In the accompanying podcast, we discuss Bill Douglas’ fourth and final film, COMRADES, very different from his earlier trilogy: A three-hour-long epic of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, a group of early 19th-century agricultural workers who band together to unite against the lowering of their wages, form The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, an early form of trade union, campaign against rich landowners, end up on trial on a spurious charge — swearing an illegal oath — and get shipped to serve their sentence in Australia.
References to early forms of cinema structure the film’s narrative; the story is told through an account of the pre-history of motion pictures: shadow play, magic lanterns, camera obscura, heliotypes, dioramas.
The story is fascinating because it is a pre-history of the union movement and also pre-Marx.
We discuss how the film becomes less interesting in the second half where the narrative moves to Australia, partly because we lose sight of what happens in Britain: the rallying, the support, the organising. In Australia, the Tolpuddle martyrs and indigenous people are seen to share an experience of oppression. But we also see the limits of this, how some of the white oppressed themselves become oppressors as soon as they get a little power.
We also discuss how the FILM might be both an unwieldy mess and a very great film. What is beautiful about this movie is the way Douglas films working class people and landscape. There’s a real tension between the narrative and the poetic. The storytelling is tortured. Interesting to compare with MY WAY HOME, in which the Scottish section seemed stronger than the last part where he goes into the army and abroad. At it’s best, the film brings to mind Chahine’s THE LAND. At its worst, it feels uncompromising and a little bit self-indulgent.
The film has a very great cast with famous actors playing the upper classes (Robert Stephens, James Fox, Vanessa Redgrave) and then unknown actors playing the workers (Imelda Staunton, Keith Allen, Phil Davies).Barbara Windsor, falls somewhere in between and offers a wonderful turn.
England is shown as inhospitable, unfair, unjust. It’s a real condemnation.
Fassbinder’s World on a Wire is a Television Two-parter that makes us think of spectres and simulations, politics and simulacra. Here just playing and having fun with images and some ideas in relation to one aspect of the second part of the show.
THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES / Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973), is a film directed by Ulli Lommel but produced by Fassbinder, written by and starring Fassbinder stalwart Kurt Raab, and peopled by everyone who seems to have appeared in previous Fassbinder films, including his lover (El Hedi ben Salem), his current and future wives (Irm Hermann and Ingrid Caven), the stars of THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS (Hans Hirschmüller) and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Brigitte Mira); and many others. There is a real sense of Fassbinderlandia about this film and a reminder of the influence of Warhol’s factory on his style of filmmaking. Fassbinder’s own appearance in this film as a fat pimp and small-time crook, sexually and physically confident in spite of his size, crotch thrust out, is a signifier of how confrontational Fassbinder liked to be.
And confrontational this film certainly is. It’s inspired by the same ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’ that was the basis for Fritz Lang’s M (and there’s an homage to it here, the bit with the young girl in the playground) but set in the aftermath of WWII rather than the interwar years after WW1. Kurt Raab’s look is a combination of Peter Lorre in M and Max Schreck’s in Murnau’s NOSFERATU. THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES brings out the homosexual dimension to the fore. Here the serial killer is gay, in love with a no-good pimp (Jeff Roden), living in an underworld of petty theft, black marketeering and prostitution (both men and women) that brings to mind John Henry Mackay’s THE HUSTLER: THE STORY OF A NAMELESS LOVE FROM FRIEDRICHSTRASSE. Lommell’s film also brings out the vampiric dimension to the fore as Raab’s serial killer, though with no special super-natural powers, likes to bite his victims in the neck and suck their blood before dismembering their bodies and selling their flesh to restaurants through the black market where the customers adore the ‘pork’.
THE TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES is a very impolitic film, one that I doubt could be made now. Jack Babuscio began his review in Gay News (Gay News No 06, June 3-16th, 1976) by asking: ‘Ulli Lommel’s TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES (1973) is a film that will certainly set the blood of many Screen Gay readers boiling. Does this mean you?’ (See below and thanks to Andrew Moore for the images).
A creepy gay man luring adolescent runaways to his home with promises of money and employment, then having his way with them (in this film before or after he kills them, with their naked bodies splayed out) must have fed into all kinds of prejudices of homosexual men as predatory paedophiles. It’s a film that would have been a gift to people like Anita Bryant had she been aware of it then. And I wonder to what extent Fassbinder, Lommell or Raab took this into account or whether the social impact of any of these particular narratives and representations on already vulnerable queer communities still living under the repressive Paragraph is something that would have entered their minds. Was it freedom or thoughtlessness?
