Month: April 2017

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, France/US, 2016)

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i am not your negro

I thought I Am Not Your Negro was about James Baldwin but it’s more about race relations in America, using James Baldwin’s analysis, mainly as articulated in Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript on the theme. The manuscript offered an analysis of race structured around the significance of the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm Luther King and Malcolm X — what they represented – but also what was signified by their assassinations. It’s a structure the film borrows.

Baldwin’s analysis of race remains amongst the most cogent and potent – to me the most moral and unassailable. Here Samuel L. Jackson gives understated voice to Baldwin’s first-person narrative. I Am Not Your Negro is a historical account, and an argument, but also feels personal, like a confidential conversation on past horrors that becomes a realisation that those horrors of the past are still the current ones. The music is as expected blues, jazz and soul, but largely on a lower key, a mournful one that lends the film an intimate tone.

The film uses lots of visuals — photographs, newsreels, old TV footage — but cinema plays a central role in how the film articulates its case. There are clips of Joan Crawford in Dance Fool Dance, Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, the films of Sidney Poitier and Doris Day in The Pyjama Game and Pillow Talk.

The image of Doris Day in Pillow Talk, all bright and beautiful longing in Techicolor, the colours that for Truffaut signified America but are nowhere found in nature — the utopian ideal she represented, the price paid for it, and the erasure of the knowledge that there was a price – powerfully conveyed through a clip from Pillow Talk juxtaposed with images of lynchings. What Ray Charles represented — art, truth, vitality, sexuality and feeling in all its varieties and with all its complexities — is what Baldwin posited against what Doris Day signified, at least to him.

The film argues that history is also now and makes a convincing case. I had never seen the Rodney King beating in such brutal and relentless detail, the power and the cruelty in a society the film evokes as still a police state fifty years after the legal abolishment of segregation. The credits give the impression that the film has money from various countries – with Arte in France given a prominent credit. I thought no American company was credited, giving the impression that such a critique cannot be rendered or made possible in the US now in spite of all we’ve seen that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I see from imdb that I was wrong to think that.

Essential viewing.

José Arroyo

Strike a Pose (Ester Gould/ Reijer Zawaan, 2016)

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strike a pose poster

Do you remember Truth or Dare ((Alex Kerkishian, 1991) ) aka In Bed With Madonna in the UK? It’ s the film that documented Madonna’s ‘Blonde Ambition Tour’, the one where she wore Jean-Paul Gaultier’s conical bra and called Warren Beatty a pussy. Strike a Pose is a film about six of her back-up dancers on that tour — Carlton Wilborn, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Kevin Alexander Stea, Jose Gutierrez, and Luis Camacho (the seventh, Gabriel Trupin, succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1995) — where they’re at twenty five years later and how the tour and the film changed their lives.

kiss in truth or dare
Choosing Dare

I saw Truth or Dare in Vancouver, where I was then living, and there was a scene where Madonna and her back-up dancers play truth or dare, spin the bottle, and the dare is for one man to kiss another. I remember the audience in that screening gasping in disgust at the sight. It was an ‘us and them’ moment, Madonna being part of the ‘us’ and it’s one of the reasons I’ll love her forever.

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Madonna and backup dancers then

It was 1991. So many friends my age were dying. I was writing a column for Angles, the local gay paper, and felt I was going to a funeral on a monthly basis, ceremonies made more poignant by often taking place outdoors in Stanley Park, amidst the sublime natural beauty that is Vancouver’s, by the sea, with the Rockies as majestic background, all of us crying over death in front of so much beauty; the friends attending, the family –often still afraid of contagion and making their disavowal evident by their absence; the community, solidarity and hope embodied by those who did gather. And in that cinema, whilst Madonna presented us with youth, beauty, desire, flirtation, freedom, the straight audience laughed and sneered; at one of our lowest and most vulnerable moments as a community.

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Jose and Luis being fab in 1990

Whilst straights voiced disgust, for many young gay men, a generation younger than I, Madonna, Truth or Dare, ‘Express Yourself’, and that kiss in the film represented a transformative moment, a moment in which they recognised themselves, one where they saw there were other people like them. One of the ways Strike a Pose frames the tour and the film is as key and iconic moments of transformation in the Gay Liberation Movement, one entirely interlaced with fights against AIDS, almost that precise moment where ‘gay’ gave way to ‘queer’. There’s a wonderful scene in Strike a Pose where Madonna stops the concert to speak about her close friend, artist Keith Haring, who’d died just a few weeks previously: He ‘was a man who had the courage to tell the truth. The truth is, he was gay. The truth is, he had AIDS. And he said so to anybody who would listen.’ So much of the tour, and of the film of the tour, was about how liberating it was to ‘express yourself’.

