Monday, May 31, 2021

Ron Rice | The Flower Thief

discovering the tactics of gay survival

by Douglas Messerli

Ron Rice (screenwriter and director) The Flower Thief / 1960

The Flower Thief (1960) declares its difference from the opening credits picturing a string of long ribbons, tacked to the side of a derelict wooden building, blowing in the wind, the camera panning down, up, left, and right to visit the credits on small pieces of cardboard or paper tacked up to the building’s wall. We are no clearly no longer in the realm of “normal” filmmaking. The images of the narrative of this work are captured almost on the sly and its narrative, which fits into no single cinematic genre, appears to be something developed almost by spontaneous chance.  

      Shadows and more ballooning pieces of cloth follow, accompanied by a gentle jazz score, the shadows themselves finally revealing their source to be the film’s hero, Taylor Mead, who stops outside a steel fence to talk to school children locked behind it, evidently used to his passing as they gather to play in his game of finger pokes through interlocking grids of the fence. This reminds me a little of Jan Oxenberg’s short section “Child Molester” in her comic film of lesbian stereotypes in A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts (1975), which also presents us with a societally rejected figure interacting—quite innocently but to outsider eyes suspiciously—with locked-away school children.

       But our San Francisco denizen seems to be a total innocent bordering on a mentally challenged street person who smilingly goes about his journey, at times walking down the middle of the street and at other times clinging closely to the walls of buildings as he makes his way down the sidewalks, almost gleefully stealing a single flower from a streetside vendor.

      And for much of the rest of the film he participates in a series of episodes that present him almost like a tourist to the Bay city. He begins his day, with the camera tagging along, by visiting an art show, watching young Chinese-American children on the street, stealing yet another flower which he awards to a baby in a stroller, and attending a poetry reading by San Francisco black poet Bob Kaufman—often described as the American Rimbaud—at a jazz bar, the poet reading from his texts in the audio background while we spot our hero later grooving to the jazz rhythms. The Beats, including the homosexual declarations of Allen Ginsberg, are clearly part of his world.

      We soon see Mead back on the street, breaking through a glass window in a large vacant powerhouse in which all the other windows already appear to have been broken. The voice-over seems to represent someone decrying the current prison system as he demands that all criminals receive psychiatric attention. This, in fact, becomes a kind of sub-theme throughout the work, as we see our hero and others, themselves perhaps psychologically “outsider” individuals, bedding down in quite derelict structures. If nothing else, there is a sense throughout this film of the differences of those who are an active part of the normative society and those, like our central figure and his cohorts, who exist on the outside with few if any constraints.

        As our flower thief wanders through the empty space, the beginning of “Afternoon of a Faun” is played, as if he were on the verge of new encounter, but the music soon darkens as he discovers a door lying on the floor which, when he opens it, revealing a underground crawl space from which a young man with a large teddy bear arises, running quickly off the moment he spots our friend, leaving the stuffed bear behind.

        Our friend picks up the abandoned bear, taking it up as his companion for much of the rest of the movie. Clearly the meandering “thief” is not the only abandoned structure’s denizen. The “thief” runs into the  old bathroom whereupon he discovers a urinal lying on the floor, recalling quite obviously Duchamp’s famed artwork. Mead takes up a toilet brush and proceeds to scrub the teddy bear’s bottom and neck before he kisses it, pats its knap into place and waddles away with it, as if it were his beloved child, looking through the cracked windows upon a nearby painter at work and piles of lumber strewn wherever you look. It is certainly akin to the destroyed world that faced Willard Maas’ central figure in his film Image in the Snow, and we now come to perceive that if this character’s world is not precisely a version “A” narrative of a gay “coming out” story, it is most certainly close to it, the place in which the character now finds himself being a world without access to women and children in which he lies outside of conventional reality. If director Ron Rice’s hero has survived the terrifying “revelation” of his sexuality, we still must ask at what cost. If he is not imprisoned, he lives in a kind of prison of his own making and is still perceived by the society (and the viewers of this film) has being in need of psychological help. 

