Paris is Burning
If, at some point, the world burns to a pulp and only one film can be loaded onto an escape pod for future generations to glean some insight into all that was remotely worthwhile about human beings and society in general, you could do worse than nominating Paris is Burning for such posthumous preservation. At the very least it might make some of us look better than if some turgid superhero epic ostensibly depicting epic struggles of great societal importance was chosen in its place. Forgive me for mentioning but after just sitting through The Dark Knight Rises and subsequently observing all manner of literate and engaged humanities majors discuss the Dickensian implications of such a stupid, stupid movie in painfully earnest detail that completely ignored the fact that it was a goddamn movie for children I am ready for California and its most famous culture industry to sink to the bottom of the Pacific. Like now. We don’t even get good trash any more. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a more relevant film to understand American psychology than anything Christopher Nolan, with his cheesy conceptualization of urban politics as an “us” vs. “them” struggle, has come up with. But I digress; this is an opportunity to talk about a truly epic film: the ferocious extravaganza spectacle-cum-urban-
As is always the case in the United States, a small marginalized group—in this case, black, gay folks—creates a subculture of such magnificent vitality and militantly glamorous urgency—in this case, the Harlem Drag Ball scene of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s—that the only end result can be its utter annihilation as collateral damage in the larger story of poverty and racism that is the dominant narrative of AmeriKKKa and for the opportunistic capitalist sex mercenaries (in this case, Madonna) to cannily co-opt their electric pleasure art into a 1990 pop hit cassingle called “Vogue.” Now, “Vogue” was a great song and a noble tribute to this Harlem Drag Ball culture that Paris is Burning depicts but it’s still a subcultural Occupation that created a revenue stream that went directly into the granny panties Madonna wore under her Victorian costume from that one MTV Video Awards performance she did of the song whilst bypassing the originators completely. So forget her for a moment and let’s go back to this black-flesh-ensconced-in-crushed-red-velvet-counter-narrative-protest-to-the-World-of- White-and-Straight that Paris is Burning represents.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt was a groundbreaking documentary made in 1989 about the AIDS crisis at the peak of its destruction. It’s a film that sheds light on the U.S. government’s bigoted and, for all intents and purposes, criminally negligent non-response to the epidemic when it was a disease disproportionately affecting gay men. More importantly it’s a film about the misery the disease caused for a cross-section of Americans either living with the disease or caring for people who were.
In the illustrious tradition of American documentaries giving voice to marginalized social classes such as Harlan County U.S.A., Common Threads is both a profile in ordinary human courage, featuring several people detailing their stories for the filmmakers as they struggled to face life head-on, knowing they didn’t have much time left. It’s also a profile in cowardice and how the Reagan Administration failed to respond to a health crisis that ultimately took more American lives than the Vietnam War. The filmmakers didn’t limit the scope of their film to just the gay community, though, and it’s to their credit. We also hear from an African American heterosexual woman who was infected by her male partner as well as the mother of a little boy who got the disease from a blood transfusion.
Sister My Sister
Lately I've been stuck in a cycle of comparability within mediums, mainly in terms of literature and film. History itself is interesting to me for that very reason. Depending on who won or lost a war, for example, we can be given two entirely different perspectives on that war's history. Biographies and biopics do the same, which brings me to the different perspectives in film and theory on the Papin sisters—two French chambermaids in the '30s who carried out an atrocious crime that shocked a nation. Their lives, and the crime in question, has been of interest to both psychoanalysts and social theorists, yet given the facts and testimonies during their trial, each person comes away with a different motive.
On one hand you've got doctors and historians approaching the sisters within the context of class, in fact calling their actions a class-crime—no more than two underpaid, often humiliated, servants in a harsh class system who took out their rage on their employer and her daughter by murdering them. This theory touches on the assumption that the two were lovers from a broken home, but only as a side note. They consider the slaying premeditated. The opposing outlook deals almost entirely with their sexual identity, sexual relationship with each other, and their disturbing family life. Here theorists make the claim that the two were mentally disturbed, that there could have been unreported instances of sexual abuse, and that the crime was one of passion, or at the very least of a sexual construct. The two films that I've discovered that chronicle their lives best are Murderous Maids, a French production, and a British production, Sister My Sister.
Prodigal Sons tells the too-strange-to-be-fiction story of a family from Montana with some really fascinating problems. Daughter Kimberly used to be a man named Paul who was the star quarterback of his high school football team. Paul was popular and dated girls but he never felt comfortable in his skin. He moved away to San Francisco and, in the process of figuring out his gender identity, he decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Paul became Kimberly and decades beyond her former life she is, in many ways, a completely different person.
