Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Viva (2015)


Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

There’s a comparatively high level of visibility for drag performers on the entertainment scene today.  Not long ago, they were known only to the LGBT community and a few savvy “straights;” now, thanks to widening acceptance, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone not at least marginally aware of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” or of movies like “Kinky Boots.”  While still not exactly mainstream, drag has emerged from the gay bar and planted its cha-cha heels firmly on the stage of popular culture.

Most of the time, we are treated largely to the finished product of an artist’s long struggle towards triumphant self-expression.  This is as it should be; drag deserves to be celebrated for its own merit.  Still, it’s been decades since “Torch Song Trilogy,” and the time seems ripe for a new story about the offstage life of a queen.  Thanks to film director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, we need wait no longer.

Set in the slums of Havana, “Viva” follows Jesus, a gay eighteen-year-old who supports himself by styling hair for his female relatives- and the wigs of the queens at a local drag club.  Given a chance to perform himself, he is just beginning to blossom when his father Angel- a “local hero” boxer who abandoned him at the age of three- suddenly returns to his life.  Angel- a homophobic macho man- insists on moving in with his son and refuses to allow him to continue working at the club.  Torn between his longing for a father he never knew and his new-found self-expression, Jesus must forge a relationship with this stranger and attempt to build a bridge between their seemingly incompatible worlds.

From its very first scenes, “Viva” promises to be the story of an awkward gay boy’s evolution into a fabulous queen.  It delivers on that promise, but not by taking the expected route.  Though it starts us through familiar territory- the trying on of wigs and outfits, the catty dressing-room banter, the obligatory jokes about tucking- it suddenly (and literally) stops us in our tracks with a punch to the face.  From that point forward, Jesus’ story is less about the outer trappings of drag and more about the inner journey that will eventually bring power and passion to his stage persona- and give him the strength and integrity necessary to live truly as himself.

We’ve seen the hard-knock, emotionally dysfunctional background of such a character before, of course, but in the past it has usually been portrayed as something to rise above, with drag as both protective armor and triumphal raiment.  Here, though, Breathnach and O’Halloran give us a new take, in which their protagonist embraces his hardships instead of enduring them.  It’s a subtle change of focus, underscoring a shift into a new era in which there’s a chance for those who don’t conform to societal “norms” to be true to themselves without having to live a life apart.

The key reason that “Viva” has resonance at a societal level is that O’Halloran’s script avoids politicizing or pontificating and instead focuses on an intimate relationship between father and son.  In their negotiations, Jesus and Angel serve as stand-ins for their respective generations- and if these two men can gain acceptance from each other, there is hope for us all to do the same.  Director Breathnach understands where the strength of his movie lies; other than making sure that the Havana location (described by Angel as “the most beautiful slum in the world”) is magnificently captured, he wisely keeps his cinematic styling simple and direct, allowing his cast to dominate the screen.

It helps that the actors- especially the movie’s two handsome co-stars- are up to the challenge.  The movie naturally belongs to Héctor Medina; the young actor combines sensitivity and strength, his expressive face allowing us to experience Jesus’ journey with him, and caps it with a climactic performance in which he brings the film’s title character into a full, electric life of her own.  As Angel, Jorge Perugorría embodies the hubris of culturally-bestowed entitlement, yet infuses his character with the humanity necessary to invite love and compassion.  Providing an important third perspective to their dynamic is Luis Alberto García, who elegantly avoids stereotype as “Mama,” the drag club owner who takes Jesus under his wing.

Though it’s an Irish-made movie, “Viva” is spoken in the Spanish appropriate to its Cuban setting.  This might be a challenge if you are subtitle-averse, but to skip seeing it would be a mistake for anyone who longs for world-class LGBT-themed cinema.  By eschewing heavy-handed tactics, it takes a story which, in the not-too-distant past, might have been a tale of despair and tells it instead as parable of hope.










Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)


Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.



Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects.  Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release.  Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.

The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital.  Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness.  When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face.  When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure.  In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind.  The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands.  As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter,  Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him.  The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda.  Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself.  Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself.  Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men.  Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.

If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure.  Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time.  The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.

This latter point is not strictly true, actually.  Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones.  Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection.  She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege.  Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider.  The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others.  In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority.  Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns.  In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.”  Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.

That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters.  The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades.  Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us.  This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.

Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days.  Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see.  She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents.  Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life.  Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine.  Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop.  The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta.  With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living.  The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.

In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living.  There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill.  This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor.  It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied.  It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.

Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience.  There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others.  What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us.  Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.


Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.


Far From Heaven (2002)

Today’s cinema adventure: Far From Heaven, the 2002 drama by writer/director Todd Haynes, which revisits the high-gloss style of late-1950s Hollywood melodramas in order to tell a story of social prejudice and dirty secrets surrounding an ideal, picture-perfect family in mid-century suburbia.  Acclaimed by critics and nominated for scores of awards, it represented Haynes’ breakthrough as a top-level filmmaker and brought him his greatest commercial success to date.  Particularly notable for its visual style- including radiant cinematography and meticulously realized period details- and the performance of Julianne Moore in the central role of a housewife whose ideal life begins to crumble around her, it is also considered an important breakthrough in the acceptance of independently produced films in the mainstream industry and something of a milestone in the continuing struggle to include gay and lesbian subject matter in movies aimed at a wider audience.