      And, as if to prove that point, Mead suddenly falls into the pique of anger, after rocking the bear to sleep suddenly tossing him away and breaking up a nearby crate upon which he was sitting. The tokens of family and home are clearly not enough to replace the realities they represent.

        Suddenly a mass of other men come running his way, Mead picking up his bear and running off as a large man (Eric Nord) chases him. He jumps into the basement entry which the man cannot apparently fit in, the “thief” popping up a few feet away through the flooring to mock him.

       A heavily bearded elder looks into the dark confines of the building with a look of disapproval, while the camera focuses now on a seeming wall of imprisoned men, a poet now reading a poet about how “mankind must be set free.”

        Apparently what was perceived of as the windows of a prison are the structure’s upper wire-laced windows, and the men, obviously now also denizens of the abandoned powerhouse, move downstairs into the main floor, performing a theatrical-like piece that begins with what appears as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man who is pulled out of his universal circle and carried by the six men, calling up the image of a pietà, before they set him and down and push him forward, seeming to scourge him as in Christ’s march to Gethsemane bearing the cross. Some of the men grab up the large metal cross-like figure and  run up a small incline to implant at the top, visually playing out the planting of the US flag at Iwo Jima while at the same time signifying the uprighting of the cross for the Crucifixion.

       Over a period of just a few cinematic moments, Rice calls up the Da Vinci work, the Pietà image central to Kenneth Anger’s Firecrackers (just prior to removing the man from his circle, the men are all holding sparkling firecrackers in their hands), the iconic act of American bravery on Iwo Jima (a few moments before this Mead himself was waving a small US flag), and finally Christ’s cross, while also hinting of scenes of the Red flag raising in Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World—a vision encouraged by the musical accompaniment of  Dimitri Shostakovich’s score for the Eisenstein film of 1928.

      The endeavors of all these displaced men and one woman who appears soon after, to survive in a world hostile to their existence is clear for the director is clearly a combination of heroic and spiritual acts. In honor of their achievement the men set fire to a broom held aloft as if they were celebrating the death of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. The Viruvian Man which they have crucified, after all, is the same representative of normality who mocked their outsider society a few frames earlier.

      In homoerotic relief the men strip themselves of their shirts slapping them against one another as in a pillow fight, mock wrestling, and swinging from some of the ropes hanging from the high ceilings in obvious masculine pleasure.

      Our shyer hero takes his reclaimed teddy on a wagon ride for a hilarious night on the town as he takes in an ice-skating show, rides a mechanical horse like a jockey, and dances alone in manner than might make even the loose-jointed Groucho Marx jealous. He ends the evening by also setting a broom afire. The imaginary witch haunting their imaginations has clearly been slain.

      While the men, meanwhile, engage in some heterosexual roughhousing with the new resident woman—who quickly chalks up her sexual conquests, at one moment even attempting, unsuccessfully, to snare Mead’s character—the flower thief feeds his black cat and introduces the pet to his newly acquired bear, without much success.

      Time passes, and our hero feels the “autumn leaves” accumulating (the accompanying song referencing them) and considers, quite comically what he might want to get out and see in the real world that various billboards announce, “Ice Skate or look!,” “Dolls of the World,” “3 ½ Acres of Indoor Amazement,” “The Lord’s Last Supper,” and “Tooth Pick Carnival.” Our thief choses to return to nature, carrying two packages of what appear to be food for lunch as he madly begins to pick wildflowers, putting them as usual to his nose to smell their perfumes.

       Returning home with a spare tire he evidently discovered, he meets up with the woman whose suitors have apparently all abandoned her. She attempts to tease and domesticate the thief, as he attempts to allude her, a taped speech quoting from Alice in Wonderland  of the fact that, in one way or another, that we are all mad. Perhaps it is through madness, as homosexuality was still defined, that he once more escapes her attempts to club him into sexual normality and domesticity.

       A kind of crisis evolves, signified by arriving fire trucks and police signaling which way and when people should move, the last of which our confused hero mocks by imitating their hand movements behind their backs. Yet he even spends a day with a beautiful woman obviously in an attempt to return to normality. The day ends, however, with the same large man chasing him as before, evidently demanding orthodoxy of some sort which the free-wheeling flower thief, evidenced by a wild ride down San Francisco’s hilly streets in his wagon while holding his teddy bear, is unable to provide.

