Thursday, December 31, 2020

Todd Haynes | Dottie Gets Spanked

saving love for another day

by Douglas Messerli

Todd Haynes (writer and director) Dottie Gets Spanked / 1993

As Will Fabro muses at the beginning of his excellent essay in Bright Wall/Dark Room on Todd Haynes’ 1993 short film, Dottie Gets Spanked:

“Queer people are often asked “When did you know?” as though there was simply one irrevocable event that changed us, a clearly signposted fork leading us off the default path of heteronormativity. The question is fallacious at its core, not just in its presumption of a dominant heterosexual identity compromised, but also in its binary notion of cause and effect, i.e. This happened and you became That. My experience, instead, was one of sporadic but seismic rumblings—sometimes self-aware, mostly subconscious, and others externally applied—of difference throughout childhood that marked me as queer long before any actual sexuality asserted itself during puberty.”

     So too did I experience my own unconscious and knowing instances of self-awareness that ultimately led me to perceive I was gay. There are hundreds of small moments that began early in childhood—one time asking a neighborhood girl to switch roles in our game-playing activities so that I might be the Mother and she be the Father; the early bullying and name-calling which baffled me, particularly when I was designated as a “queer,” which, without knowing its sexual meaning I gladly excepted, knowing I was indeed a bit “odd” in comparison with my male companions; my early childhood attraction to theater, even as a six-year-old asking a friend to “play play,” for which his mother rapidly accused me of speaking baby-talk and, soon after, my complete devouring of the Burns-Mantle Best Play Books I’d discovered in the local library from which I memorized the dates of plays, the theaters in New York in which they were performed, and the number of performances they survived; and my general disinterest in all male-oriented toys, my parents finally breaking down one Christmas to buy me a marionette, Robin (as in Robin Hood), the closest thing to a doll they might have imagined as an appropriate gift for their eldest son—but only four mind-searingly instances in my later youth that served as deeper revelations of my hidden sexuality. After two years in high school revealing to the head coach that I had utterly no talent in any sport, he offered the former basketball coach and current superintendent of school’s son, me, the opportunity to serve as team “mascot”—which meant traveling with the various football, basketball, and track teams to all their venues and cleaning up after the athletes’ showers the towels and other debris they left behind. At one point, while hanging out in the locker room while they changed back into their street clothes I caught a glimpse of the football team captain, Doug Reed, in the nude. I don’t know if anyone noticed my eyes captivated by the sight, but I do recall my immediate erection, which might explain why later that day several of the team members grabbed and stripped me with the intention of some vague sexual initiation which, upon noting my bodily immaturity, they quickly abandoned. I remember being disappointed instead of relieved as I should have been.

      A second moment of self-awareness stole over me as I found myself in a drugstore leafing through the pages of a fan magazine, lusting after the image of the long-flowing mane and hairy chest of Barry Gibbs of the Bee-Gees, his penis out-lined clearly by his tight pants. I could hardly put the magazine down but was embarrassed in case anyone might spot my entranced stare at the pages of a magazine clearly intended for teenage females.

      And sixteen I had finally admitted to myself, as Adam Lambert has recently described his own childhood self-revelation, that “I was not wired like most of the other guys.” Living in a dormitory in Norway I had developed a secret crush on the dark-haired ice-speedskating champion of the school, Halvard. One afternoon, as I laid reading on my bed, he entered my room, obviously frustrated by my unconscious flirtations, and, marching over to my bed, splayed his body face-to-face across my own. What was I to do with my roommate sitting across the room? I gasped and laid as still as if I were dead, an act I still regret and will to the moment of my actual death. If only I could have lifted my arms and wound then round him. I was still not gay in my head.

      Finally, having returned to the US that same year, I read in the June 24, 1964 issue of Life magazine their pictorial commentary on homosexuality in America, accompanied by an essay, basically outlining the “sad, sickness of these desperately lonely men,” by Paul Welch. I recently reread that sad and sick essay, but can’t find the phrase I remember it for. It doesn’t matter, I felt that it suggested that they had even seen men kissing one another, which I might have concocted in my 17-year old mind from their account of how the police watched to see if these men demonstrated any sexual enticement, which in those days might even be evidenced by placing one’s hand on the shoulder of a friend. But I do remember that I was not disturbed by any such enticement but the reporter’s seemingly incredulousness about the fact that two men, attracted to one another, might want to follow it up with a kiss, and found it absurd that this was something about on which they felt the needed to comment. I never once had discussed anything about sex with my father, but for unknown reasons felt it necessary to mention my observation to him. Suddenly the seemingly quite, gentle man I knew grew enraged, his face almost turning red. “If ever a son of mine would be found to be a homosexual,” he almost screamed, “I would immediately disown him!” If I had merely spoken out of my confusion, I now was suddenly awakened into a new realization. I didn’t know the word then, but I might now express by describing father a brutal homophobe. His terror took my breath away, transforming my innocent wonderment of two men wanting to kiss into something darkly and emotionally terrifying—and inviting. I didn’t “come out” until two years later, but I now already knew I had been waiting all those years to be raped, or at least kissed.

