That Summer (2017)


Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

By now, the story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie, is well-known lore within the popular culture.

Aunt and cousin to Jackie Kennedy/Onassis and Lee, this pair of eccentric society women fell on hard times and lived in isolation together for decades at their decaying Hamptons mansion.  When local authorities threatened to evict them for health and sanitation violations, Jackie and Ari Onassis donated money to finance the necessary repairs – staving off unsavory publicity and ensuring that the reclusive Beales could maintain their strange, co-dependent existence for years to come.

That existence was revealed to the wider world in the 1975 documentary, “Grey Gardens,” filmed by two brothers, Albert and David Maysles, who had initially been enlisted by Lee Radziwell to make a film about her and Jackie’s own childhood in the Hamptons.  When they accompanied her to visit the Beales during the summer when their home was being brought up to code, they became entranced, and subsequently suggested to Radziwell that they shift the focus of their film to her reclusive relatives instead.  Radziwell abandoned the project, but the Maysles were undeterred.  They secured permission to return and spend a few weeks filming with Big and Little Edie; the result was a film that turned the women into unlikely cultural icons and has gone on to inspire a 2006 sequel, an HBO biopic, a Broadway musical, and a legendary segment on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

It has also come to enjoy tremendous popularity among gay men, perhaps because the personas of the two women – particularly the “staunch” Little Edie, with her bold “sweater-as-a-head-wrap” fashion sense – resonate deeply with many of their own sensibilities.

Gay or straight, fans of “Grey Gardens” have new reason to rejoice, thanks to Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson, who brings us a “prequel” of sorts in the form of his new documentary, “That Summer”

Constructed from long-buried private footage taken mostly by artist/photographer Peter Beard, the film documents the lives of then-beautiful and stylish Radziwell and her circle of famous friends – who include Beard, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote, among others – during the summer of 1973.  This cadre of sophisticates is ostensibly Olsson’s focus – but part of their summer activities was that fateful visit to Grey Gardens, and the main attraction here is the inclusion of the legendary Beales.

The early scenes of Radziwell and her entourage are lovely and nostalgic; these beautiful people exude effortless grace and elegance, seeming completely at ease in a lifestyle of which most of us can only dream.  Fascinating as this material may be, though, it’s not particularly revealing; its most significant value, perhaps, is that it reminds us of a bygone era when America’s super-wealthy population was not represented predominantly by classless buffoons.

The four reels of film that Olsson uses as his centerpiece are a different matter; these segments heavily feature Big and Little Edie, and they offer a much rawer look at the Beales than we get in “Grey Gardens.”  Making that film, they knew that the eyes of the world would soon be upon them, and they were putting their best foot forward.  They do it here, too, but with less self-awareness.  The roughness creeps in at the edges; their cheer is a little more desperate, their patience a little thinner.  They’re the same Edies that we know and love, but unplugged.

The mansion itself is also rougher.  As dilapidated as it is in the Maysles’ movie, it’s heartbreakingly worse here.  The camera lingers on its piles of clutter, its rotting walls and ceilings, its disintegrating furniture.  The atmosphere, instead of being rustic, is gloomy; the omnipresent cats and raccoons seem less adorable, somehow – and so do the Beales.

This doesn’t make them any less likable – in fact, this subtle difference in perspective brings out their humanity, and opens us up to feel even more compassion for them.  These women endured years of pain and hardship – the broken dreams and shattered relationships of their lives have been well-documented since “Grey Gardens” first brought them into the public eye – and in this film, we can see the scars.

Olsson wisely follows the Maysles’ example by employing the same “direct cinema” style; the footage is presented without narration or commentary (aside from a few transitional moments when we hear reminiscences by the modern-day Beard or comments by Radziwell excerpted from a 2013 interview), allowing the audience to make what they will of the Beales and their jet-set visitors.  That everyone comes off in a sympathetic light is hardly surprising, given that the material itself was created by its participants, but this politeness doesn’t take anything away from the film; the civility of its tone is appropriate to its genteel subjects, and savvy audiences can still easily read between the lines to draw their own conclusions.

