You may emerge from Les Miserables feeling almost as battered and bruised as its characters: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the wildly popular stage musical runs just under three hours and feels closer to four. So many stops are pulled out—each number trying to out-tear-jerk the last—that by the time the two-hour mark rolled around both my attention and my sympathies had begun to flag. That said, this is probably the best mounting of this material one can imagine, and fans of the stage version will no doubt be satisfied. An unapologetically big, un-subtle, high-pitched behemoth of a show, Les Mis requires as excessive and bombastic a treatment as it’s been given here. With its frenetic camerawork and overwrought performances, it’s more than a little vulgar, but what other approach would be suitable for this material? Les Miserables doesn’t have the subtle embroidery of something by Sondheim; it calls for big, thick strokes, and Hooper and his cast lay them on well (though I’m still not convinced that Hooper knows what to do with his camera, which is rarely in the right place).
Finally—a mumblecore movie that seems to be aware of how insufferable its characters are! J.R. (Carlen Altman), the figure (one hesitates to call her a heroine) at the center of Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, is passive-aggressive, needy, willfully awkward, borderline hostile in her quirkiness. She’s the reverse image of the Manic Pixie type that has become such a cliché in movies about young people, or, rather, she’s its logical extension, the Manic Pixie as monster. In a strange twist, J.R.’s monstrosity makes her far more tolerable and worthy of our compassion than, say, Natalie Portman in Garden State. She’s a curious, off-putting character, and she sets this strange little film on edge from the beginning.
The infamous “Central Park jogger” case and the five young black and Latino men who became its scapegoats are the subject of Ken Burns’ incisive and powerful new documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Burns' daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. Most viewers will know Ken Burns’ acclaimed small-screen work: his epic, multi-part documentaries on the American Civil War, baseball, jazz, and the U. S. national parks, all shot for PBS, have proven hugely popular both inside and outside of the classroom. Here, Burns and his collaborators turn their attentions to a somewhat smaller but no less important chapter of American history. The story unfolds largely from the points of view of the five teenage boys who, in the spring of 1989, were coerced by officials into taking the blame for the rape and battery of Trisha Meili, a young white woman attacked while jogging in Central Park. Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, all of whom were recently released from prison after the real perpetrator came forward and confessed, recount their ordeal with a devastating emotional honesty (the fifth of the men, Antron McCray, is heard but not shown on-camera).
It’s more or less a given that gay pornography makes sex between men its business—but gay pornography’s attitude toward the concept of homosexuality itself is something far more vexed. One need only survey the vast pool of gay pornography that advertises straight or gay-for-pay models to see that many pornographers have, whether effectively or not, attempted to write homosexuality out of gay porn altogether. (Needless to say, a lot of hands have been wrung over this, with many claiming that the fetishization of straight men in gay porn breeds self-loathing among gay male viewers.) Part of the issue here seems to be that the move away from narrative pornography in the digital age (individual scenes have replaced narrative feature films, a shift that suggests a return to pornography’s origins in silent, single-scene stag reels and loops) has meant that gay porn films are less likely to structure themselves around the narrative tropes of homosexuality, such as closetedness, sexual initiation, coming out, etc. Amateur porn sites no doubt trade in their own narratives of gay sex as experiment: “this is my first time” has itself become a cliché of straight-guy porn. Even so, gone seem to be the days when (some, not all) gay pornography showed a certain investment in making itself a platform from which to speak, however clumsily, about the experiences, whether lived or imagined, of the gay men likely to be consuming it.
How to describe, let alone classify, Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989)? As a film that refuses, finally, to be placed, it is queer in its very uncategorizability. Forty minutes long, shot in soft, dreamy monochrome, it mixes archival footage of Langston Hughes (seen above) with impressionistic shots of black (and white) men’s bodies in various states of erotic languor—in bed, in a field, on a dance floor somewhere out of time—while lines of poetry by Hughes and others (Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent) are heard in voice-over on the soundtrack. It exists somewhere between documentary, narrative, and experimental film; while, on one level, it does the work of historically recovering the homoerotic power of Hughes’ writing and the queer energy of the Harlem Renaissance more generally, it’s not a film invested in boiling its subject down to facts, or even a clear political agenda. Its aim seems rather to bring together a number of historical and theoretical subjects—blackness, queerness, poetry, sex, music, death—and to meditate on them poetically, in the spirit of Hughes’ own work.
Judith Halberstam writes that, in addition to functioning as a lesbian romance, Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche, 1994) concerns itself with acts of “butch self-fashioning” such as the transformation of dowdy, hippieish Ely (V. S. Brodie, pictured right) into a masculinized fashion plate—she trades in her long hair and ’70s clothes for a buzz cut and men’s shirts with suspenders, attracting a new girlfriend (played by co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner) and putting an end to her sexual dry spell in the process. Go Fish is finely attuned to the politics of queer style, in particular to the ways in which queer women use such seemingly innocuous markers of personal appearance (hairstyles, clothes, accessories, makeup) as sites of self-expression, and how these markers are read and interpreted by other members of their community (Ely’s radical changes in haircut and clothing do not go unremarked-upon by the other women who make up her social circle). Ely’s love interest Max (Turner) similarly undergoes a transformation, albeit a fantastical one, into a hyper-feminine seductress, complete with heavy make-up and lingerie, in an alternate version of her seduction of Ely, imagined by a mutual friend (seen above).
Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986) strikes me as not so much a charming and spirited gay love story (though it is that, too) as a portrait of what we might call the gay male scene—which is to say that, in its panoramic taking-in of the punks, queens, dykes, twinks, hipsters, jet-setters, muscle gods, art fags, and straight hangers-on that make up Sherwood’s version of gay New York in the mid-80s, a Proustian enterprise with inflections of Robert Altman, it is less invested in appropriating the narrative conventions of a marriage plot (ultimately pre-occupied with the question who will end up with whom?) than in conveying a sense of a particular social environment in which a vast array of bodies mingle, brush up against one another, advance, retreat. Parting Glances is almost a Linnean classification of gay male body types as they correspond to gay male social types: the rounded, pink body of the soft-spoken, sharp-tongued, sexually undesirable Edith Piaf queen; the fashionable, well-toned but not over-muscular, slightly smug, slightly banal body of the gay urban professional, compared bitchily by one of his acquaintances to that of a Ken doll; the pretty body of the puppyish, gold-digging college freshman, who moves confidently through crowds as if protected within the invisible bubble of his own sexual precocity; the sallow, wiry body of the punk rocker, whose sallowness and wiriness may not, in fact, be the visual evidence of his impending death from AIDS but rather the sign of his willful refusal to fall in line with the gay male body fascists who would appear to be warding off infection in their very obsession with their own musculature; and, finally, the non-descript, overgrown-teenager’s body of the Jewish intellectual—the image of the gay man as dork. In encouraging, even requiring us to read, understand, and classify these bodies—to cruise them, look them up and down, eat them up with our eyes, take up some and discard others—Parting Glances makes gay men of all of those who watch it.
The homosexuals in the text: Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell and Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers in "Desert Hearts" (1985)
Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch, 1985) has been accorded something of a place of honor in lesbian cinema as a sensitive, romantic coming-out story, in which buttoned-down Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, pictured, right) finds herself falling helplessly in love with the free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, left) while in Reno to get a quick divorce. The Southwestern milieu, the country music, the figure of the sexually empowered woman…these have become standard conventions of the post-Stonewall lesbian drama, and Desert Hearts can be credited—or blamed, as the case may be—as the surprise indie hit that launched a thousand sub-par rip-offs, ex. Boys on the Side (1995), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), or the gay male variation Big Eden (2000).
Cruising (dir. William Friedkin) occupies a particularly contentious place in the history of homosexuality onscreen. Released in 1980, it depicts NYC’s gay bar scene as a Dantean underworld into which an undercover cop (played by Al Pacino) must descend in order to catch a killer preying on gay men. The film was heavily protested during production as well as after its release by gay activist groups who objected to the associations of gay male culture with violent death as well as to what they felt was an exploitative use of s/m imagery to strike horror and fear in the hearts of straight audience members. Gay characters like Stuart Richards (pictured above) adhere to familiar cultural stereotypes: he’s a student at Columbia researching the roots of the musical theater tradition, and his murderous impulses (as well as his sexual fetishes) are explained as being rooted in latent daddy issues. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996), the Cruising protests become a symbol of a turning point in gay cultural history, something of a “we’re not gonna take it” moment; we see footage of activists marching to the chant “Stop the movie Cruising!” After which point, according to The Celluloid Closet’s progress narrative, such bad, straight-authored representations of gay people are replaced by good, gay-authored representations in films like Desert Hearts and Parting Glances (on the subject of which, stay tuned).
Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, set within the world of Tampa’s clubs, beach bars and strip joints, would pair nicely with his 2009 The Girlfriend Experience, about a high-class female escort based in New York City. Like that film, Magic Mike is a clever and somewhat wry exposé of the material circumstances that underwrite the selling of sexual fantasies. Both films are about sex work, with a heavy emphasis on work—they’re fundamentally films about money, and about the difficulty in separating one’s jobs from one’s personal relationships, especially when both the jobs and the relationships involve a lot of hands-on time with members of the opposite sex.
Earlier this week, Rachel Weisz was named Best Actress of the year by the New York Film Critics’ Circle for her performance in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Weisz is one of our most talented working actresses; I first sat up and took notice of her in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2003), and two years later I was similarly impressed with her turn in The Constant Gardener, for which she won an Oscar. She’s so good in The Deep Blue Sea that she makes you wish the movie were better at framing her performance. As Hester Collyer, a fallen woman whose pursuit of romantic passion very nearly brings about her destruction, she exudes a kind of nervous desperation—she wants something that no one in the film can give her, neither her well-meaning, prosperous husband, for whom she feels affection but no love, nor her lover, a self-absorbed WWII veteran who fails to reciprocate the intensity of her devotion to him.
“We’re all capable of that dark moment, if we ever get angry enough.” This unpleasant truth is spoken not by a hard-boiled criminal but by a sweet, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, a resident of Carthage, Texas, where Richard Linklater’s Bernie is set. It’s an affectionate yet deceptively cynical vision of small-town America, based on an actual murder case in which mild-mannered funeral director Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) impulsively shot his elderly companion Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) to death in her home, then hid the body for months in a freezer. The news comes as a shock to the residents of Carthage—a town populated almost entirely by old people, as it’s represented here—in whose eyes Bernie was a beloved, if somewhat eccentric, member of the community. Meanwhile, the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) conspires to move Bernie’s trial to a neighboring town in an attempt to ensure his conviction, his fear being that Bernie is so well-liked by his fellow Carthaginians that it would be impossible to find anyone impartial enough to serve on the jury.