      At the same time that I was “playing play” or as I would now describe it, performing improvisatory theater with my friends and even, from time to time, my disinterested brother and sister, Hayne’s six-and a half-year-old, Steven Gale, was fixated by the television show starring Dottie Frank (Julie Halston), based loosely on Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy. I too watched that weekly with my mother, knowing, as does Steven, that it was not my father’s idea of good TV, which consisted for him, as it does for Steven’s father (Robert Pall), of westerns and football broadcasts. Steven is as utterly focused on Dottie as I was on all things theater, drawing pictures of and Dottie and her fellow characters with a creative energy that I put into listing and learning about Broadway venues and playwrights.

      And gradually the child at the center of Haynes work grows to realize that unwittingly his infatuation is somehow not quite normal. The first time he perceives this is when he mother is being visited by a neighborhood lady who, observing Steven’s total attention to the situation comedy, remarks on how strange it is that he is so completely wrapped up in his observations, reporting that they can hardly keep their daughter still despite her husband’s regular spankings. Mrs. Gale, who might remind one of Barbara Billingsley who played the mother on TV’s Leave It to Beaver, quietly objects “We don’t believe in hitting.” Yet Steven, like most children, has overheard what parents often think their children have tuned out, an inexplicable comment about the appropriateness of his behavior.

       This process of gendering even public entertainment continues as the next day Steven boards the bus, where three girls are engaged in an intense conversation about their personal likes and dislikes, including their shared enjoyment of the Dottie show. Later, while he waits at the end of the day to be bussed back home he overhears his three female classmates discussing the color of Dottie’s hair (red, apparently, as was Lucy’s) and her hairdo, information which he knows—probably through a fan magazine like the one I was consulting at a far too advanced age—and cannot resist sharing with them: she wears a wig, and the natural color of her hair is brunette. The girls giggle in horror that a male has entered into their female territory, knowing more than they do about hair color and appliances. In a long held camera frieze Steven looks down at his white and black leather oxfords in embarrassment for having entered a territory that he had not even recognized as being defined by gender. By the next morning, one of the girls calls Steven over to taunt him for his intrusion: “My sister says you’re a feminino!” I doubt that Steven even knows what that might mean, but like the word “queer” hurled at me, he recognizes it as a label of otherness, of something he was supposed not to be.

      By the time his father demonstrates irritation for his son’s sacred program that interrupts his time for watching football, Steven has begun to learn he too is not “wired” like the other boys at his school, and that his innocent love of a television figure is somehow not appropriate. As Fabro nicely summarizes the situation: 

“Steven, with loving parents and an almost satirically archetypal suburban home, seems like a fairly ordinary child—sweet and dutiful, though maybe too meek for a “normal” boy—until the intensity of his heroine-worship initiates a slow but persistent recognition of his difference, a minor but profound transgression that Haynes insinuates as queer. Steven’s love for Dottie is desire, but not a normative/heterosexual one; it is instead an act of emotional transference and identification. To be a queer child is to disrupt norms you are just beginning to understand; to be aware of the burgeoning self-consciousness of your othering. Over the course of Dottie Gets Spanked’s 30 minutes, Steven Gale’s Dottie idolatry increasingly ostracizes him from his family and peers due to the implications of his deviation from a more conventional, and less complicated, expression of desire.”

     Although his father resists, Steven’s mother helps him to fill out an application for her son to attend a shooting session of Dottie’s series, which despite Mr. Gale’s refusal to even put it in the mail, he wins, along with girls and their mothers from other parts of the country.

     Haynes brilliantly hints of several lessons the six-and-a-half-year-old boy learns from his studio visit. The Dottie he meets there is not at all like the wacky, scheming, housewife Dottie of the TV screen but is a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, and somewhat course woman of power on the set. She receives the book that Steven has prepared for her of his precious drawings with near diffidence; certainly with none of the charm of someone like Steven’s mother. Out of costume, Dottie is consummate artist demanding the retake of scenes and at the point, as she is about to be spanked by her husband for her bad behavior, cuts the shot, approaching the cameraman to check out the height of the couch on which her husband sits in relationship to her position, and demanding that it be raised in order to better position her in relation to the action.