Now living in New York, working in media, and in a long-term lesbian relationship Kimberly decides to go back to Montana for her high school reunion. She makes a documentary about her trip and the reaction of her former schoolmates to her new identity. She will also reunite with her estranged brother, Marc, who was in the same graduating class. Marc has an interesting story in his own right, though the fascinating details don’t emerge until midway through the film. Marc is Kimberly’s adopted brother and though he is essentially a good person he is also a very troubled man with a violent temper and Kimberly is nervous about what it will be like to see him.Continue Reading
When you find yourself a fan of a certain actor or filmmaker, isn't it great when you're actually alive at the turning point in their careers? Sounds like a simple and/or silly statement but I, for one, seem to come across the majority of filmmakers and stars late in their careers or after their deaths, which makes accessing their movies a real pain sometimes. When it comes to Ang Lee, I was always impressed by his universal characters and themes. Eat Drink Man Woman is one of the strongest dark comedies from East Asia that I've seen in a while. Likewise, I'd been following the careers of Ledger (Monster's Ball, The Dark Knight) and Williams (Dawson's Creek, Blue Valentine) for some time. The news of them acting in the same film was very exciting, as was the addition of Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, both of whom I'd seen around, but not enough of. When I discovered that the plot circulated two gay lovers, I was a little reluctant. I'd seen The Wedding Banquet, another of Lee's films with a gay theme, and thought that it would be similar. Not that the mentioned film is a bad one, but its execution was very exclusive to a gay male audience, and people who enjoy your typical drama. Most dramas don't exactly move me. In the very least, I think it helps to have been in a similar situation with the characters in the film. Regardless of my feelings, Lee is a director that I like, so I went to see Brokeback Mountain on its opening weekend. From start to finish, I was transfixed and truly unprepared for the experience.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two strangers looking for work. Ennis is a ranch hand and young Jack is a rodeo enthusiast who rides occasionally. Though both have little to no experience with jobs of great complexity, they meet for the first time and find themselves accepting a job herding sheep across a mountain. Their boss Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) has little patience with his new employees and gives them a little rundown before sending them off to a task that will stretch across several seasons. The two men are exact opposites and find it difficult to relate. Ennis is reserved, quiet, and practical. His only interest is getting the job done well and returning home to his fiance. Jack is loudmouthed and chatty, and certainly more friendly than Ennis. This part of the film is considerably slower, taking its time to reveal the mountain terrain of Wyoming. That calm is disrupted when the food rations they collect, which consist mainly of beans and soup, grow tiresome, and the weather changes from summer to fall, then a harsh winter. The two men socialize, but don't exactly grow close; eventually the job requires that they distance themselves and watch over the mass herd from different areas. One night they decide to stay together on the camp and end up having sex. The morning after brings about denial and mixed feelings between them, but regardless, a bittersweet romance ensues. At the end of their job, the two part on bad terms and try to go about their lives.Continue Reading
Totally F***ed Up
I grew up enjoying Gregg Araki's films, but I don't think I quite appreciated them until recently. I always saw him as a cult filmmaker--notable for helping to pioneer the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, but for also telling his stories with a gaudy, B-movie aesthetic that seemed equal parts Russ Meyer and John Waters. I didn't always relate to the lost, Los Angeles-inhabiting teenagers who made up the casts of his films, but I was fascinated by their world of drugs, sexual confusion, and goth/industrial music (and their complete boredom with all of it). Watching Totally F***ed Up now, I find myself compelled by all the same qualities, but also far more touched with Araki's understanding and concern for whom I can only describe as fairly typical teenagers.
The film focuses on a group of gay teens who all seem to have too much free time on their hands. They lounge around pools while chain-smoking cigarettes, take pills and stumble around in empty parking garages, and talk about their complicated relationships while playing children's board games. Andy, a firm believer that love does not exist, is starting to question otherwise after he meets an older college student who wants to be the next Dennis Cooper. Michele and Patricia want a baby, and decide to try their luck with a turkey baster and a bowl of their friends' semen. Tommy isn't looking for a serious commitment with anybody--casually hooking up with random strangers like it's the 1970s. Steven is a budding filmmaker documenting his friends' world, and undergoes a crisis with his lover, Deric, after an older man seduces him with a bootleg tape of a Nine Inch Nails show. "If it was any other band, I probably would have said no," Steven laments later.Continue Reading
Before Night Falls
Oh, how I adore Javier Bardem. These past five years have been groundbreaking in his career, but before Eat Pray Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and No Country for Old Men, the Spanish heartthrob had a knack for landing roles which were not as stylish and required a gift for versatility. The roles that came before the year 2000 consisted mainly of two kinds of steamy romances: ones in which he co-starred and slobbered over Penelope Cruz or other leading ladies; and ones, such as The Ages of Lulu or Second Skin, where he played a gay love interest. In Before Night Falls, Bardem plays Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer with a "sensitivity for poetry," who later trades in verse for novels. Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, [Lou Reed's] Berlin) seems to have a knack for biopic tales of artists, be it literary or fine arts. Directors who stick with the same subject matter in all their films usually fall into two categories: ones who are playing it safe and disappoint; and those who have a natural gift for bringing consistent, yet similar stories to the screen. Schnabel does the latter, and though he has less than six features under his belt, each of his works has an amazing cast of stars who were willing to take risks and play some very controversial roles under his direction. Look for an almost unrecognizable cameo by Sean Penn and one from pre-teen Diego Luna.
