Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.

Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.

In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.

To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.

It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.

You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.

All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.

Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl.  It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.

In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.

So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it.  In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.

BearCity (2010)

Today’s cinema adventure: BearCity, a 2010 romantic comedy about a young man whose secret attraction for big, hairy, masculine men leads him into the insular gay subculture of “bears.” Directed by Douglas Langway, and co-written by Langway and Lawrence Ferber, it attempts to graft the familiar Hollywood-style romance formula onto an exploration of the tight-knit bear community, exposing and poking fun at stereotypes along the way, in order to both appeal to a largely underrepresented sector of the population and to present a sort of primer for those unfamiliar with this rarified scene. Though it has met with a somewhat mixed response from critics and some members of the gay community, it has been sufficiently popular and successful to warrant a sequel, BearCity 2: The Proposal, which is currently being screened at GLBT film festivals across the U.S. and Canada.

Taking its inspiration from the popular TV and movie series, Sex and the City, Langway’s fluffy tale of love and lust in New York centers on Tyler, a 21-year-old “twink” (for those unfamiliar with the term, look it up on Urban Dictionary or ask a gay friend) and aspiring actor who is open and comfortable about his sexuality- but less so about his preferred taste in men. Drawn to older, bigger, hairier guys who don’t fit the “typical” gay mold of attractiveness, he keeps his proclivities a secret from his roommate and his friends; when a potential online hookup lures him to a nightclub for bears, he falls in with a group of hirsute friends who welcome him with open arms, and he begins the process of “coming out of the second closet.” He finds new roommates, gets a job at a bear-friendly coffee bar, and develops a new crush- on Roger, a handsome older “daddy” type who is one of the best-known and popular members of the bear community. The attraction seems to be mutual, but Roger’s sensitivity to the customs and expectations of the micro-culture that surrounds the pair repeatedly thwarts Tyler’s attempts to make a connection. Meanwhile, Tyler’s other new comrades face a variety of issues in their own love lives: his new roommates, Fred and Brent, struggle with the question of remaining monogamous or opening up their relationship to add some spice; and another couple, Michael and Carlos, are pushed apart by Michael’s decision to have weight-reduction surgery. In the midst of all the complications, romantic and otherwise, the whole gang gears up for “BearCity,” a big weekend party which brings the whole community together to celebrate in their own bearish way.

Like most ensemble “rom-coms,” BearCity has a plot tailor-made for the inclusion of one episodic misadventure after another, with which to gently spoof- and reinforce- the familiar foibles and pitfalls inherent in the quest for love. Normally, such a film’s agenda is limited to pleasing its audience with a lot of laughter, a few tears, and, usually, a couple of big “awww” moments leading up to a satisfying conclusion in which love conquers all; this would also be true of BearCity, except clearly, given the community on which it focuses, there is an additional goal. By setting the action amidst gay culture- and a subdivision of gay culture, at that- the film hopes to bridge social gaps and reveal the basic truth that the affairs of the heart, though they may take different forms on the outside, are the same for everyone, regardless of race, creed, culture, or sexuality. It’s not the first film to carry this message, not even the first to deal with that curious subspecies known as “bears;” but what is refreshing about it is that it eschews pretensions of a political or moral agenda and simply concentrates on telling its characters’ stories, devoid of higher messages. Equality is assumed, not defended, and sexual tastes- while they may be subject to lampooning- are accepted without moral judgment. As a result, the movie gets to turn its full attention to the universal concerns which its characters, like everyone else, must address in their various attempts to find- and keep- love.

Even so, BearCity also seems to be very aware that it serves as a sort of travelogue to the uninitiated viewer for whom the world of gay bears is completely unfamiliar; as a result, it takes pains to include a broad view of the community’s peculiarities- including its sexual adventurousness and promiscuity, heavy focus on alcohol and drugs, and a pervading shallowness that seems, more and more, to characterize the popular image of gay life in general. This tapestry of cultural detail provides more than just a backdrop for the proceedings, as the guys’ stories hinge on some of these issues- particularly the ones surrounding sexual mores- and their outcomes are dependent on a coming-to-terms with the particular obstacles they present. In addition, the behavioral observations to be found here have the unfortunate potential for perpetuating stereotypes- though not necessarily the old-fashioned, limp-wristed kind- which continue to create social prejudice against the gay community; despite the fact that the characters, for the most part, are explored to a much deeper level, the surface characteristics they display- however honestly- could be seen as clichéd variations on the familiar theme of “wacky gay neighbor” mannerism. Once again, however, the film is ultimately unconcerned with such factors- the opinions of outsiders are of little consequence to these bears, and in fact one of the film’s most significant themes- one which could even be called an underlying tenet of “bear philosophy,” perhaps- is the importance of being comfortable in who and what you are, without regard to the expectations and standards of others. In BearCity, the only way to find happiness is to be yourself, not who you think you are supposed to be; if that’s not a universal message, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, though BearCity succeeds in presenting an authentic portrait of the social atmosphere and lifestyle that characterizes its subjects, it is somewhat less successful in its attempt to craft a smart and compelling romantic comedy. The central love story between Tyler and Roger is sweet enough, if that’s the right word, on the surface; but the pair seem mismatched in a way that goes beyond the obvious differences in age, bearing, and outlook. We want to see them united by the end, but that has more to do with the conditioned response of wishing for a happy ending than it does with any sense that these two are made for each other; their attraction seems little more than just that, an impulse based on surface qualities rather than an instinctive bond between kindred spirits. As for the comedy element, much of the overt humor comes in the form of dialogue which seems far too calculated, as if Langway and Ferber were determined to insert all the standard jokes related to each subject matter they touch upon; the “clever” banter is laced with variations on standard one-liners known universally throughout the gay community, and even if they are less familiar to a straight audience, they still feel forced and deliberate, and as a result, much of the comedy falls flat. Perhaps the intention was to cultivate a further sense of universality, by showing a group of gay guys making the same jokes every other group of gay guys makes, but it has the effect of undermining the freshness which otherwise permeates the film.

