Gay Cinema

The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1917)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 13.00.22A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.

Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?

fig a
fig A

 

from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig. B: from a balcony, and pre-figuring Busby Berkeley
Fig Ca: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
Fig C-a: on the street though notice the character exits frame right
fig 3.B: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
fig C-b: but enters frame also from the right. Not yet following continuity editing
Outside doors
Fig D. Outside doors
Fig E. Experimenting with frames within frames and reflections
Fig E: xxperimenting with frames within frames and reflections

The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.

A farce on marriage
A farce on marriage

 

Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.

At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.

 

When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.

In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

 

In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.

Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You

Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).

 

Mizi
Mizi

There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five

 

 

Pierrots at the ball
Pierrots at the ball

 

The scene at the ball  is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is  continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.

 

low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail
low-key lighting for Quabbe in jail

In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.

More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.

Punishment
Punishment

 

At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.

 

Final clinch
Final clinch

The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Autobiography and Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004)

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Image Capture 1-
Image Capture 1-a

In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?

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For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay,  writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material:  ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’

Image Capture 1-b
Image Capture 1-b

There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:

‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.

‘Father Constantino, it is I.

‘How you’ve changed

Father Constantino, it is I.
‘Father Constantino, it is I’ from The Law of Desire

‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.

Image Capture 1-c
Image Capture 1-c

The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passion and not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.

Image capture 1-d
Image capture 1-d

When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983) or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.

Image Capture 1-e
Image Capture 1-e

So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.

In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?

Compare to 1-b
Compare to 1-b

In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).

What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.

If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?

One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.

José Arroyo

A Fount of Pleasure and a Matrix of Meaning: Notes Arising from a Viewing of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’

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Carmen Maura once again too late to talk to her ex in ^Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown^
Carmen Maura once again too late to talk to her ex in ^Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown^

Seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again earlier this week made me think that, whilst each Almodóvar film can be enjoyed in and of itself on first viewing,  his films become richer seen as part of the process in the unfolding of his ouvre. I suppose this can be said of any great director and was certainly a basic precept behind the auteur ‘theory’. However, with Almodóvar, its different, or perhaps just more intensely so, in that  it’s not just a coherent style or recurring themes but a kind of unfolding of ideas, situations and themes from film to film in a style that seems the same in spirit but is the product of a much greater command of the medium as the oeuvre progresses. For example, one can see how the nugget of an idea in one film (Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La voix humaine’ on stage in Law of Desire [1987] becomes the basis of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [1988], the filming of which becomes an integral plot point in Broken Embraces [2009]).

Carmen Maura playing Tina   playing Cocteau's 'La Voix humaine'  in  'Law of Desire'
Carmen Maura playing Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ in ‘Law of Desire’

In looking at Almodóvar’s work, this unfolding comes to seem richer still if these inter-connected elements are then linked to a conscious articulation of the references they were employed to evoke. The idea is to see Almodóvar’s films in the fullness of their diachrony but also within their synchronic relations. Each film could be seen as a matrix in which not all the dots need to be joined together to get pleasure or meaning. They could exist as relational planes, one beyond the other but also circling within a cybernetic type of space in which the viewer can at best access only certain elements. Yet the desire to see them in their fullness is an enriching drive because there are always pleasures and meanings to be had behind and around the view on overt display by exploring relations, echoes, references, the little bytes of meaning, colour and design the bricoleur that is Almodóvar utilised in the overall design of the image to achieve its dramatic intent.

Anna Magnani performing 'La Voix humaine' as filmed by Rossellini.
Anna Magnani performing ‘La Voix humaine’ as filmed by Rossellini.

As an example of this unfolding in Almodóvar’s work let’s linger over Carmen Maura in Women. Up to that point she’d appeared in all of Almodóvar’s features bar Labyrinth of Passion (thought it might be worth noting that that film, like Women, has a similar race to the airport as the film’s finale). In Law of Desire she played Tina, a trans-sexual, who gets the lead in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, and triumphs nightly onstage in a female monologue of a woman speaking to her invisible and inaudible lover who is leaving her to marry another woman.