      This is not the same woman he witnesses upon the TV screen nor is she anything like the women he’s encountered in his suburban surroundings, information that, when combined with his own terror of being spanked like the neighbor’s daughter, is expressed by a wildly colorful artistic rendering of Dottie getting spanked. When his father catches him in his room portraying his imaginative recreation of the emotional scene he has witnessed, he might as well have been caught masturbating, something about which his father clearly disapproves but says nothing. In this new work of art, Steven is no longer drawing a cartoon-like version of what he observes about Dottie, but is painting a personal and almost abstract reinterpretation of what he has seen combined with what he now recognizes as the powerfulness of her position.

     Is it any wonder that he dreams of himself as being a sort of king who nonetheless has been ordered to be spanked by a muscleman of enormous proportions, almost as if he were a muscle-builder out of the 1950s bodybuilding magazines of Bob Mizer and others? Through his love of Dottie (Lucy) he has himself somehow become a powerful force which must be punished for transgressing the standard patriarchal order. 

     Is it any wonder that he dreams of himself as being a sort of king who nonetheless has been ordered to be spanked by a muscleman of enormous proportions, almost as if he were a muscle-builder out of the 1950s bodybuilding magazines of Bob Mizer and others? Through his love of Dottie (Lucy) he has himself somehow become a powerful force which must be punished for transgressing the standard patriarchal order.

     Having just written about Werner Schroeter’s important film, The Rose King, I cannot but reminded that Steven’s almost sacramental act is similar to the young Albert of Schroeter’s film burying his rose king in a sacred grove with the hope that it/he may flower at another time with the full force of love with which it/he has been recreated and temporarily sacrificed.       

Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 2020

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



Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Olivier Lallart | PD (Fag)

brutal kisses

by Douglas Messerli

Olivier Lallart (writer and director) PD (Fag) / 2019

For 17 year old high school student Thomas (Paul Gomérieux) it all begins at a teen house party where he sits with two of his best friends dishing their classmates as they enter in and out of their couchbound sights. One of the class Romeos is chatting up a good-looking girl—not, Thomas admits, his type—when suddenly the couple’s conversation alters as they begin to fight, the boy voyeurs laughing over the all-too public event. As the former young courtier stalks off, one of the friends goes over to introduce himself to the girl they’ve been observing, hoping to interlope, one imagines, on the immediate rebound.

      A few moments later a handsome, tall young Spanish-looking boy, Esteban (Jacques Lepesqueur) enters with a highly attractive young female classmate. The friend notices that Thomas’s eyes immediately follow the movements of Esteban as he enters the room and even comments to Thomas, almost as if they were two young gay men evaluating the hunks that come into their purview, that perhaps Esteban is Thomas’ type. It is a fairly innocuous statement, one of many such inquiries that young people pose to each other in attempting to discover each other’s inner desires. But Thomas immediately throws the metaphorical ball back into the heterosexual court, saying that he was really eyeing the beautiful woman who Esteban is dating. Both agree, however, that  Esteban and his women are out of their “league,” so to speak.

      As in many such teenage gatherings, we observe the stragglers playing a kind of “Truth or Dare” version of “Spin the Bottle.” With first the bottle spin two women are asked to kiss each other, which they do, quite seriously, some young boys responding that it’s so “hot” to see two women kiss.

      When another woman spins and “dares” the chosen one to kiss the person of the second spin, the bottle pairs up Esteban and Thomas, the former of whom almost reneges on the act before being forced to carry out the game’s rules; after all, the girls argue, if men can be turned on my women, why can’t the girls see two boys engage in an intense kiss. The two boys finally offer their teenage audience the pleasure of their inter-locked lips.

      Later, having gotten quite drunk, as his head lies on his friend’s shoulder, Thomas admits that, “yes, he actually liked” Esteban’s kiss. But he’s not gay, he reassures his buddy.

      Denials hardly matter in this homophobic world, and by the next morning, Thomas observes nearly all of his classmates turning away from him as he enters into their space, whispering to others with their eyes darting to catch a side glance of Thomas’ visage, some actually engaging in cat-calls or uttering the school’s favorite slur, “fag.” We see Esteban, obviously the recipient of similar insinuations, slugging another boy in the distance, after which the handsome tall youth grabs hold of his girlfriend almost as if she were a life raft.

      Thomas’ friend admits to having shared the boy’s previous night’s admission, arguing that it was just something to laugh at; yet he too does not now dare to be seen talking too long to Thomas without also being labeled as a queer. A shower after track is torture for Thomas as the other boys not only shun him, but make rude remarks about his desires to fuck them.

     With an eerie accompaniment of a high-pitched electronic music by composers MEKIAS and J-Zeus, French director Olivier Lallart reveals the terror of suddenly finding oneself in high school isolation by focusing his camera on side, shoulder-and-head shots of Thomas as if he were being cast for a role of a leper for William Wyler’s Ben Hur, Gomérieux’s naturally pouting-lips pointing to his disappointment with his former friends and his entire life. But we also recognize that in his sudden ostracization, Thomas must now face his own questions about sexuality. As one of his acquaintances reminds him, he has never asked the girls out for a date. And his eyes do give him away as he gazes at his new enemy, Esteban, with sudden longing and now fear.