When I was growing up in the early 1990s my dad subscribed to the Movies Unlimited catalog, which I regularly perused; I usually stuck to the “Horror” section, but occasionally I would leaf through the rest of the book, where I eventually came upon a group of videos listed under the heading “Gay Interest,” one of which was Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976). The capsule description of the film was accompanied by a thumbnail image of the video box cover (or maybe a version of the poster?) which showed the title character, more or less nude but in shadow and in profile, his hands bound over his head, his torso pierced with arrows. I had never even heard of St. Sebastian at the time, let alone Derek Jarman, but the image made an indelible impression on me; I never forgot it.
Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973) is a great example of how much fun trash cinema can be. Its plot hangs on the flimsiest and yet most reliable of threads—a girl, alone in the city and in need of money, resorts to turning tricks in order to make ends meet—and yet it’s got such a loose, grimy, homemade feel that it’s almost charming (it’s not a mean-spirited, ugly exploitation film like, say, Vidal Raski’s The Sinful Dwarf ). Milligan and his main actors have a warmth that you don’t always see in exploitation films; Deadly Weapons (dir. Doris Wishman, 1974) is another example of an exploitation film that feels downright cruel by contrast. In Fleshpot, there’s a solidarity not only between the freaks and the whores and the queens but also between the characters and the filmmakers. Like John Waters, Milligan never affects an air of superiority toward his subject matter or his characters. And so the drag queen Cherry Lane (Neil Flanagan) emerges as an affectionately drawn salt-of-the-earth type instead of a pathetic old hag.
Thirty-five years before Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, 2005), there was Song of the Loon (dir. Andrew Herbert, 1970), a gay romance of the North American frontier that has since become something of a cult item. It claims to be set in the late nineteenth century, but many of the film’s conflicts and situations reflect those relevant to the experience of gay men circa 1970 rather than 1870. In staging its fantasy of gay love against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century frontier, Song of the Loon suggests a profound discomfort with twentieth-century gay culture. Stories of the American frontier, epitomized by the Hollywood Western, are nearly always stories of escape or flight from the social order; as a Western about the fantasy of fleeing the gay mainstream, Song of the Loon is no exception.
Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is a movie about Hitchcock for people who don’t actually like, care or know much about Hitchcock. It offers a superficial account of the making of Psycho that ultimately tells us nothing of interest about the film or its creators; it simply uses them as a means by which to invoke the most tiresome platitudes, chief among them being that old chestnut, Behind Every Man There Is A Great Woman. While the film is right to note that Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and longtime collaborator, played a major role in shaping the work for which her husband received most of the credit, it turns their complex relationship into something mawkish. After both he and she spend most of the film engaging in playful (but apparently chaste) flirtations with other men and women, they have a cheap reconciliation, capped with a nauseating punchline (Hitch to Alma: “Of all the Hitchcock blondes, none is as pretty as you”). Hitchcock is a film that capitalizes on the Hitchcock name—still powerful thirty-plus years after his death—in order to sell audiences on something that bears not the slightest resemblance, in body or in spirit, to anything having to do with its subject. It’s a big empty box tied up with a ribbon that’s been stamped with the image of Hitch’s profile.
The homosexual in the text: Susannah York as Alice McNaught in "The Killing of Sister George" (1968)
With Robert Aldrich’s lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George (1968) we return to the question of representation. The lesbian characters in the film would seem to fall into neat homophobic types: the possessive, aggressive butch; the chic, cold vampiress; the little-girl femme. It’s that last character that I want to think about here. Alice (Susannah York), known as “Childie” to her (female) live-in lover George, is a waiflike would-be poetess prone to wearing nighties and talking to her dolls. If her given name brings to mind Lewis Carroll—and late in the film, donning a long-haired wig with a headband, she even begins to resemble Alice in Wonderland—her nickname further infantilizes her; George calls her “Childie” not only out of affection, but also to enforce an imbalance of power between them. They live as a parody of the normative family, as wife and female husband and, at the same time, as incestuous parent and child.
Something I’ve come to notice in the process of working my way through gay and lesbian film history: the films that make up the gay canon are often the ones that dominant culture (and dominant cultural histories of film) find abhorrent, embarrassing, or just plain bad. Stanley Kauffmann on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “it lacks resonance beneath its action; its writing is sometimes stilted, some of its motivations are insufficient, and its resolution is feeble.” Pauline Kael on The Children’s Hour: “a portentous, lugubrious dirge. […] I’m not sure the material would work even if you camped it up and played it for laughs.” Geoff Andrew on The Killing of Sister George: “with its grotesque stereotyping and tour de force bitchiness and hysteria, it’s like yet another installment in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? saga.”
Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)—a groundbreaking film in the U.K., where it helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexuality—feels a bit dull and stuffy today, not least because, set as it is within the restrained, mannered world of the English upper classes, its characters do a lot of brow-furrowing and lip-stiffening and gazing worriedly into the middle distance. As Pauline Kael pointed out, in its attempt to make homosexuality respectable the film drains it of any pleasure it might hold (the idea seems to be that you may practice homosexuality so long as you don’t like it). This idea also plays out in the film’s distinction between the gay men who are capable of managing their affairs, largely due to their class privilege, and the gay boys who literally can’t afford to do so.