Set in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1956, Far From Heaven tells the story of Cathy Whitaker, a model housewife and mother in a seemingly perfect upper middle-class home.  Her marriage to Frank, a successful sales executive, is happy and fulfilling, and she is a prominent member of the town’s well-to-do women’s social circle.  She enjoys a blissfully elegant existence in her fashionable home, tended by Sybil, a black maid whom she treats- more or less- as an equal; the only aspect of her life that is less-than-ideal is the fact that Frank’s long hours at the office increasingly keep him away from home well into the night, but she is understanding and supportive of his efforts to keep his family well-provided-for.  One evening when he is again stuck at work, Cathy decides to surprise her husband by bringing him a dinner plate from home; when she arrives, however, it is she who receives the biggest surprise, for she discovers Frank locked in a passionate kiss with another man.  Later, at home, her deeply mortified husband haltingly admits to her that he has had “problems” in the past but until recently has believed himself to be over them.  He agrees to see a psychiatrist and undertake therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual impulses.  Nevertheless, as time passes, his refusal to discuss his ongoing treatment and his increasing emotional absence from their relationship- as well as his noticeably heavy drinking- begin to take their toll on their marriage; meanwhile, she finds an unexpected connection with her new gardener, Raymond, an educated black widower struggling to raise a daughter on his own.  As their friendship develops, however, Cathy’s society friends begin to take notice, and she finds herself being shunned for crossing the line between races- an unacceptable social taboo which results in the ostracism of Raymond within his own community, as well.  Facing condemnation from her former friends, no longer sure of her marriage, and growing to recognize the previously unthinkable truth about the nature of her feelings for Raymond, Cathy finds herself isolated and increasingly disillusioned by the hollow facade of her so-called perfect life, but in order to preserve her family she must make the difficult choice between following her own heart or conforming to social expectations.

Haynes, known for his highly stylized approach to filmmaking, wrote Far From Heaven as both a tribute to and a reinvention of the lavish domestic melodramas of the late 1950s, popular films which often featured controversial social issues as complications in their stories of idyllic middle-American life.  In keeping with this, his screenplay features the kind of artificial-sounding, slightly over-the-top dialogue found in these slick documents of mid-century morality; but he has updated the subject matter, throwing the spotlight onto the kind of issues that- though deeply pertinent in that age of prosperous conformism- were too hot to handle for film studios still bound by a decency code that prohibited depictions of anything outside the accepted social “norm.”  Consequently, Haynes has made a sort of “what if?” scenario come to life with Far From Heaven; he has painstakingly crafted a film that recreates the look and feel of those he is emulating, but which directly addresses the pertinent issues which could only be hinted at during the era in which they were made.  In other words, he has made the movie that many filmmakers of the time doubtless wished they could have made, but were simply unable.  Mining most specifically from the work of Douglas Sirk, whose big-screen soap operas, particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, provide the inspiration and the model for Far From Heaven, he peels off the layers of coded euphemism and sugar-coated insulation to reveal the ugly specter of prejudice at the heart of this pretty-picture existence.  In the suburban diorama he presents, the real emotional landscape beneath the pristine and well-ordered surface is made visible; he gives us a world where deviation from the accepted mold is a source of deep shame and scandal, where a “real man” believes that having sexual feelings for his own gender must be a psychological disorder, and where a woman’s friendship with her black maid is seen as admirably progressive but socializing in public with a black man is an affront to decency.

Haynes’ direction is impeccable; he lovingly conjures the form and substance of his chosen genre with absolute accuracy, and yet infuses the whole with his own particular style, subtly edgy and highly contemporary.  There is an eye towards the use of symbolism- Frank’s job is selling advertising and his company’s own marketing features a portrait of himself and his wife in the comfort of their ideal modern home, underscoring the theme of presenting an artificial image for public consumption, and there is a frequent presence of mirrors and other sources of reflection or visual duplication- but these elements are present mostly to support a more direct communication of his themes, revealed through his dialogue and his storytelling.  The outward form of his film adheres to the cinematic language of the movies by which it was inspired- the familiar standards of visual composition, leisurely tracking shots, slow cross-fades or blackouts between scenes, tilted camera angles to indicate that the world is slipping out of balance- without the use of more modernistic techniques such as rapid cutting or varying film speeds; one of Haynes’ most prominent traits as a filmmaker is his gift as a stylistic mimic, and he uses it to great advantage here.  His deep understanding of the milieu in which he is working permits him to utilize its techniques in the service of his personal vision- an expression of the painful longings buried within this bygone era, and a reminder that, sanitized nostalgia aside, the simpler times so fondly remembered in the popular imagination were rife with hypocrisy, ignorance, fear, and heartbreaking dysfunction.  More importantly, by presenting so clearly the outdated mores of the past, Haynes shows us not only how far we’ve come, but also- somewhat discomfortingly- how far we have yet to go.  In observing the attitudes toward race and sexuality variously represented by the characters in the film, we are forced to examine our own relationship with these questions; we are not so far removed from a time when gay bars were hidden establishments behind an unmarked door in an alley or when interracial couples were not free to appear in public together, and the mistrust and prejudice surrounding such matters are still a nagging blot in the heart of our cultural identity.  Though our own world may be a little closer than the one shown here, it is still, for too many of us, “far from heaven.”