The film begins by going over Reinaldo’s childhood in Oriente, a place that is presented as poverty-stricken, yet rich with the wilderness and isolation that would remain a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. His gift for poetry was not only recognized by his teacher, but by everyone who stumbled upon his phrases and single words that were etched into trees. As an adolescent, he moves with his single mother (Olatz LÃ³pez Garmendia) to HolguÃn, where the nightlife and revolutionary energy causes him to run away from home with the hope of joining Castro's rebels. Before long, during college in Havana he is noticed by a group of literary enthusiasts who offer him a job working for the National Library. While roaming the streets he meets Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a socialite who brings nothing but trouble and remains his lover for many years, though they see other people. The sexual revolution was sort of a counter-attack to the oppression that Arenas and his fellow countrymen experienced. Homosexuality became a tool to fight back against the revolution that he once held sacred - one that sees artists as a threat and nontraditional behavior of any sort as something that holds back progress. Reinaldo ignores this and continues to enjoy his lifestyle and soon he meets and befriends Jose Lezama Lima, who becomes his mentor. Lima's encouragement and connections lead to Reinaldo being offered help with his first novel that he wishes to get published.Continue Reading
Word Is Out
You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. This is never more true than in how we think about Civil Rights issues. A documentary recently restored and released onto DVD through a joint effort of Outfest and UCLA's Film & Television Archive, Word Is Out, is an enormously moving survey of the lives of ordinary Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian. It was made in 1977 and it features a variety of people from many different walks of life. It manages to be riveting for most of its running time and this is especially noteworthy considering it features nothing more than people talking about growing up gay and how their sexual identity has enriched their lives and simultaneously made their lives more difficult. This is fairly benign stuff, the kind of thing you might hear on This American Life week after week, but its cultural and historical importance as a record of gay life in America in the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS era is priceless.
In 1977, the gay rights movement was just getting under way in the U.S. before AIDS would ravage the community a few years later. The interviews with gay and lesbians in Word Is Out don't feature any talk of AIDS because it hadn't devastated the community yet, but it was hard not to wonder whether anyone interviewed in the film had their lives destroyed by the disease in the years since the interviews took place. Still the interviewees had plenty to contend with. Some of them were sent to mental institutions by their families when they came out to them. One woman was discharged dishonorably from the army. One woman lost custody of her kids when she left her husband for a woman. And yet, through these interviews, one gets the impression that these regular folks have an incredible sense of perspective and peace of mind that they earned the hard way. Their friendliness, optimism, and bravery shine through in these interviews and it's hard not to wonder whether gay equality would have been on the radar sooner if a plague wasn't about to derail the movement.Continue Reading
Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink)
Ludovic is not a boy. God had a great big book and under the name Ludovic Fabre, "girl" was written next to it. God sent down Ludo’s other X chromosome, but it just got lost somehow…at least that’s what Ludo thinks. Ma Vie en Rose is the sweet and accurate tale of a family torn apart by the fact that one of their number will do anything to convince himself and his community that he was always meant to be a girl.
Hanna and Pierre Fabre (Michèle Laroque and Jean-Philippe Écoffey) move into a wonderful suburb and are now next-door neighbors with Pierre’s boss, Albert. They have a daughter and three sons, the youngest of them all being Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne). For years, Ludo has been convinced that he is a girl and waits patiently for his transformation, and comically, his first menstrual cycle. His family tries delicately to dissuade him from that belief but, in failing, they hope that he will simply grow out of it. For show-and-tell at school, he brings dolls and successfully confuses or convinces the children there that he is, or will become, a girl. During play, he dresses in only the prettiest princess dresses with lipstick and jewelry or dances in a wedding gown, hoping that when he comes of age he can marry his neighbor’s son. The only problem is that their neighbor's son is the child of his father’s boss—a sheepish and traditional family man who forbids his son to play with Ludo.Continue Reading
Not counting the fairly recent 300, the '60s produced my favorite gay films: Basil Dearden’s Victim, Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George, and particularly Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's The Servant. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; like the kitchen sink realism of the period, they foreground class in their sexual politics; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a just-so given, full of suggestion, and with a good deal of nuance.
Compare the matter-of-fact presentation of lesbianism in Sister George -- where the indignities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common, a fact of modern existence -- to the more literal minded identity politics of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, said identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (Victim is, in fact, a much better example), but unless one already sympathizes with its gay protagonist, the story remains one about the Other. Aldrich’s film requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of the particularities of sexual orientation or gender.Continue Reading