The homosexuals in the text: unknown actor as Sebastian Venable and Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz in “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
In “Visual Pleasure in 1959,” his virtuosic reading of Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959), D. A. Miller explicates the means by which the image of the homosexual in the text, the doomed Sebastian Venable, is displaced onto the body of Elizabeth Taylor, playing his traumatized cousin Catherine. According to Miller, Suddenly, Last Summer is not only about a love that dare not speak its name but also about a love that dare not show its face: we only glimpse Sebastian in blurry flashbacks, and always from behind (see below). Taylor’s Catherine thus acts as Sebastian’s front in more ways than one; she “procures” male lovers for him using bait-and-switch tactics, just as her body, seen head-on, becomes the verso to Sebastian’s recto.
Ang Lee has made a successful career as a journeyman filmmaker, dabbling in a variety of genres—the kung fu drama, the Western, the period piece. With Life of Pi, he tries his hand at what fifty years ago would have been called an animal picture. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi centers on an Indian youth who survives a shipwreck only to find himself sharing a life-raft with a Bengal tiger. It’s part adventure yarn, part spiritual autobiography, and if it doesn’t exactly work on the latter terms, it’s at least an engaging and beautifully mounted diversion, and it sports some of the year’s most striking imagery.
We see in the Hollywood films of the late 1950s and early 1960s the emergence of a subgenre that might be called the closet drama—that is to say, the melodrama that takes the phenomenon of closetedness as its central theme. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959) and The Children’s Hour (dir. William Wyler, 1961) (all of which, incidentally, originated as stage plays) make the closet into a MacGuffin, a plot device that mobilizes a range of dramatic scenarios (the confrontation, the confession, the investigation, etc.) and catalyzes various displays of emotion (confusion, curiosity, anger, shame, disgust, etc.). All are put on even greater display in Richard Brooks’ film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than in the stage version, because by soft-pedaling the homosexuality of the play the film makes the space of the closet even more spectacularly impregnable—as impregnable, in fact, as Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, whose childlessness becomes the most telling signifier of her husband Brick’s queerness. (As in Suddenly, Last Summer, as D. A. Miller has pointed out, the spectacle of homosexual desire, too horrific to show “head-on,” as it were, plays out on the level of the image of Taylor’s voluptuous female body.)
“You’re a sick girl, Amy!” Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) snarls at his wife (Lauren Bacall) in Michael Curtiz’s rather unpleasant jazz melodrama Young Man with a Horn. Those versed in classical Hollywood cinema know that sick is often code for queer, and that homosexuality—which was explicitly forbidden under the Production Code—often appeared on screen in the form of various degrees of mental illness. Amy is neurotic, withholding, passive-aggressive, and anal-retentive, to name only four of her "symptoms." All of the other familiar lesbian signifiers are here, too, in her elegant but mannish suits, her stand-offish demeanor, the sophisticated décor of her apartment (see below). Bacall’s Amy North is what Halberstam might classify as a predatory dyke: calculating, urbane, aloof. She matches her interior space, with its hard, sleek, coldly elegant surfaces, off-set by touches of the bizarre, such as a pet cockatoo to which she refers—ominously—as her “best friend.”
She’s also, not surprisingly, a career woman; she’s studying to become a psychiatrist. The irony, of course, is that she’s the one with the “mental disorder” (recall that in 1950 homosexuality was still listed in the DSM). But according to the sign system of the film, psychoanalysis itself is rendered as something queer. Amy goes through the film dropping psychoanalytic jargon into conversation whenever possible, a habit that Rick initially finds amusing, then threatening, strange. Amy’s circle of intellectual friends (one attractive female member of which she seems on the verge of seducing) are similarly presented as curious and untrustworthy, not “on the level.” This is all the more ironic given the extent to which Young Man with a Horn, like many Hollywood films of the classical era, itself relies on pop Freudianism to explain its characters’ motivations, Amy’s included. We learn that she has a hostile relationship with her father, idolized her late mother, and envies Rick his, um, horn. “I’m jealous of you,” she confesses to him. “I’d give anything to have what you’ve got, to be able to do one thing really well and know that it’s worth something. Maybe that’s really why I married you. I thought some of that would rub off on me.”
“Positivity and negativity, finally, are obviously not the best standards to use when measuring the political impact of any given representation,” writes Judith Halberstam—commendably—in Female Masculinity. “We need to be more creative in our interpretations, more willing to use Hollywood, and quicker to ‘queer’ supposedly hegemonic and traditional depictions of masculinity and femininity.” We might apply this line of thinking to the narrative structure of Queen Christina (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), in which Greta Garbo gives a downright electrifying performance as the imperious Swedish monarch who abdicates the throne out of love for her paramour, the Spanish envoy Don Antonio (John Gilbert). Tragically, he is killed in a duel while she is on her way to sail off to with him to Spain; they exchange a final kiss before he dies in her arms. The final shot of the film (above) depicts her once again alone, sailing aimlessly, looking like the prow of the ship itself, her face impassive. It seems that she may very well live out her own prophecy of dying “a bachelor.”