The conceit of making a neo-Sirk melodrama, in less ambitious hands, might have resulted in a pale shadow of the original luster undeniably present in those earlier films, but Haynes takes it very seriously, and he takes it all the way; Far From Heaven is built like a piece of retro-fitted classic architecture, incorporating modern advancements into a structure made from the original raw materials and designs.  The film was shot using with contemporary camera equipment, but utilizing the same lens filters and incandescent lighting that would have been employed in the 1950s, allowing cinematographer Edward Lachman to provide a luminous authenticity that perfectly captures the look of the period.  Haynes also worked extensively with his designers to develop a color palette that matched the flavor of the era, infusing the sets and props with a rainbow of pastels and deep hues that likewise encapsulates the sensibilities of the time; most noticeable, perhaps, are the costumes of Sandy Powell, whose stunning designs incorporate not only the colors and lines of ’50s fashion, but the fabrics and textures as well, giving Far From Heaven a sense of realism that is often missing from such period films, which all too often look like an affected caricature of their era rather than a genuine expression of contemporaneous tastes.  To complete the illusion, Haynes went so far as to enlist the great film composer Elmer Bernstein, whose music graced many of the most well-remembered movies of the actual period, to write the score; his lush orchestral accompaniment lends an unmistakable air of authenticity to the proceedings, as well as voicing the passion, the yearning, and the menace inherent in the story.  It was to be Bernstein’s final work- he passed away shortly after completing it- but it stands as one of his finest.

Just as he takes the outward form of his project seriously, Haynes is careful to maintain its inner integrity; here again, he differentiates Far From Heaven from the countless other movies derived from mid-century sensibility by choosing to treat it without the irony that so often pervades contemporary takes on the period.  It is true that the film’s imagery often includes signage or other items which offer subtle commentary on the action or subtext, but this is irony in a different, more literary sense, an artistic device used extensively by directors dating back to the earliest days of cinema and thoroughly in keeping with the style of the actual works the filmmaker emulates.  To avoid inserting contemporary attitudes and judgments into the piece- particularly considering the use of stylized, melodramatic language in the movie’s dialogue- requires a delicacy and skill in the way it is handled by its players, an almost theatrical need to affect a heightened artifice without being disingenuous; one of the greatest blessings of Far From Heaven is that it has a superb cast that is more than equal to that challenge.  It almost goes without saying that the film’s star, the always-glorious Julianne Moore, gives a sublime performance as Cathy, offering up an utterly captivating journey from precious naïveté to worldly disillusionment; her embodiment of Donna Reed perfection is utterly sincere, and yet she gives us a glimmer of the more complex soul that emerges throughout the narrative, as she gradually pares away the layers of socially conditioned conformity to reveal the mature, fully aware woman she has become by the bittersweet final scene.  A more surprising and revelatory performance, however, comes from Dennis Quaid, as husband Frank; always a solid and dependable presence, the actor here breaks from all expectations- while simultaneously using them to great effect- with his portrait of a gay man trapped into the respectably straight, cookie-cutter existence dictated by convention; his exaggeratedly gregarious joviality rings no more false than that of any of his colleagues or cohorts- their world, after all, is a place where a show of male emotion is a sign of weakness and crippling imperfection- but when he is alone, his torment and shame are palpable, seething from within and racking his entire being.  His struggle is all the more painful to watch because his role in the story is that of the unfaithful husband, failing in his duty to home and family because of what his society deems a moral failing, and we as an audience are conditioned to disapprove of his behavior and his choices; Quaid plays it with absolute integrity, forcing us to confront our own preconceived notions by showing us the ugliness of his anger and resentment- but also making it clear that they arise from the conflict between his true nature and his protective mask.  Because he resists the temptation to soften his portrayal by playing for our sympathy, the unfolding emotional wreckage rings completely true, eliciting audience empathy far more than any forced Hollywood sentimentality could manage to do; his scene with Moore following the revelation of his secret shame- a choked, mutually humiliating exchange of faltering half-sentences and defensive body language- is one of the most devastating depictions of a breaking relationship in recent screen memory, and the understanding each actor has for their character in these moments allows us to feel the pain of both throughout the rest of the movie.

Though Far From Heaven ultimately belongs to its two stars, the remainder of the cast is equally superb.  Dennis Haysbert as Raymond brings a refreshingly genuine aura of class to his portrayal of a confident, kind, and sophisticated gentleman, determined to live as he deserves despite the social dictates that surround the color of his skin- though thanks to his later role as the television spokesman for Allstate, it’s sometimes hard to watch him without thinking of insurance.  Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy’s best friend and confidante Eleanor, tackles the delicate and thankless task of providing a sympathetic foil for Moore while having, ultimately, to represent the well-meaning but narrow-minded hypocrisy that permeated the time; she acquits herself admirably, making her character understandable, if not quite sympathetic.  Viola Davis, in an early role as Sybil, Cathy’s maid, has little to do beyond adding her quietly dignified presence to the proceedings, but she does so with grace and charisma, managing to make a strong and eminently likable impression with a minimum of spoken lines.  Finally, mention should be made of James Rebhorn, as the psychiatrist from whom Frank seeks “conversion” therapy, who has a memorable turn in his single scene; also resisting the urge to play a stereotype he presents the good doctor as friendly, kind and professional, a sympathetic- if inscrutable- figure who offers at least the suggestion of a more progressive attitude towards alternative sexuality.

Far From Heaven was a critical darling upon its release, and garnered more than 100 nominations for film awards worldwide, including 4 Oscars.  With its reverent use of classic filmmaking style and technique, it’s easy to see why critics and film scholars would find it so rewarding, and much of the praise and commentary it has generated has been centered on this aspect of the movie; but for those less interested in cinematic heritage than with entertainment value, does it provide a worthwhile time investment on its own merits?  The answer is a resounding yes; Haynes use of the classic mise-en-scène is geared entirely towards making an intelligent, modern film with a compelling, thought-provoking story, and the work of its cast and crew is never anything less than top-notch.  Whether or not you have knowledge or experience of the Sirk-ian ’50s tearjerkers from which it is derived, it is a beautiful film to look at, and even those who normally disdain weepy melodrama will find its approach to be restrained and dignified, devoid of the hokey manipulation that so often mars such stories.  Perhaps its greatest importance lies, however, in the snapshot it gives of a time and place in our not-too-distant past, when a dominant culture was freely allowed to discriminate and disenfranchise those who cannot conform to its carefully-guarded status quo; it’s a reminder of the human cost of hate and ignorance, and a warning to those who take for granted the social advancements of the past half-century- as well as an indictment against the all-too-many in today’s world who still cling to the outdated views of the not-so-golden past.  On a less profound level, it is also a gift for the legion of social “outsiders” who, like its director, grew up loving the movies to which it pays homage, and longed for one that spoke directly to the concerns pertinent in their own lives; Far From Heaven is that movie, and thanks to Todd Haynes, it is everything we could have hoped it would be.