Frank Noack tells me that, ‘TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES was attacked in West Germany, by gay activists and gay-friendly straight reviewers, for its sinister portrayal of the gay world, but Fassbinder couldn’t care less. His point, more explicit in PETRA VON KANT and FOX AND HIS FRIENDS, was that gays and lesbians exploit one another as much as straight people do. Neither Fassbinder nor Raab, who has written a deliciously lurid tell-all book right after the maestro’s death, expressed any interest in or sympathy for the gay movement. Because of its explicit male nudity, the film nevertheless won a gay cult following’.
The film’s perspective is that an oppressive world creates its own monsters. Raab’s character (Fritz Haarmann) is arrested by the police under paragraph 175 and made to be a police informant. But his compulsion for young male flesh is his own. I suppose the achievement of this handsome-looking film (Jürgen Jürges first job as dop, deploying a whole arsenal of expressionist devices) is in so well evoking a particular underworld of petty criminals, cheap taverns, dark railways, and dangerous attic flats; in shocking and frightening like a good horror film should, and in arousing sympathy for a queer serial killer.
I suspect Raab’s appearance here had a role in inspiring the skin-head look that would become so prevalent a decade later in London and Berlin.
From the handsomely produced Arrow Box Set of Fassbinder films (vol 1.) chock-a-block with great extras, including interviews with the director, actors, cinematographer.
A conversation with Dr. Andrew Moor on Derek Jarman, arising from the Derek Jarman Protest! exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, on Jarman’s significance in British Culture, his legacy as a multimedia artist and his contributions to art, protest cultures, queer cultures and tourism.
In the podcast we discuss his films throughout — the exhibition has been accompanied by a full retrospective at HOME in Manchester — and make reference to the following aspects of his art work that the exhibition touches on:
Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Inseparables in 1954, the same year as The Mandarins. Her friendship with Zaza (Elizabeth Lacoin) is something she’s already tried to write about in various unpublished short stories, as a section of The Mandarins deleted before publication, and which would become a cornerstone of the de Beauvoir legend when incorporated into her first autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958). De Beauvoir was not satisfied with The Inseparables and decided not to publish it; yet she thought it of enough value not to destroy it either. I’m glad it’s now seen the light publicly. It’s really a very queer story (one I wish someone like Céline Sciamma would film). This roman-à-clef is narrated in the first person by Sylvie (de Beauvoir) who falls in love with Andrée (Zaza), who values the friendship but is rather unaware of the intensity of Sylvie’s love much less reciprocates it. Andrée in turn falls in love with Pascal (the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a young man) whom she hope will save her but who is too scrupulous about being truthful to promise to marry her (and thus rescue her from her family). It’s a novel full of intensity of feeling and a complex delineation of social restrictions (Andrée’s family are Catholic activists), some due to class (even though they are best friends, they address each other through the formal vous) or family, which is the real villain of this story: once the older daughter turns twenty-six, the mother informs her –with love and under the guise of it being for the good of all – that she must marry the first suitable candidate or it’s off to the convent. The morays are those of another time; indeed of a hundred years ago. Who now would devote so much time to the significance of the loss of faith; the arguments well-brought up girls of a certain family needed to make in order to get a university education; the significance of being set to run errands in the big department stores or indeed how not wearing a hat might be excused only by the quality of clothes worn. Sylvie’s longing, her love, her adoration, her worship, her clear-headedness and analysis are clearly and complexly evoked. That Zaza died before turning 21 in the throes of a love which her family’s control and her boyfriend’s thought prevented her from living fully – whilst De Beauvoir looked on in the sidelines hoping but unable to hep, is clearly why de Beauvoir so often returned to the story, why it’s such a key narrative in her own telling of her life and of her thought. Why isn’t de Beauvoir more taken up by queer theorists/scholars?