Carmen Maura as Pepa making her gazpacho in 'Women on the Verge'
Carmen Maura as Pepa making her gazpacho in ‘Women on the Verge’

This scene of Maura as Tina onstage as the protagonist of  La Voix humaine, a great part that had already been enacted by great actresses and stars on-stage (Berthe Bovy), on vinyl (Hildegard Knef, Simone Signoret) and on-screen (Anna Magnani in L’Amore (Italy, 1948) a film directed by Rossellini which included Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ and also Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Miracolo’),  then becomes the germ of the idea for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s a tour-de-force part for, to use Kenneth Tynan’s term, a ‘high-definitio’ performer —  one can see why Poulenc turned Cocteau’s play into a one-act opera, in which form it continues to be staged as a showcase  vehicle for a long line-up of illustrious opera divas, Lesley Garrett being but a recent example.

Pe as Pepa making her gazpacho but in the film within 'Broken Embraces'
Pe as Pepa making her gazpacho but in the film within ‘Broken Embraces’

In Women, Carmen Maura plays Pepa, constantly too late to say to her ex-lover what she needs to tell him; he always having left just as she’s arriving; she in contact only with his recorded voice, smooth, professional. Carmen playing Pepa in a melodramatic screwball becomes Penelope Cruz playing Pepa but in the original script idea for Women on the Verge entitled Chicas Y Maletas (‘Chicks and Suitcases ‘or ‘Gals and Suitcases’, neither translation quite conveys that combination of girly-ness and hipness that ‘Chicas’ does – the logical equivalent something like a ‘cool chick’ to me always seems a moniker with an implied male designator or addressee, whereas ‘chicas’ has a communal female feel, a term used by women within a female context but to refer to youthful behavior that might border on the slightly transgressive) but this time in a film within a film composed within the porous, billowing fog of noir.

Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as mother and daughter in 'Volver'.
Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as mother and daughter in ‘Volver’.

In Broken Embraces, Penelope Cruz is playing the Carmen Maura role. Maura had played Cruz’s mom in Volver. Pe is thus the Pepa once played by the actress who was to play her mom. But Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces is not just a version of Pepa, she is also and simultaneously a version of Audrey Hepburn, and Dietrich, and a film noir heroine, and an ideal movie star.

Penelope Cruz channelling Audrey Hepburn in 'Broken Embraces'
Penelope Cruz channelling Audrey Hepburn in ‘Broken Embraces’

‘Chicas y Maletas’, Broken Embraces’ version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gets barbarically destroyed in the initial edit by the industrialist villain in Broken Embraces. But at the end of that film, the remaining protagonists hover around a steenbeck looking at a restored section of ‘Girls and Suitcases’, and declare it wondrous and marvellous. Personally, I found it to be a pale, thin, sitcom imitation of the masterpiece that is Women.

Cruz in the foreground, Romy Schneider in the background, the miss-en-scene subtly attributing the qualities of the latter to the former
Cruz in the foreground, Romy Schneider in the background, the miss-en-scene subtly attributing the qualities of the latter to the former

As I was watching Women on the Verge there were moments when I was thinking simultaneously back to Law of Desire or Labyrinth of Passion and forwards onto Broken Embraces, and on different planes in relation to Magnani and Signoret, and also in relation to a whole history of female stardom in a variety of guises that seemed to somehow foreground glamour and film noir, all without losing sight of that wonderful comic timing, and still being moved by Maura, and still admiring the 80’s chic of it all. And there were many other moments in the film where this way of looking simultaneously diachronically but also within an extraordinary range of  synchronic relations resulted in bursts of all kinds of pleasure.

José Arroyo

Any Day Now (Travis Fine, USA, 2012)

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Any Day Now

Spoilers Ahead

‘ Love me! I’m such a victim and suffered so much but I won’t take it any longer, I am gay, and I am worthy and I love myself and I will be brave and I shall be released and I will throw in a child with Down’s syndrome and I will make you laugh and cry or kill you with sanctimoniousness’. Any Day Now is THAT kind of movie.