Women in Revolt (1971)

Today’s cinema adventure: Women in Revolt, the 1971 Andy Warhol-produced film satirizing the Women’s Liberation Movement and starring a trio of transgendered “superstars.” Notably, it was the last film to be produced by Warhol on which he actually stood behind the camera, though it was directed by longtime associate Paul Morrissey; it enjoyed more attention and mainstream notoriety than many of the infamous artist’s earlier films, largely on the basis of its controversial approach to the subject matter, drawing the wrath of feminists who felt it was a slap in the face to have their cause savagely lampooned and to be represented onscreen by “female impersonators” instead of biological women.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three women who become involved in the Women’s Lib movement for their own reasons: Jackie is a militant intellectual schoolteacher who believes men are inferior to women and should be relegated to their naturally subservient place in society; her friend Holly is a model who hates being treated as a sex object, although she herself has a ravenous libido; and Candy is a society heiress who longs to break free of the stiflingly traditional role she is expected by her family to play, wishing instead to build a career for herself as a glamorous movie star. When Jackie and Holly decide to form their own protest group- called Politically Involved Girls, or “P.I.G.” for short- they hit upon the idea of enlisting Candy, hoping to capitalize on her high-profile society position to generate publicity for their cause, and more importantly, to gain access to the financial support of her family and the wealthy circle in which they move. A series of misadventures follows in which each of the three activists are revealed to be more motivated by self-interest than by real passion for their cause. Jackie, despite being a self-proclaimed lesbian, spends the organization’s money on a bodybuilding male hustler and becomes the unwed mother of his baby; Holly succumbs to her penchant for drinking and sex, becoming a derelict living in the street; and Candy abandons her friends, her family, and the movement to realize her dream of stardom.

The scenario for Women in Revolt– it would be inaccurate to call it a script- is not so much a storyline as it is an excuse for extended on-camera improvisation and trashy bad behavior. This, of course, is the real purpose here, far more than any deliberate social or political commentary. Still, it’s easy to see why genuine feminists would find Morrissey’s movie insulting and offensive; their arguments are put into the mouths of enfants terribles whose grotesquely exaggerated behavior and plainly self-absorbed motives render them meaningless and laughable. Given Morrissey’s right-wing political bent, it’s possible, if not probable, that this was at least part of his intention here; but in truth, the whole affair is so patently ridiculous that it is impossible to take seriously. The political satire is merely a vehicle in which the film’s three stars can indulge in their individual excesses, gleefully breaking taboos and acting out with histrionic abandon. Much of the dialogue is devoted to the kind of verbal bitch-slapping that has fueled drag shows for decades, and for the most part, whoever shares the screen with each of the three central characters is merely there to provide a foil- and the occasional straight line- for their onslaught of caustic camp.

Though this formula, admittedly, provides numerous amusing moments throughout the film, it is also the main downfall of Women in Revolt. The pervading atmosphere of uncontrolled, undisciplined expression hardly makes for concise, coherent filmmaking; the improvisational approach works for fleeting moments, but those are islands in a sea of self-indulgent chatter- often spoken simultaneously, in a seeming battle for dominance, rendering much of its content incomprehensible and more than a little grating. This, of course, is inherent in improv, which is why it is most effective when used as a basis for developing more polished material or edited into a cohesive form by a savvy director; it also helps when the performers have been given clear guidance and, ideally, have received some formal training. In the absence of these elements, the end result usually ends up looking and feeling like a free-for-all, reminiscent of rambunctious children play-acting in a schoolyard game of make believe- which can be effective in short doses, but is perhaps not the best way to sustain the length of an entire feature film. It creates, in fact, the sense that we are watching a movie made by amateurs, and such is the case here; the low budget production values, the clumsy lighting, the choppy editing, and the generally insipid nature of most of the dramatic conceits all contribute to this feeling. As a result, instead of being provocative or outrageous, the proceedings quickly become simply tiresome, with a juvenile sensibility that makes the archness of the film’s tone come off more like shallow snarkiness. In addition, despite a considerable amount of gratuitous nudity- mostly male- and sexual content, the handling of these scenes strips them of eroticism; indeed, sex as portrayed here is a repugnant, degrading act, devoid of charm or subtlety, and thoroughly shocking for reasons that have nothing to do with morality or social acceptability. Like everything else in the world as seen by Warhol, Morrissey and company, it’s just another boring convention to be disdained and ridiculed.