      Finally, our hero is captured by two vigilante cowboys and taken into a paper hall of justice where he is evidently sentenced to be shot. Tied up to a flag outside of the courthouse, he is shot—with the sound of a pop-gun and car backfiring—and falls dead. Yet soon after we see him running out the real hall of justice, having evidently escaped.

      Exasperated, he visits the Giant Camera Shop, a store in the shape of a giant camera, attempting to rewind the fate Rice’s movie has so far doled him out. He falls exhaustedly to sleep in the hind curve of a large stone lion, the proverbial lamb have lain down with the beast.

      He has at last reached the ocean, stopping in a small slot-machine arcade at the ocean’s edge where he meets a handsome young man to the strain’s of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for a New Man. When the boy leaves the game parlor, our hero follows him and eventually the two meet up enjoying the evening at the beachside amusement park merry-go-round. In the morning they walk for a bit along the shore, a boat in the distance seeming to come toward them, as if the proverbial “boat has come in.”

       We see only the “thief” alone after that, but we know something significant has finally occurred in his life. He has, if nothing else, had a date with a lovely young man. He too, he now realizes, is now a gay man who can find his way in the world with the love and help of others.

       As director, Rice has done something rather remarkable in this work. Playing out the basic patterns of the “A” version gay “coming out” or “coming of age” film, Rice has seemingly created a kind of improvisatory picaresque that embraces the works of notable gay figures from Genet (who, if you recall, was a “book thief”) Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Da Vinci, Nijinsky, Eisenstein, Copland, and others, while referencing nearly all the films of his gay peers including Anger, Maas, Schmitz, Harrington, Markopoulos, and even the gay literary and cinematic touchstones such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, in order to demonstrate a way out of the bleak vision of gay survival in the early pre-Stonewall years. Here the gay individual’s struggle to survive as exemplified in the form of the brilliantly awkward and intellectually unpredictable actor Taylor Mead, is a comic adventurer who while encountering danger and painful setbacks creates a meaningful if eccentric life in which there no need to symbolically undergo a kind of spiritual death or suicide. After his magical night on the beach, we can only hope our comic fool hurries home to stumble back into our lives once again, deserving now every flower which we can put in his hand or strew through his hair. Rice has created a newborn hero out of a gay cinematic tradition that has suddenly become aware of itself.

Los Angeles, May 31, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).         


Sunday, May 30, 2021

Clu Gulager | A Day with the Boys

cold war strategies for the hot war to come

by Douglas Messerli

Clu Gulager (screenwriter and director) A Day with the Boys / 1969

When we describe something as being “on the surface” regarding a narrative work, we generally mean what is most apparent, what we perceive as obvious from our first reading or viewing. Yet any interesting work, we recognize, offers numerous other layers of meaning or perhaps even confusion regarding aspects of character, plot, dialogue, and location that when we consider the work more carefully seem to suggest other possible meanings or simply unexplained incidents that force us to rethink the work we have just seen or read. In the most significant works, many of these inexplicable aspects can never be thoroughly comprehended, just like our lived experience. There are always other possibilities, greater depth to be reckoned with in the best of literary and cinematic creations.

      So when I say that upon my first viewing of Clu Gulager’s A Day with the Boys (1969), I felt it was an enormously interesting and beautiful work that seemed worth writing about but not within the context of my queer cinema explorations, I’m talking about that “surface” reading which I first established in relation to my second and third viewings of this film I needed to help myself explain things—mostly unsuccessfully—which, in turn, led me to include it in the context of my LGBTQ writings. I am still not sure that the fascinating 18-minute work belongs within this context, but the very fact that it remains a “queer” text in the ordinary meaning of that word makes me want to bring it into the “queer cinema” fold.

      On the surface Gulager’s film seems to belong in the same genre with Peter Brook’s film version of William Goldings’ novel Lord of the Flies (1963) or, if we might expand it to include a more idealistic vision of boyhood, something like Ralph G. Bluemke’s Robby (1968) where a boy, discovering himself shipwrecked on an island with only another boy as his companion goes wild in the Robinson Crusoe pattern of going native in order to survive. Although both of these works involve nudity, neither are apparent LGBTQ works unless you are a voyeuristic pedophile.