The film is set in 1979, based on a true story and gets its title from the Bob Dylan song, (Any Day Now) ‘I Shall be Released’ . It tells the tale of Rudy Donatello (Alan Cummings), a drag queen who lives next to Marianne Delson (Jamie Anne Allman), a heroin addict and the mother of Marco, a young child with Down’s syndrome. Rudy meets and falls in love with Paul Fliger (Garret Dillahunt), a D.A., just at the moment when Marianne gets arrested. Rudy decides to care for Marco rather than have the child go into social services and gets Paul to help as their own relationship deepens. The rest of the film is a demonstration of how the US justice system valued the maintenance of homophobia over the well-being of a young child with special needs.

Any Day Now is everything I hate in gay movies: smug, superior, like a little moral lesson to a wayward child by a bunch of Miss Know-it-Alls. Alan Cummings has some good bravura moments and a convincing accent. But it also looks like he’s been taking lessons on New York humour from Liza Minnelli, faux-cynical but with a silent drum-roll of a twist, and he can’t stop bloody twinkling and wanting to be loved, even when he’s lip-synching as a drag queen in full Carmen Miranda gear. He even sings a series of numbers (‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, ‘I Shall Be Released), interspersed throughout the film and meant to evoke the state of feeling of the characters but so trite in choice and in execution that it gives kitsch a bad name.

Travis Fine is very good with actors. In spite of the above, Alan Cummings is at all times riveting, even when he doesn’t need to be. Garret Dillahunt looks like Glen Campbell did in the period and he does evoke a WASP up-tight gaucheness rooted in a settler sense of justice that is in keeping with the character and the time. It was lovely to see the great Frances Fisher back on the screen as the judge as well; and Chris Mulkey is convincingly oily as Paul’s homophobic colleague. There’s also a great performance from Jamie Anne Allman as the mother: she’s very good at conveying different emotions simultaneously and gives off an air of resentment at the injustice of having to take care of a kid like that when she could be getting stoned that reminds me of Jennifer Jason Leigh at her best. And of course, I don’t know if you can call it a performance, but what Fine was able to get from and do with the young Isaac Leyva as the child with Down’s syndrome is quite extraordinary.

The film looks 1979 and, when Cummings isn’t singing, has a wonderful Disco soundtrack. But though the film looks and sounds 1979 and is ostensibly based on real events, it has no idea what being gay in 1979 felt like much less how to convey it. Sometimes when people think they have all the answers, they reveal their ignorance of the questions and this is true of this film.  There’s a moment where Paul isn’t taking Rudy’s phone calls and Rudy goes into the DA’s office, his drag make-up not fully off his face, screaming his name. There’s a reason why the fear of blackmail was so potent in pre-Liberation days. A 1979 Rudy would not have risked the job of someone he ostensibly cares about and someone who is in a position to help him by behaving like that. But here the film asks the viewer to side with Rudy; as if being in the closet in 1979 was the stuff of cowards rather than a way of coping in a homophobic society where discovery often led to jail, loss of livelihood and social ostracism. The film does show Paul losing his job later but the point is that a 1979 Rudy should have known that. And really a 2013 Travis Fine should know that and get us to side with Paul rather Rudy.

The film lacks a historical perspective, a real understanding of people, the choices they had in the period and why and how they might have behaved as they did. It is also extraordinarily manipulative. All it needed was to throw the kid under a bus and the coercion to cry would have been complete, though the filmmakers come close: they tell us the child died under a bridge after four days of wondering alone, in the cold, unattended, and presumably facing every conceivable kind of danger, like Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm. Thankfully they show that off-screen. But just as you’re about to exhale with relief at the small mercy, the film throws in a montage of a letter Paul sends to everyone who prevented the child from having a home, basically blaming them for having killed him: clunky, crude, shameless, disgusting filmmaking.