These criticisms, valid though they may be, might be immaterial if one considers that film for Warhol- originally, anyway- was just another decorative medium, a way to produce ever-changing pop art images to be projected on a wall at a party, perhaps- a means to provide atmosphere in the background of a real-life “happening.” The rules of good cinema do not apply when a film is more of a statement in itself than a legitimate exploration of the art form. However, by the time of Women in Revolt, the enigmatic Warhol had stepped away from participation in his film productions, handing over the reigns to Morrissey, who had taken things in a more (or, arguably, less) ambitious direction, focusing on a narrative-driven, mainstream approach. It would be a mistake to classify these later Warhol movies as art for art’s sake, as they clearly aspire towards providing a more medium-specific experience; therefore, it seems fair to say that by any reasonable cinematic standards, Women in Revolt is a terrible film. One might argue that the film eschews traditionally accepted style and polish as a rejection of conventional cultural values, but pretensions of artistic purpose are no excuse for sloppy movie-making, and even if one generously classifies Morrissey’s style as cinema verité, it’s hard to think of a less professional, more careless example of cinematic hack-work. What makes this film so appallingly bad is not its nasty attitude or its banality, but the fact that it is, in the end, a poorly executed, badly assembled mess- and despite the fact that Warhol himself operated the camera for several botched scenes (at the insistence of star Jackie Curtis, who refused to perform without his participation), the fault for this lies solely at the feet of its director. Morrissey’s apparent lack of skill in the creation of his product may have been intentional, a deliberate effort to make a statement about the subjectivity of artistic values or to prove the point that arbitrary notions of bad or good are irrelevant to an audience simply seeking to be distracted; but his work here smacks of fraud, the attempts of a would-be artist to discount the importance of techniques he hasn’t the patience or understanding to master. Whereas Warhol’s genius was in simply setting up the camera and letting it capture what it would, the same approach is Morrissey’s crutch. In other words, Women in Revolt seems the work of a lazy director who wants glory without having to work too hard.

Despite this harsh assessment of Morrissey and his work, Women in Revolt is not devoid of value. For better or for worse, in fact, it is probably a more significant film today than it was when it was originally released, due largely to the window it provides into the miliieu of the Warhol factory and- more importantly- the all-too-rare opportunity it gives us to see the work of its three leading players: Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them were members of Warhol’s famous coterie at the “Factory,” known for their work in previous of his films, and as such were popular- and notorious- fixtures of New York’s avant-garde arts scene. Curtis, unlike his two co-stars, was a female impersonator, who appeared both as a man and a woman in his work, and was successful independently of his projects with Warhol; he was an actor and playwright whose edgy, campy plays were a fixture of New York’s experimental theatre scene, as well as a singer and poet whose work garnered considerable praise and attention from critics of the era. His screen persona- abrasive, outspoken, sarcastic, and sporting a frizzy red wig with glittery make-up- provides many of the best one-liners in Women in Revolt, and whenever he is on the screen he is in absolute command. This is not always to the benefit of the film; many of the shrillest and most confused scenes are the result of Curtis’ aggressive improvisation, in which other performers are drowned out and cut off at every turn in favor of his unscripted outbursts. Nevertheless, it’s a smart performance, giving a glimpse at the potential for brilliance which might have been more fully realized with a little rehearsal and direction. Likewise, Candy Darling, a true transgendered performer, who had worked extensively with Curtis in his plays as well as in previous Warhol outings, reveals the ethereal, double-edged sincerity that allows her, somehow, to rise relatively unscathed above the messy chaos of Women in Revolt; she contrasts Curtis’ brash bullying with her own form of dominance, the cool superiority of a sophisticated and intelligent woman with nothing to prove. She is elegant and truly beautiful, and Women in Revolt is at its best- and most watchable- when she is onscreen, working her magic with the curious blend of earnestness and irony that made her one of the most charismatic of the “superstars.” Rounding out the trio is Woodlawn, also a true transgender, whose fiery Puerto Rican energy bursts from the screen, representing the raw energy of the body (as opposed to that of the mind and spirit, personified by Curtis and Darling, respectively) as she gropes and gyrates her way through the film. Truly sinking her teeth into her role as a nymphomaniac who hates men, she gives a manic, conflicted performance which displays a remarkable gift for comedy and hints- as does the work of her co-stars- at a considerable talent, making us wish all the more for a surer hand behind the camera. The fact that all three of these stars are so obviously gifted is yet another indictment against Morrissey’s infuriating mediocrity as a director; their work continually gives us glimmers of what Women in Revolt might have been. Still, they provide plenty of reasons to sit through the movie- though it requires considerable patience and might be best accomplished in short installments- and even manage to create several moments which could be called classic. Besides these three heavyweights, the film offers brief appearances by other counter-cultural icons of the era, including Penny Arcade and Betty Blue, and Brigid Berlin in a wordless cameo as a decidedly butch bar owner.