     The 1950s and 60s were filled with such considerations of nature vs. nurture which these two films evoke—Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed (1956) is another example—in an attempt to determine whether violence, murder and mayhem was born within all of us or was a learned and accultured response. None of these films fully explored issues of  child sexuality, even though they may bring us close if we think of sexuality in any manner being related to issues of control and empowerment. Yet these works seemingly do not intentionally go there.

      They certainly share affinities also with Lasse Nielsen’s and Ernst Johansen’s Leave Us Alone (1975), but that film truly represents occasions of boy-love that somewhat separate it from Gulager’s, Brook’s, and Bluemke’s films; and I easily determined to discuss the 1975 film in the gay context without any qualifications.

      On the surface Gulager’s film seems to belong in the same genre with Peter Brook’s film version of William Goldings’ novel Lord of the Flies (1963) or, if we might expand it to include a more idealistic vision of boyhood, something like Ralph G. Bluemke’s Robby (1968) where a boy, discovering himself shipwrecked on an island with only another boy as his companion goes wild in the Robinson Crusoe pattern of going native in order to survive. Although both of these works involve nudity, neither are apparent LGBTQ works unless you are a voyeuristic pedophile.      

     Things get a bit more complex, the music representing those shifts, when one boy finds a snake and dangles it around his wrist and neck. And by late morning they have entered a burning garbage dump, gathering up odd things such as an old license plate, a tin can, a yellowing newspaper, a broken umbrella, and a pair of woman’s high heels which one of the boys puts on. Soon after, they run the fields brandishing large branches as if they were weapons. Total innocence has clearly transmogrified into something slightly different through their involvement with the remnants of culture that lies outside of their childhood isolation.

     Yet all the images, at times overlaying the previous, at other times perfectly framed in long shots and closeups, give the feeling of the entire as a kind of Hallmark greeting card. Surely these sweetly beautiful, mostly blonde-haired lads are the very image of undeterred childhood. Their beauty alone evidences their playful goodness.

      Even the public mural which Gulager inserts, painted in some of the same yellow, brown, and orange tones as Kovács’ shots, gives testament to their cultural identity. We know these boys; they are us in the days when in small town USA, where I grew up, you could truly step out of your house in the morning and roam through the fields and neighborhoods around until you were tired and dinner was ready to be served. My father had a whistle to call us when it was time to return home. We were recognized as something like roaming steers or cats to be rounded up before the sun set.

       They soon overrun an empty playground, whirling on a merry-go-round, and swinging away for hours without the need of parental control. These boys are iconic images, so it appears, of American youth.

      At 11:00 they reach another buried trash spot guarded by large scavenging birds and crows who the boys rambunctiously scare off. Soon after they have retrieved their toy rifles with which they began the day, however, and are carefully creeping through the terrain to discover and engage one of their peers as he signals his existence from time to time with a musical song boomed out on his small portable radio. But even here their tangles with imagery death seem more like “tangos with death” as radio plays just such a song and they uniformly peek out of the pilings behind which they hide and return to disappear from sight.

     But at that very moment they spot something else yards off on the streets of the area in which the probably live: a businessman (James Kearce) dressed in his suit and carrying a briefcase as he parks his car to walk home. 

     One of their group cries out with the discovery pointing at the walking man of Stanley Hill Road. The composer’s music turns highly dissonant as the man, observing the children, briefly waves to them. In the midst of such a wild terrain which the boys temporarily abandon, the man appears almost as a comic figure, reminding one a bit of Saturday Night Live’s Dan Ackroyd playing an awkward family man.

     The small military unit come running and surround him, apparently trying to encourage him to join them. At 1:0l he agrees, half following, half leading them back into their raw paradise. Still fully besuited, briefcase in hand he marches with them across fields, trotting near fence lines, the camera catching a double image of the retinue as if it were a major military deployment, their travels accompanied by a quietly beating snare-drum.           