       So, we perceive, we have entered the murky territory of yet another lecture, for better or worse, on homophobia, a crucial subject to which young men and woman must repeatedly be exposed, but for an older viewer such as myself, a theme so threaded into the narrative of LGBTQ cinema that one can only wonder what in a 35 minute film Lallart can contribute to the topic.

       Indeed, a lecture by the high school history professor (Marc Riso)—occasioned by overhearing one student call another “PD” (pédé) or, in English, “fag”—attempts to provide a précis of the history of “homosexuality” from the ancient Greeks and Romans, for whom he argues there was no concept for and no imaginative separation between homosexual and heterosexual acts, to the rise of religious values and the Industrial Revolution’s hierarchies which demanded that men and women contain themselves in the structures of family units in order to produce consumer children. Explaining to young listeners that what they are expressing in heir hurtful terminology is a cultural invention which they’ve learned but does not truly exist nor need to be perpetuated. Along with revealing his own homosexuality, what he expresses appears to be enlightening to this young student body. And by the end of the film they are finally able to turn their attention away from something they see as the “other”—and therefore “monstrous” in the sense of a “warning” or “demonstration” of its queerness—in order to attend to their own normative desires. But it all seems too easy and simplified in this work, as if all one has to do to stop the fear of sexual difference is to attend to one’s own sexual interests, no empathy or even curiosity required. After all, these as modern day students,  high schoolers who all claim they are LGBT friendly, whatever that might individually mean to them.

       Fortunately, Lallart does not focus on the normative aversion to queer individuals, but on Thomas and Esteban themselves, revealing that despite all of his macho bluffing, Esteban is truly attracted to Thomas, using the threat of verbal abuse to actually plant kisses of desire that he pretends that “fags” are always seeking. It’s it a wonderfully strange scene in which Thomas, almost totally passive is seemingly tortured by Esteban’s intense love-making mockery. It reminds anyone who has seen the coming-out British film Get Real (1988) of school jock John Dixon’s beating of his lover Steven Carter in the men’s locker room, outside of which wait his sports buddies talking pleasure in Carter’s screams of pain, while within the audience witnesses John’s slugs entering his school bag while his friend performs a dance of howls upon the floor. Esteban’s brutal kisses in PD are intended to be interpreted as a punishment that salves the sufferer’s symbolic pain with the balm of love—a representation of just how perverse gay love is in a world that nourishes self-denigration and hate.

       Who wouldn’t be confused in such a closed society? Thomas even stalks down two gay men whom he observes touching each other and holding hands in a local pub to ask them his inexpressible question....”How to....” After inquiring whether he attends the lycée, they rotely answer, “It gets better,” but recognize quickly that it is no answer at all, and that perhaps it never truly does get better but, as one puts it, “you come to ignore it.” Or, hints his friend, it never truly does get better. What changes is the way you come to see yourself. They suggest that whenever he becomes the subject of their stares that instead of turning away, he look directly back at them into their eyes, almost as a kind of challenge. Yet, as we all know, that too can be dangerous.

     Nonetheless, Thomas finally does accomplish something similar to that when, at the school prom, he pulls away from the girl (the very same woman that he and his friends first observed in the earliest scene of this movie) and moves across the floor to where Esteban is dancing with his girlfriend, moving his friend’s arm from where he holds his date and placing it to encircle his own waist. As if intoxicated with Thomas’ bold move, Esteban takes up with dance with his gay lover, as all the other dancers stop in place, openly staring with wonder. The two challenge them not by looking back into their stares but deeply looking into each other’s eyes as they glide across the floor. A few seconds later, the others, as if released from an ancient curse, turn back to their partners and continue their dance. 

      If it’s a bit difficult to believe that “that’s all there is” to it, it’s a very lovely fairy tale which is worth holding onto as long as one can.

Los Angeles, January 30, 2020

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Werner Schroeter | Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King)

a fire left burning

by Douglas Messerli

Magdalena Montezuma, Edgar Allan Poe, and Werner Schroeter (credited writers), Werner Schroeter (director) Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King) / 1986

Anyone who loves arthouse cinema will immediately recognize Werner Schroeter’s films, particularly his 1986 work Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King), as works with some of the most beautiful images ever screened. But “reading” his films, that is putting meaning to those images in the context of the movie’s limited moments of dialogue and lack of coherent narrative is another matter, evidenced perhaps by the paucity of reviews and essays that exist. There have been some well-written paragraphs in Film Comment, RoweReviews and elsewhere, and a short assessment in James Quandt’s excellent essays on Schroeter’s films in The New York Review of Books and ArtForum, but little else that might help an American neophyte interact with Schroeter’s great film, let alone place it in the context of the tradition of queer cinema.