The fact that Women in Revolt is an atrocious movie, oddly enough, does not alter the fact that it is a classic, of sorts. Clearly, there are many stalwart supporters of Warhol and his crew that would defend the film staunchly and embrace its many flaws proudly, claiming them as victories in a cultural war and viewing them as medals of honor. There is certainly a weird power to this curiosity of its time, and despite its lack of real ambition it manages to offer up some interesting observations about the power struggle between the sexes- particularly through its reversal of roles in which liberated women treat their men with the same disrespect and contempt they deplore when they are the recipients, and the use of sex as both a bargaining tool and a means of gaining power. It can be argued that the movie was a success in terms of what it set out to accomplish. Warhol neither knew nor cared about the aesthetics of film; he wanted only to present his branded material for the sake of building his cult-of-personality-based empire, and notions of good or bad were of little interest to him. With this in mind, Women in Revolt is exactly what he wanted it to be- a source of controversy and buzz, and another brick in the continually growing monument to his so-called genius. Indeed, given his particular, nose-thumbing stance at conventional society, it is probably preferable that it should be bad; the exaltation of the banal was a major part of what he was all about, after all. Therefore, I find myself in the curious position (which Warhol would have loved) of recommending a movie that I found to be abysmal. I would stress, however, that my endorsement is based not on any sort of respect for the artists behind the scenes, but on my admiration for the ones on the screen. It is beyond tragic that these three were given the treatment they were- exploited by Warhol for their “freak” appeal, they were given just enough cultivation to reveal the brilliance of their underlying talent, then abandoned because the impresario had lost interest. Perhaps the real reason for his fickleness can be surmised by viewing Women in Revolt; it is the talent of Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn that redeems the experience, and without them it would truly be unwatchable.  Could it be that Warhol feared they might outshine him on their own merits, and take away some of the credit for their own success? It’s a question, sadly, that must be asked, but can never be answered. Darling would pass away of cancer within two years of the film’s release, and Curtis would die of a heroin overdose a decade later; Woodlawn returned to her native Puerto Rico and worked as a busboy until, years later, a resurgence of interest in her former persona allowed her to return to the limelight. Women in Revolt, wretched as it is, is a snapshot of a moment in time, when all three were poised on the brink of success, and maybe, just maybe, could have broken through the barriers of social prejudice to achieve mainstream success. It was not to be, but they paved the way for future generations who continue the struggle for transgender acceptance. That in itself makes this movie worthy of respect- not for the posers behind the camera, but for the real people in front of it.


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.


Parting Glances (1986)

Today’s cinema adventure: Parting Glances, the 1986 first (and only) feature by writer/director Bill Sherwood, hailed as a landmark in the history of gay cinema and also notable for featuring actor Steve Buscemi in his first major film role.  Made on a shoestring budget in 1984 and finally released two years later, it was chosen as the first movie to be restored by the Outfest Legacy Project in 2007, and it still stands today as one of the most refreshingly authentic representations of gay life yet to be seen on the American screen.

Shot entirely on location in New York, the film follows a young upwardly mobile couple, Michael and Robert, through the events of a 24-hour period; Robert is preparing to leave for a two-year work assignment in Africa, while Michael, facing the prospect of being left alone, ponders the uncertainty of their future together- as well as the inevitable demise of his AIDS-infected ex-boyfriend, Nick, with whom he still shares a deep bond.  As the couple attend a dinner party with Robert’s boss and then a farewell gathering with their friends, the movie gives us a cross-sectional slice-of-gay-life view of mid-eighties New York, using the various interactions and activities of its characters to explore not only the relationships at its center, but also the concerns and issues that affect them as a community and as individuals.

One of the primary reasons for the importance of Parting Glances, of course, is the window it provides into the days when the AIDS epidemic was at its height; it was a time when being diagnosed with the disease was, in essence, a death sentence, and the gay community was being ravaged.  This humble little film was one of the first to deal with this issue, and certainly the first to treat it with candor rather than with alarmist sensationalism.  Though only one of the characters is afflicted by the virus, it is clear through the conversations and situations we are privy to throughout that it’s a situation that deeply affects them all; it hovers around the edges of their lives like the ominous Don Giovanni-inspired specter that appears to Nick in a few key scenes, a factor in everything they do, say, or plan.  Despite its omnipresence, however, the subject of AIDS does not receive the kind of dour and mournful treatment one might expect, particularly from a film made in the midst of its darkest hold on the hearts and minds of the gay community; nor is it handled with the precious, maudlin sentimentality of so many of the movies that came after.  On the contrary, though its weight and seriousness are never in question, Parting Glances takes a disarmingly light-hearted approach to the disease: Nick does not play the morose and tragic victim; his ultimate decline and fall are a given, but, for now at least, he is still relatively healthy, and his brash,  vibrant personality is the heart of the movie.  He faces his fate with staunch acceptance, yes, but also with a hearty helping of gallows humor and nothing-to-lose directness.  The dire eventuality of his situation is implicit, and this film feels no need to hammer the audience with it; its focus, rather, is on the present moment, and the opportunity it affords for taking stock, seizing the day, and perhaps most importantly, tending the needs of the heart.

Though AIDS looms heavily over Parting Glances, it is by no means the only subject with which the film concerns itself.  The central storyline, after all, deals with the relationship of Michael and Robert, and its future- or its lack of one- is not contingent on a life-threatening disease; rather, it hinges on their own respective ambivalence, their fear of commitment, and their ability to be emotionally available to each other.  In short, the obstacles in their joint path, though they may be somewhat obscured or confused by the comparatively minor attendant factors of same-sex unions, are the same ones faced by any couple, gay or straight; the film does an admirable job of underlining this universality, placing the pair in juxtaposition with other couples, straight and not-so-straight, throughout its proceedings, and while it makes no judgments regarding the validity or moral superiority of any of these relationships, the dynamic between our two protagonists seems to stack up at least as favorably, more or less, as any of the others.  Michael’s relationship with Nick is also a key factor here- their easy chemistry and bantering rapport contrast sharply with the often strident interactions of Michael and Robert, opening up questions about compatibility and the line between romance and friendship- particularly among same-sex partners.  There are plenty of non-romantic relationships on display here, too: Michael and several other characters connect closely with Joan, the “hag” who hosts the going-away party and serves as a sort of combination best gal-pal and den mother; there’s also Robert’s boss and his wife, who bond with Robert and Michael, respectively; Robert’s former high school girlfriend, now married but still a confidante; and a number of other friends and acquaintances who interact with the couple and each other throughout the course of the film.  All of these exchanges offer insight into the social tapestry of this insular community, and key us into the pulse of this specific time and place, as well as revealing the repetition of timeless patterns and themes within the sphere of human connectivity, gay, straight, or anywhere in between.