    A few minutes later they run down an old rail line, the snare drum picking up its beat. And finally we see them spread out in the open landscape under a single tree, two horses looking on, a scene that cannot help but remind us a little of the Ingmar Bergman representation of death in The Seventh Seal. We can now guess where this all might be leading, but we’re still disbelieving. What could these imps possibly accomplish of their own accord?

     Symbolically, the children can apparently play out a great deal of horrific adult wartime behavior. After walking him up a long hill they enter a high woodland where they lead him through a dense undercover of flowering plants and branches. At 4:15 our businessman has removed his suit jacket but still is playing the good sport in joining in their childhood games. 

      At a small brick outbuilding they stand him up against a wall, still broadly smiling as they take out their weapons while another of them yells fire. They shoot him dead, jumping up and down with absolute pleasure. Agreeing to what he intuits as their desire, he removes a few branches and  lays down upon the forest floor to play dead.

      Together they grab his feet and drag him a significant ways away, dumping him in an open pit which evidently they have previously dug. He looks as if he’s actually enjoying the rough contact, but appears a bit surprised at the ready grave they’ve already dug for him. Before he might even protest he lands face down as they begin shoveling dirt over him. The screen goes black.

     As the music now returns to merry playfulness, we observe the boys patting down the dirt atop the deep grave. One of them plants the man’s briefcase on the top as if to serve as a burial marker.

     As the camera pans slowly right we see another such grave marked with a golf bag with clubs intact; a few feet later we see another such spot commemorated with an open book, some of its pages frozen open with mildew. It is now 5:37. A few feet over we see another such spot marked by a picnic basket; and finally we see a grave topped by a child’s play stroller and doll hanging over its seat.

      As the credits begin to roll we hear the heavenly voices of the Jimmy Joyce Children’s Choir, the boys, now naked, bathing in a stream, cleaning their bodies in innocent roughhousing without any seeming awareness of the crimes they have committed.

       It is a ghoulish play, evidence, as so many writers such as Graham Greene have attempted to show us that innocence is often connected to evil and destruction. Perhaps only experience, as much as William Blake perceived its restrictions, can help us to comprehend that our actions, even if seemingly symbolic, profoundly affect others. Yet perhaps these children, through their culture’s images of war, learned to behave in the manner which they have acted out. Since we have no firsthand knowledge of their home lives to we have no way of knowing. All we have of evidence is the radio they play, detritus left behind in the garbage dumps, and, most importantly, the toy rifles their parents have evidently given them as gifts that might suggest that society may have already taught them to value violence and death; but it may equally be the ignorance of innocence. Just as in such other metaphorically constructed works questioning the dominance of nature vs nurture , there is no definitive answer to explain why children can be profoundly evil when judged by society’s experienced values.

      But no matter how we might interpret these boys’ actions there is still a gaping hole in the logic of this otherwise rather profound little film. And the questions it poses are perhaps just as important if not more important than our interpretation of the children’s acts.  

     Although the film has, despite its obvious emotional manipulations, basically represented its narrative in naturalist terms, it is difficult to comprehend the actions of its major player, the businessman, as fitting into that pattern. Why has a seemingly devoted worker, perhaps one of the boy’s fathers or certainly a neighbor, decided to suddenly join their ragamuffin gang for a four-hour march into the wilderness while dressed still in a suit and carrying his briefcase which he surely might have locked in his car trunk along with his jacket if he’d been anyone with sense. Even if we ignore the matter of the unusual hour which he has returned from work, how might these children have convinced him to join them on an exploration into the wilderness seems to be a somewhat mind-boggling question.

      I will assume that most sane-headed adults would have simply laughed off the request, even if somewhat charmed by the invitation.

      But let us assume that he—like the numerous male Peter Pan’s of the world, who because of their inborn male authority never truly grow up and long to return to the idyll of their childhoods—suddenly felt an inward to desire to play like a child again while providing these boys with an engaged parental figure. Let’s imagine the nostalgia for his youth suddenly spilled over with the joy of their request, and, accordingly, he was willing to go along with everything their imaginations called up.