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dancers now

Yet, Strike a Pose, demonstrates how expressing oneself was something not everyone could afford or dared do. Whilst gay audiences were admiring the beauty and the freedom the dancers embodied, many of the dancers themselves were hiding secrets they dared not voice.. Salim Gauwloos, one of the dancers, had himself been diagnosed with HIV in 87, at the age of eighteen, after his first sexual encounter. He’d told no one then, and his mother would be his only confidante on this issue for several years. He was behind Madonna when she spoke of Keith Haring’s freedom and looking at the footage twenty years later says ‘I look petrified. I can’t wait to get offstage.’ Carlton Wilburn was diagnosed whilst on tour in Japan. A third, Gabriel Trupin died of complications from AIDS in 1995, and we see in this film his mother’s continuing anger and bitterness over this.

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Original ad seeking dancers — Wimps and Wanna-Be’s need not apply!

Strike a Pose! is more than one of those ‘Where Are They Now?’ documentaries. It highlights the significance of cultural production — something as banal as the representation of a kiss – in historical struggles of liberation. The film is at its best when doing that, showing us how Jose and Luis became stars, the letters Salim (aka Slam) got over the kiss, etc. It’s at its worst in the latter part of the film, an ‘express yourself today’ moment where the spin the bottle scene from Truth or Dare transforms into a ‘coming out as HIV-positive’ scene in Strike a Pose but comes across as manipulative and slightly coercive.

Strike a Pose is trying to demonstrate how whereas these dancers couldn’t express themselves then, they can now. I’m not convinced. In any case, it’s an interesting film, one which shows how the wimp and wannabe in all of us can co-exist with courage and valour. I enjoyed it very much.  It’s currently on Netflix.

José Arroyo

Dancer (Steven Kantor, US/Russia/Ukraine/UK, 2016)

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polunin

No dancer has had the effect on me that Sergei Polunin has. I’d come to Nureyev when he was too old and I too young. He was very beautiful still but already stodgy in movement. It’s his celebrity, his history, we applauded then rather than his performance. Even delving into old BBC films memorialising his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn disappointed: the films themselves are so static that they get in the way of fully appreciating him in his prime, though even in these awful stodges, where no thought has been given as to how to best present one form via another, his genius and techne shine through (though if these films made me a fan of anyone, it’s Fonteyn). However, Nureyev’s dancing is  best appreciated elsewhere, and from way before my time,  as in this old Soviet footage:

or in this American TV Special:

I adored Baryshnikov. Like so many others, I got to know him first  through The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977) and then through the all too few films he graced (White Nights, Dancers). It was also a thrill to see him in those magnificent specials he did for American television in the 80s, first with Liza Minnelli in Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980) and later Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra (1984). The thrill was fleeting in those pre-VHS days but it has lasted in memory, memories that can now be tested via the re-releases of those works on DVD.

Baryshnikov was the light to Nureyev’s feral broodyness, first a horny pixie, all grace and beauty in movement, one who seemed to radiate earthy joy in its most ethereal aspect, then later, whilst still technically virtuosic, becoming baser, rawer, a hint of cruelty coming out in the more macho dimensions of the dances. He was also quick to branch out into more diverse forms of dance, eager to absorb all of its idioms, from Twyla Tharpe to Jerome Robbins, from his work in the American Ballet Theatre to his later experiments with modern dance in his own White Oak Dance Company with Mark Morris.

The Rudolf Nureyev foundation was later to fund Polunin’s schooling at the Royal Ballet. And Julie Kavanagh has called Polunin ‘the purest virtuoso’ since Baryshnikov. Polunin demands to be compared with, not only the best, but the legendary ones of each generation. I first saw him by accident in a live transmission of  The Royal Opera House’s Sleeping Beauty and was simply dazzled, first by his charisma, then by the way he seemed to attack each move fearlessly but end with enormous control whilst putting a final flourish on the movement. I haven’t seen anyone quite like him.

As Julie Kavanah writes, this time for 1843:

‘A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.

In a superb piece for The New York Times, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ the late, great, David Foster Wallace writes of athletes: ‘Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.’ It’s an idea also developed in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ in Consider the Lobster, where he writes of top flight athletes being beautiful and inspiring:

‘There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man….Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be what that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves’.