“That Summer” is a movie with a tough act to follow; its predecessor into the world of the Beales was the proverbial lightning in a bottle, one of those shimmering masterpieces of cinema that captured a moment in time that can never be recreated.  Through a combination of art and happy accident, “Grey Gardens” became somehow magical, and no follow-up could hope to match its remarkable quality.  It’s to Olsson’s credit that his movie doesn’t even try.  Instead, it contents itself with offering another peek at Big and Little Edie, and by giving us a little more context through which to see their world.

It’s not a classic on its own, but it’s a valuable supplement to one – and that’s enough to make fans of the Beales welcome it with an open heart.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)


Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.




Beautiful Darling (2010)

Today’s cinema adventure: Beautiful Darling, a 2010 documentary feature focusing on the life of pioneering transgendered actress and Warhol “superstar” Candy Darling, co-produced by her longtime friend and roommate, Jeremiah Newton, and featuring archival and newly-conducted interviews with numerous of her famous and not-so-famous contemporaries and colleagues.  First premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010, it has since been shown at dozens of similar events around the world, as well receiving special screenings at several prestigious art galleries and enjoying extended commercial runs in major metropolitan cities across the U.S.

Written and directed by James Rasin, the film frames its examination of Darling- who began life in Queens as James Lawrence Slattery- through Newton, whose close relationship with the pop subculture icon gives him unique insight into her personality and her story.  As he prepares to have her cremated remains buried- along with those of his own mother- nearly 40 years after her death, he reminisces about her and shares his extensive taped interviews with such figures as Tennessee Williams, Valerie Solanas, Jackie Curtis, and Darling’s own estranged mother, conducted at the time of her passing in an effort both to come to terms with his grief and to create an archive documenting her personal history and relationships.  Combining this material with contemporary interview footage of former friends and associates (Paul Morrissey, Fran Lebowitz, Holly Woodlawn, Julie Newmar, Bob Colacello, Gerard Malanga, and many others) and excerpts from Darling’s personal diary (read by actress Chloë Sevigny), as well as a wealth of photos, both personal and professional, and film clips from her storied career, Beautiful Darling constructs a portrait of its subject as a brave and determined individual who pursued a personal dream against the societal norms and expectations of the era and became a counterculture icon and alternative role model as a result.  It also goes past the campy, glitzy surface of her persona and attempts to show us the very real person behind it, allowing us to feel a connection to her as a human being and bringing home the bittersweet story of a person whose hard-won success was marginalized and yielded little in terms of personal reward, and whose premature death from cancer at the age of 29 prevented her from living to see the gradual change that has led to greater acceptance of transgendered individuals and might have brought her greater recognition within the mainstream.

Rasin’s reverence for his subject is clear, as is the adoration of her former companion, Newton, as he lovingly shares his memories and the personal effects he has cherished from their time together; all the rest offer their individual perspectives on Darling, some more charitable than others, but mostly with fond appreciation and affection.  Of course, a multitude of interpretations and attitudes emerge regarding her motives, her character, her sexuality, her talent- but these stand out in contrast to the private voice of Darling herself, which reveals a smart, savvy, self-aware person, fully aware of her role in the circus that surrounded her and- most poignantly- increasingly worn out and disillusioned from the continual struggle to embody the glamorous movie star fantasy she had committed her life to making into a reality.  The ultimate impossibility of achieving that goal only to serves to make her considerable accomplishments all the more triumphant, and her refusal to give it up- even as she lay on her deathbed posing for a final glamour photo- inspires us and moves us with unexpected emotional resonance.

