Sebastiane (1976) [Warning: some images may be NSFW]

Today’s cinema adventure: Derek Jarman’s 1976 debut feature, Sebastiane, a fictionalized vision of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, presented less as a meditation on spiritual themes than as a homoerotic fantasy in which the soldier Sebastianus, after falling from favor with the Roman Emperor Diocletian, is exiled to a remote oupost in the wilderness, where his refusal to yield to his commanding officer’s obsessive lust eventually leads to his ritual execution by arrows.  A work that is historically significant not only for being the first film produced in authentic Latin (and as such, the first British-made movie to be shown in England with subtitles), but- more importantly- for the prologue featuring an erotic dance by legendary glam-era performance artist Lindsay Kemp and his Troupe, and its inclusion of an early score by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, Sebastiane was never anybody’s idea of a mainstream film, not even its creator’s.  Like most of Jarman’s films, it’s not big on story, but despite its shoestring budget, it is lovingly and beautifully shot, each frame artfully crafted so that the final result resembles a Renaissance painting in motion. The extensive nudity (all male, of course) was explained by Jarman as being because they “couldn’t afford costumes” (sure, Derek, sure… we believe you), and needless to say the film was highly controversial at the time of release; but although many viewers may fixate on what often seems like gratuitous nudity and sexual content, Jarman is not merely concerned with exploiting or even celebrating the male form; he has much to say about the issue of homosexual shame.  On the surface, the film would seem to comply with the traditional Catholic assertion that homosexual behavior is a sin to be forsworn, and that Sebastianus’ fate is to be sacrificed to that ideal, destroyed by unrepentant sinners for his refusal to debase himself- a decidedly conflicting message, when one considers the fact that the film is heavily laden with imagery clearly intended to elicit homosexual fantasies.  Certainly these themes of religiously-fueled guilt are in play within Sebastiane, and Jarman undoubtedly wrapped some of his own spiritual struggles into his film; but like most art, the true nature of the themes expressed lies beneath the obvious details.  Sebastianus’ rejection is of the flesh itself, regardless of sexual orientation: it is his devotion to a life of the spirit that makes him an outcast and a martyr, and it is the jealousy and pride of those who fail to understand him that leads to his death; in the end, sexuality is irrelevant here, and Jarman’s true indictment is against the base and brutal tendencies of stereotypical masculinity, the hypocrisy of judgement and violence against those who do not conform to the status quo, and the arrogance of those who choose to subvert their own spirituality to their egotistical desires and insecurities.  In short, the film is more about homophobia than homosexuality, and its abundance of homoerotic imagery is as much to incite as to excite.  Of course, that same imagery is sufficient to ensure that the majority of religious bigots will never see this film, so in a way, Sebastiane is a prime example of an artist “preaching to the choir;” and, truthfully, the copious amount of it ultimately displaces Jarman’s higher purpose, so that his inaugural cinematic excursion ends up being more stimulating on a decidedly lower level.  My own reaction: it’s a very pretty movie to look at, and probably one of the most erotic ones I have seen (much more so than porn, actually); but at times I couldn’t help being reminded of those soft-core late-night “Skinemax” flicks I would sometimes catch my Dad watching at 3 in the morning… slow motion photography of someone taking a shower, with the frame cropped in just the right place to keep it from being obscene, that sort of thing, except instead of beautiful women, here it was beautiful men.  I can’t say I had any complaints, but I was ready for it to be over about 30 minutes before it actually was.  It might have helped if the actors (Leonardo Treviglio as Sebastianus, supported by Barney James, Neil Kennedy, and Richard Warwick, among others- none of whom had significant careers afterward) had delivered performances that were as beautiful as their bodies… but I guess we can’t have everything.