     Part of the problem is simply in knowing how to watch Schroeter’s works. If you’re an admirer of narrative—as admittedly I am—you may have difficulty in adjusting your mind when approaching the German director’s pictures—and here “picture” is a truly appropriate word. For like the Georgian-born Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov and, occasionally, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Schroeter’s films are not focused on dialogue and normative plot structures but upon images presented in the form of emblems and/or tableaux that present their significance through visual images that are sometimes specific to the culture and at other times embrace symbols that might be internationally recognized in the Jungian sense.

     In Schroeter’s instance it is useful to know the legend of the Tausendjähriger Rosenstock, the “thousand-year rosebush” that grows from the Hildescheim cathedral. The legend behind it concerns Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, who in 815 was hunting in the Hercynian Forest for a white buck. He became separated from his hunting party and lost not only sight of the buck but his own horse. When his hunt-horn went unanswered he swam across the Innerste river and, disoriented, walked until he discovered a mound covered with a wild rose, symbol of the Saxon goddess Hulda. Praying over a reliquary containing relics of the Virgin Mary which he had brought with him, he meditated until falling asleep. Upon awakening the mound was covered with a glitter of white snow despite the summer bloom of the roses and green grasses and the leaf-covered trees. Hilda, associated with wilderness and winter, was thought by Louis as having “shaken her coat” upon the snow-covered mound, indicating that the Virgin should be venerated in the future instead of herself. The Emperor is said to have built the cathedral upon the rose-covered mound, whose flowers bloom still today.

     Also of ephemeral interest to The Rose King is the South Tyrolean legend of König Laurin, the king of a race of dwarves in the Dolomite mountains which they mined for jewels and ores. Laurin lived in an underground palace made of shining quartz, but his special joy was his great garden at the entrance to his crystal palace covered with roses with the most beautiful of scents. The King was so fearful of a single rose being plucked that he declared that anyone who dared to touch the roses or tore at the silken thread wound round the garden as a fence would have his left hand and right foot chopped off.

     When the King of the River Etsch one day determined to marry off his beautiful daughter Similde, he invited the neighboring nobleman, except for Laurin, to join him on a May Day ride. Hearing of the event, King Laurin put on his magic Cap of Invisibility and visited the gathering, immediately falling in love with the young girl, grabbing her up and escaping with her on horseback. Similde’s father immediately sent out his knights to rescue his daughter, but Laurin had little to fear, he felt, since his pursuers would never see him in his private gardens. But observing the roses at sway, the knights detected Laurin’s presence and trapped him. So angered was Laurin for the roses’ betrayal that he ordered that “Neither by day nor night might anyone ever glimpse his lovely sight again. Yet, having forgotten twilight, people can still see the pink glow in the sky (what the Germans call Alpenglow) at dusk and dawn.

     But the Greek and Roman legends are far more crucial to Schroeter’s work. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, if you recall, already associated with the white rose, heard from Ares’ own mouth that he, jealous of, Adonis, god of desire, that he had sent a wild boar to harm of him during a hunting trip. Hurrying to her lover’s aid, Aphrodite arrived too late, her tears pooling with his blood to create the rose.

     In Roman myth Venus’ (the Greek Aphrodite) son Cupid was stung by a bee when shooting arrows into a garden full of white roses. Walking in the garden, Venus later pricked her foot on a thorn left by her son’s arrows, turning the roses red.

    Obviously, it is roses that Anna (the wondrous Magdalena Montezuma) of Schroeter’s story grows, with her son, Albert (Mostefa Djadjam) serving as an obsessed horticulturalist who as his mother observes is more of a dreamer than a practical biologist like Gregor Mendel, who in his experiments with genetics, developed various hybrids of roses. Having moved her life and handsome young son from an exotic Arabian desert after her husband’s death to an ancient rural acreage and farmstead in Portugal where she has difficulty communicating with the locals, she and her son literally survive on roses, dining on a rose-colored gruel, red wine, and white loaves of bread.

     Anna seems frozen in her new environment, filled as it is by cobwebs, an entire bestiary of animals (spiders obviously, a cat, rat, lizard, and sheep), a group of almost feral children who comment on events a bit like a Greek chorus, and decaying religious icons left over from generations of previous owners. In this new environment Anna displays near operatic gestures— staring for long empty moments into space, scratching fingernails against walls, and etching letters into wet clay soil—of entrapment. When, late at night, she picks up a rifle to shoot it into her rose gardens we wonder whether she, like Cupid, is aiming at some invisible prey or, like King Laurin, warning away anyone who might dare to crush her blossoms. One late night, while walking in her garden, she spots an insect on one of her blossoms (a bee?) and attempts to remove it, evidently unsuccessfully, since she finally crushes the entire petals of one rose, the bushes themselves seeming to entwine her in their barbs, pricking this Venus of Portugal in revenge. 