To what extent can we call Marlene Dietrich’s character in this, one of Josef von Sternberg’s most cultic films, “homosexual”? Like many other queer characters in film and literary history, she appears to be straight—she harbors a crazy passion for a legionnaire played by Gary Cooper, and the film ends with her stalking out into the blazing desert sands after him. Some might say that her queer credentials here can be chalked up to the iconic scene (the best in the film) in which she does a nightclub act immaculately dressed in a black tuxedo and top hat, and saunters through the audience, flirting with both the men and the women (she even kisses one female spectator gently on the mouth). It’s an electrifying moment, not just because we’re watching her get away with something that would soon be forbidden in Hollywood films under the Production Code, but also because Dietrich bends gender so glamorously: she makes a sexy man and a sexy woman.
I’m about to embark on a series of posts about queerness in the movies from Morocco (1930) to Weekend (2011), to be titled “The Homosexual in the Text.” Faithful readers will recognize that title; I’ve used it several times over the past eighteen months or so when writing about the queer characters in such films as Advise and Consent, Flesh Gordon, and Mädchen in Uniform. Each of the forthcoming posts will be similarly rooted in a discussion of a particular character—some variation on the figure I call “the homosexual”—but will also, hopefully, allow me to wander into other related discussions and ideas. I thought I’d use this post as a short introduction to the project (about which I’m very excited).
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln arrives in theaters this week, conveniently sandwiched between Election Day and Veterans Day, on a wave of critical accolades. I’m not convinced that it’s a masterpiece—much of it is too staid, and it could use more of Spielberg’s humor. (His recent work has made me nostalgic for what we might call his “early, funny” period, which gave us Close Encounters, Jaws, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all of which thrillingly blend spectacle, action, and comedy.) In turning to figures like John Ford for inspiration—and the sentimental John Ford of How Green Was My Valley, not the bitter, cynical John Ford of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—Spielberg has gotten soft, and his films somewhat paunchy. It’s not just that they’re corny or sweet or earnest, because the early films were that way too. The difference is that the early films were driven by the relentless energy of a boy filmmaker. “You look like you’ve aged ten years since January,” Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) tells Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) at the end of the film, after the latter has spent months laboring to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The same could be said of Spielberg, whose films don’t move as quick as they used to.
I could hardly be described as the world’s biggest fan of writer-director David O. Russell, whose previous hits include Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), and the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010) (which I skipped). So I was considerably shocked to find myself enraptured by his new film Silver Linings Playbook, a blue-collar romantic comedy with roots in the screwball classics of the ’30s and ’40s; it has the same sense of speed and wit, underwritten by real emotion, that makes films like The Shop Around the Corner and Bringing Up Baby so satisfying. Once I began thinking about Silver Linings Playbook within the context of this genre, all of my initial resistance and frustration with the film fell away, so that by the time it reached its almost laughably neat ending, in which we see everyone and everything in its right place, I realized that it had gotten it exactly right. Outside of this genre, the kinds of sudden emotional reversals, improbable coincidences, grand gestures and neat resolutions that stud Silver Linings Playbook would feel absurd, but within the world of screwball comedy they’re necessary conventions, and Russell deploys them elegantly. He may not be Preston Sturges, but he has a good sense of how to balance sentiment with comedy, and how to give audiences a giddy high by mixing the two.
With Flight, a welcome return back to the realm of live-action after a decade spent experimenting with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis reminds us of the pleasures of a well-made Hollywood drama. Judged by the standards of the international art film, Flight begins to looks downright provincial, with its cornball ending and its old-fashioned moralizing zeal. But that is also part of its undeniable appeal. It’s a handsome and involving moral-problem picture, the kind of thing they don’t make much anymore; even Zemeckis seemed to have given them up. There’s something comforting, even luxurious, about sinking into this kind of film. Its pleasures are not intellectual. They are the pleasures of watching a good story unfold with unerring straightforwardness, anchored by the charismatic presence of a Star (and because he’s Denzel Washington, this Star can really act, too).
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors begs the question: when do vision and imagination and audacity tip over into noxiousness? The film, hotly anticipated by the art-house crowd, has recently arrived in U.S. theaters in the wake of a small firestorm abroad—many attendees at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival were lobbying for it to win the Palme d’Or. It’s the kind of off-the-wall fare that is so unlike anything else around that it automatically makes you sit up and take notice; Carax has an eye for bizarre, surrealistic imagery (a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers; two actors in green-screen suits engaging in simulated sex; etc.). But, as they say, is it art? Or, to put it somewhat differently, I’ll invoke John Waters, who, while hosting the Independent Spirit Awards a decade or so ago, advised wannabe indie auteurs that “not washing your hair isn’t enough anymore.” There is more to being a great filmmaker than the cultivation of a set of mannerist quirks. Showing a monstrous, barefoot hobo munching on bouquets of flowers isn’t enough anymore.
I’m of two minds about Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, the awards-bait-y new drama starring John Hawkes as devoutly religious poet Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his adult life breathing with the assistance of an iron lung and who, at age 38, set out to lose his virginity (with the blessing of his priest, played here in a thankless role by poor William H. Macy). On the one hand it’s refreshingly frank in its attitudes toward sex, and for a while it looks as if it wants to dispense with many of the middlebrow romantic clichés to which Hollywood and Indiewood films so often cling. On the other, it ends up capitulating to those same clichés, because it can’t find any other way to be about its subject matter—it’s trapped by its own inability to imagine a sexual narrative that isn’t shot through a gauzy filter to the sounds of tinkling piano music. Devoutly religious audience members need not worry about being affronted by the film’s premise, because by the end any potential for subversion has been neatly contained. It’s a fundamentally safe film that only thinks it's being risqué and forward-thinking.
Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, which I had the great good fortune to see back in April at the Boston Independent Film Festival, is finally arriving in theaters this Friday, so I thought I would take the opportunity to write about it at greater length than I was originally able to do. A visually stunning account of an engaged couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) backpacking through the Caucasus Mountains with a Georgian guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), the film was by far the most accomplished of the ten or so features that I saw at the festival. It begins as a leisurely paced, somewhat unassuming travelogue and ends up as a quietly shattering relationship drama in which Bernal and Furstenberg’s knowledge of themselves and each another is suddenly and unexpected thrown into question. Without spoiling the deceptively spare plot, I’ll say that it turns on a single instant, the after-effects of which ripple out tremulously for the remainder of the film.
A year or so ago I wrote a series of posts in which I sought out ten well-known films I’d never seen before. Because it was such a rewarding project, I’m repeating it now. This time I decided to begin with Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), partly because my unfamiliarity with Ray’s work is embarrassing, partly because The Criterion Collection recently put out a beautiful new edition of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Last spring, when Queen Meryl was making the rounds at the awards circuit for her performance in The Iron Lady, shifting back and forth between false modesty and genuine modesty, she started doing this thing where she would go “stop paying attention to me—there are all of these great up-and-coming young actresses who are more deserving of recognition than I am!” Then she would drop the names of said great up-and-coming young actresses, as if to say, “look, I’m handing the crown over; take it and give it to someone else.” (She did the same thing a few years ago after making Doubt; at one awards ceremony or another she singled out Viola Davis’ performance in that same film, begging Hollywood studio executives to “give this woman a movie.”) This time around the actresses she singled out were Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) and Adepero Oduye of Dee Rees’ Pariah (2012), pictured above. The film—Rees’ first feature—is an intimate character study of a Brooklyn teen (Oduye) whose emergent lesbianism causes conflict in her relationship with her religious conservative mother (Kim Wayans). It’s a watchable film, if not always a sure-footed one, and the performances are mostly solid (I preferred the raw, violent edges of Wayans’ to Oduye’s quieter, more subdued work, though the film is clearly designed to showcase the latter, and Oduye will no doubt go on to bigger and better things. She’s already slated to appear in Steve McQueen’s next film, Twelve Years a Slave).
It occurred to me while watching Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005) that all of her films to date (last year’s Meek’s Cutoff being the most recent) are minimalist variations on the road movie. With Old Joy, a kind of lyrical hipster bromance, Reichardt explores the homosocial tensions that lie beneath so many road movies in which men attempt to escape feminized civilization by seeking out a wild blue yonder of their own. This yearning for an escape into masculinized nature is pretty much one of the grand narratives of America’s cultural history: we see it in the Hollywood Western and in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and in all of Hemingway and in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and in countless other cultural texts. It’s interesting to see this story told from the vantage point of a female filmmaker (though, all told, I found to be Old Joy the least successful film of hers that I’ve seen; “interesting” is about the highest praise I can lavish on it).
Argo, a bang-up political thriller about the stranger-than-fiction true story of the rescue of the six Americans taken hostage by Iranian political extremists in the last days of 1979, is a small miracle of a film: it’s an example of how exciting a thriller can be when it’s told straight-forwardly and with levity. Unlike the bloated, two-and-a-half-hours-plus action epics that have lately become the norm, Argo is lean, swift, and funny. It benefits from a smart screenplay by Chris Terrio and direction by Ben Affleck that’s workmanlike and unfussy. He may not have the makings of a visionary filmmaker, but at least he doesn’t make us suffer by pretending to be one. Hopefully, the success of this film—and it promises to be very successful—won’t go to his head and cause him to start making heavier, more self-important fare, as has been the case in the careers of such talented but self-indulgent directors as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson, for example. Affleck’s talent (I say this having seen none of his other directorial efforts) seems to lie in his brisk, no-nonsense approach to material that’s solid enough that it doesn’t need a lot of elaborate scaffolding. You don’t feel him straining for greatness, nor do the big emotional moments in the film feel belabored. It’s effortlessly good.
Roger Ebert wrote in 1993 that Jane Campion had not yet made an uninteresting film, and I think that’s still true nineteen years and four films later. She’s such a smart and daring filmmaker that even her failures and her missteps are fascinating to watch. In the Cut (2003) is a case in point: a long and intricately layered suspense thriller about misogyny and sadomasochism (with Meg Ryan, of all people, playing the bottom to Mark Ruffalo’s top), it’s a film that’s not afraid to go feverishly off the rails. Little wonder that it tanked critically and commercially. There’s no way a film this dark, this strange, and this densely theoretical could have been successful in the U.S. (nor could its shocking close-ups of fellatio have gotten past the MPAA; it was released unrated). For one thing, the film assumes that its audience is at least smart enough to engage with its ideas about female passivity, victimization, the allure of sexually aggressive or dangerous men, the relationship of sexual arousal to fear, the cultural power of marriage plots and the semiotics of murder mysteries. (Campion is an example of the literary-minded female director I described in a previous post; In the Cut, like nearly all of her other work, is deeply informed by, though not always a mouthpiece for, feminist literary theory.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most charismatic young actors in the movies: having begun his career some fifteen years ago as a shaggy-haired kid on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, he’s matured into a sensitive and intelligently sexy leading man. In the ultra-hip opening scenes of Rian Johnson’s Looper, as he saunters through a dystopian city of the future, studying French in his spare time, he almost recalls Belmondo. Gordon-Levitt inspires the same cool frisson that Belmondo did, and he has the same mixture of hardness and softness. Now in his late twenties, Gordon-Levitt has adopted a man’s swagger but still looks boyish. What’s attractive about him is that we’re able to see the delicate underside of his own tough-guy act.