A real page-turner, in the ‘true murder’ investigative genre, but so much more than that. It’s told like a detective mystery where a character — usually a lonely middle-aged gay man, often married, — goes into a bar only to be picked up by a younger man who turns out to be a serial killer, then meticulously dismembered and dumped in bin bags. As Elon Green gives a face and a history to each of these quasi-forgotten victims, the full force of homophobia –social, institutional, familial — as well as self-hatred, all comes to the fore. Almost nobody cared as man after man gets killed. As the mystery gets somewhat resolved, the full force of the culture’s homophobia gets revealed. Initially people didn’t care about AIDS because it seemed to affect predominantly gay men. Likewise few cared about these men and these murders — which as far as we know took place at the height of the pandemic; there might have been others subsequently — for the same reason. And this wasn’t a century ago. The last murders date to the nineties and the killer was not arrested until 2001. A riveting book that elicits a mix of sadness and rage.
SKAM (Shame) is a Norwegian teen drama, originally aimed at young girls, and produced by NRK P3, which is part of the Norwegian Public Broadcaster, NRK. It’s elicited fervent fan reaction, particularly in Russia. The concept has since been sold around the globe and there are versions in France, Italy, etc. addressed to a local audience. I’d never heard of it until the Queer Television Reading Group at Warwick brought it to my attention, asking us to see two episodes from the third series (Episode 1 ‘Lykke til Isak’ & Episode 8 ‘Mannen i mitt liv’) and asking us to read two scholarly articles:
Saara Ratilainen, ‘Norway Reimagined: Popular Geopolitics and the Russophone Fans of Skam’, NORDICOM Review, 41.S1 (2020), 139–53: &
Emelie Bengtsson, Rebecka Kallquist, and Malin Sveningsson, ‘Combining New and Old Viewing Practices: Uses and Experiences of the Transmedia Series “Skam”’, NORDICOM Review, 39.2 (2018), 63–77:
The reading group raised all kinds of fascinating questions on the transnational & the transmedial, on Russophone cultures and Queer Nations, and on fandom and desire.
I wanted to continue the discussion and no one of my acquaintance knows more about SKAM than Misha Iakovlev, a researcher on Queer Theory, Gender, Sexuality& Race in Russian Cinema During its Transition from Communism. In the podcast, Misha and I discuss form, aesthetics, the representation of race & sexuality, queerness & queering & how the TV show is both an example of transnational and the transmedial but also raises interesting questions about how those categories are conceptualised. We hope you find it interesting and useful,
When Desert Fury was released in the UK , the Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1st 1947 labelled it a Western Drama, praised the colour for adding a ´certain air of reality to the film´(!) but remarked on the sharply defined but extremely unnatural characters. The film was badly reviewed, made money, and then was largely forgotten for many years. David Ehrenstein, in ‘Desert Fury, Mon Amour’, an important piece for Film Quarterly in 1988, significantly dedicated to Vito Russo and Richard Dyer, wrote: ´You aren´t likely to find Desert Fury listed on a revival or repertory house schedule. It isn´t avaiable on home video. at best you might be able to catch it in some 3.am slot on local television, or unspooled some afternoon when rain cancels a baseball game. And why not? It´s ´just a movie´– produced, consumed, forgotten. Not good. Not bad. Mediocre. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it quintessentially mediocre’. And yet, Ehrenstein argues, the film ´speaks to cinematic desires barely formed and only half-uttered´.
What once couldn´t be uttered now seems obvious to all. By 1998 Eddie Muller in Dark City, The Lost World of Film Noir, would write, ‘Desert Fury is the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood’s golden era. The film is saturated – with incredibly lush color, fast and furious dialogue dripping with innuendo, double entendres, dark secrets, outraged face-slappings, overwrought Miklos Rosza violins. How has this film escaped revival or cult status? It’s Hollywood at its most gloriously berserk’ (p.183)´By 2008, Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of The Screen: Film Noir, was writing ´In a truly subversive move the film jettisons the characters’ criminal activities to concentrate on two homosexual couples: the mannish mother who treats her daughter like a lover, and the gangster and his devoted possessive sidekick'(p.224). By 2014, Ronald Bergan in Film Comment, would argue that´Since Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, we have grown accustomed to reading cryptic messages of homosexuality in pre-Sixties Hollywood movies. But the Eddie-Johnny relationship is too overt to be intentionally gay in the Hollywood of the Forties’. The film offers an interesting critical trajectory: What was unnatural if invisible or unutterable, merely ‘bad’, in 1947, now seems too excessively obvious.