      As she tells us in a voice-over early in the film, now that her husband has died her major attention has been converted to Albert, and she follows him with her stares wherever he goes, even leaning up again his bedroom wall as if she might hear him breathing or even his inner thoughts in the night. Albert, although clearly resentful of her attentions, seems to have discovered a new kind of freedom in this alien world. He too is protective of their roses and is almost vindictive when forced to bring his mother daily trimmings of rose stems for her vases throughout the house, yet he does spill petals a regular intervals, even stealing some of them to feed his newest “project,” as Quandt quite brilliantly describes it, for which he “nabs a hunky young local named Fernando (Antonio Orlando) pilfering from the alms box—a nod to Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977), a film Fassbinder also admired—and incarcerates him in the barn, lovingly bathing his Saint Sebastian–like prisoner.”  

    Schroeter’s emblems and tableaux  begin to be repeated: roses dripping with water, a fountain pouring fresh water from the spout of an ancient lizard-like stone figure, the ocean waves rolling across a male naked body, fireworks lighting up the sky, sun shimmering through the roof beams of the ancient barn, ropes with which Albert has bound his captive being carefully and almost ritualistically untied as the boy asks “Did I hurt you?”—all represent what we quickly realize is Albert’s gradual release from years of a closeted life tied to the neuroses of his mother, in order to completely immerse himself into the splendors of the male body. The horticulturalist’s previous attempts at grafting roses has suddenly found an entirely new focus, as he tells his mother, which begins with the capture of the beauty, continues in nights of dutiful and patient self-torture—during which Fernando, in near-ecstatic anticipation of the event prays to God that the boy will not have suffer over love much longer on his account—and ends by the grafting of Albert’s body onto that of his own, which we witness appropriately through the lens of the director’s camera primarily by the openings and entwinements of the stems of their bodies, legs, hands, and feet.       

       Yet, somewhat as for Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, the mother remains to much with him in her dark ruminations, her unspoken fears, her financial worries, and most of all in her stifling love of her son with all her myths of shooting stars and the deaths of children who have kissed too early. As we hear a reader from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Alone” reciting, referring clearly to Alfred: “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were.”           

     When Anna begins to realize what has happened, she orders Fernando to leave, handing him a wad of money, but he will not go. “Blood cannot washed with blood; blood can only be washed with water,” he observes. In one mad operatic still, she stands like a mad Madonna upon an alter watching in mute awareness that if she wishes to save either Fernando or her son, she must absent herself from the observation of their coupling. Nonetheless she too remains, telling her son that she is about to sell the farm, the stage of his emancipation.

        Hence her disquisition on the deep black interiors of the artist Georges de La Tour, against which the characters stand lit as upon a stage waiting to enter a world outside of the painting while carrying with them the darkness of their pasts. She paints the reproductions of his art entirely over with black, blackening out even parts of her own face (reminding one a bit like the blue paint with which Jean-Paul Belmondo covers his face in Pierre le Fou).         

     If Albert has lit a passionate emotional fire within, Fernando knows that a destructive surface blaze must surely result; stealing a few matches from the children, he lights some of the surrounding straw afire. Although Albert seems to come to his rescue, it is a mad attempt to restore the past as he takes a knife to his former captive’s arms and legs, attempting to graft rose stems into the soil of the human corpse. Carrying him into their garden, he lays down the body carefully alongside the other plants, Anna and he gently packing their mutant rosebush with moist dirt. In the background the barn is burning, the children arriving to observe its eventual collapse.

       Has the fire finally caught up with her, as she as always feared? Or can the two, mother and son, remain in their unholy bondage to await the slow flowering of their new variety of rose like the ancient thousand-year-flowering rosebush signifying the relic of Albert’s sexual awakening?   

      Both Magdalena Montezuma and her close friend Schroeter knew she was dying of cancer as she performed this role, she hoping she might die on the set in Portugal. She died 14 days after the final shot in Münich. The Rose King is dedicated to her.

Los Angeles, December 29, 2020

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





Monday, December 28, 2020

Andrew Abrahams | Casualty

 making waves

by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Abrahams (director) Casualty / 1999

Dance and LGBTQ filmmaking often go hand-in-hand. From the transformation of military exercises into dance in Claire Denis’ masterful Beau travail (1999), to representations of eager young gay dancers in works such as A Chorus Line (1985) and Billy Eliot (2000), biographical works of major dancer’s lives like Herbert Ross’ Nijinksy (1980), Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow [on Nureyev] (2018) and Levin Aiken’s And Then We Danced [on the Georgian dancer Merab] (2019), movies about dance such as Alan Brown’s Five Dances (2013) to, finally, queer group dance celebrations such as those in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Macho Dancer (1988), and Deadma Walking (2017) dance and the queer experience have quite often shared the stage. But never until a few moments ago had I have ever seen a gay short film, only 5 minutes in this case, represent a gay dance under water!