The Ritz (1976)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Ritz, the 1976 screen version of Terence McNally’s daring-for-its-day stage farce about a straight Midwestern businessman who hides out from his homicidal brother-in-law by checking into a gay Manhattan bathhouse. Directed by the legendary Richard Lester (known for a fast-paced, edgy style that made The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night into an instant classic) with a screenplay by the playwright himself, the film has aged into something of a curiosity of its time- a glimpse at bathhouse culture during the heady pre-AIDS era of the sexual revolution. McNally (who has become something of a gay poet laureate) made the brilliant move of taking the formula of a classic farce and placing it into what was at the time (and, sadly, to an extent, still is) a socially taboo setting; the result was a risqué piece of popular entertainment which brought underground gay culture into the spotlight and ostensibly took a small step towards making homosexual subject matter more acceptable for mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, by virtue of the requirements of the farcical genre, the characters (both gay and straight) are one-dimensional stereotypes which seem tired and offensive today, and the comedy has been rendered considerably less amusing by years of over-exposure to TV sit-coms in constant rotation. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Rita Moreno, reprising her Tony-winning Broadway performance as Googie Gomez, a fiery Bathhouse Betty who gets caught up in the intrigue and (fortunately for the audience) performs a deliciously over-the-top lounge act for the boys; also of note are her Broadway co-stars, Jack Weston (as the hapless refugee), Jerry Stiller and future Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (as a flaming, self-appointed tour guide who manages to be likeable despite the heaping load of gay clichés he is required to carry), and an amusing turn by a young Treat Williams as a naïve (and squeaky-voiced) private detective. The rest of the cast fill their roles sufficiently well, Lester’s direction is sure-handed, and the look and feel of the seedy setting are captured quite authentically- but in 2012, the edge which once made it all so delightful has become painfully dull. The bottom line: as a piece of social and theatrical history, The Ritz is definitely important enough to warrant a viewing; but if you are just looking for some laughs and entertainment, you might want to skip it- or, better yet, fast forward to Rita’s scenes and just watch those.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 feature starring David Bowie in his first leading film role.  Based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, it tells the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, an extra-terrestrial visitor who uses his advanced technology to build an enormous fortune, with the intention to finance the transport of water back to his drought-ravaged home planet, only to be trapped by the interference of corporate and governmental forces- and by his own indulgence in the pleasures of an earthly lifestyle.  Visually arresting, leisurely paced, solemn and thoughtful in tone yet experimental and occasionally sensational in style, Roeg’s film (like it’s protagonist) is something of an enigma.  Eschewing clarity for mood, the director obscures the storyline with surreal imagery depicting the visceral experiences of its characters, flashbacks to the blasted desert landscape of Newton’s world, strange episodes of temporal disturbance, and a continual shifting of focus among the perspectives of the various principals.  The result is a disjointed, confusing film which seems designed to make sense only upon repeated viewings, with plot points revealed in passing by off-handed dialogue, the omission of key details which forces them to be filled in by audience assumption, and the ambiguous resolution of major story elements which leaves more questions than answers.  These, however, are deliberate moves on Roeg’s part; he is less interested in presenting a cohesive science fiction narrative than in exploring a metaphor about the lure of wealth and pleasure and the corruptive influences of social and political forces, and he expresses these themes through a meticulously edited mix of hallucinogenic, serene, majestic and pedestrian images which blend to create a dreamlike final product.  As for the acting, the key supporting roles are effectively filled by experienced pros Rip Torn and Buck Henry, as well as seventies flavor-of-the-day starlet Candy Clark as a blowsy hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s companion; but the film is, of course, centered on Bowie, here at the height of his rock icon popularity, who provides the perfect blend of childlike simplicity and jaded sophistication, exuding both poise and vulnerability and projecting the haunted longing and the bitter disillusionment that mark Newton’s odyssey through the experiences of our planet.  Bowie himself has admitted to his heavy use of cocaine during the making of the film, which (though regrettable from many viewpoints) no doubt served to enhance the dissociated, alien persona which so perfectly complements its dreamy, distant mood.  Added to the mix is superb cinematography by Anthony Richmond (which dazzlingly captures, among other things, the beauty of the New Mexico landscape that provides the setting for much of the film) and a well-chosen soundtrack of music (compiled by ex-Mamas-and-Papas-frontman John Phillips) featuring avant garde compositions and familiar pop tunes from various eras.  The bottom line on this cult classic: if you are looking for a straightforward sci-fi tale, don’t look here- although the currently available version is a restored director’s cut which makes the plot somewhat more coherent than the highly-edited original release, you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed.  However, if you are interested in a thought-provoking visual experience (or if you are a hardcore Bowie fan), this really is a must-see, and though it is ultimately somewhat cold and unsatisfying, it is a film which will stay with you for a long time afterwards.