When we add beauty as goal to all that Foster Wallace describes, this sense of carving exemptions from physical laws, of profundity in motion, becomes intensified. ‘So we want to know them,’ adds Foster Wallace:

 ‘these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instincts, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it (pp. 142-143)

Dancer helps us get to know Polunin, whilst reminding us, through thrilling home and video footage, of why we want to get to know him in the first place. We begin with Polunin’s story. Born in Kherson in Souther Ukraine to working class parents, he first studied at the school of gymnastics, where he dreamed of winning a gold medal. But he also did a little bit of dancing in the afternoons and his mother thought he would have a better life exploring that route. So the whole family mobilised to make that dream come true: the father went to work to Portugal as a builder, the grandmother as carer for the elderly in Greece. Both sending home all they earned to pay for the rent and the school fees so he could study ballet in Kiev. But who’s dream was this? The child’s? The mother’s? The family’s? Beware of parents who constantly tell their children they sacrificed all for their future — a shift in perspective turns a sacrifice into an investment; the gilded future of their children into their own.

When Polunin was eleven, he auditioned at the Royal Ballet School, was accepted and quickly impressed. In 2007 he was named Young British Dancer of the year. He was the youngest dancer to be made a principal in the whole history of the Royal Ballet. They gave him practically every lead dance to play, six major new roles in 2011 alone, too many, like exploiting a young footballer’s virtuosity to the point where he risks potential injury and a curtailment of his career. Then in 2012, after his parents divorced and after breaking up with his girlfriend and getting into an argument in rehearsal with his his co-star, Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru, he left the Royal ballet for good. It was a scandal that made the front pages.

Soon, the tabloids were full of stories on  the ‘bad boy of ballet,’  the significance of part-owning a tattoo-parlour in North London, and proof of those  tweets about his drug-taking and clubbing. In the UK the ballet establishment wrung its hands, a talent wasted they thought. What the film shows us is more personal. He’d been over-worked and burned out. And what was the point of continuing? In his eyes, he’d done it all for his family who’d sacrificed so much for him. It’s not something he wanted for himself. And if his family had fallen apart in the process of collectively making possible that which was not his dream…well what was the point of it all?

Midnight-Express-with-Sergei-Polunin-and-Igor-Zelensky

The aftermath was not as well-covered by the press. I eagerly bought tickets for a ballet based on Midnight Express at the London Coliseum. Polunin cancelled but I soldiered on and fully understand why he pulled out. It was a complete disaster: sensationalist, crude, bombastic, salacious. He might have made it watchable. But not without embarrassment. What I had not noticed, partly because I did not then know of him, was that the strong, tall man, with his hand on the shoulder of the vulnerable Polunin in the poster (see image above) was Igor Zelenksy.

In Dancer, Polunin’s mother, Galina, describes him as the father Polunin always needed (and we also see how this view hurts Polunin’s handsome, gentle and self-sacrificing real father, Vladimir). Polunin followed Zelenksy to the Stanislavsky ballet. We see footage of him dancing there, and them dancing together in Spartacus. Dancer shows us how Polunin had to rebuild his career in Russia. He took part in a national ballet tv show, something comparable to The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent but with ballet dancing rather than singing as its focus. This way, Polunin once more became not only the leading dancer of his generation but once more a national celebrity, an international one. And once more the film shows us him running away to give it all up. This time to collaborate with former Royal Ballet classmate, Jade-Hali Cristofi in choreographing a ballet set to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, rather hackneyed both in sound and choreography but beautifully directed and danced, and which up to his point has racked up 19,331,185 views on you-tube. Extraordinary.

It’s clear from the film that this was at one point thought to be the ending of the film. It’s all structured to lead to this. But then, once, more Polunin returns to ballet, thankfully for us and for the film.

Dancer is fascinating in at least two ways; one, because through all the fantastic early footage it demonstrates the genius — there’s no other word for it — of its subject; two, because it also shows us all the work, dedication and sacrifice needed to develop that talent into genius. In the process of transforming raw talent into these otherworldly beings Foster Wallace describes, with that grace, power and control that ‘carve out exemptions from physical laws’, the single-minded focus extracts a price, social and psychological.  Here the irony is that all the family sacrificed, then the incredible talent actually realised. But it wasn’t Polunin’s own desire. And he struck struck out angrily — at least for a while — and shunned the family who sacrificed so much to make it possible. What was gained was a social good its subject and focus had no particular stake in, i.e. our enjoyment of his talent. He himself wanted first his family; then when he realised he couldn’t get that, maybe a car. Then when the realisation hit that’s that not what he’d be getting either. Well, why bother? There’s a Greek tragedy in this film, one that could have been better drawn out.