        But that is precisely what director Andrew Abrahams presents to us in his 1999 work, Casualty.

     Featuring two underwater figures, Eric Newton and Hogan Vando, the movie shows first one approaching from stage left, reaching for a rose that suddenly appears to float before him; above we can see the reflection of a row of erect Cypress trees. He smells the rose as another male approaches from the right. The first embraces the other around the neck. Or is he chocking him? As the second pulls away, the first grabs his wrist, as he reciprocates. Or is he now grabbing the wrist of the first in order to pull away?

     The second swimmer now has the rose in hand, lifting it to his nose as if to smell it. But in the very next instant, we see the rose floating in the water alone, the swimmers both having gone their separate ways. As the accompanying description of this short asks on the Open Eye Pictures site, where it can be see for free, “Comfort or conflict? A gift or deception? ...This mythic and dreamlike piece highlights the unraveling of an intimate relationship.”

      This water dance reminds me a great deal of the dance in artist Robert Longo’s performance piece, Empire, in which one cannot tell whether the two male dancers are engaged in a series of loving embraces or are wrestling in mortal combat.

      Abrahams’ work was an official selection of the Planet Out Short Movie Awards, the Breck Film Festival that occurs annually in Breckinridge, Colorado, and the Queens Museum of Art Film Series.

       The film was later included with nine other gay dance works in Courts mais Gay: Tome 3, released in France in May 2002.

Los Angeles, December 28, 2020

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


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Laurie Lynd | RSVP || Shannon Deeby | RSVP

shouts in the dark

by Douglas Messerli

Laurie Lynd (writer and director) RSVP / 1991

Shannon Deeby (writer and director) RSVP / 2016

In terms of dialogue, Canadian director Laurie Lynd’s 1991 short film RSVP is almost a silent film. Nearly all of the spoken words we hear throughout this film—with the exception of a few murmurs of the students in the high school hall who almost point with interest or perhaps even with pride to the homophobic message “Sellman is a faggot” which they or other of their friends posted upon the classroom door of their English teacher, and a few words recalled to memory by Sid (Daniel MacIvor), Andrew Sellman’s lover when Andrew (Ross Manson) returns to retrieve his sweater as they are about to embark on a visit to the doctors—are spoken through the telephone, most of them which we hear from a friend of Sid’s (Stewart Arnott) and, at the very end of the work, from Andrew’s father (Gordon Jocelyn) spoken over the couple’s answering machine.

     Yet, the human voice, in this case opera singer Jessye Norman’s* glorious rendering of Berlioz’s “La spectre de la rose,” a song evidently requested by Sellman before his death to be played on the local Winnepeg radio stations dominates the 24 minute movie.

      We first hear it when Sid returns to the couple’s empty apartment, soon after his lover’s death, unable to even imagine the possibility of answering the telephone message left by his friend. He enters the kitchen, opening and quickly closing the refrigerator after he discovers it mostly filled with pill cannisters that had obviously become part of Andrew’s regular regimen. Hearing the announcement of the song by the radio announcer Sid immediately, if at first unsuccessfully, attempts to record the aria.

     We hear the entire work as Lynd briefly transports us to various scenes of the workplaces of Andrew’s friends: a library, an AIDS support center where we witness a man clipping Sellman’s obituary from the newspaper to add it on a wall posting of dozens of others, and a bookstore—places obviously regularly visited by the literate, dying man.

      The very next scene features Sid at work, painfully tossing Andrew’s pills, personal toiletries, and clothing into a box. He saves only the beloved sweater. Checking their record collection, he  discovers the original LP recording of Berlioz's Les nuits d'été which includes “La spectre de la rose,” in their own record collection and, we discern later, again requests it to be played over the radio, this time telephoning Andrew’s sister (Ferne Downey) and his lover’s mother (Judith Orban) to tell them when the piece is about to be aired. 

       We observe the sister listening to it, breaking into sobs, and watch Andrew’s mother, after serving her husband his dinner, attempting to find the station of their antiquated radio.

       The last telephone message from the father is a particularly painful one which we hear recorded on the machine before Sid returns home after the funeral, the elder clumsily expressing his regrets that they had not been able to talk more after the funeral, but that he knew how good Sid was for Andrew, how he looked after him. It is apparent that the father had not been very receptive to the men’s relationship and perhaps had even refused to talk to Sid or even keep in close touch with his own son. The short call, accordingly, is almost a shout in the dark of his love after years of rejection and regret.