José Arroyo

Heavy Girls/ Dicke Mädchen (Axel Ranisch, Germany, 2012)

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Sven (Heiko Pinkowski) a harried, overweight, middle-aged bank employee lives in a small apartment in a block of flats with his mother Edeltraut (Ruth Bicklehaupt) who is very dear in spite of her Alzheimer’s. Whilst he’s away at work, he gets help from Daniel (Peter Trabner), a carer. One day, Daniel is washing the windows on the balcony outside and Edeltraut forgets he’s there, locks him out, and goes for a wander. Six hours later, the son return to find Daniel freezing and the elderly mum gone. They search high and low but they can’t find her. Sven bonds with Daniel but asks him to go home as it’s very late and there’s nothing further to be done. When Daniel returns home his wife promptly kicks him out because she thinks he’s been with another woman and he goes back to Sven’s where the mother has since returned. Daniel and Sven, at Edeltraut’s urging and with her blessing become close and later fall in love.

The film is full of tender, funny, glorious scenes rarely seen in cinema: Daniel, a romantic adolescent at heart in spite of his age and girth, trying to find some sexual privacy from his mother and rapturously dancing naked to Ravel. He looks like a middle-aged Dumbo and is just as sweet. The mother peeks through the keyhole of course, and fondly: there’s total love and intimacy between them. In another scene, after they’ve become a couple, Daniel’s young son comes to play at Sven’s and the focus is on Sven’s displeasure at the son’s rudeness, a refusal to simply melt away and disappear when children appear on the scene, that many gay people will recognize (and they’re all in his house! His indignation is funny but also palpable and true).

Sven and Daniel are made for each other. They laugh at the same things, understand each other. They delight in the other’s craziness. There’s a marvelous scene where they all sing and dance in the living room, drink to excess, have a glorious time, each applauding the outrageousness of the other, the mother joyful at it all. That night she dies. They’ve given her the perfect send-off —  a life ending presumably as its been lived, with love and laughter; and she’s given them the platform through which their relationship can develop.

I love this film even though it looks like it was shot with a handheld camera of not-very-high resolution by people who didn’t understand the fundamentals of light: the image is thin and  scenes get into shade all of a sudden and for no reason. Yet, in spite of its look, emotionally each scene plays well and holds true. I also didn’t understand the ending: Sven kicks Daniel out because of all of the problems with his son and goes to Australia, which is meant to signify a new start and a new life. But will Sven ever find someone who he can be so easy, so himself so amused and loved as with Daniel? It presumably took him fifty years to find Daniel. Why didn’t they just work it out? We want them to. And think of how rare it is today to ‘want’ something for characters (other than a slap and a quick end).

A tender, loving look at the travails of not good-looking, not-rich, no-longer young people that is sweet, funny, tender and has some beautiful and daring performances. Very much worth a look.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 30th.

Brotherhood/ Broderskab (Nicolo Donato, Denmark, 2009)

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Thure Lindhardt stars as Lars, an officer from a well-to-do and well-connected family who is effectively discharged from the military for making a pass at two sub-ordinates. At loose ends and disaffected, he joins a neo-Nazi skinhead group. He rises quickly through the ranks, finds fraternity there but falls in love with Jimmy (David Dencik), another former military man but from a lower class. Jimmy reciprocates Lars’ feelings and they enjoy a brief idyll before they’re discovered and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a melodramatic story, one with no way out for its protagonists, and very depressing to see. Why someone like Lars would join a neo-Nazi skinhead group rather than just dance his tits off at a skinhead night in some club and pick someone up on his way out is not made clear. In fact the film seems barely conscious of the place of the figure of the skinhead in gay erotic subcultures, much less that there might be anti-Nazi left-wing gay skinhead associations (what’s fetishized is the look — thin men, head shaved, Doc Martin boots under rolled-up tight jeans – and a ritualized violence in sex that can verge on the extreme: Cazzo films made the production of such films addressed to a gay market its specialism in porn).

