Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Amos Guttman | A Safe Place

reaching out for love

by Douglas Messerli

Danni Lachman (screenplay), Amos Guttman (director) A Safe Place / 1977 [29 minutes]           

Surely one of the best films of 1977, a fascinating year for LGBTQ cinema given the release of so many international works outrageous and sublime, including Wolfgang Petterson’s The Consequence, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Paul Verhoven’s Soldier of Orange, Wim Wender’s An American Friend, Albert Bresson’s Gay USA, Eloy de la Iglesia’s Hidden Pleasures, and John Waters’ Desperate Living, not to forget the American premiere of a work devoted to all sexual deviations, Japanese director Nagisa Ōshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.

     That same year a 23 year old Israeli director, Amos Guttman directed his third short film, a beautifully nuanced black-and-white, A Safe Place. This work is particularly fascinating to me since it is a “coming out” movie slightly ahead of its time, standing as a link between the early versions of this genre by mostly US writers from 1947-1965 (Curtis Harrington, Kenneth Anger, John Schmitz, Willard Maas, Gregory J. Markopoulos, A.J. Rose, Jr., Jacques Demy, and others) and the transformed genre beginning in the late 1990s (with works by Simon Shore, David Moreton, Jaime Babbit, and others) and continuing until the present. The 30 odd years between the two variances represent the difference between individuals coming to sadly recognize and painfully live with the fact of their isolating homosexuality as opposed to young men and women suddenly discovering the freedom, pleasures, and love of being queer.

     Within those years, of course, a couple of generations of younger and older men and women had come to recognize their voices and the social and political power they held, but for adolescents to realize that coming to terms with queer sexuality was, if as first painful, quickly something that was liberating and life-affirming took a long time even after stonewall—at least in terms of its cinematic representation.

      Guttman’s young Jewish high school student Danni (Doron Nesher) stands somewhere between the two extremes. In Guttman’s and writer Danni Lachman’s talented hands, Danni’s world is presented as being slightly disorienting in the way that the early German Expressionist sets were in films like Dr. Caligari or The Fall of the House Usher, only transmogrified by the cinematic landscapes of the 1960s almost as if the boy’s family were living in some imaginary world halfway between Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Everything is spiffy and up-to-date, but the details don’t quite seem to add up to the contemporary world of the Israeli 1977.

       The very first could be anywhere in the world where handsome young schoolboy jocks run round the track before breaking up into teams, stripping off their shirts and playing football (soccer). All except Danni, an attractive but slightly less athletic kid who bows out of the game by pretending to be sick. He returns to the locker room to sit out the game among their clothes heaped over the benches, as if simply enjoying the same air of the sweat off their shirts and pants. He does not pick up their slacks and sniff them, but there is something odd about the half-naked boy surrounded by piles of male clothing who runs off the minute his schoolmates return to shower and redress.

      His home is a spiffy modern house, with handsome black detailing on the staircase, large wooden desks, and fairly spacious rooms, but there is something odd about the way the camera Guttman’s camera obsesses over those details, and even more oddly the way the mother, who hasn’t been able to move out of her bedroom to even greet her daughter, let alone her returning son, who arrives as his sister stands in the kitchen on a step-ladder to bring down something the cupboards so that she can eat. The boy helps her and the two sit down to the kitchen table while in the background, unknown to them, we seem the mother, dressed a night gown, hovering.

       Throughout the film somethings in explicable seems to be wrong with her emotionally. It may be that she is simply emotionally overwrought since she seems to work as an actor. But we are never certain what is wrong with her, and evidently, as we see through Dani late-night actions, she is regularly taking pills.

       And something also seems strange about Dani. He retreats to his room only to leaf through what appears to be a naturalist picture book with middle-aged women with dropping breasts and overweight men in the nude, a few young ones posing as naturalist musclemen. But his room is posted with photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

       Dani soon escapes—apparently as he does most days since he mother criticizes him for attending too many films—to the local movie theater where that night the are showing Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen 1963 film Charade.

       Dani sits alone, but watching one of his school-mates kissing and embracing his girlfriend seems to disturb him, perhaps even making him ill since he immediately runs off to the bathroom. At night he can’t sleep, and we see him enter the bathroom to take his mother’s pill box back to his room, although he doesn’t appear to take any of the pills, but may be considering it since we see him replace an entire packet of what appear to be sleeping pills back into the box.

        His mother, once more, seems to be suffering emotional duress, walking about rooms alone, seemingly half in pain, half in complete distraction. Nothing is said about the family’s missing father.

       The next day, on which the mother who successfully undergoes an interview for a new role, becomes an ever stranger day for Dani. He skips school entirely, showing up at his sister’s school to call her out of class in an attempt to invite her to join him at the movie  show. Clearly, the most emotionally stable member of her family, she refuses, insisting that he has classes to attend.

       Dani spends several hours standing by the seashore watching a couple of nearby tables each with males joined by a female, the one made up of younger cute boys, the other of more mature men, and observing a nearby prostitute, staring at her for long moments and, she, understandably staring back. Does she have a young customer?

       Meanwhile, a handsome young man (Danni Lachman), also pretending to simply be enjoying the view, cruises Dani, the boy pretending to be oblivious of being watched.

        In the move theater later we see the young man sitting a few rows behind Dani, and then moving into the same row before finally sitting next to him. The movie, we can hear from its score is The Sound of Music, Robert Wise’s hit film of 1965. It is surely the most unlikely film one could imagine to accompany a gay blow job.

       Dani waits breathlessly for something to happen, but suddenly terrified that it might, runs from the theater.

     In the middle of the night he suddenly awakens his sister as he sits on her bed. His confusion and suffering is made so apparent in the fact that he announces he’d like to talk with her, clearly having no mother or father to speak to, when we know that he cannot express any of the terrors he might be feeling to his grade school sibling.

    When morning comes and his sister does not find Dani waiting in the kitchen and troubled by his remaining in bed, she dares to call her mother down. The mother tries to rouse him, but he will not move. She asks to feel his forehead, but he won’t turn over for her to touch him. He has retreated, suddenly fully realizing his sexual own desires, to the role of a dead man—the role that each of the young filmmakers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s performed in their films: the sleeping man whose dreams are too dangerous to explain even to himself or, by the end of the film, the man who is crucified, becomes a ghastly mummified face, walks into the lake, or lies down in the cold lawn of a cemetery in the snow to die.

        That night, however, Dani is back in movie house, Charade once again projected on the screen overhead. Too bad the beautiful boy didn’t show up for Charade instead of The Sound of Music; in the Donen film a wiser of older Cary grant keeps the young woman from jumping into bed with him throughout the film by transforming himself into an entirely different man every 15 or 20 minutes; and when he finally reveals his true self he is who has to be paid—as the representative of the government whose stolen money is what everyone has been truly seeking throughout the film. Heterosexual love seemingly has nothing to do with it.

       But tonight, alas, the beautiful boy does not show up, yet Dani, clearly having come to terms with his desires, reaches out for him in the dark.

Los Angeles, September 13, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).      

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