Richard Dyer, in a lovely piece wittily entitled ‘Classical ballet: a bit of uplift,’ originally written for Marxism Today, writes‘, ‘Classical ballet celebrates the potential harmony of the human body, the utopian ideal of collective endeavour, the possibility of the interchange between the sexes of human qualities we now label masculine or feminine. Something of this is what has recommended ballet to the communisms of the ballet of the USSR, Cuba and China. Beneath the aristocratic tat of the settings and the charming but dispensable never-never of the stories, there is an implicitly socialist vision. (p. 42) Dyer, may be right. It’s part of the argument that’s been used about the Busby Berkeley musicals vs the Astaire and Rogers ones. You can be Ruby Keeler, clod-hop along as part of a group, and still create wonders if you work together. But ah, only Astaire and Rogers can be as exceptional as they are.

Dyer continues, ‘At one level, its yearning for the transcendent grace of the individual human body in the abstract is a refusal of the actual limitations of the human body in reality. But at another level, its dream of being at one with one’s body and of being the harmony (united in and through differences) with other bodies is the feeling form of socialism. And the fact that you have to train and work for this is what makes it most powerful of all. Classical ballet does not say harmony is natural to human beings, but rather we can learn to achieve it. Likewise, socialism does not emanate from us naturally, it is the harmony we can learn to create together. (p.44)

Those two quotes of Dyer’s are so fascinating because we can see how they are so regarding the potential of the human body, the sexes, etc. But also how it’s not so. Here we see footage of Polunin at thirteen, dancing with a skill and ease that leaves all his colleagues in the dust, and enjoying it. He knows he’s exceptional. That he’ll be the star, and they will be the collectivised chorus who’s primary goal is to make him shine. Polunin — not to speak of all the sexual intrigues, competitiveness, nasty plotting and criminal acts of violence that recently occurred at the Bolshoi — indicates that if classical ballet has a feeling form evoking socialism, it’s one with a place for a Stalinist variant, with competition, exceptionalism, and hierarchy; with a natural selection harnessed before children are even given the choice and before the age where consent is in any way be meaningful, and then ruthlessly honed to the point where they are either exceptional enough to thrive, mediocre enough for the corps de ballet, or ruthlessly expunged from the stage altogether. Caught between one of the stage mothers of all time, a gentle and giving father, and evidence of natural ability, Dancer demonstrates the what, why and how of Polunin, marvellously.

José Arroyo

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Barak Heymann/Tober Heymann/ Alexander Bodin Saphir, UK/Israel (?), 2016)

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A touching documentary about a gay man, Saar Maoz, born and raised in a religious kibbutz in Israel who’s kicked out of it for ‘not following the rules’, ie. being gay.  He moves to London in his early twenties, meets a man he loves and starts a long term relationship. It doesn’t last.  Amidst the sorrow and sexual experimentation that follows the break-up, he becomes HIV. He finds support from the London Gay Men’s Choir and then, at 40,  finds himself in complicated discussions with the very extensive members of his family about whether to return to live in Israel. What makes it so moving is that the family is very loving yet almost murderously homophobic: ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’, asks one of his brothers. This is the type of film where the wish for a sibling’s death encased in an avowal of love is rendered understandable.

Saar Maoz is a great subject: charismatic, exuding energy and intelligence, emotionally transparent yet very vulnerable; moving fluidly between a learned ironic stance and a need for love so naked it feels an ache. What at first seems a contradiction becomes reduced to a tension as the film progresses. It’s encapsulated also by the London Gay Men’s choir, at once camp in their movement, kitschy in their song selection, yet simultaneously pure and  true in their singing. The film places Maoz between family, where he is  loved but is outcast (the scenes with his father are great), and community where he is a cherished but minor part of a very large group. In between them, Maoz suffers and longs.

Ultimately, London, with it’s cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic culture and make-shift support group of choir, medical lifeline, exes and friends, is nonetheless seen as a place of exile: where Maoz has gone to spare his family angst and shame, at great cost to himself. In the end, he decides to return to Israel, and to his family, in a job — running an HIV/AIDS organisation — that requires him to be out about both his sexuality and his HIV status. It’s a choice that raises lots of interesting questions: what is community? what is family? what does Maoz find in blood-ties that he couldn’t invent or construct for himself in London?

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now is not a formally daring or innovative documentary. But it will resonate and be of interest to anyone familiar with cross-cultural conflicts within families.

 

José Arroyo