David Dencik as Jimmy is very good: one can understand his wrench in giving up his ‘family’ for Lars. There’s a wonderful appearance also by Nicolas Bro, who some might remember from The Killing, as ‘Fatty’ the leader of the neo-Nazi gang. But the camera really focuses on Thure Lindhardt; he’s the reason to see the film; and not only because his superb performance in Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, USA, 2012) remains so memorable. Here, he comes across as goofy, calculating and un-theatrically masculine; that combination of ordinary and extraordinary that stars are said to have. The film has a wonderful scene where he’s in the shower, steam rising form his body, mouth open, gaze on Jimmy steady, longing  palpable, that is as wonderful an evocation of desire as I’ve seen on film.

I also liked that the film doesn’t condemn the skin-head gang outright. One does get a sense of the anxieties, fears and all kinds of social exclusions and oppressions that drive them to form such a ‘family’. However, it’s a film of very partial pleasures; there are too many things in the story that don’t quite make sense; the film has some beautiful shots but the direction and pacing of those shots sometimes feels purposeless; and overall, and in spite of my anticipation, I found the film a bit of a trial to sit through:  it’s not sexy enough to make up for its relative lack of insight.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th 2013

 

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American Vagabond (Susanna Helke and Mary Morgan, Denmark/Finland/ USA, 2013)

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A feature documentary about a young man, James Temple, barely 18, life made impossible by his family for being gay, who runs away to San Francisco in the hope of finding a gay paradise. Instead he finds hunger, homelessness, and a desperate if short-lived descent into prostitution. The America we see in all kinds of films today is no longer that of the ‘American Dream’. You have to be brave in this America but that’s because it’s no longer free and it’s no longer just. What’s wrong with a family who prefers to see their child hungry, cold, homeless, abused and sold so that they can uphold their ‘Christian’ principles? What’s wrong with a country that puts a nice teenage boy in jail for three years and permanently stains him as a pedophile because he slept with another teenage boy who was under two years younger? What’s worse is that once the boy is put in jail, that family becomes his main source of support. One comes out of this film in a rage against that family, that system of injustice, this shocking, new and barbaric America. Russia is brutalising its gay youth officially; America no less efficiently for being unofficial. In ‘The Swimmers’ a short story written for The Saturday Evening Post ( 19th of October 1929),  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea…was a willingness of the heart.’ This makes one ask where is that willingness of the heart now in America? Or has that heart withered so  its only willingness is for hurting its young, its poor and its weak? The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job.

José Arroyo

Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 29th, 2013

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The Country Teacher/ Venkovský ucitel (Bohdan Sláma, Czech Republic, 2008)

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Petr (Pavel Liska), young, shy, gifted, arrives in a rural village from Prague to teach science. How will he fit in? Why has he left Prague? The film has a lovely feel for nature and for rural life; people take each other milk in bottles as gifts, calving becomes a metaphor for people’s relationships, some people are allowed to make love naturally, almost openly, in haystacks; others aren’t. The narrative  is designed around three sets of structuring tensions: the city vs the country; one urban, ambitious, controlling mother vs one who farms, gets by, and is understanding without being a pushover; and two sets of sons, a highly educated and sensitive gay boy who moves to the countryside and an equally sensitive boy with learning difficulties who wants to move to Prague and win back his girlfriend. The film looks beautiful and makes one long to experience the Czech countryside. It also succeeds in showing, with insight and delicacy, multiple ways of being and various ways of life that still exist, co-exist, and happily, today. As the tagline to the film’s poster says, ‘Everybody needs someone’; the film is quite moving in showing how this somebody one needs might not necessarily be who one thought, expected or initially desired.  I also loved the performance of Zuzana Bydzovská as Marie. She looks like Katharine Hepburn, exudes the rueful worldliness of Jeanne Moreau but can ride a tractor like nobody’s business. The film’s main fault is in its climax which I found self-abasing to the point of self-hatred and which almost ruined this lovely film for me.

José Arroyo

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Seen at Kitoks Kinas, Vilnius, July 26th, 2013

I Want Your Love (Travis Mathews, USA, 2012)

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An uneven film but very interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least the way it was — and is currently being — distributed, the context in which I saw it and the film itself: it’s a greatly flawed but bold and daring work.. I happened on the film by accident whilst looking up what was showing at Cineworld, noted that it was only showing for one night without the benefit of any publicity and, following Pauline Kael’s advice that one should always try to see that which the major distributors seem to want to dump, I raced to see it.