There are moments throughout Beautiful Darling that touch us with an immediate sense of humanity- the numerous clips of Candy in performance reveal the spark that elevated her above the level of just another drag act, the juxtaposition of early childhood photos with the various reminiscences from her mother and other figures from her former life as a boy give us a glimpse of her monumental struggle to find her identity, and Newton’s tender concern surrounding the arrangements for her impending burial allow us to share his sense of closure over his belated final farewell to his friend.  It is the power of these elements that make the film a superb documentary; there are few revelations here regarding the historical events of her life or her associations, though there may be some surprises for those viewers unfamiliar with her career.  The usual dominant themes, recurring in any examination of the time and place in which Candy enjoyed her heyday, are present here (the extreme, drug-saturated party atmosphere, the callous fickleness of Andy Warhol, the peculiar blend of degrading squalor and ostentatious glamor), and the archival footage and photos give us a titillating glimpse of the legendary settings in which pop-culture history was made (Warhol’s Factory, the back room at Max’s Kansas City, the streets of Greenwich Village); but what sticks with us, when the film is done, is the sense of Candy as a person, a bridging of the gap between her extreme and unique experience and our own, probably more mundane lives.  We are left with a feeling of respect for her bravery, and empathy for her deep longing to simply be herself; it’s a struggle with which we can all relate- gay or straight, male or female, conservative or liberal- and one which ultimately defines our lives, whether we decide to participate in it or not.

It is this universality that makes Beautiful Darling a powerful film, though it also succeeds in entertaining and informing us, and offers us the opportunity to become familiar with its charming and beautiful subject.  By appealing to that part in all of us that identifies with Candy’s inner yearning, Rasin’s movie challenges us to confront not only our own issues of identity, but our assumptions and prejudices about sexuality and gender as well.  Though this is not overtly a film about the evolution cultural attitudes towards transgendered individuals, it gives us dark hints about the very real danger a person like Candy Darling faced in mid-20th-Century America, and invites us to compare our contemporary level of tolerance with that of her day.  Certainly there has been progress, but Beautiful Darling begs the question: how far have we really come in our acceptance?  We have yet to see a mainstream media star who is transgendered, Divine and RuPaul (cross-dressers both- not transsexuals) notwithstanding.  Perhaps that day will come, eventually, and when it does, Candy Darling will finally take her place as the true pioneer that she was.

The God Who Wasn’t There (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: The God Who Wasn’t There, a 2005 documentary by Brian Flemming, which examines fundamentalist Christian beliefs in contrast against the historical facts around the origin of the religion and explores the impact of such beliefs in a modern social and political environment. Controversial by its very nature, the film makes no pretense of objectivity, presenting its case with a heavy tone of bemused irony and using duplicitous confrontational tactics to elicit responses from interviewees, and ultimately representing the filmmaker’s personal attempt to repudiate, once and for all, his own past as a fundamentalist Christian and take a stand against the supposed moral authority that dominated his former life. More in the nature of propaganda than documentary, it’s a film that nevertheless succeeds in making its point with verifiable and persuasive facts, and, perhaps more importantly, does so in a highly entertaining manner.

The man behind the camera (and occasionally in front of it) is no stranger to controversy over his work; his previous film, Nothing So Strange, sparked outrage over its depiction of a fictitious assassination of Bill Gates, presented in “mockumentary” style. This time around, he fueled the fires already swirling about his film with various marketing and publicity ploys, including an internet contest offering free DVDs of the movie for the first 1001 people to submit a video in which they blaspheme themselves by denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, the filmmaker exhibits a fondness for deliberate incitement that finds its way into The God Who Wasn’t There.

Flemming structures his film into two distinct parts. In the first half, he looks at the difference between the commonly held ideas surrounding the early days of the Christian faith and the factual information in the historical record, making the case that the commonly accepted story of Jesus is a myth, deliberately created by the founders of the church and understood as such by both them and their early followers; he goes so far as to suggest that Jesus never existed as a real person, and that literal interpretation of his life story as presented in the Bible and the surrounding traditions is in direct opposition not only to historical evidence, but even to the writings of early Christians such as the apostle Paul. In the second part of the film, he explores the effect of fundamentalist beliefs in modern society, including the idea of “The Rapture,” and culminates with a visit to the principal of the private Christian elementary school he attended as a child, examining the doctrine that the one unforgiveable sin is to disbelieve the existence of the Holy Spirit- and drawing his conclusion that the greatest blasphemy of all, in the eyes of the Christian church, is to think.