     But even then, there obviously would have been limits. Surely, having just come from the office, he might have been too tired to traipse out into the wilds, walking long distances simply to pretend to be shot and killed. Wouldn’t he have simply, at some point, admitted he was bushed and needed to abandon their playland. Even the most devoted of parents halt their daughter’s miniature tea-parties at some point. Certainly, as they began roughly dragging his imagined corpse down the steep hill he might have stood up to laughingly complain, or jumped up in the hole into which they had tossed him? Why does he remain so agreeably passive?

      But then, other questions also arise. Any normal responsible adult would have realized that an mature male joining up to play with a small army of nine boys would represent a very questionable situation when these boys returned home to share with their parents what they did during the day. “Mr. Briefcase joined us today Daddy. He was a good sport and lots of fun.”

       Just maybe our businessman had a hidden obsession. Perhaps he very much liked children, especially grade-school boys, and was only too happy to join in playing their games, particularly if they got a little bit rowdy; and most definitely he would love to have been able to join them at the end of the day as they frolicked in the local stream completely naked. Perhaps this is a film  after all as, denied in my early paragraphs, that is very much attune to the lure of “voyeuristic pedophiles.” That, at least, might explain his endless patience with their long trek and their physical abuse of his symbolically dead body.

      And, just for a moment, let us imagine that the boys sensed this from the beginning. If it is easy to imagine this pack of 9 boys as representing a romanticized notion of youth before the repressions of the adult world set in—as a kind Blakean world of innocence before experience darkens their joyful activities—it is also possible to perceive them as the opposite: a small social band of same-thinking outsiders who resist or, at least, fear normalization, intrusion, or any force that they feel might attempt to control them. We all know that youths have an amazing ability to see through the ruses adults put up in an attempt to hide truth from them. They may often be mistaken in their conclusions, but they can see through anyone who might attempt to deflect or alter their determined course. 

       If these two forces meet head on—obsession and self-protection—neither can deter their own volition, and a struggle between the two is inevitable without either giving a clue that they are involved with what is actually occurring. It just happens. The obsessed adult, in this case, knowing that if he is recognized for who he is it would mean his downfall, while for the children to admit to anything more powerful would mean to accept and give obeisance to it. As the highly intuitive children of Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) and Anton Leader’s Children of the Damned (1964)—two other movies quite paranoid about children of the 1950s and 60s*—fully realized, in order to survive your childhood you need to get rid of intruding adults and children who might bar your way—or, in the case of the children in these films, become wise of amazing powers.

       Gulager’s film does not make this argument. And my comments are only speculative. But they at least might help to explain the inexplicable series of events once these beautiful boys get their hands on their ridiculous adult playmate. And if there is even a slightest possibility of this scenario, A Day with the Boys is very much a kind of gay sexual drama wherein a same-sex society takes to the streets to assure its ability to survive outside of the normative boundaries of the world in which it exists.

*It’s important to remember that from 1946-1964 the so-called US “Baby-boom generation,” 78.3 million children were born, making it seem almost as if there were more children than adults. Obviously, parents felt they had reason to be fearful of their children, and that generation, in particular, did indeed radically challenge the values of their parents.

May 30, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).


Saturday, May 29, 2021

Fabio Mollo | Al buio (In the Dark)

behind closed doors

by Douglas Messerli

Josella Porto (screenplay), Fabio Mollo (director) Al buio (In the Dark) / 2005 [10 minutes]

Italian director Fabio Mollo’s short 10 minute film Al buio (In the Dark) is about two roommates, Antonio Josefia Forlì) and Marcello (Daniele Grassetti), who have been friends it appears for some time.

       Antonio seemingly encourages his friend to engage in his heterosexual relationships and describe them to him; almost like a married partner he tells his friend which shirt looks best on him when he goes out on his dates and he keeps a close tab on which girls Marcello is seeing and which ones seem more than a simple “lay” or who represent someone who’s had sex with everyone in their school.       

       But on this particular evening, as Marcello is about to go out, tensions begin to rise as he challenges his friend to join him at a party, to get out instead of staying in the room as usual to study, querying when he might begin to explore some of the women he keeps talking about. He is also particularly disturbed by Antonio entering their small bathroom while he is trying wash up and dress for going out. But the boy literally ignores his plea, sitting down on the toilet seat to watch his friend in the mirror. And much of the rest of the scene is played out in mirror images of both, suggesting that there is another side to each of them.