Of course, we live in a world were films are not quite released in the way they were in Kael’s time, and this film has nothing to do with the major distributors. It’s a 71 minute indie out on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures. But the idea fuelling Kael’s advice, that we should make an effort to see what others have a stake in not wanting to show us, holds. The combination of being screened only once but at Cineworld was interesting enough to attract a considerable crowd though I suspect the greater part of the audience went to see it based on the title, probably expected a nice romantic comedy, and seemed first a bit surprised when it turned out to be a gay film, then somewhat more agitated when the hardcore fucking started onscreen. However, only a few people walked out.

The story is straightforward, Jesse (Jesse Metzger) a young performance artist whose been living in San Francisco for a decade has finally run out of money and his notion of options, and has decided to move back home to the Midwest. On his final night, his friends, community and the ex he still hankers for gather together for his leaving party. This sets the context for an exploration of gay relationships, the importance of sex, the influence of context on identity, sexuality and art, and what it might mean to be a gay man, an artist and an adult today.

Making the film about performance artists in San Francisco means it’s almost de-facto a bit navel-gazy and narrow. I generally don’t like it when artists make their subject artists and their struggles because it tends to generally be a looking in to the self – me, me, me! – rather than a look out onto the world. However, and perhaps paradoxically, I Want Your Love also seems comparatively more true to life than the standard film. Perhaps because the production values are low, and there probably wasn’t much of a budget for sets and costumes, one feels that how these people dress, where they live, and how they talk is an accurate and evocative representation. I remember living in flats like Jesse’s in my youth: never a straight surface, all wonky, with too many coats of paint and never quite clean. You rarely see apartments like this in American cinema.

What I liked best about the film was its star, Jesse Metzger. He looks shabby, alternative, handsome in an unassuming way, the way someone who doesn’t want to bring attention to his looks sometimes makes himself appear. His face is absolutely transparent and the longing, hesitation, speculation, awkwardness and fear that he conveys at various moments, is palpable. There are two other actors who make a very considerable impression but whose names I was able to neither get nor find: the chubby man with the Asian boyfriend who does a marvelous step dance on the sidewalk; and a thin nervy black actor who ends up making out with Jason’s ex Ben, the impossible object of his affections. The black actor manages to be funny, smart, ironically distanced and vulnerable all at the same time and is a joy to watch.

What the film will probably best be remembered for is its integration of hard-core sex into a narrative feature. Bruce La Bruce tried doing something like this over ten years ago with Skin Flick — a.k.a. Skin Gang (Bruce La Bruce, Germany/Canada, 1999), which perhaps interestingly was also produced by a company that specialized in porn, Cazzo (I Want Your Love, is produced by NakedSword). But it wasn’t quite the same as, if I remember correctly, La Bruce ended up with two different versions of the same film, the hard-core and the not hard-core, to be released in as slightly different way to different audiences. The non-porn version caused a sensation when it was shown at an NFTS screening which I hosted featuring a Q&A session with the director: members of the audience protested that the very idea of a skinhead gang raping a black man was unacceptable (such a depiction would be banned if as today’s Independent claims, ‘Possessing pornography that depicts simulated rape is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales ‘. Skin Flick was a daring if ultimately unsuccessful experiment functioning neither as porn nor as drama.

I Want Your Love does what audiences and critics are salivating Lars von Trier may do in Nymphomaniac – which is to integrate the representation of sex into a fictional narrative on film. I Want Your Love is a graphic gay romance whose main intent is to show sex as part of life rather than as something to make the audience come. The sex is emotional with elements of embarrassment and humour as is true so often of sex, but full on hard-core even though the accent is on feeling; and those faces ‘feeling’ sex is also so different from porn that it is, I don’t know what, different, new; I didn’t quite know how to process it. I found it alternately erotic and embarrassing as if you were being turned on by something you should’t be watching in the first place, but beautiful. Seeing it on a big screen and in public is a factor as well: it might very possibly just look like not-too-hot porn viewed on a monitor or small screen. In any case, I found that it worked in that I’d never quite seen anything like it (emotional hard-core sex; hard-core sex rendered to depict intimacy) but it also worked against the film in that the sex kicked your head right out of the narrative and focussed your eye right on the genital area no matter where the camera was placed.