Despite its title, Flemming’s film does not directly address the existence or non-existence of God, per se; his purpose is a temporal one, namely to expose the fallacies and contradictions at the core of modern Christianity and illustrate how a belief in these outdated and misinterpreted ideas affects life in a contemporary world- not just life for the believers, but for everyone else in a society largely influenced by their prejudices and moral agendas. To say that his premise is contentious is an understatement; but it’s certainly nothing new. The ideas he presents in his analysis of the supposed life of Jesus and its basis in literal historical fact are familiar to anyone who has ever examined the faith from the perspective of comparative mythology, and there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books devoted to the subject- indeed, the authors of some of these books are among the experts Flemming interviews in his movie. As for the portrayal of fundamentalist Christians and their relationship to the larger culture, the basic conflict between religious dogma and reasonable political policy has been a subject of debate ever since the dawn of the Age of Reason- a fact clearly reflected by the long-standing democratic doctrine mandating the separation of church and state. The God Who Wasn’t There is not a groundbreaking source of new information or world-changing ideas; rather, it is a presentation of well-documented, oft-repeated facts, heavily flavored with flippant cynicism born of the necessity for addressing the issue yet again in a modern, supposedly enlightened world.

It is, in fact, this snarky tone that makes Flemming’s movie enjoyable. In illustrating his points, he finds amusing and pointed ways to emphasize the enormous gap between contemporary reason and the antiquated notions of fundamentalist religious beliefs. From his opening narration detailing the centuries-long dispute between science and faith regarding the revolution of the earth around the sun (or vice-versa, as the church would have kept it), to his heavy utilization of excerpts from The Passion Play (an early, stodgy French silent about the life of Jesus) and The Living Bible (a creaky “educational” film from the 1950s), he makes it clear that- in his estimation, anyway- the fiercely held tenets of Christianity are seriously out-of-step with the intellectual standards demanded by life in the present day; and through his use of interviews with hardcore believers in the faith, he underscores his observation that the majority of modern fundamentalists are not only misinformed and ignorant of the true history of their religion, they are in fact defiantly uninterested in learning anything about it. Their alliance to faith is so deeply ingrained, they exhibit skepticism and mistrust towards empirical knowledge rather than entertain any ideas which might lead them to question their beliefs. It would be easy to accuse Flemming of painting Christians as uneducated and delusional, were it not that some of the experts he brings to the discussion profess their own belief in a more enlightened interpretation of the faith- though it’s also worth noting that, in one sequence, the filmmaker points out that the idea of “moderate” Christianity, taken from the standpoint of strict adherence to Biblical teachings, is in fact not Christianity at all.

The God Who Wasn’t There features a number of sequences that are both entertaining and alarming, but one in particular stands out. Roughly midway through the film’s short running time, serving as a sort of segue from the mythological analysis into the more direct examination of the modern church, Flemming looks at the connection between Christianity and the earlier, blood-sacrificing religions that marked the culture in which it sprang up. There are obvious correlations in these ancient mythologies to the Christian idea of a man being brutally, ritualistically murdered in order to redeem the sins of everyone else; but Flemming points out how this obsession with bloodshed seems to persist within Christian consciousness even today, centuries beyond these primitive, paganistic origins. To illustrate this, he looks at the popularity of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, by far the most financially successful movie ever made about Jesus; using clips from the film, edited together for maximum effect, he focuses attention on the excessive amount of highly explicit blood and gore used by Gibson, creating a scene-by-scene gore analysis showing that only a small percentage of the running time is actually blood-free, and pointing out that such an overwhelming use of graphic violence is the result of a calculated, deliberate effort on the part of the director- and one which, clearly, paid off, tapping sufficiently into something deep within the Christian community that made them come to see his movie in droves. Gibson, it’s worth mentioning, tried unsuccessfully to bring legal action against Flemming. Apparently, the free publicity for his movie was not enough to make him comfortable with the implication that his pious epic was motivated by exploitative greed.