I’ve been trying to practice my video skills, playing with dissolves and titles, still terrible at both, but I have put together clips from the film, edited down but in chronological order, that create such a vivid queer triangle that it does make one wonder what was going on in people’s minds and make one wish someone had interviewed all involved on this issue. I think you’ll find that the power of this vividly queer narrative will override the evidence of my relative lack of editing skills. There´s another, similar exercise, to be made on lesbianism in the same film.
Watching The Inheritance was an unforgettable experience. It is epic theatre — it runs in two parts from 1:15 to about 4.30 and then from 7:15 to 10.45 — but not in the Brechtian sense. There’s no distanciation here: The Inheritance is theatre as a form of social communion. The theatre seemed to hush at the right moment, without cues, as if guided purely by anticipation. It’s a state-of-the-queer-nation play which touches on the last thirty years of queer histories, the inheritance one generation bequeathed to those that followed, dramatised through a varied cast of characters. I was so moved by the whole experience that, for the first time ever, I actually bought the play at the intermission to re-read later, just in case I’d missed anything.
The mise-en-scène seems on the surface of the utmost simplicity. One empty platform with levers, beautifully designed by BobCrowley so it can be lifted and dropped, first used as a floor, then as a table on which all of the characters, who often step on the performance space through the audience, act out. But the entrances, exits, line readings, even arm movements — all of which earn some effect — belie that first impression of a ‘simple’ mise-en-scène. It’s minimalist in terms of look and what’s visible — though behind it is a hidden screen which sometimes parts to reveal houses and trees occasionally and to great effect; as symbols, cues and setting — but very complex and worked-on in terms of conceptualisation and direction (by Stephen Daldry).
E.M.Foster appears as a narrator who critiques, offers motivation and changes the action. In the writer’s note in the programme of the production, Michael Lopez writes, ‘Foster himself is in it, for the story of my life cannot be told without him’. The play uses the structure of Howards End. Lopez acknowledges how he first saw The Inheritance as a straightforward adaptation, ‘an almost tit-for-tat contemporary updating with gay men from different generations as its central characters. I knew my story needed to be in part about AIDS, for the story of gay men cannot be told without it. Yet almost as soon as I began to write it, I discovered that I was creating something new.’
‘If Howards End, for me, was a gay man in 1910 reaching a hand across time to a young gay boy in 1993 assuring him that he was seen and that he was not alone, The Inheritance is that young boy now grown up, reaching back and saying thank you. It is my act of gratitude to Foster for rescuing me when I was most in need of it.’ This inter-generational conversation about identity, love, desire, loss and death is what The Inheritance is about.
In The Inheritance, the opening line of Howards End, ‘we may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister’ becomes ‘we may as well begin with Toby’s voicemails’. Here the two Schlegel sisters are conceived of as a gay couple, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), together for seven years, and agreeing to marry shortly after the play begins. The unfolding of their relationship is the spine of both parts of the play. The character of Leonard Blast is split to encompass both a performer (Adam) and a hustler (Leo), both wanting to acquire culture, and both played by Samuel H. Levine: and there’s a moment where Levine moves in and out of each character within one moment that is a theatrical tour de force.
In fact there’s a lot of ‘doubling’ in the play. Paul Hilton who plays E.M Foster (Morgan), and who as Morgan is an active narrator who gets quite a lot of say in shaping the action, also plays Walter, the kind and gentle man who’s been with Henry Wilcox(John Benjamin Hickey) for 36 years and whose relationship with him is damaged over fundamental issues of ethics and morality when he takes in an old friend in the last stages of dying from AIDS: Henry not only disapproves but actively forbids. Walter befriends Eric, who will later also end up marrying Henry after Walter’s death, and who will also have fundamental differences of opinion when he too decides to open up their house, his house, to the ill and marginalised. Eric in some ways is a new generation’s Walter, acting ethically with the same kinds of compassion and in the face of very familiar forms of discrimination. So the doubling happens by actors playing more than one role, by characters exhibiting similar character traits but from different generations, and through thematic rhymes across both parts of the play.
For example, when we’re introduced to Toby Darling, we assume he’s a flighty, superficial middle-class mannered queen. But we then find out he’s a working class boy from the boondocks. The character he writes for a play, Elan, and which he passes off as autobiographical, is in fact who he wants to be: ‘Rich kid, seventeen, raised on the Upper West Side, sexy as fuck, sarcastic, rude, yet undeniably compelling. He’s basically me.’ is what Toby says. But in fact the person who is like that is Adam, who will get to play Elan. Toby inscribes his book to Adam as ‘To Adam, whom I hope to be when I grow up’. Yet Toby is more like the lost Leo, out of the house by 17, and exchanging the use of his body for substances and subsistence.