Above: a shot from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), a film that resembles a nineteenth-century novel in its intricate, tapestry-like portrait of an entire social world, as well as in its engagement with that most reliable of conceits, the marriage plot. Granted, Nair has her share of fun scrambling that plot in various ways. But Nair’s familiarity with the conventions of the marriage plot—as well as her decision to adapt Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 2004 (though unsuccessfully, in my opinion)—proves that she’s a filmmaker who’s done her homework, which is to say that she knows her literary history. This got me thinking about the relationship between women filmmakers and literature. I know that when I embarked on this project I mentioned that I often bristle whenever people make generalizations about particular artistic demographics (ex. the notion that all films by women are necessarily about female community, etc.). But I’m tempted to float out a theory about the general, if not essential, literariness of the female filmmaker. It’s been my experience that films by women often show a deep knowledge of and interest in literature, and that this informs their attitudes toward filmmaking as a narrative medium.
When Office Killer (1997) first came to my attention a while back, completely by accident, my first thought was, “Cindy Sherman made a movie?” On one level, it makes perfect sense. Sherman, who qualifies as one of the most important visual artists of the past fifty years (if you don’t know her work, you should), is obviously well versed in the visual language as well as the semiotic codes of cinema, to which many of her photographs attest. She understands that movies work by combining familiar tropes and types, and she references them in her witty, strange pictures. I was immediately intrigued at the thought of her having authored a full-length film. But the fact that it had never before shown up on my radar gave me pause.
I’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master twice now, and while I’m still trying to get a handle on it critically (whatever that means) I’m more and more convinced that it’s a truly great film, certain to be one of the best of the year, and one that will continue to puzzle, entrance and obsess viewers for some time to come. It marks the latest in a career-long run of great films by Anderson, whose early work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) was characterized by a kind of hysterical romanticism. With this and his previous film, There Will Be Blood, Anderson has begun to experiment with more cryptic themes, more enigmatic characters; beneath their prestige-picture veneer, the passionate intensity of the early films now roils suggestively. These are sinister, unnerving period pieces, visions of American history made up of hucksters, charlatans, sociopaths. In The Master, set in 1950, Anderson gives us an image of postwar Americans in desperate search of spiritual transcendence, eager to be seduced by charismatic pop-prophets like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose philosophy combines tenets of psychoanalysis, New Age mysticism and faith healing. His interlocutor throughout the film is mentally addled Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who stumbles onto Dodd and his cult of followers and, pleased by the attention they pay him (not to mention devoid of any other prospects), becomes one of Dodd’s pet subjects. The two characters are so closely entwined that it’s possible to see Phoenix and Hoffman, both remarkable, as giving a single staggering performance (they won a joint acting prize at the Venice Film Festival.)
Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) is faced with the problem of translating a proto-feminist but by contemporary standards scarily conservative nineteenth-century sentimental novel into a late-twentieth-century feminist film. The solution? Turn the March family’s stern, no-nonsense matriarch into a mouthpiece for women’s rights. As written by Robin Swicord and played by Susan Sarandon, Mrs. March (better known to her daughters, and to devoted readers, as “Marmee”) arrives on the screen by way of Betty Freidan and Catherine MacKinnon. The problem is not that this feels to be a more staunchly feminist Little Women than the one penned by Louisa May Alcott over one hundred years before; the art of adaptation always involves a bit of tailoring. The problem is rather that the seams show. Marmee’s primary function in the film is to go around dropping clunky feminist one-liners at opportune moments. As her moniker suggests, she’s a schoolmarm perpetually stuck in lecture mode. When a neighbor raises his eyebrows at the girls having a snowball fight, Marmee retorts, “Young girls are no different from boys in their need for exertion. Feminine weakness and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework and restrictive corsets!” When Meg confesses to what we might call an “I feel pretty” moment, Marmee cautions, “If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful work inside your mind, your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.” Having not read Alcott’s original novel, I can’t say whether these speeches have been invented for the film. I can only say that they feel conspicuously planted. Talented actor that she is, Sarandon does her best to naturalize these lines, but we’re left with a film that’s painfully anxious about proving its feminist relevance. Handsome but exhaustingly didactic (even with all that rhetoric of Christian piety taken out), Armstrong’s Little Women is not so much an adaptation as a retrofitting, tricked out with the slogans and tiresome political platitudes of our own era. As with so many literary adaptations, it’s been tastefully updated, made inoffensive and “relevant” in accordance with “modern views.” Little Women is fun for the whole family—if you can stomach it.