It probably goes without saying that Flemming’s movie is designed to provoke controversy and stimulate discussion about its subject matter. It is also no surprise that the issues it deals with are so emotionally volatile; the challenge of maintaining religious faith in the face of ever-increasing scientific knowledge has never been easy, and it grows more difficult every day in our world of stem-cell research and Higgs-Boson particles. The fact is, however, that The God Who Wasn’t There, like the numerous other contemporary films which challenge dogmatic religious beliefs, is not likely to be seen by many of the viewers at which it is optimistically aimed; and even if it were, those for whom fundamental belief is a cornerstone of daily life are not prone to being swayed by any amount of factual information, an observation made abundantly clear by Flemming in the film itself. As a result, his movie can be characterized as the proverbial “preaching to the choir,” in the sense that most of his audience will already be sympathetic, if not pre-acquainted, with the concepts he presents. Nevertheless, it’s a fun presentation to sit through, if you’re comfortable with using intellect in the realm of spirituality- his use of graphics in illustrating his research is eye-catchingly flashy and clever, and his musical accompaniment (executed by himself, under the pseudonym “DJ Madson”) is appropriately hip and contemporary, at least by 2005 standards. It’s also possible that there is an audience, situated in the middle-ground of this question, who may benefit from Flemming’s work here; those who are on the brink, indoctrinated by years in a church-centric environment who nevertheless have questions and doubts- in short, people who are like he once was, himself. For them, watching The God Who Wasn’t There might be an eye-opening, life-altering experience, one which has the potential to make a difference in the way they see the world and, by extension, the way they affect it. After all, the social and political issues examined here have grown even more pertinent over the seven years since the movie was made; the conflict between fundamentalist thinking and social progressivism has never been more pronounced- or more imperative- in recent memory.  I, for one, hope there are those who are drawn to Flemming’s movie by curiosity and find that it helps them choose, finally, to come over the fence on which they have been sitting for so long.

Dali in New York (1965)

Today’s cinema adventure: Dalí in New York, a 1965 documentary by Jack Bond depicting the visit of the infamous Spanish surrealist to Manhattan in conjunction with the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. Shot in a distinctively sixties-avant-garde black and white by Jim Desmond, this brief (57 minutes) visit to the world of the 20th Century icon was made over two weeks prior to the opening, as Dalí made the rounds of the New York art and society scene, attending gatherings, staging “events” (such as a procession in the streets with a plaster cast of a Michelangelo statue and a photo session involving the artist lying in a coffin with an ant-filled egg in his mouth, surrounded by a million dollars in cash and an ocelot), and conversing with Bond’s collaborator, actress/writer Jane Arden- that is, until she falls from Dalí’s favor in a controversial exchange in which she refuses to humor his assertion that “everyone is my slave.” The conversations yield little by way of meaningful exchange- Arden tries too hard to engage the painter in a dialogue about his work and Dalí steadfastly resists, preferring instead to make characteristically inflammatory proclamations and declarations of his own supremacy- and the film ultimately offers little direct insight into the artist or his philosophies. Nevertheless, much can be gleaned by watching his antics and his interactions; throughout the film, he is obviously aware of the camera at all times, his eyes constantly darting to the lens as he orchestrates his image for mass consumption. Always the showman, his outrageous acts and statements are clearly calculated to promote himself and his art, and even his creative process itself seems to be little more than another tool for publicizing the “cult of Dalí,” as evidenced in the remarkable closing sequence when he paints for an audience, accompanied and inspired by the music of flamenco guitarist Manitas De Plata and singer Jose Reyes. The entourage with which he surrounds himself, which includes a “military advisor” and the supposed reincarnation of his dead brother, are all extensions of his own bizarre personality, conforming to the roles he has assigned them for his- and presumably their own- personal benefit; and his wife and muse, the austere and vaguely contemptuous Gala, is presented, as he presented her, as an idealized icon of feminine detachment: she says little, and by saying little, speaks volumes. All of this is interlaced with lengthy sequences (designed and photographed by Tom Taylor) showcasing Dalí’s familiar art, depicted by a fluid camera lovingly examining the details of his imagery and revealing some of the unifying thematic elements that were continually present in his body of work- though the black-and-white cinematography robs us of his stunning and effective use of color, making us long to rush to the nearest bookstore and browse through one of the many coffee table books offering high quality Dalí reproductions.