It might seem like there’s a lot going on in Parting Glances, and of course, there is; but despite its busy agenda, it never feels as if it were packed too full, nor does any of it seem forced.  Thanks to Sherwood’s witty, flowing screenplay, all the major issues and themes work their way unobtrusively into the dialogue, weaving through the conversations naturalistically and convincingly instead of being introduced as didactic rhetoric; these are real people discussing their lives, not mouthpieces presenting a case, and as a result, the movie feels like a stimulating party instead of a public debate.  This organic quality is enhanced all the more by Sherwood’s engaging cast, who are clearly having a wonderful time as they present us with a wide variety of familiar “types” (as opposed to stereotypes) within the gay and gay-friendly community.  As Michael and Robert, respectively, are Richard Ganoung and John Bolger; both are attractive and likable, but they are not a cookie-cutter couple- each has their own distinctive persona, and they both clash with and complement each other in a highly realistic and believable manner.  Kathy Kinney plays Joan, providing a grounded, female presence with a character that rises above potential cliché; she is both insightful and incorrigible, and she conveys- subtly, and without self-pity- the resignation of a life possibly lived vicariously through her friends.  Also memorable is Adam Nathan, as a self-assured young “twinkie” who sets his sights on Michael; ready to claim the world from an elder generation that is not willing, quite yet, to give it up to him, he succeeds in being endearing instead of insufferable, and his scene with Nick on the stairs outside the party is a highlight of the film.  The standout performance, though, comes from Buscemi, who does a remarkable job of playing Nick; the character is doomed but delightful, a combination which could easily seem glib and artificial in the hands of a lesser actor, but he pulls it off superbly, making it clear that his sardonic wit and his edgy personality are part and parcel of who he is- not an affectation in response to his status as a member of the walking dead- and that underneath them there is a large and generous heart.  His desire to leave behind a legacy for his friends goes beyond the material items in his last will, semi-substantial though they may be (he is, it seems, a minor rock-and-roll star); he actively means to make a difference in their lives, and Buscemi’s work allows us to see the genuine love at the source of these efforts.  Lest we think his Nick is too good to be true, though, he still manages to get across, in little ways, here and there, that he is not altogether okay with what is happening to him, despite his brave face; but this never gets in the way of the positive energy he exudes throughout.  It’s a performance that should have made Buscemi a star, much sooner, and would have, no doubt- if the movie had been more widely seen.

There are numerous other enjoyable qualities here, not the least of which is the way the film captures the look and feel of mid-eighties New York; this is no surprise, of course, considering that is when and where it was filmed, but some credit is still deserved by the production designer (John Loggia), the art directors (Daniel Haughey and Mark Sweeney), and the set decorator (Anne Mitchell) for deciding what should go into the series of well-appointed homes and apartments that provide the setting, as well as to cinematographer Jacek Laskus for deciding how to film it, with special kudos to all involved for making it look so polished despite the bargain-basement budget.  Also contributing to its evocation of time and place are the soundtrack choices, a combination of songs by Bronski Beat and original, very posh-sounding piano music by Mike Nolan, with some operatic selections thrown in, by way of Nick’s LP player, for good measure.

It seems somehow wrong to say that a movie made at the height of the AIDS crisis, featuring AIDS as a major subject and set among the gay community, is entertaining and fun; but that’s exactly what Parting Glances is.  Though it is unquestionably dramatic in its overall scope and intention, it makes sure even the heaviest matter is carried along by an effervescent current, and precisely because it doesn’t continually remind us of how poignant and moving it should be, it ends up being extremely poignant and extremely moving- particularly, I might add, for those who have lost friends like Nick in the long battle with AIDS.  As its title suggests, this is a movie about saying goodbye, not just to the dead, but to the living as well- the continuation of Michael and Robert’s relationship is by no means a sure thing at the end, after all; but bittersweet as it may be, it is also a film about moving forward.  The script clips along, the actors and the camera are constantly in motion, and the entire flow carries us through to the end, leaving us with a tangible momentum.  People come and go, things change, but the world keeps moving, and maybe part of what Parting Glances suggests is that our only real way of leaving something of ourselves in the mix is to make sure our lives touch those of the people who surround us.  In this day and age, it’s possible to watch Parting Glances and entertain the hope that Nick will be one of those lucky survivors who managed to hang on to life until medical science caught up enough with the disease to at least stave off death, and that he, like so many millions today, could still be out there thriving as an HIV-positive man.  If so, he would be luckier than the film’s creator, who passed away from the disease in 1990, without making another film and without surviving to see the way this one was embraced and revered by his own community, as well as by the larger cinematic world.  His movie stays with us, however, and through it, he continues to touch lives today.  So perhaps, truly, he was a very lucky man indeed.


C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: C.R.A.Z.Y., a 2005 French-Canadian feature by director Jean-Marc Valée about the experiences of  a young man wrestling with his sexual identity as he grows up in a large, conservative, male-dominated Montreal family through the sixties and seventies.  The screenplay, based on the real experiences of François Boublay (who co-wrote with Valée), took 10 years to complete, but the end result was one of Canada’s most successful films of all time, becoming a box office hit and sweeping the Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, for those who don’t know) with 11 wins out of 13 nominations.

Beginning with his birth on Christmas Day, 1960, the film follows the memories of Zac Beaulieu, whose family consists of three older brothers and (eventually) one younger; their father, Gervais, is a loving but authoritarian working class man with traditional ideas of masculinity, and their mother, Laurianne, a doting but submissive woman with deeply-held Catholic beliefs.  Over the course of twenty years, Zac endures the burden of being “different” in the midst of this painfully average, sometimes dysfunctional clan.  First he is branded as a “special” child with a gift for healing; then, as he grows older, he must face the ever-growing challenge of coming to terms with his homosexuality, an unthinkable and insurmountable obstacle to harmony with his family- and in particular, to his relationship with his beloved father.