We live in a pornographic culture. What I mean by this is the many products of the culture industries are designed to simply get you off; to place you on the quickest route to ejaculation, either literally or metaphorically, and which is not quite the same, to me, as orgasm much less jouissance. ‘ Getting you off’ is the American expression, or cumming, and that’s what porn is designed to do. That’s why we have food porn, and real-estate porn, and so on, it’s not about cooking but about salivating, not about helping you find or make a home but just about increasing your desire for spaces you can’t own at prices you can’t afford. It’s all about creating desires and about eliciting the bluntest and quickest physical reaction possible to make one feel that those desires have in some way been met. As Herbert Marcuse noted, it’s the very structure of ‘One-Dimensional Culture’.But such ejaculations, what the French nickname la petite mort, ‘the little death’, even in a hyperreal form, do chip away at a notion of what it is to be human. Representations affect and have an effect.

What’s so interesting about I Want Your Love is the attempt to reclaim feeling not only for the society at large that keeps insisting that queers are simply disobedient, disorderly, fractious, frenzied, headstrong, hysterical, impetuous, indocile, insubordinate, insuppressible, insurgent and lawless desire that is out of control. But also its attempt to reclaim feeling and intimacy from a commercial gay culture that teaches us that being gay is about having a particular look, going to particular places and having sex in particular ways. There’s an interesting split in that most gay men watch gay porn of various kinds that creates a particular way of being gay, entirely focused on particular kinds of sex; and then there are ‘gay’ fictional narrative films that overly sentimentalise romance and relationships. By integrating sex into love in the ways that it does, I Want Your Love is a protest not only against the mainstream culture we all live and participate in, but the commodification of ways of being imposed by commercial and/or official gay cultures themselves. A flawed film, yes; but a must-see one.

José Arroyo

(July 22nd, 2013)

Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo García, USA/UK/Ireland/France, 2011)

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Albert Nobbs is almost unbearably sad, Glenn Close’s performance almost too uncompromising, but I was very moved by the film. I almost walked out several times as you know something horrible is just about to happen and then it really does and you just can’t bear it. The life depicted is so sad, so hopeless, an example of such self-denial that the problem goes beyond unfulfilled desire. The film is set in 19th Century Dublin. Albert Nobbs is already in late middle-age, barely making a living as a waiter and then falls in love with a beautiful young girl. The problem is that Albert Nobbs is not quite a man and because he’s ‘passing’ as one and knows no other way of living independently, s/he can’t afford to allow him/herself the luxury of mere and basic human wants. Everything is confined, repressed, reined in, closed-up. When those wants are finally acknowledged it seems as if in opening him/herself up to the world he also enters a process of becoming, of finally being, of being human. It turns out that what s/he wants is a wife but s/he doesn’t really know what that involves; s/he wants company and a parlour; but s/he is too damaged to even think of love. When s/he does, the narrative unfurls into tragedy and engulfs one with sadness. Glenn Close’s performance is extraordinary; she totally loses herself in that part and really makes you imagine, think, feel for that wo/man. Mia Wasikowska is naïve, fresh, very appealing; Pauline Collins brings greed, a wink and much-needed humour to every shot she’s in; Janet McTeer will surely become a big new lesbian icon (if she isn’t one already). It’s an actors’ movie and I’m very glad I saw it. It’s a film that honestly earns whatever tears it garners.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki, USA, 2012)

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Gayby is overly sitcom-y, rather stereotypical and quite funny. The director, Jonathan Lisecki, is good with actors but not with situations and doesn’t have a visual bone in his body (except perhaps that one needed to appreciate the lead actor, Matthew Wilkas, who looks like a younger ‘Dexter’).

José Arroyo