      Finally Marcello tells him that he has invited a girlfriend over for the night and suggests his roommate find somewhere else to go for a few hours. The tension mounts as Antonio argues that the girl who he has invited over, Oriana, is like all others, and wonders why he has asked her to the room. Why is she special? Surely he doesn’t really love her.

     Marcello simply describes her as his “steady,” but there is something deeper in Antonio’s resistance to her entering their male space; and we begin to suspect that there is something else about their friendship that we haven’t yet penetrated.

      Antonio declares “You don’t really like her,” continuing “She knows nothing about you.” Marcello demands he stop.

      But his friend continues, “You don’t give a damn about Oriana.”

      “I screw her every night.”

      “That’s different.”

      It now quickly opens up into a shouting match as Marcello says the obvious, that Antonio is 20 years of age but hasn’t yet been with a girl. It’s not “normal.” But still the other holds his ground, arguing he doesn’t need to have screwed a girl to know the truth.

     Just what that truth is gradually spins out of their argument as Marcello finally speaks out about his friend as being gay, the other responding, “Why? Does that disgust you?”

     It is a bit like the game George and Martha play in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: once one has brought up a subject it is fair that the other can expand on the it; and with a seemingly righteous sense of vengeance, Antonio now snaps off the bathroom light to insist “let’s tell in each other in the dark.”

     “If I’m gay, what are you?” Evidently for years now every Saturday afternoon, Antonio has knelt down and in the dark given his friend a blow job, apparently without any in-kind response. 

     Quickly snapping the light back on, Antonio asks him if he wants to stop. “Are you still here?”

     Marcello, still not ready to admit their relationship, turns away. “I’ll go out then.”

     Again, Antonio asks when he will be back as if he were a demanding house mate.

     But when he receives no answer, we see him turn and, almost as if a threat, call out: “What would mom and dad say if I told them? Would they still consider you the model son?”

     Suddenly, the world has shifted. As the doorbell buzzes, signifying Oriana’s arrival, Marcello returns to the room, putting his hands upon Antonio’s shoulders. He rubs his hands across the boy’s hair turning him around to face him, gently caressing Antonio’s chest.

     The door continues to buzz, as he takes off his shirt while continuing to rub his hands across Antonio’s chest, switching off the bathroom light once more. Antonio kneels, but this time Marcello, putting his hands on the boy’s chin, raises him into standing position and gradually bends down to himself fellate his brother. The door closes with a soft sigh of relief and joy emanating perhaps from Antonio or just the audience’s gasp in realizing that Marcello has finally been able to admit he is in love with his roommate who may just possibly be his sibling as well.

      This may conform to all of the hundreds of other “coming out” films superficially, but we recognize if what we now suspect is true, there can be no traditional “coming out” ending. The silence of the closing bathroom door with lights out says everything. This is a relationship that, alas, must remain behind closed doors.

Los Angeles, May 29, 2021A

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).


Friday, May 28, 2021

Clyde Cook (with supervision by F. Richard Jones) | What's the World Coming To?

the sky’s the limit—for women

by Douglas Messerli

Stan Laurel, Frank Terry, and Hal Yates (screenwriters), Malcolm Stuart Boylan (titles), Clyde Cook (director) F. Richard Jones (supervising director) What’s the World Coming To? / 1926

One might describe Clyde Cook’s 1926 short What’s the World Coming To? as an extension of Alice Guy Blanché’s The Consequences of Feminism, except that Cook’s version is primarily  played just for comic laughs without any of the pedagogical significance of the version of 20 years previous; and finally the Hal Roach 23-minute production loses its way with the introduction of other slapstick routines than diminish the overriding narrative’s effects.

      Nonetheless, there are some quite wonderful moments in the futuristic world in which men have now become effeminate house pets for the working women who jet the skies around them to the office, have extensive love affairs, and vie for the homebound husband’s attention as if he were a prize to play with when one’s attention isn’t focused on more serious things. The trio of comic writers who lent their talents to this work should alone indicate the seriousness with which this film takes itself, with Stan Laurel, Frank Terry, and Hal Yates working as the central writers, and Malcolm Stuart Boylan creating the intertitles.