      Film critic B. Ruby Rich argued in her influential essay “New Queer Cinema” of 1992 that RSVP was one the many new films of the period appearing in the Gay Festival circuits by queer-identified people that used radical aesthetics to fight homophobia, to struggle with the issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic, and to discuss LGBTQ issues with regard to race. I don’t entirely disagree with her, particularly regarding the films outcry against homophobia. Yet, I’d also argue that Lynd’s film belongs more to the long tradition of quiet Canadian films that reveal their LGBTQ sentiments in a realist tradition that does not necessarily require overt commentary, a work in the tradition of Stanley Jackson’s Cornet at Night (1963) as opposed to his compatriot John Greyson’s far more radical works such as Lilies of 1996, along with directors whom Rich also identified or would soon be connected with “New Queer Cinema” such as Cheryl Dunye, Gregg Araki, and Tom Kalin.


While searching for Vimeo’s on-line edition of the above film, I coincidentally found a Vimeo streaming of another film also titled RSVP—this directed by Shannon Deeby in 2016—which, although not as brilliantly conceived or realized as Lynd’s work and not, necessarily, connected to AIDS, was so eerily similar in its narrative and themes that I could not but choose to pair this short 13 minute move with the other.

     In this BeeNest production, a gay man, Devon (performed by independent director Lance Marshall) having just lost his loved male companion, Stephen, is seen driving with the urn on the seat next to him—which in the earliest frames of scene is represented by the image of his still-living lover (played by James Oxford, Marshall’s real-life husband)—as he travels to an East Hampton, New York, beach where, upon the request of for lover he is about release his ashes.

    He talks briefly to his ex-husband about their love, etc. soon after pulling into the empty parking lot, whereupon he checks his cell phone to see if the others he has invited, apparently Stephen’s family members, have responded. His tears and apparent anger make it clear that they have all made excuses for their absence—excuses we can presume, particularly when we soon after discover that Stephen’s father is a Baptist minister, have to do with their disapproval of his and their son’s gay relationship.

    After another moment of sobbing,  Devon grabs the urn, a bottle of champagne, and a beach blanket as he makes his way down to the water’s edge settling into the sand. He begins to drink directly out of the bottle, hinting that he may be headed for a real bender before he gets around to tossing what remains of his lover into the ocean. He toasts the bottle: 

                     To Stephen. In your eyes I was able to see my purer self. And in

                     your memory I will eternally be held in the warmth of our love.

     Slowly another man comes running from the distance down to stand beside Devon. The man, Stephen’s younger brother Thomas (Ryan Jonze) apologizes, as the e-mail message apparently had, for his parents’ inability to attend, their being “swamped with the revival” being held that weekend. Stephen’s devastated partner hardly bothers to answer, turning away.

     “Can I...may I join you?” He asks. “That’s why you were invited,” answers Devon, again turning away. Thomas sits beside him. “Sorry, I didn’t reply myself.” An uneasy silence settles in between them, which the brother finally breaks:

                 Yeh, he got out ya know. But..Dad disowned him but we was the

                 lucky one. Just wish I...I’d been stronger. And stood up to him.

     So surprising is this short confession that Devon, pausing a bit, asks him “Are you gay?” “Oh no, no. Married. Kids.” Thomas responds, before nervously amending his comments, “I mean married to a woman. The kids...with her.” It’s a fascinating restatement of the obvious, as if he might have actually imagined the other possibility, which suggests his commitment to the normality of his life is not a total immersion, particularly when he follows this with stating that his father can really be a “prick.” “Sometimes...I can take it, but mom....I don’t know.” After another long pause, he adds, “Can’t say I didn’t envy his ‘get-out-of-jail-free card.’”

     Devon’s one-word interjection, “Wow!” is appropriate given his and our sudden perception that the father’s religiously-embedded homophobia has effected not just his homosexual son, but the entire family, delimiting the life of his wife and his heterosexual son as well. The inability to accept sexual differences is connected to the inability to accept the role of women in society, the different values—however minute—of even the heterosexual heir. The patriarchal world Stephen’s father represents admits no one.

     The film closes with a strange admission from Devon of his own lover’s limitations within this same context: “You know, I don’t know if he saw it that way. I wish he had.”

     I don’t know whether Deeby ever saw Lynd’s film or was in any way influenced by it, but the desolation that lies behind both of these films was powerfully expressed decades earlier in Christopher Isherwood’s (1964) novel, A Single Man, reinterpreted by Tom Ford’s 2009 film of the same name. If you recall, in that work the lover, George Falconer, was not even allowed by the family to even attend the funeral of his lover, Jim, killed in a car accident. One might suggest, in the context of this film, he was not even permitted to reply.

*Lynd sent a tape to Norman to obtain her permission to use her recording in his film. She was so impressed and moved by the film that she attended its first screening, holding the director’s hand for much of the film’s run.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2020

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