With Zac’s journey to maturity and self-acceptance at its core, C.R.A.Z.Y. takes its audience on an inside tour of middle-class family life in suburbia; not only do we experience the painful struggle of a young gay man trying to first deny, then repress his sexuality in an un-accepting home environment, but also the other all-too-common scenario of drug addiction, as Zac’s older brother battles an escalating habit that is discouraged but enabled by parents without the knowledge or skills to make a difference.  Lest it seem, however, that the film presents only a bleak and dour perspective, rest assured that the conflicts and tragedies are woven delicately into a total picture that includes a great deal of quirky humor, as well as portraying the many small joys and transcendent moments that bind a family together- and the private experiences, indelibly printed in memory, that give meaning to an individual life.  In the end, though we see Zac and his family embroiled in much turmoil throughout- and mostly with each other- Valée’s film is about love, and its power to redeem and unite, no matter what seemingly irreconcilable differences may exist or how many mistakes have been made between us.

One of the key elements that contributes to the film’s effectiveness (and it is very effective) is the way it captures the third-quarter-20th-Century setting, giving it a particular significance for viewers who, like its lead character, grew up in this era.  Part of the way it does this, of course, is through its superb scenic and costume design; there is an authenticity to the choices that has to do with capturing the everyday look of the era, rather than attempting to give us a flashy, definitive period style.  It is however, the use of music that conjures the period most noticeably, all the more so because it plays a key role in the plot.  Music provides a common bond between father and son, and is an important outlet for both characters.  Highly specific choices are featured prominently throughout: for instance, father Gervais has a fondness for singing along with “Emmenez-moi,” by Charles Aznavour, mirrored later by Zac’s impassioned bedroom performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;” and in one of Zac’s flights of imaginative fantasy, he has a vision of his epiphanic levitation in the church to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”  The heavy use of the above artists, along with Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline and others, led to the somewhat staggering fact that more than half the film’s budget went to the acquisition of rights for these songs, and director Valée took a cut in his own salary in order to ensure their inclusion.

The excellence of C.R.A.Z.Y. is the result of top-notch work from everyone involved, and it’s an example of a film that is so dependent on the seamless combination of its elements that it seems unfair to single out individuals for specific praise.  Nevertheless, a few standout cast contributions deserve mention.  Most obvious, of course, is the performance of Marc-André Grondin as Zac; whether he is willfully disregarding his father’s behavioral strictures, furtively eyeing his cousin’s teen-dream boyfriend, determinedly trudging through a blizzard as penance for his sinful thoughts, or finding an outlet for his stifled passions through his love of music, he lets us inside and allows us to feel like participants in his story.  The performers who leave the deepest impression, however, are Michel Côté and Danielle Proulx, completely authentic as his father and mother; they inhabit this pair without judgment or caricature, showing us their many flaws but also the good intentions and endearing qualities that make them lovable.  Côté in particular gives an unforgettable portrait of a man who is at once larger than life and touchingly human; volatile, masculine, and charismatic, he commands the screen and makes it very clear why this relationship is so important to Zac.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is not a film that invites in-depth analysis of its underlying themes and archetypal symbols, though these things are present; rather, it is a heartfelt, sometimes painful slice-of-life movie filled with bittersweet nostalgia, ironic hindsight, disarming levity, achingly familiar moments of commonality, flashes of revelatory observation, and a cumulative emotional resonance that subtly builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax.  It accomplishes a rare feat for this type of movie, allowing us to be drawn so completely into this family that we truly feel a part of it.  This is partly due to the way Valée and Boublay show us the kind of mundane everyday details that become shared touchstones through repetition and associated memories, and their effort to invest each member of the family with as much individual life as possible, even the brothers whose smaller roles in the proceedings leave them more or less in the background; the final effect is that these characters seem like real people in our lives, people that we know intimately, and this serves to deepen our connection to them and give their experiences the weight of shared universal memory.  Perhaps most importantly, the movie possesses a sincerity which derives largely from the genuine love it has for all of its characters- even as it reveals their maddening imperfections and their often inadequate skills at coping and communication.  This quality alone makes it superb, far-and-away superior to so many similar cinematic memory-plays that start promisingly and then devolve into just another manipulative tear-jerker before the final scenes; but what makes it a truly remarkable film is the primary perspective it takes in its exploration of the trials and tribulations of family life.  With Zac as our window into the Beaulieu clan, our sympathies are naturally transferred to him, and we are therefore led to identify with his personal conflict, which is, of course, the central focus of the film.  His gradual progression- an anguished process of fear, denial, self-loathing, and self-deception, built around his emerging homosexuality-  is thereby made relevant to audiences without firsthand understanding of his experience, a sadly familiar one to millions of gay and lesbian people the world over. It’s a heartbreakingly complete and specific portrayal: Zac’s fear of humiliation and rejection from his family, his desperate bargaining through prayer to have his “curse” removed, his rejection of faith and rebellion against normalcy even as he continues to hide his true nature; all these and more are important facets of the movie’s dominant subject matter, and though it’s all so common as to border on cliché, it’s a social phenomenon that has been long obscured by stigma.  By investing us in Zac from the beginning of his life, the movie opens it up to be shared- and experienced, at least through extension- by all.  I may be wrong, but I can, unfortunately, think of no American film that even comes close to making the reality of growing up gay so painfully accessible to a wider audience; I invite your corrective examples, because if there are such films, I very much want to see them.