Above: rogue feminist academic Camille Paglia, posing with an Egyptian tombstone in the first segment of Monika Treut’s documentary Female Misbehavior (1993). Treut’s film is comprised of four short profiles of badly behaved women, the last of whom has “defected” from the female gender altogether. These consist of Paglia, whose contempt for mainstream second-wave feminism is unabashedly vitriolic (“these women are losers […] let them suck raw eggs and eat my dust!”); porn star and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who turned the exhibition of her cervix into a wildly popular stage show in the early ’90s; Carol, a lesbian dominatrix who explains her attraction to the art of bondage; and Max, a transgender man who candidly details the history of his transition from female to male.
The French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has been making the same film over and over again since 1976. I mean this not as a criticism but rather as an observation that tells us much about her work. The realization occurred to me as I watched her 36 Fillette (1988) earlier this week (the title refers to a size of girls’ clothing, presumably a size that the protagonist will soon have put aside, along with other such childish things). In the film, 14-year-old Lili endeavors to lose her virginity while on vacation in Biarritz with her parents and older brother. She meets an older man in his forties; he says that he has little patience for teenage girls, but he flirts with Lili and eventually brings her back to his hotel room, where a teasing seduction unfolds. The film is structured around Lili’s tortured vacillation between her hesitant curiousity about sex, her strong desire to cast off the burden of her virginity, her repeated willingness to enter into dangerous and confrontational situations, and her fear of exposing her vulnerability to others. Lili plays out these feelings in her interactions with a number of different men in the film (her would-be seducer, her father, her brother, a boy her own age), but as Breillat makes clear in 36 Fillette, Lili’s virginity loss is not about her relation to a male object. It is about her relationship to herself, and about her own clumsy attempts to make sense of herself as a sexual being in the world.
Back in 2010, as Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, debates swirled about her war drama The Hurt Locker and about her body of work as a whole. Both detractors and supporters were quick to point out that the aesthetic of Bigelow’s films was decidedly unfeminine. She didn’t make romantic comedies, nor did she seem to be allied with the feminist avant-garde or indie circles. Her films weren’t about women “finding themselves” or the bonds of sisterhood or the paradoxes of female sexuality. They were mostly about…men. One notable exception is her gynocentric cop drama Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis; but even here, Bigelow could be accused (and was by some, I’m sure) of quite literally dressing up a strong woman in male clothes, casting her into the masculine genre of the police thriller.
In continuing my tour of films directed by women, I’ve come to what one might call the golden age of Western feminist filmmaking, which roughly spanned the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. Abroad, the work of Akerman, Duras, Chytilova, Potter, von Trotta, Armstrong, Breillat, Nair, Campion, Varda; at home, Kopple, Loden, Clarke, Dash, Seidelman, Anders, Borden. Coming out of second-wave feminism, American films like Working Girls (1986) were greatly concerned with issues of materiality, power, and collectivity. Working Girls is a strikingly intelligent film, probably the shrewdest filmic representation of prostitution I’ve seen. Not to be confused with Mike Nichols’ commercial office comedy Working Girl (1988), it’s an office comedy of a different sort, set over the course of a single day in a tastefully appointed New York apartment that serves as a high-class brothel. The independent feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (her professional name, a nod to the famous murderess, suggests her desire to shock and provoke her audience) wrote the film after conducting six months’ worth of interviews with real women working as prostitutes. A sharp antidote to Hollywood’s tales of whores with hearts of gold (a cliché to be apotheosized the following year in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman), Working Girls is, as its title suggests, not so much about the ethics of prostitution as its mechanics—about how it works. As a result, the film doesn’t waste time preaching. It is motivated by a much more basic and yet also more epistemologically sophisticated goal: to watch what prostitution is, how it operates as a system, whom it involves, and why people participate in it.
The films of Amy Heckerling occupy the realm of Hollywood mass culture rather than the feminist art cinema of Sally Potter or Chantal Akerman. It is thus tempting to dismiss them by claiming that they’re intellectually lightweight, or adolescent (they are mostly comedies, and many of them have become cult films among young audiences), or generally not politically or aesthetically radical enough to count as the work of a Great Female Director. The late Nora Ephron suffered similar criticism for her hugely successful romantic comedies. But the genres in which these filmmakers work(ed) reveal differences in their aesthetic politics, as well as in their fundamental attitudes toward gender, cinema, and ideology. While Ephron’s “women’s films” draw on the generic traditions of the melodrama and the screwball comedy, the conventions of which have always been the property of the Hollywood studio system, Heckerling has continually been attracted to the genre of the teen film, which has always lived on the margins of Hollywood. The independent studio American International Pictures (AIP) was the king of the teen drive-in movies of the 1960s, and, in general, the teen movie has often been maligned as a lowbrow genre, kicked around, waved off, and not taken seriously (much like its characters). Lowbrow genres like the teen film, the horror film, and pornography certainly are certainly not free of the ideological imperatives that structure more mainstream fare, but their very marginality gives them a bit of room to wiggle around them. Because they are often ignored or not taken seriously, these genres become places where filmmakers can often explore ideas and subject matter that would be unpalatable in a prestige picture.
What is a thriller? What does it mean to thrill? To be thrilled? Sally Potter’s short film Thriller (1979) frames these questions within the context of gender and narrative by examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Mimi, the tragic heroine of Puccini’s La Boheme. Potter’s film begins with Mimi realizing that she is dead and setting out to investigate how and why she came to be that way. She arrives at the conclusion that she has been killed for the sake of the plot, in order that her beloved—as well as the audience—can get off on the spectatorial pleasure that attends her untimely death. Dead women make for good stories.