BearCity works far better when it leaves behind the larger social scene and brings us into the intimate reality of its characters. In the one-on-one scenes we are given a much more honest and engaging look at the real lives of gay men, and this is where the movie’s more substantial charm becomes apparent. In the subplots surrounding Tyler and Roger’s tentative courtship, we find people who are actively dealing with the real, down-to-earth complications of building a lasting relationship, not the airy fantasy of a first crush. Fred and Brent’s grappling over the question of staying monogamous rings much truer than the moon-eyed wooing of the central couple in an empty bowling alley, and the emotional rift that threatens to rip apart the tender love between Michael and Carlos seems far more important than concerns over what Tyler should wear to BearCity in order to get Roger’s attention. Furthermore, because it grows honestly from the characters and their situations, the comedy that comes in these scenes is much more believable- and therefore funnier- than the predictable humor in the rest of the film. In particular, the comedy of errors that arises when Fred and Brent attempt a three-way play session in the shower is a comic highlight, underscoring the fact that BearCity is at its best when it embraces the opportunity to be different than the mainstream formula comedies it tries to emulate.

The actors, for the most part, are likable and believable enough, although at times the stilted quality of some of their dialogue trips up each and every one of them. Joe Conti is sincere and competent as Tyler, making him a suitable protagonist, albeit less interesting than some of his co-stars. Likewise Gerald McCullouch, as Roger, manages to convey an underlying integrity that keeps him sympathetic and allows us to see his appeal, despite the less savory aspects of his character. Both players are attractive, particularly McCullouch- who, it should be said possesses only marginal qualities that could be described as “bearish,” prompting suspicions that the film’s creators were hedging their bets in trying to appeal to a broader audience. In keeping with the fact that the supporting roles are by far more interesting than the star-crossed lovers in the spotlight, Brian Keane and Stephen Guarino (Fred and Brent) and Gregory Gunter and James Martino (Michael and Carlos) provide much more solid performances, investing their characters with a wider range and deeper authenticity, and generally making us wish they all had more screen time. Alex Di Dio is infectiously charming as Simon, Tyler’s spritely former roommate who later becomes involved as a confidante and advisor in the efforts to win Roger’s affections, and Sebastian LaCause has a nice turn as a Spanish party-bear who threatens to come between the film’s would-be lovers.

As for Langway’s efforts as a director, his work can be described as serviceable, at best. For the most part, he adheres to the familiar conventions of lightweight formula comedy, with little in the way of showy camerawork or flashy editing and not much stylization beyond the occasional obligatory montage. Not that anything more is required here, and truthfully a more self-consciously arty approach would most likely make BearCity insufferably pretentious. Nevertheless, at times the movie has a vaguely amateurish feel, as if Langway (both as director and screenwriter) were trying too hard to fit every ingredient into the soup pot. In addition, the elements which border on stereotypical would perhaps have seemed less so with a more delicate, thoughtful approach behind the camera, though it’s hard to level a criticism over something that might have been. In the same vein, it’s difficult to criticize his soundtrack choices, although one might have wished for a bit more imagination and variety in the selection than what we are given- a bland collection of disco-lite club music which may capture the feel of the community but seems disconnected from the action on the screen.  Nevertheless, insofar as he gives us a genuine and clearly affectionate depiction of the world he showcases in his film, Langway’s work is, more-or-less, successful.

BearCity is a movie that carries a social importance heavier than its actual content; by showcasing the life of a culture rarely represented on screen (unless as a source of humor, as in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame), it represents a bold effort to cross the boundaries of social convention and promote true understanding and equality, even though such an issue is outside the scope of its plot. Perhaps even more significant is its revelation of prejudices and social gaps that exist within the gay community itself; the bear movement has largely developed as a reaction against the ostracization of men who fall outside the accepted standards of male beauty celebrated by the “mainstream” of gay society, and the movie makes it clear that there is still a lack of understanding and acceptance between these two factions of the culture. This factor, too, is beyond BearCity’s intentional purpose, except at an observational level, though it does play a role in the plot insofar as it provides the inner conflict that initially catapults its protagonist into a strange new world and provides the motivation for Roger’s reluctance to become involved with someone from outside the community. With so much riding on its shoulders, it is admirable that BearCity does not fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously and playing into its own importance; it would be even more admirable if it were a better film. Still, in its best moments it offers surprising depth and disarming honesty, and acquaints us with memorable characters who remain with us after the credits roll; and even in its worst moments, it is harmless and likable, a charming bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy that satisfies the universal need to believe in the power of true love, no matter what your preferences are with regard to gender- or body hair.

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.