     The film—which takes place “100 years from now,” dating it five years from my review—begins with a ritual apparently seldom practiced anymore, the marriage of noted pilot Billie (Katherine Grant) to his “blushing” and “nervous” bridegroom Claudia (Clyde Cook) accompanied by the saddened father-in-law (James Finlayson) who accompanies his dear son down the aisle. Already at the altar is Billie and her dyke-ish looking “best woman” who holds the ring along with a pair of dice in her pocket.

     Meanwhile the stunningly handsome Lieutenant Penelope (Laura De Cardi) enters the church in the background, assessing the ceremony as she “casts a sinister shadow over the happy event.”  

     Due to his father’s cyclonic sneeze, the blushing bridegroom begins to have a series of wardrobe malfunctions starting with his wig, followed by the bride’s accidental dropping the ring down the groom’s sleeve, and ending with his curled-up collar of his bridal blouse before the ring is retrieved and placed upon the his finger.

     The vamp Penelope, slithering up to the groom’s side whispers into his ear: “You can’t escape me by an old fashioned wedding—I’ll get you yet my proud Bozo.”  The seemingly doomed couple slips to the church floor on their way out, a gossipy daily declaring in a headline, just a few weeks later, “Old Fashioned Divorce Looms for Couple in Fall Wedding.”

     The bride’s father flies in via the aerial jitney to advise his son, paper in hand. He discovers his son playing the harp, bored to death in the new apartment into which his errant wife has placed him like the caged bird who spits in his face when he seeks sympathy.

      His father brings the newspaper gossip that Billie is practically making her home on the night blimp in which his sheik stenographer also regularly commutes. He suggests the boy come home immediately since they’ll be able to live off the alimony.

     At that very moment, Billie makes one of her rare returns home, handing the butler (Martha Sleeper) her gloves. Her first statement is an apology that she has to catch the night blimp, having  arranged a necessary conference with an important client. Her husband complains that she has been out every night since their honeymoon, surely a sign that something is wrong as he shows her the scandal sheets. 

      If she is angered by the newspaper she is even more troubled by the meddling father-in-law she discovers behind the curtains and draws a gun to rid the place of him.

      At that very moment, a mouse finds it way up Claudia’s leg forcing him to undergo a spastic series of movements like a dance as the father grabs the gun and shoots it into his son’s pants to rid him of the mouse; but the pest only escapes into his own headpiece, ending in the boy knocking his father out with a book stand. It may have seemed to its creators as a perfect comic moment suggesting the need to rid the apartment of another pest as well, but its humor falls flat given the overriding narrative dilemma with which we’ve just been presented.  

      And morning arrives with no sign of his galivanting wife. Instead Penelope shows up delivering the forlorn husband a dozen roses, which he receives with a great deal of affection and satisfaction that someone, at least, still pays him attention. Primly powdering his nose and applying various perfumed scents to his body, the man of house attends to his visitor.

      Inevitably, it is at the instant that Billie returns, furious to discover her lover in the arms of another woman. She takes up a lance, chasing her enemy around the house, almost spearing her husband in the process, but eventually evicting her romantic usurper.

       A stork flies in carrying a baby who, coincidentally looks just like the father (since he is also played by Cook). And everything ends well as the father-in-law hanging throughout most of this scene by his fingers from the window-ledge falls, apparently, to his death.

       It’s interesting that in this comic-book look into the future of the sexes, the reversal seems to be permanent with no change in sight: males have lost their status to the dominant females without anything having been learned about the problems that sexual dominance creates. Men have simply been emasculated forever, serving as substitute slaves the way women had for centuries. Clearly the world is coming to a stasis that allows little alteration in the ideas behind heterosexual normative behavior. It might have been interesting to see the stenographer who so attracted Billie. Is there another kind of man available in this Jetson-like cartoon society for the obviously superior women who control it? Or, one cannot help but wonder, is the mysterious stenographer also a woman?

Los Angeles, May 28, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).