Toby will desire Adam and ruin Leo. The only reason Toby didn’t end up like Leo is because Eric saved him. Eric will also save Leo later, like Walter saved so many people earlier; and Eric and Walter will both love Henry, though the older one stayed with him in spite of his faults, and the younger one has different expectations and is able to make different choices. All this doubling takes place amidst a narration that starts off with anonymous people like ‘Young Men 8’ but then goes on to take concrete form, e.g. Young Man Number 8 becomes Toby Darling. The general, generational, social, illustrated by the concrete: individual characters and experiences. Structurally, it’s a marvel.
There’s a terrific theatrical moment, the very end of Act I, where Eric tells Walter, ‘I can’t imagine what those years were like. I don’t eve know how to…
I can understand what it was like. But I cannot possibly feel what it was’.
I’ve reproduced Walter’s response from the published play so you can imagine how powerfully it works on stage (see below)
When Vanessa Redgrave, the dreamy first Mrs. Wilcox of the Merchant-Ivory film, appears near the end of the play as Margaret Avery, the elderly caretaker of the house, here formerly a hospice for the terminally ill, and stabs her womb with her hand remembering how careless she’s been with the son who she didn’t know had so little time to live — well, you could *hear* the audience sniffling and sobbing.
Redgrave plays the house’s caretaker here with a dreadful southern accent. She seemed at times amateurish but then also simultaneously poetic and heartbreaking. Her rendering of the extraordinarily long soliloquy about her son; her love for him and guilt; and what led her to to help Walter turn his house into a hospice is beautiful, moving: quite something to see. And her presence, the aura of her history of politics and performances, adds something to this experience aside from her playing. A day of theatre where even the unsatisfactory bits seemed to add rather than subtract from the experience.
The first part curtain, with the dead from thirty years ago rising from their graves to talk to the new one, had me in tears. And at the end of the second part — when in a flashback Henry asks Walter for guidance: ‘What do I do now Walter? Tell Me what to do?; ‘You do what they could not’, says Walter, ‘you live’ — the audience did literally leap to its feet: cheers, whistles, tremendous outpouring of emotion. The play’s a bit didactic, with attempts to educate that seem clunky and inorganic. In fact there are many issues: it’s a bit preachy, and creaky, and repetitive. It could all be shorter. But I was fascinated by how to me at least it didn’t matter. Even what on the surface seems wrong with it worked for it, and certainly on the audience
Much of the plot of The Inheritance revolves around gifts those who are bequeathed them are thwarted from recognising or accepting. Walter leaves the house to Eric, but like in Howards End, Henry and his sons decide not to honour that pledge. In the end Henry says ‘no man should have to ask for what is rightfully his’ before turning the house over to him. And we can see this plot point as a metaphorical discourse on gay history in the culture at large. The film not only uses Forster as a starting point but references Edward Carpenter, Baldwin, Hollinghurst, even Call Me By Your Name. Though there comes a point half-way through the play when Morgan tells the current generation: ‘You are essential to the story I like to believe I was helpful to you as you started it. But I cannot help you finish it. It isn’t my right to. The past must be faced. It must be learned from. But it cannot be revised. I had my time. Now it’s yours’.
The history of the plague years, the place of so much death and dancing, the birthplace of all the gay activism that directly shaped all the recent gains, from film festivals to gay marriage to the existence of this play, is the rightful inheritance of a younger generation of gay men. But it too has been thwarted, partly through the death of so many men so many years ago now, partly through social exclusion, partly by the fact that so many who get to write history died before they could. The HIV virus itself is also a form of inheritance, in this case an unwanted one, but certainly one passed from generation to generation.This larger social argument is paralleled by individuals like Eric not recognising their own gifts; those which they’ve inherited but in turn also developed, and which need the support of others to come to the fore and be recognised even by the subjects themselves.
This play, and films like 120 Beats Per Minute, are one generation’s attempts to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: the legacy of a history. A ghost of one generation is disinterred to illuminate the gains and grievances, losses and achievements, the culture of another: so that a new generation could rightfully claim the inheritance that is theirs. It might have problems as a text. But it’s an extraordinary experience in the theatre. Kudos to writer, director, actors and all the others for making it so.