Dalí in New York was largely forgotten for many years, a parenthetical curiosity from a period when the famed artist was being overshadowed by representatives of the more modern movements of art, such as Warhol, whose vision of themselves as the ultimate manifestation of their work was prefigured by Dalí himself- something he alludes to in the film. After a 2007 screening at MOMA, it has been resurrected as a document of a figure whose importance to the art world is still being debated. In the twenty-plus years since his death, Salvador Dalí has become less and less remembered for the outrageous circus with which he surrounded himself and his enormous catalogue of paintings have become more and more familiar, many of them having achieved the status of icons. This little documentary is by no means a complete picture of the man or of his work, but it does offer a rare opportunity to get close to a figure who, during his life, was often dismissed as a charlatan and an opportunist, but whose work has undeniably exerted an unfathomable influence on western visual art. Most of Dalí’s rhetoric can be assessed as showmanship, not categorizable as true or false, but at least one of the statements he makes in this film is clearly wrong: at one point he declaims that his work is not important, that only Dalí himself matters. Time has thankfully proven this to be an overstatement on his part.

Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (the grass people), a 1996 French documentary depicting the behavior and interaction of various insects and other minuscule creatures as recorded with specially-developed cameras and microphones that reveal their tiny world in a staggering and beautiful wealth of detail.  Fifteen years in the making and originally shown on French television, it was marketed in the U.S. as a family-friendly nature film and became a relative hit at the box office- for easily understandable reasons.  With remarkable cinematography that rivals today’s high-def technology in clarity and depth, directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou construct a riveting chronicle of the world under our feet, accomplishing the improbable effect of inspiring empathy with the kinds of animals that, for most, normally inspire nothing but revulsion. Spiders, snails, mantises, ants, bees, earthworms, dung beetles and water bugs enact their daily experiences, and the titanic nature of their struggles is made visceral by the scale in which they are shown; the audience, transported into their tiny realm, is given a bug’s eye view of what it takes to survive, as well as being treated to some breathtaking footage of nature’s beauty, all to the accompaniment of a haunting score by film composer Bruno Coulais.  Even more remarkable is that, with a bare minimum of narration (provided in the English-language version by Kristen Scott-Thomas), the audience is treated to drama, suspense, and even humor, arising naturally from the behavior of the film’s multi-legged cast; the overall result is a film experience that is not only educational, but entertaining, awe-inspiring, and, somehow, strangely moving.

Chris and Don: A Love Story (2007)

Today’s cinema adventure: Chris and Don: A Love Story, a 2007 documentary detailing the 34-year relationship between acclaimed writer Christopher Isherwood and his life partner, artist Don Bachardy.  Practicing documentary filmmaking at its finest, directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi piece together the remarkable shared life of the couple while also presenting a portrait of each man individually, utilizing footage and narration from surviving partner Bachardy, excerpts from Isherwood’s diaries (read, appropriately enough, by Michael York, who portrayed the author’s alter-ego in the film version of the musical Cabaret, based on Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), interviews with various friends and archivists, and copious home movies and photographs of the couple’s life together. The relationship, which began when the 48-year old British expatriate author met the 18-year old Los Angeles boy on a beach in Santa Monica and defied the odds- and the cynical expectations of the pair’s acquaintances- to endure until Isherwood’s death in 1986, is presented with a restraint and an objective journalistic detachment which preserves the dignity of its subject matter and results in a cumulative emotional wallop, leaving the viewer moved and uplifted by the triumph of an unlikely love. Documentary purists may quibble over the occasional use of re-enactments to depict key moments in the relationship (presented only in brief, out-of-focus snippets without dialogue) and animations derived from Isherwood’s fanciful sketches from his correspondence to his partner, but these touches do nothing to alter or affect the facts presented. Though the film depicts the lives of a gay couple, it is suitable for all audiences; and anyone who watches it is bound to be, as I was, filled with admiration for two people who disregarded social prejudices from every direction and inspired by their success at building a love to last a lifetime.