magic this director’s tale invokes.

        With the soldier finally seated in the barber chair, Carlos slowly applies the shaving soap, slides the razor down the soldier’s cheeks, lips, and chin, gently massages the young man’s skin and rubs away any remaining hairs with a soft white brush with a movement that one might describe as something between a tickle and a whisper. So sensual is this shave that the soldier purses his mouth into round release of air almost as if he has just undergone an orgasm.

      Rising from the chair, however, Julio accidently overturns the water bucket, and as Carlos attempts to mop up the water, he slips on the floor, the soldier joining him in a rough-housing wrestle which ends in sprays of water that soaks them both in their squeals of surprised pleasure. They have no choice, obviously, but to remove their shirts, wring them out and attempt to dry them with a hair dryer.

        The two thin beauties, however, are in no hurry to redress as the radio begins to play Luis Enrique’s Yo no se mañana, a song that could not be more appropriate for the two who beautifully dance together to its lyrics:

                       Here we are all by ourselves.

                       What you see is what I am.

                       Don’t ask me for more than I am.


                       I don’t know if tomorrow,

                       I don’t know if tomorrow,

                       if we’ll be together,

                       if the world ends.

     When the number begins, Julio invites Carlos: “Come.” For a moment Carlos turns away, expressing a tentative macho “Fuck.” But then he turns back again with that smile that I previously mentioned, as if to ask himself, “why not?” as the two of them, half-naked dance the romantic salsa with true style. The incredible thing about this so very private statement of their growing love is that, as are all their other acts, it is performed in a brightly-lit room surrounded by glass windows so that anyone might observe them. If it is highly sexual it is also so totally pure in its intent that no one need worry about being put in the position of voyeur. While we witness a man in the act of making love to a slightly younger boy, if there is any perversion in the act in exists only in the mind of the beholder. 

     Again, contracting time, the director now reveals the boy, still half dressed, lying on the waiting couch asleep. Julio lovingly removes his sneakers, but then inexplicably sweeps up the red tin box holding its few coins, puts it in his duffel bag and returns to the street for the second time in the movie.

     Carlos awakens, confused a bit by Julio’s absence, but then once more flashes his radiant smile as if recalling the joy of the evening he has just experienced. When he turns back to his work he suddenly seeks that the red box is missing, and for a moment he appears truly disconcerted, perhaps also wondering why the soldier would have stolen something so paltry when he has already been rewarded the boy’s heart. Nonetheless, he seems untroubled as he returns to his moping duties.

      Cliches have a way of coming true in such romantic tales, and the third time does seem to be the charm as the soldier raps against the glass once more, the boy, happy to see his new lower, quickly opening up for him. He hands a paper box to Carlos asking him to open it. Inside is a soldier, dressed a bit like Julio now is, when he shakes it recognizing it is also a kind of piggy bank, the tips Carlos has previously saved now hidden within the symbol of his new hero.

      As the soldier goes to leave, he turns back to hug the boy, the boy, soon after, meeting the man’s lips with an intense kiss that is met with an equally loving kiss by the soldier. They kiss three times, hug again, and the soldier sadly marches off, his hand momentarily laid flat against the front glass window in one final signing of farewell.

     Carlos, the smile now suddenly failing him, takes out the shaving cream, spreads it upon the peach fuzz of his cheeks and gently shaves himself, an act of an imaginary moment of the soon-to-be future when he may be of age to meet dream soldier as an equal.  

     As Armand White, writing in 2016 in Out nicely summarized my own feelings: “Why can’t American filmmakers produce a great gay love story? That question is prompted by ‘Tremulous/Tremulo,’ pretty much a perfect depiction of desire, eroticism and romantic occasion....” In the end, this work plays out a bit like a fairy tale-like dream that Carlos might never be able to fully explain to his Godfather and tonsorial assistant. All they will witness is the soldier-money holder and a slight change of behavior in their young charge.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2020

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